Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Cradle of the Game - One Year On

At the end of last year I wrote this article about my growing disillusionment with the not so beautiful aspects of our national game. Inspired by Stuart Clarke's amazing book The Cradle of The Game, I was reminded of what made football enjoyable in the past. Aspects of the game and supporting experience that are now being eroded by various parties, usually with avaricious motives.

So where are we one year on? Putting aside the fact that this year saw my team return to the third tier of English football for the first time in 22 years; the answer is not really any better off.

During 2011 there is rarely a week that passes without talk of a football club heading towards financial meltdown, moving close to oblivion. For some it happens, see Croydon Athletic. For many others it is a move into administration which eventually saves them, but again that may only be temporary respite. As I write there is speculation that Darlington are set to enter administration, for what could be the third time in nine years.

Last December I bemoaned the football creditor rule, which gives priority of settlement to football debts ahead of those of local businesses, charities and other suppliers. There is something inherently wrong about football clubs having their own rules which over-ride the manner in which any other business deals with such situations.

I am pleased to see HMRC challenge the rule in fact HMRC QC Gregory Mitchell described the rule as "the ugly side of the beautiful game". The Football League were quick to point out the domino effect that a club failing to satisfy their debts to other clubs might have on the league, but for me it is an example of how football sees itself as above common law. Where it deserves special treatment that other businesses in other industries do not receive. The failure of a manufacturing business may haves knock on effect on a team of raw materials suppliers in a local business community, but they get no preferential treatment and this could lead to the loss of hundreds of jobs in a community.

As clubs move on and are sold, you have to question whether the "Fit & Proper" rules are worth the paper they are written on?
  • When Portsmouth now sit on the brink of a points deduction again.
  • When the owner of Truro; a club with a six figure tax debt, unpaid wages and a white elephant stadium proposal, can be considered as a suitable bidder for Plymouth Argyle by the club's administrators.
  • When you wonder what might happen to Milan Mandaric's ownership of Sheffield Wednesday and Harry Redknapp's suitability for the England manager's job if they are found guilty of tax evasion in the New Year? And you realise the answer is probably little.
  • When you see Peter Ridsdale continue to find gainful employment as a John Harvey-Jones to troubled clubs.
Football clubs that avoid financial meltdown then face other problems, like not being welcome in the community whose name they use. One of the saddest stories this year relates to Barnet being forced out of their home of 104 years (Underhill) by the local council's inability to work with a club in meeting safety requirements. The same local council that is more than welcoming in helping develop the local athletics stadium to accomodate a nomadic rugby union team.  Even in the 21st century, communities display a nimby attitude to football and it's followers.

Last year I mentioned the FSF campaign for safe standing areas in grounds, like they have on the continent. Germany being the most quoted example. Twelve months on and we are seeing British football authorities seemingly split on the issue, but both motivated by the same factor.

The SPL see safe standing as a possibility for clubs, with "atmosphere" quoted as a reason for allowing pilot schemes at clubs. For atmosphere, read money. In a poorly supported league and in tough economic times, the availability of standing areas at reduced prices may pull in some wavering support with all the discretionary spend that comes with them.

Maybe the decision is easier for the Scottish authorities, not hide bound by the laws imposed in England post-Taylor Report, but for the the Premier League to immediately and vehemently rule out any move towards standing says as much about the financial success of the league and revenue maximisation than anything else.

Increasingly we are seeing extreme police measures to deal with the perceived potential for trouble at football games. Frequently they are deciding that certain games are to be "Bubble matches", where the freedom of movement of fans to and from the game is restricted by police containment. Basically match ticket and coach ticket have to be bought together and fans are picked up from assorted pick up points and then provided with match tickets at the ground where they are deposited and then collected post match.

Not only does this impinge on the freedom of supporters, with no independent travel allowed, but also imposes unnecessary additional costs on supporters beyond extortionate ticket pricing. These have been applied at local derby games and the latest example, Portsmouth v Southampton, highlights one other key issue. It is often the case that away supporters may live closer to the opposition's stadium than their own. Plenty of Saints fans will live in and around Pompey and vice versa. They will end up travelling a thirty mile round trip, expend petrol and parking costs on top of their coach ticket. The police say that this is protecting the normal fans, preventing trouble occurring, yet all they are doing is badging all football fans as troublemakers. As the FSF protest, 'Watching football is not a crime'.

Yet in using these high profile methods of policing, upsetting the everyday supporter and actually increasing the likelihood of anti police/authority feeling amongst supporters, the police sometimes get it wrong and fans are put at risk. Not that they ever wish to admit it, portraying the image they want to in the local media, where the success of the plan and how worthwhile the hassle and inconvenience of supporters was is all you read.

In attending the Sheffield Derby at Bramall Lane in October, my brother arrived in his seat just before kick off rather flustered and breathless. As he walked along Shoreham Street, behind the Blades Kop, a group of Wednesday supporting trouble makers tore up the road indiscriminately throwing missiles and bottles at nearby Blades, with women and children about.

I immediately tweeted about the incident, to which I received a reply from a Police Inspector who had clearly been monitoring social networks saying that nothing had been reported and the helicopter reported that all was quiet. The fact of the matter is that Wednesday fans shouldn't have been where they were, if police plans has worked. Thus no mention in the press of any issues or arrests. Yet that by inference makes liars of those who witnessed events from the concourse at the back of the Kop, or those who were caught up in it like my brother. But that is okay, because they are only football supporters, their observations and opinions are automatically worthless.

