Archive for September, 2008

Perceptional problems lead Spurs down the wrong path once again

Monday, September 29th, 2008

It is with heavy heart that we say goodbye to the Saturday evening ritual of watching the deluded try convince Simon Cowell of X Factor that if only he would put them through they would be able to convert out of tune screeches into being the next Mariah Carey.

That competition reaches a more refined stage while the Premier League’s version of the auditions continues. Newcastle United have been covered at length elsewhere but in 19th they sit above Tottenham Hotspur.

Two pieces of news are seeping out of Spurs at the moment. On the one hand they talk of the future of manager Juande Ramos, on the other chairman Daniel Levy is rumoured to be holding out for £400m to sell the club.

Ramos must wish at this point that he could wake from the slumber caused when he was struck by a missile thrown from the crowd and find he was still a manager in Spain and had never heard of Spurs.

Like many managers at White Hart Lane before him he is asked to do much but given too little of the one resource a manager needs most to do anything. He has no time.

With a picked over strike force he needs to build again but very few now believe he will make the next transfer window to make changes. He is stuck between the rock of damaging his reputation and the hard place of Spurs’ crushingly misplaced image of self.

Spurs are a club living on glories which are long since past but unlike the St James’ Park trophy room no dust settles as occasional a door is opened and a League Cup put in. This is not to say that they are not successful or that the League Cup has no value just that they are a club that looks are those returns and does not equate it with the being the same return as the likes of Oxford and Norwich once claimed. They see it as a sign of a deserved greatness.

The club – inside and out – differs from Newcastle mostly in geography rather than attitude. The Spurs fan believes Ramos is underperforming but over the course of his time in London his record is comparable with other inhabitants of the hot seat. At time good, at times not so. All very Spurs.

Spurs are not one of those warblers who cannot hold a tune that Cowell and Co laugh out of the auditions. They are one of those good but no better than many people who fall just before the live show begins. The sort that tells Simon how much they want it and why he should not kill their dream without realising that the people ahead of them have done more hard work, have shown more commitment or in some cases are simply more talented.

The same impatience that sees managers replaced that is commonly levelled at supporters at St James’ Park is in evidence at Tottenham Hotspur and like the Magpies the issue is not underachievement but rather a failure to recognise that the fifth of Spurs and the top threes of Newcastle are superbly creditable over-reaches.

In the end Spurs are Newcastle with better PR that stops them being labelled as the tumultuous club they can be. Both are are Leeds without the meltdown because as with Sir Bobby Robson and Martin Jol pushing out David O’Leary under the belief that another manager would take the club on was a misjudgement based on the idea that the club was not over-performing at the time.

Brave Gannon shows the management of old

Friday, September 26th, 2008

As far back as I remember I wanted to be a football manager.

Perhaps it was Kevin Toms that gave me the taste for it, perhaps it was the sight of people like Bob Paisley winning with charm or Bobby Robson managing with dignity but to me being a football manager would have been better than being President of the United States.

Managers ran the clubs that we lucky to have them and they ran them how they pleased. They didn’t take on players who board decided they should have and they didn’t play spin games around the truth they wanted to say. Alan Durban said that his job was to win football matches and the media could lump it. Brian Clough was not the manager of Nottingham Forest – he was Nottingham Forest.

And now it is all over.

Clough’s heir – Roy Keane – has spoken out on the attitude of fans and players at Sunderland and will not have the abuse thrown at him. Keane’s talk of late has impressed me but he is so often an isolated voice. He says he will not have Sunderland fans abusing him but he must envy Clough who would not have been abused by Forest supporters who would fear a thick ear.

The manager is a lesser figure now sharing his club with chairmen and chief executives, with directors of football and heads of football development and these may all but good things for the long term future of clubs, the stability of the game and the wellness of managers themselves but without a doubt he is a neutered figure.

He takes what is given to him. Taking what is given to him and smiling sweetly as he gets it is practically Gianfranco Zola’s job description.

Enter Jim Gannon.

Gannon is manager of Stockport County – not a club to raise excitement normally – but what he has done in issuing a statement accusing Referees of bias is exciting. It is exciting for all the reasons that the old managers – so unwilling to allow anything to harm their clubs – were exciting. It is a manager not worried about his future CV and how he will get the job after this one but just furious at seeing an unjustice time and time again and wanting to do something about it.

