Has football already eaten itself?


The last week has seen the footballing world go into meltdown about ticket prices as if it was something that had just started to be an issue.  It hasn’t.  It’s quite difficult to pinpoint one particular moment where it all got a bit silly as the initial tipping point seems to vary from club to club.  Some may point at the formation of the Premier League nearly twenty five years ago as the catalyst, whilst for others it has been around takeovers and new stadiums.

But before we get back into the nuts and bolts, indulge me in the follow dilemma.  Once a week I enjoy a Chicken Katsu Curry from Wasabi for lunch.  I’m not alone.  Queues snake round the block at peak time in Canary Wharf. That was until a few weeks ago.  Turning up at 1pm two weeks ago there was just a handful of people queuing. The reason became apparent when you went to pay.  Prices for the most popular dishes, including Chicken Katsu Curry had risen by 20%.  With so many alternatives within a couple of minutes, fans of the spicy chicken had voted with their feet.  How did the brand react on Social Media?  It ignored what their “fans” were saying, refusing to engage on the subject.  Sound a little bit familiar?  However, Wasabi aren’t like a football club. Despite being a “fan” I am now less likely to go so frequently even though I may end up spending more at an alternative restaurant.  Why? Because I cannot see any value in that extra 20% cost.  I don’t get any bigger portions, the service is still the same fast speed, the sauce still as spicy.  That to me is one of the keys in the whole Premier League ticketing debate – the question of value.

18852242056_a32ecb4972_kValue is the key here.  Suppose Liverpool would have suggested that for the increase in ticket pricing to £77 fans got additional value.  A free programme, access to a lounge, a free scarf, a free link to exclusive media content, a free pie or pint?  Would there have been the same uproar about the price?  There was more than just the top price ticket behind the protests at Anfield and I applaud them for their stance.  But football clubs need to also look at the situation and learn from the mistakes Liverpool made.

The impact of investment in Premier Leagues from overseas is often quoted as the tipping point for escalating price rises.  The takeover of Manchester United by The Glazers back in 2005 saw a mass exodus of some fans who could no longer take the commercial changes at the club to form FC United of Manchester.  However, their absence was never noticed by the new owners, with United at their peak and valued as one of the richest sporting institutions in the world.  The empty seats never stayed empty, with waiting lists of fans willing to pay what it took to see Ferguson’s side win the top honours in the game.

Down south there is a perception that Arsenal’s move to The Emirates as the tipping point for ticket price rises.  However, the start of the rolling stone went back much further than that.  An average ticket at Highbury back in 1991/92 was £10.  Seems reasonable based on today’s wages but actually that represented the biggest hike in ticket prices that the fans have experienced in the last thirty five years, rising from £7.26 on average the year before (a 38% increase).  This season a ticket for the centre lower tier at The Emirates is £45.69 on average this season, up from £40.47 five years ago and just over six pounds since they moved into the new stadium (Thanks to http://www.thearsenalhistory.com for the stats).  Arsenal’s “utilisation”, the percentage of seats sold (not necessary used – another Premier League bad trait) when compared to the total (not necessarily usable) capacity is in the high 90th percentile.  In fact, allowing for seats removed from sale due to segregation, there are probably only a few dozen seats remaining unsold throughout the whole season.  What would happen if Arsenal slashed ticket prices in half?  Would they be able to sell any more tickets? No.  Does the club really care whether a particular seat is bought by an adult, a child or a concession?  Absolutely.  So as a commercial enterprise what is their motivation for cutting ticket prices?

The issue of ticket prices may be a hot topic today, and we may argue that we are pricing out a generation of future fans, but have we already passed that point?  If I wanted to take my daughter to West Ham United v Manchester United next month her ticket (assuming there were any available), the cheapest ticket I could buy for her would be £45.  West Ham will argue that for other games I could buy her a seat for £1, but that misses the point.  People may argue it is no different to going to the theatre or the opera.  It’s not.  I want to go to see West Ham because it is my club.  Even if Leyton Orient a few miles down the road are at home on the same day and offer under16’s for £1 it is not an alternative I would choose.  If a ticket isn’t available for La Bòheme at the Royal Opera House isn’t available today, I can try again for tomorrow’s performance, or one next month.  Same performers, same venue, same storyline, same music.  Sport isn’t anything like that.

