Thursday, 28 April 2011

Faith in the Universal Liar

"Hope is the only universal liar who doesn't lose his reputation for veracity"
- Robert G Ingersoll

Bank Holiday Monday, just gone ten to five. Still slightly in shock at events at the Madjeski, where you have come from two down to beat a top 6 side who comprehensively out-played you at home a couple of months earlier. Sat in your armchair, cursing Leeds' failure to consolidate their play off push at Selhurst Park, your mind wanders ahead.

That feint shred of hope that the unexpected might happen. As Sky Sports News put up the words "Sheffield United Relegated" alongside "Reading 2 - Sheffield United 3" you raise from your armchair, finger raised, "Ah no! Not yet! We are not mathematically down. Don't even think about putting that effing 'R' next to us in the league table!", glancing round to check that the children aren't listening….they're not.

You didn't expect it to come to this. Mid-table again, maybe slightly below at worst. It's a pretty average division, anyone can be up there for promotion, so-called bigger teams can be dragged into what they call the relegation dogfight, but not us. We will have a bit more about us than that, we wont make the same mistakes with loans and signings that we did last year…..will we?

Then the season starts, upheaval, followed by upheaval, with loans, followed by more loans. Christmas arrives with things looking dire, but renewed hope as a boyhood fan takes over and we all remember what happened last time we had one of those. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, still counting, 7, 8, 9, 10, surely soon, 11, 12, 13, 14 games go by before a win arrives. Bruised and bloodied, we can get off the canvas, we can still pull through on points.

Back to work and everyone wants to talk about your club. When asked, you agree that your team is down. "We've been dead and buried for weeks. When we lost to Palace, Scunthorpe and Derby in the same week, that's where we blew it. We were two up at Scunthorpe for God's sake". You blush slightly, because you are lying, just a little bit, because your head is controlling your mouth, but your heart cannot be repressed. Whilst speaking you play out scenarios in your mind.

If we can put 3 or 4 past Barnsley and Donny and Palace go down 2 or 3 against Leicester and at Hull? Hull could still chase an outside chance of the play offs. If Swansea have nothing to play for in the last game of the season and rest a few players…and we beat them at full strength at home. Forest might still be trying to seal a play off place going to Selhurst on the final day, they wont roll over and they have the fire power.

Regretfully remembering the match at home to Boro, just two weeks ago, chance after chance missed, before conceding late on. Three points dropped, realistically one, one point that might have meant not having to rely on 8 or 9 goal swings and other's failures. You had written them off then, season finished, and the defeats Cardiff and PNE that followed properly sealed it. You had accepted your fate. Embarrassed by the weakness of their submission, awaiting the revengeful glee of your mates who support the other lot. The same supporters and friends who you had remorselessly ripped into twelve months ago. Then, two games two victories and renewed hope flickered.

What of the clubs you have chased down the final straight, like the back-runner chasing down the leading pack and leaving his final sprint 10 metres too late, wishing the race was 1510m instead of 1500. If only you could play another couple of games……. You read messages congratulating them on their survival, of remaining in situ for another season. Those Palace and Doncaster supporters play it down, "Still to make sure", "Still need a point", but you know deep down they believe they are safe. You know deep down, your club is far from safe, but still you look for the positive.

You remember Oldham, 8 points from safety with one week of the 1992-93 Premier league season left…..they survived. Bradford City beat Liverpool on the final day in 2000 to survive. West Brom moved up three places when all above them lost on the final day in 2005.

Then those memories are swamped by others. Of sitting high up in the gods at Stamford Bridge on the 7th May 1994 as Mark Stein scored in the last minute and your team were relegated following a bizarre series of events at Goodison Park which were relayed by fellow fans, radios clutched tightly against their ears. Of last minute play off final defeat against Palace in 1997. Of last day Premier League heartache in 2007. You then realise that when the unexpected happens, it tends to happen in a bad way for your team.

Tuesday comes and your youthful reserves beat Port Vale's second string 6-0, you're reminded of a great 6-0 league victory over Spurs. You think maybe the first team can do that on Saturday. Tuck away goals like Brian Deane, Jocky Bryson and Paul Rogers did that night, and then it hits home that, although it seems like yesterday, it was 18 long years ago.

