The End (again)

It’s that time again.

I’ve once more reached the point where I’m tired of listening to my own (written) voice.  As much as I enjoy having my say on all things football, it’s time for a break from the exciting world of blogging.

I’ve enjoyed Midfield Veteran – it seems to have been reasonably well received and it was of a higher standard than my previous attempt at a football site (that wouldn’t be difficult you could say).  It was certainly more focused, being about opinion pieces rather than a bit of everything.

This ‘end’ will be a bit different as I will also be winding down my Twitter account.  After six years, I’ve decided to call that a day too.  I’m not sure if I will delete the account or keep it open purely for reading other people’s work.

I’m sure I will return to football writing and blogging at some stage.  In what form that will be I’m not sure, though I have a few ideas.  In the meantime I will be on a Guardiola/Klopp style sabbatical – though with slightly less clamour for my return.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who took the trouble to read my posts, commented or responded on Twitter.  I’ll be back in another guise in future.

Summer Football for Scotland?

Is summer football really the way ahead for the Scottish game?

It seems that more and more people connected to the national sport believe so.  Former Kilmarnock, Celtic and Scotland winger Davie Provan is a long-time supporter while, more recently, Alloa chairman Mike Mulraney and Motherwell general manager Allan Burrows have given their backing.

Former Rangers defender Maurice Ross is also in favour of a change to the calendar and speaks with some experience, having played (and now managing) in Norway’s Tippeligaen, which runs from April until November.

Those campaigning for change believe that playing over the summer months will allow for a more positive fan experience and make the Scottish game a more attractive proposition for potential broadcasters.

It’s hard to argue that many things have to be done differently.  There are widely held concerns at the moment regarding marketing, ticket prices, sponsorship, refereeing and league structure.  Meanwhile, on the field, Scottish clubs continue to struggle when it comes to European competition and the national team have now gone 17 years without appearing at a major tournament.

While there is no miracle cure for the ills of the Scottish game, could playing through the summer months be the shot in the arm that’s required?

Conditions for fans would certainly be improved should they attend matches during the warmest part of the year.  It’s not easy to attract anyone – particularly young fans – to midweek fixtures in December and January.  However, there are no guarantees that supporters would flock to summer games in increased numbers.

Some may view going to a match at this time of year as something of a novelty or ‘one-off’, like a trip to the seaside or to a theme park and that’s not enough.  Also, while there’s no doubting Scottish fans’ commitment to the game, many will follow other sports during summer and may appreciate a break from the game during the better weather.

Perhaps broadcasters will be keen to cover the Scottish game at a time when most leagues are in the close season, but again it’s a risky strategy.  If viewers aren’t impressed, the television companies will drop the SPFL like a stone – if it’s a roaring success, it could lead other, higher standard leagues to follow suit.  Then, anything unique about what Scotland has to offer is gone.

The standard of pitches will be better, that’s not in doubt. However, that won’t automatically lead to an improvement in the standard or style of play – that’s up to coaches and players.

Then, of course, there are the issues which would arise in trying to fit the domestic season around European and international tournaments, particularly if there was Scottish involvement.

Summer football for Scotland shouldn’t be ruled out, by any means.  However, such a seismic change can only happen if there is clear evidence that it is the right move for everyone involved.  That does not appear to be the case at the moment.

Anyway, before any change is made to the calendar, there are a host of other issues which must first be dealt with.

Contact Shouldn’t Always Mean Foul

Picture the scene.

A fit and healthy male (in his 20s or 30), is walking along a busy high street. As he weaves between pedestrians on his way to his destination, he moves into the path of an elderly gent who is heading in the opposite direction.

Despite our hero moving quickly to his left in order to avoid a collision with the senior citizen, there is a coming together with the pair lightly brushing shoulders.  The older man, realising what’s happened, turns round immediately to apologise. His ‘victim’ reacts somewhat differently- his legs appear to give way and he ends up in a pile on the pavement.

You may find such behaviour to be ridiculous, and with good reason.  So why then, are similar situations played out and condoned at football matches every week of the season?

