Thursday, 30 December 2010

My Hopes for The Cradle of Football in 2011

20 years ago Stuart Roy Clarke started his footballing opus - The Homes of Football. As he states on his website and within several of his books he believed himself "to have a mission in telling the changing face of football, post Hillsborough." He believed he "was stood on the precipice of history, peculiarly privileged in (his) view, to witness a national institution in big trouble, reinventing itself."

This Christmas I increased my collection of Clarke's work by asking for and receiving (I have been a good boy all year - after all) The Cradle of The Game. This pulls together 20 years of capturing the passion, the atmosphere, the rituals, the emotion, the game, at all levels from the Westmorland League to World Cups and European Championships.

It is a vital and impressive piece of work that every football fan should own. You can buy it, along with his other books, here. Clarke's photography is so simple, yet so evocative to the senses you can hear the noise, feel the tension, taste the greasy burgers and feel yourself physically swerving around the river of urine pouring down the steps at Tynecastle in "Bogs Overspill". 

In the introduction to the The Cradle of The Game, Clarke states that he had "a real sense of mission to start telling the story anew. Club after club is facing dereliction, given the global recession combined with over-reaching oneself. Even though the game is ever more popular in footfall and some of the foot-ball is the best ever served. It’s just the sums that don’t add up."

He is so right. The feelgood factor that followed Italia 90 elevated football to such a positive level in the public consciousness that the Sky input just added impetus to the new football bandwagon. At the same time the fans were finding a voice, particularly through the fanzine movement, and as football changed, the public perception changed, the money came in to the game and the fan experience changed, initially in positive ways.

Now the fans are rising once more and the messages they are delivering are strikingly similar. Primarily fed up of being taken for granted, but also fed up of a game and players so far removed from the grim reality of everyday life in modern Britain.

As a fellow Blades supporter put it to me the other day, when tweeting about the increasing demands and expectations of fans in this country, "£30+ a ticket, fans fleeced in club shop, players earning more per week than most people earn per annum. Money has made fans want it now." As the money poured into football, with little benefit filtering down to the fans, it has empowered supporters to be more demanding of their teams to an extent which is sometimes hard to reconcile expectation with achievements. The exchange of tweets followed news of Sunderland (7th in the Premier League) being booed off by their supporters after a home defeat to Blackpool and Cardiff City (2nd in the Championship) internet forums being filled with calls for Dave Jones to be sacked. I struggle to get my head around it.

Football in 2010 has not been particularly enjoyable for me in a number of ways, not least trying to introduce my 5 year old son to live football with the dross on display at Bramall Lane. On the plus-side his season ticket only cost me £10 Junior Blades membership, a pricing policy which has been one of the few positives for me this year. That said, there has been plenty to dislike about football in 2010;

Where 45 quid gets you a restricted view seat at Stamford Bridge and £34 gets you the best seats for a  match at Sheffield United or Leeds United. Yet, average ticket prices for the competitive Bundesliga in Germany cost on average 21 Euros. And still German fans are protesting at the increasing price.

Where you have no choice but to sit and if you stand out of your seat for any prolonged period you are threatened with expulsion from the ground or arrest.

Where it has taken intense fan pressure for safe standing to be considered by the authorities. Yet in Germany these areas exist and can be entered for under 10 Euros.

Safe standing in Hamburg - from FSF

Where the food quality/price ratio is so badly skewed that a fiver is likely to provide you with an evening on the toilet rather than a nutritious and filling snack. Only at football can Guinness be advertised at £3.50 per pint, only for the pump to be foregone in favour of a can from the fridge when your money has been taken.

Where clubs feel it is necessary to put the words of fan written club anthems up on the big screen , just in case people forget the words.

Where clubs are happy to receive positive PR for foregoing shirt sponsorship in order to put a local charity on their shirts. Only then paying over a promised cut of shirt sales to the aforementioned charity when the lack of payment was made public.

Where spurious "football rules" are allowed to over rule insolvency law allowing footballers to be paid money they are owed ahead of small local suppliers and the St Johns Ambulance service.

Where it is the fans who put their hands in their pockets to donate money to pay debts owed by the clubs to St Johns Ambulance the value of which would barely be a week's wage for one of those players.

Where a winding up from Revenue & Customs seemingly poses no real threat to owners who have financially mis-managed their club, living a dream that bore little resemblance to the nightmarish reality.

Where at least 28 professional or semi-professional UK football clubs have gained the winding up order badge of honour in the last year and are willing to partake in the ultimate game of brinkmanship with HMRC before pulling a financial rabbit from a hat.

Where the big clubs are granted time they barely deserve whilst smaller clubs, who can more legitimately play the "community card" so prevalent in the arguments of defence from the larger clubs, are put out of business. R.I.P. Ilkeston Town and Chester City 

The redundant New Manor Ground, Ilkeston (
A game where the Premier League, the FA and the Football League's' definition of the words "fit and proper" is looser than MC Hammer's trousers.

Where a club's fans are enthralled by overseas investment and promises from Thai Duty Free Magnates, Indian Chicken Companies or from serial football owners/administrators Peter Ridsdale / Milan Mandaric. Yet you cannot help but feel it will all end in tears.

Where such enormous sums of money are pumped into the game that the need to compete leads owners to gamble not just on short term prizes, but on the long term future of clubs.

Where player wage costs increased dramatically in 2010 to 67% of total revenue, in some cases turnover barely covers player wages.

Where the media hype English players and the Premier League beyond belief, yet explode in disbelief when it all goes wrong.

Where Richard Keys nearly ejaculates on live TV at the thought of being able to smell the tunnel as Arsenal and Chelsea line-up pre-match.

Where Andy Gray, desperately trying to maintain his support for Sky's Premier League "product" dismisses the skills of Messi et al (displayed weekly by his employers), by suggesting that the Argentinian wouldn't fancy it on a cold wet night at Stoke. 

Where Wayne Rooney can sarcastically address the nation following his and England's abject World Cup draw with Algeria. Berating the reaction of fans who had spent thousands of pounds travelling halfway round the world to watch and support the team.

