Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Charting the 2011/12 Season in Football - Number 3

Charting the Season in Football returns, with the latest graphical commentary focusing on the egos at Sheffield Wednesday, the Madness of Mario Balotelli, Manchester City optimism, Ian Holloway's selection dilemmas, boring, long-running sagas, Stuart Pearce's Olympic selection conundrum, the controversy surrounding the EPPP proposals and Robbie Savage on Strictly Come Dancing.

Remember - Just double click on a graph/chart to increase to full size.

Previous in this series can be found here:

Eddie Windass - Can you see where I am coming from??

Monday, 24 October 2011

John Terry Sets An Example No-one Should Follow

There are a handful of players that cannot seem to avoid getting themselves in the headlines, one of who is our erstwhile national team captain, John Terry. Last night Terry felt the need to respond to internet claims of racial abuse allegedly directed towards Anton Ferdinand during Chelsea's defeat to QPR on Sunday.

'I've seen that there's a lot of comments on the internet with regards to some video footage of me in Sunday's game.

'I'm disappointed that people have leapt to the wrong conclusions about the context of what I was seen to be saying to Anton Ferdinand.

'I thought Anton was accusing me of using a racist slur against him. I responded aggressively, saying that I never used that term.

'I would never say such a thing, and I'm saddened that people would think so.I have known Anton for a long time and spoke to him about it after the game and there was no problem between us.

'I congratulated him on their win. He has not accused me of any wrongful remark. It was clear it was all a misunderstanding at the time.

'After the result today, I am saddened to be dealing with these wrongful allegations.

'I am the proud captain of one of the most internationally diverse teams in the Premier League and I absolutely believe that there is no place for racism in sport and indeed in any walk of life.'

No place indeed and whether any actual racial abuse took place only the best lip-readers or Anton Ferdinand will be able to confirm. What is clear is that the manner in which he responds to Ferdinand does little to help a neutral assessment of his cause.

Terry himself describes it as aggressive and you can imagine that being accused of such a slur would leave ay right minded person fuming. But his response does little to support his claim when you remember he talks of a long standing friendship with Ferdinand.

As I say it is possible he is remonstrating with Ferdinand about being accused of racism, at the start of the footage the view of Terry is blocked and he may well have said "I never called you a…." before his expletive laden outburst. Yet, to me, his closing comment which appears to be "you f****** knobhead", says much about the man as any alleged racist abuse does.

As does the amount of aggressive remonstrating he did with referee Chris Foy. Maybe if Terry focused on leading his team, rather than arguing with the referee - something we see frequently from him, he may have seen a more successful outcome for his team yesterday.

"Example is not the main thing in influencing others, it is the only thing" Albert Shweitzer

Some say he is a man's man. A leader; with the spirit of St George coursing through his veins. Just look at the way he belts out the national anthem, full of gnarling aggression and posturing. That's all well and good, but that doesn't mean to say he is the best leader on the pitch.

As captain he has a right to ask the referee about decisions, but finger jabbing and a bile fuelled, spittle flecked rant in a referee's face is hardly the way to go about it. Chris Foy may have made mistakes yesterday, but such a response from the Chelsea captain is not in keeping within the respect campaigns. It sets examples that children and adults alike will see as acceptable in grassroots football across the country.

Referees are human, they make mistakes, we all do. I am sure John Terry does. Sadly, I can only think that someone pointing out his errors would receive the same treatment as he dished out to Foy yesterday. It is a one way communication street with Terry.

Pre 1970 Word Cup, then England captain Bobby Moore was accused of stealing an emerald bracelet from a hotel shop in Bogota (an accusation he was subsequently cleared of). When the news broke the whole country was in shock at such an accusation being made. If a claim of wrongdoing were made against the England captain these days the populace might still recoil in horror and anger, but would they be surprised?

"Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other" - John F. Kennedy

The thing is John Terry doesn't learn. He seems to exhibit an air of invincibility that suggests he believes that all his foibles, his undesirable behaviour traits and his failings don't count. That, with no shame and no embarrassment, they can be ignored. And somehow they are…..

Successive managers of both Chelsea and England managers seem willing to overlook these successive lapses. Respected people both within and outside the game allow Terry to rule their roost. Capello even lacking the courage to continue to blackball a man who openly questioned his capabilities to do his job.

