Fifteen years ago today a war ended

Today is a big day in the history of American wrestling. Fifteen years ago the last ever episode of the World Championship Wrestling (WCW) show Monday Nitro took place. Since September 1995 that show had competed head to head with World Wrestling Federation’s (WWF) Monday Night Raw in what became known as the “Monday Night Wars”. The war ended when the WWF purchased their rival.

The story of the Monday Night Wars is actually the story of one of the most spectacular rises and falls in a short period of time ever. They have been other spectacular rises and falls in a short space of time. For example in 1960 Northampton Town were in Division Four, in 1965 they made it to Division One and by 1969 they were in Division Four again! In politics in the 1970 UK General Election the Scottish National Party (SNP) elected 1 MP and won 11.4% of the Scottish vote. By the October 1974 election they were up to 11 MPs and 30.4% of the Scottish vote…and in 1979 they were down to 2 MPs and 17.3%  of the Scottish vote. But at least Northampton Town and the SNP still exist. WCW do not which makes this rise and fall quite the most  spectacular.

In 1993 WCW lost $10 million. They were very much the number two promotion to the WWF and had never turned a profit since billionaire Ted Turner bought it (when it was called Jim Crockett Promotions. It was renamed WCW in 1991). In fact in early 1995 WCW President Eric Bischoff had a dollar bet with Harvey Anderson that he could get WCW into profit. He did. Then in 1995 Turner and Bischoff created Nitro to go head to head with Raw. A year later Nitro began a run of 84 consecutive victories over Raw in the ratings, and for the first time since Vince McMahon took over WWF in 1982 and took it global his promotion was the number two in America. In 1998 WCW made a profit of $50 million (remember in 1995 people thought WCW could not make any profit). And as quickly as WCW rose..it fell. By 1999 Raw was beating Nitro in the ratings again and WCW lost $15 million. By 2000 they were losing $62 million. By 2001 they were such a toxic brand that the CEO of the TV Network they were on wanted them off the channel meaning no one but WWF would buy a wrestling company with no TV contracts. How on earth did WCW rise and fall so quickly?

The rise was due to Turner having the courage to go head to head with McMahon on Monday nights and also giving Bischoff the money to get Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, Scott Hall and Kevin Nash from the WWF. Bischoff deserves credit for portraying Hall and Nash as invaders from WWF and with Hogan forming the New World Order (NWO). He also deserves credit for promoting the Cruiserweight Division with exciting high flying wrestlers. But WCW were lucky too. The WWF was stale and stuck in a rut (some would say WWE* is in the same position today) and like the Australian cricket authorities when facing Kerry Packer in 1977 were totally unprepared for head to head competition which they didn’t expect anyway. In 1996 and 1997 it looked like WWF might even go under.

So how did it turn round? In any competition there is what the winners did right and what the losers did wrong.  There was an example here of a “butterfly effect” where small events lead to big consequences. The small event here was Bischoff asking Madusa to throw her WWF Women’s Championship into the trash can on live TV. Seemed a harmless little publicity stunt at the time. But two years later when another WWF Champion Bret Hart left for WCW (with McMahon’s blessing) McMahon could hardly risk Bischoff trashing another of his belts. So when Hart refused to lose to Shawn Michaels at Survivor Series 1997 McMahon screwed him out of the title (the infamous Montreal Screwjob). This in turn made McMahon hated and he was clever enough to turn it to his advantage making himself the main heel in the WWF and to him having an infamous rivalry with his most popular star Stone Cold Steve Austin. The Austin- McMahon rivalry helped along by Mike Tyson appearing at WrestleMania XIV, was the main (but not the only) thing the WWF did right.

As for WCW incredibly they made the same mistake WWF had made in the early 1990s. They went stale. They relied on the same stars. They never produced a home grown star in that era except for Bill Goldberg. They had other fresh talent – Eddie Guerrero, Chris Benoit, Chris Jericho and Rey Mysterio – who became stars but with WWF since WCW wouldn’t push them. The first three left in frustration while Mysterio went to WWE in 2002 after WCW collapsed. Another mistake WCW made was to give wrestlers like Hulk Hogan creative control which meant Hogan could refuse to do anything he did not want to do. The equivalent of a footballer insisting they are picked for every game and just as ridiculous.

