Where footballers are made

street football

Football every corner. Photo by Zlatko Vickovic, http://www.flickr.com

Identifying talent at a young age is a very difficult thing to do. Even when it is spotted successfully, it is often dulled rather than nurtured, resulting in many talented youngsters leaving their sports, burn-out and disillusioned. This argument is eloquently elaborated by Ed Smith in his latest piece in the NewStatesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/sport/2017/03/praise-late-developer

A former England cricketer, Smith is a consistently thoughtful and thought-provoking columnist, connecting an insider’s sporting perspective to broader themes beyond the field of play. ‘In praise of the late developer’ he calls into question a culture in the UK that fast-tracks those who display the most obvious strengths from an early age.

Often, ‘strength’ is the key word. The biggest, strongest and quickest kids commandeer attention (presumably explaining the career of Carlton Palmer); if you’re small, then it helps to be as good as Messi or Xavi.

Smith notes that ‘children don’t develop in a linear way,’ including physically, and early judgements may thus turn out to be erroneous ones. He also points to the ‘value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age. ’ A great illustration of this point is provided by the Murray brothers.

Both were encouraged to participate in many different sports as kids – Andy is an excellent footballer and was invited to train with Rangers; Jamie apparently has a single figure handicap in golf. Eventually they focused almost exclusively on tennis but the range of skills they developed from other sports undoubtedly provided a transferable benefit onto the court.

Judy Murray has an excellent initiative Set4Sport, which draws upon her experiences of making up games for her children to play in the garden, designed to develop their motor skills and coordination.

I presume that Andy and Jamie had regular and intensive tennis lessons but they also appear to have spent a lot of time ‘playing’ (in the broadest sense of that term) in a relatively unstructured and unsupervised way.

British, and especially Scottish, footballers are less skilled today than they once were. This seems strange given the fact that they spend more time under the supervision of better qualified coaches than previous generations did. So why have skill levels deteriorated rather than improved?

I think Johan Cryuff had the answer worked out a long time ago: “when I was young, I trained a few hours a week at Ajax, but I played a few hours everyday on the street, so where do you think I learned to play?”

The streets taught the legendary Cryuff more than Ajax did; just as they have long proved to be a better academy than that of Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea, Celtic or Rangers. Even, class of ’92 included, than Manchester United.

However much money clubs spend on facilities, coaches, sports scientists and data analysis, they have so far been unable to replicate the conditions of the street. Academies, in general, do not produce what we might call street footballers.

It is not only a question of time spent in contact with a ball, although that’s surely a huge factor. It’s also playing 15-a-side in cramped spaces, on uneven surfaces, with a ball that’s long ceased to perform anything resembling a bounce.

There has been huge investment in sports facilities in recent years, and it’s a worthy use of money, but there’s little evidence to suggest that a lack of such facilities hampers the skills development of British footballers or other athletes.

Of course the biggest change, and perhaps the biggest problem, since even my youth is that kids have been forced to surrender the streets. I live in the centre of a large city and my kids have never played anything on a street or road, nor are they likely to.

Street football didn’t come with coaches. There were certainly no refs. It was learning by tinkering, trial and error, and attempts to emulate the abilities of older children. Street football tended to have a wide age-range participating in any particular game. Age-levels don’t matter so much when you’re simply trying to find enough players for a viable game. 3 v 3 is a tough shift.

Late bloomers, Smith suggests, tend to retain ‘the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.’ The same is true of those who honed their craft in the unforgiving environment of the streets. The only data analysis that was conducted then was a most cursory effort at keeping score; that effort generally proved too great once it got into double figures and all games were eventually settled by the “next goal wins” criterion anyway.

Again, Cryuff foresaw the dangers: “I find it terrible when talents are rejected based on computer stats. Based on the criteria at Ajax now I would have been rejected. When I was 15, I couldn’t kick a ball 15 meters with my left and maybe 20 with my right. My qualities of technique and vision are not detectable by a computer.”