Terry using a World Cup press conference to challenge Capello's authority as England coach and question his methods, like a trade union leader with the Prime Minister. Yet the former captain should have been on the same side as his national coach, not creating mutiny. An apology with little remorse followed, only for him to be re-instated as captain the following year.

Maybe this is a reflection of a lack of true leaders at Chelsea or in English football, both in terms of off the pitch management and on the pitch captaincy, or a failure to acknowledge that chest beating and badge kissing are only part of the leadership equation.

"The price of greatness is responsibility" - Winston Churchill

Footballers have to realise that they are role models, whether they or you like it or not. David James recently said in the Observer that children's role models should be parents and that footballers are too detached from their former lives to be seen to be viewed as role models by today's youth. Former Scottish professional Jack Ross has written that footballers didn't ask for the role model "role", they just inherited it from being very good at their chosen skill.

Whilst I agree with James' point regarding parents, they are only part of the issue. The media drip feed the masses with the next new singing star, the next stop model, the next street soccer star. Thus creating an image and lifestyle that young people aspire too. Even those that will never make it as a singer, dancer, sports star, model, are given a silver plated dream, until they are turned into the next national laughing stock or told that they are just not good enough.

It is this media frenzy that creates the interest, stimulates the wage demands and generates the endorsements and promotional work that footballers such as Terry benefit from. Being a decent human being and setting a standard (at the very least for on-pitch behaviour) is a small price to pay. Especially when the public are so generously funding your lifestyle.

Some may say, well people swear, people fight, get over it. Maybe so, but all we are doing is being complicit in allowing our national game to settle into a morass of over-paid, under-talented footballers, feted by those who surround them. Their egos and those of the men in charge of the game allowing the upper echelons of English football to fester in a self satisfied pit of indulgence.

The England team is slowly becoming more and more detached from the common football fan. A lack of true leadership at the FA and from the coach, a lack of willingness to learn and very few setting the example. How much longer before the Premier League and it's feted stars like Terry follow them down the same route?

Saturday, 15 October 2011

Seaside Invasion

Often, in recent years, it is the last minute permanent signings or loan signings that have had a positive impact on Sheffield Derby matches. My favourite Derby Day debutant and probably the one that most Blades fans will remember fondly is Bobby Davison - 2 goals in a 3-1 win at Hillsborough in 1992.

With the Blades' recent run of form, there will be high hopes that the two new loan signings from Blackpool will have a positive impact. Certainly to my mind the signing of Matt Phillips is just what the Blades need wide and anything different up front will pep up the front line. I thought it would be worth asking top Blackpool blogger Chris Walker (@onedavebamber) editor of http://upthepool.blogspot.com for his thoughts.

It's not long since Daniel Bogdanovic swapped Bramall Lane for Bloomfield Road, and having scored his first two goals in Blackpool's last outing (a 5-0 win over Bristol City) the Seasiders have seen fit to send a couple of players in the other direction. Joining Sheffield United on loan for an initial 28 day period, Matt Phillips and Billy Clarke will be hoping to get their season back on track having found themselves left out of 'Pool's matchday squad in recent weeks. Given the size of Blackpool's squad - Ian Holloway could technically field three separate teams and squad numbers in the high 30s have already been taken - it's not surprising that the club are looking to loan out some players, especially with 'Pool pulling out of the reserve league this season. However, in some ways it is surprising that Phillips and Clarke are players Holloway has been happy to part with, albeit temporarily.

Clarke has featured in seven of Blackpool's first 10 league games this season, starting four of those - hardly an insignificant contribution. Big things had been expected of Clarke this season after two injury-ravaged years at the club, including missing the entirety of the Seasiders' Premier League adventure. An impressive pre-season led many onlookers to think Clarke would begin the season as part of Holloway's starting XI, although the manager instead gave the nod to veteran Brett Ormerod. An injury to Elliot Grandin after three games allowed Clarke to finally break into the team, but he was unable to replicate his pre-season form, disappointing those who had been clamouring for his inclusion, myself included. Clarke started four games, but indifferent performances and a nervousness in front of goal saw the former Ireland U21 international left out of the last three matchday squads.

