Thursday, 30 December 2010

My Hopes for The Cradle of Football in 2011

20 years ago Stuart Roy Clarke started his footballing opus - The Homes of Football. As he states on his website and within several of his books he believed himself "to have a mission in telling the changing face of football, post Hillsborough." He believed he "was stood on the precipice of history, peculiarly privileged in (his) view, to witness a national institution in big trouble, reinventing itself."

This Christmas I increased my collection of Clarke's work by asking for and receiving (I have been a good boy all year - after all) The Cradle of The Game. This pulls together 20 years of capturing the passion, the atmosphere, the rituals, the emotion, the game, at all levels from the Westmorland League to World Cups and European Championships.

It is a vital and impressive piece of work that every football fan should own. You can buy it, along with his other books, here. Clarke's photography is so simple, yet so evocative to the senses you can hear the noise, feel the tension, taste the greasy burgers and feel yourself physically swerving around the river of urine pouring down the steps at Tynecastle in "Bogs Overspill". 

In the introduction to the The Cradle of The Game, Clarke states that he had "a real sense of mission to start telling the story anew. Club after club is facing dereliction, given the global recession combined with over-reaching oneself. Even though the game is ever more popular in footfall and some of the foot-ball is the best ever served. It’s just the sums that don’t add up."

He is so right. The feelgood factor that followed Italia 90 elevated football to such a positive level in the public consciousness that the Sky input just added impetus to the new football bandwagon. At the same time the fans were finding a voice, particularly through the fanzine movement, and as football changed, the public perception changed, the money came in to the game and the fan experience changed, initially in positive ways.

Now the fans are rising once more and the messages they are delivering are strikingly similar. Primarily fed up of being taken for granted, but also fed up of a game and players so far removed from the grim reality of everyday life in modern Britain.

As a fellow Blades supporter put it to me the other day, when tweeting about the increasing demands and expectations of fans in this country, "£30+ a ticket, fans fleeced in club shop, players earning more per week than most people earn per annum. Money has made fans want it now." As the money poured into football, with little benefit filtering down to the fans, it has empowered supporters to be more demanding of their teams to an extent which is sometimes hard to reconcile expectation with achievements. The exchange of tweets followed news of Sunderland (7th in the Premier League) being booed off by their supporters after a home defeat to Blackpool and Cardiff City (2nd in the Championship) internet forums being filled with calls for Dave Jones to be sacked. I struggle to get my head around it.

Football in 2010 has not been particularly enjoyable for me in a number of ways, not least trying to introduce my 5 year old son to live football with the dross on display at Bramall Lane. On the plus-side his season ticket only cost me £10 Junior Blades membership, a pricing policy which has been one of the few positives for me this year. That said, there has been plenty to dislike about football in 2010;

Where 45 quid gets you a restricted view seat at Stamford Bridge and £34 gets you the best seats for a  match at Sheffield United or Leeds United. Yet, average ticket prices for the competitive Bundesliga in Germany cost on average 21 Euros. And still German fans are protesting at the increasing price.

Where you have no choice but to sit and if you stand out of your seat for any prolonged period you are threatened with expulsion from the ground or arrest.

Where it has taken intense fan pressure for safe standing to be considered by the authorities. Yet in Germany these areas exist and can be entered for under 10 Euros.

Safe standing in Hamburg - from FSF

Where the food quality/price ratio is so badly skewed that a fiver is likely to provide you with an evening on the toilet rather than a nutritious and filling snack. Only at football can Guinness be advertised at £3.50 per pint, only for the pump to be foregone in favour of a can from the fridge when your money has been taken.

Where clubs feel it is necessary to put the words of fan written club anthems up on the big screen , just in case people forget the words.

Where clubs are happy to receive positive PR for foregoing shirt sponsorship in order to put a local charity on their shirts. Only then paying over a promised cut of shirt sales to the aforementioned charity when the lack of payment was made public.

Where spurious "football rules" are allowed to over rule insolvency law allowing footballers to be paid money they are owed ahead of small local suppliers and the St Johns Ambulance service.

Where it is the fans who put their hands in their pockets to donate money to pay debts owed by the clubs to St Johns Ambulance the value of which would barely be a week's wage for one of those players.

Where a winding up from Revenue & Customs seemingly poses no real threat to owners who have financially mis-managed their club, living a dream that bore little resemblance to the nightmarish reality.

