Thursday, 28 March 2013

West Ham, the Olympic Stadium, Don Valley and Legacy

Much has been made of the "Olympic Legacy" in recent weeks. First there was the announcement of the closure of the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield - training home of Jessica Ennis and one time temporary home of Rotherham United - and then the announcement that the Olympic Stadium was to be leased to West Ham United and the cost of the stadium conversion was to be more extravagantly funded from the public purse than initially expected. Both decisions, however upsetting, highlight the difficulty in creating any sort of lasting legacy from major sporting events.
When Sheffield announced it was bidding for the 1991 World Student Games, the council saw it as a means of regenerating the run-down East End, which formerly housed the city's steelworks and factories. What was claimed to be the largest multi-sports event outside of the Olympics was meant to bring investment, growth and world class sports events and facilities to the city.
When Edinburgh dropped out of the race and Sheffield forged ahead as the UK candidate, it found there was little competition for this apparently prestigious event. Not one city wanted to follow in the footsteps of Duisburg, Zagreb and Kobe. Well, apart from Sheffield. Unfortunately, the city's civic leaders cocked a deaf 'un to the alarm bells everyone else was hearing.
With little of the anticipated government support, a result of Tory antipathy towards the red flag waving Labour firebrands running the council, a lack of corporate sponsorship and little media interest; Sheffield was faced with a hefty bill for hosting the games. There were originally three financial projections for staging the event; ranging from £17m to £27m, with each costing being matched to an equivalent income from sponsorship, ticket sales and grants to produce a 'nil cost'. By July 1991, when the games were held, it was obvious there would be a massive shortfall.
The original facilities, including a swimming pool, sports centres and Don Valley cost £147m. Following four attempts at re-profiling the overall debt totals £658m. Sheffield Council will continue to repay £25m a year until the debt is paid off in 2024. An amount included to the council tax bill of every Sheffield household.
Athletics events were held at the stadium in the following years, with several high profile meets attracting large crowds - although these tailed off from capacity over time. With major athletics meets a once a year events and other local/regional events sporadic, other sports and uses were considered to bring in much needed income; amongst them Rugby, Cricket, Concerts and Football.
They then hit the major issue, who wants to watch a sport where the action is taking place some 15-20 metres in the distance across an athletics track? Sheffield Eagles moved there, but struggled to attract the crowds, high profile concerts were arranged but were sporadic and you had other one-off events such as Darren Gough's Benefit Match with astroturf placed over the track as part of the outfield. Sheffield FC played there briefly and then it became the temporary home of Rotherham United in their hiatus between Millmoor and New York. Ask any Rotherham fan if they enjoyed their experience.
Over time the facilities become decrepit and worn. A visit to any of the arenas and buildings developed for the Universiade 22 years ago, highlights a degree of wear and tear and faded paintwork that is quite saddening. What was once new and exciting is now faded and aged. As funding falls, event numbers reduce and so does the maintenance. One sports hall has already been demolished as part of the refurbishment of the adjoining school.
At Don Valley the maintenance levels have slipped to the extent that there is considerable money needed to be spent bringing facilities up to standard, in order to then bid further money to win events. If you are going to attract an athletics meet, you need a working scoreboard. It has become a vicious circle of self-fulfilling failure. No funds, no maintenance, no bids, no events, no money……
There have been times when the possibility of both senior Sheffield football clubs moving there has been mooted. It was suggested that the stadium capacity could be built up to 45,000, with additional tiers of seating and a roof added to the three open sides. A municipal version of the San Siro for red and blue to share. Neither set of fans would want it. Bramall Lane is the right size, fit for purpose and the oldest professional football ground still in use and whilst a Blade is in ownership, the prime land adjacent to the city centre ought to be safe for football. Across the city a majority of Wednesday fans would not entertain leaving Hillsborough.
So Sheffield finds itself paying the price for winning the prize in a one horse race that no-one wanted to win and putting so much focus on delivering the event, they forgot about what happens to them after. Roll forward to the London Olympic bid, plenty of talk about Legacy, but little in the plans for the Olympic Stadium that would ensure it would be financially viable after the event.
What becomes of former Olympic sites and venues has caused much consternation. Many continue to find sporting use, although the extent to which they are utilised varies greatly. Some are retrofitted and used in ways benefiting the wider community in ways far removed from their original use; turned into prisons, housing, shopping malls, gyms, churches. Others sit unused and unwanted, decaying reminders of heroic achievement and sporting excitement. Others, like the fate awaiting Don Valley, are simply demolished. Prime examples of misguided planning and broken promises of the benefits that the Games would bring.
