China Easter 3. Beijing

May 16th, 2017

The third game of my China trip was relatively straight forward. I spent the morning walking around Nanjing. Far too little time to do the city justice.

One day, someone will explain to me. Why do the roofs of Chinese Buddhist have a cavalcade of animals, always led by a man riding a chicken?

After that, it was the return journey back to Beijing, with the train again running late, but not so badly as the outward trip.

I had then spent about an hour navigating the metro to Olympic Sports Centre station

Alighting through the wrong exit (for my purpose), I was presented with a wide pedestrian avenue leading to the main Olympic sites from 2008, with the famous “Bird’s Nest” stadium to the right, had I gone through the security gates and paid the admission charge required to walk around. The Avenue runs along a continuation of the centre line of the forbidden city and Tiananmen Square. My destination was behind me to my right, and even though this meant crossing a major road, it was not difficult to find the way in.

I managed to find my way into the West side, but most home fans were on the far side.

Before reaching the ground, as I had a Chinese friend guiding me, (even though he was not coming into the game), we bought a ticket from a “scalper”. The ticket did not show a price, but at 40 RMB, it was 10 RMB less that the face value at the ticket office. I was later told I was ripped off, and that I should have only paid about 30 RMB. Ticket scalping is a way of life in China, with the touts selling off the many unused complimentary tickets on offer. Apparently one should always pay less than the entrance price. I am told that this is the only way to get into the Workers’ stadium for Gou’an matches, unless you buy off the internet, as there is no ticket office at the stadium

Meanwhile the visitors had their own section at one end.

The stadium I headed to is apparently called Olympic Sports Centre, and is actually the main stadium built for the 1990 Asian games. The best word to describe it would be “functional”. It is a simple bowl of a stadium with two tiers of seats along the sides, one behind each goal. The Asian games were held shortly before my first ever visit to China, and the signs of the changes in the country in the 27 years since are clear for all to see. For 1990, functional was the only way to build a stadium, no bells, whistles, and nothing spectacular. Less than half a mile way sits the “Bird’s Nest”. This and the stadium in Nanjing, along with a large portion of the new buildings in China are not merely functional, they also have the “wow factor”, curves, arches or intricate designs to make them stand out from the crowd.

Even more than the Super League match the night before, this game was a matter of passing to the foreigner and let them run with the ball. And therein lay the rub, which decided the game.

Beijing Renhe, the visitors started with three foreigners on the field, Ivo is a Brazilian who has been plying his trade in Asia for five years, firstly in Korea, and then in the China Super League before dropping a level. The Ecuadorian Jaime Ayovi has spent most of his time in Mexico, and has only switched to China this season. Ayub Masika is also new to China, he is Kenyan, but has been in Belgium since he was 13, and has played for Genk and Lierse in the top division there. By contrast, the home side started with just one foreign player, Cheick Tiote who is better known in Britain, having played 138 times for Newcastle United. It is not that they could not have fielded more, they also had Rubin Okotie – born in Pakistan with parents from Austria and Nigeria. Okotie is an Austrian international who has played in both Austrian and German Bundesliga. Okotie was on the bench. Their third foreigner was the Nigerian Leke James, who was playing in Norway before moving to China, but he was not in the day’s squad. They also had two Taiwanese players in the squad list, with one, Chen Hao Wei, an international for Taiwan on the bench. Under Chinese rules, players from Taiwan or the Special Administrative zones of Hong Kong and Macau who signed before a certain date are not counted towards the foreign players count, although new signings from these territories will.

Ayovi was to score the first and last goals in the 4-0 away win, Ivo also was on the score sheet and Masika almost was as well. However his shot was blocked by the home keeper and bounced out allowing Shi Lian an easy stab into the net. The Renhe tactic was simple, with the two forwards being foreigners, and Masika on the right wing, they would boot the ball as close as they could get, and then let the trio play the ball amongst themselves. Beijing BG brought on Okotie at half time, and Chen Hao Wei midway through the second half. This made a difference, as in the last 20 minutes, they played some decent football and certainly were good enough now to stop the visitors from increasing the damage.

During the second half, I was talking to a New Zealand/British expatriate, who has been in China for some time, watching football there and in neighbouring countries. It was from him that I was explained the dealings with the scalpers. He also explained a little about the running of Chinese football. While the observations may differ from those that a Chinese official may give, one cannot help but believe that they have a ring of truth behind them. Firstly, consider the math. I was in Nanjing for the Jiangsu game, and the crowd was 30053. Ticket prices were between 100 and 200 RMB, so if we assumed everyone paid, (and we know that is not the case), then maybe the income from ticket sales was 150*30,000 = 4,500,000 RMB. Multiple it by 15 home games per season and we get to 67,500,000 RMB – less than £7 million. None of the clubs are taken much more from each game, the TV deals are not adding the sort of sums we see in the UK, and so the transfer fees and wages paid far exceed the incomes.

Looking up – the players cluster in the area as the corner flies over everyone’s head

Reports such as this one, [url]http://www.atimes.com/article/chinese-super-league-global-sports-star-heavy/[/url] indicate just how far the wages and transfer fees in Chinese football are slewed towards a few (almost all foreign players). In China, politics is everywhere, the big companies that are putting the money into the Chinese football clubs to pay to bring these foreign stars into the game are not doing so because it is fashionable, or because their owners just love football. They are doing it because the politicians that run the country currently think that football will be good for the country, and in return for supporting this aim, they will get their rewards. The buying into European football, another small dent in China’s massive budget surplus is also not just the play things of rich men, but backed by government policy. Only the slightly strange choice to buy into Midlands football, as opposed to other regions cannot be explained in this way.

President Xi has announced the football policy, that China should be capable of winning the World Cup by 2050. With no elections, China can afford to take the long-term approach, but patience will run out if they do not show improvement soon. It is easy to imagine that China will be bidding to stage the World Cup in 2030 or 2034, and they will expect to make a much better fist of it than the three defeats that they suffered in South Korea, their only appearance at the finals to date.

However, one does wonder about the logic they are employing. By all means, bring the stars into the Super League, get some publicity and raise the game at home. But China is a big country – the 16 Super League teams represent only 13 cities, and national TV coverage is limited. There is little publicity even for the second division, while the third level remains completely anonymous. China is a mobile phone happy country, with the (permitted) social media and internet news now far outstripping print media, but searches for lower division and amateur football, even using Chinese search engines provides little information. The level of football and fitness at Haikou was very poor for what purports to be a professional football team. If China is to up its game, it needs to overhaul its structure. Chinese footballers in China may earn only a little, compared to the foreigners, but it is still enough to keep them in China, rather than searching for opportunities further afield. Only one of the current international squad plays outwith the country’s borders.

It is a problem that China may well find it has in common with England, too much emphasis given to the elite squads, and enough cash to stop them expanding their horizons further afield, while the rest of the game is allowed to whither, (well, in China’s case, it has never grown in the first place). China needs a football coaching structure that extends to every province and city, to make sure that the talent is not lost. A more modest investment to bring in coaches from countries that do this well, (Germany and the Netherlands spring to mind), and greater emphasis on the whole game would in the long term boost the country’s talents, so as I could believe that they will not only

China Easter 2. Nanjing

May 8th, 2017

From Hainan Island, I travelled up to Beijing. The flight up was a nightmare with a four-hour delay, and a serious lack of information at any time as to causes of the delay and when the flight would actually depart. At the airport, there were continual announcements that this flight and that would not meet its departure time, but without reasoning or new times. My wife has a house quite close to the airport, and by the time we arrived there, the first light of morning was already coming through. Having discovered that my wife did not need my help on a business meeting, I suggested I could travel to a Friday game in the China Super League before heading back on the Saturday for a Beijing derby in League One.

For this one, the train tickets were booked by internet, 24 hours in advance. This allowed me to get a First-class ticket – all second-class tickets having sold out, at least I got the standard price (around £30 less) for the return. At the station, I still had to queue 20 minutes for the ticket, but the process was relatively simple then – I showed my reservation number and passport and they printed a ticket. When I asked for the return as well, I was charged 5 Yuan (50p) for this service, but again completed without problem. The train had an appearance to Japanese bullet trains, and soon reached 300 km/h. Inside, it looked and felt little different from any European fast train, and the similarities continued when we soon had a thirty-minute delay, with a serious shortage of announcements (in any language) as to why, or for how long. I later discovered that the problem had been a complete power failure for lines around the city of Tianjin, so it turned out that I was quite lucky to get to my destination at all. I am also told, (by ex-pats in China), that these occurrences are actually quite rare, and the fast rail network in China is normally more reliable than the British rail system

 

On other sections, we appeared to go quite slowly, and ended up with arriving at Nanjing 70 minutes behind schedule, which was a problem for my plans. I was intending to go to check into my hotel first, and then to arrive at the ground anything up to an hour before kick-off. Instead, I had to get a taxi to the ground directly just to make it within 30 minutes of the start. Fortunately, the good offices of my wife had made contact, to find an English-speaking official who met me and saw me into the ground. I did not pass any of the ticket sales points between leaving the taxi and entering the ground, so without this help, I may have struggled to enter before the start.

The stadium looks spectacular from the outside, thanks to two red arches, which lean back at 45o painted in bright red, which just accentuates the effect. It is the centre of a sports park, including an arena, swimming pool and tennis centre. It staged the Chinese National games in 2005 and the youth Olympics of 2014. Inside, we have a fairly standard stadium with a track, and two tiers of seats all the way around. On both sides, there is a third tier, which increases in height towards the centre. However, the forward section of the lowest tier has only a low rake, with the front row barely above pitch height. Add in the track and the benches, and the views are quite restricted, especially on the west side of the ground. My recommendation to anyone else visiting the ground is to take seats on the East side, where at least there is nothing to block your viewing (and it is 50 Yuan less). From my position, it appeared that the rake on that side was greater, but this was probably an optical illusion, possible due to the much higher numbers of people standing over that side. The main section for the singing fans was in to the north of the East stand, although there was also a section behind the North goal. I noted that these used different styles of flags, perhaps a more independent group of fans, as the main section had flags that reflected (and were probably supplied by) the corporation running the club. Chants referred to both parts of the name, Jiangsu (which is the province) and Suning (the owners). On my side of the ground, there were six traditional large Chinese drums, which blocked the gangways and were used only sparingly. High up in the upper tier of the South East was a group of Guangzhou fans, outnumbered by the police and army who sat in the blocks between them and home fans.

