Monday, 3 March 2014

England appoint Aidy Boothroyd U20s boss. Hope springs eternal, eh?

Aidy Boothroyd.
Boothroyd: new Eng U20 boss. This is not a joke.
Well, that's debatable actually...

Some days you wonder if anybody even turns up for work at the FA. I have visions of a solitary, fusty chap in his eighties steadfastly manning the ship – replying to letters, making a few decisions, pottering away quite happily in a small office in Soho Square. We'll call him George...

[dream sequence]

George quietly bumbles about his business undisturbed most days. Occasionally Trevor Brooking pops in with a ham and mustard sandwich, scratches his head as if not knowing what to do, before leaving again with a baffled expression an hour later. That's unless there's a showpiece game coming up, when a load of haircuts in fancy suits suddenly rock up claiming they've been "working from home".

But most days George is on his tod. He's been told he can bring in an office temp if he wants, but he doesn't like to be a bother, plus that would mean fixing that new-fangled computer whatchamacallit. The old thing hasn't worked since 1997. A dusty Encarta CD-Rom lies next to it, long since repurposed as a drinks mat and covered in coffee rings.

Recently a letter arrived from Gareth Southgate's agent, which George opened, in which it became apparent that Southgate wanted to appoint a new manager for England's Under-20 side. "Under-20s?" thought George? "I don't think we have an Under-20 side. Perhaps he means Under-21s. I'd best give him a quick tinkle and check."

The phone rings and goes through to Southgate's agent, Ashley Woolfe.

"Good afternoon Mr Woolfe. I'm calling with regards to your letter about Gareth wanting to appoint a new member of coaching staff. I just wanted to check if there'd been an administrative error. Your letter discusses the matter of Gareth appointing a manager for the Under-20 side. But we don't have an Under-20s, as far as I'm aware."

"Actually George, turns out you do. I must admit it came as a surprise to Gareth when he found out about it last week. It would appear that other countries have been focusing on this age group for some time now and we've been a tad left behind. Can't the FA find somebody who'd be willing to give it a bash?"

"Well, it's just me in the office today. It's just me in the office most days actually. I try and pass things up the chain of command, but unless it's to do with a sponsorship deal I don't generally hear anything back."

"I see. Well, since this appointment is rather small beans, perhaps you could arrange something yourself, George? I'm sure a man of your experience has a wealth of contacts."

"I suppose I could see if Phil Neal's free. Although saying that, I think he's got rather a lot of after-dinner work on at the moment, wouldn't want to overload the chap. Tell you what, I'll have a look into who else is out of work and see what I can do. Stay on line, I'm getting my book."

And so George reaches to a shelf on the wall. There, next to some signed photos of Tim Flowers and a dusty old box of Terry Venables' The Manager board game, sits a tatty old contacts book. George's pride and joy. He flicks to the pages marked '2013/14 Managerial Departures' and thumbs down the list.

"Still there Ashley? Right... hmmm... let's see.... Sean O'Driscoll? Too much of a fancy-dan for my liking. I don't like watching his teams play. You'd think they'd never heard of hitting the big man up top. Tony Mowbray? Personally I can't understand a word the man says, and again, his teams are a bit tippy tappy aren't they. Nobody ever won anything playing football like ballet, did they? Ah, now then, Aidy Boothroyd's available. There's a hot young coach with a bright future. I had him earmarked for the top job a few years back. Not sure why the hell he's out of work, poor chap. I'll offer him the job, it'll get him out of the house. Cheerio then."

[dream sequence fades to black]


So that's that. If you're still reading, sorry it wasn't very exciting. But now that I've created an ambiance of measured calm (read: boredom) with that gently paced opening scene, hopefully it affords the following highly considered and cerebral observation the necessary space to breathe. What I'd like to say, as eloquently as possible, is:

Aidy Boothroyd?! FOR F***'S SAKE, FA!!

*downs bottle of bleach*




Deep breath. I feel mildly better now, but Jesus H Batman On Stilts, what are the FA playing at in appointing Boothroyd? Answers on a postcard.

Have they ever watched a Boothroyd team play football? It's an absolute abomination. A relic harking back to the early 1980s – all high tempo, put 'em under, let 'em know you're there, game management and all that guff.

When the news broke and one or two choice words were aired on Twitter, Northampton Town fan Ben Trasler had the following to say. (Boothroyd of course having recently been let go from Northampton for turning them into an incompetent shower of ugly hatred that was – and may still be – on course to drop out of the Football League).

