Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Charting the week in football I

Inspired by the work of , this post on and my daily use of Excel at work this is where you will find my take on the stories of the week in football represented in charts and graphs. All suggestions welcome......

Thursday 24th March to Wednesday 30th March 2011

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Views from Opposite Ends 2

Sheffield United v Leeds United
Saturday 19th March 2010

A few weeks ago I posted a review of the Sheffield United v Reading match with Royals fan Lanterne Rouge from website the two unfortunates also contributing. It seemed a popular format so, following Saturday's Yorkshire Derby at Bramall Lane, I am delighted (not just because the Blades won) to welcome David, founder and editor of the Leeds fan site The Scratching Shed, to offer two views of a vital game for both sides. I had happily proffered a match preview to The Scratching Shed on Friday, which found me in less than optimistic mood.

Going into the game Leeds sat 5th, in the Play Off positions and 2 points of automatic, whilst the Blades, adrift in the relegation places, looked to be heading towards League One. Something that Leeds fans, as much as any, know is not an easy place to escape from.


The View from The Scratching Shed

Firstly, congratulations to Blades fans on what I'm sure was a rare highlight in an otherwise miserable season. I'm sure some Leeds fans see it as a defeat to our Yorkshire rivals, but you'll find no hard feelings, resentment or excuses here. My feelings towards Sheffield United are the same as they were before the game - largely apathetic - and as someone who has experienced the pain of relegation I hope the victory proves to be a turning point for you in the battle against it.

I've been to Bramall Lane several times now so knew what to expect from the outset. My previous half dozen visits haven't been pleasurable ones and this was to be no exception. I know the majority of Whites fans talked about easy points from a relegation threatened team, but even with your current selection problems I never expected this to be the walkover some fans were suggesting.

As usual, Sheffield looked more up for the game than Leeds did, The battle was won and lost in midfield where we were second best throughout. Had it not been for Kasper Schmeichel, this could have been the embarrassing result I've suspected wasn't far away for some time now. Our defence is exceptionally useless and our midfield tends to get overrun far too easily. Switching to 4-4-2 midway through the second half with Gradel moving forward in support of Becchio and Howson going wide was the signal that our midfield had waved the white flag and decided to down swords and request a peace treaty.

It's difficult to say what Sheffield did right, because Leeds did so much wrong. We were void of any composure from the outset, relied on last ditch tackles or quality saves from Kasper rather than killing the problem before it built up and most importantly, we never had the flair and brilliance up front that usually allows us to take a Brazilian approach to defending (The Brazilian approach to defending is simply to not bother and outscore the opposition).

I guess the difference was composure. Sheffield held the ball better and took time to build up their next assault whilst everything Leeds did was rushed and desperate.

Congratulations on a thoroughly deserved result. I wish you all the best of luck for the remainder of this season.

A United View on the Whites

I was slightly surprised by Leeds, for a team so high in the table they did not play as a cohesive unit. The frantic nature of the match, right from the very start, saw many misplaced passes from both sides. Over time the Blades settled better and managed sustained spells of play in the opposition half.

The comments on the midfield are interesting. I expected this as an area where Leeds would dominate, especially up against a workmanlike midfield trio of Montgomery, Quinn and Doyle. For periods Leeds seemed quicker to the loose ball and tackle, although they submissively gave the ball back again with little exertion required from Blades players. Having said that, I though Quinn gave his best performance of the season and his contribution in the goal build up alongside vibrant midfield play was one in the eye for his critics, of which I have been one.

It was also surprising to see how direct Leeds played at times, often by-passing the midfield to direct balls up to Becchio, who was looking at bringing Snodgrass, Gradel and the advancing Howson into the game. The fact that all three made little impact on the game was both a relief and a surprise and even a change of formation and tactics failed to address the problem. It might have been different if Gradel had buried a close range header at nil nil, it might have settled Leeds play, but he put it wide. Gradel's pace caused us very few problems and he actually made Nyron Nosworthy look like he had a decent game. A rare feat.

The fact that the direct route failed for Leeds  and Becchio was eventually substituted was, to a large extent, due to the composed performance of Blades youngster Matthew Lowton. He dealt manfully with the rumbustious challenges of Becchio and alongside fellow 21 year old Shane Lowry he displayed an understanding and reading of the game that Neil Collins has failed to achieve in any game for United so far. They also coped better than a much more experienced defence at the opposite end, who struggled to stop Sam Vokes holding the ball up in his best game for the Blades to date.

