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1998-99, Aston Villa’s forgotten title challenge

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With Aston Villa seemingly doomed to relegation after several seasons of struggle, it’s hard to imagine them as potential Premier League title challengers, let alone past winners of the European Cup. And yet in the first decade of the Premier League, they finished in the top 10 in nine seasons, and in five of those, they finished in the top 6, the best finish being as runners-up in the first Premier League season, 1992-93.

However, their last actual title challenge was 1998-99, and it has become somewhat overlooked in the annals of recent football history, mainly because of the incredible circumstances of what was a classic season for English football. Everyone remembers it as the year where Manchester United completed the first Treble, narrowly edging Arsenal in the Premier League by 1 goal, winning the FA Cup after beating the Gunners in the famous semi-final replay, and That Night in Barcelona. But it was perhaps the greatest season of Premier League action beyond that.

People talk about how wonderful the 2011-12 season was – and there’s no doubt it was a great year. But dubbing it the greatest Premier League season is undoubtedly recency bias. Even you exclude pre-1992 seasons, 1998-99 was far more competitive and had a higher overall standard relative to the time. Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea finished just 3 points behind United and Arsenal, while Leeds, who had lost George Graham to Tottenham during the season, were 11 points off the pace by the end. And then a bit of a chasm.

This is perhaps why we forget Villa’s role in this season. If you look at the final table, there’s no clue as to why one might include them as title challengers, and they become easily swept away in the grand narrative. But the fact is they were top of the table at Christmas, and still 2nd when February arrived.

Some context: Villa were coming off the back of finishing 7th in 1997-98. However, they might have finished higher but for a dreadful first half of the season which saw them lie 15th in February. Brian Little resigned and was surprisingly replaced by former Villa player and coach John Gregory, then the manager of Division Two side Wycombe Wanderers. Under Gregory, the team won 10 of their last 14 to surge up the table into a UEFA Cup spot, with star striker Dwight Yorke proving to be particularly influential.

The new season dawned in August with intense interest in Yorke from United, who were looking to strengthen their front line after losing the title to Arsenal the previous season. Eventually he would be sold for £12.6 million, seemingly ending any hopes Villa had of building on their promising form. For now, they would have to lean heavily on Julian Joachim and youngster Darius Vassell.

Even so, things started pretty well. Villa were unbeaten in their first 12 games, breaking the club record; this included wins over Newcastle, local rivals Coventry and Tottenham. Their first defeat came on 21st November, a 4-2 loss at home to Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool in which Robbie Fowler scored a hat-trick and Stan Collymore was sent off against his former club. However, United and Arsenal lost the same weekend, so they retained their lead

By this point, Villa had strengthened significantly. The money from Yorke’s sale was put towards the purchase of Paul Merson from Middlesbrough and Dion Dublin from Coventry, and this new attack had begun to produce plenty of goals, even if defensively they were a little shaky.

The loss to Liverpool was the start of a four-game winless streak, which saw a 2-2 draw with struggling Nottingham Forest, a 1-1 draw with Manchester United, and a dramatic 2-1 loss to Chelsea, with Tore Andre Flo scoring the winner in stoppage time in what seemed to be a key result in the title fight. United drew with Spurs to briefly go top, but Villa overtook them again by coming from 2 goals down to beat Arsenal 3-2 at Villa Park on 13th December, with Dublin grabbing a late winner in one of the most sensational games of the season.

A draw between United and Chelsea on 16th December, and a win at Charlton on 21st gave them Villa top spot on Christmas Day, though they would drop to 2nd behind Chelsea on Boxing Day after Tim Sherwood (of all people) scored an 88th-minute winner for relegation-battling Blackburn; goalkeeper Michael Oakes had earlier been controversially sent off for handling outside the area, with the officials’ decision described as by Gregory “a monumental error”. Sherwood would score another 88th-minute winner against Villa later in the season, this time for Tottenham at White Hart Lane in March.

Nonetheless, they were back top again soon after a further win over Sheffield Wednesday and another draw between Chelsea and United, leaving them two points clear at the end of 1998. But a 0-0 draw against Middlesbrough on 9th January saw them lose their grip on the lead for the last time this season.

The 3-0 win over Everton on 18th January saw them seemingly maintain positive momentum: it was their 22nd league game of the season, with a record of 12 wins, 7 draws and 3 defeats so far. In his first full season as manager, Gregory was looking like a minor miracle worker, and probably a contender for the England job which was soon to become available.

The week after, they crashed out of the FA Cup at home to Kevin Keegan’s Fulham (en route to winning the Division Two title), sparking one of the most spectacular collapses in recent English football history. They promptly failed to win their next 10 league games, losing 7 of their next 8. In this period, they dropped from 2nd to 6th and any hope of sticking with United, Arsenal and Chelsea vanished. Their record over the last 16 games of the season was 3 wins, 3 draws and 10 defeats. Ouch.

Nowadays, that sort of run would spell the end of a manager, but Gregory retained his job, lasting until January 2002. But never again would he look capable of masterminding a Premier League title challenge; instead, history probably judges him the same way we’ll be judging Brendan Rodgers in ten years’ time.

Similarly, this was probably the peak for Dublin, an Indian summer for Merson, and the best it got for several other players in the squad. Though they would again finish 6th in 1999-2000, this would be 33 points behind Manchester United. It soon became clear that 1998-99 had been their big chance.

