Do you ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?
I know football can be strange at times. I know results go against the form book all the time. I know teams have bad days where they just can’t get going. I know managers are often powerless in the face of poorly-performing players. But I’ve seen enough – Football Manager 2013 is impossible to handle without effectively bludgeoning it into submission.
Since buying the game when it first came out as a beta, I’ve started a lot of careers on there as usual. I am usually inclined to start with good teams, or at least teams with money – it’s difficult to turn around teams with poor squads and no money quickly, and I like a short-term game because they usually don’t hold my attention for very long before I start another career.
Also I usually take quite a long time in careers, either searching for players, playing all the friendlies, spending a while on tactics, and the aforementioned cheating – restarting matches if I feel that a poor result wasn’t justified. As I have shorter careers, I perhaps take individual matches more seriously than if I had a 20-season career, so I am more inclined to restarting matches. I try to avoid this where I can but sometimes I can’t help myself – I don’t like losing, especially unfairly, and the problem is once I restart one match, inevitably it leads to a second, third, fourth and eventually any match where I don’t win. And with this year’s version, I think I’m cheating a lot more, and it’s because I feel like I’m being cheated a lot more.
The reason? It’s virtually impossible to build a long string of good results, and it’s especially noticeable when you have a very good team.
A couple of months ago I started a game as Villarreal, whose squad is by far and away if the best in Spain’s Segunda Division – the players they retained are mostly Primera Division quality, and there is a big gulf between the two divisions, especially in the game which does have a tendency to exacerbate the difference.
But once into the league season, I found my team having plenty of lacklustre performances. Teams they should have been thrashing they were either meekly scraping wins against or even drawing with or losing to. It was incredibly frustrating – I had the players, I had the right tactics, the players were motivated by my press conferences and initially had positive morale. But then they’d just go onto the pitch and be really sloppy for no reason – passing was slow, the players would give the ball away easily and struggle to get it back, they weren’t creating chances, they weren’t chasing loose balls or hassling opposition attackers. It was as if they didn’t care.
Soon results were getting out of hand – the inexplicable draws in the middle of a very good run lowered morale, which led to defeats, and we started to slip way behind early pace setters Las Palmas, whose team was much less talented than mine and yet beat me comfortably. I had no depth beyond my excellent first choice players, and no money to spend on changing that, but the expectation was to win the league, which looked very unlikely. So after only 2 or 3 months of the season, I bailed – I applied for a few jobs and ended up taking the Sunderland job.
But I was determined to crack Spain, so I started a new career, beginning at Atletico Madrid. I built a strong side in the summer, and almost immediately beat Barcelona 4-0 in a ridiculous game at home. I went on a great run which put me top, but gradually 1 or 2 weak performances started creeping in. This time, I couldn’t hold myself back – I restarted one or two matches, and inevitably this led to more. By the end of the season it felt like I was restarting every single match, so keen was the game to make me trip up. But I couldn’t afford it as Barcelona and Real Madrid’s relentlessness meant I was always only a defeat from being reeled in, let alone considering the effect the loss of confidence would have. I won the league and everything else I entered, but it felt hollow.
So I started another career, this time at Luton Town, who have the best squad in the Conference in the game by a long way. I built on top of the squad still further with free loanees, and ended up with a team that FM was telling me was good enough to compete in League One, let alone League Two or the Conference.
And yet once again, the team became consistently lacklustre in games – that same sloppiness and lethargy as happened with the Villarreal team, despite the fact that the game was telling me that my team was better than the rest of the teams in the Conference and was high on confidence and morale. I’m not necessarily just talking playing against good teams here – I was playing some really bad ones that were struggling to pick up a win from anywhere and low on morale, and I was playing them at home, but I was struggling to beat them.
After just two matches I had started restarting games, which was incredibly annoying as I’d just started afresh in the hope that I wouldn’t. After about 15 matches, I’ve given up altogether – it has become virtually impossible to win a match without several attempts, which means it’s impossible to sustain form over anything longer than about four or five matches and that I’ll inevitably lose the lead of the league. This is not logical – I know football has a tendency to throw up surprise results, but the way leagues pan out is that if there is a team that is far superior to the rest of the teams in the league, they sustain good form for the whole season and win the league by a long way virtually every time. Even a team like Manchester United in the Premier League this season can win by a long way without being that much better than the rest of the teams in the league – this is the reality of football.
I initially thought my struggles with Villarreal were specific to that club but the fact that it has happened again with Luton shows that it’s not a coincidence. I’m happy to accept a defeat if it’s deserved but the way I see it is I don’t deserve to be losing these matches in this way – I’m doing everything right and yet the players are just deciding to play terribly, while the opposition are almost super-human, and everything the game is telling me suggests it should be the opposite. Plus after that, a defeat will almost certainly lead to an extended run of bad form, which means you can’t afford to lose – and yet the game isn’t letting you win.
The problem as I see it is that a lot of these matches seem at least partially pre-ordained before you’ve even started, in terms of form, team talks and press conferences answers, and I don’t believe that’s fair, especially as a lot of this is hidden – as far as the user is concerned, if morale is high in the team it shouldn’t be a problem, and yet the game may have already determined that the players are going to play badly in the next match. How can you work around this?
With FM12, I noticed that if I had a very good side, the way it would usually stop me winning was the other team parking the bus, or the opposition goalkeeper having the day of his life. Now I can understand having 60% possession and 20 shots but drawing 0-0 once in a season, but when it happens a few times in a row it just looks daft. And it’s very frustrating. This year, though, FM13 has gone even further – if it wants you to fail, it makes all of your players rubbish, instead of just the strikers, and all of the opposition players brilliant, instead of just the goalkeeper.
