Archive for the ‘Political Footballs’ Category

The Inevitable Don.

Thursday, November 29th, 2012

It was always inevitable, that sooner or later AFC Wimbledon would come up in competition against MK Dons.

As a teenager, growing up on Southern League football in London, the Wimbledon of the seventies had a bit of a reputation, but as with most non-League teams of the time, they were in reality a haven away from the troubles with hooliganism that all the top teams were suffering from. The most memorable feature of a visit to Plough Lane was the huge bank of terracing behind one goal

There was not always a lot between teams, and what was needed for success (as we would later find out), was am inspired manager and a chairman prepared to back him. For Wimbledon, the manager was Allen Batsford, who had already led Walton & Hersham through their most successful years, (Athenian League title, FA Amateur Cup and humbling Brighton & Hove Albion during Brian Clough’s tenure there). Batsford was to take Wimbledon to a hat-trick of Southern League titles, and in his first season to their famous meeting with Leeds United in the FA Cup. The chairman, at least for the third year was Ron Noades, who apparently paid £2782 for the club.

Timing is everything, though and Wimbledon had this. After their first Southern League title, in 1975 they gained just 4 points in their election bid, behind Kettering (20) and Yeovil (8), who between them equalled Workington’s 28 points for re-election. No less than 12 non-League teams, eight from the Southern League had put their names forward. Again in 1976, there were 9 applicants, six of which were Southern League, and the combined scores of Kettering (14) and Yeovil (18) would have easily beaten Workington (21). For 1977, the leagues agreed that only one team from each of the Southern and Northern Premier Leagues would be put forward, and as Southern League champions, Wimbledon were up for election, along with Altrincham (despite finishing only 10th in the Northern Premier), Halifax, Hartlepool, Southport and Workington. It was Workington who had been bottom two places four years in a row that lost their place. It was a brief window, Wigan were elected 12 months later, but even with the creation of the Alliance (now Conference) and a reduction of non-League teams in the election to one from 1980, no other team joined the league until automatic promotion was introduced in 1987.

Wimbledon were not an immediate success in the Football League. Indeed they started more amateurishly than in winning three titles, no scouting, no youth coaching until Dario Gradi was recruited to assist Batsford, (they did not get on). Batsford resigned after the team had to travel by car to an away match at Rochdale. Wimbledon were promoted from the basement division of the League in 1979, 1981 and 1983 – each time they spent only one season in the third tier, but in 1984, they moved upwards.

Dave Bassett, who became manager in 1981 led them through this spell, leading the club to the top division (still division one in those days) and keeping them up in his first season, before giving way to Bobby Gould who managed the Cup winning team of 1988. Overall, Wimbledon were to spend 14 seasons at the top level.

It was Noades, back in 1979 who first considered relocating the club to Milton Keynes. The City’s development plan included a stadium close to the central railway station, and Noades purchased the local Southern League club, Milton Keynes City for £1, thinking he could merge his two clubs and play at this new stadium. After a short period of study, Noades concluded that Wimbledon could not get any more to view them at Milton Keynes than at Plough Lane, and in 1981 he divested his interests in both clubs, before buying Crystal Palace.

Sam Hamman took over the ownership of the club. They still owned and played at Plough Lane. As with many football grounds, there were covenants in place on what could be done with the land. The Plough Lane football ground could only be used for Sport or Recreation, and in the event of Wimbledon FC folding, it had to be sold to the council for the less than princely sum of £8000. The amount Hamman paid to the council to change these conditions is not known, but was about half a million pounds. By 1991, Wimbledon had risen to the top division, with crowds around 7,500 per match. This was a remarkably small number for the top division, which had an average of 22,000+ that season. It was the Taylor report that was the excuse to re-locate to Selhurst Park. The club said they could not afford to upgrade the old ground. There was an immediate loss of 10% of the spectator base, but this quickly recovered. Around 1993, the averages exceeded 10,000 and they set their attendance record, over 30,000 for a match against Manchester United. In 1999-2000, the season Wimbledon were finally relegated from the top flight, the average crowd was 17,000.

Surely this figure could have been sustained, but at this time, Wimbledon had a fickle support, more concerned about visiting stars than the local club. Palace were an irregular member of the Premier League, and so while the big Premier stars came a visiting, Wimbledon were the best show in town. In one season out of the top division, the average crowd had been halved.

Hamman had by now sold Wimbledon to Norwegian owners, and in 1998 he had finally sold off Plough Lane for £8 million. Hamman stayed on at the club as an advisor to the Norwegians, (which of course meant a fee was paid, and I bet it was not a pittance). After proposals for two sites within Merton came to nothing, Hamman was behind a wild slew of relocation schemes, as far afield as Scotland and Dublin, (the Premier League quite fancied the idea of having a Dublin club, but the Football Association of Ireland vetoed it). All this added to the clubs problems – creating a wedge between the club and its supporters. Most clubs still try to maintain the illusion that their owners hold the club in trust for the supporters, and for future generations. With Wimbledon openly stating they wanted to move to somewhere where a profit could be made, the supporters were clearly thought of as dispensable.

Meanwhile, the Milton Keynes Stadium Corporation was formed in 2000. Fronted by former op impresario Peter Winkleman, and supported by big commercial names Wal-Mart (Asda) and Ikea, who were looking for sites in Milton Keynes. Later, AFC Wimbledon supporters have suggested that the Stadium plan was a Trojan horse required to get the commercial plans approved, but this does not truly recognise the situation in Milton Keynes. The City planners surely wanted it all, the Stadium and the Commercial developments.

But what could is a stadium without a team? The Milton Keynes City team Noades had once bought had folded some time back, and a new team of the same name were just a renaming of Mercedes Benz, playing four levels below the Football League in front of a few dozen spectators. The MK area boasted a number of other teams at similar level, but no one much more senior. Of course, with enough investment, it is possible to move a club from non-League football to the Football League, Max Griggs was just about to achieve this with Rushden & Diamonds – but as we have seen, the club was not sustainable without a continual injection of cash.

Winkleman wanted an established League club to move into his stadium (and at the time, that is all he wanted – he could see that clubs lose money, but stadiums with a well supported club make a profit). The Football League and FA always claimed to be opposed to a club moving into Milton Keynes, and the combination of this, and the clear connections between clubs and their fan bases meant that Luton, Barnet, Crystal Palace and QPR all rejected moves to Milton Keynes, but in the summer of 2001, Wimbledon chairman Charles Koppel announced the intention to move to Milton Keynes.

The Football League immediately turned this down, but Wimbledon appealed to an FA panel, made up of David Dein (Arsenal), Douglas Craig (York City) and Charles Hollander QC (these panels always appear to have one legal ‘brain’). Craig was an odd choice, he had transferred the ownership of Bootham Crescent from one of his companies (i.e. York City FC) to another for a sum of £165,000 eighteen months earlier, and at this time he had just announced plans to evict the football club as he thought he could sell the ground for £4.5 million (this of course, never happened, although York’s long term future is unlikely to be at the ground). This panel found the Football League decision had not been fair and legal, and batted the issue back to the League for reconsideration. The League quickly returned the issue to the FA who had to set up a new Arbitration committee, this time of Steve Stride (Aston Villa), Alan Turvey (Isthmian League) and solicitor Raj Parker. This committee decided 2-1 in favour of the move, with Turvey being the one against. As a demonstration that it wanted to have its cake, eat it and wash its hands of the evidence, the FA quickly announced that the decision was binding, but that it was opposed to the move. Chief Executive Adam Crozier called it an “Appalling decision”. The average crowd for Wimbledon at Selhurst Park 2001-2 was just under 7000. The following season, it was 2787.

It was at this point the decision to form AFC Wimbledon was taken. Before this time, there was just talk about it, but the speed that they moved from talk to action was amazing. The initial meeting was held on 30 May 2002, with the manager, stadium, kit and crest announced to supporters just a month later. Clearly some of the groundwork must have been carried out in advance.

Only months previously, Kingstonian FC had been taken over Rajesh Kholsa and his son, Anup. Kingstonian had struggled through the season after relegation from the Conference, and gone into administration. They badly needed good administration. This is not what they got. Non-League football is not a good vehicle for profit making – the best opportunities for a profit – as we have seen in more than one case – involve separating the ownership of club and ground and selling the stadium when the clubs debts are too high for them to be able to resist. Many football clubs have means to avoid this, at the original Wimbledon FC, it was the arrangements whereas the club would have had to sell the ground for £8000 to Merton Council, (an agreement that Hamman splashed a little cash to get out of, before later feathering his next). At Hillingdon Borough, the club I supported in my early days, the directors had to see the football club fold in order to negate a covenant on the ground and take their profits. At Kingstonian, the ground was on a long lease from the council, with the ground only usable for sports use. Hence, the only way Kholsa could sell at a profit was if another sports club came in. Did Kholsa spy an opportunity in the headlines about Wimbledon? Is it possible that some agreement was suggested in advance? No one has ever said anything to suggest any wrong doing, but there is some feeling that Kholsa did see Wimbledon coming. He was quick to split football club and ground, leaving the head lease in the hands of Anup, and with the income once AFC Wimbledon agreed to share the stadium, this part of the business was running a nice profit, while the Football Club that were leaseholders a year before were starved of the cash.

Meanwhile, the AFC Wimbledon bandwagon was the biggest story in non-League football. In a marvellously orchestrated media circus (something the early AFC W seemed to lead the way in), they held open trials on Wimbledon Common, where some 230 turned up for a trial. If I am not careful, I could even blame Wimbledon for the X-Factor here, but I’ll shy away from such an accusation. Safe to say that some of the 230 would have been an embarrassment, but fortunately not in front of TV cameras. Another sign of how it was to be was the quick signing of a kit sponsorship deal, which meant that AFC Wimbledon would already have more money behind them then the average club in their league, notwithstanding the £75,000 raised at the initial meetings, and the benefits of crowds that were to exceed 3000 on average.

Of course, it has to recorded that AFC Wimbeldon were a different type of football club. The ownership structure, where all fans had an equal say at general meetings, and to elect the board does present a novel contrast to the idea that your votes reflect the size of stake you take in the club (or business). However, the model was not that new, hundreds of clubs (as opposed to companies) had been operating as members clubs in the less rarefied atmosphere of non-League football – indeed many of their opponents in that first season were also “Fans Clubs”, the different being that only a handful of fans would ever turn up at a meeting. There were members clubs in the Football League up until 1982, when Nottingham Forest became the last to change to a limited company, and then Wycombe Wanderers were still a members club when joining the Football League in 1993. The supporters retained “golden shares” in the club when it became a limited company in 2004. Steve Hayes became MD of the club in 2005, built up debt and then paid it off in return for becoming 100% owner. To be fair to Hayes, he has since given up control of both Wycombe (to their supporters Trust) and while I cannot say the exact status of the ground, I feel certain Hayes lost a lot of money through his involvements at both Wycombe and Wasps.

It was not long before some bright spark at AFC Wimbledon decided that the best course of action was to purchase Kingsmeadow from Kholsa. To this day, AFC Wimbledon fans tell me this was the only course of action, as otherwise it would have been sold for housing. As I have already mentioned in this piece, that was not an available option – but a sale (around £3 million) sounded good to Kholsa, especially as he could loan some of the money at high interest rates. AFC Wimbledon did manage to change this over time to bank loans at conventional interest rates, and later sold off a portion of the moral high ground shares in the club to pay off this debt.

