All posts by bainalan05

A maverick who loves sport - espcially football cricket and baseball - and also moaning about the mess politicans make of running Britain.

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (10-1)

In my previous post I made my predictions on who would finish in the bottom half of the Premier League table (20-11). In this post I will predict who I think will finish in the top half of the Premier League table, who will qualify for the Champions League and most importantly who I think will win the Premier League title. So let’s start at 10th place and work our way upwards…

10. Southampton – It shows the progress that Southampton have made that another top ten finish plus a League Cup Final appearance which they were desperately unlucky to lose was not enough to save manager Claude Puel’s job. The main problem for Southampton was scoring goals especially at home where only rock bottom Sunderland scored fewer. But Manolo Gabbiadini started well and he and Charlie Austin – if he is fit – will solve that problem. They are probably fighting a losing battle to keep Virgil van Dijk but even without him new manager Mauricio Pellegrino should have enough to keep the Saints in the top ten. 

9. West Ham – West Ham had an unhappy season last time. The move to the Olympic Stadium had teething problems with crowd trouble and fans and players struggled to adapt. For a lot of the season it looked like they were going to be in a relegation struggle. This season should be better. The new signings – Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez – look sensible and they will be more used to their new home. I expect West Ham to get their League position back down to single figures.

8. Leicester City – After four seasons where they won promotion, staged the great escape, won the Premier League title against all odds, then botched their title defence but reached the Champions League Quarter Finals Leicester fans might want a quiet life. I think they will get it. It helps that they will not be the target for scalp hunters that they were last season. They might lose Riyad Mahrez but he was not the force he was the season before last and it is significant that no one has bid for Jamie Vardy this summer. In 2015-16 Leicester over achieved in winning the title and last season they under achieved in finishing 12th. This season they will find their true level as a solid lower top ten team. 

7. Everton – Everton were in a League of their own last season eight points behind sixth but fifteen points ahead of eighth. While I think they will keep seventh place I suspect they will be further away from the top six and nearer the rest of the pack than they were last season. Losing Romelu Lukaku is a huge blow and I don’t think Wayne Rooney who is past his best is an ideal replacement. Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane are interesting signings and they might sell Ross Barkley and sign Gylfi Sigurdsson before the transfer window closes. Participation in the Europa League won’t help and seventh is probably the best they can do.

6. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp managed to guide Liverpool back to the Champions League (well the qualifying round anyway) last season but the task will be harder this season. Liverpool had the advantage of not being in Europe last season and the squad does not appear to have the strength in depth to challenge on two fronts this season. Personally if Barcelona are offering £90 million for Philippe Coutinho I would take the money and sign four £20 million players to give the squad the depth it badly needs. They did not lose a League game to a fellow top six team last season but that is surely unsustainable and I suspect that Liverpool will finish in the Europa League zone this season.

5. Tottenham – Tottenham have been the best team in the Premier League over the last two seasons (though they did not win the title) but they might have to go backwards before they go forwards. The move to Wembley this season will seriously hinder them – their European form there last season was terrible – while as of this writing they have made zero signings in the close season and lost Kyle Walker. In football if you stand still you go backwards and that is what will happen with Tottenham. They still have Delie Alli and Harry Kane and will be in the race for a Champions League spot but I think they will just miss out. 

4. Arsenal – For the first time in 20 years Arsenal are not in the Champions League. That season (1997-98) they won the League and Cup double but I doubt that happens again. Alexander Lacazette is the star signing but free transfer Sead Kolasinsc is the more interesting signing judging by his substitute appearance in Sunday’s Community Shield. Two problems – the contract situation of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and if they get off to a bad start the whole Arsene Wenger debate will resurface. Suspect they will regain their Champions League spot but still look a bit below the top three. 

3. Chelsea – All does not appear well at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard will miss the start of the season, Diego Costa looks like he is on his way out and manager Antonio Conte is grumbling about the depth (or lack of) in the squad and is talking about avoiding a “Mourinho season” – referring to Chelsea’s inept title defence of two seasons ago. I doubt Chelsea will sink as low this time but they don’t look like a title retaining team. They will have to cope with the rigours of a European campaign – unlike last season. It will be interesting to see how Alvaro Morata adapts to the Premier League but they look unlikely to defend the title.

2. Manchester City – Judging by the hype on his arrival Pep Guadiola was going to lead City to a Premier League/Champions League double without breaking a sweat. Of course nothing of the sort happened and they were no nearer the Champions last season than the season before – in both seasons they trailed the title winners by fifteen points and sometimes the defence was a source of comic entertainment. Guadiola has taken action by signing a new goalkeeper (Ederson) and three new defenders (Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy). Are these the right players? Some grumbling City fans on Twitter were saying they would rather have England women’s right back Lucy Bronze than Walker. Suspect that they are joking but it does not show confidence in Walker. They need the new defence to bed in quickly, Vincent Kompany to stay fit and John Stones to cut out the errors. For them to win the title that might be too many needs. Watch out for Gabriel Jesus though. This player is a future star. 

