Tag Archives: Manchester City

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.

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! 

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 1)

The unthinkable has happened. Leicester City who started the season at 5000-1 to win the Premier League title, were favourites for relegation pre season and whose manager Claudio Ranieri was rated favourite to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked have won the Premier League. In my opinion the biggest shock in sport since Nottingham Forest won the title in 1978 (see previous post “Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands Miracle”). I know you get shocks in sport. But they are usually in one off Cup ties or fights (ie Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson or Holly Holm beating Ronda Rousey). But Leicester’s success is in a gruelling 38 game August to May marathon. There are no shortcuts to winning the title. Whoever wins it thoroughly deserves to. And Leicester do.

But how have they done it? I decided to pick out in my opinion what the key games were in the season (not all Leicester games).  This is quite a long list so I have split it in two. In this part : The key Premier League games in the first 19 rounds of matches (August 8- December 29).

1. Leicester 4 Sunderland 2. Must start with Leicester’s first game. Expected to achieve nothing but try and avoid relegation Leicester roared into a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes (two from Riyad Mahrez and one from Jamie Vardy a sign of things to come). The game finished 4-2 and can be called a declaration of intent. No one was paying attention for on the same day this happened…

2. Chelsea 2 Swansea 2. Enough has been written about this  game already but Chelsea’s failure to win and the Mourinho/Carneiro shambles was the first sign of a key early season event.  The implosion of the reigning champions. Arsenal fans enjoyed it. Until the next day…

3. Arsenal 0 West Ham 2. In a season of shocks the first one. Arsenal were convinced the signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea was the key to winning the title but his debut was poor and a West Ham team including 16 year old Reece Oxford produced a famous away win. Not their last either.

4. Manchester City 3 Chelsea 0.The first heavyweight clash of the season turned into a catch-weight contest. City were awesome Chelsea were awful. City looked like they would take advantage of Chelsea’s implosion and romp away with the title…

5. Chelsea 1 Crystal Palace 2. It’s one thing losing away to Manchester City but to Crystal Palace? At home? A sign that things were going seriously wrong for Chelsea.

6. Leicester 3 Aston Villa 2.This game defined two seasons. Since their first day win Leicester had won one and drew two without people noticing. When Villa were 2-0 up with 18 minutes to go it looked like Leicester’s unbeaten run was over. Instead goals by Ritchie de Laet, Vardy and Nathan Dyer propelled Leicester to a sensational victory. Leicester gained confidence, Villa lost it. In my opinion the key game of the season for both Leicester and Villa who went down without a whimper.

7. Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0. A sign of Arsenal’s mental fragility. The Gunners allowed themselves to be provoked by Diego Costa losing both the game and two men throwing doubts yet again on their ability to cope with the pressure of a title race.

8. Stoke 2 Leicester 2. Leicester up to their old tricks again. 2-0 down at half time but yet another fightback brought goals by Mahrez and Vardy and showed Leicester’s “never say die” spirit.

9. Manchester City 1 West Ham 2. City had won five out of five scoring eleven and conceding none. They looked unstoppable… until West Ham who had already won at Arsenal and Liverpool caused more mayhem going 2-0 up. City pulled one back before half time but their aura of invincibility had gone and did not return.

10. Southampton 2 Leicester 2. And again. By now Leicester had lost a game (2-5 to Arsenal) and people thought the bubble had burst. At St Mary’s they went 2-0 down (again) and fought back to claim a point (again) with Vardy scoring two (again). Leicester sending a message that they never give up!

11. Leicester 1 Crystal Palace 0. Vardy scored again (for the seventh game running) but this is more significant for it being  Leicester’s first clean sheet in their tenth game. Ranieri rewarded his players with pizzas!

12. Manchester United 0 Manchester City 0. A terrible game but I’ve mentioned it as it showed that the Manchester clubs – who had won four of the last five titles – were not the force they were and the title race was wide open…

13.  Chelsea 1 Liverpool 3. …Especially as Chelsea were not recovering. Jurgen Klopp’s first great result as Liverpool manager kept Chelsea marooned in the bottom half and piled the pressure on Mourinho.

