Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?


Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.

Post-season Blues….and Citizens and Spurs


A weeks after the end of the season used to be the reserve of testimonials for long-serving players and club officials. Football has moved on, and the likelihood of a player staying at one club for 5 years, let alone a decade is very rare. Look at the final top four in the Premier League – John Terry at Chelsea (11 years since debut) is the stand out exception to this; Man City could boast Micah Richards (10 years) although 179 appearances in ten years and spending the last season on loan to Fiorentina, whilst Arsenal of course have the £2m a year forgotten man (by most outside of the Emirates anyway) Abou Diaby who made his debut in 2006.

This week Crystal Palace honoured the service of their long-serving keeper Julián Speroni who had made over 350 appearances since joining the club in 2004 with a testimonial against former club Dundee. However, Palace appeared to be the exception rather than the rule of playing post-season games with any altruistic meaning.

Yet twenty four hours after Palace honoured their keeper, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were due to play games of their own. This time it wasn’t to honour a particular player, or reward any member of the club for long service. In fact it is hard to think of any reason apart from a commercial obligation why they would be heading to Canada and Malaysia respectively.

The clubs will argue it is all about building a fan base in new markets, but does that really stack up? With the Premier League season done and dusted less than 72 hours previous, why would Manchester City decide it was a good idea for their squad to fly 3,500 miles to Toronto? Assuming they left on Monday, that’s quite a strain on the players having just completed a full season, and one that was proceeded for many of the players by the World Cup in Brazil and also included a mid-season game in Abu Dhabi against Hamburg. Straight after the game in Toronto they then head to Texas (a mere 1,500 miles) where 24 hours later they take on Houston.

Tottenham Hotspur haven’t exactly been brimming with joy at the prospect of another Europa League campaign next season. Back in April Mauricio Pochettino admitted the Europa League is a hindrance to a Premier League club’s domestic aspirations, yet the club have already headed East for a game in Malaysia on Wednesday before flying onto Australia to take on Sydney on Saturday. They will be joined down under by Chelsea who also take on Sydney on Tuesday night after a stop in Thailand to play the”All Stars XI” on Saturday. It’s hard to have sympathy with the clubs when they complain about fixture congestion then take off on such trips.

What makes these trips even more strange in terms of their timing is a number of the players will be included in International squads for friendlies being played on the 6th and 7th June.  England, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, France, Argentina and Ghana are all due to play that weekend, putting further strain on the players.

These post season games seem to be a growing trend. Not that it detracts from their pre-season games – Manchester City will be heading to Australia to take part in the newly expanded International Champions Cup, taking on Roma and Barcelona in Melbourne, whilst Chelsea play in the North American edition against New York RedBulls, PSG and Barcelona. Spurs will be one of the other four current Premier League sides heading Stateside  as they take on the MLS All-Stars at the wonderfully named Dick’s Sporting Goods Store Stadium in he equally brilliantly named Commerce City in Colorado.

Football is a highly competitive global game on and off the pitch, but do these post-season games really help the players, who are the profit generators when viewed with commercial glasses on? Do you think Mourinho, Pellegrini and Pochettino have the same enthusiasm for these trips as adidas, Samsung, Nike, Etihad, Armour and AIA have? In some instances the club’s have to perform based on clauses in hugely profitable commercial partnerships, underlining the shift from the people’s game to a game dominated by money. That’s not a surprise. Tomorrow’s avid Chelsea or Man City fan is just as likely to live in Shanghai as he is in Streatham or Stretford, snapping up all the club have to offer in a digital format such as the ability to watch these games exclusively in the club’s online TV channel.

Tickets for the games in Thailand and Malaysia aren’t cheap. When Chelsea play in the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday in the Singha Celebration Match (Chelsea’s Global Beer Partner), tickets range from around £10 to close to £80, which is almost a third of the average monthly income in Thailand. Even Arsenal cannot boast that price to income ratio yet! Meanwhile over in Selangor where the average Malaysian earns approximately £900 per month, tickets for the AIA Cup (Spurs shirt sponsor) game will cost between £10 and £75 although there are no concessions at all.

I’m sure the fans who are following their teams across the world will enjoy the opportunity to visit some new cities, whilst the marketing officials and PR companies will do their best to get players to look happy at choreographed public appearances. The clubs will stand firmly behind the pretext of building their brand in new markets, but does this simply add more weight to the stealth plans of Game 39 once more?

Postscript – 28/5 – Man City’s game at the BBVA stadium in Houston was postponed after the team arrived in Texas due to issues with the pitch.  Well, that was worth it then.

The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

Deal or no Deal for the Non League clubs


After the announcement that the Premier League had awarded the TV rights to Sky Sports and BT Sports last month for a jaw-dropping £5.14 billion.  The vast majority of that cash will flow into the already bulging pockets of the Premier League clubs.  Despite calls for the cash to be used to subsidise ticket prices, with full stadiums up and down the country every week, there is no compelling event for the clubs to do that.  Greed feeds greed.

