Is the Chinese cash a bad thing for English football?


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.

Notes from the Main Stand


We’ve got a relatively settled routine as to how we prepare for home games.  At around 2.15pm (for a 3pm kick off) we will get the first sight of the opposition’s starting XI and from that moment we will start to compare their line up to their previous game, or one that we have got a scouting report on.  In the next ten minutes alterations will be made to our formation, tactics and set-pieces, to try to exploit any weaknesses.  Of course, our approach isn’t unique and our opponents will be more than likely doing exactly the same downstairs in their changing room.  Whilst no one will ever confess to games being won off the pitch, the importance of preparation cannot be under estimated even at our level.

fullsizerenderYesterday the preparations and execution were slightly different.  Having played our visitors just four days previously meant we knew a fair bit about them.  It’s fair to say that we spent some of the time on Tuesday watching how they played rather than our own performance in preparation for today.  Few teams set themselves up the same when they travel away.  Alas, with a threadbare squad at the moment, we don’t have much choice.  Injuries to Matthew George and Ronnie Conlon further depleted our squad yesterday but we have a talented group of youngsters such as Dean Stewart-Hunter who came into the side.  The notable change in our visitors line up was the return of keeper Jack Delo, who had been injured in the warm up.  Even knowing what the injury was enabled us to have a plan to try to exploit that weakness.

fullsizerender-1Our visitors “secret weapon” on Tuesday was their huge long-throws which when they first started taking them, surprised us.  So the key to this game was don’t concede throw-ins in the final third.  If in doubt, concede a corner or simply clear it in-field.  If we did concede one, then bear in mind they would be likely to throw the first couple short to surprise us.

The second complicating issue for this game was that Darren would be serving a one-game touchline ban relating to his dismissal back in October against Cray Wanderers.  He’d entered the field of play after a Cray player had assaulted Lloyd Cotton and subsequently been red-carded.

We could of course appeal against the charge but would need to submit evidence to the contrary of the match officials.  Lose the appeal and the fine (£100), and the ban (1 game) could be significantly worse.  So Darren took his punishment and headed to the stands.   But how could we ensure he would be manager seen and not heard?  Simple – I would sit next to him and make sure he served his ban.

According to the official FA guidelines on an official serving a touchline ban, the ruling is:-

“A participant serving a touchline ban should take up a position in the directors box if one is in existence. Where there is no directors box (or a position is not available) they are required to take a position in a stand or position which is detached from and some distance away from the dugouts”

fullsizerender-3With only a few rows of seating in our Main Stand, Darren would be within shouting distance of Ross and Codge.  However:-

“The participant can make communication with members of the coaching team within the dugout but only via the use of a telephone or a ‘runner’.”

So the “runner” would be me, passing notes down to the dugout.  Not quite the normal afternoon of watching the game for me then.

Lewes 3 Herne Bay 1 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 14th January 2017
The first instruction is written down and is given to me.  As I head down the steps to tell Ross that James Hammond should take the free-kick, I can hear Darren shout “Get ‘Ammo to take it..”  Hammond does indeed take the free-kick and he curls it perfectly into the top corner to give us a 1-0 lead.  It’s going to be a long afternoon.

img_2835-700x400Thirty seconds later Stephen Okoh races clear of the Herne Bay defence and lobs the ball over the keeper…as the ball is in the air I feel a grab on my arm.  Could it be two?  No, the ball shaved the post and goes wide.  Notes are furiously written by Darren as he sees things I can’t see.

“Win the ball faster” he shouts at nobody, but Codge hears him, translating his message into a quiet word in the ear of Lloyd Harrington as he comes over to take a throw-in.  On the twenty minute mark, the Vice-Chairman of the Isthmian League sits directly behind Darren.  I write on a note that he is sitting behind him, but Daz is too engrossed in the game, concerned that Jack Dixon is sitting on the ball too long.

He races off at the half-time whistle, trying to get into the dressing room before the players, ready to give his full and frank opinion on why we aren’t more than one goal ahead.

Less than two minutes into the second half Dixon fouls his marker, picks up a yellow card which will see him banned for two more games (having just come back from a two game suspension) and the referee points to the spot.  On Tuesday night Adria pulled off a superb save from Pulman’s spot kick.  Today it is Walder who steps up and slots it into the corner.  Somehow we are level.

“We’re flat and that’s making the crowd flat”  I text Deaksy and tell him to start singing.

