Thursday, 1 November 2012

A glorious weekend of German football

I had my first taste of live German football this weekend, with three games in three days including fixtures at Cologne, Bielefeld and Hannover. To say it was a fun trip would be a huge understatement.

I've blogged about it in detail over at Bundesliga Lounge, a cracking site that's well worth bookmarking.

You can read the piece here. Enjoy!

Below are a few photos that there wasn't room for on the blog.

FC Koln's magnificent RheinEnergieStadion
at dusk, just as the famous towers light up

Arminia Bielefeld's hardcore support on the terrace at Schüco Arena

Robert Enke's old Hannover 96 jersey
in the supporters' bar near AWD-Arena

Tasty, delicious wurst. Mmmm...

What a matchday experience a trip to the AWD-Arena offers

Hannover's Jan Schlaudraff (No13) pictured alongside
talented Gladbach playmaker Patrick Herrmann (No7)

Also, many thanks to everyone who's given the blog a mention on Twitter. Seems to have been quite well received, which is nice. Perhaps I'll have another bash at a travelogue style piece in future.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Revealed: How Ipswich Town pick a manager

Excuse my rudimentary Photoshop skills. Ipswich will probably appoint a really leftfield Eastern European manager now I've wasted 15 minutes doing this. 

Friday, 7 September 2012

An instant gut reaction to Harry Redknapp's return to Bournemouth

Redknapp during his time as AFC Bournemouth
manager, many moons ago

Oh my. The most successful manager in Bournemouth's history is back at the club, in a voluntary, "advisory" role. According to the board he will assist the current managerial team and offer advice on any footballing matters.

The news has instantly gone global, with "Bournemouth" currently trending on Twitter. And, unsurprisingly, most of the people I follow on Twitter are assuming that this spells bad news for Bournemouth in the long term.

Are AFC Bournemouth - a club suddenly apparently blessed with a chunk of money for the first time in their unremarkable history - about to "do a Portsmouth"? By which I mean a brief and giddy period of unprecedented success and rampant spending swiftly followed by abject doom, poverty and quite possibly liquidation. Jumping the gun a bit? Quite possibly. But that's the instant worry I get in my gut - I obviously hope it proves to be an overreaction.

Or maybe everyone is jumping to conclusions? Redknapp lives at Sandbanks, which is only a few miles from Bournemouth. He likes a simple life away from football, choosing one or two favourite restaurants or a walk on the beach with his dogs over the normal trappings that someone of his status and wealth might enjoy. It might be that he's a bit bored kicking around the house and just wants to help a club that he has had an association with for several decades.

Alas, it probably won't turn out that way. Results have not been good so far this season and manager Paul Groves is already under pressure. Redknapp has worked with Groves previously and rates him - which helps - but if Bournemouth's iffy form continues and Groves gets sacked... it's a fairly obvious script from that point forward.

And if that happens - if Harry becomes manager of Bournemouth again - fans will have a quandary on their hands. There will, in all likelihood, be success and attractive football under Redknapp. We'd probably get promoted. But then what?

It's incredibly early for speculation such as this, but these are the sort of daydreams (or nightmares, depending on the individual) that will be going on in fans' heads this evening, so let's not kid ourselves any different.

As a Bournemouth fan, I want to enjoy any success the club has with intense pleasure. When we win a match, a league or whatever, I want that feeling to be glorious. I've not tasted that feeling very often in my 24 years as a Bournemouth supporter, and I don't want any glory to be tempered by a more-than-reasonable worry of what might be around the corner.

If Bournemouth are about to enter a successful period in their history (that's assuming this doesn't all go wrong sooner rather than later) then it is down to the club to convincingly persuade supporters that the long-term future of the club is assured. A wealthy benefactor is not going to bankroll us for ever, and will surely want to see a return on their investment. The club really needs to urge Maxim Demin to talk about his interest in the club and what he wants to get out of it.

Until we know more about him, why he chose to invest in us and what his long-term aims are, any enjoyment we take from milestone moments such as Redknapp's return will be considerably affected by the nagging fear that this will not end well.

We hope it will end well - we've almost lost this club on more occasions than we'd care to recall - but that worry will always be there while there are so many legitimate question marks about the way the club is run/owned.

One thing that is worth noting, though, is that, while Harry always seemed to be in it for himself at Portsmouth (and at Southampton and Tottenham, for that matter), there are two clubs that he has a genuine passion for and would presumably not want blood on his hands were anything bad to happen to them - Bournemouth and West Ham.