Before AFC Wimbledon came on the scene, I had already visited all but one (Horley Town had just moved grounds) of the Combined Counties League grounds, but as I was working mainly in Slough, I saw AFC three times in the first two seasons of their existence. Without doubt, it was this that removed any romanticism I might have had about them being the best thing in non-League football. For the most part, with average crowds well under the 100 mark, the Combined Counties League is a civilised place. When it is quite clear who is shouting what from a sparsely populated terrace, one tends to watch your language. AFC Wimbledon fans, grouping in numbers more common in the Football League, but with no security other than their own stewards, had the run of the league. Generally the vilest comments were reserved for those of their own players not performing to the standards expected (they were behind for just 7 minutes at Horley, but the worst was their home crowd when they took time to break down stubborn resistance in a scoreless first half). The club lost seven games in their first season, finishing third in the league behind AFC Wallingford and Withdean 2000. There was crowd trouble at the Wallingford game, which AFC Wimbledon always deny is to do with their own fans, but was then used as an excuse not to play at Wallingford in 2004, but to switch the match, (AFC Wimbledon’s last game in the Combined Counties League) to Kingsmeadow. This game did not even matter in the scheme of things, AFC Wimbledon already having secured the league title by a country mile, but it appeared they were unforgiving for Wallingford’s title the previous season, and were determined to hang onto their unbeaten record.

The other thing that was noticeable from those early visits were how many AFC Wimbledon fans were glued to radios, (we did not all have internet phones then). Their rivals in the Combined Counties League never featured on the radio – it was only ever the fortunes of the other Dons that interested them. There were two things they wanted to hear – Wimbledon losing, and Wimbledon getting a lower crowd than AFC Wimbledon. For 2002-3, this is exactly what they got, Wimbledon (still at Selhurst Park) drew an average of 2787, while AFC Wimbledon claimed just over 3000. This disparity led to Wimbledon FC going into administration before they actually left South London. They even started 2003-4 season at Selhurst Park, before moving to the Hockey Stadium in MK in September, and all this under administration. AFC Wimbledon’s rash move in buying Kingsmeadow meant that they were not in a position to even contemplate buying their old club out of administration, and instead spent their time hoping no buyer could be found and that the club with move into liquidation. With crowds in Milton Keynes much better than the last Selhurst season, (Wimbledon averaged 4751 compared to AFC Wimbledon dropping to 2606). Still, Wimbledon did get relegated, and eventually they were bought out of administration by Pete WInkleman, who after all was keen to see the club stay alive to play in his stadium. When Winkleman took over the club, he rebranded them as MK Dons. This basically meant it was a new club in a new location, and after a dispute in which various football supporters bodies supported the AFC Wimbledon case, MK Dons gave up any pretence that they were Wimbledon FC. Trophies and other mementoes of the earlier club’s history were given over to the London Borough of Merton, but pointedly not to AFC Wimbledon. There is not any justification for claiming that AFC Wimbledon has won the FA Cup, but the AFC Wimbledon web site still lays claims to all the honours not just of Wimbledon FC, but also of Wimbledon Old Centrals back to 1899. From my point of view, I cannot be 100% sure that the club that joined the Athenian League in 1919 was the same as the one that spent a single season, 1909-10 in the Spartan League.

MK Dons dropped down to League-2 for two seasons, but have since moved back up one division, and have been close to the promotion bracket in recent years. They finally moved into their new stadium, with its curious name of Stadium: MK in 2007. The crowds rose significantly on moving to the new stadium, helped by the club winning the League-2 title and Football League Trophy. I made my trip to MK in 2008 when Cheltenham played their (the only time so far). MK won that game 3-1, and the return at our place 5-3. I have to say I liked the ground, and we were well beaten. In a nearby pub before the gae in MK, I met with at least one fan who had transferred loyalties from the original Wimbledon FC and had watched at Selhurst, such people do exist, (admittedly in small numbers). I would wager that by now only a minority of AFC Wimbledon’s support have been with the club since long enough to have been regulars at Plough Lane. We have since lost to them twice in the League Cup. Wimbledon continued to rise up the leagues, winning promotion in 2005, 2008, 2009 and 2011 – the last being the one to take them into the Football League. The clubs Conference South season(2008-9) saw them exceed their first season average crowd for the first time, this was bettered again two seasons later in winning promotion, and again in their first Football League season. 2011-12 was also the first time AFC Wimbledon were to lose more matches than they won. The notable thing about the visits to Kingsmeadow with Cheltenham is that the place had actually become more friendly than it appeared to be in those early Combined Counties seasons. AFC Wimbledon fans are no longer a different breed, but are part of the general football fraternity.

Both clubs now have their own support and following, and the meeting this weekend ought to be the last time the connections are aired before the clubs fully part. However, there is now a new campaign in Wimbledon, (started I think by the local paper and not the football club), to try and get MK Dons to drop Dons from their name. Dons was the original nickname of Wimbledon FC, and was certainly what their supporters would have called them back in the seventies. However, the popularity of the Wombles on TV, and the adoption of a Womble as mascot (originally by Wimbledon FC, but now by AFC Wimbledon, and never of course by MK Dons) means that Wombles is more commonly used now. As a Don is also an academic term, there is no reason why MK should drop it – it all seems part of the sour grapes fight by those that still believe MK Dons should not exist. While like most people, I was aghast at their creation, I recognise that you cannot turn back the clock and you cannot now remove MK Dons from the map any more than, say the state of Israel, no matter how many people think differently.

AFC Wimbledon fans still seem to need to be on the defensive against some suggestions against them. I read it a lot on the internet boards. I think the three great defences that are over their entry into the Combined Counties League, the buying of the stadium and the fate of Kingstonian. So to try and see through the smokescreens, the Combined Counties League was not by any means the lowest level the club could have started, there are many levels of lower football. However, they were voted in by member clubs of the Combined Counties League, which was the legitimate method of clubs entering at that time. They did not take the place of any other club, indeed the league extended its numbers to take them in. Of course, AFC Wimbledon would have liked to enter the Isthmian League but were turned down. I have always thought that the purchase of Kingsmeadow was a bad move, and I feel that developing this ground hinders their attempts to relocate to their home borough. It is possible that Kholsa might have allowed Kingstonian to fold had AFC not appeared on the scene, but if that had happened, the lease would have reverted to the council paving the way for any reformed club to move in. Kingstonian still exist, but their crowd base has been eroded by the coming of Wimbledon to their town. It is an illusion that football supporters follow clubs through thick and thin. Fans come and go, and some may turn up occasionally to see what is going on at the local ground. It is from these that the long term supporter is somehow made. When two clubs share a stadium, it is natural for those new fans, at least if not subject to other influences, to watch the bigger of the clubs at the stadium. With AFC Wimbledon’s media juggernaut, (even being the team of choice for a TV detective), it was always inevitable that they would take some support that might have watched Kingstonian, even with a Wimbledon team in the next borough. When Wimbledon first bought the ground, Kingstonian’s rent was to be paid from the proceeds of a pre-season friendly between the teams. A great advert for altruism that did not actually last long.

Of course, the greatest knock on from the Wimbledon story is the increase in fan owned clubs – this is now becoming both a common way of restarting a club after the original has floundered, but also there have been more cases of supporters clubs breaking away from the original. In England, we have Enfield Town who actually thought of the idea before Wimbledon (perhaps the reason why they did not take up the name AFC Enfield). Enfield Town were founded after the chairman of Enfield refused to walk away with the lion’s share of the proceeds of the sale of Enfield’s old ground, leaving the fans with a clean start, a debt free club and a little money in the bank, (a deal had been brokered, but the owner of Enfield reneged on it). Enfield Town started life sharing at Brimsdown Rovers and playing in the Essex League, (three levels lower than Enfield that season). At this point, Enfield Town refused to merge the two clubs. The clubs met in the Southern League in 2005-6. Enfield FC finally went into liquidation in 2007, but a new club, Enfield 1893 was immediately started (in the Essex League, only one level down on the last season as Enfield). In 2010, Enfield 1893 moved into Brimsdown Rovers ground, after years sharing grounds outside the borough, meaning that both clubs shared a ground for the season – Brimsdown had folded or merged with 1893, depending on the version you listen to. By this time, Enfield Town had secured the new ground they always wanted, now called the Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, and took with them a stand they had added to the old Brimsdown ground. This meant the ground did not meet Isthmian League standards, and although 1893 were Esssex League champions in 2011, they could not be promoted.

Other fan clubs include AFC Telford United, formed quickly after Telford United folded, and Wrexham who had to fight long and hard for control, but always kept fighting. An attempt at a protest club called AFC Barnsley lasted only a short time, playing its last season on Barnsley’s training pitches before being absorbed by the club it was protesting about. FC United of Manchester were also formed as a protest against the way Manchester United’s American owners took control. They claim far higher crowds than others in their leagues but are hampered by high rents at Bury. Unlike AFC Wimbledon, they do appear to have identified a site for their own ground, and may well progress further after they move. Their fans sing a curious mixture of Manchester United songs, and anti-Glazer (the United owners) songs. Despite their claims, they have not actually had any effect on the Old Trafford club, although their fan base may well effect other clubs in the area, including Bury who are benefitting greatly from the income United provide. By contrast, it appears that AFC Liverpool only exist as an echo of United. They have not developed a fan base above that of the better clubs in their league, when you look at the programme and ground, it appears to bristle with indignation at either the main Liverpool club, or the injustice to the 96, but the fans do not reflect this. Last time I saw them play, their only indignation was a complaint over what appeared to be a perfectly justifiable penalty.

The supporters’ umbrella group, Supporters Direct seems almost to favour the formation of new clubs over the alternative of trying to identify and remove bad club owners. The latest example being at Northwich Victoria. Now there is no doubt the old club has been incredibly badly administered, leading to the loss of their ground, (and the new owners can develop the site there), and the club playing 40 miles from home in front of negligible crowds. Even so, there should have been hope for some compromise, but the existence of a rival club appears to be strengthening the owners resolve not to let the old club go.

It does appear that a lot of AFC fans are not for a boycott of the match, as shown by the fact that a large number are travelling to Milton Keynes to see it. The directors are making their protest by standing with the fans and not accepting hospitality, but this is only noticed because they have managed to get the press to mention it. I noticed the Cheltenham Town chairman sitting among the fans, rather than accepting hospitality at an away game two weeks ago. This was not a protest, he was there because he likes to be there! No doubt there will be protests or posters from within the crowd over the existence of MK Dons, and if the TV cameras care to show it, there will be a large audience watching the match back in Wimbledon, but this match may be the last stand for the protests.

The real villains of this piece are not the current owners of either Football Club, whose only problem seems to be that they cannot find a way to live in peace with each other, but the football authorities. The game needs a system of licensing that is more stringent in stopping clubs from building up unsustainable debt, it needs more care applied to the idea of “fit and proper” persons as directors, and a way of taking sanctions against club directors who are found not to meet the required standard after taking up the post. Above all, the practise of separating the ownership of club and ground must be stopped, as it is a license for asset strippers. The legacy of the MK Dons/AFC Wimbledon saga should not be the extinction of either club, but the assurance that history cannot be repeated. While Northwich Victoria play home matches in front of a handful of spectators in Stafford, that legacy still looks far from achievable.

England C Team in Gibraltar

Monday, December 26th, 2011

Once the laws of football had been formalised, it did not take long for them to spread across International borders, and almost inevitably, the first International game was played as far back as 1872. By 1906, football had become so professionalised that there was little room for the amateur in international football, and England started fielding an all Amateur International XI as well. Their first game was played in November 1906 and resulted in a 15 (fifteen) -0 win against France. The side for that match included players from South Bank, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Old Malvernians, Old Foresters and Luton Town.

I am not certain if that game was entered as an official first team international for France, but most of the Amateur teams early games were against the full international XI of their opponents, (which meant they awarded full caps, while England did not). The England Amateur XI won their first 17 games and went unbeaten through the first 20. (To be accurate, three of these games were played by the team as a GB XI, as they were part of the 1908 London Olympics). In March 1909, the England Amateur team beat the full International team of Germany by 9-0, and a month later they beat Belgium 11-2. Both these results are still recorded as the record defeat for the National teams concerned.

