Tuesday, December 28, 2010

2011 Predictions

In this site's previous blog we reviewed 2010, now it's time to make some sporting predictions for 2011, we'll kick off with the league winners around the various countries in football.

In England, ManYoo will lift the title but will be run close for the first time in years by Arsenal. In Spain, Real Madrid will beat Barcelona in the return fixture at the Bernabeu and in the process pip (pun intended) Guardiola to the title. In Germany, Borussia Dortmund will hold on to win their first title in over a decade whilst in Scotland, Walter Smith's experience will see him through in his final season as Rangers manager. In Serie A, AC Milan will wrest the title back from the blue half of the San Siro and thus maintain Ibrahimovic's incredible sequence of league title wins. France is an incredibly close run league this season but we will plump for Marseille to come through the pack there. PSV should be too strong for the rest in the Eredivise.

Whilst we have controversially picked Real to beat Barcelona to the title in Spain, that is not to say that Barcelona are not the finest team in Europe and they will duly be crowned as such when they win the Champions League this season.

Managerial casualties are inevitable each year and 2011 will be no different. Liverpool will dispense of Roy Hodgson's services after (if not before) a disappointing and uninspiring season. He will be replaced by Martin O'Neil who will ultimately prove a failure also. Carson Yeung will fire Alex McLeish for no good reason. Carlo Ancelotti will survive as Abramovich will know it is his own fault for not investing in the team and will need a scapegoat. Roberto Mancini will also survive as Man City will pick up a Champions League place. Likewise, there will be no axe swung in the direction of Alan Pardew as cronyism runs free at St James Park.

Blackburn Rovers will relieve Steve Kean of his duties as he returns to be an assistant and they will inevitably hire someone less qualified than Allardyce was in the first place - both they and Birmingham should realise that mid table is as good as it gets for them. Wolves and Fulham will be relegated along with Blackpool who will go into freefall in the second half of the season. Mark Hughes remarkable fall from grace will be crowned by his sacking after relegation. Ian Holloway's rants will continue in the Championship however.

In other sports, David Haye will beat either or both of the Klitschko brothers who have lived too many years fighting hand picked opponents in a woeful heavyweight division. Haye will be too quick and too good for either of them especially Vitali who is well past his prime. If he then sticks to his promise of retirement, he will have had a short but excellent heavyweight career.

In golf, it is the biggest year of Tiger's career as he attempts to regain the aura that has been destroyed by all his high jinx away from the game. That aura may have indeed gone but he will be rested and the newly tweaked swing will start to click in the Spring. If he can get the putter to warm up, he could be a formidable force once again and we pick him to win at least one Major, probably the US Open which tends to be the ultimate leveller.

The early part of the year will see the Cricket World Cup held on the sub continent. A talented but ageing India side will try their hardest but the pressure will prove too great. England will build on their recent one day improvement but the trophy will ultimately go to South Africa.

The Rugby World Cup in New Zealand will provide interesting fare once the pointless early rounds are dispensed with. The All Blacks will be favourites and rightly so but the pressure of trying to win a tournament that they have not since 1987 and on home soil will prove too much for them. It is hard to see a Northern Hemisphere team winning in New Zealand, particularly when they are all currently so mediocre so the title will be won by either South Africa or Australia. We will plump for Australia who would just love to win that trophy on Kiwi soil.

In other sports, we have no idea who will win the Superbowl. The Tour De France will be won by the cyclist with the doctor with the best knowledge of the newest masking agents. Andy Murray will fail to win a Grand Slam yet again and we will boldly predict here that he never will.

We'll finish up the predictions with a return to football and some transfer speculation for next season. Cesc Fabregas will go to Barcelona in the Summer in exactly the same way that Ronaldo left for Madrid one season after declaring openly that he wanted to go. Don't be surprised to see Mascherano coming the other way as part exchange.

Steven Gerrard will stay at Liverpool and will sit at home and reflect on a career of misplaced loyalty that will never earn him (what a travesty for such a great player) a Premiership medal and will realise that Joe Cole was not after all the answer to his prayers. Fernando Torres will however leave Liverpool in the Summer and will move to Chelsea.

Manchester City will provide the best theatre as they try to offload a variety of centre forwards with bad attitudes which will intriguingly leave room for Andy Carroll to join them.

2011 will once again provide many surprises which means many of these predictions will ultimately be wrong. No Nonsense.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

2010, a Footballing Year in Review.

2010 was a World Cup year and in that respect was widely anticipated but possibly more in hope than genuine expectation. The year also had its' usual packed calendar for clubs on both domestic and European fronts and the early part of the year also saw the African Nations Cup - nonsensically held in the same year as the World Cup - which was held in Angola, won by Egypt and unfortunately remembered for the fatal bus attack on the Togo team as they travelled to the tournament.

In the Premiership, last season was wrapped up as Chelsea took the double and the plaudits. Arsenal and ManYoo performed to the current top Premiership level of acceptable mediocrity. Spurs and Manchester City battled it out for fourth place with the former coming through the victors. The level of celebration that accompanies finishing fourth tells you everything you need to know about football nowadays.

This season has seen a very close title race and a league with little points spread - a sign of growing mediocrity in the league as this coming together is certainly not down to an improvement at the bottom of the table. The success of Blackpool - a welcome new entrant by the way - only demonstrates this.

So who were the big winners and losers? You would argue it was Chelsea's year as they took the double but they look in steep decline so I would vote for Spurs. So long in Arsenal's shadow - and they still are until they finish above them - they have had a fabulous year in their own right with so much more to their season than just trying to beat the Gunners. Redknapp has to a fair degree 'winged it' with some daredevil football but down the years, it is White Hart Lane and not the red part of North London that has had the reputation for flair football so the faithful are happy. There is a genuine case for optimism with the other top clubs (City apart) being unable to spend vast sums. A successful foray into the Champions League coupled with the coup of signing Rafael Van Der Vaart means last season's foundations have been built on.

Manchester City have failed so far despite the huge outlay with the minimum of Champions League qualification being missed out on. Until they change the scatter gun approach of collecting forwards, they will continue to struggle. Their failure to capture fourth place was all the more galling as there was little fight put up by this year's biggest losers Liverpool. Benitez's shoddy reign - punctuated by his media marketing campaign of blaming the owners which was entirely bought by the Kop - was brought to an end in the Summer and not before time. Whilst there is little doubt Liverpool's previous owners had nothing but their own self interest at heart, to say that they did not back Benitez is nonsense. An incredibly poor transfer market record and a complete lack of understanding of the English game and psyche were his undoing. Benitez lived off a fluked second half comeback against Milan which blinded Liverpool fans to the damage he was doing. Couple that with the warring owners and what was once England's premier club now looks set for an extended spell in the doldrums. There is hope that the new owners can turn things around but it may be a long road back for the Reds and the hindrance of a 40,000 seat stadium for a club that could sell half of that again each week has not been addressed either.

Around Europe, Jose Mourinho did what he does best, turns up for a few years, wins a lot of trophies and then leaves before his stock falls. He has assured himself living legend status at Internazionale by winning an unprecedented treble whilst at the same time walking out on his contract without sanction. He is no Wenger or Ferguson in that he does nothing to build the club and has no interest in a legacy other than silverware, but as a hired gun he has no peers.

