The Pep Supremacy

pep-guardiola

Pep Guardiola. Photo by: Felipe Quintanilha, http://www.flickr.com

The build-up was more like that of a fight in boxing: two individuals, two heavyweights, the next contest in a bitter rivalry. Mourinho v Guardiola.

Oh, and Manchester united and Manchester City were also playing a football match.

Bragging rights go to the Spaniard but this was a much bigger win than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. City were miles ahead of their neighbours; 4 or 5-1 would not have flattered them.

This game was proof that United have flattered to deceive so far this season. The extent to which their early season ‘form’ has been heralded, only serves to highlight how dire they were in the last campaign.

Mourinho has brought a bit of grit and made the side more physically imposing, but the swagger that was once the hallmark of Manchester United is yet to return. Even the swaggering Special One has been a little muted and subdued since arriving in the Old Trafford dugout.

One man who presumably swaggered out of the womb is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede continued the excellent start that he’s made to life in the Premier League with another superbly taken goal. At the start of the season, I suggested that Zlatan’s Cantona-esque aura could even make United slight title favourites. I’m glad I haven’t risked any money on that prediction.

They will be a stronger force this time round, more feared and more ruthless, but already I see too many problems to be fixed before they become genuine title contenders again.

Chief among them is what to do with Rooney. If ever a man was living off his reputation then it’s Wayne. When was the last time Rooney dominated a game for club or country? I ask because I honestly can’t remember.

His commitment cannot be faulted but the spark is missing. Rooney is a number 10 and that’s pretty much it. When it comes to positional experimentation, he’s not really a Kama Sutra sort of a guy. He’s willing, but increasingly he’s not able.

Mourinho has a big decision to make: play Rooney at 10 behind Zlatan (and see if they can develop an understanding) or drop him. The captain is rightly a club legend but sometimes even club legends don’t get to choose when their time is up. That clock is ticking for Rooney and I think Manchester Untied would now be a more threatening and more balanced side without him.

The same is true of England incidentally.

Guardiola has already taken the bold step of axing club Legend Joe Hart, who is now off in search of love and redemption in Italy at Torino.

In his place, Guardiola has signed Claudio Bravo, who, unusually for a goalkeeper, is better with his feet than his hands. At least most of the time he is. On quite a few occasions on Saturday he played himself into trouble by taking an extra touch and unnecessary risks in his penalty area. He also managed to drop a cross under minimal pressure, allowing Ibrahimovic to score.

But he also showed just enough to demonstrate why his boss wanted him in his team again. City are already playing the ‘Guardiola way’ and it’s only mid-September. Be warned the rest of the league.

That ‘way’ requires everyone to be comfortable on the ball, including the goalkeeper. Bravo is. He helps to give City a platform to play out from the back and that platform will get more secure as he develops a better understanding with the defenders in front of him.

The evidence of training ground drilling was abundant in the angles that City’s players found, the subtlety of their movement, and the speed at which they broke. De Bruyne was the epitome of that style. He was man of the match and his opponents didn’t come close to figuring out how to stop him.

That too should worry Mourinho.

Guardiola has a footballing philosophy and his City players are showing themselves to be committed scholars. They will only improve further under the master’s guidance. If Pep’s style of play proves to be successful in England, it may be the most revolutionary development in the Premier League since Wenger’s arrival two decades ago.

Patience and quality of movement are not attributes typically associated with even the best Premier League teams. City fans may not now require much patience before they once again find themselves celebrating a league title.

Mourinho won’t give up without a fight and it is of course early days, but the early warning signs are there. City are going to take some stopping.

Don’t be fooled by the scoreline; this was a demolition derby.

Welcome to the European Super League

Champions League Ball

Champions League ball. Photo by Prakash, http://www.flickr.com

The new European Super League will kick-off in the 2018-19 season. It won’t be called the European Super League of course but that’s essentially what it will be. Yes, the latest Champions League revamp takes us even closer to the long-cherished dream of many of the Continent’s biggest teams and their sponsors.

The so-called ‘Big Four’ leagues (Spain, England, Germany, and Italy) will each get four guaranteed spots in the Champions League group stage. The big winner in this set-up (stitch-up) is Italy’s Serie A, which currently struggles to get a third side in via the play-offs. No such problems shortly.

The big losers? Well, just about everybody else; the smaller nations and those teams that can actually call themselves champions in their domestic leagues, their path to the group stage just became a little more arduous again.

