Monday, 24 October 2011

Theatre Of City Dreams

Much has been made, and understandably so, of Man City’s unbelievable 6-1 win at Old Trafford. Whether it be seismic shifts, noisy neighbours becoming suited and respected members of society, or an empire falling, everyone has come up with a grand-sounding angle for their Monday headlines and talk shows.

Here is a less-mentioned observation. Man City beat Man United. They are 5 points clear. For all we know that gap could be down to 2, and the momentum could be back with the Red Devils, and all the talk will be of false dawns. Undoubtedly Mancini’s men will take a lot of confidence from the weekend’s thrashing, and that will stand them in good stead when it comes to other strong tests throughout the season, but let’s not go crowning them champions-elect just yet. If Man City survive their Champions League group, which cannot be taken for granted, they will have to juggle an intense schedule; even more so should they fall into the Europa League and be forced into the dreaded Thursday night slot.

They may well have the raw talent, and squad depth, to handle that. But do they have the mentality – either in the playing or coaching staff, to take to that scenario like a duck to water? That is probably a fruitless debate right now, as Sunday’s match proved the unpredictability of City’s immediate potential.

Ignoring that briefly, we have the small matter of Sir Alex’s wounded animal mentality. We’ve seen it all before – someone has the gall to defeat Man United, and they come roaring back. In one match they conceded more goals at home than they did points last season. That is bound to hurt Fergie deep down, and I have respect for him for the way he faced the glare of the cameras. At his age he doesn’t need that. He could have wheeled out his assistant, as he did for so many years on BBC television. I would be shocked if United did not at least finish 2nd, as they have too much pride and ability, no matter what we may have seen this week.

Make no mistake, that was a woeful display from the red half of Manchester. An admittedly imperious Man City side, under the magical influence of David Silva, sliced through the defence at will. David De Gea’s reaction to the 5th goal told us all we needed to know about his feelings. Had it not been for him (and some profligate finishing from Dzeko), the score could have reached double figures. To see the likes of Ferdinand bypassed with such apparent ease for the 6th goal will be alarming for Sir Alex. He must surely be contemplating major surgery next summer, if not sooner, as although he clearly possesses a capable squad, some midfield authority is needed. Like their ex-title rivals Arsenal, perhaps they should have made a move for Scott Parker, or dare I say it as a Newcastle fan, Check Tiote? I’m sure Mike Ashley would jump at the chance to sell for good money! We all knew Sir Alex’s midfield needed strengthening at the start of September, no matter what the results said.

I suppose the one subtext I subscribe to after the derby rout is – there is no subtext. Three points were at stake, and they went to Man City. Should City go on to win their next league against Wolves (and only a madman would predict otherwise on current form), then those points will be equally valuable. Mancini must keep his team’s feet on the ground, and he is surely the one man you would trust with such a task.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Why Relegation Needs to Stay

Simply put - the abolition of top-flight relegation would be the abolition of competitive English football. It would kill not only the Premier League, but the whole Football League. Ignoring the excitment that a final-day relegation battle provokes, it would kill off any ambition below the big 20. The reward for success in the Championship would be....... another season in the Championship. I don't know about you, but as a footballer in that situation I would give it up and take an office job.

We would not have had stunning success (and then failure) stories such as Blackpool and Hull, or more sustainably, Stoke. And we would not have such spectacular recent implosions as Leeds, Charlton and Southampton. The threat of relegation, and reward of promotion, act as an unbelievable motivation, and must surely heighten the joyous feelings when success is attained.

It is a ludicrous suggestion - one on the level of a 39th game abroad, or on a more tongue-in-cheek note, the "added time multi-ball" that we have all seen on television. It is one that I can't believe even made it into the arena of public debate. Interestingly, whoever made the suggestion seems to not want to peek his head above the parapet, as I am yet to discover who uttered the remarks. The phrase "some foreign owners" doesn't exactly lead me to believe they have much faith in their opinion.

In fact, that's all I have to say on the matter. It's not worth another word.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

TV Self-Reliance Good for English Football?

Liverpool managing director Ian Ayre this week opened the debate on foreign television contracts – arguing that Premier League teams should be allowed to negotiate their own deals. The proposal would replace the current structure – a £1.4bn contract which expires in 2013. Under the terms of this agreement, the revenue earnt goes directly to the Premier League, who then splits it evenly amongst the 20 clubs that make up England’s top division.

Personally, I think Mr Ayre has a valid point. Should each individual club be granted such autonomy, they would gain the ability to zoom in much more effectively on their fan base, and allow each boardroom around the country to make financial decisions that are best suited to the workings of the club.

For example, Blackburn’s much maligned Indian ownership must surely carry a great deal of interest in India itself. A rewrite of the rules would allow Blackburn Rovers to maximise the earning potential that they currently have on Indian territory. While there is always the possibility, through fan discontent more than anything else, of the Venky ownership being a relatively temporary arrangement, the potential to create a new generation of Indian Blackburn fans remains. These fans might (or equally might not) stay loyal to the club, should they like what they see on a channel like Star Sports.

