Category Archives: Football

How to have a winter break without ruining Christmas 

We are in the middle of the most choatic period in the Premier League season the festive fixtures. All Premier League teams will have played three games between Boxing Day and January 4 2017. This is a soft schedule compared to 39 years ago – in the 1977-78 season all English clubs played four games between Boxing Day and January 2 (on Boxing Day, December 27th, New Year’s Eve and January 2). Yet people are still demanding a winter break in English football – either foreign managers who think that if the rest of Europe have a winter break so should Britain – typical of the arrogant European attitude which has led to Brexit – or the FA who seem to think it will help the England national team (conveniently forgetting that the vast majority of England fans care more about their clubs than the national team and don’t want to suffer the garbage Checkatrade Trophy or lose their Christmas entertainment on the off chance it can help a bad team to beat Iceland in a major tournament). 

As I wrote before those who want a Christmas shut down forget that both other sport in Britain (Rugby, Darts and Horse Racing to name but three) and sport in other English speaking countries (the NBA, NFL and NHL in the US, cricket in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa) play on in the festive season). And as the EU referendum surely confirmed we in the UK have more in common with our English speaking friends than Europe even if the UK “Remoaners” don’t accept this. 

But even if we did have a winter break why should it mean the end of the Christmas fixtures? Just because most of Europe has a winter break at Christmas doesn’t mean to say we have to. In my opinion there is another option for a winter break that would also preserve the Christmas fixtures. 

That is not the period after the New Year (ie January). Traditionally the first Saturday in January is the day of the third round of the FA Cup and moving it out of January would devalue the competition. The FA should know this as they already moved the FA Cup third round from January to December – in the 1999-2000 season. It was a total disaster and the third round was immediately restored to its traditional date in the calendar. The FA would be incredibly stupid even by their standards if they mucked about with the scheduling of their crown jewel again. 

I’m surprised that nobody has thought of having a winter break in the Saturdays immediately preceding Christmas. For one thing in the old days before season tickets became popular that was generally the time of the season that had the lowest gates as fans went Christmas shopping with their families. If the Saturdays immediately before Christmas were football free fans could do their Christmas shopping without missing their team play. 

Here is how it would work using this year’s dates. The last round of Premier League games before the break would have been on the week of November 29-30. The next four Saturdays (December 3,10,17 and 24) would be the break. The season would resume on Boxing Day and the Christmas programme would start. The only games on would be the European games on December 7-9 but other countries (ie Eastern European ones) already play European games during winter breaks so if they can do it…

For this to work out the football authorities would have to sacrifice the League Cup which as I’ve wrote before is a useless tournament that should never have been invented and reached the end of its limited usefulness in the mid 1990s when Manchester United started fielding reserve teams in the competition. If you got rid of the League Cup itfrees up five midweeks which could be filled with the Premier League games that are currently played in December. For example this season the Premier League games that were played on December 3, 10, 13/14 and 17 could have been moved to the midweeks of September 20-21, October 25-26, November 29-30 and January 24-25. You have your winter break. 

Personally I don’t want a winter break but that is because everybody that wants it wants to sacrifice the Christmas programme which would be stupid as it draws the highest attendances and is clearly popular with the public.

It is interesting to note that there are people in Spain who would like La Liga to play on Boxing Day. Whether or not that happens I don’t know. But if Spain want to play in the festive season why should we stop? Especially as – as I have shown – there is a way to have a winter break and to preserve the tradition of both the Christmas programme and the FA Cup….

Why recent history is a good omen for Christmas number one Chelsea

To quote John Lennon “So this is Christmas”. And as Christmas Day approaches Antonio Conte’s Chelsea sit proudly on top of the Premier League tree. But the question is will they still be there when it matters next May? In theory the omens are mixed but in practice they are very favourable for Chelsea.

This is the 25th season of Premier League football since the breakaway League was founded back in 1992. Of the previous 24 seasons twelve of the leaders at Christmas went on to win the title the next May. So on that basis there is only a 50 per cent chance that this season’s title is heading for Stamford Bridge. 

