Five things to look out for in Non-League football in 2018


Apart from events at The Dripping Pan, there’s plenty to look forward to in non-league football during 2018, with clubs across the land battling to progress up the ladder.

A revised structure of the National League system will see a new steps created at tiers 3 and 4 created in time for the start of the 2018/19 season, which in theory will help iron out geographical anomalies, cut down on travelling costs and time for fans, players and officials and encourage more Step 5 clubs to climb the pyramid.

We take a look at five things from the non-league game worth keeping an eye on during 2018.

The Macc Lads making a comeback 

The National League Premier now has a dozen clubs with Football League experience, some more recently that others.  Many clubs have dropped out of the professional game and used the opportunity to become more sustainable both on and off the pitch, implementing a strategy of gradual improvement.  Current league leaders Macclesfield Town have struggled financially since relegation from the Football League in 2012, but they look well-placed to win promotion from the National League going into 2018.

John Askey’s side are six points clear at the top of the table and are favourites to win the title and should you fancy a wager on them to finish top, use this bonus code with Unibet.  Askey has done a superb job on limited resources and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him targeted by a club higher up the scale in the near future.

Artificial pitch decision could have big repercussions 

A series of meetings are planned throughout the country to look at allowing the use of artificial pitches in Leagues One and Two within the next two years.   Promotion-chasing Sutton United, Maidstone United and Bromley all play on 3G pitches and they are hoping for a positive outcome otherwise they could face extreme (and unfair) sanctions if they do not replace their surfaces with grass ones.

If the Football League refuses to change it’s rules on the use of 3G to accept artificial surfaces the clubs would be denied entry into the EFL if they finish in the play-off (or promotion) positions, but could then face relegation to step 3 of the National League.

Torquay United’s demise continues

The Gulls are in their second spell in Non-League football after twice being relegated out of the Football League in the last decade.  They are ten points adrift of safety at the bottom of the table and head coach Gary Owers is set to make wholesale changes to his squad.

The club has been on a downward spiral for some time now and it would take a minor miracle for them to escape from trouble this season, having narrowly avoided relegation for the last two seasons.

Class of ’92 making their mark at Salford

Aided by investment from Singapore billionaire Peter Lim, who also holds a stake in Spanish side Valencia, Salford went full-time last summer.   However, it’s the involvement of former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs, Gary Neville, Phil Neville, Paul Scholes and Nicky Butt that has put the club on the map and they are closing in on promotion from National League North.  There’s no doubt the involvement of the five ex-United players has been the compelling reason for success, albeit one that has been fuelled specifically by the BBC in their “fly on the wall documentaries’ and they current sit top of the National League North, favourites for promotion.

Whilst significant investment has gone into the squad and the ground, which has changed beyond all recognition in the last three years, the owners have also dramatically improved the community and academy facilities, building closer links with the local community.

The longest season

One story that may not have hit the national headlines is that of Heybridge Swifts and their remarkable season.  After narrowly missing relegation from the Isthmian League North to the Essex Senior League at the end of last season, Jody Brown rebuilt his squad in the summer and has seen the club go on two amazing cup runs.

In the FA Cup they played seven matches before travelling to face EFL Division Two side Exeter City in November, losing 3-1 whilst their run in the FA Trophy is still alive and they travel to Maidstone United next weekend in the 2nd Round Proper.

All of this cup action has meant their league programme has suffered.  The club have currently played just 15 Bostik League North games, nine less than leaders AFC Hornchurch.  Cup success for the Swifts will mean they will be playing catch-up at a rate of at least one midweek game per week until the end of the season and that’s assuming they don’t suffer with any postponements!

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Happy transfer window opening day


Hooray!  The Transfer Window opens again today, marking the start of the easiest period for some journalists who can simply make stories up (draw player name from pot one, club from pot two and then add a word such as “rumour has it” or “according to sources” and you have a story).  China will undoubtedly be mentioned time and time again, just as it was a year ago.

So it is official.  World football has gone mad.  Oscar’s transfer to Chinese side Shanghai SIPG ratified on the 1st January meaning he left these shores to become the richest player in the world, with an estimated salary of £400k.  And for Chelsea?  Well they will get £60 million as “compensation”, £35 million more than they paid for the 25 year old Brazilian or in terms of games played, a profit of £172,414 for every game he played for the Blues.

Oscar kept the “richest player” in the world for almost an hour as Carlos Tevez agreed to join cross-city rivals Shanghai Shenhua on a weekly wage of £615,000, or in layman’s terms, £1 per SECOND.

This is a very similar conversation to what we were having a year ago when the likes of Ramires and Alex Teixeira joined the league for tens of millions of dollars yet that hasn’t destabilised world football has it?  So the scaremongering about this being the beginning of the end is pure hyperbole.

In the history of football in England there have been five clear compelling events that have shaped our game today.  Whilst some people may consider other events in a similar vein, football is today a global business rather than a game of the people.  How have we got to this point?

Back in 1888, William McGregor, a director at Aston Villa wrote to a small number of other football clubs and suggested the creation of a league competition, based on the structure of “football” in the United States college system.  The league kicked off in September of that year, the first organised football league-based competition in the world.

At the turn of the century, the Football Association passed a rule at its AGM that set the maximum wage of professional footballers playing in the Football League at £4 a week, and banning any payment of match bonuses. The concept of the maximum wage stayed in place for sixty years until it was abolishing it in January 1961, the second compelling event in British football.

