Economic Theory explained by Football 20 – The Paradox of Choice

In 2004 American psychologist and Philadelphia Union fan Barry Schwartz published his book called The Paradox of Choice – Why More is Less where he argued that eliminating consumer choices was actually a good thing as it greatly reduced anxiety for consumers.

“Autonomy and Freedom of choice are critical to our well-being, and choice is critical to freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, consumers today have more choice than any group of people ever has before, and thus, presumably, more freedom and autonomy, we don’t seem to be benefiting from it psychologically.“  Barry argued.  Whilst his text made references to consumers throughout the book, it is clear that deep down he was actually basing his research on the spiralling transfer market.

Schwartz espoused the concept of voluntary simplicity, where we only have a small number of choices in life and immediately you can see he is referring to the majority of Non-League football clubs, who simply do not have the resources to be able to pick and choose the players they want.  We often refer to this as Hobson’s Choice, named after the Oxford United Chairman who found himself with no candidates when he advertised for the manager’s role a few year’s ago.

The concept of the Transfer Window in the world-wide professional game was supposed to reduce the stress and burden on clubs but all that it has done is concentrate the wheeler-dealings into two small windows.  Clubs struggling in the first half of the season put all of their hopes in the January Transfer Window but are often frustrated by rising prices because the selling clubs know they are desperate based on their league position.  The Paradox of Choice is seen in full effect where there are often far too many options but too few genuine choices.  Unless a club is prepared they simply will not be able to see the wood for the trees.

Schwartz’ research found that when people are faced with having to choose one option, or player out of many desirable options, they will naturally consider the trade-offs mentally before making their decision and they will think in terms of the value of the missed opportunities rather than the value the potential choice will bring.

Every week Darren has to make a choice between putting a substitute keeper on the bench or an outfield player.  It has been over a year since we have needed to use a sub keeper, although those who saw the game at Canvey Island last year would have prayed we had on that day and it is therefore a fair decision to put five outfield players on the bench each week.  If we only had a squad of 16 players then he wouldn’t have to make that difficult decision – it’s not like he has to play everyone on the bench.  So perhaps the Paradox of Choice would make his job a little less stressful come match day.

Schwarz’s theory has been debunked by a number of further studies, suggesting the complete opposite, that more choices make people happier.  But if you knew the back story about his research you’d understand it was all about football anyway.

Have the Cosmos reached the limit of their universe?

For those who love a random fact, if each of the five boroughs of New York City were a separate city, Brooklyn would rank as the third-most populous city in the whole of the United States, behind Los Angeles and Chicago, with over 2.6 million people within its borders.  The second biggest borough is Queens.  It was also the birth place of the credit card, the first US roller coaster and Brooklyn Beer.  If you want (and can) live in New York then Brooklyn isn’t a bad spot, as my good friend Luge Pravda can testify.

22806797358_53dda10aea_kAnd testify he did as we headed back from a borefest at the MetLife Stadium where we had witnessed the LA Rams beat the New York Jets by 9 points to 6.  It wasn’t proper football as the conversation went, highlighting our very British view about the game to try and get some audience participation on the train ride.  Alas, everyone seemed to be in a degenerative state of boredom thanks to the last 3 hours of NFL.  Whilst that may have been their weekend sporting highlight, we still had the prospect of watching the cumulation of the North American Soccer League season as the New York Cosmos faced Indy Eleven in very unfamiliar surroundings.

At the start of the season all of the teams in the NASL had to submit venues for all potential dates including the play-offs.  Unfortunately, Hofstra University, the normal home of the Cosmos,  told them nearly a year ago that the stadium couldn’t be used in the second weekend in November.  The club could have rented another suitable venue but it would have been on the off-chance of making the final.  They couldn’t “wing it”.  They had to submit firm details of a venue even though they had no idea whether they would need it.

The club looked at a host of venues, including MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, which is rumoured to be the Cosmos’ next permanent home.  However, they would have to cover up the Baseball diamond at a significant cost, so once again that venue was dismissed.  There’s no news as to whether the club actually approached either the RedBulls to hire the RedBull Arena or New York City, although the costs of hiring the Yankee Stadium would have been prohibitive, as too would have been the Met Life, albeit being the spiritual home of the club.

There was a last-ditch attempt to negotiate the use of Hofstra University again but even with the potential of midweek dates agreed between the play-off teams, the talks came to nothing and the only option the club had was Belson Stadium, a three sided university soccer field, built on top of a car park, which could only hold 2,600 fans, 30% less than the Cosmos’ average home attendance this season.  Hardly the season finale they had planned.

These factors all added up meaning that the venue was really unsuitable for the game, unwanted by the NASL and deeply unpopular with the fans of both teams.  Oh, and a pain in the arse to get to, with no public transport in the vicinity, meaning everyone, which in our case, I, had to drive there.

25349765629_f11437307b_kFor those who have read The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half, you will be very familiar with the Cosmos story in the chapter “Twice in a Lifetime” – if not then I would thoroughly recommend buying it now otherwise the next bit won’t make any sense at all.  It is quite scandalous how their heritage counted for nothing when the MLS were considering a second franchise in New York, and it appears that there is very little chance of them getting an opportunity to join the elite, any time soon.  In February 2014, MLS commissioner Don Garber named three other markets as candidates for the final expansion team that would get the league’s stated 24-team target by 2020,, which did not include New York and on April 25, 2014, he told Associated Press’s sports editors that there would not be a third MLS team in New York, effectively ending any hope on the Cosmos gaining a place back at the top table, on merit rather than on politics, which essentially made the whole NASL Championship a little bit of an anti-climax.  The Cosmos could win the league and the play-offs for the next decade and still not get a look in.