I agree with Jim Gannon. I agreed with him when Hereford won 3-1 in a game that every football watching instinct in my body tells me was fixed and I agree with him after watching Blackpool steal a win at Valley Parade by the same score.

Gannon’s claim is that because he has criticised some Referees in the past other Referees are victimising his club. He details untrue allegations which are accepted by the authorities as being made up by Referees and a list of incorrect and improper sendings off for his players. He says he has lost faith in the Referees.

Is Gannon right? Are Stockport County being victimised? Perhaps, perhaps not but every football fan who has ever seen a dodgy offside and wondered if the officials have made a mistake or perhaps something more should back him to the hilt in his attempts to get an investigation.

If Gannon is found to be wrong and referees have not been punishing him and his team then they are proved to be innocent and while they have no requirement for that in a game built on the core trust that the man in the middle is impartial – and when that trust is so obviously and openly questioned – exoneration would do much to move the game forward. Perhaps though – as Gannon believes – that exoneration would not come.

Regardless the audaciousness of Gannon brings back thoughts of old. Who would be a football manager?

Footballing punishments for football clubs, financial punishments for money-makers

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

As far as indications of aims go West Ham having to pay some £30m to Sheffield United as a fine for – one would guess the panel decided – cheating to avoid relegation is a massive illustration of what the game is about at the top level.

In League Two Luton Town, Rotherham and the very impressive AFC Bournemouth are penalised on the field. They lose points and get relegated in two cases, not in the play offs in the other and two of the three could be looking at the drop again.

That is what lower league football is about. Promotions, play offs, relegations and avoiding them. Not getting points from home games smarts – imagine what losing them in court feels like.

The Premier League is a different beast. The gap after the UEFA Cup places finishes and the one before relegation begins are unified. The table goes: Champions, runners up, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, mid-table, relegated, relegated, bottom.

As long as they are not going to Europe or The Championship then a club can finish anywhere in that group of teams. Taking points from clubs that keep them in that area is a waste of time. At the time a points fine would have relegated West Ham so it is perhaps a credit to the FA that they did not opt for unusual punishments for poetic reasons.

Just as the Football League is all about promotion the Premier League is about retention on the whole and for the majority of the club and the reason for retention is profit.

Had West Ham been relegated the Upton Park fans might have got an exciting season in the second tier rather than another tedious lap of the Premiership which could have been no bad thing but from the club’s point of view the word “disaster” would have been thrown about which would have been more to do with balance sheets than league tables.

In that context it makes sense for a fine of pounds not points for Premier League transgressions because earning money is what the Premier League is all about.

Sheffield United’s relegation stopped them from earning the slice of the pie that West Ham will give them. Any claim that they lost out on footballing reasons is made void by the appointment of Bryan Robson. That was just football suicide.

Is quality of football an issue in the age of airchair support?

Wednesday, September 24th, 2008

He knew that saying it would wind me up and, to my own frustration, I let it. I was sat on his settee with another friend, watching the League Two round-up on The Championship when he happened to walk by from cooking our breakfast to see Rotherham’s Alex Rhodes mishit a cross which flew into the net, so let rip.

“God, the standard of football in the lower leagues is terrible!” He is a Manchester United fan, me Bradford City. He follows his team through the power of his Sky+ remote, I use my worn-out car to travel around the country in support of mine; he will moan to me that Darren Fletcher doesn’t always convince, I will just smile and nod, knowing talking about the merits our new right back would be of little interest to him.

His forceful assessment of lower league football was not said purely to provoke a response from me – it’s how he feels. The Premier League chose to distance itself from the rest of us 16 years ago and its followers, including the national media, would struggle to name all 72 clubs underneath them, never mind which division they occupy. A few weeks earlier I’d heard a Tottenham fan call BBC 5Live’s 606 to tell Alan Green he’d bought a season ticket at Barnet and was impressed at how little it cost. In response, Green questioned its value given the “the low standard of football” he must be watching. True, Barnet followers might struggle to argue against this ignorant assessment after a poor start to the season, but the BBC commentator would probably replied in the same manner had the caller taken out a season ticket for Crystal Palace.