It has been a year where players have done little to improve their own public image. The England captain charged by the CPS with making racist comments. The stupidity, thuggish and unsavoury behaviour of England's best striker. One of the best strikers in the World refusing to play for his club and providing piss poor excuses for his actions. An average Premier League striker playing the "Don't you know who I am?" card, when in a pizza shop without cash. The stand-off only ending when two young ladies paid for his pizza. Players have successfully and unsuccessfully issued injunctions to protect themselves from lurid allegations about their private lives being made public.

Beyond digging into the private lives of players whose salaries, partly  paid for by the man in the street, make them public property, we have a media that cannot move beyond lazy, patriotic and bombastic statements that fail to look at football beyond the white cliffs of Dover. Sky bigs up their Premier League product beyond belief, yet serve up Stoke v Aston Villa on Boxing Day. You can fool some of the people some of the time.....

Terrestrial television is no better. On the BBC pundits are paid exorbitant amounts per show to not have an opinion, or know nothing about players like Hatem Ben Arfa who arrive from successful careers overseas. Over on ITV they struggle to hide their disappointment at some of the (and I quote Adrian Chiles directly) "inferior teams left in the last sixteen of the Champions League". One hopes such insular views are not shared by clubs and players. It is certainly not by informed football followers.

Then we have a mainstream written media that feigned interest in the Football League when it suited them, but any other week wouldn't publish a story warranting more than a few lines. Premier League sells papers apparently, but every week more people watch Football League matches than Premier League games.   

Now, in the last couple of days, we have reports of terrestial television seemingly on the brink of casting aside any pretence at coverage of the game beyond the Premier League. Leaving it even more difficult for clubs outside the elite few able to inspire and attract the next generation of supporters in their own community.

Yet the clubs do little to help themselves. This year has also seen Football League clubs write off years of academy investment in one fail swoop after being blackmailed by the Premier League into accepting the EPPP proposals. Thus allowing Premier League clubs to poach young playing talent, pick them up cut price and stockpile them, to no one's benefit. The Premier League claim that this ensures that the best young talent gets the best coaching, providing a greater benefit to the national team. But since when have the Premier League chosen to do anything for the greater good of the national team?

The financial gains provided to football league clubs by the Premier League proposals may only provide short term succour at the expense of long term gain. For clubs like Crystal Palace, Southampton and Sheffield United who have invested heavily in facilities and coaches to provide a sustainable future for the football club it is a disaster. They could see players they have nurtured for a number of years creamed off by the big clubs with compensation figures massively reduced from those currently agreed. The Premier League potentially killing the vibrancy of the football pyramid that very few other countries have and many would court.

As much as there are more informed and pro-active supporters around, s
adly, there are those supporters who don't possess the basic skills of being a decent human being. There are still the uninformed, uneducated and those of twisted minds that not only embarrass themselves, but also their clubs and the game they profess to follow. If it is not defending Luis Suarez by racially abusing and wishing death on Patrice Evra, some are telling depression sufferer Stan Collymore to hang himself and others make "jokes" about the death of Gary Speed. Away from twitter, at the F.A. Cup Semi Final, some Stoke supporters considered a car containing a mother and son supporting Bolton to be fair game for abuse and damage just outside Wembley.

Above it all is one over-arching enemy of football at its head - Sepp Blatter. Whether caught up in racism or corruption scandals, this man is seemingly untouchable. His support across the rest of the world is as strong and widespread as the sense of indignation amongst the British media, authorities and fans. Whatever we uncover is seemingly turned to reflect badly on the bitter English. Blatter and the state of world football can best be summed up in his reaction to the apparent corruption crisis within F.I.F.A.

"Crisis? What is a crisis? We're not in a crisis ... I am FIFA president, you cannot question me."

Maybe, we can't, but surely we can question everything else. Yes, there are plenty of things in football past that we wouldn't want back and are best forgotten, but I think that the way things are heading there are plenty more unpleasant aspects heading our way. Sadly I am not sure there is enough of a will, enough lobbying power and enough financial clout to do anything about it.

Here's to a positive 2012 for football. Sadly, I just don't see it.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Seasons Greetings.............

I hope that you all get everything in the picture below, unless you support Wednesday obviously!

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Charting the 2011/12 Season in Football - Number 4

Part 4 of the Charting the Season series with a slight North West bias in the graphs, featuring Bolton Wanderers, Blackburn Rovers and Phil Brown's departure from PNE. Other easy targets are not missed out; step forward Doncaster Rovers and Nicklas Bendtner.

Remember - Just double click on the graph/chart to increase to full size.

Previous parts of the series can be found here:

Friday, 9 December 2011

Interview with Tony Agana - Part 3 (Leaving United, Magpies and Bulls)

At the end of Part 2 of our interview, which you can read here, Tony had played a vital role in securing the Blades’ return to the top flight. The season was a mixed bag for Tony though.

After starting the first three games, including the season opener against Liverpool at Bramall Lane, he missed the next 4 games through injury. He returned to the bench in late September and was back in the first team the following week, but by the start of November he was injured again. The Blades were struggling and their first league victory didn’t come until just before Christmas; a 3-2 home win over Forest. Tony was still missing. He returned in January and was largely ever present until the end of the season which saw the Blades pull of an escape that seemed unlikely at the close of the year. All in all, a disappointing season on a personal level, but a great one for the club. 

It was a great season that was celebrated by the players in their own way.  The post season trip to Magaluf hit the headlines as trouble erupted on the return flight.

“There was some boisterous behaviour, complaints were made and players were being picked out that were not even involved. The next thing we know we were landing at Birmingham - not our intended destination – and the police were waiting. We got the train back to Sheffield and were shocked to see the picture of us leaving the plane plastered all over the front of the local Birmingham paper. By the time we got home and put the telly on, Billy (Whitehurst) and David Barnes was on News at Ten!”  