UEFA’s website lists the 11 values that the organisation ‘works and acts in accordance with.’ The first of these is referred to as ‘Football First’ and states: ‘in everything that we do, football must always be the first and most important element that we take into consideration. Football is a game before being a product, a sport before being a market, a show before being a business.’

Excellent, very worthy stuff. So presumably, this latest decision was made entirely in accordance with the football first value that UEFA holds so dear. It was a decision made in order to promote football as a game, sport and show rather than as a product, market and business.

It’s probably just a by-product of the decision that the product will be more valuable, the market will be expanded, and the business deals will be bigger. That will make for happy chairman at big clubs and happy executives at sponsors and broadcasters paying the big money to keep the whole bloated circus on the road.

In a previous post on the Champions League I said the tournament was reaching a cross-road whereby it would have to decide if it was going to be a competition or a cartel. The Cambridge English dictionary defines a cartel as ‘a group of similar independent companies who join together to control prices and limit competition.’

Football first in the sense of big guys first (as well as second, third and fourth). Some of the big clubs had made even loftier demands: that access be given to historically successful clubs for instance. The Milan teams were particularly keen on that idea. Mind you, as a Liverpool fan …

While the big cheese’s carve up the pie in ever-more self-serving ways, the small fries are left to scoop up whatever crumbs fall from the top table.

But unity at least is preserved among the footballing family, and talk of the big clubs breaking away on their own dies down for a year or two until the next round of negotiations begin. UEFA itself clings on to its seat at the table. But for how long?

It’s interesting that all of this takes place against the backdrop of Brexit. The wider European integration project has never looked less certain but football, as always, is different. Ever closer union, at least among those already united, is the UEFA mantra.

Domestic football must seem so parochial to some of these clubs, a rather unfortunate distraction, much like international football. Nationalism was not left behind somewhere towards the end of the last century though; in Britain, its component parts, and throughout Europe as a whole, it is once again on the march.

Understandably, that causes a degree of alarm but it is a perfectly natural response to an alienating globalisation and an elite, particularly in Europe, who have been blindly dismissive of common concerns. Those who walk the corridors of power find themselves confused.

UEFA thinks football is different. Fans must want the big teams playing each other all the time. Manchester United fans want to face Barcelona, not Bournemouth. Maybe, maybe not.

Right now Old Trafford sells out for both so it’s hard to say. Local rivalries remain fiercest though as we’ll no doubt see this weekend in Manchester – even if Jose and Pep provide a sprinkling of continental intrigue.

I was interested to read a piece by Paul Scholes today in which he says: ‘I don’t find elite football as interesting to watch any more, especially in England.’ He goes on to suggest that ‘it’s all about money and sponsorship in England these days rather than football, rather than entertainment.’(https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/05/paul-scholes-non-league-football-premier-league)

He prefers watching Salford, the non-league club he part-owns, to Manchester United. He wasn’t alone last season; Salford probably gained a few more fans during the Van Gaal era at Old Trafford.

Those fans have a choice as to how they want their football, just as the citizens of democracies retain some say over the type of communities they want to be a part of.

Brexit was the bursting of the European political bubble. The European football bubble continues to inflate but one day, it too will experience a sharp and spectacular puncture.

Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Forza Beijing!

IMG_3605It was a hot Sunday evening, softened slightly by a hint of breeze, when I arrived at the Olympic Sports Centre Stadium in Beijing. That’s not the famous ‘bird nest’ one that was the centre piece of the Olympics, but a smaller one just across the road.

The purpose of my visit was to sample some local Chinese football, in this case Beijing BG (or Beijing Enterprises Group to give them their full name) versus Wuhan Zall in the second tier of China’s football pyramid.

I purchased a ticket for 30 yuan (about £3.50) a transaction made much easier by the fact that one of the people working in the ticket office spoke reasonable English, a rare occurrence over the course of my 10 day stay in China.

What happened next was also a rare occurrence, at least for me. A long straight walkway led from the ticket office to the stadium. About halfway down it I encountered a gentleman (who I guessed to be in his early 60s) going through an elaborate workout routine with a massive whip. As he lashed it left and right, the ground cracked explosively. It was a fairly terrifying sound.

This performance was being enjoyed, as far as I could tell, by two more elderly gentlemen sat on a bench opposite. I made my way gingerly round the back of the bench before hurrying onward to the stadium.

“Sit anywhere” I was told at the ticket office. Before finding my seat I stopped for refreshment at the kiosk outside. I was quite confident of being able to quench my thirst with an early evening beer but all that was on offer was Coke and popcorn. Thus I entered the ground with a 15 yuan Coke. The appearance of a foreigner seemed to provoke much hilarity at the kiosk (perhaps at my paying 15 yuan?) and a group of curious young boys stood looking at me in some amazement.

