Monday, 19 December 2011

Is There Such A Thing As Too Much Football?

There are times in a football supporter’s life where he (or she, you won’t catch me in a Gray/Key-esque scenario) when you think, is there simply too much of it?

Don’t jump down my throat just yet. Let me lay my cards on the table.

Fast forward to August 2012. The new season is about to start. We have just seen England and Ireland both eliminated in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals. An Irish nation consoles. An English nation weeps and the FA vows to never employ another Italian/Swede.

Redknapp/Pearce/Allardyce is appointed, and the general public is told to “watch this space” for 2014.

Meanwhile, the GB Olympic team has also fallen valiantly short of a medal, with a penalty shoot-out defeat against Germany. The creativity-shy and passion-filled performances are viewed with great encouragement for the future.

One or two of the Olympic team’s better players enjoy a mountain of pressure ahead of the new season. The whole country waits with baited breath for the new season to burst out of the blocks, and cheer their tortured souls.

But hang on a minute. All the Europeans are knackered. Only Fernando Torres looks on the ball, as he didn’t get a kick for Spain in the Euros. David Silva fails to reproduce his Premier League and Euro-winning form, and he is proclaimed “finished” and “past his peak” by our glorious experts.

I’m sure we can all envisage such a scenario. Such saturation of football will undoubtedly fill our summers with joy, but part of the game’s beauty, like that of life itself, is the moments of calm, of taking stock, or simply speculating on which aged star your lower league team is looking to take on board.

Instead, expect little-to-no transfer activity until late July, as every scout crowds the stadiums of Poland and Ukraine, not to mention the Olympics. Rest assured, every spend-thrift chairman (so that’s all of them then) will be hoping to snap up an up-and-coming sensation.

I anticipate a lot of disappointed fans at several clubs, as they hear the old “we tried to get players in, but with all the scouts present it was impossible to get a look in” line trotted out around the different boardrooms. Most chairmen don’t need any help looking for excuses not to spend money.

So to answer my question – is there too much football? After such a cynical few paragraphs you might expect the answer to be a resounding yes, but let’s face it, the amusement at watching all this chaos unfold is just another one of those tiny things that make football great.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

A Brief Summary Of Recent Footballing Events

So with exams out of the way at last, I am happy to be back in the blogging saddle. You will be happy to know that I am not about to try and sum up everything sporty that has happened in the last month. Hell, it would take me at least one page to explain Blackburn’s situation.

With the table beginning to take shape, the strugglers preparing their life-boats, and the chairman fondling their triggers, it is not going to be a happy Christmas for everyone in football.

Most surprisingly of all we find Owen Coyle on the wrong end of some criticism. I’m not going to defend his record this season. 13 defeats in 16 games is not good enough by anyone’s standards, and his Bolton side lie five points adrift of safety. Sadly, it looks like he may be nearly out of time.

Since that thrashing at the hands of Stoke in last season’s cup semi-final, the Trotters have been displaying relegation form. The same form that Burnley were stuck in prior to Coyle’s departure for Bolton.

I look at the team and don’t see any real quality. The best players from last season – Jack Wilshere and Johan Elmander, have either gone back to their parent club, or been let go altogether. Some have not stepped up to the plate to fill the gap.

Before the weekend’s fixtures I got the welcome news that Blackburn supporters were finally ceasing their series of protests against their team’s manager Steve Kean.

While I am not exactly his strongest advocate, it surely goes without saying that endless demonstrations against how the team is being run cannot help performances on the pitch. At the time of writing, a 2-1 home defeat to West Brom had just been confirmed, so maybe the protesters will rear their ugly heads again over Christmas.

With the two Manchester clubs dropping into the Europa League, continental competition will take on a strange feel – not to mention Stoke’s absurd tie against Valencia. I’d say this draw alone is Tony Pulis’s proudest moment in management.

With Stoke moving up to eighth in the Premier League table this weekend you could hardly argue for an adverse effect on their performances. I for one cannot wait to see Valencia’s centre backs trying to cope with a Rory Delap special.