The following season, the Blades’ again started slowly. By late November the Blades had just two league wins, but Tony was largely injury free and finding the back of the net. It is this which led me to ask Tony the one big question;

How come you were sold?

You had played a majority of  the games that season, you had played at Old Trafford on the Saturday, but you were gone before the much-anticipated Sheffield Derby the following Sunday! In his autobiography Dave Bassett says that "the club sold Tony Agana" - an interesting choice of words. Did you or Dave have any say in proceedings?

"It basically came down to club finances. We were told it had to be one of me, Brian (Deane) or Simon Tracey (then Blades goalkeeper) who had to be sold to realise enough cash to balance the books. At the end of the day Notts County came in with an acceptable offer and it was me who left. It was less about what I wanted, in those circumstances the club came first. It had to come first. It had to survive. No one is bigger than the club"

“At the end of the day I can look back now and say that Harry was right to sell me. With my injuries I was perhaps the best to cash in on.”

You were then (and I believe still are) County's record signing. Did that bring added pressure?

"Yes there was an element of pressure, but like at United things were difficult financially and that didn't help. After I joined a number of good players were sold; Paul Rideout, Mark Draper, Tommy Johnson, Chris Short....Money was used to rebuild the ground and not invested back in the squad. The club went through 8 managers whilst I was there. I even had a brief spell as caretaker manager, before Sam Allardyce was appointed. I was unbeaten as well, three draws!"

“I spent the best part of 6 seasons at Meadow Lane, but played only 27 games more than I did at United. Neil Warnock who signed me sent me out on loan to Leeds early in my time there, but I played just a couple of games. My goal per game ratio was down on what I achieved at United, but it was difficult, with injuries and the club fell from the top division ending up relegated to the basement at the end of the season when I left.”  

Was it Allardyce’s appointment that signalled the end for you at Meadow Lane?

Yes. Sam took over in the January and I didn’t fit in with his plans. He said he would try and get a move for me before the deadline closed and he was as good as his word.”

So how did the move to Hereford United arise?

“I knew Graham Turner from the days when he was at Wolves and the Blades were duelling with them for promotion. I had a lot of respect for him as a man and a manager and so it wasn’t a difficult decision”

“It was good, there was a Sheffield lad Trevor Matthewson travelling down along with me and Richard Walker who also moved with me from County. We headed down midweek for training and returned Saturday after the match. It made life a bit easier for all of us”

Your scoring record picked up at Hereford, but it wasn’t enough to save them that season.

“No, unfortunately the club were in a battle to stave off relegation to the conference. In the end it went down to the final game of the season against Brighton at Edgar Street. They were directly above us in the league on the same points, but ahead on goals scored. It was a match we had to win to stay up, whereas a draw would do for Brighton. I was up against old Blades team-mate Mark Morris.”

“We started the match really well, were on top and took the lead. I drove a ball into the box towards goal and it went in off Kerry Mayo. We couldn’t get a second and they equalised midway through the second half. Try as we might, we couldn’t get an equaliser. We were down to the Conference.  It was devastating, the lowest point of my career.”

What happened after relegation with Hereford? The club had severe financial problems following relegation, which couldn’t have helped.

"I was all set to retire, but (the late) Keith Alexander got in touch with me and asked if I would help out a friend of his (Marty Quinn) at Cliftonville in Northern Ireland. It was a short but difficult spell I had there. I would train on my own all week, fly out from Manchester on the Friday and fly back after the match. It was an education as well. One game we played, there was a mini armoured vehicle on the terraces between the two sets of supporters. As an outsider it took a little getting used to."

Spells with Leek Town and Guiseley Athletic followed, "I was always willing to help out and do friends favours, and in this case it was Ernie Moss (Leek) and Bobby Davison (Guiseley)". It also led to a brief spell in charge of Leek following Ernie's departure. So was Tony ever interested in staying in the game, in a coaching capacity?

"I did take my first coaching badge and passed it. Unfortunately, when the certificate came through they had spelt my name wrong. I took it as a sign! I went to college and then on to graduate with a 2:1 Degree from Sheffield Hallam University and work at the University of Manchester."

Tony's life and career took a path away from football, although spells as hospitality host and then in the commercial side at Bramall Lane followed and he made appearances in Masters Football.

Today he is working with a couple of local businesses trying to generate new work and contracts for them with other local businesses. The Londoner, who had major doubts about moving to Sheffield 23 years ago, is now settled in Sheffield and doing his best to support and promote local commerce and business.

“I look at my son and think; where are the jobs for him and the rest of his generation?  My generation got us into this state, so it us up to us, we have to do something positive to try and change things for the better. A great way to go about it is in our local business community, generating work for each other.”

Tony is an extremely positive person to meet. Whilst he admits there have been tough times for him, he displays the positive outlook to life that often comes through in the 140 characters he uses on twitter. This was less of an interview and more of a fun chat about common interests. Playing the tapes back, the over-riding thing that I notice is laughter and the frequency of it throughout our conversation. In the end I couldn’t edit very much out. It was all important in telling Tony’s story and I am sure reading it back that there are many other avenues of conversation and aspects of his career we could have explored.

They often say it is not always wise to meet your heroes....that you will only be disappointed. That would never be the case if you ever meet Tony.

Thank you to Tony for his time it was much appreciated and enjoyed. Many of the photos used in these posts are from Tony’s own collection and include items found in his Mum’s loft. He started to post a few items and memories on tumblr until the flakiness of tumblr deterred him- hopefully we can encourage him to try again.