Loyal Rooney - Picture ITV

“That's what loyal support is,” said Rooney, yet four months later Rooney demonstrated his admirable values and loyalty handing in a transfer request and vowing never to play for Manchester United again. A week later all was well at Manchester United and Rooney had a new deal earning a reported £250,000 per week, not far off ten times the median average annual salary in this country.

Where a 2018 World Cup bid becomes a not unanticipated waste of £15m. An ineptly run project from start to finish with no leadership, a bizarre choice of potential stadia, scandals and disappointment that Sepp Blatter's push to take football to new frontiers didn't include bringing it home. Maybe the fact that the Chairman of the Premier League and Chairman of Club England distanced himself so far from the bid told you all you need to know about its chances of success.

I hope 2011 brings some sanity to the world of football.

That some of the harsh financial realities that a large proportion of the country are now facing properly hit home with football clubs and players alike and that the playing field starts to level out.

That promoted teams can sensibly establish themselves in the Premier League without taking themselves to the brink to do it.

That the authorities clamp down harder and penalise clubs who, in my opinion, cheat by signing players that they know they will not be able to pay the full monthly cost of employing. That is by not paying over the PAYE and NI they have "deducted" from their players salaries.

That football's preferential creditor rule is successfully challenged by HMRC leading to a change in the way players contracts are negotiated and that the support line of local clubs, the small businesses that come in and maintain the electrics, fix the burst pipes, paint the stands have as much chance of receiving some form of payment as your star striker.

That we see a flattening or reversal of ticket prices so that we don't see empty seats everywhere, so that teams can take a good level of away support to each game and we can get back to having decent banter and a competitive atmosphere at matches.

That fans are recognised as the lifeblood of the game, a valued customer, deserving respect and worthy of an opinion. Not a consumer who will just accept what is presented as "the way it is".

That fans are able to have their say in the way their clubs are run and that greater opportunity is provided for fans' opinions to be proffered. Most of us are quite intelligent, often more so than some of those making the decisions.

Look I know what you are thinking, I said they were hopes, I suspect the reality will be far different. Stuart Roy Clarke's book does not present a footballing utopia, but highlights the little things you have forgotten about that are missing in the sterilised stadia and money-fuelled, media-hyped modern game. If some of the things I hoped for happen, we might get some of those things back. 

Happy New Year!

PS If someone can tell me at some point during 2011 what (ahem -Sir) Dave Richards does and how he received his knighthood I would be greatly appreciative. Answers on a postage stamp I am guessing, or a two word comment below, ending in All.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Revival of El Pincha and Sabella

With a Copa Libertadores Championship, a World Club Championship Runners-Up spot and now an Apertura Primera Division title in the last 2 years, Estudiantes are clearly the form club side in Argentina. Not bad for a side outside of the traditional "big five" clubs and one who has been evicted from their spiritual home.

The man who has driven them to their recent success will be a familiar face and name to many British football supporters. Allejandro (Alex) Sabella joined Sheffield United in the Summer of 1978 from River Plate. United boss Harry Haslam, looking for some Argentinian flair to pep up the midfield of his middle of the road Second Division side.  Sabella certainly made an impact, with fans still fondly remembering his outstanding ball skills. However, standing head and shoulders above his team mates, he could not carry the team alone and with United by now down in the Third Division he moved to Leeds United in 1980.

His move to Leeds would best be described a disappointment and, despite brief moments of flair to thrill the fans, 23 games and 2 goals later Sabella moved back to his homeland and joined the pincharratas (rat stabbers) of La Plata. As part of a creative midfield trio with Ponce and Trobbiani, Sabella he was the driving force behind the renaissance of the club.  

Back in 1967 Estudiantes had won the league title, the first time that a team outside of the “big five” had won a professional league title. They subsequently won the following year’s Copa Libertadores title and retained the trophy for a further 2 years. They also won the 1968 Inter-Continental Club Cup defeating Manchester United 2-1 on aggregate. Throughout the Seventies their fortunes fluctuated without any great success. Their next upturn in form coincided with Sabella’s return with the league title won consecutively in 1982 and 1983.

Sabella’s playing career continued in Brazil and Mexico, before a coaching career assisting fellow international Daniel Passarella. This included largely unsuccessful spells with the national teams of Argentina and Brazil and club sides Parma, Corinthians and River Plate. Only a Mexican championship with Monterrey offered a degree of success.

Back at Estudiantes, the club had been forced to leave their home stadium of 99 years, the Estadio Jorge Luis Hirschi due to safety concerns over the wooden stands and an ongoing dispute with the city authorities over their refusal to move to the new municipal stadium. A dispute that has only just been settled and a move back to the renovated stadium is due to be completed next year.

Following the removal of former international Jorge Burruchaga as coach in 2006, David Beckham’s old foe Diego Simeone took over and built the team around Juan Sebastián Verón. Veron was returning hero, 11 years after his initial departure from the club. Despite losing in the quarter-finals of the 2006 Copa Libertadores, the 2006 Apertura was the club's first League title in 23 years in a winner takes all play off against Boca Juniors who had tied on points after the regular season games had been completed. It was a historic season, the club recording ten straight wins (equalling the club record) and achieving an unprecedented 7–0 victory against Gimnasia in the La Plata derby.

After Simeone left following the 2007 Apertura the club went through two managers in quick succession, until in March 2009 Sabella returned, this time as manager. The first time in his career he had taken sole managerial control. The team immediately started to improve their standing in the league, rising from second bottom to 6th. And, from looking like they wouldn’t make it out of their preliminary group, they went unbeaten in ten Copa Libertadores games to reach the 2009 final, where they defeated Brazilian side Cruzeiro 2-1 on aggregate. Verón was chosen as the competition’s most valuable player, and Mauro Boselli was CL top goalscorer. Sabella had brought the best out of a talented, but failing side

With the Copa Libertadores title, Estudiantes earned the right to represent South America in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Entering at the semi-final stage they despatched Asian Champions Pohang Steelers 2–1 and more than held their own against Barcelona, only to lose 2–1 in extra time. A respectable performance, which drew plaudits from media and fans alike.