But if there are lessons to be learned from this, it’s that a) history is written by the winners, and Aston Villa, not being winners (in 1998-99 and in general), have been erased from the narrative because they didn’t win, and b) it’s still possible for a team to totally unravel in January and February, even if they have spent the last six months looking like a team capable of winning the Premier League.

So for those of you still banking on Leicester falling apart for your team to win the Premier League or even make the top four, there’s still plenty of time.

Aston Villa Overall XI, 1998-99 (based on most appearances)

Goalkeeper: Michael Oakes
Sold to Wolves in October 1999 for £500,000 after David James was brought in to replace Manchester United-bound Mark Bosnich. Only played half a season in the Premier League with them in 2003-04. Retired after a season with Cardiff in 2008.

Right-Back: Steve Watson
Premier League stalwart Watson would later join Everton in 2000, for whom he would make 125 league appearances. Retired in 2009 after stints with West Brom and Sheffield Wednesday.

Centre-Back: Gareth Southgate
Club captain and a 57-time England international. Left Villa in 2001 after earlier submitting a transfer request in expectation of signing for a bigger club; he ended up at Middlesbrough, where he would finish his playing career and start his managerial career. Now England U21s manager.

Centre-Back: Ugo Ehiogu
Also left for Middlesbrough in 2000 after 237 league appearances over 9 years for Villa. Later stints for Leeds, Rangers and Sheffield United before retiring in 2009. Now Tottenham U21s manager.

Centre-Back: Gareth Barry
Started his career as a defender but eventually moved into midfield to become one of England’s best defensive midfielders. Left Villa for Manchester City in 2009 after 441 competitive appearances. Now at Everton. 53 caps for England over 12 years. The only member of this team still playing professionally.

Left-Back: Alan Wright
One of the shortest players in Premier League history at 5-foot-4. Made 260 league appearances for Villa until 2003, when he also left for Middlesbrough. Later career disrupted by injury but still found his way around several Championship clubs before finishing his career at Fleetwood Town in 2011.

Centre Midfielder: Ian Taylor
Made 235 league appearances for Villa and became a cult hero for the club before leaving for Derby in 2003. Finished his career in 2007 in League One with Northampton. 

Centre Midfielder: Lee Hendrie
A one-time England international in 1998, he spent over a decade at Villa before leaving in 2007 after 308 competitive appearances. He then headed to a succession of Championship and lower league clubs and briefly to Indonesia before retiring from pro football in 2013, although he continued play part-time. Famously declared bankruptcy in 2012.

Attacking Midfielder: Paul Merson
After joining Villa at 30, Merson made over 100 appearances before leaving for Portsmouth in 2002 where he helped lead the club back to the Premier League. He later joined Walsall where he became player-manager until being sacked in 2006. Now a well-known face on Sky Sports.

Striker: Julian Joachim
Lasted at Villa until 2001 when he was part-traded to Coventry City for Mustapha El Hadji after the Sky Blues’ relegation. After a largely unsuccessful stint there, he joined Leeds, followed by stints in the lower leagues with Walsall, Boston and Darlington. Still playing in the semi-pro leagues until fairly recently.

Striker: Dion Dublin
Was reportedly on the verge of being sold in late 1999 but suffered a serious neck injury which could have easily ended his career. He fought back and eventually left in the summer of 2004 after nearly six years at Villa Park, joining Leicester, Celtic and Norwich, where he won the Player of the Year Award in 2008 after his last season. Often appeared as a centre-back in later years. Now a TV presenter and inventor of a musical instrument, the Dube.

Written by James Bennett

February 6, 2016 at 22:57

Posted in Club Football, Football

FIFA 99 Premiership squad lists and ratings

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I searched for these on the internet and couldn’t find them, so thought it would be interesting to stick them up myself.

It’s clear to see just by glancing at the squads that football video game research has come a long way – there are various inaccuracies and there’s a general feel that certain squads are a season out of date. I’m not going to list every single one as there are too many. It’s just a brief overview. As it is I’ve had to type all of these figures out from the game as the only PC I have it on doesn’t have the internet.

Just to explain, FIFA 99’s ratings were based on eleven parameters: speed, shot power, shot accuracy, acceleration, tackling, header accuracy, ball control, agility, fitness, creativity and aggression. According to the in-game editor, the first ten of these added up to a limited total – aggression was controlled separately and didn’t count towards the overall total, but I’ve included it in the lists for completeness. They are all ranked out of 16. As a result, I’ve created a points average based on the main ten to work out who the best players are.

In the game, when on team management mode, you could only see the player’s number, name, position and the first four ratings. When I first played this game as a kid, I generally picked teams based on the first two – not exactly the worst way to pick a team considering at the time FIFA was mostly about running around and shooting. However, judging by the overall ratings, it seems that some of this may have been a bit misguided. Either way, that’s what you see. The first eleven players before the line are the default starters, while the next five are the default substitutes.

The other notable thing is that unlike future editions, it subtly avoids the issue of not having rights for certain players. Until recently, the only example I was aware of was Ronaldo – as he was the most famous player in the world at the time, it was a bit curious that he was absent and that some guy called “G. Silva” was listed in his place at Inter and Brazil. But looking through, there are other notable absentees and a couple of inclusions that don’t show up on the records even in the Premiership.