Credit to Belgium though, as a year later, they gained a 2-2 draw with England (Amateurs) in Brussels, the Amateurs first failure to win. 1906-10 was a golden age for English International football with the Senior team also managing 18 unbeaten games between defeats in Glasgow in 1906 and 1910. The Amateurs finally lost in Copenhagen in May 2010. Denmark were the team beaten in the Olympic final, in 1908 and again lost to “England” in the 1912 final. The FA claim that England Amateur teams played at the 1908, 1912, 1920 and 1936 Olympics, but non English players may have been included in the latter pair.

I do not have a full record of England Amateur games, but one notable fixture, 28 January 1939 saw England beat Wales 5-2 at Whaddon Road, Cheltenham. Although by that time Cheltenham were a member of the professional Southern League, GE Perkins was in the England XI. By that time, the England Amateur XIs had become quite London based. Apart from Perkins, only two players were not Londoners, the goalkeeper G. Whitehead (Bury Amateurs) and T.H. Leek of Moor Green. I am saddened to note that Bury Amateurs changed their name to AFC Bury at the start of this season.

The England Amateur team was disbanded in 1974, basically because the distinctive name “Amateur Football” was being scrapped. The move was slow coming, and by 1974, many Amateur players were receiving so much boot money, that semi-professional clubs could not compete.

Still, with a strong distinction between the professional game (as in Football League) and semi-professional (or amateur), as in everything non-League, there was a case for a representative XI at this level and so in 1979, an England Semi-Professional XI was started. The first game was a 2-1 victory over Scotland, at Stafford Rangers in May 1979, with the Netherlands beaten at the same venue a week later.

Since then, the name of the team has morphed to the England National Game XI, and now England C, but the team has always been effectively the same, a representative side of the Football Conference, with the odd player entered from the lower leagues. Players have always come from the English non-League system (but including some playing for Welsh clubs), with I think just one exception. Kevin Todd, who I remember as a part of the Newcastle Blue Star team of the late 80s, made his one appearance in 1991, after signing for Berwick Rangers.

The England C team (using its current name) was not even limited to Englishmen. While only three players have been capped for both the C team and at Full cap level, I can easily name an equal number of players later capped for other nations. For the record – the players who moved up to the England squad were Alan Smith (Alvechurch) and Steve Guppy (Wycombe),with Peter Taylor (Maidstone)dropping to the semi-professional team in 1984, eight years after he won a full cap. Meanwhile, in the early days, I clearly remember Eammon O’Keefe moving up from playing in those first two England games, to play for Eire after switching from Mossley to Everton, Barry Hayles has gone on to play for Jamaica, while Junior Agogo has played for Ghana. The first two of these at least were English born. Agogo was born in Ghana.

In recent years, the shape of the Conference has changed. The effects of two promotion and relegation places has been to open up the Football League to those worthy non-League clubs which previously did not have the chance to improve themselves, but in reverse, the Conference itself has become the resting place for some many clubs with a lengthy Football League history behind them. Some of these clubs are getting far bigger crowds then their replacements; compare Grimsby, Luton and Stockport with Cheltenham, Morecambe and Macclesfield. Not surprisingly, these clubs have stayed full time professional, and the more ambitious clubs among the rest have also gone full time, boosted by increasing attendances and owners who put money in, (surely not still under the illusion that there is a pot of gold beyond any promotion rainbow?).

So, as the distinction between the Conference and the Football League has been eroded, in terms of professional clubs and even in wages offered, the choice of running a England representative side for players from Conference level down is looking more and more arbitrary. Players do not take the drop in level simply to get into the England team, but they can get into the team by taking such a drop, while many of last season’s team cannot play this season, as they are with either Crawley or AFC Wimbledon and hence moved into the league.

To my mind, the whole business of the England ‘C’ team is very arbitrary. Why do we award caps for one group of professional football players, while we have other groups of better players who are deemed too good to earn England ‘C’ honours, but fall far short of the standard required for England ‘A’. (The rarely used England ‘B’ designation is normally used for a reserve team of players picked from the same pool as the ‘A’ squad).

The only criterion I see the current XI being based on is to make it competitive in those tournaments it enters, and to neither overwhelm, nor be overwhelmed by its opponents. This at least is achieved, with the eight games 2009-11 resulting in two draws, five English wins, all by a single goal and a 1-0 defeat to a Portugal XI in the final game of the last International Challenge Tournament.

For England’s first International of the 2011-12 season, one could easily believe the squad had the ability to overpower their opponents. All but two members of the squad coming from the Football Conference, the odd couple being from Conference North. This predominantly professional squad was to play Gibraltar. The Gibraltarian League being an all amateur combination, played on the single stadium within the territory. Only a couple of players from Gibraltar have moved on to play semi-professionally in the lower levels of Spanish football, and there are no full professional players at all in the squad. The local newspaper’s sports reporter, loyal to his team tells me that one or two players have been offered chances in England or Spain, but have not taken them up; and as the game is played, one can see that there is some talent around and maybe some players could have made a higher grade with full time training and coaching.

The England team is very different to the one that played in the previous season. The age band, everyone over 20 and under 24 is very narrow, and only four players have played for England ‘C’ before, totalling only six gaps. The left back, Sean Newton (himself a late call up to cover for the inevitable absences in a team playing abroad on a Tuesday, when everyone has played club football on a Saturday) has two caps and is the only England player to have scored for the team before.

Lack of experience, difficult transport regimes, and little training together would all conspire against a team that one would expect on paper (or for that matter on a 3G artificial surface) to be far stronger than their opponents.

For the Gibraltarian team, there was no lack of preparation, the squad had been chosen weeks in advance and had been training together far more often than most club squads in the territory. Apart from the hope of a good game, and a close result in the match against England, the objectives of the Gibraltar FA are somewhat different to those of England. Soon after the Gibraltar FA was formed, it affiliated with the Football Association, and for many years had the same rights as any of the County associations, even though it did not enter clubs into FA Competitions, but seeing the explosion in the numbers of UEFA members, including the inclusion of other micro states (Andorra, San Marino) and dependent territories (Faroe Islands), there was a very good case for Gibraltar to join UEFA.

The GFA’s original application for membership came in 1997, and FIFA pushed it out to UEFA for consideration. If Gibraltar were accepted as a member of UEFA, then FIFA membership would also follow. Back at the time, FIFA were proud of the fact that their membership numbers made it the biggest international organisation in the world, currently 208 members, compared to just 193 in the United Nations, and at the turn of the Millennium it seemed there were opportunities for more to be added into the mix. Gibraltar ceased to be a part of the English Football Association and with the territory enjoying a similar autonomous role, to say the Faroe Islands, the candidacy looked good.

But there was one hurdle to overcome, and it was a big hurdle in the form of Spain. As soon as the Spanish Football Association (prompted by the government) objected to the inclusion of Gibraltar within UEFA, the plan was scuppered. I still believe the Spanish FA’s threat to leave UEFA if Gibraltar should be allowed to join is a bluff. With the National team for once on top of the World, and with Real Madrid and Barcelona carrying all before them on the club fronts, it seems they have a lot to lose by carrying out their threat.

UEFA went a step further than simply refusing Gibraltar’s application, they changed the rules and said that in future, only a recognised Nation could become a member of the organisation (I think this now applies to FIFA as well). This is not retrospective, so the continued participation of the Faroes and others is not in doubt. Now for a long time, FIFA has said that members should not appeal through local courts, but should apply to the Court for Arbitration in Sport in the case of any dispute. Gibraltar did just that – and won. The CAS said that the new rules could not be applied retrospectively, and any applicant that had attempted to join earlier had to be accepted on old rules. (This does rule out a floated move by Greenland to join, and delays any application from Kosovo until they gain full independence). After an appeals process, which did not change the decision, UEFA felt they had no choice, and in December 2006 announced Gibraltar were provisional members, to be rubber stamped by congress the following month. Congress involves the 52 countries (at the time) having one vote each, and with an intensive lobbying operation from the Spanish (with the threat of Spain pulling out to the fore), Gibraltar’s application was refused by 45 votes to three (with four abstentions). The three who voted in Gibraltar’s favour are believed to be England, Scotland and Wales

Gibraltar are pushing on with lobbying to bring the issue back to UEFA in the future, but despite confidence among some of the officials on the Rock, I feel it will be a long time before there is an change.

The following match report was written for the non-League Daily web site, and appeared there the day after the match.

The England C team were humbled by a well organised Gibraltar side at the Victoria Stadium, going down to a 3-1 defeat in their first game of the season.

England C can call on any players outside the Football League, which at the top level means 24 teams of mainly full time professional players, but any number of semi-professionals in the lower divisions. Gibraltar has only two divisions of Senior football, comprising a total of 16 teams, and generally amateur status. Yes, it is true that Gibraltar can put out Manchester United players, but that is only because there is a team by that name in the local league. Two Gibraltarian players do play in the Spanish Leagues, but only at semi-professional levels.

The game started in frenetic fashion, with more pace on display than purpose. England settled into a 4-4-2 formation, and appeared confident that they could play an attacking game. Gibraltar chose a more defensive minded 4-1-4-1 format, but from the word go they took the game to their opponents.

The story for most of the first half was Gibraltar attacking with pace and flair, particular the pair who play in Spain, Joseph Chipolina, the left full back was a constant threat overlapping, while winger George Cabrera was the threat on the other flank. England managed to stand firm despite numerous attempts, and should have taken the lead on 38 minutes, Danny Rose crossed from the left and Adam Boyes shot against the bar. Lindon Meikle then attempted to get a grip on the loose ball, but shot high and wide. This cost England dearly, as we were suddenly treated to a display of pace from Lee Casciaro, swopping passes with George Cabrera and then firing Gibraltar into a deserved lead.

Gibraltar appear too quick for the static English defence

After the break, England came out with six changes, but few differences. The goalkeeper, three midfielders and both strikers were swapped. Before the new grouping had even managed to greet each other and exchange names, the referee spots a stray hand where it should not be. Gibraltar’s Aaron Perez nets the resultant penalty. 2-0.

For the next six minutes, England are just wondering what has hit them, and then thinking it may be worse, with Robert Guilling hitting the post after a good interchange between Cabrera and Perez – then it was worst. Guilling was allowed to stand alone on the half way line, where he was picked out with a perfect crossfield ball, running on alone before shooting past the advancing Preston Edwards.

If Gibraltar ran out of steam after the hour mark, it was a sign of how much they had put into the early part of the game. Anyway, England continued to be disorganised, and despite having more of the ball, they could rarely show either enough guile or strength to worry Jordan Perez in the home goal.

Gibraltar stuck to the game plan, 4-1-4-1 throughout, although they were flexible enough to rotate some of the players positions within this system. Roy Chinpolina, who had an excellent game started off shielding the back four, and later joined it. Cabrera took up the lone forward position from Lee Casciaro allowing Casciaro to drop back, while Brian Perez and Aaron Payas had excellent games wherever they played.

Penalty – Gibraltar’s all important second goal.

England did get a goal back with less than ten minutes to play, it was knocked in by Connor Jennings at short range, following a rare defensive mix up for Gibraltar. England commanded possession after this, but there was never a suggestion that the goal was anything but a consolation.

Marks must go to Fairclough for demanding that his players went forward to applaud the home crowd at the end of the game. The crowd had chanted throughout (one of the few chants surely that uses the name of the organisation G-F-A, rather than the country). At the end they were calling again for UEFA recognition as well.

England. Jonathon Hedge (Tamworth) (Preston Edwards (Ebbsfleet)), Shaun Beeley (Fleetwood), Sean Newton (AFC Telford), Jamie Turley (Forest Green), Rory McAuley (Cambridge United) (Adam Watkins (Luton)); Lindon Meikle (Mansfield), Jai Reason (Braintree), Danny Rose (Newport County) (Kenny Davis (Braintree)), Robbie Willmott (Luton) (Ashley Chambers (York)); Adam Boyes (Barrow) (Connor Jennings (Stalybridge)), John Paul Kissock (Luton) (Michael West (Ebbsfleet).

