Tag Archives: Euro 2016

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.

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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.

England need to play without fear 

Well that did not go well (to say the least). Last night England crashed out of Euro 2016 after a humiliating 2-1 defeat to little Iceland a country with a population of just 330000 (to put this into perspective Wayne Rooney has 13.2 MILLION Twitter followers 40 TIMES the population of Iceland!) After this horrific defeat manager Roy Hodgson – like UK Prime Minister David Cameron after his defeat in the country’s EU referendum last Thursday – promptly resigned. Unlike Cameron he is going at once.

Predictably the reaction was hostile with players like Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling being crucified by fans and in the press and the number of foreign players in the Premier League and the high wages in the League. But the fact that another UK team Wales are still in the tournament should debunk the first argument – if foreign players in the Premier League were stopping England from being successful it would also stop Wales but it has not. If high wages in football was the reason England underachieved well Wales star player Gareth Bale is on high wages at Real Madrid but no one has suggested that he is not trying.

To my mind one of England’s problems is fear of failure. English fans and press expect so much of their players – god knows why as for most of their post war history they have not been good. But this expectation can cripple players with fear. If you are scared of failure you don’t take risks. But if you don’t take risks you won’t win – ever heard of the saying “fortune favours the brave?”. But England’s players are scared to take risks as risks can cause mistakes – and if they make mistakes they will get slaughtered. If I had a pound for every time someone on Twitter called an England player a “cunt” I could afford to buy Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo! Frankly if I were an England player I would not play international football. Why play extra games and get grief from the fans when you could stay with your club and be a hero? 

In contrast Wales and the two Irelands have adopted a “we’re happy to be here” attitude and have played without fear. And coincidentally – or maybe not – they have played better. Even when the Republic of Ireland were beaten 3-0 by Belgium and outclassed they were not criticised by their fans. The same also applies to Iceland. They are happy to be there, enjoying themselves and playing without fear.And they are playing well.

Another England team in another sport is an example of what I mean. Last year the England cricket team were pathetic in the World Cup. They got knocked out by Bangladesh – a less embarrassing defeat than the one the football team suffered yesterday but still humiliating. And like the football team the cricket team were safety first and scared of failure – which in a self fulfilling prophecy promptly happened.

But it is what happened after the World Cup that is significant. Since the World Cup the England one day team has been encouraged by coach Trevor Bayliss to be more aggressive and play with no fear. The result is a team playing exciting cricket, playing without fear and actually looking like they want to play international cricket. Ironically their results in one day cricket have been inconsistent – their record since last year’s World Cup is only 11 wins and nine losses which is nothing to write home about but a big improvement on what had gone before. Plus the team is a pleasure to watch and is prepared to take risks in order to win. Neither of which applies to the England football team that played in France last night.

England do have promising young players – they were the second youngest team in Euro 2016. But until England start playing without fear and start taking risks in order to win they are going nowhere. The England team are being crippled by both a fear of failure and traditional british conservatism (manager Hodgson’s selections were very safety first and it is interesting that the England player who played with least fear was the youngest member of the squad Marcus Rashford who came on too late to make a difference against Iceland).

Until England become like the cricket team and play with no fear they are going nowhere. Leicester City won the Premier League last season with the slogan “Fearless”. If you play with a fear of failure guess what? You fail. Until England change they are going nowhere. Playing without fear can lead to defeat. But guess what? England are losing already. So at worst playing without fear means they still fail. But it could very well lead to better results. Fortune favours the brave. And surely England fans must agree it can’t get worse than last night….

Who will rule Europe?

June is “Europe month” with the UK’s EU referendum dominating the political news (I’ll get to that in a future post) while in sport the main event is Euro 2016 the European Men’s football championship which starts in Paris on Friday.

The first thing I’ll say is that the tournament is far too big now with 24 teams in it. From 1996 to 2012 the Euros had a perfect format. Sixteen countries playing in four groups of four teams with the top two in each group going through to the last eight and the tournament then being played in a knockout format. Sixteen teams meant most of the big teams qualified but minnows still had a chance (Slovenia in 2000 and Latvia in 2004 being the best examples). No one – except disgraced former UEFA President Michel Plattini – thought the Euros needed expansion but there you go. In the ideal world now that Plattini has been banned from football UEFA should do with him what WWE did with Chris Benoit and wipe him out from history.