14. Newcastle 0 Leicester 3. An easy win over a pathetic Newcastle with Vardy scoring for the tenth successive match equaling the Premier League record. I’ve mentioned this game as it was the day Leicester went top for the first time (November 21). Still they wouldn’t last long surely…

15. Stoke 2 Manchester City 0. And they didn’t. Held by Manchester United despite Vardy setting a Premier League record by scoring for the eleventh game in a row they lost top spot to the other half of Manchester. But the next week a terrible performance by City gave Stoke an easy win and if Leicester won that afternoon they would return to the top..

16. Swansea 0 Leicester 3. Which they did. Despite Vardy failing to score a hat trick by the brilliant Mahrez sent Leicester back to the top and cost Swansea manager Garry Monk his job. Still they had not beaten a big team said their critics…

17. Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 1. Although United were near the top of the table their performances had been poor and they had just been knocked out of the Champions League. An embarrassing defeat to Premier League new boys Bournemouth piled on the pressure on Louis van Gaal and United’s title ambitions faded away.

18. Leicester 2 Chelsea 1. A significant game as Leicester gained their first win of the season against one of the “big five”. Vardy and Mahrez scored in a game which is also significant for the fact Chelsea finally sacked Mourinho after this defeat. They only lost two more League games after this but it was far too late for them.

19. Everton 2 Leicester 3. Notable for the fact that this clinched Leicester top spot in the table on Christmas Day. But everyone thought they would come down with the decorations….

20. Southampton 4 Arsenal 0…Especially when Leicester lost at Liverpool on Boxing Day. If Arsenal won at Southampton they would go top. But they crumpled to a humiliating defeat that caused more questions about their ability to sustain a title bid. They would end 2015 top when Leicester and Manchester City drew 0-0 but still with lots of questions to answer.

21. Manchester United 0 Chelsea 0. The Premier League’s fallen giants showing how far they had fallen. It was clear after this game that the duo who had won all but two of the titles since 2005 were not going to win it this season and that the door was wide open. Even for little old Leicester…

Part two coming up….

On the progress of women’s football in England

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*Who STILL don’t have a women’s team.

Put the League Cup out of its misery

People in English football are getting concerned about the diminished status of the FA Cup. This was shown last Sunday when Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini fielded a very weakened team in the fifth round – against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge. Not surprisingly his team of youngsters got hammered 5-1 much to the disappointed of the BBC TV audience. Pellegrini picked this team because he wanted to prioritise the Champions League tie against Dynamo Kiev on Wednesday and the League Cup Final against Liverpool tomorrow. People have suggested scrapping replays, offering the winner of the Cup a place in the Champions League (whether or not UEFA would allow that is highly debatable) or “rigging” the draw so that if a lower division club drew a Premier League team it would automatically have home advantage). But there is a simple solution staring every one in the face – scrap the League Cup.

The League Cup has existed for 55 years which is a long time for a bad idea to last even by the standards of UK sport. The competition was called “Hardaker’s folly” after the man who proposed it Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker. Hardaker was anti Europe* –  in 1955 he browbeat English Champions Chelsea into snubbing the first European Cup – and saw the new competition as an alternative to European Football. But the Times Newspaper (May 30th 1960) called the League Cup “useless”.  At the start the League Cup was not popular. Plenty of First Division clubs refused to enter and in its first season the Cup’s average attendance was 10,556 barely more than the average third division attendance.