West Ham have gained many plaudits for their decision to reduce prices massively for the move to the Olympic Stadium next season.  But what was stopping them slashing the prices for this season, the last at Upton Park?  They know that every Premier League game would sell out and so in whose real interest would it have been to reduce prices?  Next season is a massive risk in terms of reputation for the club.  You can be sure that if the club would have funded the building/conversion of the stadium themselves then they wouldn’t have been so generous with the ticket prices.  They need to build an additional 15,000-20,000 new loyal fans and the best way to do that is ticket concessions.

Matthew Syed at The Times was involved in a heated debate this week with fellow Times correspondent Henry Winter about the issue of ticket prices.  Winter’s view was very much of the “we need to act now to stop the future degradation of the game”.  Syed’s counter argument was that it was too late.  Club are commercial entities.  They want and need to make as much money as possible a) to give returns to shareholders and thus make them a more attractive vehicle for further investment and b) to fund more expensive player acquisitions that will give them more chance of being successful which in turn leads to points a) and b) being repeated.  He was quite right in saying that if 10,000 Arsenal fans don’t renew their season tickets next season, there are 10,000 more waiting in line who would even pay a premium for the opportunity to get a ticket.

We may think that if nothing changes we will be playing in front of empty stadiums in years to come.  We won’t.  As soon as attendances start to fall, clubs will undoubtedly cut prices and demand will rise.  They have no interest to do that today, unfortunately, in most instances.  Football clubs will never come out and agree with the statements made by Football Supporters Federation Chairman Malcolm Clarke about tourists filling our grounds wearing half and half scarves taking selfies.  Would a club want a fan who comes every week, turning up at 2.55pm (or whenever 5 minutes before kick-off is), leaving at 4.55pm or someone who will turn up at 1.30pm, spend money in the club shop, spend money on food and drink and then share their experiences on social media?  We would all like to think it’s the former, the loyal fan, but in this ultra-commercial world I would suggest for many, the ideal fan is the latter.

The Premier League has stayed almost silent in the whole affair, yet they are the one organisation who has the remit to allow change.  The question of ticket prices should have been addressed a decade ago.  Why couldn’t they have put in a fixed price rise structure that is set for the Train franchises for instance?  The wealth now flowing into the game should be a catalyst for change, but it is simply an accelerant for faster growth of the same problem.

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Football will eat itself


It seems that finally footballing authorities are starting to take notice of the growing voices of the genuine fans on the subject of ticket prices.  Last weekend the mass walkout at Anfield with Liverpool leading 2-0 not only grabbed the headlines but could be argued to have such a distracting effect on the team that they conceded two late goals.  On Tuesday night Borussia Dortmund fans showed their displeasure at being charged £55 for a ticket for their trip to Stuttgart by raining tennis balls down onto the pitch during the game.  With so much money gushing into the English game there can be little reason why ticket prices continue to increase in many cases at rates well above the level of inflation.

Every club wants to play in front of capacity crowds and whilst some will offer discounted admission for some games, such as cup ties, where season ticket holders do not get automatic admission, come Premier League time and the prices increase.  Some clubs are desperate to increase capacities, trying to meet finite supply with almost unlimited demand.  The economists among us will know when that happens price equilibriums can be manipulated by the supplier, a situation that is leading to the anger in instances such as at Anfield where Liverpool fans could be charged up to £77 for a ticket in their new stand next season.

19175381278_c21e29ebf9_hThe English game has never been so popular.  In a statement issued by the Football Supporters Federation after the Anfield incident, Chairman Malcolm Clarke suggests that rising prices will lead to  “Stadiums filled with tourists waving “half and half scarves and taking selfies”.  I’d actually say in many instances that is one of the reasons why ticket prices continue to rise – the number of overseas visitors attending Premier League games has never been higher, filling the vacuum left by English fans unable or unwilling to pay the increasing amounts for a ticket.  Again, simple Economics 101 suggests that “half and half” scarf sellers would pack up shop tomorrow and do something else if there was no demand for their product.