– Arsenal were just coming off the back of a Double under Arsene Wenger so it’s no surprise to see that they have one of the strongest squads in the league. Surprisingly, though, it’s not rated as the strongest

– Marc Overmars pips cover star Dennis Bergkamp to be the best player in the team

– Chris Kiwomya (usually a striker, incidentally) had left Arsenal in August 1998

– This proves that Fabio Capello wasn’t the first person to overrate Matthew Upson.

– Christopher Wreh’s ratings seem a bit high in hindsight, but then he was quite highly-rated at this point, before his career went from strength to strength with big money moves to Bournemouth, St Mirren, Bishop’s Stortford and Buckingham Town. German midfield Alberto Mendez’s career took a similar trajectory.

– Aston Villa actually made a surprising title challenge during the first half of the season under John Gregory before collapsing in spectacular fashion in the second half of the season. This had been with the assistance of Dion Dublin, who remains at Coventry in the game, but even so, I think some of these players are underrated.

– Adam Rachel is a goalkeeper. Not sure how they got that one wrong. Also “G. Byfield” is almost certainly Darren Byfield. Not sure if “Ferrerasi” is a typo by me or the game.

– I have no idea who “D. West” is supposed to be as I can’t find any Villa players with this name, but one forward who did make a few substitute appearances at this time was Darius Vassell. Possible alias? Other alternatives include Richard Walker and Alan Lee, who were also hanging around the senior squad at this time.

– Apparently Scott Murray left Villa in December 1997. He wasn’t really a defender either – he was a winger.

– Despite various mistakes with positions in this game, it’s worth remembering that Gareth Barry was actually a defender at this point, albeit more of a left-back.

– Back when Roy Hodgson was just another average English manager, he got sacked as Blackburn manager after a poor start to the season. Brian Kidd did no better and they were relegated, just four years after winning the title.

– A notable absentee here is Swedish striker Martin Dahlin, who did play five games during the season before picking up the injury that would eventually end his career. No Nathan Blake either, who joined four days after Oumar Konde in October 1998. And I don’t even know who Oumar Konde is.

– Alan Curbishley guided Charlton into the top flight via the most legendary of play-off finals in 1998 and they started the Premiership season well, before the inevitable slide to relegation.

– First thing to note is that Charlton’s home kit in this game is white with black shorts…nope, I have no idea either.

– The squad’s accurate, though, except the misspelling of Neil Redfearn’s surname (a geniune game mistake).

– This is the worst squad in the league.

– Gianluca Vialli’s Chelsea have the highest-rated squad in the league, but it is worth noting that this includes Pierluigi Casiraghi, who suffered a career-ending knee injury early in the season, and Brian Laudrup, who left the club after making only seven appearances.

– Since when does Graeme Le Saux play on the right?

– Equally, Flo and Zola as wingers surely can’t be correct.

– This was Gianluca Vialli’s last season as a player. He seems quite highly-rated for a 34-year-old who was concentrating on management, but I guess he was good originally. Michael Duberry, though…

– Coventry were perennially on the brink under Gordon Strachan and it’s not hard to see with this bunch. But having said that, it does seem slightly out of date – Brian Borrows left Coventry for Swindon in September 1997. It’s more like the 97-98 squad.

– I’m surprised how bad Huckerby is. Mainly because he is a legend

– Derby, under the always-ancient Jim Smith, weren’t that bad at this point and the squad is actually rated as the seventh-best on average. But again, it does feel slightly out of date.

– Notable absentees are midfielders Darryl Powell and Rory Delap (who back then was just plain old Rory Delap, rather than the long throw machine he became).

– Everton were under Walter Smith at this point, and the glory days seemed a long time ago. They had actually spent some money this year, though (Dacourt, Collins, Bakayoko and, yes, Marco Materazzi).

– Note the erroneous ‘n’ in what is supposed to be Hutchison.

– Full-backs Michael Ball and Craig Short are notable by their absence despite playing plenty of games.

– This was the season where George Graham left Leeds for Tottenham. He was replaced by David O’Leary. I think we can see who benefited from this.

– Again, it’s more of a 97-98 squad, particularly looking at the reserves. Nuno Santos, Bruno Ribeiro, Richard Jobson, Jason Blunt, Derek Lilley – a stellar supporting cast.

– Also Wijnhard nearly being rated as high as Hasselbaink? What the fuck?

– Martin O’Neill did what only he could do at this point and kept Leicester respectable, even taking them to a League Cup Final, which they lost to Tottenham.

– Why is Spencer Prior missing? And why is Colin Hill still there after leaving Leicester in May 1997? I’m guessing the two are linked…

– I once simulated a season using the Generate Matches tool and Robbie Savage ended it as the league’s top scorer. Kinda sums this game up really.

– Christ this is a really average bunch of players. Heskey looks excellent in comparison. But only one man here has captained his side to European Championship glory.

– This was the year of the Roy Evans/Gerard Houllier job-share. That went well.

– I used to start Sean Dundee ahead of Robbie Fowler. Just look at that pace.

– Michael Owen is the highest-rated player in the Premiership. He was still only 18 when this game was released.

– Treble Season United has a familiar look given how much we’ve been exposed to it over the years.

– In addition to Dundee, I also used to pick Jordi Cruyff. I scored from the halfway line with him too. Not sure why he’s rated higher than Sheringham, though. Henning Berg is surprisingly crap, only just better than David May, and Nicky Butt is rated higher than Roy Keane and Paul Scholes. I’m pretty sure that if this game was remade today, none of these would survive. At least they got Roy Keane’s aggression right, though.