The League Cup might have died a death but two events saved it. In 1967 the League Cup Final was moved to Wembley and UEFA inexplicably offered the winners a place in the UEFA Cup. Only then did all 92 Football League clubs enter the competition but it was never as highly regarded as the FA Cup or European competitions. Examples : No third division club has ever even reached the FA Cup Final. Two third division clubs have won the League Cup (QPR 1967, Swindon 1969) and two Fourth tier clubs have reached the Final (Rochdale 1962, Bradford as recently as 2013). No fourth tier team has even reached the FA Cup Semi Finals. In 1974-75 not one top division club reached even the Semi Finals. Admittedly (see earlier post) 1974-75 was a bit of a “silly season” and two of the Semi Finalists were Manchester United and Aston Villa who are usually top division clubs while another of the quartet Norwich City are a current Premier League club. Only fourth division Chester were real minnows. But still it doesn’t say much for the competition that there was a season where no top division club got to the Semi Finals.

The ridiculous thing about the Football League Cup is that the Premier League clubs are not members of the Football League so they really should not be in it. The big clubs have been fielding reserve teams since at least 1994 where Manchester United fielded young unkowns like Beckham, Neville, Butt and Scholes at Port Vale. Port Vale fans were so angry they wrote to the local paper saying that United should refund fan’s admission money and MP Joan Walley even got involved! United had the last laugh – they won the game 2-1 and the four players mentioned became superstars – but it showed how little the competition was regarded.

Getting rid of the League Cup would have the advantage of freeing up five midweeks. The three rounds of midweek games played in January, February and March could be moved to September, October and November. That would free up five midweeks for FA Cup Replays, rest or even to allow England manager Roy Hodgson to hold a couple of midweek training camps. Incidentally if UEFA staged the last sixteen of the Champions League over two weeks instead of four that would free up another couple of weeks. Hopefully if UEFA get a new President he has the sense to do it.

I suspect if the League Cup did not exist it would not be invented now. Of all the countries in Europe outside the UK only France has a League Cup. Italy, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Holland somehow survive without one. Besides the Football League should go too. Most sports in the UK only have one governing body. Football has the FA, the Football League and the Premier League who spend as much of their time arguing with each other as running football. A single governing body for football would make sense but unfortunately too many nonentities would lose their jobs which makes it a non runner. After all it’s not just in FIFA that turkeys don’t vote for Christmas!

The common sense thing to do to cut down fixture congestion is to put the League Cup out of its misery. For most of its history the big clubs have not taken it seriously. To be honest – like the not dissimilar Benson and Hedges Cup in cricket which was one competition too many – once it is gone it will soon be forgotten. To quote Peter Cook who played a deranged army big-wig “The time has come Perkins for a useless sacrifice”. To cut down fixture congestion and help the FA Cup it is time to sacrifice the League Cup. Let’s put it out of its misery.

*A joke of mine is that Hardaker would be kicked out of UKIP for being too anti European!

Recalling another silly season

To say the 2015-16 Premier League season has been weird is an understatement. Leicester City are top, defending champions Chelsea – who today sacked Jose Mouriniho – are 16th out of 20. It is as if the table has been turned upside down. Manchester United are only consistent in playing out 0-0 draws, Liverpool are thoroughly unpredictable, Tottenham are hard to beat but draw too many games and even Arsenal and Manchester City – the best of the big teams – have had their bad results. While as well as Leicester the likes of Watford, West Ham, Stoke, Crystal Palace and even Premier League first timers Bournemouth have been wrecking havoc. It is all exciting and totally unpredictable and no one knows how it will end. Critics have complained about the lack of quality – using the Premier League’s poor European performances as an argument – but no one can deny the excitement. You could call 2015-16 the “silly season”.

The English football season that most resembles 2015-16 is 1974-75 – another silly season which was totally unpredictable. I just thought I would compare that season with this to see both the similarities and explain how despite the silliness 1974-75 ended predictably – as this season could well do.

One statistic will show how crazy the 1974-75 season was. By the second Saturday of December 1974 six different teams had topped the Division One* table – Carlisle**, Ipswich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Stoke and Everton. Quite remarkably none of those six teams would go on and win the title. Big clubs were struggling. On the 10th of October 1974 – the day of the October 1974 UK General Election – Arsenal were bottom of Division One, Tottenham were second bottom and Chelsea were third bottom*** (Manchester United were not even in Division One having been relegated to Division Two**** the previous April). Small teams were doing well – not just Stoke but Burnley and promoted Middlesbrough challenged for the title for a large part of the season. At the end of 1974 only five points separated the top thirteen teams. Another similarly was that English clubs did badly in Europe (only one – Leeds United – got to the last eight in Europe).

