The Winters Tale.

February 24th, 2015

To the surprise of absolutely no one, but to the consternation of the Premier League (and we are led to believe the other major European Leagues), the World Cup for 2022 has been set for November/December.

This is the decision that had to be made, despite the obvious fact that FIFA were going to be damned for making it. There is no point within the standard winter season that would not have annoyed the European clubs, but frankly it had to be a winter cup. Had the tournament been held in June or July (or even in May), then it was not a risk that someone would die from the heat, but a probability.

Those that do not believe that the leading European Leagues should be allowed to demand all of World Football follow their rules will be pleased that the precedent has been set, and that the World Cup does not have to be played at the height of summer, regardless of the climate. This means that all countries can consider bidding in future. Many countries (especially in Africa) with a much better footballing pedigree than Qatar have been ruled out of the running for too long, and can now consider if they can stage the competition.

On the other hand, the decision to award 2022 to Qatar (and for that matter 2018 to Russia) still rankles. Everyone knows that something is rotten in the state of the FIFA ExCo, and their own decision to give themselves a clean bill of health does not remove the gangrenous smell of corruption.

Qatar at least are getting the one penalty that all winners of major tournaments now get. The glare of publicity lights up those dark recesses that you would prefer the rest of the world to ignore. Everyone knows that construction workers throughout the middle-east get a raw deal. Safety standards that are steadfastly neither safe, nor standard and employment contracts which are close to serfdom. This has been the case for decades, and not just in Qatar. Migrant workers die in the Arabian peninsular, for no better reason than the pay is slightly better than in the home countries. European companies and governments have always turned a blind eye to this because we want the oil. (In a lot of countries nearby without oil, conditions are no better, but there is less construction and fewer migrant workers without oil to grease the wheels).

The Khalifa stadium, before the opening game of the 2011 Asian Cup in Qatar. It is now being reconstructed for 2022

In fact, UEFA worked out the contingency plan for the winter world cup some time back. It goes something like this. The 2021-22 season will start and finish about two weeks earlier than is normal. The 2022-3 season will start a full month early. With the World Cup taking something in the order of 7 weeks out of the middle of the season, the 2022-3 season will end up finishing around 3 weeks late.

This does not even have to seriously affect the leagues and TV audiences. I think after a long break, there will be an eagerness to return to watching live football. Naturally there is a fear the Christmas matches will be affected – but this is more because the other European Leagues would prefer to bring the tournament close to Christmas. England is the only major footballing country that plays between Christmas and New Year, so in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, a finish close to Christmas is preferable to an earlier end. Still, the hyped date of 23 December is unlikely. When was the last World Cup Final to be held on a Friday? December 18th is a far more likely date.

The other joke is that because of the winter world cup, the FA could be forced to dispense with FA Cup replays. This is balderdash of the highest order, put about by those who already have the removal of cup replays on their agenda. Sadly, the FA has already devalued the competition when they allowed Manchester United to pull out in 2000, to take part in the first World Club Championship. Not only did this not achieve the FAs aims of gaining favour from FIFA by supporting the new competition, it began the erosion of the Cup’s prestige. It is also to United’s shame that they should have gone along with the FA, rather than demanding they should play in the Cup, with different dates to the other teams.

As for League-1, League-2 and non-League football. This can go on unchanged, with just the occasional matches moved if they should clash with major (read England) fixtures. One must even ask if the Championship loses enough players to the World Cup to justify changing its dates either. Football at these levels may well benefit from being played at the same time as the World Cup. There has never been a rule that demands that all football comes to a halt, just because a major tournament is being played. In the USA, the MLS plays throughout World Cups, despite some teams losing a number of key players. In Germany, the fact that amateur football seasons continue into June was not changed due to the World Cup there. I saw two semi-professional games in Germany during the first week of the 2006 tournament, as well as half a dozen World Cup games, and two matches in the Czech Republic. The Czech third division was still running when the Czech Republic had been knocked out of the World Cup.

1 FC Gera 03 seen on Day 9 of the 2006 World Cup

I also have no sympathy for the American TV network who had already agreed the deal for 2022 TV rights, priced for a summer tournament (away from any other major US sports event – everyday baseball does not count). They now have a tournament in the middle of the NFL season which is nowhere near as lucrative. Still, I understand they have been compensated immediately by getting the rights for 2026 without the other stations bidding against them. This will be an even bigger bonus if their belief that 2026 is the USA’s turn to stage the tournament again proves accurate.

So crucify FIFA is you want to, but for the right reasons. The decision to award the cup to Qatar in the first place was not merely flawed, it was beyond comprehension and those that made the decision should be banned for life from any role that involves any type of decision at all. I would not even allow them to choose their own ice cream flavours. But this week, the committee were not given the option to reverse the original decision. They were faced with the fait accompli, and asked to decide when to hold the 2022 World Cup, not where. They made the only choice they could.

Where do we go from here?

February 14th, 2015

Down in League-2, there are two main reasons why a manager gets changed – these are

  1. Success.
  2. Failure.

The longevity of Yates’ tenure at Cheltenham Town reflects this, for a long period he was neither successful enough to be a target of other clubs, or enough of a failure to warrant being sacked. I think Paul Tisdale, who has served longer than Yates’ is now in the same situation at Exeter. Most of the other managerial changes in the division this season have also been down to failures, even if some of them have had successes in the past. Of the changes in our division this season, only two are down to success (Gary Rowett leaving Burton, and Justin Edinburgh’s departure from Newport). The other eleven are down to reason 2.

This also means that we have three basic options when appointing a new manager.

  1. Pick on someone who has had at least one failure on his CV, most likely his most recent position
  2. Pick on someone successful, and currently in a job, (which means bringing someone up from a lower league)
  3. Pick on someone with no previous managerial experience.

Paul Buckle, who left Luton for “personal reasons”, but wanted a return to English Football Management was at least on paper slightly outside these categories. Clearly he had a failure on his CV, at Bristol Rovers; but he could at least claim that his last managerial role was successful. At Luton, it is at least possible to find some supporters who beg to differ over this. Paul Buckle can certainly say he moved from Torquay to Bristol Rovers due to success.

When appointing Buckle, our directors claimed that they knew him well, as he frequently visited us in the past – and that they were told by Burton Albion that he was almost given the job there, before they selected the more surprising candidate of Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. By having a previous record outside the UK, Hasselbaink’s managerial record before joining Burton was not success or failure. Outside the UK, there is much more of a feeling you can just let a contract run out, and then not renew it. A seventh place finish in Belgium Division 2 is by the standards of Royal Antwerp, par for the course.

Much of the support was underwhelmed by the appointment, but he did a little at least to steady a ship that had leaked goals in Yates’ final two games in charge. For a period, Buckle had us down to losing exactly one goal per game, but no clean sheets. There was talk of a more professional attitude on the training field, as he brought in his own team to run the coaching and John Milton as the scout that does not scout. (There was nothing wrong with the role Milton played, except it did not match the job title. In these days when everything that happens in Football, even at League-2 is under scrutiny, there are people who want to know why a scout is on the bench every game).

If there is such a thing as new manager bounce, then with Buckle it passed unnoticed during a December in which we did not win a match, (including the embarrassing loss to Dover). In December, Buckle was not capable of bringing new players into the squad and settled for working out which of the players were pliable, and which would not be able to fit into his system. By trying out youngsters who had come through our youth system, and then signing them to elongated contracts, he made himself temporarily popular with the fans. The belief was that changes would be made early in the transfer window, with those out of favour leaving and bevy of fresh players signed up.

January 3rd was the apogee of Buckle’s tenure. He entered the new year with the coup of signing three Liverpool youth players. Two of them scored at Oxford United and Cheltenham won the game. It is very noticeable that none of this trio appeared during Buckle’s final game in charge. Two had already returned to Liverpool with injuries by then, while Lloyd Jones (dropped in Buckle’s penultimate game) sustained his own injury just before the game.

The rest of the month was somewhat downhill, as we waited for the signings that were going to lift our season and found they were not hurrying to our door. Despite conflicting reports, there is no doubt the budget was already stretched, but with Jason Taylor, Byron Harrison, Paul Black and Andy Haworth departing, some money would have been freed up. It looked as if changes would be minimal, until the last Saturday of the month when the team finally collapsed into disarray at Dagenham. The first of the Liverpool three had already headed back North before this, and then Jack Dunn was injured during the game. Despite having just signed Durell Berry, we left him on the bench for 90 minutes while Lloyd Jones looked lost in covering the position.

This stung Buckle into a flurry of activity, as we made deadline deals like never before, (and Yates was always one to make deals on deadline day). For Buckle this was the last throw of the dice, but it was made knowing that the next three games (Burton and Bury at home, Southend away) were all difficult games for a team who had only been introduced to each other earlier in the week. We had five new players in the starting line up, Denny Johnstone, Wes Burns, Jordan Wynter (in his second spell), Durell Berry and Mathieu Manset. A sixth, Eliot Richards came on at half time to make his debut while two loan players who had not started came off the bench as well. The very much better organised Burton side found enough weak spots to put the new team to shame, with only a brief spell of play just after we scored to suggest things could get better.

From reports I have heard, we were no better at Southend. I am rather glad that I was not in a position to get there after work. Meanwhile, the rumours that all was not right on the training field were ramped up. Steve Elliott left the club with a parting twitter comment that appeared to suggest he left mainly because he could not work with the manager, while Lee Vaughan was openly critical after being dropped from the 18 at Southend. When a team is struggling for points, the one thing it needs above all is unity. Buckle’s response when questioned on this after the Southend game was flippant. Something along the lines of “I don’t do Social media”. In the same way as he tended to take little of the responsibility for what went on for the 90 minutes that count, this attack against the media, ignoring the message being sent was the wrong answer.

Another question that has to be asked. Having made such a deal of placing players such as Bobbie Dale, James Bowen, Harry Williams, Omari Sterling-James and Jamal Lawrence on extended contracts, (as if any of these was in a rush to leave), why are none of them at least on the bench, looking for a little game time? Were these contracts a blind to try and garner popularity – or was Buckle sidelining the players he actually believed were the future of the club?

I am sure that Buckle said something on the lines of if you fail at Cheltenham, what is there next for a player when he arrived. One could say the answers to that involve contracts at Chesterfield, Accrington Stanley or Atlanta Silverbacks. What next though for a manager who fails so spectacularly at a struggling League-2 club.

Meanwhile the club handled the departure of Buckle in a typical shambolic way, reminiscent most of all of their handling of Yates’ departure. While negotiating for Buckle to come in as a replacement for Yates, Paul Baker made an entirely unnecessary interview, in which he professed (if not with enthusiasm) to support Yates, and to suggest we should all be behind him. My understanding is that Buckle was sacked on Wednesday, but it took two more days to sign and seal the agreement and make the official announcement. Still Baker again felt the need to go onto the radio on Wednesday night and announce Buckle had not been sacked. Again he would have been better off not saying anything at all, (after all, I say it best, when I don’t even allude to a Ronan Keating lyric).

So the incoming team is led by Russell Milton. He comes in with goodwill from two sources. Firstly he played for us with distinction, and secondly he is not Paul Buckle. There is already speculation over who will come in as next manager. Most of those mentioned are currently unemployed, and it is for “reason number 2″. The alternatives appear to be our old players, either in the form of Russell and his old boys team who become the caretakers for the moment, or someone like Archie Howells. Archie is in his third season at Bath City (two levels below us). That means his longevity is based on being neither successful or a failure – the team are currently mid-table.

Still, to bring in the inexperienced locals must be preferable to most of those players who have managed at a significantly higher level. Our two worst managers in the league have both had the same thing in common, a long and chequered managerial career and the feeling that because of their past record, they were bigger than the club they were managing.

I hope that Russell Milton is given long enough for us to see if he is up to the job before we name the next man, but I can see that the board is liable to panic after one or two bad results. Thirty minutes before the end of Tuesday’s games, we looked like dropping into the relegation zone. We stayed just above the line only thanks to two late Luton goals, it was nothing of our doing. With two teams below us, and six that can be caught if we were to win two in a row – we are far from down yet. But as I have repeatedly said, we need better results because otherwise we will go down.

Good luck, Russell. We are all hoping this is your time.

Don’t Speak too Soon

February 2nd, 2015

..for the wheel’s steel in spin. As the poet said back in the sixties.

So writing a blog before the transfer day is complete is certainly speaking too soon. There are plenty of suggestions that Cheltenham will sign more players in the four hours between writing these first sentences and the deadline tonight. AT 23.00, the ball is in play, but the wheel will spin for another three months until the season ends on May 2nd.