Since my last visit in 2014 the Cosmos had been almost unstoppable. They finished the 2015 spring season unbeaten, finishing in first place, although the second half of the season saw them lose four times and finish in third place.  However, they went on to win the Soccer Bowl, beating Ottawa Fury in from of a NASL record crowd of 10,166 at Hofstra.  The game also marked the final career appearance of Spanish legend Raúl, who had chosen to age gracefully in New York, resisting the offers from the MLS to play with the Cosmos.  They also reached the fifth round of the US Open cup in June 2015, losing to New York Red Bulls over in New Jersey, although in the previous round they did beat New York City 4-3 on penalties in front of 11,940, a record attendance at the James M. Shuart Stadium, a very bitter sweet moment considering the situation with the New York expansion franchise.

This season has seen them go from strength to strength.  Whilst the playing budget was cut, although most of that was down to the retirement of Raúl, they could still boast a squad of 12 different nationals.  They finished the first half of the season in 2nd place behind Indy Eleven, although the two teams finished on the same number of points, the same number of goals scored and goals conceded, with the team from Indianapolis awarded the title based on their 2-1 victory over the Cosmos early in the season. However, in the fall season the Cosmos were dominant from game one, finishing 10 points clear of Indy Eleven in top spot.

The play-offs went according to plan, with both the Cosmos and Indy Eleven winning with ease, interestingly in the case of New York in front of over 5,000 fans at Hofstra, setting up the fourth meeting between the two sides of the season.  As we took our seats we could see and hear the two sets of fans at either end of the stadium trying to generate an atmosphere, which was tough considering the capacity for the 3-sided ground was just over 2,000.  To our right were the Cosmos fans, made up of the Borough Boys, La Banda del Cosmos and The Cross Island Crew, whilst at the far end the travelling Indy Eleven fans made the noise.  Even stevens on and off the pitch it seemed.

New York Cosmos 0 Indy Eleven 0 (4-2 on pens) – Belson Stadium, Queens – Sunday 13th November 2016
It’s fair to say this wasn’t a classic.  It seemed relatively obvious from early in the game that there was little between the two sides and the game would be decided by a moment of magic or madness.  Alas, the game lacked examples of either and was finally decided by some poor penalty kicks by the visitors to give the Cosmos their third NASL Championship in the past four seasons.

During the two hours of football there were only five shots on goal, although the away side came the closest to scoring in the ninety minutes when Nemanja Vuković broke down the left and his cross was met by the impressive Don Smart on the half-volley, which hit the bar and bounced to safety. Despite Cosmos having the most valuable player in the league in the form of Juan Arango, denoted by his Golden Ball award at half time, they created very little in the game.

Full-time merged into extra-time with no real delineation between the stages of the game.  By the time we got to half-time in extra-time it was blatantly obvious the game would be going to penalties.  We did have some late drama when Arrieta crossed from the left to Diosa in the centre of the penalty area. His first touch escaped him, but Diosa stayed with the play, turned and hit a right-footed shot that just skipped wide of the near post.  The final whistle put us out of our misery.

Indy went first in the shootout and Nicki Paterson, a Scot who 16 games with Clyde no less, beat the Cosmos goalkeeper Jimmy Maurer with a shot inside the far post. Jairo Arrieta stepped up for the Cosmos and smacked his shot off the far post and in. The majority of the crowd gave a heavy breath out that was soon replaced by cheers as Eamon Zayed’s spot kick hit both posts and someone stayed out.  Another Scot, former Elgin City star Adam Moffat coolly slotted the ball straight down the middle and the pressure was on Indy Eleven.

In a somewhat surprising decision, veteran keeper Jon Busch stepped up but blazed the ball high and wide, almost handing the title on a plate (or in this instance a bowl), to the Cosmos.  It was left to Ryan Ritcher to take the decisive penalty for the home side, making the final score 4-2.  Cue the wild celebrations that included a flare or two being set off in the Cosmos fans, leading to panic among the Campus Police (really) who had never had to deal with such an event.

On my last trip to see the Cosmos I said that I couldn’t see what the future holds for them, and two years down the road I still don’t understand where they can go next.  They need to test themselves against better opposition each week, they need their own stadium so they can attract more commercial revenues and of course fans.  Their “once in a lifetime” opportunity seems to have been and gone, so now they are most definitely a very big fish in a relatively small pond.

Two weeks after the game came the news that the NASL may be no more and with it would go any opportunity for the Cosmos to carry on in their current form.  This story may not end here and it is unlikely when it does to be a happy one.

Decisions in nobody’s interest

Last Saturday Lewes looked to record their sixth consecutive league win.  These are heady times for us Rooks fans, with many of us never experiencing the crushing inevitability of snatching defeats from the jaws of victory, but coming into the game against Molesey we were top of the current form table over the last ten games, having won eight and drawn two.  Such form was unheard of but was down to a new spirit within the dressing room and players hitting form.  During that spell we have also scored goals for fun, twenty-three of them in the last ten games prior to Saturday.  Scoring goals, playing entertaining football, winning games – we were living the dream.

fullsizerender_2Saturday’s opponents, Molesey, had lost seven out of their eight away league games, scoring just twice in the defeats.  If I was a betting man then I may have put a pound on a home win.  Confidence has that effect on me – heck I’ve even been known to turn the heating on before the end of November at home.