Clarke claims the money from the new £5.1bn television rights deal, due to kick in from next season which will see every Premier League club receive a MINIMUM of £99 million in revenues for the three years after that, could let every supporter into every home game and still bring in the same revenue as this season.  Yet it is unlikely that wholesale price reductions will be seen in England next season.

Last year’s BBC report on the Price of Football painted a relatively healthy picture of clubs offering low price tickets but the results on some levels were flawed because they asked the clubs to submit information rather than researching the situation and looking at the average cost of tickets. Headline figures of the “cheapest ticket” for instance often related to one game where the club discounts all tickets for a particular purpose rather than the cheapest average ticket cost across the whole season.  At West Ham United for instance, the cheapest ticket is listed £25, which it is for the pre-Christmas game versus Stoke City. The game before, versus West Bromwich Albion the same seat would cost you £45 (for a ‘Category A’ game this would rise to £70). The Hammers also take the prize of having the highest away fans ticket price at an eye-watering £85, yet also offer many games at low price where more often than not the ground ends up being full, such as the Europa League games in the summer or the FA Cup ties against Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool.

You can argue about the “value” of a ticket as well.  Leicester City fans would certainly say they are getting value for money this season but what about at Chelsea where it hasn’t been the happiest of seasons to be sitting in an £82 season for some games.  Any price increases will be easier to swallow based on the success of the season, although even a Foxes fan may baulk at a 100% price increase next season should the club owners decide to.

Whilst many Premier League fans have been priced out of the game and now get their football kicks further down the pyramid in the Non-League game where £20 can buy you admission, a programme, beer and a burger rather than just a Thai Green Salad Emirates Burger at some stadiums, their places have been filled with the overseas visitors.  Visit Britain published a report in 2014 that revealed over 800,000 tourists to Britain in 2014 attended a football match whilst here, spending around £684 million in the process.  It is not just tourist that enjoy football matches; out of the 800,000 total, more than 40,000 international business visitors went to a football match during their stay in 2014, with Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea the three most popular destinations.

The findings show that football is the number one sporting draw for international tourists to Britain. Of those visitors who gave their primary journey purpose to the UK as ‘watching sport’, 73% said they had attended a football match. Around 40% of those going to a football match said that watching sport was the main reason for visiting the UK.  However, the stumbling block is often access to genuine tickets, with most clubs operating a Members-only policy for the very limited amount of tickets that are put on sale for Premier League games.  Some clubs will try and drive visitors to hospitality or travel packages instead potentially at the expense of those hardcore fans who can no longer afford the basic ticket prices.  What is clear though is that any attempts by fans to protest with their feet and not attend games will simply see their void being filled by these “tourists waving half and half scarves and taking selfies”

The protest by the Liverpool fans last weekend certainly created some waves but it may take a concerted effort of protests from other fans, potentially those willing to make the sacrifice of walking out of matches to make the clubs sit up and listen.  The Premier League currently has a valuable asset in terms of full stadiums, but if empty seats start appearing in games being broadcast around the world ultimately rights holders will value the product less and so the knock on effect could be a lower value deal in three years’ time, consequently meaning less money for the clubs involved.  Remember, greed and gluttony are both deadly sins.

Will the Europa League be a distraction for West Ham’s most important season?


Like most football clubs, West Ham United fans can be divided into a number of groups. Those who wanted Allardyce to stay (a few), those who wanted him to go (a few thousand); those who think Upton Park is perfectly adequate for us, to those who can’t wait for the move to the Olympic Stadium (about 50/50 I’d say) and those who think Andy Carroll was worth every penny of the £15m (John, from Hornchurch) to those who think we paid over the odds by £14.9m (the rest of the world). But the news that the Hammers had been allocated a place in the Europa League has seriously divided the fans.