– Bryan Robson kept Boro up without Juninho this time. In fact, he didn’t need Marco Branca either, after the Italian striker busted his knee and ended up leaving, causing a long-running legal dispute between him and the club.

– There are probably going to be people reading this who have little/no conception of what a game would be like if Gazza was included. Well, here’s your answer – he’s alright, but he’s no David Batty.

– Ruud Gullit took this team to the FA Cup Final, although by then they had added Didier Domi, Duncan Ferguson and Silvio Maric to the squad, which obviously made all the difference.

– Stephane Guivarc’h. It speaks for itself.

– Warren Barton. It speaks for itself.

– This Forest team won just seven games all season, but did have Dave Bassett and then Ron Atkinson as manager, so their demise was at least entertaining.

– The big problem for me here is this “R. Irvine” guy. I’ve no idea who it is – searching brings up a forward called Robert Irving, who left in the summer of 1997 after making one appearance in 1995. But it is worth noting that Andy Johnson and Chris Bart-Williams, both regulars in midfield, are both missing here.

– The worst default starting XI in the league, which was proven to be correct.

– Danny Wilson’s Wednesday side features plenty of domestic players, none of whom were any good, so it’s not particularly surprising that they got relegated in 1999-2000.

– No Niclas Alexandersson, who made 33 league appearances and was definitely there the season before too.

– Well, what were you expecting? It’s Southampton under Dave Jones in the 1990s. Obviously they’re going to be shit.

– Richard Dryden ties with Adam Reed of Blackburn as the lowest-rated player in the league, while Paul Jones ties with Forest’s Nigel Quashie as the lowest-rated player in a default starting XI.

– Carlton Palmer.

– This is a squad largely built by Christian Gross, but it is actually surprisingly decent.

– Noted striker Darren Anderton there. Even more absurd than having Ginola as a central midfielder.

– No, I don’t know who Michael Ferrante is either, but he did exist. Frank Lampard made 33 starts in 98-99, though, and yet is curiously absent.

– Marc Keller was a France international. I don’t know if he was as crap as the ratings make out, but I doubt it.

– Ian Wright is rated as their best player but bombed there. Another example of Harry Redknapp’s astuteness in the transfer market…

– Stale Solbakken left Wimbledon in March 1998 after falling out with Joe Kinnear, and yet somehow this isn’t the most bizarre error in this game.

– Look at how terrible some of those reserves are, and then look at Carl Leaburn’s rating. Four goals in 58 appearances for Wimbledon. As a striker.

– Stewart Castledine played in 28 league games for Wimbledon. This would sound reasonable if it wasn’t spread over nine seasons.

————-

So there we have it. I’m surprised anyone over the age of 10 took this game seriously, but I suppose that just shows how far these games have come since. With current FIFAs, people may quibble over the odd rating here or there, but at least Premier League goalkeepers aren’t being listed as defenders any more, at least squads are actually up to date, and at least notable players aren’t strangely missing.

I was just seven years old when I got this for Christmas in 1998 so I didn’t care. Was a fuss kicked up about the errors at the time? If anyone has any more info, it would be really interesting to hear.

Written by James Bennett

August 3, 2014 at 23:35

Posted in Club Football, Football

Football Manager 2014 predicts the future

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I know some of you hate people like me who go on about Football Manager a lot, but this is actually quite fun. I’ve set up a non-interventionist game on Football Manager 2014 – I’m just letting it run of its own accord and waiting to see what happens. It’s been quite entertaining so far – entertaining in a “this is so crazy it can’t possibly happen” way, and also in a “this is so crazy it probably will happen” way.

2013-14

– While Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea helped themselves to the League Cup and then the Champions League, with wins over Stoke and PSG in the respective finals, and Manchester United took their first trophy under David Moyes in the FA Cup, Manchester City and Arsenal battled over the Premier League. City held a six-point lead with three games to go, but first lost to Tottenham, and then dramatically on the final day to Chelsea in a 3-2 thriller, handing the championship to the Gunners on goal difference.

– Chelsea finished 3rd, ahead of Manchester United and Tottenham. Liverpool finished 5th after sacking Brendan Rodgers in November; he was replaced by Swansea’s Michael Laudrup, who in turn was replaced by Martin O’Neill, the Northern Irishman guiding the club to its first FA Cup Final.

– At the bottom end of the Premier League, Crystal Palace were long gone by the end, and Hull and West Ham eventually joined them. Sunderland narrowly escaped.

– Player of the Year went to Chelsea’s Juan Mata, though team mate Eden Hazard was the Players’ Player of the Year. The top scorer was Olivier Giroud, and Arsene Wenger won Manager of the Year. The biggest transfer of the season was Manchester City’s summer purchase of Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane.

– The Championship was won by Reading, who edged Wigan into 2nd. Leicester were promoted via the play-offs, beating Barnsley 3-0 in the final. Yeovil, Ipswich and Doncaster went down. Wolves won League One, and were promoted along with Bristol City and Tranmere, while Oldham Athletic were the most notable casualty at the bottom. Hartlepool won League Two, and went up with former non-league clubs Burton and Fleetwood, as well as play-off winners Oxford. Bristol Rovers dropped into the Conference with Newport, being replaced by Football League returnees Kidderminster and Wrexham.

– Abroad, things were rather predictable. PSG, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, AC Milan and Celtic were the champions of the other active countries. Fiorentina beat Borussia Dortmund in the final of the Europa League.

