Happy transfer window opening day


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scenario 3 – Premier League TV rights are devalued

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

Scenario 4 – Absolutely nothing changes

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

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

Marketing 101


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The turkey tastes just a little bit better this Christmas


Winners know that the hard work starts when they’ve achieved their greatest goal. Whilst some have greatness thrust upon them, the vast majority of outstanding sporting individuals and teams go through years of preparation and perspiration before they can rightly call themselves a champion.

Football is no different. It is incredibly rare that a team will upset the odds on a consistent basis. There’s a few examples of Cup giant killings, but in most of those instances Lady Luck plays a factor. Longer competitions also require an element of luck as well as other sides creating a path to glory. Take the Greek side that won the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. They went into the tournament as one of the outsiders but ended up as champions. Were they the best side in the competition? Absolutely not, but they played to their strengths and others weaknesses as well as seeing other sides who were more highly fancied beat each other. But they weren’t a flash in the pan. They worked on a game plan and everyone in that squad executed it to perfection across the whole tournament – take Manchester City’s unbelievable performance this season.  They have a great squad but it’s not head and shoulders above the rest. Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal have spent tens of millions in the past year, like City, but they’ve found a level of consistency that is above and beyond what we’ve ever seen in the Premier League.  The club leaves nothing to chance and will be working even harder to keep the run going off the pitch.

Many may cite Leicester City as another example. 5000/1 outsiders for the Premier League title at the beginning of the 2015/16 season, with a manager at the helm who had won almost nothing in his career. Two magical things aligned in the next nine months – a squad of players who almost to a man performed at the top of their game plus their main rivals all seemingly in a season of “transition”. However, there’s also an oft overlooked element to the Leicester City dream – the role behind the scenes of Steve Walsh and Craig Shakespeare who assembled the squad, not Claudio Ranieri, and a huge focus on the preparation for each game.

The 2003 English Rugby World Cup Champions revolutionised the way teams should prepare, a methodology copied by the massively successful British Cycling Team at the last two Olympic Games, using a common approach of marginal gains – improving a high volume of multiple things by small amounts rather than focusing on high levels of improvement in a small number of things.  Take one look at the huge army of people who work behind the scenes at the top Premier League clubs and you will understand the concept of marginal gains even better – A soft tissue therapist may sound like a strange role, but to Pep Guardiola, employing one could be the difference between getting a player Aguero fit a game earlier, which could be three points closer to a time.

As we pass the halfway mark in the season, Lewes still remain top of the Bostik League South, a position we’ve held, bar one week, since the end of September.  It’s not all been plane sailing and we’ve had our fair share of injuries and suspensions as this last week will testify but the hard work off the pitch by dozens of volunteers means we have gone into virtually every game as prepared as we could be.  We don’t have the luxury of a soft tissue therapist or a head of sports nutrition but we do do everything we can to help the players.  Our marginal gains can actually be far more impactful than those in the highly competitive, money-focused Premier League.

As we sit down and enjoy our Christmas I’d like to thank everyone, not only at Lewes but across every football club who gives up their time freely to try to make a difference for their club.  We know that the second half of the season will be even tougher – everyone raises their game against the teams at the top but that’s just going to make us more determined to get things right off the pitch.  Happy Christmas one and all.

Tough at the top, tougher down the bottom


During the Leicester City vs Manchester United game on Saturday night, commentator Alan Parry mentioned the “stresses and strains” on the Premier League players at having to play four games over the Christmas period.  “Some of these players face four games in just nine day!” Parry remarked as if this was a massive hardship for them.  That will be the same four games in nine days that virtually every club playing at Steps 7 and 8 of the footballing pyramid face over Christmas.