Speaking of which, this blog is going to look pretty silly in a month or two when Redknapp is West Ham manager and is hanging out of a car window talking about how much he can't wait to get into the Olympic Stadium isn't it...

Money plays havoc with a football fan's mojo. We want to win and enjoy winning, but even more importantly we want our children and grandchildren to have the opportunity to watch our club win when we're long gone.

I was hoping that writing this blog might crystallise what I'm feeling this evening. But I'm not sure it has. Redknapp coming back to Bournemouth ought to provoke a thousand happy memories of my childhood, watching his excellent Cherries side from Dean Court's F Block with my dad. Instead, while a glimmer of excitement is certainly there, the worries are significant. For now at least.

Phew, time for a pint...

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Revealed: How Martin O'Neill signed Adam Johnson for Sunderland

"Oh, I love it when I get the ball here, Gaffer!
Guess what I'm gonna do with it now?"
Thanks to NarrowTheAngle's web of fly-on-the-wall 'mole-droids' around the country, we were able to listen in and spy on the negotiations between Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill and winger Adam Johnson in the run-up to the latter signing for the Black Cats. Here is the transcript of their conversation.

(There is a knock at the office door)
Martin O'Neill: Come in! Ah, hello there Johnson. Good to see you, son. Have a seat.
(Johnson is clearly distressed, and tugs at the label on his t-shirt as he quickly sits down)
Adam Johnson: (sniffing) All I w... w... want to do is cut in from the wing and have a shot, Mr O'Neill. A low shot, hit hard into the bottom corner of the net. I'm really good at it but Mr Mancini keeps on not letting me play.
MON: I understand, son. To be fair I do remember watching you on my tellybox a couple of years back. Saw you score a couple of great goals where, if memory serves, you cut...
AJ: (interrupting and suddenly cheering up) Yeah, cut inside and scored with a low shot! GOAL! That's my favourite and my bestest thing to do. I really, really love doing that.
MON: Great, well we could do with a bit of your incisive wing play here at Sunderland, especially during the first half of games. Generally we like to have the lad Cattermole sent off around the 55-minute mark, so it would be lovely if we could be going into the ten-man phase of our games with the cushion of a lead from time to time.
AJ: (doing puppy dog eyes) Well... I could help you with that.
MON: Good, well, I must say I'm pretty tempted. What would you say are your main strengths?
AJ: (defiantly) I really, really love to cut inside and....
MON: Yes, cut inside and have a low shot, I think you mentioned that. But what else?
AJ: Well - and this is the clever bit - sometimes I shoot to the near post, but then on other occasions I shoot to the far post. Good, eh?
MON: Well, err, yes. That's lovely. But what else do you do to bring some variety into your game?
AJ: What do you mean?
MON: Well, you can't always do the same trick of cutting inside with a feint and then shooting low. How else do you like to mix things up?
AJ: (looks blank for ages)
MON: Come now, Johnson, surely you don't do the same thing every time? What about getting to the byline and standing up a cross for one of our strikers? We've got the lad Fletcher from Wolves now. He's pretty good with his head.
AJ: (sulkily) I don't really like doing that.
MON: Or maybe you could play a simple pass to a teammate before you've cut inside?
AJ: What? Shut up, I hate that! HATE IT!
MON: Well, ok, how about if, sometimes, once you've cut inside, you hit your shot high into a top corner? That would at least be a bit different.
AJ: No! I don't want to do that! I told you, I just want to cut inside and shoot low.
MON: To be honest then, Johnson, I'm not sure we have a deal. I might not be the most tactically adventurous of managers but I can't have a guy in my team who only does one thing.
AJ: What if I say I'll play for just 50k pocket money per week? That's loads less than the pocket money Mr Mancini gave me.
MON: Only 50k a week? Well, Johnson! Why didn't you say so before?! I assumed we'd be talking big money, but 50k a week is an absolute snip for your services. I used to pay Reo-Coker that much just to sit on the bench at Villa. And that was if he was lucky. Whereas with you I'll have some pace down the flank and a player that can...
Both in unison: ...cut inside and shoot!
(There is laughter all round. For a disturbingly long period of time. Until both men forget what they were laughing at and stare coldly at their shoes.)