Contact, that’s why.

The ‘c’ word is used to cover and justify a multitude of sins.  It’s the reason why an overlapping full-back can leap like a salmon when they feel the hand of an opponent on their back.  It’s what allows a striker to drag his foot along the turf until it connects with the body of a diving goalkeeper, before he goes down.

And it’s widely accepted, because many in the modern game believe that when ‘contact’ occurs, players are ‘entitled’ to go down, no matter how slight or innocuous the challenge may be.  When one player touches another – particularly in the penalty area – it’s seen as a sign to hit the floor.

The double standards are infuriating.  Players, coaches, pundits, journalists and referees spout about how they abhor diving (the type where there is no contact), yet have no problem with anyone who uses the slightest of touches to skin or clothing to fall over.

When did football stop being a contact sport?  When did fit and strong professional athletes lose the ability to remain standing after a bump or nudge from an opponent?  Probably around the same time when many people in football decided that ‘contact’ and ‘foul’ were one and the same.

Video technology, better officials and more severe punishments for guilty parties all have merit, but are limited.  What’s really needed is a change in attitude – from players who need to ‘man up’ and stay on their feet and from ‘experts’ who think that this secondary form of diving is acceptable.

A solution to this problem will only arrive when enough people consider it to be a problem.

Football – the new middle class sport?

In West Central Scotland, we are very fortunate to have two outstanding venues for grassroots football.  The Toryglen Regional Football Centre in Glasgow (opened 2009), and the Ravenscraig Regional Sports Facility in Motherwell (opened 2010), both house high quality indoor and outdoor football pitches, which are used by hundreds of people every day.

From toddlers to ‘veterans’ to professional teams, these impressive facilities are in constant use both in midweek and at weekends.  Those teams fortunate to have use of the indoor parks need never worry about cancelling training sessions or matches as a result of bad weather.

They are a world away from the gravel playing surfaces which were so common during the 1980s and ‘90s and where so many young players of my generation were introduced to the game.  I remember occasions where the pre-match warm up for me and my team mates involved brushing away large puddles from the goalmouths, to ensure that the match went ahead.

Of course, such improvements are welcome.  However, they come at a cost.  The price of using these grand surroundings, not surprisingly, isn’t cheap.  Back in the day, school football was free and you could turn out for a local boys club for a couple of pounds per week – times have changed.

Most teams – even at the youngest age groups – charge upwards of £20 a month.  That allows a boy or girl one or two training sessions each week, as well as small-sided games at the weekend.  If a child’s school doesn’t have a team (as is often the case nowadays), and they want to play organised football, then their parents have little choice other than to pay up.  Should they have more than one kid, then that’s a hefty outlay for any family.

This isn’t an attack on the teams involved. If they don’t charge over the odds, then they can’t afford to train in the shiny new facilities.  The fees they bring in each month also go towards player’s strips as well as training kit and equipment.  There are no huge profits and nobody is being ripped off – well not by the clubs anyway.

There are regular calls for the Scottish Government and local authorities to invest more in the national sport and perhaps they should.  However, any available funds should be used to subsidise grassroots football, rather than being directed towards the professional game.

As it stands, many teams have waiting lists.  Sadly, that’s not because every kid in the country wants to play.  More likely, many parents and coaches understand the difficulties in trying set up a new club at that level of the game and decide against it.

To previous generations, football was an easy, relatively cheap activity.  That’s no longer the case, with many other sports now widely available for a similar price.  Alarm bells should be ringing when kids have the option of playing basketball, handball or tennis (traditionally considered an elitist sport in the UK) for no more than the average cost of a game of football.

A solution is needed sooner, rather than later.  After waiting for decades to have proper facilities in place, it would be awful if talented young players were priced out of playing the game.

Why Ricky Sbragia Has it All Wrong

As a fan of Scottish football, it annoys me when people have the wrong impression about the game in my homeland.