All substitutions at half time, with Reason dropping from midfield to defence.

Gibraltar. Jordan Perez, Ryan Casciaro, Joseph Chipolina, Joseph Chipol (Jason Pusey 82), Lee Ferrary (Daniel Duarte HT); Roy Chipolina; George Cabrera (Gareth Lopez 89), Brian Perez (Jeremy Lopez 85), Aaron Payas, Robert Guilling (Kyle Casciaro 66); Lee Casciaro

Referee: A. Bacarisa (Gibraltar).

Attendance: Approximately 800

Gibraltar is a curious place to visit, very welcoming and an odd mixture between Spanish and British. Public transport and the border crossings are now straight forward, so visiting the territory by crossing the border from Spain is now quite easy, as is using Gibraltar airport as an entry point into Spain (you walk across the Spanish border, about 100 yards from the airport terminal). One curious point, soon to be changed is that the only road into Gibraltar runs straight across the airport runway, and so closes when a plane takes off or lands, (fortunately, there aren’t many flights). If driving, queues to cross the border can be several hours in length, entering Gibraltar early in the day, and leaving from mid afternoon onwards. Even during the game, I could see the line of cars across the runway until well into the second half, I was told this meant a one hour delay if I had left the territory at that time. A new airport terminal is being built, and then a tunnel under the runway which will alleviate some of the problems and allow more flights into Gibraltar.

The Stadium is next to the airport, and consists of a single cantilever stand over around 1000 seats. On the far side, some concrete seating has been built up, but this was not used for the International.

Island Games

Sunday, July 24th, 2011

The Olympic Ideal is alive and well. Whether or not any of the original ideals still cling to the expensive and overbearing presence due in London next summer is certainly open to debate, but the ideal has been replicated across the world in many smaller contexts. The best known alternative games here is the Commonwealth games, and I believe French speakers have an equivalent in the Francophone games. The format is popular in Asia, with the Asian games provided a continent wide tournament, and others such as the South East Asian Games providing a more local competition for fewer nations. Even at national level, the provinces of Indonesia come together for their own national games.

But you do not have to be nations to compete. The concept is open to any group to combine together for competition and friendship, with a linked theme connecting the various competing groups. The concept of Island Games therefore would not be a surprise in areas where many Islands. And so we have such combinations at the Central American and Caribbean games, and the South Pacific Games. The latter includes a football competition that was used as part of the qualification procedure for the 2010 World Cup. It was intended that this year’s South Pacific Games would again be part of the World Cup qualifying competition, until it fell foul of FIFA regulations. While it was alright to have places not affiliated to FIFA playing in a competition that formed part of the World Cup, as happened with Tuvalu (their games were simply ignored by FIFA), it is not acceptable to have a FIFA member of the Asian Football Confederation (Guam), playing in Oceania qualifying. Even though Guam are one of only four FIFA members who have not entered for the 2014 World Cup, FIFA are not prepared to simply ignore their results.

One has to wonder though about the International Island Games Association though, simply as it does not specify any geographical limitation. One should not wonder though, as this is in fact one of the most successful games around. Commencing in 1985, the Island games have been run every two years, and regular increased in size. The initial games involved 15 islands, and some 700 competitors. In fact the games, which were started in the Isle of Man, have always been dominated by islands with some connection to Britain. The fifteen included the Isles of Man and Wight, Shetland and the Orkneys, Guernsey, Jersey and Ynys Mon. The other mainstays were Scandinavians, Froya, Hitra, Gotland, Åland, Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Two came in from further afield, the mid-Atlantic British territory of St. Helena, and the Mediterranean Island of Malta. Only Iceland and Malta have not remained as members, both leaving after 1997 and both now giving their attention to the European Small Countries Games (the smallest nine countries in Europe).

Flying the Flag – the Red and White of Greenland.

The Island games added three more of the British in 1987, Alderney, Sark and Gibraltar, (the only member of the Island games which is not an Island). In 1989, Greenland joined – Greenland has similar status to the Faroe as an autonomous Danish territory, although they timed an application to FIFA at the wrong time, and won’t be trying for the World Cup any time soon. 1991 saw two more join, the Canadian Island Province of Prince Edward Island, (who have now resigned due to lack of funding), and the Estonian Island of Saaremaa. In 1993, the games reached the South Atlantic with the Falklands joining, and the next additions also added to the scope, the Cayman Islands and Rhodes in 1999, followed by Bermuda in 2003. In 2005, one more British Island group, the Western Isles joined, while the most recent member (2007) is Menorca from the Balearics.

So the organisation is dominated by the British, with 15 members being connected to Britain. These are five overseas territories, (Bermuda, Falklands Islands, Cayman Islands, St Helena and Gibraltar), five crown dependencies, (Alderney, Sark, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Jersey) and five which are parts of the British Isles, (Isle of Wight, Western Isles, Shetlands, Orkney and Ynys Mon). With the exceptions of the two Mediterranean islands, all the rest are Scandinavian.

In terms of population, the Islands vary from just 600 on Alderney, to 140,000 on the Isle of Wight. I took a brief look at the association rules, and they recommend that any new members should not exceed 125,000 in population, and must be true Islands (i.e. no more like Gibraltar). They also say a maximum of 25 members. I am not certain that maximum is strict, but the games cannot easily expand more. Around 4000 people are on the Isle of Wight for the games, (3500 contestants, plus officials, and supporters). At least half the Islands are not potential hosts as they could not cope with this influx, and an increase in the number of islands would reduce further the potential to rotate the tournament.

It is worth considering the number 4000 people for the games, widely publicised, and the official count of athletes which sat just short of 3500. The last winter Olympic games brought just 2566 competitors to Vancouver.

So far there have been 14 editions of the Island games, with 10 of the Islands having taken their turn to be hosts. In 2013, Bermuda will be the 11th, while Jersey have their second games confirmed for 2015, and it is expected that Gotland will again be hosts in 2017.

The games covers 15 sports from Archery to Windsurfing, but with around 500 of the competitors in 25 teams (15 men’s, 10 women’s) football is the biggest of the sports here. For the record, three of the members of the Island games association members are also members of FIFA, although none of the three are countries in their own right. Bermuda and the Cayman Islands both send their own teams to the Olympics, while the Faroe Island’s international recognition is limited to FIFA.

Jersey take on Menorca in Cowes

Nine different football grounds were in use, as the games spread across the island. The Isle of Wight is home to four members of the Wessex League, steps five and six in the English pyramid, which means the grounds are enclosed, with some covered accommodation and floodlights. The rest are used for Island League matches. Most of these are somewhat more open, with the pitches merely roped off, rather than a permanent rail. The ground at Oakfield was exceptionally tight, with just a small bank on one side for most of the spectators. The one thing that all the grounds selected do appear to have in common is a good club house.

In most of the sports of the games, the spectators consist of friends, family, a few competitors watching on their free time, and maybe the occasional local. There were two casual “supporters”, one from the Isle of Man, the other from the Falklands who were staying at the same B&B as me, but both were former officials with their teams. The one sport that attracted a significant outside crowd was football. There were a good number of groundhoppers who made the trip from various parts of England, who while being interested in the football, were also trying to maximise the number of grounds visited on the trip. I would also hazard a guess the locals were more prominent in watching the football than most of the other sports, with the home team naturally attracting more locals than other teams.

I could not justify a full week off work for the trip, although after three days on the Island, I was regretting this. I instead chose to stay for three days starting on the Sunday, (the opening day for football). The plan was for seven games, four on Island league grounds which would be new to me, and three on Wessex League grounds not visited for over 25 years. The only two grounds that I did not visit had both been on my itinerary when the games were held on the Isle of Wight in 1993, and a day trip allowed me to go to West Wight, East Cowes and Ventnor. As it turned out, I added an eighth game to my list, the only one to be played on the Monday morning, and for me a rare viewing of the ladies game.

I had to leave home for the trip around 8 in the morning, but this allowed my drive down to Southampton to be comfortable, arriving over 30 minutes before the 11 O’clock Red Funnel ferry. This drops one at East Cowes around an hour later, and I easily had time to check into my Bed & Breakfast (in Shanklin) and then drive back up to Brading for a 3 O’Clock start. Admission for the game, (individually for all games) was set at £3, but I was fortunate in being able to obtain a season ticket for £20. A small saving over an eight game trip.

The Ladies in Action – Jersey v Hitra at Oakfield

Brading is a neat and tidy ground, that has added a small stand and floodlights since my earlier visit. At the entrance, I obtained a tournament brochure (£3) and a matchday programme (20p). The latter contained the names and squad numbers for the two teams involved, and was printed on green card folded over to four pages, A5 size. The squad numbers turned out to be generally accurate at all the games I saw, except this first one. The game was Rhodes against Greenland, and provided an entertaining start to the trip, with a sting in its tail. It was played in very hot sunshine, the highest temperatures we were to enjoy on the trip. Much of the rest of the time, it was more traditional “Football Weather”, with us giving thanks not to get too much rain at those grounds without covered accommodation. Greenland played a very open and entertaining game, and had a fair support, most of which appeared to be their own Women’s team. They also came with a match commentator who had to watch from the clubhouse, about 30 yards behind the goal as this was the only place where he could get the connections allowing him to broadcast the details to his homeland. Still, the Greek side were too strong for Greenland, and spurning an early chance by missing a penalty, Rhodes were 1-0 at half time and increased the lead soon after the break. Greenland brought on their third substitute, Steve Broberg with seven minutes to play, and he scored within a minute of entering the play.

This caused the Rhodes team some anxious moments, which were really not necessary, and were compounded by their own foul play. As injury time started, and with the ball as far away from their own goal was possible, a stupid but violent tackle earned a red card. This meant five minutes of injury time with ten players for Rhodes, but with this almost up, the goalkeeper, already booked for time wasting collected a ball just outside the penalty area and hence picked up his second card. Rhodes therefore finished with nine men, although they did take all the points.

Greenland had a fair modicum of support at the game, even if most were from their other teams, such as the Ladies Football team, they also had a radio commentator, who had to watch from the clubhouse somewhat too far behind the goal, as it was the only place he could get a connection allowing him to broadcast direct to Greenland. The Channel Islands had a TV crew at the games, giving some delayed coverage on the following morning’s news. I did not notice much else in terms of media coverage.

I travelled on to Cowes Sports, where the only stand was still there as a memory of my previous visit. Here the game was Jersey v Menorca, in the same group as the Rhodes v Greenland game. To be honest, this game was not as entertaining as the previous one, but it was of a higher general quality. All of these who had watched the pair seemed in agreement that the evening game would settle the group, and the other pair were liable to suffer two further defeats. As it was, Jersey who became stronger as the match went on, scored a goal in each half against their Spanish opponents. Despite the match being played in good spirits, we again had an injury time sending off, and it was a Menorca player who saw red.

Up bright and early the next morning, I started my tour at Oakfield, which was to be the first of the Island League clubs I visited. Indeed, I was to go there twice, first for this Ladies game, (the only match being played on Monday Morning), and then the next day for a men’s game. The ground is in a residential (and slightly run down) part of Ryde, and is the tightest of the grounds, with most of the spectators settling on one side, where there is a slight grass bank. The spectators mixed somewhat with an overflow of players and officials on this side. Behind the goal were two buildings, a bar which incorporated a small area with tables, and a dressing room block which also provides a minimal covered area. The game was Jersey against Hitra. Hitra is a small island off the coast of Norway. Both sides had played the day before, Hitra losing 3-0 to Isle of Wight, while Jersey had gone down 5-0 to Åland. I am not a great fan of Ladies’ football, and this was not a game to change my prejudices. It was just played at too slow a pace. Some of the Jersey ladies showed a little skill on the ball, but this was spoilt by a failure to master teamwork, or to support the player with the ball. Jersey’s Jodie Botterill frequently found herself alone up front, and uncertain what to do. Greater support would have resulted in the final score being much more than the six goals to one that Jersey eventually won by, and Botterill could well have done more than score a hat-trick. The biggest cheer of the day from a crowd that exceeded 100, must have been for the Hitra goal, a fine long distance effort.