The way matches are effectively pre-ordained to make one side sloppy and the other side brilliant just makes the matches look ridiculous and futile, as it suddenly becomes very difficult to actually do what a manager does best – manage and organise the team in a match. Essentially if the game has said “sorry pal, you’re going to lose to Nuneaton”, you can play them in a 2-3-5 or 5-3-2, or use Attacking or Contain, and it won’t make a jot of difference.
And yet the “opposition manager”, controlled by the computer, can seemingly change the whole game as and when it feels like it. For some reason, if a particular change by either manager changes the pre-ordained result, it doesn’t just make the manager’s team play much better – it makes the other team play much worse. Despite being a genius, Jose Mourinho cannot magically make the opposition players go from being sharp and quick to sloppy, ponderous and lethargic after bringing on Luka Modric. If the match changes after a change like that, it’s because of the tactical implications, not because of the mentality. I can understand the players panicking after a change but not suddenly becoming slow and stupid. It’s just totally illogical.
The Football Manager games have always been on the premise that a match is a competition between the two managers, and that the computer manager has the same options as you. But I’ve increasingly felt that the opposition manager is colluding with the part of the game dealing with the matches themselves, and that they’re working against you – the overdrive kicks in and it’s game over.
This is why it’s not realistic – for a game that includes so many player attributes and statistics, it’s always happy to completely override them and make brilliant players rubbish and vice versa just so that it can have the “right” outcome. Obviously as it’s only a computer game determined by numbers there are only going to be a limited number of outcomes, but it seems to be done in such a crude way that the destined result becomes clear very early on in matches. A lot of the frustration comes from the fact that you know you’re not going to win this match within the first couple of highlights in the first half, because you can clearly see that your players are slow and ponderous while the other players are running rings around you and passing it around like Barcelona, and any changes you make can’t and won’t alter that.
Given that this is ultimately a video game, how is this fair? There should always be a way out of it in the match – in real life, the way to shake players up is the half time team talk, but even if you shout aggressively at your players to get the hell on with it and they respond positively with “seemed to gain focus” or “seemed motivated”, they go back out there and play in exactly the same manner. Even if you change the mentality to Attacking, it takes until the other manager switches to Defensive before it has any impact. What’s the point of these features if they make no difference to how your team is playing until the computer decides that they can make a difference?
As I said, I know players have bad days, but in actual football matches, nine times out of ten the form book is followed. Football isn’t that unpredictable – the best teams nearly always win league matches and thus the leagues themselves. Momentum is built over a long period of time. The manager of a good team usually has a fairly easy life. FM mostly pre-ordaining results effectively reduces the user’s responsibility (and thus the whole game, in effect) to building squads, and yet even that is cast aside as soon as you get a few wins – you’ll be knocked back soon enough, after which the attibutes of your players will be deemed irrelevant, and you have to start the process over again.
How often does this actually happen in a real season? The teams at the top of leagues usually have a couple of wobbles in their season, a dip in form lasting three or four matches – rebuilding form is not a constant cyclical process of “four wins then three defeats then four wins”; most of the time, a team’s form is stable through the season, be it consistently good or consistently bad. And yet when playing FM13 it feels like you’re in a constant battle with some unknown force to try and prevent the team spiralling out of control, and that that force will eventually overpower you and you’ll end up mid-table or worse, whatever the ability level of your squad.
Maybe I’m putting too much emphasis on individual matches – but then I thought that was the whole point of actual real life football. Managers aren’t allowed long-term building these days – they are judged on short-term results which puts a greater emphasis on tactics, team talks and substitutions. And don’t believe for one minute that they don’t have an effect on these things. If FM13 has decided those are irrelevant and it’s going to override anything you do, how can you do your job?
Not only is that not football but that’s not video gaming either – it’s watching a computer do a thing. If you had a deus ex machina like that in other video games there would be uproar. Imagine if you were playing a first-person shooter and the game decided you were doing too well, and so decided to bring out some bad guy with a rapid-fire rocket launcher that doesn’t actually exist to kill you. That’s essentially what it feels like FM13 is doing every time you get into a good run of form – it wants to stop you and will resort to any means necessary.
I honestly don’t understand what I’m supposed to do – I’d take a defeat if I knew I could bounce back straight away, but I’ve done this enough times to know that you won’t. A defeat in FM will lead to more defeats, regardless of what you actually do. The game just feels so out of control that I don’t know why I’m wasting time, effort, energy and emotion on it.
So I’m taking a break. I don’t know how long for – it might be a week, a month or a year, but I can’t deal with it any more. I don’t want to play a football game that desperately wants me to fail to the point where matches are virtually rigged against me and I can’t do anything about it. I’m being punished for having a good team, and that’s not how football works.
As you might have heard, Margaret Thatcher died today. Social media has gone a little bit mad as usual when something big happens. Mrs T is, for obvious reasons, one of the most divisive figures in political history and I don’t want to particularly get into the nitty-gritty detail – I’ve got to save that for the 20,000 words I have to write this summer for my dissertation. But sitting on the far left as I do, it’s fair to say that I’m not particularly sorry she has left us.
Naturally I take a keen interest in what the other side is saying, though, and it concerns me, because it seems very few people are actually openly defending her ideology, despite the fact that it was enough for the British people to vote her party under her leadership into power 3 times. Instead I’ve noticed a lot of people choosing to defend her by more covert means:
- “you can’t speak ill of the dead” – which of course was never the case when all the public figures the Right hates died, from Bin Laden to Chavez via Hobsbawm
- “she was just an old lady” – because we all automatically become nice when we hit 80
- “she just had different opinions to you” – ignoring the fact that, unlike me, she was in charge of running the country for 11 years and made numerous decisions millions of people here objected to
- “she was a strong personality” – so was *insert well-known controversial historical political figure here*
No one is brave enough to stand up and say she was right to privatise various industries or smash the trade unions or stick by an economic policy that sent hundreds of thousands into unemployment and caused enormous societal discord. Here begins the airbrushing out of all the bad things she actually did in favour of some kind of vague personality-based mythology that portrays her as a million and one things that she wasn’t
But the most worrying one was “people under the age of 30 have no right to comment”, which is a totally absurd statement to make. Not only is this massively hypocritical (because I’m certain those same people have opinions4u on anyone that did bad things before they were born), but essentially that reduces history to “this is something that happened” – Michael Gove’s wet dream, basically. We can’t not have opinions on the past. The whole point of history is analysing what happened and why – you can’t do that if you’re not allowed to have an opinion on something from the past. But perhaps that’s the whole point of Michael Gove’s conception of history – he doesn’t want us to judge people in history in case we judged them in the “wrong” way, so best let the state decide who’s good and who’s bad.