The written messages soon dry up, replaced by my phone being used as a walkie-talkie with Ross on the touchline.  James Hammond restores our lead with a tap-in after the impressive Kaja roasts his man down the right and tees him up.  Then the crowd start making some noise and we start dominating play.

fullsizerender-2Lloyd Harrington picks up a yellow, meaning he will also miss the two vital games against Dorking Wanderers.  “Looks like I’m going to have to play in those games”.  I assume he’s joking although when Charlie Coppola neatly flicks the ball round his marker, Darren tells me the England Schoolboys international learnt that trick from him in training and I can see the seriousness in his eyes.

We huff and puff and finally blow the Herne Bay resistence down with a third in injury time, Egli Kaja (the first ever Albanian to play for Lewes for those who love a random fact) beats his man and is then hauled down.  A mele breaks out as four or five Rooks players want to take the spot-kick.  Jack Dixon wins the discussion and slots home.  Job well done all round.  I could now have a beer and relax, around two hours later than I normally could.

Three wins on the bounce, scoring nine times and conceding just twice means that we rise to 5th in the table, the highest we have been since the opening day win at Chipstead.

The final restriction that we had to ensure Darren complied with was a little bit stranger:-

“The participant who is subject to a touchline ban may not make contact with match officials, match delegates or assessors prior, during or after the match.”

Which technically meant when the officials came into the bar for their pasta post-match, Darren couldn’t even go and shake their hand and say “well done” although he resisted passing me any further notes.  Normal service will be resumed in two weeks time thankfully.

Master of none


What happens when you get a bit lippy and suggest to one of your colleagues that their job on a match day was “easy”? It seemed I was just about to find out the hard way as our beloved club secretary Barry was heading off on a business trip 24 hours prior to our final game of 2016.  To make matters worse, we also had no kit man for the game.  First rule behind the scenes in Non-League football is “Be prepared to do it yourself” which is why I was wandering into the Dripping Pan four hours before kick off against Three Bridges with a bag full of assorted sock tape.

Lay the kit out, pump up a few balls, write out the team sheet and shake hands with the referee right?  What’s so difficult about that?  Alas, it if was that simple I would have been enjoying a beer or two an hour before the game rather than worriedly looking for instructions about how to use Football Web Pages live system and trying to find the season ticket list for Gate 3.

img_2255The first issue on arrival was the fog.  The previous evening has seen the game at The Amex postponed due to it and it appeared that overnight the problem hadn’t got much better in these parts. There was not a lot I could do about that bar man the phones and let people know that I could see both goals from the office and we “should” be OK for 1pm.

Before Barry headed off to try to increase our 12th Man Fund in Las Vegas, he left some instructions for me in terms of the Club Secretary duties for a match day.  Even by Barry’s very organised standards, I wasn’t expecting a four page document for each role (plus attachments), all colour-coded and in chronological order.  According to his list, by 1:45pm I should have been collecting biscuits from the Referees room.  Or was it giving them biscuits and taking their expense claims?  Of course, Barry had forgotten we had moved the kick off forward to 1pm so I was either 2 hours early or 2 hours late.  I’m not sure which.  The biggest worry was the fact if I didn’t do something to someone on the Internet at 1pm/3pm then Kellie Discipline, the League Secretary, would be straight on the phone giving me a dressing or a fine.  Or perhaps both.  Oh, and the fact it said “5:30pm – relax and have a beer” – that was three hours away.

img_2136So here I am thirty minutes before kick off trying to sort out a kit issue (one of those strange cut-off under socks has gone missing), whilst re-printing forty team sheets that had a big spelling mistake on (Thee Bridges may have been popular in Shakespeare’s time but not today apparently) on a printer that will only allow me to print one at a time due to a cartridge “issue”.  Oh and sorting out the play list which has all of a sudden started playing Isabella’s Disney Princess mix from 2008.  The phone rings and someone from the local paper wants to come along and watch the game and would like a pass for the 3pm game which he then goes into a panic over when I say it is a 1pm kick off as he has just arrived as “Monkey Biz” with his daughter and “there was no way he could get her out of the ball pool in 15 minutes’.  First world problems.

A normal pre-match for me involves a pint, chatting with some of my fellow fans, an in-depth discussion with Darren on our opponents and where the strengths/weaknesses are before preparing myself for any tricky names to read out on the team sheet.  Today I’m having to find the charger adapter for the substitutes board (The League donated one to each club but when we opened the package it had a European plug on), that should have been on charge an hour ago whilst ensuring that the referees assessor was put on the guest list.