I’m not arguing that there’s no value in data analysis, it can surely complement the judgements and observations that scouts make with the naked eye. But as with any system of measurement, much gets left out. The important thing is not to make height and weight measurements crucial to determining the prospects of youngsters. Above all, retain, as Smith does, a judicious distrust of ‘the system.’

‘Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.’

As I’ve written before, don’t be that Dad. Let the kids play. Keeping them out of the system may ultimately keep them in the game.

Eventually, if they are to make it, they will need to be coached, analysed, and monitored. But before then, let them find their own way, while making their own mistakes, with enough guidance to keep them from going too far astray.

The artificial grass of the academies produces a true bounce all year round, but it can also produce an artificial development; the difference between players who have been taught how to play football and those who learned how to be footballers.

Front and Centre

Suarez

Suarez, 9. Photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

Football, like many other things in life, is subject to shifting fashions, and I’m not just referring to the design of the multiple kits that teams deem necessary these days. There are tactical fashions too, many of which have been shaped by Barcelona over the last decade or so.

The Barcelona side built around Xavi and Messi set the template for fluid attacking football that has been much imitated but with rather sporadic success since those doing the imitating have been attempting to do so without the aforementioned superstars.

One consequence of the fashion to play tiki-taka has been a reduced influence for what we might call the traditional centre forward.

With Messi playing as a ‘false 9’ (something that Totti was already doing at Roma incidentally), Barcelona became one of the greatest sides of all time without much need for a true 9 – just ask Ibrahimovic.

But when Barcelona signed Suarez in 2014, it signified the end of the tiki-taka era and the introduction of a more direct style at the Camp Nou to take advantage of the fearsome Messi-Suarez-Neymar (MSN) frontline. Messi and Neymar would float around as fluidly as ever, while Suarez would be exactly where you would expect a number 9 to be: front and centre.

I’ve written before that Barcelona have shifted the focus of their game to the forward trio rather than the midfield trio, which (when led by Xavi) used to create the “passing carousel” that caused such anguish to Sir Alex.

The Catalans may not be quite as dominant as a few years ago but where they lead others remain inclined to follow. Look at the top of the Premier League: Chelsea (Costa), Tottenham (Kane), and Manchester City (Aguero). Number 9s (even if that’s not always the number on their back) are enjoying a renaissance.

Interestingly, the fourth placed team in the Premier League remain tactically closer to a tiki-taka style of play. Roberto Firmino is many things but he is not a centre forward. Nevertheless, he has played as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack (in a false-ish 9 position) for most of the season.

Sturridge has been a combination of injured (as usual) or out of form and in any case is not in the same class as Costa, Kane and Aguero. The best that can be said of Origi is that he remains a work in progress with unfulfilled potential.

It’s unclear as to whether Klopp does not sufficiently trust his centre forwards to play them regularly or if his preferred tactical set-up has little need for them. Firmino, Coutinho and Mane (plus Lallana to a lesser extent) are tasked with bringing both creativity and cutting edge to Liverpool’s attack.

They’ve done so very erratically – Liverpool have struggled to break down lesser teams but are still currently the highest scoring side in the league. The main problem at Anfield is not the particular style favoured by Klopp but the lack of variability and adaptability on days when it’s not proving effective.

The absence of a true 9 in many games has hampered Liverpool’s ability to play more directly and pose a different sort of challenge to defences that are both packed and deep. The Liverpool boss should prioritise the signing of a centre forward in the summer, especially with Sturridge seemingly poised to leave.

Further down the league, the role of world-class strikers cannot be understated. Most of the progress made by Manchester United under Mourinho is due to the signing of Ibrahimovic, he who Barcelona struggled to fit into their tiki-taka rhythm.