1. Manchester United – Ironically last season United had the opposite problem to their neighbours. The defence was solid but the attack apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic was toothless. They scored fewer League goals last season than Bournemouth – and fewer at home than relegated Hull. Enter £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku. Some people say that Lukaku is just a rabbit killer. I don’t agree but even if he is that is just what United need as they did not do much rabbit killing last season – especially at home. Bournemouth, Burnley, Hull. Stoke, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham all gained draws at Old Trafford last season mainly because United did not take their chances in games they dominated. With all due respect those are the bread and butter games that title challengers MUST win. If Lukaku can turn those draws into victories he repays his fee. Add to that the signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea – which Chelsea could live to regret – that Paul Pogba might have adapted to the Premier League, Marcus Rashford will keep improving and José Mourinho’s tradition of having a better second season in charge and you have my tips for the title – just. 

I suspect that the key to the season is will Lukaku improve United’s striking weakness or will City’s new defence solve their weakness in that department? My prediction is for Lukaku to have the impact on United that Robin van Pierse did in their last title winning season (2012-13) and bring the title back to Old Trafford.

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (20-11) 

So the greatest show on earth – well according to the Sky Sports hype machine anyway – is about to start. On the 25th anniversary of its formation back in 1992 another Premier League season starts – this time unusually on a Friday night with a match between Arsenal and Leicester City. As usual there are plenty of questions. Will Chelsea defend the title? Can José Mourinho or Pep Guadiola bring title glory back to Manchester? Will Tottenham maintain their progress? Can Arsene Wenger regain Arsenal’s Champions League place? Who will get relegated?.

I don’t know the answer…but I’ll have a go. In the next two posts I will be predicting the finishing prediction of every Premier League club…and in time honoured tradition I will do it in reverse order. In this post I will predict positions 20 to 11. 

20. Huddersfield – Huddersfield finished last season with a goal difference of minus two. They won their play off Semi Final and Final on penalties. Had a team been promoted to League One with that record I would say they faced a battle to stay up. In the Premier League they have no chance. Thirteen Championship teams scored more goals than Huddersfield eight conceded less. Their only asset is highly rated young manager David Wagner. I suspect Wagner has more chance of being in the Premier League next season than his team has. 

19. Burnley – It was a remarkable achievement for Sean Dyche to keep Burnley up last season but it will be harder this season. They stayed up exclusively on their home form and I suspect that form is unsustainable. Therefore they will have to improve their awful away form which I suspect will be beyond them especially with key players Michael Keane and Andre Gray gone. This time I don’t think they survive. 

18. Crystal Palace – Survival specialist Sam Allardyce managed to keep them up last season but he has left. Bolton, Blackburn and Sunderland were all relegated soon after Allardyce left and Palace could follow suit. Allardyce’s successor Frank de Boer is new to the Premier League and flopped at Inter Milan. Their home form is absolutely abysmal – they have lost ten or more home games in the last three seasons. If that does not improve Palace are in serious danger. 

17. Brighton – In all but three Premier League seasons one or two of the promoted clubs stay up. In most seasons one promoted team is a cert to go down (see Huddersfield) one promoted team is marginal and one promoted team stays up quite comfortably (I’ll get to the one I think will stay up OK this season later). Brighton are a toss up to stay up but the combination of home support and an experienced Premier League manager in Chris Hughton might – might – be enough to keep them up.

16. West Brom – Tony Pullis has never been relegated in his managerial career and he won’t be this season either. That said I see West Brom slipping down the table. They did not finish last season well, the fans are grumbling about the style of play, they struggle to score goals, have only made two new signings and have lost captain Darren Fletcher. All that equals a harder season than previously but I still think they will be OK. 

15. Newcastle – For the second time in seven years Newcastle bounced back from relegation at the first time of asking this time under experienced manager Rafael Benitez and they are the most likely of the promoted teams to have a comfortable season. That said their points tally of 94 was eight less than their Championship winning tally of 2009-10. They finished 12th in their first season back in the Premier League on that occasion and I don’t think they will finish that high this time. Still had they appointed Benitez earlier in 2015-16 they would probably have stayed up then and with him in charge for a full season they should accumulate enough points to stay up.

14. Watford – Watford finished last season abysmally with six defeats in a row but the appointment of Marco Silva should lead to improvement. He nearly kept a poor Hull team up last season – had he been at Hull all last season and maintained their points per game tally they would have finished 13th – and I suspect Watford will finish in that vacinity. It will be interesting to see how new signings Tom Cleverly and Will Hughes do but not only do I think Watford will stay up Silva might even survive for another season – a rarity for a Watford manager.

13. Swansea – At the start of this year Swansea were bottom of the table and after Bob Bradley’s shambolic reign looked doomed. But under the impressive Paul Clement Swansea gained 29 points from his 19 games in charge. If he did that over a full season they would probably be top ten. But star player Gylfi Sigurdsson looks highly likely to leave most likely to Everton. In predicting Swansea’s finishing position I have assumed that Sigurdsson will go. If he stays they could finish in the top half but even without him I expect them to be safe mid table. 

12. Stoke – Stoke are arguably the best run club in the Premier League but they appear to have plataued in mid table. They have sold Marko Arnautovic and their first three home games are hard –  Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea. But their toughness and determination should ensure Premier League safety for another season. 