 

Both sides fielded three foreigners from the start, although as it happened, both took one off at the break. The Chinese FA changed the rule for number of foreign players just ten days before the end of the pre-season transfer window, catching some clubs out. Some were in the process of negotiating further signings and suddenly found they were on the limit. Jiangsu have four foreign players on their books, but can only play three, with the Columbian international Roger Martinez as the man left out. They played Hong Jeong-Ho at the centre of defence, Hong is a Korean international who was playing for FC Augsburg in the Bundesliga when I watched them two years ago. In the midfield, they had ex-Chelsea player Ramires, who set a Chinese transfer record when he signed in January 2016. This record was broken twice in the following ten days, the second time to bring another Brazilian, Alex Teixeira to Jiangsu from Shakhtar Donetsk. Before Jiangsu signed Teixeira, he was reported to be a Liverpool target, but they shied away from the asking price.

For Guangzhou R&F, there are five foreign players in the squad, (if you have five, one must be from an Asian (meaning AFC, so including Australia) nation). You still can only play three, so the Korean Jang Hyun-Soo and the Brazilian Renatinho were not played. A second “Asian”, Apostolos Giannou was one of the forwards, Giannou was born in Greece, but qualified for Australia as his family emigrated there. It appears he has taken time to decide where his affiliations lay, as he played for Australia at under-17 level, and Greece at under-19 and under-21. Greece named him in squads a few times at full international level, and finally played him as a substitute in a Friendly in November 2015. Despite this, he could still transfer, and the following March he played for Australia in a World Cup qualification match. To date he has five caps for the Socceroos. In midfield, Guangzhou played Junior Urso, a Brazilian who had played in his native country until 2014 when he joined Shandong in China. He moved to Guangzhou this season. Finally, and most impressively, they have the Israeli, Eran Zahavi. Zahavi has played most of his football in Israel, appearing for both Maccabi and Hapoel in Tel Aviv. A short spell with Palermo in Italy was not a success. He moved to China last summer and impressed immediately, so much so that Shandong wanted to take him on, which would have been the biggest transfer fee ever paid for an Israeli.

Both teams played in a 3-5-2 formation, although they differed slightly in that Jianye Lui at centre midfield for Jiangsu was playing a holding role, while Junior Urso, in the same position was much further forward. Suning played in an all sky-blue kit, apart from a narrow dark blue strip on each side. R&F played in dark blue. Guangzhou were well on top in the opening exchanges, with the best chance falling to Zahavi who blasted the ball over the bar. Guangzhou seemed to playing the game of get the ball to the foreigners, while Jiangsu were using their home players better. The target for much of their play out of defence was left wing back Haiqing Cao. The tactic brought Jiangsu more into the game, and it appeared that Ramires, in midfield could be the key player. Mid-way through the half, they changed the attacking partner of Teixeira from Tianyi Gao to Xiang Ji. This appeared to be a popular move, and was listed in reports as a tactical substitution. If so, then I am not convinced by the tactic. One of the regulations introduced for this season is that every team must start the game with a (Chinese) Under-23 player. There is no rule that states how long he is on the field for – Tianyi Gao is an U-23 player, and he has started every game for Jiangsu this season, and been substituted in every game. At least he has averaged almost 45 minutes per game. Some of the young players have been removed from the field within ten minutes of the start. Other teams are more serious about giving (at least one) youngster a chance, for Guangzhou R&F, their young player was Huang Zhengyu who has played in all seven games this season, and not been substituted once.

Pre-match ritual.

The concourse at half time, looking as spick and span as any shopping mall.

Fans behind the goal used different flags to those at the side of the ground.

Good substitution or not, it was Jiangsu who scored first, with Haiqing Goa’s long ball finding Teixeira in space, running past the last defender and hitting the shot past the keeper. Inspired by this, Jiangsu were the better team for the rest of the period. We had a stoppage within injury time, when Hong Jeong-Ho was injured. He was replaced during the break and this would prove a crucial change. Also at the break, R&F made two changes, with the ineffective Junior Urso and left sided Tiaxiang Li being replaced by Zhizhao Chen and Zhi Xiao. For the visiting side, these changes had the required effect, with the midfield looking somewhat more mobile, while the home defence looked shaky without the Korean leader. Both teams were now playing the game of get the ball to the foreigner, but it is not the quality of the foreigners that was decisive, but the quality of the home-grown players. The home team were missing two many passes, or shooting when a pass was better with Haiqing Cao and Xiang Li both being regular culprits. By contrast, the visiting midfield were in control of the game, creating many chances for Giannou (who would surely have scored if he was less concerned with showboating and doing something spectacular), and the hard working Zahavi. It was Zahavi’s ability to find space and test the keeper with good shots from distance that proved crucial. He scored both goals from just outside the box, as his side turned over the half time score. Jiangsu were runners-up in both league and FA Cup last season (Guangzhou Evergrande won both, the Cup on away goals over two legs). However, this season they are in the bottom two without a win in six league games, while at the same time have won all four of the Asian Champions League encounters, (ring any bells, anyone). A local supporter put this down to the China Super League being a superior competition to the Champions League, but this is not so clearly evident in the other groups, (although all three in contention should go through)

Away fan section. With the riot squad seating comfortably between the away fans and any home areas


After the game, I found my hotel after some difficulty with the taxis, and later went out to what is known as the 1912 district. While having a degree of night life, and popular with locals, it does is not what is says on the can, evocative of the China of 1912. Instead it is a modern cluster of cafes and late night discos. There are plenty of options to eat, the best of which are almost certainly just outside the “zone”, where prices are lower and anything that has ever swan appears to be available. I just wanted a beer, and there are few options here, although I eventually stumbled on a bar which not only had a massive selection of imported beers, but could also offer a local craft beer.

In the morning, I tried out the local metro and went on a quick trip into the town. With only three hours at my disposal, I had intended to find the Confucian temple, but instead ended up in the pleasant surrounds of Egret Island. This is one of the confusions that can occur when touring without a map. I knew I was close to the temple, but despite signs and maps indicating its location, and it being quite a large complex, I never actually walked towards it. The area I was in is popular with locals, and is a more genuine slice of China, a place where people can take their caged birds out for a walk, or practise their morning Tai Chi exercises.

Chinese Easter 1. Hainan

April 16th, 2017

I think this is a long one, with very little about the football. So let’s start with the basics

Hainan Boying 1-0 Meixian Techand. China League 2, (or Jia B). South Section

Admission 30 RMB (£3). No programme. Attendance ~400

I am staying at an apartment on a new complex in the Clearwater Bay Tourist zone, Lingshui County. They have a daily bus to Lingshui station, so I started my day on this. The first thing to do is to queue for a ticket. The queue is about 30 minutes long. It is quite simple to ask for a ticket to Haikou East Station (the end of the line), but I then show them the time of the required return train. They happily issue a ticket for this, but take away the original. No amount of persuasion seems good enough to get two tickets, and by the time I have secured the outward ticket again, it is for the next train. Fortunately, only 20 minutes later than the original. Note to any travellers heading to China, you need to show your passport to buy a train ticket, which I think means that foreigners cannot use the automated machines, even if they can understand Chinese. The Chinese have ID cards with a RFID*1 tag allowing them to use these machines.

You then have to go through security. A guard checks your ticket and passport, and stamps the ticket, allowing you into the waiting area. There are ticket readers as well at the gates to the platforms, and these only let you in after the system has declared the train as ready to board. Only one train will board at a time, so we cannot move until after boarding has finished for a train the other way.

This may sound carefully regulated, but in fact it is regulated chaos. In each of the queues, there are people pushing in at various points. Many of the people waiting for tickets at the station have complex journeys involving a change at Haikou for a ferry and then onward travel. Meanwhile others wish to push into the front, possibly to collect pre-ordered tickets for a train that is about to depart.

Even when entering the platform, people still queue jump. It’s the local way of life. There is no point in queue jumping here, because everyone is going to go through, and has a specified seat on the train. At least, I thought I had a seat, but when I looked, I found I had a carriage number and no seat number. I was soon told that was because seats were sold out and I had to stand. There were a couple of empty seats, so we used them for the first 20 minutes, but these were claimed at the next station. We then pushed on down and found that while our carriage was all reserved, the next one was half empty, and it was easy to get a seat.

At Haikou, I decided to buy the ticket before leaving the station, requiring another 30 minutes queuing, and then negotiation as the seller did not want to understand that

a) we wanted to travel on the train we specified, on the day specified (not 24 hours later)

b) I wanted two tickets, one for myself, and one for a child – as per the two people queueing and the two passports handed it.

The result was that half way through the transaction, someone pushed in from the side (almost certainly ignoring the whole 30 minute length queue) and demanded service. We then had to wait as this was dealt with (at some length, it wasn’t a language issue, everyone seems to have problem at a Chinese railway station). At least we did then get our tickets issued, with people now approaching the window from both sides requiring a “push in service”. Even then, I discovered that the tickets issues were seats B/D in a row – this is the middle of a group of three, and the seat the opposite side of the aisle.

Time to finally leave the station. I immediately spied the tourist information booth. Certainly a chance for more fun. I picked up a local map, all in Chinese, and asked about the location of the football ground. I had the name of the team and stadium in Chinese on a web site, but the girl had not heard of either. Her first comment was it was not in Haikou at all, and then when pushed circled a point on the map quite a distance from where I thought the stadium would be.

Haikou streets, (renaissance town). Beware of the Moped – although at least here the average number of riders per moped in under 2. I only saw one with four people on it.

After this, she called over two other members of staff, had a conflab and decided that the location I had asked about was in fact the correct place. We spent a small time in the old town, or renaissance town as the tourist girl insisted it was called. It was not possible to see a lot with a seven year old in tow, so I asked a taxi to take us to the ground. With the return to the station later, I had three taxi rides in the city, all took about 30 minutes, with about half the time stuck in traffic. All somehow managed to avoid the chaotic phalanx*2 of mopeds that would swarm across every road junction when the lights changed. All charged a little under 30 RMB.