London clubs are also finally enjoying the upper hand briefly, at least in European terms. However, do not be surprised to see AC Milan and Napoli eliminate English interest before the last eight. Milan will surely have too much for Arsenal, while Chelsea will hope their new found defensive solidity carries forward to February, as Napoli have some deadly weapons up front.

Consider this a dipping the toes back into the ocean, and some more substantial musings will be winging their way to you shortly.

Saturday, 19 November 2011

Northern Ireland 3-1 Norway (Women's Euro 2013 Group Three Qualifier)

By Gerry Walton

Northern Ireland women pulled off a massive upset, beating Norway 3-1 in a hard-fought Group Three encounter at Mourneview Park, Lurgan.

The hosts were outplayed from the start by their Norwegian opponents, but went in at the break 2-0 up, with Kirsty McGuiness scoring after 17 minutes, and Ashley Hutton doubling the lead after 44 minutes.

Norway got back into the game with a 60th minute goal by Isabell Herlovsen, before Northern Ireland wrapped up the three points in the 74th minute through Rachel Furness.

Catherine O’Hagan was sent off late on for Northern Ireland after a high challenge, but they held out for a valuable three points in their quest for Euro 2013 qualification.

Around 300 fans were in attendance to see the Northern Irish, ranked 64th in the world, take on the former European champions, who are ranked 12th, and the side were fired up from the start with some fiery challenges.

Norway were dominant in possession, but not creating much, when Northern Ireland took the lead on the counter attack in the 17th minute.

Left-winger Kirsty McGuiness struck a heavily-deflected left foot shot which wrong-footed Ingrid Hjelmseth in the Norwegian goal.

In response, Norway upped the tempo and intensity, forcing several corners and one fantastic point-blank save from goalkeeper Emma Higgins after an Ingvild Isaksen shot.

Despite this, Northern Ireland made it 2-0 a minute before the break with their only attack since the first goal.

Centre-back Ashley Hutton headed in at the back post from a Kirsty McGuiness corner, leaving Northern Ireland manager Alfie Wylie with an undoubtedly easy team talk.

In the second half, Norway resumed their assault on the Northern Irish goal, with some good passing and movement.

However, Norway lacked a cutting edge, with some wayward finishing on show. Marita Lund shot wide from close range.

The corners began to mount up for Norway, with Northern Ireland happy to sit back.

On the hour mark, Norway halved the deficit, with Isabell Herlovsen finishing low into the right-hand corner.

Norway’s passing got increasingly more loose as they tried to chase the game, with keeper Hjelmseth’s clearances giving Northern Ireland an occasional platform to attack.

Despite Norway’s attempts to level the scores, forward Rachel Furness made the game safe for Northern Ireland in the 74th minute with a close-range effort after her first shot was blocked.

In the 88th minute, Catherine O’Hagan was sent off for a second bookable offence after a high challenge, leaving Northern Ireland down to 10 men.

However, it was too late for Norway to take advantage, as Northern Ireland leapfrogged them into third place, ahead of their trip to Hungary on Wednesday.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Ashley's Last Chance Blown

Somewhere a rather overweight man is rubbing his hands in delight at the international break. Not only will Mike Ashley be ardently cheering on his beloved England tonight as they take on Spain, but watching his controversial Newcastle stadium name-changing scheme slowly slip from the headlines.

He is a very smart man. Newcastle do not play again at the so-called ‘Sports Direct Arena’ until December against Chelsea. He is banking on the fact that any anger will have long burnt out by then. I for one am not so sure this will happen.

There is every chance that the unbridled optimism of Newcastle’s start to the season will be snuffed out by a couple of sound beatings at the hands of the two Manchester clubs. This would lead to a touch of negativity returning, and what better excuse to protest at Mike Ashley than this latest fiasco.

His henchman, Derek Llambias, claims that the Magpies stand to earn up to £10m a year through selling their stadium naming rights. He claims that because the fans wanted a new striker the club are forced into this situation of a stadium name change.

This would fly in the face of the recent financial figures. The club announced a £4.7m loss for the 2010-11 season, with a profit expected for the current year. This is better than many clubs, yet why do Newcastle, operating in a one-club city, with 52 thousand seats in their stadium, need to resort to changing this stadium’s name for the relatively meagre sum of £10m?