The Western Isles and Åland at Newport

From Oakfield, I went on to Newport, where St Georges Park, despite now being over 20 years old, still has a feel of being a new ground about it. It is very square and while it has a good main stand, the three other pieces of cover still look as if they are there to meet some foolish piece of ground grading, and a single, larger area would have looked better. Still, it is a good functional ground, and the tea bar was inviting. The match was the Western Isles and Åland. The Western Isles are the Hebrides, off the western coast of Scotland, where most of the local football is an amateur summer league. I noticed that with these games in mind, the Highland Amateur Cup quarter finals involving Back and Carloway were postponed for a week. The general feeling on the Western Isles is still very much against any sport on a Sunday, and it had been agreed in advance that they would not play on the opening day, but could use the rest day (Wednesday) instead. As it happened, they were conveniently drawn in the three team group of a 15 team competition, and hence were only asked to play on Monday and Tuesday. Åland is an island betwixt Finland and Sweden. It is governed by Finland and speaks the language of Sweden. It has a football team, IFK Mariehamn in the top division of the Finnish League, but players from this team were not used in the Island games. The game was hard fought, the Western Islanders are a resilient team, strong in defence but eventually Åland took control, and two second half goals settled the game. Åland had of course already played on the Sunday, when they had drawn 3-3 with Saaremaa

Lining up for the anthems at Rookley

The third game of the day was at Rookley. Being the only game scheduled at this venue, it brought in a flood tide of groundhoppers who had varied their choice of games earlier in the day. It may have been thought of as an odd venue. The club here had picked up only one point from 20 Island League third division games in the season past, and ended with a goal difference of -202. Perhaps it was a reward for not giving up. It is a very pleasant set up, with a fine club house, and a lot of space around a roped off pitch. The Sun came out to great us again, after dull weather earlier in the day. Still, this was not the biggest game in the tournament. The Falkland Isles had already lost to Guernsey 5-0, while the Isle of Man would be clear favourites after a 4-2 win over Gotland. There was no doubt that the Manx would be looking for goals as well, as holding a goal difference advantage would clearly help them out when facing Guernsey in their third game. In the first half this was the way of things, with the Isle of Man starting the scoring on ten minutes, and reaching 5-0 by half time. The second half was somewhat different, and only one more was goal was added, just five minutes before the end. As it turned out, Guernsey were in the process of beating Gotland by 5-2, so the two were to go head to head level with the same goal difference and each having scored ten goals.

I had met Steve Munday earlier in the day, and he was eager to persuade me to drive around some of the good beer guide pubs on the Island, while I preferred the idea of getting back to Shanklin before drinking much. Steve’s plans carried the evening, but driving back to Shanklin we attracted the notice of the local police. Fortunately, I had not over indulged, and comfortably passed the breathalyser test – but because the stop came within minutes of leaving the pub, we had to wait around for fifteen minutes before I could be tested, (this reduces the chance of a false positive). Fortunately, this did not prevent me from having a couple more pints in Shanklin, after the car was parked. Steve actually disappeared part way through this to try out another pub.

Although what would happen if the Isle of Man’s game against Guernsey was a subject of conversation at the Tuesday morning game, it was not the only subject. I had already seen Rhodes having two players sent off at the end of their victory over Greenland. In defeat to Jersey, the story was worse and they had three more sent off (two in an elongated injury time period). Events after the game did not help matters, and another red card was reported as being shown after the final whistle. Rhodes have previous as well, famously having five men sent off in a game in a previous tournament. A disciplinary committee was quickly set up to look into the matter, and we soon heard that Rhodes were not only out of the football tournament this time, but would not be allowed into games football tournaments in 2013 and 2015.

The only game on the Tuesday morning was at the Isle of Wight Community Centre, just a couple of hundred yards from the Cowes Sports ground. The venue was similar to Rookley, in having a large field, roped off pitch and a good clubhouse. Most teams in the games were playing three games in successive days, the sort of schedule that would have Premier League managers tearing their hair out. Not quite the attitude for these teams. Alderney and the Falklands were planning an extra game if they did not meet each other, with a special trophy, “The Small Islands Cup” available for the better of the two footballing Islands with the lowest population.

The Tuesday morning was a little more relaxed, in so far as the two teams involved had only played once each in the only three team group. I had already seen the Western Isles lose 2-0 to Åland, so Saaremaa who drawn 3-3 with Åland in their first game knew that a better result would see them top the group. All the advantages should have been with the Estonian side, who of course had taken a day’s rest while the Western Isles were playing. While most sides in the tournament were made up of players from different clubs, and wore kits showing Island badges, Saaremaa wore the kit of FC Kuressaare – a first division side that plays on the Island. Their entire squad was made up of players from this club, although not all the first team regulars could play. The rules did not ban those from being with a professional club, but only those players either born on the Island, or who had passed the residency qualifications could play. One of the features of this was that the players’ shirts had names as well as numbers on their backs, but not every player was a member of the first team squad, and so the others had other players names on their backs. Still the game turned out similar to the Western Isles game the previous day, as they defended well, but showed little promise going forward. Scoreless at half time, Saaremaa scored early in the second period, but only hit a second with five minutes to play, ending up with the same record as their rivals.

This was to be the highlight of the day, all four of the other teams I was to see would go into their games with two defeats each from their earlier games. First it was a rather hurried ride back to Oakfield to see the Falkland Islands again, this time against Gotland. Both may have lost twice, but there was never any chance this game would be close fought. The Falkland Isles were 3-0 down at half time, and 6-0 down on the hour mark. They pulled one back, and ended up on the wrong end of a 6-1 defeat.

After this, I had plenty of time before the final game. With Steve again as passenger, we headed towards St Helens and Bembridge, for no other reason than I had been here on family holidays near enough forty years before. I remembered very little of the villages as I sat on the green and ate fish and chips. Steve, unsurprisingly was again checking out the good beer guide pubs. I do know we used to stay in static caravans, (we did not have a car, so we certainly could not tow one). It was good to hear similar accommodation was used by many of the games competitors.

Then it was onto Shanklin – this was the best of the Island League grounds we visited, with low banking each side of the pitch. In the same way as there was no surprise when the Falklands had lost in the afternoon, it was also a straight forward victory as went down 5-0 to Ynys Mon, (the Welsh Island better known as Anglesey).

And so ended my trip – a rushed drive across the Island meant I was on the Ferry around 45 minutes after the match finished, along with several other car loads of hoppers who had also rushed across from Shanklin.

The tournament of course carried on. The Wednesday was a rest day, but there was still one feature – a penalty shoot out between Åland and Saaremaa, which decided that the Finnish side could play in the semi-finals. They were joined at this stage by Jersey, Guernsey and the hosts. The other sides with the exception of expelled Rhodes would play again in placing matches, The Falklands 3-1 win over Alderney have them 13th place overall and the “Small Islands Cup”. The other placings were Westen Isles 12th, Greenland 11th, Gotland 10th, Ynys Mon 9th, Isle of Man 8th, Menorca 7th, Saaremaa 6thand Gibraltar 5th.

In the semi-finals, 816 saw the Isle of Wight beat Jersey, while Guernsey defeated Åland3-2. The following day, and the fifth game of the week for the final four. Jersey beat Åland by 5-1, and over 2000 saw the hosts win 4-2 over Guernsey to take the title. On the same day, Åland took the Women’s title with a 5-1 win over the Isle of Man, Greenland took the Bronze with a 1-0 win over the Western Isles.

The official crowd figures, not finally published until two weeks after the event, showed a total of 11,000 spectators at the games. (Some of the figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, as with the majority of the spectators having passes, counting was a little loose – still, I think the total will not be far out). Most of the spectators did not pay on the day. There was a £20 football season ticket available, or a £25 games pass (which allowed the purchaser to use the bus services as well as enter any games event). All competitors also had a games pass, (indeed, a lot of the time, they were expected to use the local bus service to get from their accommodation to the venues).

There were a few other items to report from the organisation of the games, such as the opening days games were started without National or Island anthems, they were not delivered to the grounds in time. The rest of the time they were played. Some of the groundhoppers that stayed until the Thursday were annoyed when the 7th/8th placing match was switched at short notice from 11.30 to 10.00 kick off, to allow the Manx players to go on to support their ladies team afterwards. The support for other teams within your island is a feature of the Island games, but football benefits most from this, as the matches are relatively short, and of course the timing is known, as opposed to sports that just book the venue for the morning. Still, in helping out one group by changing a fixture, the organisers antagonised others who thought they knew the location and kick off of the match. Future organisers should consider setting the dates and venues, and allocating matches to them later – this will mean that one can be certain of a match by just turning up, while services such as the internet and twitter could inform people of the actual fixtures.

Within the multi-sport environment, football does tend to grab the headlines, plus more than its fair share of resources. I remember my first trip to China, and skipping through some of the sports pages of old copies of the English Language China Daily. There was an editorial commending the Chinese on a record number of medals at the Asian games, held in Beijing earlier that year. But, the editorial added, the average Chinese citizen would swap them all for just taking the Football Gold. There is enough dissent in the Islands game circuit, that football could miss out on some future games. This would not be the end of football at the games, other sports miss out from time to time, (there were no gymnastics on the Isle of Wight for example, but seven of the Islands instead held a gymnastics competition in Jersey soon after the games finished). Football could miss a games, and then return for the next one.

In the meantime, and as a possible prelude to an amicable divorce, with a football competition separate from the games, it has been announced that a four team tournament will be held next summer in Gibraltar. Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man will take up the challenge. This new competition will be called the “International Challenge Shield”, and the organisers hope some of the other islands will join later.

Changes for 2011-12

Sunday, July 17th, 2011

I have been asked a few times to produce a Changes List for this close season. This is the first draft, and will be updated with matters of fact, plus a few missing leagues.

Changes 2011

World Cup 2014 – Starting with a Whimper.

Tuesday, June 21st, 2011

Almost without notice, the qualifying trail for the 2014 started last Wednesday (15 June 2011). The opening game was played at the Ato Boldon Stadium in Couva on the Island of Trinidad. However, Trinidad & Tobago was not one of the countries participating in the opening game. The match was played here due to the fact there is no suitable stadium on the Island of Montserrat.

Montserrat is a small, British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, and had a population of under 6000 before it was devastated by volcanic eruption in 1995. That means its size is about one third of that of the Isle of Wight, but since the volcano, an exclusion zone covers the southern half of the Island, including the capital Plymouth. Around half the original population has left, either to other Caribbean islands or to Britain, (quick as a flash in an emergency, Britain granted right of abode to those from Montserrat three years after the disaster struck, and citizenship four years later).

Not surprisingly, Montserrat is one of six countries with zero points in FIFA’s ranking system. That means they have not won or drawn a game in the last four years. In their case, this only adds up to four matches – three in a Caribbean Cup qualifying group last October, and one match only in the last World Cup – a 7-1 defeat by Surinam (also played in Trinidad & Tobago). Back in 2004, they were allowed to play their world cup game at home, losing 7-0 to Bermuda. This of course was not useful as they had already lost 13-0 away. Of the 25 games since Montserrat started playing International football in 1991, they have won just twice, both matches in Caribbean Cup qualifiers against Anguilla, in the spring of 1995 (i.e. pre Volcano) – 3-2 in Montserrat and 1-0 away. (This earned them a match against St Vincent & Grenadines in the next round, losing 9-0 and 11-0). It is not surprising to find that Anguilla are also in that six team group with no international point in the last four years. Anguilla did pick up a victory during last year’s Caribbean qualifying, but as the opposition, St. Martin are not FIFA members, this match did not count in the rankings. Also in the bottom six are San Marino (only ever win was a friendly against Liechtenstein in 2004), Andorra (last win was against Macedonia in a 2004 World Cup qualifier, although they had 2 scoreless draws in 2005), American Samoa (famous for losing 31-0 to Australia in 2001, they have lost all 33 games played after beating Wallis and Futuna (another non affiliated nation) in their first ever international), and Papua New Guinea (who have only played one game in the last four years, but have been better, winning their last World Cup match back in 2004)

Not surprisingly, Montserrat were beaten in the game, losing 5-2 to Belize. Belize are ranked 172 in the World. With the bottom ten of CONCACAF’s 35 members in this knock out qualifying round, Belize are the only non-Caribbean side at this stage. Deon McCauley, who at the age of 23 has already played football in Costa Rica and Honduras, as well as his native Belize had the honour of scoring the first goal of the 2014 World Cup. He went on to complete a hat-trick.