The start to the season has been even more frustrating for Matt Phillips. Part of the England U20 squad that competed in the World Cup in Colombia this summer, Phillips was set to be one of the big players of that team, with many managers refusing permission for their players to travel to South America. Ian Holloway stressed the importance of allowing Phillips the chance to represent his country, despite the tournament overlapping with the start of the league campaign. Sadly, England's World Cup was hardly vintage - three 0-0 draws in the group stage somehow took them through to the next round, but a 1-0 defeat to Nigeria saw them return home without a goal to their name. Missing several key players and up against technically superior opposition, England's approach was negative in the extreme and seems to have damaged the attacking flair for which Matt Phillips had begun to build a reputation. An exciting young prospect who in spells dazzled the Premier League last season, 'Pool fans were eagerly awaiting the return of Phillips, but he has failed to make an impact in his six outings this term and has looked devoid of confidence.

All of this rather paints a grim picture for Blades supporters hoping the loan acquisition of these two players can halt United's mini-slump, but the raw ability these two players possess, Phillips in particular, should hopefully shine through at lower level. What then, can Blades fans expect from the two Blackpool loanees if they can perform somewhere near their best? Of the two, it's probably Phillips who is best equipped to be thrown straight in to the derby game this weekend, with Phillips playing in some of Blackpool's biggest games last season, being involved in the trips to Anfield and both Manchester clubs. It was in the game at the Etihad Stadium where Phillips turned in possibly his best 'Pool performance to date - on as a second half substitute Phillips tormented left-back Aleksandar Kolarov with an electric display which forced Roberto Mancini to replace him with the quicker Pablo Zabaleta. An out-and-out right winger (although Holloway did briefly try converting Phillips to a right-back), Matt Phillips is best when running at his marker from deep before putting in a cross. What Phillips isn't, however, is a prolific goalscorer, with just a solitary goal in his time at Blackpool, scored on his debut against Blackburn Rovers.

Billy Clarke is something more of an unknown quantity, even to 'Pool fans. The aforementioned injuries have resulted in Clarke making just 28 appearances, despite the fact Clarke is in his third season with Blackpool. In that time, Clarke too has scored just the one league goal, albeit a memorable one in front of the Sky cameras in a derby game against Preston. Before joining Blackpool though, Clarke had impressed on three separate loan spells from his then parent club Ipswich. While on loan at Darlington, Northampton and Brentford, Clarke was a regular on the scoresheet, and dropping down a division may see him rediscover his scoring touch. A fairly pacy striker, on his day the left-footer can prove a real handful and should excel in a division featuring far slower defenders. What Clarke really needs is a goal to get his season started, and if he's able to get that early on in his loan spell, I see no reason why Clarke can't kick on from there and rack up a few.

While the loan deal begins as a one month agreement, certain circumstances may mean that could be extended up to the beginning of January. If Blackpool continue to be in and around the top six places over the coming months, then Ian Holloway may be happy to leave Phillips and Clarke at Bramall Lane for three months, although if either of the pair do exceptionally well a recall option may well be activated after the first 28 days. Personally I believe it's unlikely both will see out three months in Sheffield - Matt Phillips the more likely player to be called back if he excels. Blackpool fans will certainly have one eye on the Blades and would be nothing less than delighted if Phillips and Clarke could contribute to a Blades victory in one particular game - the trip to Deepdale to take on 'Pool's local rivals Preston in midweek.

Friday, 14 October 2011

Memory Match - The Last Third Tier Sheffield Derby

It is over 31 years since the last third tier Sheffield Derby and I thought it would be interesting to see what was happening in Sheffield football then, by leafing through the match programme of Saturday 5th April 1980.

By way of background, both clubs found themselves in the top 6 of the Third Division, Wednesday having spent the previous 6 years in the division were in 2nd, whilst the Blades over a similar period had fallen from missing out on European football on goal average in 1975 to 6th in the Third Division.

The Blades had held league supremacy over Wednesday that season until the infamous first encounter of the season at Hillsborough on Boxing Day 1979. My interview with former Owls captain Mike Pickering will tell you more about it.

The first thing you notice is the kick off time. A 3pm kick off on a Saturday is virtually unheard of  for match of this stature these days. This season the game has been moved to Sunday kicking off at 12, with police drafted in from surrounding areas. Yet in 1980, was the situation any worse? There were also 12,000 more fans in attendance than there will be on Sunday.