As well as that, it’s totally wrong because we are all still affected by Thatcher’s legacy. I might only be only 22, born a few months after her resignation, but I live in an area pretty much destroyed by the Thatcher government. I don’t want to have to totally unpick the miners’ strike because it’s been done to death by people who know a lot more about it, but the widespread closure of mines in South Wales, along with other the deindustrialisation of other heavy industries in the region, has led to mass unemployment and considerable deprivation in South Wales. The various South Wales areas have the highest rates of anti-depressant use in the whole of England and Wales. This is unquestionably the result of Thatcherite policy. That’s why all those arguing “well it’s not like she killed people like Hitler or Bin Laden” are wrong – she didn’t bomb South Wales but she has ruined the lives of thousands of people, and didn’t really give much of a shit about it in the process.
I still have to live with this. I have no choice but to leave my home area to find work. My friends are all struggling to find meaningful jobs. Crime and substance abuse (from a young age) are serious issues. The community is fragmenting. A generation of children is growing up totally disillusioned, low on confidence, self-esteem, hope and ambition. But to Thatcher, the people of South Wales were just numbers contributing to further numbers, a long way away from anywhere she ever needed to go. Wales was a write-off as far as she was concerned – the Valleys were never going to vote Tory so she didn’t care. The result is the breakdown of society that she was allegedly trying to prevent. It’s got nothing to do with divorces or the decline of religion or any of those excuses. It’s because the working class were considered expendable, rather than as real actual human beings, and have now been left with nothing to live for, as London and the South East get yet ever wealthier and have yet more benefits.
This is why I’m pleased she’s gone. And if anyone has a problem with that, feel free to come here and see what 20 years of post-industrial decline has done to the Valleys. And Glasgow. And Greater Manchester. And Newcastle. And Nottinghamshire. And so on. Because I’m sure you think that Thatcher was a positive force, a “patriot”, a “strong personality who got things done” or “an old woman”, or if you think that I’m too young to comment on what she did, you obviously haven’t been here to see the legacy she has left on these places. Because if you had, you would understand.
The media can only airbrush out so much. They might forget us but we will not forget her, and what she did. We just need to make sure that her other legacy, currently sat in Downing Street and on the government benches in the House of Commons, doesn’t cause similar misery over the next decade.
The first thing to say is that I don’t agree with Paolo Di Canio’s views. Fascist or not, he clearly believes in a Third Way-style politics. He is on record in his autobiography saying that immigrants should adapt to the culture of their new country – not especially radical (I’d hazard a guess that a huge number of British people would agree with similar sentiments) but not something I agree with.
He also likes Mussolini. Well, sort of. Or at least the media like to say he likes Mussolini. Let’s have a look at a quote from his autobiography (as stated in this Independent article) in full instead of taking it out of context as usual – “I am fascinated by Mussolini. I think he was a deeply misunderstood individual. He deceived people. His actions were often vile. But all this was motivated by a higher purpose. He was basically a very principled individual. Yet he turned against his sense of right and wrong. He compromised his ethics.”
For one, I’m sure you’ll agree that this is nothing in the league of “I am a Tory and I really like David Cameron”, said by one Frank Lampard Jr of Chelsea – he is hardly jumping around saying “Mussolini was brilliant, I agree with everything he did”. It’s worth noting at this stage that respect for Mussolini is not out of the ordinary in Italy – unlike in Germany, the former fascist leader is not stigmatised or put to the back of the collective memory. Hence the right-wing ultras in clubs like Inter and Lazio, the latter of whom Di Canio embraced during his time at the club, resulting in his infamous Roman salute goal celebration during the Rome derby.
But one salute does not a fascist make. Yes, he said he was a fascist. Yes, he said he respects Mussolini. But I think we need to think of this in a cultural sense rather than a political one. I don’t believe Di Canio’s salute was a political statement – I think it makes more sense as a show of unity with the Lazio fans with whom he grew up and played for. He stated that he has never voted for a far-right candidate, and there are plenty of them in the Italian political scene, from Lega Nord to (arguably) Silvio Berlusconi. He also admires the Japanese samurai culture – does that make him a samurai? No, of course not. It just means he admires samurai culture.
The best comparison that I’ve seen is with Che Guevara t-shirts. Is everyone in Britain who wears a Guevara t-shirt a communist revolutionary who likes Fidel Castro? No. After all, Karl Marx said we should be judged on our actions when the revolution arrives, not what we say and do beforehand. We can spout all the left-wing rhetoric we want but if we protect our property when the revolution comes, it proves the dishonesty of those words. Saying you believe something does not mean you actually believe something. Each political definition comes with its own baggage, and that doesn’t mean you agree with all of it – not all Labour Party members supported the Iraq War; not all communists would agree with Soviet atrocities committed under Stalin.
We need to stop looking at this in such an objective way. Perhaps it is better looking at it from the other angle. Another well-known Italian striker, Cristiano Lucarelli, who played for the national side as well as Livorno, Torino, Parma and abroad for Valencia and Shakhtar, was openly communist. His goal celebration, in a mirror image of Di Canio’s Roman salute, was a clenched fist salute. He admires Guevara – when on Under 21 duty in 1997, he lifted his jersey to reveal Guevara’s image, which led to him being barred from the national team until 2005. It is even said that his mobile phone ring tone is The Red Flag.