But what you can never factor in is the weather.

The forecast for Saturday was for a storm to hit the South Coast in the evening, so bad that a yellow weather warning had been issued.  I’d flown in from Florida, landing at Gatwick at 11am with bright blue sunshine.  The pitch looked perfect and we looked forward to seeing some free-flowing football especially with the return of striker Jonté Smith to the Dripping Pan.

Lewes 2 Molesey 2 – The Dripping Pan – Saturday 19th November 2016
Ten minutes in and whilst the rain had started to fall, it was no worse than what we would have expected at this time of year.  Charlie Coppola got the right side (for us) of the full-back and was hauled down.  Penalty.  Jamie Brotherton slotted home 1-0.  The only disappointment was having the golden goal at 9 minutes.

The rain started to get harder but still it wasn’t causing us many issues.  We were able to play the ball around on the floor and always looked like scoring again, the surprise being we had to wait until the 40th minute when Jonté Smith picked the ball up 40 yards out, twisted his marker inside out before slotting in to the far corner of the net.  2-0 at half-time.

img_1915As the teams came out for the second half there was concern in the stands and personally I felt that if the rain did not let up we would soon run into a situation where puddles would start appearing on the pitch and the game would be in doubt.  I’d hate to see the game abandoned, especially as we were on top and currently sitting in 5th place in the league, our highest position all season.

On the hour mark the puddles were very evident and the ball started to stick.  There was no way that the game would finish, with the rain continuing to fall.  Five minutes later Molesey scored, a great solo effort from Ashley Lodge.  The Rooks performance seemed to mirror the state of the playing surface – deteriorating quickly.

Seventy minutes gone and the Molesey bench started making serious noise to the officials that the game was becoming farcical.  I couldn’t agree more.  It was only a matter of time before the pitch got saturated to a point of unplayability.  Five minutes later Molesey equalised when Tom Windsor tapped into an empty net.

After the goal celebrations the referee consulted with his linesmen and called the captains together.  “Here we go” we thought, game off.  But he actually asked whether they wanted to continue to play to the end (discovered post match).  Both captains felt they could win the game, but surely that’s not a decision they should be asked to make.  Neither side would be the loser if it was abandoned – Molesey may have felt aggrieved they would have lost a point but would have probably fancied their chances against us again.

img_1917The rain continued to fall, the puddles started to join together to form a lake. Running with the ball became impossible (as the above picture from the awe-inspiring James Boyes shows), passing the ball became a lottery and trying to make any timely tackles was a recipe for disaster.  Whilst it was amusing to watch, the core elements of the game – skill, passing, movement – become secondary to trying to predict how the ball would move.  We had chances to win it, so did our opponents.

fullsizerenderWith 90 minutes played the referee inexplicably blew for time.  The second half had featured five substitutions, two goals, a caution and a few stoppages for the elements.  To add nothing on seemed quite bizarre but more so was the decision to continue to play it when there was the opportunity for the officials to call it a day.  It may seem a bit like sour grapes, especially as our loss was greater than the Molesey gain but few who watched that game could say the weather didn’t materially affect the match.  We often cry for common sense in the game and in this case I don’t think that principle was applied.

You win some, you lose some and some are simply determined by the elements.

Do Premier League clubs need fans at all?

The news that Chelsea have signed a new kit deal with Nike for a reported £60 million A SEASON once again puts into perspective how money is dominating the highest level of our national game.  The Blues terminated their existing deal with adidas six years early in what can have only been a purely money-motivated move (that deal was rumoured to be “just” £30 million a year) to sign the deal with Nike for the next fifteen years, which will see them earn £900 million (assuming there are no other bonus elements for winning cups).  Chelsea Football Club’s understated comment about the deal was that it was an “incredibly exciting and important deal”.

The club’s PR machine smoothly communicated the right words such as “We believe Nike will be able to support our growth into new markets as well as helping us maintain our place among the world’s elite football clubs.”

Based on their disastrous season last term it is hard to see how they justify their place in the world’s elite, unless it is purely down the revenues.  However, what is clear is that the value of this deal will set a new marker for every other club.  If Chelsea’s deal with Nike is now worth a reputed £900 million, that puts a marker in the sand for the next round of negotiations for other clubs.  Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are already in the £100 million a year club thanks to their deals.

On top of these huge amounts are the revenues club earn from sponsorship and shirt sales.  According to Forbes, Chelsea’s current deal with Yokohama Rubber is worth around £35 million at the current exchange rate, which pales into insignificance compared to the £50 million per annum that Manchester United get from Chevrolet.  Whilst United may be considered the most valuable sporting brand in the world, Chelsea recorded more shirt sales in the last 12 months after seeing a 39% rise in sales, taking them into third place behind Barcelona and Real Madrid, with an eye-watering 3.1 million shirts sold (according to Sports Marketing Company Euromericas).

So let’s do the maths on those.  The current Chelsea shirt retails online (JD Sports) at £55 for an Adult shirt and £30 for a Children’s shirt.  The club will maximise the revenues sold via their official outlets, receiving only a small proportion for those sold elsewhere.  But even if the average revenue from a shirt, blended across an adult and a children’s shirt, is £15 then they would have reaped £46.5 million last year.