Let’s wind back to start with before we get too excited about potential trips to San Marino, Moldova and the Faroes. What happened on the pitch at Upton Park, and the other Premier League stadium is for the most part irrelevant in the Hammers getting their sun towels and beach balls out. Firstly, Fair Play is a mixture of what happens on the pitch but also the behaviour of the fans. West Ham’s travelling support, which continues to be superb have been accused in the media in the past of creating issues at White Hart Lane in the past two seasons surrounding the use of the “Y” word. This would count against them. The official criteria, as assessed by a “Fair Play Delegate” would penalise a club if their fans engaged in:-

– Persistent foul and abusive language
– Persistent abuse of the officials’ decisions
– Aggressive and threatening conduct towards opposing fans

Whilst West Ham finished top of the Fair Play table from the Premier League, they still had to rely on the rest of the Premier League sides to behave themselves so that the overall English score was one of the top 3 out of the 54 UEFA associations. So potentially, a mass brawl involving the two Manchester clubs, or Mourinho punching Wenger’s lights out in the press conference could have impacted West Ham’s position.

England will finish in second place once the official cut off point arrives on the 30th May, behind the Netherlands and just in front of Republic of Ireland which meant the Golden Ticket landed on the doormat of Upton Park today, much to the delight of the fans. What makes it even sweeter is that this is the last time Europa League places will be given to the Fair Play winners. As of next season, the three winning national associations will get a pot of cash towards “fair play or respect-themed projects”. Enough said.

The Hammers will join 103 other teams in the draw on the 22nd June. There are some very good teams who are also going to have to try and battle through 22 games to reach the final in May in Basel. Brøndby, Slovan Bratislava, Aberdeen, Hadjuk Split and Red Star Belgrade will all be cutting short their time on the sun loungers, whilst Champions League stalwarts Rosenborg, IFK Göteborg and AIK will be slap-bang in the middle of their season. The good news is West Ham are actually the highest ranked team in the draw and as such will be drawn against an unranked team, which could mean a trip into unchartered territories such as Gibraltar, Cyprus and Faroe Islands. The longest potential trip is to Almaty, where the Kazakhstan Cup winners Kairat play, a 6,960 mile round trip.

So whilst the fans will be rubbing their hands at the thought of a visit to somewhere new, what will the impact be on preparations for the most important season in the club’s history? It’s fair to say that it would be a financial disaster to start the next chapter in the club’s history in the Olympic Stadium in the Championship. That’s one of the reasons why the club have been very forthcoming in announcing season ticket pricing for that first season, a very commendable and unusually significant price reduction. Most clubs would be coming back for pre-season in the second week of July, with friendlies kicking off a week or so later. So with the first tie due to be played on the 2nd July, the players will need to be back in the next few weeks – hardly a break at all for the West Ham players.

If the timescales weren’t tight enough, there’s the added issue of the club not yet having a manager. Whilst the board will move quickly to find a successor, setting out clear criteria for the successful candidate such as “the candidate will be expected to understand the club, its fans and culture, and can encourage the ‘West Ham way’ of playing attacking football”. The new manager, if they have been appointed, will probably go into that first leg without having seen anything of his new side. By the time the Premier League season kicks off in mid-August, West Ham could have played six games in the Europa League. That throws the whole pre-season schedule up in the air.

How seriously will the club take the competition? Bar Hull City’s gamble last season, which nine months later seriously back-fired on them after they put out a weakened side for their tie against Lokeren in the Play-Off round, English clubs have faired quite well in the Europa League. The furthest that a team has progressed from a fair-play entry is the quarter-finals, achieved by Aston Villa in 1998, Rayo Vallecano in 2001 and Manchester City 2009. City also progressed beyond the Group Stages in 2005. Changes to the competition from next season mean we will never see the romantic notion of a plucky FA Cup runner up such as Portsmouth playing in the competition, with the place instead going to the next placed team in the league. Whilst the timing is poor, I’d expect West Ham to take the tournament more seriously as the rounds progress. On the 2nd July I wouldn’t expect many of the first team to be involved. Whilst it’s a risk, especially if they are drawn against a team who are half-way through their summer season such as one from Finland, Sweden or Norway, they cannot risk bringing players back too early and thus compromising the Premier League season.

