Friday, 24 September 2010

Pompey's chimes hit a bum note

This morning the BBC reported Portsmouth's disgust at the failure of Genoa to pay over an instalment due to them following the £5m transfer of Kevin Prince Boateng last month. Although he was signed by Genoa, he hasn't actually played for them as he was subsequently loaned to AC Milan. The financial details of the Milan deal are not known, but what is apparent is that Genoa have yet to pay any monies to Portsmouth for the player who isn't actually playing for them.

According to Portsmouth's Administrator, Andrew Andronikou, the first instalment of the fee was due two weeks ago and when chased the overdue payment they were told 'sorry, we mistook your bank details'. "A week later, it doesn't look like the cheque has even hit the post." He went on to say that Pompey have had enough of Genoa's excuses.

Had enough of their excuses? I wonder what excuses Portsmouth were using to suppliers, players and other clubs, as their financial difficulties so publicly unravelled over the last 12 months? Now I am not condoning Genoa's behaviour. In any business you have a right to expect to be paid for your services in line with any written contractual agreement, however there will always be those who stretch their relationship with their creditors to their absolute limit. There can be no greater example of this than Portsmouth. Pot…kettle…black.

This is Portsmouth who, when the full extent of their debt was revealed to be double initial estimates, were found to owe other clubs £17.1m in transfer fees. A small portion of the £135m debt, but as much as they also owed HMRC, who will be collecting just a fifth of that in instalments over the next 5 years.

You could well say well, that was under the old management and that under Mr Andronikou's administration he has every right to chase monies rightfully owed to the football club, which will go some way to easing their ongoing difficulties. However, there are courses of action that should be taken to recover this money. Bleating to the press about it isn't one of them. Aside from Lens' claims regarding monies due for Dindane and Belhadj I don't recall many of the other clubs owed money by Portsmouth going public with their claims and in doing so now they are doing a dis-service to the club and their fans.

Football is an industry that seems to attract figures who are fond of the media attention, free with their quotes yet often end up with egg on their faces. I am reminded of former Sheffield Wednesday chairman Lee Strafford who, prior to their all-or nothing relegation decider against Crystal Palace, saw fit to criticise Palace for their financial mismanagement and the fact they had taken the easy option of administration. Yet it has since emerged that Wednesday are an insolvent trading business themselves, most probably at the time of the Palace match. Day to day operations have been funded from tax deductions that should have been paid over to HMRC and only a last minute bail-out by their (very) Co-Operative bankers staved off potential administration. He has since claimed that he was misled by fellow directors of the true state of the club's finances. This may be the case, but it does little for his credentials as a business leader if he couldn’t see what was actually happening.

In the circumstances Portsmouth might do well to keep their counsel and do things privately, via the English and Italian FAs and potentially UEFA. If that does not lead to the required outcome then they can bleat, because at that stage the system is broken, not their individual agreement. Until then………………..*silence*

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Boxing Day Hero

In April last year, I spoke with former professional footballer Mike Pickering. He had an accomplished and varied career, both playing for and captaining several clubs in England and also experienced the razzamatazz of the North American Soccer League. What you read below was intended as a feature piece for the South Yorkshire football magazine First E11even, unfortunately the magazine folded before this could be published.  Having put the work into writing it and putting myself through it discussing one of Wednesday's biggest victories over United with a former Owls captain, I thought it was worth a wider audience.

