Wednesday, 13 July 2016

EFL Chief faces tough questions over Football League restructure at Supporters Summit

As a follow up to my post in the spring on the importance of supporter involvement in the proposed revamping of the English Football League, it is encouraging to learn that EFL chairman Ian Lenagan will answer questions at the Supporters Summit on 16th July.

The Supporters Summit is an event organised by the Football Supporter's Federation and Supporters Direct. It will be held at Wembley Stadium. More information can be found via this link.

So far the league restructuring has not gathered much traction and the EFL has not demonstrated if there is any appetite for the proposed expansion of the league to 100 teams among the supporters. 

In the meantime the new format for the EFL Trophy has been announced which is supposed to include invited Premier League and some Championship clubs fielding under 21 sides. Clubs are only invited if they have category one youth academies. The trouble is that reportedly half of the 16 clubs originally asked to join have already declined the invitation.

The fact that the EFL announced the new format without seemingly checking if the invited clubs would be likely to accept should be a matter of concern for many fans of EFL clubs. Invitations have now been extended to more clubs from the Championship. However, the new format has met with some hostility and it does not reflect well upon the league that very little the groundwork seems to have been done before making the announcement.

The EFL Trophy, under its numerous guises, remains a popular competition which has been running for 33 years. It represents a chance for second and third tier clubs to play is a meaningful cup final at Wembley. The competition is the recent subject of a Euro 2016 meme as it began to occur to people that the Portugal international defender Jose Fonte has a European Championship and an EFL Trophy medal.
The concern from fans seems to be about the potential watering down of the competition and the possibility that it might prevent lower division clubs from the chance of their big day out. The argument for including under 21 teams is that it will make for an effective proving ground for young English players as they try to break into Premier League first teams.

Perhaps Mr Lenagan will be able to explain the thinking behind the format changes and in turn supporters will be able to impress upon him the importance of the supporters, who are key stakeholders in the EFL, involvement in restructuring the Football League.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Euro 2016 Diary - England: What is to be done?

A photo posted by UEFA EURO 2016 (@uefaeuro) on
It is fair to say that recent political events may lead to a change of relationship between a large number of English and their national team. As one of the many millions who were on the wrong end of the EU referendum on 23rd June I am reevaluating my feelings towards the country of my birth and its national football team.

Supporting England has always been problematic for me. I have never been comfortable with what I call the typical expression of English nationalism. Now that England is heading into a political direction to which I am fundamentally opposed I do not know if I will ever really be able to get behind England again. This is my choice and my problem. However, I do not believe I am alone.

That being said, were I to be more positive you could make a case for the national team unifying our divided nation either through success on the field or contempt for its dismal failures. Analysing their latest debagging at the hands of Iceland is difficult. Did they fail because the players just aren't good enough or was it because the manager got the tactics wrong? Are Iceland's players better than England's or better organised or both?

I believe that the mainstream consensus within the media and at the English FA is that the players are of sufficient quality that they, with proper management, can "punch their weight" as the FA's Chief Executive would put it. England's defeat has been put down to them freezing or being too scared to play to their maximum which, with the sort of conceit characteristic of the English, would have been enough to beat Iceland. This of course presupposes that Iceland's players are not as good as England's and that I suspect is a view against which you could strongly argue.

Nevertheless, the FA have announced that full time psychologists will travel with England in the future for international tournaments. Dr Steve Peters is the author of best selling self help book The Chimp Paradox and has worked with Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton and Ronnie O'Sullivan. He has hitherto been engaged by England on a part time basis. Perhaps he or people like him can relieve the tension in the English legs.

But whether the players will ever be are good enough to go deep in international tournaments remains to be seen. The Elite Player Performance Plan  (EPPP) is still in it's infancy and we have yet to see if it will bear fruit. The plan has been strongly criticised for undermining local youth systems with may in turn produce fewer players. However, if it is successful then surely in time we'll see a broader pools of decent professionals with whom the England manager can choose.

EPPP is still in its infancy and it is too soon to determine as to whether or not they are a success. It is certainly not the time to be looking to restructure the system at this stage without at least giving it a chance to fail.

It should also be borne in mind that many of the current Wales squad learned their trade in England. This suggests that the English system is perfectly capable of producing players that, with the right management can succeed right now. If England can produce a team capable of getting to the semi final of the Euros then surely England can produce a team capable of getting to the semi final of the Euros?