Assuming shirt sales stay roughly the sale in the next twelve months Chelsea can expect to receive over £140 million per annum.  Add in the huge amounts Premier League clubs receive through TV revenues and other commercial revenues (Singha – Global Beer Partner, Beats – Global Sound Partner and so on for virtually every category known to man) and

Whilst match day income for the Blues was just over £70 million in the 2014/15 season, the core ticket revenue would have been around £33million per annum (assuming an average ticket price of £40)…in other words around the same as the increase in revenue they are now getting from Nike.  So if Chelsea really wanted to show how much they appreciated their fans they could admit them all for free this season and not see any drop in revenue.  Is that likely to ever happen?  Of course not!

The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half

Football is the world’s game. Wherever you are on earth there will be a group of players, a ball and a pitch. Stuart Fuller has set out to find as many as possible. In this second volume, Stuart casts the net wider than ever before, taking in games on four different continents. Be it popular European destinations in Germany and Belgium, getting lost trying to find a game in Hong Kong, or waiting for a referee to cross the Spain-Gibraltar border, Stuart makes the trip so that you don’t have to. Part travelogue, part love letter to the beautiful game, this book is a must for any aspiring football tourist.

An excerpt from Chapter 8 – Gibraltar – New kids on the Rock

“Some years ago I came up with a brilliant idea for a TV show. It would be a six-part, travelogue around the smallest nations in Europe watching football. On my way I would take in the local culture, and, of course, the local food. A camera crew would follow me from the airport as I experienced such cultural highpoints as Lichtenstein’s false teeth museum, San Marino’s homage to medieval torture, and the bar in Malta where Oliver Reed fell off his bar stool for the last time; a sort of cross between Michael Palin, Alan Whicker, and James Richardson. It was a certain winner, so I sat back and waited for the bidding war to start. Six months after my letters were dispatched I hadn’t had one single reply. Not even UK Conquest were interested, and they bought the rights to Howards Way. But I wasn’t going to be beaten and set off on a journey across Europe.

IMG_7680The Super Cup in Monaco, sitting next to Gerard Houllier as AC Milan beat Porto, arriving by helicopter from Nice Airport was nice. Staying in the same 5 star hotel as Sepp Blatter, in Lichtenstein, prior to their game against Turkey was good. Seeing San Marino come within 15 seconds of grabbing their first ever point in a major tournament qualifying against Latvia, and then enjoying a treble-header in the national stadium in Malta, with the over-amorous wives of some of the players. Andorra passed without any incident which basically sums up the sleepiness of the principality. Then life got in the way.

Interest in finally completing the mission was peaked again in early 2014. I dusted down the draft proposal and prepared to finish off the job, as Gibraltar were finally being accepted into the world footballing family, and the British Overseas Territory would be number six on my list of the smallest footballing nations in Europe to visit.

Gibraltar has a population of just 30,000, about the same size as Lewes and Peacehaven put together. That makes supporting a football league quite difficult, tough. Add in the fact that there is only one stadium and you can start to see some of the problems they have to compete with. What it does mean though is, on any given weekend, you will always be able to find a game or six at the national stadium, the 2,000 capacity Victoria Stadium adjacent to the airport runway.

This season, as part of the benefits package they get from being in the UEFA-affiliated club, the winners of the Premier Division will get a place in the Champions League, well at least the extra-preliminary forgotten round of qualifying, where they will probably play the winner of the Andorran Lliga de Primera in June when football is a million miles from everyone’s thoughts.

Eight teams make up the Premier Division meaning that qualification for Europe, with a spot in the Champions League and Europa League is possible for all of the sides. All except one it seems.  With just over half of the season completed, one side sit all alone at the bottom of the league with a 100% loss record.  Gibraltar Phoenix were promoted last season but are almost nailed on certainties to go back to where they have come from at the end of the season. In their last two games they had the displeasure to face league-leaders Lincoln. The good news was that they did manage to score a goal, increasing their goals-for tally this season by an impressive 33%. Unfortunately, they managed to ship in a total of thirty-two goals at the other end. I was sold – I was heading to see Gibraltar Phoenix play. The question was – should I take my boots?

My friend Andy had bunked off work for an hour to pick me up in his British Jag, imported from the UK, to give me the 30 minute whistle-stop tour of the Rock. First up was a visit to Europa Point, the most southerly tip of Gibraltar and home to a bloody big gun and the Gibraltar Cricket Club. But not for much longer. If the Gibraltar Football Association get the funding this will be the location of the new 10,000 national stadium. Today it is a barren patch of very, very expensive land.

Andy used to call Cambridge home but he has now swapped that for the tax haven of Gibraltar. He lives in a flat with a view of the sea, overlooking the landing point where Nelson’s body was eventually brought to shore, spending his spare time sitting on his balcony watching the ships pass by. Not that it is all relaxation and cruising the roads of the Rock in his Jag. He sometimes has to work, wandering into the office in Ocean Village, overlooking the marina, O’Reilly’s Irish Bar and Gala Bingo. Tax-free beer did I hear you say?  Absolutely – £2 a pint if you please. Could life be any better? Well, throw in free Wi-Fi almost everywhere (which uses British IP addresses, thus you can use iPlayer and iTunes!), free car parking, free leisure activities and free football.

You would think that life here is idyllic, but there is the other side to being a tax-exile here.  As Andy said “Everything seems nice but if you take a closer look things are a bit crap”.  Projects would be started and grind to a halt or never get off the ground at all. It also appeared that it was incredibly expensive to live here. Accommodation (both permanent and temporary) across the border in La Linea was abundant and cheap, but the current strife with Spain meant it was impractical to commute across the border when delays could be up to two hours each way depending on the day of the week, the weather, or simply what had been on TV the night before.