“It was a fantastic experience, playing against some great players like Cruyff and Best. When I walked out on to the pitch, the stadium announcer introduced me as “the man-for-man marker, all the way from Sheffield Wednesday”.
I am sat in a staff cafe, in an office in Sheffield city centre. The quietly spoken man sitting opposite is telling me about his football career, in particular a brief spell in the States playing in the NASL, both with and against some all time greats. Yet he will be a familiar name and face for many football fans in South Yorkshire, having started his career at Barnsley, played for Rotherham and captained Wednesday.  
Woven into his story are many great memories from playing in all four divisions, playing in the US, and playing both with and for World Cup winners. However, what he will be most fondly remembered for by one half of Sheffield is one match. On 26th December 1979, he captained Wednesday to a 4-0 defeat of United at Hillsborough. A match that, having just passed its 30th anniversary, is still discussed and argued about today. As a huge Blades fan, I struggle to raise the subject of the “Boxing Day Massacre” with him. It can wait; there are other tales to be told first.
Mike Pickering was first spotted playing for Spen Valley Schools in an English Schools cup match at Oakwell. “We were not a great side; there were only 3 schools to choose from. The approach from Barnsley came after a 7-0 defeat. I was of big build for my age and I can only assume my energetic, all-action style in midfield made me stand out.” Mike was asked to attend a trial by Jock Steele, manager of the then 4th Division side and soon signed schoolboy forms. There were only three apprentices at Barnsley at that time - one of the other two being Mick McCarthy. Soon after, Steele was replaced as manager by Jim Iley, who wanted to see the players he inherited in action. Mike was given a run in the reserves against Halifax and, following a strong performance, was offered a professional contract. He was quickly promoted to the first team at just 17, playing centre back where, despite not being particularly tall, his strength in the air and reading of the game held him in good stead and he was a key player for the next 3 years.
Given Barnsley’s lowly league status they found it difficult to resist offers for their better players. Mike was told that Southampton (previous season’s FA Cup winners and a 2nd Division side) were interested and he jumped at the chance of an upward move, despite the upheaval it would cause. “Afterwards I found out that both Ipswich and Spurs had also been interested, but Barnsley didn’t tell me at the time. It was a sore point for me, but in hindsight I don’t have regrets as I had a great time with the Saints. It was a great step up and I was playing alongside players of the quality of Peter Osgood, Mick Channon and Alan Ball.” 
Southampton had played up at Bradford the previous night and Lawrie McMenemy picked him up from Barnsley on his drive back down to Southampton. Spending a 5 hour car journey with McMenemy was a little overwhelming and the move down South at such a young age was not easy. Mike was grateful to Alan Ball for taking him under his wing. “Being a Northerner himself, he looked out for me and helped me adjust. I think he liked the Northern grit I showed.” Mike played all bar one game of that season, missing the final game of what was a promotion winning season as Southampton reached the top flight.
Celebrating promotion with Southampton (No copyright details)
Sadly, for Mike, the joy of reaching the top flight was short lived. By November of the following season he had made only 3 appearances - all defeats. Feeling like a scapegoat, he approached Lawrie McMenemy about making a move to seek first team football.
Within a few hours an offer was on the table, from Jack Charlton at Sheffield Wednesday. The move would mean dropping two divisions but, amazingly, would lead to a pay rise. Money was not the prime motivating factor though.  The return to the “footballing hotbed of South Yorkshire” and the chance to play under Charlton were clearly an influence. Mike talks fondly of him. “He was a good man. He had a certain charisma, but not in the normal meaning of the word. What you saw was what you got. You always knew where you stood. He got some stick in the papers at the time, they said he was always off fishing or shooting and not focused on the job, yet he was always the last person to leave.”
Despite being in his early 20’s, Mike was viewed as the experienced centre half required and was installed as team captain. Following a few signings the following summer, Wednesday went into the season with higher expectations, however they started badly and Mike suffered an injury which kept him out for ten weeks. It took a while for things to gel and Wednesday's home form was patchy. 
Going into the first derby of the season United were top of the table and favourites for victory. It was the 100th Sheffield Derby and a record Third Division crowd of 49,039 packed Hillsborough. As a player, Mike thought the fact that it was over Christmas and kicked off at 11am took the edge off the build up as the players were sheltered from it.  Christmas Day evening was spent at the Rutland Hotel. There was fun and games organised and Tony Toms (the team trainer) organised a team awards ceremony.  Mike still has the pound notes awarded for his "Best Dressed Player" and "Player You Would Most Like to Have in the Trenches" awards. “The daft mementoes I have kept, the shirts and other items I have given away to charity and friends over the years.”