But it’s not as unfavorable for Chelsea as those statistics suggest. Firstly in recent seasons the pendulum has swung in favour of the Christmas League leaders. In the first twelve Premier League seasons (1992-2003) only three Christmas Day leaders – Manchester United (twice) and Blackburn Rovers went on to win the title. But in the next twelve Premier League seasons (2004-15)  nine of the twelve Christmas Day leaders went on to win the title – Manchester United (three times), Manchester City, last season’s shock troops Leicester City and significantly Chelsea themselves (four times). In fact every time Chelsea have topped the table at Christmas they have gone on to win the title. 

The other thing in Chelsea’s favour – apart from their current eleven game winning streak in the Premier League – is the size of their lead at the top – six points over Liverpool. In the previous twenty four seasons of Premier League football only four teams have had a bigger lead on Christmas Day than Chelsea have now – Manchester United (twelve points in 1993 and eight points in 2000) Chelsea themselves (nine points in 2005) and Newcastle (ten points in 1995). Of those four only Newcastle – in one of the most infamous bottle jobs in football history – failed to win the title. And that was a club that had (and still have) failed to win the title since 1927. The Newcastle players and especially manager Kevin Keegan could not cope with the pressure. But the core of this Chelsea team won the title as recently as 2015 and it is highly unlikely that this team will bottle the title. Nor will manager Conte who has title winning experience in Serie A with Juventus. 

One oddity will have Arsenal fans clutching at straws. The Gunners are the only club to have won the Premier League title, led the table at Christmas but not done both in the same season. They led the League at Christmas in 2002 and 2007 but did not win the title. When they did win the title (1998, 2002 and 2004) they did not top the table at Christmas (not even the 2003-4 “Invincibles” achieved the feat of topping the table at Christmas). Unfortunately for Arsenal they trail Chelsea by nine points and have still to go to Stamford Bridge so their chances are slim to say the least. 

Whether or not Chelsea win the title they have almost certainly achieved one of owner Roman Abramovich’s pre season targets. Last season Chelsea finished a dismal tenth and out of the Champions League for the first time since season 2002-3 – the last season before the Abramovich takeover. But of the previous twenty four Christmas League leaders only one – Aston Villa in 1998 who collapsed to sixth twenty two points behind Champions Manchester United – did not finish in one of the top four spots that give a club Champions League qualification. And the chances of Chelsea finishing outside of the top four are practically nil. 

It is not often both current form and recent historical precedent point to the same event happening. But both suggest it will take either a spectacular Chelsea collapse or at least a ten game winning streak by one of their rivals to deny Chelsea the title. It could happen – Newcastle collapsed spectacularly in 1996 and Arsenal went on winning streaks in 1998 and 2002. But it is much more likely that the title is heading to Stamford Bridge again. 

Finally I would like to say Merry Christmas to everyone who reads me. Have a wonderful day! 

Don’t play games behind closed doors. Price out the thugs.

West Ham United’s move to the London Stadium (the stadium that hosted the ceremonies and the athletics at the 2012 Olympics) has not exactly started well. Until they won successive home games this week against Sunderland and Chelsea the club had struggled to make the stadium feel like home. Now they are not the first club nor will they be last to struggle at a new home – Southampton when they moved to St Mary’s in 2001 being a classic example – but there is something more sinister here. 

In most of West Ham’s home games since the move to the London Stadium there has been crowd trouble – even against the likes of Bournemouth, Watford and Middlesborough which are not usually fixtures that are associated with crowd trouble. So when West Ham were drawn against London rivals Chelsea in the EFL (League) Cup fourth round it was feared that there would be crowd trouble. The fears were justified. 

Seats, coins and bottles were thrown during ugly clashes between West Ham and Chelsea fans on Wednesday. One Chelsea fan had blood pouring from his head after allegedly getting hit by a coin while eight year old children were among those who were struck. There was also a leaflet distributed before the game about Chelsea player John Terry which encouraged homophobic chants. All in all it was as if we had hurtled back 40 years in time to the 1970s when this nonsense was common. 