I made the obvious comment on Saturday – either our results improve, or we get relegated. It is not a comment that required an incredible amount of intelligence to make. Our last 18 league matches (if I have done my sums correctly) have resulted in 15 points. I have chosen that figure as there are 18 more to play, and 15 more points would take us to 45. Teams that finish a league-2 season on 45 points tend to get relegated. The fact that so far, Buckle’s record is worse than Yates’ is another factor that makes us fear that our stay in the League will be for 16 seasons only.

Still, I am going to make a much bolder prediction here. If we know our fate before the final day of the season, then it will be good news, not bad! What I mean by that is quite simple, I believe that our results will be good enough to leave our fate in the balance on the final day. I am not however going as far as to say it will not be in the lap of the gods. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that we are hoping for Terry Gornell to come good for his new club on the final day and score the goal that puts Mansfield down.

When Buckle joined the club as manager, everyone hoped for “new manager bounce”, a brief spell of improved results as the players show the new man they are worth their place. This did not happen, although as the stattos have pointed out, few managers have managed the bounce at Cheltenham.

Until the New Year, Buckle had his hands tied – no new signings could be made, and he contented himself with giving young players a run out, and then signing them to 18 month contracts. Come the New Year, the new broom had the chance to sweep – and within days we had change. Jason Taylor was packed off to Northampton, while three more kids entered the fray from Liverpool, no less. The scouser revolution started well, as despite going a goal down we actually won the first match of the year, with two of the new players scoring. To date, it remains our best result under Buckle. Since then we have seen the departure of another player considered to be a “non trier”, in Byron Harrison. Also out of the door were Paul Black and Adam Powell. Black was thought not to be what we needed – I do not think anyone has said he failed to put the effort in when called upon, while Powell never made it into the league. One more loan player was signed in Jake Gray from Palace, while Kane Ferdinand’s loan was extended to the end of the season. This meant we had five loan players on the books, even if only one was a long term deal. The entrance of the loan players also changed the ball game for the home grown youngsters who had been their chance. Hanks and Kotwica have been in and out, Williams has found his chances limited, while players like Bowen are just hoping to get back to the bench! At least they all know they have a year to get themselves into the team.

As results after the Oxford match did not keep up the pace, there has been some frustration both with the manager himself, and with the lack of further movement. Confusion reigned by varying comments coming out of the club, casting doubt on our ability to sign players, and then suggesting money was available again. Buckle himself appeared to be frustrated by this inconsistency, and by at least one player not signing. He was also reported to change his mind at least once, with Moke set to sign, but then remaining in the Conference.

If we had hope that we could let things ride with the squad, this was blown away at Dagenham. Buckle’s claims to a team that was more defensively resolute than that of his predecessor were shown up by the Dagger’s strike force. In a match reminiscent of many of Yates’ failures, our defence (and in particular the full backs) failed, while the midfield was disjointed and failed to either protect the defenders, or to link the play and set up our singular forward. In particular, criticism had to be fired at the manager for playing Lloyd Jones at right back throughout, despite having two alternatives on the bench. One of these is the out of favour Vaughan (who has surprised me so far tonight by remaining a Cheltenham player), while the other is new signing Berry (ostensibly, Vaughan’s replacement at right back). To make matters worse, one of the Liverpudlians, Stewart was missing through injury, while Dunn – possibly the only bright spark for Cheltenham in the game was injured late on. Fortunately, we were allowed to say to Liverpool, “we have broken them”, and send them back. We therefore were exempted from paying further for their services even if Liverpool did not redeem the guarantees and send us replacements.

A team can play up to five loan players at any one time. While it may be foolish to have more on your books (as happened when Allen was manager), loans have the advantage of allowing us players for a fraction of their full wage, so we give experience to young Liverpool and Palace players who we could not afford to take on at full wage. Loans also afford us the chance to look at players who may become permanent signings later. IN the past, Grant McCann and Marlon Pack first entered the team in this way. Some rumours suggested John Marquis might have become available, but we did not pursue this one.

As a player can get injured at any time, the loan deals for Stewart and Dunn currently appear as better value on our books than the full time signing of Asa Hall, still waiting for the 9th minute of his Cheltenham playing career. Let us hope to see him again, maybe in six week’s time?

So come deadline day, Buckle knew that he had to make changes. The squad just could was not balanced enough to give us more than a thin chance of escaping the drop. The players here had been given the chance and found wanting. Whether this is the fault of the previous manager, the current manager, the players themselves or even the chairman is not really a point worth arguing. On transfer deadline day, it is too late to change the manager and still change the squad, or for a new chairman to come in and revitalise the budget. Only the playing squad can seriously be changed on this day.

I dislike the need to wheel and deal on this final day, and was more hopeful when Buckle tried to get his deals done earlier, but he had not addressed the problem with scoring goals, and even his sticky plaster (Dunn) which only partly addressed this has now come unstuck. With Stewart and Dunn back at Liverpool, we could sign two new loan players to bring the total back to five, and quickly moved to do so. Denny Johnstone (Birmingham) and Wes Burns (Bristol City) both coming in to bolster the attack. Meanwhile, the surviving member of the Liverpool triumvirate, Lloyd Jones confirmed an extension to his loan. Burns has scored three times this season, and two of them (once for Bristol City, once for Oxford) have been against us. I am not sure we should allow him back into defensive positions now.

The reports say that all the new loan deals are to the end of the season, but I note that they are all players under-21 years of age, so it is possible that they are in fact youth loans. Having five players on loan at the moment means we are limited in using the so called emergency loan system. If the loans are youth loans, rather than half season loans, then at least we are not committed to paying further if they turn out not to be the right moves, and we can try to plug the gap with emergency loans. We can, of course sign further emergency loans, but we cannot play more than five loan players in any one game. It would be interesting to see how we react to further injuries, but it is not something I hope is not an issue.

For the afternoon, we made two further changes, both up front – Terry Gornell has had his contract ended, and has moved to Accrington Stanley, while Eliot Richards arrives from Tranmere in a similar way. My reading of these deals is the players have accepted 18 month contracts, probably at slightly lower wages than they were on previously, while the settlement from their previous club means they are not financial inconvenienced in the first six months, they may even be better off short term. Gornell was out of contract at Cheltenham at the end of the season, and I would guess that Richards was as well at Tranmere, so the 18 month deals guarantee them another season as a professional footballer, (and if they can prove themselves, both have chances of lasting longer). During his stay at Cheltenham, I had always been impressed by Gornell’s work rate, and his apparent acceptance that he would have short runs in the squad and then be dropped quickly and without reason – but he is a striker, and he rarely got to score a goal. We need to try something different, and so does he. This is a move that may work out well for both parties. Eliot Richards is a player I know little about. He has played in 13 games for Tranmere this season (the last was in November). The 13 have been nine starts and four as substitute, and the only goal was against us, when we won 3-2 early in the season. Last season he played against us without scoring for both Exeter and Bristol Rovers, but did manage a double digit haul over the season.

A late signing, 75 minutes before the deadline is a player we know – Jordan Wynter returning from Bristol City. He was on loan earlier this season. At some stage I said that the only two players that quickened the blood when watching the game earlier in the season were Wynter and Arthur. Loan players who could do something unexpected with the ball. I was disappointed when Wynter was recalled by Bristol City, so naturally I welcome him back. He played six times for us earlier in the season, scoring in the same game as Richards, at Tranmere, and also played against us, for Bristol City in the JPT.

The club and echo twitter feeds seem to suggest that is our lot for the day, but that another player will sign tomorrow. Players may, of course sign outside the window if they are free agents. Hence we can assume the player in question has already made his settlement with another club.

I think this is the busiest any Cheltenham manager has been on deadline day since the current transfer rules have been in place, the team will look very different next Saturday to the one that played at the end of last year. The manager has been given enough leeway to manoeuvre, and the team is clearly now the Buckle team, rather than a Yates’ XI managed by Buckle.

The wheel is now in spin, and no doubt people will be speaking about where it will land even before Saturday’s game gives us the first clues. It is more than plausible that things may get worse before they get better, and it is possible that things do not get better at all. Either of these would cause some calls for the manager’s head. I personally do not believe that change for changes sake will make any difference in the next three months. This is Paul Buckle’s team, and it his job to make it work. There is hardly any scope to change the players again until the summer, (and we now have a remarkable number of players signed for next year, with the 18 month deals today, added to the youngsters given deals earlier). If Buckle has not built a foundation for the future in the last few days, and the walls come tumbling down, then even those star names of the Premier League would not be able to shore it up again.

Interesting Times.

January 1st, 2015

Let’s start with what we know. We are half way through the season, with a points tally of 25 points from 23 games. We are placed 19th out of 24 teams, only three points better off than Dagenham & Redbridge, who are in the drop zone. Hartlepool may be somewhat further adrift, but they are not in an unrecoverable position. If we can double our points tally to 50 by then end of the season, we will probably (but not certainly) finish above the drop zone. Only a point or two more than that takes us well into the comfort zone. If we do not reach the 50 point mark for the season, then we are going to be in trouble to the last day – drop down to 46 and we can expect to play Conference next season.

Going beyond the points total, to the trends, and things look worse – we had a tremendous start to the season, unbeaten in the first six league games, with 14 of our points to date coming in those games. Any attempt to extrapolate to the end of the season based on stats that ignore those games leads only to one conclusion, and the five league (and one cup game) since Paul Buckle has taken over has not helped this – three draws and three defeats.

So results have not improved under new management, but the winds of change are clear for anyone to see. I do not know of anyone among the regular support who does not believe we are now playing better than we were in the last couple of months under Yates, (discounting the Swindon result as being an aberration during this period). Experienced players have found their position in the team under threat. Jason Taylor was dropped completely from the squad, and sent away to Northampton as soon as there was a chance to offload him. Byron Harrison has been dropped to the bench, and despite being our leading scoring this season and last, he has not taken to the field in the last two games even though we have lost both. Instead it is the youngsters who have come in – Omari Sterling-James, Zack Kotwica, Joe Hanks and Harry Williams have all been given a chance to shine and new or extended contracts meaning, they are all now committed to being with us next season. The other young professionals in the squad may feel that they have more of a chance now as well.

Players have also seen they need to show commitment to get on here. If I am to believe rumours I have heard, Raffaele de Vita was offered a fresh contract as well, but having not grasped in with both hands, found that it was not still there. I have also heard that Buckle demands much more than Yates during training, and not just from each player on their own account, he also expects the senior players to help the younger ones in improving their game. Whether this has counted against players such as Harrison and Jason Taylor is however no more than speculation by those passing on the rumours. So far, our manager has guarded against revealing such insights. He is too professional for that.

On the first day of the year, we have a surprising amount of transfer activity – with the departure of Jason Taylor, and three young Liverpool players coming in. Kevin Stewart appears to be the most experienced of the trio. He has been on the bench for Tottenham in three Europa League games, and has started four times on loan for Crewe Alexandra. Lloyd Jones has apparently been on the bench for Liverpool in one Premier League game, at Fulham in May 2013 – but has yet to make his first team debut. He has played for both England and Wales at under-19 level (if Soccerway is accurate on this) and for Wales U-17, (born in Plymouth). Jack Dunn has also played for England’s younger age teams, I have even seen him briefly in action when he came on as a substitute for an England U-19 side at Preston in May 2012. (As it happens, Luke Garbutt was originally selected in the same squad, but withdrew to play for us in the play off final at Wembley. All three of our new players already had squad numbers at Liverpool (41-Dunn, 51-Jones, 55-Stewart).

The result of these signings is that our already young squad is getting even younger. I would not be at all surprised if someone calculated this as the youngest ever team we have fielded – especially as the two oldest players at the club, Elliott (36) and Matt Taylor (32) are both missing through injury. The fact that all the changes today have been loans is generally forced as full transfers cannot be registered until Saturday morning. I thought they could play on Saturday (with the exception of teams who are playing in the FA Cup, who can only use players registered by lunchtime Friday). As such, it is less than clear whether Jason Taylor has left for good, or if this is a short or long term loan. The first tweet from the club said he was “leaving on a permanent basis”, but the news report later referred to it as a loan. The Liverpool trio have all signed on loan forms with an initial one month period. With the exception of Kevin Stewart, these can be youth loans, which would allow the players to spend all of the half season with us, while still having the flexibility to return to Liverpool on demand. They can even play some non-first team games, or attend training at Liverpool and then return to us afterwards. Stewart is too old to be on a youth loan, so is either limited to 93 days, or needs to sign a longer deal before the transfer window closes.

