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.