 

The good news was the ground was where I thought it was. I had arrived close to the East side, and this side had uncovered seats over the full length. The uncovered seats stretched around curves behind both goals, (this being a stadium with a running track), with cover only on the West side. I could have wandered up any of the staircases and taken a free seat on this side, but I just wanted to walk around. I did make a quick investigation, and found wet washing hanging above the staircase.

 

An unusual seating layout, with not all seats pointed towards the pitch

On the South and West sides, where the ground meets streets, there are a number of small shops and restaurants, and in one corner they are given over to medical services, (probably in connection with the hospital opposite). Seeing one next to a gate to the ground, I looked to see if it was an entrance, but it turned out to be a massage parlour (of the strictly legitimate type).

On the road side of the main stand, we spied the ticket sales. This looked straight forward, but at the first point, they were issuing receipts and taking ID numbers. It turned out that at this point, they were selling season tickets, and I needed to walk a little further for a day ticket at 30 RMB (£3). The child was free, and also got a free mini vuvuzela with which he (along with many other kids in the ground) could make annoying noises for the rest of the day.

Hainan is the smallest province in China, only about 1.5 Wales in size (using the well-known international measurement), with a population of just 9 million. My train journey was 242 km (similar to Cardiff to Rhyl) and took 80 minutes. Hainan Boying is the provinces only fully professional football team, and I would say 90% of the population do not know they exist.

The ground itself is modern and neat. Most of it has around ten rows of seats, with cover only on the west stand. With the lowest row being around 5 metres above the ground, the viewing lines are good from most seats. Considering that this was the first league match of the season, the pitch had surprisingly bare patches in both goalmouths. The ground apparently belongs to Hainan Sports Academy, (who are likely to be responsible for creating the washing hanging in the gangways), and must see use throughout the winter. [Hainan is a great winter destination for a holiday, but football supporters should note this was the first league game of the season].

It appears that in China, home teams change when there is a colour clash, so the home side played in a pink strip, rather than the red and blue adorned by many of their supporters, the visitors were in Blue

Fans and team showing colours. You may just make out the patterning that gives the club shorts their lighter colour. The marketing people would like to sell Hainan as the “Hawaii of China”, and I think the shorts are a slight nod to this

All lined up – awaiting a very poorly hit free kick

The game was poor, both sides playing in a 4-2-3-1 formation, but then bypassing the midfield with long balls and hoping the defenders made a mistake. The trouble with this is that there are more defenders than attackers, and so someone covers for the mistake, whereas any failure by the attacker leads to the ball launched in the opposite direction. The temperature was around 30oC, and it will have been warm in the sunshine on the pitch, but it was still a bad sign that the players, who I am told are full time professionals did not have the stamina for a 90 minute game.

Still we did have one good moment, just after the hour when Zhoa Huang swung in a long free kick from the right, evading the defence, it found Sun Xi Cun coming in at the far post, to score the only goal. Within the next 12 minutes, the home team had made all three substitutes and switched from 4-2-3-1 to 5-3-2 with at least eight players behind the ball whenever Meixian had possession. Blatant timewasting was also the order of the day, ending up with an “injury” after the board indicating five minutes of injury time allowed. It took over a minute to restart play, and no surprise that none of this was added on by the referee.

Other points to note, although the crowd was small, the was a continual singing of both Hainan and Haikou (the city name) and banging of drums to accompany the match, as well as the kiddies’ vuvuzelas. As far as I could tell, the company name Boying was never mentioned in the chants. The team name has been changed from Hainan Boying & Seamen to simply Hainan Boying in the close season. The supporters flags all ready Hainan Boying and Fans Club (in English). Curiously, it appeared that the scoreboard referred to the club as Haikou Boying (in Chinese)

There were about 40 or 50 fans out in the sun opposite the main stand. I realised late on that these were away fans. If Meixian (based in Meizhou) even has an airport, then it must be 90 minutes to two hours flying time from Haikou!

Away fans are fully equipped with umbrellas.

I managed to corner a couple of club officials who had limited English after the game, noticing as I passed that the after match press conference was packed full, despite my earlier recollection that there were no actual press benches, or anyone visibly writing notes as the game progressed. Considering the crowd was only around 400, (I suggested 500, but they said I was over estimating), they confirmed these were fully professional, and basically reliant on the money from their owners, Boying to exist. They were not at all surprised how few people I had found that knew of their existence, but it did not seem to bother them a great deal. Meanwhile, just six weeks earlier, the Mission Hills Golf Club, close to town announced a link up with Barcelona to run a soccer academy. Former player Ronaldinho had visited and met a group of kids, all well kitted out in Barcelona kit for the opening. Somehow, one finds it hard to believe that whatever goes down at Mission Hills will ever be more than a commercial venture, (they are opening a megastore as well), while the kids that end up playing for the local side will have to get their training elsewhere.

And finally the return train journey, which went somewhat easier than the outward one. Above us at the station, a poster invites us to explore beautiful Hainan with Luneng (the owner of one of the Chinese Super League clubs). The global icon, David Beckham smiles from the poster, I wonder whether or not he ever took the advice of the poster. On the train, we took two seats together, (B/C) with a young lady at the window seat. I was expecting someone would come and claim the “C” seat, but as it happened, the person getting on at the next station wanted the “A” (as in window) seat. He took the aisle seat until the train staff came along, and was apparently told to stop complaining, as there were plenty of empty seats anyway!

*1Radio Frequency Identification

*2 Definitely not an oxymoron in China

Here we go – Again.

December 4th, 2016

I get a feeling of déjà vu here. Cheltenham are struggling in the league, and have just been knocked out of the FA Cup by a team a division below us.

Much of the pattern seems to follow the events of two years ago. A good win the first round of the FA Cup, two really bad results in the league and then cup defeat.

In 2014, we panicked, changing the manager before the cup defeat and bringing in a new man who never became a Cheltenham man. The results over the rest of the season were disastrous, and further changes in management did not stop to rot as much as showing how much rot there was. While I am pleased that we are not instantly repeating the mistakes of two seasons ago. I was surprised by news reports saying that Johnson was having talks over a renewed contract in the midst of the worst run since he has become manager.

The other thing that happened as 2014 came to an end was that we were all waiting for the transfer window to open, causing a listlessness to settle into both the team and support during December. I can already see a similar thing happening again now. The press, the supporters and most importantly the manager have now been continually on about the changes we will have to make in January. This must have an effect on the morale of the team.

Last season, the team prevailed over teams with higher budgets and arguably better players. This was because all the players could think they were all in it together. Even loan players bought into the atmosphere, so it was not uncommon to see someone who was out of the team for some reason travelling to away grounds and standing with the supporters. We have lost the unity, even though we have kept the group together.

This is now the challenge for Gary Johnson, as we cannot afford to wait for January and the opening of the transfer window. He needs to make the players believe in themselves now and to react to the last few results in the five games before the window opens. Both publicly and privately, it must be made clear that no one has been shelved yet and that they are all in it together, fighting to maintain their football league careers beyond January.

For the board, the talk of contracts should be put on hold – it should be out there, but not signed until the day we are guaranteed to finish in the top 22 places in this division.

The supporters too have the part to play. Less whinging about what the manager has done wrong. Maybe the summer recruitment was not up to scratch, but none of us knew that at the time, and we all supported the decisions to keep all of last season’s squad intact. (Our best run of results this season came from a series of games when all the outfield players had been here last season). The truth is that this season has not been a complete disaster, we are still more than capable of turning things around and at least being in a safe position by the first week of May. Until the last three games, the margins have been small. It has been clear that the team has not quite been sharp enough, but the football has been quite entertaining and we have held our own against sides such as Portsmouth.

I do not believe that any of our players has failed every time he has come onto the field. Everyone has shown that they can step up to the grade, but too many have failed to do it consistently. It has to be remembered that while Saturday’s result is a blow to morale and pride, the three home games before the end of the year are far more important. The fixture gods have not been kind to us in this respect. Unless the weather intervenes, we will have played exactly half our league programme in 2015, but we will have played 13 home games and only 10 away. We cannot afford to tread water in the hope of making a change in the transfer window. We need to come back strongly before then, or it may already be too late before reinforcements can added to the squad.

The Whole Game Solution – Survey Results

September 18th, 2016

An interesting exercise, running my first survey. The results show not only some idea of the views of the fans, but also gave me an insight into how to write a survey.

I feel that there is a benefit in running a few surveys of this kind to pick up the opinions of my clubs’ fanbase, and I will be suggesting this at a trust meeting.

I used survey monkey to run the survey. They provided a simple, and importantly free service, although limited to ten questions. One does get rather bombarded by attempts to sell you their more professional services. At the time of writing, I have received 80 responses, 53 (66%) stated they were Cheltenham fans, 9 were from other League-1 or League-2 clubs, 6 from supporters of Premier League of Championship clubs, 7 for non-league and 5 with no specific club.

Some 66% claimed to go to more than two thirds of home games for their club, while only 22% saw less than a third. Some 20% of respondents did not answer the question on away games, while 58% of those who responded saw less than a third of away games. 22% saw over two thirds.

Survey Monkey allows the application of one filter only, and I think the most useful tool I can apply is to see how Cheltenham fans responded. For the viewing habits, the Cheltenham fans were slightly more pronounced, with 70% seeing more than two thirds of games and only 13% seeing less than a third. Again quite a few did not add away game details, but 53% of those who answered went to less than a third, while only 17% saw more than two thirds.

It was my third question where I demonstrated my inexperience with questionnaires. I wanted to know which possible changes to league structure might be acceptable, but I did not specifically specify a no change option. I think it would have been best to split this to two questions, firstly whether one thought changes to the structure were a good idea, and then which ones were acceptable. After the initial burst of answers to the questionnaire, I edited this question to specify that no response meant that no change was acceptable, and after that there was about a 33% for no reponse.