And once WWF went ahead in the war, WCW panicked spending prodigious amounts of money on people that were not needed. For example $1 million on a non wrestling rapper Master P,  $1 million on a basketball player Dennis Rodman and $150,000 a year paid to Randy Savage’s brother Lanny Poffo – who never wrestled a match for WCW.

And as often happens when a company is losing they think  “if you can’t beat them recruit them”. So WCW signed WWF’s head writer Vince Russo** thinking he would turn them around. The problem was Russo’s ideas were mainly ridiculous. In WWF that made no difference because Vince McMahon had final say so he could veto Russo’s bad ideas (like making Chyna a woman the WWF Champion). In WCW his warped mind ran amuck. He made actor David Arquette WCW Champion in 2000 probably finishing the company off for good. And he loved pole matches – Viagra on a pole, pinata on a pole, Judy Bagwell on a pole (yes a human being!) and most ridiculous of the lot a “San Francisco 49ers” match (don’t ask!)

But it wasn’t just Russo. Whoever run WCW from 1999-2000 especially seemed to be effected. A book could be written on WCW’s incompetence and has been (“The Death of WCW” by RD Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez).  It is as much a comedy book as a wrestling book but I should just mention three examples of non Russo WCW incompetence in 1999 and 2000 (there are many more).

1. Having a storyline where one of your most popular stars Ric Flair is sent to a mental hospital where he dances in his underwear meets fellow wrestler Scott Hall who is there for reasons unknown and is eventually bailed out by Arn Anderson (never knew you could get bailed out of a mental hospital).

2. Booker T and Big T have a feud over the right to use the letter T (I am NOT making this up!)

3. WCW’s resident boy band 3 Count claiming that their first (non existent!) album had gone platinum and their second would be even bigger and go gold (in the music industry a platinum album is more successful than a gold one!)

No wonder WCW ratings went down the toilet and Nitro did not best Raw in the ratings after October 26 1998. But even then they could have survived. One reason they could waste money on rappers and basketball players was they had a blank cheque due to being owned by Ted Turner. And he would never have got rid of wrestling as it was the first ratings winner for his cable TV stations TBS and TNT. But when Time Warner merged with America Online (AOL) in 2000 the party was over. Turner lost control AOL were not going to fund a company losing $62 million and WCW was put up for sale in October 2000. Even then they might have survived. Eric Bischoff wanted to buy them but new Turner Broadcasting CEO Jamie Kellner announced there would be no more wrestling on TBS or TNT (similar to what Greg Dyke of ITV had done with UK wrestling in 1988). Without TV, Bischoff’s bid collapsed and McMahon bought WCW for less than $3 million. (to think the owners had turned down $ 500 million a year earlier!). The Monday Night Wars were over. McMahon had won.

But I would say it was not a good result for wrestling. WWE’s ratings have gone down the toilet in some weeks below those of the awful 1999-2000 Nitros. The WWE has gone complacent and stale. Like most monopolies it needs competition. Raw would not have reached the highs of 1998-2001 without the competition of Nitro. Do I think competition in wrestling will happen again? No. There is Total Non Stop Action (TNA) but it is as incompetently run as WCW was and when it tried to recreate the Monday Night Wars in 2010 it got annihilated. Remember WCW was subsidised by a billionaire and apart from 1995-98 lost money. I suspect the WWE will never face competition again. A cheery thought….

*WWF changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) in 2002. When writing about the Monday Night Wars I’ve called it WWF. When writing about the period after 2002 I’ve called it WWE.

**I’ll declare an interest here. I hate Vince Russo. He is xenophobic (he said Americans don’t want to watch Mexican and Japanese wrestlers and thought even Vince McMahon could not make WCW wrestler Loch Ness a star. If he knew anything about wrestling outside the US he would know that Loch Ness – as Giant Haystacks – was a superstar in the UK) and sexist ( his idea of women wrestling was to either have them get beaten up by men or fight in evening gown matches, bra and panties matches or other sexist crap. He has to in my opinion take a large part of the blame for the contempt women’s wrestling has been held in until last year’s Divas Revolution). This guy is wrestling’s equivalent of Donald Trump and how he got a job as head booker in any wrestling organisation is a complete mystery.