Adam Johnson signed for Sunderland, where he would often cut inside and shot low, sometimes to the near post and sometimes to the far. You literally never knew which side he would put it. He was that good. However, Martin O'Neill eventually became tired of the player's insistence on cutting inside to shoot, not to mention his refusal to pass the ball to a teammate, and instead preferred to leave Johnson on the substitutes bench. But since he was only on 50k a week that wasn't a big problem really.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

AFC Bournemouth's Top Five Number 9s

Ted MacDougall
To celebrate the start of Prostate Cancer UK’s Football League charity partnership, here is an article I've written after the charity asked fans from each of the 72 Football League clubs to count down their top five strikers to have worn the No9 shirt. This is in recognition of the fact that prostate cancer will affect one in nine men.

If players never wore No9, they weren't allowed in, so no Jermain Defoe, Luther Blissett, etc in my Top 5. You can check who made the Top 5 for your favourite club here.

Please feel free to plug my article or any of the others through social media channels or anywhere you like. It will make a fantastic difference to a charity that is doing very important work to combat this depressingly common form of cancer.

On Twitter, it would be great if you could use the hashtag #bestno9s and/or mention that the piece was written “on behalf of @prostateuk”. Cheers!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

2012/13: The worst League One in years?

League One does not look a strong division on paper ahead of the new season. Perfect timing then for an outsider to put together a promotion charge...

With Charlton, Sheff Wed and Huddersfield promoted last season, League
One looks unusually weak as teams prepare to go again in 2012/13

Cast your eyes down the League One table for 2012/13. Then, once you've finished yawning, pick your two teams to get automatic promotion.

Congratulations on immediately selecting Sheffield United before, thinking yourself slightly shrewd, opting for MK Dons as your second pick. We've all got those two as well. Still, give yourself a pat on the back.

Now the hard bit: pick your four teams for the play-offs.

This is you: "Hmm.... errr.... ooh, bit tricky.... crumbs.... can I get back to you?"

This year's League One looks like depressingly humdrum fare on paper. In most other seasons, relegated sides in dire financial straits like Portsmouth and Coventry would be settling for consolidating in mid-table, content to avoid the dreaded back-to-back relegations. Yet among such an average crop, they might actually fancy their chances. Although having just read this about Portsmouth's plight, perhaps not.

Most of the famous names that have slipped into this league in recent times have now managed to haul themselves out again. In a division that increasingly looks like a gathering place for the country's most tedious teams to wallow in their inoffensively low-key mediocrity, if ever there was a season for surprise packages this is surely it.

Carlisle looked to be quietly building something last season, and probably didn't get the credit they deserved for almost making the play-offs. Likewise Stevenage kicked on from their excellent run in recent seasons, only narrowly missing out on a date at Wembley as Sheffield United managed to nudge them aside in the play-off semis. Both sides will hope to go a step further this season. Heck, they'll never have a better chance.

There are also great heaped tablespoonfuls of pressure on Preston and Bournemouth to have strong seasons. Both are ambitious and itching to get promotion, but we know from laughing at watching MK Dons in recent years that this doesn't necessarily equate to consistent results on the pitch.

Preston manager Graham Westley, known for his eccentric methods and gruelling marine-like training regime, doesn't seem to be endearing himself to Preston's squad, recently informing a whopping eight players by text message that they needn't bother turning up for pre-season training. One of the eight was Iain Hume, considered not only one of Preston's best players but one of the best in the division. Westley does things his way and it either works or it doesn't, but it wouldn't be a huge surprise to see the Preston board's trigger finger twitching if they start the season poorly.

Could Swindon be a surprise package
and win back-to-back promotions?
Bournemouth meanwhile were very much the comic relief/car crash side of the division last year, with various incidents involving club chairman Eddie Mitchell and other board members (or, in one case, their spouse) causing some considerable embarrassment and distraction for the playing staff and fans. This close season has seen Bournemouth make a couple of intriguing signings, such as Rotherham's Lewis Grabban, who starred in League Two last year, and Eredivisie striker Frank Demouge, who joins the club from FC Utrecht. Bournemouth have also made several additions to their backroom team, including Dennis Rofe as first-team coach and former Torquay and Northampton midfielder Chris Hargreaves (author of Where's Your Caravan?) as development coach.

