Happy birthday Match of the Day



Match of the Day studio. Photo by Alexander Baxevanis, http://www.flickr.com

So Match of the Day is 50. It is quite simply a British institution. Especially for those of us who grew up without the saturation coverage of football on TV that exists today. It’s a coming of age moment in the UK to finally be allowed to stay up to watch Match of the Day. I don’t actually remember how old I was when that moment happened for me but I do remember the feeling that an important milestone in life had been reached.

A lot has changed since the programme made its debut in 1964 and not just in football. In 1964, Winston Churchill retired from the House of Commons, the Forth Road Bridge opened, The Sun newspaper went into circulation, and the Beatles had a Christmas number one with I Feel Fine. The world record transfer fee at the time was £250,000, paid by Roma to Mantova for Angelo Sormani (no, I’ve never heard of him either). The British transfer record was the £115,000 paid by Manchester United to Torino for the services of Dennis Law.

Apparently, a season ticket to watch Law at Manchester United could be purchased for around £10 – many Manchester United fans probably feel that would be a reasonable price to watch their side for a season now given the level of performance they’ve been producing over the past year or so.

The legendary Law was voted European footballer of the year in 1964 and remains the only Scot to have been awarded the Ballon D’Or. Dalglish finished second in the voting in 1983, losing out to Platini. It’s not altogether clear why Scott Nisbet was overlooked in 1993, a player about whom Walter Smith said: “every pass is an adventure.”

Match of the Day’s first adventure came at Anfield on 22 August 1964. Liverpool beat Arsenal 3-2 and 20,000 viewers tuned in. Those were the days of football at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon and of an average weekly wage in English football’s top division that was less than £40. Today, games are played almost every day of the week and absolutely average players earn £40,000 per week. Those things are made possible, and to some extent necessitated, by the fact that football has grown rich thanks to TV.

Most ‘matches of the weekend’ no longer take place at 3pm on a Saturday (in fact increasingly rarely on a Saturday at all) and so Saturday night highlights are not always the highlight that they once were. Broadcasting football has become a fiercely competitive business and to mark Match of the Day’s 50th year, BBC bosses have given instructions to pundits to be more opinionated and animated. They did this after signing Phil Neville as a pundit which is a bit like a manager saying his side needs to score more goals and then announcing the signing of a couple of centre halves.

Mark Cole, head of football at the BBC (that sounds like a great job by the way and an impressive business card) said recently: “anyone on that panel of punditry should have played top-flight football and that’s our position.” So does that mean that Mourinho and Wenger need not apply?

It’s well accepted that great players don’t necessarily make great managers and most footballers who currently offer their animated, or otherwise, opinions are not really very good pundits (Shearer barely became animated when he scored far less when dissecting the finer tactical details of Stoke versus West Ham). If anybody can remember anything remotely enlightening courtesy of Mark Lawrenson then answers on a postcard please or preferably in the comments section below.

Such has been the poor overall quality that Hansen came to be seen as something of a sage despite most of his contributions amounting to little more than correctly labelling terrible defending as “terrible.” He also famously and wrongly proclaimed that “you can’t win anything with kids” which wasn’t true about the Manchester United side he was referring to or indeed the Dundee Sunday Boys League where my own (modest) skills were honed.

Without doubt the best pundit in the business is another man whose skills first flourished in Dundee: Gordon Strachan. What makes Strachan the perfect pundit? Well, for a start, he’s genuinely insightful. He has a wonderful knowledge and appreciation of the game, especially its tactical variances and subtleties. He tells it like it is but without going over the top. He can judge a player, team or manager harshly yet still sympathetically. Listening to Strachan I generally learn something and that is almost never the case with any of the other pundits currently occupying their comfy sofas.

Oh, and Strachan is also witty; hilarious in fact. He brings humour to his analysis and this quality has been most apparent in his post-match interviews as a manager. He was once asked: “So, Gordon, in what areas do you think Middlesbrough were better than you today?” His reply: “What areas? Mainly that big green one out there.”

One reporter seeking a post-match comment asked him: “Gordon, can we have a quick word please?” Strachan said: “velocity” and walked off. That’s just brilliant. I would love to go to the pub with Strachan after a game and discuss it over a pint or two. How many other pundits would you say the same of?

