2016 – A year in football


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

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

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

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

Glentoran – The Oval

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

Athletic Bilbao – San Mamés

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

Olympique Marseille – Stade Vélodrome

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

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

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

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

 

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

Here’s to 2017….

 

Community action


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who benefits from Stadium naming rights?


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.