To no one’s surprise an investigation has been launched (it’s what we Brits do best!). Also typically SIX different organisations – West Ham, Chelsea, the Football League (FL), the Football Association (FA), the Metropolitan Police and the stadium operators -are joining in this enquiry. And also typically two Conservative MPs – Mark Field and Damian Collins – have chipped in saying that if the bad behaviour continues West Ham should be made to play home games behind closed doors if bad behaviour continues. But they are wrong. 

First of all why close the ground when it is clear that the pond life that is causing this nonsense is a tiny minority of West Ham fans? Then factor in the fact that the fans of whatever team West Ham might be playing in any future behind closed door games are innocent. They haven’t taken part in any trouble why should they be punished? Remember UEFA did that to innocent Manchester City fans in the 2014-15 Champions League while punishing CSKA Moscow for racist behaviour. Punishing innocent fans is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. It is unnecessary. 

I’ve got two solutions. One uncontroversial one  controversial. Try punishing the guilty not the innocent. There is CCTV at the London Stadium as there is at other grounds. The authorities should identify the cretins who misbehaved on Wednesday and ban them from every ground in the UK for life. No if not buts no second chances. If the law does not allow that the Government should change it. If Field and Collins want to do something useful they can pressurise the Government to make this change if the law does not allow life bans.

My second plan won’t be popular. Because the London Stadium has a capacity of 60,010 far more than their old ground Upton Park (35,016) West Ham cut their ticket prices. Now that makes sense – except I reckon it is the cutting of prices that has caused the hooliganism. Popular opinion thinks that the behaviour of fans has improved since the bad old days of the 1970s and 80s. But I don’t. I suspect that the hooligans were always there -it is just that the move to all seater stadiums and the rise in prices that caused priced the hooligans out of the game and now that prices at West Ham have gone down the yobs have returned. To back me up I don’t recall trouble inside Upton Park last season (the Manchester United team bus was pelted with bottles and coins at West Ham’s last ever game at Upton Park but that was outside the ground). Maybe it is a coincidence that trouble at West Ham has gone up when prices have gone down but it is an awfully big coincidence.

That doesn’t mean prices should go up for everybody. We know it is young men who mainly cause trouble at football matches. So keep cheap admission prices for children, families and pensioners. But prices for adults going on their own and for groups of young men should go up. It would be unfair and in the ideal world should not need to happen. But until men learn to behave themselves at football that is a price they will have to pay. Sure West Ham might not fill their stadium if they do that. But if they don’t and trouble continues at the London Stadium the football authorities might – despite my opinion – force West Ham to play in front of no fans at all. And that will be far far worse for them….
  

Why Allardyce leaving could be a blessing in disguise

Just when you think the England men’s national football team could not sink any lower after June’s humiliating Euro 2016 defeat by Iceland they do. It has to be said in fairness that this time it is not the players that are to blame it is the now ex manager Sam Allardyce. Just sixty seven days – and one game – after being appointed on Tuesday Allardyce left his England post by “mutual consent”. The FA had no other option.

Allardyce’s reign came to an end as a result of a “sting” by British newspaper the Daily Telegraph. Allardyce met with two bogus businessmen who offered him £400,000 for being “a keynote speaker”. He also made plenty of controversial remarks criticising predecessor Roy Hodgson saying he’d send them (the England players) off to sleep. He criticised his own players for being physiologically weak, and his own employers the FA for wasting £870 million on redeveloping Wembley. In both those cases a lot of fans would probably agree with him but it’s not a very good thing to criticise your players and your bosses.

If that is all he said he might – might – have survived. But something else he said sealed his fate. He said that there are ways around the FA’s ban on third party ownership – that is the rule brought in by the FA in 2008 where individuals have a stake in the ownership of a player rather than him being owned wholly by his club. Whether you think the rule is a good idea or not is irrelevant. No one in any industry would survive being caught giving people advice on how to get around the rules of their own employers. Once that remark appeared in the Telegraph it was all over for Allardyce. 