15979358738_46b2a39bda_kWhilst the aristocrats of the Premier League are feeding on caviar and the finest fillet steak, clubs in the Non-Leagues are living hand to mouth, fighting for scraps.  Every season clubs in the Non-Leagues simply give up, unable to keep up with the spiralling costs of running a football club.

This should be a watershed moment for football in England.  The Premier League has an opportunity to give something back to the grass roots of English football. Will they? Probably not.  But if they are looking for ideas, how about these three simple concepts which would have an immediate benefit to clubs in the Non-Leagues.

1. Scrap the rule that means pricing of Sky Sports TV packages for football clubs are based on the rateable value of the football club.  We at Lewes have looked at Sky on numerous occasions, but because the rateable value of The Dripping Pan includes the stands and the pitch, the cost was north of £750 per month  In comparison, BT Sport charge around a tenth of that per month. So why not scrap charges for clubs below a certain level in return for free advertising at the ground?

2. Create a weekly Non-League TV show.  It seems crazy that we can access live games in most major European leagues every week on Sky and BT Sport yet Non-League doesn’t get a look in.  Why not create a weekly show, focusing on one team with an extended preview and highlights package? We’ve already seen the success of the radio show on BBC so why not roll out the format to the Non-Leagues? I can’t believe viewing figures would be worse than a live game from Holland or France.

3. Add a loser’s money pot in the FA Cup.  Every club starts the season with a dream that they will reach the Third Round and draw a big club, setting themselves up financially.  99% of them fail by the wayside but every year we have the success stories of Warrington Town, Blyth Spartans and Hastings United. There is no glory in defeat, nor in the case of the FA Cup, cash. Sure clubs share the gate revenue, but for the smaller Non-League clubs this may be a matter of a few hundred pounds.  So why not increase the prize fund in each round by 25% until the First Round Proper, with the additional amount going to the losers?

What will be a travesty is if nothing changes and the cash simply makes those clubs already awash with cash even richer. Not only will the fans suffer but football in general.  But then again, the voice of reason has no place at the highest levels of our national game.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Sabermetrics


MoneyballFor those who have seen the film Money Ball or read Michael Lewis’s book of the same name, you will be familiar with the name Bill James. For those who don’t know about the remarkable story of the Oakland Athletic baseball team then I thoroughly recommend seeing the film or picking up the book.  Without spoiling too much of the plot, James is a much-maligned chap who came up with a statistical system that was able to be used to rank each attribute of a player and thus whether they could do a job for a particular team.  He coined the phrase Sabermetrics and defined it as “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.”
Sabermetrics attempts to answer objective questions about baseball, such as “which player on the New York Yankees contributed the most to the team’s offense?” or “How many home runs will a particular players hit next year?” It cannot deal with the subjective judgments which are also important to the game, such as “Who is your favourite player?” or “That was a great match”

The General Manager of the Oakland A’s, Billy Beane, adopted the concept and took his team on an amazing run which then resulted in an approach from Boston Red Sox owner John Henry. Yep, the same John Henry who today owns Liverpool FC.

Why is this relevant to the beautiful game? In recent weeks a remarkable story has broken about Brentford’s manager Mark Warburton announcing he will step down at the end of the season. Brentford are currently playing at the highest level in their history, they have a real shot at promotion to the Premier League and a long overdue move to a new stadium is finally on the cards. So why is Mark Warburton stepping down?

The reason is the direction self-made millionaire and club owner Matthew Benham wants to take the club.  Benham made his cash pile in betting, managing a hedge fund to be more precise before turning his hand to the world of sports spread betting. He employed a team of people to analyse every statistic about clubs and players, and used the results to predict results. Based on his wealth who is to question the success of this approach? The next logical step is to apply the model to his own clubs. Clubs plural as he purchased FC Midtyjlland in Denmark last year. The club, who had have never won a major honour are currently top the Danish SuperLiga using his model.

Will this model work for Brentford? FC Midtyjlland’s chairman, appointed by Benham, 31 year old entrepreneur Rasmus Ankersen thinks there is a 42.3% chance of Brentford gaining promotion to the Premier League based on the data they have collected rather than looking at current form and making a reasoned guess of yes or no. And that, ladies and gentlemen is the theory of Sabermetrics – using past performance and data trend analysis to make decisions about the future.

Economic Theory explained by Football – Return on Investment


The news that the new £5.14 billion Premier League television deal hasn’t exactly gone down well in many quarters.  The winning bids represent huge investments made by the media giants, with the Premier League now undoubtably the richest league in the world.  Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger commented that the TV deal, and the huge influx of cash that will flow to the twenty clubs will allow them to attract the best players in the world.  Everyone’s a winner right?

14327363682_aef7b6c31b_kBut both Sky and BT will need to recoup their investments, and that is likely to spell bad news for subscribers. Rival TV boss, Tom Mockridge of Virgin Media, told ITV News this week that fans who already pay the highest prices in Europe to watch live football as from 2016 prices will see further price rises.  Faced with increasing subscription costs, some fans will abandon their contracts and look at alternative ways to watch their football.

