Thursday, 18 October 2012

Tickets Please

The BBC Sport report on ticket prices in the Premier and Football League is most welcome. The price of admission to a football match is one of the most important and relevant aspects of football because of the direct financial consequences it has on supporters.

At its core, football is about going to matches. In fact the very definition of a supporter hinges on them turning up at games, paying through the turnstiles and supporting the team. If for whatever reason, you don’t or can’t then you’re not a supporter, you’re a fan. This is why the cost of admission is so important: it is part of what sets the parameters of the relationship that an individual and a community has with their club.

But I don’t believe the Premier League looks at things in the same way. They look at the relationship between a club and a supporter as similar to that of a business and a consumer. Have a look at Cathy Long’s (Head of Supporter Services for the Premier League) piece for the BBC as an illustration of this perspective. Long talks of adding value to the supporter’s experience (through the creation of “family zones” it seems). To me, this seems like another way of saying “Get ‘em in early and get ‘em spending” although I may be a tad cynical there.

The advantage the Premier League has over other leisure industries is a higher than usual sense of customer loyalty. English football club supporters are prepared to make additional sacrifices to follow the team due to the strong connection to their club. This allows the clubs to set their pricing structure with considerably less caution than a cinema or theme park, for example. After all, who ever heard of an Odeon Supporter? On what channel is the weekly radio phone in show for disgruntled Alton Towers fans?

There is an argument that the Premier League offers world class entertainment because the high calibre players the clubs employ and that costs money, lots of money. This is true to a point. But the fact is that football, usually, does not guaranteed entertainment. Sometimes, even the best teams lose or draw or just play badly. If you follow Man City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Man United then it is unlikely that you’ll leave your home stadium unhappy but the same can’t be said for the rest of the clubs in the league, much less for the clubs in the Championship and below.

With TV revenues significantly lower in the Football League, Championship clubs need to keep the cash coming in to try and maintain a manageable gap in the quality of players between the League. Is it any wonder then that it costs more considerably more money to watch a team like Crystal Palace than two times Bundesliga Champions, Borussia Dortmund? This may not be the actual reason why it costs around £30 to enter Selhurst Park on a match-day but it must surely be a factor.

Ultimately, the reason why it costs as much as it does to watch football in England is because enough people are willing to pay. In fact, football has an in built mechanism to keep the prices high and that is set by supporters themselves who regard non-attendance as disloyalty. If the relationship was one of club and supporter then that would be fair enough but it’s not: it’s business and consumer. To be blunt, clubs are exploiting a relationship between themselves and the fans that either does not exist or is not reciprocated.

So what is to be done?

In Germany, there are frequent boycotts by supporter groups in protest against rising ticket prices. However, most clubs in Germany are owned in the most part by the supporters. This has contributed to a culture whereby supporters have a greater influence and whose voice is taken more seriously. Clubs are clubs and not businesses  They are run for the benefit of themselves and their own ends. This culture and the relationships it creates do not exist in England, as far as I can make out. The notion of organising any form of boycott would be regarded disloyalty not just by the clubs but almost certainly by significant sections of the supporter base. Reflect for a moment on the situation at Cardiff City where supporters are divided over the club’s recent change of colours and crest. It is easy to imagine similar unpleasantness occurring about direct action over ticket prices.

Another option is to form a breakaway club. Ultimately, AFC Wimbledon and FC United Of Manchester were formed as a reaction to corporate excess ruining their match day experience. Why not form a new club at a lower level? The trouble with this idea is that it too is divisive and denies the supporters top quality football.

Then of course there is regulation (thank you, I’m here all week). But seriously, a practical suggestion may be compel the Premier and Football League clubs to take a slice of their TV revenue to offset against ticket prices. A “TV Subsidy” if you will.  This idea has the virtue of being straightforward and something that every supporter can get behind, irrespective of club.

While top slicing the Sky money and giving back to the supporters in the form of subsidised ticket prices will negatively affect club’s bottom line, it will make it harder for them to criticise the idea. They’ll probably start by saying that they would have to reduce solidarity payments to the lower leagues but this too can be protected with better regulation.

The final (and most likely) option of course is to do nothing. Perhaps, sooner or later, the middle class forty-somethings who can currently afford a ticket will get bored, suffer one moral outrage too many, lose their jobs or just figure that they're getting too old for this sort of thing and go an find something else to do with their time instead like go to the pictures, maybe. That might do the trick. 

Sunday, 16 September 2012

I can't believe he missed Andy Gray: A foreword

As a leaving present for Chris Oakley upon his departure to New Zealand, Graham Sibley and I published a book containing his complete Friday List Of Little Or No Consequence posts for Some People Are On The Pitch and the Football Fairground. Below is the foreword, penned by myself. 

“Anything with Garlic.” replied Archie Gemmill to the now classic “What’s your favourite food?” question asked of all professional footballers honoured to be the subject of the now defunct “Shoot!” magazine’s Q and A section. The answer immediately conjures images of the rampaging Scotsman, wilting the Dutch players on that infamous night in Argentina in 1978, with his garlic fuelled breath, as the wee man met his destiny and Scotland met their end.

I never read “Shoot!” as a boy and only found out about Archie’s appetites through that stalwart of mental ephemera that is The Friday List Of Little Or No Consequence which for five years ran in Chris Oakley’s football blog, Some People Are On The Pitch and later the Football Fairground.

Every week, the list would provide a portion of empirical factitude delivered by the author. The list was aptly named and exemplifies the true spirit of a fan’s passion for the game. For most of us, football is a matter of little or no consequence but the the lists demonstrate the power the beautiful game has over us when we choose to seek knowledge and understanding for no reason other than because it is there.

As much as chalkboards, tactical breakdowns, player profiles and historical & cultural contexts allow us to understand football, the accumulation of hitherto buried trivia gives the game substance. From the sixteen teams in the 2008 Africa Cup Of Nations in Nickname Form to England one cap wonders to ten stickers missing from his “Football 1981” Panini album to 27 Statistics mentioned during the Guardian Football Weekly podcast of 29 December 2011, every Friday the List gave the reader possibly one of the greatest gift anyone could receive: consequence free knowledge; innocence on a web page.

As Chris embarks upon a new chapter in his life, he leaves his disciples these lists, collected in a single volume, as a fitting legacy and tribute to a man for whom no fact was too small, no event too obscure and no genre too niche.

Happy trails, Oakers.

STRIKER: Raging Against The Machine

This post was originally published on 8th September 2012 for the Football Attic.

Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, Socialist Worker, Ernest Hemmingway’s Men Without Women, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Lethal Weapon Pinball, Selhurst Park, Guinness and Super Nintendo (SNES). If you were to evacuate my conscious mind in the early Nineties and reassemble its elements as some grotesque Mental Pinterest then those fragments of ephemera are what would be displayed. But if I were to place an extra large pin on one of those elements to give it extra significance it would be the Guinness. However, I’ve not been asked to write about Guinness. I’ve been asked to write about an old video game, so for the purposes of this tortured preamble, I’ll say it would be my SNES.

Purchased from the Virgin Megastore in Tottenham Court Road, the Super Nintendo Entertainment System introduced me to NHL Ice Hockey, the glory of World League Basketball (NCAA for readers in the US) and the worst Rugby video game in the history of all games ever created (everyone knows time is not up until the ball goes dead. EVERYONE KNOWS THAT!)

Then of course, there was the king of all football video games, the timeless classic: Sensible Soccer. However, SS looked stupid with its plan view pin pricks for players, stupid sound effects and rubbish player names (who the fuck is Alan Shiarer?) After a week I’d decided that this was a game for people who took this sort of thing far more seriously than me and took up STRIKER instead.

The first thing to say about STRIKER was that it was produced by a company called RAGE Software. For angry Trotskyite class warriors, as I claimed to be at the time, anything produced by something called RAGE was brilliant. RAGE was a force for good. RAGE made a difference. RAGE would kick the Tories out. RAGE would smash the State and end injustice. Whatever else you can say about the name RAGE, it was ideologically sound.