It’s not the first time West Ham have agreed to enter European football early. Sixteen years ago the club accepted an invite to play in the now-defunct Intertoto Cup, which meant that the Hammers kicked off the season on the 17th July at Upton Park against the Finns Jokerit. Paul Kitson’s goal in front of a respectable 11,000 crowd kicked the season off. Come August and the start of the Premier League, the Hammers had already tested themselves against Heerenveen and FC Metz before anyone else had kicked a ball in earnest, giving them the momentum to get a flying start, sitting in third after five games, with four wins. Alas the squad side and momentum faded at Christmas, although the final position of ninth was still commendable.

Despite the poor second half of the season form (16 points from 19 games) and uncertainty around who will accept the manager’s role, the news that the club has been given a free airplane ticket certainly raised spirits and for some fans, the revelation of where they will be heading in early July is as important as who will be next manager. That’s the nature of football.

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.

The real Champions League?


Imagine a tournament where only the biggest names in European football would play, guaranteed admission despite their poor league season, assured of huge prize money irrespective of performance and free from the potential embarrassment of small up-starts humiliating them in front of a global audience of millions.

This is the dream of the biggest clubs of football, the utopia of an European Super League which has been discussed in closed meetings for many years.  Whilst UEFA will bang the drum about the Champions League, the fact it is based on merit means that sometimes the small, unfashionable teams can upset the apple cart.  Whilst Platini and co politely clap the efforts of clubs like Nordsjælland in Denmark or BATE Borisov in Belarus, their inclusion (on merit it should be said) at the expense of Manchester United or AC Milan does not fit with their agenda of raising the stakes in terms of sponsorship and global television rights dollars.  But try as they might, they cannot manipulate the tournament so only the “big clubs” qualify each year.

downloadThis season’s Champions League tournament was missing former champions including Manchester United, AC and Inter Milan.  Huge clubs in their own rights with massive global appeal but all suffered poor domestic seasons meaning that their place at the top table of European Football will have to wait for at least another year.

Football today is all about money though and these clubs are highly marketable in any and every global market.  So it was no surprise that a tournament was arranged, pitting together some of the most marketable clubs in Europe.  In fact it is amazing it took until 2013 for it to happen. In 2013 Canada and the US hosted this tournament, won by Real Madrid, which featured seven of Europe’s biggest clubs plus the Los Angeles Galaxy.  Last season’s edition featured both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, the two Milan teams, Juventus, Real Madrid and Olympiacos, playing games in thirteen venues across North America.  Whilst United beat Liverpool in the final, the main talking point was the unbelievable 109,318 fans who watched the game at University of Michigan’s “Big House”, the first time the stadium had hosted a “soccer” match.  More than 631,000 fans attended the tournament live with a global audience of over 80 million tuning in in over 150 countries. Hard to argue with the success of the tournament based on those numbers.

The clubs may dress these games up as pre-season run outs but the prize money on offer means they are incredibly lucrative for them.  Gone are the days of a trip to Scotland to play Buckie Thistle or Cove Rangers.  Today it is all about 5-star first class travel to the other side of the world to glad hand a few local businessmen and appease the global sponsors.  With North America now fast becoming the biggest overseas market for the “EPL” thanks to the success of some of its exports as well as the “Beckham” effect, it is no surprise that clubs are keen to play these games, even if they are against teams they line up against week in, week out.  Just a week after the Premier League season had finished in May 2013, for instance, 2nd place Manchester City played Chelsea not once, but twice in a matter of days in two venues across North America, watched by nearly 90,000 fans.

This isn’t the first time the USA has tried to woo English clubs over to North America.  In the 1960’s the International Super League was created by a wealthy US Businessman called William Cox who saw an opportunity to bring international football sides to the US to play local sides in more than just exhibition games.  The politics of American Soccer at the time meant that its format was never rigid and was often complicated, but was ultimately a success.  In fact, the creation of the North American Soccer League in 1969 and the import of marquee players was in part due to the success of the tournament.