I would expect all three of our new faces to be in the 18 on Saturday, but I cannot even speculate over who will start and who will be on the bench. I doubt if Paul Buckle himself knew the answer to this before the first training session today. It will also be interesting to see where this leaves those youngsters promoted into the squad in the last few games, and of course where all this leaves the other players whose future has been questioned. As Williams was preferred to Harrison last week, will Harrison be dropped from the 18 this time?

While the sudden throughput in players, which may well not be terminating this week – the window runs to the first Monday in February after all, this is certainly an interesting time to be a Cheltenham fan – and I do not mean this in the way of the (fictional) Chinese curse. We have no choice but to wait and see what the team looks like on Saturday, and by the end of the month, it could well change significantly again.

I admit to having some worry over loan signings. Our support has shown itself to be a little uncertain about loans, especially when they play a few games and then return to their clubs. It is true that some of the loan players have not been up to the task, or did not appear to put their heart into playing for Cheltenham. However, some of the more successful loans, (such as Garbutt and Butland) have made such an impression that they have been followed by our fans as their careers develop. My worry also harks back to those six good games at the start of the season. Our early season form owed something at least to loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter and I felt that we never found adequate replacements when they were recalled by their clubs. This was at least a contribution to Yates’ departure in November. Let us hope that Buckle has made agreements that suit us as much as they suit Liverpool in bringing these players on board.

If Buckle has got this right, then there is no reason why we should not climb back up to at least mid-table obscurity. If it is wrong, then there is not even much point in calling for another change in manager. We have chosen our steed for the second half of the season, and changing again before running the course is not likely to bring relief. One way or another, January 1st 2015 may turn out to be one of the most significant dates without even a game for Cheltenham

Has India Created the Super League?

December 18th, 2014

The first Indian Super League final will take place this weekend, when Atletico de Kolkata take on Kerala Blasters in Mumbai.

One cannot doubt that the three month season is going to be declared as a success, but it will take a somewhat more measured timescale before the actual realities come to light. Only time will show if this is the first blast of a new style of football competition, or a damp squib, that disappears from view after a few seasons.

Operating its teams as franchises, and having drafts to select the playing squads means that the ISL has been likened to American sports, and in particular Major League Soccer, but its dependency on marquee players, many past their use-by dates, and the bidding for the franchises mean it is more a hybrid of that other Indian Cricket phenomenon, the Indian Premier League and the short lived North American Soccer League.

There has always been football in India, with concentrations in the former Portuguese colony of Goa, and the city of Kolkata (Calcutta as was). The Salt Lake Stadium in Kolkata is the venue for some of the biggest derby matches in the world, and matches between Mohun Bagan and East Bengal have reportedly filled the stadium even when its capacity was 130,000. However, it is also true that the reality of the game in India is that most games take place in front of crowds of a couple of thousand, plus in some case a handful of snakes (http://www.theguardian.com/football/2013/mar/26/snakes-pitch-india-football-mohun-bagan). The official figures for the national I-League in 2013-14 season – an average crowd of 5618 was greeted by derision from fans of the game in India on social media, and a quick word with a friend who travelled to some games during the season backed up this.

Until, the mid-nineties, there was no Indian national championship, but a series of state and city competitions, and competitions where the top clubs from these came together in centralised locations for short tournaments. A national league was started in 1996, and then re-launched as the I-League in 2007. The first winner was Jagatjit Cotton Textile Mills (generally abbreviated to JCT Mills) from Phagwara – not far (in Indian terms at least) from Dehli. Since then, clubs from either Kolkata or Goa have won every title until last season when FC Bengaluru won on their first attempt. Bengaluru are evidence of an unevenness in the All Indian Football Federation’s attitudes to the I-League. While promotion and relegation is in place between this league and a second division (which is run as a tournament, rather than a league), they also parachute in new franchises. Hence for the 2013-14 season, they gave places to both Bengaluru (who became champions) and Mumbai Tigers (who did not start the season). When the now misnamed 2014-15 season starts in January, the league will include Royal Wahingdoh, promoted in place of bottom placed Mohammedan, and also a new club Kalyani Bharat (Kalyani is a company name), sharing the ground at Pune. Meanwhile three clubs, including Churchill (twice champions) have failed the obtain a licence, so the league will operate with just 11 clubs.

India’s National team did qualify for the 2011 Asian Cup, thanks to the confederations curious use of giving places to the winners of a second ranking competition, (the AFC Challenge Cup). There are 16 places in the Asian Cup, but only teams ranked less than 24 entered the lower competition, and India were just low enough to qualify for this in 2008, and won a competition they hosted. In the following competitions (2010 and 2012), India lost all three group games, while they could not even qualify for the 2014 tournament, which means they will not be in Australia next month for the next Asian Cup. The Challenge Cup is now being discontinued.

One could claim that the high point for the Indian National Team was the 1950 World Cup, as it is the only one they qualified for. Indeed in both qualification and the finals in 1950, India went unbeaten. They also did not win any games, and for that matter did not draw any. All of their opponents in the qualification phase, (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew and hence India reached the finals as “last man standing”, but simply not withdrawing earlier. India did withdraw before the final tournament started, and hence kept their perfect record. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics. India were reported as playing barefoot (which often means the feet are bandaged, but not booted), when losing 2-1 to France at Ilford in the London Olympics of 1948. The laws insisted on footwear afterwards, meaning they were booted when losing 10-1 to Yugoslavia in Helsinki two years later. Thanks to other withdrawals, India reached the semi-finals of the Melbourne Olympics (they had to win one match, against the hosts, Australia)in 1956, and also played in Rome in 1960 (when the matches were in groups of four). India finished bottom of their group with one draw (France) and two defeats. They have not troubled the World stage since.

The idea of an Indian Super League goes back to the start of the contract between the AIFF, and commercial partners Reliance and IMG signed in 2010. Reliance is India’s second biggest company, operating across a number of fields. IMG (International Management Group) is a US based sports marketing group; their production ground, (TWI) is already involved in the broadcast of football across Asia, including packaging Premier League shows for the international market. At the time the contract was signed, the Indian Premier League was a relatively new concept.

There are many reasons why the IPL concept is not truly suitable for football. The sixty matches of the IPL season in 2014 were compressed into around 7 weeks. The popularity of cricket in India is such that the IPL can offer the players far more than they earn with other domestic, or even from international competition – but anyway they can return to playing in other countries, or to the international circuit as soon as the IPL season is finished. Football requires a greater recovery time between games, so while the Super League season is 61 games, it is played over a period twice as long as the IPL season. With a requirement to train together and play some warm up games, Super League players need to be with their Indian clubs for around four months. The Indian Super League is not competitive with the major European Leagues in salary terms, so the big stars of the game are not going to leave their day jobs to play in India. This meant that the foreigners who made up a large part of the Super League were either stars whose light is already waning, or journeymen willing to travel for a short term contract.

Soon after the Reliance-IMG contract had commenced, they announced their first attempt at a new league. This would have been called the West Bengal Premier League. Despite one of the leading teams in the city being name East Bengal, the city of Kolkata is within the state of West Bengal, (generally, what was East Bengal is now known as Bangladesh). The intention was to create a franchised league with six franchises within the city and state. The existing teams would have been called on to be involved. The venture got as far as naming four marquee players – Fabio Cannavaro, Robbie Fowler, Hernan Crespo and Robert Pires. All four of the players, in their late thirties and just retired from major leagues were offered in excess of £500,000 to play in India. In the end, this league never took place, but the organisers had not given up on the idea. Instead they came up with what looks like a more ambitious plan – eight franchises spread across the country. There is good reason why this could succeed where a more localised league did not. A league involving teams from eight cities would be more capable of pulling in a national TV audience.

Still the plans did not run smooth. When the I-League released their fixtures for 2013-14, it included a very long break from January to March into which this new league would be plugged, but disagreements between some of the I-League teams and the new league meant that again the start was postponed. Other problems included the non-availability of a ground in Mumbai, and difficulties at other venues as well. The fact that the official launch of the league was on October 21st 2013, but the postponement of the dates was given just eight days later shows some chaos in the organisation. As a result, the I-League was rescheduled to complete a normal schedule.

Things really started to move in April, when the eight cities that had won franchises were announced. Test cricketers Sourav Ganguly and SachinTendulkar headed up the consortia that won the Kolkata and Kochi franchises, while Bollywood stars were named in three of the other winning bids. All the bids were backed by a number of Indian companies, and two of the I-League teams, Shillong Lajong and Dempo were directly involved. The Kolkata team named Atletico de Kolkata was also partially owned by Atletico Madrid.

With the franchises in place, each one could start recruiting, by signing its marquee player and coach. Most of the squads would come from two player draft sessions, from which seven foreign players and 14 Indians were chosen. In the Indian players draft, North East United selected exclusively from players of Shillong Lajong, and FC Goa from Dempo. Judging by the names I have seen for the draft, four i-League clubs, Bengaluru, Pune, Salgaocar and Sporting Goa declined to allow their contracted players enter the draft. Some state leagues, including Goa carried on at the same time as the super league, and so clubs may have preferred to keep their players for this. All of the I-League teams also run teams in their own state leagues. The Super League teams, as franchises created for this purpose only do not, although some promotion of the game in their areas is supposedly included in each franchises remit.

The Big Names.

Club Name Stadium (capacity) Head Coach Marquee Player
Atletico de Kolkata Salt Lake (68,000) Antonio Lopez Habas (Spain) Luis Garcia (Spain)
Chennaiyin Jawaharial Nehru (Chennai) (40,000) Marco Materazzi (Italy) Elano (Brazil)
Delhi Dynamos Jawaharial Nehru (Dehli) (60,000) Harm van Vedhoven (Netherlands) Alessandro del Piero (Italy)
Goa Fatorda (19,800) Zico (Brazil) Robert Pires (France)
Kerala Blasters Jawaharial Nehru (Kochi) (70,000) David James (England) David James (England)
Mumbai City DY Patil (55,000) Peter Reid (England) Fredrik Ljungberg (Sweden)
North East United Indira Ghandi (35,000) Ricki Herbert (New Zealand) Joan Capdevila (Spain)
Pune City Shree Shiv Chhatrapati (11,500) Franco Colomba (Italy) David Trezeguet (France)

 

Luis Garcia (36) said he had retired after a long career, mainly in Spain, but with three years at Liverpool, he finished his career in Mexico, and was out of the game for nine months before heading to India

Elano (33) played mainly in Brazil, but also for Manchester City and Galatasaray, his contract with Gremio was terminated in the summer. 50 caps for Brazil, including winning the Confederations cup

Alessandro del Piero (40) – over 500 games for Juventus, and 91 caps for Italy. Del Pierro has spent the last two seasons in Sydney. One world cup and eight Serie A medals.

Pires (41) – played for Arsenal when they could win the league, France when they could win the World Cup, but not played for three years before this

David James (44) – Had played up to the summer of 2013, when we was playing for IBV in Iceland. 53 England caps.

Fredrik Ljungberg (37) – 75 Swedish caps, and over 200 appearances for Arsenal. I last saw him when he was with Seattle in 2010, but he has had short spells with Celtic and Shimizu S-Pulse since. He announced his retirement two years before going to India

Joan Capdevila (36) – 60 Spanish Caps, and another World Cup winner, played almost all his football in Spain, mainly for Deportivo la Coruna and Villareal. After an unproductive season in Portugal with Benfica, he spent two years at Espanyol who released him in the summer.

David Trezegeut (37) – 71 French Caps, World Cup winner, French champion with Monaco, and then Italian champion with Juventus, but a bit of a traveller over the last few years, going to Hercules in Spain, who were relegated despite his goals, then after a very short spell with Baniyas in Abu Dhabi, onto River Plate recently relegated to the second division in Argentina. Despite helping the club return to the top division, they loaned him out last season to Newell’s Old Boys.