Where at least 28 professional or semi-professional UK football clubs have gained the winding up order badge of honour in the last year and are willing to partake in the ultimate game of brinkmanship with HMRC before pulling a financial rabbit from a hat.

Where the big clubs are granted time they barely deserve whilst smaller clubs, who can more legitimately play the "community card" so prevalent in the arguments of defence from the larger clubs, are put out of business. R.I.P. Ilkeston Town and Chester City 

The redundant New Manor Ground, Ilkeston (
A game where the Premier League, the FA and the Football League's' definition of the words "fit and proper" is looser than MC Hammer's trousers.

Where a club's fans are enthralled by overseas investment and promises from Thai Duty Free Magnates, Indian Chicken Companies or from serial football owners/administrators Peter Ridsdale / Milan Mandaric. Yet you cannot help but feel it will all end in tears.

Where such enormous sums of money are pumped into the game that the need to compete leads owners to gamble not just on short term prizes, but on the long term future of clubs.

Where player wage costs increased dramatically in 2010 to 67% of total revenue, in some cases turnover barely covers player wages.

Where the media hype English players and the Premier League beyond belief, yet explode in disbelief when it all goes wrong.

Where Richard Keys nearly ejaculates on live TV at the thought of being able to smell the tunnel as Arsenal and Chelsea line-up pre-match.

Where Andy Gray, desperately trying to maintain his support for Sky's Premier League "product" dismisses the skills of Messi et al (displayed weekly by his employers), by suggesting that the Argentinian wouldn't fancy it on a cold wet night at Stoke. 

Where Wayne Rooney can sarcastically address the nation following his and England's abject World Cup draw with Algeria. Berating the reaction of fans who had spent thousands of pounds travelling halfway round the world to watch and support the team.

Loyal Rooney - Picture ITV

“That's what loyal support is,” said Rooney, yet four months later Rooney demonstrated his admirable values and loyalty handing in a transfer request and vowing never to play for Manchester United again. A week later all was well at Manchester United and Rooney had a new deal earning a reported £250,000 per week, not far off ten times the median average annual salary in this country.

Where a 2018 World Cup bid becomes a not unanticipated waste of £15m. An ineptly run project from start to finish with no leadership, a bizarre choice of potential stadia, scandals and disappointment that Sepp Blatter's push to take football to new frontiers didn't include bringing it home. Maybe the fact that the Chairman of the Premier League and Chairman of Club England distanced himself so far from the bid told you all you need to know about its chances of success.

I hope 2011 brings some sanity to the world of football.

That some of the harsh financial realities that a large proportion of the country are now facing properly hit home with football clubs and players alike and that the playing field starts to level out.

That promoted teams can sensibly establish themselves in the Premier League without taking themselves to the brink to do it.

That the authorities clamp down harder and penalise clubs who, in my opinion, cheat by signing players that they know they will not be able to pay the full monthly cost of employing. That is by not paying over the PAYE and NI they have "deducted" from their players salaries.

That football's preferential creditor rule is successfully challenged by HMRC leading to a change in the way players contracts are negotiated and that the support line of local clubs, the small businesses that come in and maintain the electrics, fix the burst pipes, paint the stands have as much chance of receiving some form of payment as your star striker.

That we see a flattening or reversal of ticket prices so that we don't see empty seats everywhere, so that teams can take a good level of away support to each game and we can get back to having decent banter and a competitive atmosphere at matches.

That fans are recognised as the lifeblood of the game, a valued customer, deserving respect and worthy of an opinion. Not a consumer who will just accept what is presented as "the way it is".

That fans are able to have their say in the way their clubs are run and that greater opportunity is provided for fans' opinions to be proffered. Most of us are quite intelligent, often more so than some of those making the decisions.

Look I know what you are thinking, I said they were hopes, I suspect the reality will be far different. Stuart Roy Clarke's book does not present a footballing utopia, but highlights the little things you have forgotten about that are missing in the sterilised stadia and money-fuelled, media-hyped modern game. If some of the things I hoped for happen, we might get some of those things back. 

Happy New Year!

