More than just a game…North London prepares for a battle royale on Sunday


In November 2017 it will be the 130 anniversary of the first meeting between the teams we know today as Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.  Back in the Victorian age this was of course a North v South of the river clash, with the first ever game between the two rivals being played on Plumstead Common, which today opposite a McDonalds and Belmarsh Prison.  That game had to be abandoned with Spurs leading 2-1 due to “darkness”.

Fast forward 129 years and 183 meetings since, the first meeting of the season between the two rivals has never been more eagerly awaited by the two sets of fans as well as those with an interest in online sports betting.  Whilst Arsenal’s position in the top four of English football has been undisputed for nearly 20 years, Tottenham’s emergence as a challenger to the title has been more recent.  After kissing a number of frogs, the club seems to have found their prince in the form of Mauricio Pochettino who almost brought the first title to N17 for over fifty years last season and is yet to experience defeat in the Premier League this season.

The Spurs fans I know have become much more mellow with things off the field too.  The wisdom of Daniel Levy is now not a heated discussion, especially as the emergence of the new stadium is visible at every home game.  Once complete, it could act as a catalyst to power the club commercially forward.  According to the annual study by Forbes, Spurs are the tenth most valuable football club with an estimated worth of just over £700m, around 50% of the value attached to Arsenal.  The key to creating more value is the bigger stadium with more opportunities to drive commercial revenues.  It is no surprise that the teams that hold the top five places in the list all play in front of sold-out stadiums with capacities over 60,000.  Joining that list is the clear ambition of Spurs in the next five years.  It is clear from the ticket sales for their Champions League games at Wembley so far this season that if you can build it, they will come.

Whilst the Spurs fans are happy with life at the moment, Arsenal fans continue to enjoy a love/hate relationship with the owners and the manager.  Best ever one week when they destroy Chelsea, showing them the door the next when they fail to beat Middlesbrough at home.  There can be no denying that they are a major challenger for the title this season, having scored three or more goals in 60% of their Premier League games so far this term, whilst hitting the back of the net on 17 occasions in their cup games so far, including nine against the Bulgarian champions Ludogorets, already booking their spot in the knock-out phases of the Champions League.  Whilst some fans may bemoan a lack of dynamism in the transfer market, Wenger has managed to shuffle the pack when required this season.

Sunday’s game won’t decide the league title – especially this season where there are half a dozen teams who have a legitimate shout but it will make Monday a potentially uncomfortable day at work for half of North London as the winners will earn the bragging rights until the end of April at least.

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Will Fulham win the sack race this season?


Mike Miles reports on a trip down to Craven Cottage.

I may support West Ham, but I love going to Craven Cottage. Not least because it is a 45-minute walk from my front door, most of it along the banks of the Thames, with some very enticing pubs en route.

Fulham 2 Cardiff City 2 – Craven Cottage – Saturday 20th August 2016
Fulham were the last team to have standing accommodation in the Premier League, as Craven Cottage included terraces as late as the 2001/02 season-eight years after the Taylor Report outlawed terraces at that level. I have a fond memory of seeing Freddie Kanoute score a winner for West Ham whilst standing at the Putney End.

As with terracing, the statue of Michael Jackson, like its subject, is alas no longer with us. The original Craven Cottage site was covered in woodlands, and allegedly, one plane tree survives today in a corner of the Putney End, the sole tree to be found in any senior British senior football stadium. Not the least of Craven Cottage’s continuing charms is the Johnny Haynes Stand. This wonderful structure is the oldest remaining football stand in the Football League, originally built in 1905, designed by Archibald Leitch, and is a Grade 2 listed building. It even features the original wooden seating. You may not be as comfortable as in say The Emirates, but you are sitting on history.

Alas on the pitch Fulham have been going through tough times. They were relegated from the Premiership in May 2014 after a season when they went through a bewildering number of managers. Felix Magath started the 2014/15 season in charge, with the Cottagers widely expected to be challenging for promotion. The sad reality was one point gained from seven games. Magath was sacked in September 2014, with Kit Symons appointed as Caretaker Manager. Former players slated Magath. My favourite has to be Brede Hangeland, who claimed Magath ignored doctors and instructed him to place a block of cheese on his thigh in order to get him fit for the next match.

Now Slavisa Jokanovic is charge, though it appears the term should be used loosely. He has been venting his frustration at Fulham’s transfer policy, claiming he has no role in buying players since that responsibility rests with the club’s data analyst, Craig Kline, ominously, a friend of the clubs’ owner. He told BBC Radio “The last decision (on signing players) is in the hands of this man. It is not my business….It is in the hands of people who believe they’re more prepared.”

Alas the current team show few signs of matching their historical surroundings. This was their fourth game in this season’s Championship and although unbeaten they had to rely on a 86th minute goal from Kevin McDonald to salvage a point.

Skipper Scott Parker was still doing his tidy thing in midfield , not surprisingly the only player to start here who featured on the day Fulham were relegated at Stoke two seasons ago. The 40-goal partnership of Ross McCormack and Moussa Dembele departed in the summer, and Jokanovic knows he needs to replace them.