Among Cheltenham fans, 52% of those showing an option thought 20 teams in the Championship, 24 in other divisions would be acceptable, 27% would accept 22 in the lower divisions and 30% would accept the originally publicised divisions of 20. When expanded to all replies, there was a smaller difference between those who thought it acceptable to drop just the Championship to 20 teams (42%), and those who those who would go for 20 throughout the structure (39%), the 20 team championship and 22 in other divisions stayed at 27%. The numbers do not add up to 100 as multiple replies were allowed.

I then asked where new teams brought into the structure should come from. The results were overwhelming for doing this on merit alone (i.e from the National League). Only five people thought it may be acceptable to bring Celtic and Rangers on board, four thought reserve/development teams could be accepted and only three thought that franchises could be started in cities (for example in Dublin, Belfast or Edinburgh). Three of the four who would accept reserve/development fans were Cheltenham supporters, (the other had no specific affiliation). Within the promotion on merit selection, there is a preference for no rules over the demanding licenses based on ground facilities and finances.

When the option of a five division structure was suggested, and the question, should the lowest divisions in this be regionalised North and South, there was only a marginal rejection (55% to 45%). When this is limited to Cheltenham fans, it becomes more pronounced (60% against). As Gloucester City travel further on average to each away game in their regionalised division then Cheltenham do in their National one, this is understandable. Interestingly, even if not a big enough sample to be truly accurate, of the 12 responders who said they travel to more than two thirds of away games and who also answered this question, there was a positive response (7 to 5) in favour of regionalisation.

When it comes down to what to do with dates freed by reducing numbers in the divisions, the results are overwhelming for reducing mid-week matches. 70% of respondents would go with this, (Cheltenham fans – 75%). Again I allowed multiple answers, and got just 21% (Cheltenham 17%) for a shorter season and 14% (Cheltenham 13%) for a winter break

When it comes to the EFL Trophy, the fans are against it – but not very much so, 53% overall would scrap the competition. When asked how it should be formatted if it were to continue, the vast majority would go back to the straight lower division knock out formula (69%), as opposed to lower divisions but with groups (21%) or this season’s format with development teams (10%). Cheltenham opinions are slightly more pronounced, 60% would scrap the competition, while 71% would go back to knock out if it were to continue, and only 8% would keep this season’s format

Finally, the FA Cup, where there are again clear indications, 84% want the Cup to stick to weekends, and 71% think replays are an essential part of the competition. Here the Cheltenham fans are slightly less committed, at 82% and 66%. The minorities in both groups that think replays could be scrapped would do so for all rounds. There are few who that they should be scrapped from the First or Third round proper, keeping replays in the earlier rounds.

The Whole Game Solution

September 11th, 2016

If you were to ask me “What is the Whole Game Solution”, then my first, two word answer would be “a misnomer”.

There are just fewer than 6000 football clubs in this country offering Men’s Saturday Football. The whole game solution is a change to the structure for 100 of these clubs, and it clearly favours the requirements of 40 or less.

At the moment, the “Whole Game Solution” is, according to the EFL, a discussion document. I have not seen the full document, but the football league themselves have summarised the proposals and the reasons for them and this can be viewed at http://www.efl.com/news/article/2016/a-whole-game-solution-3119809.aspx.

After the initial discussion during the summer’s AGM, the League has then had further discussions with the Premier League and the FA, and have then asked for club’s opinions on various options. This has been published on-line, http://www.fsf.org.uk/assets/Downloads/News/2016/SH-WGS-letter-to-clubs-August-2016.pdf and this gives more insight into the thoughts of those who are making plans.

Unfortunately, the letter in the second link is dated August 17th, and requested clubs to respond by the 2nd September, prior to the next club’s meeting on 22nd September. This letter was not initially released to supporters’ organisation, so while the League claim that they want input from all stakeholders including fans’ groups, the truth of the matter is that we are already playing catch up.

Despite being a board member of a supporters’ trust, and even though the trust has a fan elected director, I had not heard of the 2nd September deadline until it had passed. I do not know of any club that has asked for supporters’ opinions in this time span, but several have now promised some form of consultation before any clubs vote on final proposals at next summer’s AGM. It is just that supporters do not appear to be getting a chance to shape proposals first.

Indeed the clearest response was a rejection by AFC Wimbledon, but even this was done without consultation of those fans who are not on the trust board.

The base plan was a new structure with 100 clubs in a Premier League and a Four division English Football League. All divisions to have 20 clubs, with three promoted and relegated from each division. While the football league appear to demand the three up/three down between their structure and the Premier League, there is a notable omission where they do not specify whether they will keep two up/two down at the bottom of what will become League-3, or whether this could be increased or reduced.

In the initial proposal, it was claimed that although the number of teams each division of the League was being reduced from 24 to 20, the clubs would not suffer financially. The letter that followed in August shows that the one comment some clubs have made was to doubt this. The basis for such a claim is that the plan allows for a greater redistribution of wealth from the Premier League to the lower divisions. The trouble is that with a 17% reduction in number of matches played, and effective relegation for 24 clubs, (four from Championship, eight from League-1 and twelve from League-2), it is difficult to believe in this claim. The suggestion that some of the loss from lost games could come from increasing season ticket sales or reduced squad sizes is considered by many clubs to be fanciful at best. The league has admitted as much in the letter. The league claims that by freeing up more weekends for the Premier League, they can increase the TV contract amount, but then they also project reducing the weekends by taking a winter break

The Football League had a number of other questions on their mind. In particular, in response to the loss of income from the reduction of games, they have now suggestions a Championship of 20 and three division of 22, (requiring 14 new clubs, rather than 8). I can see the logic of reducing the numbers in the Championship, where the fact they also take international breaks, means there is an inordinate amount of midweek matches, but I would keep 24 at the lower levels.

Either not reducing or a lesser reduction in the number of games for lower division clubs would also mean they are slightly less reliant on the distribution of money from the higher leagues in order to keep the current fully professional set up. I believe my club currently receives between 25 and 33% of its income from these sources. If they were to balance the loss of 4 homes games, then this would be close to 50%. While one may see the Premier League footing the initial bill, if their own agenda is met; who can say what the situation will be five years down the line. It would be foolish to assume the supply of golden eggs being laid from the TV contracts will keep growing. If at some time in the future, the amount is reduced, or at least stops rising faster than inflation, will Premier League clubs (who earn the money) wish to reduce their largesse to the rest of the league?

The Football League has also asked where additional clubs should come from. To most supporters, this is easy – the best clubs in the National League should be promoted to fill vacancies. Maybe with some restriction to deny promotion to a minority who either do not have the facilities or have a poor financial model. A financial fair play rule as currently enforced in League-2 would be a slap in the face to the promotion prospects of clubs such as Eastleigh and Forest Green. However, that is not the only potential source of new teams. The idea of reserve/development teams in the league has already been raised, and slapped down by public opinion. Despite this the league clubs voted to take the extra cash on offer to degrade the already maligned EFL (Checkatrade) Trophy, by allowing some of these teams to enter. If there is a significant cash boost, would clubs vote now for them to join the league?

There is one other source of clubs that gets mentioned quietly on the sidelines, and this clubs outwith the English system. Top of the list here, as always are Celtic and Rangers, but there is also the thought that new clubs could be formed, simply to take up places. The word franchise, considered the ugly word of English football ever since Wimbledon morphed into MK Dons would be more accurately placed against new clubs, which could be in cities such as Belfast and Dublin. The franchise would be initial only – once a club had been installed in the league (possibly as high as championship level), promotion and relegation would come on the field. The problem with any such move is that while it is not against FIFA and UEFA rules, (there are plenty of other examples of clubs playing within a different country’s league), it must be approved by the FAs of both countries. The Scots would almost certainly rail against such a move, but one would be less ncertain that the two Irish organisations would.

The league also asked if they should consider regionalisation of the bottom two divisions of the new structure, so as we end up with League-2 North and League-2 South. Of course, regionalisation does not mean that every club in the division travels less distance. We are in a national league, with an average journey of 108 miles to away games. We share the ground with a club in a regionalised league and an average journey of 124 miles for away games. Regionalisation has two other effects, it reduces the scope for promotion, the promotion places being share by the two divisions, and it reduces the profile of the leagues. Hence the overall crowds would be less. While no other country has as many national divisions as England, many leagues have introduced new national divisions in recent years, and in France, Germany, Switzerland and the Netherlands, this has resulted in some degree of increased attendances compared to the regional leagues. The expectation ought to be that regionalisation will reduce attendances overall, not increase them.

The subject of a winter break was brought up. I get the impression that this is more of interest to the top clubs than at our level. It is clearly possible to take two or three weeks out of the season, but these have to be replaced in some way. The options are increasing the overall length of the season, adding more mid-week fixtures or reducing the size of the division. The Premier League is not about to reduce its numbers, but it may add one Saturday at the start of the season, despite some managers complaining about the short break when it follows a tournament. Overall, a winter break would be accommodated by switching FA Cup rounds to mid-week. The unwritten addition to this is that replays would be scrapped as well, at least from the Third round onwards, (a third round replay would fall inconveniently within the break). At the moment, the suggestion is that two rounds, probably fourth and fifth, get switched to midweek. The reason for this is the International and European clubs calendar takes up so many mid-week dates that more could not be found. If two rounds get switched, then two more will surely follow. The French Cup already follows this pattern, with their equivalent of the third round on the same date as in England, and following rounds all mid-week (31 January, 28 February, 4 April, 25 April). With no replays, England could follow suit

Incidentally, long winter breaks are not common across Europe, despite the general opinion that all the rival leagues have them. Italy plays matches on the 22 December, and then returns 17 days later, the French do similar (with the cup when they return). Spain has two Saturdays off, but have cup matches every midweek, except the one between Christmas and New Year. The Bundesliga has been shortening the winter break as modern pitch technology means they can promise matches are on. They still take a full month off with games on 21st December and 21st January.

In order to get some better ideas, I have designed a short survey, please fill it in. I will publish the results if there is a significant response. Thanks

https://www.surveymonkey.co.uk/r/JNJ9MDZ

Easter Internationals

March 18th, 2016

 

Full internationals are spread rather unevenly through the season, there are monthly international dates in the autumn, in September, October and November filling up a crowded schedule for the top players who are also involved in league and European club matches, then there are the qualifying games and tournaments held at the end of the season – but without doubt, the fixture dates that European clubs would most like to end is the one set of spring fixtures – which this season falls across the Easter weekend.

