Football, skeleton and the sports personality of the year

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan www.flickr.com

Gareth Bale. Photo by: Tom Brogan
http://www.flickr.com

The shortlist for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year has just been announced (http://www.bbc.com/sport/0/sports-personality/30158881) and I hardly recognise anyone on it. I must admit that listening to the radio provides a similar experience for me these days. It seems I’m not quite as up on my gymnastics, swimming and skeleton as I might be (skeleton is one of the many strange events in the Winter Olympics – it’s the one where they hurtle down the slope of ice head-first on what looks like an elevated tea tray).

There’s only one footballer on the list: Gareth Bale. I was very surprised to learn that Bale is the first footballer to be shortlisted since 2009 when Ryan Giggs was not only nominated but won. I’m not sure if other countries have a similar event but I can’t imagine many places in which the national sport would be so significantly under represented. Indeed, Giggs is the only footballer to claim the award in the past decade.

I do not expect Bale to add to football’s tally. I think Rory McIlroy may be the early favourite while Lewis Hamilton’s world title triumph at the weekend may make him a contender. I’m not sure how big a following skeleton has in the UK so I probably wouldn’t put too much money on Lizzy Yarnold.

Last year’s winner of the Sports Personality award was Andy Murray (and a very worthy winner he was after his Wimbledon triumph) but he is not shortlisted this year so the trophy will pass to another sport.

Bale has certainly had a magnificent year. He’s settled incredibly well in Spain and looks every inch a star at Real Madrid, a club where Galacticos are expected to shine very brightly. For a sense of how good a player Bale is, just look at what’s happened to Spurs since he left.

He’s produced excellent performances for Wales too of late and I hope he gets the opportunity to display his talent at a World Cup or European Championship.

There’s been some speculation that Bale may return to England in the summer, possibly to Manchester United. He would be a great signing for Van Gaal but I can’t see him wanting to leave Madrid so soon and it would seem strange to me if Real were tempted to part with him at this stage.

The sale of Bale would surprise me but even more surprising was the discovery that tickets for the Sports Personality event, being hosted in Scotland this year, are priced at £45, £55 and £60 plus a 10% service charge. Who on earth is paying that much to go and watch Gary Lineker play some video highlights and hand over a few awards?

It would cost less to watch Bale play at the Bernabeu.

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The great ticket robbery?

 

arsenal-supporters

Arsenal supporters. Photo by jpellgen, http://www.flickr.com

The BBC recently announced the results of their annual ‘Price of Football’ study and there was plenty to chew on in the findings. Not least in the revelation that Manchester United would have to sell 75,715 pies to cover just a week of Falcao’s wages. Coincidentally, a colossal number of pies appear to be what Harry Redknapp thinks Adel Taarabt is spending his wages on.

Overall, and unsurprisingly, the price of watching football in the UK was found to be steep and rising. The study notes that ‘the average price of the cheapest tickets across English football has risen at almost twice the rate of the cost of living since 2011.’ The Football Supporters’ Federation called the increases “completely unacceptable” but it seems that many fans do accept them – Premier League attendances are on the increase.

Remarkably, ‘Charlton’s £150 season ticket is the cheapest in England’s top four divisions. However, Barcelona charge around £103 for their lowest-priced season ticket.’ I’ve seen Barcelona at the Nou Camp twice and it’s a thrilling experience (although it must be said that the catering facilities for example are quite awful). I think I paid about €20 in 2010 for a La Liga game against Malaga and about €27 a year later for a league match against Real Zaragoza. I’ve never had the pleasure of seeing Charlton at the Valley but I imagine it’s a slightly different experience to the Nou Camp.

The report generated some interesting responses. Most interesting of all was the solution that Sunderland came up with. Just a few days after the report was published they played so badly at Southampton that they lost 8-0 and the goalkeeper offered to refund the costs incurred by their fans.

I’ve definitely been to games where I’ve felt as though I’ve deserved some sort of compensation for my attendance – the Berti Vogts era as Scotland boss springs to mind here. It’s surprising that lawyers haven’t cottoned on to this potentially lucrative revenue stream and launched adverts along the lines of: “were you traumatised at the game today? Did the manager make ill-advised substitutions that had a direct and negative effect on your health? Call today for a no win/no fee consultation.”