– The World Cup ended the season. There had already been drama in qualifying, with Spain being trounced in the play-offs by Russia, including a 5-0 second leg defeat courtesy of a Sergio Ramos red card. Then, in the tournament itself, the hosts Brazil failed to progress, while one by one the best teams in the competition took themselves out. A stoppage time Frank Lampard winner helped England to their second final, while Russia again surprised the footballing world by beating Germany in the other semi-final. In the final, goals from Danny Welbeck and Wayne Rooney helped England to a 2-1 win, and Henry Winter lost his shit.

2014-15

– This would go down as the year where David Moyes saw off the challenge of Jose Mourinho and Manuel Pellegrini. United took their 21st English title on goal difference from Chelsea, with Manchester City a point behind in 3rd and Liverpool 4th a further two points back. This left reigning champions Arsenal out of the Champions League spots in 5th, again ahead of Tottenham.

– West Brom and newly-promoted Wigan were the surprise packages, finishing 7th and 8th respectively. Aston Villa were the most notable casualty at the bottom, winning only 4 games all season. Stoke and Reading joined them in the relegation zone, while Fulham survived after sacking Martin Jol and replacing him with Gary Bowyer.

– Robin van Persie again won Player of the Year, with the players’ choice again being Eden Hazard. The Dutch star was also top scorer, with Wigan’s Billy McKay the top-scoring British player in third. David Moyes won Manager of the Year, ahead of Steve Clarke and Owen Coyle. The most notable retirement was Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard, who ended his player career at the age of 35, while Championship players breathed a sigh of relief as QPR’s Joey Barton retired at the age of 33.

– In the cups, Chelsea beat Manchester City on penalties in the FA Cup Final, while Manchester United beat Wigan in the League Cup Final in a repeat of the 2005 final.

– Nottingham Forest won the Championship under Billy Davies, with Burnley and Watford going up and Brighton, Charlton and Birmingham going down. Doncaster and Ipswich made immediate returns, with Coventry joining them. John Gregory’s Chesterfield won League Two, while Southend dropped out of the Football League, along with Morecambe. The biggest non-league story of the year was Dartford winning the Conference play-offs and gaining their first promotion into the Football League, while Leamington dropped out of Conference North after two seasons.

– Bayern, Celtic Real Madrid and PSG continued to dominate their respective leagues, and Juventus returned to the top of Serie A, as Andrea Pirlo ended his career with another winners’ medal. There was an all-Spanish Champions League Final as Atletico Madrid beat Barcelona, while Lazio beat Schalke in the Europa League Final. The biggest transfer of the season was Real Madrid buying Marek Hamsik from Napoli for £35.5m.

– Internationally, Cameroon beat Ghana in the Africa Cup of Nations Final, while Brazil beat Colombia in the Copa America Final.

2015-16

– Arsenal took a more comfortable title this time, beating FA and League Cup winners Spurs (in their last season at the old White Hart Lane) by 6 points. But the bigger stories were behind, as Manchester United and Chelsea finished 7th and 8th on 61 points, behind Swansea in 4th and Wigan in 6th. But Swansea, now managed by Paul Lambert, would not get a Champions League spot, as Mourinho masterminded another European success, beating his former club Real Madrid in the final. While Jose earned a reprieve, Moyes did not, and was sacked. His replacement would be former Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino

– For the first time in a long time, the three promoted sides, Nottingham Forest, Burnley and Watford, were all immediately relegated. Sunderland again had a narrow escape after sacking Poyet and replacing him with Jol.

– Arsene Wenger was again Manager of the Year, with Lambert and Coyle behind. Player of the Year went to Jack Wilshere, though Hazard won Players’ Player for the third year in a row. Jordan Rhodes of Southampton was the top scorer, beating Wigan’s Charlie Austin and Cardiff’s Andreas Cornelius. It was a notable year for retirements as Ryan Giggs, Frank Lampard and John Terry all ended their playing careers, and Nemanja Vidic played in his final Premier League game before retiring after a solitary cup appearance in the following season.

– Wolves, under Kenny Jackett, won the Championship, their second promotion in three seasons under the Welshman. Stoke and Aston Villa were promoted with them, while Bristol City, Coventry and Bolton went down. Birmingham won League One ahead of Brentford, with Sheffield United at last returning to the Championship with them. MK Dons were amongst the relegated teams, while Portsmouth finally left League Two by finishing third. Dartford’s brief foray into the Football League ended when they went down with Exeter, with Southend and Bristol Rovers taking their places. This season also saw FC United of Manchester earn promotion from the Northern Premier League.

– Bayern won their fourth straight Bundesliga title, while Real Madrid won the third La Liga title in a row, beating surprise contenders Valencia, managed first by Rafa Benitez and then by Roberto Mancini. Monaco broke PSG’s stranglehold in France, while Juventus won again in Italy and Celtic took yet another Scottish title, with Rangers finishing 5th in their first season back in the top flight. Barcelona won the Europa League after crashing out of the Champions League early on, but could only finish fourth in La Liga. The biggest transfers were both thanks to Bayern Munich: in the summer, they signed Romelu Lukaku from Chelsea for £38.5m, and then spent the same fee again on Schalke’s Julian Draxler.