The fact that over the course of this season your team has averaged less than a goal a game and are the second lowest scorers in the division starts to sink in……Ah but we have scored 6 in our last two games! Yes but we have also conceded 4 and then you remember we have got Neil Collins and you are temporarily subdued once more.

You sit there and consider League One might not be a bad thing playing wise. You think of the FA Youth Cup Final, upcoming against Manchester United. Those promising young players, might be better blooded at a lower level, build a new side, a future of talented kids, pepped up with experienced older heads. Less expectation on them as a result, none of the braggadocio displayed by certain other clubs following their fall from the Championship.

But you wonder whether other fans would really accept that? Can we financially adapt, when an immediate return may not be achieved? They will just sell all our promising youngsters, just like they always do? How long could we wait to return?

It feels like a lonely world, trapped in a psychological game balancing reason and probability, with blind optimism, faith and a massive degree of hope. A to-ing and fro-ing of positivity and negativity that frazzles the brain. Yet you know it is a game being played out not just by supporters of your team, but by supporters of all teams of all levels, across the globe. Some hoping for safety from relegation, some hoping for promotion others just hoping for financial survival and a continuation of being able to support their club. A true global game, played out by individuals who have little or no influence on the outcome.

Saturday will either bring renewed hope or despair. Even a win might not be enough to prevent despair. Like most playing the game; I don't mind the despair, I can deal with the despair, it's the hope that is killing me right now.

Monday, 25 April 2011

Charting the Week (and a bit) in Football 4

Week 4 of Charting the Week in Football was slightly extended with the Easter break, but it was not short on stories. This week featuring mis-spent money by FIFA, misfiring strikers, former misfiring strikers, a social networking disaster, water bottle attrition, the continuing search for an Andy Gray replacement and relative qualities of team bus drivers.

You can view :
Week 1 here
Week 2 here
Week 3 here

If you would like to contribute, contact me via twitter @unitedite

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Getting bums on seats – and keeping them there

Reading the tweets of a fellow Blade this week I thought "that's a good subject for a blog post", but before I had chance to construct my thoughts I was contacted by the tweeter in question asking if I would host his musings on the subject on A United View. So it's my pleasure to welcome my first solo guest poster on A United View, David Jones (a Doncaster-based Blade and not the Sky Sports presenter) and his thoughts on how you solve a problem like fan apathy.

Here's a little thought experiment for you. Imagine, if you will, that you're Doncaster Rovers chairman John Ryan.

Now, once you've finished straightening your cufflinks and practicing your disarming grin in one of your many full-length mirrors, turn your thoughts to the club's most pressing problem: attendances. Rovers are the Football League's rags-to-riches story, having shot from the Conference to become established in the second tier and, on their day, playing reputedly the most attractive football outside the top flight. Yet for all this they can't fill their shiny new 12,000 capacity Keepmoat Stadium, even for local derbies.

Keepmoat seats kept empty by absent Doncastrians

For their first season in the Championship, 2008-09, Rovers sold more than 8,000 season tickets. But despite becoming established at that level the town is yet to take the club to its heart. This year's Keepmoat attendances so far have averaged under 10,000 and the club is curiously quiet on how season ticket sales are going, with rumours suggesting that by early April the number was limping towards the 3,000 mark. So you, as chairman, decide to throw £100,000 of your own money at attracting more fans to the club.

A quick bit of maths suggests that the money could be spent reducing the price of each one of those 3,000 season tickets by more than £30. Or here's another thought. Let's assume Rovers' lowest early bird price, £340, represents the smallest amount that the club can afford to charge for a limited number of seats within the stadium while still covering costs. In that case you could, with that £100,000, enter everyone applying for a season ticket into a lottery, with fully 300 winners – announced on the eve of the new season - getting their seat paid for in full by the club.

300 cashback winners, out of, let's say, perhaps 6,000 season tickets sold – that's a one in 20 chance of getting your money back. With odds like that, chances are that many supporters wavering over whether or not to commit to a ticket for next season would fancy their chances and take the plunge. After all, you've got to be in it to win it.

Or you could just do what John Ryan does best, and blow the £100,000 on a grand gesture that will grab headlines in the short term but do nothing to address the underlying issues that threaten to sabotage the club's renaissance.

No prizes for guessing which option the real 'Mr Doncaster Rovers' took – he made the unprecedented decision to give away free tickets to all home supporters for Good Friday's relegation 6-pointer against Crystal Palace.