I took my seat two minutes before kick-off and I was able to select among many options. The stadium’s capacity is over 36,000 but I doubt if the attendance exceeded 5,000 by very much. Here in the crowd was the least crowded place I’d been all day in Beijing.

IMG_3613

There were police officers sat on small plastic chairs watching the crowd. They were spaced evenly around the perimeter of the pitch, which meant that many of them were watching entirely empty parts of the stadium.

The grass was very long and the early touches of the players reminded me of golfers playing out of the rough. Their short game was good though and overall I was impressed by the level of technical ability.

The Beijing ultras, a rather small group admittedly, were congregated behind the far goal bearing a banner that read: the eagles soaring on the north stand. They were enthusiastic but not especially loud.

There was a group of children in the back row of the ultras section, not quite in their teens yet. Ultras in training, presumably.

After 10 minutes Wuhan took the lead – a well-directed header following a short corner. This turn of events was something of a surprise because even after 10 minutes it was obvious that Beijing were much the better side.

The travelling Wuhan support behind the opposite goal, were understandably ecstatic. Their banner read simply: Forza Wuhan. When I noted that fact on my phone, autocorrect tried to change Wuhan to Wigan. Forza was considered correct.

Ultraism truly is a global Italian brand, embraced as willingly by the Chinese (and others) as they’ve embraced brands such as Prada. The major differences are that Italian ultras are louder, more violent, and more likely to actually be wearing Prada.

The distance between Wuhan and Beijing is 1,200 km. Being an away supporter in China, ultra or otherwise, takes commitment.

The standard of the game was decent, the standard of the ball boys rather less so. These were pretty young kids to be fair, probably 8-10 years old, but the simple task of retrieving the ball and returning it to the pitch consistently proved a struggle. Usually they would work in pairs or trios, resulting in several balls being sent onto the pitch at once.

Right on the stroke of half-time, Wuhan increased their lead. The goal was all the more surprising for being a Beckham-esque effort from the vicinity of the halfway line. The goal-scorer earns plaudits for his audacity; the goalkeeper deserves pelters for his comically flailing attempt at a save.

I described the goal as coming ‘right on the stroke of half-time’ but remarkably there remained sufficient time within that stroke for Beijing to pull a goal back. After which, the half-time whistle was immediately blown.

The police maintained their position during the interval but were permitted to stand, thus giving some of them a more elevated view of empty parts of the stadium. Meanwhile adverts were broadcast very loudly on the big screen, including for beer, which didn’t improve the taste of my flat 15 yuan Coke.

I was left to wonder what supporters in China do at half-time without Facebook; the China chapter of that particular book remains closed.

Not long into the second half and Wuhan had a player sent off. From here on in, there’s would be a largely rear-guard action. Beijing resumed the dominance that they had displayed for most of the game but struggled to make good use of the extra space that had opened up with their man advantage.

Time ticked on and all of Beijing’s huffing and puffing was not shaking the foundations of the Wuhan house. Still, unusually, I had a very confident feeling that ‘my team’ would not only equalise but go on to win. Anything else would’ve been an injustice and football of course never permits an injustice.

Parity was finally restored with 15 minutes of the game remaining. My confidence increased.

In the 85th minute: 3-2 to Beijing as predicted. The match had become a minor classic and I was considerably more satisfied with the value for money being provided by the ticket price than that of the Coke.

That feeling only strengthened a few minutes later when Beijing scored again to make it 4-2.

I stayed to the end to celebrate victory as did almost the entire crowd. One exception was an incredibly glamorously dressed woman who had arrived late. She sat alone and spent most of the match taking selfies. Occasionally she would glance in the direction of the action. She left with about twenty minutes remaining and Beijing still trailing 2-1.

I’ve no idea where she went afterwards. I went back to my hotel with a scarf that I’d bought for my son. Forza Beijing, as the Chinese would say.

Title winning tinkering

Claudio Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald http://www.flickr.com

I’m watching Manchester United v Leicester. It’s currently 1-1. A win for the Foxes and they are Premier League champions. Take a moment to let that sink in. It will take more than a moment for it to sink in for the Leicester players, supporters, and manager Claudio Ranieri.

5000/1 at the start of the season. Well done to anyone who took that bet. Tom Hanks claims that he did. Leicester were almost cast away from the Premier League last season, but now, catch me if you can, is the statement they are making. I don’t think Spurs can.