Money has been the root of all evil in our game and the third tipping point came in 1990 after the publication of the Football Association’s “Blueprint for the Future of Football” which essentially laid out the concept of the Premier League.  There’s little debate that the Premier League was created to ensure that the clubs at the top of English football were able to maximise revenues potentially on offer of the next TV deal.  The heads of terms agreement was signed in July 1991, with the First Division clubs giving notice to resign from the Football League a few weeks later.

Hot on the heels of the formation of the Premier League came the next compelling event – the first BSkyB Television deal, signed in May 1992, for £191 million paid over five years.  Five years later that amount more than trebled to £670 million.  Now, twenty five years later that amount is over £5 billion.

The huge amounts being offered by the TV companies also had a knock-on effect, one that today is still the most emotive subject for the fans and the media alike.  Overseas ownership of clubs.  Whilst some may point the finger for the huge sums paid for players today at the door of Blackburn Rovers, and what owner and life-long fan Jack Walker did in the early years of the Premier League by buying the best of British and delivering an unlikely Premier League title to the Lancashire club.  Walker invested nearly £100 million of his own fortune to bring a redeveloped, modern stadium to Rovers along with the league title for the first time in 80 years.

However, it was the arrival of Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in West London that really changed football as we knew it.  It’s not public knowledge how much exactly Abramovich has invested into the club but it will have run into hundreds of millions.  What his investment has proved is that money does buy success and it is will some irony that Blues current manager Antonio Conte has issued a stark warning about the impact of the cash being spent on players in China could have on the rest of football.

To me, they are the five moments in the history of English football that have shaped our game more than any other events.  Like it or not, the TV deals now dictate how our football clubs think and act, with managerial careers now at the mercy of the riches on offer for simply keeping a team one place above the Premier League relegation zone.

But let’s assume for one minute that the transfer market in China does accelerate and they start making serious offers for the most talented players in the Premier League.  What are the potential ramifications for our game should we start leaving these shores?

Scenario 1 – Investment into Premier League clubs from foreign ownership comes to an end

In this case, the growth in Supporter-owned clubs would increase.  Is that a bad thing?  We only have to look at the Bundesliga, often used as the ‘model’ for successful leagues.  In Germany all clubs in the Bundesliga are issued with a licence which is based on financial criteria as well as the fact that no one individual can own more than 49% of the shares in a club.  Football clubs are incredibly resilient.  Out of the 88 clubs that played in the Football League ninety years ago in the 1926/27 season, only two of the clubs completely cease to exist today (Aberdare Athletic and New Brighton).  In that same period, huge numbers of companies have gone to the wall.  Football does have a Teflon coating and any withdrawal of funds from one source will be replaced from elsewhere.

Scenario 2 – Clubs are forced to play home-grown talent

With Chinese clubs happy to raid the Premier League on a regular basis perhaps the clubs will invest more in the pathway for the development of their players.  Instead of simply stockpiling young players who are loaned out until their value drops to a point where they are simply released, clubs will give the youngsters a chance.  The more young English players that are given the opportunity to play in the Premier League, the better it will be for our National side.  In addition, clubs will be more willing to work with grassroots clubs in the development of players through that channel.  With potentially less cash available for wages, hopefully the players that come through will be more “balanced” and more in touch with the fans.  Again, look at the situation in Germany where the majority of the team that won the 2009 UEFA Under21 Championship were also part of the 2014 World Cup winning squad – all of whom bar one (Mesut Özil) plied their trade in the Bundesliga.

Scenario 3 – Premier League TV rights are devalued

With an exodus of the “best” players, the Premier League is no longer seen as the best league in the world and when the parties sit round the table in 2018 to renegotiate the three year deal due to expire in 2019 the offer will be significantly less than we saw in 2016.  Bear in mind that initial viewing figures for this Premier League season have seen a decline by nearly 19% in the first two months, hardly the result the winning bidders expected for the record TV deal.  If the product is devalued by the exodus of players then what bargaining chips will the Premier League clubs have?  Less TV revenues coming in will reduce the level of commercial agreements and thus clubs will once again have to look at alternative revenues or cost-cutting measures.  Fans may then start to see the value of the grassroots game, and attendances may will rise in the Non-League game.

Scenario 4 – Absolutely nothing changes

In all honesty, it would take a massive investment within the Chinese league to make an impact on English, Spanish, German or Italian football.  The whole reason for the increase in investment by the Chinese clubs is to increase their talent pool.  The concept is that you bring in overseas coaches to help develop Chinese coaches, you bring in world-class players that will also hopefully increase the skill levels of home-grown players which in turn strengthen the Chinese national team.  That’s the ultimate aim.  Having played in just one World Cup (back in 2002 where they lost every game and failed to score a goal), they are significantly behind the countries who they would consider rivals.  Japan have qualified for the last five World Cup Finals, reaching the knock-out stages twice, whilst South Korea have qualified for the last eight and finished fourth in 2002.  If they cannot improve their performance on the world stage then this whole phase will go down in history alongside the ultimately failed North American Soccer League in the 1970/80s where some of the best players were tempted for one last hurrah.

Of course there may be other consequences but I think scenario 4 is the most likely to play out.  Whilst the headline numbers are all round how much some of these players will be paid, the pressure and media scrutiny they will be under to perform will be intense.  Footballers such as Tevez are already millionaires multiple times over.  They could retire tomorrow and never have to worry about money every again.  So what is their motivation to move?  Only they can answer that but I do not feel a small handful of players heading east is the next compelling event in our beautiful game.