So whilst pubs and clubs may now see more fans coming through their doors to watch games thus increasing their profits, there is a real danger that the number of websites that provide links to illegal streams will increase significantly. The more people that choose to use these streams, the more the broadcasters will be forced to increase subscription costs to recoup their investments. On the other hand, any proactive measures they take to try to identify and remove these illegal streams incur costs too – it is a real catch 22 situation.

So whilst many football fans may bemoan any potential price rises, it is important to understand the impact these illegal streams have on the the genuine product.  Just like any in-demand or aspirational product, counterfeiters and IP infringers will look to satisfy low (or no) cost demand.  The end product in the case of watching streaming sites is often poor quality, whilst downloading any software associated with these sites brings its own set of dangers. The very fans who abandon their subscriptions because of the cost in favour of illegal streams are actually part of the problem rather than the solution. That is the theory of return on investment.

The Lord’s work


14718895028_80db023387_zWith the snow gently falling in South London a few weeks ago and another Rooks game coming under threat I looked around for alternatives. Having been away for the past few weeks I thought it might be a good idea to have my Plan B as sitting in front of TV with a warm cup of tea. Scanning the fixtures I noticed that Real Madrid were playing Real Sociedad at 3pm. That’ll do me I thought but then I couldn’t find any details of the game when scanning through the Sky Sports schedules. The media giant televises a Ronaldo sneeze, and with British interest not only in the form of Gareth Bale but also in David Moyes, now managing the Basques, surely there had to be a mistake?

Alas not. Television companies in England are not allowed to show a live game between 2.45pm and 5.15pm on a Saturday. The ruling dates back over 50 years and was the result of a petition raised by the controversial Burnley chairman at the time, Bob Lord with the Football League. He argued that televised matches on a Saturday afternoon would have a negative effect on the attendances of other football league games that were not being televised and as a result reduce their financial income. Fifty years ago this made sense, but today is it still relevant?

In the last few months Ofcom have become vocal about reviewing the legislation after a complaint by Virgin Media, who feel that the restriction means the bidding process for TV rights is artificially high. The Football Supporters Federation have weighed in, lending their support to keeping the Saturday blackout.

“It’s very important to retain the 3pm window and we’d have major reservations about a further significant increase in televised football,” said Clarke. “A 3pm kick-off on Saturday is part of the tradition of English football.”

Of course this ignores the fact that on most weekends half of the games are played outside the blackout window for television purposes (more when the weekend falls after a European club competition week) yet nobody is objecting to that. Whilst I can see an argument for the blackout for games in England, why should it extend to European competition?

The same rules do not apply in other countries and other sports. The best supported football league in the world is Germany’s Bundesliga with an average attendance of over 43,000, 20% higher than the Premier League yet they show a live Saturday afternoon game. The ability for the broadcasted to choose more games to screen increases the rights, with more flowing down into the lower leagues. Germany’s football league structure is similar to England’s and a comparable ranked league to the Ryman Premier League such as the Regionalliga will still see crowds of up to 1,000 on a Saturday afternoon. BT Sports and Sky Sports also screen live rugby union at 3pm on a Saturday without any complaints despite arguments that it could cannibalize both rugby and football attendances.

You only have to look at the situation over Christmas to see the negligible effect of the ruling. With a relatively full programme on Boxing Day (Friday) and on Sunday 28th December, Sky were able to show live matches between 2pm and 5.30pm despite other games being played at the same time without any impact on attendances. Nobody threw their arms up in the air at the fact they screened Southampton v Chelsea AND Newcastle United v Everton on the 28th December whilst six other Premier League games kicked off at 3pm.

This archaic ruling is the source of controversy around the grey area of pubs and clubs showing live games from overseas broadcasters at 3pm on a Saturday. Technically, they are free to show games as long as they have purchased the equipment and subscription legitimately, but are in breach of the blackout regulations rule if they use it to show a game live at 3pm.

The new TV rights deal for the Premier League will be for 168 games a season, up from the existing 154 matches.  The additional 14 are being created by shifting some games in non-European club competition weeks to a Friday night, which will mean 44% of all of the games in England’s top division will be available to watch live – which by a simple deduction means at the maximum, 56% will be shown at 3pm on a Saturday.  Friday night football was the norm back in the 1980’s when live games first hit our TV screens but the new deal will cause pain to most away fans.  The police will be loathed to allow the high-profile local derbies to be held on a Friday night due to the drain on resources from policing the alcohol-fuelled High Streets of broken Britain, and the TV companies will not want their prestigious games to be shown when people traditionally go out for the night.  But then again,  the Premier League has long held the actual logistics of getting to and from games with as much regard as the Football Association with their legendary scheduling of FA Cup Semi-Final matches so that one set of fans cannot actually get home.

So for now it’s fingers crossed that the snow doesn’t settle and we will have a game to watch. Otherwise I may be forced into a trip to Bluewater – now that’s definitely something that should be banned at 3pm on a Saturday!