Similarly, where would Everton be without Lukaku? At the other end of the table, Sunderland would be in considerably more trouble without Defoe. Arsenal have laboured for years now without a truly exceptional number 9 (and a few other missing numbers); Giroud is unfairly scapegoated on occasion but he’s no Costa or Kane.

Barcelona’s tiki-taka influenced the game defensively as well as in an attacking sense. Many teams sought more defensive cover and rigidity to guard against the shape-shifting nature of Barca’s movement. Strikers were primarily tasked with being the first line of defence and one was judged to suffice for such a mission.

4-5-1 thus became a common formation – sometimes of a more attacking disposition, often less so. It could be subtle, even at times sophisticated, but it was rarely swashbuckling. It tended to be dull though, particularly when 4-5-1 lined up against 4-5-1.

There is, no doubt, an art to defending (really there is PSG) but the artistry in football is primarily to be found at the other end of the pitch. A player such as Mascherano can paint in broad brushes but those with the talent of Messi and Neymar produce the masterpieces.

As in art, fashions change and usually they hark back to something that’s come before. The return to fashion of the centre forward is worth celebrating; welcome back number 9, may you cease to be false.

Lest we forget, football is a brutal game

ranieri

Claudio Ranieri mural. Photo by Phil McIver, http://www.flickr.com

Football tends towards the sentimental and the nostalgic; but memories are short and loyalties are increasingly thin. Ranieri achieved something incredible, beyond the wildest of dreams. Relegation from the Premier League is the nightmare that haunts the restless nights of owners however.

There was little chance that Leicester could maintain the altitude of last season, but even so the descent has been painfully abrupt and turbulent. The Foxes have been anything but cunning of late and the Italian seemed to have exhausted his supply of cunning plans.

Leicester legend Lineker said the decision to sack Ranieri showed a gobsmacking lack of gratitude and he suggested that a statue should have been erected in the former manager’s honour rather than the delivery of his P45.

It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if a statue of Ranieri were to appear at the King Power Stadium. His legendary status is guaranteed but that doesn’t necessarily mean that his job should be. How much time, how much leeway should be accorded to a legend? It’s a reasonable question to ask, isn’t it Arsenal fans?

I think Leicester were unduly and unseemly hasty in pulling the trigger this week but I’m not going to add my voice to the chorus of condemnation that has greeted the decision. In the understandable outpouring of support that there’s been for Ranieri, there’s been admirable romanticism but all too little realism.

Managers know that results are all at the top of the game (and that includes you Jose) and that former glories – however utterly stupendous they may be – are a currency that depreciates rapidly.

Did Ranieri not deserve more though? Yes he did and from his players in particular. They have underperformed badly this season and the most troubling part of the whole saga is the suggestion that the players turned against their boss and played a role in his downfall. The debt of gratitude they owe him is probably as great as any in football.

Leicester’s extraordinary triumph in winning the league was built on a collective effort and ethic but the biggest contribution made by any one individual was that of the manager. He maintained a remarkable composure amidst the hysteria; truly a man who kept his head when it would have been far easier to lose it.

Ranieri may have walked in the King’s palace in Thailand, but he never lost the common touch. His decency, humility and sense of humour helped endear his club (and the silverware didn’t hurt in that regard either) to millions around the world.

If many of them lose interest now though, it is not because Ranieri is gone but because the glory is gone. It will be hunted elsewhere. Leicester have had a trip to the moon, but now find themselves back down to earth and are once again experiencing gravity’s pull.

Ranieri can fully and deservedly enjoy retirement if he so wishes. If he wants to manage again, he’s unlikely to be short of offers for long. Most football clubs are in search of a miracle and he’s a man that has an authenticated one on his CV.

Life after Ranieri began last night with a comfortable win over Liverpool. A few more of those and relegation fears will cease and the Italian will be both revered and yet almost forgotten. The next game is never too far away in football and this creates an immediacy and urgency that means the past isn’t usually dwelt upon for too long. Today’s focus is more likely to be on tomorrow than yesterday.