The next thing to say about STRIKER is the gameplay which had an agreeable 45-degree view, sticky balls (if you’ve played Kick Off or listened to the latest Attic Podcast then you’ll know what I mean) and crunching tackles. If there was a normal tackle button, I never pressed it. The sliding tackle was designed to clean out the opposition player and emerge with the ball at your feet. The action generated a satisfying squelchy slippy noise which elicited a feeling of great and surprisingly wholesome satisfaction. There was no commentator (thank Christ!) but whenever something extra cool happened an electric scoreboard would pop up with encouraging exclamations like “OFF THE BAR!” and “WHAT A TACKLE!” and “PENALTY!” and “GOAL!!!”

The games were accompanied by an “authentic” crowd noise which responded to the shifting patterns of play and had a curious reverb that was a little freaky when you played the game on your own. However, when the ball hit the back of the net the crowd would go wild and once you’d figured out how to strike the ball with the correct amount of backspin, straight in front of goal and from just outside the area that net took one hell of a beating.

Having found the game's weakness, I took Palace to League and Cup glory. England won the World Cup averaging nine goals a game. The game had customisable kits and clubs but I didn’t go in for that. I was only interested in the glory of pummelling Arsenal and beating the Germans 9–0.

Football game purists will be spinning in their graves (especially the alive ones) to read this but what made STRIKER so appealing was that it was easy and conveyed a sense authenticity without being authentic. It had an indoor training mode where the players' trainers squeaked which may have been a first for non basketball games. Granted, STRIKER was not as clever as Sensi Soccer but it made you feel a lot better about yourself when you played it. Like left wing politics, STRIKER kept it real and had easy answers. Sensi Soccer, where the basic graphics disguised the realistic game play and advanced engine was more suited to working class Tories for whom, all suffering is necessary. Neither game was entirely healthy and if you’re still playing either today, stop.

But the final thing to say about STRIKER is the theme tune. This game's release coincided with the birth of the FA Premier League. Football was entering its modern era and much of the old game was being swept aside for all-seater stadia, satellite TV, Richard Keys and high ticket prices. The one link to our past was Match of the Day and Barry Stoller's classic theme tune which was played at Agincourt, if the legend is to be believed. The STRIKER theme (still in use today as the theme to the Sound Of Football podcast) evoked that old anthem, and its reassuring subtext, beautifully. Here was a game that looked ahead to a world of football that demanded its gratification in instant form or sack the coach. But it also knew the value of nostalgia and a compelling melody. Truly it was a product of its age.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

Bundesliga Countdown: Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund emerge as title contenders

Being a short assessment of the prospect for the two Bundesliga title favourites.

As the German top flight prepares for its fiftieth season, the stars seem to be aligning nicely for German football. Despite the disappointment and downright devastation of the Germany national team and Bayern Munich in Euro 2012 and the Champions League, respectively, domestic football in German finds itself in rude health with big crowds and a long conveyor belt of emerging talent.

In addition, the usually dominant Bayern Munich face, in Borussia Dortmund, serious contenders to their status as top dogs, over the next few seasons.

Dortmund, under the charismatic coach Jurgen Klopp, fashioned a team on a relatively modest budget that took advantage of an under strength and distracted Bayern to produce back to back title winning teams, capped off by completing the league and cup double, last season with an emphatic 5-2 win over Bayern in the German Cup Final.

With Klopp at the helm, Dortmund have boasted an array of fine attacking players over the last two seasons in Lucas Barrios, Robert Lewandowski, Jakub Blaczcykowski , Mario Goetze, Nuri Sahin and Shinji Kagawa. Sahin left in the Summer of 2011 and Kagawa followed suit in 2012. However, much more is expected in the young tyro Goetze and Marco Reus who joined from last season’s surprise package, Borussia Monchengladbach who will occupy the space left by Kagawa, if not completely replace him.

The key to success for Dortmund, however will be at the back in the centre half pairing of Mats Hummels and Nevan Subotic. The German and Croatian have played together for three seasons and form a formidable pairing that will only strengthen given that both players are still under 25.

However, despite Dortmund’s achievements it is worth considering that their success is owed, somewhat to the slight deficiencies of Bayern Munich who have had to manage the dual concerns of the Bundesliga and the Champions League, particularly last season in which reaching the final in their own stadium was a priority. Having said that, Dortmund have beaten  Bayern in both League and Cup for five straight games up to the Super Cup on 12th August and few are arguing that the Yellow and Blacks don’t deserve every ounce of credit for their victory.

The new season however, brings new challenges and Bayern have strengthened in the transfer market. At the back, the Brazilian centre half should provide an excellent partner for Holger Badstuber after joining from Borussia Monchengladbach. While Mario Gomez is prolific he is given to waywardness and can miss crucial chances. Bayern’s sporting director Matthias Sammer has brought in some options, up front in the shape of Werder Bremen’s Peruvian striker Claudio Pizarro and the Croatian, Mario Manzucic from Wolfsburg. The former is getting on in years but that has only served to sharpen his instincts. The latter is reputed to be somewhat precious but if properly handled by coach Jupp Heynkes, has the versatility to change the course of a game. Swiss international, Xherdan Shaqiri joins from FC Basel but it is likely that he will be utilised sparingly. There is also the small matter of Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Bastian Schweinsteiger, arguably among the best in the world at what they do. And should Spanish international Javi Martinez join from Athletic Bilbao the the odds will further be tipped in Bayern's favour.

Last season could have been one for the history books, for Bayern. The Bundesliga title, German Cup and Champions League were all in their grasp but all slipped through their fingers. This this reason alone, Bayern will be determined to make amends. Considering this and the additions they have made to their squad, it would be a good bet to see them claim their first title in three seasons. Consider also the extra pressure on Dortmund to succeed in the Champions League. So far, Jurgen Klopp’s record in Europe has been poor, preferring instead to focus on matters domestic. This season may be different as Dortmund’s fans look to broader horizons. Expectations may not be that high in Europe but another dismal performance may affect morale both on and off the pitch.

You may not be surprised to learn that there are other teams in Germany and the Bundesliga Lounge as put together a free e-magazine previewing the season ahead. You can download the Bundesliga Preview magazine here.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Comparisons between Olympic Medalists and Premier League Players are unfair

Probably for the first time since its early years, the Premier League enters a new season with a somewhat muted fanfare. For one, the London Olympics have just finished and the UK is still flushed with the success of its medalists. For two, the English game is undergoing a modest period of revisionism after the conduct of Team GB's Olympians throws the behaviour of the Premier League all-stars into sharp focus, both on and off the pitch.

Compare, if you will, the foul mouthed glory hunting antics of Chelsea's John Terry against the shining bright eyes and wholesome image of Jessica Ennis, who didn't need to gate crash her medal celebrations as Terry did at the end of the Champions League Final, a match for which he was suspended. In fact the recent court case in which Terry was forced to defend the charge of racially aggravated assault, successfully, only served to underline the culture of abuse that exists in the game, even at the highest level.

Yes it's fair to say that English football is in the dock with the great and the good crawling out of the floor space calling upon the players to evoke the Olympic spirit, mind their manners, wash their mouths out with soap and generally behave to the standard set by the athletes of Team GB. And while I am sure that professional footballers can learn a lot from the British Olympians, much of the criticism, implied or otherwise smacks of sanctimony and middle class condescension.

Most Olympians, spend four years quietly building up to their big moment and for the most part they are left undisturbed by the media and public at large. They will pop up from time to time to compete in their European and World Championship but will then return to the relative peace of preparation before the eyes of the world turn on them for a couple of days. If they win, they become instantly famous and loved. They get to appear on cereal packets, lucrative sponsorship deals but ultimately, they get to got back to the business of preparing for the next event in six months, a year or even two years hence. Professional footballers have no such luxury.