11.  Bournemouth – The smallest club in the Premier League in terms of ground capacity but not ambition. The signing of Nathan Ake – who was on loan at the club last season – is a declaration of intent. Agmir Begovic is an experienced goalkeeper and Jermaine Defoe last season scored 15 goals for a Sunderland team that were by a long way the worst in the League. Bournemouth play a nice style of football and unless another Premier League club takes a punt on manager Eddie Howe they are in no danger of a relegation battle and might even crack the top ten again.

So that is part one of my predictions done – the bottom half. Tomorrow the fun starts when I predict the top half and who I think will win the title…

Recalling the summer of 1989…and comparing it to 2017

So hosts Holland won Euro 2017…and deservedly so. Full of outstanding young attacking players like Linke Martens, Jackie Groenen, Danielle van de Donk, Shanice van de Sanden, and – above all – Vivianne Miedema all of whom are 25 or younger and therefore still have growth potential. They were the most entertaining team on view and a team who were impossible not to like – unless you were a member of the Euro 1988 winning Dutch men’s team (I’ll get to him later).

Holland also took the tournament to their hearts. Every Dutch game was a sell out the record attendance for a women’s game in Holland was broken three times during the tournament and the Final attracted 5.4 MILLION viewers on Dutch TV (the highest audience for any programme in Holland since the 2014 men’s World Cup). Holland has gone women’s football mad. But the question is : Can, will the interest be sustained? 

There is a historical precedent of a marginalized group of footballers winning the hearts of a country in a home tournament….but the interest was not sustained.  I’m going to write about that event before comparing it to Euro 2017 to see the differences and the similarities.

Let’s go back to the summer of 1989. It was not good. Jive Bunny were number one in the charts for five weeks (oh dear) and England got hammered 4-0 in a gruesomely one sided Ashes series in which England used 29 (!) players in six Tests compared to Australia’s 12. Meanwhile football in England was reeling from the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and in Scotland there was a sensation when ex Celtic star Maurice Johnston joined bitter rivals Rangers becoming that club’s first ever Roman Catholic player. 

Also in 1989 Scotland hosted the FIFA Under 16 World Cup the biggest football event hosted in Scotland (still is). But at first the country did not take much notice. Scotland drew 0-0 with Ghana in the tournament’s first game in front of just 6,000 spectators at Hampden Park. And that was the biggest attendance of the first round of matches. It looked like the tournament was going to be a flop.

But two pieces of luck boosted the tournament. First of all there were late night TV highlights shown on Scottish Television (STV). Viewers noted that the football was entertaining and a refreshing contrast to the safety first sterility of the adult game and that encouraged fans to go to the games. Secondly the host nation started to improve. Scotland beat Cuba 3-0 in front of 9,000 spectators at Motherwell (a 50% increase on their first game!), drew with Bahrain (in front of 13,500 another increase) and advanced to the Quarter Finals. The team went on to beat East Germany 1-0 to qualify for the Semi Finals at Tynecastle in Edinburgh. 

And then it got a bit crazy. Scotland beat a Portugal team including future Barcelona and Real Madrid star Luis Figo (along with Roberto Carlos of Brazil the biggest future star that played in this tournament). What was crazy was the crowd. The kick off was delayed by 45 minutes to let a crowd of 29,000 into the ground. 29,000! For sixteen year old boys! The police and the ground authorities totally underestimated the interest in the game. And Scotland were in a World Cup Final which is something that football fans in the country had fantasised about. The squad of 16 year old kids were national heroes.

So on to Saturday June 24th 1989. Scotland were in a World Cup Final on home soil. The game at Hampden was televised live on STV yet 50,956 fans turned up for the Final against Saudi Arabia – only 3,500 less than turned up for a Celtic v Rangers Scottish Cup Final in 1977 that was also televised live. Football fever was sweeping Scotland and it was all for 16 year old boys. When Scotland roared into a 2-0 lead it looked like the fairytale would be completed. But two Saudi goals and a missed penalty by Brian O’Neill meant the game finished 2-2 after extra time. Scotland lost the shoot out 5-4 with poor O’Neill being the only player to miss his penalty. The fairytale was over and to make it worse there were suspicions that the Saudis had fielded overage players. Even twenty years later then SFA secretary Ernie Walker felt that Scotland had been cheated of glory. 

There were differences between the under 16 team and Euro 2017. While the interest in the under 16 World Cup was a mainly Scottish phenomenon England, Austria, Denmark and France as well as Holland had record TV ratings and increased interest. Another difference is that no one said either that the under 16 team were inferior to adult males or that they should be in the adult Scotland team. In contrast Arnold Muhren a member of the Euro 1988 winning Dutch men’s team said that the women’s team could not compete with a men’s fifth division team (totally irrelevant). On the other hand a banner at one of Holland’s games said “Who needs Neymar when you have Linke Martens?”. But Martens plays for Barcelona’s women’s team not the men’s so the comparison is irrelevant. The Under 16 team were accepted for what they were. Sadly women’s football is still not treated the same way.