But they won’t so we are stuck with 24 teams which means four third place teams will qualify and that it takes 36 games to knock out 8 teams. With that all said what might happen in France during June and July? Let’s take a look at the groups.

Group A – France, Romania, Albania, Switzerland. It is a joke that host nations get easy groups at major tournaments and on paper this group is weak. Not that France need the help. France unlike most countries do well at home. They are the only country since 1978 to win the World Cup or Euros at home. In fact they have won them both – the Euros in 1984 and the World Cup in 1998. Plus their current team is loaded with talent – Paul Pogba, Kingsley Coman, N’Golo Kante the unsung hero of Leicester’s title win, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial among others. Add one of the best keepers in the world in Hugo Lloris and you have a formidable side. Add to that the fact that coach Didier Deschamps had the good sense to leave underachieving trouble maker Karim Benzema out of the squad and France have a great chance of going all the way.

They have little to fear from the rest of Group A. Romania might have been unbeaten in qualifying but drew half their games and finished behind Northern Ireland in a poor group, Switzerland lost twice to England in qualifying and Albania are finals debutants. Second place will be between Romania and Switzerland and if they both beat Albania and draw with each other they will both likely go through.

Group B – England, Russia, Wales, Slovakia. England are the team with the youngest average age in the tournament.Young stars like Harry Kane, Ross Barkley and Deli Ali could shine. Two problems for England are do they play record scorer Wayne Rooney and can the defence which has looked dodgy cope? Quarter Finals at best.The group is not easy. 2018 World Cup hosts Russia have improved since sacking Fabio Capello (which probably won’t surprise England fans) and Slovakia beat Spain in qualifying, Germany in a friendly last week and put holders Italy out of the 2010 World Cup so could be dangerous. The big danger could be Wales. Wales are a team of journeymen who depend too much on Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale and could be out of their depth. But the game against England on June 16th will be a British style Cup tie which will be a classic banana skin for England. If they get through that they should top the group with Russia and Slovakia following them.

Group C – Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Northern Ireland. As World Cup holders Germany should be favourites but struggled – by their standards – to qualify losing in Poland and not beating the Republic of Ireland home or away. In friendlies they have lost in France, at home to England and at home to Slovakia. But its Germany we are talking about, most of the 2014 team are still there and anything short of a semi final is unthinkable. Poland whose star player Bayern Munich’s Robert Lewandovski is well known in Germany are the main threat. Ukraine and Northern Ireland – who like Wales did well to qualify but could be out of their depth – look below the quality of Germany and Poland and the third placed team in this group could miss out.

Group D – Spain, Czech Republic, Turkey, Croatia. Spain are two time defending European Champions still have Sergio Ramos, Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fabregas in their squad plus David de Gea the best goalkeeper in the world. However I think they peaked in 2012 when they thrashed Italy 4-0 in the final to win Euro 2012. They will do better their pathetic defence of the World Cup in 2014 but won’t win the tournament. The rest of the group is unpredictable.  Croatia are always dark horses, the Czechs always overachieve in the Euros and Turkey had a sensational run to the Semi Finals in 2008. Croatia would be my favourites for second place but there are no no hopers in this group.

Group E – Belgium, Italy, Republic of Ireland, Sweden. This group could contain teams that will underachieve. Belgium on paper are scary  but some big names had poor Premier League seasons – Eden Hazard did not score a League goal until April, Christian Benteke was 32 million down the drain at Liverpool and keeper Thibaut Courtois got sent off twice. On paper they are formidable but they are less than the sum of their parts and I don’t think they go past the last eight. Italy could be another big name to underachieve. They are short of goals and got hammered 4-1 in a friendly in Germany. But they still have Gigi Buffon one of the best keepers in the world and usually do better in tournaments than their talent suggests they should (though this did not apply in the last two World Cups). And nothing is guaranteed with Sweden and the mercurial Zlatan Ibrahimovic and a Republic of Ireland team who played Germany twice in qualifying without losing both capable of causing upsets in the tournament ‘s toughest group.