There’s a gap in the market for a football show that has the feel of intelligent people discussing the game in a way that can be both serious and light-hearted. Sky’s Soccer Saturday does the pub-like banter pretty well but falls rather short on insight despite having a truly great presenter in Jeff Stelling.

One of the interesting developments of recent years is that sources of really intelligent analysis have emerged from outside the game. The best example of this is Michael Cox, whose website Zonal Marking (www.zonalmarking.net) was ‘inspired by the standard of punditry on British television,’ that is to say how ‘terrible’ it is and Cox’s correct assumption that he could do much better. The huge popularity of the site, and the fact that he now writes for many other publications, indicates that thousands of football fans want the type of analysis offered by Zonal Marking.

Instead of providing that analysis most football shows have decided that the answer lies in massively increased use of technical gadgetry (Match of the Day is actually an honourable exception to this for the most part). What this seems to involve is a couple of confused looking blokes standing in front of something that resembles a gigantic iPad and getting carried away with placing circles around players, drawing arrows, and highlighting random sections of the pitch.

Usually, after an inordinate amount of knob twiddling and freeze framing, the pundits will conclude with something like: “so yeah, Rooney’s taken a touch and smashed it into the net.” Well, thanks lads, I’d spotted that all by myself when you first played the video of the goal at normal speed and unadorned by your creative markings.

So if the BBC is looking for advice on the next 50 years of Match of the Day (they haven’t asked incidentally but that’s never stopped me dispensing advice in the past) I would suggest: forget technology, hire Gordon Strachan, and look for real intelligence rather than just top-flight football experience in your pundits. Otherwise, there’s a risk of Match of the Day suffering the same fate as another BBC show that launched in 1964 – Top of the Pops.

Filling the football emptiness


Summer can be a difficult time for football fans. Weeks without matches lack a certain rhythm. Of course there are far fewer such weeks in a World Cup summer and so the void is shortened but not eliminated altogether. My quest to get my football fix took me to the Hang Day stadium in Hanoi during a recent trip to Vietnam. When I travel to a new country I always try to go to a local game.

So I took my seat for T&T Hanoi versus Gia Lai in the Vietnamese V League. A helpful fellow blogger (Bill George at www.vietfootball.com) had told me in advance that I would pay 50,000 dong (less than £1.50) for the privilege. As it happened I didn’t pay anything and I must therefore apologise if I inadvertently defrauded the club. When I turned up at the stadium I headed for the nearest entrance. Standing at the gate was a policeman and what appeared to be a steward or club official. I asked: “where do I buy a ticket?”

Being British, and being abroad, I obviously spoke slowly and loudly in order to aid their chances of understanding. They pointed into the stadium behind them and parted to let me through. Despite an extensive search I could not find anyone selling tickets and I noticed that my fellow supporters in this part of the ground didn’t seem to be carrying tickets. Nobody was checking tickets or asking for them so I sat down ticketless. I was actually quite disappointed by this because I like to keep ticket stubs from such occasions.

It was clear that I wasn’t in the main stand but was opposite it. I was with the section of the T&T support that might be described as the ultras – those that would provide the soundtrack for the game complete with several large drums and the conductor of this particular orchestra who had a microphone.

The T&T ‘ultras’ did their team proud; providing enthusiastic and occasionally tuneful backing for the full 90 minutes. The supporters were impeccably behaved and there was no away support that I could see. The combination of those two things made me think that the ratio of riot police to the riotous potential of the fixture was perhaps a little excessive.

I once went to a game at the Maksimir stadium in Zagreb to see Dinamo Zagreb versus Shakhtar Donetsk in a Champions League qualifier. I was intrigued to get my first live glimpse of Dinamo’s notorious ‘bad blue boys’ ultras. Yes they were loud, and they let off quite a few flairs but their intimidatory tactics were rather undone by a huge banner that they had draped all the way across the front of the stand. Even with my very limited grasp of the Croatian language I was able to understand that it read: “we love you mama but not as much as Dinamo.” That’ll show them boys.

In Hanoi, barely five minutes of the game had elapsed when a misplaced pass by a T&T defender became a very effective through ball for a Gia Lai striker and he gratefully slid the ball beneath T&T’s keeper. 0-1. Unperturbed, my drumming neighbours barely skipped a beat and the players showed a similar lack of panic as they gradually began to dominate.