As comforting as it may be for disgruntled and disenfranchised England fans, I am not quite willing to accept that the England players are rubbish. I look at the team and see a bunch of decent professionals who, given the right conditions, can manage what Iceland and Wales achieved and that is to get the best out of themselves. This is the lesson to be learned from the Iceland result and I believe that in some ways the defeat should to be as instructive to England as the 7-1 loss to Hungary in 1954.

Whether England will ever be good enough to win the World Cup or European Championships is not the point. What matters is that they give their best and depart with dignity Sadly they have failed to do so under Roy Hodgson. 

Sunday, 12 June 2016

Euro 2016 Diary: England draw again

A photo posted by UEFA EURO 2016 (@uefaeuro) on

Unlike Wales, England are generally pretty good at qualifying for major international tournaments. However, also unlike Wales, England are not very good at playing in major international tournaments. Once again the England team succumbed to a draw despite on the opening day of a summer tournament. What makes this draw particularly frustrating for England fans is that for once, their team was involved in an enjoyable game which they really should have won.

In the mind of this Englishman before kick off a draw was a decent result. In Russia, England faced a fancied and traditionally strong football nation. With the exception of Roman Neustädter, the entire Russian squad play in the Russian League which is not available to most people in the UK. Any first hand knowledge of their players is restricted to Russophiles and those in the football media that watch Russian teams in the Champions League and the Euro 2016 qualifiers and it is likely that many of those correspondents do not report on the England team. It was therefore difficult to asses the challenge faced by Russia until the game was actually played.

To my eyes, it looked very much like England dominated most of the match. Certainly in the first half England enjoyed most of the possession and put it to good use by creating plenty of chances. According to the stats, Hodgson's team had over twice as many shots on goal and the Russian 'keeper Igor Akinfeev had to make four saves, one of which was from the top draw.

However, it would be wrong to suggest that Russia for dormant in this match. They out tackled England, made more pass interceptions and held a more solid back line which caught the English forwards offside five times. None of with takes away from the fact that they conceded enough chances to lose the game comfortably. Their last gasp equaliser came as a result of a horrific mis match between Danny Rose and Vasili Berezutski at the far post. This is a consequence of utilising attacking full backs who lack complete defensive attributes and poor organisation which comes from the pressure of of defending a one goal lead.

England should have been over the horizon by half time and that sadly for England is the difference between an average team and a good team.  It need hardly be emphasised that in a tournament in which you have three games to do your work you cannot afford to waste great goalscoring oppurtinities by shooting straight at the goalkeeper If you can't put your chances away then you need to be strong enough defensively to keep a clean sheet and England just do not roll that way (neither, I suspect, do most teams on this tournament). As encouraging as it was to watch some of England's build up play, particularly from Adam Lallana, they will not go deep in this tournament unless they adhere to that truism.

Inevitably, blame falls on Roy Hodgson. The England manager does not enjoy the greatest popularity. Some think his tactics are boring, outdated or otherwise unsuitable. Others say that his tactics are boring, outdated or otherwise unsuitable to disguise to themselves and others that they do not like him. Hodgson's reputation as good coach exists outside England and it is likely that short of winning Euro 2016, it will remain so.

I think Hodgson understands that if England want to win Euro 2016 they will need to set up in more than one formation depending on the type of opposition. Unfortunately, England present the appearance of a coach that does not know his best formation. One thing we can be sure that he can be sure of is Wayne Rooney, whom he played in midfield to some affect against Russia, and Jack Wilshere with whom he replaced Rooney shortly after Eric Dier's goal. This was either a sensible move if you think that England should have pressed for the second goal or a disaster if you think England should have sat back and protected their lead.

For many England fans and commentators, substituting Rooney under any circumstances, is a terrible idea unless he is injured.  Irrespective of the wisdom of Hodgson's decision last night, this is a stupid point of view. The Manchester United captain is a fine player but is not and should not be regarded as a talisman.

Recriminations and robust defences of Hodgson are irrelevant unless you're trying to sell something. He is the England coach and if England build on this performance and beat Wales and/or Slovakia he will most likely stay that way. If this proves to be England's peak then Roy will be gone. After all, to get knocked out of one major tournament at the group stage may be regarded as a misfortune. To get knocked out of two seems more like carelessness.