Gibraltar Phoenix 0 College Europa 11 – Victoria Stadium – Friday 14th March 2014

According to the website this game was supposed to kick off at 8pm. I say “supposed” because we arrived late (around 8.15pm) and thus missed the start. But we soon smelt something fishy when the game appeared to be entering its 60th minute in the first half.  We eventually found a supporter who could shed some light on the delayed kick off, or at least this opinion.

“Referee lives in Spain doesn’t he? So he got delayed at the border. Game kicked off at 8.15pm”.

Fifteen minutes into the game and the score was still goalless. Whilst the home goal was being peppered with shots, only Phoenix keeper, Tito Podeta, stood in College Europa’s way.

It took a few words from the side lines before they finally opened the scoring. And once they had the flood gates opened.  One-nil (22 mins), two-nil (29 mins), three-nil (30 mins), four-nil (34 mins), five-nil (39 mins) and finally six-nil just before half-time.

Seven became eight and then nine, although there was an element of greed starting to creep in from the College players who frequently elected to take the ball themselves when their five man attack (everyone wanted a slice of the action) broke. An injury to one of the Phoenix players gave them a chance to have a breather (and in one case a quick puff on an inhaler).  With fifteen minutes to go Phoenix made their final substitution, taking off one of the more athletic players on the pitch and replacing them with a chap who had gloves on and had to hand his inhaler to the coach. Alas it didn’t do any good and, despite us willing them to score, all of the action was still at the other end as College Europa scored two more goals to make the final score eleven-nil. Quite what the score would have been if their keeper hadn’t played a blinder I don’t know, or if College had hit the target instead of striking the woodwork on six occasions.

Despite the final score you cannot fault the effort of the home side, especially the heroic performance of Podeta. It takes some bottle to take to the field every week knowing that you are likely to be on the end of another hiding.

I’m still waiting for someone, anyone to show some interest in my TV show.

The Football Tourist 2: The Second Half is available from Ockley Books priced £10.99.

The most competitive Premier League ever?

Now that we have another International break out-of-the-way, we can concentrate again on the runners and riders in the Premier League race.   For players, managers and fans alike, these enforced breaks spoil the momentum that has been building as not one team seems to be the front-runners, making it the most exciting Premier League since its inception back in 1992.  Few in the first months of the season would have looked much further than The Etihad for the potential winners, with Pep Guardiola’s revolution making a bet on Man City winning the title a very popular choice.

They won their first six Premier League games, ten in all competitions and looked unstoppable.  Then they seemed to suffer a reaction to the 3-3 draw at Celtic, resulting in a five game win-less streak which gave the likes of Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs an opportunity to close the gap.  Coming into this weekend’s fixtures, the top four are separated by just two points with City facing a tricky trip to Crystal Palace.

Compared to this time last season, City and Arsenal are one point worse off, Liverpool nine better and Chelsea the biggest improvers, being 14 points better.  Last season Leicester City and West Ham provided the additional challenge to the traditional teams, taking advantage of the transitional periods at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Anfield.  It is highly unlikely that we will see something similar this season.

City face a tough December, having to play Chelsea and Arsenal at home, whilst going to Anfield on New Year’s Eve.  Their home form has been the concern in the Premier League in the last month, dropping points against Everton, Southampton and Middlesbrough, although the 3-1 win over Barcelona certainly put a few critics back in their box, temporarily.  Their only loss to date has been away at Sours last month.

City had sixteen players away on International duty this week, and if you believe stories emerging this week, Guardiola could soon have another as Lionel Messi, a player who has won every honour at a club level, seems intent on leaving the Nou Camp when his current contract expires in 18 months time.  Barca will not want him to leave for nothing and will know that City have the money to fund a deal.  Messi counts Guardiola as a mentor and someone who he respects highly, whilst fellow Argentinian striker Sergio Aguero is a close friend.  The press have obviously already put two and two together and assume this is a done deal.

For now, Guardiola’s focus will be on getting three points on Saturday, but he will surely have an eye on how he can strengthen his squad once the transfer window opens in January, and whether that may include a short hop across to Catalunya to seal the deal with Messi.


Hedging my bets on top of the table clashes

As I pulled into the car park at Gatwick Airport I was pretty sure I had remembered everything for my latest sojourn to Scotland.  Everything that is bar a coat.  You need a coat in Scotland in mid-July, so not wearing one on an October night could get a man sectioned.  Only two types of people could possibly get away with such a mistake – girls from Newcastle and Inuit’s.  Whilst I do have relatively girly eye-lashes, so I am told, and can rub noses on request, I can’t profess any strong association with either group and thus had to buy a replacement coat.

Fifty pounds lighter in my pocket and five pounds heavier in weight, I landed in Edinburgh ready to start a whirlwind twenty five hours that would see me take in four games in four different grounds, taking advantage of the fact the mighty Lewes’s FA Trophy tie with Kingstonian had been pushed back to the Sunday.  With our latest injury crisis, I may even bring back more than a Tam o’Shanter wig and a packet of Scottish shortbread, the standard family presents when travelling north of the border.