Take Beijing's iconic Birds Nest Stadium; it lays idle, too big and cavernous for any sensible sporting use for much of the year. The same could legitimately be said of World Cup stadia. Many of the Korean World Cup stadia sit half/quarter empty week after week. Some of the South African World Cup stadia sit alongside existing multi-sport stadia in the same city or suburb. The Peter Mokaba Stadium, with a capacity of 40,000, sits in Polokwane, a rural city without a professional football team. On that basis, should we be that upset about the fate of Don Valley?
In other major cities, sporting clubs are taken away from their traditional homes so that multi-team cities such as Sydney see multiple cricket, rugby and AFL teams housed at the former Olympic Stadium. In Melbourne the Etihad Stadium hosts multiple AFL sides, that previously had their own identity and ovals, alongside T20 cricket, Rugby Union and some A League football. Yet you cannot see that happening here. There is a preference for a clear differential of identities between clubs and homes. Yes some Rugby Union clubs have and do share with football, but that only lasts for a spell before rules Premier Rugby rules on primary tenancy take hold and difficult decisions/negotiations take place.
We have known for some time that a hefty wedge of public money would be needed to pay for the costs of retro-fitting an Olympic Stadium that really should have been made for football from the start. What is unexpected, is that all but £15m of the money is coming from the taxpayer - directly or indirectly - prompting criticism that West Ham have got their new home on the cheap with prime development land in east Ham to sell. Those defending the terms of the deal claim that there is further protection for the public purse from a one-off windfall back to LLDC in the event the club is sold in the next 10 years, but this is surely small fry compared with the long term boost this move will give the football club.
The total bill for the stadium has now risen to £600million, although that figure is irrelevant as there will always be an element of sunk cost in major projects such as this i.e. the cost which you have to incur to ensure a stadium is built and fit to serve its primary purpose. It is the cost of extending the roof and adding retractable seats (which could be as much as £190m) that is the real problem.
You then have the issue of what this move does to other clubs in the area. Why should one club move in on the doorstep of another, destroying any chance of further growth and forcing an owner to consider a move to a new location outside of their municipal boundaries? I have seen Hammers fans deriding Leyton Orient as a "Small club with 3,500 fans" like they are irrelevant in the World of multi-million pound tv deals and Scudamore's golden cash cow. Others choose online forums and comments sections to goad the London and wider British public about how we are funding their new stadium.
It isn't the municipal subsidisation of football clubs that rankles, I have nothing against clubs who choose to do that and plenty of clubs play in municipal stadiums, no doubt at subsidised rents, in Serie A and Ligue 1 in particular. Manchester City benefited from Manchester Councils' decision to offer them the City of Manchester stadium, with a retro-fit design built in to original plans. Many clubs in Spain are loaned monies by local authorities, although the backlash may now start with EU focus on a region that is facing great economic hardship, but is happy to subsidise football clubs. For me that is the decision for the local authorities and in a one club town I am sure it is easier to justify. What cannot be justified is central government taxes funding a Premier League club's move to a Municipal Stadium, in a last, desperate attempt to deliver on a  misguided promise.
The failure to recognise when massive mistakes are being made is symptomatic across central and local government, local development agencies, sporting organisations and civic leaders. Their inability to put it right, without great financial expense and with a vulnerability that can easily be exploited should be a matter of great shame.
The people of Sheffield will be paying for a non-existent asset, an empty space where the largest modern day athletics stadium in the UK once stood. The annual running costs for which are less than 0.3% of the conversion costs of the Olympic Stadium.
Along with the rest of the UK taxpayers, they will also be funding the move of a football club with owners worth £800m into a stadium the annual rental charge for which will be recovered in the gate receipts of a single Premier League game.
Meanwhile the football club on the edge of the Olympic site will potentially lose out on the next generation of fans to a club who will no doubt pump out ticket offers, get into the local schools and offer the added attraction of Premier League football.
The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The South gets taxpayer investment, the North is largely forgotten about. The big club receives a subsidy towards future potential growth and success, the little club is left in the cold. A good quality sports facility faces the bulldozers, another is gifted to a club in the richest league in the World. Welcome to modern Britain, where words are promised and not delivered on. Where the legacy benefits the rich, at the expense of the many whose facilities deteriorate before their eyes, then vanish forever. What a legacy that is.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Creative Thinking: Brian Deane and Sarpsborg