This leads us into Spain and where Mourinho now faces possibly his greatest ever challenge as he faces up to a Guardiola inspired Barcelona that many are - the 1970s Ajax and late 1980s AC Milan both might have something to say about it - heralding as the greatest club side of all time. Barcelona so far this season have been irresistible sweeping all before them with their coronation being the 5-0 hammering of Mourinho's Real. People should also remember however that Mourinho knocked them out of the Champions League last season with Inter. Barca need to lift that trophy this season if they wish to be remembered amongst the greats. Barcelona is a club oft romanced and whilst their style of play should be applauded, Mourinhos' pragmatism is not to be underestimated and whilst people daydream over pretty football, that pragmatic approach over the years has won many trophies. Try asking the Italians, they've won a few World Cups playing like that. When Mourinho arrived at Chelsea, it was the time of Les Invincibles. I commented to a friend back then that Arsenal could not keep winning 4-0 every week but that Chelsea could keep winning 1-0 every week and I was proved right. Barcelona are probably too good this season but if Mourinho is given time, they should beware.

The sub plot in Spain is the personal battle between the two finest attacking talents on the planet, Messi and Ronaldo. Their scoring rate over the last year has been nothing short of phenomenal. His orange hue and six kilograms of hair gel ensure Ronaldo is not everyone's favourite player but no one can question his effectiveness. Messi you simply sit back and enjoy, genius.

Elsewhere, in the Eredivise Ajax contrived to score 106 goals but be beaten by Steve McLaren (you may have to read that a couple of times) who has promptly gone to Wolfsburg and flopped. Bayern won the title yet again in Germany and just missed out on the treble but are currently enduring a tough season which is the usual pattern for a club coached by Louis Van Gaal. In Scotland, Rangers and Celtic continue to swap titles with the bankrupt Blue half of Glasgow currently in the ascendancy which says it all really.

So to the showpiece of the year, the 2010 FIFA World Cup hosted for the first time in Africa. Before the start it had become a much maligned World Cup with anticipated poor organisation, unfinished stadiums and rampant crime all being cited as reasons for it to be a disaster. The reality was an event that South Africa delivered supremely with an utterly appalling display on the pitch provided in the main by players owned by the major European clubs, no irony there then.

It is hard to see where the World Cup goes from here, it will continue to be held and will be as popular as ever but it is plain to see that the dominance of UEFA means the players turn up half exhausted at the end of the season and in many cases with only a passing interest in the actual tournament itself. England players talked of being bored sitting around their hotel in between games, one hundred and fifty thousand pounds a week clearly has an effect on your attitude. The Champions League has supplanted the World Cup as the pinnacle of football and it is to the detriment of the World's biggest sporting showcase.

Much of the blame has to be placed at the feet of FIFA and in particularly the Swiss lawyer, one Mr Sepp Blatter who knows as much about football as the empty cup of coffee sat in front of me. FIFA answers to no one and is almost certainly rife with corruption. They paint themselves as the champion of the global fan, bringing football to Africa, away from the traditional European axis etc etc. The reality of any major Global organisation that is run as a profit making business - which FIFA is - is that when they come into contact with emerging nations or continents, they take much more than they give. It is far easier to plunder Africa than it is Europe and one can only guess as to Blatter's true motives in his various dealings. South Africa I understand is going to be busy dismantling the large and expensive stadiums it so recently built whilst FIFA can sit back and admire its' bank balance.The recent awards for the 2018 and 2022 World Cups were covered recently in this blog and again, FIFA has proved itself a shady organisation at best. Change is required at FIFA and most importantly it needs a body in some form to be answerable to. This Stalinist totalitarian regime must not be allowed to continue.

As mentioned, the football was an abject disappointment. Spain ticky-tackyed their way to the title and won deservedly although they hardly hit the heights. Italy's team arrived with walking sticks, England were an embarrassment although less so than the imploding French with their ludicrous training strike. The Oranje betrayed a proud heritage with their kung fu final tactics (although had they won they would they have cared little and nor should they), Brazil were also decidedly average. The bright spots came from a young German side who have a great future in front of them and the sheer theatre provided by Maradona and his hugely talented Argentina side. Unfortunately his lack of tactical nous, his leaving behind of old heads such as Zanetti and Cambiasso and his inability to get anything out of Messi proved his undoing.

The poor football however should not reflect on the job done by the hosts South Africa who did much to provide a fabulous event - the neverending vuvuzelas aside. It is interesting to note that the further an event seems to be held from Europe, the less the problem with hooliganism seems to be. The prohibitive cost and travel logistics once you were actually in the country seem to have put the skids under any potential trouble, especially at a time when the spectre of football hooliganism in Europe seems to be raising its' ugly head. One last point to note were the swathes of empty seats that affected so many games. Again, FIFA must be taken to task on this. They dictate pricing policy and ticket distribution and they clearly failed on both counts. For this most feted, once every four years event to have so many unused seats (especially in a country where people would have literally walked tens of kilometres to attend) is a travesty so once again, shame on you Sepp Blatter.

So there we have the year 2010. A year dominated by Blatter, Messi, Mourinho and the vuvuzela. I could certainly think of a use for the latter on the former. No Nonsense.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Scottish Football - Surgery Required

So former First Minister Henry McLeish has concluded his study into the debacle that is Scottish Football and has opined that change is needed and needed fast, hardly a surprise. Everyone including this blog previously has an opinion on what should be done and these will be debated over the Festive period as the meeting between the clubs to discuss future plans has been postponed due to the artic conditions - the SPL it seems cannot even arrange a meeting venue with undersoil heating.

This blog has previously covered the various ailments afflicting the Scottish game and whilst no one is in any doubt that radical change is needed, does anyone think the infighting, bickering and blatant self interest can be put aside long enough to actually achieve anything?

The biggest problems Scottish football faces are the dreadful actuality of the economics and the population of the country versus the number of teams it is trying to support. Now anyone including myself would baulk at the suggestion of their football club being wound up. Everyone loves their own club and just because a team is not Barcelona or Manchester United does not make their achievements at their own level any less great to those who support that club and indeed, many lower league fans are the most loyal in the world. I for one am very proud that the club from my home town, the Inverurie Loco Works are now successfully plying their trade in the lofty heights of the Scottish Highland League.

That being said however, the Scottish Premier League is trying to keep itself on a footing with leagues around Europe. It wishes to be a first class product and it simply cannot under the current format and with the current situation. As an example, take the 'city' of Dundee, it has less than 150,000 people, yet it has two poorly supported football clubs of which one has gone into administration twice in the past decade. They both think it prudent to have their own stadiums which are literally a football pitch length away from each other. The fact that they cannot even agree to ground share let alone merge shows the nonsensical and petty differences that rule the Scottish game and hinder the chances of any progress - granted those petty differences are the reason many of us go in the first place.

Now as I have already mentioned, no one is suggesting that people just accept their clubs are for the scrap heap overnight. I would beat someone with a stick for suggesting that Rangers should merge with Celtic in order to be able to compete with Real Madrid, but the simple fact is the rest of Europe has left Scotland far behind and both precise and major surgery is required if we are not to become an utter footballing backwater.

Clubs such as Hibernian or Motherwell, even Aberdeen have recently been embarrassed in European qualifying ties (not even the competion proper) by teams we would in bygone days have giggled at. Both Celtic and Rangers - the supposed big guns - have suffered similiar fates. It is less than thirty years since both Aberdeen and Dundee United were both a force in Europe, so where has it all gone wrong?

Globalisation, too much football on television, the Premiership and a wider variety of competing entertainment have all hurt Scottish football. As discussed on this blog before, why freeze at Firhill when you can watch Barcelona and Messi on television instead? Scottish clubs are not going to suddenly go all warm and fuzzy and merge with each other as is needed so in that regard we have to work with what we have.

The size of the league is endlessly debated with the smaller clubs crying for a larger league (how can five million people seriously sustain a league in size more akin to the major countries of Europe?) and the Old Firm act in utter self interest by protecting their right to play each other four times per season as a minimum thus ensuring the gap between them and everyone else is maintained. Realistically, a ten club top division is all the country can sustain with play offs being introduced to make the promotion and relegation more interesting. The play offs in England have certainly been incredibly successful. The timing of the individual games and also the entire league itself needs to be looked at and is something that could be immediately changed. My proposals and rationale would be this.