Ranieri’s men are no imposters either. They sit atop the league in May on merit: an effort made of discipline, determination, and daring. They will be worthy champions even if it cannot be denied that others have utterly and mystifyingly underperformed. Arsenal fans in particular must be shaking their heads in wonder.

When Arsenal beat Leicester 2-1 back in February I thought a genuine title challenge was emergent from Arsenal and that Leicester were set to falter. But the Foxes have proved to be wily and Arsenal are no blood thirsty hounds; they soon lost the title scent.

Wiliest of all has been Ranieri. Composed when he would have been forgiven getting carried away, he has somehow kept his players focused amid a global frenzy at one of the most incredible stories in the history of football.

It’s been a year of unlikely occurrences. Leicester’s fall has been predicted more often than that of Trump’s presidential bid but neither has stumbled more than briefly. In both cases the chasing pack have mostly been comically inept and succeeded only in wounding each other. Leicester’s defensive wall has proved more secure than anything Trump might hope to erect.

Trump has dismissed suggestions that he’s something of a tiny man, while Ranieri has been jettisoning his reputation as the tinkerman.

The Italian’s back to basics approach has been inspired in its simplicity. He kept faith with the side that performed heroically to stave off relegation at the end of last season while introducing a bit more tactical discipline and defensive solidity. His players have looked as confident this season as Manchester United’s have looked confused by Van Gaal’s enigmatic experimentation.

It was only very recently that Ranieri indulged the talk of Leicester being title contenders, and even then Clive Woodward claimed it was a ‘big error’ and suggested that a coach should never speak about anything but the next game. But you were wrong on this one Clive, Ranieri timed it absolutely perfectly.

He held off long enough (far longer than most would have managed) to keep everyone’s feet on the ground but not so long to have his players doubt him. Just as they were reckoning with the question of can we really do this? The boss said yes. He did it calmly. Yes, keep going, playing just as you’ve been doing, we can achieve something special here. Now they’re about to.

A win today and Ranieri will be given the freedom of the city; he’ll certainly never have to buy a drink in town again. The affable, amiable, and let us not forget ambitious and meticulous manager, deserves all the credit currently being bestowed upon him.

Leicester winning the league should embarrass the old order and it may also embarrass Gary Lineker who appears set to present an edition of Match of the Day in his underwear. The prospect is almost enough to make we neutrals hope for a spectacular late Leicester collapse but instead we should continue enjoying and celebrating this story of the century.

Because next season, who knows? Leicester are probably more likely to return to battling relegation to the Championship than winning the Champions League, especially if (as seems inevitable) their best players are attracted elsewhere. In that case, Ranieri may find himself having to tinker again.

Today’s game just finished: 1-1. Leicester’s title celebrations are still on hold. But not for much longer.

Rolling footballers gather penalties from Moss

King Power Stadium

King Power Stadium. Photo by Ungry Young Man http://www.flickr.com

Imagine you had never seen a game of football before, and then you tuned in to Leicester v West Ham yesterday. You would be left feeling a little confused about the rules. I’ve seen a lot of football in my life and I was left utterly baffled by the performance of referee Jon Moss.

The job of refereeing is a hugely difficult one but Mr Moss gathered no credit as he attempted to assess the bodies rolling around him. Firstly, the Vardy red card: did he dive? He certainly took steps to ensure that the defender couldn’t avoid making contact with him and he knew that contact would knock him from his feet (more tax avoidance than tax evasion on the moral continuum).

I wouldn’t call it a dive and the sending off was very harsh.

Next, the penalty awarded to West Ham; Reid falls following a gentle tug from Leicester’s Morgan. A foul? Probably yes on the strictest interpretation of the law but how can Moss penalise that incident when every single corner in the game had produced at least as much if not worse.

The pushing and pulling and general nonsense that accompanies every corner these days should be stamped out but it has to be done by all referees awarding around four penalties per game in the first few weeks of the season. Choosing one incident at random as Moss did is a recipe for chaos and sure enough, he brought about a chaotic climax to the game.

A few minutes later at the other end, Huth goes sprawling in the box after very clearly having his jump impeded. Moss has a look and decides there’s nothing to see here. The rest of us can see a referee that has considerably less grip on the game than Ogbonna had on Huth.

Leicester continue a frenetic scramble for an equaliser and in the very last minute of added time, Schlupp runs into Andy Carroll and, as virtually any man would after running into Andy Carroll, falls over. Moss points to the spot. I’d call it soft but that doesn’t really describe just how lacking in firmness the decision was: it was softer than a blancmange left in front of the fire for ninety minutes.