Leading the Owls out on Boxing Day 1979
The day itself passed very quickly in a bit of a blur. “It was a grey, bleak winter’s day. The build-up had been going on for weeks and, although fans had been queuing outside from early morning, we saw little of it. The noise from the crowd was amazing. They had put a strong referee in charge (Pat Partridge who had refereed at the World Cup in Argentina that summer) and he made us do the coin toss in the tunnel - I cannot remember why! So although we did it again on the pitch, we had already decided who was kicking off and which way we were kicking beforehand. It was a pretty even first half. I remember getting a strong tackle in on Barry Butlin early on, which was always good as a defender and we all just seemed on our game. Then, just before half time, Ian Mellor struck a beauty from 25 yards to put us one up . Then John McPhail (of United) followed up a rebound off our bar, but hit it straight at Bob (Bolder – Wednesday keeper). We started the second half really sharp and early on Mick Speight (United Captain) was stretchered off trying to defend a game of pinball in their box.” Two goals in three minutes from Curran and King made it 3-0, before local boy Mark Smith added a fourth with a penalty. The biggest derby win since United had won 7-3 back in 1951 and the ground was bouncing.
Post match, the players went their separate ways and for Mike that was a return to the family home in Holmfirth for a belated Christmas Dinner. Returning to Sheffield a couple of days later the euphoria had died down a little yet the blue and white half of the city was still buzzing. Some say that day kick-started Wednesday’s season -from the 21st December 1979 they went on a 19 game unbeaten run. “It had all come together and, once we started to get results, the mix of experienced players and young local lads worked really well. Our away form picked up and we got results at grounds that were always difficult for visiting teams such as Oxford and Swindon. United fell away and we were the team that got promoted to Division 2, pipping Chesterfield by one point.”   
Mike continued to enjoy his time with Wednesday but, after falling out of favour under Howard Wilkinson, “new managers always had new ideas and liked to bring their own players in,” Mike had several loan spells including 6 months in the North American Soccer League with the San Diego Sockers. “They had a largely-German team and I was recommended to one of the coaches as someone who might bring a bit of steel to the defence.” That recommendation was from Brian Tiler, the  ex-Rotherham player who was coaching out there at the time and was later to tragically die in the car crash that severely injured Harry Redknapp during Italia 90.
Playing in the NASL in the early 80’s was a surreal experience. The team shared the stadium with the Padres (Baseball) and Chargers (American Football), yet for Sockers games there would be 4,000 people rattling around a 40,000+ capacity stadium. Mike tells me that the only time crowds significantly increased was when there was a rock concert later in the day and people would wander in from the tailgate parties in the car park. The football match would be the pre-gig warm-up for Guns'n'Roses or other bands.
The league was in regional conferences to limit travel, but only in the US sense. “You would play 2 home games and then go on road trips, taking in 2/3 away games over the next fortnight. Fly, hotel, train, hotel, play, fly, hotel....”  Despite the repetitive routine and the low crowds, Mike talks fondly of playing in some of the great US stadia such as the LA Coliseum and the Rose Bowl.
After returning from California, Mike had a loan spell back at Oakwell, but was recalled to Hillsborough to be told of George Kerr’s interest at Rotherham, where he went on to spend 3 years. “It was a great club, so friendly; the pitch was perfect to play on, even if the surroundings were not too pretty. There was a real community spirit about the place and everyone who worked there looked out for each other.”  Final league spells at York and Stockport, were followed by a return to the area and non-league football, with Hallam, Frickley and Goole. 
Mike’s two regrets from football are that he didn’t build on his O Levels with more qualifications that would have helped post-football, “I had the time to do it, but you just get swept up in football,” and that he didn’t pursue his coaching badges. “I drifted away from football and as a player I was never a good watcher." That continued after I finished. He always looked out for the results of his former teams, but rarely watched.  However, alongside the day job in office facilities, Mike has recently found a route back into football – matchday hosting in the lounges at Hillsborough, alongside John Pearson and David Hirst.  And he loves it. “Watching and talking about football, what more could you want.”  He’s got some of his interest and love of the game back. On Sunday 18th April, Mike and his son will attend his first Sheffield Derby since leading the Owls out on Boxing Day 1979.
So if you find yourself in hospitality at Hillsborough, take the opportunity to have a chat.  He is a humble man who has played with, played for and played against some of the best and there is that little matter of a certain match 30 years ago.        