Another difference is that the Dutch women’s teams first game was a sell out which means that there was an interest there before the tournament started. Unlike the 1989 under 16 team where (see above) interest started low but there was a bandwagon effect and the Scottish public were swept along on a tide of national euphoria. It won’t be a surprise to know that an under 16 game in Scotland has never attracted 50,000 spectators again. 

And that is the challenge for women’s football. The World Cup and the Euros have established themselves as major events. Fans are happy to support a successful national team regardless of whether it is an under 16 team or it is a female team. The problem is that the women’s club game is still struggling as the collapse of Notts County in England earlier this year proved. What women’s football needs is for at least some of the fans who watched on TV and at the ground to remain fans and watch the regular League games. It also needs more and better coverage of those League games. For example in England the Women’s Super League (WSL) fixtures were announced yesterday. If only a tenth of the four million people who watched England lose to Holland in the Semi Final of the Euros watch the WSL next season it would be a huge boost to women’s football in England. 

There is no doubt that the standard of women’s football is rising because of professionalism. Young players like Miedema, Stenia Blackstenius and Ada Hegerberg are amazingly good. However if fans don’t go to club games professionalism in women’s football might not be sustainable. If women’s football is to realise it’s full potential fans must realise that women’s football is for life. Not just every two years…

Where is Eastern Europe? 

There is no doubt that so far Euro 2017 has been a great success and a credit to women’s football. TV audiences are going up – the audience for Holland’s first game was 172 per cent up on their opener four years ago even though the event is in Holland so people who might have been watching on TV had the event been played elsewhere were watching in the stadium. Also the games are getting more competitive despite the event being expanded to sixteen teams. There has only been one mismatch (England v Scotland) as the players benefiting from an increase in professionalism are fitter and stronger than ever before. What used to be a predictable event has produced shock results.  For example 2013 runners up Norway have crashed out of the tournament without winning a point or scoring a goal and already eliminated Italy defeated Olympic silver medalists Sweden 3-2 last night. It is clear that women’s football is both improving in standard and increasing in popularity. 

But there is one big anomaly. Last night Russia were eliminated. The country did not disgrace themselves – in fact by beating Italy 2-1 they won their first match at a Euro at their thirteenth attempt and in their fourth Finals tournament – but Russia were the only Eastern European country (meaning the countries of the old Warsaw Pact plus the old Yugoslavia) to play at the event. This is a big contrast to men’s football (the 16 teams in Euro 2008* included five teams from Eastern Europe). Nor is this situation unique to this tournament. In all the women’s European Championships eighteen countries have taken part only two of them from Eastern Europe (apart from Russia Ukraine qualified in 2009). Ukraine won one meaningless game at that tournament meaning that counting this year Eastern European teams have won two out of eighteen games at women’s Euros. 

I find that a baffling statistic. Now it could be said that Eastern Europe is a sexist part of the world but it has a good record in women’s sport that is not football. An example of this is in “Playing With the Boys” by Eileen McDonough and Laura Pappano (page 204) “America was losing the athletic cold war and one big reason, political leaders concluded, was because US females were being soundly beaten by their Soviet rivals. At the 1960 Olympic Games, for example, Soviet women earned twice as many medals as American women, 28 to 12”. So it was clear that at least before the passing of Title IX and the collapse of Communism Eastern European female athletes were superior to their American and Western European counterparts.

Another example is the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) rankings. Remember only one of the top sixteen women’s football teams in Europe is Eastern European (Russia). In contrast eleven of the top sixteen European WTA players represent Eastern European countries. Women from the Czech Republic, Romania, Ukraine, Russia, Poland, Latvia and Slovakia are among the list including new World number 1 Karolina Pliskova, number 2 Simona Halep and the sport’s newest Grand Slam Champion Alona Ostapenko. To add to this four of the top sixteen European WTA players who do not represent an Eastern European country had at least one parent from Eastern Europe (Angelique Kerber, Johanna Konta, Caroline Wozniacki and Kristina Mladenovic). So fifteen of the top sixteen European women tennis players are either born in Eastern Europe or have Eastern European parents. Interestingly of the women mentioned above three – Wozniacki, Halep and Mladenovic – have fathers or brothers that are/were professional footballers. 

Yet in contrast 20 out of the 46 countries that entered the Euro 2017 qualifing tournament were Eastern European. Of those 20 two were knocked out in the Preliminary Round, and of the other 18 all but Russia and Romania finished third or lower in their groups. Six Eastern European countries finished the qualifing groups without a point. It is quite amazing that 14 out of 26 Western European countries qualified for Euro 2017 and only one out of 20 Eastern European countries did. It shows that at the moment in women’s football Eastern Europe is a second division. 

The only explanation – since it is clear from their success in women’s sport (tennis, track and field, gymnastics and weightlifting for example) that Eastern Europe has female athletic talent and encourages it – is that there is something about football that the establishment in the Eastern European countries does not like. Their past and current success in women’s sport shows that – unlike the UK and US in the past – Eastern Europe is not hostile to women’s sport but they are to women’s football.  I have no idea why. 