1) A return to a ten team league without the current late season split.

This is what the country can sustain.

2) Automatic promotion and relegation for the lower league top club and Premier League bottom club.

As per the current rules.

3) A play off between the second and second last teams in the respective leauges for a second promotion/relegation berth.

This would extend interest in both the top league and the lower league later in the season and avoid many of the dead rubber fixtures that are associated with that period. The current top/bottom six split is irrelevant, relegation and promotion are real.

4) A season starting at the beginning of July with a six week complete shutdown in the Winter months from Mid December with a finish end April/early May as we currently have.

This would give Scottish football six weeks of action in both actual sunshine and out of the metaphorical shade of the English Premiership. This would also give the players the advantage of being at full fitness for the various European play offs which are now the only avenue for Scottish clubs to qualify for the full tournaments. Many of the teams faced by Scottish entrants are from other Northen countries who also have poor co-efficients but have the advantage of Summer leagues meaning they hit the ground running in the qualifiers. The Winter shutdown should hopefully avoid the worst of the weather and avoid the distractions of the festive period and clashing with a very heavy period in the English calendar. It would also serve to rest players.

Scotland has not qualified of a major football tournament in twelve years and the prospects of doing so in the short term look bleak. If we did indeed qualify for one then the start to the league could be delayed by a fortnight at the maximum but the reality is would only be affecting a handful of SPL players regardless. The arguement about people being away on Summer holidays is frivilous at best, attendances are rock bottom already so how much worse can it get?

5) The League Cup (if still required) being finished before the Winter shutdown.

It seems meangliness that we still need to sustain two Cup competions but if required, make it a seperate first half of the season tournament.

6) Friday night football.

The league has to innovate and find times when the matches can be played with less competition from other leagues, Friday night is currently pretty much free across Europe. Games for this slot should be selected sensibly with no long distance travel required for away fans.
7) A common self policed agreement amongst clubs to live within their means and revenues. All clubs must conduct a feasibility study with regard to ground sharing opportunities and with an undertaking to embark on such sharing where possible - see the City of Dundee above.

In order to get the crowds coming back, Scottish clubs have to drastically drop turnstile prices. Germany has been very successful in this regard and they have a vastly superior product. The Premiership is already pricing itself out of the market so there would seem little hope for Scottish clubs. Clubs need to drop their prices and and so therefore their costs. Even at reduced ticket prices, full stadiums lead to lots of other associated benefits from merchandising to half time pies. Groundsharing would reduce costs massively in many instances although probably not improve the quality of the pies.

All of the above can be debated endlessly and no one for sure knows the correct formula - or even if one genuinely exists. What is clear is that further delays from petty squabbles and change in the form of a token gesture will see Scotland fall farther behind and the chances of redemption even more remote. It is time to act and to do so radically.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Premiership, silly season is upon us.

It would be unfair to call the last week or so in the Premiership as reaching new lows as we have seen this kind of ludicrous decision making by impatient, ill advised and misguided football chairmen before. The sackings of Chris Hughton and Sam Allardyce are both idiotic in every regard but they should hardly be seen as surprising.

The issue of Hughton's sacking was covered in my previous blog and whilst the appointment of Alan Pardew can hardly be seen as forward thinking, at least in this instance Newcastle had a replacement lined up. The phrase 'big club' is a much over used one and one that in the case of Blackburn Rovers could not be imagined. They are a small provincial club who cause little or no offence to anyone and in that regard it is good to see them existing in the lofty heights of the Premiership. Sam Allardyce has a record that is unquestionable through his time at Bolton of leading that exact stature of club to finishes in the Premiership that are above and beyond what it can realistically expect. So what is the first action of the new expert owners from Venky's? - sack him. But they have not just sacked him, they have sacked him and placed the team in the hands of his assistants for the next couple of months as they appear to have no clue with whom to replace him.

The owners are talking of top four finishes in the future, Allardyce did not match their vision for the club. Their lack of football understanding is wholly underlined by this and their supposed reliance on a sports agency called Kentaro to give them advice on transfer policy. It is utterly absurd and their best chance of a top four finish in the league might well come in the Championship next year rather than the Premiership. Blackburn Rovers would have punched consistently above their weight with Allardyce in charge. Instead they could go in to freefall. Football club owners are a strange breed indeed with little regard for their own investment it appears.

Carlos Tevez has also done himself no favours this week by declaring that being Manchester City's highest paid player, captain and talisman is no longer enough and that he is homesick and wants out. He has slapped in a written transfer request also citing an irrepreble breakdown in relations with senior executives at the club (shouldn't the players deal with the manager only in general terms?).

Now everyone would have sympathy for his position in that his estranged partner and their two children are residing in Buenos Aries whilst he is at the other side of the world, that cannot be fun for anybody and in that respect you must feel for him. However, does anyone think that the transfer request that he has put in will result in his returning home to Argentina? I think most people would see Madrid or South West London as a more likely destination and no one is quite sure how that would cure the family issues he is facing.

Now Tevez may be genuine but the presence of his controversial agent and one time owner, one Mr Joorabchian makes us all sceptical in the extreme. The chances of his agent engineering a move back to Argentina on a fraction of the wages and with no hope of a large transfer fee mean that possible outcome must almost certainly be discounted. Tevez may also if he is true to his word walk out on City, but that would leave him and Joorabchian open to a huge lawsuit from Manchester City which would cripple them entirely.

The fact that Tevez so continuously and vehemently states that 'it is not about money' means it most probably is. Agents make their wage by having their players transferred often and for lots of money. Tevez can hardly argue that he has not settled in Manchester, he was there for two years previously playing for the Old Trafford mob so he knew what he was in for. He claims City have broken promises, but what are they exactly? He is the highest paid player they have - and just about in the entire world - and they have consistently spent vast sums to try and ensure the success that they desire so much. What on earth are the promises that they have broken?

It is clear that in the modern era there is no loyalty on anyone's part. Players have long since been corrupted by a combination of agents and greed. Clubs show no loyalty to any staff - Chelsea and Ray Wilkins springs to mind - and managers are in many cases just as bad and happy to jump ship if the money is right. In that respect, football is no different to any other business. The big difference however is millions of people globally every week and for their entire lives, do stay loyal to their club and watch faithfully either in person or on television, they pin their colours to the mast and live or die by the results their team achieves. They are also the people who directly fund all of the above by either buying tickets and merchandise or paying for TV subscriptions. Football must not detach itself any further from the reality of this or it will go into a steep decline from it's current place at the pinnacle of global sport. The monster is out of control.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Could someone please buy Newcastle United?

I have to admit, I have zero affinity for Newcastle United. I find them an entirely arrogant and inward looking bunch who insult every other passionate football fan in the World with their constant references to their self appointed status as the best fans in the World and all the blethering about the Geordie Nation. I know many people from South of the Watford Gap who have run the gauntlet as an away fan at St James' and I can assure you they are not the best fans in the World. Plenty of other fans are just as dedicated and as long suffering in the face of constant mediocrity yet they make much less reference to how they are a huge club, a sleeping giant, no one loves their team as much as they love theirs etc (repeat ad tedium). Newcastle United is not a special club to anyone who is not a Newcastle United supporter in just the same way that Swindon Town or Bradford City is not special to anyone who doesn't support them either. You are a mediocre club, live with it, get over it and move on.

Having said all that and alienated myself from everyone whos' grandfather worked in a shipyard or whos' favourite singer is Jimmy Nail, I do feel incredibly sorry for them at the current infliction of having Mike Ashley as an owner. Whilst I cannot claim to know much about Mr Ashleys' business or his business accumen, the utter incompotence he has shown as the Newcastle owner means I can only take one view on his prior success - right place at the right time. Never have I seen a person so completely out of touch with what is a pretty simple equation.