The football calendar is strangely static, while Easter is a movable feast – and anyway in football terms it is only within Britain that clubs tend to double up with two fixtures over the weekend. With the inevitability that Easter is either an international week, or between Champions League mid-week dates, the Premier League generally forgoes the idea of playing two sets of fixtures within four days. Oldies like me who grew up watching Southern League football in the seventies remember the Easter weekend as a time for a triple header with games on Friday, Saturday and Monday.

Whether the clubs have one match to play over the weekend, or three, or even now with the Premier League taking an enforced break, this set of fixtures is unwanted by the clubs not just in England, but across all of the main leagues in Europe, where it is an unwanted interruption at a vital part of the season.

While we can understand the top level club’s annoyance at the enforced break and the disturbance to their season, at least the league fixtures stop when the internationals start, and the clubs will be pressurising the national teams not to make many substitutions and not “over tire” their players.

The same is not true in the National League, there are ten matches in the league on the Saturday before Easter, and then a full programme split evenly between Good Friday and Easter Saturday, followed by another full programme on Easter Monday. Despite this, the FA has seen fit to arrange a ‘C’ International on the Tuesday before Easter – and at that a match away in the Ukraine.

England’s ‘C’ International team is an anachronism, (and when did the ‘B’ team last play, anyway?). There was once an England Amateur XI, and this had some value – the best players from the Amateur game, playing against amateurs from other countries. But even fifty years ago, some of the “amateur” players were being paid more than semi-professionals at neighbouring clubs. The FA slowly got to grips with the problem, abolishing the official difference between amateur and semi-professional football. There are still amateur footballers of course, just turn up at any playing field in the country on a Saturday or Sunday and you can see them chasing after a ball hoofed down the pitch.

Still, with the top level outside the football league being entirely semi-professional, a semi-professional National team was formed. This was mainly from the top level of non-League, with a few names appearing from lower levels. In their time, Cheltenham Town supplied a few players to that team, and I recall going to Hayes to see a team including Steve Book, Mark Yates and Neil Grayson beat Italy by 4-1 at Hayes, (Grayson scored the first two goals). At this time, if a team relegated from the Football League remained as professionals while hoping for a return, their players were not picked.

But now, the rules have changed again, and most of the players picked this year are already full time professionals. One has to ask why full time professional players for clubs such as Cheltenham Town can now qualify for international football, but not if they are one level higher? In other words, is the line defining this level now rather arbitrary?

Once we have decided to have such a team, why run it in such a shambolic fashion. With the players all having games on Saturday, they will meet and train briefly on Sunday, travel on Monday, play on Tuesday and return to England in Wednesday. Hardly a chance for them to gel together. They will look like players who have only met, simply because they will have only just met. It is no wonder that the last time I saw the team play, they lost to a Gibraltar National team. Any club team in the National League could have won the match, but a selection of players who met a day or two before the game could not perform.

There was a training camp for potential players in the team, held back in the autumn, but the 16 players that have been selected to go to Kiev do not reflect that camp. Only half of the sixteen were in the 23 training at Warwick University in September, (no prizes for noticing that the ‘C’ players did not even get to use the FA’s much lauded facilities in Burton).

I am expecting that when it comes down to it, Paul Fairclough will be receiving and making plenty of phone calls over the weekend as his squad is worse than decimated by withdrawals of players who choose to put club before country and cry off over the weekend.

If England are to have an International team at this level, it needs to be better run than this. England apparently have three matches in the International Challenge Trophy, playing in Kiev this week, then at home to Slovakia (June 5th) and finally travelling to Estonia in the Autumn. The logic of not playing now and trying to play all three games with a single squad in the summer seems to have escaped the FA, as has the idea of holding a training camp, and then using players from this in the playing squad. Oh, and if they are playing in an organised competition, why is it impossible to find the details on the internet. What purports to be the official web site goes off line without mentioning England’s last result in the last tournament. The FA see fit to mention the squad, and the matches and competition, they even let on that England won that last competitive match (4-2 v Estonia at Halifax). Still, the page says “There are no upcoming fixtures available”, only four days before a game.

Time to change the subject.

While the European teams are playing friendlies ahead of Euro 2016, in the Americas and in Asia, World Cup qualification for 2018 is taking place. The expectation, we reach the end of the round, which should mean nine teams having their (generally narrow) hopes of making it to Russia finally dashed. One of these will in fact by decided a few days later by FIFA, but I will come back to this later.

It is best to start in South America, as nothing can be decided there. All ten teams play 18 games in a home and away league, with Ecuador the unexpected leaders with 100% in their first four games, including a 2-0 away win in Argentina in the first game. Ecuador will play at home to Paraguay, who have also made a good start (7 points), and then travel to Columbia who are trying to make up ground after a poor start. Argentina will be trying again to get their campaign off the ground. Although they have not lost again, they drew the home match with Brazil, and were held 0-0 in Paraguay. Argentina’s only win to date is away to Columbia and both are outside the position required to qualify at this early stage. Uruguay with three wins (Chile and Columbia at home, Bolivia away) against only one defeat (in Ecuador) stand second in the table, with Brazil in third. This makes the Brazil v Uruguay game the standout match in this month’s matches. Venezuela sit bottom of the table, the only team with no points (or indeed without a win). They travel to Peru (3 points and 9th out of ten countries) before entertaining Chile.

On to the CONCACAF region. Here they are down to twelve clubs, with 23 of the area’s nations already out. The current round has the teams in three groups of four, the top two from each group making up the final group of 6. This gives a stretched schedule for this round – two games were played last November, two this month and the final pair in August/September.

The matches this week see each team playing their opponents home and away. In Group A, Mexico have won their two games to date, and play Canada who have four points. The first match is in Vancouver with the return in Mexico City. This means that either El Salvador (one point) or Honduras (none) could go out if the results go in the wrong directions. El Salvador get home advantage first in their duals with Honduras.

Group B has Costa Rica (6 points) playing Jamaica (3) with the first game away, while Panama (also 3 points) play Haiti (0) with the game in Haiti first.

Finally in Group C, USA and Trinidad and Tobago both have four points, Guatemala have three while St. Vincent and the Grenadines are pointless. With a 6-1 defeat in the USA and 4-0 at home to Guatemala, St V/D look somewhat out of their depth at this point. The other two groups have zero point teams, but they have goal differences of two and three against. The USA play away to Guatemala before playing the home leg in Columbus, St Vincent will have home advantage first against Trinidad and Tobago as they try to make something out of this section of their campaign

And so to Asia. The current stage is eight groups, all but one of which has five teams, (Indonesia’s expulsion leaves one group of four). This is the last round of matches and the next round is two groups of six. Hence all the group winners and half the runners-up go through.

Only two teams have guaranteed their place in the next round, South Korea and the Qatar all-stars (well, rather too many of them were not born Qatari internationals, you can still buy a certain degree of international success).

Where the AFC and FIFA have got the seedings right, the top seed play two home games, with the second seed as visitors in the final game. Thanks to Indonesia being missing, only games against teams in positions 1-4 count in making up the “second place table” which decides which quartet join the group winners

In group A, it is UAE who have this position, but they are currently three points behind Saudi Arabia. So the UAE are at home to Palestine before entertaining Saudi, the Saudis themselves play Malaysia at home in the first game. Palestine still have a chance of finishing second, by winning both games, but this would only give them nine second place points. More likely, UAE will beat Palestine, and Saudi Arabia will beat Malaysia, setting up the all important Arab derby. Should UAE prevail, then Saudi may still have 13 points in the second place table. If UAE come second, they probably have ten or eleven

Group B will get the headlines in England, with Jordan the second seeds, visiting Australia in the final round. Jordan are two points behind, so a win in Sydney could give them the group. Before the final day, Jordan play Bangladesh (guaranteed to finish bottom of the group), while Australia play Tajikistan in Adelaide. Kyrgyzstan have only a very slim chance of getting second place, and this could disappear before they play their next game. Should Jordan win one and lose one to finish second, (and I am assuming they do not lose to Bangladesh), then they would have ten second place points

Group C is really interesting, as China, where the clubs are splashing big bucks to bring players in, are still underperforming in National terms. Two scoreless draws with the territory of Hong Kong leaves China in third place, while Qatar top the group with six wins out of six, and have already guaranteed their place in the next round. As Qatar started as second seed, they travel to the Chinese city of Xi’an for the final game, and entertain Hong Kong before that. Hong Kong have a three point lead over China, but play only one game. China’s first game this time is at home to the Maldives, while Bhutan have only one game to play when they go to Bhutan. I think China will sneak into second place, but I say it without certainty. If China win both games, they would have 11 second place points, which should be enough. I would not bet on that

If China underperform, I do not know what words describe India’s football team. They sit on three points from six games, with a high chance of finishing behind Guam. Yes, they may finish behind Guam, a tiny American territory. Guam’s coach in English, Gary White (28 games for Bognor Regis, after which he left the country – he has managed the British Virgin Islands and Bahamas before going to Guam). Guam is highly thought of by the FA, who have included him on the elite coach training programme, the highest level. Still, I do not see him mentioned as a possible for jobs in the Premier League. All this comes to little, as despite their best performances in a qualifying tournament, Guam have already been knocked out, with just the visit to Oman to come.

Oman are second seeds, and finish their games with a match away to Iran, currently three points ahead of them. As India are the first visitors to Tehran over the weekend, I cannot see the positions changing. Turkmenistan play India in Kochi in the final round, but I think the will be fixed in third place before that. Oman may have as few as 8 second placed points.