In its first season in 1960 Cox managed to convince some of the biggest names in European football to play.  The concept was that the ISL was divided into two “sections” formed of six teams played at different times during the close season.  The winners of the two sections then met each other in the final.  The tournament ran for four seasons, with such big clubs as West Ham United winning the tournament.  You can read more about that tournament’s history here.

Whilst 2014 was only the second edition of the International Champions Cup, few can argue that this will be the future of our European game if Platini gets his way.  However, the 2015 version appears to take the tournament to a new level.  This year the ICC will be contested across three continents, with parallel tournaments running in North America, Australia and China.  The line-up for ICC Australia has already been announced, with Real Madrid, Manchester City and AS Roma confirmed for a three-match round robin tournament at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  Whether the three tournaments will cumulate in a grand final somewhere in the world is yet to be seen.  Will any of those three actually be champions within their domestic leagues?  Very unlikely.

As of the start of April no other teams have announced they will take part in the tournament.  It is inconceivable to think that Barcelona, Manchester United and Chelsea would pass up a chance to play in China if offered the opportunity.  The world’s biggest population, and more importantly, the biggest economy is the market that all the top European clubs want to break.  These football-mad fans do not care that clubs like Manchester United, Liverpool, Real Madrid or AC Milan are not champions in their domestic markets.  In some instances, the players become bigger than the actual clubs – Ronaldo and Messi for instance are almost national heroes in China.

Is it a surprise that this season’s edition of the tournament will be the biggest yet? Absolutely not. Until UEFA can engineer the Champions League so that the biggest clubs, and consequently the biggest marketing assets are guaranteed entry into the tournament every season irrespective of their final league position this tournament will continue to grow, and for the clubs involved an important source of additional revenue.

Deal or no Deal for the Non League clubs


After the announcement that the Premier League had awarded the TV rights to Sky Sports and BT Sports last month for a jaw-dropping £5.14 billion.  The vast majority of that cash will flow into the already bulging pockets of the Premier League clubs.  Despite calls for the cash to be used to subsidise ticket prices, with full stadiums up and down the country every week, there is no compelling event for the clubs to do that.  Greed feeds greed.

15979358738_46b2a39bda_kWhilst the aristocrats of the Premier League are feeding on caviar and the finest fillet steak, clubs in the Non-Leagues are living hand to mouth, fighting for scraps.  Every season clubs in the Non-Leagues simply give up, unable to keep up with the spiralling costs of running a football club.

This should be a watershed moment for football in England.  The Premier League has an opportunity to give something back to the grass roots of English football. Will they? Probably not.  But if they are looking for ideas, how about these three simple concepts which would have an immediate benefit to clubs in the Non-Leagues.

1. Scrap the rule that means pricing of Sky Sports TV packages for football clubs are based on the rateable value of the football club.  We at Lewes have looked at Sky on numerous occasions, but because the rateable value of The Dripping Pan includes the stands and the pitch, the cost was north of £750 per month  In comparison, BT Sport charge around a tenth of that per month. So why not scrap charges for clubs below a certain level in return for free advertising at the ground?

2. Create a weekly Non-League TV show.  It seems crazy that we can access live games in most major European leagues every week on Sky and BT Sport yet Non-League doesn’t get a look in.  Why not create a weekly show, focusing on one team with an extended preview and highlights package? We’ve already seen the success of the radio show on BBC so why not roll out the format to the Non-Leagues? I can’t believe viewing figures would be worse than a live game from Holland or France.

3. Add a loser’s money pot in the FA Cup.  Every club starts the season with a dream that they will reach the Third Round and draw a big club, setting themselves up financially.  99% of them fail by the wayside but every year we have the success stories of Warrington Town, Blyth Spartans and Hastings United. There is no glory in defeat, nor in the case of the FA Cup, cash. Sure clubs share the gate revenue, but for the smaller Non-League clubs this may be a matter of a few hundred pounds.  So why not increase the prize fund in each round by 25% until the First Round Proper, with the additional amount going to the losers?

What will be a travesty is if nothing changes and the cash simply makes those clubs already awash with cash even richer. Not only will the fans suffer but football in general.  But then again, the voice of reason has no place at the highest levels of our national game.

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.