I have seen some impressive goalkeeping displays at Bramall Lane this season and Schmeichel's is probably up there as the best. Watching him spread himself, arms and legs stretched wide to block Bogdanovic was reminiscent of his Dad in his prime. The acrobatic save when tipping over a Ched Evans shot aiming for the top corner was superb. He really stopped it being a much bigger scoreline. 

So where does this leave both teams? United built on the great comeback in the last home game against Forest and the Lane atmosphere, although well short of a full house, was getting back to its best. Noisy encouragement for the Blades and a vocal, hostile reception for the opposition. If we can take this into our remaining 4 home games, we have a chance. Winning our home games will be vital and Adams now has a formation that has worked twice against top 6 opposition and a line up that dominated the match  against Leeds. The difficulty will be away from home, where an alternative will be required and points will still need to be picked up.   

It is the need for an alternative approach and the success Simon Grayson has in identifying it that will define how Leeds' season ends. The "Vindaloo" approach of "We're gonna score one more than you" looks to be running out of steam and the players looked lost and increasingly ragged as the match wore on. Signs of ill discipline were noticeable and a combination of dropping heads and raised studs are not features Leeds fans will want to see if they are to maintain their play off position.

Despite the gap in quality on the pitch on Saturday, the victorious team could start next season two division below their opposition. It could be a one division gap, there could be no gap at all. I suspect that there will be a one division gap, but with Leeds remaining where they are. Too little too late for the Blades, whereas the Whites look like Play-Off candidates and I fear they may come across teams in better end of season form. Play off heartache, something Blades supporters can more than empathise with.


Monday, 21 March 2011

Football Poems for World Poetry Day

This post is part 6 of a blog carnival for World Poetry Day. To view poems by other bloggers, search on or for WPDfootballpoems. Already we have had contributions from 

Next up at 3pm - followed each hour after by

Two-Nil Up, Three-Two Down
(A Tuesday night at Glanford Park) 

I wandered lonely in a crowd
my mind numb, no emotion shown.
A dark, satanic, grumbling cloud,
Amongst the hosts' golden glows.
Beside corrugated roof and concrete walls,
blanking out their joyous calls.

Early stages and we did shine
And twinkle like the Milky Way
Iron stretched in never-ending line
could not keep the Blades at bay.
Four thousand saw two taken chances,
one thousand joined in sprightly dances.

Prospects were looking up; but the Blades
were outdone in sparkling waves of glee:
No-one there could predict
the way it was going to be.
I gazed -and gazed- but little thought
made any sense of what I saw.

That night, post-match, at home I lie
In vacant and in pensive mood
Emotions of football flash past my inward eye
Ecstasy, bliss, despair, solitude.
But my heart, with joy and hope, it does swell,
To Saturday, more football heaven and hell.

Ian Rands

With sincere apologies to William Wordsworth

Sheffield Football - A Haiku

Once proud edifice
Foundations crumbling away
Falling down, a wreck

Neil Warnock - A Haiku

They call you Colin
Even though a Blades fan, I
can understand why

Ian Rands

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Five Flashing Blades of the 21st Century

I recently contributed to a series of articles on top football league site which listed the top 5 players of the 21st century for several football league clubs. Needless to say I selected Sheffield United's Top 5 and you can read it HERE

Unsurprisingly, one of my five

Friday, 18 March 2011

Leeds match preview for The Scratching Shed

I was asked to contribute a match preview for the Blades game against Leeds United on Saturday 19th March. You can read my thoughts on the state of the Blades as the match approaches here

Friday, 11 March 2011

Rugby takes the lead over football in tackling Homophobia

This weekend at Bramall Lane a team will take to the hallowed turf in a Championship fixture wearing a special kit, with the shirt emblazoned with the words "Homophobia: Tackle it!".  That team will be Sheffield Eagles Rugby League team, when they take on Widnes Vikings on Sunday afternoon in the Co-Operative Championship. I've seen little mention of this initiative outside of local media and rugby league circles, but in wearing the shirts, the Eagles have become the first sporting club in the country to make such a statement in this way.

For one match only the club will wear a special kit sponsored by LGBT History Month and Pride Sports and is a key part of the Rugby Football League’s celebrations of LGBT History Month, which began on February 1.
Some may question their motivation for doing this. It's a bold statement for a club that has always stood out for trying to do things differently and have tried hard to ingratiate themselves to local sports fans in an area outside of the true Rugby League heartland of West/East Yorkshire and Lancashire. This is something emphasised by former player and Eagles' Chief Executive Mark Aston. “

We’re delighted to be able to do our bit to highlight the fight against homophobia. The Eagles have always been a progressive club and we believe it’s a cause worth supporting. We’re proud to be the first Rugby League club to take a stand.”