The start of Ashley's reign was marked by his donning an ill fitting black and white strip and downing pints with the fans before kick off. Matthew Harding did something similiar at Chelsea and whilst not wishing to talk ill of the dead, other than being a pretty good bloke with a bit of cash I don't think he really did that much good for Chelsea. Love him or hate him, it was Bates who built Chelsea from the ground up although he very nearly overshot before the Russian Rouble bailed him out. It is a cheap marketing trick, nothing more.

Anyone with one iota of business sense knows that the boss in whatever form he may take has to keep a professional distance from the troops. It is essential to retain respect from those around and under him. Ashley's was a poor and tacky attempt to ingratiate himself with the fans. Prior to his company going public and his purchase of 'The Toon', Ashley was barely seen in public and shyed away from all and any kind of publicity. He is clearly someone not comfortable in the public environment and the beer swelling nonsense that ensued was the result of a man clearly ill at ease and with no public relations experience.

Now we come to his dealings with managers. Ashley can possibly be excused for the departure of Allardyce. I am personally an Allardyce fan but he was not universally popular at Newcastle with the fans and nor was he Ashleys' appointment. Results were mixed but probably comparable with his predecessors. I feel he would have turned things around but once you've lost the crowd it's tough to find a way back. Allardyce duly left by 'mutual consent'.

Ashley then made his single biggest mistake by sensationally bringing back the Geordie Messiah, one Kevin Keegan. Now I have nothing against 'Wor Kev' but he is not a top class manager. He is a good Championship Manager (not the PC game) but a mediocre top class manager, tactically inept and an utter victim when it comes to the pyschological warfare employed by other managers and the press. Everyone could see he was emotionally ruined after his first stint at Newcastle. Bringing him back however gave the Geordie Nation incredible false hope whereas the reality of the situation was he was doomed to failure.

Ashley's bigger problem however was that he had hired someone seen literally as a Deity on the Tyne meaning it was impossible to remove him safely when the inevitable parting of the ways was required. The hiring of Dennis Wise at the same time was bizarre to say the least & I have no idea what little Dennis was doing upping sticks from Leeds to take what seemed a very odd position at St James' Park and one that clearly did not sit well with Keegan from the outset. Ashley had single handly engineered a position for himself where he could only alienate the entire Newcastle support - which he duly did. Results were poor, the management structure was disfunctional and Keegan left claiming impossible working conditions, the natives were up in arms with huge and increasingly nasty protests against Ashley and Wise.

Ashley at this point put the club up for sale, citing personally safety as an issue. He then almost comically appointed Joe Kinnear, an obnoxious dinosaur from a bygone era of English football with an archaic management style. This and the continued presence of Wise did not sit well with the Toon Army and a continued rising against the 'Cockney Mafia' ensued. Ashley continued to ask a vastly inflated price for the club - ignoring the financial meltdown around the entire world at the end of '08 and early '09. Newcastle were relieved of  Kinnear by his falling ill (we wish him no ill health on this blog by the way) and in yet another dramatic twist, another (but worthy) Newcastle hero returned to take the helm in the shape of Alan Shearer as caretaker manager. Whilst a managerial rookie, his understanding of the game and the club proved a popular choice. Unfortunately for Shearer, the situation at Newcastle United was beyond repair and they were duly relegated. One thing he did however achieve it would seem was the removal of Dennis Wise.

Ashley again put the club up for sale and whilst not wishing to commit to contracts which would interfere with that sale, Ashley again erred by not tying down Shearer as the permanent manager going forward - a situation that would have absolved him of much in the eyes of the long suffering fans. Shearer wanted the job and has always been seen as a Newcastle manager in waiting. Ashley's position might have been difficult had Shearer failed in the same way as Keegan and had he been required to remove him but football as a whole seemed united in the consensus that Shearer would have done a good job. It should have have been a sound appointment.

Ashley however did not offer Shearer the job and Chris Hughton was given his chance. Hughton until his ludicrous sacking this week had duly done a fine job. I felt Newcastle could have gone into meltdown smiliar to many other relegated clubs in previous years, possibly being relegated again. Instead Hughton won the Championship at a canter returning the club to the Premiership with the minimum of fuss. With little or no money available, Hughton had done a solid job again this season. Sure they have had several defeats, a couple heavy but they had also thrashed Sunderland, taken a point from Chelsea (doesn't everyone at the moment!?) and won at the Emirates. Newcastle look safe in mid table which is the most that they can genuinely expect.

Ashley however and with no good reason decided to sack a manager doing a good job and both popular with the players and fans. Surely this would have only made sense had he lined up a superior replacement. Jose Mourinho? Pep Guardiola? Arsene Wenger? No it's Alan Pardew.

Again, I have nothing against Pardew personally but he is a mediocre Premiership manager with a mediocre record and fans polls this week revealed less than ten percent of Newcastle fans want his appointment, it is almost as if Ashley is trying to deliberately upset the faithful. Hughton was still learning as a manager yet was able to get the job done well and it is within the realms of reason to premise that Hughton could (and hopefully still will) develop into a fine manager. Pardew we have all seen before and not one fan, expert or player has come out and said this is anything else than a debacle. Anyone who wants to the buy the club now also has to deal with the fact also that Pardew has a huge five and a half year contract whereas Hughton was the lowest paid manager in the league. Pardew is walking into a job with the fans outraged at Ashley's latest lack of judgement. He will have a tough job to win over the fans.

Whilst I have stated my indifference to all things Newcastle United, the fans and the city do not deserve the the cancer that is Mike Ashley which is destroying their already traumatised club from within. Surely even as a businessman with no love for football he would act in a manner that would protect his own investment? Football chairmen are a varied and often unpleasant bunch (with many exceptions to that second quality I might add). Most however with the exception of Peter Risdale seem to have either some business sense or at least their own self interest at heart. Ashley appears to have neither of those business qualities and his utter lack of understanding of the situation at Newcastle strikes of a man of little intellect, which for a self made billionaire beggars belief. Please turn off the lights on the way out Mike.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Premiership Trophy - one careless owner - anyone want it?

So far at least, it's the most open Premiership in years with the break up of the top four due to the implosion of Liverpool, Spurs finally stepping up and the huge injection of cash from the blue half of Manchester. Add this to the fact that Chelsea and ManYoo have for various reasons not splashed the cash the past few summers and we are left with three main protagonists and two outsiders (possibly stretching credibility here) for the big prize come May.

Chelsea in recent weeks have been a shambles, over reliance on ageing key players and a threadbare squad allied with the usual backroom nonsense is putting their challenge in serious peril. They can surely forget the Champions League also.

ManYoo traditionally hit form after Christmas and it is ominous that they are already at the front. Ferguson knows the course as do many of his players but this year they are short on quality and are over reliant on Wayne Rooney - something which Coleen has already found to be not the best arrangement.

We have seen Arsenal in this position many times, great football before Christmas only to fade later in the season. The lack of a decent keeper, a solid central defence and some shaky home form should see them out of it but the fact that Chelsea and ManYoo are both weaker gives them reason for hope. Could it finally be their year?

Spurs for me are rank outsiders. Capable of superb attacking play on their day, they remain short of quality at the back. Redknapp only seems to know one tactic which is that of the cavalier variety. Spurs have given up numerous leads this season not knowing how to close out games or they have spent the first half being hammered such as in Milan. They won't beat Arsenal very often if they keep giving them two goal leads as much as their fans loved every minute of that second half. Redknapp, great motivator and wheeler dealer that he is does not have the tactical nous at this level. Spurs are also not used to competing on the two fronts of the Premiership and Champions League, not good enough I fear.