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Euro 2016: Slagging off Roy for fun and profit

As the countless expression of dismay from journalists, bookies, commentators and other folk on Twitter have demonstrated, getting angry with the England manager's squad selection is both fun an profitable. Roy Hodgson's final roster for Euro 2016 is no exception.

One of the principal sources of ire is that Leicester City's Danny Drinkwater was not selected for the final Finals squad, it seems in favour of the perennially injured Jack Wilshere. The two players play in the same position and in theory perform the same duties or at least they would if one of them did not spend more time on the treatment table than on the pitch. On paper, on grass, by the numbers and by common sense generally, Drinkwater is the in-form choice and from a certain perspective, the right choice. If you adopt that perspective then England coach, Roy Hodgson’s selection of Wilshere is counter-intuitive to say the least.

It is Hodgson's judgement that Wilshere is a better player that Drinkwater and he is not alone in this judgement. Wilshere, it is argued by his supporters, is one of the most technically skilled players in England. On a recent Sunday Supplement the consensus among those august journalists around the breakfast take was that if he Wilshere is fit, Roy will pick him. Just like Paul Gascoigne in his pomp who often got called up for England despite injury concerns. If you put Drinkwater against Wilshere based on those criteria, there is only one winner.

If this seems harsh then that’s probably because it is. But ultimately, the coach has to make a judgement call. If Hodgson thinks that Wilshere works better in his team then it is his right to pick him. Analysts may disagree and they may be proved right but it’s Roy’s cock on the block which makes it entirely his call.

Besides, I suspect that the truth is that Drinkwater wasn't dropped by Wilshere but for Marcus Rashford. Hodgson, for better or for worse chose to select all five strikers in Daniel Sturridge, Jamie Vardy, Wayne Rooney, Harry Kane and the painfully young Rashford and it is the latter who has effectively usurped Drinkwater. The real are of concern for commentators isn’t whether or not he’s bringing enough midfielder but why he has brought five strikers.

If I was to guess I’d say that England are playing a kind of front four in Euro 2016; with either two deep lying midfielders or Wilshere working in tandem with Rooney in the middle of the park, depending on how well or how badly England are doing. The England manager probably figures that he doesn’t need Drinkwater and would rather engage versatile strikers or attacking midfielders instead. This may explain why Ross Barkley made the cut.

Also, look at that midfield: Adam Lallana, Dele Alli, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley. Eric Dier, Jack Wilshere and James Milner. This is pretty much the midfield that got England to the tournament. Had Wilshere been fit that would have been the midfield almost to a tee. Once he decided to take the Arsenal man there really was no one left to drop. Sadly for the Leicester man, he has arrived at the party a little too late. Given that 18 months ago no one would have imagined him in the team, Drinkwater has done brilliantly to reach the point where he is seen as the victim of a selection injustice.

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Supporters must have a voice in the proposed Football League restructure

By Source, Fair use,
The recent announcement about proposed restructuring of the English Football League has generated no small amount of excitement. Sadly, from what I've read at least, it’s not the good sort of excitement.

The restructure comes from a desire to solve a perceived problem. That being there are too many games being played in mid-week. Floodlight games are fun but seen (at least by the people that drafted the proposal) to be bad for business and bad for the player’s fitness. Reducing mid-week fixtures allows time for players to recuperate and train for the next game. It also eases the pressure traffic and public transport as there are less people travelling the country on weekdays.

In order to decrease the number of fixtures the plan is to increase the number of teams to 100 hundred and to divide them among four divisions. The additional teams are likely to be made up teams from the National League but many commentators are suggesting that the door may be open for the two Glasgow clubs enter the league. There are reference to reserve team football and the Johnstone paint Trophy which people are inferring that the largely unwelcome matter of Premier League reserve teams competition in Football League competition may rise again.

The plan itself seems short on detail. Indeed, the announcement on the Football League’s website is badly formatted with at least one typo. This may not seem important but as a document of weight and implication you would have thought they could have engaged a copy editor to give it the once over. Also missing is a lack of detail about how supporters are to be consulted. Indeed it is worrying for the future of the plan that no attempt to canvas opinion from fans, even at this preliminary stage. The only reference to fan consultation is in the final sentence of the announcement.