Saturday, 11 September 2010

All I am give Speed a chance

When I started this blog I was determined that, despite my unending support for Sheffield United, this would be a blog that looked at all football and not just the Blades. The fourth post in and I have slipped, but forgive me it's with good reason.

The opening to the season has been turbulent for the Blades. A point away at Cardiff with 10 men was a reasonable start, but an awful Carling Cup exit at Hartlepool was followed by an equally impotent performance in a home defeat to QPR, which saw the Blades 3 down in half an hour. Despite the multitude of frustrations (with team, performance, manager, officials) that day and the fact that there was a vocal minority calling for Kevin Blackwell's head after half an hour, a majority of Blades fans were shocked and stunned to hear the news of his departure emanating from Bramall Lane as they journeyed home.

After Blackwell had changed the squad over the Summer, the bizarre timing of his departure along with the fact that United had turned down Swansea's approach for Gary Speed in the Summer meant that there was, realistically, only one likely replacement.  Although it took a couple of days to be confirmed, it kind of made sense to promote from within. Yet, despite his standing in the game, his appointment has split Blades support. An element, albeit a minority one, see it as a cheap and easy option for a board that is in the second year of adjusting the club's cost base, after investment in players and wages failed to yield a return. This taking place alongside an apparent reluctance from chairman Kevin McCabe to make up ongoing financial shortfalls.

Last night was an opportunity for fans to quiz the new manager face to face for the first time. Alongside, Chief Executive Trevor Birch, captain Chris Morgan and Summer signing Leon Britton, Speed took questions from some of the 150 or so supporters present. Given his increasing presence as a pundit and as a stand-in captain on A Question of Sport there would be no doubting his confidence in front of an audience but, notwithstanding that fact, he came across very well.

He answered the questions you would expect, with the answers you would expect. "Great opportunity, no thinking it over involved, wouldn't have taken the role if he didn't think he could take us up." He appeared to answer questions openly and honestly; even grabbing the mic off Trevor Birch, who was answering a question on funding for player loans/transfers, to ensure he made a point regarding how he will not be rushed into making loan market moves, despite the anxiety of fans who perceive weaknesses in the squad.

One question from the back about Sam Ellis brought a forceful, bordering on aggressive response. Ellis was Blackwell's assistant and a perceived dinosaur in today's modern football world. The fact that he once played for Wednesday and his apparent comfort in being Blackwell's fall guy in front of the media following a defeat, didn't help his case. His inability to recognise the paucity in quality of a defeat last season, even claiming that he thought we played well, drove me to call the local phone-in to demand some honesty from a management team who seemed to be watching a different match. Speed explained that Ellis was leaving with Blackwell but that he had asked Ellis to return, as an experienced pair of eyes and to provide a strong alternative opinion when appropriate. He said words to the effect of  "it's my decision and i will live or die by it". Stirring stuff and proof that he will be his own man, even if it does ruffle feathers.

That aside, his responses were generally calm and considered and often with good humour. The ribbing amongst the panel was cutting, but taken in good turn. Well Chris Morgan (more often than not the recipient) was smiling, but then they say assassins smile! Team spirit has rarely been an issue at Bramall Lane and that has often driven the club to Cup Semi-Finals, Play Off Finals and the Premiership, when perhaps other teams have had greater quality and footballing ability. This appears to be the case still under Speed.