I’d already had the dilemma of how to lay out the kit.  The home dressing room only has 24 pegs up – we have a squad of 20 arriving, but should the 1-11 get two pegs (one to hang the kit and one for their stuff) or does everyone get one each?  I’m mildly concerned that we have two slightly different sets of socks and my OCD kicks in by unravelling every pair to ensure that at least each pair matches.  Then there is the TV – it should be showing BT Sports but it has QVC on.  The signal comes from the bar, which is currently locked.

img_2256Best of all, our superb Groundsmen have arrived to use a fancy new machine on the pitch but they are unaware it is a 1pm start and so are trying to ride this contraption up and down the grass, avoiding the players now warming up.

Sounds like fun?  Too right it is.  I love being part of the magic that is match day.  Huge amounts of work goes into making sure that everyone gets to try to enjoy ninety minutes of football.  Whilst we can’t influence the result directly, the preparation that is necessary before every game should be aimed at giving Darren’s side the best opportunity possible to win the match.

I started this year sitting in the stands scouting at Peacehaven & Telscombe and would end it clearing up the detritus from the home team bench. That’s the beauty of the game at this level – you make a difference, as too does every other volunteer that gives up their personal time to help the club.

So how has 2016 treated us?  With all the doom and gloom around in the past few weeks you’d be mistaken to think that our relegation at the end of last season automatically made 2016 a bad year for us.  Actually, we probably made more progress this year on and off the pitch that any year in the past five including winning the Sussex Intermediate Cup.  2015 saw us avoid relegation technically on the last day of the season (although events elsewhere meant we couldn’t be relegated even if we had lost to Bury Town on the final day), get hammered in the Sussex Senior Cup Final and then start the 2015/16 season poorly.  The first half of the 2015/16 was no better as we started poorly and got worse.  It wasn’t until last December that things began to improve on the pitch.  Since January performances have been stronger and there is more of a settled feel in the squad as the stats below illustrate.

In the previous year we played 50 Ryman League games, gaining just 37 points and conceding a mammoth 93 goals in the process.  We won just 10 times, whilst tasted defeat on 33 occasions.  It is fair to say that was relegation form.  Prior to today’s game we’d played 43 Ryman League games in 2016 and gained 65 points, winning 17 and drawing 14.  We had scored 69 goals and conceded 70.  If we think back to that period between the start of March and the end of the season where we drew eight out of our ten games, losing just once, what might have happened if we would have not conceded late equalisers (Grays Athletic and VCD Athletic at home anyone?).  Extrapolate the 43 games into 46 and we have a 70 point season, enough in recent years to be in the top third of the table.

img_2257Unbeaten at home since early October, we hoped to finish the year off with a win against a Three Bridges side who have just two wins on the road (although they have been in their last trips away).  But football can be as unpredictable as the playlist I had put on before the match.  Just because the last two songs have been by the Killers, there’s no guarantee song three will not be something by The Cheeky Girls, or that Apollo 440, lined up as the walk-out song for the two teams actually turns out to be the Jive Bunny.

Lewes 4 Three Bridges 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 31st December 2016
Well, we’d got to the point where the referee had kicked off so we must have got most things right.  I checked Football Web Pages and saw that our starting XI was remarkably similar to last week’s, which wasn’t right so had to quickly amend that, not the easiest thing to do on a mobile.  Seven minutes gone and The Rooks were in front as Jonté Smith turned in the ball from close range.  Five minutes later I remembered that not only did I have to announce the goal but also add it onto Football Web Pages.

It wasn’t the best of halves to be honest although we were playing some nice football and never looked under threat.  Jamie Brotherton added a second in the 35th minute after a neat exchange of passes with Jonté and we should have had a penalty on the stroke of half-time when Conlon was bundled over.

The Lewes side emerged for the second half but there was no sign of our opponents or the officials.  The referee, showing that he is human, had not put enough change in the parking meter and so had to dash out to top it up, meaning nobody called the Three Bridges side out.  The additional time sat in the warm hardly did them any favours as Ronnie Conlon curled a beauty into the top corner within 46 seconds of the restart to make it 3-0.  Game over.  The fans in Philcox started singing “You’ve got more bridges than fans”, winning the chant of the year competition.

Or not quite.  We still have this ability to try to let victory slip out of our fingers.  It’s nothing new, especially here at The Pan.  Last season we gave up four points in two games by conceding injury time equalisers and all of a sudden in this game it went from 3-0 to 3-2.  There was an audible hum of discontent around the ground.  If we are to have any thoughts of breaking into the play-offs then we need to be winning games against teams at the wrong end of the table.