Now what if Cristiano Lucarelli became a manager of a football club in England? While I wouldn’t anticipate an identical reaction to that which has followed Di Canio’s appointments at Swindon and Sunderland, I’m sure that a lot of fans would object or at least be uncomfortable, even if they did not say so publicly.
For me, there are two elements to this, both of which come back to the same thing. One is the public nature of political proclamations. I’m sure there’s more than one fascist player or manager out there, or indeed more than one communist player or manager. The difference is Di Canio and Lucarelli have stated their views publicly – although it is not clear cut as the individual’s definition of that has never been fully defined publicly in both cases.
The other element this leads on to is the principle of objecting to someone’s political views. We have seen this with both of Di Canio’s appointments. When he was announced as the new Swindon manager in the summer of 2011, the trade union GMB pulled out of a sponsorship deal with the club. When he was announced as Sunderland manager yesterday, former Foreign Secretary and Labour MP David Miliband resigned as a non-executive director of the club. Fans in both cases have announced they were leaving the club until he was/is gone.
And yet the only “mistake” I can see that Di Canio has made is that he has said and done things publicly. If he hadn’t, we would be none the wiser about his beliefs. It’s worth remembering that Paolo Di Canio first arrived on these shores in 1996 when he signed for Celtic, before playing for Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham and Charlton. He didn’t start openly talking about being a “fascist” until he was back in Italy playing for Lazio. Nobody objected to him playing for these clubs here because he hadn’t said anything about his political view – to the wider public, he was not a fascist, even though you would assume he didn’t change his views or definitions just as he moved from one country to another.
It’s Schroedinger’s cat, is it not? He was both a fascist (or “fascist”) and not a fascist at the same time until he said something publicly. The fact is if he hadn’t said anything publicly, no one would care. Blissful ignorance.
Another example – Jose Mourinho. I’m sure nearly every football fan in the country would love, or at least accept him as the manager of their club if he was appointed tomorrow. He is arguably the best manager of all time, with unparalleled success over the last decade. And yet beneath the surface, it is said that he may be a fascist, or at least very right wing – Peter Conrad of the Guardian wrote an overview of this 7 years ago. His family were part of the wealthy middle class and their business relied upon the Salazar regime, whose ideology was a form of fascism developed from the Italian form which Di Canio has at least shown solidarity with. When a communist mayor was voted into their home town, as they were part of the bourgeoisie, they had to leave. Conrad states “this sudden, humiliating demotion left Mourinho with unregenerately right-wing views.”
But will we see mass protests and supporters claiming that “this is the last straw” if he is appointed at a Premier League club this summer? I very much doubt it. And yet ideologically, depending on your viewpoint, either there seems to be very little difference between the two men’s views, or Mourinho is far more right wing or closer to fascism than Di Canio. The difference is one has said something in public, and the other has avoided it. One is evil, the other is worshipped as a demi-god.
Mourinho may not have publicly stated he is a fascist/right wing/a fan of Salazar but his background is in the public domain. The media could choose to make this a big deal if they wanted. But they choose not to. The fans could make this a big deal if they wanted. But they choose not to.
What we are seeing here is hypocrisy – someone holding questionable political views is not a big deal if 1) you personally agree or sympathise with them, or 2) the person in question is enormously successful at what he does and/or a popular public figure. People are happy to overlook flaws in someone if they’ll bring them what they want. And people say they are walking away out of principle? There are no principles in that, as far as I can tell.
The irony is Di Canio has stated that he admires the fact that Mussolini was a very principled person, regardless of what those principles were – he is in effect saying that we should all act based on our principles. Perhaps we should think about that for a moment – it seems to me that Di Canio has far more principles than some of the people protesting against him “out of principle”.
These protests (keyboard or actual) are not as a result of this managerial appointment. This is a result of wider issues within the club. If the fans were confident that the owner and the board were making the right decision, they wouldn’t be protesting. The problem at Sunderland is the fans have lost confidence in the people running the public.
Football fans today always feel the need to cite a reason to stop supporting a club – “they signed a player/manager I don’t like”, or “they put ticket prices up”. Speaking from experience, that’s not the reason why. If you are fed up enough to walk away from the club you love, as I am on the verge of doing myself, there is a wider reason – which should be especially obvious if you are listing things you don’t like about the club in your open letter to the chairman.
So to those Sunderland fans who are making a big public deal about the fact that “this is the last straw” for you as a fan of the club, I say this – you are not telling the truth. It may be subconscious, but you are not being honest – you are not leaving because of Paolo Di Canio’s political beliefs. You are leaving because you do not like the way the club is run as a whole. Or, in another sense, you are leaving because you have fallen out of love with the club in general.
Of course there are circumstances where I support fans raising awareness of issues within their club, and taking a stand on those by walking away. But the problem itself is never the issue itself – it’s the way the club is being run. For Cardiff fans walking away because of the colour change this season, the colour change wasn’t the issue – it was the way Vincent Tan was running the club, the decisions he was making. Similarly, Sunderland fans’ ire should not be aimed at Di Canio but at Ellis Short and the club hierarchy. Don’t blame a man for having different political view to yours – like it or not, it’s his choice. It’s up to the owners and operators of the club to judge whether having a fascist, communist or any other -ist as the public face of the club is appropriate – and that’s a matter of opinion, a subjective issue rather than objective.
Ultimately, I don’t think it really matters what Di Canio’s opinions are – as I’ve stated already, his only “mistake” so far has been to say or do something publicly. There are people involved in football who hold far more destructive and offensive views than him – we may not know, but they are out there. As long as someone isn’t using football as a political platform to openly promote dangerous ideological views (and I mean the detail, not the name), I don’t think it’s a problem and we should just concentrate on the football itself. I don’t believe Di Canio has done this or will do this.