"When winning, it's ugly. When losing, it's barbaric," said Trasler. "God, it was awful. He's the reason we're in the poo*".
(*Not the actual word he used.)

I can't really better those sentiments. There are a few unscrupulous types managing in the lower leagues, but there can be none more steadfastly committed to winning ugly than Boothroyd. To watch a Boothroyd side is to willingly torture your own eyeballs. Seriously, my corneas would rather take a direct spray from a can of Lynx Java followed by a plunge into a heavily over-chlorinated swimming pool, than watch a Boothroyd side close out a 2-1 win. The closing minutes of a narrow Boothroyd win are football's equivalent of trolling. 

Every time I've seen his teams play, I come away a little sickened. It's as if he spends serious time on the training ground teaching his players how to master little niggly fouls that aren't quite worth a yellow, how to charge down clearances with your studs up so your opponent might smash his toes to smithereens on the follow-through, how to spend 40 seconds getting ready for every throw-in when protecting a lead, how to pump the ball into the channels so it plops just short of the corner flag and both defence and attack then embark on a sprint race to get there first, before all getting there at roughly the same time, the ball almost an irrelevance as they inevitably crash into each other. It's a dispiriting experience.

And this is how we want England's promising Under-20s to be taught how to play? Our mentality in England is that, if you're a gifted teenager, we'll bung you straight into the Under-21s anyway. Or even the full squad. So who goes in the Under-20s? The slightly less capable teenagers and 20-year-olds, I guess. The ones who need working on if they're ever going to make the step up.

And Boothroyd will work on them, alright. You can take that as read. But in this age of pristine pitches in which highly technical sides like Spain and Germany dominate (while the England national side consistently founder), what good is Boothroyd going to do with our young nearly-good-enoughs that aren't quite the real deal?

He's probably going to make them play like grotty little sh*ts, isn't he. That's going to win us future World Cups for sure. Hey Sepp, maybe just give us all the trophies now to save time, eh?

*slow hand clap*

Well done, FA. Top marks.

Boothroyd: not a good thing.
But I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Stuart Pearce and Peter Taylor were hardly names to make us think the FA were going to propel this technically semi-talented crop of young English players into something that might make us proud. 

A key driving force behind this appointment would presumably have been FA 'director of elite development' Dan Ashworth. Indeed, he is quoted as saying: "I’m delighted with the appointment of Aidy, he’s an outstanding coach of younger players and has a fantastic record of developing youth."

Wasn't Ashworth supposed to be a progressive appointment by the FA? I seem to remember some people being quite pleased when they prised him away from West Brom with the prospect of more than doubling his £200k annual salary. And yet apparently Dan Ashworth is "delighted" with Boothroyd. This ought to trouble anyone hoping for England to "do something" at any international tournament at any level in the future. And, frankly, if the Under-20s won the 2015 Toulon Tournament by playing to a Boothroyd template, it would give me very little encouragement for the future, because that way of playing is thoroughly old hat at the highest level. I know football tactics can move in phases, and maybe there's just a chance that kick-and-rush will have it's day again in the future, but we can't be planning for it on the off chance that a direct and heavy-handed brand of football has an elite resurgence.

A couple of years ago Zonal Marking editor Michael Cox tweeted this clip of England Under-21s training under Stuart Pearce. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to have a look (it's less than two minutes long). 

The squad are playing a game of 'two touch'. It's both hilarious and heart-breaking as the young players, limited to two touches, resort to raining shots in from anywhere rather than rely on their technique and movement to craft something better.

The FA put this video ON ITS OWN WEBSITE, as if it's something to be proud about. "Check out how much our young boys like smashing the heck out of footballs, folks! Brilliant eh?"

Listen carefully and you'll note at one point a distant voice incongruously yells: "Is anybody there?" 

Sometimes I ask the very same question about the FA. The lights are on but nobody's in.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bournemouth v Liverpool this Saturday lunchtime could be an FA Cup cracker

Saturday's early kick-off in the FA Cup Fourth Round sees AFC Bournemouth host Liverpool, in what should hopefully be an easy-on-the-eye encounter. Two talented young managers with similarly attractive playing philosophies  it might just be the perfect way to start your weekend

These two sides have met twice before, both in the FA Cup, both times Bournemouth were the hosts, and on both occasions they played out hard-fought draws before being given a hiding at Anfield in the replay. But given those ties took place in 1927 and 1968, it's probably about time the two teams were drawn against each other again.