After the Club World Cup participation, Estudiantes finished second in the 2010 Clausura, and started the 2010 Apertura facing a familiar problem for successful Argentine clubs - a failure to hold on to their best players. Viewed as a team in transition, following the departure of Jose Sosa (Napoli), Mario Boselli (Wigan Athletic), Marcos Angeleri (Sunderland), amongst others it was still slightly surprising to see them quickly join Vélez Sarsfield in a two horse race for the title.

Even more surprising given the campaign also coincided with strong speculation linking Sabella with the position of Argentine national coach, following the departure of Diego Maradona post World Cup.   The irony of Sabella being a potential replacement for Maradona was not lost on Sheffield United supporters. After all, Sabella’s signing for the Blades came about, only after the Blades’ board had deemed the fee required by Argentinos Juniors for Maradona to be excessive for a teenager.

Whereas, most Argentine managers work in fear of an impending sacking, Sabella had no such worries and only an opportunity like the job of national coach job was likely to tempt him away from Estudiantes.  In many quarters he was viewed as a favourite for the job, even missing an emotional reunion at Bramall Lane for a friendly in August as negotiations reportedly commenced. In the end the caretaker coach Sergio Batista , who had successfully coached Argentina to 2008 Olympic gold, was offered the full time position.

To many South American commentators, Estudiantes were not the most entertaining team to watch. By his own admission Sabella commenced and completed the season without a natural Number 9. That is not to say the quality of play was poor, where they were strong was in having a good team this where everyone contributed to the success and not just a few special individuals. Goals were spread around the team (with fifteen different goalscorers in nineteen matches) and as a defensive unit they conceded just eight goals over the season. Veron described the tactics “Sabella’s idea at the start was to get a lot of people pushing forward from the back, attempting to find the element of surprise, and trying to cover up the absence of 9”.

With further success comes renewed speculation, this time Sabella is linked with former giants and former club River Plate. Whether he will move on, time will tell. Speaking after their tense final day victory over Arsenal, captain Veron said, “He has given us a lot, and has also learned a lot from this group. We know [each other] practically by heart. Of course, like everything else, it is difficult to maintain a project for many years, but over time he has. You never get tired of winning. If anything unites us, it’s his sincerity and dedication to work. But we should ask him what he desires for his [future] career.”

Argentine football  is never stable, with high turnover of managers and players contributing to the fact that there have been 12 Apertura/Clausura chhampions since 2000. It's clear that success comes in bursts for clubs like Estudiantes, with players, coach and structure all in harmony for spell. Is this period coming to an end and is it a natural departure point for Sabella? His first spell in management, starting at the relatively old age of 55 has been a successful one. Does he risk tarnishing it by staying, or is his stature equally at risk by pitching up at River Plate, where expectations are much higher and with it an increased risk of perceived failure? Time will tell....

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Progress of Kyle Bartley

The above link takes you to a piece I contributed to the excellent football league blog theseventy, part of a series about the progress of Arsenal loanees in the football league. I covered Blades centre back Kyle Bartley.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Postponed, but not snow...UXB

As the country ground to a halt last week, the football fixtures took a battering. Up and down the land matches were called off when in the past an orange ball, cleared pitch markings and a can do attitude from officials, players and supporters saw matches going ahead. Matches used to be called off for frozen pitches, not slippy side streets. Yet in modern, health & safety conscious Britain, with pitches cleared by under-soil heating, games are likely to be called off for fear of a nasty slip on the steps of the stand, or a failing infrastructure/transport system, rather than a genuine problem with the pitch. Sheffield United v Reading a week last Saturday being a case in point.

Growing up in the 80's matches were generally postponed or abandoned for one of three reasons, frozen pitch, waterlogged pitch or fog. It is hard to think of many other circumstances that are the exceptions to the rule. Middlesboro and their failure to make a match at Blackburn due to squad illness in 1997, The postponement of a game between Liverpool and Newcastle in 1997 due to the death of Princess Diana and several Scottish games in the wake of the tragic death of Motherwell's Phil O'Donnell.

Aside from these, there was one postponement that many wont be aware of. Sheffield United v Oldham Saturday 9th February 1985 - Postponed UXB! First a quick history lesson, which I make no apologies for.

This week Sheffield has been commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Blitz hitting the city. On Sunday 12th December 1940 the first wave of the Luftwaffe swept over the city, with 9 hours of intense bombing followed by a second raid 3 days later. 2,000 people were wounded or killed, 40,000 made homeless. Mass devastation across the city centre and other densely populated areas. Even those with a minor interest in history could not fail to be moved by the stories being published from those who survived. They are scary, moving and just so hard to imagine for those who never lived through it.

Surprisingly, rather than hitting the steelworks of the East End, where the temporary home of Rotherham United - the Don Valley Stadium - now stands, large areas of the city centre and immediate areas to the west were worse hit. Some suggest that foggy weather conditions impacted on the planned targets being missed, others suggest that the early radar beam the Germans used to identify targets was bent away from the East End by the British.

Bramall Lane's close proximity to the city centre saw it hit, as was the nearby timber yard of future benefactors and sponsors Arnold Laver. Both the the Kop and the John Street Stand were damaged. The picture below shows a huge crater and partial collapse of the John Street Stand.

There are may stories regarding the bombing. One that stood out suggested that the German maps were so accurate that it described each building in the area and what business was undertaken there, yet the only mistake was to describe Bramall Lane as a boating lake! Some may argue that there have been times since where calling it a football ground has been an inaccuracy given what we have sat through.

In time the ground was repaired, although some matches were played at Hillsborough in the intervening period. It appeared that the disruption to football was over. However 40 years after the end of the war, Sheffield United were to suffer again, albeit briefly.

Friday 8th February 1985, snow lay on the ground, but it wasn't the wintry weather which was going to be the cause of this postponement. While excavating for a new housing development, an unexploded bomb was found on a building site in Lancing Road, which runs parallel to Shoreham Street and United's Kop.

Copyright Sheffield Newspapers
The 33rd Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Division) were called out to deal with what proved a particularly tricky explosive. Early investigations established that what was thought to be a 500lb bomb, was in fact a 2,200lb bomb. Over 300 people were evacuated from their homes in the tightly packed terraced streets in the vicinity of Lancing Road and the risk to public safety was enough for United to postpone their Division 2 game against Oldham. The area around Lancing Road would have been used for street parking on match days.