Few British managers take the chance on managing overseas; even fewer make that move as their first in management. One of the small number in that latter category is Brian Deane and on Sunday he takes his Sarpsborg 08 team to the Arasen Stadium, Lillestroem, on the opening day of the Norwegian Tippeligaen season. Taking his first steps in top level management.

To those who know of Brian this will come as little surprise. A strong advocate of players gaining experience of different cultures and playing abroad, something he did in Portugal and Australia, it seems only natural that he follows in the footsteps of Roy Hodgson, David Hay and George Curtis in managing in Norway.

In fact there is already one Englishman out there; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s assistant at Norwegian champions Molde is Mark Dempsey, a former coach at Manchester United and a name familiar in South Yorkshire after spells both at Sheffield United and Rotherham United.

Whilst Hodgson had two mid-table finishes with Viking Stavanger and Hay took Lillestrom SK to the title, it is a less well known and less established name in Norwegian football for Brian. Sarpsborg is a city of over 50,000 people, about 100km south of Oslo. It is a city that has seen football success with Sarpsborg SK six time winners of the Norwegian Cup, albeit the last of those was over 60 years ago.

In recent years, local clubs had struggled to gain a foothold in the upper echelons of Norwegian football and in 1999 sixteen local clubs decided to collaborate and combine into what is now, after further tweaks to the structure and name, Sarpsborg 08. The way the club was formed, becoming a single focal point for the city, means it has a culture that appealed to Brian.

"It is a well-structured community club, with a young board who are realistic and good fans who are realistic. It is such a good opportunity for me personally.”

The new club gradually progressed from the 4th tier of Norwegian football and reached the top flight Tippeligaen in 2010, only to be relegated the following season. 2012 saw the club promoted again, as runners-up and they made a move to appoint Brian as manager for their return to the Tippeligaen.

Brian had spent quite a bit of time in Norway, with the Football & Education programme he was running in Leeds, visiting colleges and making connections over there. He liked the country and its culture. One of those contacts, former Oldham, Blackburn and Wimbledon defender Tore Pedersen, was the man who facilitated his move into club management. Over three interviews Brian convinced the management of Sarpsborg of his footballing philosophy and the way in which he would take the club forward.

“I have joined a sensible club. After Promotion, Relegation, Promotion in the last three seasons, we need to establish ourselves and stay up; that’s important to me and important to the club. Steady progress is good and it is about putting a structure in place, introducing new ideas and changing certain aspects of the club."

For Brian it has been a positive first few months; "I got to know the players and they have got to know me and how I want to do things.” With budgets limited, Sarpsborg probably have the smallest budget of any club in the Norwegian top tier, Brian is largely working with the squad that took the club to promotion last season. Some adjustments have been made, such as bringing in Icelandic pair Gudmundur Thorarinsson and Thorarrin Valdimarsson.

Joining as his assistant is Ian Burchnall, who worked with Brian in the Football and Education Academy at the University of Leeds. The partnership is in some ways forged in adversity. Both had knock backs in trying to progress their careers and on coming together, despite quite different backgrounds, they found shared philosophies and beliefs, a mutual respect and developed a cohesive working relationship.

“Ian was a good semi-professional footballer and a talented coach with ten years of experience, but breaking into professional coaching is very hard for someone who hasn’t played professionally. For me, I had the professional background, but as an example, when I was doing my coaching badges I was asking people if I could join them on the coaching ground and try things, the existing team were looking over the shoulders. It wasn't easy to get the opportunities to develop myself.”

“If you were going into something like this you could bring your mates in with the same football background, same career path, but they are not going to offer you anything different. Ian is academic, with a sports science degree. He has come through in a more modern era. We build on each other’s ideas using our contrasting backgrounds; it works well.”

Results for the pair have been good, with the club unbeaten throughout pre-season.

“There is one thing I know from my time in football, you take pre-season games with a pinch of salt. Yes to be unbeaten is nice, but with the budget constraints we have we have to beware as a couple of injuries and it could be really tight for us.”

The players will be very clear on the standards he expects and he knows that, despite the results, there is still plenty of work to be done. Last weekend the unbeaten pre-season culminated in a 3-3 draw at second tier club Mjondalen with Sarpsborg coming back from 3-1 down. Post-match the manager talked of his disappointment with the naivety of some of his side’s play and recognised there was further work to be done.

Changing things is always going to be tough when monies are limited. Even when faced with offers of players, Brian is rarely in a position to accept.

“I get calls from agents, as you can imagine, offering me lots of players, but our budget is that tight we have to be creative.”

Brian has already mentioned in previous interviews how he sees the Development squads back in English football as a potential source. Loaning young talented players who cannot get first team experience at their club is one potential avenue. He also has plenty of contacts and knowledge of promising players from his work at Leeds University and at the colleges and universities in Norway. However, he won’t bring players in for the sake of it.