It can be found at   

Other A United View interviews you might like:

Guy Mowbray (BBC Football Commentator)
Alan Biggs (Broadcaster and Journalist)
Martyn Walsh (Inspiral Carpets Bass Player and Man Utd fan)

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Interview with Tony Agana - Part 2 (Bramall Lane Glory Years)

At the close of Part 1 of this interview, which you can read here, Tony had just joined the Blades. But within a few months it was a case of out of the frying pan into the fire, with the Blades in the Play Offs trying to stave off relegation from Division 2. A two-leg defeat to Bristol City condemned the Blades to Division 3, I ask him whether he had any regrets?

“I knew it was the right move to get out of Watford, I had to get out. Obviously, when you get relegated you think,”What have I done?” but I was having fun in terms of the camaraderie. The fact that he (Bassett) had gone back and got one or two of the others, it was a good bunch of players and people."

"There was a group of us living in a hotel at Nether Edge (a leafy suburb of Sheffield close to Bramall Lane), I say hotel it was a guest house. The Montgomery Arms, I remember it well. You can imagine that there were 10 of us, 10 players who Harry had signed all in that hotel. The bonding was brilliant. Wally Downes was here at that point, say no more, Relegation was far from ideal, but I was hopeful because in forming a bond in a group of players like this you have a chance of achieving anything.”

Tony (l) with Richard Cadette, before he had even kicked a ball for United
Team work and togetherness played a big part in Bassett's success at United and pre-season played a massive part. "Every pre-season would involve a trip to an army camp. It was a stroke of genius from Harry, because if you bring a group together - which might include new signings - they leave that kind of experience lifelong friends. There was a great line from Harry;

"You lot need to play as a team and to do that you all need something in common to bond you. If that's "hating my guts" it is fine by me."

That summer, post relegation, Dave Bassett invested £30,000 in a striker from Doncaster Rovers that you went on to form a lethal partnership with. What was it that made your partnership with Brian Deane so strong?

“It was just respect. He was a younger lad, I was 25, but I had only been playing league football for 8 months. He had more experience than me at that time, played more league games. I think the fact that I used to go to Brian for pointers, he probably thought this older bloke is coming to me, so then he felt valued. We helped each other. It came down to a mutual respect of each other’s strengths. Then you carry that on off pitch. After training you sit and talk about football or whatever, you sit and have your dinner together and you build a relationship. It’s a friendship that still lasts now. So that helped, but it doesn’t necessarily make it click, as at the start of the 1988-89 season we were not playing as a front two.”

“I started the 1988-89 season in the squad, but I was on the bench. You have to remember as well that I joined as predominantly a left sided midfielder. Watford had tried me a couple of times down the middle and I played really well. One game, we lost 1-0 to Manchester United, but we had really caused them problems, without scoring. I am guessing Harry would have seen the game and recognised I could play there. I mean, I played there a lot of the time in non-league as well.”

Dave Bassett started the season with a completely new strike pairing of Deane and Francis Joseph, the pair having impressed in pre-season. Both scored in a  3-1 opening day win at Reading, but an injury Joseph picked up in that game gave Tony an opportunity that he needed no second invitation to accept.

“I went on as sub as Francis went off with what I think was a broken leg. I did alright and without the opportunity to bring in a replacement beforehand, I started the next game. Harry obviously thought it was worth a look and I scored and then he decided to stick with it and I scored again and it took off from there.” (Tony scored 10 in those 1st 8 starts that season including a hat-trick alongside a Brian Deane hat-trick in a 6-1 home win over Chester City). To have two team-mates scoring hat-tricks in the same game is rare. It is a special memory.”

What happened to the match ball?

“That’s a great question! It has gone missing. Brian says he definitely hasn’t got it and I definitely haven’t got it. Nah...Brian’s got it I am sure. He has intimated that he has got it without actually saying he has got it. There was never a dispute over who had it; I would have probably given it away if I had got it.”

As well as pushing for promotion that season, we also had a decent cup run and several people, knowing I was interviewing you, mentioned your goal against Huddersfield in the 3rd round at Leeds Road.

“Yeah, I think it was a throw in and as it dropped I turned. I was in the right channel, I dropped inside and it was an angle where a cross was likely to go in the keeper’s hands, there was no-one square, so I thought I’ll have a pop. I caught it lovely, it flew in and we won 1-0.”

You also scored in the vital game at Molineux, the penultimate game of the season when a 2-2 draw secured the title for Wolves and promotion for the Blades.

"The game at Molineux was as tense a match as you'll ever get to play in. In the final seconds the referee blew his whistle and Stan (United captain Paul Stancliffe) and Chris Wilder were off celebrating; climbing the fence in front of the away fans, throwing shirts to the crowd. They suddenly realise it was for a free kick and Wolves were playing on!"

"One of those funny moments that you can look back on and laugh, but gosh can you imagine, can you imagine if they had gone and scored? And we would have had to go to Bristol and win.....which we would have.  I really believe that. The only reason we didn't was because we had been promoted and didn't give a good account of ourselves due to alcohol poisoning."

The following season saw United in Division 2, as it was then, and nobody's favourites for promotion, yet it was to become one of the most memorable in the Blades' recent history. The camaraderie remained.

"Harry made additions, but they were players that fitted into the framework. Yeah we played a direct style, you can't get away from that, but we were effective and we played more and more football as we went up."

Were we not harshly done by though? It was exciting to watch, we scored goals, we had pace and a great supply from wingers like Alan Roberts, Ian Bryson, Peter Duffield and Paul Wood. It was more than just direct football.