The Forgotten little brothers


Little Brothers – don’t you just love them.  But what about football club little brothers?  There out there, often forgotten by local fans and the media but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t recognise them and the impact they have.

Ferdinand, Wilkins, Rooney, Terry, Ross.  Legends in their own way I am sure you will agree.  But what if I was to tell you I was talking about Anton, Graham, John and Paul (and Paul)?  The siblings of Rio, Ray, Wayne and John (and Jon)?  Not quite in the legends bracket are they?  The same can be said for some clubs as well.  Whilst some towns and cities can boast two (or more) clubs playing at a professional level, other places in England have a definite big brother v little brother arrangement.

Norwich City v Norwich United
2014/15 was a good year for the two teams from Norwich.  Whilst City triumphantly returned to the land of milk and honey, beating Middlesbrough in the Play-off final at Wembley, United stormed to the Eastern Counties League Premier Division Title, finishing a ridiculous 26 points above 2nd place Godmanchester Rovers.  However, for a number of reasons the club declined promotion to the Isthmian League, waiting for two more years before finally making the jump up to step 8 of the English Pyramid, by which time City were back in the Championship.  United were originally formed as Poringland back in 1903, playing at the superbly named “The Gothic”.  They were renamed in 1987 and moved to their current home, Plantation Park back in 1990.  With United’s best run in the FA Cup when they made it to the Second Qualifying Round it may be some time before they meet in a competitive match.

Cambridge City v Cambridge United
Just a couple of seasons ago the two teams from Cambridge were separated by just one division as United were playing in the Conference Premier and City in the Conference South.  Today they are separated again by four divisions as United have returned to the Football League whilst City suffered enforced relegation in 2008 when their Milton Road ground failed a FA Inspection and then again from Step Seven.  Worse was to come for City as they became embroiled in a legal battle over the ownership of the ground, which has now been demolished, forcing City to first groundshare with Newmarket Town, then Histon and now with St Ives Town. It looks like a long way back before the clubs will be on an equal footing.

Oxford City v Oxford United
In recent times Lewes have actually played both City and United in competitive games, although few Rooks fans will want to remember our visits to the City of Spires as we lost in the Conference Premier back in 2009, then crashed out of the FA Trophy in November 2014 to Oxford City, now playing in the Conference South after being shunted across from the North Division.  City’s recent experiment of importing La Liga cast offs almost paid off as they finished just outside the playoffs, although the locals didn’t appear to warm to the experiment with crowds at Marsh Lane rarely broke the few hundred mark.  City were once managed by Bobby Moore, with Harry Redknapp as his assistant.

Lincoln City v Lincoln United
Whilst both Lincoln City and United have played Non-League football as recently as last season, they are light years apart in terms of facilities and momentum.  Promoted as champions of the National League last season and enjoying a spectacular FA Cup run to the Quarter-Finals and the Emirates,  City have the 10,000 capacity Sincil Bank with four almost new stands.  This season they are sitting nicely in the Football League Division Two play-off spots.   Travel west from Sincil Bank for a couple of miles and you will reach the leafy tranquillity of Ashby Avenue (formerly the impressively-named Sunhat Villas & Resorts Stadium), home of The Amateurs, Lincoln United.  Currently played four steps below City in the Northern Premier League Division One South, their local derbies are against the likes of Cleethorpes Town, Goole AFC and Spalding United in front of a hundred or so fans.

Ipswich Town v Ipswich Wanderers
In May 2013 Ipswich finally got their hands on a trophy in front of an excited crowd at Portman Road.  Ipswich Wanderers that it, not Town.  Wanderers won the Suffolk Senior Cup in that year on penalties in front of a crowd of 1,000.  Whilst The Tractor boys have been stuck in the Championship ploughed field for a decade, The Wanderers are on the up.  They were promoted back to the Eastern Counties League Premier Division in 2014 and finished last season in 10th place.  Their former chairman is a familiar name to some – Terry Fenwick – the man who decided not to tackle Diego Maradona when he scored “that” goal in the 1986 World Cup Quarter-Final.  If only he did perhaps he could have now been chairman of Ipswich Town.

There are others of course.  Swindon Town may consider their local rivals to be Oxford United or Bristol City but Swindon Supermarine, the original works team from the Supermarine airplane company, will have a different opinion.  Southend United fans may think that their local rivals are Colchester United but what about Essex Senior League Southend Manor?  There was a story a few years ago about a disillusioned Newcastle United fan deciding to turn his back on St James’ Park and support Newcastle Town.  The only problem with this one is that the teams play 191 miles apart – Newcastle Town are based in Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Whatever happened to the likely to be very good lads?


July 2014 and Germany have just demolished Brazil on home turf in the World Cup Semi-Final.  The vast majority of their squad have come through their Under21s yet we still question what’s gone wrong in England as we are already back at home, watching on the TV.

There has been millions of words written about the most remarkable game in the history of the World Cup Finals.  The six or so first half minutes when Germany scored four goals in Belo Horizonte stunned 60,000 fans in the Estadio Mineirao, the 200 million Brazilians watching on TV and hundreds of millions more around the world.  The Germans showed little mercy for some appalling defensive play, yet they came into the tournament not even favourites to win Group G, let alone progress to the latter stages.  Their opening game thrashing of Portugal made people sit up but nobody expected the utter domination of the Brazilians.  Irrespective of if they go on and beat Argentina today in the World Cup Final, that one game has re-defined the notion of Brazil as one of the best teams in the world.