But there is encouragement for women’s football in Eastern Europe. The impressive performances of Portugal and especially Belgium and Austria in their first major Finals shows that if you invest in women’s football you will reap the divided. And we know from what I mentioned above that Eastern Europe has the female athletic talent. 

If Eastern Europe ever gets its act together and takes women’s football seriously it could revolutionise two sports. Imagine if the next generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos chose to be professional footballers not tennis players. That could be catastrophic for the WTA. As an article in the New York Times (March 6 2016) puts it “But it is just as crystal clear that the WTA is on borrowed time when it comes to global leadership. Women’s soccer, a still-drowsy giant, continues to stir”.  If that giant ever wakes up in Eastern Europe which supplies most of the tennis talent in Europe tennis might lose its status as the dominant professional sport for women. 

Right now the place to see Eastern European female athletic talent is on the tennis court. On the football field Eastern Europe is almost irrelevant. But that could change. If a future generation of Pliskovas, Haleps and Ostapenkos ever chose football and not tennis the WTA could be in deep trouble. 

*I did not use Euro 2012 as a comparator since Poland and Ukraine qualified as co hosts thus inflating the number of Eastern European teams, or Euro 2016 as it had 24 teams.

Recalling an unsung hero

Today is an historic night for women’s football in Scotland as the national team finally makes its debut in a major tournament – against England of all teams. There is no doubt that the team thoroughly deserved this debut as they were unlucky to qualify for both Euro 2009 (lost to Russia in a play off on away goals) and Euro 2013 (lost to Spain in a play off to a goal in the 122nd minute). So after the misery the team has gone through in the past they deserve their place in the sun (and the fact that they are playing England is a boost as this gives women’s football in Scotland far more publicity than they would have gotten had they been drawn in any other group). 

But this is also a time to reflect on the players who helped make Scottish women’s football – the early pioneers like Nettie Honeyball, Nancy “Cannonball” Thompson and Julie Fleeting – and an unsung hero who has a claim to be the greatest female footballer this island has ever produced but yet got totally disowned by her own country and had to play for another country in international football.

The player I am talking about is Rose Reilly. Rose was born in Stewarton East Ayrshire. Now you have to remember in these days (the late 1960s) women’s football was still banned in the UK. Rose wanted to play football but the only way she could play was to cut her hair short and call herself Ross Reilly so she could play for Stewarton Boys’ Club. She was so good that a scout from Celtic who was watching Stewarton wanted “him” to sign for Celtic – but as she was a girl not only could she not sign for Celtic she could not play for the Boys’ Club anymore.

Luckily there was a women’s team she could join – Stewarton Thistle. In 1971 she played aged 16 in the first English women’s FA Cup losing to Southampton. She was a losing finalist in the English FA Cup Final three years in a row and played in the first Scotland international of the new era (1972). 

But she wanted to be a professional footballer – but in the Scotland of the 1970s there was no career opportunities for women in football. Luckily she was able to make a career for herself abroad. In 1974 she moved to French professional team Reims but after just six months moved to Italy with Milan. 

To show how ridiculous football in Scotland was for the heinous crime of having a professional career abroad Reilly was banned in 1975 (along with team mate Edna Nellis) for life from playing for Scotland. This was not unique to Scotland at the time. England’s Sue Lopez had to choose between playing for England and being a professional abroad but in her case she gave up a professional career for an international one. Even in men’s football there were people who wanted Kevin Keegan banned from playing for England when he joined Hamburg in 1977! 

Reilly thought at the time that her career was over. Luckily it wasn’t as she went on to play for a variety of Italian teams including Catania and Leece as well as Milan. Amazingly in 1978-79 she won League titles in two different countries! She win the Italian League with Leece (playing on Saturday nights) and the French League with Remis (playing on Sunday afternoons). We can guarantee that will never happen again! 

She was even able to play international football despite being banned from playing for Scotland. She got Italian citizenship and was able to play in a Women’s World Cup in China in 1983 because the event was not officially recognised by FIFA (FIFA did not hold an Official Women’s World Cup until 1991). Not only did she play for Italy she captained them to the title and scored from 40 yards in the final and was voted the “Best Female Player in the World”. 

By 1984 Reilly was earning £12000 a year with Trani (for comparison current England captain Steph Houghton reportedly earns £60000 a year). She played in Italy until retiring at the age of 40. She won 22 caps for Italy and ten for Scotland during a career where Celtic tried to sign her, she would get banned from playing for her own country, won League titles in two countries in one season and won a World Cup with her adopted country. 

Her story has a happy ending in that the Scottish Football Association (SFA) inducted her into their Hall of Fame finally making up for the injustice of banning her for life back in 1975. Rose Reilly has a significant claim to be the best female footballer off all time in the UK – never mind Scotland. Today she lives in her home town of Stewarton and I’m sure she will be watching her successors play England tonight with pride and might be wondering what might have been had the SFA had let her play for her own country….

Who will be the Queens of Europe? 

A year after Euro 2016 the men’s European Football Championship the women’s equivalent Euro 2017 starts in Holland this Sunday. Reflecting the growth in women’s football this is the biggest women’s Euros in history with sixteen countries participating. To think only twelve years ago in 2005 only eight teams participated in the Euros. In 2009 the tournament expanded to twelve teams and now in 2017 there are now sixteen teams. 