The club is reliant on the support of a core of local businesses whose corporate support is vital to ensure the continued existence on the back of meagre matchday support. The closeness of the corporate circle supporting the club probably allows them to make this kind of decision more easily than some of the traditionally bigger clubs with different kinds of club/sponsor relationship, probably more akin to football teams.

In fact it was after director Chris Nobile attended an LGBT workshop at the RFL Equality and Diversity conference for clubs that the initiative was undertaken and follows a number of recent groundbreaking achievements by Rugby League including being in the Stonewall Top 100 Workplace Index, becoming the first sports organisation ever to be named as a leading LGBT friendly employer, an accolade that followed Gareth Thomas’s recognition as the 2010 Stonewall LGBT Hero of The Year. The RFL also recently became the first sports organisation ever to launch a match day Tackle It! ‘Textline’ service for fans at all professional and semi-professional clubs.

But unless the national media really pick up on this, where can this really benefit the cause and what does it do for the Eagles? The corporate financial support given extends to projects to push Rugby League into local schools, something the Eagles have been hugely impressive with  and vital in establishing a foothold in the hearts and minds of local people. Maybe it is here, pushing the message that such behaviour is unacceptable, that it could really start to have an impact, rather than promoting it to a thousand or so people scattered around Bramall Lane.  

There has also been a decision made to sell the special kit, although the market for such merchandise is much more limited than football.  Maybe the real benefit is in other clubs, seeing the Rugby Football League (RFL) support for the initiative, will follow suit. A Super League team, wearing such a message in a Sky covered fixture would certainly have more impact.

It will be interesting to see how this story develops in the next couple of days. Credit to the Eagles for taking this stance, I hope it gets the wider publicity it deserves. But it also got me thinking, would we ever see such a move by a football club?

Clubs have been happy to promote charities through special shirts (pink shirts for breast cancer awareness being the obvious example), but also full shirt sponsorship at the expense of commercial sponsorship (Sheffield Wednesday - The Childrens' Hospital, Aston Villa - Acorns) or one off promotion of a charity for a  single match at the expense of and with the agreement of the existing sponsor (Sheffield United adopted The Childrens' Hospital in the Sheffield Derby last year).

Outside of charitable causes, the highly successful "Let's Kick Racism out of Football" campaign has often been promoted by clubs on specific matchdays and it has in some cases replaced the club's sponsor on the shirts. The campain includes reference to homophobia but it's not explicit in its name. In addition with local initiatives, such as the Football Unites Racism Divides and the United Initiative at Sheffield United, the clubs are happy to promote football as a way of encouraging social/racial inclusion in local communities. Yet homophobia is something football is finding as hard to tackle as Lionel Messi. Why?  

Many bloggers have written about the issue before and probably more eloquently than I can. I refer you to twohundredpercent here and IBWM /Obscure Football here. The fact remains that Football V Homophobia organised by the hard working The Justin Campaign received little widespread publicity on Football v Homophobia Day last month, not least from the clubs themselves.

Two years ago Stonewall claimed that football is "institutionally homophobic", one year on in February last year, the PFA claimed that players had refused to appear in a campaign video against homophobia for fear of ridicule. What makes them any different to Rugby players in that respect? Public profile maybe? After all Max Clifford has claimed that he would advise a young player against coming out due to the impact on his career.

Anton Hysen's announcement that he was gay this week caused ripples in certain UK papers, maybe more so because he is the son of former Liverpool defender Glenn, but headlines like FOOTBALL GAY "OUT" in the ever forward thinking Daily Star (over 1.5 million readers) perhaps emphasises Clifford's point.

If players from separate clubs brought together are not willing to support the cause, surely there is a better chance of doing it as a team? What the Eagles have done works because it has a whole team behind it. Challenge the message, you are challenging the whole squad and not individuals. A sad state of affairs maybe, but a way of taking it forward. Hopefully mentioning what the Eagles are doing will give it wider publicity, but will a football club be next to take up the mantle?

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

I'll have a Carling please

Another season, another opportunity to decry English football's cup competitions. If there isn't a plan to meddle with the format of the FA Cup because it "isn't working", there must be an apparent (to some) groundswell of opinion proposing the scrapping of the League Cup. Or, if it's this season, both.

Sadly type the words "scrap league cup" into Google and it reveals posts on internet forums of clubs such as Bolton and Arsenal, several general football forums and bizarrely a Celtic forum. The proposal on the latter being to scrap English and Scottish League Cups for an Anglo Scottish Cup. What, like the Anglo Scottish Cup that gave me one of my first live football watching experiences - Sheffield United v Grimsby Town?