Whether or not he can keep Sunderland in the Premier League is a different matter, and that should be the issue we should be debating today…
I like the Conference Premier. Everyone should. It’s a fascinating league. It is the boundary between the professionalism and ambition of the Football League and the honour and decency non-league regional divisions. This is where clubs are born, or reborn – it has become a rite of passage for ambitions non-league outfits like Burton Albion, Stevenage and Crawley Town, or the former Football League clubs wanting to return to their glory days after being through so many problems, like Accrington Stanley, Aldershot Town and Oxford United. You know you’ve made it if you’ve lifted the pyramid-shaped trophy and progressed into the 92 Club. But it has become an achievement itself to make it into a division of 14 former Football League clubs – for the likes of Dartford, Alfreton Town and Hyde, things don’t get much better than this. It’s this fascinating blend of clubs that makes it so intriguing – there’s nothing like it in English football.
So maybe Torquay United are suited to that league. Despite being a Football League club for most of the last 86 years, I wouldn’t hold it against you if you were to suggest we don’t have the feel of a Football League club. Despite being promoted a few times, we’ve never been a club that has wanted to push on. Our ground is small and our fans are few in number – in a list of English football club average attendances, we consistently end up around the 92nd position. We’re not the sort of club that conjures up images of fiery encounters or passionate support. Torquay United – meek and mild.
Today more than ever, Football League clubs are ambitious. They have to be to stay afloat, when clubs like Crawley, Stevenage and Fleetwood are arriving, with ambitions of climbing the ladder despite little support at present. And why not? After all, Wimbledon and Wigan, over the course of 25 years or more, have shown that even when you start with average attendances of around 2,000, you can still become a Premier League club. Build it and they will come, they say. You have to be moving forward just to stand still.
And that’s been the problem for Torquay – because we’ve never been one to push on, we’re inevitably going to get caught. This may be the season we’ve run out of luck – ironically, few would have seen it coming exactly a year ago, when we were 2nd in the league.
The current board, a consortium of wealthy fans who took over after our last relegation in 2007, did show signs initially of trying to move the club in the right direction, but it seems even they have lapsed into the same pursuit of mediocrity that previous owners found themselves. Yes, they build a new stand this year, and it is a nice stand, but they’re not the first owners to build a new stand. Taking money away from the playing squad to develop a new training pitch simultaneously with building the Bench turned the whole exercise into essentially arranging deckchairs on the Titanic – even if/though it was a positive move designed to ensure the survival of the club, taking money away from the playing squad meant the squad could not possibly be moved forward.
The loss of key players over the summer could not be compensated for – Martin Ling was left in an impossible position. Now his successor Alan Knill has to pull a whole colony of white rabbits out from his sleeve to keep us in the Football League, and his experiences at Scunthorpe suggests waiting for him to do this on his own is not the wisest of moves. The board have been frozen into non-action – Ling may even have still been around had he not gone off sick; it wasn’t until long after it became obvious that his assistant Shaun Taylor was not capable of managing alone did they act and bring in an interim.
It’s a farce. And all of this stems back to the board’s inertia. They have not promoted the club any differently to any previous regimes. Perhaps they were spoilt by their first year in charge, when people turned up in their droves to watch Conference football. People did this because they were excited by a new era of change. The challenge is keeping people there.
Maybe we missed the earliest warning signs when we were busy celebrating promotion – whereas our first season in the Conference saw an average attendance of 3129, still the highest since we were relegated from League One in 2005, the second season saw that plummet to 2243. The novelty had worn off – it was left to Paul Bristow, the generous National Lottery winner whom the Bench is now dedicated to, to provide the money to bring in new players for our eventually successful promotion push. Nobody ever asked why attendances had dropped off – it was just put down to being in the Conference. People were happy with just being promoted. But as we all know, the best sportsmen always ask questions on how to improve even when they’re winning – perhaps we should have done the same.
Now attendances are plummeting as fast as our league position. The last two midweek home games have seen attendances of less than 1800, our lowest for 3 years. People are blaming the board for not investing the squad, but they can’t magic money out of thin air. But that doesn’t mean it’s not the board’s fault. Not only was the decision to develop the training pitch at the same time as the new stand a poor, short-sighted one, where they simply assumed the manager would be fine to drag the squad through the season without getting into trouble, but the board also have to take responsibility for the lack of promotion of the club.
Torquay United still has that image of easy-come easy-go, “it doesn’t matter if we go up, as long as we survive”, and that must be off-putting for the locals who would otherwise attend matches. People aren’t going to be inspired to care about a club that even its own hardcore support aren’t really that bothered about. The fact is in modern football there is an expectation that club achieves as much as possible. Survival is not an achievement. Winning things is. People will not want to pay £20-odd to watch a club that doesn’t care about winning things when they can sit at home and watch plenty of clubs that do care.
I’m always amazed that there are Torquay United fans who simply can’t understand why people from Torbay would rather sit at home and watch Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City or Chelsea on TV instead of going to Plainmoor – it’s a refusal to accept that some people want to watch clubs that are trying to do the best they can, clubs with ambition, clubs who want to buy talented players instead of just any old cheap clogger. It’s not how football should be, but that’s not going to change any time soon.
Some will blame the effect of TV on football. I say live with it – adapt or die. TV has changed things, the genie is out of the bottle, and that can’t be undone. There’s no use sitting around moaning about it – if you genuinely care, do something about it. OK, there’s not so much that we can do as mere peasants (apart from writing blogs that purport to promote the club), but this is addressed to the owners – if you want people to come, you can’t just expect them to turn up and do sod all if they don’t. Promote the club! If you’re going to build a new stand, don’t just build it, stand back and admire your handy work. If you don’t continue to promote the damn thing, people won’t fill it – that’s why we had a bigger average attendance with 3 stands than we have with 4!
