Archive for February, 2015

The Winters Tale.

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

Saturday, February 14th, 2015

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

  1. Success.
  2. Failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Speak too Soon

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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