There has been a noticeable attempt to change the playing style in the first couple of games, to a more passing style where possession is retained more consistently. Speed said this was started under Blackwell, with the signing of Leon Britton as the midfield fulcrum for it. However, Speed has deployed Britton deeper and to better effect in his first two games. He acknowledged that this was yet to create enough in the final third and that he wouldn't be afraid to switch to be more direct when needed. Again, he said it will do it his way to ensure results, regardless of "popular" opinion.

When asked to choose one of the many managers he has worked under, as the one who he will take most from in his first steps as manager, he named Sir Bobby Robson. Some role model to follow. He said that he, amongst many other players, played the best football of his career under Sir Bobby's tutelage at Newcastle. He put this down to the respect between player and manager and how Bobby managed that relationship. He hopes he can apply the same skill set. Thankfully, we don't have Keiron Dyer's at Bramall Lane, so it may be a little smoother than it was at times for Sir Bobby at Newcastle.

The other big switch he faces is from player to manager, but this should be smoother given his enforced retirement and role as coach over the last couple of seasons. Chris Morgan went as far as to suggest that it was harder for Speed and the players when he switched from player to coach, but when a manager has the level of playing experience he has, respect from the players should not be an issue. This has not stopped a number of players getting fined for calling him Gary or Speedo in his first couple of weeks. He acknowledged life wont be easy. Someone had described the role as being full of pressure, but he said that by no means is this pressure compared to what people have to deal with in tehir lives every day. "If thsi is pressure, bring it on".

So, Speed presented him well to the fans and everyone seemed to leave feeling positive about how he will tackle the task in hand. Now that application, commitment and nous needs to be turned into results. No-one can turn around and say he will or will not be a good manager, either way he needs the chance to prove it.

He needs the backing of the fans and that means reversing some of the apathy that has set in around Bramall Lane over the last few months. Fans may be frustrated at the lack of transfer revenues being spent, but realism needs to be applied. Outside of a couple of clubs, who in the Championship is spending money? It is not straightforward cutting £5/6m from a wage bill and so transfer revenues will have to contribute to cover it. 

In these turbulent financial times, some stability is required. For that reason I hope that Speed is given the other big factor in achieving success and that is time, from both the board and fans alike. 

Monday, 6 September 2010

Little acorns and all that........

A 4-0 qualification win for England and you would expect to have a warm glow from enjoying a comfortable win. Yet, whilst the England result against Bulgaria was more than satisfactory and there were some promising signs, there were other areas that were less so. Following on from the disappointment of the World Cup it was good to see everyone's expectations reigned in. Well maybe everyone except ITV, who you couldn't help feeling were only pretending to be ironic when displaying the odds for England reaching the final in 2012. Hopefully the country as a whole will remain level-headed for tomorrow night, because I think we will need to be.

The build-up to the Bulgaria game was one of the most negative for any recent international match. The grim realisation of England's place in world football at the World Cup and a ponderous 2-1 win over Hungary in a friendly left supporters pretty low. A squad announcement that contained few of the hoped for changes from the old guard did little to raise hopes. No Rodwell, no Wilshere, no Huddlestone, all in reasonable early season form, and this despite the absence of Terry and Lampard.

With expectations of a change of formation, the early team news pointing to a continued use of the much pilloried 4-4-2. The tactical stubbornness of Capello seemed to rile fans and media alike. But the fact is that 4-4-2 can be effective with the right players playing in their correct positions. It requires fluidity and movement from players and more importantly pace, particularly in wide areas. All facets of play that England failed to display in South Africa, when 4-4-2 appeared to mean restriction and rigidity.

So with a feeling that there will still plenty of people not behind them and some players with little international experience, it was vital that England made a strong start. Yet the early goal failed to settle the players and an edgy crowd. A Bulgarian side without it's most potent striker, in the retired Berbatov, started to pose England problems and gained in confidence as the half drew on.