“I have had calls about players wanting to come out here, but the reality is I only want to bring players in who are going to add to what we have got. We are going to have to try and develop players and bring players through as well. That is important for the longevity of the club and the finances.”

Brian mentions that there are probably calls he hasn’t returned, something he recognises from a player's perspective when he was the one making calls to managers late in his career. Now he recognises that it isn’t necessarily ignorance on the manager's part, but a need to find the time and focus to devote to his job and his team. We speak very late on a midweek night, with Brian having spent the rest of the evening meticulously preparing for the weekend fixture. 

“Management is about managing and making sure that your players are prepared. You are ensuring that they are alert mentally and physically; you could be mentoring them, getting them in psychologically prepared so they believe that they can take the World on.”

 In a long and varied career, Brian benefited from playing under a whole host of different managers, each with their own characters, ways and methods. In the time since joining Sarpsborg, he has sought the counsel of people he has played for such as Alan Pardew and Peter Taylor and those who have experienced playing and managing overseas, such as Roberto Martinez. Each give him ideas about how he could manage.

“I have looked at the managers I have had and draw on what they did well and what they didn’t do so well, balancing that by looking at what I am doing from a player’s perspective. Respect plays a big part and it is two way. I don’t mess about. That’s one thing I learned under George Graham, you have got to have discipline."

"There is one manager, the moment you let your players have an opportunity to have a say it doesn’t always work and I don’t think it would work for me. I think I am fair, but there is only one captain of a ship.”

When asked which managers he played under influence the way his teams are set up to play, he emphasises how he is trying to build on existing foundations.

“We have inherited a philosophy here of playing very good football through the thirds, something the club is renowned for. I reviewed a lot of last season’s games and I have worked on increasing the tempo, because we are going to need to do that. The fitness and discipline are going to be key. Sometimes it is just about being a little bit more professional.”

With these incremental changes across the piece, increasing the intensity and sharpness, focusing on maintaining possession in small areas, Brian is confident that the club can start to make great strides.

It may not be at Premier League level, but the standard of football is good and when the opportunities are not there for young ambitious managers in the football league, you have to be creative in your thinking. Creativity is a word that comes up frequently when talking to Brian, it is one of the reasons he finds himself in Norway now and is something he will need to apply to his thinking in ensuring the survival of what many would perceive as the league's smallest club.

So with a strong pre-season behind them and the long term foundations starting to be built, Brian can look forward with some positivity to Sunday’s game against a team they drew 1-1 with at the start of pre-season back at the end of January. That should give his team some confidence, but they also know that in their manager’s words that the pre-season result and performance is meaningless, it is getting off to a positive start on Sunday that matters.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Wilson's 100