In midweek, Danny Baker (well worth a follow on Twitter by the way if you’re into that sort of thing @prodnose) questioned why Chelsea fans had bothered to pay expensive prices to see their team demolish Maribor 6-0 in the Champions League. His point wasn’t so much about the prices as about what he sees as the devaluation of the tournament caused by over-expansion. In Baker’s view, a near full-house at Stamford Bridge for such a game represents a triumph of branding by UEFA.

The Champions League is indeed a branding masterclass but it can also be considered a genuinely premium product. While there were some very large victories in the tournament this week due to a huge gulf in resources and quality between opponents, it was not true in all cases. Bayern Munich beat Roma 7-1 and I think most people would consider that a clash between two big European clubs and very much worthy of the Champions League setting.

Roma happen to be my favourite Italian team and I’ve seen them live twice. The first time was in 2009. Roma happened to be playing Juventus the weekend that my wife and I were visiting the eternal city (this, I must confess, was not entirely a coincidence). We arrived in the city late on a Saturday evening, the night before the game and all the ticket offices were shut as was the club shop.

The next day, my wife’s priority, quite rightly and naturally, was sightseeing but mine was to obtain a ticket. By midday, and with several hours of sightseeing already completed, we arrived at the Roma store where match day tickets could be purchased. I waited patiently in a ticket queue that was comprised mostly of tourists. When I got to the front I said: “uno ticket for today’s calcio, grazie.” I like to use a bit of the local lingo where possible.

The Italian woman selling the tickets looked at me and smiled. In that moment I presumed that she was a) impressed by my use of Italian, b) charmed by my Scottish accent, or c) a combination thereof. Looking back I think the smile probably arose from option d) “I know you really want to see this game and thus you’re going to accept the ticket price I’m about to quote you.”

€110.

For a moment I was speechless, in both Italian and English. I turned, crestfallen, to my wife. “I know,” I said, “I can’t pay that much for a ticket.” Her reply astonished me. “Yes, you can. I know you really want to see this game.” She and the Italian woman smiled at each other. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yes.”

With a slightly trembling hand I offered up my credit card. Still smiling, the Italian woman explained that the only tickets left were in the most expensive part of the stadium. Later, inside the stadium I judged by the empty seats in other areas that this may have been a lie. I left the official Roma store with a slightly dazed sensation and clutching what felt like one of Willy Wonka’s golden tickets.

Roma lost 3-1 and never offered a refund.

photo 1 (1)

That is the most I’ve ever paid for a ticket. Many European clubs have a steeply tiered pricing system with very expensive tickets at one end and very affordable ones at the other. Of course only the biggest clubs with the best players can operate those sorts of pricing policies, other clubs have to be more creative and make more of an effort.

Living abroad, I very rarely get to see my home town team Dundee United these days. The last time I was at Tannadice was on New Year’s Day this year when my brother and I went to see United versus Aberdeen. I paid £25 for the ticket. Scotland in January is generally very wet and very cold.

So it was for the Aberdeen game. We shivered through a 2-1 defeat with the pie and tea providing only a brief respite from the cold and ran back to the car through torrential rain. Happy New Year! In my view £25 is too much to pay for the quality that’s currently being offered in Scotland’s top flight and I wouldn’t be inclined to pay it regularly. I say that despite the fact that my club are currently doing an excellent job of bringing through exciting young players and adopting an entertaining style of play.

photo 2 (1)

To be fair though to United and many other Scottish clubs, they are making some effort to contain prices and improve the experience for fans. United offer some good discounts for kids and seem to do a good job of engaging with season ticket holders. They’ve also started doing some reciprocal deals with other clubs for specific matches to lower prices for away fans.

When I lived in Scotland I was a regular at Hampden for Scotland games. Sadly following Scotland has mostly involved heartache for my entire adult life – I was 17 the last time we qualified for a major championship. The team’s recent resurgence under Gordon Strachan has offered the greatest hope in the entire period since.