Group F – Portugal, Iceland, Austria, Hungary. This group is unlikely to produce the winner but it is the stage for Europe’s best player Cristiano Ronaldo. However great players do not best great teams. Ronaldo has helped Portugal to semi finals in the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012 but they went no further and that will be the case again. Austria could be a surprise team. They won nine out of ten in qualifying – in a group that included Russia and Sweden. They have a star player in David Alaba plus another Leicester hero in Christian Fuchs and if they maintain their qualifying form they could emulate teams like Turkey (2008) and Czech Republic (1996, 2004) who have overachieved at Euros. Of all the debutants Iceland (population 300,000) are the most unlikely (because of the size of the country). But in another sense they are not surprising qualifiers. The book “Soccernomics” by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski (pages 238-260) claimed that Iceland is the most fanatical football country in Europe. A higher percentage of Icelandic people watched the 2010 World Cup on TV than any other country in Europe even though they had no team in the tournament. I suspect that with their own team in the event the audience will be even bigger. I think they will get to  the last 16 in third place ahead of Hungary which would be a remarkable achievement.

If I were to predict the tournament I would say France, Germany and Spain are a class above with Portugal, England and perhaps Italy as Semi Final candidates. Poland, Sweden and Austria could cause surprises but Belgium could be surprise underachievers. And if I were to predict a winner I would say France.

What I sincerely hope for is that the tournament passes without incident. France suffered two terrorist attacks last year – one of them at a France v Germany friendly. Just keep your fingers crossed that there is no terrorism and that Euro 2016 can rise above its ridiculous format to give us a memorable month of football.

 

A memo to the UK FAs : Please let these women go to Rio

So England’s women gave Norway “a hell of a beating”. Well they didn’t really. They were poor in the first half and relied on their keeper Karen Bardsley to bail them out. But once captain Steph Houghton scored an unexpected equaliser England took control and the winning goal by Lucy Bronze (a defender by the way) was magnificent and would not have been disowned by a Premier League player. So onwards and upwards and with the unimpressive hosts Canada in wait there is a 50-50 chance this story continues past Saturday.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. As I wrote in another post the top three European finishers in this event go to the Olympics in Rio next year. There are four European teams left in the event.  England France and Germany are already in the Quarter Finals and Holland play defending champions Japan tonight – and are expected to lose. If they do there will be three European teams left and the issue of Olympic qualification will be sorted out.

Except it won’t be. Because England can’t take part. FIFA have given the other three UK FAs – Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – a veto over the women’s participation in the Olympics. And guess what? They have vetoed it. This is absolutely shameful.

Now the reason the three FAs have given for this is that they are scared that if the England women took part in the Olympics as Team GB they would lose their independent voice in FIFA and lose their own football teams. That is the reason they give But it is false. FIFA have said there is no threat – and male and female GB teams took part in the 2012 Olympics and the four UK teams are still there. I don’t think there is any reason to fear that one.

They are not scared of losing their separate national teams. What they are scared of is losing their privileges. The five star hotels. The luxury flights. The right to travel around the world. The right to have a veto over the laws of football (the four UK FAs have four votes out of eight on the International Football Association Board (IFAB) which controls the laws of football). The right of the UK to provide one of FIFA’s vice Presidents. That is what they are scared of.

The funny thing is that these three FAs claim to support women’s football. Tripe. Utter tripe. If these idiots cared about women’s football they will recognise that the Olympics are vital to women’s football. The last Olympics (with its 73,000 gate for GB V Brazil and its 80,000 gate for the Final) proved this. Any FA that cared about women’s football should snatch at the chance that last night’s victory might have given England.

The UK Government should intervene. If the English FA won’t “go it alone” and ignore the other three then all male professional football in England should be shut down from August 1st. It is easy enough done. All male football grounds in England need a licence to be able to stage matches. it would be easy to take the licences away. Faced with a catastrophic loss of income and pressure from the big English clubs  the FA would buckle – and very quickly.

If Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland don’t agree Swansea should be thrown out of the English Premier League. Wales should not be allowed to be British when it suits them and Welsh when it does not. I admire Swansea but they have to be sacrificed for the greater good. The Welsh have their own League. If they don’t want to have a GB women’s team they should not be taking part in the Premier League.

Also Scotland Wales and Northern Ireland should be pulled out of the men’s Euro 2016. Easy enough done. All you need to do is take the passports of the players away so they can’t go abroad. All three have a chance of being at Euro 2016. I reckon even the threat of them not being able to take part will make the three FAs back down.