Predictably this week’s events have been called a disaster for English football. It is certainly embarrassing. TV pundit Rio Ferdinand said the affair made English football look ludicrous. And yet long term this could be a blessing in disguise for English football as the FA made a dreadful mistake appointing Allardyce in the first place and by making a fool of himself in the press he has given the FA a chance to redeem themselves and get rid of him before his appointment could cause much damage.

An article in yesterday’s Sun by Neil Ashton showed why Allardyce was unqualified for the job. The article said even his own wife did not want Allardyce to take the job as she knew what he was like when he started guzzling pints of lager. Apparently he was famous for his boozing sessions that lasted until 3 am. Earlier this month he apparently had a monumental night out with his coaching staff Sammy Lee and Craig Shakespeare. The next day he turned up for work and a number of FA staff said his breath reeked of alcohol. How on earth is that guy fit to manage a school team never mind his national team? 

But although it was the UK press that brought Allardyce down they cannot be exempt from criticism either. They must have known about his boozing. Also the Ashton article yesterday mentioned Allardyce’s “skewed social views” and that “his comments about females have bordered on sexism”. So why did the press not expose them? They were quick enough – quite rightly – to slaughter Malky MacKay and José Mourinho for sexist behaviour but somehow they didn’t expose Allardyce’s remarks. Even Ashton admitted that they should have exposed him “Shame on us, if the truth be told”. Shows that football thinks that crimes against itself – ie corruption – are more serious than crimes against society – ie sexism (Allardyce was brought down during an ongoing Telegraph investigation into corruption – no UK paper has investigated into sexism in football). It is highly likely that Allardyce would have been brought down by some scandal anyway and had it come say a month before the World Cup in 2018 it would been a disaster. 

But it’s not just Allardyce that is a problem – its English football managers generally. Chelsea fan David Baddiel said in an article about Mourinho in the Radio Times in 2014 that today’s English managers – Allardyce, Steve Bruce, Alan Curbishley, Alan Pradew, Harry Redknapp – could have managed in 1954. That is not a compliment. It is very possible that there are hidden sexist views among those men – in fact Bruce questioned the rape conviction of Ched Evans – how would he know he wasn’t in court for his trial.

It is clear that most British managers are unfit for purpose – it is interesting that most of the Telegraph’s corruption allegations so far have been against British managers and assistant managers. If I were the FA I would not even consider appointing an English manager. There is a reason why the elite Premier League clubs avoid English managers. It is because they are stuck in the 1950s and they represent a horrible macho culture that really should have died long ago. The Allardyce scandal has given the FA a chance to atone for its mistake in appointing him and instead appoint a progressive foreign manager. It is interesting that according to the book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (page 370) that Fabio Capello was the most successful England manager (in terms of win percentage) of all time and Sven Goran Eriksson was fourth both way ahead of Steve McLaren who was manager between the two foreigners (and therefore had the same players to choose from). England’s cricket and rugby teams have been improved by foreign coaches after disastrous 2015 World Cup campaigns under Englishmen. If the FA take heed of this and appoint a progressive foreign manager the Allardyce shambles could be a blessing in disguise.

Why international football is becoming a nuisance

This is a fortnight where the most boring event of the football season takes place the international break. The two words “international” and “break” are the most depressing combination of words – apart from “Donald” and “Trump” and “Vince” and “Russo” – that the English language can produce. The Premier League season has just got started we’re getting used to the new players and managers we’ve had the Champions League draw – and no we go to sleep for a fortnight. International breaks are so boring. And I’ve got a plan to get rid of them and I’ll get to that later.

