Post-season Blues….and Citizens and Spurs

A weeks after the end of the season used to be the reserve of testimonials for long-serving players and club officials. Football has moved on, and the likelihood of a player staying at one club for 5 years, let alone a decade is very rare. Look at the final top four in the Premier League – John Terry at Chelsea (11 years since debut) is the stand out exception to this; Man City could boast Micah Richards (10 years) although 179 appearances in ten years and spending the last season on loan to Fiorentina, whilst Arsenal of course have the £2m a year forgotten man (by most outside of the Emirates anyway) Abou Diaby who made his debut in 2006.

This week Crystal Palace honoured the service of their long-serving keeper Julián Speroni who had made over 350 appearances since joining the club in 2004 with a testimonial against former club Dundee. However, Palace appeared to be the exception rather than the rule of playing post-season games with any altruistic meaning.

Yet twenty four hours after Palace honoured their keeper, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur were due to play games of their own. This time it wasn’t to honour a particular player, or reward any member of the club for long service. In fact it is hard to think of any reason apart from a commercial obligation why they would be heading to Canada and Malaysia respectively.

The clubs will argue it is all about building a fan base in new markets, but does that really stack up? With the Premier League season done and dusted less than 72 hours previous, why would Manchester City decide it was a good idea for their squad to fly 3,500 miles to Toronto? Assuming they left on Monday, that’s quite a strain on the players having just completed a full season, and one that was proceeded for many of the players by the World Cup in Brazil and also included a mid-season game in Abu Dhabi against Hamburg. Straight after the game in Toronto they then head to Texas (a mere 1,500 miles) where 24 hours later they take on Houston.

Tottenham Hotspur haven’t exactly been brimming with joy at the prospect of another Europa League campaign next season. Back in April Mauricio Pochettino admitted the Europa League is a hindrance to a Premier League club’s domestic aspirations, yet the club have already headed East for a game in Malaysia on Wednesday before flying onto Australia to take on Sydney on Saturday. They will be joined down under by Chelsea who also take on Sydney on Tuesday night after a stop in Thailand to play the”All Stars XI” on Saturday. It’s hard to have sympathy with the clubs when they complain about fixture congestion then take off on such trips.

What makes these trips even more strange in terms of their timing is a number of the players will be included in International squads for friendlies being played on the 6th and 7th June.  England, Republic of Ireland, Brazil, France, Argentina and Ghana are all due to play that weekend, putting further strain on the players.

These post season games seem to be a growing trend. Not that it detracts from their pre-season games – Manchester City will be heading to Australia to take part in the newly expanded International Champions Cup, taking on Roma and Barcelona in Melbourne, whilst Chelsea play in the North American edition against New York RedBulls, PSG and Barcelona. Spurs will be one of the other four current Premier League sides heading Stateside  as they take on the MLS All-Stars at the wonderfully named Dick’s Sporting Goods Store Stadium in he equally brilliantly named Commerce City in Colorado.

Football is a highly competitive global game on and off the pitch, but do these post-season games really help the players, who are the profit generators when viewed with commercial glasses on? Do you think Mourinho, Pellegrini and Pochettino have the same enthusiasm for these trips as adidas, Samsung, Nike, Etihad, Armour and AIA have? In some instances the club’s have to perform based on clauses in hugely profitable commercial partnerships, underlining the shift from the people’s game to a game dominated by money. That’s not a surprise. Tomorrow’s avid Chelsea or Man City fan is just as likely to live in Shanghai as he is in Streatham or Stretford, snapping up all the club have to offer in a digital format such as the ability to watch these games exclusively in the club’s online TV channel.

Tickets for the games in Thailand and Malaysia aren’t cheap. When Chelsea play in the Rajamangala National Stadium on Saturday in the Singha Celebration Match (Chelsea’s Global Beer Partner), tickets range from around £10 to close to £80, which is almost a third of the average monthly income in Thailand. Even Arsenal cannot boast that price to income ratio yet! Meanwhile over in Selangor where the average Malaysian earns approximately £900 per month, tickets for the AIA Cup (Spurs shirt sponsor) game will cost between £10 and £75 although there are no concessions at all.