30542588462_136c95bc9c_kOriginally, when looking at options for the day I was going to let the train take the strain, travelling from Edinburgh up the beautiful East Coast to Aberdeen and then back again via a couple of stops along the way.  I had pencilled in a visit to Forfar’s Station Park ground as my 3pm option but soon found out that despite playing at Station Park, Forfar doesn’t have a train station.  Perhaps it was an aspirational idea to name the area, a local counsellor having a Bull Durham moment (“build it and they will come”) or simply that it was a trendy thing to do?  I had to consult my father, a guru on late 20th century railway lines in Great Britain for the answer.

“Forfar was the principal station between Perth and Aberdeen in the days when trains between Glasgow and Aberdeen always ran via Stanley and Kinnaber Junctions on the Caledonian Railway.  It was running until 1967 although on occasion they ran trains on the line, the last one being in June 1982.  If you look carefully on Google Maps you can still see where the line went.  The buildings behind the South Stand at Forfar were almost certainly goods sheds and hence why it got the name Station Park”

Thanks Dad.  I asked him how I was therefore supposed to get to Forfar from Aberdeen.

“No idea son.  Trying asking someone who gives a shit about places without train stations”.

It soon became clear that the train option wasn’t really an option at all.  Whilst I didn’t fancy driving 300 miles in a day, that was going to be my only option if I wanted to squeeze in three Saturday games.  I’d have to swap the Brewdog Brewery tour option for a case of IrnBru but that’s the level of sacrifice you often have to make as a Football Tourist.  So the plan would be Aberdeen-Brechin-Raith Rovers.  Not a bad haul in a day.  But first I had a Friday night bonus game just four stops on the tram from my hotel, albeit of the oval ball variety as Edinburgh would be taking on the Italians from Zebre (Italian for Zebra in case you wanted to know) in the Pro12 League.

30026052603_d4dcb922fd_k-1Zebre’s record in the competition hasn’t yet given many hope that the Italian teams can compete at this level.  They’ve finished in last place in every season they have played in the competition so far bar last season when Benetton Treviso finished below them and arrived in Scotland pointless from the opening five games.  The lush and fertile lands around Parma are hardly a hot-bed of rugby, underlined by modest crowds at the Stadio Sergio Lanfranchi.  But you cannot deny the spirit they put into every game, which once in a while provides an upset and justifies why they should still be part of the tournament.  They had lost on their last four visits to Edinburgh and hadn’t scored a point at Murrayfield since November 2013.

Edinburgh 14 Zebre 19 – Murrayfield – Friday 28th October 2016
Of course that stat was the cue for the Italian’s first ever win in the Pro12 League and it was fully deserved.  They led for virtually the whole game, only going behind with ten to play but responding with a try in the final minutes.  The Edinburgh fans went into the night wondering what happened to the team from seven days ago that beat Harlequins.  As I wandered down to pitch side I bumped into a group of Halloween revellers, who had decided to take in the game first before heading to wherever the kids head to these days.  Whilst they had made some effort with their grizzly costumes, they had a long way to go to be as scary as some of the Italian players, coming off the pitch battered and bloodied after their famous victory.

Welcome to the Granite City said the sign as I drove across the River Dee at 11am.  Autumn was in full bloom with the warm sunshine reflecting off the trawlers in the quayside.  Aberdeen.  Home to Henry Cecil, Graeme Garden, Brewdog and Alex Salmond, winner of Britain in Bloom a record ten times and the 56th most habitable city in the world.  What better way to start my triple header of games in Scotland than here at Pittordrie, home to Aberdeen since 1899 where Celtic were the visitors for the early televised game.

My day had started some hours earlier, at 3.15am to be precise, when the fire alarm at the hotel rudely awoke everyone’s sleep.  I hastily dressed, realising that I had left my new coat, the one bought yesterday to replace the one I forgot, in the bar the previous evening.  It turned out to be a false alarm fortunately.  Someone was trying to tell me something and at 8am I had brought replacement number two from the Tesco Extra across the road.

30659434885_3840ef989d_kA win in this early kick off would extend the Bhoys lead at the top of the Ladbrokes Premiership to 10 points with a game in hand over the Dons in second place.  These were the two form on teams in the league over the last six games and many felt that Derek McInnes side were the best placed of the crashing pack to challenge Celtic this season, borne out that the two sides would be meeting again in four weeks’ time in the Bedfred League Cup final at Hampden Park.

Perched almost on the edge of the North Sea, Pittordrie has been home to The Dons since 1903 although was actually in use from 1899 by the previous incarnations of the club, Aberdeen, Victoria United an Orion.  The site was a former Police horse dung heap, giving rise to the term “a pile of crap”.  It was here in 1920 that the dugout was first used in a football club anywhere in the world when then head coach Donald  Coleman dug a trench in the side of the pitch so that he could view the ball at the players feet to try to improve their skill levels.  In 1978 the stadium became the second all-seater in Great Britain, following the trend set by the now defunct Clydebank FC.  As with many grounds of a similar age, improvements have been made as and when finances are available or when legislation has necessitated.  The last addition to the stadium is the impressive Richard Donald Stand at the East end of the ground which does at least provide a decent windbreak from the biting North Sea air.

However, ambition to challenge the likes of Celtic and Rangers off the pitch has meant the club thinking about the future.  The idea of the New Aberdeen Stadium at Kingsford in the city, a 21,000 modern all-seater has received planning approval but with strong objections in the Kingsford community the club hasn’t been able to proceed yet.  For now Pittordrie, with history dripping from every seat, remains the Dons home and the home fans had come out in droves to bask in the Autumnal sunshine and hopefully close the gap on the league leaders.