If you want to see decent football played in Oman, you may as well choose to watch Syria as Oman. Despite the problems that have caused the Syrians to play all their home games in Oman, they have done remarkably well, and we know that the top two in Group E will be Japan and Syria. Japan are at home when they meet in the final game. Syria lost to Japan in Oman, watched by a crowd of 680, but they have won their other five games to date. Japan have also won five games, and not conceded any goals, as their other game was a scoreless draw at home to Singapore. Oman will play Cambodia before travelling to Japan, Japan play Afghanistan (another who cannot stage home games) first, while the other game on the final day sees Singapore travel to Iran to play “away” to the Afghans. Although Japan only lead the group by a point, I expect them to prevail, but as Syria already have 12 second place points (Cambodia have been confirmed in last place), they will get the nod as a second placed team.

Group F is Indonesia’s group and hence has only four teams. Thailand lead Iraq by five points. Like Afghanistan, Iraq are playing their home games in Iran, (a choice I thought was odd, surely they would get a better reception in an Arabian country?). Still, I am expecting Iraq to win both their games, at “Home” to Thailand first, and then to Vietnam which would allow them to finish ahead of the Thais. Still, as we do not take points off the Thai total, (there not being a fifth placed team), Thailand already have 13 second placed points, if that is where the finish. Should Iraq slip up, then they will have 8 points, plus whatever they garner in the last two games, (and they need two wins to go through). Vietnam still have the chance to finish second, by beating first Chinese Taipei at home (should be easy), and then beating Iraq (and assuming Iraq have not beaten Thailand). Still this only gives them ten second placed points.

Taking the groups out of order for once, group H sees North Korea and Uzbekistan fighting over the top places. North Korea only have one game to play, but are a point ahead. This final game is in the Philippines. This is after the Philippines visit Uzbekistan. The second seed in the group, Bahrain are currently in fourth place, a point behind the Philippines. Yemen are assured of last place, barring an unlikely barrage of goals when they travel to Bahrain.

SO finally we come to Group G, the one that is not decided on the pitch. Kuwait have been suspended by FIFA, their games have therefore been postponed, but not already awarded to the opposition. Instead we await a FIFA decision on this. The precedent is that Kuwait’s game in November was also not played, and was then awarded to Myanmar. That result immediately put South Korea (six wins out of six) through as only Kuwait could catch them, the Kuwaitis needing to win all of their last three games to overhaul South Korea. The table still shows Kuwait in second place, but there is no sign of them regaining FIFA recognition in time to play these last two games. Lebanon need to win both remaining games, firstly in South Korea, and then at home to Myanmar to reach ten second place points, which does not look to be enough. However, if FIFA decides to expunge the Kuwaiti result en bloc, then this redraws the table as all points then count. South Korea still win the group, unless Lebanon has won twice, but Lebanon have nine second place points, which increases to 12 with a win against Myanmar – putting them through to the next round. (In the unlikely event of South Korea losing the group leadership because of Kuwaiti being disqualified, they would still be the best of the second place teams).

It appears to me that a team will need 11 second place points to go through, with a possibility of this then being decided on goal difference. If this drops to ten points, then I am sure goal difference will decide. This is good news for Saudi Arabia, Syria and Thailand, all of which expect to go through even if they finish second.

An Underwhelming choice, but still the best New Hop

February 27th, 2016

I think the lack of comment about Gianni Infantino just shows how underwhelmed the football world is about the appointment. From the five candidates, he appears to be the best bet, but not a good bet.

 

FIFA is still reeling from the fact that the US justice system (with the Swiss system following up with smaller measures) is doing a job that FIFA itself has failed to do. The corruption in CONCACAF and CONMEBOL regions was not really a secret, although many did not realise what sums of money were involved.

 

The payment from FIFA to Platini that finally took both Blatter and the UEFA President (still in office, and probably being paid) out of the running has still not been fully explained. There are allegations that it was a bribe, but no evidence for this. There is still no explanation of the work done for the money. If Platini accepted more for a job then the job is worth, then he has not actually done wrong (assuming he declared the money on his tax return).

 

The reform package may be the answer, but is tied up in woolly wording. It will be down to how the new management use this mandate that counts.

 

Infantino has made a bad start, but it was necessary in order to get the job. He has promised all those Football Associations that depend on FIFA grants, that these grants will be increased. Whether there is scrutiny on how the grants are spent remains to be seen.

 

These grants, and the scrutiny of how FIFA money is spent remains the main stay of corruption within Football organisations, and it remains a matter still generally ignored. If the money does not pass through the USA financial system, it is not within the FBI’s scope of investigation.

 

Many Football Associations rely on the grants from FIFA. FIFA’s annual report for 2013 shows US$183 million paid out as “Development Related”. Most of this goes direct to the 209 associations, but with no scrutiny beyond this point, much of the money ends up in the pockets of officials or their friends, with some associations still unable to pay for their teams to travel to tournaments.

 

FIFA has another trick up its sleeve. If a government puts its national FA under scrutiny and tries to take action against a corrupt organisation, then far from co-operating with rooting out the problems, FIFA will ban the association due to political interference.

 

Two associations, Kuwait and Indonesia, were prevented from voting in this congress due to such suspensions, and a move from one of the candidates to get the suspensions lifted was defeated. While I am not clear on the reasons for Kuwait’s suspension, Indonesia’s is a demonstration of FIFA’s lack of action in the face of inevitable.

 

The PSSI (Indonesian Football Association) has been farcically corrupt for years. Despite relatively good crowds, most of the clubs have financial difficulties, and rely on sponsorship – much of which comes at the behest of local politicians currying favour, or demanding favours of the business community.

 

If there income is slow in arriving, (and in Indonesia, that is almost a certainty), then player’s salaries are also delayed. Worse still, medical insurance is not paid. FIFA should have come down hard on the PSSI after the deaths of Diego Mendieta and Salomon Bengondo. In both cases, the players were penniless after not being paid by their clubs, and were not treated because no one could pay the medical bills. Mendieta died from a virus which could have been easily treated. He could not pay his bills or pay for a ticket back to his native Paraguay. Bengondo had actually been seen begging on the streets six months before his death.

 

Instead of reform, we had a farce as two separate leagues competed for dominance (even though many club owners spread their bets and ran teams in both). FIFA only thought to take action when the government stepped in the suspend the the PSSI and put football in the country under the control of other sports committees.

 

Unless FIFA can scrutinise the expenditure of funds it provides to the associations, and will take against clear cases of corruption or incompetence, then it cannot be said to be reformed. It needs to be able to differentiate between government interference in order to weed out corrupt or incompetent officials, as opposed to the replacement of elected officials with government stooges (which is the purpose of the rule).

 

Whether Infantino is the man to bring this about remains to be seen. It is unlikely that any of the others were capable of the job. Salman has been president of the AFC for some time, but the AFC took know action against the PSSI, leaving this to FIFA. The other candidates were nothing more than spoilers, although it would have been the headline writer’s heaven if Tokyo Sexwale had taken the job.

The Jutland Weekend

October 11th, 2015

When I left Hamburg airport, I was planning on heading to Flensburg for the derby in the Schleswig-Holstein Liga. TSB were top of the league, and entertaining neighbours Flensburg 08. These are the second and third best teams in the border town, as Flensburg also has a team one level above in the Regionalliga. The Sat Nav said 13.20 arrival when turned on, soon updated with ten minutes of delays in the many roadworks.

Once I reached the roadworks, I was travelling slower than the Sat Nav predicted, and even on the small sections of open road, it is impossible to drive fast on busy German Autobahns. The predicted delays increased and my time was slow, so an hour into the supposed 1hr 25 minute journey, I was still an hour from my destination.

Flensburg were kicking off at 14.00, Kilia at 16.00, so I took the turn, found the ground with plenty of time to head into town and grab a drink at the Kieler brewery.

This meant that by the time Kilia kicked off, Heider would know that TSB had lost their game, so Heider were level on points before starting.

First the ground. It is classic and old, but with a few new additions. It has a classic entrance block, with the name Kilia Platz picked out above the gates, but this, along with a dressing room block on that side of the pitch is no longer used.

Entrance is now from the small car park,the Gaststatte is also on that side of the ground, with the dressing rooms underneath.

The ground used to have a few steps of terracing on three sides (not behind the far goal), with a classic stand sitting above the terrace on the West side. They have now added an area of decking in front of the clubhouse, with beer and wurst being served there, and a large block of uncovered seats next to this. Both of these cover the terrace and need to be traversed when walking around. The €5 entrance is for anywhere, so this is OK.

The open seating, unusual in German football appear to be because the ground is also used by the Kiel Baltic Hurricanes in the German Football League (as in American Football).

No programme, I was directed towards the dressing rooms when I was looking for a team list, only to be sent away by an official down there. However, he turned out not to be a jobsworth as one of his colleagues came up to the bar and handed me a sheet within a minute.

Onto the game, and it was not a bad one, although up to half time I thought it could be goal less. The visitors had by far and away most of the possession, but could not find a clear opening, with most of their shots being rather wayward, while their goalkeeper was forced into action on several occasions. The decisive moment came at the end of the half, Tobias Hass received the ball in space, and tried to go around the home keeper. The keeper dived but missed the ball, taking Hass out. Clearly a penalty and a goalscoring chance, so the red card was shown.

The last kick of the half saw Hass score the penalty against stand in keeper Niklas Lott. Kilia did not have a keeper on the bench, Lott having played the first half as left back. A substitute left back came on at the break, and Lott continued to keep the goal. Despite this, Heider could not up their game, and the ten men even created a few chances. Lott made one fine double save and the score stayed at 1-0 until the 81st minute, when David Quade took advantage of Kilia not clearing the ball to head in at the post. Heider were awarded a second penalty when the extravagantly coiffured Mark Lafrentz was brought down on the edge of the area, but this time Lott dived to his right and pulled off a fine save.

Sunday dawned bright and foggy. I still headed down to Schleswig without leaving enough time to switch to the alternate game if the weather continued in the same bent. Fortunately, there were no problems.

I had never been to a Kreisliga game before, two efforts to do so in Aachen had both failed, once because the fixture time shown on fussball.de was wrong, the other because the venue was incorrect. In both cases, the ground was such that I did not feel I had missed anything. In Schleswig Holstein, there is no Bezirksliga, so Kreisliga is the 7th level, while in most of Germany it is one or two levels lower. Generally, Kriesliga is an indication of the geographical area the league covers, but I had assumed the quality of grounds and football would be similar.