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On the progress of women’s football in England

The sixth season of England’s Women’s Super League (WSL) starts tonight. With the season just starting I thought I’d write my views on the progress of the League and what might happen this season.

First of all the season should not be starting now. Since the WSL started in 2011 it has been a summer League. The FA in its wisdom or lack thereof do this to avoid clashing with men’s football especially the behemoth that is the Premier League. But as anybody reading this will probably know the Premier League is still going on – and will do until May 15th. The Premier League then resumes again in August. Plus in June/July there is Euro 2016 in France. So that is no justification for a summer season as men’s football goes on for most of the year. And it is out of touch with all the other countries in Europe. All the other countries have their women’s season running at the same time as the men’s (August to May in France and Germany for example and summer in Sweden and Norway). Frankly if I were running UEFA or FIFA I would insist the women’s season runs at the same time as the men’s in each country and any country that does not should be banned from the World Cup, the Champions League and the Euros. Why do we Brits insist on being different?

What makes the summer season even more ludicrous is that only the two divisions of the WSL play in the summer. All the rest of the women’s teams play in the winter. Also another ludicrous aspect of the calendar is the FA Cup Final which when the elite women played from August to May was the climax of the season is now in the middle of the season in August. Also women’s football has the Continental Cup – a League Cup equivalent and just as useless. Another example of FA incompetence is that the WSL season starts on the same night as the Champions League Quarter Finals. Genius!

This is not the only example of the FA running the WSL unfairly. When it started the eight teams were selected not decided by where they had finished in the Premier League (which was the elite competition pre WSL). The League also had no relegation for its first three years. Then in 2013 a shocking decision was made. A second teir WSL 2 was established and the existing eight teams in what became WSL 1 were forced to reapply to keep their status. One game into the 2013 season Doncaster Belles were told that they would be in WSL 2 for 2014 regardless of where they finished in WSL 1 in 2013. They would be replaced by Manchester City…who finished fourth in the Premier League. Good logic FA. It was in two cases a blatant case of favouring elite male Premier League clubs. First City should not have been promoted. Secondly Liverpool should have been relegated as they were bottom in 2013 and they can’t even find a grass pitch in Liverpool to play on. Surely the first rule of football is to have a decent pitch. The turf pitch in Widnes Liverpool (and Everton) play on is awful and it might be the reason Liverpool have lost so many players in the off season.

I should state it is not all doom and gloom. The WSL has made progress since 2011 but that is due to Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City investing in their women’s teams rather than anything the FA has done. When the WSL started in 2011 Arsenal were as dominant in UK women’s football as Lyon are in France. The Gunners had won the Premier League seven years in a row and continued their domination in the first two seasons of the WSL.

But then things changed. Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea began investing in their women’s teams and reaped their rewards. Liverpool won the WSL in 2013 and 2014, Chelsea did the League and Cup double last year and Manchester City won the 2014 Continental Cup and qualified for the Champions League next season.

So what could happen this year? While I hate to compare women’s football to men’s football the women’s and men’s game have gone in inverse directions. The big story in the male game this season has of course been the remarkable Premier League title challenge of Leicester City. But the WSL has had its equivalents of Leicester in the past. In 2013 and 2014 Bristol Academy and Birmingham City had unlikely title challenges that in both cases only failed on the last day of the season. But now the WSL resembles what the Premier League was before this season. It is likely to be a race between Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal with Liverpool an outside bet. Apart from the sexist anomaly of Manchester United* the same as what we expected in the Premier League this season!

If I were to predict a winner it would be Manchester City. Post the World Cup break they were the best team in the WSL last year but a thrown away 2-0 lead at Notts County and their poor form pre World Cup cost them. They have an impressive spine of Karen Bardsley, England captain Steph Houghton, Lucy Bronze and the brilliant Toni Duggan who at one stage seemed to score a great goal every week. To this can be added newly signed Swedish star Kosovare Aslani. If they avoid injuries they have a great chance.

Not that Chelsea – unlike their men – will surrender their title easily. They have star players Emi Aluko, Fran Kirby and reigning PFA player of the year Ji So-yun. Like City they have strengthened their squad with the signing of Gemma Davison and the experienced Karen Carney.  They will go close again.