I’m sure the fans who are following their teams across the world will enjoy the opportunity to visit some new cities, whilst the marketing officials and PR companies will do their best to get players to look happy at choreographed public appearances. The clubs will stand firmly behind the pretext of building their brand in new markets, but does this simply add more weight to the stealth plans of Game 39 once more?

Postscript – 28/5 – Man City’s game at the BBVA stadium in Houston was postponed after the team arrived in Texas due to issues with the pitch.  Well, that was worth it then.

Gone and forgotten – part 1 – Manchester Central FC

“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them” so said William Shakespeare. The final line to bring that up to date is “and then there are those who achieve greatness buy spun king loads of cash on a project”

Let me take you back to 1931. The Empire State Building has just been completed in New York City, A banking crisis threatens the European economy and the first screenings of Dracula and Frankenstein scare the living daylights out of film goers in London. But in a closed meeting room at the Football League headquarters in Preston there was a monumental debate raging.

At the time there was no automatic promotion between the Football League and the Non Leagues. In fact the 92 team Football League was basically a closed shop, with no team ever “elected” to join the league at the annual end of season vote. The process used to be that any non league club could throw their hat into the ring to be elected as a new member club but it would require a majority vote from the Football League club chairman. And unsurprisingly they were a close knit group who didn’t like outsiders. In fact it wasn’t until 1951 that Workington became the first club to join the Football League in this way at the expense of New Brighton. Occasionally an incidence would occur when they found themselves a team short and they would send a telegram to a non league club and ask if they wanted to join the party.

You didn’t have to even prove you were a successful club to apply for election. Take the case of The Argonauts in 1928 who applied for entry to the league without ever actually playing a game. The one thing they had going for them apart from having an eccentric chairman was that they had agreed a lease to play at Wembley Stadium. The excellent Twohundredpercent website tells the story of the most bizarre club nearly to play in the league brilliantly.

In the same year that the Argonauts were making their audacious bid, a new team was being formed in Manchester. Manchester Central were formed by Man City director John Ayrton (at the time there were no rules about having a stake in more than one club) who saw an opportunity to utilise the Belle Vue Stadium he owned in the east part of the city for more than just a weekly speedway meeting. In their first season they joined the Lancashire Combination League, finishing a disappointing seventh. However, this didn’t stop Ayrton applying to take the club into the Football League at the end of their first season. Unsurprisingly their bid failed. Continue reading

Matchdays with Mercer

Can you imagine a player today travelling to the ground on the bus on a match day, walking down the road with fans, happy to chat about having the “best job in the world”. The thought of that happening today is about as possible as Sepp Blatter admitting, well, anything. The last person in football who admitted using public transport to get to a game was laughed out of town as crazy. Whilst Christian Gross may have thought the way to warm to the Spurs fans and media was to produce his travel card at the press conference announcing his arrival back in 1997, most saw that the guy really didn’t get English football.

But back in the Seventies it was common practice not only for players, but also for managers to use public transport, or even their own bike to get to home games. One man who believed it was humbling to travel in such a way was Joe Mercer.  Whilst manager of Manchester City in 1971 Joe gave an interview to Football World magazine explaining his match day routine.

“Home game Saturdays mean I can sleep in late, with the wife bringing me a cup of tea around 9.30am before I get up and have breakfast. Like my players I can eat what I want when we have a home game so I usually have a large English. Then if it is nice I will do some work in the garden. As I only live two miles from Maine Road I can hop outside at lunchtime and catch the bus if I do not feel like driving. Continue reading

Where is Buckie anyway?

In August 1979 the Fuller family set off for a holiday in Scotland.  As a nine year old I was heading north of the border for the first time, my mind full of images kilted men tossing haggis all over the place – well that is what my brother had led me to believe.  Quite how my Dad had managed to get this under the radar of my Mum I don’t know but amazingly during the time we were in Scotland West Ham were also due to play a couple of pre-season friendlies.  What a co-incidence.

She smelt a rat when we arrived in our hotel just outside Buckie, a small town on the Moray Firth not far from Elgin (aka a bloody long way north) to see billboard posters announcing the return of local lad Goergie Cowie and his West Ham team mates.  Oops.  To be a fly on the wall of their room that night as he explained that one away.  But we were not the only West Ham fans in the crowd of 2,500 a few days later when the Hammers beat Highland League side 3-1, nor were we a few days later when West Ham put 8 past Ross County. Continue reading