If the boredom that the international break was the only problem international football causes that would be bad enough. But it is now causing another abomination that started last night. Namely the  Checkatrade Trophy (what a terrible name!). But that is not the Trophy’s only problem. The competition used to be for League 1 and 2 (3rd and 4th tier) clubs and gave them their most realistic chance of a Wembley Cup Final appearance*. The Football League (FL) in their infinite (lack of) wisdom decided to include Academy teams of Premier League (PL) clubs. But the plan has not gone well to put it mildly. First of all Liverpool, Arsenal,the two Manchester clubs and Tottenham wanted nothing to do with it meaning that Academies from Championship (second tier) sides were put in to make up the numbers. Secondly the fans of lower division clubs did not approve of the idea (to put it mildly). Last night the hashtag B team Boycott was trending on Twitter and attendances were tiny – 392 at Fleetwood, 461 at Wimbledon and 585 at Accrington for example. And to show how seriously clubs took it Wycombe manager Gareth Ainsworth – who is aged 43 and retired three years ago – named himself as substitute for his club’s game against Northampton and came on. Exeter manager Paul Tisdale named himself as an unused substitute and three teams had 15 year olds in their squads one of whom – Luton – had to ask permission of Connor Tomlinson’s headmaster to let him play (in my opinion the headmaster should have refused. As I wrote in a previous post “Hey football! Leave Them Kids Alone!” 15 year olds should not be at professional clubs anyway).

So if the fans don’t want this tournament in this format and the clubs are so disinterested they are filling their squads with 43 year old managers and schoolchildren why on earth does it exist in its current form? This is where international football is to blame. The practice of top division Academy/B teams has been borrowed from Spain where B teams of top division clubs play in the lower divisions. They can go as far as the second tier but cannot be promoted to the top division even if they finish in the promotion spots (which Atletico Madrid’s B team did in 1998-99). Now because Spain won three international trophies in a row between 2008 and 2012 the English authorities have got into their heads that Spain are doing something right so they want to copy Spain thinking it will improve the England team. Conveniently forgetting that before 2008 Spain had won nothing for 44 years and even botched their own World Cup in 1982. Secondly the authorities don’t realise that most football fans -at whatever level of the game – prefer their own clubs to the national team. I don’t think fans should be forced to see their team play Premier League Academy teams or go through yawn inducing breaks or lose their top players just to prop up a form of the game that is inferior to club football-as Euro 2016 proved – and is discriminatory because your chances of winning at international level depends on a lottery of birth which is not fair.

In my ideal world men’s international football would cease to exist. But since we are not in an ideal world we should allow the clubs to play on Saturday, the national team on Wednesday and the clubs on the next Saturday. And there is an easy solution. The European qualifying process for the 2018 World Cup consists of nine six team groups. The group winners qualify while the eight best runners up go into four playoffs for four more places. Why not have thirteen groups of four teams with the winners qualifying?  It would mean countries playing six qualifiers instead of ten (or twelve in the case of play offs.) It would simplify the qualifying process as only group winners would qualify. With fewer games then you could play them midweek or in the summer – as was done in Britain until the Qualifiers for the 1994 World Cup – you could get rid of yawn inducing international breaks. 

Getting rid of the Checkatrade Trophy in its current form and the international break might not please the FA and FIFA – who have a vested interest in international football as it maintains their power – but most football fans prefer club football and they should not have to put up with the Checkatrade Trophy in its current form or boring international breaks on the (unlikely) chance it helps a team they don’t give a toss about be able to beat Iceland in a last sixteen game in a future international tournament. 

*However fourth teir team Bradford City did get to the League Cup Final in 2013. 

**Originally there were seven groups of six and two groups of five but Gibraltar and Kosovo were added to the tournament after the draw was made. Ludicrous. They joined FIFA too late and should not be allowed to take part – especially Gibraltar which is not even an independent country and will only get hammered anyway.

Scottish football goes back to the 1970s. It won’t work.

Imagine a parallel universe where England won their Euro 2016 group and Germany did not without the results of any games in their groups being different from what they actually were. Seems ridiculous – but the ridiculous rules of Scotland’s BetFred (League) Cup, had they applied to the tournament in France last month would have the above scenarios entirely possible.

The BetFred Cup has started with a group stage format. It has eight groups of five teams who play each other once. The group winners plus the best four runners up go through to the last sixteen where they will be joined by Aberdeen, Celtic, Hearts and Hibs the country’s four European representatives.