It seems to me that, beyond our shores, many believe that we only produce big, physical and powerful players.  Watch any pre-match press conference before the national team play or a Scottish club takes part in European competition: the opposing manager will talk about the crowd and the atmosphere they create, how difficult the match is going to be, and how ‘strong’ the Scottish side are – usually without naming a single player.

Of course, this isn’t a fair reflection on the Scottish game.  Over the years we’ve produced the likes of Jimmy Johnstone, Jim Baxter and Kenny Dalglish, players of undoubted flair and skill.  More recently there’s been Ryan Gauld, currently trying to make his mark at Sporting Lisbon.

It’s perhaps not surprising, however, that on some occasions, we are misunderstood.  After all, we don’t always help ourselves.

Take Ricky Sbragia for example (please, somebody take him).  This week, the Scotland under-19 coach announced his squad for forthcoming matches against Croatia, Greece and Italy.  One notable omission from the squad was Jack Harper, the youngster born in Spain to Scottish parents, who is currently with Real Madrid.  Now, the fact that a young Scot finds himself at one of the biggest clubs in the world should not be enough reason on its own for his inclusion – if he isn’t as good as the other players in the squad, fair enough.

What is concerning though, is that he has been left out because Sbraiga feels that he is a ‘luxury’.  The coach also referred to choosing players who are ‘physical’ and ‘runners’.

Comments such as those set alarm bells ringing at all sorts of levels.  For a start, they sound like they come from someone who has only one focus for the matches ahead – winning.  There’s nothing wrong with that, you could argue, but surely one of the aims at this age bracket is to try and develop players so that they will be capable of making the transition to full international level.  Harper isn’t going to gain anything from being left out altogether.

Sbragia digs an even bigger whole for himself by describing Harper as “exceptionally gifted.” Perhaps, in that case, questions should be asked of a coach who is unable fit someone with such ability into his team.

Most worrying though, is his preference for physicality over technique, when leading the cream of our youth players into the international arena.  Such thinking was outdated long ago, yet this comes from a man who coaches just two rungs down the ladder from Gordon Strachan.

No coach or manager should be judged on one decision or player selection or omission – but in this case it’s hard not to.  Even if we were to win all three matches, what is the true value of such victories if at least some of those involved don’t reach senior level in years to come?

Scotland has spent the best part of twenty years in the international wilderness.  Snubbing promising young players isn’t going to help us find our way back.

Dortmund Faith Deserves to be Rewarded

A 3-0 win over Schalke in the Ruhr derby provided further evidence that Borussia Dortmund’s troubles of earlier in the season have been overcome.

After spending much of their time in the bottom three and showing little evidence that they would be able to play their way out, BVB have put together a run of four straight wins and now sit in tenth position in the Bundesliga.

Qualification for Europe now seems a genuine possibility and any speculation regarding Jurgen Klopp’s immediate future has ceased to be a topic for discussion.

To their credit, Dortmund didn’t bow to pressure from the media or anywhere else, going as far as to say that Klopp would ‘never’ be dismissed.  They deserve credit for seeing the bigger picture and shying away from the panic button.

Not every club would have resisted the urge to make a change.  Imagine, for instance, that one of English football’s leading lights had experienced such a torrid sequence of results.  Would they have been so supportive to a coach who had overseen such a downturn in a team’s fortunes?

Liverpool’s remarkable run last season, which almost brought them the league title, was always going to be difficult to match.  However, few expected such a stuttering start to this campaign.  Deprived of the sold Luis Suarez, the injured Daniel Sturridge and with new signings failing to settle, Liverpool sat in 12th place in the English Premier League after a November defeat at Crystal Palace.  2013/14 soon became a distant memory.  The pressure started to mount on Rodgers, so much so that the man himself recently admitted that he feared for his job.

Around 30 miles away, Louis van Gaal hasn’t exactly covered himself in glory since taking over at Manchester United.  Expected to steady the ship after David Moyes fiasco, the Dutchman’s tenure up to this point has produced as many questions as it has answers.  Nobody has suggested that his coat is on a shaky nail, but if his club were prepared to remove his predecessor when sitting seventh in the league, then it shows that they won’t hesitate if they believe that a change is required.