This is not the end of the story. There should have been a second leg match in Belize four days after the opening game, after which Montserrat could be named as the first side knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, but a combination of the government of Belize and FIFA intervened.

Even before the match, the government of Belize had stated that the Football Federation of Belize (FFB) were not a properly registered association and could not officially represent the country. This dates back to the last election for the FFB executive and president in December. After the election, the government set up an “independent” Sports Investigation Committee. The sports minister has been quoting from an as yet unpublished report, which apparently says that by refusing to accept nominations from one of its members (the Belize Premier Football League, the country’s leading league),the FBB had broken its own rules. With the alternative candidate banned, the incumbent, Bertie Chimilio had a free run, but anyway he also handpicked the district representatives who were responsible for voting him back in.

A standoff between the government and the FFB appears to have been going on throughout the year, and FIFA who are notorious unfriendly to governments who interfere in footballing affairs,( with the obvious exceptions of dictators like Gaddafi), gave Belize a deadline before its recent congress, to sort out the situation by the end of the month of June. This deadline would, of course have allowed the two qualifying matches to take place, and give Belize a short window to sort the situation out before the next international match.

It was the government of Belize which took the step that brought proceedings to a halt. They wrote to FIFA in the week before the Montserrat match to state that the FBB did not have the right to represent the nation, and could not fly the Belize flag or play the Belize National Anthem at the match. These symbols are considered to be important, when in the qualifying rounds for the 2010 World Cup, North Korea refused to allow the South Korean flag or National Anthem to be used at matches between the two Koreas in their part of the peninsular – the matches were switched to neutral China. The North Koreans did play in South Korea as scheduled.

Anyway, the match in Trinidad last week went ahead, even without the sanction of the Belize government, but faced with a letter saying that the Belize government would not provide police or security for the match, FIFA finally intervened and suspended Belize from World Football on Friday. Citing Government interference, FIFA have said that any action taking by the government against the office bearers of the FFB would not be recognised.

Meanwhile, a new association has been formed in Belize, the National Football Association of Belize, and on Saturday it elected its first President. Representatives of all the district associations in Belize were present, along with those from the Belize Premier League and the Super League of Belize. With the exception of the Super League, these are the same groupings as would have voted for the FFB president, (not necessarily the same representatives of those associations). The vote was won by Michael Blease, but no list of alternative candidates has been mentioned.

The Super League appears to be a rival league to the Premier League, but not registered with the FFB. This appears to have been the case for some time, although the FFB have not been taking normal action against an unaffiliated league, as McCauley, the hat trick hero from the opening game is a player with Super League champions, City Boys United. One would normally expect a player with an unaffiliated league to be excluded from international participation.

FIFA have given Belize only until 10th July to sort out the situation and play the match. It seems this is not good news for Belize, as neither party is close to giving ground. A similar situation involving Brunei was only recently resolvedafter 18 months of suspension from FIFA. In the end, the newly formed National Football Association of Brunei Darussalam was allowed to take over, (which means that FIFA did give in to the local government), although I understand that FIFA are pretending otherwise.

Assuming Belize are suspended, they may not get any thanks from Montserrat if the island gets a bye into the group stage. While it is great for even a small nation to be involved in the World Cup in a small way, it would be a mistake to say they want to go beyond the first match. The top six CONCACAF nations are exempt from the first group stage, so if they get through, Montserrat will have to bear the expense of a six match group with little income from their home games (the game last week had a crowd shown as 100 by FIFA). FIFA have plenty of money to spread about, but they do not use it to support teams in playing their qualification games.

FIFA do not always back officers of National Associations against their governments, as one can see from the situation in Indonesia. Since 2004, the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI) has been run by Nurdin Halid. Halid is a controversial character in Indonesia, and has been charged with corruption for his business activities on several occasions, and has suffered two jail terms during his tenure as PSSI president. At the beginning of the year, another business man, Arifin Panigoro set up his own football league in competition to the Indonesian Super League. The Indonesian Premier League started in January with many of the country’s top clubs running teams in this, although under different names to those operating in the PSSI supported league. FIFA did back the PSSI against the rebel league, and promised to enforce bans on players in the league from International football, (so unlike the situation in Belize there). Still, FIFA had threatened to suspend Indonesia from International Football because the government had interfered by appointing a commission to look into corruption within the PSSI.

However, since then, FIFA have had a change of heart and decided that the status quo cannot be supported. Sometime around March, FIFA decided they had rules preventing a convict from being a National FA President, but they have also banned Panigoro and two other candidates. With the election of new officers twice delayed by the PSSI, FIFA gave the PSSI until June 30th to elect new officers or face suspension. The June 30 deadline has been relaxed by FIFA after the PSSI realised that its intended election could not be held, as they had not given the electors 28 days’ notice. The election should take place on July 9th, with FIFA’s deadline to avoid suspension being 10th July. This should allow Indonesia to play their first World Cup qualifying match, scheduled in Turkmenistan on July 23rd.

Anyway, it will be Asia that gets the “honour” of the first teams knocked out of the 2014 World Cup, and they will also lose the most teams in Preliminary Rounds before the main draw takes place on 31st July. There are eight Asian qualifying matches on 29th June, with the first second leg on July 2nd. This match is between Timor Leste (aka East Timor) and Nepal and is being played in Kathmandu. Timor Leste, like Montserrat does not have suitable ground at home, but have reached the dizzy heights of 200th in FIFA rankings, thanks to a draw in Cambodia in 2008. Seven more Asian teams will be knocked out on July 3rd; four Concacaf teams (apart from Belize or Montserrat) will fall during July, followed by another 15 Asian Teams from a second round at the end of the month.

Of FIFA’s 208 members, Mauritania, Guam and Bhutan did not enter, and Brunei could not enter due to their suspension not being lifted until after the local draw had been made. 28 teams are scheduled to be knocked out before the 31st July draw. 175 countries will be in the draw, while Brazil is exempt to the finals as hosts.

ASIA – 43 out of 46 members participate. 23 knocked out in two qualifying rounds by the end of July. The surviving 20 go into five groups of four (six games each). Ten teams go through to round 4, where they are placed in two groups of 5 (eight games each). Winners and Runners-up from these groups go to Brazil. Third placed teams play each other, with the winner in an inter-Continental Play Off. Qualifiers will play a minimum of 14, but as many as 22 games to reach Brazil.

AFRICA – 52 out of 53 members participate. 12 teams knocked out in a First Round played in November. The remaining 40 play in ten groups of 4 (six games each), with the group winners going into a knock out round with the winners going through. So a place can be achieved with only eight games played, and not more than 10. Five teams go through

CONCACAF – 35 Participants, of which five are knocked out in the first round. The second round involves 24 clubs (six exempt) in six groups of four. The six winners and six exempt teams go into four groups of four. Six teams (winners and runners up) go into a fourth round which is a group of all six (ten games each). Three make it to Brazil, and one goes into a play off. If exempt in the first round, a qualifier would still play 14 games. If one of this month’s winners gets through on the Play Off, they will have played 22 times.

Oceania – 11 participants, but non FIFA members Tivalu and Kiribati also take place in the Pacific Games which makes up the first stage. This is the only confederation that does not play home and away, but 10 countries (not including New Zealand) play in a tournament in New Caledonia. They three qualifying from this will have played six games. These three play with New Zealand in a home and away group (six matches) with just one Champion going into an inter-Continental play off. The winners are also Confederations winners and play in the 2013 Confederations cup.

COMNEBOL – The most straight forward. Brazil are exempt, and the other nine matches play a league (16 games each) with the top four going through and the fifth team in a play-off.

UEFA – Europe has 53 participants. The teams are divided into nine groups. Eight will have six teams (10 games), while one will have just five (8 games). The winners all qualify, so one team will qualify after just 8 games. All but one of the second placed teams play off for four extra places, these are European only play-offs. One unlucky second placed team does not get a second chance. For political reasons, Armenia cannot play Azerbaijan, and Russia cannot play Georgia.

All Things to All Men?

Friday, March 18th, 2011

And so it is official at last. There will be an election for FIFA president this June, and Mohamed bin Hammam will oppose Sepp Blatter. At his press conference in Kuala Lumpur, bin Hammam announced his candidacy, and outlined his manifesto for the job.

  1. The FIFA Executive Committee to be replaced by a FIFA board consisting of 41 members, (17 more than the current ExCo). The new members to be four each from UEFA, CAF and the AFC, three from CONCACAF and one each from of CONMEBOL and the OFC.
  2. An executive committee, consisting of the President of FIFA, and the presidents of the six Confederations charged with implementing the decisions of the board.
  3. A transparency committee – supposedly to make sure that the operations of FIFA are open and clear to the public before they happen, rather than referring to the ethics committee to look into accusations after they have been made.
  4. A doubling of the grant given to each FIFA member annually, from US$250,000 to US$500,000
  5. An increase in the maximum grant available through the GOAL projects, so as the FIFA grant can now run up to US$1 million.

It is an agenda that should appeal to all tastes. In Europe and the USA, FIFA has been accused of being corrupt, and focussing power in too few hands – the new board and committees will not only address this, but if the transparency committee actually does its job, then some of the spectre of conspiracy may be rooted out. But this comes at a cost – currently nine of the 24 ExCo members (including Sepp Blatter himself) are European, while the new Board will be 12/41 UEFA. Meanwhile the Africans and Asians will double their influence from four to eight members each, and the president himself will be an Asian. If the power structure is then devolved from the centre to the Confederations, as bin Hammam appears to be promising, then one suspects there will be less of a central organisation to scrutinise how the handouts are spent, and we can be sure that the Europeans will not be welcome, when it comes to checking on expenditure on other continents.

So what is on offer is more power to those looking for more power, more money for those looking for more money, and more democracy for those looking for more democracy.

And now a thought, bin Hammam has been president of the AFC since 2002, and has just been re-elected in that role. So what has he achieved in that time. I had difficulty with that one, so I turned in desperation to the man’s own web pages, at www.afcpresident.com

To quote: “Under his leadership, AFC has grown in strength and stature, turning into a lean and modern organisation, playing its role as protector of Asian football’s interests. Further, the value of its competitions has now increased to a billion dollars, guaranteeing its financial future”.

I had to read that one more than once, and I still do not know what it means. It is true that since 2002, football has improved immeasurably in at least 3 of its 46 members. In particular, Japan has a powerful league, built up internally by generally ignoring Asian competition, (the Japanese still won the Asian Champions League title in 2007 and 2008). The South Koreans have dominated the competition in recent years, while the Chinese league appears to be strengthening, bolstered only by the AFC in ignoring its own rules, and not suspending the league for past corruption. The true strength of Japan is shown at National level, where the country has won four of the last six Asian Cups.