Or could it perhaps be possible that Mike Ashley has no intention of actually selling the naming rights to St James’ Park, and that we will see the Sports Direct name become a more permanent fixture. After all, his chain of sports shops are now benefiting from some free advertising. He has already demonstrated his lack of understanding of the rich heritage and local feeling that the club represents, so could he just be taking the loyal support for a ride?

Don’t get me wrong, this has nothing to do with the club’s performance on the pitch. I am actually in favour of his current transfer policy, as Alan Pardew seems to be able to work wonders on such a tight budget, and as long as Graham Carr remains chief scout, there is absolutely nothing to worry about on the playing side.

I only regret the fact that Mike Ashley seems to have an unrivalled ability to shoot down any budding optimism in the region. He did it with Keegan, turning what could have been a glorious second coming into the damp squib of reality. He did it with Shearer, totally ignoring the club legend who wished to rescue Newcastle from Championship oblivion. He did it probably most inexplicably with Hughton, who was stabilising the club in its first year back in the big time.

Through sheer luck more than anything else, Ashley has landed on his feet with Pardew, yet by plastering his own brand over the St James’ name, he risks losing the 12th man that has carried Newcastle over the line on so many occasions already this season. The Toon Army will always sing for the team. They are even beginning to sing for Pardew. But this latest stunt has ensured that Mike Ashley will never ever hear his own name sung in the Gallowgate. At least, not in the way he would prefer.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Why Hearts Owner Romanov Has No Right To Complain

Vladimir Romanov caused quite a stir this week, when he slammed the Scottish Premier League’s lack of competition and investment in its growth.

The much-maligned Lithuanian owner of Hearts said,

"That sort of outrage from the media, federation and tax authorities kills everyone who is trying to change this situation, including ourselves, who are ready to invest in Scotland once again with stadium plans. And no-one is interested in what's going on.

"This is why I think there is no point in spending millions to watch someone else's show."

This is a fact that cannot be denied, but in the current economic climate, can you blame big businesses and oil magnets for not wanting to risk their hard-earned wealth on Scottish football?

Even Premier League owners have slammed on the investment breaks – most famously Mike Ashley at Newcastle. So why would any Scottish club outside the Old Firm want to throw money at a futile cause?

Even the Old Firm themselves don’t really need to spend that much money, not that they have it to begin with. Unless they have grand European ambitions, it does not take much to fend off one serious rival each year. In fact, Rangers were in such dire financial straits that they could barely sign a player over the past two or three years.

It might seem like I’m wandering off the point here, and that I am defending Romanov. Well what he says is true, but the real reason why Hearts are not mixing it with the Old Firm and are instead down in fifth is not to do with money, but Romanov himself.

Let us cast our minds back to the summer of 2005, when Romanov bought Chris Robinson’s shares and took a majority ownership of the club. His first managerial move was to appoint George Burley – which was a masterstroke (although this was actually instigated by chairman Phil Anderton).

To start the 2005-06 season, Burley’s side won eight league matches in a row, equalling a club record set in 1914. This was the greatest chance of a non-Old Firm title winner in years.

How does Romanov handle this situation? Not through encouragement of his manager, and backing in the transfer market. Burley was sacked the day after Romanov increased his stake in the club to 82%.

And so it began. To compound the misery for many Hearts fans, Graham Rix, a convicted sex offender, was Burley’s replacement. He was appointed in November 2005.

In February 2006 rumours began to surface that Romanov was interfering in team selection. By the end of March, Rix was out on his ear, to be replaced by Valdas Ivanauskas.

Somehow, Hearts managed to limp towards the end of the season, and a second place finish, seventeen points behind Celtic. But the damage was done. A potential title challenge at fallen by the wayside, and Hearts were fortunate to be faced with a poor Rangers side as competition.

That was to be Hearts’ highest League position to date under Romanov. Since then, the club has had five different managers. The club has muddled around in mid-table for most of this time, and occasionally flirted with relegation.

If Vladimir Romanov wants to blame anyone for the lack of competitive edge in Scottish football, then he only has himself to look at.

He had the best chance of anyone, and he blew it through his own bad judgement. No wonder he seems to be considering his Hearts future. I doubt many would be sad to see him go.