The pace of the game was quite slow (not altogether surprising in the heat and humidity of a July evening in Hanoi) but I was impressed by the quality. Both sides were committed to keeping the ball on the deck where it belongs and the outstanding player on the pitch wore number 10 for T&T. Virtually all of their attacks went through him; he had vision, balance, an excellent range of passing and an ability to drift past opponents.

T&T’s attacks became more sustained and more threatening and after 30 minutes Gia Lai’s resistance broke. The ball was played across the edge of the box from the right before being struck rather straight at a fumbling goalkeeper and then rolling almost apologetically into the corner of the net. 1-1.

Both coaches wore shorts. A perfectly sensible sartorial decision in the conditions and they both managed to pull it off. I was reminded of coaches of British clubs who are often to be found in shorts at this time of year for pre-season and, with the possible exception of Mourinho, almost always look ridiculous. (If you can think of any other managers currently working in British football that can pull off the putting on of shorts then let me know in the comments section).

There was only a short time to wait before T&T took the lead that they deserved. Again it came from good work down the right wing and when the ball was pulled back, the same striker took one touch and sent a crashing finish into the roof of the net. 2-1.

It’s always interesting to observe what passes for half-time entertainment these days. Personally I’m of the view that half-time gimmicks, so common at grounds now, are annoying and unnecessary. Half time can be passed quite contentedly with just two things – the consumption of a pie and a conversation about the first half, concentrating mainly on the dubious performance of the referee and the substitutions that would be made if you were in charge.

A lack of pies (or any other sustenance) and my lack of Vietnamese meant that neither option was available to me in Hanoi. Half time entertainment was provided though which seemed to involve one lucky contestant attempting to throw a plastic ball into a bucket from a distance of about 10 yards. He succeeded on two out of five attempts but it remains unclear to me whether or not that entitled him to a prize.

With 10 minutes of the second half gone the scorer of the first two T&T goals claimed the prize of a hat trick. The goal was created by some more exquisite skill from the Hanoi number 10 and his through ball released his teammate to score with a scuffed finish. 3-1. The pace slowed even further after that as both sides seemed to more or less accept the result as it was. That indeed turned out to be the final score and T&T were very worthy winners.

Back when Jason serenaded Kylie with the line “yes it’s going to be a cold, lonely summer,” he might equally have been addressing Scottish football fans. He continued with a pledge to “fill the emptiness.” On a hot night in Hanoi, that’s exactly what happened.

England expects … very little



England fans in Brazil. Photo by Rob, http://www.flickr.com

Greg Dyke set the tone. With the draw for Group D of the World Cup concluded, the FA Chairman promptly drew his finger across his throat: a group of death. Of course, back in December it was Costa Rica who were expected to end up in an early World Cup grave but they went on to outlive all of the group’s more celebrated sides.

England got rumbled in the jungle by Italy (or more precisely by Pirlo, again), suckered by Suarez (a less painful experience than the Italians had of him), and the match against the Costa Ricans was essentially pointless in every sense bar the literal one.

How much more should have been expected of England? Consistently laborious performances in qualifying were enough to suppress the expectations of all but the most optimistic of their fans. Last year Gary Linker lamented a return to the tactical “dark ages” following a draw at home to the Republic of Ireland. The World Cup offered little indication of renaissance.

Pre-tournament expectations were low but not all hope had been renounced. There was some hope that Rooney would demonstrate beyond doubt at an international tournament that he is world class; there was perhaps greater hope that an emerging young talent such as Sterling or Barkley would take the tournament by storm in the manner of Gazza at Italia 90; and there was just enough hope that the blend of those youngsters with tournament veterans such as Gerrard and Rooney would produce a side that was both attack-minded and competitive.

Rooney did manage to score his first World Cup goal and provided an excellent assist for Sturridge against Italy but overall his limitations were more apparent than his strengths. Played out of position in the opening game, he frequently left Baines exposed and the Italians were savvy enough to take full advantage. There’s no question that Rooney is a very talented footballer but he did not answer the doubts that linger about him at the very highest level. He’s certainly not able to carry a team in the way that Messi or Neymar can, or indeed Robben or Colombia’s Rodriguez.