It was therefore hugely disappointing that the recent European Championship qualifier against Georgia at Ibrox was played against a backdrop of so many empty seats. The cheapest ticket for the game was £35 and 17,000 empty seats was a stark illustration of how badly the SFA have misjudged the pricing policy for these games. The cheapest tickets for next month’s friendly against England are priced at £50. I think the motivation for staging that game is pretty obvious.

The tartan army have reacted quite furiously to all of this. Online petitions have been launched and t-shirts with the slogan Shafting Fans Always are apparently selling well (people are obviously prepared to pay money to protest at how much money they’re being asked to spend). Recent years have seen quite a lot of progress in supporters taking a stand and getting together to represent themselves.

A lot of clubs have responded, at least to an extent, and given fans more of a role in how they are run. Germany is rightly held up as a model in this regard but there is hope in the UK with the work being done by organisations such as Supporters Direct (http://www.supporters-direct.org/)

Just as the influence of workers has weakened with the erosion of trade union power so the influence of fans has been diluted at many clubs for whom ticket revenue makes up a much smaller proportion of overall revenue than it once did. Football supporters are among the most loyal groups of people anywhere, far more loyal than the average employee or customer is to any particular company.

That loyalty is not without limits though. Any club or football association that continually takes fans for granted will eventually pay a heavy price, when those supporters stop doing so.

Is football too insular?

 

clive-woodward

Clive Woodward. Photo by Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, http://www.flickr.com

Last month, Europe retained the Ryder Cup. Captain Paul McGinley has been lauded for his leadership, attention to detail, and decision making. One of the things he decided to do was have Alex Ferguson address the team on the eve of the tournament. McGinely didn’t choose Ferguson just because of his legendary powers of inspiration and motivation; he wanted him to talk about something specific: how to deal with being heavy favourites.

By consulting Ferguson, McGinley showed a willingness and ability to look beyond golf to learn lessons and find ways to help his team. He also apparently referenced Team Sky in the Tour de France when talking to his players about how the team would function. My question today is whether, unlike McGinley, football is rather too insular when it comes to learning from other sports? I think it is.

Possibly the most famous example of a football club looking to another sport was the appointment of Clive Woodward as performance director at Southampton in the summer of 2005. Two summer’s earlier Woodward had coached England’s rugby union side to victory in the Rugby World Cup. Like McGinley, Woodward was revered for his attention to detail and desire to learn.

The reaction to Woodward’s appointment was hardly surprising. Henry Winter wrote in The Telegraph: ‘Woodward should go away, avoid interviews, acquire all his coaching badges, learn the ropes and then apply to work as a youth-team coach somewhere.’ Winter seemed miffed that Woodward hadn’t ‘paid his dues’ in football.

What a silly and ignorant attitude. Woodward didn’t pay his dues in football but he certainly paid his coaching dues and acquired outstanding credentials along with a world cup winner’s medal. Winter hailed Sam Allardyce as someone who’s made it to top level management in football by paying the appropriate dues, even driving the ‘Fiesta van’ when youth team coach at Preston North End. Such experiences, Winter writes, ‘cannot be found in the manuals Woodward pores over.’

True – assuming of course that Woodward wasn’t reading a manual on Fiesta vans – but also entirely incidental to being a top class coach. I have a lot of respect for Big Sam and I actually doubt he would share Winter’s attitude. Allardyce has always been a keen student of the game and of sport science. West Ham fans however may be forgiven for occasionally wondering if he wouldn’t be better off coaching a rugby team.

In the same article Winter refers to Mourinho’s apprenticeship under Robson and van Gaal and the information he ‘absorbed’ from them. As apprenticeships go, the special one got a special one but has there ever been a football manager that did more poring over manuals than Mourinho? He seems to have been quite successful.

A superb insight into Woodward’s methods was provided in an interview he gave to the Guardian just before this summer’s World Cup. The subject was penalties; England travelled to Brazil having lost on penalties in six of the past 10 major finals that they had played in.