The Bournemouth board are determined to win promotion this year, with Mitchell rarely one to shy away from a bold statement. In any other season you'd put him saying "I want the club to win the league and that's the main aim" down to naivety, but with League One so lacklustre on paper perhaps that is a genuinely achievable ambition. Much like Preston though, don't be overly surprised if an early-season managerial change disrupts Bournemouth to such an extent that they start planning for 2013/14 season earlier than most.

Anyone else? Notts County quietly went about their business in finishing seventh last term. They could be dark horses again. And what of promoted Crawley and Swindon? Under the thoughtful stewardship of Sean O'Driscoll, Crawley will play nice football and could challenge provided there's still some mysterious money left in the mysterious money pot. And who would bet against Swindon carrying on as they left off last season, as manager Paolo di Canio continues to inspire and impress in equal measure.

There appears to be a great heaving mass of teams that seem unlikely to get promoted but are perhaps too good to go down: Brentford, Bury, Colchester, Doncaster, Hartlepool, Leyton Orient, Oldham, Scunthorpe. Most of these sides will expect to snuggle up to the cosy embrace of mid-table security. Yet while relegation is probably as likely as promotion for most of them, if ever there was a season to throw the kitchen sink at a promotion push, this is it. Brentford would seem most likely to surprise as Uwe Rosler continues his steady progress there. They seemed a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde team last season, but if they can find some consistency then anything is possible.

If we get one or two surprise packages in League One this season, it could be all the more exciting for the lack of big names in the division. However, if those surprise packages fail to emerge, it could easily become brain-meltingly tedious.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

FSF need Premier League and Championship fans help with policing and stewarding survey

Photo: 'Ingy The Wingy', Flickr
Amanda Jacks is a case worker at the Football Supporters Federation (FSF). She's been in touch to ask if Narrow The Angle could help promote a survey they're running into policing and stewarding ahead of the new football season. Here's Amanda...

"The results of this survey will help us get a better overview of the opinions of supporters and also help us in deciding where to focus our efforts next season.

An assistant chief constable of West Midlands Police has already tweeted that he’d like the results to help them improve policing next season and of course the results will be circulated to all and sundry within the footballing world and we hope to encourage meetings to discuss them further.

So far I’m only doing Premier League and Championship clubs but will survey the remaining leagues early next season."

So folks, if you support a team in the top two English tiers and are happy to help, the links are below:

Premier League survey
Championship survey

You can also follow Amanda on Twitter here.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Italy XI to face England (in anagram form).

I like anagrams. I especially like footballing anagrams. With that in mind, I've taken my anagrammatic eye to Italy's Euro 2012 squad (not including the injured Chiellini, that would be cheating) and come up with a fully functional starting XI.

Rod Airplane could help Italy soar against England
Italy XI to face England at Euro 2012 (4-5-1 formation):

1. Denoting Sarcasm (Morgan de Sanctis, GK)
2. Haggis Mortician (Christian Maggio, RB)
3. A Chemical Urine Genie (Emanuele Giaccherini, LB)
4. Rod Airplane (Andrea Pirlo, DM)
5. Angel On A Bongo (Angelo Ogbonna, CB)
6. Caboodle Unicorn (Leonardo Bonucci, CB)
7. Aniseed Soldier (Daniele De Rossi, RM)
8. Ornate Onion Icon (Antonio Nocerino, CM)
9. Alien Toad Nation (Antonio Di Natale, FC)
10. A Malicious Orchid (Claudio Marchisio, CM)  
11. Nationalised Dramas (Alessandro Diamanti, LM)

Reckon that team could take England? Quite possibly.

As you can see, anagrams are no respecter of reputations, so the likes of Buffon, Cassano and Balotelli are brutally cast aside. I was particularly disappointed not to come up with an anagram for Mario Balotelli. If you can think of a good one, let me know.

All hail the Alien Toad Nation

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Nostalgic football geekery: it's The Football Attic's League Of Blogs wallchart!

Home kit, impeccably drawn in Photoshop by me. I'm very talented...

I was a little late in hearing about one of my favourite football blogging ideas of the season – so apologies if this is old news to some of you – but I absolutely love this homage to Subbuteo from The Football Attic.

Their new 'League of Blogs' wallchart features kits lovingly designed by some of the geekiest most dedicated football bloggers in cyberspace. Click here [LINK] to visit the League of Blogs. You'll need to:
  • click the image to enlarge it, and then...
  • View Image to see it in its full size

I'm chuffed to say that I am now among their number, as my two kits were added yesterday. My kits are at No67 and No68. But as a special treat (since you neither asked nor particularly care), I've put the original versions of both my kits here for you to ignore... laugh at... enjoy.