Moss had clearly reassessed some of his earlier decisions and reached the conclusion that he’d been unduly harsh on Leicester. Here he was restoring justice (and parity) with another incredible decision. Leicester fans left ecstatic and relieved. Bilic left with a rueful smile and a scratch of his head.

A defeat for Leicester could have been a hugely significant moment in the title race but a draw means that not too much momentum is lost. Tonight we’ll find out a lot about Spurs and how they’re dealing with the pressure. If they don’t win at Stoke, they are unlikely to be wearing Premier League winner’s medals next month.

Liverpool’s players still have the chance to claim a medal this season after their remarkable comeback against Dortmund in the Europa League. Yesterday’s 2-1 win away at Bournemouth was even more significant however.

Klopp fielded a young, inexperienced, and experimental team and yet they managed a more comfortable and convincing victory than the scoreline suggests. Liverpool’s first eleven is strong (albeit still in need of strengthening) but there’s doubt as to the depth of the squad. Perhaps some of that doubt is exaggerated.

Money needs to be spent to turn Liverpool into title contenders and Klopp is the right man to spend it. This Premier League season has been thrillingly unpredictable; just imagine what next season might be like with Liverpool resurgent under Klopp, Guardiola arriving at City, and the prospect of Mourinho at Man United.

Talking of resurgence, Rangers made a statement yesterday by beating Celtic in the Scottish Cup semi final at Hampden. The fallen Glasgow giants have completed their rise through the leagues and will return to the top division in Scotland next season after easily winning the Championship.

The hotly debated topic in Scottish football right now is how strong a force Rangers will be upon their return to the SPFL. Hearts have shown that the transition between the two leagues is not particularly onerous for a club with some resources. Celtic will start next season as title favourites but they can expect their old rivals to be genuine challengers.

Will Ronny Deila still be in charge of Celtic when the next Old Firm match is played? I doubt it. The Norwegian’s reign has been distinctly underwhelming and while he’s won the expected league titles (and is likely to do so again this year) his side’s failings in cups and in Europe have put him under severe pressure.

Celtic are on a decline brought about by consistently selling their best players and replacing them with lesser quality. It’s arguable the extent to which that is by necessity but the effect is dispiriting for supporters. It also means that any decent player at the club only expects to be there for a year or two before seeking greater riches and profile elsewhere.

It’s been a similar scenario of late at my dearly beloved Dundee United (with most of our better players ending up at Celtic). We lost the other cup semi final to Hibs and all we have to contemplate now is our impending relegation.

My first blog post of this year heralded forthcoming doom at Tannadice and so it’s coming to pass. I was a teenager at Tannadice the last time we were relegated, in 1995, and it was a sad, sad day. I took my son to his first ever football match there earlier this season and that too was a rather sad day – a dire 1-0 loss to Hearts.

But we football fans never lose heart for long and we’ll be back next season. Supporting a football club is like a marriage, it has to be for better or worse. Surely for we suffering Dundee United fans, things can only get better.

A Tale of Two Cities

Champions League logo

Champions League logo. Photo by Ver en vivo En Directo  www.flickr.com

Manchester City have just qualified for the semi finals of the Champions League for the first time in their history. Leicester City are on the brink of winning the Premier League for the first time in theirs.

The first of these history making feats is not exactly unexpected, and arguably overdue given the investment that has gone into it; the other one, should it come to pass, would qualify as a footballing ‘black swan’ and rank among the most remarkable achievements in the history of English football.

The city of Leicester will host Champions League football next season, the city of Manchester might not (although it probably will unless West Ham produce something exceptional).

Leicester are about to gatecrash a party at which many of the other guests will view them with a haughty disregard. Recently, European football’s biggest clubs have returned to banging one of their favourite old drums: Champions League reform.

For the big boys (and some of the old European aristocracy such as AC Milan, who can hardly be called a continental power at the moment), reform means even greater levels of protection for themselves and further movement along the road towards a European Super League.

‘Super’ in this context is used decidedly flexibly, and would include quite a few clubs such as the aforementioned AC, whose justification for a seat at the top table currently rests on a very flimsy stool. Manchetser United are another club whose stool appears to contain a wobbly leg or two.

But, they protest: “we are big clubs, with history, and pedigree.” True enough, yet size, history, and pedigree do not win football matches by themselves. Quality is a more likely guarantor of that and it is in scare supply at the San Siro and Old Trafford.

Wherever there are concentrations of power, you are likely to find significant levels of self-interested decision-making. In the upper echelons of European football, power is concentrated in the hands of relatively few clubs. Those who are not part of the elite group are expected to content themselves with crumbs that fall from the top table.