Although Arsenal are not the dominant force of old they are probably third favourites. They have experience – Kelly Smith, Emma Byrne, Casey Stoney and new signing Fara Williams as well as young talent like Young Player of the Year Leah Williamson, Jordan Nobbs and Danielle Carter. If anyone can challenge Chelsea and City it is this team especially if Nigeria star Asiant Oshoala has adapted to the WSL after an injury hit first season at Liverpool.

Talking of which… it is anybody’s guess what Liverpool will do this season. The two time Champions crashed to seventh out of eight last season and as a result changes have been made with a new manager in Scott Rogers and nine players leaving and nine players arriving. All these changes will probably mean a poor start as a 0-2 FA Cup defeat to Manchester City suggests. But I still suspect they will improve on last season.

If the WSL is to have a “Leicester” this year it could be Notts County. They got to both Cup Finals last year but lost to Chelsea (FA Cup) and Arsenal (Continental Cup). They have in my opinion the League’s best goalkeeper Carly Telford, the unlucky Laura Bassett and strikers Ellen White and Jess Clarke. And getting experienced Rachael Yankey on loan could be a coup. The “Lady Pies” should not finish lower than fourth and could break into the top three.

Sunderland were the first club promoted to WSL on merit and led by prodigy Beth Mead never looked like being relegated and at one stage topped the table. They will hope Mead like Harry Kane is no one season wonder. If she is not (and I don’t think she will be) they will be safe. This season there are two promoted clubs. After the injustice of 2014 Doncaster Belles are back in WSL 1.  With the experienced of Sue Smith and Natasha Dowie they should be good enough to survive especially if WSL 2 top scorer Courtney Sweetman-Kirk can adapt to WSL 1 as well as Mead did. The second promoted side Reading could find it harder with a young team lacking in stars after they lost Fran Kirby to Chelsea after last year’s World Cup. Their target will be eighth place avoiding the one relegation place.

Which they could do. Birmingham City – who nearly won the League in 2014 – could be in serious trouble this time. They scored just seven League goals last season and three of those were penalties. And they have lost their best player Karen Carney to Chelsea. All the other teams seem to have more goal scoring threat and it is a good bet that the city of Birmingham will lose its WSL 1 team as well as it’s Premier League team (Aston Villa who are certainties to go down).

One thing is certain. The WSL will be competitive again this year. The last three seasons have seen the title decided only on the last day and there is no reason to expect anything different. If I had to predict I’d say Manchester City but my hope is that the League continues to grow. If it does it will be despite the FA not because of them.

*Who STILL don’t have a women’s team.

The lesson from history that proves sexist Moore wrong

Raymond Moore the CEO of the Indian Wells tennis tournament – which likes to call itself the “fifth Grand Slam” – made a complete and utter fool of himself yesterday with vile sexist remarks about the women’s game. Here is what he said :

“When I come back in my next life I want to be someone in the WTA because they ride on the coattails of the men. They don’t make any decisions and they are lucky. They are very, very, lucky.

If I were a lady player, I’d go down every night on my knees and thank God that Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal were born because they have carried this sport. They really have.”

Oh dear where do you start with this crap? First of all the Federer/Nadal era in men’s tennis can be traced back to 2003 when Federer won his first Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Women’s tennis was popular long before 2003! Secondly it is clear that if women’s tennis has been carried by Federer and Nadal then so has men’s tennis – and probably to a greater extent. Finally the remark ” ride on the coattails of the men” is wrong. That would suggest that if the women were on their own the public would not watch. Not true. At the Grand Slams and the big combined events like Moore’s tournament and Miami people come to watch the event regardless of the gender of the competitors. And a story from history proves it.

We go back to 1973. Not a good year for the UK – it started with us joining what is now the European Union and ended with the UK on a three day work week. Nor was it a peaceful year in tennis. In May Yugoslavia’s top player Nikola Pilic was banned for nine months by his federation which claimed he had refused to play in his country’s Davis Cup tie against New Zealand. On appeal the International Lawn Tennis Federation (ILTF) reduced the ban to a month – but it still included the first week of Wimbledon. The newly created players union of men’s tennis the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) was having none of that. It said that if Pilic was not allowed to play no one would do. As a result 81 of the elite male players boycotted Wimbledon. Twelve of the sixteen seeded players boycotted. As a result of the boycott of the 128 man field 78 had played in the Qualifiers (29 qualifiers and 49 lucky losers*.) The men’s event was full of unkowns.