My home kit pinches from the colours of the two teams I support, Bournemouth and Wimbledon. A grotesque combination, perhaps, but memorable nonetheless.

The away kit, sure to be a hit with colourblind fans, features some little half moons at the base of the shorts, which is my tribute to one of the coolest kits of my childhood – this one, worn by Gazza for Spurs in the early 1990s. 

Naturally, both my kits are sponsored by the classic 1990s Amiga football game Sensible World of Soccer, since we're so categorically going down Retro Street in this exercise. And my kit manufacturer of choice is Spall, maker of some legendary kits and some rather fetching, less-famous ones too, not to mention half the kits on show at Hackney Marshes most Sundays.

As for the rest of the designs on the poster, I think my personal favourite has to be the enjoyably quirky effort from Marceltipool (No43 on the chart), who have opted for a nutty all-white number with red-hooped socks and a solitary green-hooped sleeve. I'm a sucker for an asymmetrical kit.

Applause in the general direction of The Football Attic for their efforts in putting this together. I highly recommend you follow them on Twitter here @FootballAttic, where they'll give you plenty more memorable nuggets of retro football heaven.

Away kit, complete with non-matching 'half moons' on the shorts. Hooray!

Thursday, 12 April 2012

An interesting infographic (if that's not an oxymoron) about Euro 2012

Euro 2012: it's going to be way
better than the rather creepy
logo would have you believe.
A chap I don't know called 'Jonas' from a gambling affiliate site emailed me about this Euro 2012 infographic that he and his affiliate buddies have made (see below).

Ninety-nine times out of a hundred I roll my eyes when I get something like this, but at least Jonas's email was courteous and didn't start with some ludicrous opening gambit like "Hey, how are you today? Hope you're having a great day!" In fact, he only used one cliché in his entire email, which was mildly refreshing.

So since his email was alright, I gave it the time of day and actually read it [spammers note, I will still delete most of your nonsense without reading it, so don't get your hopes up].

It turns out that his infographic is reasonably interesting for those of us planning to have a few bets during this summer's tournament.

Obviously, like all infographics these days, it's hoping to sell or get you to do something. In this case, it's hoping to drive traffic to Jonas's website. But that's obviously optional. If you want to just look at the infographic, indulge in its pretty patterns and statistics, and then click it away - as indeed I did - then fill your boots.

I can't vouch for the quality of Jonas's website because I haven't had more than a cursory glance at it. It's an affiliate site, so you know what you're going to get. Lots of links to deposit with bookmakers, and if you deposit then the affiliate website gets a cut. That's how these things work. If you're lucky then you get some decent content too, but I'm unable to comment on the quality of the content on Jonas's site because I haven't read it. Notice I'm not giving it a name-check, lest I get emails from people saying "I think you have a vested interest in that site!" I don't. I'm not really a fan of affiliate websites because for every good one there are several dozen crap ones.

But taking the infographic on its merits as a standalone thing, it's pretty good as a punter's tool ahead of the tournament. You're safe to click it to enlarge it to full size, though I should note that the text link below it is theirs not mine, and takes you to their site.

   Euro 2012 Infographic
Provided courtesy of the Euro Betting Weblog

An assessment of AFC Wimbledon's first season back in the Football League

It's been a topsy-turvy season for AFC Wimbledon so far. As a season ticket holder standing behind the dugouts, I've seen first-hand the stresses and strains that the coaching staff and players have been through. It was never supposed to be this hard.

One of my favourite football websites, the dedicated Football League site Two Unfortunates, asked me if I'd write them a piece looking at how Wimbledon have fared in League Two this season - and what they perhaps need to do differently if they're to fare better next term.

As someone who only got into watching Wimbledon towards the end of their non-league journey, I am hopefully well-placed to assess the 2011/12 campaign through relatively unbiased eyes. 

Please click the link above to read my piece for The Two Unfortunates. If you have any comments, I'd be grateful if you could leave them at the bottom of the article rather than under this little plug. Cheers.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

The missing paragraphs from Crawley Town's report of the game with Bradford City

The Bradford and Crawley captains at full-time yesterday

Yesterday evening, everyone's favourite footballing gentlefolk Crawley Town journeyed up to Bradford City for a league encounter at the Coral Windows Sta... oh, whatever, it's Valley Parade isn't it.