One magic substitution later and it was all smiles again as Charlie Coppola spanked home a loose ball in the area to make it 4-2.  In the two games between these sides this season there have been 14 goals.  Undoubtedly there could have been half a dozen more had it not been for the fine form of former Rook Kieron Thorp in the Three Bridges goal who kept the scoreline respectable in the final ten minutes.

At the final whistle I can enjoy that long overdue pint.  Alas it is not for relaxation – I just need to wait for the players to get changed so I can start sorting the kit and cleaning the dressing room so that come 1pm on Monday when they walk back in for the game against Horsham.  I’m not sure that 20 individuals could purposely make more mess if they tried.

With a game on Monday there would be no time for our usual kit washing or dressing room cleaning routine.  Duncan (Ops Manager) and I grabbed the brooms, buckets and mops and got to work whilst Jane (Director) picked up the kit to deliver to Carol (Director) to wash and dry all of the kit – the happiest of happy new year eve’s I’m sure with 21 shirts, 22 pairs of shorts (not quite sure why there were more shorts than shirts!), 22 pairs of socks, 11 pairs of cut-off socks, 24 warm up t-shirts, 18 warm up jacket and a random pair of Pringle pants for company as Big Ben struck twelve.

img_2262I’d read earlier in the day that the reason why it was a 1pm kick off was so that the directors had time to get ready before going up to London.  I wish that was the case.  The two hours we gave everyone back to enjoy the last night of the year was taken up for me by cleaning and then sitting in a traffic jam on the M25.  Did I mind?  Not one bit.

The afternoon summed up all that was good with the club.  I’m sure a few will grumble about the queue for food (a solution is in the pipe, or should I say pie, line) whereas I heard of a few others who missed the game because they didn’t know it was a 1pm kick off despite us promoting it through every available channel.  But a team effort on and off the pitch saw us end 2016 with three points and a smile on everyone’s faces.

Same again tomorrow everyone?

2016 – A year in football


So that was 2016.  A year most will remember for famous people dying, although the stats will show that no more than a normal year (our love of Social Media partly fuels this hyperbole about the mourning of our celebrity culture) but also a year of watching football.  Footballing duties at the mighty Lewes have restricted my consumption of random games and most certainly weekends away in the past twelve months but with the contract renewed for a third Football Tourist book in 2017/18 I will again be dusting down the passport.

Even so, 2016’s haul hasn’t been bad.  82 games, an average of one every 4 1/2 days in seven countries at 45 different grounds including 24 new stadiums.  In the process I witnessed 255 goals, an average of 3.1 goals per game, 36 home wins, 28 away wins and 17 draws.  Some games will be memorable for years, others have already been forgotten.

We all see games through various shades of rose tint.  A thriller for the neutral will be heartache for one set of fans.  The best referee in the world is a purely subjective decision based on what marginal calls he makes for your side.  So my list of the “best of” is how I saw football in 2016 – there’s no right or wrong just the opinions based on the games I saw.

The Best New Grounds visited
There’s always a sense of excitement visiting a new ground, especially one that people have raved about for years.  Some of my new “ticks” in 2016 were as basic, albeit enjoyable, as Glebe FC down in the SCEFL division 1, others told a story of success against the odds such as last week’s trip to Fisher FC’s new community stadium in Bermondsey.  But the three stadiums below, in no particular order were hands down the best visited for different reasons in 2016.

Glentoran – The Oval

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A hulking main stand, grass banks behind the goal, a bar buried in the history of the club and the stand, the giant cranes of Harland & Wolff in the distance and the planes making their descent into Belfast City Airport overhead – sometimes first time visitors to the iconic Oval may forget there’s a game going on.  The club are contemplating the future of the ground, drastically cut in capacity due to the sands of time but no football fan can ignore the lure of its rustic beauty.

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

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Inside the new San Mamés you could be forgiven that you are in any big new stadium in the world – functional is a word I’d use to describe the 60,000 odd red seats.  But put a roof on and smother the exterior with black and white panels and you’ve got a design icon that even Sir Norman Foster gave an approving nod to. Bilbao is already a weekend destination that just about hits every note, the addition of the new San Mamés has simply added it to the top of the list for the Football Tourist.

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

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It’s hard to imagine this is the same ground I visited over a decade ago to watch an England v France rugby match but it is.  Back then there was no roof and the atmosphere drifted into the night sky, carried away on the Mistral.  Millions were spent upgrading the stadium making it fit for the 2016 European Championships.  The result is a stunning arena with curves that make Marilyn Monroe slimmer of the month.  Obviously what happened in the game between England and Russia is not how a visit should be remembered but still.