Leicester were lucky that Liverpool were the visitors for the occasion. After the game, Klopp said: “we should get criticised. This inconsistency makes absolutely no sense.” You will get criticised Jurgen and deservedly. You’re also paid quite a lot of money to try and figure out things such as your team’s truly incredible lack of consistency.

Actually I don’t think it’s all that difficult; you don’t have enough quality players and the one consistent thing at Anfield this season has been your baffling decision to play many of them out of position.

The Liverpool boss went on to say: “we are all playing for our future here.” The German has already become something of a legend at the club but he’s smart enough to know that such status doesn’t provide immunity from criticism or scrutiny.

The future horizons that managers contemplate these days have been reduced to a matter of months. They may occasionally talk of Soviet-style, long-term five year plans but they know that the next five games are the more important priority. That’s not particularly fair (or indeed healthy) but it’s the reality and we fans can hardly claim to be much more patient than those who own our clubs.

Leicester fans will never forget the Shakespearian drama that was last season. But for now the talk of the town is more likely regarding whether his namesake is up to the job and if the revival can continue against Hull on Saturday.

Ranieri was greeted as somewhat of a jester when he arrived in the East Midlands, but he departs a heroic king. He’s been around the game for long enough to appreciate that in football as in life: ‘All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts.’

But what a part, what an unforgettable part.

Have I been too harsh on Klopp?

anfield

Anfield, photo by SteHLiverpool. http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp said he was looking forward to a “perfect Sunday” after Liverpool’s comfortable 2-0 win over Spurs on Saturday evening. The German has had few ‘super Sundays’ to enjoy of late, such has been his side’s wretched form in 2017.

The previous week, Liverpool lost away at Hull with a thoroughly abject performance, following which I took to Facebook to vent my frustration. I posted: ‘Liverpool starting to show a rather worrying resemblance to Man U under van Gaal.’ A friend whose opinion I respect on all matters football replied simply: ‘harsh.’

It was a harsh assessment but I still think a fair one. One of Klopp’s mantras is that performance is all since results can’t be controlled. That’s true enough but some of the performances in the last few months have been dire, especially at home against opposition who set out and set up to frustrate.

To some extent it’s a compliment to Liverpool that teams arrive at Anfield intent on ‘parking the bus.’ Sadly, the response of the home team has too often been to double park alongside it; plenty of possession, total territorial supremacy, but precious little damage to the aforementioned bus.

Have Liverpool made progress under Klopp? Yes, undoubtedly. There remains, rightly, more optimism about the future than in the final days of the Rodgers regime. And yet it was revealed recently that Klopp and his predecessor had almost identical records over their first 54 games in charge of the club.

It’s progress but it’s stuttering, unsteady and yet to be fully convincing. Those calling for the German to get on his bike are ludicrously premature (I don’t see any better candidate to take over) but the fact that the suggestion has even been made shows how far Liverpool still have to go in fulfilling their ambitions.

The short-term ambition is Champions League qualification this season and that’s far from a certainty given how competitive the race for the top four is. The resurgent Manchester United have everyone except Chelsea glancing anxiously over their shoulders.

Winning the title never seemed like a very realistic prospect for Liverpool this season and they won’t do so with the current squad. Klopp has begun to mould it to suit his preferences but more radical surgery still needs to be performed.

As a minimum: Mignolet should be sold – he’s a fine shot stopper but exhibits almost no command and authority; a new left back is needed – Milner’s done a sterling and committed job but each passing week demonstrates further that it’s not his natural position; Lucas is not a centre back and should never be played there (surely the ‘Lucas as makeshift defender’ hypothesis has been refuted on enough occasions by now); and playing a genuine centre forward on a regular basis would seem, to me at least, like an old fashioned idea that never should have fallen out of fashion.

The surgery needed on the squad goes well beyond the cosmetic and will come with a hefty price tag. Klopp seemingly assumed that a keyhole operation would suffice but the harsh winter that he’s just endured must surely have persuaded him otherwise.