Copyright Sheffield Newspapers

It took over 36 hours for the bomb to be defused, the explosive steamed out in sub-zero temperatures, with the regiment's work eventually completed on Monday 11th February 1984.  In the original records of bombs dropped on Sheffield, it showed that a bomb had been dropped in that area but not found, until the excavator struck metal.

The Blades match that had been due to take place on the Saturday, had been quickly re-arranged for the following Tuesday (12th February) on the assumption that the bomb would be dealt with by then. That in itself was something that wouldn't have been possible these days, as police and the authorities would need at least a week's notice to be prepared for a re-arranged match. 

Thinking back I remember a picture, published at the time, where on the Saturday the groundsman had written on the snowy pitch "Game Postponed - UXB". Sadly I could not locate a copy for inclusion here.

With the all clear the previous day, the game went ahead with United winning 2-0 in front of just under 9,000 fans. The delay was probably to United's benefit as an injury crisis meant that they were likely to be missing key players on the Saturday, the delay allowing additional time to recover. One player whom it didn't benefit was Paddy McGeeney, a young player full back who had come up through the ranks at Bramall Lane. Having made his debut in an Associate Members Cup match the previous year  he was all set to for his first league start on the Saturday, only for the delay to mean he was no longer needed on the Tuesday night. He waited another 5 games to make his League debut, albeit in a much bigger game, a home victory over Leeds in front of a crowd of over 20,000.

Copyright Sheffield Newspapers

Thinking back I remember a picture, published at the time, where the groundsman had written on the snowy pitch "Game Postponed - UXB". Sadly I could not locate a copy.

This has to be one of the most unusual reasons for the postponement of a professional football match, although I am aware of a Serie B match between Salernitana and Frossone in 2008 that was called off for similar reasons. It is also particularly poignant at this time of remembrance in the city. A sad reminder of a time when our country was at war and many civilian lives were lost. But let's not forget that one of the few constants throughout wartime was football.  An outlet that freed the people from the strains of everyday wartime life and gave them much enjoyment. Who would have known at the time, as football continued throughout the war, that football would be affected in peace-time over 40 years later. 

To read more about Wartime Football and the "unofficial internationals" can I suggest you hop over to the excellent footysphere site where the first in a series of articles has just been posted.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

No new post, so read this!

Unfortunately a heavy (proper) workload has prevented me posting in the last couple of weeks. Hopefully I will get something up next week.

Alongside the day job I was also asked to contribute a piece on the state of things at Bramall Lane for the When Saturday Comes website. This follows an article I wrote for the magazine a couple of months ago on United's international operations. It's gone up on the WSC Daily today and you can find it here......


Thursday, 25 November 2010

Supermarine Go Ballistic.....

……….ColU are atrocious. Ok, so it's been done before. But a win for the smallest club left in the F.A. Cup might send the Sunday newspaper headline writers into a similar frenzy this weekend.

Swindon Supermarine F.C. is a community, fan run club, still in its infancy, yet it nearly didn’t start this season. Established in 1992 following a merger between two local clubs, Supermarine F.C. and Swindon Athletic F.C., both of which were struggling financially, they took Athletic's place in the Hellenic League Premier Division. After winning the Hellenic League championship in 1996-97, they missed out  on promotion due to ground requirements. Although a second championship success in 2000–01 saw them accepted into the Southern League.

The step up was tough and it was a difficult first few seasons, but reaching 2 successive play offs culminated in promotion to the Southern League Premier Division in 2006–07, which is where they find themselves now. In a season of firsts they have reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time, setting a new record attendance en route, and on Saturday they travel to the Weston Homes Community Stadium for a Second Round tie against Colchester United.

Leigh Moore and his family have been involved with the club for all of his 23 years. His parents took over the running of the club in 1987, until his father stood down in the summer.

“The club has been run by a small group of supporters for 20 years and that is continuing again now with additional new faces and whilst there continues to be a reliance on such a small number of people the club future is always very uncertain. Actually the way the club is run hasn’t changed, it has always been run by fans and not ‘owned’ by anyone. It is a membership based organisation and all of the previous members are still involved, it just has different people around the committee table. The ground is owned by a limited company made up of the local business men and previous committee members.

The difference now is that the supporters on the committee now are linked to the club through family connections, with sons and grandsons playing in the team which I’m sure will have its own challenges and benefits.”

Despite establishing themselves in the Zamaretto (Southern) Premier League, things were tough and over the Summer a cash injection was required to keep the club going and there was a clear requirement to be vocal about the need for support.

“When you look at some other non-league clubs they are operating with huge debts. The club were just not prepared to go into another season without the assurances that at least a proportion of the money needed to run the team would be there.”

“This cup run has meant that the immediate need to go and find that extra income has been eased but the club are still working hard to secure sponsorship which will help with long term financial sustainability.”

“The new committee members worked very hard over the summer to bring in a few new sponsors, including the naming of the webs Wood Stadium, and this coupled with the cup run means they all have smiles on their faces and quite rightly so.”

With £6,750 of TV money and half the gate receipts from Saturday's game added to the increased attendances in earlier rounds there has been a significant financial boost to the club. A club record 1,159 saw the first round tie against Eastwood Town. Unfortunately, the cup run support hasn’t yet been converted into an increase in league attendance figures, with average attendances down from 181 last year to 146 this is the bread and butter of financial survival.

With a league fixture backlog before the winter there is a danger that clubs find themselves 6 or 7 games behind which results on 2/3 games a week, which is a tough ask for any club at any level. It also impacts on crowd levels which hits even harder in non-league as Leigh explains; "Last season we lost 9 Saturday games to bad weather all of which got rearranged to midweek’s, which represented a huge loss of revenue yet the costs and wages still have to be paid."  The loss to Lowestoft in the F.A. Trophy last week, however disappointing, may ease that burden.

With such low crowds, the committee has to be innovative in how they market the club, both to local business and the potential fan base. Being close to the M4 Swindon is an easy commute to many towns and cities with Championship or Premier league clubs that makes attracting support difficult. Notwithstanding the fact that the area is also a hot bed of Rugby.