Bournemouth have been so impressive in recent seasons over the course of Eddie Howe's two spells at the club (though the less said of Paul Groves' lacklustre tenure in the middle, the better). When Howe first took the job in 2009, he inherited a team languishing at the foot of League Two, a 17-point deduction hanging over their heads. He kept them up against all the odds, but bigger surprises were to follow. The following season he got them promoted under extremely trying circumstances  the club were under a transfer embargo for virtually the whole season and frequently failed to list a full complement of substitutes on their teamsheet. On one occasion teen striker Jayden Stockley was hauled out of his GCSE exams to make up the numbers on the bench. Slim pickings indeed. In short, Howe was a miracle worker right from the off.

After 100 games at the helm, Howe was lured away in January 2011 to Championship football and Burnley. But he and his family struggled to settle, and by October 2012 he had made the difficult decision to drop back down to League One and return to Bournemouth. It proved to be a wise move all round, with Bournemouth rocketing up the table and clinching another ahead-of-schedule promotion, while Burnley have also improved markedly since Sean Dyche took over from Howe. Win-win situation.

Eddie Howe 
Bournemouth have spent quite a bit of money to get to where they are now (bottom half of the Championship, but looking good enough to stay up). It's very possible to argue some of that money was badly spent, with the two biggest signings  Matt Tubbs and Tokelo Rantie  thus far not offering sufficient return on investment. But for the most part Bournemouth have signed talented, technical footballers with a strong work rate. Howe has a way of playing and it requires good technical ability and lots of graft. Most of his signings have bought into this ethos.

Howe's methods are not wildly different to those of Brendan Rodgers. Indeed, Bournemouth captain Tommy Elphick used the press conference ahead of the game to praise Rodgers and speak in glowing tones about how he tries to get Bournemouth playing in a similar way. "We aspire to be like Liverpool so it's a good time to play them to see how far off we are," said Elphick. "There's a lot to learn from a team like Liverpool and a manager like Brendan Rodgers. The key is having no fear. If you give them too much respect they will hurt you."

In terms of similarities, both managers will shift between a single striker and two up front depending on the fixture and/or if the temperature of the game demands it. And both Rodgers and Howe like to have good technical players in central midfield that are constantly on the move, with a wide range of passing. For Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva at Liverpool, read Harry Arter and Eunan O'Kane at Bournemouth.

Both managers like to play the ball out from the back too, so hopefully Saturday's encounter will be an elegant game with plenty of good technique on show. If you've only just crawled out of bed with a stonking hangover, there are worse ways to nurse yourself into the weekend.

The aforementioned O'Kane is in a rich vein of form. The diminutive central midfielder is the sort of player for whom one's appreciation creeps up the more you see of him. His build is not particularly athletic, but he's constantly near the play, knows when to keep it simple, and is excellent at positioning himself in such a way that he either intercepts the pass or dissuades the opponent from releasing the ball at all.

Harry Arter is in a similar mould, with but more bite to his play, a greater range of passing and a bit more of a goal threat too. A cousin of Scott Parker, you can see similar tenacity in his game at times, though too many of his all-too-regular yellow cards come from his inability to stay out of the referee's ear.

Eunan O'Kane. [Photo: Mick Cunningham]
At right back, Simon Francis is the most dependable player in the team. When needed, he'll be up and down the touchline all game, and must get through a tremendous amount of running over 90 minutes. When he gets to the byline, he's capable of whipping in dangerous crosses.

Honorable mentions to: attacking workhorse Lewis Grabban, who has scored some invaluable goals this season and never stops running; classy wide midfielder Matt Ritchie, whose shots from range are as dangerous as his haircut is daft; and goalkeeper Lee Camp, who has proved to be an excellent shot-stopper and has recently made his loan move from West Brom permanent.

Of course, along with Camp, Bournemouth's busiest players on Saturday could well be their centre-backs. Particularly if Luis Suarez sees some pitch time. The club are fortunate to have three good ones. Elphick and Elliott Ward have been getting the nod over Steve Cook of late, but whichever pairing Howe opts for, they are all capable and competent. The worry is whether capable and competent will be enough.