So can a league’s quality be judged by the standard of its goals? It’s true that, since demotion to League Two, Bradford’s games have featured a higher number of poor ones in our matches – from us and the opposition – but the quick round-up of goals that The Championship grudgingly makes time for cannot tell the full story. As a comparison I watched the weekend’s Premier League goals and, while Man United’s opener against Chelsea featured build-up play of a standard you won’t find at Valley Parade, the defending for Chelsea’s equaliser was no less clueless than what I’d endured from my team 24 hours earlier. Sunderland beat Middlesbrough 2-0 with the second a result of an inept attempt to play offside resulted in Michael Chopra been left free to fire home. Had Hartlepool scored exactly the same goal, would people watching it later on TV be tutting at the poor standard of lower league football?

My friend’s uncomplimentary viewpoint of the Football League was not aided by the only game of it he’s attended, a Doncaster Rovers v Nottingham Forest League One fixture at Belle Vue two seasons ago that was apparently so boring away fans resorted to chanting at the ball boys; but it’s again questionable if a considered judgement can be formed from one experience. On the same day he was winding me up we could have flown in an alien from the Planet Zog and taken it to the Man City v Portsmouth game, where it would have undoubtedly been left with a great impression of the Premier League. Yet equally they could have attended the Spurs v Wigan game and concluded the whole thing’s a bore-fest.

With football on TV every day of the week there is less incentive to bother watching the Coca-Cola Leagues, but attendances remain healthy large due to loyalty but also the alternative it can offer to the soap opera of Ronaldo believing he’s a slave. If football was the same as the cinema, lower league clubs would be art house or independent offerings. Sure, the production values won’t be as glossy, there’s less chance you’ll have heard of the actors, but it can be a rewarding experience far removed from the Hollywood comforts where, increasingly, we can all predict how it’s going to end.

The argument over the qualities of lower leagues ends and the Sky+ remote is used to change the channel to Goals on Sunday. A sudden blast of profanities come hurtling out of my friend’s mouth in the direction of new West Ham manager, Gianfranco Zola, and I sit there, aghast, wondering why he has so much hatred towards one of football’s nice-guys. “Just because…” is his non-to-convincing reply, “But you’d love him if he’d have played for Man U” I argue, “Stop saying that, it’s a crap argument!”

He’s right, not about it been a crap argument, but that I kept saying it. I said it after listening to him rant in disgust about Adebayor for the way he “prances about on the pitch” and after slagging off John Terry for “dubbing himself ‘Mr Chelsea’”. And herein lies a major difference in attitudes, not necessarily between Premier League fans and the rest of us, but armchair supporters and the rest.

My friends sees football through his Sky box and finds a full of hostile theatre of hyped up rivalry, where every opposition player or supporter is a bad guy. It’s a lot harder to maintain such feelings of hatred if you’re at the games finding those rival players have similar qualities – and flaws – as your own, or that opposition supporters are capable of making intelligent and informed opinions. Sure, we go to games and chant not very complimentary things about each other, but we also chat to them in the pub before kick off. It’s not just a lower league thing either; I can recall, during our ill-fated Premier League days, experiencing the friendliness of Chelsea supporters outside Stamford Bridge, though I daren’t bring that up with my friend now in case he throws me out for conspiring with the enemy.

When I told him about the time I stood up and applauded Paul Scholes’ famous volley-from-a-corner goal in 2000 at Valley Parade he looked at me in disbelief, as though sportsmanship was as an outdated a concept as right-halfs; but there’s a difference to how he watches the opposition. He sees far more of Man United’s rivals than I do Bradford’s and he does so with only his wife and baby in the room to despair at his ridiculous tantrums when Frank belts one in from 20 yards.

Few would argue against TV as a great way to watch football; otherwise we wouldn’t bother tuning in to games where our own team isn’t playing, but the over-hyped Premier League world is creating some unhealthy distortions and neglecting some of the values of The Game.

Still at least I needn’t worry about winding up my friend in retaliation – Adebayor’s already doing it for me.

Why can players not be trusted to do the right thing?

Sunday, September 21st, 2008

Watford’s Scott Loach was left perplexed on Saturday after conceding a goal against Reading which came nowhere near the goal.