PS If someone can tell me at some point during 2011 what (ahem -Sir) Dave Richards does and how he received his knighthood I would be greatly appreciative. Answers on a postage stamp I am guessing, or a two word comment below, ending in All.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

The Revival of El Pincha and Sabella

With a Copa Libertadores Championship, a World Club Championship Runners-Up spot and now an Apertura Primera Division title in the last 2 years, Estudiantes are clearly the form club side in Argentina. Not bad for a side outside of the traditional "big five" clubs and one who has been evicted from their spiritual home.

The man who has driven them to their recent success will be a familiar face and name to many British football supporters. Allejandro (Alex) Sabella joined Sheffield United in the Summer of 1978 from River Plate. United boss Harry Haslam, looking for some Argentinian flair to pep up the midfield of his middle of the road Second Division side.  Sabella certainly made an impact, with fans still fondly remembering his outstanding ball skills. However, standing head and shoulders above his team mates, he could not carry the team alone and with United by now down in the Third Division he moved to Leeds United in 1980.

His move to Leeds would best be described a disappointment and, despite brief moments of flair to thrill the fans, 23 games and 2 goals later Sabella moved back to his homeland and joined the pincharratas (rat stabbers) of La Plata. As part of a creative midfield trio with Ponce and Trobbiani, Sabella he was the driving force behind the renaissance of the club.  

Back in 1967 Estudiantes had won the league title, the first time that a team outside of the “big five” had won a professional league title. They subsequently won the following year’s Copa Libertadores title and retained the trophy for a further 2 years. They also won the 1968 Inter-Continental Club Cup defeating Manchester United 2-1 on aggregate. Throughout the Seventies their fortunes fluctuated without any great success. Their next upturn in form coincided with Sabella’s return with the league title won consecutively in 1982 and 1983.

Sabella’s playing career continued in Brazil and Mexico, before a coaching career assisting fellow international Daniel Passarella. This included largely unsuccessful spells with the national teams of Argentina and Brazil and club sides Parma, Corinthians and River Plate. Only a Mexican championship with Monterrey offered a degree of success.

Back at Estudiantes, the club had been forced to leave their home stadium of 99 years, the Estadio Jorge Luis Hirschi due to safety concerns over the wooden stands and an ongoing dispute with the city authorities over their refusal to move to the new municipal stadium. A dispute that has only just been settled and a move back to the renovated stadium is due to be completed next year.

Following the removal of former international Jorge Burruchaga as coach in 2006, David Beckham’s old foe Diego Simeone took over and built the team around Juan Sebastián Verón. Veron was returning hero, 11 years after his initial departure from the club. Despite losing in the quarter-finals of the 2006 Copa Libertadores, the 2006 Apertura was the club's first League title in 23 years in a winner takes all play off against Boca Juniors who had tied on points after the regular season games had been completed. It was a historic season, the club recording ten straight wins (equalling the club record) and achieving an unprecedented 7–0 victory against Gimnasia in the La Plata derby.

After Simeone left following the 2007 Apertura the club went through two managers in quick succession, until in March 2009 Sabella returned, this time as manager. The first time in his career he had taken sole managerial control. The team immediately started to improve their standing in the league, rising from second bottom to 6th. And, from looking like they wouldn’t make it out of their preliminary group, they went unbeaten in ten Copa Libertadores games to reach the 2009 final, where they defeated Brazilian side Cruzeiro 2-1 on aggregate. Verón was chosen as the competition’s most valuable player, and Mauro Boselli was CL top goalscorer. Sabella had brought the best out of a talented, but failing side

With the Copa Libertadores title, Estudiantes earned the right to represent South America in the 2009 FIFA Club World Cup in Abu Dhabi. Entering at the semi-final stage they despatched Asian Champions Pohang Steelers 2–1 and more than held their own against Barcelona, only to lose 2–1 in extra time. A respectable performance, which drew plaudits from media and fans alike.

After the Club World Cup participation, Estudiantes finished second in the 2010 Clausura, and started the 2010 Apertura facing a familiar problem for successful Argentine clubs - a failure to hold on to their best players. Viewed as a team in transition, following the departure of Jose Sosa (Napoli), Mario Boselli (Wigan Athletic), Marcos Angeleri (Sunderland), amongst others it was still slightly surprising to see them quickly join Vélez Sarsfield in a two horse race for the title.