Finally, if tiny right winger Ryan Fraser sees any time on the pitch, I'd like to see him in a race with Cissokho. Fraser is seriously rapid once he's got some open space in front of him.

Anything's possible and it's not a bad time to be playing Liverpool. After their strong start in the Premier League, their recent points haul has been somewhat more modest, and they may be starting to prioritise finishing fourth over cup competitions. They will surely have half an eye on their huge game with Everton at Anfield on Tuesday evening.

They have some key men missing too. It's unlikely that any of Lucas, Johnson, Agger, Sakho, Flanagan or Luis Enrique will see any time on the pitch this weekend, so it's clear to see that it's in defence where they might be a little stretched. That said, they still have good options in Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho and Kelly. But will they really want to play all four when the same back four might be needed in the Merseyside derby three days later? Perhaps the likes of Aussie left-back Brad Smith will get a rare start?

If Suarez starts and is paired with Sturridge, you fear for Bournemouth's chances. But if Rodgers opts to keep them in reserve for Tuesday then Bournemouth must look to grab the initiative first half before Liverpool potentially introduce reinforcements later on.

Bournemouth don't have masses of cup upset pedigree, but they did knock Manchester United out in the 1980s and narrowly lost to them 2-1 in the 1950s. They would have knocked them out twice in the 1980s, had Steve Bruce not cynically trodden on Luther Blissett's heel in 1989 when he was about to score a late winner. The referee hadn't kept up with play and missed the foul. Predictably, United won the replay. With apologies to Worksop, Heybridge Swifts et al, the Liverpool game this weekend is unquestionably Bournemouth's biggest game in the FA Cup since that day 24 years ago.

If Suarez and Sturridge both start, Liverpool to be leading at half-time and full-time looks reasonable odds at 19/20 (BetVictor). If neither starts, I'd be tempted by the draw at 9/2 (various), but of course those odds could plummet fast once teamsheets are confirmed, so be poised and ready to bet around 60-90 minutes before kick-off if you're getting on that one.

Harry Arter's customary yellow card may well make an appearance, but 8/1 (Betfred) on him being the first player booked is not really value, so wait for Betfair odds nearer to kick-off. I prefer 31/10 on Victor Moses to score anytime (Unibet). The Nigerian has had hardly any game time since early December, but would seem likely to get a run-out here.

Victor Moses: a good anytime goalscorer bet?
The final word goes to Eddie Howe, ahead of what will hopefully be the game of the round. "It's a great challenge. It's a rare opportunity to pit our wits against one of the best teams in the world. This is a really special game. Not just for us as players but as fans, and the buzz around the town. We don't want to show Liverpool too much respect and freeze on the occasion."

"Better managers and players have tried to keep Suarez quiet and failed. It's one of the biggest challenges in world football."

AFC Bournemouth v Liverpool, Saturday 12.45pm, ITV1

Friday, 20 December 2013

Narrow The Angle's Football Quiz, No. 2

So, 2013 is pretty much done, and some footballing year it's been. Two German heavyweights battled it out in the Champions League Final; Wigan won the FA Cup and got relegated; messrs Van Persie, Carrick and De Gea won the Premier League by themselves; QPR imploded and not even 'Arry could save them; and England made it to the World Cup... but then got a stinky draw and found out their first game would be played just under a mile from the sun. Ultimately though, who cares, at least we're going.

But what you really need to round off your footballing year is a well-hard football general knowledge quiz. Right? Right.

Get your colleagues and/or Twitter people involved with this if you like.

Here goes then...


Q1: Which TWO players did Tottenham Hotspur sign from Hertha Berlin during the 2007/8 season?

Q2: Who is the only Scotsman with multiple Premier League hat-tricks?

Q3: Whose career progression is this: Odd Grenland, Stabaek, RB Salzburg, West Brom, Augsburg.

Q4: Who was Everton's caretaker manager for several weeks when Joe Royle departed in 1997?

Q5: What was the original inspiration behind Lazio's decision to play in a blue-and-white strip?

Q6: Which footballing statue does this arm belong to?

Q7: Who succeeded Tony Barton as Aston Villa manager in July 1984?

Q8: Which football moment of 2013 was responsible for the biggest spike in UK Twitter activity?

Q9: What is the main link between Bobby Gould, Ian Holloway and Gerry Francis?

Q10: What is the main link between Chris Kamara, Brian Little and Alan Ball?

