Posts Tagged ‘Middlesbrough’

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.

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.