Woodward recalled an exercise he did with Southampton’s academy players. He asked them to take 10 penalties each. There was no goalkeeper, just two ropes hanging down from the crossbar around three feet inside each post and the aim was to hit as many penalties as possible between the rope and the post. All of the penalties were filmed by four different cameras.

The results were not good. A couple of days later the players were called to a video analysis session. They were shown their ten penalties and for most, each time their run-up, foot position or body shape was different. “Everything was different,” Woodward remembered, “but to kick a stationary ball, you need to have the same routine, to do the same things over and over again.”

The master of that as Woodward pointed out is Jonny Wilkinson, who would spend hours practising, working on his foot position and honing his technique to withstand the most intense pressure. Footballers should do the same and it’s clear that some do but by no means all. The responsibility also rests with the coach though.

According to Woodward: “There’s a big body of football people who are terrified of it, who are saying: ‘You can’t coach this.’ That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard! I think the FA should employ a specialist penalty-kicking coach. And listen: it wouldn’t just make them better penalty-takers but better footballers. The whole team should be doing it. This is about striking a dead ball, but if you strike a dead ball well, you will be able to strike a moving ball better too.”

Woodward lasted just over a year at Southampton and it seems he and his methods were never exactly embraced by the various managers and coaching staff that worked alongside him. Of course the concept of specialist coaches is not entirely absent in football, it’s increasingly common these days to find coaches employed to work specifically with the strikers or defenders and the position of goalkeeping coach has been around for a long time.

I would argue though that the level of such specialisation in football is not as far advanced as it is in other sports such as rugby or American football. One interesting exception is the case of Gianni Vio in Italy. Until a few years ago, Vio worked in a bank but in his spare time he wrote a website devoted to strategies for set-pieces. Eventually he wrote a book as well.

Former Italy goalkeeper Walter Zenga discovered Vio as a result of the book and got in touch. At the time Zenga was coaching Red Star Belgrade. He invited Vio onto his coaching staff in a part-time role. Zenga took Vio with him when he returned to Italy to coach Catania. From there, Vio went to Fiorentina and this summer moved to Milan.

Zenga says of Vio: “He isn’t just a free-kick wizard. He is like having a 15- or 20-goal striker in the team. A 20-goal a season player can get injured. He can get suspended. But there are set-pieces in every game. Always. And he knows how to exploit them best.” Woodward would surely approve.

It doesn’t surprise me in the least that this innovation happened abroad rather than in British football. Arsene Wenger practically professionalised English football when he joined Arsenal in the mid-1990s and even today it seems as though many British footballers fail to appreciate the level of sacrifice required to make the most of their careers as professional athletes.

There’s a lot that British players can learn (and indeed have learned) from their foreign peers but equally there’s a lot that could be learned from other athletes. Anyone who has watched Andy Murray train can only be impressed at his utter devotion to being the best he can possibly be and his willingness to consult various specialists to improve all aspects of his physical and mental performance. I’m sure footballers would also have benefited from watching Woodward put Jonny Wilkinson and co through their paces in preparation for the Rugby World Cup.

Perhaps the biggest benefit that could come of football shedding its insularity would be in the development of kids and young players. There’s so much that kids can learn by playing a wide variety of sports from an early age. The best advocate of this is Judy Murray.

She has a wonderful initiative – Set 4 Sport – which is all about helping parents teach kids agility, balance and coordination, as well as passing and catching, through fun games. Visit the site at www.set4sport.com where you can find out more and download a free book.

The programme was born in Judy’s back garden as she tried to entertain and encourage her sons. As she says: “They went on to become pretty decent tennis players as you know, but Jamie has a 3 handicap at golf and Andy once trialled with Glasgow Rangers.”

So if you have high hopes for your child excelling at football then of course give them a ball and let them play freely and naturally. But don’t just stop there. Wouldn’t it be an exceptional footballer that had the strength of a gymnast, the balance of a boxer, the bravery of a rugby player, the mental strength of a golfer or a tennis player, and the analytical mind of a chess player?

Oh, and one more thing. Make sure they practise penalties.

Filling the football emptiness

Vietnam

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.