Next summer’s shopping will be much easier and more pleasant if he’s doing it in the Champions League aisle. The Europa League will not tempt the calibre of player that Liverpool need to attract in order to become genuine title contenders domestically and competitive with the biggest clubs across the continent.

Managerial careers are made and broken in the transfer market, those bi-annual windows of opportunity through which they must reshape their squads. Klopp is (rightly) confident in his ability to develop players once he starts to work with them but it’s important that he finds the best available raw material.

He also needs to demonstrate greater tactical flexibility. His high-energy pressing game works best as a counter-attacking strategy and it’s therefore not a surprise that it’s proving more successful against better sides that have more possession. When Liverpool are forced to create their own attacking momentum, in situations where they face teams happy to sit back and concede possession, they look slow and ponderous.

The opposition is increasingly confident of being able to nullify Liverpool by limiting the ability of Klopp’s side to catch them on the counter-attack with fast breaks. That is a very similar issue to the one that Manchester United had under van Gaal and it’s one that Mourinho is only slowly being able to rectify – aided by astute signings such as Ibrahimovic.

To be fair to Klopp, he has responded to the recent ‘crisis’ in a calm and composed manner. The dispassionate analysis he provides in the aftermath of games is in stark contrast to his somewhat hysterical demeanour on the touchline.

Indeed Klopp recently insisted to journalists: “We will have to take all the criticism from everywhere. You can write what you want at the moment.”

Here, I have. I doubt the Liverpool manager is reading this but if you are Mr Klopp, I hope you consider it harsh but fair.

A game of four quarters

half-time

Half-time. Photo by Alan Myers, http://www.flickr.com

Football is a beautifully simple game. That, more than anything else, accounts for its global appeal. A ball, a scrap of land, a few willing friends and you’ve got yourself a game.

Even at the highest level, played by multimillionaires with their own Twitter emojis, the essence of the game is the same.

As a player, Marco van Basten was a marvel. He was one of the greatest centre forwards of all time, scorer of ‘that goal.’ Now he’s FIFA’s technical director and he’s decided that perhaps the beautiful game is in need of a makeover.

It’s a mystery to me why FIFA needs a technical director. Who is Marco supposed to be directing in a technical sense? Since it’s clearly not what we might call a proper job, the Dutchman has been using his time in it to dream up some radical proposals for changing football.

His proposals include scrapping the offside rule, introducing sin bins, replacing penalty shoot-outs with those run-ups that they used to use in America (when it’s fair to say the U.S. was still getting to grips with this whole soccer thing), and splitting the game into four quarters rather than two halves.

There are many things wrong with football today: diving (by far the ugliest thing in the modern game), saturation TV coverage, match fixing in many parts of the world, ‘third strips,’ and a preponderance of pink boots to name just a few.

But Marco proposes remedies for none of these blights. Instead (as is so depressingly common these days) he goes in search of solutions where no problems exist.

Offside is not a problem in the game, other than when someone asks you to explain the rule. The shifting interpretations of it don’t help either but nonetheless offside does not detract from the spectacle of football.

Sin bins aren’t actually a totally ridiculous idea. They work ok in rugby, which is a sport that has a fairly similar rhythm to football. But yellow and red cards have served the game perfectly well for years. Van Basten suggests that ‘maybe an orange card could be shown that sees a player go out of the game for 10 minutes for incidents that are not heavy enough for a red card.’

The cunning solution currently in place is that incidents not heavy enough for a red are dealt with by a yellow. Again, not really a problem in need of solving.

On his idea for replacing penalties, the Dutch maestro argues: ‘It’s more skill and less luck. It’s maybe a bit more spectacular. It’s more football but it’s still nervous for the player.’ It’s not clear to me that penalties are ‘less football’ but what makes them such a wonderful part of the game is the extreme tension and nerves that they generate.