– There would be more drama for English fans in Euro 2016. Facing Turkey in the semi-finals, Steven Caulker’s dramatic stoppage time winner helped them into the final against hosts France. Wilshere gave England the lead, but Arsenal team mate Giroud equalised in stoppage time to take the game to extra time, where Ashley Young scored to break French hearts and give captain Phil Jagielka the chance to lift the Henri Delaunay Cup. Roy Hodgson retired after the tournament, and was replaced by Tottenham’s Andre Villas-Boas. In South America, Uruguay beat Argentina to win Copa America.

2016-17

– At last, Manchester City finally clinched the Premier League title again, beating Liverpool by 3 points. Manchester United and League Cup winners Arsenal completed the top 4, leaving Chelsea outside again, this time down in 6th; Jose Mourinho somehow retained his job again. Martino had not, though; he was sacked by United and replaced by former rival Roberto Mancini. Arsene Wenger chose this moment to retire, with his position taken by Wolves manager Kenny Jackett.

– At the bottom, Sunderland finally ran out of chances, and were joined by Aston Villa and Stoke. Fulham, now managed by Brendan Rodgers, finished 17th but did qualify for Europe after winning the FA Cup for the first time, beating Wigan in the final courtesy of a goal from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.

– Cardiff’s Youssef El-Arabi was the top scorer with 26 goals, the highest total since Van Persie in 2012-13. Player of the Year went to Eden Hazard, though he failed to win a fourth-straight Players’ Player Award, which instead went to Bernard of Manchester City. Manuel Pellegrini was named Manager of the Year ahead of Laudrup and, bizarrely, Rodgers, despite losing 5 of the last 6 league matches of the season. Former England captain Rio Ferdinand was the most notable retirement, while the biggest transfer was his effective replacement, Samuel Umtiti, who was brought in from Lyon for £31.5m.

– Reading (who picked up a massive 98 poins), Forest and Watford returned to the Premier League, while QPR were relegated under Dougie Freedman, along with Tranmere and Millwall. Yeovil were champions of League One, and were joined by Preston and Crewe, who made it back-to-back promotions under Henning Berg. However, Coventry slumped to back-to-back relegations, the latest being at the hands of Graham Westley. MK Dons won League Two, with Wycombe returning to the third tier via the play-offs, while Bristol Rovers were again relegated into the Conference, this time along with Bury, who in March had appointed Joey Barton as manager in a bid to escape the drop. Luton at last won the Conference, and they were joined by Football League newcomers Ebbsfleet, while Hereford and Stockport also left the Conference in the opposite direction.

– Chelsea’s last chance of Champions League qualification had been via winning it, but they lost the final to PSG; sadly Zlatan Ibramovich played no part in what would be his final season as a player. Meanwhile, Lazio won another Europa League, this time beating Lyon in the final. In the leagues, there was a big shock in the Bundesliga as Borussia Dortmund returned to the top and Bayern slumped to 6th under Josep Guardiola as Robben and Ribery both slipped into retirement. Monaco, Real Madrid, Juventus and Celtic continued their dominance of their respective leagues.

– The only major international tournament of note was the Africa Cup of Nations, which saw Egypt return to the top with a win in the final over rivals Algeria.

2017-18

– Manchester City won the Premier League once again, still relying on their old spine of Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero, supplemented with more purchased stars: Varane, Bernard, Thiago, Chalobah, Sterling, Wanyama, Gaston Ramirez, Luke Shaw, Strootman and Peruzzi. Arsenal were 6 points distant, with United 3rd and Tony Pulis’ Newcastle again denying Chelsea a top four spot on goal difference; Jose again kept his job, though. Tottenham finished down in 9th, replacing manager Marco van Basten with David Moyes in November; the Scot then guided them to a League Cup triumph over Liverpool. Southampton finished 8th and won the FA Cup. Wigan again finished 6th, but were now under Roberto Martinez again.

– This was because Owen Coyle, mastermind of their great recent run, had been recruited by Everton in a vain attempt to stave off relegation, though Malky Mackay had begun the process. They would be joined by Watford and Wolves, who had curiously appointed Dougie Freedman as Jackett’s successor despite overseeing QPR’s relegation from the Championship the year before. Liverpool could laugh at Everton’s demise but they had been down there themselves at one point; Laudrup was dismissed and replaced by the prodigal son Rafa Benitez, who then guided them to an FA Cup Final.

– Manager of the Year again went to Pellegrini, beating Pulis and Cardiff’s Gary Bowyer. Eden Hazard won yet another award in the shape of Player of the Year, with the players’ choice being Man City’s Thiago. Jordan Rhodes was top scorer for the second time with 26 goals, comfortably beating Norwich’s Lionard Ekangamene and Manchester United’s new star striker Salomon Rondon.

– Stoke won the Championship by 10 points, with West Ham, armed with the Italian pair of Giampaolo Pazzini and soon-to-retire Antonio Cassano, edging Aston Villa by a point for 2nd. Crystal Palace went up via the play-offs, while Preston, Doncaster and Crewe went down. QPR, now under Mark Hughes again, won League One, with Chesterfield (under Phil Brown) and Gillingham (under Jens Lehmann) the surprise promoted pair behind them. Millwall suffered back-to-back relegations, slumping into League Two, while Coventry, who suffered a similar fate a year before, were beaten in the League Two play-off final by Port Vale, as AFC Wimbledon reached the third tier for the first time. Dagenham and Crawley dropped out of the Football League as Luton narrowly avoided an immediate return to the Conference, while Dartford won the Conference play-offs again, joining champions Newport back in League Two.