Your average Premier League footballer enjoys a few weeks of respite during the Summer if he is lucky. Apart from that he must perform to his absolute maximum once or twice a week. Imagine Mo Farah having to race against a field of top class athletes week in week out in front of huge crowds and a global audience of millions. I'm not suggesting that he couldn't if he had to but over a ten month period it's fair to say that the pressure would take its toll, especially as his performance would be under constant scrutiny. It is possible that our perception of him may change over time and who knows, perhaps we will see a side of him that is at odds with the Olympic Spirit.

This is not to excuse the behaviour of Premier League players but it is unfair to compare their actions unfavourably with Olympians. While much is made of the money footballers are paid, it should be remembered that with huge wages comes massive expectation. Wayne Rooney, Theo Wallcott, Robin Van Persie, Carlos Tevez, Steven Gerrard, Andy Carroll, Mario Ballotelli and the multitude of others are under intense pressure to deliver performances and results, not once every four years but every week. I think of myself at 23 and can't imagine myself being able to manage that sort of pressure. Small wonder then that some of them tend to present the appearance of beings from another planet and that some will go off the rails.

So yes, you can expect to see play acting, imaginary cards, referee baiting, dissent, bad tackles, feuds, mind games, aggressive behaviour and the occasional off the pitch scandal. You will also hear tens of thousands of spectators baying for nothing less that 100% total commitment from these players and nine times out of ten that is what they'll get. Every week these guys walk off the pitch with nothing left but skin and bones. That's why people watch top class professional football and thats why it's brilliant. Perhaps if they only had to play once every four years, they might be able to show us their better sides.

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

New series of the Sound Of Football

I'm feverishly working on a project for the Bundesliga Lounge, at present which is why I've not posted here for a few weeks. However, the Sound Of Football podcast has returned for its fourth series today.

For the uninitiated the Sound Of Football is a weekly soccer show featuring me, Graham Sibley and Chris Oakley. The half hour format usually involves a single topic to discuss and this week we look back on the Summer and look ahead to the forthcoming season.

The Sound Of Football has a small but vociferous band of listener of which you are cordially invited to join.

Go here to go to the latest podcast page and you can subscribe via iTunes here. Follow the Sound Of Football on Twitter here, the Facebook page is here and the Google Plus page is here.

Friday, 6 July 2012

A criticism of the use of Goal Line Technology in Soccer

Yesterday, 5th July, the International FA Board (IFAB) approved the use of Goal Line Technology in Football matches. FIFA have issued licenses to two different systems: Hawk-Eye and GoalRef. You can read more about the nuts and bolts about the decision here (but I suspect you’re already across this topic).

I don’t think that introducing Goal Line Technology is a good thing and below are my concerns.

I’m deeply suspicious of corporate involvement in the laws of football. While I accept that it is entirely likely that future injustices will be prevented thanks to Hawk-Eye I can’t shake the feeling that the real winners are Sony, who own Hawk-Eye which, I imagine but may be wrong, will be the preferred supplier to the all conquering Premier League. Perhaps one day, an investigative journalist will take some time to account for the lobbying process by the two systems that were trialed while IFAB deliberated.

However, my biggest concern about the use of Goal Line Technology is the rising costs involved with actually playing a game of football. I wonder whether the rare instance in which a mistake is made (and they are rare) is worth the additional expense to install and maintain equipment which may only be of value a handful of times in a season. Despite what we are repeatedly told, not every goal is crucial and not every unfairly disallowed goal costs millions of pounds/euro/dollars. I believe that the consequences of the occasional mistakes made by referees and their assistants, while frustrating at the time, are over exaggerated by a broadcast media who are largely in favour of technology in football. In fact the absence of plurality during the technology “debate” has been maddening.

Also, I’m concerned that the additional cost of the equipment will be passed onto the supporter. The equipment itself may be sponsored but the ongoing maintenance costs, energy consumption and labour required to keep it working costs money and may not be sufficiently covered by any sponsorship deal. It is possible that some of that cost will be factored into individual and season ticket prices, thereby raising prices and excluding more supporters.

Finally, I’m worried that Goal Line Technology is the thin end of the wedge: that the doors will be open for the use of video replays in football which is expensive, subjective and inefficient. It’s also boring and puts more money into the hands of the broadcasting industry who seem to be broadly in favour of its implementation, for some reason.

However, the decision has been made and Goal Line Technology is now officially a thing. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised to see many leagues refuse to take it up, or abandon it after a few seasons, on the grounds of it being too expensive and hardly ever used in anger. I could go into the problem of technology separating the elite level from the grass roots and undermining the universality of the game in the long term but it is difficult to substantiate this argument and it’s probably overstating the significance of technology and its affect on the game.

The best thing to do, for people like me who are opposed to Goal Line Technology, is to get over ourselves, move on and address the issues that will almost certainly arise from it, after it's rolled out, both foreseen and unforeseen. That should be good for a laugh.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

What is football? (Euro 2012 Portugal v Spain)

There are many ways to enjoy football and all of them are as valid as the other. I personally watch football in the knowledge that for at least ninety percent of the game, not much is going to happen. I spend my time waiting for somebody to do something cool: a goal, a shimmy, a burst of pace, a crunching tackle, a brilliant save, a breathtaking pass or a combination involving four players and so on.

If watching football was looking at the naked night sky, I look for the pinpricks of light. Others, prefer to examine the space between the light. They look for meaning, for patterns and movement. Some define a good game of football by the amount of goalmouth action, intensity of play, the importance of the fixture the technical skill and of course the tactics. Some like tiki-taka while others prefer big diags. Some see football as a narrative while others see it as a bunch of stuff that happens. Some see football as all of those things and some as none. Most, I suspect, see football as a way of relaxing after a hard day at work.

Football, as we have been told from an early age, is a game of opinions and it is this glorious plurality that makes it the compelling spectacle that it is, whether you happen to be enjoying it or not.

The Euro 2012 semi final between Spain and Portugal was a near perfect example of how brilliant and how rubbish football can be, depending entirely upon your point of view. If you like your football to be all action then you may well have found the game boring. If you’re fascinated by the tactics, technique and fluidity of two top class teams then it was a modern classic. If you’re watching a game on the telly and waiting for something cool to happen then you were probably wishing you could change channel while knowing deep down that you can’t. This perhaps is where boredom becomes confused with waiting. They occupy a lot of the same space on their venn diagram but they are two separate states of mind.

Of course, if you’re watching a game live or with a crowd then the dynamic is different, still. Had I taken a detour after work and watched the game in one of the many Portuguese bars in South East London, my experience would have been entirely different. The partisanship of the crowd would have forced me to engage on an emotional level that sitting on my sofa (where I actually watched the game) would never have been achieved. Had I actually been at the game then I may well have left thinking I’d seen a classic, dramatic all or nothing semi final.

So football is not just about plurality but perceptions, sensations and importance. A game can be good or bad for exactly the same reasons or based entirely on how your watch it and upon what state of mind you happen to be in at the time. So the next time someone who disagrees with you about the quality of a match and says that they “can’t believe you were watching the same game”, tell them you weren’t. That should shut them up... for about five seconds.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Spain 1 - 1 Italy: The slow death of the striker

Rising ticket prices, corporate types trampling over club's histories, TV schedulers moving games and supporters from pillar to post, Ken Bates. While it is true to say that modern football is rubbish it is also true to say that modern footballers are not.

If you like your soccer a little more hare 'em scare 'em then Spain 1, Italy 1 may have seemed a little too prosaic and pedestrian for you. However, for the rest of us this match epitomised the modern game with both teams lining up with bold and progressive formations that may be replicated, by others, in seasons to come.

Spain, abandoned the principle that a team needs a striker to score goals and Italy are in the process of reintroducing the 3-5-2 formation.