The records came tumbling down in just an hour and a half of football.  Brazil’s first competitive defeat at home for 39 years, their biggest ever defeat, the biggest margin of victory in a World Cup Semi-Final, Germany’s biggest away win outside Europe and so on.  Is our shock at the result due to the strength and ruthlessness of the German side or the lack-lustre performance of the Brazilians?  A bit of both I’d say, although the home nations weak performance in the 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands four days later would suggest that they were rabbits caught in the headlights of 200 million fans.  The Brazilian media have naturally focused on the weaknesses of their squad and team management rather than the German performance.  Is thatSAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERA fair?  Perhaps not.

Ten years ago the English media waxed lyrically about our “Golden Generation”, the core of players who would go on to dominate world football.  Beckham, Ferdinand, Lampard, Owen and Rooney. We went into the 2004 European Championships in Portugal full of hope that this time we would get it right, finally delivering some glory after nearly forty years of wasted effort.  Unfortunately injuries once again were our undoing (as well as penalties) as we crashed out in the Quarter-Finals to the host nation on penalties after Rooney, the 19 year old talisman of the England team, was injured early in the game.  Two years later in Germany it was déjà vu as Rooney was sent off in the repeat performance against Portugal in Gelsenkirchen and England crashed out on penalties once again.  The Golden generation slowly faded as age caught up with them and off the field issues became distractions.

So who would replace these potential world class stars?  In theory they should have been already moving up through the ranks, gaining experience in the England Under 18’s, 20’s and finally Under 21’s.  Stuart Pearce was working very closely with Fabio Capello in nurturing the young talent.  In June 2009 Pearce took his young squad to Sweden for the UEFA European Championships, full of confidence that they would come home with the title.

Two wins and a draw from the group stages took England into the Semi-Finals where they raced into a 3-0 first-half lead against the host nation.  The English media in the stadium couldn’t dream up enough superlatives for the team, already pencilling a number in for Capello’s World Cup squad the following year in South Africa.  In an all too familiar story, England then conceded three second half goals and had to rely on penalties, winning for once, to progress to the final where Germany would be waiting.  The only black mark was that keeper Joe Hart would miss the final having picked up a second tournament booking needlessly in the penalty shoot-out.

Hart’s absence would be crucial.  On the 29th June in the impressive Swedbank Arena in Malmö, nearly 19,000 fans saw the unfancied Germans destroy England.  The final score was 4-0 but it could have easily been double that, mustering 17 shots to England’s 6.  The star of the game was a small midfielder of Turkish descent, Mezut Özil.

Fast forward five years and six of the starting line-up from that game in Malmötook the field in Belo Horizonte.  A seventh, Thomas Müller, scorer of four World Cup goals already in Brazil wasn’t deemed good enough to make the squad back in 2009.  From that same Swedish night, only James Milner had made the squad for England’s squad in Brazil.

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAWhilst the likes of Martin Cranie, Nedum Onuoha, Mark Noble and Michael Mancienne have failed to progress further than the Under 21’s, the Germans have continued to produce young talent, constantly pushing them into the national team if they are deemed good enough.  In the squad that got on the plane for Brazil, nine were aged 24 or less.  Some players, such as the Bayern Munich trio of Müller, Kroos and Götze with an average age of 22 have over 30 caps.

So why have the Germans got it so right?  The whole issue of the number of coaches has been discussed before, with Germany having over 30,000 qualified coaches to England’s less than 5,000.  But that doesn’t tell the whole story.  We have some decent young players in England.  The issue is that they simply do not get enough game time to progress and develop.

Many Premier League teams have simply abandoned the principals and process of bringing young players through their Academies.  The chances of ever seeing anything like the Class of ’92 at Old Trafford is about as likely as Arjen Robben staying on his feet for more than five minutes.  Today, Premier League clubs seem more likely to invest in overseas players rather than investing in the development of their home-grown youth players.  Consequently promising youngsters often ending up with a career moving from club to club on loan.  Look at the example of Michael Mancienne, still a Chelsea player when he took the field as a second half substitute in the Under 21’s final back in 2009.  He went on to play just four times for the Blues, including two cup games where they fielded weakened teams.  He was forced to go on loan into the Championship to get game time, finally leaving Chelsea in the summer of 2011 for a fee of £1.7 million to Hamburg.  Since then he has played 40 times in the Bundesliga, but is nowhere near an England call up.

Compare that to the likes of Kroos and midfield anchor man Bastian Schweinsteiger.  They have Bundesliga and Champions League medals to their names despite their relatively young age.  The German model of building their teams around young home developed talent is now reaping rewards for the national side.  Seven of the squad have been regulars for champions Bayern Munich over the past two seasons, with an eight, Marcus Reus only denied a place through injury.  Just over a year ago Germany’s two biggest clubs faced each other at Wembley in the Champions League Final.  Seven of the German squad played in that game.

The introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP) is supposed to ensure that the best young players have access to the best facilities, although many see it another way for the big clubs to simply hoover up the best young talent at an early age, stockpiling them to stop anyone else getting them.

We have a number of promising youngsters playing at the top level, with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain playing regularly at the highest level of the Premier League.  If English clubs can realise the error of their ways then there is hope for us yet.  Could the next “Golden Generation” be waiting in the Premier League wings already?

Best Song Ever


Back to January 2014 when Danny Last and I decided to see whether the words really do live up to scrutiny as we decide what the best football song ever is.

“And we danced all night to the best song ever.
We knew every line. Now I can’t remember
How it goes but I know that I won’t forget her
‘Cause we danced all night to the best song ever.”