Q11: Who is Manchester City's all-time record player sale?

Q12: In June this year Ronaldinho launched a new product called 'Sex Free'. What was he selling?

Q13: Who or what are the following: Domagnano, Faetano, Murata, La Fiorita, Tre Penne. 

Q14: Who scored a hat-trick for Bayern Munich in a 2010 Champions League Semi-Final?

Q15: Name either of the finalists in the 1996 Cup Winners Cup Final.

Q16: In which city did Liverpool beat Alaves in the 2001 Uefa Cup Final?

Q17: Whose career progression is this: Farnborough, Barnet, Southampton, Fulham, Birmingham, Leeds, Millwall.

Q18: Which ex-footballer is being described in this sentence: "He had a Welsh mother and a Belgian father. On 19 June 1993 he married model Mandy Smith, the former wife of Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman, but they separated two years later and divorced in 1997."

Q19: Who is this former Premier League player, pictured after scoring against Arsenal in 2009?

Q20: Which Paris Saint-Germain player started the 2010 World Cup Final?



I know it may look like there's no answers here but... I've put the answers below this paragraph, in white text. This is to make it easier to resist the temptation to cheat. If you drag your cursor you should be able to select the text and the see the answers. It's like a sort of low-rent 'Reveal' button on Ceefax...

Q1: Kevin-Prince Boateng; Gilberto
Q2: Kevin Gallagher
Q3: Somen Tchoyi
Q4: Dave Watson
Q5: The Greek flag and also the Olympic movement that came out of Greece, due to Lazio being a mixed sport club
Q6: Thierry Henry, Emirates Stadium
Q7: Graham Turner (current Shrewsbury manager)
Q8: Real Madrid knocking Man Utd out of the Champions League
Q9: They have all managed Bristol Rovers
Q10: They have all managed Stoke City
Q11: Shaun Wright-Phillips to Chelsea for £21m
Q12: Condoms
Q13: Teams from the San Marino Championship (Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio)
Q14: Ivica Olic
Q15: Paris Saint-Germain, Rapid Vienna
Q16: Dortmund
Q17: Maik Taylor
Q18: Pat Van Den Hauwe
Q19: Vladimir Weiss (then of Manchester City)
Q20: Gregory van der Wiel

Thanks for playing - Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Gibraltar v Slovakia. A rare chance to witness the competitive debut of a national side

Tonight sees the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar make its debut in competitive international football with a friendly against Slovakia.
And, gloriously, it'll be live on the internet

While not yet a full member of Fifa, Gibraltar were accepted into Uefa in May this year, and will subsequently be attempting to qualify for the 2016 European Championships. Their name will be one to watch out for when the draw is made on 23 February 2014. You'd have to have a heart of stone not to want them to be drawn in your country's group. Regardless of whether it may or may not prove to be an straightforward six points, the chance to hone in on their early fixtures as they try and get some sort of respectable side together should be a real pleasure.

Gibraltar's national stadium is not considered suitable for Uefa fixtures, so they are having to play their games at Estádio Algarve in Portugal for the time being. The game with Slovakia tonight kicks off at 6.30pm UK time (7.30pm local time) and will be broadcast live online by the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation (GBC). GBC are a public service broadcaster, so hopefully that'll mean no advertising or spammy pop-ups to interrupt our viewing. Here's a link.

This means that any England fans planning to watch the friendly with Germany (or, for that matter, France v Ukraine or Sweden v Portugal) could tune in for an enjoyable first half of Gibraltar v Slovakia online before settling down in front of the TV.

I for one am planning on tuning in (provided public transport delivers me home from work in a timely manner). How often do you get to witness live the first tentative steps of a new international team? And, who knows, if the Gibraltar game is exciting then England v Germany might just have to be watched on catch-up a little later in the evening?

Gibraltar fans celebrate their acceptance into Uefa.
Of course, a Slovakia win is extraordinarily likely, but anything could happen. The Faroe Islands beat Canada in their second ever competitive match in April 1989. Actually beat them! SÍF Sandavágur midfielder Torkil Nielsen (also a fine chess player, according to Wikipedia) scored his country's first ever competitive goal as the Faroes gained their maiden victory against the unfortunate Canadians.

And lowly Tajikistan, in their first ever World Cup qualifying campaign in 1996-97, lost just once in qualifying (to China), and twice handed out 4-0 gubbings to Vietnam. They really weren't a million miles away from qualifying for France 1998 – glorious stuff.