Some of the other better known players are just as old, Chennaiyin included Alessandro Nesta (38), Mikael Silvestre (37) and the positively youthful Bernard Mendy (33) in defence, alng with Erik Djemba-Dejemba (33). At Kerala Blasters, David James picked Michael Chopra (30), who had been at Blackpool last season, and the Canadian Iain Hume (31) who went to India from Fleetwood, as well as Scotsmen Stephen Pearson (32, signed from Bristol City) and Jamie McAllister (32, from Yeovil). Dehli signed 38 year old Czech goalkeeper Marek Cech, who has played as far afield as Vladivostock, but never selected him, preferring to give the jersey to the 27 year old Belgian Kristof van Hout, formerly of Genk and Kortrijk. They also had Morten Skoubo (34) and Mads Junker (33), both from Denmark in their attack. For goals, though, they relied on the 20 year old Gustavo Marmentini from Brazil who had played for Atletico Paranaense, but only in their regional squads, not the top division. Pune City included 37 year old Italians in Bruno Cirillo who had a season off after playing for Metz in the third division in France, and the Romanian Adrian Mutu (35) – who ended up without an appearance in India. They also had Jermaine Pennant, a free agent since being released by Stoke in January. AT Mumbai, Peter Ried included Nicolas Anelka (35) who could not play for three games due to a ban from his time at West Bromwich. He went on to play seven times and scored twice. North East United signed New Zealander Leo Bertos (formerly of Barnsley, Rochdale, etc.) on loan from East Bengal. The 32 year old had been released from New Zealand’s A-League side at the end of last season, and had signed as the marquee player for the I-League club, but then went north on loan after playing a small number of CFL games (the regional league in Kolkata is still known by its British title, the Calcutta Football League, not under the current city name of Kolkata). They also included James Keene who has played 2 Premier League, and nine League-1 games for Portsmouth, while spending most of his career with Elfsborg in Sweden.

So what is this league supposed to achieve, and what will it achieve? The Indian authorities see it as revitalising the domestic game, and even improving the results of the National team. It may well have done the first of these, but it will take a long time to see if it can achieve the second. Both the NASL and the J-League started with a high number of European players who really ought to be retired, but in both countries, there are now vibrant football competitions. On the opposite side of the coins, the regular appearances by similar players in Arabian countries (for example) has done little to promote the game, or improve their national teams. I cannot see it having a beneficial effect on the other national league. Surely if the crowds come to the Super League, they will see the I-League as a secondary competition. Crowd wise, the league is claiming an average attendance in excess of 26,000 – meaning only the Bundesliga, English Premier and Spanish League get higher averages. However, the costs of putting the league on mean that even if every match is played to a capacity stadium, every team would lose money. The financial implications of the league are in the TV audience. The league has managed to negotiate a deal with Star TV (part of the same group as Sky in the UK), which puts games out on multiple channels, so as they are available in five different languages. The success of the league will depend on having a viewing audience. The scheduling of the matches is generally one at a time, with games on almost every day, to give a continual presence. The season ends with semi-finals and a final, so four of the eight teams reach the finals. The teams are closely enough matched that almost every game, right to the end had something on it.

If it is a success, then one has to ask what this means for the game worldwide. Even if Indian football itself improves massively, this will not change the world. World football can take in any number of improved national teams, and the game can only benefit if populous nations such as India join the club. The format however presents a challenge, and if successful it may well be imitated elsewhere. It is not difficult to imagine a football circus travelling the world and playing for a few months in one country before decamping to the next venue. I fear that such a scenario may well damage local football in the host countries, as I find it hard to really imagine these leagues building the continued effort to work with the local kids.

I do not believe it will affect the dominance of foreign televised football in countries such as India. The marquee players of the Super League are all aging players who have made their name in the European Leagues and International football. Still, I wonder if it is co-incident that right at the end of this tournament, we also saw a marketing push for the English Premier League, based on a weekend event which brought over 20,000 to watch games at a fan-park in Mumbai. Does the Premier League now feel it needs to work to keep its dominance in the market?

It will be years before we know the answers, but before this league started, one had to say that Football in India needed fixing. This is the most innovative attempt at changing the structure of the game anywhere in the world, and I for one am not sure if that is to be embraced or feared.

In the meantime, Kerala Blasters will play Atletico de Kolkata at 12.30 (UK time) this Saturday (20 December 2014)

I also suggest reading this. Written just before the league started

The Changing of the Guard

November 26th, 2014

When the change came, it was quick. It is easy to guess how the process went, even if at least one press statement (given b Paul Baker on Monday) confused the issues.

Those members of the board that were at last Saturday’s game will almost certainly have decided there and then that things were not right, and at least considered at that point that it was time to change. I believe most of the board attend most of the home games, so discussion will have been occurring straight away.

If you decide to change manager in mid-season, there are two basic ways to go about it – either you sack the incumbent, appoint a caretaker and then open up the position for applications, or you quietly approach someone and have an basic agreement in place before the sacking. There is a slightly confused variant of this, when the chosen replacement is working for another club – as you cannot formerly approach a club while your old manager is still in place, as any leak would make his position untenable.

In the past, Cheltenham have taken all available approaches. After bringing us into the league, and winning promotion to the third tier, Steve Cotterill left at the end of the season, giving the club plenty of time. They went for the option referred to be many as “cheap”, appointing Graham Allner who was already on the coaching staff. Allner was given the very difficult job of keeping the team at their highest ever level, but did not have the playing staff to achieve this. I was never one of the anti-Allner brigade, and would happily have kept him through the season, even if it ended in relegation. Considering criticism of later managers, he did at least try to have us playing in expansive, entertaining style that mirrored his successes in non-League football without mirroring the results.

When Allner was sacked, we took several weeks contemplating his successor, ending with a short list that was heavily leaked, (not that I can now remember all the names). I do remember saying that while some candidates would be an interesting risk (was Luther Blissett interviewed?), one was guaranteed to result in our relegation. Clearly my words were not heeded. We employed the one man I thought certain to lead us back to the fourth tier, Bobby Gould. I believe rumours that he was also a cheap option, having agreed to work to the end of his first season for free to be true. Even so, for his second season he had a contract.

The Gould tenure was less than a year, and in the end he did not wait to be pushed. For this we should always be grateful, and I know that Gould is always welcomed back to visit the club. Having led us to relegation (that was expected anyway), the lack of improvement in the lower division was always going to account for him. With a resignation, you cannot have the new man in place directly. As I recall it, Gould left the club immediately after the home defeat by Rochdale on 18 October 2003. John Ward arrived just under three weeks later.

Ward always had his critics. Even in his promotion winning season, some supporters were critical of dour defensive displays, and this did not improve after promotion. We reached our highest ever league position under Ward’s management while many complained about the football being dour. I personally always felt Ward was doing a good job, and I was hopeful that he could build the club and finally start brining youth players through the system and into the team. At the start of the 2007-8 season, results were worse and we looked as if we had gone backwards. Ward finally resigned in October, and many felt it was time, although I was disappointed as I thought things would pick up. As with the appointment of Allner, we took the option of promoting from within. Before Keith Downing took the reins, he had a month as caretaker. If a caretaker manager has a period of time to make his case irresistible to the directors, then Downing was a surprise choice. His five matches as caretaker involved two defeats and two draws, with the solitary win coming in the much maligned JPT Trophy game at Swindon. He was still appointed at the start of November and finally delivered a league win at the end of the month, (prior to which we had fell to Brighton at the Withdean in both the JPT Trophy and the FA Cup). However, the fact his first win was at home to Leeds United did remove some of the doubts about his ability. Without doubt, our best match under Downing was the tremendous 2-1 win at Leeds on a Tuesday night some months later. We eventually secured safety by beating Doncaster on the last day of the season. This result also consigned Doncaster to the play offs (they finished two points behind Nottingham Forest), although that displeasure would have been alleviated by beating Leeds United in the play off final.

The first six matches of 2008-9 produced just one win and no draws, and on no less than four occasions we had four goals put past us. Downing’s sacking was practically inevitable, and came after a soggy Friday night in Hartlepool. Martin Allen was considered a favourite candidate by many supporters before Downing was appointed. This time there was no delay, and Allen was installed before the weekend was complete. The rest of the season was something of a roller coaster, before a final drop to relegation, while our squad always appeared to be on a carousel, with more comings and goings than ever seen before at the club. By the end of the season, the squad numbers of new players had to be defined by those numbers we could add to the shirts (I believe we run out of 2s and 4s). We had more loan players than it was permissible to play, and each newcomer was treated like a child’s fresh toy – great for the first days and then discarded for something else new and shiny. Allen assured us that some of the loan players were given free of charge. Others have assured me that this was either untrue, or did not include massively inflated expense payments. Eventually the board came to their senses, saw the bills and decided that we just could not afford the squad we had. So as the transfer window approached, we had to offload whoever we could to offset the expenses. It is worth noting that Lloyd Owusu was one of those who left and he scored seven goals for Brighton after departing. Had he scored those seven for us (in the right games), it is just conceivable that we could have avoided relegation.

Although we won the opening game of 2009-10, we soon started to falter, and after thirteen league games, we had just three wins, compared to five defeats. Poor, but not disastrous, the results were combined with several disciplinary offences to put Allen on “gardening leave”. This led to a long and protracted exit, with John Schofield as caretaker manager for eight league, and one FA Cup match, with just one highlight, (5-1 at home to Barnet). Eventually, a compromise was reached where Allen left, and this left the way open for another popular choice.

Mark Yates came in during December 2009, and did not make an immediate mark. We lost our first three home games under his management, while somehow being unbeaten in five away games over the period, (even if we only won once). The highlight was also away from home, the stunning 6-5 win at Burton, but home fans had at least one treat when Bury were disposed of by 5-2. The last trip of the season was a 5-0 defeat at Notts County, leaving us still vulnerable on the final day. We needed a point to be safe, but Grimsby needed three points and to make up a six goal deficit to condemn us to the Conference. In the end, we picked up our point, Grimsby lost 3-0 to go down while Barnet did overtake us on the last day to leave us 22nd in the table. The following season did not start badly, but ended up little better. We finished the season with thirteen wins and thirteen draws in the league, but only four of the wins game in the second half of the season. We finished five points clear of relegation, having basically secured our status with a win at Lincoln on Easter Monday. Lincoln went down with Stockport, we drew at Stockport on the final day. The poor second half of the season, and securing more points away from home were features of Yates’ time in charge. 2011-12 was, I felt, Yates’ best season. We got into the rhythm quickly, and were playing some really good football in the fall of 2011. We beat Tranmere and Luton, both away to set up a third round cup tie at Tottenham. However, Yates’ mid-season transfers do not seem the best in retrospect. If the playing strength was supposedly strengthened, the spirit of the team was not, and March in particular was unpleasant, without a win in seven games, and five on the trot without a goal. Still, we recovered and reached the play off final. The following season was a similar story – much better in the first half of the season than the second and play-off defeat, this time without the final itself.

Having reached the play-offs twice, there was an expectation last season that we could do it again. This was never realised, and we ended the season with 55 points, five ahead of the relegation zone, although as this included losing the last two, we generally always had enough in reserve to be safe. Still, it was the away games that kept us in the league. We picked up 24 home points, and we had only picked up 24 away, this would not have seen us safe. It is also notable that only 21 of the 55 points came in the second half of the season. While I did not feel Yates’ should have been sacked during this run, I did not think he should get his contract renewed. The board decided just to change to second in charge from Howarth to North, and to give Yates another year. For a brief moment, it looked like a good decision. We picked up 13 points from 5 league games in August. It soon became clear we were flattering to deceive. Most of the flair on the field came from loan players Koby Arthur and Jordan Wynter, both recalled to their parent clubs, while the defence lost its solid appearance with the injury of Matt Taylor, (with him, our defeats tended to be by single goals, without him, 3-0, 5-1 and 4-1). Only nine points from the last 13 games, and precious little for the home fans – just nine goals in nine home league games. At times we have played really well, but these times are few and far between. I will see the Cambridge and Swindon games as highlights of the season, however we finish. If we are to repeat our habit of not doing as well in the second half of the season as the first, we would need to go the next five league games unbeaten to have the safety margin we need, (with three wins minimum).

So come the end of the game, the board feel change is needed. I would imagine somewhere along the line, a quiet word with Shaun North comes up with the idea that Buckle is available, and of course that he would work with the existing staff. For those who do not know, Buckle worked with North at both Torquay and Bristol Rovers. It was not the most obvious of appointments, Buckle had moved to the United States with his wife, the sports presenter Rebecca Lowe. Reports say that he had a reasonable position as technical director of the Metropolitan Oval, a historic playing field which now acts as a USSF academy. International relationships are not easy (as I know from experience), so it comes as a surprise that he wants to return to UK management so soon.