While obviously not every club has such an obvious foreign market to tap into, they will surely be aware of the areas their support extends to. For example, Man United have a huge Asian following. Under the proposed regulations, they would be free to negotiate a deal with a Japanese sports network, one that would perhaps want exclusive foreign coverage, and be willing to show every match. That would add up to a hell of a lot of extra revenue for the Old Trafford outfit, on top of the generous coverage they already get in this country.

One important issue that should be raised however is that ending the even split of foreign television monies creates the risk of widening the gap between rich and poor even further. A name like West Brom for example does not have quite the same resonance as an Arsenal or a Liverpool would. They would lose out on the guaranteed revenue that the evenly split deal provides, and set free into an apparent wilderness of worldwide support. However, it would give the club control over their own financial destiny – perhaps throw up creative methods of foreign promotion; the building of bridges with other footballing communities, and eventually zero in on a potential fanbase that they wouldn’t have dreamed of in the current relatively safe economic fortress of a Premier League-backed contract.

Realistically of course, this will not happen, at least not yet. While the points raised by Ian Ayre make financial sense, particularly for the top clubs (interestingly Ayre works for an established English football powerhouse), the immediate risk for the game’s lesser lights make it a non-starter – 14 of the 20 Premier League clubs must agree to it.

Spain has adopted a similar strategy, where Barcelona and Real Madrid sell their own TV rights, but the monopoly they hold over the top 2 positions is perhaps a sign of what can happen. Then again, is the Premier League as a whole a greater draw than La Liga? Perhaps one day we will find out.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Glorious Outrage of Poor Refereeing

The past few days have reminded us that despite all our clamour for the likes of goalline technology, and video referees to help get every decision right, we all love to argue. Let's face it - there's nothing better than bemoaning a dodgy penalty given against you to paper over the cracks of a deserved beating. Managers in particular hide behind referees to take the heat off themselves and their team.

Endless debate is provoked by a the glorious variable of human error. To take this away from the game of football would rob the likes of 606 on Radio 5 Live of about half their show's content. The 'We wuz robbed!' scenario is a wonderful part of the indignance that we all love. Do we really want to sterilise the game to such an extent? I believe it would be the ultimate concession to the influence big money has had on football. The crux of the matter is - there is now too much money at stake for any refereeing decision to be less than perfect. Money can buy you the best players, but not the best referees - only the best technology.

The gap between the rich and poor leagues would be widened even further. Who wants to be involved in a sport where the bigger teams have the benefit of television cameras at every angle to buy themselves justice, while Kidderminster Harriers v Stockport remains the victim of a wrongly given penalty or red card? The system we currently have is fine. Everton's Jack Rodwell was unfairly sent off by Martin Atkinson in Saturday's Merseyside derby, but 3 days later and we have justice thanks to retrospective video analysis. This analysis can be applied all the way down the leagues, as long as there at least one television camera there (even if simply for highlights packages). Why should the already far-too-wide chasm between the divisions be worsened?

We should rejoice in the fact that we care enough about a load of men kicking a ball around to want to have any wrong decision punished with a referee being struck off. Such feelings are insane, but I'm, sure referees take a sick pleasure in being the bad guy. Each Saturday night they probably sit back with a glass of wine, pop their favourite sports news channel on, and chuckle to themselves at the mess they create. I hope that mess never gets cleared up.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Schteve McClaren's Managerial Rollercoaster

Steve McClaren became the latest manager this weekend to admit defeat in his attempts to revive Nottingham Forest into a footballing force to be reckoned with. Nigel Doughty, who himself handed in his notice amid the chaos, described the decision to appoint the ex-England manager as "very poor". We must ask ourselves why this is the case? Surely, being able to attract a manager of McClaren's calibre deserves some credit, despite the poor results that followed?

In fact, the opposite is true. McClaren took the job on the understanding that he would be allowed funds to strengthen a squad that was ill-equipped to meet expectations of a promotion push. While 5 players were signed under Steve's stewardship, including Jonathan Greening and George Boateng, a further 9 were let go. That kind of mathematical equation is one that sheds some light on some of his major concerns. He was even refused the opportunity to sign 2 Premier League players on loan. The well-travelled Yorkshireman probably sees himself as someone who is above such a thankless scrap, and does he have a point? While the 'wally with a brolly' had an admittedly miserable time with the English national side, he did provide Middlesbrough with their only ever major trophy. Perhaps even more impressively, he guided the Dutch side FC Twente to a league title, and there is a lot to be said for British managers making names of themselves abroad.

However, at Wolfsburg, he could not repeat the trick, leaving in February earlier this year with the Bundesliga outfit struggling in the bottom half of the table. When you add that to a failure with Nottingham Forest, where does he go from here? Back to Twente? What looked like the potential for a sparkling comeback in his homeland has now turned into another black mark in Steve McClaren's increasingly blotted copybook. I would certainly not put any money on him managing in the Premier League again, as his days were numbered at the City Ground the moment the transfer window closed. He probably wishes he had acted on his original threat to resign, before results took a turn for the worse.

To end on a light note, while his managerial abilities are clearly open to question, I would like him to coach Newcastle for at least one day, give one press conference, and attempt a Geordie accent like he did at Twente. That particular YouTube clip will be forever in my favourite videos collection. Sadly for him, that is probably what I will remember him most for.