Italy coach, Prandelli may not win Euro 2012 but he bloody deserves a medal for having the audacity to start a football match with Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli up front. These two forward players are the exemplars of maverick footballers. Precocious with the ball and fractious of nature. The combination may not have been entirely successful, on this occasion, but football needs tacticians with the ambition to have both players on the pitch at the same time.

Spain's decision to start the game without Fernando Torres or the Athletic Bilbao striker Fernando Llorente was equally progressive but in a different way. Unlike the uber negative 4-6-0 (otherwise known as the Levein Method) Spain played 4-3-3 with Cesc Fabregas occupying a central role flanked by Andreas Iniesta and David Silva.

For over an hour, both teams played with these unorthodox approaches with Italy surprising everyone who has not been watching Serie A recently by trying to score goals and win the game rather than play negative and steal candy from babies.

At the very start, the Spanish looked a little hesitant in front of goal but, unlike the Italians their bold strategy would be rewarded with a goal. Italy's best chance came in the second half with Balotelli who showed tremendous tenacity in capitalising on a mistake by Sergio Ramos but his inexplicable delay in taking his shot allowed Ramos to win the ball back and rendered the youngster, embarrassed. He was then substituted for an out and out goal scorer in Antonio Di Natale.

And it was the Udinese striker who did what he's paid to do by slotting the ball past Iker Casillas with a glorious open bodied strike thanks to a killer pass from Andrea Pirlo.

But if Pirlo's pass was box office then David Silva's ball to Fabregas for the equaliser was straight out of Hollywood. Having proved his point, Spain coach Del Bosque restored some orthodoxy to proceedings and brought on a striker in Fernando Torres. The Chelsea player's inability to put the game beyond Italy when he had the chance may, if anything, underline the point that strikers are too unreliable and may be consigned to history.

It's possible I'm getting carried away but before the start of Euro 2012, I said in various offices that this tournament may not be about strikers but attacking midfielders. My hypothesis being that front men will only exist to give teams shape and they will not be the primary source of goals. Spain look to be going even further than that and should they retain their European crown by starting with nominal midfielders up front, we may be witnessing the slow death of the striker.

If you enjoyed this post then please consider sharing it.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Profile - Shinji Kagawa

In Shinji Kagawa, Manchester United have signed a distinctive attacking player from Borussia Dortmund who is reminiscent of an enduring favourite.

When the manager of a club that has a very real chance of winning a domestic title on the final game of the season, travels to Berlin, the night before to scout a player, you know he must be serious. So when Manchester United’s Sir Alex Ferguson was seen in the Berlin Olympiastadion on 12th May for the final of the DFB Pokal (German Cup), between Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich, it was well known that he was only there to see one man: Shinji Kagawa. To have made that trip on the eve of the big game against Sunderland which may have won him a 13th Premier League championship demonstrated that Sir Alex must have been pretty serious.

If Kagawa knew that his future boss was at the game, prior to emerging from the tunnel that night then he could not have had a better audition. The Japanese international scored in the first three minutes, laid on an assist and had an outstanding game in the central attacking position behind the striker Robert Lewandowski. While the Polish international scored a hat trick in Dortmund’s 5-2 thrashing of Bayern it was very much Kagawa’s final. His variety of passing and ability to create space for himself was a pleasure to behold and it would be of no surprise to learn that Sir Alex saw in Kagawa a player reminiscent of Paul Scholes: capable of unlocking defenses with technique, imagination and killer balls.

Like Scholes he is not one for the sliding tackle. Unlike Scholes he is not given to trying and has only picked up four yellow cards in his seventy one appearances for the Dortmund club.Having said that Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund team play the pressing game and Kagawa definitely pulls his weight. He is well used to the physical game and after two season being buffeted around by burly Bundesliga defensive midfielders the physicality of the Premier League should hold no terrors for him.

If you have not seen the former Cerezo Osaka player before then the first thing you’ll notice about him is his stance.On the ball he plays with a straight back and his backside closer to the ground than other players. He keeps his chin very high which must help enormously when picking a pass and scanning for teammates. This gives him a somewhat distinctive appearance given his somewhat diminutive stature. It is a very pleasing poise which makes him almost impossible not to like, unless you are an opposition supporter.

Kagawa started his career at Cerezo Osaka and his thirty five goals in fifty four matches were enough to help promote his team to the Japanese First Division. There is a misconception that he was a Japanese second division player when the transfer to Dortmund took place in the Summer of 2010. However, he did start the J-League 1 season at Osaka and played 12 games in the First Division before moving to Germany.

That misunderstanding lead pundits to believe that Kagawa would be slowly and carefully introduced into the Dortmund first team. But Klopp intended no such precaution and started the Japanese international immediately. He played seventeen games before leaving to travel with the Japan national team to the Asian Cup. In that time he scored eight goals, his first was on his third appearance against Wolfsburg, which I'm happy to say I was there to watch. His second and third were in the following game against Dortmund’s local and fierce rivals, Schalke 04. This very quickly elevated his status amongst BVB’s legion of supporters.

His first season was cut short, however, after sustaining a metatarsal fracture during Japan’s ultimately successful Asian Cup tournament. His only other appearance that season was on the last day where he collected his Bundesliga championship winner’s medal. The following season was relatively free of injury and after taking advantage of Mario Götze’s damaged pubic bone (Götze had replaced Kagawa, the season before) Dortmund’s number 23 scored thirteen goals and picked up another championship winners medal. He also helped complete a rare double for Dortmund by inspiring his team to that Cup Final win, a game which proved to be his last for the club.

The move to the Premier League is of no great surprise. English domestic football is very popular in Japan and even in his first season, the feeling was that Kagawa had ambitions beyond Germany. When he hesitated and ultimately declined to sign a contract extension, last season, the writing was on the wall and once those German TV cameras spotted Sir Alex and his right hand man, Mike Phelan, sitting in the Olympiastadion that night in Berlin, the jig was up. Dortmund fans can console themselves with the knowledge a ready made replacement in Marco Reus of Borussia Mönchengladbach, has already joined his boyhood club and will slot in nicely into the space that Kagawa left. United fans can relax, secure in the knowledge that they have a long term  attacking central midfielder to call their own.

As a Dortmund fan, I’m heartbroken to see him go. As a Crystal Palace fan I’m just relieved he did not go to Chelsea.

Monday, 28 May 2012

The goalscorer's fear of the penalty shoot-out

With apologies to Pater Handke and Wim Wenders.

It’s never easy to admit responsibility for your mistakes and face up to your shortcomings. The line between being unnecessarily negative and realistic about your limitations is a fine one and acknowledging that you’ve fucked up seems, for some, to be an admission of defeat and an attitude that is discouraged in some quarters, especially in the professional sporting arena. However, most successful entrepreneurs will tell you that mistakes are essential if you want to be ultimately successful. But when the price of failure is humiliation, abuse and represents a threat to your livelihood, it is perhaps easier to look around for someone or something else to blame.

This is why the penalty shoot-out can be regarded as the ultimate panacea in football. It's arbitrary nature makes it easy for players, coaches and fans to absolve themselves of blame or defend their team for not winning a match over ninety minutes or extra time. Penalty shoot-outs are a dreadful way to lose a football match and are a lottery. While the former is almost certainly true, the latter is not and as long as that conception remains, the chances of a team succeeding through penalties are reduced.

In the absence of replays, penalty shoot-outs are the most efficient and exciting way of separating two teams where two hours of football has been unable to do so. Scoring from a penalty is, on the surface, ludicrously simple: the player, the ball, 12 yards and only the keeper to beat. What could be easier and what could be more terrifying when the alternative is pain and misery? And the closer you get to the Final, the greater the pressure and the stronger the likelihood of failure. The shoot-out is the ultimate test of a player’s class and bottle. Nine times out of ten, a professional footballer should score a penalty in training with their eyes closed. This makes the shoot-out a contest that takes place almost entirely in the mind. One thing that they are most definitely not is a lottery.