This will improve the tournament as sixteen teams means that the group stage has been made simpler. No more third place finishers qualifying without winning a game (like Portugal did in the men’s Euros last year) and no more needing slide rules and calculators to work out which third placed teams go through or which first placed teams the third place teams play. Just nice and simple. 

So with that said what might happen in the tournament? One fascinating thing about the draw is it has thrown up five matches between near neighbours which if nothing else might give the tournament extra publicity. So let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – Holland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium – In men’s football it is often said that the host nation has an easy draw. This does not apply to the women. Hosts Holland are in a group that involves three of the top eight European teams in the FIFA world rankings. The Dutch team like their men boast a squad that is mainly scattered across Europe including four Arsenal players -Sari van Veenenvdaal, Danielle van den donk, Dominique Jansen and new signing – and the teams star player – Vivienne Miedena. Their problems include the loss of Manon Melissa to retirement since the last World Cup and can they cope with the pressure of being hosts? Women’s football as we all know does not get the same publicity as the men’s game which can make it harder when players who are not used to hype and publicity suddenly have to cope with it. 

And it is by no means certain that Holland will even get out of the group. This is not because they are a bad team – quite the opposite – it is the quality of the opposition. First of all there is 2013 Finalists Norway who include arguably the best striker in the world Ada Hegerberg. her sister Andrine, the excellent Caroline Graham Hansen – who they badly missed at the last World Cup – plus captain Maren Mjelde. One worry for Norway is that Ada Hegerberg laboured through the Champions League Final in June and did not look fit. They will hope she is back to her best but they are always competitive in the Euros and will be so again. 

So will their neighbours Denmark. They won’t be able to get to the Semi Finals without winning a game again – the benefit of not having third placed teams qualifying – but with star strikers Pernile Harder and Nadia Nadim and a history of punching above their weight in the Euros means they cannot be underestimated. Neither can first time finalists Belgium. During qualifying they became the first team in eight years to avoid defeat away to England in a competitive game and also drew with neighbours Holland in qualification for the last World Cup. Realistically I cannot see the “Red Flames” qualifying from the group. I can see them taking a point from at least one game – and whatever team that is could miss out on the next stage as a result….

Predicted Qualifiers – Norway, Holland.

Group B – Germany, Sweden, Italy, Russia – In contrast to Group A this group on paper looks clear cut for Germany and Sweden. Germany are the powerhouse of European women’s football and have won the title six times in a row. In 2013 people predicted France, England. Sweden or Norway might end their dominance but none of them did. Thy might have needed two penalty saves from the excellent Nadine Angerer to win the title but they still did. They were not expected to win the Olympics last year either – but they did. For the first time in a decade the Frau Bundesliga did not provide a Champions League semi finalist but omminously for the rest of Europe the last time that happened Germany won the World Cup without conceding a goal. Again (like 2013) key players – in this case Simone Ladehr and Melanie Leopulz – are injured and they have a new coach in Steffi Jones who has been in the job for less than a year. And yet…they have excellent players like Dzenifer Marozsan, Anja Mittag and Tabea Kemme. More important they are used to winning. Anything less than the Final is unthinkable and the title is highly likely.

What Sweden will turn up in Holland? Will it be the team that flopped horribly in the World Cup two years ago or the superbly organised team that won the silver medal in the Olympics last year? My money is on the latter. Under veteran coach Pia Sundhage they will be well organised and have one of the best keepers in the tournament Hedvig Landhal, an experienced defender in Nilla Fischer and experienced players Caroline Seager, Kosovare Asllani and Lotta Schelin. I hope Sweden make use of young striker Stima Blackstenius who will be a star. Could be between them and their Norwegian neighbours for a Semi Final spot. 

The other two teams in this group are examples of former powers in the women’s game trying to get back into prominence. Italy were in the first World Cup in 1991 which had only twelve teams but have not qualified for a World Cup since 1999. They were runners up in the Euros in 1997 but have platued at the Quarter Final stage ever since. Russia – the only Eastern European team in the finals in contrast to both the men’s game and the high number of elite women tennis players from Eastern Europe – reached the Quarter Finals of the 2003 World Cup but have failed to qualify for a World Cup since. Both – but especially Italy – might be on the way back up but I doubt either knock out Germany or Sweden. 

Predicted Qualifiers – Germany, Sweden.

Group C – France, Iceland, Austria, Switzerland – In my post on the 2015 World Cup I compared France to the South Africa men’s cricket team calling them talented chokers who never win anything. This year South Africa have failed to win a major tournament yet again. Will France finally win? A lot of people think so but not me. Yes they have magnificent players – captain Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Camille Abily and Eugenie Le Sommer for example – but they have had these players before. They still have an appalling chance conversation rate and unless or until they get a better striker than Marie-Laure Delie they won’t be winning anything. Some people think the fact they won the She Believes Cup in the US changes things but they were only impressive against the rebuilding host nation which in the context of this tournament is irrelevant. Against European teams they needed two late goals to beat England and would have lost to Germany but for a missed penalty. That is not a sign of dominance. They will hope to play England though – England have not beaten France since 1974 (!!) 