The Best Games of 2016
Goals win games and whilst we’ve all seen “entertaining” scoreless draws, unless a match has some life then it’s just going to fade into the memory bank along with all those other 2/5 rated games.  We saw some absolute shockers in 2016, some perhaps that may appear on other fans top games of the year (Faversham Town 5 Lewes 0 anyone?) but the games below are those that as a neutral had that ‘X’ factor…and goals plus a red card or two…oh, and a pie.  Who doesn’t love a pie at football?

AFC Guiseley 4 Torquay United 3
26138079974_c44c4ab0bd_kWhat could be better than a last day of the season “must-win” home game? One where attentions will also be focused on events elsewhere that could ultimately make the score irrelevant.  Add in a season-best crowd, a good natured pitch invasion and the seven goals and this was the best game ever.  The home side needed to win and hope that Halifax didn’t in their home game against Macclesfield Town.  After racing to a 3-0 lead the home nerves were put on edge when Halifax scored.  It got even worse in the second half when Torquay, with nothing left to play for suddenly pulled it back to 3-2.  Then Macclesfield scored and to make the situation even better Gisele scored a fourth.  Torquay made it 4-3 ensuring the final few minutes were very nervous but with the full time whistle blown at The New Shay, the fans invaded the pitch to celebrate ultimate safety.

Northern Ireland 4 San Marino 0
29577405693_e86f13bde5_kThe opening of the redeveloped Windsor Park was a night of celebration with Northern Ireland’s finest sons and daughters paraded before a sell-out crowd on a chilly night in October.  Unlike a Audley Harrison fight, their opponents hadn’t been chosen at random to ensure that the night of celebration would result in a win.  San Marino’s hopeless cause wasn’t helped by the dismissal early in the second half of Mirko Palazzi but even still Northern Ireland peppered the visitors goal with 35 shots over the ninety minutes yet somehow only scored four.  A superb atmosphere accompanied the one way traffic and there was even time post match for a beer or two in the city centre.  Marvellous.

 

Athletic Bilbao 5 KRC Genk 3
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It’s not often that you see one player dominate one game to so much of an extent as Bilbao’s Aritz Aduriz did in this Europa League tie back in November at the San Mamés but anyone who scores five goals in a game deserved all the respect of world football.  Granted he scored a hatrick of penalties given by Martin Atkinson but he could have five or six more goals from open play.  The game ebbed and flowed, with both teams committed to trying to win the game.  Add in a few yellow cards and a decent atmosphere in an outstanding stadium and it is up there with one of the best games I’ve seen in recent years.

Here’s to 2017….

 

Community action


“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.”

Many people consider Bill Shankly to be one of the greatest football managers of all time.  However, it’s hard to imagine how he would fare today where fans across the world not only expect results but entertainment.  The Premier League’s global audience of millions do not want to see “games for the purist”.  They want to see goals, controversy and manager’s losing the plot as decisions go against them. Football at the highest level in this country no longer more important than life and death – it’s about tweets, likes, posts, pins and above all viewing figures.

Many Premier League clubs will make as much in incremental revenue this season under the new TV deal and their new commercial deals as they generate through ticket sales (see our analysis here) – in other words they could play games in empty stadiums and still make more money than they did last season.  My last visit to watch a Premier League game live was over two years ago – I don’t miss it or the attempts by clubs to extract every single penny out of fans who do attend games.  Average yield per head is now as an important metric for clubs as how many points they have (as points make prize money of course).  Whilst generational supporting of one club can still be found the need to support the “winning” side means children in the playground will switch allegiances at the drop of a hat.

It used to be a special treat to be taken to football when I was younger.  I knew (Leyton) Orient fans, Ipswich Town fans, Gillingham fans and even Barnet fans.  Hardly glamorous clubs, certainly not successful clubs (bar the Robson years at Portman Road) but they were fans because their Dad’s were, and their Grandad’s before them in many cases. I still know them today but thanks to the influence of the modern game, their kids are Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal fans who turn their nose up at a trip to Brisbane Road, Portman Road or Priestfield (don’t get me started on Barnet and The Hive).  Live football on TV was reserved for cup finals and internationals, whilst our weekly highlights packages were fairly equitable in terms of who was covered.  Today we have live games on every day of the week. For those clubs who still below the professional game every penny makes the difference between life and death of their club.