"We had unbelievable wide players. I can't give enough credit to the wingers. Harry always got quality wingers; from Alan Roberts through to Glynn Hodges there were always wingers who could deliver crosses into the danger areas. That creates chances and goals. Me and Brian (Deane) might have taken the plaudits, but I'd love to retrospectively look at the stats now; crosses, passes completed and you would read a whole different story. Some of the stats would have been phenomenal for the wingers and also the yards covered by our midfielders. It would tell different stories about different players, give them credit for areas where perhaps they unfairly didn't get it at the time"

"I am told now that they are even monitoring speed of pass, foot to foot and the time it takes to get it under control. Unbelievable analysis to the nth degree. It's not just that Barcelona keep the ball, it's the pace with which they move it that is the difference."

From that season you started to suffer more frequently with injuries. Why do you think that was? Was there something about the way you played that made you more susceptible?

"Most things emanate from your back, if you get a dodgy disc like I did, then your hamstring goes because you're not running properly. Frenchie (Blades physio Derek French) was a great physio, but there wasn't the science behind it that we have now. My league career ended at 33, but I could have played on longer in a fit body. I was fortunate my asset was pace, stamina wasn't as important. Now they all have stamina, they all last 90 minutes comfortably. You don't see players seizing up with cramp these days, do you? Whereas back then...mind you the heavy pitches didn't help"

"Injuries interrupt your career and you try and come back too soon. There is a pressure on the management to get you back in. The fans want to see you back sooner. If the team isn't playing well it all adds to things a manager is juggling. Maybe my body wasn't fully up to the stresses of playing full-time. Maybe, the fact that I hadn't trained full time from the age of 16 and then suddenly I was doing it at 23/24 was too much for my body at that point"

Being on the bench did have its perks, as I reminded Tony of an impromptu visitor he had whilst sat on the bench for United. "Another fantastic moment", I ask whether it was against Norwich?  To which Tony replied; "Why would I remember the game?!"

"We were on benches pitch-side and she (a slim, but well endowed, topless blonde) came running on and we were all laughing. Someone went "She's running this way!" and I said "Yes she is...err. Yes she is!" and then she jumped on me, planted a kiss and ran off. She was a lovely girl and she did apologise. Post-match a call came into the bar and a shout comes over, “Tony there's a call for you” and I am thinking who is this? Anyway, it was the streaker and she said that she wanted to apologise for any embarrassment she had caused me.”

Leicester away, the final game in the promotion season of 1990 is my favourite ever United game and it is a highlight for Tony. "By miles my career highlight, but I have to say my one non-league England cap also made me very proud. It was part of a two game series against Ireland and it was also my last match in non-league prior to joining Watford. Recently going through my Mum's loft I found huge amounts of memorabilia that she had kept. I had my cap and shirt, but she had also kept the Ireland shirt from the other game of the two match series where I was a sub. There was a photo of me in that game, an old Welling shirt and so much else I didn't know still existed"

Playing for England's Semi-Professional team vs Republic of Ireland

Going back to Leicester, the Blades went into the final game of the season level on points with Leeds, but behind on goal difference. A win would guarantee United promotion. A defeat for Leeds as well and we would be champions. It was a rollercoaster of emotions that day, which saw United come from behind to win 5-2, but miss out on the title thanks to Leeds victory at Bournemouth. Meanwhile, back in Sheffield, Wednesday were suffering unexpected final day relegation and passing the Blades going in the opposite direction.  I asked Tony what were his main memories of the day?

"I can't remember much about getting to the game, my first abiding memory is Harry's team talk before we went out there and it felt like...ha ...such a major thing. So major that I wasn't nervous, I'd gone beyond nervous or worried and I was in a really calm place. I don't know where that is, because I've not been back there since! Calmer than I had been at any game, almost as if it was inevitable, that it was our destiny. A strange feeling."

"Then I went out on to the pitch and saw all the fans there, we had obviously seen it in the warm up but, you hear the noise...You can pull out all the clich├ęs because it was back of the neck stuff. So I'd gone from calm serenity to everything going through your mind waiting to start, but once game kicks off that's it your mind is on the job. The plays, the movement, the awareness of team-mates, it all takes over."

"But then you go one nil down in a must win game, but at no time, even at 1-0 down did I ever think we were going to lose and I am not sure any of the other lads did either. I need to look at the footage again now to see if heads go down after the goal, because I don't recall any of that. I know I had this unbelievable faith in the guys around me that they were going to pull us through."

"Paul Wood equalised and the second goal was like a game of pinball in the box, I had a swing, amongst others, before Brian (Deane) tucked it away. I scored and Wilf Rostron (Blades Left Back that day) scored. He was like a man possessed that day. He went on a marauding runs and Wilf had the drive that nearly killed the poor keeper (Martin Hodge), it nearly took his head off and he went off concussed. He saved it with his face! Then I scored in the second half”

Talking of Wilf, there was an infamous scene in the United BBC documentary series which showed Bassett and his assistant Geoff Taylor arguing at half time (whilst trying to advise the players) about who was the zone man at corners. I asked Tony if that was Wilf?

"Now that's a story. You would need more than a one page blog to run through that! That and the Meaning of Life are the two great unanswered questions aren't they?" 

I asked him what it was like having the television documentary going on as the season reached its finale and did he still play the saxophone (something that featured heavily in the episode titled ‘The Players’).

"Nah I've not played the saxophone for ages. The TV series was fantastic. If you could write a script saying it is the centenary year of my club, what will be the perfect season? We nearly had it. If we had won the league maybe...but I'm picking at straws. We had already gained one promotion, we had a BBC camera crew following us, being broadcast on national telly every week, you get promoted, it goes to the last game on a beautiful sunny day, you take 10,000 fans away and I'm not even mentioning the cherry on the top which was Wednesday getting relegated, because that would be wrong.....!"