Initiatives have included a £5 ticket offer for season ticket holders of Premier League of League clubs and working up a close relationship with their football league neighbours. That means it's a relationship built on respect, more than a rivalry with Swindon Town F.C. and that first round record crowd was almost certainly boosted by a number of Town fans.

“In the past the club has benefited from some major sponsorship deals from one or two individuals who have been friends of the club and have wanted to help out. Due to the place we as a country find ourselves economically, these type of sponsorship deals at this level will probably never be replicated.”

“What it has meant is that the club has had to look for as many sponsors as possible but in much smaller amounts. We have to look at the ground and the club as a formula one car, if there is a space it can be sponsored.” A visit to the club website confirms this is the case with a wall of sponsors’ ads greeting you, prior to entering the club site.

“The small hardcore of supporters have also been great with things such as pound a point, sponsor a seat, weekly match predictor and all these little things add up.”

As do the numbers travelling to Colchester, expected to be more than double their league average gate. “When we got through people were talking about 500+ but I think for a club of our size 250+ would be a fantastic achievement. However many we take I’m sure we will make lots of noise and enjoy the day.”

Leigh is the man behind the SupermarineFC twitter account of which I am now one of 395 followers. He describes social media as "ideal for getting people to talk about the club even if they don’t pay to walk through the gate. Creating an awareness of the club both in and outside of Swindon is important and it is definitely putting us on the map more nationally." This has included getting good luck messages retweeted by both TV presenter Gabby Logan and Bolton's Kevin Davies.

With main match highlights on ITV on Saturday night that exposure will continue to reach a much wider audience and an upset might even put them in the running for the F.A.'s new Ronnie Radford trophy. If however Colchester succeed, as most would expect, this cup run will have left Swindon Supermarine with a much stronger base to move forward, both financially and in terms of big match experience. Hopefully, this will help them grow and progress up the non-league pyramid. 
As Leigh says; “From a fan’s perspective our objective over the next 5 years must be to continue to strive for financial sustainability and improve the support base. The club has grown rapidly in the last 15 years and has reached a level now where there is a need for it to become more and more professional. A big part of that will be having a fan base that truly warrants a club at this level of football”.
I for one wish them all the best in achieving it. If hard work, endeavour and initiative are rewarded they surely will.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Top Dons with Dignity

Sunday's FA Cup draw produced a potential FA Cup tie that every right minded football fan, with every respect to those supporters of Stevenage Borough and Ebbsfleet United, would want to see. I also suspect that, outside the 8,000 or so followers of MK Dons, there is one result that most football people would like to see, should it happen. Yet it is a match that should have never had the remotest chance of taking place. Because what happened back in 2002 should never have been allowed to happen and, god-willing, a match like it will never happen again.

It is hard not to dredge up the horror story behind the arrival of professional football in Milton Keynes. The simple facts are that Milton Keynes had a team (Milton Keynes City FC), just like Stevenage did, like Burton did, just like Morecambe did. And the way for them to achieve league football was the hard way, on the pitch, by being successful, just like Stevenage and Burton. Having a big urban conurbation doesn't justify the need to have a league team, you have to earn it by winning football matches.

It may also require a reasonable level of investment to achieve it, take the example of Max Griggs and Rushden & Diamonds. Unwilling to invest money in a long term project, the "entrepreneur" Pete Winkelman and his consortium looked for an opportunity to buy and relocate an existing league club. This was something unheard of in English football and several clubs were considered, but the willingness of Charles Koppel to relinquish the loss making club he bought from Sam Hammam meant that the Wimbledon fans were sold down the river.The gutless F.A. have continued to vindicate their decision to allow Franchise FC to exist, by playing England Under 21 qualifiers there and then promoting Stadium MK to the list of potential 2018 venues. It makes you assume that they have not seen the white elephant stadiums left in Japan and Korea, where they were selected/built in areas where local teams have neither the stature or the support to justify the magnificent legacy left to them? The stadium:mk is generally two thirds empty every week to watch League One football and that is before an extra tier and an extra 10,000 seats are added. Never mind the further development and growth in capacity required to meet host city requirements.

Despite supposed objections from the F.A. and Football League, the door was left open for Koppel to appeal to an arbitration panel and then an independent commission. Wimbledon FC were playing in Milton Keynes within 18 months. Senior F.A. big-wigs bemoaned the decision, yet they were as culpable as any to the creation of MK Dons and the desecration of football.

The blurb on the 2018 bid website makes me nauseous, referring to the "vision and willingness to think differently that in 2004 saw Milton Keynes become England's newest football city with the formation of the MK Dons" and great play made of the infrastructure and transport links that seemingly compensate for a complete lack of sporting heritage, never mind football heritage.

Whilst the publicity hungry Winkelman has sought the media glare to promote his new franchise, AFC Wimbledon have quietly covered themselves in glory since their inception with little fuss or attention seeking. Joining the Combined Counties League (the same level of the football pyramid as the South Midlands League - which housed Milton Keynes City prior to their collapse following the franchise's arrival) they held trials on a local playing field to establish a squad for their first friendly against Sutton. Although they have benefited from a level of support that any other new start teams can only dream of, their rise through 4 tiers of the football pyramid over the next 7 years was a fantastic achievement. Sitting atop the Conference table as I type, they have a level of popularity amongst the everyday football fan that Wimbledon F.C. struggled to ever achieve - even when winning the F.A. Cup.

The only real issue that has arisen in the last 8 years related to apparent annoyance at their sharing of Kingstonian's Kingsmeadow stadium. However, when financially stricken  Kingstonian's administrators sold the ground to businessmen, it was AFC who arranged the borrowing of funds to buy back the ground and preserve a future not just for them, but Kingstonian as well. After all, the ambition to return to the Borough of Merton, something that was denied their predecessors, still burns strong. Given what they have achieved the borough council should be doing everything in their power to reward perseverance, effort and success and provide the opportunity for a true community club to have a home in its community.