Manchester City are the most interesting team as they could easily come fifth or sixth but with the talent available they could also win the league. Huge dressing room problems and a manager that is proving a divisive figure will stop City from reaching their potential for the time being and realistically they will be happy with a top four finish  - of which they should have been capable of last season.

So why is this season so different from previous incarnations? There are many reasons. In my view this is the poorest Premiership season almost since its' inception. Vast overspending, the credit crunch, the Pound cratering against the Euro have all contributed to teams generally having poorer squads than previously. The days of teams such as Middlesborough signing the likes of Juninho and Ravanelli are long gone.

Interestingly, the lack of spending power (City aside) by the top teams has made the league infinitely more interesting as the quality gap has significantly shrunk. This is also born out by the relative success being enjoyed by newly promoted teams who had previously been nothing more than cannon fodder with a parachute payment to look forward to the following season.

So instead of a boring but high quality product, we now have an interesting but mediocre one. Whilst English teams have traditionally done well in Europe, the gap between the Premiership and other traditional powerhouse leagues such as the Bundesliga had grown to a ridiculous level. Everything is a cycle and nothing lasts forever. If you go back to the late 80s and early 90s,  could the Italians - when AC Milan effectively had two first elevens - have ever imagined a time when Serie A was not the supreme league?

Football is so popular because of the nature of the product, upsets can and do happen, David can get a last minute winner against Goliath. Once you remove 'competition' from the sport it dies. The dominant teams or countries need the lesser or smaller opponents more than they realise. Take the competition - and hope - out of the matches and the fans zone out.

Whilst the financial situation in Europe has undoubtedly caused a huge downturn, looking at the Premiership, crowds have been dwindling for some time regardless. Years ago you couldn't get a seat at Newcastle or Sunderland if you wanted to. Look at many of the grounds now, rows of empty seats and it is not just due to the cost, the product lost its' attraction. Everyone knew the top four and the likely relegation candidates and everyone else was left just playing for Sky TV money.

As an example I hold up Aston Villa football club. It has always occurred to me that in the current climate, they are the most utterly pointless football club in England. Forty thousand every week, decent team, fantastic heritage and a proud tradition. That's great except every year they will finish between fifth and eighth, qualify for the UEFA Cup and get to a Cup semi final and that's all she wrote. Loyal Villans will show up week in week out because that's what loyal fans do but does none of this sound incredibly depressing to everyone?

ManYoo, Arsenal and everyone else need a strong league in order to keep themselves strong. Barcelona and Real Madrid - wonderful sides that they are - will soon find out that the rest of Spain will tune out from their head to head battle at the top of La Liga as the other teams fail to keep pace. On a smaller scale, Rangers and Celtic have found the same problem in Scotland, their utter domination of the league (it is twenty five years since anyone else won it) has ultimately destroyed the product North of the border.

Whether a more competitive and more varied but ultimately poorer league will bring the crowds back I doubt. Ticket costs and players' wages have to come down to enable fans to start coming to matches again and to identify once more with the footballers who have become so dislocated from normal society that it is no longer believable.

So that just leaves me to pick a winner. Despite my own wishes and desires, I would have to say that ManYoo look the most likely victors just now. Whilst probably the poorest side Ferguson has had in years, his drive in the New Year could well prove the decisive factor. Arsenal may well prove a good outside bet but we have been here before and they need to prove themselves in the head to head games. And keep an eye out for City, they're capable of the sublime or the ridiculous but they're probably still a couple of years away.

On a slightly different note and whilst not wishing to knock someone who is not talking in their mother tongue, am I the only one who has noticed that young Carlo Ancelotti has an obsession with the word 'moment' in any interviews he gives?

Surely the interpreters at Chelsea can come up with an alternative for the man with the talented eyebrow? After all, the 'terrible moment' he keeps referring to has been going on for bloody weeks now. New phrase book for Christmas please Santa!

Sunday, December 5, 2010

England's failed World Cup bid - on a lighter note.

Where England actually got it all wrong with their failed bid was wheeling out Lord Beckham and Prince William. The person they needed was Gazza. Can you imagine the delight on the faces of the delegates had Gazza walked in wearing comedy breasts and carrying a fishing rod, some chicken and a can of lager for each one of them?
He would have been great copy at the lectern too 'I've known Blatty for a long time like, since he was a bouncer in Newcastle way back like, he's a good lad really, just a bit misunderstood like'. Next time boys, bring along a real national treasure.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Dreams shattered and bank accounts bulging? It’s not coming home.

The bookmakers and every pundit in the World were made to look like the rear end of a donkey yesterday with the announcement of Russia and Qatar as the hosts for the 2018 and 2022 respectively. Whilst Russia was probably deserving of a World Cup at some stage, Qatar is a truly incredible decision.

Much of the media (and hyperbole) I had absorbed in the run up to the vote was focused on 2018 and the England bid. It’s very easy for England to presume that they as ‘the home of football’ and with all the history and tradition has some God given right to host the World Cup – what rubbish. Personally I’d have said that any of the three supposed main votes, Russia, Spain/Portugal and England would have been deserving of the award and in that respect I don’t think Russia winning is a bad thing.

Russia does however have much to do in the interim to prove that it is a worthy host. Tackling issues such as the safety of supporters (which South Africa did successfully) and the racism in its football stadiums (something that is rampant in much of Eastern Europe regrettably) will be paramount. Whilst not maybe a reflection on its society as a whole, the rest of Europe has done much to cut out racism and sectarianism in football stadiums at least whereas Russia and the rest of the former Eastern Bloc (my apologies if I’m including innocent nations in such a generalization) have mainly turned a blind eye. Surely these are criteria which FIFA, the self appointed champion of the common global football fan must insist upon? Regardless, I am reasonably hopeful that Russia will put on a decent World Cup.

Now to Qatar, a country of 1.3 million people as of 2009 (Scotland is considered too small to hold the European Championships and we have over 5 million people) with a huge percentage of that number being expatriate workers. It is a whopping 11,437 square kilometers in size, or in real terms about the same size as one of the twenty two football pitches they are planning to erect. The average temperature in June is circa 41C/106F with an average precipitation of zero, so perfect for a World Cup then. What they do have however is money, and they have it in spades.

Russia is around 7th or 8th in terms of global oil reserves, Qatar around number 13 or 14. There is also a huge amount of natural gas and other natural resources to be considered - although sand doesn’t count. This is almost surely entirely coincidental or is it? FIFA has long been an autocracy that answers to absolutely no one. Within their statute, any National Association that takes any issue to any body outside of FIFA (such as an internationally accepted and recognized court of justice for instance) is automatically suspended or banned. Governments are also excluded from having any say whatsoever. Whilst one wishes to retain the integrity of sport to the exclusion of politics or any other malignant force, such an unquestionable and absolute power cannot be healthy either. It appears to almost everyone with any working of knowledge of the recent process that the bidding system was not in the least meritocratic.

Now this is not sour grapes on the awards as I am not from any of the nations who were not awarded (although yes I’d have liked to have seen England win). To enforce my impartiality I would add that it is an utter nonsense that the UK keeps separate Football Associations in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together so that our little Island has a meaty four votes on general FIFA issues, quite ridiculous but then again so is FIFA.

Whilst I have not studied the individual presentations, I’m led to believe that the England one was superb and technically superior. Both Australia and the USA have tremendous infrastructure and experience of holding world class sporting events and are both emerging football nations. Spain boasts the current World and European Champions and the best domestic league in the world, with England not far behind in domestic terms at least.