And yet another similarly between 1974-75 and the current season was the implosion of the defending champions. In 1973-74 Leeds United had easily won the League title but in the summer of 1974 manager Don Revie had left to become the England manager. Inexplicably Leeds replaced him with Brian Clough. Inexplicably because in the summer of 1973 Clough had criticised Leeds poor disciplinary record saying that the club should have been relegated as a punishment. So no wonder he was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Leeds players. The only difference between Clough in 1974 and Mouriniho today was the implosion came quicker. A lot quicker. After 44 days in charge with one League win and the reigning champions 19th out of 22 Clough was sacked. The affair caused a sensation then and still does. A book was written about Clough’s 44 day reign – called the “Dammed United” – which was turned into a film with the same title. It might interest Chelsea fans that Leeds stabilised under new manager Jimmy Armfield but could only finish ninth. They did get to the Final of the European Cup (now the Champions League) but lost it 2-0 to Bayern Munich. An omen for today’s Chelsea?

So how did the 1974-75 season end? Predictably. After all the mayhem the title was won by Derby County one of the best sides of the time (they were third the previous season and had won the title in 1972). Runners up were Liverpool – as they had been in 1974 – who had won the League in 1973.  Two of the three previous title winners in the top two. Hardly a surprise. Everton should have won the title – by March 22 1975 they were three points clear with seven games left. But they won only two of them to blow it. Stoke, Burnley and Middlesbrough – the three small clubs involved in the race – finished fifth, tenth and seventh respectively – a warning for the likes of Leicester, Palace and West Ham today.

So does what happened in 1974-75 give us a clue about the rest of this season? I’d say yes. Based on that season I’d say Chelsea’s new manager will stabilise them but they will rise only to mid table (though they might do well in the Champions League). Leicester won’t win the League but should be top six while Palace Watford and West Ham could be top ten.

And remember I said that the top two of 1974-75 were the two teams that finished immediately below the Champions the previous season. Applied to this season and that means the top two will be Arsenal and Manchester City. Would that really surprise anyone? I suspect after all the mayhem the season will end with either City’s third title in five years or Arsene Wenger’s first title in 12 years. And let’s face it apart from Chelsea those two were the pre season favourites.

I suspect after all the hype, the twists and turns and the shock results the silly season of 2015-16 will come up with a sensible ending. Just like its counterpart in 1974-75 in fact…

*Division One was what the top tier of English football was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

**I mentioned Carlisle’s 1974-75 team – and cricket playing Chris Balderstone – in previous post “A feat you will never see again”.

***Only Chelsea were relegated at the end of the season. Arsenal and especially Tottenham struggled throughout finishing 16th and 19th respectively. In fact if Tottenham had lost their last game of the season they would have been relegated.

****Division Two is the pre 1992 name for what is now the Championship. For the record United easily won Division Two in 1974-75 returning to the top division remaining there ever since.

Financial Unfair Play?

The best baseball World Series I’ve ever seen was the 2001 World Series which went to the final game seven and was won by the Arizona Diamondbacks thanks to that rarest of rare things a Mariano Rivera blown save. What made that series memorable was two fairytales were up against each other. A Yankees World Series win is not usually a fairytale but two months after the trauma of 9/11 it would have been (2001 is the one time I wanted the evil empire (as the Yanks are called!) to win the World Series). But to me the Diamondbacks were the real fairytale.

The fact is the Diamondbacks did not exist in 1901. Or 1951. Or even in 1996 when the Yankees started their four World Series in five year dominance that the 2001 Diamondbacks ended. The Diamondbacks did not exist until the Major Leagues expanded in 1998. In just four seasons the Diamondbacks won it all. Some people might complain that the team was all imported but there is no way a new team could compete so quickly otherwise. But in the US they believe in giving everyone a chance to keep the League competitive.