The proposal has the tacit approval of the Premier League and The FA but the decision as to implement it rests with the clubs and they have until November 2017 to decide. One assumes that it rests with the clubs to consult the supporters about their feelings on the changes. Given how the proposal directly affects supporters it is disappointing that the League has not utilised the Football Supporter's Federation’s connections to kick off a consultation process. While many clubs will be only too pleased to consult their supporters about this plan, there are some clubs who won’t and I don’t just mean the rogue or maverick owners who are in well-publicised disputes with their supporters.

I don’t doubt that some of the benefits are actually beneficial but the lack of consultation of the actual people who actually pay to actually enter the stadium is familiar and depressing. No doubt the League would argue that it is for clubs to liaise with their support. However, there appears to be a lack of guarantee from supporters that this will happen. Certainly this author would never dream of bringing into question the commitment to their fans of owners of clubs like Blackpool, Leeds or Charlton (to pick these clubs out of the air at random). However, all clubs could find themselves in a difficult position should they find supporters at odds with their own sentiments on this matter.

And opinions are likely to be strong and the temptation to dilute the supporter’s views may be too strong should clubs and fans be not of one mind. It seems unfair to set clubs at odds with their fans unnecessarily. Also, independent consultation is wise so as not to give the impression that fans views are not welcome. I'm certain that is not the case. After all, only a fool discounts the views one of your primary sources of income.

Happily the FSF are about to embark on their own consultation exercise. It is hoped that the Football League clubs pay heed to the results. There are many stakeholders with a right to participate in the decision making. It is likely the the PFA and the league generous sponsors will take a view and that view will be heard. As a significant contributor to the income of Football League clubs, supporters have as much right to be heard as they.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Joachim Löw's Euro 2016 Germany squad is a blend of experience, youth and loyalty

After an interminable and lengthy presentation featuring, celebrity guests, ambassadors, montages and tedious recollections of past glories, the German national team coach Joachim Löw introduced and explained his preliminary 27 man squad for the forthcoming Euro 2016 tournament in France.
Löw has called upon the tried and tested in Manuel Neuer, Mats Hummels, Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Höwedes, Sami Khedira, Kroos, AndrĂ© SchĂĽrrle, Mesut Ă–zil and of course Thomas MĂĽller. Available too is Marco Reus who would definitely have made the World Cup squad in 2014 had he been fit.

The squad also has an interesting selection of trusted but surprising choices in  Lukas Podolski, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Götze and young stars who have broken through this season such as Julian Brandt, Leroy SanĂ©, Julian Weigl and Joshua Kimmich.

Of the former group, Götze is the hardest to explain. He has barely featured at Bayern Munich at is deemed surplus to requirements. But the contribution he has made to the team, in scoring the winning goal in the World Cup final, mixed with his doubtless if dormant talent seems to have given him a ticket to at least the preliminary squad. Löw will have to determine whether the former Dortmund star is fresh or stale.

Schweinsteiger has spent much of the latter part of the season injured. You would perhaps think that this would be a good opportunity for him to be omitted in favour of someone younger. But as Löw said "Bastian is the captain" and if there is a chance of him being fit in time, he will play. In fairness there is no arguing with his experience and influence in the dressing room.

The selection of Podolski has also raised a few eyberows. The Galatasaray player is considered to be well past his best and I would argue that even his best was not good enough to match the talent available to the coach. Löw explained his inclusion thus: "Lukas Podolski still has a great sporting value, even if some people cannot understand. Lukas can still bring the performance that we expect from him."

Of the youngsters, Brandt's selection is off the back off a sensational run of form that help lift Bayer Leverkusen’s to a third placed finish in the Bundesliga. The 20 year old attacking midfielder has scored six goals and provided three assists in the final eight games of the season, of which he appeared in seven.

Weigl has been sensational all season since making his 1. Bundesliga debut for Dortmund in August. A composed and almost flawless passer of the ball the former 1860 Munich player ,who was captain at 18, may not make the cut for the Euros but this is a prelude to a lengthy international career.

Sané is a trickster with a turn of pace and superb close control. He can beat players and get behind defences. I think he's was too inconsistent at Schalke and needs some more seasoning before he is ready. But his selection represents a statement of intent but Löw and should be applauded.