There was no popular choice on the supporters’ forums this time. The change came quickly and Buckle’s name appeared to be leaked quite soon into the process. The oddest part of the process was Paul Baker’s press statement on Monday, which did not show confidence in Yates, but appeared to say that he was in the last chance saloon, rather than about to be kicked out from it. It was a strange statement to make when Baker must have already started talking to Buckle. Would he not have been better keeping quiet for the day? Buckle’s record in the past suggest that he will not be a bad appointment. He has been successful at Torquay, and had a good spell at Luton. Still, the appointment has immediately caused some criticism. This seems mainly based on his short (and unsuccessful) period at Bristol Rovers. Choosing Cheltenham is not the easiest of choices to make. We are not the highest of profile of clubs, but a failure here will be close to a death knell for his hopes of a long football league career. By the same argument, it will be interesting to see if Yates’ career in management progresses. The 18 league games this season will not be an overall plus on his CV, and he may well have been better leaving during, or at least at the end of last season.

I am more than hopeful that this appointment is at least a safe pair of hands, and that we can lose our fear of relegation. For this week only we get some idea as to whether Yates and his second in command saw eye to eye. I believe Yates would have kept to the 3-5-2 formation if possible, so if we start 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 then surely this is a difference due to North. It is almost a relief that the closing of the “emergency” loan window comes quickly, and there will be no new signings now. This gives the new manager a serious chance to review the squad he has inherited before making changes. We know that if can get the best out of the group we currently have, as Yates has managed on too few occasions this season (Bury, Tranmere, Cambridge, Swindon), then the players can deliver. This is Buckle’s first priority. Clubs change managers at this stage of the season, because anything is still possible, and that is the case at Cheltenham. Automatic promotion is not impossible, the play offs certainly within reach, but we are also nowhere near safe from the drop, and many games like last week’s would make this seem the greater possibility.

Buckle is not starting with a blank canvass, but he still needs to make his mark, and to build confidence from the supporters, he needs to do it quickly.

Tesco 0, Cheltenham Town 0.

October 30th, 2014

I have heard that Tesco’s recent figures have been poor. Sales and profits are down. So what will Tesco do next? Well, first there is the blood-letting stage. Those senior executives believed to have taken the wrong decisions will lose their jobs. Please do not worry about them though. They will receive a big payout as they leave the job, and in most cases they will soon find another highly paid position*. After that there will be some analysis of where they are going wrong. Following that there will be some action to try to regain their market share. I am not certain what that action will be, but I am sure they will not be increasing prices while keeping for the same, or even an inferior product.

While the overall figures for League-2 Football are not suffering after a quarter of the season has been played (the average for the division is exactly the same as last season*, while all the higher divisions have seen a drop), some clubs within League-2 have seen a significant drop. Mansfield are 19% down on last season, Newport County and Oxford United both find their custom down by over 14%, while Cheltenham Town are 15.7% down so far. However, none of Mansfield, Newport or Oxford also saw a significant drop in attendance last season. Indeed, both Mansfield and Newport had a big increase on the back of promotion into the division. Cheltenham’s attendances for 2013-14 were 8% down on the season before, and even though 2012-13 was considered a successful season, it also saw a 5% fall in crowds. So it appears that over 25% of Cheltenham’s support has ebbed away in a three year period.

So where is the blood-letting? In football, responsibility tends to lie with the managers. So much so that more than half the managers of professional football clubs are changed every season. Not all of these are sacked for failure. There is much poaching of successful managers by ambitious clubs with bigger budgets. It is therefore quite surprising that after Arsenal’s Arsene Wegner, the two longest serving managers are Exeter’s Paul Tisdale and Cheltenham’s Mark Yates. If they are good managers, why has no one poached them? If they are not good managers, why have they not been sacked?

But then, unlike Tesco, most League-2 football clubs (certainly true in Cheltenham’s case) are not profit making enterprises. I can understand why they may not wish to have to make a payout to sack their manager. It is less clear why a contract was renewed at the end of an unsuccessful season, which saw the club falling well short of the previous season’s level of achievement, and as already mentioned losing 8% of the customers en-route. This season’s even larger fall in attendance is partially a knock on from the season before. Despite results being vastly better, a high portion of the customer base pays for the full season in advance. Hence disillusioned support from 2013-4 (many of whom did not bother to go to matches at the end of the season) do not show up in the figures until the new season. I know that a large number of season ticket holders did not renew, even if the full scale of the problem has not been made public.

So, surely the club will not be increasing prices? The base claim is they are not doing so, with the general price remaining unchanged over the last few years. However, four years ago they came across the idea of Premium price matches, designating about six games a season where prices across the board were £1 more than the standard cost. At some stage since then, the Premium has been increased to £2. Generally the games chosen are those where the away team are expected to bring more support. The logic being that the away fans will turn up regardless of the £2 extra charge (and generally this is correct). The catch is that the home support also has to pay the Premium prices. The first game this season to be declared a Premium game was the match against Northampton. The extra charge did not deter visiting supporters, but the home crowd was around 400 down on the previous game. The total crowd has been given as 2447. Let’s assume that after we take off season tickets, junior robins and other complimentary tickets, 1500 paid the extra £2, so an increase in revenue of £3000, which once we deduct the VAT comes down to £2500. Now according to the club chairman, the average take per ticket is £11*, (this is after deducting VAT, which is why I deducted it above). In other words, those lost 400 fans cost the club £4400 and the overall for the day is down by £1900. Of course, there were other factors in play for the Northampton game, in particular, there was racing in Cheltenham which has a triple disincentive to the club, (increased traffic congestion, the closure of the racecourse park and ride, and the fact some people may wish to have “A Day at the Races”*). It was already planned that the game against Oxford United at the end of November was also to be a Premium game. Now, with a home draw against Swindon in the FA Cup we have added another at the higher price into the budget.

While Swindon is an attractive visitor, a close neighbour and a division higher than ourselves, the FA Cup has been attracting reduced attendances compared to League games for some years. This is considered to be down to two reasons – the fact the competition has been devalued by the top clubs not putting out their full first team, and the fact season ticket holders have to pay for admission in cup matches, so if a season ticket holder is going to miss one game, why not miss the one not already paid for?

Raising prices seems like a move borne out of desperation. It appears we have already conceded we will lose the match, so we must maximise the take from a single game. Revenues for the game are shared, and the extra £2 includes VAT, so for each paying customer we will only gain 83p. For each customer lost, we lose £5.50. I agree we are not likely to lose as many as one in six of those who would have come to the game, so we will take more at the higher price. I cannot estimate how much more we lose as those who do not turn up will not go into the bar, buy a programme, a raffle ticket or use the catering in the ground.

One can only guess too whether or not some of those coming to the FA Cup game will feel they do not need to come to five games over a seven Saturday period, and so decide to miss one or other of the later games in the month instead. If any do, then that is a loss of £11 per person at the Wycombe game, £12.67 for the Premium Oxford game.

I can almost guarantee that in order to improve their figures, Tesco will first of all wish to increase the footfall, the number of people entering the stores, even if this means lower prices and more advertising; in short a cutting of margins and less profit in the short term. By contrast, our football club is responding to lower attendances by trying to squeeze more money out of each individual still paying. They are doing this without presenting any improvement in what we will be on view. This is not a recipe I would expect to create success.

 

* Notes.

1) At some stage, Tesco may decide to cut costs by reducing shop and warehouse employment. Where I will not waste my sympathy on high paid executives with large pay outs, the lower paid employees will suffer more if they lose their jobs, and in no way can be held to blame.

2) Actually, crowds in League-2 are marginally down. The divisional average is the same (so far) as last season but the incoming clubs have slightly more support than the outgoing clubs, meaning there is an overall decrease of about 125 fans per game, just under 3%

3) I am taking our chairman at his word on this. I would love to see the breakdown

4) Copyright, the Marx Brothers, and later Queen.

The Coppa Italia Job

October 3rd, 2014

So, the boss lady wants me to drive her around Italy and Southern France, covering both the first two weekends of the English League season. A disruption to the start of my season, but of course, not bad enough to rob me of all football.

Hence on Sunday afternoon, we arrived at a second rate hotel, halfway between Florence and Pisa, and after a decent interval made my way to the nearby town of Pontedera.

For many years, the divisions of the Italian League were called Serie A, Serie B, Serie C and Serie D, although for some reason Serie C was split into C1 and C2, and hence was both the third and fourth levels. Serie D is very regionalised, with nine regions. A few years ago, Serie C1 and C2 were re-launched as Lega Pro, but still with two levels, and regionalised divisions in both. The support for this level of football has been shrinking. About a decade ago, I remember recording that the Italian system like the English had over 100 clubs showing average attendances in four figures. The English numbers have actually increased in the last decade, but European Football Statistics only recorded 74 in Italy last season. The Lega Pro in 2013-4 consisted of two levels of two divisions, and a total of 69 clubs. For 2014-15, it was decided to change this to a single level consisting of three regional divisions. Hence Serie D, for the first time since I have taken an interest in these things is actually the fourth level.

While none of the league divisions in Italy start this early in the month, the Coppa Italia is underway. My experience in other countries shows cup competitions that either have an open draw, or actually give the smaller teams home an advantage with chances to play bigger teams and even home advantage by right. Not so, Italy where everything is biased in favour of the selections from the top.

In the first round, there are 15 ties, all on the grounds of Lega Pro clubs, the away sides being either Lega Pro or lower. I admit to being uncertain of how qualification is achieved, although there is a Coppa Italia Lega Pro (which would be the equivalent of the FA Trophy in England), and maybe a Coppa Italia Serie D as well. There are also regional cups. The 15 winners go into the second round, where all 20 home teams are from Serie B. At the time of the draw, Serie B had 21 teams, due to the bankruptcy of Sienna. However, Novara (one of the relegated teams) appealed against this state of affairs and gained what can only be seen as a pyrrhic victory. The league decided to return to 22 clubs, by promoting an extra club, rather than by reprieving a relegated one. The position went to…., after rivals, Pisa could not file all documentation by the deadline.

So, at the time of the draw, one of the 21 Serie B teams suffered and away draw, along with the 15 winners from the previous round and four more Lega Pro clubs which had byes. There will be 16 games in Round 3, and 12 of the Serie A teams enter at this stage – all 12 will play at home. After 8 games in Round 4, the 8 qualifying teams will all be away to the privileged few, the final 8 teams from Serie A, (AC Milan, Torino, Inter, Napoli, Roma, Fiorentina, Juventus and Parma) enter with home matches in the middle of January.

Pontedera play at the Stadio Ettore Mannucci, which they will share this season with Tuttocuoio, now in the same division. It sits on the Northern side of a town which I did not actually visit. It has a running track and a high fence, which means elevation is required to view the game well. The main stand, probably a fifties or sixties construction made mainly of pre-cast concrete, (including the roof) had around 360 seats in a good position, and a further 480 in front where the views are questionable. Alongside this is what I normally think of as a “meccano” stand – uncovered and held up by scaffolding, which seemed to be the abode of the local “ultras”. On the far side is a substantial and long uncovered stand, with two more small “meccano” constructs as an adjunct for when the away team has a lot of followers. The substantial stand which is raised (on clearly visible concrete supports), so as the views will not be bad has a large fence down the middle to separate home and away fans. There is no spectator accommodation, or access behind the goals.

Last season, Pontedera finished 8th in the top division of the Lega Pro, which qualified them for a play off, (8 teams in a knock out for one Serie B place). The visitors Messina, (from Sicily) were the champions of their ground of the second Lega Pro division. Messina are on the rise again in their complex history. A Messina club was in Serie A for two seasons in the sixties – with two intervening bankruptcies, (both within a couple of years at the end of the 90s), a new Messina club managed three seasons in Serie A from 2004, but this too went bankrupt when back in Serie B. The assets were sold by the courts in a blind auction, but the club, now named AC Rinascita Messina were in Serie D. They won promotion out of this in 2013. Amazingly, considering the distance from their home town, which means that if travelling home by road straight after the game, they would still miss breakfast, Messina had about 60 fans in their section, with a good number of flags on show.

Pontedera have never been higher than their current status, but do have one claim to fame with Marcello Lippi starting his management career here. The club are nicknamed Granata, a reference to the colours they normally play in, although for this game, Messina played in Red (with a yellow chevron), so Pontedera were in all white. I think these were not the official shirts for the season – both teams lined up as 1-11, and there were no sponsors names on either club’s shirts.

Messina will not play Pontedera in the league, but with only two regions last season, they did have to travel this distance to play Tuttocuoio, (who used a different stadium then).