Aberdeen 0 Celtic 1 – Pittordrie – Saturday 29th October 2016
One thing you cannot afford to do against teams at the top of the table is waste opportunities and the failure of the home side to deliver a decent corner from their first three attempts heightened the angst around the stadium, whilst the perceived easy nature that the Celtic players were going to ground was enraging the crowd, none more so than the lady with her kids in front of me who launched into impressive, coherent rant at the linesman that included an impressive six different four-letter swear words (now there’s a good idea for a Family Christmas game!)

30659435595_04f04f1cc3_k-1Twenty four minutes on the clock and Celtic took the lead.  There didn’t seem to be any danger when the ball bounced awkwardly in front of Tom Rogic on the edge of the box but the Australian controlled it with his right and then as it rose off the ground, struck it with his left past a flailing Joe Lewis in the Dons goal. Whilst the goal spurred Aberdeen forward, the lack of an end product was evident as they couldn’t find a way through the Celtic backline.  In fact it was the visitors who should have added a second when Stuart Armstrong side-footed wide when he had the goal at his mercy.  Half-time, 0-1 and a chance to sample the Pittordrie Pie.

The world of Scottish football savoury snacks has been turned on its head after the KilliePieGate in the summer.  Up here at Pittordrie they saw the danger such a similar situation could mean financially for them and so they are aiming to become the first football club in the world to trademark their own pie – The Pittordrie Pie, a mince pie with a golden crust that last season sold over 100,000.  I’d love to give a critical review but they were so good that by the time I went to the bar at half-time they were sold out so I had to make do with the Macaroni pie, which was “interesting” to say the least.  The concept of cheesy pasta in a pie doesn’t read well when written down and tastes just about the same.  Looking around me it seemed the trick I missed was to carefully lift the pie lid and squirt in half a bottle of tomato ketchup.  Amateur mistake.

The Aberdeen fans hoped that the team were given a lecture at half-time on being wasteful in midfield but within the first ten minutes it appeared the only words were “more of the same, lads” as Celtic continued to press forward.  On 75 minutes the referee finally lost it.  His performance had been erratic to say the least but in the process of separating a flare up started by a late, cynical tackle by Scott Brown, he managed to floor the Celtic captain as he stretched out his arm to make a point, then to add insult to injury, he booked Brown.

A crowd of over 17,000, the second biggest of the season at Pittordrie departed having seen Celtic underline their dominance.  Bar the last five minutes of pressure, the visitors had been in total control and Rogers will need to analyse the performance and assess why they weren’t well out of sight before the injury time onslaught by the home side.

One down, three to go.  Whilst many fans would head to the pubs around Aberdeen for the rest of the afternoon, my day was only just beginning. Next stop, Glebe Park and THAT hedge.

30028215794_1574956099_kThe approach to Glebe Park, home of the football club is rural to say the least, hidden down a turning between some houses.  Whilst the club are nicknamed “The City”, Brechin itself is technically only a Town.  Whilst the presence of a cathedral was once the only real criteria for being able to be defined as a city, today there’s forms, royal warrants and interviews.  Faced with so much red tape, Brechin decided to simply put their fingers in their ears and go “la” until someone important notices.  But the club’s main claim to fame is the impressive hedge that forms the perimeter of the ground on two sides.  No other ground in the world can boast such impressive shrubbery.

It’s hard not to fall in love with Glebe Park.  Not only do they have the hedge, resplendent in different Autumnal shades but they have a superb old Main Stand with the cathedral spire towering over it.  Remember Hedgegate that almost threatened the finest example of football horticulture? I’m sure most of you do but for those who don’t pay much attention to Scottish lower league football politics, let me give you a brief summary.

Back in 2009 UEFA mandated the minimum size of a pitch that could be used to host football at a professional level.  Unfortunately, Glebe Park’s pitch didn’t measure up and so there was a suggestion that the cheapest way around the problem was to get the hedge trimmers out and widen the pitch.  Common sense prevailed (unusual words when talking about UEFA) and the club retained its unique feature.  To add to the eclectic mix of features at the ground, the newest addition to Glebe Park is the large stand set back from the goal line with the multi-coloured seats, opened in the 1990’s, offering fine views of the surrounding area.  Having walked around the ground and taken a million photos (you can never have enough football hedge photos in your life I always say) I sat back and watched to see whether Brechin could retain their spot at the top of the league.

Brechin City 0 Livingston 3 – Glebe Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
I sat high up in the stand behind the goal, giving me a fine view of the action as well as the surrounding area.  Despite their position at the top of the league, Brechin appeared nervous on the ball in the opening period, allowing Livingston far too much time on the ball and consequently on top for the first quarter of the game.  Twenty minutes in and Livingston created the best chance of the game as Alan Lithgow had a half-volley well saved, whilst the chance of the half also fell to the visitors as Buchanan was set free by Da Vito, but the Brechin keeper’s outstretched leg diverted the ball wide.

30623241196_b43048d7c3_kHalf-time and whilst the visitors could claim they had the best of the half, they hadn’t been able to take any of their chances.  Apparently, according to a Brechin fan in the queue for a Scotch Pie (no Glebe Pie here alas), Brechin were a second half side.  In fact, whilst they had won seven games so far in the league, they had only led twice at half-time, with their last five wins coming when they had been level at the break.  “Not that I believe in omens” he said, stroking his rabbits foot keyring.

Alas, the omens were wrong.  Livingston came out strongly in the second half and scored three times without reply, although with twenty minutes left to play it was time to head south for the final game of the day, so I missed Livingston grab a third which would see them leapfrog Brechin at the top of the table when Bryne tapped into an empty net after Smith had pulled off a great save.