So far so logical. But for reasons best known to themselves the authorities have come up with a ridiculous points system. There are three points for a win and one for a draw just like there usually is. The difference is that if a game is a draw both teams get one point but there is a penalty shootout after 90 minutes and the winner of the shootout get an extra point. And if you’re wondering why this system has been adopted join the club.

Had this format been used in the recent Euro 2016 tournament it could have changed the whole story of the event. For example Wales won Group B with a record of two wins and one defeat while England were second with a record of a win and two draws. Now imagine that drawn games ended in a penalty shootout with an extra point. Had England won only one of their shootouts after their draws with Russia and Slovakia – hard though it is to imagine England winning any penalty shootout – they would have finished on six points and topped the group ahead of Wales on the head to head rule despite an inferior record and an inferior goal difference. Hardly fair. While in Group C Germany and Poland both won their games against Ukraine and Northern Ireland and drew with each other Germany having the better goal difference. Had the BetFred Cup rules applied Poland could have (though it would have been unlikely) won the penalty shootout and topped the group with the same record and an inferior goal difference!

There is no justification for having a penalty shootout after a draw in a group game. It’s just an experiment for an experiment’s sake a swerve for the sake of a swerve it’s as if Vince Russo was booking the BetFred Cup. A totally unnecessary change that no one was clamering for.

In fact it’s worse than that. It is a massive step backwards. For the League Cup in Scotland had this format from when the competition started in 1946-47 until 1977-78 when they finally realised that the format was not working. It dragged on far too long and produced far too many games. In 1983-84 the authorities made the League Cup a straight knockout with one off games that had to produce a winner on the night. A far more sensible logical format. Why they have reintroduced this format I don’t know. There was no demand for the fans for it and attendances have been terrible. Yesterday the highest crowd in the fifteen games was a pathetic 3020. The League Cup should either be scrapped or go back to a knockout format.

But it is not the only example of Scottish football wanting to go back to the 1970s. A lot of people for some reason want to go back to an 18 team top division even though it was cut down in 1975 because it was rubbish. The German Bundesliga’s top division has eighteen. Does anyone think a country with a population of five million can have the same number of teams in its top division as a country of over 80 million? Another example is Celtic bringing back “safe standing” which in my opinion is an oxymoron. Terraces were banned after Hillsborough and should remain so. If the Scottish Government won’t ban then the UK Government should. Unbelievably some people want alcohol to be sold at Scottish football grounds but surely the appalling behaviour of Hibs fans at this year’s Cup Final would convince even useless ex Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy that football fans cannot be trusted to behave themselves after a drink in the ground when they can’t behave themselves when alcohol is at grounds.

The new format of the League Cup, the return of terracing, the proposed 16 team top division and the proposed return of alcohol at grounds all have something in common. Between 1975 and 1989 they were all got rid of because they were unsuccessful or caused crowd trouble. So what sane person thinks that bringing back things that failed in the 1970s will work now? Yes Scottish football is a basket case. Scotland were the only British Isles country not to qualify for Euro 2016. This season has barely started and Scottish clubs have already lost to opposition from Luxembourg, Malta and even Gibraltar. So Scottish football needs to change. But the changes must not bring us back to the 1970s. Instead we must look to  countries like Norway, Sweden and especially Euro 2016 quarter finalists Iceland for lessons. One thing is sure. Going back to the 1970s will not work.

Manchester United’s “huge contribution” to women’s football

Every Team Needs A Ron

“The decision was taken some years ago to concentrate on girls’ football as a community activity.  We have since developed that to include elite girls’ development through our Centre of Excellence.  The Club has made a huge contribution to the game through its top level coaching of girls.  At the moment, the Club has no plans to extend that activity to a senior women’s team but the situation is under review.”

– Response at recent Manchester United Fan Forum

“At Manchester United we provide opportunities for girls to play football at the highest level, with the aim of developing international players.”

– Club website, Manchester United Foundation

Manchester United generally respond to questions about why they don’t have a team for women with the line that they have a girl’s centre of excellence. They, I quote, have made a “huge contribution to the game” and aim “of developing international players”.

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