I’m sure there are many players and ex-players (perhaps Chris Waddle, who still has a penalty orbiting the moon) who would happily see the back of penalty shoot-outs but they are a brutally, agonisingly beautiful part of the game. To lose them would be a tragedy.

Finally, and most incredibly, is the four quarters idea. Van Basten: ‘The coach can have three times with his players during the game.’ Imagine if you’d told Manchester United players that Fergie would have three opportunities during a game to set the hairdryer blowing.

Four quarters would make football a completely different game, the whole rhythm and dynamic would change. Forty five minutes is a perfect length of time for the ebb and flow of a match to be established and develop.

Managers get one opportunity to decisively influence the outcome at half time but they also do so through substitutions and tactical adjustments during the rest of the game. There are lulls in football punctuated by periods of intensity. It is, in short, nothing like basketball.

I haven’t been to a live basketball match but at the other end of the spectrum I have been to a baseball game. It lasted all night. In fact, I left the game around 11:30pm while it remained in progress. Back in a Manhattan bar at midnight, it was still going on.

One half time break is also more than enough punditry and analysis. We don’t need to be cutting back to the studio every twenty odd minutes for the considered thoughts of Ian Wright or Robbie Savage.

So please Marco, leave our game alone. It is fine just exactly as it is (so is the World Cup by the way but that won’t stop FIFA’s relentless quest for money, sorry I mean ‘change’).

It’s a game of two halves; not four quarters.

I would fly 6,600 miles

United

Brothers United

Happy New Year readers! I hope 2017 is off to a good start and my best wishes to you and yours (your football team that is) for the year ahead.

The traditional festive fixture whirlwind has just blown by and left a few disgruntled managers in its wake. The managerial whine has become as much a tradition as mulled wine at this time of year. The usual suspects have had their say:

Wenger: “In 20 years it is the most uneven Christmas period I have seen on the fixture front, the difference of rest periods is absolutely unbelievable.” A surprising outburst from Arsene, a man not usually inclined to complain.

Mourinho: “The busy period is for some clubs not for everyone because you analyse there is no congestion for them. The fixtures are chosen to give some rest for some and create problems for others but we are used to it because we are in the Europa League, which creates more difficulties.” Mourinho is the great conspiracy theorist of the modern game; he sees a dark plot against him in every shadow. I rather doubt that Rupert Murdoch is out to “create problems” for you Jose but you never know.

Some are newer to the English game but have adapted quickly with their complaints:

Pochettino: “The physical demand is massive but mental too. You can see plenty of pictures from different leagues in Europe — [players] in swimming pools, at the beach, players with families, relaxing. Our players were at training, playing and going to bed early. That is tough because they are young and they need to enjoy life.” Yep, those young multimillionaire footballers hanging out with models in clubs, if only a way could be found for them to enjoy life.

Klopp: “I am a football fan, I would like to watch football everyday but if you do it, after four weeks, you cannot do it anymore. The only thing is you have to accept the problems you cause with things like this.” Is he saying that after four weeks it’s impossible to play any more football or watch it? I’m pretty sure I could keep it up for four weeks (watching that is). Indeed, it’s a challenge we all rise to every four years with the World Cup.

The unspoken complaint of course is that Chelsea have had it (relatively) easy this festive season. Conte however has a hypothesis as to what is really troubling his rivals: “I think they are angry for our position, not for the fixtures.” I think he’s right.

In his recently published Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football (buy it), Daniel Gray gets to the heart of why those of us in the stands love Christmas football:

‘Down in the concourses at half-time, football and Christmas collide to make excitable children of us all. There is probably a bigger crowd than usual. It is swelled by home-comers from London, Aberdeen and abroad, bumping into old pals and old flames, sipping with seldom-seen kid brothers. It becomes a grotto, hubbubbing with more noise than any class on a school visit could make, the air mobbed by breathless chatter about life and the transfer window.’