This measured approach to running the club has continued with the club's official response to the cup draw; "Most people know the way that Milton Keynes obtained their football club. It was wrong then and it is still wrong now, which makes this fixture very painful for us. However, when we entered the FA Cup we understood that this might happen and we will go about our business professionally and complete the fixture. But we would have preferred that it hadn’t happened. We have no further comment to make at the moment."

The hurt is still there. I know it would be for me if it was my club. So in keeping their counsel and avoiding emotive responses, they can leave it to the rest of the footballing world to say it for them. I only hope that ITV, who have already committed to showing the 2nd Round tie - regardless of replays, do the club justice should they find themselves at Kingsmeadow on the 27th November. AFC Wimbledon have regained their club's history and retained a level of dignity others would do well to follow.

I have to say I hope that the best teams win their respective replays and if the second round match-up is Ebbsflett vs Stevenage, then so be it. After all, if this match doesn't take place this year, it cannot be long before AFC Wimbledon take their rightful place back in the football league. Hopefully, they would then be a season away from the opportunity to beat Franchise FC twice a season. Maybe, with a drop in form for the other lot they could face each other in League 2 next season. Here's hoping.......   

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Bale Should Make Hay

Gareth Bale is a talented footballer, of that there is no doubt. His form at the end of last season was excellent and this season he has picked up where he left off, as if the Summer and the World Cup never happened. There are many of us who wished it never happened! His play this season has been truly electric, with pace, an ability to beat a full back and goals. However, to read the papers and listen to the media pundits over the last 24 hours you would have thought the second football coming had been born in Cardiff, 21 years ago. The same pundits who were questioning his Spurs future 12 months ago, were placing him in exalted company, alongside Messi, Xavi et al.

As a 17 year old making his debut for Southampton it was clear that he was not just a great prospect. An athletic full back, with a great touch, a pinpoint cross and an eye for goal. Within 13 months he was moving to Spurs in a deal worth up to £10m, but a series of injuries blighted his Spurs career and Assou-Ekoto, a pretty average full back was keeping him out of the side. He got his chance when Assou-Ekoto, picked up an injury but even Harry Redknapp doubted his ability to step up having flattered to deceive in his few opportunities to date.

Although he came in at full back, his defensive game was not strong and that could be argued to still be the case. He certainly benefited from having the opposing full back occupied by the winger in front to allow him to bomb forward and find space. His attacking ability and flair gained recognition and deflection away from his defensive frailties. Now given a more advanced role, his blistering pace has given opposing full backs nightmares, but not all. Ask any Manchester United fan how effective he was up against Rafael or and Everton fan as to how he fared with Phil Neville.

Much has been made of his play against Maicon in the Champions League victory over Internazionale. Maicon, widely regarded as a great full back, has been described as being "devoured" and "destroyed" by Bale in various European papers. Yet people seem to forget that Maicon, like Bale, is a better attacking full back than a defensive one. Many players will struggle to cope with a ball pushed past them and Bale's blistering pace, not just the Brazilian.

The media have lined up to heap praise on him, not least Sky who saw Bale's personal performance and Spurs' victory as a justification for their continuing promotion "of the best league in the World".  And after all Spurs only finished fourth and just look at them go!  The sycophantic stupidity dragged on into the post match interviews where Geoff Shreeves slavered over Bale and asked Rafael Van Der Vaart if he had ever seen a player like that before. That will be Van Der Vaart who plays for the Netherlands, alongside Robben, Van Persie and Sneijder, who played at Ajax alongside Ibrahimovic and at Real Madrid with Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaka amongst others. I think he might have Geoff....

Even respected journalists have rolled out the superlatives for him. At this stage the superlatives should be for the performances, not so much so for the player. He is playing brilliantly, but back in January he was linked with a loan move out of White Hart Lane and warming the bench. A journalist I have respect for Patrick Barclay was tweeting effusive praise for Bale on Tuesday night - "Gareth Bale is the best player in the world (except Xavi, of course). And really pleasant human being. Can he remain so? Messi good example". He subsequently, following query, rephrased his tweet. After all 140 words are sometimes not enough to fully convey your message, even for a Times' journalist. "Am just saying Bale is second best in world at this moment. That's all. It keeps changing. Beauty of football." And at that point I started to agree with him. 

Bale is a good player. Right now, at this moment, he is one of the most in-form players in the world. He could be a great player. It's an over-used phrase, but form is temporary, class is permanent. Bale needs to take the adulation he is currently receiving, enjoy it and use it to spur (excuse the pun) himself on to further success. In post-match interviews he comes across as a level headed and quiet person. Let's hope under the increased media scrutiny he remains that way. Let us not forget that, despite being around for 5 years, he is only 21 years old. An opportunity for greatness presents itself rarely and by going about his business as he is now, that could be bestowed on Bale. But all in good time.        

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

The Perfect Chairman?

Following the recent departure of Gordon Strachan, a thread started on a Blades internet forum which debated the merits of Steve Gibson. "The type of chairman you want at your club". Now Gibson is clearly well thought of within football as well as by the town of Middlesbrough. From forming a consortium to save the club from liquidation in 1986, to his subsequent appointment as chairman in 1994, to overseeing the move to the Riverside, he is cited as a man who pulled Boro back from the brink and propelled them to significant success. But what makes him perceived to be better? What makes him different?

Like many "fan" chairmen he has put considerable sums into the club he loves. Via the Gibson O'Neill company (of which he owns 75%) he has taken on over £50m of football club debt (per 2009 accounts). Then again, many chairman put in considerable sums of their business wealth to support what are fundamentally loss making football clubs. In the 12 months to 31st December 2009, Boro made an operating loss of £12.6m. 

Whereas, macro-economic pressures and the recession have hit some hard, Gibson has been fortunate to continue to generate significant profits from his business ventures. Fortunate is probably too harsh, he should be given credit for it. This has enabled him to maintain the support required to stay in the Premiership and also provide significant sums (by Championship standards) to try and return. Something not all chairman have been able to maintain, as I know from following my club. This seemingly unconditional support is certainly one factor in his popularity.