Barkley didn’t have much too much opportunity to prove himself in Brazil but he’s a player that, for all his qualities, has an awful lot to learn. The most important lesson that has escaped him so far is that genius is more often to be found in simplicity than complexity.

Sterling meanwhile has emerged as the most promising young English footballer at present. This is somewhat surprising in my view, as for at least a season at Liverpool he demonstrated little more than searing pace. He had a mystifying tendency to take the ball down dead ends, and his final delivery (on those rare occasions when he either avoided or reversed out of cul-de-sacs) was generally abysmal.

In the last 12 months however he has grown in strength, tactical appreciation and technical ability and now offers a real threat beyond his speed. His fast start to the tournament was not sustained and while he returns home with his reputation enhanced, a lot of work remains to be done if he is to prove himself worthy of being the player that England’s immediate future is constructed around.

On paper, the blend of youth and experience in the England side did appear quite positive. Much of the build up to the tournament focused on whether or not Hodgson would be able to overcome his customary caution in team selections. Starting Sterling in the opening game was overwhelmingly interpreted as praiseworthy boldness on the manager’s part but looked to me to be a rather more straightforward decision to pick arguably the most in form player in the squad.

In fact there was very little drama about the starting 11. Most of the debate, as ever, revolved around Rooney. Hodgson certainly erred in not playing him in his best position against Italy but otherwise most of his selections required little justification. Personally I’m far from convinced by Wellbeck, he’s a player that does nothing badly but nothing particularly well either. Left back also became an area of scrutiny as Baines failed to play anywhere near his best but his initial selection was absolutely understandable.

Tactically, Hodgson has more to answer for. It still seemed as though England were generally set-up to nullify the strengths of the opposition rather than impose their own. With so many Liverpool players in the team, Hodgson could have opted to play closer to the style of Brendan Rodgers’ side with a quicker tempo and more emphasis on pressing higher up the pitch. In his selection, the England boss recognised that his side was stronger in attack than defence but he failed to reflect that in his tactics.

England’s tactics were apparently shared with the world before they even started their first game. Gary Neville was photographed with his training notes on display and thus, in the typically understated language of the English press, he ‘unwittingly revealed England’s master plan.’

The notes read: “When the ball goes into control zone – team must make at least 3 passes before hitting the CF. Once the ball is played into the end zone – 2 MFs try to get in and support for a 3v2. However, if the defending team win the ball back they counter straight away.” I can imagine the England squad listening to Oasis on the team bus and singing, “we’re all part of a master plan.” Neville’s tactics gaff was about as revelatory as his brother’s attempts at co-commentary.

It would have been great if a photographer had captured a similar piece of paper in the Argentinean camp: “just pass the ball to Messi lads.”

Hodgson developed an increasingly pink complexion over the course of his side’s short stay in the tournament. It is unclear how much was attributable to embarrassment and how much to neglecting to take a strong enough sun cream. He didn’t have a strong enough defence either.

Uruguay’s winner was a particularly shocking example of what’s come to be universally known as ‘schoolboy defending.’ I can remember being lambasted for that type of defending – and that exact phrase being used – when I was a schoolboy. It struck me as rather harsh at the time but it cannot be considered harsh when applied to the ineptitude of some of England’s defensive displays.

England’s world cup campaign was probably best encapsulated by an incident in the aftermath of the equaliser against Italy when team physio Gary Lewin dislocated his ankle amidst the exuberance of the celebrations. He went home early but the rest of the squad were not far behind.

The best sides at the World Cup either had an exceptional individual (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Holland) or a very well developed but still flexible style of play (Germany and the Dutch again warrant inclusion here). England had neither. Rooney is good but he’s not exceptional and it remains to be seen just how good Sterling will become. In terms of style of play, England may have progressed a little from the dark ages but not nearly far enough.

Greg Dyke has set England the target of winning the World Cup in 2022. That’s just 8 years away. 8 years ago, England lost on penalties to Portugal in the quarter finals of the World Cup in Germany. Since then, they’ve gone backwards. In 2010, the Germans humbled Capello’s calamitous side 4-1 in the last 16 and in 2014 Hodgson’s men failed to make it out of the group stage.