While UEFA at least maintains a shadow of hope in its Champions League, by allowing the Champions of all its countries to enter the qualifying rounds, before reaching group stages at which only the best countries are represented, Asia is far less democratic. At the behest only of AFC committees, Asian football is divided into ‘Mature Nations’ permitted to play in the Champions League, ‘Developing Nations’ which have a similar competition, the AFC Cup but with less publicity, less money and just the small carrot of a couple of qualifying matches where teams can be selected for either competition. These two together give places to not many more than half the countries in the region, with the rest choosing (or not) to enter a club into the Presidents Cup – which is for ‘Emerging Nations’, or as the AFC does not put it, crap footballing countries where there is no political or financial argument for inclusion.

These emerging nations are also excluded from the Asian Cup, and the Asian World Cup qualifying games are arranged to ensure that they play just one or two rounds of knock out competition, and the big guns never have to bother to play these minnows.

The record of the AFC in defending little countries or little clubs is stunning.

Brunei is not known as a hot spot for World Football, but by entering a club first into Malaysian competitions and more recently into Singaporean competition, they were doing more than OK. Quite frequently for home matches, DPMM could get 7,000 spectators, and sometimes as many as 10,000 – that is between 2% and 3% of the whole population of the country. That means one club in Brunei can be supported by a greater portion of the population than all the professional sports clubs in Britain put together! (The only country that competes with this is probably Monaco, where crowd figures can frequently be around 50% of the state’s population – but of course the majority of these have crossed the borders from France rather than living in the principality).

However, in 2008, Brunei’s football federation did not file its papers correctly with the national government. The Malaysian FA decided that as the BAFA was no longer a legal organisation in its home country, no Brunei team could play in Malaysia. In Singapore, they thought differently, and armed with an assurance that the team would be allowed to play a whole season, whatever happened, they accepted the team into their S-League. DPMM won the Singapore League Cup. Meanwhile, the BAFA was replaced by a new organisation, the Brunei Football Federation (BFF). FIFA ruled this as unacceptable political interference and suspended Brunei. The S-League threw DPMM out of their league with five games to play.

Over a year later, there has been little progress, and Brunei will remain suspended and not be permitted to enter the World Cup. The AFC’s part in all this is practically zero. The AFC should have been trying to negotiate a resolution to the problem, but there is little to be gained in Brunei, so let’s ignore the problem. The AFC also appear to be silent over the chaos at the heart of Indonesian football. Here again FIFA are taking the lead and their latest pronouncement shows something of a change of heart.

Earlier this year, when opposition was growing in Indonesia to the corrupt Football Association, the PSSI and the breakaway LPI (League Professional Indonesia) started, it appeared that FIFA was backing the current PSSI administration and the threat was to suspend the association if a probe into corruption went ahead. Now Blatter is speaking differently, stating that FIFA statutes must be adhered to and that it “is impossible to have a breakaway league in a well organised federation”. For greater clarification, another FIFA official, Thierry Regeness has said “As far as we are concerned the PSSI statutes as approved by FIFA are pretty clear and they mean clearly that someone who has been convicted of a criminal offence should not be able to [stand]” – a clear indication that PSSI chairman Nurdin Halid (whose Wikipedia entry refers to as an “Indonesian Criminal, Businessman and Politician”), cannot stand for re-election.

Also in Indonesia this week, a club called Persipura played an AFC Cup game in front of 700 people in the National Stadium in Jakarta. Indonesian football actually can generate good crowds and Persipura’s last home match as watched by over 18,000 – a typical figure. Persipura come from Jayapura, in Papua province – the most easterly point in Indonesia and quite simply rather difficult to get to. Asian cup football is not for everyone, so the AFC are far happier to send the home club on a journey almost a distant as that travelled by the away club to play in front of a handful of disinterested people in a massive stadium, than to play the match in front of a big crowd. The equivalent in Europe had been if Manchester City had switched their game against Kiev to play in Stockholm – and only Kiev had been allowed the benefit of a non stop flight!

One does not have to be a supporter of Blatter to be seriously concerned over this rival bid for the presidency. After all, we know that if Bin Hamman gets in, then he will be trying to stay in power until the 2012 World Cup is played out in his homeland. Would the world of football be better off holding on to the devil it knows for another four years, and then hope someone better comes along?

New Battles for Indonesian Football.

Tuesday, January 18th, 2011

The Indonesia Premier League (LPI) kicked off a week ago. In the opening match Solo FC were defeated 5-1 at home by Persema Malang, in front of 22,000 spectators.

While some readers may be surprised by the size of the crowd, (which is in fact not remarkable by Indonesian standards), the first match of a league season halfway across the world is not a matter for concern to many.

But the away team, Persema Malang have already played eight league matches this season, prior to the opening league game. How can that be?

The reason is that the Indonesian Premier League is not what you might expect, the top level of football in Indonesia, but an entirely new league formed without the authorisation from the Indonesian Football Association (PSSI).

The authorised league, started in September with 18 teams, and is called the Indonesian Super League. It now has only 15 teams, as Persema have withdrawn, along with PSM Makassar and Persibo Bojonegoro. The new league will start with 19 teams, but hopes to actually have a 20th member added soon.

Most of the teams have names that would be more familiar outside Indonesia than within it. Six of them are just a place name followed by the initials FC, while three more have the title “United”. In Tengerang, there is Tengerang Wolves, while elsewhere we see Real Mataram and Batavia Union. The Indonesian standard of either using initials are an abbreviation of a much longer name has only be kept by those clubs moving from the old league. The two initials PS, or starting a team name with “Pers…” or “Perse…” are standard abbreviations for Football Association, and were common to 13 of the 18 clubs starting the old ISL.

The new names are for new clubs, although one cannot help but think that some of these include an unofficial connection with the old clubs. In Jakarta, a new team is called Jakarta FC 1928. An odd name one would feel for a club founded in 2010 or 2011? Its badge has red and white stripes and a tiger. The badge of the main club in the city, Persija (still, of course in the ISL) also shows red and white stripes, while their major supporters club, Jakmania, shows a very similar tiger on their web page. If there is no connection, then I would imagine a court case for using similar symbols will be forthcoming.

FIFA has taken the only action available to it. It is fully supportive of the status quo, and has backed the PSSI against the new league. While strong on words, the PSSI are short on actions so far, and the only action clearly taken is to remove a few players who have switched leagues from their squad for a forthcoming Olympic qualifier. Considering how little chance Indonesia had of qualifying for the finals in Britain, weakening this squad is not quite a case of cutting one’s nose off to spite the face, more a light bruising.

Meanwhile the PSSI has other worries. The Corruption Eradication Commission has been investigating their activities, and has now called for a full audit of the PSSI’s financial affairs. Accused of mismanaging funds and tickets, the PSSI are protesting that such interference is unnecessary. Here too, they will find support in Zurich. FIFA have a long record of protecting national FA administrations from local investigation, even though FIFA provide an annual subsidy and this money is part of that which may be misused.

The treasurer of the PSSI, Achsanul Qasasi said the association was audited annually by a public accountant. He also argued that FIFA, the international governing body of football, routinely checked PSSI’s use of the annual subsidy. Not certain if the last bit was a joke or not, but it had me laughing.

It is not only the PSSI that is accused of unclear spending. Almost all the clubs in the ISL get a subsidy from local government, often in excess of £1 million. The local authorities are also generally responsible for the stadiums, and their maintenance. Most clubs, meanwhile are losing money as wages spiral, as well as the costs of travelling the length and breadth of the archipelago.

The new league, for the moment is free of local subsidy – although one wonders for how long. If the new league becomes popular, than politicians will soon try to ride on club’s coat tails for the publicity and popularity. Still, the new league does have ways of keeping costs down. The ISL now has only seven clubs on Java, the most populous and wealthy part of the country – this is down to historical reasons, as promotion and relegation is on merit, except for a when clubs financial problems cause them to fold. The IPL, which does not have to worry about merit, has 11 clubs on this island, and one more on neighbouring Bali. Still this does not ensure commercial success. Past viewing of the ISL and its predecessors suggest that 3 clubs in Jakarta, and one more close by in Bogor may be too many in a small area.

The extremities of the country are still represented with teams in Aceh (the northern tip of Sumatra), and Jayapura (close to the border of Irian Jaya and Papua New Guinea). It also has teams at both ends of Sulawesi, Makassar and Manado. There are no Kalimantan (Borneo) teams in the new league, while the old league has three.

While keeping the league more compact will keep travelling costs down (from Jakarta, you will not get to Jayapura in less than 6½ hours, although you can do it for £200 return). On the other hand, I have always heard that some of the bigger crowds can be found far from the capital.

The league is the brainchild of oil tycoon Arifin Panigoro, and he says he intends it to improve football in the region. Whatever the established order may think about this, one thing they cannot claim is that Indonesian Football is not broke or that it does not need fixing.

Smoke, Mirrors and the North-South Divide

Wednesday, April 28th, 2010

The non-League play offs can be found, all in one place at http://www.1790.co.uk/Playoffs_2010.htm

From the Football Conference National Division, three teams are relegated – Grays Athletic, Ebbsfleet United and Forest Green Rovers. The fourth relegation place is for the folded Chester City – any replacement club will not be in the Conference. All three of the clubs heading for the drop appear to be South, rather than North, but FGR are near the border line.

Two clubs will be promoted from each of the Conference’s Northern and Southern sections, and as it currently stands, these divisions will lose two teams each in relegation. Vauxhall Motors (who are based near Ellesmere Port) and Harrogate Town from the North, Weston-super-Mare and Weymouth from the South. The third team to drop from the North is Farsley, who dropped out in mid-season, while in the South, Worcester City have earned a reprieve by having the best record of clubs in the relegation zone.

The six news clubs are

Northern Premier – Guisley and Bradford Park Avenue or Boston United – both to Conference North

Isthmian – Dartford and Boreham Wood or Kingstonian – both to Conference South

Southern – Farnborough and Nuneaton Town or Chippenham Town – Farnborough to Conference South, Nuneaton to North, or Chippenham to South.

So the most unbalanced situation is that Chippenham win, the Southern section would then be due to take on 7 teams, while only four go out, and hence three would need to transfer to the North – these would be Forest Green, probably Worcester (who are believed not to be too worried about a transfer) plus a further club which would be on of Bath City, Braintree or St. Albans City

However, it does not stop here.

Grays Athletic. It is strongly expected that Grays, who have lost tenancy of their own ground, will voluntarily accept relegation to the Isthmian League, rather than take up their place in Conference South. If these reports are correct, then Vauhall Motors will be reprieved from relegation, and one less transfer from the South to North will be required.

Appendix E. This is the rule that makes the Conference stricter on clubs falling into administration than other leagues. It demands that clubs going into administration exit said administration before the AGM, and that any CVA allows for 100% repayment of all debts. Both Salisbury City (National) and Northwich Victoria (North) could well be in breach of these rules and both face possible expulsion from the league. In Salisbury’s case, a lesser punishment of relegation is possible, but unlikely.

If anything happens to Salisbury, then Forest Green will not be relegated. If Salisbury take their place in the Southern section, that is the end of it, but otherwise Harrogate Town are next in line to be reprieved from relegation after Vauxhall Motors. If Northwich are forced out, then a Northern section team should escape relegation, but in the extreme position, where all three of Grays, Salisbury and Northwich leaving the league, only Weymouth would still be relegated.

Incidentally, I am fairly sure that Weymouth themselves have used a CVA to escape debts this season, but they have not been deducted 10 points, (I think they did not go into administration first). This might still place them in breach of appendix E, but is not likely to be tested as they finished bottom of their division

 Meanwhile a poster on the Forest Green forum, suggested seven ways they could be saved.

1. Blue Square North/South play off winner’s ground deemed not up to standard.
2. Darlington deemed too financially unstable and suffer the same fate as Boston.
3. Histon go bust
4. Kettering fail to sort out their stadium problem.
5. Other club randomly goes bust.
6. Other club decides to voluntarily relegate itself Canvey Island style.
7. Chester’s expunged results are re-added.

Number 1 is no-go, teams do not enter the play-offs if their grounds are not up to standard, and I have been told that Darlington these days are close to stable. Number 6 is likely to happen with Grays, but this does not help FGR, and number 7 is a no-go.