As an expat now, I’m one of those who’ve swollen crowds on Boxing Days as I make my annual pilgrimage. My dictionary defines a pilgrimage as ‘a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion.’ That sounds a lot like my recent journeys to Tannadice from Kuala Lumpur.

We fans will get up early, arrive home late, and travel for miles to see our teams. It’s often expensive and exhausting. But you won’t hear me complaining (much), unless United lose; because 6,600 miles is a long way to travel to see your team get beat.

Stirring the hornet’s nest

harry-the-hornet

Harry the Hornet. Photo by Jack Tanner, http://www.flickr.com

In this season of good cheer, I write in defence of Watford mascot Harry the Hornet. He got a ticking off last weekend following an incident at the end of the Watford – Crystal Palace game. His crime? Mocking Wilfried Zaha.

We live in a rather sad world in which many people will take offence at the drop of a hat. And sure enough it was a ‘drop’ that was at the heart of this sorry saga. As Zaha applauded the Palace fans, hornet Harry ‘took a comedy dive.’ Zaha had been booked in the game for simulation.

Wilfried was apparently incensed by this piece of mascot mockery and had to be restrained as he tried to approach Harry. It’s something of a shame that we were denied a brawl involving a mascot.

New Palace boss big Sam was also angered. Truly comically, he called Harry “out of order” and said that it was a matter that the FA needed to “sort out.” The FA have only just finished sorting out the mess that was Sam’s short reign as England manager so perhaps they would have more pressing matters to attend to.

But alas, the FA, like most official bodies, will never pass up the chance of a bit of virtue signalling. It’s much easier than addressing actual issues in the game such as … oh let me see … diving. Thus it was reported that the FA ‘decided not to pursue the case further but it is understood they had an informal phone conversation with Watford about the incident.’

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The FA: “Hi, we just want to have a quick word about the incident with the mascot.”

Watford: “oh yes.”

The FA: “we can all only be grateful and relieved that a serious situation didn’t develop as a result of this irresponsible action. Furthermore, a professional player has suffered grievous injury to his pride.”

Watford: “a most distressing occurrence indeed and we can only apologise unreservedly on behalf of the individual involved. Be assured a thorough internal investigation and review has been launched in order to avoid a repeat of this.”

The FA: “thank you, we’re reassured that you are treating this serious matter with the seriousness that it deserves. We can therefore avoid any official action – such as imposing a three match ban on the mascot – on this occasion. Merry Christmas.”

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Watford subsequently issued a phenomenal statement: ‘Watford FC has reminded Harry the Hornet of his responsibilities, which include continuing to have fun and entertain supporters.’

Hahahaha. That must have been an amazing Monday morning meeting. I’d love to know what the full list of Harry’s responsibilities entails but I’m glad that having fun and entertaining supporters are included among them. Of course this is exactly what Harry was doing in gently mocking Zaha so he may be left feeling a little confused as to how to interpret his responsibilities.

I didn’t see the Zaha booking so I don’t know if he did dive or not, although he’s a player that carries a reputation in this regard. It seems to me though that mockery is a perfectly reasonable reaction to diving (or cheating to call it by what it really is) and it should be employed more often. Players should be shamed when they cheat and why not have mascots take a lead in that?

Getting mocked by a grown man who dresses up in a ridiculous costume every other weekend should at least give some pause for thought.

Zaha’s teammate Delaney (another man whom I hope received a sense of humour for Christmas) also hit out at Harry the Hornet, saying: “Maybe he thinks he is more important than he is. For a mascot to be doing that, it’s uncalled for.” Yes Damien, the arrogance of mascots, a real scourge of the modern game.

What’s uncalled for is players who take themselves so seriously that they cannot take a joke.

It can only be hoped that one of the FA’s New Year’s resolutions for 2017 is to clamp down on diving but somehow I doubt it. Unless it involves mascots of course.