The big clubs would prefer to raise the table and put it further out of the reach of the little guys for whom they have increasingly little time. It has been reported that some of the big clubs (led by the faded pair of giants in Milan) are going so far as to push a proposal that they be given automatic entry into the Champions League without bothering with such inconveniences as actually qualifying for it.

Why should AC have to prove themselves over and over again when they’ve already shown that they used to be a good side. Once upon a time. Ok, it’s getting to be quite a long time ago now, but still. Why should upstarts like Leicester get to compete in the Champions League if all they’ve done is beat all the other teams in England to become champions?

Spare a thought for poor old Man U, they’ve won the league lots of times; it’s just that they’re not going to win it this time. It sounds laughable of course but these guys are serious and they always are when it comes to money.

Tennis has its wildcards they assert. Wimbledon can, and does, offer a few places in the main draw for those who haven’t fully earned it on merit. Usually it’s a couple of plucky local youngsters who don’t detain their opponents for very long and some spots are reserved for bigger names who might be returning from injury for example.

The wildcard system has plenty of critics in tennis (personally I’d get rid of it) but Europe’s big football clubs want to go much further than Wimbledon is permitted to: they want to control most, if not the entire draw of the tournament. Teams would no longer qualify for the Champions League, they would be invited.

No doubt letters of invitation (perfumed with the sweet smelling scent of money) would arrive at the great palaces of European football, the San Siro and Old Trafford among them. I’m not so sure about Leicester’s King Power stadium.

They may soon be champions but in Europe they are neither kings nor powerful.

The powers that be, and who have long been, are tightening their grip on that power. Even ‘new money’ big clubs such as Chelsea, Manchester City, and PSG are seen as brash neighbours, tolerated perhaps but hardly welcomed.

Manchester City are likely to line up in this year’s Champions League semi finals alongside the old money glamour of Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid. Next season, Leicester will be expected to take a brief look around before leaving quickly and quietly without causing much of a scene.

I’m a conservative sort of a guy but I’m not one to say that modern football is rubbish and wouldn’t it be great if we could just return to the good old days (whenever and wherever they happened to be). I’m a big fan of the Champions League – it often produces outstanding matches and entertainment. I’m less of a fan of the cartel that the big clubs are seeking to create.

Ultimately, we who pay the piper (by going to the games or subscribing to the sports channels) will at least be entitled to request a tune. We might have to wait behind the broadcasters and the sponsors though, whose requests come written on larger cheques.

The next time we hear that famous anthem of the Champions League, we should ask ourselves: do we want a cartel or do we want a competition?

Newcastle are in big trouble. Fact.

Rafa Benitez

Rafa Benitez. Photo by Ronnie MacDonald http://www.flickr.com 

Rafa’s back. Steve McClaren’s reign as Newcastle boss didn’t last long and it yielded few points. Newcastle find themselves in the relegation zone with nine matches left to play. The final two games of their season are at home to Tottenham and Manchester City so that makes April a rather important month for Benitez.

The Spaniard’s recent career trajectory is Real Madrid – Napoli – Newcastle. Or to put it another way Ronaldo – Higuain – Mitrovic. That’s the sort of downhill momentum that a luge team would be pleased with. I hope Benitez has topped up his tan in his previous two gigs because as Gazza memorably sang, it’s mostly “fog on the Tyne.”

The sun doesn’t shine much in Newcastle at the best of times (though has there ever been a set of fans more inclined to attend matches half naked? Ha way the tops) but there seems to have been a persistently dark cloud hanging over St. James’ Park for a long time now.

Newcastle fans are among the most loyal anywhere but their club is going nowhere. Boardroom bungling has certainly been a factor as Newcastle have lurched from one crisis to another.

Owner Mike Ashley has been summoned to appear before Parliament’s Business, Innovation and Skills select committee to give evidence about the treatment of workers at his firm, Sports Direct. A recent BBC investigation raised concerns about ‘the treatment of low paid workers and enforcement of the national minimum wage.’

In response, Ashley invited MPs to visit the Sports Direct warehouse in Shirebrook, an invitation that members (honourable and otherwise) appear to have declined. He did not invite them to visit St. James’ Park, where the average wage must be considerably higher than the minimum. The effort some of those players are displaying in return for their wages could be described as minimal though.

Had MPs visited Newcastle’s ground on Januray 12th this year they would have seen a banner unfurled by supporters that read: ‘#SportsDirectShame’. A protest isn’t really a protest these days if it doesn’t include a hashtag.