A lottery is a game of chance: a series of randomly selected numbers. Penalties are not random, there is no luck involved in taking a penalty. In fact, dodgy penalty spots aside, the goalkeeper in the only external factor. By calling penalties a lottery, you’re introducing an element of fortune or even fate that does not exist. However, it does provide the team who lost the shoot-out with the emotional crutch required to cope with their failure. We gave everything we had but just wasn’t meant to be. Honour is satisfied, blame is apportioned, all that is left is to deal with the emotional scars of defeat and that is nothing that an advertising contract with a Pizza restaurant chain can’t fix.

But is this attitude healthy? By players and coaches consigning their penalty angst to the ether, are they denying themselves to chance to improve their technique? According to this study by Anna Stodter & Matt Pain at Loughborough University, Stuart Pearce’s England Under 21 team practiced penalties in differing conditions for 2 years and lo and behold won a penalty shoot-out in the corresponding Under 21 tournament. This is hardly conclusive evidence that training and development works but it must surely be preferable to leaving it to chance. Especially when you consider that chance has almost nothing to do with it.

Without looking at the statistics, I would suggest that it is extremely unlikely for any team to win a major international knock out competition, club or international, without having to go through at least one penalty shoot-out. Surely it behoves coaches to not leave penalties to chance. I’m sure that the procedure is not quite a slap dash as it appears but you do wonder if teams, traditionally better at penalties like Germany, put more thought into the shoot-out than teams that traditionally are not so good at them like... oh I don’t know, England for instance.

Penalties are brilliant. They’re dramatic, conclusive, and emotional and I can only imagine that the winners never feel more alive when they are over. A true professional should relish the challenge and embrace it without fear of failure. They should step to step up the mark, place the ball on the spot, give the ‘keeper the eyes and with ice coursing through the veins slot the ball home.

It's what Kipling would have done.

Friday, 25 May 2012

Euro 2012: Could Germany become the new Holland?

Being an assessment of Germany's prospects of winning Euro 2012.

It is fair to say that German international football has undergone a transformation.  After having entertained many neutrals in the 2010 World Cup it has become de riguer to regard Joachim Löw’s group of talented young footballers as the successors to Spain and become the next European Champions. However, unless they can start delivering trophies, It is possible that they become the known as new Holland from the 1970s. Fantastic to watch but ultimately unsuccessful.

I’m not about the make a comparison between the Dutch team that exemplified Total Football but failed in the '74 and '78 World Cup Finals and this current German team that finished as runners up in 2008 and third in 2010. However, as we try to find a narrative amidst the chaos that is football, it is perhaps understandable to be preoccupied with the idea that, just like Holland, the most entertaining international football team of the current age may leave the stage with nothing but good wishes.

Germany’s biggest strength is in its midfield. Bastian Schweinsteiger, Mesut Özil and Sami Khedira offer the perfect balance of creativity, composure and enforcement. With the lines between midfield and attack increasingly blurred it is difficult to know where one ends and the other begins. Toni Kroos, Thomas Müller, Lukas Podolski and André Schürrle offer quick and incisive transition plus plenty of bullets for the striker. Recent additions to the squad, in this area have been the two Borussia Dortmund attackers Mario Götze and Marco Reus (formerly of Borussia Mönchengladbach) who have broken through in the last season and bring immense talent and imagination.

Götze, at nineteen, was a phenomenon, last season. He is fully expected to rival Lionel Messi as one of the best attacking players in the world. This season, injury has hampered his progress somewhat but followers of the national team are hopeful that he will have a breakthrough tournament in the Summer. Reus is slightly older but has been majestic in ‘Gladbach’s sensational rise to the top four of the Bundesliga. His superb form leaves Löw with a vast array of attacking options and if he can get the right mix, neutrals are in for a real treat. It is in this area of the field that Germany are most likely win Euro 2012 in that same way that Spain won in 2008.

The spearhead of the attack will presumably be lead by the Bayern Munich striker, Mario Gomez who has scored a mammoth 41 goals in 51 games in all competitions, last season. However, despite his record, doubts persist about his big game qualities. His critics point to disappointing performances in international tournaments and perhaps more pertinently, his poor showing in the Champions League Final defeat against Chelsea. I’m not convinced by the term “big game bottler” that is levelled at players like Gomez and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The concept is tied to psychology and there is no way of making a considered evaluation of a player’s ability to manage pressure situations without performing a full evaluation which most football commentators are incapable of doing. Given his record, Löw would be a lunatic to not pick Gomez and if he doesn’t work out? Well there is always, Miroslav Klose.

The Polish born former Werder Bremen and Bayern striker has an exemplary international record. The Lazio striker is in decent nick, scoring 16 goals in 33 games, last season. Klose has been used sparingly in 2012 for the national team and the Stuttgart striker, Cacau is on hand as a further reserve. In an ideal world however, Germany’s prospects are greatly enhanced with a fully functioning Gomez.

At the back, few will argue that Manuel Neuer is the Number 1 choice goalkeeper among a field of high quality custodians. However, fewer still will argue that the centre of defence is a crucial area and in Mats Hummels and Holger Badstuber, Germany have two outstanding centre backs. The latter has a tendency to the odd aberration but the former has been almost flawless for Borussia Dortmund for the last two seasons. They both lack experience and it is possible that Löw may prefer to have Arsenal’s Per Mertesacker return from injury. This may surprise many who have seen him play  but his experience on the international stage will be invaluable.

The full backs will probably be Benedikt Höwedes of Schalke and the captain Philipp Lahm of Bayern Munich. It is also likely the Jerome Boateng, also of Bayern will feature. Lahm remains one of the best in the world at his job. Howedes is a real talent but like Hummels and Badstuber, lacks experience.

Therein lays the German’s weakness or their biggest strength. The back four has the ability to stop anything that comes their way but they may need more time and to learn and gel as a unit. On the other hand they may be ready for the challenge that awaits them. If so then Germany has every chance of wrestling the title from Spain.

All that really remains is the ineffable quality that is the will to win. Germany have come pretty close to winning their first title since Euro 96 but have failed. The general consensus is that they have rebuilt themselves from the efficient but dour team that won stuff to the swashbuckling entertainers that enter Euro 2012 as favourites. But the worry (from German point of view of course) is that the recent disappointments in 2010 and 2008 will have a negative effect and somehow prevent them from doing what is necessary to win.

There is also the possibility that the crushing disaster for the many Bayern Munich players will affect the morale of the squad and cause influential players like Schweinsteiger, Lahm and Gomez to underperform. This seems unlikely given the professionalism of the players but it does remain a possibility.

More realistically however, the biggest obstacle in Germany’s path to glory will not be laid by themselves but by the other teams in the tournament. Nevertheless, Germany have the players and the balance right and are well equipped to overcome any obstructions. All that remains is for them to actually get out there and do it.

You can see a full list of the players selected for Germany's preliminary squad here.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Champions League: The miracle of Bayern and the consequences of Chelsea's win in London and Munich

Chelsea's penalty shoot out victory in Saturday's Champions League Final over Bayern Munich changes the football landscape slightly in those two great footballing cities.

On Sunday morning the people of London awoke in the knowledge that at long last, their city had a Football European Champion. At least, the ones who take and interest in football.

The news will of course be greeted with mixed emotions, depending on whereabouts in London you come from but it is worth noting that the capital city, despite appearances at times, is a hotbed of the game and boasts  fourteen professional league clubs from Dagenham to Brentford and Barnet to Crystal Palace. The fact the none of them, up to now, have one the ultimate prize in club football has been a matter of minor embarrassment for those who take an interest in regional rivalries in England.