If this is so, then I struck lucky at VfR Schleswig. On arrival, the ground has club house, car parking and an entrance gate where €3 is taken off those watching first team games. No programmes though. Inside there is a clubhouse and a food stall. I was surprised to pay just €1.50 for my bratwurst.

The team list was a problem, not because they had any objection to me seeing it, but because they could not get their computer to work. Having made a prior check that last week’s lists had been published on fussball.de, I settled for the numbers on the player’s backs at the start, but when I saw the officials had managed to print out a couple of copies and were taking them around to each club’s dugout, I managed to photograph one.

The main pitch has rails on both sides, but is open behind both goals, meaning the goalkeepers have to collect the ball quite frequently. All the pitch surrounds are grass. On the clubhouse side, there is a grass bank (no reported injuries) leading up to a patio in front on the clubhouse. This paved area boasts three wooden park benches, while two more are situated to the sides. Additional seating was in the form of a stack of plastic garden chairs, which spectators could select and position in any free space.

I made the crowd to be about 85, quite a few of which came from the visitors, FC EIlligstedt-Silberstedt. It was clear from the start who was the better team, and while VfR tried to match the visitors, it was never going to be close. With a little thought for sequencing, FC E-S scored goals in the 9th, 19th and 29th minute of the first half. Finn Johansen got the first from close range, Marco Clausen added the second with a good finish from a tight angle on the left, and Yorrick Theeman added the third.

It was no all one way, but few of the home sides attacks looked dangerous, until they won a 37th minute penalty, which Dennis Winda converted for 3-1. Schleswig missed a golden opportunity to make it 3-2 before the break, which turned out to be their last chance to make a go of it.

Three minutes into the second half, FC E-S were awarded a penalty, and Timo Semmler made it 4-1. While in the first half it was on the nines, in the second half it was within nine, as by nine minutes after the penalty was awarded, both Johansen and Clausen had added to the score and it was 1-6 with more than 30 minutes to play.

As often happens, the winning team slackens off after taking such a lead, and this was no exception. They made their allotted substitutions, leaving Semmler as the only visiting goalscorer on the field. So we did not get a further goal until four minutes from time when Christoph Rennhack brought the numbers back to 6-2. Not surprisingly, this was a late consolation and the final goal.

Now I had a decision to make – German Regionalliga in Flensburg, or Danish 1st Division in Vejle. For those that do not follow Danish Football, the 1st Division is the second division, unlike countries such as England (where it is the third division), let alone Switzerland (where it is both the 3rd and 4th divisions). With the Danish game kicking off later than the German one, my Sat Nav had me arriving at either venue around 40 minutes before kick-off.

I chose Denmark, but soon regretted the decision. While there were no road problems, stops at the first two service stations in Denmark confirmed that one can neither change money, or use ATMs here. That meant I had to go into the town centre and find an ATM. Generally, this is not a problem but of course once you are looking for a bank, you cannot find one. I never did spot a bank in Velje, but eventually found a machine on drew out 400 DKK, more than enough for the day.

Parking at the ground was easy, I managed to find a spot on Stadion Vej, just two minutes walk from the ticket offices, which are situated between the old and new stadiums.

I now suffered (for that is the word) with two pieces of luck that ended up saving a little money. Firstly I went to the first ticket window, (just as they were about to close) and bought the first ticket I could. This cost 70DKK (about £7), but was behind the goal. If I had taken time to read the displays, I would have bought a 100 DKK ticket along the side. As it was, having found myself in one section, I asked to buy an upgrade and was let through for no extra!

Secondly, the programme sellers had already disappeared and I could not get one until the end of the game. When I asked at the offices at the end of the game, I was given one without charge, (another 10 DKK saved).

I would have willingly paid all the extra money and more for a decent game, as this match was tedious in the extreme.

Firstly the stadium, which I actually did not see as I drove past it. The floodlights are not as tall as the neighbouring Athletics stadium (which staged the game of my earlier visit), and from the road, one could believe it was a low lying office building with two square tower buildings, a storey higher at each end. The offices were the club offices, while the two towers were corners of the stadium and I think are let out as commercial buildings.

The other three sides were a continual uniform height single tier with 17 rows of seats. The roof of the main stand is of a height with the other sides, but less rows of seats, allowing for boxes behind. The stands curved around the two corners without offices.

Behind each goal, the stand was broken by a dividing line about half way. In each case the half closest to the road was standing accommodation with seats in the other half. For this game, one end section was entirely empty. I did not see an away fan until the end, and when I mentioned this, I was told they numbered about 10. Probably the only ten people that were happy with the day’s fare.

The Danish League is being restructured from next season. Currently the top two divisions are 12 teams apiece, with the teams playing a 33 game season. Next season the Superliga will have a 14 team division, taking its lead from the Belgium top division. After 28 games have been played, the top six go into the Championship play-off round, playing a further 10 games each. The other 8 will be divided into two groups of four, playing 6 games each. Each team in these groups plays at least two more matches in knock out play.

The four team groups are referred to as C and D, the winners of each playing the second team in the other group home and away, with the two game winners then playing another two-legged game. The overall “best of the rest”, then plays against the team that has finished either 3rd or 4th in the Championship group for a Europa League spot

Meanwhile, the teams that finish 3rd and 4th in groups C&D play off against each other, with the two winners then playing each other in one game, the two losers in the other, giving a final classification of 11th to 14th places. 11th stays in the Superliga, 12th plays-off against the team that finished 3rd in Division One, 13th plays-off against the Division One runners-up while 14th takes the drop directly.

I guess by creating more games, and in particular more games of importance, the league can sell the rights to the TV companies for more money. I have yet to meet a fan of a club in any country with a convoluted system like this that actually prefers it to the standard fare of home and away sequences, and with the seventh and eighth placed teams in the initial series of games having a better chance of reaching the Europa League, there must be a feeling of injustice from supporters of teams who just miss out on a European play off.

All this means that there are three promotion spots up for grabs this season, with no play-off. A golden ticket for a team like Vejle who lie in third place at the moment. This week’s matches are the 11th of a 33 match season, meaning after the games, everyone has played each of the other teams once. Vejle were unbeaten at home going into the game, while HB Koge did not have an away win to their credit.

The match was as dull as any game can be. There was no end to end play, but Koge were clearly the better of the two. They eventually scored just before the hour mark with Kristoffer Munksgaard getting his head to a right wing cross. Everyone (including the home support) were bemused about protests about the goal, which seemed to be “how is this to be allowed, they have no right to score”. Vejle did not improve and Koge were closest to scoring again, with Faeste making one good save, (the only one in the game), and Rasmus Nielsen firing a shot against the post. All in all, though this was a game that did not live in the memory for the whole time it took me to return to the car.

It must be said that my previous visit to Velje has also escaped my memory, the old stadium did not allow me to recall anything about the game, perhaps this was also a dull game following a much better one. Certainly I can recall going to AGF earlier in the day to see Kobenhavn win 5-3, before Viborg won 3-1 at Vejle.

With time to kill, I took brief looks at the town centres of both Vejle and Herning before heading to my night game. I may be doing the places a disservice, but both towns are on the “nice place to live, but I wouldn’t want to visit” list. They have good facilities – shops, restaurants, theatres, (Herning has banks), but I saw nothing that inspired me during me brief time wandering through the towns.

Velje’s windmill overlooks the town

If I ever come to these parts as a tourist, it will be to take the boy to Legoland, and not for anything special the area can provide.

In actual fact, one of the main draws for visitors to Herning is the Messe Centre Herning, (or MCH). I normally search for alternative names for stadia which appear to have sponsors names, but the MCH Arena is simply the Arena at the MCH, so it will remain as MCH Arena in my log. I note it did run as SAS Arena for five years in the past, but it was MCH before and after this.

This looks like a football ground from the outside, and cannot be confused with the exhibition halls around it. I particularly like the curved floodlight pylons. I was also pleased to note that for a stadium a couple of miles out of town, car parking was free. After the game, the stewarding was good, and I got back to the motorway within minutes.

Inside it was bland and modern. In a similar format to Vejle, the stands all around were of uniform height, with a less rows of seats on one side, to allow for sponsors lounges behind. In this case, all four sides have the corners filled in, although the lower rows of seats are missing to give access routes to the pitch.

Tickets can be bought on line, or at the stadium. There was no shortage of empty seats. Prices for the long side of the pitch were 135 DKK. Again there are standing sections behind each goal, with half of each end given to seats. The AGF fans were given one end of standing, and with Aarhus being relatively local, they were numerous and in good voice. They even managed to let off a few flares before the game.

The Programme was a pocket sized affair, given out free on the turnstiles. It has been folded into a fifth of its length and opens out into a single long sheet, with ten “pages” – only one has text, another has the teams, one is a front page, while the rest are fixed content, mainly listing sponsors.

FCM were formed in 1999 by a merger of Herning Fremad and Ikast. They are the current champions of Denmark, their first title, and lead the league again. In the ten league games prior to my arrival, FCM had scored just 12 goals, conceding 3. In the Champions League, the Gibraltar team Lincoln Red Imps were beaten 3-0 on aggregate, but they went out on away goals to APOEL of Cyprus. This gives the team a second chance in the Europa League play-off, and they took this well with a 2-1 aggregate against Southampton. I saw the match in Southampton and also their visit to the New Saints, in the 2011 Europa League. Midtjylland have won their opening two games in the group stages, with a 3-1 win last week in Brugge being the second time they have hit three this season, (the other being a Danish cup tie at Naestved, the bottom team from the lower division).

With plenty of crowd noise, and a faster pace on the field, the game has more going for it from the start, but one soon realises this is a veneer with very little behind. Midtjylland play a 4-1-4-1 formation designed to frustrate their opponents, but they have little in the way of creativity.

They can get the ball out to the wings well enough and they attack with plenty of width, but there the game plan ends, as the ball is booted into a central area where no one is there to meet it. Onuachu is the one man up front, but he seems to have been picked for his size (6 foot 7), rather than speed or skill. He did manage to flick a good chance just wide in the 13th minute, but most of the time he failed to get close to the ball, or his midfield support had not moved up to collect a knock on.