I hear the arguments about the stresses and strains of the Premier League, apparently the fastest league in the world (although I am not sure how that has been measured) but these players are professional.  They have the best facilities for fitness and recovery at their disposal – Pep Guardiola’s 16 man management team includes such roles as a Sports Therapist, a Head of Human Performance, a Soft Tissue Therapist and a Head of Sports Medicine.  Below them is an army of experts whose job is to ensure that Pep’s record breaking team are in peak condition when they cross the white line.  In most instances they are told what to eat and drink, when and where.

Down in the Bostik League South (as with in most other Non-Leagues), today was the first of four games Lewes played in the next nine days.  Our players and physios head home to their families tonight for Christmas and some will return to their normal jobs tomorrow and even Christmas Day before regrouping on Tuesday for the next game meaning that they cannot spend any time with the players and their rehabilitation.  We share the same concern as Guardiola that four games over the Christmas period is too much, especially with small squads and half way through the season where suspensions are starting to bite.  Today was our 33rd game of the season, and whilst our three new signings who all made their debuts today due to the growing injury list took the number of players we have used over the 30 mark, only 20 have played in more than five games, exactly the same number of players Manchester City have used in their 28 games this season.

Ultimately, the commercialisation of the Premier League game means that clubs have little control as to when games are scheduled.  Whilst other leagues across Europe have mid-Winter breaks, that simply means the Premier League can charge a higher fee to overseas broadcasters to schedule games at times attractive to foreign audiences – why else would the Leicester City game be scheduled on a Saturday night two days before Christmas?  In the Non-Leagues Christmas games bring in vital revenue, with local derbies boosting attendances although the continued lack of public transport on Boxing Day does prove problematic to many – Lewes take on Hastings United on Boxing Day despite the fact there is no public transport running between the two East Sussex towns 29 miles apart.

Commentators and members of the media often talk about Premier League players in revered terms, forgetting the hundreds of other equally committed and passionate individuals give up their time to bring joy to thousands of us who prefer our football a little less sanitised than that at the top level.

Happy Christmas to everyone who will take part in those games over the next nine days and spread the joy of the beautiful game to us all.

 

 

Jamie Vardy from Non-League to Premier League – why the feat is getting harder


It is the rags-to-riches story every footballer dreams of – starting out in the lower echelons of the English game and catching the eye of an unexpected Premier League scout to be plucked from obscurity and thrust into the big time.

For one man, the dream became a reality in 2012, with Jamie Vardy joining then Championship outfit Leicester City from Conference Premier outfit Fleetwood Town.

The sprightly striker’s story has been somewhat immortalised since, with Premier League title success and England international inclusion following suit.

Leicester were at 5000/1 odds to win the Premier League in 2015-16, with those using their Draftkings Promo Code 2018 struggling to find a fairytale story similar to the Foxes or their main attacking weapon.

Vardy is well worth his stint at the elite level of the sport, with the 30-year-old proving that he has what it takes to succeed.

However, for all those looking to follow in the Leicester man’s footsteps, the task seems almost impossible.

While players will naturally look to move up the divisions by impressing and getting the subsequent transfer to a bigger club, going from non-league or lower league football straight to the Premier League is unlikely.

Vardy’s example is even more extraordinary given that he was not a fresh-faced youngster when he made the move to Leicester, rather a striker that had honed his game in the lower reaches of the English game.

Managers of clubs at the top level are under such significant pressure to deliver in short time frames that the natural reaction is to spend on established players.

With Premier League clubs consistently getting richer thanks to increased prize money and eye-watering tv rights deals, it is almost a no-brainer to splash millions on a household name rather than take a chance on a virtual unknown, even for a squad position.

Looking down the divisions, international-calibre players of some countries become attainable for even League One teams, meaning the journey to the game’s summit becomes much tougher for those looking up from the bottom.

There is a train of thought that if a player is good enough he will make it to the appropriate level, but there are undoubtedly potential stars that fall through the cracks.

As such, Vardy in his current form should be applauded for his ascent to the Premier League, with it unclear when another player from non-league will prove he is good enough to rub shoulders with the domestic game’s best.