Interestingly, with all the focus on the inexperienced centre back pairing, it was the full backs who left England badly exposed. Luckily, in the absence of Berbatov, Bulgaria certainly lacked potency up front and the fact is that their best chance was nearly put away by Glen Johnson, rather than one of their own. In the formation, the full backs do need to press on to support the wingers, as exemplified by Cole's involvement  in the first England goal, yet there is a responsibility to get back in position ready to defend and this is where England's full backs, Glen Johnson in particular, struggle. For a defender seemingly worth £17m, you would expect them to be able to do the basics right. Improvement is needed and this will have to take place on the international stage as there is little competition for his place at right back. 

To be fair, the Jagielka-Dawson partnership performed reasonably well and I think it was right that this pairing started and that Cahill was subsequently brought off the bench as Dawson's replacement. As important as experience is we need to start looking forward and give these players a chance. Yes their play was far from perfect, but neither did they get the support or protection you would expect from colleagues around them. Yes they are inexperienced, but how do they gain experience if they don't play? It seems from recent reports that Capello thought Joe Hart to be his best goalkeeper in South Africa, but was reluctant to play him due to his lack of big game/tournament exposure. If they are good enough, they should play. Why play a player of lesser quality/capability just because they have played in the past and a bit more experience?

Joe Hart showed his true class and why he should hold on to the goalkeeping jersey for a very long time. Assured in the basics and capable of a couple of key saves, particularly the one prior to England's second goal, he showed a level of maturity and concentration that some of England's more experienced keepers have failed to display in recent years.

The midfield was a mixed bag, at times creative and at others frustrating. Both Walcott and Milner need to offer more consistency from wide positions. Gerrard, where he should be, in the middle was effective at both ends of the pitch and shows that you should select the best players for each position and not just your best eleven players full stop. With the need for a defensive midfielder, which appears to be the leaden footed Barry, it will be interesting to see what happens when Lampard is back available. I really fear that Capello will squeeze the life out of Gerrard and an effective use of 4-4-2 by shoe-horning Lampard back in and forcing Gerrard out wide.

England's second goal in particular was great to watch, from Barry picking up the ball following Hart's save, to the finish by Defoe, England swept up field with speed and concise passing. To see England counter attack at such pace was pleasing, given the last time we had seen such play was when Germany tore us apart in the World Cup.

The role of Rooney, playing in a more free role just behind Defoe, was vital to the win. He contributed to all 4 goals and was involved all over the pitch, looking to collect the ball from much deeper. The key difference from his World Cup performances was that this was Rooney the team player, often starting an attack, passing to a team mate and moving into space nearer the opposition goal. Often in South Africa, Rooney was seemingly trying too hard, head down, with little awareness of his colleagues and play would often break down whilst in his possession. It was great to see Rooney and Defoe, who many commentators said could not play together, link up so well. Defoe's hat trick was deserved and when he receives the ball in those kind of positions you feel confident that he will, as a minimum, work the keeper or score.

After the weekend revelations in the News of the World, the worry has to be whether we will see the same Rooney in Basel. For England to succeed we have to hope we see more of the same from Rooney and continued improvement from the team as a whole. 

Switzerland (World ranked 17th by FIFA - for what that is worth) are a stodgy side who nullify the opposition, yet are capable of hitting teams effectively on the break. 8 of their previous 12 international matches have resulted in a scoreline containing no more than one goal. That includes the best smash and grab seen at the World Cup, where they beat a dominant Spain 1-0. Whereas Bulgaria are a team on wane, Switzerland have been consistently in the upper echelons of the rankings for the last couple of years, largely based on the ability to generate results, if not entertaining performances.

England should prepare for a difficult night tomorrow night. Patience will be required, from both players and fans alike. Rooney will need to be a team player again and you cannot help feeling that the onus will be firmly on him to provide the incisive play and creativity required. A draw should be considered a good result, but with an element of negativity towards team and manager from the World Cup hangover, have the media and fans the willingness to accept it?