On the face of it, this is a laudable move: the stadium is likely to reach capacity for the first time this season, many casual supporters will see the team play for the first time and, in characteristic Ryan fashion, there's the added bonus of guaranteed publicity for the club.

But the question is how many of those taking advantage of the freebie seats will come back – especially with the club on its most wretched run of form in recent memory, its trademark 'Arsenal of the lower leagues' style a distant memory as a crippling injury crisis exposes the limitations of trying to build a robust squad on Rovers' shoestring budget. Friday's match may bring a carnival atmosphere to the stands, but it's not likely to be a great advert for the entertainment value of Championship football.

Anyone can fill a stadium by letting people in for free, doubly so in a town where people will “have owt for nowt”, but the key to long-term success is to build up those attendances week in, week out.

But while Rovers supporters rightly idolise John Ryan for the transformation in their club's fortunes that he has overseen, an increasingly vocal section of the hard core support is becoming frustrated with his methods.

'Good Free-Day' is just the latest in a string of money-off promotions aimed squarely at casual supporters, and long-standing season ticket holders - who have already seen their annual subscriptions soar since the club left Belle Vue to become tenants of Doncaster Council - are beginning to feel taken for granted. Speaking on local radio this week, Ryan hoped that season ticket holders would see the positive in what he and the board were trying to do. Yet anecdotal evidence suggests fans who have followed the club since its non-league nadir are not renewing their seats for next term, and that's a warning sign the club cannot afford to ignore.

This isn't something that you'll have heard said very often this season, but in this regard at least Doncaster would do well to follow the example of South Yorkshire neighbours Sheffield United.

For all the faults of the SUFC board, the club's track record on season ticket incentives has been a good one – fans who renewed after relegation from the Premier League were promised a free season ticket the following year had the club been promoted (an offer that admittedly seems less generous with hindsight); and for the last two seasons a child's season ticket cost £10 when bought with an adult's, though that offer has now fallen victim to the club's perilous financial position.

They, too, have gone for a bold gimmick to boost attendances for 2011/12 – but it couldn't be more different from Rovers' approach. All season ticket holders who renewed their seats by mid-April have been guaranteed a price freeze, not just this time out but also for 2012/13. It's an offer that rewards loyalty, and softens the blow of relegation to League One with the promise that, even should the Blades immediately bounce back, those who've stuck with the club through its 'annus horribilis' will still be paying as little as £300 for their seat the following season.

And it's an approach that seems to have paid off, with more than 10,000 renewals sold by the deadline – well off the high watermark seen in happier times, but just about enough to keep the club afloat and certainly enough to ensure that that Bramall Lane will be one of the best attended grounds in that division.

Even now that the deadline for cheap renewals has passed, those hardy souls buying a Blades season ticket for the first time can pick up an adult seat on the Kop for £369 – fully £50 cheaper than the lowest-price seat currently available at the Keepmoat (where the cheapest seats became a staggering £80 more expensive at the end of March).

It's easy to forget in an age that demands instant results, but the fans who go to games year in, year out, are the lifeblood – and a major revenue stream - of any club. And any chairman ignores this at their peril.

You can follow David on twitter here @jonesthescribe

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Not a Grand Day Out

There is a five year old boy from Sheffield. He doesn't share the natural enthusiasm for football that his Dad had at the same age. Then again, some children get into football later in life, some don't at all. Onlookers might say that his Dad has spent his time since August in a season long attempt to put him off football by taking him  to Bramall Lane, but a ten pound season ticket makes it a low cost investment of time and money. Slotted in have been sporadic visits with his Mum, a season ticket holder at the Reebok Stadium, a much happier place to be.

Although his enthusiasm was a slow burner, he had, for the last few weeks, a big day out to look forward to. The FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. The wonderment of a trip to a huge stadium, the sense of occasion, a positive riot of colour and noise. Something to live long in the memory. It may well do, but for all the wrong reasons and not for what happened between 4pm and 6pm.

Thanks to the M1 being closed, it was a hot an arduous journey to the capital, although early encounters with opposition support at Oxford Services witnessed over exuberance and daftness as opposed to any menace. A train of cars of red and white and blue snaking down the M40 and A40 until, nearly two hours later and close to five hours after setting off, the car bedecked with scarves and flags entered the final mile or so to the stadium. A mother and son's road trip, as much a part of the day's experience as the match itself. Wide eyed wonderment at a trip to "London", not realising that it is the northern suburbs and not the tourist London of schoolbooks and television.