Kimmich, was the young defender who was subject to that intense and bizarre lecture from his coach Pepe Guardiola after the 0-0 draw at Dortmund in March. "I told him that he's perhaps one of the best centerbacks in the world," Guardiola told the press conference after that game. "He's got the desire, the will, the passion. He's got absolutely everything."

Notable omissions include Paris Saint-Germain 'keeper Kevin Trapp, Borussia Dortmund's Marcel Schmelzer and Matthias Ginter. Also missing is Bayer Leverkusen’s  Christoph Kramer.

Despite their poor performance in qualifying Germany should be very confident of going deep in France. This is a balanced squad with players very much at the peak of their powers. The challenge for Löw is to get the shape right in time for their opening group match against Ukraine on 12th June. Germany will warm up with friendlies against Slovakia on 29th May against Hungary on 6th June.

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Monday Night Football: The next phase in the battle between tradition and commerce in the Bundesliga

The writing has been on the wall since at least July 2016 when the Bundesliga announced plans to hold first division games on Monday night. In the last fortnight is was announce that the first Monday night game in the 1. Bundesliga will be on 2nd May between Werder Bremen and VfB Stuttgart.

Part of the justification from the Deutsche Fussball Liga is that the usual Sunday games cannot go ahead by Police advice. The 1st May, being Labour Day, is a very important one for the German Labour movement and their are numerous rallies and protest scheduled all over the country. This tends to keep the Polizei busy. In order to accommodate the authorities desire the DFL have seen this as a perfect opportunity to move a game to Monday at 19:15 CET.

By holding the game under the auspices of Police advice rather than for the benefit of their broader commercial interests, the DFL can establish a precedent. Once it happens once it can happen again.

The reason why Monday night games or unpopular among supporters in Germany is fairly obvious. It's a big country and it takes an age to travel to away games. Moreover, while it's easier for them to attend matches on a Monday evening there are bound to be objections raised by home fans with other commitments. Indeed, Germany is much like any other western capitalist society that starts its working week on a Monday in that most people stay at home. That's why Monday Night Football is popular with broadcasters because lots of people stay at home watching the telly.

Beyond the appeal to domestic broadcasters of being able to stretch the Bundesliga Matchday weekend out a little longer, the DFL like the idea of Monday night games as it creates an extra TV slot with which they can compete with foreign football leagues for  revenue. The Bundesliga's TV rights are currently out to tender and by establishing a principle of Monday night games, the DFL has another slot with which to appeal to foreign broadcasters.

The rescheduling of the Werder v VfL game could not have come at a better time as it acts as a perfect showcase to potential rights holders in the the Americas, Asia and the rest of Europe. The match is likely to be a genuine six pointer between two traditional clubs with big support. Any temptation of the part of the supporters to boycott some or part of the game will tempered by the importance of supporting the team. Of course that dilemma will not apply to a significant number of Stuttgart fans unable to make the 639 kilometer journey north to Bremen.

So a while a full house is unlikely there is bound to be an intense and noisy traditional atmosphere as both sets of fans go about the business of supporting their team. I imagine that while there will be protests they will be secondary to the business of the day and not included in the international feed beamed into the TV sets around the world.

Proponents of accommodating fixtures to meet TV schedules may argue that many big European clubs are anxious to reach out to international fans and allow them to watch games at times better suited to their timezones. An increasing number of clubs have implemented digital engagement strategies to make foreign supporters as included as this that attend games. By that reasoning if a number of regular fans are inconvenienced so that others can support their team from afar then this is a small price to pay.

Opponents may argue that clubs see this as nothing more than an opportunity to make more money for themselves and see all fans, both foreign or domestic as units to be monetised. Monday night football is the latest concession to football's commercial departments and represents another step further away from football clubs traditional role as a leisure activity and community centre, playing an active part in the social fabric of its neighbourhood.

In any event, if you're a 1. Bundesliga football club supporter then this will almost certainly be the thin end of the wedge. Football on Monday evenings has been a regular fixture for second division clubs for some years now and it remains an unpopular move for fans who would ordinarily be able to attend.

There are of course fans who are excluded from games for other reasons which I have written about here and elsewhere. For the disabled or the exiled or for those who work in retail or other shift work and normally can't get to games, Monday nights could be a good time to watch your team play. However, I suspect that very few people are thinking about them.

In any event, it is difficult to escape the whiff of lucre in the air behind the decision and not to see this as another step towards the total commodification of the game in Germany.

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