No, I haven’t gone all One Direction on you, my opening lines are simple an aide memoire to a top night out and a heated discussion on what the Best Song Ever in the footballing world.  For those who haven’t yet read the story behind the weekend (yes, I know we are all busy) then let me set the scene.  After an afternoon of football in New York, Rotherham, we had made our way down the A6178 to Sheffield (not Sheffield Pennsylvania, Alabama or Missouri mind).  An evening on Kelham Island beckoned with a host of football’s finest from Twitter.  Our main objective of the evening?  Well apart from trying a bucket load of local ales, it was to decide whether The Greasy Chip Butty song is the best football song ever, and what other pretenders to the thrown there were.

The genius of the song, adapted from John Denver’s Annie Song (rumour has it when Denver died, the Yorkshire version was played at his funeral) is the simplicity of the words, deconstructed in true Masterchef style below by Danny, Blades fan Ian Rands and myself.

You Fill Up My Senses
12160930704_ccddf1fd5e_b
Well, for senses, read stomach, our special beer stomachs.  Kelham Island is a former industrial area in Sheffield that is now best known for its brilliant pubs.  First up was the Fat Cat, a tiny pub adjoining the Kelham Island Brewery which had the smallest bar I had ever seen, with 4 (FOUR!) bar staff multi-tasking to keep us in beer of the year, Pale Rider, Kelham Island Bitter and my personal favourite (read “I had at least three of them”) a Chocolate Digestive Ale.  Oh, and a pork pie…and some Jalapeno pretzel pieces.  Senses filled up.  I know I am biased but Bubbles surely has to be up there? Under the lights at The Boleyn Ground, with the South Bank in full voice? Who needs Opera when you had that.

Like a Gallon of Magnet
Note to Danny Last – it is MAGNET not MAGNERS.  Stop two, no more than a stumble away was the Kelham Island Tavern where we met Eddie the Shoe.  Those who travel in horse racing circles need no introduction to Eddie, who had kindly provided a tip earlier in the week that provided the financial assistance for my round of Deception.  Eddie is a big Fulham fan – at 7 foot something there is no other word for him.  An hour later we had just about consumed the gallon (8 pints for those who didn’t do O-Level Maths) and onwards we went.  You’ll Never Walk Alone?  Spine-tingling from The Kop but is it too long?

Like a Packet of Woodbines
Tricky one this as neither of us smoke. Where is Cynical Dave when you need him.  But as we headed up the hill to the Shakespeare we were puffing for air like a pair of very unfit, middle age men that we were.  A couple of Aecht Schlenker Rauchiber Marzen’s later, with its distinct aroma of smoked sausages and bacon, and an aftertaste of banana (tastes better than it sounds). Talk was now getting serious.  Danny’s adamant that Sussex by the Sea is a contender.  The panel aren’t so sure as he can’t remember anything past the third line of the song.

Like a Good Pinch of Snuff
The younger generation today would look at you very strangely if you said “I’m going out to enjoy some snuff”, as its meaning has taken on a whole new, dark web vibe, but back in the day we all enjoyed a bit of ground tobacco that you shoved up your nose, didn’t we?  Gave you strange hallucinations apparently, which was similar to our next stop at DaDa’s.  It was if we had walked into a set of Ashes to Ashes albeit with beer prices from the year 2525 (80’s based music joke there).  I had some very dark, very thick and very sickly Thornbridge Wild Raven.  A continental chap suggests that Barca, Barca, Barca sung by 100,000 fans in the Camp Nou has to be on our list, but we can’t take him seriously as he is wearing a scarf inside a room that is hotter than Greece.

Like a Night Out in Sheffield
We have one more stop. One more song for debate and could there be any better place or any better beer than we have for our final destination.  A pint of Thornbridge Jaipur in the Cutters Arms, a bar opened in honour of Sheffield FC, the founding fathers of football as we know it today.  Yes it may have been midnight, yes it may have taken us a good few pints and lively debate but we had an answer.  Without a doubt the best song ever was The Greasy Chip Butty song, anthem of the Blades.  And what was the luck that they were playing on the following day?  Unbelievable Jeff.  It was as if the whole weekend had been planned in minute detail.

12160718973_e2cbf249f6_bSunday morning and any plans of a leisurely stroll around the city were dashed by sheeting rain.  Sheeting turned to monsoon over breakfast and by 11am it was biblical.  We had headed south to visit the real home of footballing merchandise, Goal Soul, in their fantastic shop.  Three limited edition T-Shirts later and we were back in a pub close to Bramall Lane, hearing news that the game could be in doubt.  A brief flicker of concern passed across Danny’s brow before we were given the news that despite the conditions, the game would at least start.  There was even time to do a quick interview on the Barry Glendenning and Max Rushden show for Talksport, from a phone box outside a take away, where off course we’d ordered the Greasy Chip Butty (the owner took offence at first, rebuking me for suggesting his chips were greasy).

Sheffield United 1 Fulham 1 – Bramall Lane – Sunday 26th January 2014
I’m going to make myself very unpopular by saying that Sheffield United has always been a favourite away trip for me. Actually, Wednesday fans, I’d put a trip to Hillsborough near the top of my list too.  But I have always had a soft spot for Bramall Lane.  I used to be a regular visitor here for work purposes and was always given a warm welcome, and even today the facilities could grace the Premier League without every looking out-of-place.