019Located in the shadows of one of the world’s most important and prosperous financial districts, Fisher Football Club tick all those boxes.  Like many clubs who play in the Non-League pyramid they’ve been to the brink of life, only in Fisher’s case they actually experienced death when the entity known as Fisher Athletic was wound up in May 2009, having finished bottom of Conference South. Fans not only lost their club but also their ground as the Surrey Docks Stadium was padlocked shut.

The club reformed as Fisher FC, a supporter-owned and run football club in the Kent League for the 2009/10 season, playing their home games 5 miles away at Champion Hill, home of Dulwich Hamlet.  They never lost sight of their aim to return to Bermondsey though and whilst progress on the pitch was hard going, the blood, sweat and tears shed off it finally ensured that they finally got their wish last summer when the redevelopment of the St Paul’s Stadium was complete, no more than a few hundred yards away from the site of the old Surrey Docks Stadium (now smart flats which a Premier League player may even struggle to afford in a week’s salary).

The fall of the original club had been at the pursuit of the dream of becoming London’s newest Football League club, ignoring the fact that they sat just two miles from The Den and Millwall FC.  Building a fan based is significantly harder than losing it and whilst when times were good Lions fans would come and watch when the team were on the road, attendances struggled to break the high hundreds.  It’s an all too familiar story to Lewes fans, and one told superbly by David Bauckham on his visit earlier in the season.

fullsizerender-2With Millwall hosting Swindon on Boxing Day, Fisher took the decision to move their kick off to Bank Holiday Tuesday, hoping to maximise on Turkey-weary, sales-averse local fans as well as a smattering of groundhoppers who had the opportunity to visit the new ground.  Whilst times may be tough on the field, propping up a league that is now more competitive than ever and featuring teams with bigger playing budgets and average attendances than many teams in the Ryman Leagues above, the club have been busy re-engaging with a new generation and influx of local residents into Bermondsey.  The area around the stadium is still prime development land, sitting in the shadow of Canary Wharf and whilst the demographics of those who live next door may be more akin to Stamford Bridge or The Emirates, the club’s community programme is trying to spread the message that wearing the black and white of Fisher in the playground is as acceptable as those worn by the Premier League obsessives.

fisherDay four of my Christmas break and I’d yet to get to a game.  Having admired the work of the club for many years (their Christmas poster for their game a few seasons ago against Greenwich Borough was legendary), hearing they would be stocking Fourpure Beer and the prospect of getting a view of the office from a different angle made my mind up that I’d be heading to SE16 for my penultimate game of 2016.

Fisher 2 Beckenham Town 0 – St Paul’s Stadium – Tuesday 27th December 2016
There’s few better sights for those who work tirelessly behind the scenes in Non-League football than queues.  Queues at the turnstiles, queues at the bar, queues to buy half-time raffle tickets.  The crowds had flocked to St Paul’s Stadium for this game that pitted bottom v second to bottom of the Southern Counties East Football League.  Prior to today’s game, the biggest attendance since returning home in the summer was 189 for the opening league encounter with Corinthian.  With ten minutes until kick off it was clear that number would be broken for this game.

Despite their lowly position, improvements had been made since Gary Abbott had been sacked in November, replaced by former boss Dean Harrison.  A draw in their previous game against AFC Croydon Athletic had halted a run of nine successive league defeats.  Whilst there had been some departures, talisman Trey Williams was available through his dual registration agreement with Welling United.  Harrison had brought in some strength into the spine of the team including Montserrat keeper Nic Taylor.

fullsizerenderThe home side certainly put aside any concerns about recent form and dominated the opening period with chances going begging.  With 15 minutes played, Fisher took the lead after Beckenham keeper Adam Highsted dropped Adeshina’s cross and John Ufuah tapped home.  Five minutes later a smart Fisher move almost saw Williams double the lead but the Beckenham keeper saved well.

On the half hour Taylor pulled off an outstanding save from a sliced clearance from his own defender to keep the score at 1-0 whilst at the other end Williams, Ufuah and Bugden all had chances to double Fisher’s lead.  Half-time and advantage Fisher.  Time for a beer.

The second half followed a similar pattern.  With the lights of Canary Wharf illuminating the skyline like a huge Christmas tree, Fisher went in search of a second and almost found it when substitute McKenzie hit his shot straight at the keeper.  In the 74th minute Beckenham’s Humphris is ruled offside when he turned in from close range but it’s their last real chance as the home side wrap up the points thanks to Agyemang’s header via the crossbar with five minutes remaining.

fullsizerender-1The win narrows the gap to just one point with the visitors although there’s still plenty of work to do before safety can be considered to be within their grasp.  The defeat for the visitors was their eleventh in a row in all competitions, a run they need to bring to an end swiftly before it’s too late. Whilst the three points were valuable to Fisher, even more so was the crowd and the happy faces of those leaving the ground at full-time, having played their part in a community-inspired dream that hopefully shows no sign of fading yet.