I set the SatNav to Kirkcaldy which was fifty minutes away, meaning I’d get there just on kick off.  A simple plan.  Or was it.  Ten minutes down the road the signpost said “Forfar 2”.  I must have read it as Forfar is 2 good to miss and before I had time to realise what had happened, the self-drive functionality of the Citroen had me exiting the A90 and heading for the floodlights in the near distance. I knew it wasn’t in the plan but something drew me to Station Park like a moth to a flame.  This was a home banker if there ever was one.  Forfar Athletic were top of League Two, whilst the visitors, Edinburgh City, in their first ever season in the professional game, were rock bottom with just three points from their opening ten games.

Forfar Athletic 1 Edinburgh City 1 – Station Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
As I parked outside the ground a cheer went up.  I assumed it was another Forfar Athletic goal but when I entered the ground and asked the score I was very surprised to hear the goal was actually a Forfar equaliser, after the visitors had been leading since the 25th minute.

30359627930_b5b7adbae6_kConfession time – I hadn’t been motivated to divert to catch the action at Station Park by a desire to “tick off a ground”, although of course I will claim a visit, but to indulge in the world-famous Forfar Bridie.  A delicious mix of minced steak, butter beef suet and onion in a semi-circular shortcrust pastry shape (that’s how you can tell they are from Forfar).  To the uneducated they look and taste like Cornish Pasties BUT never say that to a Forfarian and they will get very very annoyed.  For your reference a Bridie doesn’t have any potato in.

Fortunately, they hadn’t sold out of these, making the short trip worthwhile even if I didn’t see any further action, or acquire any Forfar Athletic socks.  Time to depart and complete the journey through the Scottish Leagues.

So after a brief detour into Forfar, I arrived in Kirkcaldy for the final game of the day, the televised Championship game between Raith Rovers and Queen of the South.  Who needs the X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing when you have live Scottish Championship football on the TV?  Some may moan about the impact of the TV companies on kick off times but thanks to them I’d managed to watch football in each of the four Scottish divisions in one afternoon today.

Kirkcaldy can claim a few famous residents although it is highly unlikely that many of them ever attended a game at Stark’s Park.  Whilst it is likely former unelected Prime Minister Gordon Brown popped in from time to time, the town’s most famous resident, Adam Smith was too busy writing the Wealth of Nations to worry about football – that and the fact he finished writing his epic 116 years before the football club were formed although it is clear to anyone who shares a passion for football and economic theory as I do that the “invisible hand” Smith refers to as the way supply and demand interact is actually Sky Sports.

“The ability to self-regulate and to ensure maximum efficiency, however, is threatened by monopolies, tax preferences, lobbying groups, and other “privileges” extended to certain members of the economy at the expense of others” Said Smith – you tell me that’s not a statement that Rupert Murdoch would be proud of saying?

Stark’s Park is approached from the town centre up a steep hill, giving the impression it is some kind of citadel sitting in a strategic position to defend the town. The ground is a strange mix of different styles, underlining how clubs at this level have had to develop their infrastructure as and when the good times roll into town.  The main stand, with its very distinguishable Archibald Leitch gabled roof is an unusual L-shape but only extends two-thirds of the way down the side of the pitch due to the road outside, whilst two newish stands, identical stands at either end of the stadium act as windbreaks from the biting East winds from across the North Sea.

Raith Rovers 1 Queen of the South 0 – Stark’s Park – Saturday 29th October 2016
“Games aren’t won on stats” said the Queen of the South fan in front of me as we exited the ground.  Despite having five times as many shots as the home side, the visitors would be heading back to Dumfries pointless after an injury time goal settled this rather dour encounter.  In truth there was little between the two sides for the most part, although the lack of confidence in the home side to pull the trigger when in a dangerous position appeared to have cost them two points, only for Raith’s Mark Stewart to have the final say and lift them up to third in the table.  Ironically, when the two teams met here around the same time last season, Raith won 1-0 thanks to a single goal, against the run of play late in the game.

30571465961_8d52a4bf31_kSomehow I missed the fact that the empty North Stand was sponsored by Val McDermid, the crime writer.  I could have hardly missed it as it was plastered in five foot letters across the top of it.  A quick search not only confirmed that one of the UK’s best crime writers,  Ms McDermid was born in Kirkcaldy, was a Rovers fan but was also a director of the club and a former front of shirt sponsor.  As dedicated goes, that’s pretty impressive and I scanned the Main Stand to see if I could see her, but alas my detective skills were not on a par with some of those of her characters from her books.

The rest of the second half passed with very little goalmouth action.  The interest of the fans was peaked when Raith were awarded a free-kick on the edge of the box but the effort came to nothing.  As the game entered the added period many fans were already on their way home as Stewart slid inbetween the Queen of the South defence to net.

The official line on the game from the Raith Rovers website summed it up quite nicely:-

“Make no mistake, this was not a game that would leave the football purist purring, but those of a Raith Rovers persuasion can be satisfied with three points which keep the club within touching distance of the summit of what is a very competitive league.”

But I couldn’t complain.  Thanks to some fortuitous fixtures, some favourable traffic conditions and some detailed planning I had sampled four games in one day, almost equalling my record from 2008 when I managed five in one day in Copenhagen.  Scotland is the gift that keeps on giving for the Football Tourist and I very much doubt this will be my last trip north of the border this season.