The game was a keenly contested affair to say the least, with seven players booked (six of them Crawley players). However, it was post-match that things got really lively, with a brawl breaking out on the pitch and several proper punches thrown, as opposed to the usual handbags and posturing.

And so it is with some degree of surprise that the match report on Crawley's official website gives no mention of the trouble at the game, choosing to go full-on propaganda and paint a picture of a game that passed without incident as Crawley bagged a well-earned away victory.

While it wouldn't be that surprising for a club as consistently lacking in class as Crawley Town to gloss over the brawl (and nobody's saying Bradford players weren't just as culpable, if not more so), for them to not even mention the post-match trouble in their report is bordering on farcical. Referee Ian Williamson had to send off five players (three Bradford, two Crawley) in the dressing rooms once calm had been restored. That's not just a talking point, that's the talking point. Even Crawley can't have deliberately intended such an oversight, can they? Surely not.

Well, can now exclusively reveal that the last few paragraphs were accidentally lopped off the bottom of the report by a cack-handed work experience kid called Wilf. Crawley club secretary Barry Stalin has just emailed us over the remaining portion of the text. It is posted verbatim below. Hope this clears things up.

"With victory in the bag, all that remained was for the victorious Crawley Town heroes to commiserate their gallant opponents with the customary ritual of strong handshakes, slaps on the back and shouts of 'jolly good show, old chaps!'
Regrettably, Crawley's Claude Davis fractionally mistimed his offer of a handshake to Bradford's Luke Oliver; this minor miscalculation causing him to accidentally brutally elbow him in the face.
As Davis sought to apologise to the unfortunate Oliver, his opponent slipped horribly on a discarded piece of orange peel, causing him to place himself violently in the direct vicinity of Davis's face. Oliver's lively body language was said to be caused by a chronic allergic reaction to traces of citric acid in the orange peel.
Teammates of both men rushed to the players' aid. Bradford goalkeeper Jon McLaughlin and Crawley's Pablo Mills both stooped in an attempt to remove the offending piece of peel, when unfortunately their heads abruptly collided, which to some onlookers may have appeared as if they had been involved in some form of mild disagreement. Crawley Town is happy to set the record straight on this matter.
The referee spoke to the players in the dressing rooms afterwards, when he conceded that the unsightly hubbub was all a big misunderstanding and suggested the teams head forthwith to a nearby public house for a pint of mild and a game of bar billiards.
Once the players had reconvened at the nearby Honest Politician pub, Bradford's Andrew Davies complimented Crawley manager Steve Evans on the sportsmanship and restraint he instills in his players. Evans, in return, commended Davies on his impeccable disciplinary record this season.
After further handshakes, photographs and exchanging of pennants, Crawley bid their Yorkshire counterparts a pleasant evening and set off home for picturesque West Sussex feeling justly proud of a job well done.
Thanks again to Crawley Town and Barry Stalin for sending this text through.

Friday, 6 January 2012

A few memorable FA Cup Third Round moments from the annals

Woking's Tim Buzaglo grabbed a hat-trick at the Hawthorns in 1991
This weekend sees the return of many neutrals’ favourite date in the football calendar – the FA Cup Third Round. And for ultimate drama, you need most of the following boxes ticked: lesser team drawn at home; the so-called ‘giant’ team to have recently hit bad form; the weather to be either cold, wet or both; and the underdog’s entire squad to have cost less than one week’s wages for the giant team’s star striker. If you have these factors in place, then you have ideal conditions for an FA Cup upset that will go down in history. And no shortage of clichés for commentators to get their teeth into.

The FA Cup is part of our heritage; it’s in our genetic make-up. Over the years winners have paraded the trophy in open-top buses to adoring crowds. When Manchester United withdrew from the competition in 2000 to compete in the Club World Championship in Brazil it caused a national outrage. It just wasn’t the done thing. It’s the FA Cup; you can’t just decide not to take part. It is an honour to compete.

As a nation, we collectively love the Third Round for its sense of David against Goliath; the chance that you might see the mighty fall at the hands of a motley crew of call-centre workers and pipe welders from Leatherhead or Blyth. And if this drama is played out on a muddy quagmire of a pitch on a freezing cold day then so much the better. If the ball is struggling to roll properly and star South American centre forwards’ teeth chatter as they pull their hands up inside their sleeves to keep warm, you can almost taste the giant killing before it actually happens. Sometimes you can just see it in the players' eyes as the opposition captain shouts: “They don’t fancy this today, lads!”