"That season had something for everyone, we had a decent cup run, maybe lifting a bit of silverware would have been the cherry on top, but that's just a bit greedy. Life changing experiences for players and fans alike."

"A fantastic, fantastic day and probably the proudest day of my life. The final whistle went, the crowd rushed on." You also got a kiss from Harry, is he a good kisser? "Not bad....that's probably my biggest regret ha..ha! As I said, something for everyone!"

In the final instalment whicjh you can read here, Tony talks about life in the First Division at United, his sudden departure from Bramall Lane, his time at Notts County, Hereford and Cliftonville, more non-league days and what he is up to now.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Interview with Tony Agana (Part 1 - Welling, Weymouth and Watford)

In amongst the many current and ex-footballers on twitter, you really have to sort out the good from the bad to decide who is worth following. For most #twitterblades there was much excitement when former player Tony Agana was found on twitter.

For me (and may Blades fans of my age) he is one of several people to represent a halcyon period of my Blades supporting life. Between the ages of 13 and 19 I saw United achieve two successive promotions, returning to the top flight for the first time in 14 years, achieving the Sheffield Double and staying in the top flight until the Great Escapes finally ended in 1994. Tony was an integral part of it; although he had moved on by the time the Blades were relegated from the Premier League on the last day of the season at Stamford Bridge.

Tony uses twitter in a really positive way, engaging with supporters, answering their questions, whilst also promoting Sheffield and supporting the local business community, of which he is a part. After he kindly re-tweeted a blog post of mine, my thanks were responded too with a message of "Great blog BTW" and I took that as my cue to ask Tony if he would be willing to be interviewed for it. And that is how I find myself spending an engaging and entertaining 90 minutes in the company of Tony. In a hotel adjacent to the pitch where he used to entertain and score in other entertaining 90 minute spells some 20 years ago.

We talk about his football career, from playing for Welling United and selling fruit on a farm, to promotions with United and then relegation from the league with Hereford United. Parts 2 and 3 will follow over the next couple of nights, but we start at the beginning of his career and I started by asking Tony about his early career and the combination of playing football alongside a full-time job.

"I was born in Penge, not far from Crystal Palace FC, but aged 10 my family moved to Orpington. Charlton Athletic was my nearest league club, but Welling was also nearby. I was playing for a very successful boys club called Orpington Eagles from the age of 12 through to 15/16. We were incredibly successful and it seemed like we won everything we could including two county cup finals - Surrey and Kent. Everyone wanted to play for us.”

Orpington Eagles - Tony is Back Row second from the right

“The problem was that there was no-one to play when we got to 16. The idea was mooted by Welling United, who didn’t have a youth team at the time, that everyone would move across and be Welling United’s youth team. We were playing under 18 teams and holding our own and I think all coming through together as a team made is so strong. Also at the age of 17 I got into Welling United’s first team.”

Were there any other lads in that Orpington/Welling side that went on to a league career?

"There was Stuart White, who went on to play for Charlton Athletic but also had a long spell with Welling. Sadly he passed away in a car accident in South Africa last year. Of the 6 or 7 others who had been offered schoolboy forms, I don’t think any made it. I had a fantastic time at Welling United; the other player who moved on to bigger things was already there; a guy with a big nose and long hair in the midfield - Andy Townsend and he wasn’t bad was he? We had a really good team and won the Southern League title.”

“At the same time I had left school and continued where a summer job had finished; on a Pick-Your-Own Farm Shop. Out in the country but most of it came from Borough Market, customers seeing the oranges and grapefruits and saying “Ooh where did you grow these?!” After about 6 months my Mum said get a proper job, so I got a job with an Insurance company in the City of London. In the end it was the job that led to me leaving Welling."

"The company I worked for was cost cutting and decided to relocate operations to Poole in Dorset. Many took redundancy, so in order to keep continuity of staff they were offering generous relocation packages and for a young guy to be given the chance of a 1% mortgage on his own house, it was a no-brainer. So Welling invited representatives from Poole, Weymouth and other South coast clubs to come and watch me to try and set up a deal. The then Weymouth manager Brian Godfrey (ex-Aston Villa and Wales) saw me and said to the chairman, “He’s not bad that Agana, I'll give you a grand for him, but I also like your midfielder”.  Brian offered a five figure sum that also got Weymouth Andy Townsend as well!"

In the end Tony left for £4,500 and Townsend left initially on loan

"Weymouth was good for me and for a while living in Poole was good fun. There was great camaraderie amongst a group of us who travelled from Poole for each game. The balance was great; once you have finished work what else are you going to do on a Saturday. If you asked me where I enjoyed football to the max, it was at Sheffield United and in those non-league days."

"However, after a while, I wanted to move back to London. Stuart Morgan had taken over as manager and he was so different from Brian Godfrey and in the end I was glad to leave. In January 1987 I sold my house in Poole and spent the time until the summer living in Bournemouth."

So how did the approach from Watford come about? It was a big leap from the Conference to the then First Division.

"Well at first I thought it was a joke. I knew I was doing alright, but I wasn't expecting a call from Dave Bassett. He called and said I have just taken over at Watford; I’d like you to come on trial. It took two or three conversations to convince me it was really happening and it definitely was Harry Bassett. I was 23 and a Division 1 club are showing an interest it was like a joke. He asked me to go on their pre-season tour so he could take a look at me and in the end I thought, what can I lose? I am getting a free holiday, I’ve never been to Scandinavia and if it doesn’t work out I’ll look for a job and look to sign for Enfield or similar."