– Juventus completed the second ever Italian Treble with victory over Lyon in the Champions League Final, courtesy of a late winner from Fabio Borini. Real Madrid’s run in Spain ended as Barcelona returned to the top under Vincenzo Montella in Carles Puyol’s final season as a player, while PSG returned to the top in France and Dortmund won the Bundesliga as Bayern again floundered in 5th. Celtic won yet again in Scotland, benefiting from a new partnership with Chelsea which saw Gerard Deulofeu and Branislav Ivanovic arrive on loan along with Southampton’s Aaron Lennon and Arsenal’s Miralem Pjanic, but Rangers required a relegation play-off victory over Ross County to avoid slipping back into the Scottish Championship, leading to Ally McCoist’s ousting in favour of Nick Barmby.

– What followed would be high drama: the World Cup in Russia would go down as one of the greatest in history. Brazil once again failed to progress out of the groups, and they would be joined on the sidelines by Italy and world number 1s England, who had embarrassingly lost in their opening group game against Costa Rica courtesy of former Arsenal striker Joel Campbell’s winner, and again in their second game to a Ronaldo-inspired Portugal. Scotland, however, did progress, only to be eliminated by Germany on penalties.

In the early knockout rounds, it looked like it would be France’s tournament to lose, as Mexico took out the Germans in the quarters. In the semis, France would face the USA, who had scraped through the group stage in 2nd behind Uruguay before beating Holland and Australia. Uruguay would face Mexico in the other semi. But in a massive surprise, Aron Johannsson scored a 90th minute winner for the Americans to send them through to their first final, while Adrian Aldrete scored a 120th winner for Mexico in a 3-2 thriller, denying Uruguay captain Luis Suarez a shot at the big prize.

And so it would be a clash of two of the great rivals in world football. A tedious match was set alight when Brek Shea scored in the 59th minute for the US, but Carlos Fierro snatched an equaliser from a wayward backpass. But then substitute Jozy Altidore entered the fray and capitalised on two defensive errors to sink two late goals and clinch the greatest prize in football for the country that calls it soccer. Brad Guzan was thus a World Cup-winning captain, Tim Ream ended up with a World Cup winners’ medal, and Jurgen Klinsmann became only the second person to win the World Cup as a player and a manager.

Some where-are-they-nows:

– Torquay are still in League Two, having just had their best finish (6th). However, vice-captain Mike Williamson, who had returned to the club where he began his career, has just been released. The only surviving current players are Michael Poke and Jordan Chapell. Colin Cooper is the manager, having taken over from the sacked Mark Yates, while Danny Graham is the most notable player in the squad.

– Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have continued their monopoly on the Best Player awards, with Ronaldo seemingly ageing better despite being older. Ronaldo, now Real’s record goalscorer, is currently being paid £575,000 a week.

– Wayne Rooney is England’s most capped player, with 140 appearance, and also unsurprisingly the record goalscorer with 57.

– Nigel Pearson is the longest-serving Premier League manager, having been in charge for nearly 7 years. Second is Steve Clarke, and third is Jose Mourinho.

– Peter Schmeichel is now the manager of Conference club FC Halifax Town, having been appointed in June 2016.

– Steven Gerrard is a coach at Ipswich.

– Michael Carrick is still playing for some reason. He’s at Swansea.

– Leon Osman is manager of Exeter.

– Harry Redknapp retired in 2016, a year after leaving Newcastle. He had also previously had a stint at Hull. For some reason, obviously FM doesn’t take into account that he doesn’t manage north of London.

– Ryan Giggs has just been appointed by Sheffield Wednesday after being sacked by Aston Villa for failing to get promoted back to the Premier League.

– Scott Parker is captain of Leyton Orient.

– Conor Sammon is at Leeds.

– Interestingly, Lucas Leiva is now rated as a Liverpool legend, on a par with the likes of Rush, Shankly, Dalglish and Paisley, and ahead of the merely iconic Steven Gerrard. Jonny Evans has been added to the Man Utd legends, Tim Krul to Newcastle’s, Wilshere and Ramsey to Arsenal’s, Jack Cork to Southampton’s, and Jonas Olsson to West Brom’s. Ashley Williams is the only Swansea legend.

– Some of the more bizarre signings I’ve noticed include Cardiff’s brief period of having Champions League winners Eric Abidal and Diego Milito on their books at the same time, Tottenham signing former Arsenal player Alex Song, PSG signing virtually everyone (particularly in 2014-15 when they spent £140m on players, and again in 2016-17 when they spent £150m), and Real Madrid paying £15m for Victor Moses before selling him soon after for £5.75m (he has just returned to Spain with Sevilla). There are also several instances of players being signed, barely played, and then leaving again, or players being contracted but not registered and thus not playing. Adam Lallana has just been released by Southampton after playing only 6 league games since the end of the first season in the game, with none coming after 2015-16.

– The most expensive signing so far is Timo Werner, who moved from Stuttgart to Wolfsburg for £41.5m in the summer of 2017. The most expensive regen so far as Polish striker Damian Imianowski, who was bought from PSG by Bayern for £34.5m in January 2018.

– Only Tottenham, West Ham, AFC Wimbledon, York and Ebbsfleet (whose new ground is named after former manager Liam Daish) have moved into new stadia, with Coventry returning to the Ricoh Arena in 2016. There have been no tycoon takeovers in England, with Greenock Morton being bought by one in Scotland, though he has since withdrawn his funding.