Who benefits from Stadium naming rights?


There’s a fantastic new book that’s been published by Leon Gladwell called “Beyond the turnstile” which is full of oustanding pictures from his quest to capture the beauty of the game around the world.  Leon contacted me about 18 months ago and asked me to write the forward for his book, which I was absolutely honoured to do.  I focused on the comparison between football and religion and how the stadium had become the modern day place of worship, the new age cathedral.

But is football the new religion?  And are football stadiums the cathedrals for the new common man? These are two questions that people have asked for years.  Whilst the questions may be fanciful to some, belittling to others, there is some truth in the statements.  Based on the continued growth in the commercialisation of the game I would suggest that some football clubs have a cult-like approach to fan engagement.  Get them in as young as possible, ram emails down their throats as often as you can and then brainwash them to come and spend ridiculous sums of money on things like branded toasters, branded bottles of water and even branded vodka.  There is certainly no end to what a football club will slap an advert on these days for cash – in some cases even the club themselves such as Red Bull Salzburg.  However, apart from shirt sponsorship, stadium naming rights are the biggest asset a club has that they could monetise.  In some countries, such as Germany, it is the norm to sell the naming rights on a regular basis but elsewhere in Europe where many grounds are not owned by the clubs, but by local authorities it is not as common, such as in Italy or Spain.

The situation in England is confused to say the least. If you look at the twenty biggest stadiums in England, only five are sponsored.  The Emirates, The Etihad, The Ipro, The Ricoh Arena and The King Power Stadium.  Interestingly there are a couple of other stadiums in the list that used to be “named” but have now dropped the convention.  Middlesborough’s The Riverside started off life as the Cellnet and then the BT Cellnet stadium before reverting back to its proper name in 2003.  Southampton’s St Mary’s Stadium was originally known as the Friends Provident St Mary’s Stadium, quite a mouthful before they withdrew their support in 2006. Oh, and who can forget the ridiculous situation at Newcastle United when St James’ Park was renamed the SportsDirect@St.James’ Park or something else ridiculous for a period of time.  At number four on the list of stadiums based on capacity is the London Stadium, aka The Olympic Stadium where it is only a matter of time before some random name is added to the title (Mahindra or Tesco’s were the front runners a few months ago).

Stadium rebranding his hardly the religious approach akin to the “cathedrals for the common man” is it?  For whose purpose is the naming of a stadium?  The players?  Will the team be more likely to turn performances up by 10% if they have a new name above their heads. The fans? Look at the situation in Dortmund.  Do the Borussia fans bedecked in their yellow and black say, obviously translated from our German cousins “Are you going down the Westfalonstadion today” or “Shall we head off to the Signal Iduna Park”?

Even down in the Ryman League South we come across clubs who have sold the naming rights to their ground which leads to some confusion with the fans.  Whilst the Shepherds Neame Stadium resonates with the town of Faversham and thus the football team, the Heards Renault Stadium is a grand name for Molesey’s Walton Road ground and the GAC Stadium is perhaps unknown to those outside of East Grinstead.

I have no issues with stadium naming rights as long as they are done for the right reasons.  A long term commercial partnership for instance.  You cannot have a better example than the Reebok.  Most football fans will still consider it the name of Bolton Wanderer’s stadium despite the fact it has actually been sponsored by Macron since 2014.  That’s the danger that could impact Arsenal when the naming rights of the Emirates comes up for renegotiation in 2028 – it will be hard for any brand to gain any commercial traction after twenty four years of sponsorship – which actually puts the airline in a strong negotiating position, knowing that few other organisations would be willing to invest in the brand.

Possibly the least successful example of stadium naming rights has to belong to Darlington FC.  For 120 years of their history they played in the town centre at Feethams until the club were taken over by millionnaire George Reynolds who moved them in 2003 to the out of town, 25,000 capacity Reynolds Arena, complete with gold taps in the toilets and marble throughout.  The club averaged 3,500 during their time in the stadium and fell out of the Football League in 2010. During that period the ground was known as the Northern Echo Darlington Arena, Williamson Motors, 96.6 TFM and Balfour Webnet before Darlington folded and reformed as Darlington 1883, moving to the more homely Blackwell Meadows.  Today the stadium is owned by Darlington Mowden Park rugby club.