"There was Luther Blissett, Kenny Jackett, Tony Coton some big name Watford players, but because I had a relaxed attitude about the trial that helped me to do well on the pre-season tour and on the coach back from the airport Dave Bassett offered me a contract. He said go home for the weekend to think about it, although in hindsight I should have said yes there and then because I found out on the Monday that the team had all been to a barbecue at Elton John's house that weekend. You don't get that kind of opportunity very often. Gutted!"

So how did you adjust to full-time professional football?

"It wasn’t easy at all. The relaxed attitude of the pre-season tour disappeared; it’s now your living. It was quite difficult, but I was determined to have fun doing it. I worked hard and trained hard, but didn't expect to make the first team straight away, but four days before the start of the season Dave Bassett told me I was playing on the Saturday. I? There was huge pressure on me as I was stepping into the number 11 shirt vacated by John Barnes, but on my debut I got Man of the Match against Wimbledon."

It was a turbulent spell at Watford, post Graham Taylor and I know Bassett found it difficult, how was it for you as a player and one of Bassett's signings?

"Graham Taylor's methods conditioned players to play in a certain way. It was all very much pre-planned, but Harry gave the players a free reign. It didn't always work and the players used to playing Taylor's way found it difficult to adapt."

When Bassett was sacked in the January after he had taken over, how difficult was it for you? 

"Very difficult. Steve Harrison had taken over. He had been there before, under Graham Taylor, he knew about the players and I perhaps wasn't his type of player....which is fine. Management is all about opinions. You live or die by your opinion of a particular player."

In Dave Bassett's autobiography he mentions how Steve Harrison tried selling you to AFC Bournemouth?

"Yes, I had taken in a mortgage application form for him to sign and he tells me “I wouldn’t bother signing it son”, a deal had been agreed with Bournemouth. That was the first I had heard about it."

But Harry soon got back in touch though?

"Harry being the loyal person that he was came back for me and it wasn't just me. If you look at who he went back to Watford for, it was a bit like "I'm not going to leave you there...I'll do my best to get you out of there." That one much loyalty would you get for that? In a cynical world where everyone is out for themselves, how good does that make you feel as a player? He knew we would thrive under him rather than where we were. I believe that he also got players out to other clubs, through his network, if he couldn’t take them to United"

"It was more due to the situation certain players found themselves in, not fitting in, and nothing to do with the club. I have no bad feelings towards Watford and I have lots of friends there. I have huge respect for what they have achieved since, both on and off the pitch."

“He persuaded me to come and have a look at United. I was a typical Londoner; going to Bournemouth was unheard of, to go up North was like...sheesh. Why would you unless you really had to? I had big doubts but he got me in a car and Harry had arranged for his former manager and mentor at Walton and Wimbledon, Allen Batsford, to drive me up with Alan Gillett another of his coaches. They were clearly trying to work on me and persuade me that it was the right move, but they made a fatal error of leaving the M1 at Junction 29. Through Chesterfield – it wasn’t pretty in those days - and through all the back roads to Sheffield I was like - "No. This isn't good. It's not for me". It wasn't pretty at all."

"What really swung it was turning on to Cherry Street and seeing the stadium……BANG!...Bramall Lane….Oh My God…Where do I sign? Seriously that was it. That's not to say that Watford wasn't a good set up, but in size and with the South Stand in front of me it was just - wow!"

"Inside the ground I met with Harry and Derek Dooley.  Derek said all the right things, we want you here etcetera, but really it didn't matter by then. From the moment I had turned the corner in the car I had been sold."

In Part 2, which you can now read here, Tony talks about successive promotions and some happy times at Bramall Lane. 

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Views from Opposite Ends - Managers unfairly under pressure?

Continuing our Views From Opposite Ends series it is a pleasure to welcome Carlisle United blogger and sometime contributor to the Carlisle United blog Bring Me The Head of Keith Mincher, Mark Donnelly to the pages of A United View.

In an interesting game at Bramall Lane today, 5th placed United came face to face with 10th placed Carlisle United. Yet despite relatively positive starts to the season for both sides, there are elements in both club's support waiting for the opportunity to have a go at their manager.

From a Blades perspective there are aspects of Wilson's appointment that still rankle with some of the support. Although a majority have accepted Wilson and will back him and the team, you always sense that we are one or two bad results from fans turning on him. Even today, when Evans was substituted for Porter the boos rang out and catcalls of "you don't know what you're doing."

Greg Abbott is a slightly different tale. Nearly three years into his reign, he has taken the Blues to the JP Trophy final in two consecutive seasons, winning it last season. He has suggested the team should be capable of reaching the Play Offs, something achieved when he was assistant manager to John Ward. Yet elements of the support see the lack of a top six position an opportunity to criticise Abbott and his perceived negative tactics.

So what did we make of the game and each other's teams. First up I'll let Mark give you his view of the game and the Blades.

A Cumbrian View

Carlisle made the trip to one of the ‘giants’ of the League 1 this year, with around 1,200 (I would say North of 1,500) travelling Blues ascending on the Steel City. The Cumbrians and Blades both advanced through the first round of the FA Cup last weekend, so were full of confidence coming into this fixture. Both managers kept faith with the sides that defeated Alfreton and Oxford respectively.

Pre match view of the Cumbrian support

The hosts started the game brightly, and forced a corner within two minutes of kick off. The ball was cleared, but fell to Lee Williamson, His volley however, flew over from 22 yards. The Blades should’ve taken the lead on 6 minutes. Williamson again tried his luck, this time forcing Collin into a superb save. Richard Cresswell collected the rebound, but volleyed over in front of an empty net.