Giant killing has been a proud English pastime for as long as the FA Cup has been around. Perhaps the most impressive upsets of the ‘black-and-white’ era of football were Walsall’s 2-0 triumph over Herbert Chapman’s star-studded Arsenal side in 1933, and Worcester City of the Southern League beating Liverpool 2-1 in 1959. The Reds would go on to appoint Bill Shankly in the aftermath of that shocking defeat, and thankfully for the red half of the city they wouldn’t taste such embarrassment again until 1994 when Bristol City went to Anfield and beat Liverpool 1-0 on their own turf. That defeat also did for another Liverpool manager in Graeme Souness. They take a dim view of humiliation up on Merseyside.

The advent of colour television brought with it a gritty realism that transformed televised football. Firstly, you could tell the teams apart – generally considered a plus. Furthermore, when a poorly irrigated pitch was muddy and puddle-covered, it got beamed into millions of homes in glorious technicolour – allowing viewers at home to saviour every moment as some highly paid internationals got chased all over the pitch at a packed lower league ground so full that supporters were practically spilling onto the pitch.

The most famous such occasion – and it is here that we welcome the excitable voice of John Motson into the world of FA Cup Third Round upsets – was when Hereford United welcomed Newcastle to their Edgar Street ground in 1972. Motty summed it all up with suitably flabbergasted commentary to a television audience of 14 million captivated viewers as Hereford beat the Magpies 2-1, thanks in part to an absolute screamer of a goal from Ronnie Radford. For the tiny minority of you not familiar with the goal, it’s well worth watching it on Youtube just to soak up the moment – and delight in the sight of fans running onto the pitch, so giddy with delight that they don’t know which way to turn. The televised cup upset was born and the nation lapped it up gleefully.

Three years later and non-league Wimbledon would knock out (then First Division) Burnley 1-0 in 1975. Wimbledon then proceeded to march up the divisions and take their place as underdogs in the top flight. Despite surviving there for over a decade, Wimbledon were always viewed as ‘little Wimbledon’ or ‘plucky Wimbledon’ due to their small attendances and their direct brand of football. That changed in 1988 when Wimbledon overcame all the odds and won the FA Cup at Wembley, beating the mighty Liverpool in the final by a single goal.

Skip forward nine years from 1975 and Liverpool had well and truly got their ship in order and were enjoying an unprecedented spell of domestic dominance. Less so their great rivals Manchester United, for whom the days of Matt Busby and George Best were beginning to feel like a long time ago. This was a United team lacking in flair and lacking in trophies. But they must have thought a cup run was on the cards when they got drawn against Bournemouth in the Third Round in 1984. But they didn’t even manage a goal as the Cherries won 2-0 and secured their place in giant-killing history.

So what are the ingredients that we can look for when trying to spot a potential Third Round upset? In truth, there are many. What you’re looking for is the magic combination of: a famous name, away from home to little team, having been in wretched form in the league, with a manager who is under pressure to keep his job.

Many eyebrows were raised when Coventry City beat Tottenham Hotspur 3-2 in a classic 1987 FA Cup Final. Two seasons later, Coventry took their newfound reputation as cup thoroughbreds to tiny non-league Sutton United. Eight-thousand fans crammed into Sutton’s diminutive Gander Green Lane to watch the drama unfold. Sutton manager Barrie Williams felt that Coventry were vulnerable to set pieces and sent his team out with instructions to exploit this perceived achilles heel. It worked a treat as they scored two goals from corner kicks, sending their fans into raptures and delighting a huge television audience. The 1987 Cup winners had been humbled.

Two years later came that even more scarce of occasions—little team beats famous name in their own backyard. West Bromwich Albion had an illustrious FA Cup history, lifting the trophy five times over the decades. And when part-timers Woking made the trip to the Hawthorns, most people were expecting a whitewash in favour of the home team. But it proved to be a black day in the Black Country when, despite West Brom taking an early lead, Woking stormed back to win 4-2, with unknown striker Tim Buzaglo grabbing a dramatic hat-trick that dominated the newspaper back pages the following morning. But if Buzaglo’s antics really warmed the hearts of neutral football lovers everywhere, there was even better to come the following season.