 

 

Economic Theory explained by Football 21 – The Kaldor-Hicks Theorem


It doesn’t matter what the decision is, someone somewhere will be worse off.  It doesn’t matter if it’s a political decision, an economic decision or a referee’s decision, there will be winners and losers.  In theory there could be a decision made that benefits everyone and penalises nobody, called the Pareto Improvement, but that’s hardly like to happen – everyone could be given free entry to football if the clubs were compensated but somewhere along the line someone will have to pay, for instance by increasing the subscription fees to watch games on TV, or a decision to lower the cost of a replica shirt will impact margins somewhere and cause pain to a manufacturer or the work force employed to make it.

I’ve no idea if Nicholas Kaldor and John Hicks were football fans or even if they were thinking about the beautiful game when came up with a theory that determined for every decision that was seen as positive in some people’s eyes, there would be a group of people who would be made worse off in some way (economical or socially) but their criteria to determine whether a decision is as holistically beneficial can be applied to virtually every decision we, or any club makes.

For instance, in the summer we made the decision to reduce our admission prices by £1 for Adults and Concessions.  Everyone benefited right?  The fans had an extra £1 in their pockets which they could potentially spend elsewhere in the club for sure but the club loses out.  We are pretty sure that it isn’t price that impacts our attendances rather than whether Brighton & Hove Albion are at home, and most importantly how we are playing.

If we continue to play as we are then we could probably increase admission back to £11 and £6 and there will be no material impact on the crowd.  Our fans want to see winning football and our pricing strategy does not inhibit attendances.  Last season we averaged 413 at this stage of the season, this season 409.  So we’ve dropped down a division and reduced prices by £1 but no more fans are coming through the gate.  BUT if we look at our attendances since our mid-September turnaround happened and we started playing better, we are actually averaging 440, nearly 10% up on last year.

The obvious loser in the decision to reduce admission charges is the club.  Our costs have either increased or at best stayed the same.  Our playing budget is still £2k per week.   We play 23 home league games in the season, which works out at £3,200 in costs per home game.  If our average attendance falls, as it has so far, despite admission being reduced then we have a hole to fill.  Taking the facts as red and assuming we have 300 paying fans each home game, we are £300 down per game or almost £7k down on the season.  We could try and sell 152 additional programmes per game to make up the deficit or simply suck it up (which we’ve done).

I remember seeing one side a few years ago try to introduce a variable pricing strategy based on league position with four check points in the season.  So they set the pricing at the start of the season, then reviewed after circa 10, 20 and 30 games.  The concept was that the better the team were doing, the lower the admission was.

However, this is economically wrong.  Let me demonstrate:-

If the average admission paid per spectator at the start of the season is £10 and the average attendance is 1,000 then match day ticket revenue is £10,000.

After 10 games the club are having a shocker and fall to the bottom of the league.  The club can’t justify changing admission prices despite average attendances dropping to 900, thus match day ticket revenue is £9,000.

After 20 games they’ve changed their manager and have improved, sitting just outside the playoffs.  The club drops ticket prices by 10%.  Average attendances rise back to 1,000.  Match day ticket revenue is still £9,000 (£9 x 1,000)

After 30 games they are challenging for the title and the club drops pricing down for the final home games to £8 to bring the fans in.  Attendances go up to 1,200 so match day revenue is now £9,600, which is less that they were getting when they were bottom of the league. The total season revenue for 40 games is £376,000.

Of course the more fans attend games, the more they will spend in the ground but even so, the theory above shows that it is flawed.

If instead the club would have reversed their strategy, it would have looked like this:-

Game 1 – £10 admission, 1,000 average attendance = £10,000 match day revenue

Game 11 – £8 admission as they are bottom of the leave, 900 average attendance = £7,200 revenue

Game 21 – £10 admission, 900 average admission = £9,000 match day revenue

Game 31 – £12 admission, 1,200 average admission = £14,400 match day revenue

Total match day revenue is £406,000 or 8% more than the strategy most clubs would employ.

According to Kaldor and Hicks, whilst the economic rationale behind a decision to lower pricing when the team was doing well was sound, it actually makes no economic sense.

The decision by the Premier League and the member clubs to cap ticket prices at £30 for away fans is another example of the Kaldor-Hicks Theorem in practice.  Whilst the decision will benefit the travelling fans, the clubs themselves will see a reduction in revenues unless they raise ticket prices for home fans.  Hopefully, the huge sums of money the clubs now receive from the new TV deal will more than compensate them – in fact they could still afford to reduce pricing comparably for home and away fans, although let’s face it, that’s hardly likely to happen is it?