Now if the reason people went to Wimbledon was to watch the elite men you would expect Wimbledon’s attendance that year to go through the floor. After all the men’s event was full of unkowns (the women were unaffected by the Pilic affair and had their full contingent of players there) so if the public only wanted to watch men the boycott should have wrecked Wimbledon.

It did not. Quite the opposite. The attendance at Wimbledon 1973 was 300,172. This up to that time the second highest attendance in the history of the Wimbledon Championships. That proved that people did not go to Wimbledon just to watch the elite men but they wanted to watch the women too.

Now I’m not saying they preferred the women. I don’t think they did. Had the situation in 1973 been reversed and the elite women had boycotted Wimbledon and not the men the attendance would probably have been just as high. What the 1973 scenario proved is that people go to Wimbledon to watch the event. Not the men. Not the women. But the event. And that will apply to the Australian, French and US Opens as well. And to Indian Wells for that matter.

And that is why Raymond Moore is an idiot. Most tennis fans like both genders. They like Federer and Serena. Novak and Victoria. Murray and Venus. The women’s game is not riding on the coattails of the men nor vice versa. They are both attractions for the public. Which is why
women deserve equal pay and Raymond Moore deserves the sack.

*A “lucky loser” in tennis is a player who loses in qualifying and then gains a place in the tournament when another player withdraws.

Time for fair play for cricket’s minnows

In 1974 the Football World Cup in West Germany had 16 teams. Three of them were minnows who were out of their depth. Zaire scored no goals in three games and lost 14, including a 9-0 defeat by Yugoslavia. Their performance was used to ridicule black African football for years to come (they were the first black African team to play at the Football World Cup). Haiti broke Italy’s sequence of 13 internationals without conceding a goal but still lost their three games scoring 2 goals and conceding 14, including a 7-0 defeat by Poland. While although Australia only conceded five goals and gained a point they failed to score.

While those teams were out of their depth traditional football powers like England, Spain, France, the Soviet Union and Uruguay did not qualify. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous that the three minnows were there when the big countries mentioned above were not. UK football journalist Brian Glanville called Zaire “an African team with little right to be there at all”. People called for Africa, Asia and North America to lose their guaranteed places in the Football World Cup.

To FIFA’s credit (this is 1974 remember!) they did not remove the Afro-Asians guaranteed World Cup places. FIFA were well aware if football was to go global it had to allow African and Asian teams access to the World Cup. And only sixteen years later a black African country Cameroon got to the quarter finals of the World Cup and but for two Gary Lineker penalties would have got to the Semi Finals and embarrassed England. It is fair to say that if FIFA had over reacted to the mismatches of 1974 football might have remained a European/South American sport and Major League Soccer in the US would not exist nor would the African players who grace the elite male Leagues of Europe (including of course Riyad Mahrez star of Leicester’s amazing season and surely a dead cert to be England’s Footballer of the Year).

Now to another sport. In 2007 the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean had 16 teams. And again some were out of their depth. Bermuda lost games by 257 and 243 runs, while Holland lost games by 229 and 221 runs. But unlike the 1974 Football World Cup there were upsets. On one day – March 17 – there were two sensational upsets when Bangladesh and Ireland defeated and eliminated India and Pakistan respectively. And were those triumphs celebrated? No. Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2008 (page 1015) said that “the untimely departure of the two subcontinental giants robbed the tournament of several luminaries”. Well so what? Sport is all about giant killings – which is why Leicester are getting so much support. No one has a divine right to win. Incredibly the minnows in cricket got criticised both for being hammered and for causing upsets. Matthew Engel in Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack  2007 (page 18) called the expansion of cricket an “outright menace”. That remark was cricket’s equivalent of the Glanville remark mentioned above and should have got the UK press banned from any sports event held outside of the UK. How in the hell can it be a menace to have more countries playing a sport?