12160745853_359f608ac2_bDid we enjoy our afternoon?  Too right.  It was a classic cup tie where league positions went out of the window.  The final twenty minutes where the United team never gave up running at the Fulham defence despite the leaden conditions under foot were edge of the seat stuff and the Blades fans can be mighty proud of their side, and have every confidence that they could go to Craven Cottage next week and still get a result.  Fulham had nearly 75% of the possession and 31 shots compared to 13 from the home side but nobody who saw the game would have been surprised if United had won.

The weather at kick off was damp to say the least but as the teams lined up for kick off the opening cords of Annie’s Song started up and we were lost in a ten thousand-strong choir encouraging us to fill up our senses.  Chris Porter took his chance in the first half just as the rain stopped and the bright sunshine came out to give the home fans hope that they would be in the draw for the last 16 of the cup and could put aside their league woes for a few weeks.  Half time and all was well with the world in Yorkshire.

The turning point came just after the break when Sheffield’s captain Doyle was sent off for an off-the-ball incident.  Despite a quick change in formation, Fulham took some time to realise they could start passing the ball forward – although with Messers Wilkins and Curbishley now part of the coaching set up, the words “forward” and “passing” are as alien as Mr. Spock.  Darren Bent and Adal Taarabt were introduced to little effect apart from to amuse the home fans with a couple of astonishing misses.  Sandra knows best after all it seems.

12160911564_87c845f5fe_bAlas it was Rodallega who broke the Blades when he fired home near the end.  They should have gone on to win the game when Senderos saw his header hit the bar but Sheffield United hung on to live another day and make sure their number was in the draw for Round Five.

We faced a 200 mile trip home in more rain, emotionally drained by the occasion.  We couldn’t help hum THAT song all the way home.  Sheffield – Come Fill Me Again….OOOOHH!

Marketing 101


Today we head back to February 2012 and the news that West Ham had turned to GroupOn to try to shift tickets.

On Tuesday morning, like every morning, I started the day with a look at my email. Such is the modern world, and the joys of working within the Internet Services Market for a global company that the motto “if you snooze, you lose” has become one of our core values. As usual after discovering my online bank has been accessed and I need to “log in” to restore my access, that my penis can actually grow by 6 inches in just 28 days and of course the happiest news that I have won the 

Spanish lottery AGAIN, I get to the GroupOn emails. The whole social discounting model is a great thing for consumers. Crap for retailer, but good for consumers.

People who buy these deals (and can jump through the respective hoops to actually use the voucher) do so because they are being offered something at a bargain price. They are rarely for things that you would normally pay full price for – hence why the retailers turn to GroupOn to fill capacity. Deals such as hotel breaks for 50% off (or more) become good deals, but few, if any, people would think that the deal/hotel was that good that they would return and pay full price. That is the fundamental issue with the whole concept. GroupOn (and other sites such as LivingSocial.com) are great for a one-off, but building loyalty is another issue.

I am used to seeing Fulham and Crystal Palace appearing on my GroupOn offers timeline. £10 tickets for Palace on a Friday night (“limit: 100 per person”) have made me smirk in the past. Few, if any people would take up the offer and return for future games paying full price (otherwise why wouldn’t they have bought for this game?). I would have thought that there are other ways to market tickets to niche sectors without having to resource to such drastic price cutting measures.

But today I was very surprised. West Ham were the “deal of the day” and before anyone says it, yes it was a slow new offer day. Tickets for West Ham v Watford (7th March 2012) were £40 for two (and £60 for 3, £80 for 4). As if that wasn’t enough to entice you in, the highlights included the fact it was “Close to Upton Park tube”. I am aware of the offers the club has been involved with so far in 2012 – discounted tickets for buying pizza in Dartford and leaflet drops in Charlton Athletic and Millwall supporter areas to name just two. But is this the right move for the club? And what are the issues of going down this route? To me it is three-fold.

1. The impact on the fans – Tickets for this fixture went on sale to Members back in December starting from £32. As with the game against Nottingham Forest where significant last-minute marketing was carried out to “boost” attendance, it wasn’t directed at the membership database. So one of the perks of membership is the ability to purchase tickets in advance of the general sale. It used to be the case that members also got a discount, but that privilege was removed last season. For this game (as it was for the game v Forest), members will have been penalised for buying early – a somewhat lopsided business model in terms of yield management.  The impact on members in future is that they may delay buying their tickets because there could be offers like this.  The impact of this for the club is that cashflow is delayed, meaning potential short-term pain.

2. The impact on the future – West Ham, under Sullivan/Gold/Brady, have become a club with grand ambitions. There is nothing wrong with that. You do not want your team to be content with just being also-ran all of the time. The whole Olympic Stadium debate was always (and still is) about them and their image, not the fans. In fact the fans have never been properly asked if they want to move. There has always been an assumption it was a given. Perhaps the original motives were simply to stop Spurs getting it, but I have never been able to understand the logic that says a club with a core support base of 35,000 need to move to a 60,000 stadium, let alone one where every seat offers a worse position than Upton Park. This is underlined by the fact the club is needing to resort to using GroupOn to sell tickets to fill the stadium. If you look at attendances this season you will see some near capacity crowd – such as Barnsley and Burnley or the game on Saturday against Crystal Palace, where as games where full price ticketing has been held up such as Leeds United, Ipswich Town or Portsmouth have averages down by 7,000 on capacity. Is it any coincidence that the games were attendances have been high have also had special promotions in terms of ticket prices? Kids for £1, kids go free, family tickets for four for less than £50.