So what has the investment achieved? A Carling Cup victory whilst twice finishing runners up, an FA Cup final appearance and a run to the final of the UEFA Cup Final in 2006. The cynical would say that for the amounts incurred one trophy is not a great return. The realistic would acknowledge it is a good return for a club the size of and with the infrastructure of Boro. Fans of many similar sized, "unfashionable" teams would kill for any element of that success, whatever they may claim.

The focus he has given to developing a quality academy has paid dividends. The Boro academy has developed and delivered a huge number of quality players to the first team and beyond, often compensating for the failure of many players acquired for significant fees who have flopped at the Riverside, Digard, Alves, Emnes....  The fees generated from selling on these players has helped subsidise the £60m Boro have spent since the Summer transfer window of 2006 and the many millions more expended before that.

He has also been given credit for the manner in which he deals with his managers. The manner in which the Strachan departure was handled being a case in point, where Strachan took no compensation from the club. Yet his unwavering support for his managers can be questioned. He probably let Bryan Robson out-stay his reign, leading to the need to bring in Terry Venables, albeit successfully, to support Robson. The same could be said of Southgate, whilst the eventual timing of both Strachan and Gareth Southgate's departures could be questioned.

In what is an extremely tight Championship table and with a team under performing, Strachan left after spending over £6m (£4m net of transfer income) during the Summer and with Boro 9 points off the play offs. Is this too soon to assess a team showing 8 players in and 8 out from the end of the last season? One of the contributory factors was the strength of feeling from what was left of the Riverside faithful. A vociferous 17,000 rattling around a half empty Riverside. Yet the numbers rather than the noise probably rang alarm bells for Gibson.

He is clearly a talented businessman and charismatic leader. He is by no means the perfect chairman, he has made mistakes, but don't they all. Boro fans couldn't imagine Boro without him and many fans of other clubs would want a chairman of his ilk.

His latest managerial appointment is an interesting one and probably the right one. The next couple of years are vital for the club. The last time the club fell into the Championship, at the end of the 1996-97 season, the club bounced back first time. This time around they are now in their second term in the second tier and with a £12m drop in parachute payments next season, the Director's Report for the 2009 accounts emphasises the precarious nature of the club's finances and raises questions regarding the extent to which Gibson can continue to plug the financial shortfalls.

"The company is determined that the team can achieve promotion no later than at the end of the second season in the Football League as a result of the restructuring carried out and with the help of the reduced financial benefit still being received from the Premier League."

In employing Tony Mowbray, a promotion winning manager with WBA, Gibson not only believes he has the right man for the job, but also he has an important ally if the performances don't turnaround sufficiently this season.   A fan, a former captain, a hero to the Riverside faithful. When things are tough, you need to dig in and pull together. Mowbray might well be the glue required and add some impetus at a time when supporter apathy has clearly set in.

It wont be easy. He will have to deal with players he was only too happy to get rid of during his disappointing reign at Celtic. The margins between success and failure in the Championship are tiny. A point or one goal can be the difference between automatic promotion and a play off lottery ticket. With QPR and Cardiff already establishing a gap between themselves and the rest at the top of the table, a play off place will be a good achievement.

The next 18 months will be a defining era for Middlesbrough Football Club and also for their chairman and manager. A prologed stay outside the Premiership has affected many clubs and the financial re-adjustment is tough. Some are unable to sustain a place in the Championship and a return from League One is not straightforward, as Southampton, Leeds and others will testify. The fans will always have fond memories of a cup final glory and European nights, but fans memories are notoriously short term. Those memories could well be tarnished if Boro find themselves 25 years on with further financial strife, dwindling crowds and playing football in the Championship or even League One. Time will tell.

Friday, 15 October 2010

The kids are alright

In the aftermath of another turgid England display against Montenegro midweek, I read a tweet that brought a brief flicker of happiness to my face. The England Under 21 team's success in qualifying for next year's European Championship finals in Denmark means that we are the only one of the "big" European nations to qualify for each of the last 3 European U21 Championships.  At a time when Germany are being held up as a prime example of an exciting youthful international side and everyone from Fabio Capello to Harry RedknappDave Whelan to Sam Allardyce feel the need to bemoan the lack of good English talent coming through, it led me to look into the facts a little further.

England's relative success in the last 2 championships (Losing semi-finalists to the eventual winners the Netherlands in 2007 and Runners Up to Germany in 2009) followed two successive failures to reach the finals. This shows that, England are no different from the other larger nations who have all suffered spells where the quality and competitiveness of their young footballers is lacking.

Either side of their success in 2009, Germany failed to qualify in 2007 and have just missed out on 2011. The Netherlands failed to qualify in 2009 after winning the trophy in 2007. France has failed to qualify for the last three finals tournaments and have only made one of the last five. Italy, semi-finalists in 2009, lost their qualifying play-off to Belarus this week. Whilst Spain have failed to qualify for the finals next year and, despite their current senior success, have never reached the semi finals in any of the last 4 tournaments.

Some might suggest that victories in the last 2 tournaments might point towards the success of the Netherlands and Germany in recent major tournaments, but what did become of the players involved in those matches from both sides?

Back in 2007, the fourteen players involved in England's epic 13-12 penalty defeat to the Netherlands in Herenveen included five players who went on to gain full international recognition, with a combined total of over thirty caps to date. Of those David Nugent remains a one cap (one goal) wonder, Baines has played twice and Scott Carson three times. Only Ashley Young and James Milner have made any significant impact at international level.  

A look at the Dutch line-up paints a very similar picture. Four players have made the next step, but only two have gone on to ten or more caps, Babel and Maduro. They also, like England have players whose careers have not maintained their early heights. Three of the England team are currently playing Championship football; Lita, Hoyte and Nugent. A fourth, Liam Rosenior is currently without a club.

In the Dutch side, Daniel de Ridder looked an exciting wing prospect only to see his career falter at Birmingham and Wigan. Maceo Rigters joined Blackburn, but after only two appearances commenced unsuccessful loan spells with Norwich and Barnsley and started this season on loan at Willem II back in his homeland.

Even the player of the tournament, Royston Drenthe, subject to a subsequent 14m move to Real Madrid, finds himself viewed as a "problem" player, sent on loan to newly promoted La Liga club Hercules and still without a full cap.