FCM rely on dead ball situations as the only times they have more than one man in the box and can really threaten. AGF play into their hands by conceding free kicks in the right places, as well as corners, while long throws are also a threat.

When FCM go ahead on 30 minutes, it owes more to AGF than their own prowess, a long throw comes into the six yard box, where the keeper goes up to punch the ball under pressure from his own defender. His touch sends the ball the wrong way, behind him and towards the far post. There is still a defender with a chance to clear, but he makes no contact and Royer taps gleefully knocks the ball into the empty net.

When I saw FCM at Southampton, they achieved their aims by stifling the home side and having a little bit of luck to score. They were aided and abetted by the Saints’ lack of tactical nous, with the home side returning to the 4-3-3 formation that had been so ineffective in the first half after 15 minutes of 4-4-2 after the break had put FCM under the cosh and resulted in Southampton equalising. While AGF also play 4-4-2, (maybe 4-4-1-1), they never look likely to open up FCM from the flanks, and hence once the home side had taken the lead, one always felt the game was only heading one way.

Indeed, I felt there was little of note in the next 25 minutes although at least the game is played at a much greater pace than the one in the lower division, hence one could always hope there might be something at the end of the next run down the wing. Too often though this hope was dashed when the ball was crossed in without a specific target

But then Marcos Urena comes on as substitute for the lumbering Onauchu. This immediately adds more pace and more promise to the Midtjylland attacks. Five minutes after Urena comes on, he receives a ball flicked over a defender by Dueland. Urena demonstrates a skilful first touch to control the ball, and then takes it past the goalkeeper before finding the net. It is the little piece of magic the game has cried out for.

This appears to be the catalyst the game needs, and for a short while, one could believe that they could score three at home for the first time this season, but the head of steam soon run out, and with AGF capable of nothing more than occasionally making the ball bounce in the penalty area, it is no surpise that a 2-0 final result ensues.

Its then onto my day job for five long days in Bremen. My week finished with a plane delayed at an hour back at Hamburg airport, thanks to a leaking toilet! That sort of thing annoys me – not so much the delay, we could see the plane on the ground with water from the leaking pipe dripping from the fuselage, but the absolute refusal of the airline officials to give information about what the problem was or how long the delay might be. Only the pilot’s message told us why we were delayed, and I think that was only because he had to let us know the forward toilet was out of order.

The Cleanest Sweep

August 7th, 2015

The first time I ever saw Cheltenham Town play was a Southern League Cup match at Minehead in August 1976. In none of the 658 matches I have seen the club play since then have I seen a starting XI for the first team that did not feature at least one player I had seen play for the club before.

I cannot make it to Lincoln on Saturday, but if we field the expected team there, and then do not change it for the home game, this should change in the next week.

I am not worried by the fact this is a completely new team. The team we had last season played so poorly, and were so demoralised that even those who can play a bit were not showing it in our colours, and they will be better off elsewhere.

I have not bothered much with reading the interviews as the new players come on board. Any player can say how much he wants to be part of the squad and is really pleased to be here. The succession of signings last season all gave a good initial interview. Many did not then follow this up on the field. “Obviously”, a player is not going to say in the interview that he is joining our club, because he could not get a better offer elsewhere – but in most cases that is really the case.

So now, on the day before we start in earnest, if the boy can play quietly for a couple of hours I will look over who we have signed, and where they have come from. (I am using soccerway as the primary source of stats – it is not 100% accurate, but other sites tend to use the same sources).

  1. Dillon Phillips (age 20). Goalkeeper on loan from Charlton Athletic with a six month agreement. Phillips has had loans in the division below us with Bishops Stortford and Whitehawk. He has also been on the bench a few times for Charlton without playing in the league.
  2. Jack Barthram (21). Barthram has made starts, and ten substitute appearances for Swindon. He was a non-playing sub for the visit to Cheltenham last season.
  3. George McLennan (19). McLennan made three appearances for Scotland U-19in May last year. He has been released by Reading without ever making the bench for them. He played a few games last season on loan for Hayes and Yeading. That again is one step below our status.
  4. Kyle Storer (28). Storer has a lot of experience at this level, mainly with Kidderminster, before switching during the last transfer window to Wrexham. He has played in friendlies against Cheltenham, but is a new face to me.
  5. Aaron Downes (30). At thirty years of age, Downes is the senior member of the squad. The Aussie played for Chesterfield from 2004 to 2012, and then switched to Torquay United. He also had a short spell at Bristol Rovers on loan. Downes has played against Cheltenham in the league for all three of Chesterfield, Bristol Rovers and Torquay United, but not (as suggested by our official site) in the 2012 play-off semi-finals. He was a Chesterfield player at that point.
  6. Daniel Parslow (29). The Welshman started with Cardiff, but has spent most of his professional career with York City. In 2012 he played in both the Trophy final and the play-off final for York City, a notable double as York won both. He played at Whaddon Road for York in November 2012. Parslow spent most of last season on loan at Grimsby, and came on as a substitute in the Play-off final.
  7. Harry Pell (24). For someone who has not reached his 25th birthday, Pell has played for quite a few clubs, with football league appearances for Bristol Rovers, Hereford United and AFC Wimbledon, Conference for Cambridge United, Hereford United and Eastleigh. Pell played twice for Hereford at Whaddon Road in 2011, and then in both games of the 2012 FA Cup encounter, before coming to Whaddon Road twice more for AFC Wimbledon. Pell spent a month last season on loan at Grimsby, then transferred in January to Eastleigh, playing against Grimsby in the play-off semis.
  8. Billy Waters (20). Waters came through the Crewe Academy, and has spent two years in the first team squad, He made his football league debut in November 2013 and has gone on to make 30 appearances for Crewe – evenly divided between starts and coming off the bench
  9. Daniel Wright (30). Wright knows his way around this league, with 83 goals at this level in just under 300 appearances. Wright has played for Histon, Cambridge United, Wrexham and Gateshead before moving to Kidderminster last January.
  10. Amari Morgan-Smith (26). Morgan-Smith is expected to be the strike partner for Wright, and our season may depend on how this works out. Amari made his football league debut by coming on as substitute for Stockport in the final game of the 2007-8 season. On his release, he signed for Ilkeston Town, moving onto Luton in September 2010. He was with Luton when we played them in the FA Cup in 2011, but missed the game, (and most of the rest of the season, having been a regular before hand). He then moved on the play for Macclesfield and Kidderminster. His career took a jump last summer, and his second football league appearance, (again coming on as sub) was for Oldham Athletic at the start of last season. He played 13 times in the league last season, but made only three starts, and scored twice. There were also appearances in the Football League Trophy (starting) and the FA Cup (last minute sub).
  11. Jack Munns (21). The youngster started at the Tottenham academy, then spent time with Aldershot and Charlton – for both clubs he has been an unplayed substitute in the football league, but he still has to make his senior debut.

This is likely to be the starting line-up at Lincoln. I would say it is a good mixture of younger and older players. Still, I would say that if Gary Johnson has managed to find the right mix first time out with eleven new players, he is a footballing genius. We will have to wait to see how it develops, and with seven games to play in August, we will get a feeling for that very quickly.

Johnson has been disappointed in a couple of his attempts to bolster the squad. We know about JJ Hooper agreeing to sign, but then wanting to talk over another club’s offer. We saw that Johnson stamped on this very quickly. He has also been attempting to add another loan player who still has not turned up.

We have more new signings, of course, although two of these have been loaned out.

  1. Calum Kitscha (22). Calum has been playing at one level below the National league with Histon, and then Hayes and Yeading. He has managed to get selected into the England ‘C’ squad (the non-league team) despite this. It would not surprise me if we made him our first choice goalkeeper during the winter and allowed Phillips to return to his club, especially as we also have a third goalkeeper,.
  2. Rhys Lovett (not squad number) (out on loan at Tiverton) who can be recalled.
  3. Adam Page comes in from our youth team, and having signed a professional contract, he has gone out on loan to Midland League newboys, Hereford FC.
  4. James Rowe (23). Rowe was a substitute (replacing Eliot Richards) when Cheltenham Town won at Tranmere early last season. He was released by Tranmere in January, and had previously played for Forest Green.

As Johnson has tried to sign two more, it seems possible that we still have additional names to name – meanwhile we have almost have a team out on loan. As well as Lovett and Page, Zack Kotwica, Harry Williams, Bobbie Dale, Jack Deaman, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence are all away at the moment. The latter three were transfer listed along with Lee Vaughan. We also had three players “to be assessed”. Of these, Asa Hall may well be on the bench tomorrow, but Jordan Wynter is apparently not fit, while it will be a while before we can properly rate Eliot Richards again. It seems that James Rowe, Asa Hall, Joe Hanks and James Bowen have to be on the bench, as we may have only sixteen fit players actually at the club. However, two of the players are heading to Farnborough who will not play for at least two Saturday as the club’s status remains to be confirmed and a c.v.a has still to be agreed. Hence, Dale and Williams are available to join the squad at Lincoln.

It is all very well and good that everyone at the club feels confident that we can bounce back, and return to the Football League in one go, as Bristol Rovers have done. However, it is by no means cut and dry, there are at least three teams with resources from significantly better crowds (Grimsby, Tranmere and Wrexham), and two who seem to have a fantastic level of support from benefactors (Eastleigh, Forest Green). Of these five, most bookmakers offer shorter odds for the title on all but Wrexham.

I am worried about the words coming out of the club, that suggest that this season is an “all or nothing” season, and that if we fail in our attempt to return in one season, we may have to go part time. In the current climate, it appears that no part time club can be competitive in the National League. There are too many full time outfits in the league, (some on lower crowds than we can expect and without obvious outside support), and over a full season the superior fitness of a full time squad does prove its worth. It is great that we are having a go, and I am positive this will be a good season, but I do not like talk of “do or die”. I am hoping that the talk is basically a way of pushing the players to go for it, telling them that their future is on the line, along with some of the other good people employed by the club. I really want to feel that even if not acknowledged, we have a plan B, and this allows for an extended stay at this level with a full time squad that remains competitive and can at some stage win back our league place,