These plans are draconian – but would not be needed. I suspect even the threat would force “the three dinosaurs” to back down. The reason they give for not letting the women go to the Olympics is fear of the loss of privileges. If you threaten them with just that they will back down.

Last month UK Prime Minister David Cameron appointed Tracey Crouch – a former player now a coach – as Sports Minister. She clearly cares about women’s football. Now is her chance to put her money where her mouth is. She should say that England’s women MUST go to the Olympics next year. She should persuade. She should threaten. She should bang heads together. She should NOT take no for an answer. For the good of women’s football in the UK do it Tracey. These women (assuming Holland don’t upset the applecart and beat Japan) have EARNED the right to take part in the Olympics. The outdated, sexist, parochial and pathetic Scottish Welsh and Northern Irish FAs should NOT be allowed to take that away from them. if they do, their men should have Euro 2016 taken away from them. See how they like something that means a lot to them being taken away …

England v San Marino : A travesty of sport

England’s male football team are back in action on Thursday night but whatever you do, don’t bet on them winning. The odds at the bookmakers on an England win are 100-1 ON. That means to win £1 you have to risk £100. Even for something which is the nearest thing to a dead cert in sport it is not worth the effort.
The reason for it being a dead cert that England will win on Thursday is they are playing San Marino the worst team in the world. San Marino have never won in 113 competitive matches in the World Cup and European Championship qualifiers losing 111 and drawing 2. They have lost 64 competitive matches in a row and haven’t avoided defeat since 2001. The only question is how many England will win by. And that is not what sport should be about.
And San Marino are not an isolated case. There are a lot of “toy town republics” polluting football – very small nations who have little or no chance of winning. Another example is Andorra who have lost 45 qualifiers in a row and last avoided defeat in 2005. And UEFA – whose approach to new members reminds you of what the late Edna Krabappel said in the Simpsons when Bart’s class got a new pupil (in Episode 8F22 “Bart’s Friend Falls in Love”) “Great. Just keep packing them in Seymour” – have added another useless new member. Namely Gibraltar – who lost their first competitive game 7-0 at “home” in Portugal – yes they don’t have a ground of their own – and are likely to be no more than another source of futile victories.
The funny thing is it is only in Europe this farce happens. In Africa, Asia, North America and even 11 member Oceania there is a preliminary round to root out the weakest members. So why does UEFA not have one? Answer: the tail wags the dog. Every nation has a vote -and there are 54 of them – which means the long tail of small nations wags the dog of the big nations and no call for a preliminary round would get a majority as it would be a case of “turkeys voting for an early Christmas” as was memorably said in another context by former UK PM James Callaghan. So what is to be done? The big countries must flex their muscles and say we will boycott Euro 2016 and al other international events until there is a preliminary round to weed out all the rubbish. And ITV who have to televise England v San Marino (good luck with that ratings turkey) and all other TV companies should say UEFA should not get a euro until the likes of San Marino are rooted out. If UEFA are threatened with the loss of TV money it would change their position. Besides the Euro 2016 qualifiers have eight groups of six teams and one of five. Get rid of eight teams and you have nine groups of five – fewer, more competitive games. And sport is meant to be exciting, competitive and unpredictable. The only thing unpredictable about Thursday will be how many goals England will score.
In contrast the baseball postseason has been magnificent providing great entertainment drama and unpredictability – everything sport should be. Eight of the first thirteen games have been decided by one run* and the unexpected has been common. Who’d have thought the As would blow a four run lead in the eighth with Jon Lester on the mound? Or the Dodgers would lead 6-1 with Clayton Kershaw pitching – and lose? Or that the first game of the 2014 World Series will be in either Baltimore or Kansas City? Who knows what twists and turns this amazing postseason will throw up next? The Nationals were 2-0 down to the Giants after two games(One of which was an amazing eighteen inning six hours plus marathon). They’ve pulled one back. It is quite possible that they will win the series 3-2 – as the Giants themselves did to the Reds in 2012.
In the baseball postseason anything can happen. In the England v San Marino game we know what will happen. That is why this game is a travesty of sport. It should not be taking place. And I won’t be watching it.
*Not counting game three between the Dodgers and Cardinals which I have Sky plused but not watched yet.