Unable to survive a group of death (I don’t use the term the group of death as there were other groups just as tough), it seems likely that it will take longer than 8 years to breathe life back into England’s World Cup prospects.

Yellow, green and very blue



Brazil fans. Photo by Ben Tavener, http://www.flickr.com

The yellow and green jerseys are iconic. The national team of Brazil seems to carry something of the essence of football. The stadiums at the World Cup resembled beaches, packed with those famous yellow shirts, most of which carried the name of the man who carried the nation’s hopes.

Brazilian football was riding on the back of young Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior until that back broke. Neymar is recovering well; it may well take a lot longer however for his team mates to recover. For much of the tournament Neymar was a virtual Lone Ranger, but without even the assistance of Tonto.

The origins of the game of football remain disputed but few argue that the beautiful game was born and raised in Brazil. It now appears to have grown up and left home – gone to study in Spain before taking up an apprenticeship in Germany. The beautiful game returned home in the summer of 2014, but it wasn’t wearing yellow and green.

Growing up watching football, the rare occasions I got to see Brazil play on TV were invariably thrilling. Tricks, excitement, and the ‘samba’ version of the game were almost always delivered. The vintage of 2014 offered something different – Neymar aside – with their defence considered better than their attack. That defence turned out to be utterly calamitous when really tested but it appeared sound enough in the build up to the tournament.

Still, practically the whole of Brazil expected their team to win the World Cup.

One can only assume that this was based on the excitement of being hosts, nostalgia for more glorious eras, and the lessons of history which pointed to the advantage of South American sides on South American soil.

The last time Brazil won the World Cup, in 2002, they boasted a front three of Rivaldo, Ronaldo and Ronaldinho. In the semi final with Germany they lined up with Hulk, Fred and Bernard in the most advanced positions. No Neymar, no danger.

Fred was repeatedly and resoundingly praised by Scolari throughout the tournament but it felt like an attempt to shore up a fragile confidence. The backup option was Jo, a £19m flop. He came to the Premiership with a decent record in the Russian league but managed an embarrassing 6 goals in 48 games for City and Everton, only 1 of which was for the Manchester club. Here too, confidence was in short supply.

The events of the 8th of July in Belo Horizonte are still hard to comprehend. 7-1; four goals scored in just six incredible minutes; Germany overtaking Brazil as the all time leading scorers in the World Cup; Klose doing the same to Ronaldo; and the end of Brazil’s 62-match home unbeaten streak in competitive matches going back to 1975.

The scale of the defeat was absolutely shocking but the manner of the defeat was even more so. They were 11 players who looked as though they’d never met each other before. Once they lost the early goal you could see them begin to panic. It was extraordinary. Scolari needed to be a calm and reassuring presence but he had become increasingly hysterical as the tournament progressed. He waved his hands frantically before finally just resting his head in them.

At the end, there were tears and prayers and utter dejection, and that was just David Luiz. Made captain for the evening, he lost Muller for the first goal, then he lost his composure, and finally he seemed to lose his head completely and just ran around as if in some vain search for an exit.

The Brazilian players left the field looking dazed and confused, like a boxer staggering back to the dressing room after a brain shaking knockout blow. Not fully conscious of what had just hit them, there was still recognition on their faces of the enormity of it all – that this would be career defining.

In the stands, those that remained were similarly shaken. They had been witnesses to history in a scarcely believable way. They looked numb rather than angry. Anger could come later after the subsidence of shock.

The Germans looked rather bemused. “Were we really that good?” “Were they really that bad?” Nobody seemed to know. It was such a hard game to assess. Germany were certainly clinically professional and beautifully so on occasion. Class and confidence radiated from every one of their players. They knew each other, their strengths and weaknesses, their plans A,B, and C, and how to avoid overcomplicating a game that is in essence a simple one.

The smart money suggests that Germany can look forward to a new era of dominance, but what of Brazil? The country can still produce supremely gifted individuals such as Neymar but its footballing identity has been eroded. The domestic league is a bit of a mess.

Germany of course suffered their own humiliation some 14 years earlier, finishing bottom of their group in the European Championships of 2000 without winning a game.  It prompted the German FA to re-examine and rebuild the game in their country.

Will the Brazilians now do the same?