Could Gibraltar get a result against Slovakia tonight? Their opponents have some eye-catching names in their squad, including Martin Škrtel, Marek Hamšík and Vladimír Weiss, so ultimately it's hugely unlikely. One bookmaker will even give you enormous 50/1 odds on a Gibraltar win. But just the chance to see it all get underway is a treat.

The Guardian have previewed the game here.

And, for good measure, here's Metro's "Six things you didn't know about Gibraltar’s national football team".

Tune in here from the wonderfully obscure programme start time of 6.22pm (UK time). It should be fun.

Apologies for originally listing the kick-off time here as 7pm. The BBC (among others) listed the wrong kick-off time.

Friday, 26 July 2013

Taking my eye off the ball.

I haven't watched a football match for two months and good grief I needed that.

I'd slipped into the habit of watching summer football in the last two or three years – like some of you crazy cats do – and I've realised it was a major contributory factor to my vague, uneasy feeling of jadedness towards football last season.

It wasn't that I'd fallen out of love with football, I'd just had too much of it. You can definitely have too much of a good thing. I mean, if I ate eat peanut butter every day for a year I'd certainly get utterly sick of it, but if I then didn't eat it at all for a couple of months it would no doubt taste delicious again. Same with football, I reckon.

In the internet age it's easy to fall into the trap of trying to keep tabs on every tiny happening in football over the summer. Well here's the thing: if Chelsea sign someone for a few million, or Ipswich lose one of their most promising youngsters, or Barcelona sign a new reserve keeper – it doesn't actually matter if you find this out in May, June, July or even early August. In fact, by avoiding this news over the early part of the summer you allow yourself one of football's great pleasures, that of devouring a pre-season preview when you don't know who's signed who.

In the 1980s and 1990s, before we found out everything instantly on Twitter and the internet, I'd often only discover who Newcastle had spaffed a few million on by reading a new season pullout from my nan's Daily Mirror, or in FourFourTwo's always-eagerly-anticipated "The Season Starts Here"/"Big Kick-Off" issue. Sure, occasionally I'd flick on Ceefax and have a brief browse, but often those printed column inches of "Ins" and "Outs"  with player names tantalisingly highlighted in bold  were the first I'd heard of these deals. You'd start reading with an idea in your head of where teams were last season, and by the time you'd read to the end your brain would be racing with possibilities for the new season.

And so, as July nears an end, it's time to dive in. For the first time in ages I get to enjoy some of these rather retro sensations again. Batteries recharged, now comes the rush. That glorious clamour for every fixture grid, pre-season preview, squad number list (have you seen Villa's? What a thrill), third kit unveiling, transfer announcement (though I draw the line at rumours), and prediction article (ranging from the play-safe to the downright nuts) that I can get my hands on. I can't get enough of it now, because I've reached the point of genuinely missing football. If you'd asked me a week ago, I still wasn't there. It's only arrived the last couple of days. But, if I'm honest, perhaps I've been suppressing it for slightly longer. You can't start too early though, otherwise it's not as good, not as gleefully satisfying. It lacks a certain giddy fizz.

I'm back in the game. Football, you're welcome back in my life. But one thing I won't be doing is watching any televised friendlies. I avoid them at all costs. Managers are still experimenting, nobody is taking anything too seriously, and exotic new signings are still shaking off jet lag and learning what "nobody told me my squad number would be 38" is in English.

But if you really must watch a friendly on television  if that really is the best thing you've got to do with your time  for goodness sake don't read too much into it. Otherwise you'll be going around saying things like: "Mark my words, Bentley's going to be a brilliant signing for Spurs, he's been on fire in pre-season"  Me, Summer 2008.

It's just pre-season. It means next to nothing. Shouldn't you be in a beer garden somewhere? Still no Match Of The Day for another four weekends. And that's actually a good thing. Let the anticipation build. Go and buy World Soccer and read it in the park with a Calippo lolly.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Getting Wimbledon fit for the Football League

Here's an article by me for the ever-excellent Two Unfortunates, a website devoted exclusively to the Football League.

After Wimbledon's final day survival act in League Two, this piece assesses the mess that Neal Ardley inherited when taking on the job in late 2012, while also looking forwards and wondering whether Wimbledon can avoid another struggle in 2013/14.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Everything in its right place.