Your 25 pence brought you little in the way of content, although the back page advert for GT Cars (Kick off with Renault, Score with GT Cars) was certainly an eye opener with a  Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman) look-alike hoisting a ball above her head leaning against a sun-roofed Renault.

"Happy" Harry Haslam, not the most popular Blades manager ever and one who bailed out and left Martin Peters to take us down into Division 4, will have done little to endear himself to Blades fans with his programme notes. On the one hand he says how he refuses to make excuses, but then admits to complaining about injuries each week. To be fair using 26 different players wouldn't have helped the team's cause.

Haslam then goes on to preview the 101st Sheffield Derby by congratulating the opposition on their league position, saying how exceptionally well they had performed and that he would take nothing away from them. His next words would find little agreement amongst Blades fans;

"We are pleased when our neighbours do well. Good Luck to them. Jack has had bad times and now he is having the good. They have done well. We recognise some-one (sic) who is going well."

Thankfully he is back on track by the end of his column, reminding readers of the Blades' overall supremacy having won 39 of the games to date, against 31 for Wednesday. A scoreline that would be unchanged at 4:45 that afternoon.

The introduction to the visitors highlights the fact that they had lost just once in the last 3 months and in that time had been freely scoring goals. The Star Visitor picked out is a man who unsuccessfully bridged the Sheffield divide. Terry Curran was an attacking midfielder who had scored one of his twenty goals to date on Boxing Day against the Blades. Super -Pig as he became known was never going to be a popular signing when Ian Porterfield signed him for the Blades 3 years later. Needless to say he never won over the fans and his record at Bramall Lane barely stands up to scrutiny.

A column called - They Give the Game Colour featured Derek Dooley and very little colour. Only black and white pictures were used! Highlighting the transition he had made from Wednesday striking star (until a tackle and subsequent leg amputation ended his career), to Wednesday manager (until his sacking on Christmas Eve 1973) to, at the time, Commercial Manager at Bramall Lane. He was to become a key figure at Bramall Lane, taking on the role of chairman and successfully providing a calm head amongst boardroom shenanigans, whilst also providing a listening post for several Blades managers including Dave Bassett and Neil Warnock in particular.

One of the most interesting articles is abruptly cut off, but relates the memories of a Blades fan (Tom Hogg) then in his eighties, who has vivid memories of United and the famous football players around the turn of the century. These include seeing the players around his local shops, the barbers in particular, and of Bill "Fatty" Foulkes ironically telling him he was fat. He remembers watching Billy Meredith play - "the greatest dribbler he ever saw" and Alex James - although Blades half-back Eddie Boot kept him out of the game that day. He refers to the Leeds City scandal and Barnsley winning the 1912 FA Cup final at Bramall Lane.

Probably the best story relates to his father's dislike of football. His hatred running so deep that he even discouraged a young Tom from going to United games. In fact the only time his father joined him at Bramall Lane  was "to see the new fangled electric light".

Later in the programme is a very formal "notice" of the intention to sell tickets for the European U21 Championship Semi Final at Bramall Lane later that month. The opponents were yet to be decided but it would be either the German Democratic Republic or Hungary. Ticket prices ranged from £1.80 on the John Street Terrace to £.30 for seats in the South Stand. Bramall Lane was a very popular venue for showpiece U21 internationals and would go on to host a leg of the final in 1982  and 1984.

Following a fact based article on Sheffield Derbies by local journalist and  biographer of Sheffield football Keith Farnsworth, the "Kids Corner" quiz page cannot help but have a little dig at the opposition; reminding them of their last near miss on the big occasion. The Hat Trick question lists Jim McCalliog and Alex Young as opposing Cup Final centre forwards. The hat-trick is scored by naming the teams, the year, the result. I am sure you will fill in the gaps.

One question I will leave for you to answer in the comments section below:

Solve the clue to name club and ground (omitting the word 'Ground' or 'Park' etc)


Opposite the quiz page, in amongst more adverts there is the guide to the old lettered scoreboard that sat at the bottom of the Bramall Lane terrace. Red Indicator games being the other games in the Third Division along with the Blades Reserve game against Manchester City. Amongst the top division games listed on the yellow indicator there was another big rivalry being played out across the pennines - Match F - Manchester United v Liverpool.