What those supporters have witnessed on the pitch has been pretty shameful and I wonder if any have written to their local MP. That would be Labour’s Chi Onwurah, who happens to serve on the Business, Innovation, and Skills Committee that are so keen to make the acquaintance of Mr. Ashley. Perhaps they will be conducting an investigation to see if there’s any evidence of business, innovation or skills at Newcastle FC.

The committee are probably more concerned with assessing the implications of a potential Brexit from the EU. Newcastle fans fears revolve around the Nexit question: will Newcastle exit the Premier League this season? I doubt they spend very much time contemplating Europe at the moment.

Benitez is a manager whose career is on the way down and I think he’s just taken charge of a club on the way down as well.

In my view, Villa are already long gone, and Swansea I expect to be safe so that leaves two from Newcastle, Norwich and Sunderland. Newcastle v Sunderland this weekend is a huge game. The home side will be hoping for a Benitez bounce as without it they are likely to soon be tumbling through the relegation trapdoor.

Rafa specialises in making teams hard to beat and Newcastle could certainly use a little of that right now but the air of defeat that lingers around the club is as thick and smothering as the Tyne fog.

Newcastle fans must now be used to flirting with relegation but this year I think they will consummate that relationship. The facts of life for those supporters cannot be denied; their club is in big trouble.

Out of their league

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner www.flickr.com

Europa League. Photo by Jack Tanner
http://www.flickr.com

Last week was a bad one for English clubs in Europe. Manchester City were given another lesson by Barcelona while Arsenal showed how many lessons they still need to learn as they went down to an abject defeat to Monaco. Arsene Wenger is known as ‘The Professor’ but his players appear to have been skipping European studies class. After almost 20 years in charge at Arsenal, Wenger appears to be a tenured professor but the defeat to Monaco may be the one that changes the board’s thinking.

The Europa League is often regarded as a bit of a consolation prize for teams dropping out of the Champions League but it did not provide much consolation for Liverpool as they proved not up to the task in Besiktas. Tottenham fell to Fiorentina to leave Everton as the only remaining English (indeed British) representatives in the Europa League.

Rodgers opted to rest Coutinho in Turkey and Pochettino left Harry Kane on the bench in Italy. Like Liverpool’s Brazilian playmaker, priorities remained on British soil. Liverpool in particular though should still have had enough quality to progress.

The Premier League is much hyped (and I include myself in that having written a previous post proclaiming the Premier League as the best in the world) but the quality doesn’t always justify it. Teams such as Liverpool and Spurs, competing for a top four finish in the Premier League, should be winning in the last 32 of the Europa League.

Brendan Rodgers was asked after the game if he felt that losing might be a bit of blessing in disguise. He replied: “Yeah. At the time, you don’t like to say that, because we want to win. And Europe this season has been an experience for us, both in the Champions League and the Europa League. But we’re at a different stage to a lot of other teams. A lot of our young players have gained invaluable experience in Europe this year, and they’re going to be better for it.”

It might have been even better for them to gain an additional round or two of experience. Liverpool’s team is full of experienced internationals so it’s a bit rich to claim that they’re at a ‘different stage’ to many others. Well, it is true I suppose that 16 teams are at a different, that is to say later, stage in the tournament than Liverpool.

There’s no question that Rodgers treated the tournament as an exercise in experience and it’s turned out to be a far from fruitful one. Overall, Liverpool’s performances in Europe this season, in both the Champions League and the Europa League, have been very poor. An excellent win against Manchester City yesterday still doesn’t justify the attitude displayed to European failure.

Liverpool will not win the Premier League this season, although they do still have the chance to claim silverware in the FA Cup. Re-qualifying for the Champions League is the priority, but what then? Will the recent ‘invaluable experience’ that the players have collected alongside stamps in their passports make Liverpool Champions League contenders next season? I suspect not.

After a very slow start to the season, Liverpool have scrambled back into contention for a top four finish – I think the battle is between them and Arsenal and expect the current top three will occupy the same positions at the end of the season. But even if Liverpool manage to finish fourth they would have to play a qualifying round to get into the Champions League group phase just as Arsenal did this season. Who did the Gunners beat to qualify? Besiktas. 1-0 over two legs.

It’s one thing for Rodgers to treat a trip to the Bernabeu in Madrid as an exercise in experience building, as he did in November, but it’s quite another to travel to Istanbul with the same mentality. The Liverpool boss should look instead to another side in the Spanish capital – Atletico Madrid.