For Loach this was groundhog day – the same thing happened to him last season on loan at Bradford City – but for everyone else it was another chance to re-open the debate on video replays. Reading boss Steve Coppell offered an opinion

“The game is crying out for video evidence and it has been for a long time. It’s obvious. Rugby League puts us to shame with how referees can call for replays.”

His opposite number Aidy Boothroyd was more accepting saying

“I’ve been to see the referee and, in fairness, he’s only going on what the linesman says.”

However both managers were united in agreement that the players themselves should not be required to right the wrong. In his down to Earth Yorkshire brogue Boothroyd comments

“If someone stops you in a car park and gives you a present you don’t say no do you?”

Coppell agrees admitting that a wrong has happened but stating that it is not the responsibility of the players to right it. Coppell’s record when dealing with matters of discipline and on the field behaviour is curious with him always managing to be pictured as wronged despite his insistence of challenging every marginal decision that goes against his club.

It is not too long since Coppell was arguing that Ivar Ingimarsson should be allowed to punch Dean Windass if it is in retribution to some aggression gone unseen. In the Reading manager’s eyes players should be allowed redress but only if it allows violent conduct. The mind boggles.

Perhaps though Coppell’s attitude is typical of football in which so much is expected from professionals but so little entrusted to them. They cannot be expected to control themselves and not lash back at fellow professionals nor can they be trusted with the task of restoring parity in incidents such as this.

They are expected to be role models but not enfranchised to put right wrongs when they see them. At some point we have stopped trusting footballers with everything except the bringing up our children.

Video replays are an answer to the problems faced in incidents such as Watford vs Reading but like Lewis Hamilton’s penalty received despite doing the Gentlemanly thing they add to a set of rules that are increasingly based around the idea that as grown men footballers simply cannot be trusted.

We worry about who is running our clubs when we should be worrying about how

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

It is hard to imagine a sight less dignified than the public hawking of Newcastle United by Mike Ashley as he tries to off load the Geordies attaching the sale rider that the club requires a bottomless pit of money.

Ashley contests that only wealth at the level Manchester clubs now enjoy will bring silverware and happiness to the supporters although the evidence of Spurs and neighbours Middlesbrough bringing back prizes suggests this to be a misjudgment on someone’s part. Unfortunately all football seems to buy into the idea that the richest wins all despite Chelsea’s two years of running up. It is more accurate to say that the biggest wins unless they mess it up and that biggest is at Old Trafford with Newcastle not that far behind.

Regardless the Magpies are shopped around with the idea being – and the worry that – they will be the latest club to fall into the hands of overseas investment.

Each time there is a purchase of a club by non-English investors alarm bells are sounded do the future of our game so much so one could be forgiven for thinking that we have a monopoly on good governance in football. With almost half England’s professional clubs having used bankruptcy protection in the fifteen years since the formation of the Premier League that supposition would seem to be far from the truth.

English ownership covers Risdale and Richmond just as much as it does any examples of the better run sides and the likes of Randy Learner and his slow, deliberate building of Aston Villa is as valid an argument as any for the idea that it is not who owns clubs that is problem so much as how they are owned.

Learner probably has the best manager in the business in Martin O’Neill – he got him in place before he arrived – and backs him up with sensible signings. James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young probably take home the same combined as Robinho and unless the situation in England’s second City is out of focus the club is run within the remit of having huge out goings met by the huge income of a Premier League club. Morally one might question the size of the figures but from a business point of view there seems to be equity which one simply cannot say about Manchester City or Chelsea.

Distressingly one would thank that outside the realms of the mega-rich clubs at Eastlands and Stamford Bridge the thinking would veer more towards a model of attempting to balance the books or when attempting to advance the club investing soundly but the experiences of those down the leagues suggest that in most cases this is anything but. The well run teams are accused of a lack of ambition and those who overspend seem to do so in the assumption that when the chickens come home to roost they will be long gone. Any sympathy one could have for the likes of AFC Bournemouth or Luton Town is not shared by supporters who have seen their teams lose out on promotions and progressions in cups to a team bought on the hock.

The Football Association has recognised the need for control of finances starting running the Football Conference as a tight ship but the Football League struggles to do the same unwilling to douse the flames of passion that come to the game via investors in their local club but incapable of ensuring these new investors behave in a way that even guarantees a long term future.