There were some glimpses of quality but the new players and many youngsters have yet to gel enough to threaten a realistic promotion drive. This division is no place for rookies to learn their game. Enforced substitute Ryan Sessegnon’s (useless fact: the first player born in 2000 to score in the Championship) close-range goal capped what had been a dominant first-half display from the hosts. But two goals in six minutes early in the second half turned the game Cardiff’s way, as Joe Ralls’ 25-yard half volley was followed by Anthony Pilkington’s curling effort. Peter Whittingham was denied a third for Cardiff by the Fulham crossbar direct from a free kick. It was difficult to believe that the only goals Cardiff had scored this season had come courtesy of Blackburn Rovers’ unfortunate defender Shane Duffy. Concerted home pressure was finally rewarded when new signing Mcdonald drove home a first goal for his new club.

I would willingly make that walk to the Cottage again but I have a feeling it will be to see a Fulham team playing under yet another manager.

West Ham on Song to jump into the top three


15967541542_58a6b64140_kIt’s a good time to be a West Ham fan.  Yesterday our fellow London rivals Arsenal, Chelsea and Millwall all lost, whilst Spurs could only manage a goal less draw at home to Crystal Palace.  Coming into the game at The Boleyn Ground against Swansea City the team knew a win would take them to third…THIRD.  I cannot remember the last time The Hammers were in the top three, even after the opening day of the season.  Third.  Champions League Group automatic entry third.  Top three in one of the richest leagues in the world.

We all know it wont last.  It can’t last. Why?  Well we can blame the economist Francis Galton for making our dreams fade and die.  19th Century Galton was credited with first documenting the Theory of Regression.  Whilst Galton used the biological phenomenon of the height of ancestors to demonstrate his theory, it can be applied today in predicting bouncebackability (he actually invented that word too) of teams who either punch above their weight or failed to meet expectations.  Everyone will always gravitate to their natural position.

But that’s not to say there hasn’t been a seismic shift in events at Upton Park.  After Allardyce was given a seat at the bar of the last chance saloon in the summer, he used the close season well, and whether it was his hard work, that of “attacking” coach Teddy Sheringham or the scouting network, he has built one of the best looking West Ham side’s that I can ever remember.  By best looking I mean in terms of positive and attacking play rather than any looks, although the shift to the blue shorts is very pleasing on the eye.

Few expected the likes of Enner Valencia, Cheikhou Kouyaté and Diafra Sakho to settle in East London so quickly but they have.  Sakho in particular has been a revelation.  The Senegal international had been playing in the French Second Division until the summer, but someone spotted something in him.  Whoever that was deserves a knighthood.  Sakho has been a handful for Premier League defences so far this season, hitting seven goals in just nine games before the game against Swansea.  Thoughts turn to a young Frank McAvennie when he first came to England back in 1985 and terrorized English defences.

15348569513_2ba959a754_kThe lofty position hasn’t been down to fluke either.  I’ve never been an Allardyce fan, hating this traditional Anti-football which hasn’t ever proved to deliver anything apart from neckache to fans.  His purchase last season of Andy Carroll was seen as the final piece in his long-ball jigsaw, and when the injury-prone striker inevitably ended up on the operating table, there was no plan B.  Even in pre-season when I saw them against Stevenage there appeared to be zero attacking intent.  Four months later they are playing some of the best football in the Premier League and have beaten Champions League qualifiers Liverpool and Manchester City comprehensively at Upton Park, whilst away from home they have been impressive, sticking to an attacking 4-4-2 with the resurgent Stewart Downing finally being freed from his wing.

Despite a Sunday lunchtime slot for this game, the game was a sell-out, as had every other Premier League game bar the one versus Aston Villa this season.  With the rest of the Fuller family up North it was took good an opportunity to miss.  A £43 ticket is easier to swallow if the football on offer is attractive and positive.

In a pre-match interview with Radio 5Live, Co-Chairman David Gold admitted that he was very surprised that the club were so high up the table.  “Not that don’t believe that we are a good team, we probably didn’t expect to be in this position at this stage of the season”.  It would of course be amiss to forget that the visitors from Wales were also having an amazing season.  After starting off like a train they had followed the Galton theory and dropped back down the table, only to start to climb again in the last few weeks.  In fact, a win at Upton Park would see them leap-frog the Hammers and Arsenal into the top six.

15781622859_b9798b6d14_kThe sun was shining and it was felt good to be back in East London.  Due to overseas travel and my commitments at Lewes (plus the dire football on display in recent seasons) I had been a rare visitor to these parts, but just like a London bus, I would be following today’s game with visits to the next two Premier League games here.  But for now it was time to see for myself exactly how this new team were taking the table by storm.