FIFA will champion these awards as a blow struck for smaller or emerging nations, as sand in the eye (pun intended) for the arrogant old guard and establishment, but actually it is anything but. It is an award for money pure and simple and merely serves to enforce the opinions of most commentators that the FIFA system is corrupt and broken. Even if there was an agenda to support emerging nations, that in itself is wrong as the rules clearly state that each bid should be taken on its’ own merits. Blatter has already been strongly hinting that 2026 will be awarded to China (coincidentally also ‘quite rich’) and I would not bet money against that happening.

Both the IOC and FIFA ‘champion’ many causes and I am sure they are actually very effective in improving the lives of many underprivileged people, but here with Qatar we have a country with highly questionable human rights (look up Amnesty International and Qatar) and as across much of the Middle East, a very different treatment of women to what we are used to in the rest of the World (I am not trying to make judgments on Islam here, just pointing out the facts so no Fatwas please). None of this has been addressed and nor was it with the China Olympics in 2008. It’s interesting that the USA boycotted the Olympic Games of 1980 in Moscow protesting at the war in Afghanistan, but turned up in droves for Beijing, I think we all get the point.

FIFA will argue this in that they are a sporting association, not a political one but it is naïve in the extreme to say that the areas do not overlap and issues such as racism in football stadiums is one such example. Whether it was mere Western propaganda I am not sure but talk was rife of extreme hardship being exacted on the North Korean football team after their return home from this years’ World Cup. Sports and politics will always be intrinsically linked especially with issues such as human rights. Cricket has had awful problems over the Zimbabwe issue with neither the cricket boards nor the governments prepared to take a definitive stand.

Within the UK, my initial reaction to a failed bid would be that Panorama, the BBC and the Times would be castigated, blamed that their revelations regarding corruption within FIFA derailed the England bid. Whether it did or it did not, cannot be proven but now that greedy and lustful eyes have been averted from the prize of 2018, I suspect that both the public and media glare will not fall inwardly on Panorama and co. Now that everyone has the sensible head back on, the focus will be on a system which everyone is now ready to call as foul. The Russia award I can live with as they are a proud football nation with a long heritage and were it nor for the old Communist system and then the subsequent collapse, they would have surely hosted it before now. In a week however of ‘wikileaks’ and reports of a ‘Mafia State’ and all the assorted stories and the presence of incredibly wealthy men like Roman Abramovich, it is hard for any one to see this bidding process as anything other than tainted. I would however state that just because David Cameron is ‘British’ and went to a posh school doesn’t mean he is above skullduggery, he does it for a living after all. There is a huge and arrogant misconception that all new money is from ill gotten gains whereas old money is the natural order of things.

What everyone ultimately will want to know is - were any direct incentives made to FIFA delegates? I find it hard to believe that a tiny nation such as Qatar with absolutely no football heritage was, on a level playing field able to convince the entire world that they should host the World Cup - the biggest event on the planet bar none - in the face of the competition they had. I am not saying football should be discouraged in the Middle East, quite the reverse and I actually think ultimately they will host an aesthetically pleasing event. Whether however the country will develop sufficiently in the next twelve years to make it palatable to the majority of visiting fans I am not sure, but who knows, people do indeed change sometimes - well everyone except FIFA delegates that is.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Greatest?

For those of you ingratiated with British ‘sport’ and in particular that of the armchair variety, the name Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor will be associated with greatness, longevity and unprecedented success. It is a name also associated with beer, singing, beer, public houses and more beer – and therein lies the problem for the Worlds’greatest ever darts player.

For those of you who not aware of one Philip Douglas Taylor born 13th August 1960, he is a darts phenomenon who has won the World Championship a truly unbelievable fifteen times over a twenty year period. It is a domination of a sporting profession that is unprecedented unless comparing to someone like Ed Moses and the four hundred metre hurdles. The problem for Taylor is the gagging and choking reflexive reaction you just experienced at reading such a comparison. Ed Moses is one of the finest athletic specimens ever, whereas Phil Taylor - well he’s a fifty year old fat bloke from Stoke on Trent.

The prompting for this latest blog was the BBC’s decision - after nearly twenty years – to finally recognize Taylor as a legitimate sportsman by putting his name forward as a candidate for ‘BBC Sports Personality of the Year’. Within the shores of the UK at least, it is a highly prestigious and most coveted award with recent winners such as Andrew Flintoff, David Beckham and Sir Steve Redgrave whilst other legends down the years include Sir Ian Botham, Daley Thompson, Virginia Wade and Sir Jackie Stewart. It is basically the UK’s sporting icons, the greatest athletes the Island has every produced, you walk amongst giants.

And there is the rub, is Phil Taylor legitimately qualified to be compared to such sporting deities as those listed above? On one hand, you have the ‘no’ camp which up until this point must have included the BBC top brass (the rest of this years’ list is pretty poor fare in my opinion hence he gets a shout). Surely darts is nothing more than a pub game, the average player is probably a minimum of three stone overweight and before Sky Sports intervened, the players regularly smoked & drank whilst participating in what can hardly be considered ‘sport’ in it’s truest form.

There is however an incredibly strong ‘yes’ brigade (including myself) who have been pushing for Taylors’ inclusion for many years now. After all, Steve Davis (snooker royalty for those unfamiliar) is a past winner of the BBC title. Snooker halls hardly conjure up images of rippling muscles and Bill Werbenuik (a previous snooker ‘giant’) was rumoured to regularly consume Ireland’s sovereign debt worth in pints of ale before commencing play many moons ago. On a side note, it is amazing to report that such a sedate pursuit as snooker was one of the first sports to be truly tainted by a drugs scandal with the use of Beta Blockers (a prescription heart drug) to calm players’ nerves and steady their hands. Not in anyway ironic that these ‘sports’ benefit from the use of downers rather than stimulants.

So how do you truly compare supreme competitors with supreme atheletes? It is almost impossible, especially as in many instances you are also transcending eras. In addition to all his titles, Taylor has achieved the ‘perfect leg’ - a nine dart finish on no less than than eight occasions under the TV lights. It is a staggering achievement but how do you place that against Usaian Bolt running sub 9.6 seconds, the simple answer is you cannot and you would be chortled at for trying to do so. The very definition of this award however is that of personality. Ryan Giggs won recently yet no one could seriously tell me that at his age he is remotely the best footballer in Britain, but there were other factors to consider such as his services to housewives all over the country.

My own view on the BBC is that Taylor has been made to suffer because of the split in professional darts. (The recognized championship is promoted by Sky whereas the BBC shows an infinitely inferior product in an almost embarrassingly poorer event). Bearing in mind that Steve Davis was celebrated as a past BBC winner, what is their rationale for excluding such a National Idol as Taylor for any reasons that are not without suspicion of prejudice? It is clearly not about pure athleticism.

I am not entirely sure what the answer is regarding darts and to its’ place in the sporting pantheon and whether it should be truly recognized as a legitimate athletic discipline. As far as I am aware however, archery is an Olympic sport and I wouldn’t see a whole lot of difference there other than it used to be popular with the
Royal Court
and was generally practiced outside and by the landed gentry. If rhythmic gymnastics is acceptable then maybe we should also include disco dancing as a sport (the house music brigade would probably fail the drugs test however). Just because Philip Douglas Taylor is a short fat bloke should not exclude him from being remembered as a sporting great, just ask one Terrence Butcher about the stout midget that ran rings around him in Mexico in the Summer of 1986, a certain Diego Maradona. He didn’t mind a pint and a bit of a giggle and I don’t remember anyone being better than he was. Take all of these facts and then consider we have not even talked about the opinions of the finest commentator of all time, one Geordie microphone wizard called Sidney Waddell and the arguments for ‘The Power’s’ inclusion are unquestionable.

The Greatest? Possibly, but no one will ever be able to prove it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Sports and Investigative Journalism – Where is the line?