The inside back cover contained the traditional fixture list, match by match line ups and statistics. Showing that in amongst the 26 players fielded by United were 4 goalkeepers. Not a recipe for success. The league tables show Grimsby leading the table with 51 points, a win (2 points) ahead of Wednesday, with Blackburn a further 2 points behind and one ahead of Chesterfield who were to visit Bramall Lane a week later.

The reserve league (Central League) table made even grimmer reading for Unitedites, with the Blades firmly rooted to the bottom of the table on 18 points, just 5 wins and 8 draws all season. A result of the injury crisis and paucity of players available.

So what of the game? 42,000 fans, generating then record match receipts of £65,092, and the Match of the Day cameras were there to see to see the clubs play out a 1-1 draw. You can see the footage on youtube here. Much is still made of Terry Curran's goal for Wednesday his arcing run from the corner flag seeing off several Blades defenders and equalising Blades captain John MacPhail's opener. The much maligned Blades keeper Terry Poole (one of three replacements tried out when Steve Conroy broke his arm) gained plaudits for his performance that day. A rare moment of praise in his limited Bramall Lane career.

Of the Blades team listed in the programme seven actually started the game and not even the genius of Alex Sabella could spark the Blades to victory. An example of a great footballer who cannot influence a game due to the lack of ability and vision of the players around him. Only three other players in the starting XI could be said to have gone on to have a reasonably successful time at United; John MacPhail, Paul Garner and Tony Kenworthy. Pedro Verde, listed in the programme but didn't play, is better known as Juan Sebastian Veron's uncle and the reason why Veron reportedly said that the Blades were his favourite English club. His uncle clearly portraying his time at United more positively than most Blades fans would remember it.

Wednesday eventually finished 3rd, gaining promotion by just a point from Chesterfield. United fell away to finish 12th. United went on to beat Wednesday 1-0 in the County Cup in May of that year, but as much as a win over Wednesday was to be celebrated - it was a league win that was required to avenge the Boxing Day defeat. With the clubs moving in opposite directions and remaining divisions apart for the following decade it was 1991/92 before the Blades had the chance for league revenge. It was worth the wait as it came in the form of a Sheffield Double. Much happier days.

@coops1889 remembers the 1991/92 games here. 

Tell you why I don't like Derby Day

I don't like Derby Days. There, I have said it. A massive game, the biggest crowd of the season, a raucous, sometimes volatile atmosphere and I don't enjoy it one little bit.

For me Sheffield United v "the team from S6"  turns me into an anti-football fan. Derby Day for me is not necessarily all about winning, although clearly that is what I really want. The important thing for me is not losing. As long as "they" don't have the upper hand, the bragging rights, I don't care. The next job, following any Derby match, is to focus on finishing above them in the league table.

Don't get me wrong, Sheffield Derby days are special occasions, something perhaps never properly recognised by the national media. The intensity of noise and the atmosphere generated within Bramall Lane (or even dare I admit, the other place)  could easily be compared with the other derby matches traditionally viewed as the standard bearers; Merseyside, Manchester, Glasgow. I just do not find it as exciting as a supporter of one of the clubs. With such special occasions of such rarefied intensity, just what is my problem?

My negative feelings arise for three reasons. My formative football watching years saw "them" generally have the upper hand in terms of league standing. I grew up in an era where United and "the other lot" were in different divisions, derby games were reserved for a pre-season friendly, the County Cup, a testimonial match or a Zenith Data Systems Cup game. Rarely did we win, or so it felt.

Most of my friends were not United fans, they knew how to gloat, they new how to belittle. Even then delusions of grandeur were visible; the first signs of the self belief that have led to the proclamations of how massive they are today. Claims that filter every level of the club, right through to the manager and his comparisons of relative stature. One week they are like the Barcelona of League One, the following Manchester United, the next Real Madrid. I didn't want to play "them", I just wanted them to fail. I wanted them to swap divisions with us. To fall away into a long decline.

The second reason comes from an earlier stages of my life and my first real Sheffield Derby memory. I was 4, but I wasn't at a match. United, ahead of that team from across the city in the Division 3 table, lost 4-0 at the other place on Boxing Day 1979. I remember the anguish of my father and grandfather as they arrived home to continue a family Christmas marred by events on the football pitch.