This season the average attendance at Upton Park is 29,446, the biggest in the division.  Last season it was 4,000 higher in the Premier League.  Sure, there is the argument that away support is smaller, demand for the Championship product is less than the Premier League, and the police have played a part in limiting away attendees for the games versus Cardiff City and Millwall, but actually do clubs like Burnley, Coventry City or Bristol City bring less fans than Wigan Athletic, Bolton Wanderers and Fulham? This means one of two things – either the average price is too expensive for the product on offer, or the core fan base is dropping.

The second point is an interesting one. Discounts for kids are a great idea. West Ham should be applauded for the continued use of this tactic which they were one of the first clubs to introduce over a decade ago. But the issue is they tend to be the exception rather than the norm. Other games (such as the one versus Coventry City) have seen kids tickets rise to £19, the consequence being crowds dropping to around the 25,000 mark.  Charlton Athletic frequently give tickets away to local schools – in an age where football clubs are trying to become the centre of the community what better way for the club to boost its image than encouraging locals to come to games.  West Ham are one of the biggest employers in Tower Hamlets, which is one of the poorest regions in England.  The vast percentage of West Ham’s supporter base is from outside of their local area – what better way to engage with them.  Interestingly enough these “new fans” would be more likely to return to the club simply based on the proximity of the club.

Finally, it is worth noting that as a member (and also having a lapsed membership on my email address) the club hasn’t marketed to me about the deal – surely a starting point from their database is fans who have bought tickets this season but haven’t for this particular game?  Isn’t that marketing 101?

3. The impact on the club – When you use GroupOn, only 50% of the revenue is pocketed by the “retailer” (the rest is kept by GroupOn).  So a £20 ticket will see only £10 reach West Ham.  Yet the club has an “active” Social Media strategy right?  Nearly 40,000 followers on Twitter and a Facebook page with thousands of “likes” is surely a good place to start with these offers if they are going to do it.  That way the club will at least keep the full wallet.  Why is this important?  Because I want the club to get whatever money I pay for my ticket, which I hope they will re-invest in the infrastructure or the team.  I do not want to see that cash go to an US company.  As I mentioned above, I would rather the club invested into the local community, local schools, local groups where there is an opportunity to build a strategy for encouraging new fans.

So on one hand I should applaud the club for trying something new and embracing a social media channel to market.  But it cannot be denied that their continued use of shotgun style marketing offers is antagonising the existing fan base.  So for now I hope that those GroupOn purchasers enjoy their night out at Upton Park and I hope they come back, but somehow, like the vast majority of all GroupOn deals, it will be just for the night.

It’s better to travel in hope than not to travel at all


Watching the great Dynamo Tblisi team of the early 1980’s is one of my foremost footballing memories.  This piece, written in March 2010 captured the trials and tribulations of “exotic” travel thirty five years ago.

We take travel today with a pinch of salt.  Budget airlines have opened up a world we would have never seen and thanks to this t’internet thing we can now get independent reviews, photos and even videos of hotels, bars and restaurants around the world all from the safety of our DFS sofa.  But can you remember what it was like to travel thirty years ago?  Sure you had your package deals with DanAir or British Caledonian, somehow managing to get off the ground and heading for the cultural high points of Majorca and the Costa Brava but what would it have been like to make a trip behind the Iron Curtain?

Having travelled a few times to the ex-Soviet states I know how hard it is today to get a visa, fill in the landing card and remember to keep enough dollars spare for the inevitable bribes for standing in the wrong place, or taking a picture of some government building.  Take this experience back to the early 1980’s when the Red Machine was in full effect and Russia was an almost closed country.  But football has always been a universal language, crossing even the most difficult borders and with three European football competitions every season it was inevitable that every so often our brave boys would have to experience a slice of life in the Eastern Bloc.

In March 1981 in the middle of their record-breaking promotion season, West Ham United headed off to Tblisi, capital of the Soviet region of Georgia to play the second leg of their European Cup Winners Cup Quarter Final.  It was never going to be an easy trip as Liverpool had found a few years before in the European Cup, but to go there on the back of a 4-1 defeat and just four days after a League Cup Final appearance at Wembley it was always going to be a tough trip.

But there is tough, and there is tough. Whilst the club had known that Tbilisi would be their opponents at this stage for some time, the winter break had made it almost impossible for the Hammers to find out much about their opponents before the home tie.  They had been given a brief scouting report by Waterford Town, who had played them in a previous round and Liverpool who had lost there in the European Cup the previous year suggested not to go at all!  The club found some help from unlikely sources.

The London Correspondent for TASS, the Soviet news agency had a friend who supported the club and managed to send over some videos of the team, plus a Swedish based journalist whose company had daily Russian newspapers was able to translate a few things relevant to the tie.  “Latin flair in lifestyle and play” he wrote on one memo to West Ham.  In the same report, published in the West Ham programme for the game that Russian football was not like our own game.  It was in fact much more controlled and regimented.  For instance, none of this playing for a draw every week – once a team had drawn 10 games in a season they simply got no more points from drawn games.  And penalties handed out to players were incredibly harsh.  A player who showed dissent to a referee could expect a 10 game ban, and feigning injury or time wasting a 3 game ban…..so what went wrong?

Most West Ham fans who turned up on Wednesday 4th March 1981 at Upton Park had never heard of any of the Russians and probably expected another easy home win, which they had become accustomed to during the season.  However, Tbilisi came to London with a squad full of class. Ten full Russian Internationals and four players who had represented their country at the Olympic Games the previous summer.  Included in this was Russian Football of the Year for 1978 Ramaz Shengelia, described in the match day programme as “fast and always on the move”, and the captain of the side, Aleksandr Chivadze.