"It's no different to Sheffield Mummy!".

Passing pubs, the first overspilling with raucous Bolton fans and then another populated by Stoke fans. Approaching traffic lights, although the lights were green, the car is stopped to allow some Stoke fans to cross the road.

At that point several drunken Potters fans preceded to start thumping on the windows of the car, hurling abuse at the passengers within. Irrelevant to them that it is a young woman and her small son. They then proceed to do what 70mph driving couldn't achieve and rip the car flags from the windows of the car taunting their victims with their trophies. A bit of a verbal set to ensues as the driver points out her young son is in the back of the car, which does nothing to stop the idiots' taunts. Eventually a female Stoke supporter grabs hold of one of the flags from her fellow fan and returned the remains apologetically as the idiots continued to taunt and bait and the car moves on.

Shortly after, on arriving at the stadium, the young boy incredibly upset continues to shake and quiver. This should have been the time to soak up that atmosphere on Wembley Way, the colour, the feeling of being at a special event, but that wasn't to be. The young boy didn't want to be outside the stadium as "those Stoke fans might get us Mummy".

He knew that it wasn't until he got into the ground that he would feel happier, surrounded by fellow Bolton supporters. They took some photos to remember the day, but all show a boy whose eyes are looking anywhere but the camera, darting around, clearly worrying about what might happen next. 

What happened next was a football match, but the day had been tarnished long before the Wanderers' capitulation. His team were soundly thrashed, some said they never turned up, yet events off the pitch left the little boy upset, scared and wishing he hadn't turned up either.

During the match the views of those who oppose the F.A.'s avaricious decision to hold semi-finals at Wembley were further vindicated as supporter segregation went out of the window in the country's showpiece stadium. The inability to restrict Stoke fans from the Club Wembley seats around the Bolton end leading to exchanges of "pleasantries" and missiles with the Bolton fans below. Stewards looking on impassively. Young fans looking on, wondering why?

"They smell of pubs, of Wormwood Scrubs and too many right wing meetings"

Society is cursed by a number of drink fuelled, emotionally crippled men who get their kicks in -perverse ways, Sadly football just seems to exacerbate the worse aspects of their behaviour. We have all seen it at football, instances of threatening behaviour from sinewy pit bulls, veins bulging from neck and forehead, more often than not directed at their own breed from the other side of the club divide. Their kids, the next generation, giving it the big one at the opposition pups. Then there are those, a minority I know, who take it to another level. Revelling in threatening their fellow supporters who don't share their opinion, with few qualms about threatening women and young children.

In taking your children to football you know that you are potentially exposing them to unsavoury behaviour. If you are sensible you can shield them from a lot of what happens. You know where to go pre-match, where to sit, avoiding the potential pressure points. You set their moral code, so they know right from wrong.

The swearing passes them by for a while, although you know you will have to cross that bridge in time and then it will most probably be as much to do with what they hear at school as at football. You can explain why the police are arresting people and dragging them out of the ground. You can explain that the reason the Millwall fans are marching across the seats arms outstretched offering out the home support is because they are naughty and a bit sad that they aren't winning.

But how do you explain what happened on Sunday afternoon? Before the match, before the emotions run high, before the real anger and frustration potentially manifests itself.

You would think that a Bolton v Stoke semi-final, a massive game for both fans, with little inter-club rivalry, would be a safe environment for a young boy - not least for the fact he was with his Mum. Even when a friend, the day before, reported a nasty and at times violent atmosphere at the City - United derby it did little to change opinion.

It is a sad indictment on society that some people consider the behaviour that 5 year old boy witnessed and suffered as acceptable, with no retraction or embarrassment. Even in sober post-match reflection you cannot imagine their opinion changing.

Come Saturday the opportunity will be there to join his Dad at Bramall Lane. If he doesn't want to go, I'll understand why. He may choose not to follow football. After Sunday you wouldn't blame him. He may change his mind several times as is the want of young boys. Whatever happens que sera, sera.


Thursday, 14 April 2011

Charting the Week in Football - Week 3

Another batch of the week's football news; featuring Fergie, Mad Dog, Colin, Il Nuovo Divin Codino, an over-ambitious chairman and ever hopeful ITV commentators.