But unfortunately the International Cricket Council (ICC) unlike FIFA back in 1974 over reacted. The next two Cricket World Cups (2011 and 2015) were cut to fourteen teams and the 2019 one will be cut to ten. Incredible. Most other sports are expanding, cricket is going the other way. Cricket has a dreadful image problem. It’s reputation is that it is snobbish and elitist and out of touch with the real world – a sort of sporting equivalent of the UK Conservative Party. Cutting the number of teams in the World Cup does nothing to de toxify the sport. If anything it makes the reputation appear true.

Nor does the Twenty Twenty World Cup – currently being played in India – treat the minnows any better. In theory there are sixteen teams but in practice there are only ten. The big eight get a bye and the other eight teams have to fight for two places in an event that is a qualifying round in everything but name. But six of those eight had to qualify to get to India. In theory they qualify for the World Cup but in practice they qualified for another qualifying round while the big countries were actually playing warm up games during the Qualifying Round – showing arrogant contempt for the minnows.

The World Twenty Twenty really should be split into four groups of four with the top two in each group going into either knockout quarter finals or two further groups of four either way would produce the semi finalists. The ICC won’t do this for fear of either producing mismatches or having big teams knocked out. Yet mismatches are a short term price to pay for the longer term goal of expanding the sport while giant killing is part of sport. England, Italy and Spain all exited the 2014 men’s football World Cup early and the event did not suffer. No team or player should be bigger than the sport.

Cricket likes to think of itself as a model of fair play. Well it is time for the sport to practice what it preaches. It is time for fair play for cricket’s minnows. For contracting the World Cup is anything but fair.

Hey! Football! Leave them kids alone!

In a statement that should shake football to its core, Scotland’s children’s commissioner Tom Baillie (in an article in Tuesday’s Daily Record) said that Scottish football cannot be trusted to look after the welfare of children who play for the country’s top clubs. That reflects something I’ve long thought – that children should not be playing for senior clubs at all.

FIFA have a rule that players under the age of eighteen cannot be transferred to clubs abroad without proper registration (this is the rule that Barcelona broke earning a transfer ban and Real and Atletico Madrid are also accused of breaking. Both Madrid clubs are appealing against transfer bans). This is unusually for FIFA a sensible rule but why is it only applied to transfers abroad? Obviously it’s to prevent young players from being exploited but FIFA don’t realise that even young players moving within a country can be exploited.

The system in Scotland is called pro youth. Yuck! Even its name is nauseating. Young players should not be professionals they should be enjoying themselves playing football at school with their mates. Believe it or not clubs can stop their young players from playing for their school teams – or even in one case according to the Daily Record article – their school’s running club.

If a child wants to leave their professional club they can give 28 days notice but they can only go to schools and recreational football. If at a later date the player joins another professional club that club has to pay £7,500 a year compensation. Bear in mind this is for a child. And there is worse. Former Glasgow Rangers youth boss Jim Sinclair told the Scottish Parliament of a 35,000 fee paid for a 14 year old. That is sick. That frankly is as bad as sending children up chimneys as was done in the UK at one time.

The problem to my mind is two fold. To have 14 year olds playing for  professional clubs youth teams could turn their heads making them think they have achieved something when they haven’t. It also cuts them off from their peers. A lot of people criticise – with some justification – that footballers are cut off from the real world. Some blame high wages but being separated from their fellow youngsters so early cannot help.

Another problem with academies is that they effect players education an important consideration when you consider that the vast majority of teenage players do not make the grade and thus need something to fall back on. Now in theory academies are meant to help players continue studying. But according to Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (in “Soccernomics”, page 342) “All the boys we met there (the academy), bright or otherwise, were sent to do the same single GNVQ in Leisure and Tourism to fulfill the academy’s minimum education requirement”. No thought of the boys getting qualifications above the minimum then!

So the academy/pro youth system cuts off players from their friends, can make young boys big headed and hinders their education. And I don’t think it is even producing young players that are better than pre academy days. Children should stay at school until they are eighteen – including footballers. They should just be playing for fun with their mates and in their school teams. They should do the same education as their peers. We are putting young players in the gilded cage of academies and pro youth and then we wonder while some – like convicted child offender Adam Johnson – grow up cut off from the real world arrogant and with a sense of entitlement.

Football should just let children enjoy themselves and the game. Professional football clubs should be banned from signing children under eighteen. End of story.