Pontedera has the better of the early exchanges, but there shooting was woeful, and by the middle of the half, Messina were well on top. As such, it was no surprise when they took the lead. A well taken free kick by Vincenzo Pepe providing the opening score. Messina did not push on from this though, and instead fell back to the own defensive areas, giving Pontedera a better chance. Still the equaliser came as something of a surprise – Luigi Grassi’s free kick from the right being easily covered by the Messina keeper, but he mishandled it and saw it sneak just inside the far post.

Pontedera were again prominent at the start of the second half, the very first attack resulted in a shot against the cross bar. Messina again worked their way back into the game with Pepe beating the keeper only to see his shot cleared off the line. The decisive moves came just after the hour mark. A Caponi corner headed in powerfully at the near post by wing back Gregorio Luperini to put Pontedera ahead, and then three minutes later the home side won a penalty. The decision was unusual in itself, as the referee deemed contact was made inside the area, but the fouled player fell to ground outside the zone. There was hardly any dispute, so Messina appeared to accept it. Grassi gratefully took the chance to increase the lead. Messina did try to get back into the game, but the home goalkeeper, Matteo Ricci, who had looked shaky early in the game was now well in command, in particular making saves from Bonanno and substitute Izzillo. To add insult to injury, Messina’s veteran 40 year old striker Giorgio Corona managed to get himself sent off in injury time

I was talking during the game to a local referee, who assured me that Pontedera were a full time professional team, and that the majority of Lega Pro clubs are full time. When one realises that Pontedera, like half the Lega Pro clubs cannot average 1000 spectators per game, it is surely no surprise that so many are falling into a financial abyss.

My route through France does not take me close to any matches, so I make a point of adding Varese into the itinerary. Here I choose a hotel good hotel to compensate for the previous two nights staying in bog-standard chain hotels at rather ridiculous prices. The Kyriad in Nice is adjacent to some of the car parks for the new stadium, and I make a note that if the prices return to “sensible” after the high season, it may simplify a trip to the ground. Meanwhile the Palace hotel in Varese is one of aging grandeur, but well decorated . My wife is so impressed we quickly decide to make this the base for both of the last two nights. This is despite the SatNav system failing to pinpoint where the roads to the hotel run. It correctly identified the location of the hotel, but had it as accessed via a steep grass path, rather than the tarmac roadway from the other direction.

The hotel is only about a mile from the Stadio Franco Ossola – named after a local hero who appeared only a few times in Varese colours before being sold to Torino, where he was one of the “Grande Torino” team who dominated Serie A until the Supergra disaster.

To describe the ground as splendid hardly does it justice. It is an oval, as often found in Italy, with curved ends. Old concrete stands, (no specifically marked seats) runs around both ends and the east side, the southern curve – being the away end – is lower than the rest. Most of this is in two tiers, but the front tiers is almost entirely useless, as, as well as having a tarmac track, there is also a cycle track which has been added sometime after the stands were built. From the curves, the lower tier therefore only views the track, and not even the cycles on it. As the backing is reduced on the straights, there is a view of the fencing from here. On the east side, a small gap has been made halfway along, with glass, rather than fences and a bit of cover above. The viewing from here is helped by a gap in the advertising boards (standard modern video type). I reckon half a dozen wheelchairs (with owners) could use this, but there was only one on the day.

The main stand is on the west side, a simple construction, with a paddock in front, (although this is also rendered almost useless by the cycle track). AS Varese are Serie B, having dabbled with Serie A only for a couple of short periods in their history, (and with financial ruin slightly more often). Juve Stadia hail from close to Napoli, and have never played higher than Serie B. They were relegated at the end of last season.

I am not certain if the home team’s colours, white with a red St. George’s cross means I should give them all my support. I would have thought that the cross was more a symbol of Milan than Varese, but looking at the official website of the Province shows a coat of arms which is based on the cross, (Wikipedia failed me here, showing the wrong coat of arms). The club has an up and down history, with a Golden decade (1964-75) in Serie A. However the club dropped out of Serie B a decade after falling from Serie A, and did not re-appear at this level until 2012. Financial collapse and reformation took place in 2004, at which time the club became AS Varese 1910. AS Varese start this season on -1 points

The visitors were from Castellamare de Stabia, and are the fourth of a string of clubs from the town, (with the current club claiming history from its predecessors), AC Stabia played one season (1951-2) in Serie B, and folded in 1953, the name Juve Stabia came from another club in the town which came to prominence after its rival had folded. This club, actually SS Juventus Stabia had been formed in 1945 and folded in 2001. In 2002, a nearby Serie D club, Comprensorio Nola moved into the gap, changing the name to Comprensorio Stabia immediately, and SS Juve Stabia 12 months later. They rose to Serie B in 2011, but were relegated at the end of last season.

Juve Stabia had the better of the early chances without really threatening, and the opening goal went to Varese. Pereira Neto claimed a push in the back. I cannot say this was not a foul, but he went down with theatrical relish. It was enough to convince the referee anyway and Arturo Lupoli took the penalty well enough. In the following period, we had chances at both ends, but with both sides employing a single forward formation (4-2-3-1 for Varese, 4-1-4-1 for Juve), one found the midfield was not backing up close enough to have a chance. Both Neto for Varese and Ripa for Stabia had shots parried to a safety.

The crowd does not appear to mind this though, and they reserve their venom for the assistant referee who is consistently, correctly (and rather too frequently) raising the offside flag. Varese do make a couple of chances late in the half, which are spoilt by their own lack of competence.

Juve Stabia again make a good start to the second half, as they try to get back into the game, but these are fleeting chances which the home defence blocks with ease. In the 53rd minute, Neto surprises most of those in the ground with a speculative lobbed shot from distance. It catches Pisseri in the JS goal well off his line, and the Varese lead is 2-0. It leads to a flurry of activity was William Jidayi, the most impressive of the Juve Stabia midfield lets fly from around 25 yards, with the shot just glancing the lower side of the crossbar to make it 2-1. Even the home supporters applaud this effort, but they are happier a minute later when their team attacks down the right, producing a low cross which Lupoli meets within the six yard box for 3-1. The game has now livened up considerable, with chances at both ends even if the Varese ones look the most likely to be completed. A fine save from Pisseri keeps the score at 3-1 in the 70th minute when Andrea Cristiano has a shot after a good combination move with substitute Luca Tremolada. Just after we see the added time board go up, Juve have a free kick on the left, which is crossed in for Marco Migliorini to get a glancing header and give the 18 travelling supporters a little late hope. Varese seem incapable of holding the ball for the final three minutes to give a comfortable finish, but they are good at tackling back, so Juve Stabia do not get a further chance.

I sat in the main stand, having parked in the car park behind the south goal, (nothing was busy for this low key match). The police however, took this as a full scale operation and did not allow anyone back into the car park until all 18 JS fans had left the ground, got into their five cars (in the same car park) and then had a few minutes to get away. The fact that they drove directly into areas where home fans were allowed to be while the same fans were not permitted to go back to where the JS fans had been seemed to be lost. I recommend the ground to anyone, except those requiring a quick departure, (including any attempt to reach the town centre or railway station from the main stand).

 

French Finales.

June 20th, 2014

What I assume is the final trip of the season starts with an early ferry from Dover to Calais, I do not use this service very often, but with no bookings available for the return trip via the tunnel, this was the only option. Unlike the tunnel ferry tickets can be discounted and services like aferry.co.uk and travelsupermarket offer fares not shown on the company websites. Even then, we had to make a booking that did not allow for extra time in our Sunday game to get the better far, and trust that the company would be lenient if we arrived a little late. The discounted tickets are important – they are less than half the cheapest alternative fare.

From Calais, I have to drive to a different channel port, Le Havre. Despite the three hour drive, this is the best way both in time and money terms. As we have plenty of time, we avoid the toll roads as far as Abbeville, where we stop for a short while and take lunch. My passengers, Paul and Kevin both try a local “artisan” beer, which does not impress them much. I have to have coffee as the only man on the trip with a driving licence. We take the motorway from Abbeville to Le Havre, incurring a toll fee of €8.

The hotel, Le Parisien is opposite Le Havre station and is of the “does the job” class. We take a breather before heading to Gonfreville l’Orcher – a dormitory town around a 15 minute drive away. The stadium is not far from the centre, and is the home of Etente Sportive Municipale Gonfreville l’Orcher, which not surprisingly is generally abbreviated to ESMGO.

The sixth level of French Football is run by the regional associations, while the levels above are within the remit of the FFF. Each of the associations runs a single top division, generally known as Division d’Honneur. The number of other divisions below this differs from region to region. Most devolve the power at lower levels to district federations. As champions of the Division d’Honneur Normandie, ESMGO will be promoted to CFA2 for next season.

All of the regional associations run cup competitions for affiliated teams, and the majority of them operate a Senior Cup. In Normandie, this is the Coupe de Normandie Seniors. ESMGO were given home advantage for the final, (some regions do this, some play at neutral grounds), with the visitors being the second team of Le Havre AC, (a member of CFA2; again the highest and lowest levels that enters the cup varies from Region to region although I have not looked into them).

The stadium is a typical French municipal facility. A modern track and a single stand. In this case there is no spectator access around to other parts of the ground. As is common, other sports facilities are incorporated into the structure, or the area. The stand itself is quite large, and must hold more than 1000 seats. It is well elevated, and needs to be to allow viewing over the surprisingly high fence to the front. The roof sits high above the seating supported by a series of double curved wooden beams, which gives it an attractive appearance. The dressing rooms must be somewhere within the structure, with the players and officials emerging from underground to an area inside the track. A refreshments area has been set up to one side of the stand, and is doing a roaring trade, mainly selling sausages and chips. I indulge in the standard sausage, while Paul has the spicy version, (merguez). I have to wait a while for fresh chips to be prepared which gives me an advantage, Paul complains his are not as hot as they should be.

Confusion in the area leads to ESMGO’s first goal

Entrance to the ground is €5, a single sausage and chips is €2.50. There is no programme, but I obtain a copy of the team list quite easily.

As for the game, it was a slightly strange affair, there was no shortage of competent football on show, but there seemed to be a lack of passion. The Le Havre side were very young, with an average age under 20. One or two looked a lot younger; Kevin was quick to point out Hery Randriantsara, only a little over 5 feet tall, and not much over 7.5 stone (from Le Havre web site), completely dwarfed in the midfield by an opponent around 6 foot and probable twice the weight. Still looking through the lists on the web page, he was nearly six months past his 19th birthday and by no means the youngest in the side. Le Havre have already updated the web pages with the squad lists for next season, and some of the players have graduated from the U-19 squad to the second team in the summer, while other players noted from earlier match reports seem to have left the club before this game. One of the Gonfreville substitutes is listed as a member of the Le Havre second team for next season!

With a goal midway through the first half, and a second about 15 minutes from time, ESMGO seem to be cruising to a victory, and a very late goal from the visiting substitute Jordan Cuvier does not change this.

It is common to precede games like this with another, lesser final and when we arrived at the ground, the Final Enterprise was in progress. This is works league with rules demanding the majority of players are with the company concerned. Although these matches are all on the fff web site, and hence quite easy to find out about, the level of football was extremely poor

After returning briefly to the hotel, we headed into town. Our first stop was the Brasserie Paillette, which appears to advertise itself as selling a local beer brewed since sometime in the 16th century. The beer bearing the name was in fact a very poor (and surely mass produced) lager. The place is also a very successful restaurant, which means they were far too busy to discuss the finer points of their less than fine beer with foreigners who do not speak the lingo. So after a very quick quarter litre, we repaired to Le Trappist, about a ten minute walk away. This is a popular spot, with a young clientele who appear to enjoy good beer. Not surprisingly most of this beer is imported from Belgium, (I did try a French Trappist beer which I also enjoyed). The best beers were bottled and at at least €5 for a third of a litre, were often double or triple the Belgian prices. Still, it was very busy and boasted two televisions from which we saw the end of the Uruguay-Costa Rica game and the entirety of England v Italy (except when too many others blocked our view).

In the morning, we had plenty of time, even though I slept late. We ended up taking breakfast as a café overlooking Le Havre plage before heading back almost past the hotel and heading back to Abbeville. With time on our hands, the drive to Bully-les-Mines was made without resort to toll motorways. We stopped briefly for coffee (or beer for non drivers) and a sandwich about an hour before reaching our destination.

Bully-les-Mines is a former mining town, (the clue is in the name) just outside Lens. It seems better built up than Gonfreville, but also very closed on a Sunday afternoon. Refuelling the car was done by use of a petrol station with automated payment. We closed in on the ground just under an hour before kick off. Parking was impossible on the road outside, but we found a place nearby.

