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?

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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!

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.

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….

 

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.

 

 

1966 and Not All That


CaptureIn celebration of the 50th anniversay of our greatest ever footballing day as a nation, below is an extract of the chapter I wrote for Mark Perryman’s excellent book ‘1966 and Not All That’.  The book looks at the build up to the 1966 World Cup from a social and a sporting aspect in England as well as containing updated match reports 50 years on, written by some of the finest footballing authors around today (plus me).

My chapter focuses on the changing nature of the travelling English football fan in the last 50 years, starting 4 years before the 1966 World Cup in Chile and finishing up with the run up to the European Championships in France last month.  If you want to buy a copy then head over to Amazon by clicking here.

Have tickets, will travel

The England squad that travelled to the 1962 World Cup in Chile had to endure a flight with two separate changes to Lima where they played a warm up game against Peru before moving onto Santiago, then Rancagua where they would play their group games and then bus to their base in the Braden Copper Company staff house in Coya, some 2,500ft up in the Andes.  The journey of over 7,500 miles would have taken them more than 24 hours.  Hardly an ideal preparation for the tournament.  Very few fans could afford the high cost of travel (around £4,000 in today’s money) or the five refuelling-stop flight to the Southern Hemisphere on a BOAC Comet, meaning that England played their games in the Estadio El Teniente in Rancagua in front of less than 10,000 locals.   Today, that same journey would take 13 hours and cost as little as £500, with no stops. On the basis of England’s travelling support in the past twenty years several thousand would follow the team should they ever play Chile away in the near future.

When Walter Winterbottom’s squad left these shores for Chile in 1962 it was from the Oceanic Terminal at London Airport.  Four years later, when the squads for the 1966 tournament landed on English soil, the airport had a more familiar ring to it – Heathrow.  It would be from departure points like this that the shift in our boundaries as fans would start.  The travel revolution was still a couple of decades away when the 1966 World Cup kicked off on 11th July with England taking on Uruguay in front of nearly 88,000 fans, but there is no doubt that the staging of the tournament in England changed the perceptions of whole communities in terms of overseas visitors, the like of which many English people had never seen before.  If the North Korean, Argentine and Mexican fans could travel halfway around the world to support their countrymen then so could England football fans from Consett, Corby and Chatham.

It would however be a further 16 years before England fans got the opportunities to really experience what it was like to be a Football Tourist.  Four years after the tournament in England, Mexico offered better opportunities for the travelling fan than Chile ever did but still the cost and the misguided perceptions created by the media of what visiting foreign countries was really like restricted the number of supporters prepared to travel to Central America.  However the 1970 FIFA World Cup did see the first attempt to create an official England supporters travel club for those now intending to follow the team overseas.  The England Football Supporters’ Association offered members who wanted to travel to Mexico the opportunity to travel on an organised trip to watch the tournament, with travel, hotels, a full English washed down with pints of Watney Ale.  The downside?  Fans would need to part with between £230 and £250 per person for a three week trip, or around 8 weeks money for someone on the then average UK wage of £32 per week, around £7,500 in today’s money. Britain was on the verge of a recession, after the “never had it so good” Sixties.  The typical demographic of football fans at the start of the decade was more likely to spend their money on a new Ford Cortina or Teasmade for their semi-detached in suburbia.

English football in the intervening years between 1970 and our next appearance in Spain in 1982 went through a radical change.  To many, the watershed moment in the development of a culture of following club and country came two years earlier in Italy when England qualified for the new-look European Championships.  Thousands of fans travelled by plane, train and automobile to the group games against Belgium, Spain and hosts, Italy. This was a new generation of football fan who had not previously had the opportunity to watch their nation play in an international tournament. Many of these fans, only used to the passionate, if sometimes unruly terrace culture of England simply weren’t prepared for the way the Italian authorities treated them.  With few having experience of watching football abroad, many didn’t adapt their behaviour and faced with a new foe in the Italian police and the locals too, the English responded, by running riot.

Despite the experience of being tear gassed, or worse, or two years later even more fans headed to the World Cup in Spain. For some the appeal would be to repeat the Italian experience, while for others just like the Scots and Northern Irish they would bring their very English version of carnival football to the World Cup for the first time since 1966. This was the first major tournament where individual English national identity would come to the fore.  Whilst the English fans would still confusingly be waving the Union Jack, the Scots and the Northern Irish defined their support as ‘anyone but English for decades to come.  Spain was the founding moment for the Scots’ Tartan Army, whilst the mainly Unionist Northern Irish support would put their politics aside and proudly wear their own Northern Irish Green then, and ever since.  The Scots and Northern Irish, perhaps not weighed down with the expectations of a nation on the pitch, made the most of their time in the sunshine off it, while the troublesome reputation that wrapped itself round England at Italia ’80 was resurrected once more across the tournament at Spain ’82 too.

That reputation stayed with England and their travelling support for a number of years, and was one of the main reasons why the nation’s group games in the 1990 World Cup were held on the island of Sardinia.  The Italian police felt that by containing the fans in one place for the first part of the tournament would be a benefit for all.  Despite a tepid start and scraping through the group on goals scored, England woke up in the knock-out stages and gave the fans belief that nearly twenty five years of hurt could be put to rest.  Of course penalties were our undoing in the semi-finals but the national team had a new identity amongst the fans and the media back home.

To read more then buy the book!