Even more surprising given the campaign also coincided with strong speculation linking Sabella with the position of Argentine national coach, following the departure of Diego Maradona post World Cup.   The irony of Sabella being a potential replacement for Maradona was not lost on Sheffield United supporters. After all, Sabella’s signing for the Blades came about, only after the Blades’ board had deemed the fee required by Argentinos Juniors for Maradona to be excessive for a teenager.

Whereas, most Argentine managers work in fear of an impending sacking, Sabella had no such worries and only an opportunity like the job of national coach job was likely to tempt him away from Estudiantes.  In many quarters he was viewed as a favourite for the job, even missing an emotional reunion at Bramall Lane for a friendly in August as negotiations reportedly commenced. In the end the caretaker coach Sergio Batista , who had successfully coached Argentina to 2008 Olympic gold, was offered the full time position.

To many South American commentators, Estudiantes were not the most entertaining team to watch. By his own admission Sabella commenced and completed the season without a natural Number 9. That is not to say the quality of play was poor, where they were strong was in having a good team this where everyone contributed to the success and not just a few special individuals. Goals were spread around the team (with fifteen different goalscorers in nineteen matches) and as a defensive unit they conceded just eight goals over the season. Veron described the tactics “Sabella’s idea at the start was to get a lot of people pushing forward from the back, attempting to find the element of surprise, and trying to cover up the absence of 9”.

With further success comes renewed speculation, this time Sabella is linked with former giants and former club River Plate. Whether he will move on, time will tell. Speaking after their tense final day victory over Arsenal, captain Veron said, “He has given us a lot, and has also learned a lot from this group. We know [each other] practically by heart. Of course, like everything else, it is difficult to maintain a project for many years, but over time he has. You never get tired of winning. If anything unites us, it’s his sincerity and dedication to work. But we should ask him what he desires for his [future] career.”

Argentine football  is never stable, with high turnover of managers and players contributing to the fact that there have been 12 Apertura/Clausura chhampions since 2000. It's clear that success comes in bursts for clubs like Estudiantes, with players, coach and structure all in harmony for spell. Is this period coming to an end and is it a natural departure point for Sabella? His first spell in management, starting at the relatively old age of 55 has been a successful one. Does he risk tarnishing it by staying, or is his stature equally at risk by pitching up at River Plate, where expectations are much higher and with it an increased risk of perceived failure? Time will tell....

Monday, 20 December 2010

The Progress of Kyle Bartley

The above link takes you to a piece I contributed to the excellent football league blog theseventy, part of a series about the progress of Arsenal loanees in the football league. I covered Blades centre back Kyle Bartley.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Postponed, but not snow...UXB

As the country ground to a halt last week, the football fixtures took a battering. Up and down the land matches were called off when in the past an orange ball, cleared pitch markings and a can do attitude from officials, players and supporters saw matches going ahead. Matches used to be called off for frozen pitches, not slippy side streets. Yet in modern, health & safety conscious Britain, with pitches cleared by under-soil heating, games are likely to be called off for fear of a nasty slip on the steps of the stand, or a failing infrastructure/transport system, rather than a genuine problem with the pitch. Sheffield United v Reading a week last Saturday being a case in point.

Growing up in the 80's matches were generally postponed or abandoned for one of three reasons, frozen pitch, waterlogged pitch or fog. It is hard to think of many other circumstances that are the exceptions to the rule. Middlesboro and their failure to make a match at Blackburn due to squad illness in 1997, The postponement of a game between Liverpool and Newcastle in 1997 due to the death of Princess Diana and several Scottish games in the wake of the tragic death of Motherwell's Phil O'Donnell.

Aside from these, there was one postponement that many wont be aware of. Sheffield United v Oldham Saturday 9th February 1985 - Postponed UXB! First a quick history lesson, which I make no apologies for.

This week Sheffield has been commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Blitz hitting the city. On Sunday 12th December 1940 the first wave of the Luftwaffe swept over the city, with 9 hours of intense bombing followed by a second raid 3 days later. 2,000 people were wounded or killed, 40,000 made homeless. Mass devastation across the city centre and other densely populated areas. Even those with a minor interest in history could not fail to be moved by the stories being published from those who survived. They are scary, moving and just so hard to imagine for those who never lived through it.