France should win the group so the interest will be who qualifies with them. One of the candidates is that remarkable little country Iceland who caused mayhem at the men’s Euro 2016 knocking out England on the way to the last eight. But the men were only following the trail blazed by the women in 2013 where they shocked Holland en route to the last eight. They will be contenders again but three players have gone down with the dreaded anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury which is for some reason a blight on the women’s game and their top scorer in qualifying gave birth to a child in March. 

All that could leave a small country vulnerable to either of the debutants in the group the near neighbours Switzerland and Austria. Switzerland have the advantage of being the only one of the debutants to have played in a major tournament before – the last World Cup – and although they slightly underachieved in Canada they will be better off for that experience. Also they have star players Lara Dickenmann, Ana-Maria Crnogorcevic. But their neighbours Austria can not be underestimated either. Although they are debutants fourteen of their twenty three strong squad play in the Frau Bundesliga the best league in Europe. Frankly you can make a case for any of these three teams to ride shotgun behind France but my marginal favourites to do so are Switzerland.

Predicted Qualifiers – France, Switzerland. 

Group D – England, Scotland, Spain, Portugal – This is the British group. England after their magnificent World Cup are for the first time considered among the favourites to win the whole thing. Can they cope with the hype? Coach Mark Sampson named his squad on April 3 – far earlier than he had to. For comparison most of the other teams announced their squads either in late June or early July. It is either very brilliant or very stupid and I suspect that it will come back to haunt him if the team does not do well. My worry is against the very best teams and sometimes even against poor teams (like the two laboured 1-0 wins over Bosnia and Herzegovina in qualifying) the team struggle to score. There are a lot of good in fact very good players available but not the one great player like Kelly Smith used to be. I’d personally have picked Eni Aluko for her pace. I reckon semi finals, maybe the Final – but not the title. 

And England need to hit the ground running. For their first game they have the absolute classic banana skin in Scotland. England should win especially as tragically the brilliant Kim Little – a player so good that four different Americans tweeted to me that not only would she get into their mighty World Cup winning team but she would be their best player – is injured (that damn ACL again). Wether she could have done for Scotland what Gareth Bale did for Wales’ men last year sadly will be a question without an answer. But Scotland are not a one woman team and have players like Manchester City’s top scorer Jane Ross, Lisa Evans who plays for Bayern Munich and Liverpool star Caroline Weir. And they will be up for the first game against England – which makes that match dangerous for England. Scotland’s men are notorious for qualifying for big tournaments but not getting out of the group stage. Can the women change that? Difficult but not impossible.

But this group also contains the dark horses for this tournament (every tournament has one). In the past I have called Spain the sleeping giants of women’s football based on the success of the country in youth tournaments and the talented women that feminist sports writer Jennifer Doyle saw in Barcelona in 2011 – when Spain did not qualify for the World Cup. Doyle said these women play football in the tiki taka style of Barcelona’s men – and we all know how successful they have been. Well there are signs that if the giant is not awake yet it is stirring. The stirring began when a player revolt after the last World Cup finally got rid of coach Ignacio Quereda – who had coached them for 27 years but apparently had treated players awfully. This was a sign that the FA there were finally taking the women’s game seriously as are Barcelona who reached the Champions League Semi Finals for the first time. This team could be dangerous. It is not impossible that they either repeat their win over England from 2013 which could force England into a quarter final against France (see above for why that is NOT good news for England) or that they upset France in the last eight. Watch out for Spain.

To balance the presence of dark horses Spain the group also has the weakest team on paper Portugal who are ranked only 38 by FIFA and 23 by UEFA. They certainly were not expected to finish second in their group above Finland who were in the last three Euros but they did. They still had to go through a play off against Romania to qualify which they did on the away goals rule after extra time. They will be regarded as underdogs but they have a couple of players well known to followers of the WSL here in the UK – ex Chelsea player Ana Borges and ex Liverpool player Amanda da Costa. Could be out of their depth but they have nothing to lose. They had never finished higher than fourth in a Euros qualifying group and they are obviously an improving team. Do not underestimate….

Predicted Qualifiers – England, Spain.

So if I have got that right – very unlikely – that means a last eight line up of Germany v Holland, Norway v Sweden, France v Spain and England v Switzerland. I would predict wins for Germany, Norway (just.That game is a coin toss), England and Spain. Looking at the draw that leads to Germany v Spain and England v Norway. I would further predict a win for Germany and – Norway(another coin toss). I would say Germany are favourites to win but a case can be made for either England, Norway or Sweden to be Finalists. Spain are the dark horses while France (again) could underachieve. 

My wish for this tournament is like in 2015 is that the UK press behaves itself. The sexism was less in 2015 probably because England did well but it was still there. I will also be interested to see how the press in Scotland cover the event as it is the first time the Scotland team has played in a major tournament. Women’s football has little or no coverage in Scotland and shamefully the men’s BetFred (League) Cup starts tonight. A bit of arrogant selfishness from the Scottish Professional Football League (SPFL) who should be ashamed of themselves for threatening the best chance the women’s game has ever had to gain publicity here. 