Etoile Sportive Bully-Les-Mines (ESB) play at the Stade Rene Corbelle, a municipal facility, but without a track. It once had a cinder track, but most of this is grassed over, while one straight has been lost to the new stand. There is a bar and refreshments at the top of the stand, and a balcony with the seats below it. Because the bar has a curved front, there are actually fewer rows of seats in the centre than the wings. It is also possible to watch from any point around the edge of the ground, where an old concrete barrier runs outside the old track. There are a few steps of terracing on the far side to the main stand, and this is a very popular viewing point. There are three more full size pitches between this and the railway lines.

I have long thought that passion in French Football is a product of the North, with the best supporters being the followers of Sang et Or, the blood and gold of Racing Club Lens. It appears that this spills over to the neighbouring towns.

ESB sit two divisions below Le Portel Stade, the visitors who play in Division d’Honneur. If the standard policy when entering a cup match as underdogs is to sit tight and hit the opponent on the counter, this news has not reached the North of France. The policy of Bully was to hit them quick, and hit them hard. By the ninth minute Portel were already reeling from the onslaught and it was no surprise when Bully went ahead, and two minutes later, it was 2-0.

Le Portel appeared capable of playing better football, but could not match the home sides desire to win. We thought the corner might have been turned when the visitors pulled one back with still only 23 minutes on the clock, but we were wrong. Bully were not finished by a long way, and powered forward again and again, soon returning to a two goal advantage and increasing this with a fourth goal just before the break.

In the second half, Le Portel struggled to come to terms with the disaster of the first period. They had more of the ball, more chances but Bully now defended resolutely, having something worth defending. There was only one goal in the second half, as the score was brought back to 4-2, and in fact there were almost as many close calls when Bully counter-attacked as created by Portel trying to get back into the game.

One feature of these cup finals, and other low level games in France is rolling substitutions. It did not have too much of an effect in these games, with a total of seven substitutions on the Saturday, (although both sides left one player on the bench throughout the game, so they only used 13 each). On Sunday, both sides used their allocation of 3 replacements, and then returned one of the original line up. In Le Portel’s case this was for injury, while Bully appeared to do it for tactical reasons. When I went to the same cup final in Nord Pas de Calais two years ago, there were no less than 13 changes, four of which came in the last two minutes of injury time as supposedly better penalty takers were returned, (one had his penalty saved, and one was not in his team’s five penalty takers). #

I appreciate the idea that allowing more changes, and hence more players to take the field could mean better player retention, but it seems that the rules are used to break up the play with masses of changes after the break, and players off the field for just a minute or two. Sale Town of the Cheshire League, for example made 7 changes in 90 minutes when I saw them lose to Grappenhall with one player returning after missing ten minutes of play, and one of the players on the pitch for just three minutes. If a player regularly only plays in the final five minutes, is he really going to want to stay with the team. In my mind, a better solution would be to continue to limit the number of substitutions during play, but to allow extra substitutes to take the pitch at half time. Hence the replacements would generally get 45 minutes of play, while the option is still there to make changes in case of injury or to change the tactics.

After the match, it was onto the motorway and back to the channel as fast as we could go. I had not been able to book the later ferry so we wanted to make sure we go the one booked. We made this with a few minutes to spare, and in fact found the boat to be half empty.

Overall, this was a good weekend away. Thanks as always for Paul and Kevin for the company.

Eurotour of 2014. Part 5

June 13th, 2014

My last few days were to be spent in more familiar territory, the Netherlands and Germany. I did not know about the exact fixtures when I started the trip, but knew various play offs and cup finals had to be arranged. Indeed before I started, the only options for the Tuesday were a couple of low level games in Germany and Austria, or a return into Poland. I did know about the play offs to win promotion from the German Regionalliga to the 3. Liga would start on the Wednesday, but also that the options, which were likely to be Neustrelitz and Sonnenhof Grosaspach were both going to cause difficulties with the travel.

Then up comes the Netherlands play offs. With the addition of the National Topklasse (one each, for Saturday and Sunday) as the top level of Netherlands Amateur football, (which is of course, semi-professional), there has to be promotion and relegation. There are three regional leagues (Hoofdklasse) below the Topklasse, and all three champions go up at the expense of the bottom three. But then there are the period champions. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the playing season is divided into roughly even groups of matches and the winner of each period goes into the end of season play offs. As the automatically promoted team may well have won (at least one) period, and teams can win more than one, additional teams may be included from second place down in the league.

In the Netherlands Hoofdklasse, there are three regional groups, and three periods per group. They then play a round robin within each group, with each team (normally) getting one home game. The three winners, and the fourth from bottom team in the Topklasse then play semi-finals (two legs) and final (single match, neutral ground) to decide the final club in the Topklasse. So the fixtures were not known at all when I started out, and even when I spotted them (about a week’s notice), I did not know who would be at home. The Saturday semi-finals were to be played Tuesday and Saturday. When the fixtures were eventually settled, it was Ajax Amateurs and SteDeCo at home in the first leg of the semi finals. As SteDeCo’s home in … involves two buses from the nearest rail station, I chose Ajax. On a very wet day, an artificial pitch may help.

This meant Amsterdam joined Prague and Budapest as a major cities on this tour where I saw football without venturing into the city centre.

This game was at the Ajax Amateurs pitch at Toekmost. The main pitch there is used for the Eerste Divisie Jong Ajax team, the Ladies and the most senior (A1) of the many youth teams. The main pitch is grass, but the Amateurs use an artificial surface, no doubt shared by other teams. Ajax Amateurs themselves run three adult teams and a veteran’s team. They are a curious combination, being simultaneously part of Ajax, and apart from the Professional team. In the past, I am told the team has been used to blood youngsters who are likely to go on into the professional game, but with Jong Ajax now in the league, they are now a purely “amateur” outfit, which of course, in a Netherlands context means semi-professional.

Most of the budgeting for Ajax Amateurs appears to come from the professional club, and they also have the benefit of the facilities and stewarding. They do not even feel the need to charge an admission fee. I am not sure if the coaches are shared. Players may come from those who have not made it to the professional ranks, but are just as likely to transfer in from outside. The top scorer, Dennis Kaars came from another amateur team in the Amsterdam and I have seen reports that he will transfer to Sunday football, with Hoofdklasse team de Dijk for next season. I might like to go there, if only to see if the Wikipedia drawing of red, blue and with chequered shirts is accurate.

Kaars opened the scoring quite early in the game. He is a pacy forward that caught the eye, (and made me ask whether he had come through the Ajax academy). Noordwijk gave good account of themselves, but were always looking suspect to the pace of the Ajax attack. They levelled from the penalty spot, but went behind again when a Kaars shot, saved by Amerzni was then hit in by Kenneth Misa Danso.

Noordwijk’s problems really started in the 33rd minute, when Kai van Hese pulled back Kaars as he tried to run through. I thought there were other defenders that might have been able to get back, but Kaars had the pace to go clear and the referee red-carded the defender.

Noordwijk still defender well until the hour mark, when Sergio Cameron hit the third in from a difficult angle. A couple of minutes later, there was a foul from an Ajax player that incensed temperments. I did not get a clear view of the initial foul, but I did see Bryan Braun push over an Ajax player. The original foulee was booked, but Braun had to go and Noordwijk were down to nine men.

This was too little for them, and Kaars got his second soon after, followed by Cameron (penalty for hand ball), and substitute Ronday in the final minute added to the score

As this was the second pitch at Toekmost, a small stand (around 240 seats) and four steps of concrete terracing opposite, resulting in a lot of wet spectators, I will go back for Toekmost 1 most likely for a league match involving Jong Ajax.

Meanwhile, I was given more information from a referee’s assessor, who was at the game as a spectator. Unlike the clubs, he seemed perfectly happy with the KNVB plan to force promotion on the champions of the Topklasse starting in 2015-16, despite the fact that hardly any of the teams in the Amateur leagues desire promotion. The team Achilles 29 came up at the start of the season, under a three season trial arrangement. During this season, they have played as an amateur team with only a couple of professional players. They have struggled to make the grade and eventually finished bottom of the table. They had been promised that they would not be relegated at the end of the season, but also that promotion was not an option. The results prove that although amateur teams frequently beat the professionals in cup matches, this does not mean that they are good enough to compete on a week in, week out basis. When I saw Achilles earlier in the season, they were comfortably beaten vy the Venlo outfit VVV, 3-0 and it was clear the main difference between the two teams is the fitness levels. Next season, Achilles are committed to a 50-50 professional/amateur team, which may do better, but would surprise me if it really worked. At the end of the season 2014-5, Achilles have the option to pull out, but the league will not relegate them even if they finish bottom again. Should they stay in the League for 2015-6, then they will have to employ at least 11 full time players paid at least the minimum wage, and a number of full time youth players who can be paid a less wage. At the end of 2015-16, there will be automatic relegation, and if the Netherlands FA gets their way, the winners of the Amateur title will be promoted.

I remain uncertain about the logic of adding the three reserve teams to the lower division, (or as they are titled, “Jong”). The trio, along with Achilles brings the number of teams up to 20, while the Netherlands FA actually proclaims 18 as the ideal full strength. My assessing friend said the 18 would be achieved again by not replacing clubs that fold. Still it seems like a brazen dereliction of dut by the league to have a policy that expects clubs to fold, and if the financial standing of the Eerste Divisie is so poor, surely having two extra (home) fixtures dates is a good thing? At professional football clubs, an extra fixture should increase income to a greater extent than it increases expenditure. There is a full reserve division as well as the reserves in the main league, but there is no direct relegation and promotion route for these clubs. Feyenoord were particularly incensed that the clubs chosen to send their second teams in league were PSV, Ajax and Twente, but not the Rotterdam outfit who feel that their status as a member of the “big three” should have given them primacy. I wonder if they have considered a play off after the Amateur championship, between the winners and the reserve competition winners, for the promotion place? When TOP Oss where relegated a few seasons ago (as part of a earlier reduction of numbers), they were pleased to be able to regain their place later, replacing one of the many teams to fold from professional football in recent years. (RBC, Veendam, AGOVV and Haarlem have all dropped by the wayside, many others are threatened). Even the big three have all had to restructure themselves from debt mountains, (which had the positive effect of opening the competition and allowing teams such as AZ and Twente a chance to win the title).

There are many in the Netherlands who believe that their FA are pursuing a utopian league, while not recognising the problems they have at the moment. They now have a promotion/relegation system about to be placed upon teams that do not want it. They have introduced reserve football to the professional leagues, while not having a structure to promote and relegate these

Anyway, from Amsterdam I headed to Braunschweig – a straight forward enough journey with just one change on the route. It had not escaped my notice that it had been an extremely wet day and when I reached my hotel room, trying to sign onto the internet was my first priority of the day. Before I could get connected, there was a call – Dirk was at the reception. Dirk is a German groundhopper who I have known for many years, he lives in Braunschweig and supports the main team Eintracht. He was going to join me for the evening game at the town’s second club FT Braunschweig, who were to play the Neidersachsen Cup final. This is one of 21 “Lander Pokale”, which are important as they serve as qualification competitions for the following season’s German cup. Only teams in the two divisions of the Bundesliga and the top four from the 3.Liga qualify directly. In recent years this has been recognised with increasing crowds and several thousand would be expected for the evening, although with 24 places from 21 competitions, the most populous (Niedersachsen, Westfalen and Bayern) get two places each, so only local pride was at stake.

Anyway, Dirk’s news was bad news – the game was off due to a waterlogged pitch. I said I did not know, as I had not yet got onto the internet, (which was not coming up on my computer). I wondered if there was any other football to keep my run going. Dirk thought that any game was likely to be off as well, the weather having been so poor. Dirk then went out to sort out where his car was parked, but was to come back within 30 minutes to show me around the town.

I found that while I could not get on-line from the computer, I could by using the slab I call a telephone. Searching the match calendar of the kicker website, I found two minor games – one at Bezirksliga level in the Braunschweig area, (Level 7 in the German pyramid) and one a level higher, some 40 km away in Bevenstedt, just outside Hildesheim. The calendar had been updated with the call off at FT, but still had these lower games on. Dirk said that although he had a car from work, it was for business purposes and even driving an 80 km round trip could get him into trouble, but he did check the times for me. If I could get to the local station in about 30 minutes, there was a train for the 20 minute run to Hildesheim and although a bus should get me into Bevenstedt ten minutes before kick off, a taxi might be a better idea. I meanwhile had checked the lower, more local game and discovered it also was off, but neither home or away website for the Bevenstedt game had a comment on the matter.