Playing for the Under 21's was a never a guarantee of future success. In each two year spell you see a turnover of players which usually sees half remain for the next tournament, whilst the remainder move on and hopefully move up.  Looking at the German team that contested the 2009 final, it shows that it is possible to move up. Nine of the fourteen German players have now gained full caps and a tenth, Seb Boenisch has been capped by Poland after switching allegiance. Five players are in double figures, in terms of senior appearances (Neuer, Ozil, Khedira, Boateng and Schmelzer) although, as is often the case, several players had gained full caps prior to the U21 finals.

What happened to the England team from the final is slightly different. Five players (Richards, Gibbs, Johnson, Walcott and Milner) have made at least one senior appearance. Of these; only Richards, Walcott and Milner are in double figures in terms of appearances, however it is hard to believe that Johnson will not be there soon. Gibbs is clearly the long term replacement for Ashley Cole and it's likely that Jack Rodwell (a used sub in the final) would have had an opportunity by now, had it not been for injury. 

It is clear that with an ageing squad, Joachim Low was able to blood many of his young players in a relatively short spell of time. Post South Africa, several pundits and media voices called for a similar overhaul of the England team. Blood the young talent and, accept that Euro 2012 may not be a successful tournament, look to the future. Yet the response seems to be that many of the England team are not ready for the scrap heap just yet and the lack of big club/European experience goes against the young upstarts in terms of getting an opportunity.

Germany's situation was helped by the Bundesliga being a relatively open and competitive league. Five different winners in the last ten seasons and numerous clubs gaining Champions League experience gives young players at a wider range of clubs exposure to big competition at an earlier stage of their career.

Although it is good to see Capello being more willing to give players from outside the top 6 their chance (Cahill and Davies of Bolton as examples), they are not guaranteed to be the mainstays. Phil Jagielka performed well in his two games, but we can be pretty sure that he would have been dropped if both Ferdinand and Terry had been fit to face Montenegro. Yet, if England were looking forward, beyond the next tournament, there is a clear argument for not playing Ferdinand and giving his long term replacement time to bed in.

I don't think that at the moment we are worse off than any other major country in developing young talent and successful teams. It's what happens in the formative years, post  youth football, where it seems to go wrong. A lack of club opportunities as much as a lack of international ones. There may not be a never-ending supply of talented players that the coaches would wish to pick from, but if the best young players we have are not blossoming what chance have the late bloomers got.

With the Under 17 European Championship title under our belt and a strong squad available for Denmark 2011, things do look rosy. The kids are alright (in fact they are pretty good); they just need the chance to develop and the chance to show it.

Friday, 8 October 2010

Points vs Technical Merit

In an interview with Matt Hughes in Wednesday's Times, Cesc Fabregas commented on the difference in styles between English and Spanish club football and the cultural differences between fans in both countries in accepting style and results.

"In Spain we believe in one style of football. The way we play is most important. It is not just about winning, it's about how you do it. If you lose, you go again. You will never play the ball long or do things you are not used to. We want to win by playing football. No Spanish teams would play like Bolton. Here in England it is all about passion - the fans love it when there are hard tackles and you play long balls and counter attack. But if you do that in Spain they will boo you even if you win."

Na na, we make more passes than you...

Now people will point to Spain and say, World and European champions and suggest that maybe Fabregas has a point. But Spain are blessed with technically excellent players and their big two clubs are blessed with significant transfer funds, therefore winning with style tends to come easier for them than other teams and, last time I noticed, points and trophies are awarded for winning matches. It's not 3 points for a win and 5.9 for technical merit.

Firstly, I find it really disappointing that he chooses Bolton as his example of ugly football. They still seem to be tarred with the long ball brush, usually by lazy media pundits who fail to see the changes made to the way they play, particularly under Owen Coyle. Yet even in the Allardyce days they played with noted footballers in a team containing Okocha, Djorkaeff and Campo amongst others. The goals they scored were often spectacular as much as direct and I don't think any of the three players mentioned ever complained that the tactics and style inhibited their performances or enjoyment of the game. 

Ask any Bolton fans, would they have preferred to see a few more passes in the build up to their goals when they finished 6th in 2005 and qualified for the UEFA Cup? I doubt it. Maybe they would have preferred their team to play differently when drawing away with Bayern Munich, when they became the first British team to win at Red Star Belgrade and when they knocked out Atletico Madrid? Clubs like Bolton, live within their means and play within their means, I see little wrong with that. It is noticable that the other English clubs (outside of the usual suspects) to achieve greater UEFA Cup success since Bolton reached the last 16 (Middlesboro and Fulham) have multi-millionaire's backers who have invested significant sums to achieve similar success.

Success is what drives a majority of fans in this country and it's what drives clubs. Never mind trophies, £800k prize money per place in the Premier League means the extra point gained, sat playing deep at the Emirates and hitting on the counter, can lead to a significant windfall. The reward structure is the direct cause of teams setting out to frustrate when visiting the Big 4.

Now I don't see a huge amount of the Spanish football live on Sky, so I cannot comment on the style of football played by Deportivo De La Coruna. However, I struggle to believe that fans of a club who played Champions League football 5 years ago, would not mind a bit of direct football if it brings the goals and victories that would lift them from the foot of La Liga. Would new boys Hercules not sacrifice style, if it elongated their Primera Liga tenure? 

I asked freelance Spanish football writer Mike Holden about how fans react to performances in Spain. He told me "They don't like losing, but they just stop going if their team keeps losing. Spanish fans are passionate but many can take or leave the match experience. To English fans, matchday is their life."

Therefore if  Cesc's claim is right, the Spanish support will boo their team when winning ugly and just stop going altogether when they are losing. Maybe Fabregas is basing his comments on his beloved Barcelona, but that is hardly indicative of Spanish football as a whole. 

Maybe I am a footballing neanderthal, but we have to accept that every team has it's limits. As much as we would love to see our teams play the beautiful way, there is not the talent to achieve it and the structure of the game means tipi-tapi with little end product costs points and costs money. By all means continue playing your way Cesc, but maybe you and your teammates might have to compromise your footballing principles to get the results that will bring Arsenal a first trophy in five years. I am guessing that the Arsenal fans might like one?