The fact that it is Chelsea are first to win the European Cup, will dent the pride of some supporters of the larger clubs in the capital. Arsenal, for years, have claimed the status of top dogs with their history of success in domestic league and cup competitions. Together with their local rivals, Tottenham Hotspur, north London has been seen as the epicentre of the game in the city, at least in the minds of north Londoners. Chelsea, in the west, like West Ham in the east, have had their fair share of good times but it was only after the arrival of Roman Abramovitch that the balance of power genuinely shifted.

The Blues' Mourinho inspired dominance of the Premier League in the middle of the last decade introduced Chelsea as a major player in England in the same way that Manchester City are doing so now. But with the name "Chelsea FC"  freshly engraved on the Champions League Trophy, few can successfully argue with the claim of the club and their supporters that they are London's top dogs: the first and so far only winners of the Champions League.

That the victory was achieved in the most unlikely circumstances only contributes to the narrative. In Germany they refer to their national team's World Cup win against Hungary on 1954, as the Miracle of Bern. Fritz Walter and his players were considered rank outsiders against Puskas and the Magnificent Magyars yet they prevailed. On Saturday, Chelsea celebrated their own miracle of Bayern.

As for the Bavarian club, the result is a disaster. This is one of the best Bayern Munich teams ever to be assembled. Despite their apparent defensive frailties, there is no other team in the Bundesliga that conceded fewer goals this season. The club boasted the second top scorer in Mario Gomez who scored twenty six goals in the league and thirteen in the Champions League. In any other year, not only would they have won the German League and Cup but gone on to win the Champions League Final against a Chelsea side that, by common consent, had ridden their luck so far in the competition and were missing key players. Unfortunately, for them, this was the domestic season in which, as good as Bayern were, Borussia Dortmund were better. So with the entire campaign resting on their "Day of Destiny" as Sky Sports called it, they were dealt a stinker of a hand by the gods of football who are always ready to punish the profligate.

After flatly refusing to take the chances they had created, Bayern were sucker punched by Didier Drogba and shot down by penalties. That is two seasons without a trophy for the Bavarians and worse still, a chance of an historic treble denied despite having one of the best teams on the continent in my humble opinion.

"Such is football" as the Bayern goal scorer, Thomas Mueller, said after the game and  few clubs understand the cruelty of this sport more than Bayern Munich. After all they have dished out enough pain and shattered more than a few dreams down their years. For them, the challenge is to restore their place at the top of the pile in Germany. They must deal with the upstarts in Dortmund and face down the jibes of the new Neverkusen after emulating Bayer Leverkusen who threw away their chance of winning the Bundesliga title, German Cup and  Champions League in 2002. There maybe a few changes in Munich over the Summer.

One post script to this final is the relegation of Tottenham Hotspur to the Europa League which is another reason why not everyone in London is pleased to see the Champions League duck broken. Spurs finished fourth in the Premier League but will forfeit their Champions League qualification place and make way for Chelsea who failed to finish in the top four in the league but qualify as Champions. Something tells me that the powers that be at White Hart Lane will not accept this situation easily and already a call has been put into UEFA to see what can be done.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Has 24 hour sports news on TV had its day?

This is not a nostalgia blog so I’m instantly weary of making any reference to teletext services in the UK such as Ceefax on the BBC or its ITV equivalent, Oracle. However, the reference is pertinent as these services were for many years the football fans main source of breaking news. For years, people would get home from work, switch on the TV and go straight to Page 302 on Ceefax, anxious to see the latest doings in the wonderful and diverse planet of football.

Over the years the service has become superseded by the World Wide Web and of course rolling sports new channels, specifically in the UK, Sky Sports News. There are many reasons to object to the venerable SSN as a news service. Its tendency to focus only on sporting events to which it had the rights, suggests that the channel was not so much Sky Sports News but News About Sky Sports. On slow news days (and let’s be honest there are more than a few) they would often manufacture stories by asking prominent ex-sportsmen, usually on golf courses, their opinion on the perceived topic of the day and passing that off as news (i.e. John Aldridge believes that Kenny Dalglish is the right man to lead Liverpool). In the words of Angry Dad, “That’s not opinion, notnews!

There is also the practice of door stepping supporters who happen to be passing by a home stadium to ask them their opinion on the latest club transfer which has a whiff of space filler. Then there is the sight of the lonely reporter standing outside Tottenham Hotspur’s training ground waiting for Harry Redknapp’s car to emerge from the gates, always happy to stop and inform the nation of absolutely nothing before haring off to the M25 to join the throng of travelling salesmen making the long journey home to their families and dogs. And then of course there is Jim White and transfer deadline day, an event that I refuse to capitalise.

Such elements have become as part of the cultural fabric of English football as Bovril, high ticket prices and Match Of The day, perhaps more so. However, whatever your views on Sky Sports News and their approach, what they used to be really good at was delivering actual news and delivering it first and it is this aspect that has changed.

Today (16th May) saw the release of Roy Hodgson’s provisional England squad for the 2012 European Championship and the squad list was broken not on the sports website and certainly not on Sky Sports News. Instead it was broken by the numerous football journalist and editors who had access to the Football Association’s press release or whatever it was that they used to disseminate the squad, on Twitter or as poor old Sky Sports News were forced to report some “social networking sites.” For once, they seemed behind the curve. Last with the News.

It is very likely that the England squad list would almost certainly have been in the hands of the editorial staff at SSN but putting stuff on TV is hard. It takes time to draft the script, prepare the graphics and stop the presenters from talking about whatever they were talking about at the time and report the news. By that point not only did everyone with even a passing interest in football know that Carrick wasn’t in the squad but they were boldly expressing their dismay and outrage that Carrick wasn’t in the squad. It is entirely possible that by the time the names had first ran across their famous yellow ticker, the #Hodgsonout hashtag was trending, worldwide.One can only imagine the carnage as the news broke that Liverpool manager, Kenny Dalglish, had left the club.

The problem is that SSN have become too reliant on waiting for press releases, in my opinion. The “once we know, you’ll know” approach is now redundant. TV channels may not be the last to know something but they are rapidly becoming the last to report it. This is not a problem exclusive to Sky Sports News but there is far too much infotainment on that channel and not enough actual journalism going on. The channel is at its best  when they deliver their special reports or exclusives. News that matters and cannot be delivered in 140 characters should be within the domain of SSN.

Corruption, people trafficking and racism in football have all been covered by this network and while stories like that don’t happen every hour if their journalists were tasked with finding out what others don’t already know and used Twitter to break news that everyone else already knows then the channel has a future.  If not then 24 hour sports news may go the way of the dinosaur, the magnetic cassette and the printed newspaper.

Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Was McLeish sacked for poor results or poor ratings?

Money talks louder in the Premier League than in most professional leagues in the world and the recent figures released of the TV revenue earned by the top English clubs reveal that  fortune does not favour the moribund as Aston Villa saw their share of the revenue decline by £7 million from last season.

While Newcastle United's swashbuckling and successful football under manager Alan Pardew earned them an additional £7 million, the midlands club paid a heavy price for an uninspiring season and one is forced to wonder if the decision to part company with their manager Alex McLeish was taken with the decline in TV revenue firmly in mind.

You will find it tough locating a Villa fan who regards the departure of McLeish from Villa Park, yesterday, as bad news. While it is important to remember that it is not possible to view the full picture, his appointment seemed, on the surface at least, to be ill conceived.

The former Scotland coach had been doing a bang up job of identifying himself with the kind of football more suited to a sleep unit. Even so, Mcleish could have reinvented total football, signed Lio Messi and held regular tactical séances with Valeriy Lobanovskyi plus Rinus Michels in public and he still would have been given a maximum of two defeats by the fans before getting on his back by virtue of the fact that he was managing the hated Birmingham City, only last season. While I’m all for giving managers a fair crack, it would be difficult to argue with any anti McLeish sentiment, whatever happens on the pitch. Sometimes football is not about results and it would have been impossible for McLeish to have been accepted at Villa Park.