And so, I set up. Dirk decided who could not make it, still organising his forthcoming three week trip to Asia. We agreed to meet when I got back for a meal and a drink. I quickly headed back to the station, caught the train to Hildesheim and with the help of a taxi found the ground with time to spare. More importantly it was open and they were taking admission money. It was game on, even if the grass was a little long and unkempt and it appeared that the club had neglected to mark out the lines clearly (probably due to the weather). Even better, the ground boasted a quite modern stand with more than 200 seats, situated by the halfway line. The usual food and drink options, including the club bar were situated near the entrance, but having agreed a meal for later I settled on coffee. There was also a match programme, given away free. Admission was €6.

The match had been brought forward from the following weekend. I did not find out why. Bevenstedt were in the comfortable position that no result from this match, or any other match in the league could mean they would finish other than in third place. Only the champions get promoted (as it happens, the champions are Arminia Hannover, the only other member team of this league I have ticked, even if when I went in 1998, they were three levels higher when I went). The visitors HSC Blau-Weiss Schwalbe Tündern were in 9th place and could go up or down two places depending on this and other results, which meant the match would certainly occur on next season’s fixture list. Bevenstedt were on top from the start and it was no surprise when they took the lead after 21 minutes. Playing some very neat passing football despite the uneven and damp surface, they added a second before half time. Immediately after the break they pulled the lead up to 5-0 within ten minutes, Tündern substituted their goalkeeper between the third and fourth goals. It did not appear to be apportioning blame or injury (the sub was waiting to come on when goal three was scored), but merely to give a player a run out. The substitute may have regretted being brought on as he conceded two within his first six minutes on the field. The game turned though, Bevenstedt did not deliberate take the foot off the pedal, but their goals dried up. On 72 minutes, a visiting sub pulled a goal back. Two more followed in the next seven minutes to make the score 5-3. Meanwhile, Bevenstedt revealed their final substitute as a rather overweight bloke with glasses, and quite clearly not of the fitness levels the rest of the team were showing. He spent several minutes joking with those in the stand who clearly knew him before coming onto the field with about five minutes (including injury time) to play. There were lots of calls to “give the ball to Markus” (or the equivalent in German) from the crowd, and he tried to keep in a forward position. I am convinced he did not play the ball once during his five minutes of fame. The final score was 5-3 despite the home keeper being made to make one good save to keep it so.

Third goal for Bevenstedt

I had been asking at half time about getting back to the station, no one appeared to be driving straight after the game, but I was given directions to the bus stop by a young lady who had some English. I asked her again about Markus at the end of the game and the first comment was “he is not a normal player”. I had gathered that already, but why was he on the field. It was in fact a reward for many years of service to the club. One cannot argue with this type of sentiment in a game that does not matter. When I left the ground with just a vague direction to a bus stop, my Sat Nav said if I walked all the way to the station, I would miss my train by about five minutes. As I had arrived by taxi, I did not know the bus times out so I felt lucky to arrive at the stop and find there was an hourly service to the station – especially as I had less than five minutes to wait.

So it was back to Braunschweig, seeing Dirk again and heading to his favourite local Greek restaurant, where I have to admit the food was good, and very good value for money. We talked about Dirk’s forthcoming trip to Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei in which he planned 24 flights in a three week trip, including travelling between Borneo and Java four days in a row. I said I had looked at the fixtures and even considered making the trip, but uncertainty about work prevented me from doing this as an alternative to my Eurotrip. I would have forgone a fixture though to spend longer on Borneo, especially if there was an overland option between the games there.

Office building in Braunschweig, used by the company Dirk works for!


Dirk also persuaded me to change my plans for the final day of this tour. I was going to Nöttingen, who had a promotion play off, trying to rise into the Regionalliga (fourth level). Instead, Dirk recommended 1. CFR Pforzeim at a level lower. The club is a recent merger and as such is in possession of two stadia, both good and old. Originally the team had favoured a ground at Holzhof, but difficulties in getting permission to update it, meant Brötzinger Tal had become the ground of choice. This game was slated as the last ever game at Holzhof, and would be a German Groundhopper’s day out (not that this necessarily is a recommendation). As a groundhopper, I do tend to head for grounds that may be having their last hurrah, rather than the more important game on a ground I can visit another day. Added to this, Pforzheim is the more easily accessible of the two, Nöttingen being some 45 minutes from the rail station, with no buses back. There was also the precaution that if I arrived in Pforzheim in good time, and it was off, then it would still be possible to get to the slightly later kick off at Nöttingen – and both could be done without changing my pre-booked hotel.

Pforzheim – time for a beer!

There were a number of German groundhoppers in Pforzheim, having arrived at the ground from various parts of the country. However, the news was that the building works at the alternative ground, Brötzinger Tal was unlikely to be complete for the start of the new season, so Holzhof would continue to be used. 1. CFR were a merger about four seasons ago, and they felt at the time that by combining forces, they could move up from the Verbandsliga Baden, which is level six in these parts. At regional levels, the different areas use different combinations of league names, so where as it is always true that Oberliga is above Verbandsliga, which in turn is higher than Landesliga, with Bezirksliga, Kreisliga and finally Kriesklasse lower down, one cannot say that a specific league name refers to a specific level. In Neidersachsen, where I went on the Wednesday, there is no Verbandsliga, so Landesliga is level 6, the same as Verbandsliga Baden.

Anyway, merging the two teams in Pforzheim has not achieved the desired objective, and the club has sat at the same level for the four seasons since merger. To add insult to injury, another team in the town, Pforzheimer Kickers has come through and is now on the verge of rising to the Oberliga. I would be very surprised to find the average crowd now is much greater than that given to either of the two clubs before merger. There may be some advantages through the merger, such as if they have managed to keep all the sponsors from both clubs on board, and the combined committee should be stronger, but I bet there are people on both sides now that do not view the merger as a success.

With only a few hundred present, the Holzhof is easily fit for purpose without renovation. As I understand Brötzinger Tal is also in this category, I cannot see what the club is building for. It has a large stand, with more than 1000 seats, albeit bench seating. There are a number of steps of terracing all around the rest of the group, and although the section behind the far goal has been closed off and is overgrown, the rest is in very good order. On the levels above the terracing at the town end is the normal catering, I bought myself a Bratwurst, and could have had coffee or beer as well. The club house is immediately outside the ground, but this no longer appears as if connected to the club. They would not let me even use their loo.

The game itself was no great shakes; for most of the time, the visitors Hiedelberg-Kircheim appeared to be the better side with Pforzheim doing little other than lobbing balls into the area for easy clearance. The style changed somewhat when Kircheim had the audacity to take the lead. After this Pforzheim finally got their game together, the passing was more on the ground and crisper with far many more passes reaching completion. This created the chance for substitute Jannick Schram to level the scores after Pforzheim had been behind for fifteen minutes, and may have brought them a win in the last 20 minutes. In the end though, my tour was completed with a 1-1 draw.

The switch from Nöttingen to Pforzheim brought me one final piece of good fortune. On arriving in the town, I noticed there were a lot of people and noise in the centre. Not that common on a holiday (as this was). Needless to say I investigated, and was delighted to discover that the event was an open air beer festival. I took a quick beer there before the game, but then somewhat delayed my journey out of the town, so I can take more than one more after the game, and also enjoy the rather good rock covers band that is playing.

The Original Badebier, which is not a Bad Beer

 

Afterword – looking back on the trip.

The tour consisted of 23 games in 21 days, no days off and two double headers (both in the Czech republic, both starting in Prague). Two games were goalless, but the rest contributed 76 goals to my total. All matches were my first visit to the ground. There were two matches called off due to waterlogged pitches, and twice I had been intending to go to Nöttingen, but changed my mind. There were nine home wins, ten draws and only four away wins. The only game on a neutral ground was a draw, but went on the extra time and penalties.

1. Viktoria Achaffenburg confirmed relegation when I saw them, finishing 18th of 19. Wurzburger Kickers ended up in 11th place

2. Austria Salzburg won the regional title, with Seekirchen finishing 10th of 16. Austria Salzburg lost 3-0 at home in their promotion play off to FAC Team fur Wien, after drawing 2-2 in the away leg.

3. Donaufeld won the Wiener Liga, and promotion to Regionalliga Ost, but there is only one promotion place, so Stadlau, despite finishing second, stay put.

4. This was the final game of the season for Wiener Neustadt and Admira Modling, Neustadt finish 8th, Modling 9th in a ten team league with only one relegation spot.

5/6. We saw Maribor take the title in another ten team league. Celje were practically safe after drawing at Krka, and confirmed this in the next match be winning at Triglav. Krka also lost on that occasion meaning the order of the bottom two was only decided when Krka beat Triglav on the last day. This should have meant Krka entering a play off against Radomlje, the runners-up from the second division, but the second division champions (Dob) declined promotion, meaning Radomije went up without a play off, and Krka kept their place.

7. St Gallen finished 7th, Sion 8th in the Swiss League (again ten teams, one relegated)

8. There are still two games in the Tirol Landesliga to play as I write this, and Kundl are still in the “Possible relegation” zone as the numbers vary depending on how many teams are relegated into the division. I think that the relegation from Regionalliga West will be one to Voralberg and two to Salzburg, meaning Kundl are safe. Reutte are in a safe mid-table position.

9. 1. HFK Olomouc finished in a safe mid-table position. Breclav surprisingly one twice in their final four games, and finished second to bottom. With both relegated teams from the second division being Prague based (and hence going to CFL), Breclav may yet avoid relegation

10. Admira have completed their programme, and have just enough points to be sure of safety. Stechovice still have a game to play and are in mid-table

11. Trinec won their last two home games, while losing in Ceske Budejovice, ending in mid-table. I’ll discuss Taborsko at match 18

12. Thanks to a surprising away win at (already crowned) champions Legia Warsaw, Ruch Chorzow finished third and made it to Europe. Wisla Krakow finished 5th.

13. With Dunajska Streda losing their last game at Ruzomberok, while Nitra won on the last day, DAC escaped the drop by two goals. Spartak Trnava had already confirmed their third place, and home defeat to Slovan Bratislava on the last day did not change the positions.

14. Having brought themselves back into contention with the win over Belchatow, Zabki’s remaining away games were a defeat to Stroze, and a draw at Chojnice, although they did win their last home game. Chojnice’s draw was just enough to save them from relegation. Belchatow won their game at Stroze, and took the title with a 4-0 win over Sandejca Nowy Sacz on the final day, overtaking Leczna who lost at Stomil Olsztyn but still took the second promotion spot. Zabki therefore ended up in third place.

15/16. These relegation group matches in Poland confirmed Lodz and Lubin as relegated, Bielsko-Biala finished 2nd in the relegation group, Cracovia 6th with Kielce 5th.

17. Bohemians Praha had a big win, 7-1 against Frydek-Mistek, which means although relegated, they were spared bottom place by two points. Sokolov finished 6th

18. With both Taborsko and and Hradrec Kralove drawing in this round, Ceske Budejovice’s 1-0 win put them just ahead of their rivals. All three won the following week. On the final day, Hradrec Kralove won 1-0 at Pardubice, knowing that a win had to be enough for promotion as Taborsko and Ceska Budejovice, (both starting one point ahead) were playing each other in Sezimova Usti. The crowd for this game is quoted as a somewhat incredible 7465, nearly ten times the figure I saw there. Perhaps Taborsko froze under this scrutiny, certainly they were 3-0 down in 16 minutes, and eventually lost 6-0, meaning they finished third, behind Ceske Budejovice and Hradrec Kralove.

19. Despite winning the cup, Ujpest have been refused a license for European Competition, so Diosgyori take the place in the Europa League.

20. Malmo won 1-0 at second placed Elfsborg in the next round, and take a six point lead into the World Cup break. The next game are in the first weekend of July

21. Ajax Amateurs needed to defend their 6-1 lead in the second leg, which they did not do well, conceded six goals. However, they scored two to just win through 8-7 on aggregate, and then beat SteDeCo 5-2 to win promotion to the Topklasse.

22. The Niedersachsen cup final has been held over to the start of next season, Bavenstedt finished 3rd, and Tündern 9th in their league. They will meet again next season

23. The match I did not go to in Nöttingen finished 0-0, but Nöttingen won promotion to the Regionalliga with a 1-0 win in Salmohr in the second leg. 1. CFR Pforzheim finished 7th and Kircheim 10th in their 15 team division