Week 1 is here and Week 2 is here

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Charting the week in football - Week 2

After the positive feedback on last week's graphs. By popular demand, the last week in football is charted here:

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Blue Star, Red Star, Ancients, Comrades, Terriers & Synthonia

On Saturday 9th April the first Northern League Day is taking place, a great idea from Michael Hudson (follow him on twitter here). The idea? To encourage fans of North East football to support their local teams and fans from around the country to travel up and support the World's second oldest league, only pre-dated by the Football League. With no Premier league matches in the North East it is a great opportunity to see grass roots football. Although many fellow bloggers are meeting there, I will be watching my team Sheffield United take on one of the North East's big boys in Middlesboro. That doesn't mean to say I am not supporting the day, Sheffield United always comes first in football terms, but the Northern League is something that has interested me for many years.

It played a key role in my early fascination with football. From the age of about 6 onwards, Sunday mornings were spent, sat at the dining table with Shoot! League Ladders and the results/league tables page from my Dad's Sunday People. League ladders were intrinsic in increasing my knowledge about football, teams' colours, their grounds and from there to nicknames, drawing the kits. So much so, that I have recently bought a magnetic set of league tables to try and garner my son's interest in football further. Having said that taking him to watch the Blades this season has had the opposite effect in much greater measure.

It was whilst studying the leagues that the Sunday paper highlighted another world of football, leagues that barely got a mention on TV, in the classified results or on my dad's weekly Littlewoods Pools Coupon. Some names were familiar around FA Cup time, Altrincham were particularly notable for me after they knocked us out of the FA Cup in 1981-82 but also for the fact that they shared the red and white stripes. Outside of the Alliance Premier, where the leaders had a feint hope of election to the Football League, there were a host of teams in the Isthmian, Northern Premier, Southern and Hellenic leagues amongst others, all representing familiar towns and villages of middle England, or the boroughs of major cities. But one league's results always stuck out, purely for the names of the teams. Yes there were Athletics, Towns, Uniteds and Rovers, but these were different.

Norton & Stockton Ancients, (Newcastle) Blue Star, Billingham Synthonia, Horden Colliery Welfare, were joined over time by Bedlington Terriers, Seaham Red Star, Jarrow Roofing, West Allotment Celtic. Even the feeder leagues seemed to comply with an unwritten rule on team names. Added to the mix were the clubs who took their town/village names, yet still sounded other worldly - Esh Winning, West Auckland…...

These were just not the norm, as exotic as Argyle, but as Northern as Pie and Peas. Yet over the next few years, as my curiosity grew, there was no real source telling me the why or the how. We are talking about the days of early BBC micros and Ataris, no internet to call upon. A Rothmans book was found in the sports section of the adult library. Great for so many things but not the unanswerable Northern League conundrum. It wasn't as if there was any progression for these teams through the pyramid, the Northern League's stubborn stance on joining the pyramid meant that there was little opportunity for wider media coverage.

Over time my knowledge built-up. I understood that many teams originated in the pit villages of North East England and that industrial involvement led to the name they were given and regular changes of name for some. Bedlington started off as Mechanics, became Colliery Welfare, changed to United when they joined the Northern League, before settling on Terriers. Jarrow Roofing were so named due to a sponsorship deal. Billingham Synthonia were named after a contraction of Synthetic Ammonia, a product of the nearby ICI factory to which the club had close links. Horden Colliery Welfare - well the clue was in the name. Shotton Comrades originated from the colliery social club as well.

Others I am less certain about. Some, I am guessing, originated in local or Sunday league roots; Seaham Red Star, Norton & Stockton Ancients, West Allotment Celtic. As for Blue Star (RIP) I wonder if they had anything to do with the Brewery? Or is the Blue Star of a different origin?

I am happy to stand corrected on any of these, or be informed on those where I am still in the dark.

So that's what the Northern League means to me in my football life. A curiosity and fascination that ran through my formative years. Some unanswered questions that still niggle now.

Thanks for reading. Apologies for the self-indulgence. As you were…..

Monday, 4 April 2011

Tonight I'm Havin' Hoops

Tonight I will be watching the Blades take on Warnock's QPR, live from the comfort of my sofa. As part of the build-up I was asked by When Saturday Comes magazine to write a brief preview for their daily website feature.

You can read it here