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?   

Saturday, 2 October 2010

How to gain friends and influence people?

In the past, the fans had a voice, in the literal sense, and the way to effect change was to use it. Cries of "Sack the board", "[Insert name of failing manager] out!" would echo from the terrace and often that would be enough to make the boardroom quake and eventually give way to the wishes of the faithful. But the times are a changing, the nature of football club ownership is changing and society is changing, both in terms of behaviour and culture.

At my club, the death knell for any manager used to be when the fans took to the South Stand car park. Chanting for change right underneath the directors' suite. But this is less effective than it once was.   
It was enough to lead to the departure of Adrian Heath, but not even the waving of shoes, "Shoes off if you want Robson out", led to the immediate departure of Bryan Robson and, despite periodic demands for the head of Kevin Blackwell, the timing of his departure was surprising to the majority.

South Stand protest Copyright:The Sun 

Across the city, Owls fans protested in a traditional manner, outside the ground, following last week's home defeat to Southampton. It got a reaction, with chairman (and former player & manager) Howard Wilkinson coming out to make his points and state the reasons why the board would not be going anywhere. But the behaviour of some of the supporters, some of the questions they asked, the points they made and the manner in which they made them  were embarrassing. Mobile phones and the Internet now mean actions like this have a wider audience. Is witnessing this going to attract the potential investment that Wednesday need?

What is more noticeable is the vitriolic outpourings within these demonstrations. Fuelled by alcohol and changes in what the public consider acceptable behaviour, some of the vicious personal abuse, targeted at Robson in particular, did not sit comfortably with a majority of Blades fans.  With Internet forums and social networking sites giving free reign to fans wanting to proffer their opinions on players, management, club staff, fellow fans and the tea lady, the boundaries are further extended and this permeates the outside world. The Internet also gives fans the opportunity to mobilise themselves in a much more organised way and this is not limited to just physical mobilisation.

When dealing with the new breed of football club owner, not used to English football culture, the traditional methods of protest appear to be no longer effective. With Manchester United and Liverpool fans unhappy with the way their clubs are being run, marches and protests have been arranged. These gain publicity and media coverage for the cause, but seemingly had little impact on those that they were targeting.

Some may suggest that the protests might be more effective if the fans march went away from the ground to another location, leaving empty seats in the ground. The recent example from Germany, where Borussia Dortmund fans boycotted their game at Schalke in protest at hikes taking the cheapest ticket prices above 20 Euros, was effective, but only because it was against their rival club and not against their own. It would be difficult to make it work over here, particularly when so many fans have season tickets and the club has the money banked already. All they would lose out on is the discretionary spend at the match and the fans would miss out on a match they have paid at least £30 to attend.

The exception might be cup games, which already suffer from lower attendances anyway, and the Liverpool crowd of 25,000 against Steaua in the Europa League could be seen as a combination of supporter apathy with both the club's owners and competition. I have to say though, the idea of a "supporter" voluntarily choosing not to watch their team, doesn't sit easily with me.

Now things are moving on and more innovative fan mobilisation has come to the fore. This includes an email bombardment of Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan, from Liverpool fans who perceived them to be a potential source of financing for Messrs Gillet and Hicks. On the Kop Faithful website there is a standard email to send to Stephen Hester (Group Chief Executive of RBS) along with many others who might be able to call off any potential re-financing of the Americans' RBS loans. In summary, it suggests the sender will seek a parliamentary or public enquiry if RBS fail to seize the assets (Liverpool FC) and force a sale at a market price. Extreme threats.

Whilst their upset is understandable and their determination and organisation is to be applauded, their actions have to be perceived as risky.  In not just targeting the owners and the directors, but involving financiers and other professionals who may well end up working for/influencing new owners down the line, are they not having a potentially negative impact on any sale and on the club's working relationships with these entities afterwards?  

Might these protests and organised disruption to business cause potential owners to walk away? Do these wealthy investors look at what the fans are doing and question whether they should put themselves in that situation, potentially becoming the recipients of such actions when things turn sour at some future date? Many of these investors come from deeply religious countries/states with moral codes of conduct, the negative attention and bad publicity may well scare them off. Would you want to buy a club that has clearly inherent problems with its fan base? A fan base that is well organised and reacts so aggressively to a lack of success. Could you honestly believe that you will be given the, probably quite lengthy, time needed to effect change in those circumstances?

Fans need to have a voice, they are the major stakeholder in a football club, but what they say and do with it is important. The fans are revolting, but they need to be careful. What they don't need, is for those who might save them to view them as revolting in an entirely different way.