The popular perception of football investment is that it is done in the transfer market and by paying higher wages and one would be niave to suggest that was not a factor in the improvement of clubs. Squads are important but so are supporters and the recruitment of the next generation of fans which is failing at lower levels with the jump between the child’s rate and that for teenagers being simply too steep. A wise investor looking at trying to create something other than a season or two on the field would do well to look at subsidising or creating a way that will build the fan base for a generation or more.

Likewise facilities are a way of ensuring revenue streams for clubs and it is telling that while Gillett Jnr and Hicks continue to fund Liverpool’s squad a section of support are bitterly opposed to them on the grounds that they are not building the new stadium putting the future success of the club at risk.

On the whole football chairmen fail to understand the best way to invest in clubs because they do not grasp genuine value in clubs. They look at playing squads and imagine how much a player could be sold for but more acute book keeping would render Robinho’s £120,000 a week as a liability from which the business suffered and his resale value as windfall payment rather than a reason to value the club more highly.

The real assets of football clubs are position in the league set up and the sponsorship and television deals that bring, good will – in the support and in the brand – and facilities. The league position is temporary but the contracts it bring in are easily read, the facilities can be assessed with some ease but that middle element – good will – is harder to put a value on.

However Mike Ashley values Newcastle United as twice what he paid for them because he understands that what Freddy Shepherd sold him at the value of a mid-range debt ridden Premiership club is actually one of the league’s strongest with a permanent tradition of support and a strong brand. His hawking of the club around is undignified for sure but having bought the club on the cheap he is not so much trying to get rid of it quick as realising the value of his investment. Shepherd’s last cock up at Newcastle was to not understand the value of what he had.

Too many chairmen are the same. They have a thing of value but have no idea how to augment that value and end up spending the club’s resources on things of no value – players – and not the assets they have got – good will.

We worry so much about who owns football clubs and where those investors come from yet we do not worry at all about how those clubs are run or even if the people who own them even know what they have bought and how much it is worth.

England is mine, excitement my riposte

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

As far as England wins go the 4-1 duffing of Croatia was one of the more satisfying and Fabio Capello’s telling comment after – “This is the start” – suggested a dawning of kinds for England.

Of course we are constantly told – and will be told again – that England is the country of footballing false dawns and that while a win for the three lions last night is appreciated it is really just a tease – a set up – for failure to come.

Which in a way is true because having an exclusive set of winners numbering less than 1/25th of the entrants the likelihood of anyone starting on the road to winning the World Cup actually winning the thing is slight. As well as England play there is always the propensity that we may come up against another top class side who are on top of their game and not progress. I think they call this quarter-final heartbreak in the print media.

The print media now clouds talking about the England national side to such an extent that results are now less important than good publicity. The printed media in the country long stepped over a line that their remit dictates that they should report the news but not get involved in it and now they procrastinate at how 4-1 takes the pressure off Capello as if it were not pressure they were applying.

They cloud everything about the England team losing sight of the heart of the game – the quickening of the pulse when Walcott fired across the Croat goalkeeper, the fury of seeing Joe Cole poleaxed – and muddy the reason any of us would be interested in the first place.

The last time England lost in Zagreb I had been invited to select my eleven for the game and did so using Scott Parker and Gareth Barry as a midfield. I was told by someone who dreamed of putting Rooney in that mythical “hole” which I have yet to see on a football field that should I pick that side I would be slaughtered by the press. “Yes,” I replied, “but I’d win matches.”

So used are England supporters of looking at the team through the prism of its coverage – or in the case of games being hidden away on pay-per-view channels the lack of coverage – that we have on the whole forgotten the raison d’être of the game. The excitement is the thing. Always has been, always will be.

The notions that success and failure can only be judged on winning a World Cup or a European Championship is something that needs to be addressed. We should reject the notion that we are too stupid to understand if a team is or has not playing well unless we can see its name on a list of tournament winners and reject those who pedal it.

More so than that though we should counter such arguments with a remembrance if the thrill of Theo Walcott lashing diagonally past the keeper after being set up by Rooney, of Michael Owen charging at the Argentina goal after a Beckham pass, of Bobby Moore stepping in to take the ball from the greatest player to ever pull on a shirt and kick a ball.

England is mine and I’m not ready to give up that excitement.