All that frustration was kept for posterity on an audio cassette by my mum. The click of play/and record as the front door clicks open and then bangs to. My running footsteps out of the lounge into the hallway; "4-0 Grandad!" I say in surprise and slight indignation. "I know….they were rubbish…." he mutters forlornly. Voices then tail off as both my father and grandfather head into the kitchen to vent their frustrations, out of view and out of earshot of the children.

By the time we looked to gain revenge at Bramall Lane in April, we had fallen away from the top end of the table, whilst they were heading for an inevitable promotion. A 1-1 draw was played out, remembered more for Terry Curran's goal for them, rather than anything the Blades achieved. I think I was there, I can't say I remember. As a 5 year old, the games I attended blurred into one a little, even those with 42,000 in the ground.

These initial memories of Sheffield derby games can scar a young child. Seeing the effect it had on my Grandad, a man not afraid to let his passions and his hurt show where football was concerned. Defeats like Boxing Day were taken like a personal affront to his support. The subsequent relegation to the Fourth Division was something he never really got over, he passed away a week or so after.

The next time we were to play a league derby was some 11 years later. For one season prior we had swapped divisions, but they had come straight back up to the top division. As a 16 year old I understood more about football then. I was passionate about football then.  That first league derby in 11 years was, thanks to police advice, played on a misty November Sunday at Bramall Lane. The other lot were flying on their return to the top flight and expecting a comfortable win.

I remember the early tension vividly and then the outpouring of sheer joy of watching young Blades midfielder Dane Whitehouse breaking forward, bearing down on goal and slotting home the first goal. Then in the second half, Brian Deane squeezed the ball between Chris Woods' legs to send Blades fans into ecstasy and leave Woods facing months of mocking for his bow-legged keeping.  His situation not helped by United winning the return match across the city 3-1, although he was less culpable that night.

Much happier times indeed, although I think I enjoyed post match celebrations as much as the day itself.  In the time since we have enjoyed what feels like a slight upper hand in Steel City encounters. Despite that, I cannot say I have enjoyed the matches per se.

Even at 3-0 at half time, as it was two season ago at Bramall Lane, you can never sit comfortably and enjoy the rest of the game. On that occasion the Blades were pegged back to 3-2 and clung on. I was the sole football fan in a  Greek hotel bar that night, a long standing fortnight of family holiday coinciding with just one home game being played when the fixtures being announced. Yet those who joined me found it hard to sit with a man who was on holiday to relax, yet appeared to be displaying all the signs of a nervous breakdown until he exploded in hysteria at the final whistle.

That really highlights my  final reason; that even when you are in front, the 90 minutes are defined by a feeling that can only be described as someone grasping hold of your guts and twisting them into a contorted shape. Rather like a children's party entertainer transforming his balloons into something you only know is a dog when he makes barking noises at the watching children. Your legs shake violently, banging against the people in the adjacent seats. You lean forward, twitching, before launching out of your seat to roar out your support for your team or hurl spittle laden invective at the opposition players and the their fans, amongst whom are many of your friends.

By the end, if you have won, something Blades fans have experienced more than Owls over the years I hasten to add, you celebrate. Well you try to. Hoarse from exhortations, legs drained of nervous energy you try to jump up and down and shout, but it doesn't quite happen. No matter what it looks and sounds like, it is the fact you are attempting to do it that matters.

I don't really enjoy experiencing such extreme behaviour and emotion. Not because of wanting to appear sensible, not because I have a lack of passion nor from any attempt to keep up professional appearances, but from seeing the effect of letting a game consume you and your health as it did my Grandad. Not letting things go, letting results rule your moods and your life.

We have been fortunate that many of the recent seasons have seen us above Wednesday; it is 12 years since they held the upper hand in terms of final league position. Despite all the incredible highs and gut wrenching lows of these matches, I am much happier to define our success over Wednesday based on the league tables. Give me a season where we are sat in a division above Wednesday, rather than playing them twice a season.

But if we have to play them, please let us not lose….and then let's set about overtaking them in the league. Thank you.

I have written the United part of a Steel City Derby Preview for football league site theseventytwo, you can read it here.