Atletico won the Europa League in 2011/12 and finished fifth in La Liga. Two years later, they were Champions League finalists and La Liga champions. Lessons learned. A winning habit was formed in the side and the players believed that they could compete with Europe’s best.

Brendan Rodger’s wants the same for his side but to achieve it he should start taking tournaments such as the Europa League more seriously. Liverpool went back to league business yesterday and won, but in Europe this season they’ve looked decidedly out of their league.

Football for sale (one careful owner)

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete www.flickr.com

Sky cameraman. Photo by: Pete
http://www.flickr.com

The football I refer to is of course the top flight in England and the owner is the Premier League. The price? £5.136 billion paid by Sky and BT Sport for Premier League TV rights packages. For Sky it works out at £10.2 million per game. That might be decent value for Chelsea v Manchester United; with the greatest respect it seems a tad expensive for Hull v Sunderland.

Those latter sides and other smaller teams in the Premier League are arguably the big winners from this deal. Currently all 20 Premier League teams number among the 40 richest clubs in the world, Burnley are reportedly richer than Ajax. Finishing bottom of the league in the 2016/2017 season will come with compensation of almost £100 million.

There’s no question that TV money has utterly transformed football in England with considerable debate about whether that transformation has been for the better. New stadiums, an influx of foreign players and skyrocketing wages for footballers are just some of the changes that have come with the broadcasting bonanza prompted by the formation of the Premier League.

Former Arsenal striker John Hartson has suggested that it won’t be too long until we see the first £1m a week footballer (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/football/31427562). Some of the top players in the Premier League are currently earning around £300,000 a week. According to the Professional Footballers’ Association, the average weekly wage in the Premier League was £3,393 in 1995; by 2005 it had risen to £18,367. Today it is estimated to be £43,717. That average wage is being earned by some very average players.

Mention of such figures quickly prompts complaints that they are obscene. In some senses they are, I’m sure there are even a few players who are a little embarrassed by what they earn. The fact remains though that the spectacle they provide is watched by millions of people all over the world. Broadcasters judge that £10m is a reasonable price to pay to show a single game. Corporate sponsors are also willing to pay huge sums for a piece of the action. With so much money attracted into the game, why shouldn’t players be the chief beneficiaries?

After the TV rights deal was concluded, Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore observed that “in 1986 there was no one that wanted to broadcast football. There was not even a highlights programme.” Now, however, we “put on a show that people want to watch and attend – and in ever increasing numbers. There’s more interest than ever before.” That is true and living in South East Asia I have seen that it’s as true here as in the UK, as it is in just about every other part of the world.

What about the fans back in the UK who attend Premier League games? Just after the TV deal was announced Crystal Palace fans held up a banner at their home game against Arsenal protesting that supporters are ‘still exploited.’ I have some sympathy with them (apparently a ticket for the Arsenal game cost around £45) but they are protesting inside the stadium after paying for the privilege of being there. It’s not a very effective method of protest. ‘Treat us with respect or else … we’ll just keep paying and keep coming’ seems to be the message.

I’ve written before that overall I think ticket prices are too high and that clubs could and should do more to at least offer a wider tier of prices. But nobody forces fans to go to games – it is their choice. There’s not much incentive for clubs to lower ticket prices when attendances are on the increase.

I have considerable sympathy for fans when it comes to the scheduling of games. This is now almost entirely driven by the demands of TV audiences. Thus we now have super Sundays (many of which only justify the latter half of their billing), Monday night football and, with the new TV deal, the advent of Friday night football in the Premier League. It’s good news for the ‘remote’ supporters on the sofa, less so for those making their way out the door and to the grounds.

It can all get a little too much even for those watching at home. In this week’s NewStatesman magazine, Hunter Davies finds himself surprised to ask, ‘can you have too much football?’ (http://www.newstatesman.com/culture/2015/02/i-never-thought-it-was-possible-have-too-much-football). This question occurred to him after spending 11 hours in a single day watching football on TV. We’ve all been there, at least I have. It’s probably not the healthiest place to be.

The latest Premier League TV deal will likely provoke comment and controversy for some time yet. The sums involved are gigantic and it’s understandable to wonder if the Premier League represents a bubble on the verge of bursting. It’s possible but I don’t think it’s likely any time soon. Football is phenomenally popular and the big English sides are among the most popular on the planet.

Compared to today’s Premier League, the old English First Division looks a bit like an old banger: loveable for sure, full of character certainly, and by no means lacking in quality. The 2015 version is more premium though, it’s faster, and it has become a huge export. You can have it in almost any colour and pick it up almost any day of the week. And it doesn’t come cheap.