So, the Panorama people are pushing ahead with airing their expose on FIFA ahead of the vote for the hosting of the next two World Cups. The England bid team and the FA are calling ‘foul’ and accusing the BBC of being ‘unpatriotic’. Fellow journalists are rallying behind The Times – the source of the initial cash for votes expose – and the BBC and asking why on earth should uncovering corruption cause harm to the English bid? On one hand you could entirely side with the journos as they have a perfectly valid point, but on the other you could also ask them why are they being so incredibly naïve?

Nothing in the world of this ilk is without politics or machinations behind the scenes - and never has been. The very nature of the bid presentations is designed to cajole and persuade whilst stopping short of direct influence. Prime Ministers, Presidents, pop stars are all wheeled out in an effort to fly the flag to the utmost. That things occasionally get a bit murky is disappointing but is nevertheless the way of things. Everything from boxing champions’ next opponents to the venues for Grand Prix or England test matches is a system of lobbying which allows for ‘grey areas’ where the line can be crossed on what is acceptable in terms of incentives.

What both the Times and Panorama have done is to simply expose corruption within FIFA and what could be wrong with that? I do not enjoy the culture of simple entrapment that many journalists now pursue, the Mail on Sunday’s earlier effort on Lord Triesman was no more than gutter journalism and certainly was not ‘in the national interest’ as is so often the cry when these stories are queried. Nevertheless, it can hardly be argued that journalists uncovering corruption at any level is a bad thing and those involved would argue that the ends justify the means, something that the anti-terrorism branch of the same UK ‘establishment’ bidding for the World Cup would also counsel, so who’s to argue?

The issue the England World Cup has however is with the reaction of the remaining FIFA committee members and Sepp Blatter. Their take on the situation is that the members will rally around their fallen colleagues rather than look down on them for their actions. It’s only speculation on my part but my guess would be these kinds of events are far more reaching than just the ones who have been exposed. The other members who may also have things to hide will see this as an attack on themselves. Again, what Sepp Blatter has referred to is not the uncovering of the corruption but in the entrapment, it is a method that endears little sympathy.

You will rarely see me write anything positive about Sepp Blatter and my own feeling is that he has an anti-England bias on his agenda. He and FIFA are all about international football with the World Cup as the pinnacle. The rise of UEFA and the Champions League has been a large and painful thorn in his side. He sees the Premiership as an abomination of excess and I have little doubt he wishes to see another bid being successful.

Now in an ideal world, Panorama should be able to air their programme whenever they damn well wish without fear of recourse but the above text shows the world is far from ideal. From a ratings point of view, putting out the show on the eve of the vote is probably the best thing but at the same time surely the Panorama people could hold off for a few days to make sure no additional damage is done to the bid. Would it really kill them to do so and would it not be in the national interest that we keep hearing so much about? Morally and ethically the journalists are correct but an element of realism and if you like cynicism could maybe help everyone in what is they key moment for the competing World Cup bids. No one is suggesting the revelations should have been swept under the carpet to help the English bid but a little bit of give and take might have been to the benefit of all.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The True Value of the Crowd and the Role of Corporate Hospitality

Whilst it was a cricket match I was in Brisbane for these past few days, the subject of crowds at sporting events as a whole is one which I think is universally relevant.

Anyone who follows cricket at all will know that trying to win matches for any touring side in Australia is an incredibly tough ask. Many of the visiting teams are from equally hot countries so it’s not just the conditions that are the reason. There is another factor, an incredibly intimidating crowd. Whilst at times it can cross the line, all professional teams accept that stick from the opposition crowd is part of the game and something to be overcome. Many home crowds have fearsome reputations and not just in Australia nor in cricket.

No professional footballer relishes a trip to the New Den to face Millwall, English rugby players are no doubt pleased they don’t have to play in Dublin or Cardiff every week. For a couple of years, Ricky Hatton managed to make his home crowd portable and some of the most hostile and fervent behavior I have seen or heard in a sporting arena has been from Mancunians in Las Vegas. You can argue the rights and wrongs of it, but from the point of view of supporting your side, it works. And here is the problem for many teams, the era of corporate hospitality is to a fair degree killing many of these atmospheres as the ‘traditional’ fan is now priced out of the market and excluded from the event.

Roy Keane had his famous ‘prawn sandwich’ rage a few years ago much to everyone’s amusement but he was right. You can call me hypocritical or even call me part of the problem as I am often fortunate enough to receive that same hospitality but there is no denying that the atmosphere is in many cases being badly affected.

Take the atmosphere at the Gabba on Thursday and Friday when Australia had their tails up. It was very intimidating for the English players despite the best efforts of the fun police and the presence of a huge amount of English fans. I don’t get the impression that the Australians feel anything like that at Lords for instance where much of the ticketing is corporate and the members are generally asleep after midday. The WACA is equally raucous and ninety thousand at the MCG will get the hairs up on the back of anyone’s neck.

I’ve only been to Twickenham once (thank God) and I was struck by the general ‘niceness’ of the environment. Sure there is loud singing but seventy odd thousand all singing ‘Swing Low’ in Barbour jackets isn’t likely to put the opposition fly half off his penalty kick. ManYoo have had to deal with a quiet Old Trafford for years now, Chelsea can be dead sometimes and the Emirates seems to be having the same issue. Arsenal are making a packet from matchday hospitality but their home form is dreadful.

When I was taken to Wimbledon many years ago, we watched about forty five minutes of tennis before going down the pub - spoiled? Damn right. You regularly see rows of empty seats at Wimbledon now, the tickets are all sold, it’s just the people who have got the freebies can’t be bothered to sit in those seats whilst many true fans can’t even buy one if they wanted to. It’s actually all a bit pathetic.

Corporate hospitality is not going to go away and coupled with television revenue, it provides the bulk of income for all sports outside of merchandising. Those home teams however who still manage to maintain a good vocal crowd will continue to prosper and places such as Australia for a visiting cricketer will continue to daunt and intimidate - and no doubt I’ll keep accepting the invites……..

Monday, November 22, 2010

Why Scottish Referees are going French.

Refereeing standards, a topic you could debate ad infinitum and one that in my view will never truly be remedied until FIFA embraces the technological possibilities that all other sports are doing so successfully.

But Sacre Bleu! Referees in Scotland have taken dramatic action that will have their counterparts in Ligue Une scratching their heads and thinking 'why didn't we think of that?' Yes indeed, the whistlers are going on strike.

Abusing the officials at football matches is de rigueur regardless of their actual performance. In Scotland, the fans of the Super Hoops have long held beliefs that the refs are controlled by the Powers of Evil within Ibrox where weekly meetings with the refs are held involving sacrifice and black magic all to make sure that Celtic finish second every season. David Murray is rumoured to hold so much power that not only can he walk again at these meetings he can even fly around the room.

There is no doubt that the referees in Scotland have got themselves in one hell of a mess with the situation surrounding the issue with Celtic who for once have adequate grounds for their grievance. On this occasion however, it appears that things have spilled way over the normal abuse and have started to have an effect on the refs’ lives away from football with fans targeting their employers and families, this is clearly not right and the culprits should be found and tortured.

Refereeing of any sport is incredibly difficult. An ex colleague of mine and a cricketing nut, tried his hand at umpiring village cricket (nice Sunday afternoon gentle village cricket, morris dancers at the side of the pitch, people in bath chairs and tartan blankets) and after one match said ‘never again’. It was apparently impossibly fast and was not helped by all the players constantly screaming at you to give the decision in their favour.

These however are ‘professional’ referees, they are paid for what they do so by implication they should be competent at it. I also think referees do themselves no favours by their almost complete shelter from the media on the whole. I can remember very few occasions where a referee afterwards said ‘Sorry’ or ‘I got that wrong’. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen but generally they sit in Ivory Towers with managers and players being fined anytime they open their mouths to complain even though in many cases they are justified.