I have also seen rumours that the event might be threatened by terrorists. Please God no. Let’s just hope the event passes off peacefully and it is another step on the road to the acceptance of women’s football in Europe. 

Wimbledon must scrap Manic Monday 

It would be nice to go through a whole Wimbledon without complaints about sexism. And maybe we will one year. But unfortunately it won’t be this year. As usual at Wimbledon sexism has reared its ugly head. 

The first complaint was from former World number one Victoria Azarenka who has recently returned to the professional tour after giving birth to her first child Leo last December. Azarenka’s gripe was that on the first Monday her match was one of four that was not given a court or a time meaning she had to stay at Wimbledon all day and away from her child. I’ll give Wimbledon the benefit of the doubt here and suggest it was incompetence rather than sexism – but really since Azarenka is a former World number one and a two time Grand Slam champion her match should have gone on first on one of the show courts then she would have known when she had to start and could plan her day accordingly. With pro players Serena Williams and Mandy Minella currently pregnant accommodating mothers and children is going to become a more pressing issue for all tournaments in the future. 

The latest controversy came during yesterday when some big women’s matches were put on the outside courts. World number one Angelique Kerber was not happy that her last 16 clash with Garbine Muguruza was on Court number 2 – quite rightly as the two women had between them won three out of the four Grand Slam titles last year. Also unhappy was the sports newest Grand Slam champion Alona* Ostapenko. Her match with fellow rising star Elena Svitolina was on Court 12. Former World number one Caroline Wozniacki was also unhappy that her match was on an outside court saying “That’s something we’ve talked about at Wimbledon for the last ten years. It’s been the same for ten years straight. The other grand slams are more equal (in their) positioning of men’s and women’s matches.” Former three time champion Chris Evert weighed in “There needs to be a discussion because we have equal prize money, sonwhy do we not have equal representation on Centre Court and Court One?” she told the BBC. 

The reasons that there are less women’s matches than men’s matches on Wimbledon’s show courts are unique to Wimbledon. First of all play on Centre and number one courts starts at 1pm while on the other courts play starts at 11.30 am. That means that there are usually only three matches a day on the two main show courts compared to four on the outside courts. You cannot get an equal number of men’s and women’s matches on a court with only three matches but too often (as happened yesterday) there are two men’s matches and one women’s match on both show courts meaning men’s matches outnumber women’s 4-2. It really should be a combined 3-3 between centre and number one courts.

But what made it worse was that yesterday was “Manic Monday” where in lieu of play on the Middle Sunday all the men’s and women’s last sixteen matches are played. The sexist scheduling and the fact that all the last sixteen matches are played on one day means that 4 out of 8 (50%) of the last sixteen men’s matches are played on the two show courts but only 2 out of 8 (25%) of the last sixteen women’s matches were played on the two show courts. It is clear to any one with a brain that this is sexist scheduling. 

There are two easy solutions. First start play on all courts at 11.30 am. If the corporate hospitality brigade can’t be bothered to turn up at that time give their seats to the queueing fans and ban them from coming when they do bother to turn up.  That way you can have two men’s and women’s matches on Centre and Number One courts each day. 

The second solution is have play on the Middle Sunday and split the last 16 into two getting rid of “Manic Monday”. Not only is the scheduling on Manic Monday blatantly sexist the day has other problems. First it is too long. In most years all the matches aren’t finished on the day even if it doesn’t rain. For example men’s number two seed Novak Djokovic’s match did not even get started yesterday because the preceding matches took two long which puts Djokovic at an unfair disadvantage compared to his rivals for the men’s title. 

Now if play on the show courts started at 11.30 am and “Manic Monday” was abolished that would mean all eight women’s and men’s last sixteen matches could be played on the two show courts which would mean true gender equality. Which is surely what we want…

But not everybody wants this. Jim White of the Daily Telegraph wrote today “But the fact is, box office talks. And with the big four of Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, plus Venus Williams and Johanna Konta taking the six available matches on the two big show courts, the rest of the field was spread among the club. Which might be bruising to the Ostapenko ego…”

Oh dear where do you start with that nonsense? People pay for show court tickets well in advance so the box office appeal of players should be irrelevant. Ostapenko wants equality with men it is not a matter of ego. Besides why they shouldn’t play on the show courts start at 11.30 on the show courts meaning there would be eight available matches instead of four? And why shouldn’t there be play on Middle Sunday so that all of the last sixteen matches for both genders can be played on the show courts. Defending sexist inequality is a tough task but trust our press to do it. Frankly foreign tournaments should ban our press until they learn to cut out sexist nonsense. 

The case for starting play on all courts at 11.30 and having play on Middle Sunday is unarguable. The corporate hospitality brigade and traditionalists will howl in protest but they can be safely ignored. The world is changing and Wimbledon needs to change with it. We have got equal prize money. It is time for equal scheduling. Those who defend the sexist status quo like Jim White are on a loser here….

*The name on Ostapenko’s passport is “Jelena” but she wants to be known as “Alona” so I have respected her wishes.