Quite frankly, I find these kind of proposals ludicrous. Ideas from footballing authorities who seemingly have little idea of how to run the game, little idea of how to apply a moral and professional code of conduct and are more than happy to ignore their own internal rules when the occasion suits. Ideas subsequently stirred up by a media happy to sensationalise such proposals as a disappointing change in times, yet at other times revel in the avaricious world of modern day football.

Many claim there is no need for a secondary cup competition, it places an unnecessary burden on over-worked players and detracts from other priorities. This will be the same clubs who are more than happy to use "free weekends" and international weeks to take the players off on long flights for warm weather training or behind closed doors friendlies. Do I have any sympathy for Spurs and Jermaine Defoe? Not much.

No one complained about the League Cup in the 70's and 80's when there was a proliferation of other knockout distractions that clubs seemed content to participate in; the Watney Cup, the Anglo Italian Cup, the Anglo Scottish Cup, the Full Members Cup. All short-lived, but all sitting alongside the two primary cup competitions. Granted football is different now, not necessarily for the better. You can finish fourth and enter the "Champions League" with it's bloated group stages and an enforcement for season ticket holders  to buy tickets. As for the Europa League….

So who does the League Cup operate for. Well, firstly, the members of the organisation who runs it. Although the two legged early round matches were scrapped, this has probably provided a greater opportunity for small club progression. More likely to gain a result in a one off game than, have a great 90 minutes and then get soundly beaten a week later.

Earlier this season wrote of the importance of the Carling Cup to teams in League 1 and 2, yet it can be important to teams higher up the ladder to. Back in 2002/03, my team Sheffield United had cup runs in both the FA Cup and League Cup, ending in unlucky defeats to Arsenal in the FA Cup (with the wonder save from David Seaman) and Liverpool after extra time in the League Cup. We subsequently lost the Championship Play Off Final to Wolves and it would have been easy to blame the cup exertions for the fact that we failed to turn up at the Millennium Stadium, but at the time what concern was it? If it hadn't been for the League Cup run, we wouldn't have had nights like this……

If anything the Carling Cup run was more memorable than the FA Cup run that season, victories over  Palace and Sunderland and two goals in the final 3 minutes to come from behind to beat Leeds. Happy days, thrilling nights, the spectacle enhanced under the glare of the Bramall Lane nights.

So it is good for the Football League, but there is a case for saying that it is good for the Premier League teams too and not just those outside the Top 6.  7 years ago I visited Cardiff, ostensibly as a neutral, but in reality supporting my wife's team Bolton Wanderers as they played Middlesboro in the Carling Cup final. It was a great occasion, witnessed by the real supporters of both sides. Not just a day out at a cup  final, but a match where everything was up for grabs....the cup, the prestige, a place in Europe in a hugely competitive match. This is the same prize Birmingham earned on Sunday. I don't particularly like Birmingham as a club, their success didn't please me in the way other "underdog" victories have, but fair play to them. They picked strong line ups and beat three Premier League teams on route to the trophy. It was deserved.

Although  I may dislike the Mr Creosote like UEFA Cup/Europa League "I'll have just another wafer thin excuse for an extra group game or 4" there is no doubting the importance of the European competition in previous seasons to Middlesboro, Fulham and, this season, Liverpool. Granted not all gained there place from the League Cup. In fact, in a season where Liverpool's opportunities for success are so limited, you cannot help but feel they may regret their defeat on penalties to Northampton in round three.

The detractors point to low crowds, but times are hard, the cost of watching football is high and people prioritise. 46,000 people still saw the worth in watching Manchester United beat Wolves back in October. Well below capacity but still significant numbers. Any additional match is an additional cost that gets harder and harder to swallow. They say that the so called big clubs will rest players, blood the youngsters, but the very same clubs are just as likely to rest players and use their squad in Premier League games and sometimes it is not just the "big clubs"!

Find me a club or a group of fans that don't want to play in a cup final, that don't want to win a cup. Arsenal fans were much derided for their rapid exit from Wembley on Sunday, a majority having left before their players had collected their medals, but to me that just exemplifies the importance of the League Cup.

Yes, there was an element of disappointment in the manner of their defeat, but just as likely was significant disappointment in not winning the trophy - full stop. They might still have an opportunity to win 3 trophies this season and what most would consider to be more prestigious competitions. They might protest that, because of the other opportunities,  actually the League Cup doesn't matter. I don't believe them. Their actions on Sunday speak louder than words.