Surprisingly, rather than hitting the steelworks of the East End, where the temporary home of Rotherham United - the Don Valley Stadium - now stands, large areas of the city centre and immediate areas to the west were worse hit. Some suggest that foggy weather conditions impacted on the planned targets being missed, others suggest that the early radar beam the Germans used to identify targets was bent away from the East End by the British.

Bramall Lane's close proximity to the city centre saw it hit, as was the nearby timber yard of future benefactors and sponsors Arnold Laver. Both the the Kop and the John Street Stand were damaged. The picture below shows a huge crater and partial collapse of the John Street Stand.

There are may stories regarding the bombing. One that stood out suggested that the German maps were so accurate that it described each building in the area and what business was undertaken there, yet the only mistake was to describe Bramall Lane as a boating lake! Some may argue that there have been times since where calling it a football ground has been an inaccuracy given what we have sat through.

In time the ground was repaired, although some matches were played at Hillsborough in the intervening period. It appeared that the disruption to football was over. However 40 years after the end of the war, Sheffield United were to suffer again, albeit briefly.

Friday 8th February 1985, snow lay on the ground, but it wasn't the wintry weather which was going to be the cause of this postponement. While excavating for a new housing development, an unexploded bomb was found on a building site in Lancing Road, which runs parallel to Shoreham Street and United's Kop.

Copyright Sheffield Newspapers
The 33rd Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Division) were called out to deal with what proved a particularly tricky explosive. Early investigations established that what was thought to be a 500lb bomb, was in fact a 2,200lb bomb. Over 300 people were evacuated from their homes in the tightly packed terraced streets in the vicinity of Lancing Road and the risk to public safety was enough for United to postpone their Division 2 game against Oldham. The area around Lancing Road would have been used for street parking on match days.

Copyright Sheffield Newspapers

It took over 36 hours for the bomb to be defused, the explosive steamed out in sub-zero temperatures, with the regiment's work eventually completed on Monday 11th February 1984.  In the original records of bombs dropped on Sheffield, it showed that a bomb had been dropped in that area but not found, until the excavator struck metal.

The Blades match that had been due to take place on the Saturday, had been quickly re-arranged for the following Tuesday (12th February) on the assumption that the bomb would be dealt with by then. That in itself was something that wouldn't have been possible these days, as police and the authorities would need at least a week's notice to be prepared for a re-arranged match. 

Thinking back I remember a picture, published at the time, where on the Saturday the groundsman had written on the snowy pitch "Game Postponed - UXB". Sadly I could not locate a copy for inclusion here.

With the all clear the previous day, the game went ahead with United winning 2-0 in front of just under 9,000 fans. The delay was probably to United's benefit as an injury crisis meant that they were likely to be missing key players on the Saturday, the delay allowing additional time to recover. One player whom it didn't benefit was Paddy McGeeney, a young player full back who had come up through the ranks at Bramall Lane. Having made his debut in an Associate Members Cup match the previous year  he was all set to for his first league start on the Saturday, only for the delay to mean he was no longer needed on the Tuesday night. He waited another 5 games to make his League debut, albeit in a much bigger game, a home victory over Leeds in front of a crowd of over 20,000.

Copyright Sheffield Newspapers

Thinking back I remember a picture, published at the time, where the groundsman had written on the snowy pitch "Game Postponed - UXB". Sadly I could not locate a copy.

This has to be one of the most unusual reasons for the postponement of a professional football match, although I am aware of a Serie B match between Salernitana and Frossone in 2008 that was called off for similar reasons. It is also particularly poignant at this time of remembrance in the city. A sad reminder of a time when our country was at war and many civilian lives were lost. But let's not forget that one of the few constants throughout wartime was football.  An outlet that freed the people from the strains of everyday wartime life and gave them much enjoyment. Who would have known at the time, as football continued throughout the war, that football would be affected in peace-time over 40 years later. 

To read more about Wartime Football and the "unofficial internationals" can I suggest you hop over to the excellent footysphere site where the first in a series of articles has just been posted.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

No new post, so read this!

Unfortunately a heavy (proper) workload has prevented me posting in the last couple of weeks. Hopefully I will get something up next week.

Alongside the day job I was also asked to contribute a piece on the state of things at Bramall Lane for the When Saturday Comes website. This follows an article I wrote for the magazine a couple of months ago on United's international operations. It's gone up on the WSC Daily today and you can find it here......