It’s not rocket science – there are professionals out there who are good at this kind of thing. The money you can make from a good PR campaign (and by that I mean proper advertising, not a few nice words on the website saying how unlucky we were to get beaten 4-0) will more than pay for them. If we’re that desperate to get people through the gate to get money in to improve the squad to move up the leagues, you have to start by promoting the club. And that means ridding it of this 1950s image, with its 50-50 raffles, unambitious bland platitudes and treating women at football matches as if they are a novelty. People aren’t interested in a time-warp – if they wanted to go back in time, they’d go to a museum.
Talking of which, we may be little more than an exhibit in one in a few years. Because I’m afraid of what a second relegation into the Conference would bring. Three clubs have been relegated into the Conference twice – two of them, Chester and Halifax, went bust within 6 years, while Lincoln are in serious danger of dropping into the Conference North. Basically, history suggests our prospects aren’t good. That, coupled with a board who seem to have lost their drive, our only good players set to walk away from the club for nothing in the summer, and a managerial situation that is yet to be (publicly) resolved means that we couldn’t be in a worse position. At least last time we were relegated we were up for sale.
This time there is no novelty about dropping into the Conference. This new era will only be seen negatively. Inevitably there will be a drop-off of fans – for some, a second relegation into non-league will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. With lower away attendances as well, I fear sub-1800 crowds will become a regular occurrence. Lower crowds mean less money to spend. Less money to spend means weaker squads. Weaker squads means lower crowds. And so on. It’s a vicious spiral of decline from here on.
That’s why the board has to act now – or rather, should have acted sooner. It may be too late already. The lack of confidence and talent in the squad means our form is going to be difficult to change. We are an oil tanker heading for an iceberg, and we need a skilled pilot to steer us away from it. In Knill, a man who nearly led Scunthorpe to consecutive relegations, I don’t think we have someone skilled enough to save this ship. I fear that once we hit those rocks we are only going downwards, the only question being how deep the seabed is.
So I hope we don’t end up in the Conference. The Conference isn’t bad, but our long-term fate may be worse than that. The problem is I do wonder if another great escape this season would lead to yet more patting-ourselves-on-the-back rather than looking at the real issues and sorting them out. The key players will probably still walk away for nothing. The managerial situation will still be unresolved. The crowds will still be poor. We will still be making a loss. If we don’t go down this year, it may be delaying the inevitable.
The wheels may have already been set in motion for a steady decline into non-league obscurity – Conference Premier, Conference South, Southern League, who knows where we will end up. What would be significant for English football is that, compared to the other clubs that have sunk, there is no villain here to pin the blame on – there is no Stephen Vaughan or Alex Hamilton, no obvious violation of the fit and proper persons test. There are only well-intentioned fans, who rode on the good times and then didn’t have the experience to deal with a difficult situation. But it is wrong to solely blame them – this is all down to a series of errors and incidents by numerous parties that have accumulated over time to bring us down. Our course has been set, and it may be too late to change it.
Football is about scoring more goals than the other team. Real Madrid scored more goals than Manchester United and thus won. Everything else that happened is therefore largely irrelevant. Goodnight.
As the Sun rose over the manor, two tall figures strolled around the gardens – Simon, lord of the manor, and his butler William.
Lord Simon: …yes, I’m afraid the head gardener was taken ill last night. They aren’t sure what it is yet but it could be quite serious.
William: Oh that’s such a shame. The garden had been doing so well – I remember when you won all those awards last year. It was such a great project.
S: Well, actually things hadn’t been going so well recently anyway. We had a lovely layout set out, but some of the flowers just didn’t bloom for whatever reason, while others just didn’t grow in the way we wanted them to. It was quite a surprise many of them were the same flowers as last year but this year they just didn’t appear.
W: Did you try getting some new ones in?
S: I’m afraid I just don’t have enough money at the moment. I spent a lot of money refurbishing the house – you know, painting the rooms, new portraits, new feathers in the pillows, that sort of thing. Plus I’ve got to leave a certain amount in the pot for grouse season. So I decided to leave it for this year. It’s not like it makes a big difference anyway…
W: What about the villagers? Won’t they say something about it not being up to the same standard as last year? Some of them have worked hard on it.
S: Well, it’s not really their garden, is it? They should be grateful that we have a garden for them to look at to begin with.
W: Are you going to tell them about the head gardener?
S: The assistant head gardener will take over for now. I doubt they will take much notice.
W: Isn’t he the incompetent one? Won’t they notice this?
S: Well, yes, he isn’t the best but again, it will not make much difference – this year’s display is already struggling. If they notice the head gardener isn’t around, tell them that he has a minor illness or something. They won’t know any different – they don’t understand these trivial matters. That’s why we usually don’t tell them anything about what I do here – I don’t speak to them myself because they couldn’t possibly understand what I’d be talking about.
W: Quite. But what about your plans for next year? You need to be making preparations now, and if the head gardener is going to be away for a while, who sorts that out?
S: Another year written off is no great loss. There are some good gardeners out there that I could speak to but they would just cost more money, and besides, I’ve got some more rooms that need decorating anyway. I’ve won some prizes and I’m happy with that – I don’t need any more.
W: I see. Any particular preference for the rooms?
S: Yes, I think I’ll go for a cream one this time. We haven’t got a cream room – went for yellow and pale blue rooms last year.
W: So you really think the villagers will be happy?
S: Well, they are just villagers, aren’t they? What does it matter what they think? They do complain about minor things, but if I just ignore them they stop complaining eventually. Ultimately, they don’t know how to run a manor and I do. You know, sometimes I just wish they would sod off, and that I could just have the manor to myself. But then I realise that I’d have to cook the rabbits and wash all the dishes myself, which would leave me with no time for riding my horses and shooting deer.
W: Yes, they are a necessary evil. How is organising the hunt going?