In the early 1990s, nobody liked Arsenal, apart from Arsenal fans. They were defence-minded, and a far cry from the elaborate brand of football they’ve played during Arsene Wenger’s tenure – more famous for a well-worked offside trap than the intricate passing of today.

Top of the league table and looking strong, Arsenal journeyed to north Wales to play Wrexham, who were Arsenal’s polar opposite. While Arsenal flew the flag at the top of the Football League, Wrexham were propping it up at the bottom – they sat in last place in the old Fourth Division. The two teams were essentially the bookends between which all other league clubs could be found. And so there was surely only going to be one winner as Arsenal entered the closing stages of the game with their customary 1-0 lead. But with eight minutes to go, wily veteran Mickey Thomas – once of Manchester United – hammered in a free-kick, before youngster Steve Watkin slid in a winner past David Seaman in the Arsenal goal, to the collective cheers of a nation weary of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’.

Recent years have been a little short on memorable Third Round upsets so far – Shrewsbury’s 2-1 victory over Everton in 2003 standing out as perhaps the best – so maybe this is the season when we get a really big one. Premier League sides are so strong these days that upsets are getting fewer. But we’ve still had some classic Third Round moments, even if the big guns have not been sent packing as often as we might have liked.

Cardiff City’s then-owner Sam Hammam’s controversial dancing around the pitch as they beat Premier League Leeds stands out as one such memorable (albeit ill-advised) moment – but the finest advert for the Third Round in recent times came at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road in 2006, when the home team stormed into a 3-1 lead, only to have their hearts broken as Liverpool came storming back to win 5-3, including a stunning lobbed goal scored by Xabi Alonso from inside his own half of the field.

Of course, sometimes an upset doesn’t necessarily involve a victory. Just holding a footballing giant to a draw still constitutes a mammoth achievement for a comparative minnow. That’s just what Burton Albion did in the same weekend as Liverpool’s exciting comeback at Luton. Burton, managed by Nigel Clough, welcomed Manchester United to their Pirelli Stadium. Against a United side featuring Rooney and Ronaldo, Burton clung on for a resolute 0-0 draw, earning them a money-spinning replay at Old Trafford in front of a 53,000 crowd. With gate receipts shared equally for FA Cup ties, Burton long felt the benefit of their day in the spotlight. That they lost 5-0 was academic – the point is, they got there.

Modified from a piece I originally wrote a few years ago when this blog was merely a glint in the internet milkman’s eye


UPDATE: Some of the big boys have done their own Third Round reminiscing ahead of the weekend too. So if you're hungry for more, here's links to the Independent, the Telegraph, MSN and ITV.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

What if Joey Barton could edit himself in Football Manager?

Many of you will have seen Joey Barton's tweets this week about him playing Football Manager 2012, taking the QPR job, and then falling out with his virtual self. This has probably been the highlight of my week.

If you didn't see the tweets in question then here they are for you:

As one wag pointed out to him on Twitter: "Hey Joey, you must be the first person to manage Joey Barton on Football Manager and not immediately transfer list him!"

Anyway, this got me wondering how Joey Barton's Football Manager equivalent might look if Barton had been allowed to edit himself. His stats in the game are already very good - more than generous, I'd say - so he might not change much at all. Although I'm sure pussycat Joey would tone 'Aggression: 17/20' right down. Surely no more than a '3'... I think it's more likely he'd change his personality traits rather than his playing attributes.

The realisation that this version of Football Manager uses a font as basic as Arial for its body text (thus opening up rich pickings for mediocre Photoshoppers who think they're mildly amusing - like me) meant it was fairly simple to create an imagined profile for Twitter's great Smiths-loving, Orwell-quoting philosopher of the people. The game's Joey Barton 'Information' page seemed to lend itself best to a little doctoring.

Naturally I took care to ensure I got the Place of Birth correct, but here's what else I came up with (click to enlarge). Or click here if the text is too small to read!

Anybody else with an idea for some Football Manager Photoshopping for the purposes of mild distraction and childish amusement might be interested to know that the font you need is simply Arial (11pt).

If anything, I like Joey Barton a little more for knowing he plays Football Manager. I like any footballer that plays FM over FIFA or PES. It shows a bit more nous. And if Barton should happen to read this blog himself, I imagine he'll take it in the spirit it was intended.

I'll leave the final word on this subject to a Twitter user with the excellent username @sexyactionsteve. He sums up most people's feelings rather nicely.