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!

Marketing 101


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The magic of the Football League War Cup


First published back in November 2012, a look at the often forgotten Football League War Cup

On the 1st September 1939, Adolf Hilter invaded Poland, sparking outrage across Europe and in the corridors of power in Westminster.  However, twenty four hours later, the third “round” of games in the Football League took place as normal with barely a murmur of concern for events that were to unfold in the next few years.  On that Saturday Blackpool’s 2-1 at Bloomfield Road meant they had won three out of three in the Football League Division one, just a point ahead of Sheffield United and Arsenal.

A few hours later, on Sunday 3rd September, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany and ordered an immediate ban on the assembly of crowds for safety reasons.  Faced with a potential long campaign, the Football League announced that the 1939/40 season would be terminated with immediate effect.  Whilst Blackpool (and Luton Town in the Second, Accrington Stanley in the Third North and Reading in the Third South) topped their division, they were not awarded any trophy.

However, regulations were soon relaxed and the government announced that football could return but with maximum capacities of 8,000 and no travel outside a fifty mile radius.  So the guys at the Football League got their thinking caps on and came up with the idea of a cup competition instead of a league competition.  And so was born the Football League War Cup.

The competition consisted of 137 games (including replays) which commenced in October and were all complete bar the final by January 1940.  However, with London under constant threat of the commencement of bombing raids, no floodlights could be used and so it was decided to play the final during the summer months.  The date was set as Saturday 8th June 1940, with West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers due to contest the final at Wembley Stadium.  However, on the 10th May the Germans pushed into France and the threat of invasion increased.

But the English showed their stiff upper lip and carried on regardless, turning out in numbers for the final.  Over 40,000 spectators filed into Wembley Stadium to see Sam Small score the only goal for the Hammers and they became the first ever winners of the new trophy, commissioned by the Football League.  It is reported that after the game there was no official reception for the team but instead they headed back to Upton Park for a “few pints in the Boleyn”.

The following season saw the commencement of bombing raids on Britain, with London heavily hit.  But football still carried on, as the government saw it as “good for morale”.  The War Cup provided a great tonic for many Londoners who had been almost under siege for months and in May 1941 the second final took place at Wembley with over 60,000 coming out to see Preston North End take on Arsenal.  A Denis Compton goal for the Gunners was enough to earn them a replay at Ewood Park where over 45,000 saw the Lancastrians run out 2-1 winners, who featured a very young Bill Shankley in their line up.

The cup was still an important part of “business as usual” in England during the almost daily bombing raids.  Attendances remained very high, and a number of clubs had players on active military duty, returning to the first team when they came back to Blighty.  The Football League kept tinkering with the format in the next few years, firstly introducing a two legged final (won by Wolves 6-3 against Sunderland), and then in 1943 with Northern and Southern Finals with the winners meeting at Stamford Bridge (won by Blackpool who beat Arsenal).

In 1944 with the threat of bombing still high the title was shared between Aston Villa and Charlton Athletic after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.  The southern semi-final saw Charlton beat Chelsea in front of over 85,000 at Wembley which caused some panic for the authorities.

Whilst the Second World War didn’t finish until September 1945 when the Japanese forces surrendered, the war in Europe effectively ended in May of the same year, meaning the cup in that year was the last time it was ever held.  On the 2nd June 1945 35,000 people saw Bolton Wanderers beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the cup which fortunately since has never been competed for.

Whilst Portsmouth’s 4-1 over Wolverhampton Wanderers in May 1939 was officially the last FA Cup final until 1946, many will class the War Cup as a continuation of the competition.  It cannot be underestimated the effect the cup had on morale of the English general public and for that reason it will always have a special place in the history of our game.

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.