S: Not bad. A few of the usual party have decided not to come. They might be planning their own hunt – I’m not sure. Relations haven’t been so good since we had that bust-up over which direction to take the hunt. You remember that, don’t you?
W: Yes, they wanted to keep chasing that fox with the black eye to the east but you…
S: Yes, it was getting late and cold, and I had some good wine in the house brought in especially for the occasion. I was happy writing off a few chickens for that.
W: Indeed. Have you ever wondered…I’m sorry to keep returning to this, but have you wondered what might happen if the villagers all got together and made an offer to buy the manor off y…?
S: BUY THE MANOR?! Don’t be so daft, William. Don’t they realise I have been born to run this manor? They wouldn’t understand how to run a manor. I have experience. I have an education. I have money. I have a god-given right to own this place, and I can do what I want with it. It’s mine. I am simply cleverer than them, which is why they are peasants.
W: But what if they all left tomorrow?
S: It would still be mine. All the buildings will still be mine. All the land will still be mine…
W: But the people wouldn’t.
S: Are you suggesting the manor is the people rather than the buildings, William? I am most disappointed in you. You see, this is why you’re a butler and I’m the lord – you just don’t understand how it works…
W: Indeed, yes, sir. So what is it you want me to tell them about the head gardener again, sir?…
For the last few years I’ve been engaged in a long-running dilemma over how good Arsenal are. Ever since the generation of players that helped them to the unbeaten Premier League season in 2003-04 has left, I’ve always had a niggling feeling that the players that have made up each squad have been somewhat weak and feeble, and definitely inferior to their rivals. And yet they still managed to finish inside the top 4 each year.
Basically, it means one of two things – either I have underrated most of those players, or I have underrated Arsene Wenger’s ability to get the most out of them and they have overachieved relative to their respective abilities. The resulting evidence is unclear – whereas Cesc Fabregas doesn’t look out of place at Barcelona and Robin van Persie has proven pivotal for Manchester United this season, Samir Nasri, Kolo Toure and Gael Clichy do look out of place at Manchester City and Emmanuel Adebayor has never hit the same heights as he did at the Emirates Stadium in 2007-08.
Similarly, it’s hard to judge the band of misfits and journeymen that Arsene Wenger currently calls his “squad”. There is no doubt that the vast majority on their day are brilliant players, but how often are those days? Defensively, Thomas Vermaelen and Laurent Koscielny have not lived up to their potential, while Bacary Sagna has regressed rapidly and Kieran Gibbs looks no better than any other average English full-back in the top two divisions. In midfield, there are no senior defensive midfielders, Abou Diaby and Tomas Rosicky are injured more than they are fit, Mikel Arteta will be 31 next month and has probably already peaked, and Aaron Ramsey’s form nose-dived after the death of national manager Gary Speed and hasn’t recovered. In attack, Olivier Giroud is adequate but not Champions League standard, Gervinho is unreliable, and Lukas Podolski looks like the Podolski of Bayern rather than the Podolski of Cologne and Germany.
Alongside them, the squad remains peppered by players that you can’t believe are still contracted to the club – Andrei Arshavin, Sebastian Squillaci and the out-on-loan bunch that includes Bendtner, Chamakh, Andre Santos, Djourou and, believe it or not, Denilson. Why are these players still hanging around, taking wages, instead of leaving and earning at least some money for the club? If money was such a big deal, this is what would have happened – this is why Arsenal fans cannot play the money card, not to mention that wage bill…
Of course, I’ve glossed over the better players in the squad – I think Szczesny is one of the best young goalkeepers around (sure, he makes mistakes, but so does Joe Hart and that doesn’t stop him being claimed as the Messiah), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshere have more development to come, Nacho Monreal seems like one of Arsenal’s best signings of recent years, Santi Cazorla is one of the best playmakers in the Premier League and, yes, Theo.
But this is half the point, isn’t it? Those Arsenal fans who defend Wenger (and I’m aware I’m building a straw man here) remain clinging to these small morsels of hope – the hope that Wilshere will lead them to glory like Steven Gerrard at Liverpool; the hope that Theo Walcott will turn into something other than a sprinter who can control a football; the hope that Serge Gnabry and Chuba Akpom will appear from the youth ranks and be the saviours of the club despite such claims being made many times before and coming to nothing. “Imagine the team we’d have…” never works because things always happen that you don’t expect – injuries, not living up to the hype, other teams getting better, the manager deciding to sell the best players to rivals…
Many others have gone into the details of why Arsenal have ended up in this situation in terms of the finances so I don’t want to repeat what they have said. But I think it’s a good idea to look back at what constituted a “good” Arsenal side compared to the mess they have now, and to try and find out when the rot set in.
In the short term, you can look to the League Cup Final defeat 2 years ago. Arsenal looked like challenging Manchester United for the title, and had their chance to pick up a rare trophy, one that would have been derided had they won it as pointless but one that they couldn’t afford to lose. And they did lose. Not only that, but they lost in calamitous fashion. After that, they never looked the same team and collapsed to finish 4th again. Then, in the summer, Wenger sold Fabregas, Clichy and Nasri, two of the club’s long-term servants and one of the brightest young stars, and didn’t replace them until Deadline Day (after that 8-2 defeat to United, yeah?), when he made a bunch of panic buys which were enough to get them through one league season but are going to prove the downfall of them this season when they finish 5th and get dumped out of the Champions League at the first knockout round. That’s basically how we got to where we are.
But, like most things in life, it’s more complicated than that. Let’s go back 5 years, to 2007-08. This was their second season at the Emirates, but more to the point it was their first in some years without Thierry Henry and Fredrik Ljungberg, who had been sold in the summer. Wenger also sold Jose Antonio Reyes and Jeremie Aliadiere, bringing in Eduardo, Bacary Sagna, Lukas Fabianski and Lassana Diarra (who would be sold to Portsmouth at the end of the season – another of the “more trophies than Arsenal since he left” crowd). Back then, the squad contained most of Arsenal’s recent familiar faces, but also reminders of some of the past failures – Alex Hleb is there, for instance. It doesn’t look all that impressive a squad bar a few promising individuals – Adebayor scored 30 goals in all competitions, while they could still boast the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie, Gallas, and Gilberto Silva.