But the football under his management was by common consent, ineffective and boring. No doubt the erstwhile coach will defend his methods and found himself working under difficult circumstances. However, his critics will point to clubs which, in principle, have fewer resources than Villa such as Norwich and Swansea but provided a more entertaining and effective approach to the game. The results were bad, the football was dull and the drop in TV revenue is perhaps as much an indicator of Villa’s decline as their league position.

Commercial TV companies will always be governed by ratings. Aston Villa are a big club with a national and international support. If you put Villa on the telly, the viewing figures should be decent, irrespective of where they are in the table and how well or poorly they are playing. However. their TV income has dropped due to a reduction of appearances on the Box and that must surely have something to do with the fact that they have been difficult to watch.

Here then is a link between entertaining football and TV revenue. This is by no means the only reason why a team does not get TV coverage but one could make the argument that it is a factor. If the club Chairman, Randy Lerner, took this into consideration when making a decision to make a change it is likely that it will be a consideration when deciding upon McLeish’s replacement. If that is the case then the new manager’s brief maybe more than just winning games but entertaining, not only the paying public (I’ve not seen the home attendances but I’d be willing to bet that they are down) plus make the team more attractive to a potential TV audience.

I may well be putting two and two together to get five but the idea of a manager getting sacked because of declining TV revenue has a certain appeal if you're the type of person who chooses to adopt a Dystopian narrative to the economics and culture of the Premier League. Like a bad TV show, McLeish wasn’t so much sacked as cancelled.

Monday, 14 May 2012

Gary Neville's England appointment strikes a blow for the Hodgson haters

The appointment of Gary Neville as part of the England coaching team is a smart move by Roy Hodgson for reasons related to matters on and off the pitch.

Cards on the table: I like Roy Hodgson. I think that with the many years of experience he has managing in Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Italy, the World Cup, European Championships and of course in the English Premier League, to not give him a crack at the national team seems utter lunacy. I don’t wish any specific harm toward Harry Redknapp but believe that Hodgson’s relevant experience knock’s the Tottenham manager's into a cocked hat. Unfortunately, the decision to appoint the Hodge has not gone down very well with a number of tabloid media outlets and it would appear that the knives are out before a ball has been kicked under the new coach’s tenure.

On the surface, much of the criticism seems to be simply mean-spirirtedness by individual journalists who are disappointed that the media friendly Redknapp has not been given the gig. Perhaps the steady stream of content that would have come their way from a man who has enjoyed a close relationship with the press may not be forthcoming under Hodgson and this has put a few noses out of joint. This may be an unfair criticism but of greater concern to the assembled journalists will be the fact that the FA conducted a formal consultation process before arriving at the decision to appoint Hodgson and no one from the Fourth Estate seemed to have any indication that the job would be going to anyone other than Harry. This inability to get the inside track may have caused some resentment and may compel them to reassess their relationship with their contacts within the game.

The upshot of all of this is that Roy is a marked man and will need to tread carefully in his media relations. Winning football matches may not be enough if the performances are unspectacular and the Press will be working hard to find any signs of dissent within the England players. Perhaps mindful of this Hodgson has recruited Gary Neville into his coaching staff. A decision that is both populist and sensible.

Neville’s record as a player requires no close examination, at least not in this post. The former Manchester United full back has bags of recent experience as a player, has his UEFA A and B coaching licences and an international playing record that few other, if any, Englishmen can match. Also, having only recently retired, he will have the respect of the players, most of whom will have played both with and against him. In the search for a young progressive coach to learn the ways of international football, perhaps with a view to becoming the next England manager, Gary Neville seems to tick every box.

The other element to this decision is that it is a good public relations move. While such considerations are secondary to what happens on the pitch, Neville has become a popular man thanks to the work he has been doing at Sky Sports. His obvious insights into the workings of the modern game and his exceptional skill as a communicator have been genuinely interesting and entertaining even to smart arsed know-it-alls like me. Even as a player, Neville was a contrary character with his mildly leftists perspective. He was dubbed Che Neville by The Fiver for years and deep down, I think many supporters respected his passion for his club even if they outwardly abused him as a player.

Nevilles decision to join the England set up represents a blow to Hodgson’s foes. Neville, having earned the public’s respect as a player and a pundit, has clearly endorsed Hodgson and in turn the FA’s appointment, by accepting the position. This will make it harder to hate Hodgson and may at elicit a little more patience from the Tabloids, until the first defeat or below-par performance that is.

In terms of the future, Neville’s success is tied to Hodgson’s. If the England manager stays in post for the full four years of his contract then that would have to be classed as a success. Not just for the man himself but for the management structure. Assuming Neville has not been tempted away by club football, he would, presumably be in line to take on the manager’s job and achieve that lineage that the English FA crave.  Qualification for the 2018 World Cup may well be led by Gary Neville: England Manager.

Sunday, 13 May 2012

Carling think Scottish football fans will watch anything

I'm not about to suggest that Scottish Football represents to pinnace of sporting excellence, for from it. However, I have after many years of automatically dismissing the game north of the border with typical English arrogance, taken the time to actually watch some matches from the SPL. While I find the narrative of the Old Firm to be tedious, there is no doubt that this season's Celtic side has much to offer. If this predominantly young squad can stick together then they will be sure to win many titles, especially now that Rangers are in such parlous financial straights it may take them forever to recover.

There is value further down the league with both Dundee United and Motherwell playing an attractive brand of football. The latter have a shot at Champions league football thanks to Rangers not being eligible for UEFA competition.

While it is fair to say that the quality in the Scottish game struggles to match that of the Premier League and other senior European leagues there are plans afoot to develop young players in Scotland and produce a generation of exciting talent to entertain the public in the SPL and for the national team. The SFA  recently appointed  Mark Wotte as Performance Director to oversee this. Also, I can say that most of the games I've seen have been reasonably entertaining from a neutral standpoint with the standard being very for from poor.

A pity then that some of the SPL's commercial partners seem to adopt a decidedly patronising tone when presenting the Scottish game. UK lager vendors Carling have sponsored the domestic satellite TV coverage on Sky and ESPN for at least a couple years and their sponsorship bumpers are not exactly complimentary. The theme revolves around the 'passion' of the Scottish football fan who are so 'passionate' about their football that they will watch anything from sheepdogs to balls floating in a lake and people sat in a bus shelter.

While these bumpers are intend to be watched with tongue firmly placed in cheek, it does suggest the scale of the task that Scottish football in general faces in trying to persuade people that their league is not as bad as it is perceived. When I see those bumpers I think the message they send (apart from buy Carling) is: Scottish football fans are so passionate that they will watch anything, even Scottish football. This approach by Carling must work for them because if it wasn't they would have taken a different approach, presumably.

The overall narrative of Scottish football on Sky and ESPN is that of 'passion' particularly from the fans. Their promos and opening credits feature fans, demonstrating their 'passion' and tend to use less imagery involving the actual players actually playing actual football. The inference is clear: the football's not that good but look at what it means to the fans?

Football in Scotland doesn't need commercial partners to convey these values. While it would be foolish to over hype the SPL it is counter productive to portray as a league that is watched by people who will watch any old rubbish. Scottish football deserves more than that and if the league improves it needs its sponsors and broadcasting to be across this. By all means sell the passion but sell the progress too.

Europa League Qualification Places Part 1 - England and Germany

As the final whistles are blowing all over Europe (yes yes not Ireland and Norway, I know) the Europa League qualifiers are being determined. Here is a summary of those set to participate in next season's competition, the early rounds of which start at the beginning of July.


The Europa League gets a huge amount of stick in England. This is driven by embittered managers who wanted to qualify for the Champions League, equally embittered journalists who would rather have the Thursday evening off and Sky Sports who rarely miss an opportunity to undermine a competition that clashes with Darts and Snooker.