That leaves Histon (named) or another random club (unnamed) going bust, or Kettering’s stadium lease falling foul of Conference administration. I have heard suggestions that the unnamed club could be Stockport, if they fall off the football map before the AGMs (something I am not expecting), then one less team will be relegated from the Football League, but also Forest Green could escape as it is unlikely that a new club could join the Conference National Division, (Conference North is possible).

I have a suspicion that Kettering will be allowed to carry on, with the ground question hanging over them for a while yet, and I believe Forest Green’s best hope of avoiding the drop lies with the notorious Appendix E, and the fate of Salisbury

Harimau Muda look to the West

Wednesday, February 3rd, 2010

It is reported in Malaysia that Harimau Muda (translates as Young Tigers) are to enter a side into the Slovakian First Division when it resumes following the winter break. As yet, I can find no equivalent reports from Slovakia to confirm the agreement, and the fixture list still shows fixtures for Sport Podbrezova, who pulled out of the league just five games into the season. Confusingly, the report says they will be based in the city of Vion. I can find no reference to this place, and suspect that they will actually be at Zlate Moravce, whose team in the same league carries the sponsor’s name ViOn.

Harimau Muda is basically the national youth squad of Malaysia, with the players concerned having been removed from club teams and put on central contracts, in much the same way as the English cricket team. At under-19 level, they have been competing in the lower division (perversely called the Malaysian Premier League) of the Malaysian league. At the end of last season, they won this division, but were prevented from taking up promotion to the Malaysian Super League. Instead, they have remained the Premier League, and remained as an under-19 squad. Those players graduating from the young squad on age grounds were not given anywhere to go, as they were still not permitted to rejoin club sides. The team to play in Slovakia are the national U-21 squad.

Having been kept out of their own national league, there then came a suggestion they should join the Singaporean League. It seemed a surprising suggestion, considering the politics of this are. Until 1994, Singapore entered a team in the Malaysian League. Although this team had non-Singaporeans, it was still the basis of their national side as well. The S-League has a history of allowing a number of foreign sides into its competition. Albirex Niigata, with a senior team in Japan’s J-League have been operating in Singapore for several seasons, I guess they believe it is a good training ground for their younger players. There have been a number of Chinese teams in the league, and for the last few years, there has been a Korean team. All the ‘foreign’ teams in the S-League have a base within Singapore, and play a team made up 100% of their own nationals. The rest of the S-League combines Singaporeans with a limited number of foreign nationals. Whereas I have never been certain about the success of say, Albirex Niigata, in terms of transfers back to Japan – it is clear that their existence has increased the number of Japanese players with other Singaporean clubs – most are graduates from the Niigata club.

There was a departure for the S-League last season when DPMM were admitted. DPMM had followed on from a long tradition of Brunei clubs in the Malaysian leagues, but were thrown out in December 2008 (between seasons) when the Brunei FA failed to register properly with a governmental agency. Taking them into the S-League, DPMM were an instant success with good crowds and results. Unlike the other ‘foreign’ teams, they continued to play in Brunei, and used Brunei players with a permitted number of foreigners. However, local politics conflicted with FIFA policy, the government attempting to set up a new organisation to run football in Brunei. FIFA then suspended the country from all international football, and DPMM were forced out of the S-League with just five fixtures to play, and the League Cup in their trophy room. Had Harimau Muda been accepted into the S-League, they would have been a team of Malay nationals only, but it was uncertain whether they would have been based in Singapore, or played home games in Malaysia.

However, despite the fact that they had a vacancy, and the chance to turn the tables on their local and larger rivals, the S-League refused to admit the Malaysian team into their membership. Instead they have given places to a side affiliated to Chinese champions Beijing Guo’an, and to Etoile FC, who are intending to use only French nationals. Incidentally, the Singaporean equivalent to Harimau Muda, the Young Lions, play at Under-21 level in the S-League, so by taking in the Malay team, they would effectively be raising three matches per season to the level of U-21 international.

Not perturbed by this, the FAM turned to Europe, and appear to have come to an agreement where their team will take over Podbrezova’s fixtures from the end of the month. The Malaysian report says these matches will be competitive, but that must be open to questioning? With 14 games to play, it is difficult to believe that points will be awarded, as they will be playing 3 of their 11 opponents twice, but the rest once only. If points are not awarded, then surely these games are no more than friendlies, and the Slovakian sides will have no incentive to put out their strongest XI.

Is this the way forward for small nations, anxious for the players to get experience? Could we see a number of National, or National Under-21 sides playing in European leagues? It certainly could help their players to gain experience in a more competitive arena (at least, if the games are made to be competitive), and it puts these players closer to the market place, increasing their chances of being picked up by European clubs generally.

On the other hand, keeping a squad of 26 players and their coaches away from home for four months or more must be testing the FAM’s finances. In the meantime, their home league is in disarray, two top division clubs pulled out at the end of last season, and this season they will have only one representative in Asian club competitions, the other citing costs as their reason for not competing. The clubs also complain that the rule banning foreign players in Malaysia reduces their competitiveness in these competitions.

The senior national team fares no better, with heavy defeats in the 2007 Asian Cup followed by straight defeats in all their games in the quest to reach the 2011 finals, while the World Cup campaign was over almost before it began. The loss of a group of players who should be among the best in the league is not exactly doing anything to improve the situation.

Last seasons under-19 squad, having won the lower division of the Malaysian League, then narrowly failed to make it to the finals of the Asian Under 19 competition. This may be an acceptable return for keeping the squad together, but one wonders what will be required to justify running a squad abroad – the next challenges for Malaysia are Olympic qualifying for London 2012 (an u-23 squad then, so basically using the current u-21 team) and the 2014 World Cup – Asian qualification is going to start incredibly early, but I think Malay pride would settle for an improved performance in the more local ASEAN Cup at the end of the year.

Post script – since writing this, I have been alerted to a Slovakian news story. What this shows is that while the idea is being given serious consideration in Slovakia (as a series of friendlies, not for league points), the decision will not be made until a meeting of the clubs on 15 February.

Whose Money are we losing?

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2008

We had a post on our club forum, asking whether or not our fans would appreciate it if the club was taken over, and if we could achieve promotion thanks to the input of one or more directors. The question was supposed to be hypothetical, but I wondered if it was really hypocritical. The fact is that few clubs in the lower division are even coming close to running on an even keel, and at my club (Cheltenham Town), we rely on a regular input from two of our directors to offset the losses we post on an annual basis. Furthermore, Cheltenham won promotion in 1997 (from the Southern League), 1999 (into the Football League), 2002 and 2006 (both times from what is now League-2 to League-1) with only one relegation in the period. This has not been achieved purely thanks to good managers and players, but also thanks to directors dipping into their pockets when the requirement was there.
It is to the club’s good fortune that all this investment has since been turned into equity, and the directors will not be getting a return on their investment unless the share price was to increase. They cannot even leave the club and demand their loans to be returned – their only rights being to whatever they can get by selling their shares.

Many other clubs survive on their director’s pots of money, but these are still booked as loans to the clubs. At the top end, this means that Chelsea FC owes over £500 million to Mr Abramovich. Abramovich may have put far more than this into the club, but the figures show that nothing will move at Chelsea, without the express consent of the chairman. Unlike the rest of the ‘big four’ Chelsea are still returning year on year losses as well.

Looking at the news over the last couple of days, Newcastle and Manchester City have been highlighted. Newcastle changed hands a short while back, with Mike Ashley having to spend over £130 million to buy the shares. It appears to be a high price to pay, as the publicly available records showed that in the previous two seasons, on income of around £80 million per annum, the losses had totalled over £40 million. Later newspaper reports said Ashley had to pay another £75 million to pay off debts (and provide a little money for the purchase of new players). I would expect this to be noted as a loan to the company in future accounts. With Ashley’s major business, Sports Direct showing reduced profits over the summer, and the shares dropping 10%, it is not surprising that the club has been a little slow into the transfer market this summer, and that Milner was sold over the head of Keegan. Keegan, whose position is still unclear at the club (if not exactly tenable), should have known that with the club having an Executive Director (Football), a Vice President (Player recruitment) and a Technical co-ordinator all somewhere above him on the player buying and selling programme, his job was more a head coach, than overall manager.

Manchester City has changed hands twice in little over a year. The first buyer was former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra valuing the club at £81.6 million. Not bad for a club that had an £11 million lost to post for the 2006-7 season, and much higher accumulated debts. The buyout was controversial from the start, Shinawarta had to rely on those assets he had outside Thailand, as Thai courts had frozen some £830 million he held within the country, pending corruption trials. Despite the fact that his supporters have won the general election that returned Thailand to democracy, the trial will go on, (even in Shinawarta does not turn up). The club spent over £30 million on transfers in Shinawatra’s years, and paid the less than negligible wage bill of Sven Goran Erikson (including the inevitable pay off to remove him when the club only reached the UEFA Cup thanks to England finishing top of the fare play table). Shinawatra’s investment suddenly looks like a good investment, as he manage to sell the club for around £200 million to Abu Dhabi United group last weekend. The new owners splashed out another £32 million within 24 days to sign Robinho from Real Madrid (and more significantly, from underneath Chelsea’s nose). They also tried to hijack Berbotov’s move to Manchester United from Spurs.

This move appears to me to appear to be a piece of one-upmanship in the rivalry between the two oil rich gulf emirates, Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Dubai, through its investment arm, Dubai International Capital has been trying to buy Liverpool FC, so with this bid floundering, Abu Dhabi have gone and got a club for themselves. (Apart from football, both cities compete with massive construction projects in their cities, their own international airlines and airports; Dubai also owned Tussards for two years, profiting by £200 million on the sale, and retaining 20%, and owns Travelodge – the biggest hotel chain in the UK; Abu Dhabi has been buying extensively in the London property market, taking advantage of current low prices).

Investment funds like Abu Dhabi United (part of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority – ADIA) are state run operations, original set on a cause of low risk (but therefore low return) investments. Manchester City football club sits uneasily in such a portfolio, but ADIA has assets of US$ 875 billion – approximately US$ 1 million per citizen of the Emirate, so they can probably afford the hit.
While many buy outs of football clubs seem more to do with prestige than business, the highest profile of them all, the American buy out of Manchester United appears to be a hard headed business plan, which is so far paying off. Despite the two or three thousand disenchanted fans watching FC United, Old Trafford has not yet gone empty, and the company has been making the profits required to finance the debt leveraged for the original buy out. If the world wide fan clubs of Manchester United could group together to raise the finance, then there are few clubs that are better positioned to operate as a true, supporters run co-operative under Football trust ideals.

Most of those clubs that have tried a fans trust based ownership method have not been successful, as despite the good will that attends the start ups (normally from the ruins of a failing club), trusts are not a good method of pulling in finance to support a loss making enterprise, and even part ownership does not persuade fans to come week in, week out to watch a relegation bound club. The most successful (maybe the only successful) trust run clubs are those where the supporter base is still so far above their league rivals as to give them an income edge, (AFC Wimbledon still fits into this category – their crowds took an annual hit every season after formation until last season).

At lower levels, the arrival of a businessman with money has often resulted in a brief flare as a club climbs the pyramid, followed by the even more sudden decline when the money runs out. Non-League football is littered with the ruins of temporary success – Rushden and Diamonds, Canvey Island, and Hornchurch being some of the most obvious. Rushden were in fact one of the best of these, with Max Griggs’ club climbing to what is now League-1 before the cash ran out. Despite the owner trying his best to gift the club with everything they needed to be self sustaining, they had not built a level of support that matched the owners’ ambition, and dropped back to the Conference in quick time. They have survived better than the others, and have not been forced into administration, or re-named. There are far worse owners that can befall a club, than Mr Griggs at Rushden. If you do not believe me – look no further than Oxford.