All told, it’s hardly vintage Arsenal, and yet they still finished 3rd with 83 points, only 2 behind Chelsea and 4 points behind Manchester United. Or, to put it another way, they nearly won. It defies logic. It’s not like you can put that down to one individual – Henry was gone, Vieira was gone, Van Persie only played in 23 matches. Is it really all down to Cesc? My memories of that season are fuzzy but I doubt it.
Whereas seasons before that you could argue were based around individual brilliance, this first post-Henry season marks a shift away from that. Or does it? You could possibly even trace that back to the previous season. Interestingly (and I hadn’t realised this before checking), Henry made just 24 starts that season, 1 less than Van Persie and 8 less than Adebayor. Does £16 million represent good value for a player that started around half your games that season? Of course.
I’m starting to think the end of 2005-06 was crucial here – that Champions League Final defeat has been cited as important because it was the last major final Arsenal were in. But few have gone on to explain that further – that this was the last major match for a bunch of Invincibles-era players. Look at that starting line-up: Lehmann; Eboue, Toure, Campbell, Cole; Pires, Gilberto Silva, Fabregas, Hleb; Ljungberg; Henry. Subs: Almunia, Senderos, Clichy, Flamini, Reyes, Bergkamp, Van Persie. That summer, Bergkamp retired, Campbell and Pires were sold, Reyes was loaned out in exchange for Julio Baptista, and, in probably the key move, Ashley Cole went to Chelsea as a part-exchange for Gallas.
For one, you’ve just lost some of the key figures of the previous few seasons who had built Arsenal up into this Champions League-contending European giant (yes, football was invented in 1992). Who replaced them? Arsenal’s summer signings in 2006 were Alex Song (18 years old), Tomas Rosicky (probably the only genuine statement of intent), Julio Baptista (on loan as a part-exchange), William Gallas (29 years old, not good enough for Chelsea, and a part-exchange) and Denilson (18 years old and shit). There’s no Bergkamp replacement there. There’s no Cole replacement there. Pires was sort of replaced by Rosicky but not really as Pires was a winger and Rosicky isn’t. The Campbell replacement was not good enough for one of their key rivals. Baptista wasn’t good enough for Real Madrid.
There’s a clear lack of ambition even at that stage, typified by selling Cole. Not only did they sell the player who would become the best left-back in the world (if he wasn’t already by that point) to one of their biggest rivals, but they got just £5 million and Gallas for him.
This is the moment it all becomes clear – this is the moment it becomes obvious that the owners are resting on their laurels, assuming Wenger can just do the job without them needing to reinvest. I have seen a similar scenario unravelling at Torquay this season – after a great season last year, the owners assumed that Martin Ling could perform similar miracles the following season and gave him no money to spend, while key players left for big sums which were then reinvested only in the club’s facilities; the result is we’re now in a relegation fight. A manager can’t keep performing miracles forever.
Was 2006 the turning point for Arsenal? Possibly, but I think the beds were already made by that point. As with Torquay, the moment to act wasn’t when Pires, Campbell, Bergkamp and Henry were over the hill. It was when they were winning the league – the Invincibles season, Arsenal’s greatest triumph, may also be their downfall.
It takes a brilliant manager and club to make the most of your high points, to stay at that peak, to be proactive. Look at Barcelona, the team they competed against and nearly beat in that Champions League Final – they are brilliant now, but more to the point, they will be brilliant for a long time. Why? Because they haven’t just sat back and watched this golden generation of players keep going until they drop. They have been preparing the way for the next generation – Fabregas is the future replacement for Xavi; Song is the future replacement for Mascherano; Alba replaced Abidal; and there are plenty of youngsters coming through the academy, like Thiago, Cuenca, Tello, Montoya and Bartra who are talented and are being used wisely. Arsenal used their golden generation for as long as possible, and failed to replace them adequately; the back-ups Wenger brought into the side mostly weren’t up to the task.
Ultimately, despite the claims otherwise, Wenger hasn’t just done a bad job this season, or last season and this season, or even over the last three seasons. The situation that Arsenal are in now is the result of poor management decisions made over the last 10 years. It’s the result of continued complacency by him and the board, and the board’s continued faith in a manager who was destroying everything that he had built up. If that isn’t a reason to sack a manager, I don’t know what is.
To say now “Arsenal can’t sack Wenger, it’s disrespectful to everything he’s achieved” is totally missing the point and is exactly why they are in this situation now – he is the destructive influence, and will continue to be the destructive influence until he has gone, so to keep the faith with him guarantees they will be a further step down from the pinnacle to which they aspire.
There is no doubt that Arsene Wenger was once a great manager who led Arsenal to the top of English football. But he is also the reason why they have declined. What does the future hold? It may be too late to save their Big Club status in the short term, even if they sacked him tomorrow. Whoever takes over as Arsenal manager after Wenger has to sort out a massive mess, whilst also living up to the inevitable high expectations of Arsenal fans – whoever it will be is doomed from the moment they take over. I envisage a similar situation to Liverpool – the destructive manager and the lack of ambition from the spineless owners, followed the slide down the table, and eventually ending up with the delusions of grandeur and the pathetic claims from the fans that “we can be big again”. To a certain degree, it’s already at that point, but it may get worse. It will almost certainly get worse before it gets better for Arsenal fans.
Rebuilding Arsenal FC will take a long time – and I genuinely think it needs to be called a rebuilding job, because there is so much work to be done. But the first step to solving a problem is acknowledging its existence…