At the time I was a promising young striker, happily banging in 4 or 5 goals a week at schoolboy level, but it is fair to say that on that March night I wanted to be like Chivadze from that moment on.  He had been voted Russian Player of the Year in 1980, beating Oleg Blokhin by some 80 votes from the Russian sports journalists and had become one of only a few footballers ever profiled by Pravda – the modern day equivalent of featuring in Tatler I would assume.  In a recent game against world champions Argentina, the world cup winning captain Daniel Pasarella had been quoted saying Chivadze would “grace any footballing nation”.  He was the best thing since sliced beetroot in the Soviet Union AND was clever to boot, studying for an Economics degree whilst playing for Dinamo.

It seemed that all attacks stemmed from Aleksandr bringing the ball out of defence.  He swayed past Trevor Brooking and rang rings around Alan Devonshire.  David “Psycho” Cross, at that moment the leading scorer in all of the English leagues may as well have been on a beach in Magaluf – he simply did not get a sniff out of Chivadze.

Chivadze opened the scoring in the game, starting and finishing a move that swept from one end of the pitch to another.  A second followed from Gutsaev before half time but the near 35,000 had seen enough to realise that the Hammer’s European adventure would go no further.  Cross pulled one back after the break but Shengelia added two more to put the Russians out of sight.  At full time, to a man the West Ham fans applauded Dinamo off the pitch, rubbing their eyes at what they had seen.

“I think West Ham underestimated us but even by our standards, that was a very special performance. We had 11 players playing at their best” said coach Nodar Achalkatsi after the game whilst John Lyall could only comment that “if you are going to lose then you want to lose to a team like Dinamo.”

Only a couple of journalists made the trip out to Georgia after the first leg result, giving the Hammers very little chance of overturning the 4-1 deficit and their brief reports simply focused on the 1-0 win rather than the trip itself. A few Hammers fans made the trip, and with their reputation preceding them were surrounded by hundreds of soldiers for their time in the Georgian capital. Very little was ever heard about their trip, but fortunately, West Ham’s Club Doctor, Dr Gordon Brill wrote a report for his diary.  Below is an extract, published in West Ham United’s official programme in April 1981:-

“In retrospect, we cannot be sure which (if either) reflected the true situation, because the 27-hour “outward bound” venture contained so many incidents that we were beginning to feel like James Bonds of soccer.

The almost incredible snags which interrupted schedules, frayed tempers and brought physical discomforts to many were eventually overcome thanks to the bonhomie and mutual co-operation of the 40-odd members of the official party.

Stories filtered out of the plight of our squad in Moscow Airport.  This included the fact that it took approximately one hour to obtain permission to leave a departure compound in order to visit the toilet some 20 yards away under the vigilant eye of four strategically placed guards, visibly equipped with walkie-talkies.  The rules were “go one by one, and the second cannot go until the first one comes back”.  It was just as well that during the preceding four hours at the immigration desks most of the party had only been able to grab a small beer or a coffee.

Eventually, after three passport checks of anything up to 15 minutes per person, and two close scrutinies of every piece of luggage it was decided that we should stay at a hotel overnight.  Fortunately permission was obtained for some food to be unloaded (after a specially convened doctor’s certificate was signed), but unfortunately our baggage containing the grub was back on the plane and could not be unloaded – so it took a whip round on what was in everyone’s hand luggage to provide some sustenance.

The efforts of our catering team produced a meal in the airport  restaurant and we arrived at the hotel around 2am GMT.

Orders were for an 8am alarm call in preparation for a 9am departure on the second leg to Tblisi.  Those above the third floor had a cold water shower and a lucky few found some coffee and stale rolls in the restaurant during a further wait until 11am when the bus eventually arrived for the five minute back to the Airport.

We eventually took off just after noon and arrived in the Georgian capital at 4pm local time.  Our hosts had literally been awaiting us since the previous night with no word on our whereabouts.

From thence on it was roses all the way.  Our hosts catered for our needs and entertainment in various ways.  For the players it was training in the Olympic stadium – indeed being allowed to use the Dinamo Sports Science Complex – a real honour for the club.

The match is dealt with elsewhere but a 1-0 victory for the Hammers was a great result, although it was the Russians who went through on aggregate.

And then we came to the journey home.  We arrived at Tblisi airport to find that our plane was still some 1,500 miles away in Moscow.  Thanks to our hosts we at least had some food as they had given us all before we left, not knowing when our next meal would come from.  We were luckier this time at Moscow airport as it only took two and a half hours to be processed through a deserted airport, although a few questions arose over some of our declarations.

For instance Trevor Brooking’s “cash declaration” showed that he had more sterling to bring out than he brought in thanks to Trev’s card school win that took some careful explaining.

Twenty seven hours after we left we landed at Stansted airport in Essex, and with a day and a half until we faced Oldham Athletic.  The club would like to thank all those who helped make the 8,000 mile trip as smooth as possible, especially Tescos for kindly donating some steak for the players.”

An interesting summary of what travel was like then.  Dynamo went on to win the European Cup Winners Cup in that season before slowly fading into the background of Soviet football.   Chivadze stayed at Tbilisi his whole career, making nearly 350 appearances for them before going on to coach the Georgian national side on two separate occasions.

Footballers today with their private jets don’t know they are born and what happened to those disciplinary rules?  Can you imagine them in force today?  Ronaldo and Drogba would be permanently banned!  Can I have the number for FIFA please?