Are most teams currently in the 'right' division? And is that healthy? 

Over the course of this season I've increasingly been struck by the idea that almost every team in English football's top four divisions is currently competing in its rightful division.

What do I mean by 'rightful'? I guess I mean a blend of club stature, history and resources, while taking into account mistakes in its recent past that may have led to a downturn in fortunes. For instance, most people would argue that Leeds United are a Premier League team in terms of stature, but few would say they are currently playing in the wrong division thanks to the mismanagement of the club in the past decade or so. The Championship is almost certainly the 'right' division for them at the moment.

In seasons gone by you'd look down the table and think "Cripes! Sheffield Wednesday/Manchester City/Southampton - what are they doing in League One?" There'd perhaps be a few in every division that you'd think this about. Take the Premier League in 1999/00, for instance.

This season, which teams are not in their rightful division? Here's the meagre list I came up with, and their 'right' division in brackets:

  • Reading (playing in Premier League, 'right' division would be Championship)
  • Sheffield United (playing in League One, 'right' division would be Championship)
  • Crawley Town (playing in League One, 'right' division would be League Two)
  • Bradford City (playing in League Two, 'right' division would be League One)
  • Dagenham (playing in League Two, 'right' division would be Conference)
  • Accrington Stanley (playing in League Two, 'right' division would be Conference)

Of course, this is all incredibly subjective and there's no need to write to me in an indignant huff. I realise I've probably just offended about three-quarters of supporters reading this blog who think their team belong a division higher, and perhaps flattered the other quarter who can't believe their luck that they're even clinging on at their current level. This is just my opinion - I'm not stating it as fact. If you like, make your own list and see how many teams you think are in the 'wrong' division. I doubt it will be significantly longer than mine. The only one that narrowly missed my list were Rotherham who, with their new stadium, bigger crowds and resources are arguably a League One team in stature now.

So what's my point here? I guess I'm intrigued by this levelling out that we've seen in recent seasons. Perhaps it's to do with traditionally bigger clubs attracting investment in recent seasons, enabling them to realise their potential and haul themselves out of stagnation? Perhaps the increasing importance of fitness, diet and tactics in the game means that the teams that can afford the best training facilities, sports scientists, scouting networks, etc are increasingly showing up their more old-school, disorganised counterparts on the pitch?

But is this a good thing or a bad thing? At the start of the season I worried it would definitely be a bad thing. I even wrote a piece honing in on League One, stating that it looked to be the worst League One on paper in recent memory and that it would just be a bunch of ordinary teams scrapping it out for the right to be relegation certainties a level higher the following season.

But it's turned out to be the two divisions either side of League One that are astonishingly even across the board.

In the Championship, everybody from 24th to 8th (EIGHTH!) still needs to worry to differing degrees about relegation. Derby, Bolton and Middlesbrough are all on 54 points in 8th, 9th and 10th. They are seven points clear of relegation with all teams having between six and eight games left to play (so 18-24 points available for all). Obviously it's unlikely any of those three would go down, they just can't rule it out yet. Plenty to play for still.

While in League Two, even in seasons without a couple of administration-riddled basketcases adrift at the bottom, 50 points is usually ample for survival. Bottom club Aldershot are already on 44 points with another 15 to play for. And they're only four points off Dagenham in 17th. It's incredibly competitive at the bottom. Two from eight will go down and not one of those sides is completely rotten.

Has such a level playing field made for an exciting, nerve-jangling season for Football League supporters? Most would probably say it has. There's a cluster of around five teams safely ensconced in the middle of Leagues One and League Two with not much left to play for, but everyone else is still fighting for something. And everybody in the Championship still has plenty of reasons to see their next three points as potentially season-defining.

So while a small number of teams might put this season down as quite a boring one (Notts County, Oxford, Chesterfield) most will feel they've given fans plenty to be excited/petrified about. As a fan of two teams (Bournemouth and Wimbledon) I've had plenty to keep me on my toes at opposite ends of the divisions they play in. Come the end of the season I could yet be celebrating a promotion for one while still distraught at the relegation of the other. Or it could be another season of both in the same divisions next year. And I won't know either way for a while yet.

Next season could see a few more teams in the 'wrong' division. Sunderland perhaps? Yeovil? But it won't be many. And hopefully that continues to be as good/bad for excitement/utter terror as it has been this term. The football may not always be beautiful but the bigger picture is rarely dull.