Neither Liverpool or United have been in any trouble at the bottom this season, but given the intense scrutiny both Rodgers and Van Gaal have been under this season, imagine the reaction had one or both indeed ‘done a Dortmund.’  It was hostile enough for Moyes when he was toiling at Old Trafford and similarly, Roy Hodgson endured a difficult, if brief, spell at Anfield.

Of course, the two old rivals are only examples of clubs who haven’t had their coaching troubles to seek over recent years.  West Brom dismissed Alan Irvine only months after he was appointed and if Manchester City lose out to Barcelona in the Champions League, then the speculation about Manuel Pellegrini will intensify.

So, are Dortmund an example to clubs across Europe in that they believe in giving a coach time to turn around a difficult situation?  Or would have reacted in the same way, had they a Moyes or Hodgson on their hands?  Perhaps Klopp’s case is an exceptional one, given his undoubted talent and that it’s only two years since he led his team to a Champions League final.

Whatever the reasons, it would be encouraging if there were two outcomes: Dortmund are rewarded, on the pitch, for keeping faith in their manager, and other clubs recognise that while making a change is often the obvious move, it isn’t always the correct one.

English Fans Must Take a Stand

It was no great surprise that there was widespread condemnation of the English Premier League’s latest broadcasting deal.  £5bn is a figure usually associated with government budgets or multinational takeovers, rather than showing sport on television.  However, that’s what Sky and BT are prepared to pay in order to bring English football into the homes and pubs of their subscribers.

Of course, we’ve been here before – almost every time a new contract is announced, there is outrage about the obscene figures involved.  It’s been that way since satellite dishes – round and square – started appearing on the external walls of households more than twenty years ago.

Supporters groups, journalists and, because it’s an election year, politicians, will all have their say.  They will appeal to the Premier League and the clubs to share the wealth, reduce ticket prices and remember the ‘little guys’ at lower league and grassroots levels.  They will do so fully aware that their words are more than likely to fall on deaf ears.

The Premier League was, to be blunt, created by the clubs for the clubs.  It has developed into an unstoppable juggernaut which gathers ridiculous revenues on its travels.  It didn’t get that way by being fair or by thinking of anyone on the outside looking in.

There are two real reasons why the English game has reached this point.  First, because those who oversee the top division don’t really care what anybody else thinks and second, because they’ve been allowed to.

That second point is the key.  The English Premier League, it’s member clubs and its partners (particularly Sky) have, for more than two decades, been allowed to run amok.  They’ve altered kick-off times, priced the game out of the reach of many ordinary fans and may yet be allowed to play domestic matches thousands of miles away.

They have been virtually unchallenged.  Sure there have been dissenting voices over the years, with some expressing their displeasure at how the modern games treats it’s ‘customers’ and others turning their backs on top level football to watch the ‘real’ game, much further down the pyramid.

However, these individuals or small groups have been outnumbered by those who have bought into the brand that is the English Premier League (apologies for the use of that term, but that’s what it is).  They have been seduced by the clever marketing and the expensive signings from overseas.  They still follow their team, even when it costs £62 for an away ticket, for a match hundreds of miles away.  They still fork out for season tickets and still pay three figures for a replica kit, which allows their five year old to wear the team colours and his favourite player’s name on the back.

They do all that in the knowledge that their club is absolutely coining it in, while giving very little back to their followers.  Sure, there are pre-match fanzones and clubs become involved in the local community, but does anybody seriously think that they couldn’t do more?

The only way to bring about real change is for English football fans to take a stand and hit the powers-that-be where it hurts.  That involves cancelling Sky subscriptions and, more painfully, boycotting matches.

Of course, it won’t be easy.  Imagine if AFC Bournemouth are promoted at the end of the season and their fans are then expected to basically walk away from their first season in the top division.

However, for English football fans, that is the reality if they want to reclaim the game for the ordinary, working class fans who built it.  Comments on forums, phone calls to radio stations and banners at matches are falling well short of what’s required – it’s time for real action