With Saturday's 2-0 victory at Boundary Park, Danny Wilson reached a milestone many would have assumed he wouldn't reach; 100 games in charge of Sheffield United. Even after the spittle-flecked vitriol of the car park protest that greeted his appointment had passed, you felt that he was always one bad run from the fans turning on him; forcing the board into another managerial appointment after four different managers had taken the hot seat in the previous twelve months.
His first season, like many Blades campaigns, saw United reach the brink of success only for the fates to conspire against them. That may seem clich├ęd, but anyone looking back at the club's capitulation at the final hurdle surely could not judge it any other way. What has followed over the Summer was the ripping out of the heart of the playing squad; removing most of the creativity and a large proportion of the goal getting capability that took the club so close to a Championship return last season.
Much has been made of Wilson's second season syndrome, often highlighted by fans of his previous clubs. Yet second place, one point off the top suggests that this is not a season of failure. Yet frustrations are bubbling underneath the surface.
Other feedback received on Wilson's previous managerial posts point to a man who struggles to have a Plan B in place and an inability to make changes when required. The club's home form this season would point to a man who has struggled to find the right formula for success, whilst away from home it works a treat.
The pitch has been blamed for a reduction in the quality of passing and style of play, but really it is a lack of quality in the squad compared to last year. Kevin McDonald continues to pull the strings, but is increasingly crowded out by the opposition, without the movement around him to free up the play. How often do we see the full backs pushing on like last season? Shoring up the defence has in many ways weakened our attack.
Injuries have further hampered the team. In a team shorn of what little pace it had with Miller's long term injury, the sale of Blackman and shorter term absences for replacements Forte and Murphy we have appeared increasingly pedestrian and lacking guile. Too often we have resorted to aimless long ball from the back when ideas have been exhausted.
Whilst I don't necessarily agree with the boos that have greeted half time and full time in the recent 0-0 draw versus Leyton Orient, I can see why they happened. Much has been said about how much better our away support is and in terms of numbers, volume and positivity. Very few will come close to United on any of those scores outside of the Premier League. However, you are always going to get a more vocal negative minority at home.
The frustrated and angry may well travel away, but are such small in relative number to be drowned out and not acknowledged. Mere mutterings amongst a largely positive and raucous din. Take that similar percentage to a crowd anything up to ten times as big at Bramall Lane, where that positive noise isn't maintained for 90 minutes, the negativity is always going to appear louder, more vociferous and more widespread. A home record of W7 D7 L3 is always going to disappoint some of those who cannot travel away and can place a grey, negative veil over the overall position. It is all they have seen after all and they have seen few ideas from the manager as to how to change it in those matches.
To criticise elements of Wilson's managerial capabilities may seem churlish, given the unprecedented events of last season, the departure of 4 key players and the club's position of second in the league. After all he is, in effect, operating with one hand tied behind his back and the other let nowhere near the club wallet.
Other League 1 clubs might not see it that way, the relative size of the club and its attendances compared with those they are competing against, would suggest a wage bill that most other clubs in the division would dream about. And one or two Championship clubs as well. But that belies the real issues with the club's financial situation, one that a salary cap, however big, hides.
What has seemed odd at times are the contradictions in statements made by chairman and manager; especially with regards to comments regarding transfer funds. These perhaps show a manager willing to state his understanding of a situation even though the club might want to portray a rosier picture. It certainly contradicts those who suggest that McCabe's friendship with Wilson means the manager is a stooge for the owner.
Looking at the bigger picture we have to recognise that we are a League One team with a combination of League One players and a sprinkling of promising youth, whatever the size of our wage bill. There's a reason that the players in red and white stripes are playing for Sheffield United in League One, is that they have found their level. Although when we struggle to break down teams at home, or get out-passed by lower salaried opposition, at times playing neater football, it is too easy to forget that.
Fans and media alike point to 16 points picked up out of the last 18. In response others have pointed to 18 in the last 33. Statistics can generally prove whatever you want them to with a bit of manipulation. Wilson's overall record of W54  D28  L18  seems excellent on first look, but then there will always be those who point to the Draw column and say "that's too many" whilst ignoring a 54% win percentage.
That's the thing about being a Blade, you come to expect the worst. Over the years you play down your hopes, preparing to manage the disappointment, knowing it is inevitable. "They always let you down" - is the mantra for many Blades of  a certain age. Many see one bad performance as putting the promotion push at the brink of implosion. In tight games, a misplaced pass in a bright opening is "a rare opportunity to score gone". The negatives outweigh the positives, clouding your thinking, altering your perception.
In amongst the polarised opinion between the masses and minority, there is one thing we can say for certain. Danny Wilson will be judged on one fact and that will be achieving promotion at the end of the season. Anything else and the record that goes before it will be meaningless, rather like the 90 points we picked up last season. There will be some nice memories; of games both home and away, of goals and those moments you only get going to the match, but the end goal remains unattained.
Not gaining promotion this season cannot be contemplated; the impact would set the club and its finances back for years. At present, Danny Wilson has put the club in an excellent position to deliver on this, in testing circumstances. But, with a tightly packed group at the top of the division, it will be a test of nerve and know-how for manager, players and fans alike. I only hope that the previous experience holds us all  in good stead. And as fans, we need to forget the past. The past is meaningless. We just need a bit of belief. You never know they might go and surprise us for a change.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The 150k A United View Competition

Sorry - That is not the prize!
As the promotion charge excites on the Bramall Lane pitch,one or two developments off the pitch have pleased me too. Firstly A United View reached 150,000 views - for which I am truly grateful. Secondly, my Blades related photo project Going to the Match - A Season at the Lane was selected as a featured gallery on the relaunch of critically acclaimed football website In Bed With Maradona.

You can read why I started Going to the Match here, but the idea of capturing photos in and around going to each Blades game this season caught the attention of fellow Blades including a very creative one at that.

Talented local artist Luke Prest has painted pictures of Bramall Lane previously (see above) but the Going to the Match photos gave Luke the idea for the 'We Are Blades' print below and his new series 'A Day At The Lane' which is launched at Bramall Lane this weekend. You can read more about it in Luke's own words here.
Thanks to Luke's generosity we have a 'We Are Blades' print as first prize in the latest A United View competition.Two Runners Up will each receive a set of 8 art cards from the Going to the Match collection of photos. The choice of which photos is entirely up to them.
To have a chance of winning one of these prizes just answer the following question; either by emailing it to or tweeting the answer to @unitedite with the hashtag #AUVweareblades by Friday 15th March.

Q: What was the biggest attendance on a day at the Lane in the 2011/12 league season?

Good Luck