– Disappointingly, there appear to be no power shifts in world football yet. The same teams winning everything so far, but I’ve run a similar game on FM13 and it does take a while to kick in – it was a game in which Real Zaragoza became a global force by 2022. I intend to eventually continue this to see which team will rise up and surprise everyone in the next few years…

Written by James Bennett

February 14, 2014 at 18:43

UC: The Results

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Apologies for the complete lack of updates in recent months – I have been updating the tables, particularly the English tables, and have been posting the odd score on Twitter, but just never got round to posting the latest standings in full. Well, here they are now – in full, the results:

UC9

Premier League
Andy Charles – 54
Nick Hancock – 58
Jake Gibbons – 58
Mark Streather – 66
Phillip Horton – 70
Joe Shennan – 70
Richard Brown – 70
James Bennett – 70
Jack Howes – 76
Stuart Bennett – 82

Championship
James Bennett – 132
Mark Streather – 134
Jake Gibbons – 138
Nick Hancock – 146
Jack Howes – 150
Andy Charles – 158
Stuart Bennett – 160
Joe Shennan – 164
Phillip Horton – 170

League One
Jack Howes – 146
Andy Charles – 154
Joe Shennan – 158
James Bennett – 158
Jake Gibbons – 158
Mark Streather – 172
Stuart Bennett – 174
Phillip Horton – 188
Nick Hancock – 204

League Two
James Bennett – 116
Nick Hancock – 124
Mark Streather – 130
Joe Shennan – 130
Jack Howes – 132
Jake Gibbons – 138
Stuart Bennett – 144
Andy Charles – 152
Phillip Horton – 176

Bonuses
Mark Streather – 5 (5 for Man City finishing as FA Cup runners-up)
Andy Charles – 2 (2 for Chelsea reaching the FA Cup semi-finals)
James Bennett – 2 (2 for Chelsea reaching the FA Cup semi-finals)
Nick Hancock – 2 (2 for Chelsea reaching the FA Cup semi-finals)
rest – 0

Overall Standings
James Bennett – 474
Jake Gibbons – 492
Mark Streather – 497
Jack Howes – 504
Andy Charles – 516
Joe Shennan – 522
Nick Hancock – 530
Stuart Bennett – 560
Phillip Horton – 604

Spreadsheet

———

UC Conference

Conference Premier
Andy Charles – 122
James Bennett – 128
Phillip Horton – 128
Nick Hancock – 140
Mark Streather – 142
Stuart Bennett – 186

Conference North
Mark Streather – 118
James Bennett – 120
Stuart Bennett – 130
Phillip Horton – 144
Andy Charles – 148
Nick Hancock – 160

Conference South
Nick Hancock – 86
Phillip Horton – 92
James Bennett – 94
Stuart Bennett – 100
Mark Streather – 104
Andy Charles – 120

Bonuses
Andy Charles – 10 (10 for Wrexham winning the FA Trophy)
Mark Streather – 5 (5 for Grimsby Town finishing as FA Trophy runners-up)
rest – 0

Overall
James Bennett – 342
Mark Streather – 359
Phillip Horton – 364
Andy Charles – 380
Nick Hancock – 386
Stuart Bennett – 416

Spreadsheet

———

UC Europe

Ligue 1
James Bennett – 64
Mark Streather – 64
Andy Charles – 66
Nick Hancock – 68
Stuart Bennett – 74
Phillip Horton – 80

Bundesliga
Andy Charles – 42
Mark Streather – 56
Nick Hancock – 56
Stuart Bennett – 58
James Bennett – 64
Phillip Horton – 66

Serie A
James Bennett – 52
Nick Hancock – 56
Stuart Bennett – 58
Mark Streather – 58
Andy Charles – 60
Phillip Horton – 62

La Liga
Mark Streather – 70
Nick Hancock – 76
Andy Charles – 84
Phillip Horton – 84
Stuart Bennett – 88
James Bennett – 90

Bonuses
James Bennett – 2 (2 for Real Madrid reaching the Champions League semi-finals)
Mark Streather – 2 (2 for Barcelona reaching the Champions League semi-finals)
Nick Hancock – 2 (2 for Barcelona reaching the Champions League semi-finals)
Phillip Horton – 2 (2 for Barcelona reaching the Champions League semi-finals)
Stuart Bennett – 2 (2 for Barcelona reaching the Champions League semi-finals)
Andy Charles – 0

Overall
Mark Streather – 246
Andy Charles – 252
Nick Hancock – 254
James Bennett – 268
Stuart Bennett – 276
Phillip Horton – 290

Spreadsheet

———

So congratulations to myself, myself and Mark on winning the competitions. Next year’s predictions will be a streamlined affair – as the lack of updates suggests, it became too big to manage this year, so I’m slimming it back down to focusing on the 4 main English divisions. I will also run the competition through Apocalypse Football to see if we can build on the numbers we picked up this year.

For those that played and followed, thanks again.

Written by James Bennett

July 9, 2013 at 18:28

Paolo Di Canio, principles and the interaction between politics and football

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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…

Written by James Bennett

April 1, 2013 at 18:38

Posted in Club Football, Football

To the Conference and beyond…

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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.

Written by James Bennett

March 10, 2013 at 21:38

Manchester United vs Real Madrid Analysis

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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.

Written by James Bennett

March 6, 2013 at 21:48

Posted in Club Football, Football