To my mind the bulk of the problems could be solved very simply with video technology. Nearly every other major sport has integrated it successfully and there is no reason to suggest football would do otherwise. The arguments about it disrupting the flow of the game are unfounded. Other sports have proved it can be done quickly and accurately. Obviously football needs some leeway for interpretation but for instances such as the ball crossing the line, fouls inside or outside the box, these matters could be settled quickly and to everyone’s satisfaction. It is nonsensical to have games with fifty odd TV cameras and expect one whistler with one pair of eyes and a split second to react to be as accurate as those cameras, yet those are the standards he is now judged by. American football has as many umpires as players I think (around three hundred on each side at any given time) and they still regularly need TV replays. Tennis, rugby, formula one, cricket, they are all using it successfully. It is not meant to replace the referee, it is meant to be a tool for him to arrive at the correct decision where there is doubt.

There has to be a line draw at some stage regarding the abuse of officials. The powers that be however could do much to help themselves by much improving their interaction with the teams and the media and the dinosaur that is Sepp Blatter could solve the majority of the problems by doing what every other sport has done, allow the use of technology. Just ask Frank Lampard what he thought after the Germany game, I’m sure he’d agree.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Scottish Football - A Slow Death

Scottish Football, if it was a horse, by now you’d have taken it to the barn and shot it. Following football North of the border has always been a testing pastime. With the exception of the early eighties with Aberdeen and Dundee United and the occasional splutter from the much vaunted ‘Old Firm’, supporting Scottish clubs or the national team in any kind of International setting has been akin to going to work in the morning and realizing you forgot to put your trousers on.

The difference many years ago though was that we actually produced players that had talent and gave us hope before the inevitable glorious defeat. McGrain, Souness, Hansen, Miller, Strachan, Dalglish, Archibald, Jordan. Even as recently as McAllister, Duncan Ferguson, Lambert, Collins, McCoist - and Stewart McKimmie. All good players and in some instances great players. So where did it all go wrong? Look no further than the English Premiership.

The globalization of football and the major leagues has all but killed interest in the leagues of the smaller Nations. Take a look at the once mighty Ajax of Amsterdam whom against now, English clubs would field a second string team. French and Portuguese clubs have mainly stuttered to a halt also in the European arena. Belgian clubs used to flourish, famous names such as Royal Antwerp (now a feeder club for ManYoo), Standard Liege, long since forgotten.

Why pay twenty quid to watch Dundee United serve up rubbish in the freezing cold when for the price of a Sky Sports Season ticket, you can watch Drogba at lunchtime, laugh at Paul Merson and co all afternoon, watch Rooney at tea time & then Lionel Messi before bed? Ask many kids in Scotland which team they support and a fair few will name a Premiership team first.

Rangers in particular have got themselves in a dreadful mess trying to keep pace with the Premiership when the revenues simply were not there. Everybody else then racked up debt trying to keep up in turn. We now have a domestic game riddled with debt and serving up produce not fit for human consumption.

This I also believe is the reason for the current standard of Scottish player. Many are blaming the Playstation generation but they will be the ones at fault for the lack of talent in years to come. The issue now I believe is the development from the age of sixteen years and upwards. A league full of third rate imported players has blocked domestic talent and the standard of football in the reserve and youth arena is simply not good enough. Take Darren Fletcher as an example. Does anyone really believe he is particularly more talented than many of his countrymen? What he has had is exposure to excellence in terms of the players around him from a young age and he has duly developed into a fine player.

I cannot believe that there is something genetically different (other than superior intellect North of the border of course) between people born in Glasgow or Edinburgh versus people born in Manchester, Merseyside or Newcastle. It is the access to top level football at a young age and the period approaching senior football that is the issue.

My own view is that the Premiership has had it’s time in the sun and that the ‘big 3’ of Italy (already in a huge mess), Spain and England are in steady decline. The Bundesliga is steadily improving and the French league is becoming more competitive again. Nothing lasts forever and the domination of the big leagues has proved to the detriment of all. Club debt is not restricted to the smaller leagues, it’s just the major leagues have had the revenues (step aside Leeds United) to service that debt. Bolton Wanderers currently have debts four times the size of Rangers, scary stuff. No one is saying Scottish football is dead but it is certainly not breathing without assistance. A decline South of the border might just be the tonic to revive the fortunes of football in the North.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Are Liverpool the new Newcastle?

Not in terms of how much they have won nor in terms of them being in danger of being relegated but these recent calls for the return of 'King Kenny' are certainly akin to the Return of the Messiah nonsense attached to Kevin Keegan at the Toon.

Dalglish inherited a phenomenal side at Liverpool and whilst he did enjoy some success yes, the team ultimately was going into decline before Souness showed up to truly wreck the side. Dalglish in my view is revered (and rightly so) in Liverpool mainly for his fabulous play on the pitch and the incredibly dignified and personal way that he dealt with the Hillsborough tragedy, for both those things he should be remembered as a great. I can however also remember the near meltdown at the end of his reign.

Sure he won the league at Blackburn and it was a great achievement but he had a huge chequebook and a certain Alan Shearer in his pomp. Newcastle was less of a success and since he left the game it has changed beyond all recognition. Players nowadays are akin to movie stars (or at least they think so), since Dalglish left, man management and tactics have changed enormously and the pressures have got nothing but greater - and he struggled with that pressure before. Does Dalglish really have the encyclopedic knowledge of the modern game, of the players, of the other managers to succeed - and to do so quickly - as the Liverpool fans are demanding? I think not.

On a lighter note, I notice new owner John W Henry said "I've met with a number of our players and had private discussions with some of them. I've been greatly impressed by them personally. They are all exceptionally bright and they all want to be here." Doesn't sound like he spoke to Glenn Johnson then..........

Monday, November 15, 2010

Trouble at the Bridge

It's always easy to write 'I told you so' or 'I saw it coming' or whatever when results like yesterdays' one at Chelsea happen. This however has indeed been coming for a while, results like this can be a one off but there is a larger issue at hand. Sure, Chelsea will be there or thereabouts for the title but it is clear that it is a team in decline. The key for Chelsea from here is how they handle the transition to the new breed (something Ferguson up the road has always been very good at) and whether the younger players are indeed good enough to fill the rather large boots they will be inheriting.
I don't think it's any co-incidence that Essien was missing yesterday as Chelsea regularly struggle when he is not around. As ManYoo are also finding with the likes of Scholes, Neville et all, whilst you can replace players like Lampard and Terry maybe in terms of ability, in terms of heart & commitment it's not always that simple. The spine of Chelsea's team with Drogba getting on a bit too needs serious consideration, and with the new found thrift at Chelsea the club may well be at a crossroads.
If the players coming through prove not to be good enough then what happens next? I can't see that Abramovich pumped in all that money just to see Chelsea fade back in to the pack yet at the same time they seem to be sticking to their guns on their transfer policy. Whilst it's early days for a couple of them, to my mind, Zhirkov, Mikel, Ramires, Sturridge are not Premiership & Champions League winning material, good players though indeed they are. You can see the same again at Old Trafford where many of the players coming through are certainly good but not as good as what they are replacing in terms of the last few years' vintage.
I understand that in the current climate, the top teams can't carry squads of 25 players with 50 caps or more & I don't wish to sound like a pampered, spoilt fan either, but I think Chelsea have serious problems in terms of the balance of the age of the squad, question marks over the quality of the replacements and what appears to be a chronic lack of leadership on the field when you take a couple of the ageing warhorses out of the squad. It is not time to hit the panic button but I think Chelsea are quickly arriving at a tipping point that they might not yet fully appreciate.