This season, however, the prospect of Thursday nights on Channel 5 was not universally unappealing to English clubs. Fulham, Stoke City and Birmingham City seemed to genuinely enjoy their European nights and only Tottenham Hotspur failed to turn up. This season sees Newcastle United return to European action for the first time in many years. The Toon Army have enjoyed a magnificent season and are perhaps finally realistic enough to understand that opportunities like playing in Europe are not to be taken for granted. Joining them are Liverpool as League Cup final winners. The Reds will almost certainly prioritise the league, next season so may see the Europa League as a distraction. However, a club whose identity is so bound up with European football are unlikely to treat the competition as an afterthought.

Unless they win the Champions League Final, Chelsea will be the third team to enter the Europa League as FA Cup Winners. If the Blues win then Tottenham will be the reluctant inheritors of the third Europa League spot. It would be funny if they won wouldn't it?


Bundesliga clubs value the Europa League and the lovely coefficient points that come with them. However, the Germans have not been as successful as their status of a senior European nation suggests in recent years. In fact, surprise qualifiers, Mainz, dropped out before the group stages, this season to the Romanians Gaz Metan Medias. The other unlikely qualifier was Hannover 96 who are more used to relegation scraps but are reinvigorated under coach Mirko Slomka. They reached the quarter finals of the competition and have qualified for the Europa League once again after finishing seventh and inheriting the qualification spot for the German Cup winners which is not required as the final was between two Champions League qualifiers, Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.

Joining Hannover are Stuttgart who recovered from a horrible first half of the season to finish sixth. Stuttgart managed a rare feat this season by going though an entire season without firing their coach. They will have high expectations domestically but will see Europa league participation as well within their resources. Above them are Bayer Leverkusen who will be hugely disappointed to finish fifth and miss out on the Champions League. The Werkself have disappointed at this level of competition in recent years but should take heart from their moderately impressive Champions League exploits, this season (Barcelona notwithstanding).

Next time: Italy, Spain, France and Portugal.

Terry's Soccer Blog  is proud to be part of the Europa Legion, a network of Europa League bloggers. Follow the Europa Legion on Twitter.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Wolves sign a top coach albeit with a damaged reputation

After being sacked by relegated Cologne, you'd think that Wolverhapton Wanderers' appointment of Ståle Solbakken was not such a clever idea. However, even the most cursory look at his career suggests that Wolves have made a smart move.

This time last year Ståle Solbakken was on the brink of an imperial phase in his coaching career. Having distinguished himself in the Champions League with FC Copenhagen and won five Danish League titles, the Norwegian, former Wimbledon player was hot property and regarded as among the top young coaches in Europe. After initially accepting the Norwegian national team coach position, his head was turned by FC Köln of the German Bundesliga. A decision that proved to be ultimately disastrous and resulted in his dismissal and his reputation, tarnished.

A brief glimpse at his coaching career statistics tell a contrasting story. Under Solbakken, the Copenhagen club won just over sixty percent of their matches but in the wretched thirty five game run at Cologne only eight games finished with the Billygoats on top (twenty two percent, roughly).

Initially, there had been a wave of optimism washing Solbakken to shore. Scandinavian football culture is compatible with German and  Köln, having flirted with relegation in 2010/11 needed a progressive appointment after the moribund Zvonmir Zoldo and Solbakken was seen as the ideal candidate to join incoming Sporting Director, Volke Finke, at the helm of a club with high expectations.

Inaugural Bundesliga winners in 1963, FC Köln is a big club with a massive stadium that regularly fills its 50,000 capacity. Every home game, the supporters and the media look around and think to themselves, why are we not challenging for the Champions League or even the title. A recent episode of the Bundesliga Fanatic podcast tells a story of a FC fan complaining that season tickets did not come with Champions League admission included in the price. The trouble is that the club simply does not have anything like to kind of money to recruit players capable of meeting those high standards and it was these sort of expectations and challenges that Solbakken had to manage. Unfortunately, he could not have got off to a worse start as he faced a major dressing room bust up with the clubs star player and golden boy, Lukas Podolski.

The Arsenal bound, German international striker may be born in Poland but is a true native of the city of Cologne. He loves the place and is very much a major figure at the club. Except that as soon as Solbakken arrived he relieved Podolski of the captain's armband, giving it to the Brazilian centre half, Pedro Geromel. The reaction was one of uproar among the notoriously fractious local Cologne media and is said to have soured the relationship between Podolski and Solbakken.

Had results improved on the pitch then the incident may have been forgotten. However, this did not happen. FC Köln lost a mammoth twenty one matches under Solbakken. In that time the club president, Wolfgang Overath, resigned. Solbakken and his boss, Volke Finke disagreed on transfers and their deteriorating relationship eventually resulted in Finke's departure. Finally, with only a handful of games remaining, what was left of the club's management board dispensed with Solbakken in a desperate attempt to avoid relegation. They failed and went down at home to Bayern Munich on the final day of the season.

Despite what happened, Solbakken, left some good friends behind him at Cologne. He had a good relationship with the local media and was highly visible during the Carnival season. His fans would point to the lack of resources and in-fighting at board room level as the main reason behind Köln dismal season. However, it is hard to imagine that the coach is completely blameless and Solbakken will need to learn from his mistakes.

In general though, a top coach does not become a bad one in the course of a single season without a lot of help and this must have been prominent in the mind of Wanderers' CEO, Jez Moxey, when deciding who should be given the responsibility of steering Wolves back into the Premier League. Twelve months ago Solbakken would have taken some convincing to come to a newly relegated club. However, Moxey has taken advantage of his tarnished reputation and has taken a chance that he is not damaged by his experience in Germany. In principal, Wolves have signed a coach from the top draw but of course, principles don't win football matches and we will not know if this was an inspired appointment until the season starts in August.

The Hollywoodification of English Football Fan Culture

Interesting to note Carlsberg’s new Euro 2012 Fan Academy campaign, doing the rounds on the Blogosphere is designed to extol the virtues of England fandom: The pride, passion, futility etc. The advert has the usual impressive smattering of megastars from the football cultural landscape, is suitably well polished and not unamusing. 

What I find interesting is the choice of music, A suitably rousing march, reminiscent of the theme to the film, The Great Escape, which as anyone who follows the English national team will tell you, is the unofficial anthem of the supporters and played by that band who are allowed to enter the matches despite being in possession of deeply offensive weapons.
The music in this advert is from the movie Police Academy. I have no doubt that the tune was carefully chosen as not only is it cheerfully rousing, it’s also very familiar to the target demographic. After all, who hasn’t seen that film?

What I find ironic about both pieces of music is that they are composed by Americans. Elmer Bernstein composed the Great Escape and Robert Folk, Police Academy. This leads me to wonder if American cultural imperialism is more than just a concept conceived by leftist under graduates trying to score on a Friday night. The Great Escape theme, ii particular, is layered which contradictions in that the film is, in part, a celebration of British heroism but projected through through a Hollywood prism. England fans adoption of the theme could be construed as them embracing a foreign concept of their own national identity, a concept which Carlsberg (among many others) are all too happy to commodify.

The Hollywoodification of English Football Fan Culture. Now there’s a topic for the close season.

Welcome to my football blog

Hello, my name is Terry and I've been blogging and podcasting about football since 2003. Past projects include the Onion Bag, Some People Are On The Pitch, the Football Fairground, Sound of Football and the Bundesliga Show podcasts. I also set up and administer the Europa Legion Network of bloggers plus I am the co-founder of the Socrates football bloggers meetups.

From the start of season 2012/13, my involvement in most of those projects will end so I've decided to try something different and set up my own dedicated football blog.

Here you will find missives, previews, profiles, opinions and anything else that I think will be of interest about the game of football. I've left the scope to the blog deliberately open as one day I may be rounding up German fourth division action and the next, revealing the latest  Europa League TV deals or visiting an art exhibition. The blog is intended to be as much out the stuff of soccer than soccer itself.