The hosts continued to apply the pressure, and this paid off on 21 minutes, Carlisle loanee Christian Ribeiro was caught with a high foot, but the referee waved play on, and the Blades continued up field and won a corner. The set piece eventually fell to Ched Evans, who hammered home into the roof of the net. The Carlisle fans were rightfully not best pleased, and the players made their feelings know to the officials.

This goal perked the visitors up, and Lee Miller had Carlisle’s best chance of the game late on in the first half, but drilled the ball into the side netting. The Blades almost extended their lead in first half injury time. Stephen Quinn had to time to pick his spot, and it took an acrobatic save from Adam Collin to deny him.

At half time, the general thoughts in the Cumbrian camp were that we were unfortunate to be behind to the controversial goal, but we were far from impressive. The second half started off at a much slower pace than the first, but sprung into life in the 70th minute. Ribeiro brought down Ryan Flynn in his own box, giving the Blades the chance to double their lead. Adam Collin however, had different ideas. The impressive Collin guessed right to push away Creswell’s penalty.

Carlisle found a new lease of life after this, and pushed on to try and find the equaliser. Rory Loy, and then Craig Curran, failed to hit the target. The home side could have added gloss to the score line deep into injury time. Richard Cresswell scuffed his shot from 6 yards out, and Carlisle got let off the hook.

It’s probably fair to say that this wasn’t one of the Blades best performances this season and there were no spectacular individual performances. £3million (This will never be the actual fee paid!) man Ched Evans was probably the best player on the pitch, and managed to get himself on the scoresheet. The Blades looked organised at the back, and kept the Carlisle front line at bay, and their keeper had very little to do. Lee Williamson looked a threat with drives from long distance and his crosses into the area caused the Cumbrians’ defence all sorts of problems.

In all honesty, this is a game Sheffield should have been winning comprehensively. The contrasts in the two teams were massive. The Blades starting line up included ex-Premier League players and Internationals, many of whom can probably play at a higher level. The fact that they couldn’t kill off the game (especially with Cresswell’s chance in the dying minutes), could start to show later on in the season. On another day, Carlisle may have grabbed an equaliser, and to be in contention for promotion, the Blades will have to finish off their opponents.
I wish United all the best for the season, and can definitely see them in contention come May, See you on January 2nd!

A Blades View

I think Mark has summed up the game quite well. It was a lot closer than it should have been, at the end of the day Steve Simonsen didn't make a save of any note throughout. Too often both sides let themselves down in the final third when the ball into the box was poor quality. In the midfield it was a scrappy affair, with Doyle and Montgomery again failing to impress for the home side and ball retention poor. Former-Blade Paul Thirlwell, alongside James Berrett and Liam Noble, worked hard harrying and hassling, but there was a lack of quality in the central area all round.

With chances spurned by Cresswell (he really should have allowed the ball to drop rather than trying a spectacular volley that flew over an empty goal) and Quinn, credit should be given to Carlisle keeper Collin. His save on to the bar from Williamson was excellent and his all round handling good. He deserves credit for a second penalty save in a week, but the reality was Cresswell's shot was weak and too close to the keeper

Cresswell strikes his saved penalty

The best of the chances that fell to Carlisle fell to Lee Miller, but the shot just before half time was sliced into the side netting when he could have tested Simonsen. Miller was billed as the star man in the Blades programme, but offered little up front for much of the match. In a 4-3-3 or 4-3-2-1 system, he needs to be holding the ball up much better and bringing Jon Paul McGovern and Rory Loy into the game more than he managed to today.

It was surprising seeing McGovern play so narrow, then again he always frustrated me in his failure to frequently beat his man and get to the by-line in his loan spell at United 8 or so years ago. He delivered a couple of dangerous balls second half as Carlisle looked more threatening, the introduction of Zoko adding zest and creativity lacking in the midfield prior to that point.

With a willingness to run at the opposition; Zoko's runs, combined with a failure to properly clear lines, left the Blades scrambling in the closing stages. It did make you wonder why Zoko wasn't introduced earlier or even started, but reading tweets since suggest he is one of those players who is better used off the bench and rarely delivers from a starting role.

I am not one to criticise referees, but I thought Phil Gibbs was poor today. Decisions angered both sides, with free kicks given for soft challenges and inconsistency in his use of yellow cards. I have to say I didn't see the incident Mark refers to in the build up to the corner from which United scored. I guess that is why these articles are good, different perspectives of opinion from opposing fans and different perspectives on incidents from sitting at opposite ends of the pitch. It is fair to say that there were similar incidents at our end, the free kicks subsequently awarded could have been better used in a more threatening manner by the Cumbrians.

The Blades have played better and drawn or lost games this season. I am delighted with three points, a clean sheet and we will just gloss over the match. With all of the teams above the Blades winning, we needed to stay in touch. Mark's point about our failure to kill off the opposition is a fair one and it is something that has bitten us on the backside in recent weeks. It also added to anxiety levels, which again transferred from the stands to the pitch in the latter stages of the game.

Overall, I think today's starting positions are a fair reflection of where both teams will find themselves, even if today's performances did little to vindicate it apart from the differential in the teams capabilities. Given the squad Greg Abbott has assembled, should Carlisle fans expect any better? Based on what I have seen of other teams this season, they shouldn't. There are teams with better starting XIs and squads. It also appears that the Cumbrians lack that one off player who could change a game. They are a steady hard-working collective, lacking spark that Zoko briefly gave them.

Before today Carlisle were just 3 points behind the Blades, now it is a 6 point gap, but only 2 points to the play off positions. Maybe fans of both sides need to appreciate the positions they are in and the job that their respective managers are doing. After all, there can be few complaints. Can there?!

Thanks again to Mark. He can be found on twitter at @markdonncufc