West Ham United 3 Swansea City 1 – The Boleyn Ground – Sunday 7th December 2014
It took the introduction of that man Sakho to power West Ham to victory against The Swans, adding the cutting edge to the dominance in possession.  This was a great game of football, full of attacking intent from both sides, controversy and a couple of great goals.  Whilst the game between Southampton and Manchester United tomorrow night will see one of them reclaim third place, for 30 hours or so, The Hammers could look down on the likes of Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool and United themselves with a sense of pride and achievement.

The return to form of Andy Carroll had been perfectly timed, with Sakho missing from the past few games but it was the re-introduction of Barcelona – Alex Song that gave West Ham the victory.  Quite how and why Arsenal let their former player slip through their fingers in the summer is beyond me.  Likewise, their attacking full back Carl Jenkinson seems to revel playing in a side that allows him to run behind the opposing full backs.

For all of their opening possession it was the visitors who took the lead.  Despite West Ham being “all over them like a cheap suit”, they couldn’t “put the ball in the Onion bag” (those two quotes courtesy of the person sitting behind me), Swansea attacked down the left-hand side, Montero got in behind Jenkinson and played the ball across the face of goal for the on-rushing Bony to easy tap home.  Swansea’s tactics then switched from mildly attacking to retention and time-wasting.  With seventy minutes to hold on, it was a foolhardy tactic and it was always going to be a case of when and not if West Ham scored.

15780798948_deac688edd_kFor all the great passing play from the home side, the equaliser came from a familiar route in the 40th minute.  Jenkinson crossed from the left and Carroll out-jumped his marker and headed home.

Swansea started the second half the better side and a powerful run through the middle by Bony followed by a shot that hit the bar had most of the West Ham fans groaning that this wouldn’t be our day.  But then Carroll rose again and headed Downing’s corner into the net via Rangel’s desperate dive to keep it out. But the main talking point came moments later.

Earlier in the season when Lewes took on Margate at The Dripping Pan we had our centre-back Ollie Rowe sent off for a “professional foul”, or to give it its correct term, stopping a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  Rowe had stumbled when chasing a Margate forward and as he fell he took the legs of the attacker.  But the attacker got to his feet, carried on and managed to get a shot in which the Lewes keeper, Rikki Banks, saved.  The referee pulled play back and sent Rowe off.  How could it be claimed that he denied a goal-scoring opportunity if he then went on and got his shot on?  What would have happened if he would have scored? As we were told at the time by the officials, the fact that there had been a clear foul, it is irrelevant what the end result was.  If he would have scored them it is a different matter, and the offender would have been cautioned.

Sakho outpaced the Swansea defence and took the ball passed the on-rushing Swansea keeper Fabianski.  The keeper tried to take Sakho out but the forward was too quick for him and he recovered his poise and from a tight angle tried to slot the ball home, only to see his shot come back off the post.  Referee Chris Foy brought play back for a free-kick and dismissed the keeper.  Swansea’s main argument was that Sakho had allegedly handled the ball rather than Fabianski’s foul.

The game was wrapped up when Sakho once again showed his pace and power, running onto a flick from Carroll to smash the ball home from the edge of the box.  3-1 and West Ham were going third.  Man of the Match was always going to be given to the two-goal Andy Carroll but it was clear to see that it was Alex Song who called the tune today and without his energy, drive and tempo it could have been a very different result.

US and them


Football is a global game, and our Premier League is probably the most cosmopolitan in the world.  Fancy watching a live game at 3pm on a Saturday?  Well simply head to any decent city centre bar around the world and you will undoubtably find a game being shown live.  And the locals will be there in force, with a level of knowledge of our game that we would be envious of.

Across the pond, “soccer” is now starting to really grow as a spectator sport and the influence of the English Premier League is becoming more important as players such as Brad Friedel, Tim Howard, Landon Donovan, Jonathan Spector and Marcus Hahnemann continue to shine.

One of the most influential commentators on the American perspective of the Premier League is Christopher Harris, founder of the blog EPLtalk.com. We recently caught up with “The Gaffer” as he is known, over a Bud Lite to get his views on the game over here from over there. Continue reading

Introducing Danny Last


For those of you with a wild imagination, you may think that The Ball is Round is staffed by a team of football writers who spend all day with their heads in old copies of Rothman’s Year Books and by night travelling to the four corners of the UK (and Europe) to go to a game.  Well, much as I would like to big up our operation I hate to live a lie.  Most of what you see and read here is produced by good old me, in between me doing a regular 8am to 8pm weekday job.  Occasionally I get some help from a few reliable sources but my labour of love is a solo project. 

A one man walking advert

But I am not alone.  A few years ago I met Danny Last, from the blog European Football Weekends and we realised we had a shared mission in life.  Football (but never taking it too seriously), travel, beer and generally having a good time.  People take football too seriously, and that leads to them missing the real enjoyment in the game.  That is why we love the non-league game so much.  Danny recently did an interview about his motivations for his work with US Podcast EPLTalk, and we think it sums up what people are missing in football as well as examples of some of the adventures there are to be had when you go off the beaten track. To listen to this click  Danny Last Podcast.