The funny thing is that something similar had been done in European football the team would have been hated. In 1995 UK football had its nearest equivalent of the 2001 Diamondbacks when Blackburn Rovers – bankrolled by millionaire (and life long fan) Jack Walker) won the League title in England for the first time since 1914. Of course the UK being the UK they were derided rather than celebrated on the basis that they had no history and that they owed their success to Walker’s money. Well so what? Shouldn’t every team have the right to dream of winning titles?

Well not according to European football’s governing body UEFA who have introduced Financial Fair Play regulations. Now in theory Financial Fair Play is a good idea as it limits teams to spending what they earn and is meant to stop teams getting into debt. The problem is that it stops people from spending their own money. As far as I’m concerned anybody has the right into spend their money the way they want to (once they have paid tax of course). The likes of Manchester City and Paris Saint Germain (PSG) have been punished for no better reason than they have owners who want to spend their own money and for daring to have ambition. Another example is Wolfsburg of Germany who might fall foul of the regulations because they are owned by Volkswagen who want to spend their profits on the club. And why shouldn’t they?

The most damming criticism of Financial Fair Play is it is an oxymoron. Limiting teams to spending what they earn is fair if they all earn the same. But in European football that is not the case. Because the revenue in European football is unequally earned Financial Fair Play actually preserves the dominance of a clique of big clubs. The French, German and Italian Leagues have clear favourites in PSG, Bayern Munich and Juventus respectively. Spain has two favourites in Real Madrid and Barcelona. Only the Premier League in England has four or five teams that might win it because of the investment by billionaires in Manchester City and Chelsea – which the football establishment hate but has made the league more competitive and earned it more TV money which has strengthened the other teams. Financial Fair Play in its current form should be called Financial Unfair Play.

Now I am not against proper Financial Fair Play but you won’t get it in European football. You have to look at the US. They don’t grumble about billionaire investors in the US. In fact US sport is full of them. The prime example is the Guggenheim group who paid $2.15 BILLION just to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers from ex owner Frank McCourt. In 2013 the Guggenheim group’s first full season in charge the franchise’s payroll was $214 million. In 2014 their payroll was $236.1 million. And what have they achieved in those two seasons? ONE post season series victory. Which might – or might not – change this year. My favourite baseball story of big spending gone wrong is the 2009 New York Mets who had a $ 153.5 million payroll – second only to the Yankees – but while the Yankees won the 2009 World Series the Mets won 70 games – only the Indians, Nationals, Orioles, Pirates and Royals won fewer games than the Mets that year. Why?

While part of it is due to the draft system which means the worst teams get the best young talent the fact is that in US sport the income the sport is made is distributed more fairly. Admittedly baseball is not the best example of this in since each franchise negotiates its own TV deals. And when I started following baseball in the 1990s it was like football in Europe is today. To win a World Series in the mid 1990s/early 2000s you had to beat the Yankees, Braves or both. But baseball did not make the same mistake with the internet. The parity in baseball today is probably due to one man – Jerry Reinsdorf the owner of the Chicago White Sox. He came up with the idea of sharing the internet income equally between all 30 franchises which has happened since Major League Baseball Advanced Media (BAM) was set up in 2000. Now baseball got lucky in that few people knew how much – if any – money the internet would make back in 2000. But BAM long ago exceeded its annual revenue target of $660 million. It is this internet revenue sharing that is in my opinion the main reason that every MLB franchise bar one has had a post season appearance in a year beginning with “2” (and the one franchise that has not the Blue Jays  – last post season appearance 1993 – has a great chance of making it this year).

And if I were running football we would have  proper Financial Fair Play. All revenue would be split equally between the 20 teams in the big European Leagues (18 teams in Germany) and also between the 32 teams that play in the Champions League. That doses not happen now. Revenue sharing would level out the playing field without banning billionaire investors. Just like what happens in America. And that is real Financial Fair Play.