The Whole Game Solution – Survey Results

September 18th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Whole Game Solution

September 11th, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Easter Internationals

March 18th, 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to change the subject.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Underwhelming choice, but still the best New Hop

February 27th, 2016

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

The Jutland Weekend

October 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Velje’s windmill overlooks the town

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Cleanest Sweep

August 7th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How was it for you?

July 26th, 2015

Analysis of qualifying draws for International competition always focuses on who has an easy draw, and who has the more difficult task. It is not an easy thing to judge, but I will still come to that for the European draws (which grabbed the headlines) at the end of the piece.

Firstly, what does the draw mean for the other five Confederations, starting with the one where it meant the least

Asia.

The reason for this was that the second round groups in Asia have already started, and the third round will not be drawn until completion of the current round. The 39 teams are playing in eight groups of five (one group playing a team short because of the expulsion from competition of Indonesia). The eight group winners and four of the runners-up go into a third round, two groups of six with the winners and runners-up qualifying for the finals. The two third placed teams then play for 5th place which gets into an intercontinental play-off game.

Hence the only news in this draw for Asia is that right at the end of the process, the team fortunate enough to finish as 5th, has drawn against the fourth team in the CONCACAF draw. This is not great news, but better than that for the winners of the group in…

Oceania.

The winners of the qualifying process in Oceania will face the 5th place team from the CONMEBOL grouping. This has to be the worst possible draw one can get in the intercontinental section, and I very much doubt that we will see an Oceania representative in Russia. Despite Oceania having just 11 teams in the contest, the process is rather drawn out – starting at the end of August, when a four team tourney takes place in Tonga, with American Samoa, Samoa and the Cook Islands also playing. One team of this quartet joins the other seven from the confederation in the next round.

The second round also takes place within a single country, (probably two venues). There will be two groups of four teams, with Tahiti, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and the winner of the first round in Group A. Group B consists of New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Fiji and Vanuatu.

This second round is also the 2016 Oceania Nations Cup, and has a semi-final and final defining who plays in the 2017 Confederations Cup. Those matches are not World Cup qualification games though – the top three from each group goes into a home and away series based on two groups of three. There is then a final before the eventual winners go against their South American opponents.

CONMEBOL.

All ten of the South American countries play in a single group. This means 18 games apiece. It also means that there is no draw, except for the order of the matches to be played. We now know that Brazil will open with a game in Chile, and complete their schedule with a home game against the same opponents. Argentina will play host to Brazil in round 3, which will be in November this year and the return will be in round 11. The top four go through, while the 5th place gets to play the team from Oceania.

CONCACAF.

The North, Central and Caribbean American section is the most advanced, with 17 of the 35 teams in the Confederation being knocked out in two knock out rounds already played. A further six fall in the third round, played late August and early September. Included in this round is Jamaica, finalists in the CONCACAF Gold Cup (the final is on the same day as I write these notes). The ranking points for reaching the final are not added until too late for this draw. Jamaica have draw Nicaragua, and there is little to comment on in the other games. Expect Canada, El Salvador, Haiti and Jamaica to go through. I am less certain about Guatemala v Antigua and Barbuda, or Aruba v St. Vincent and the Grenadines – but I suspect that the FIFA seedings (which are based on the rankings before the qualification started) are right in picking Guatemala and Aruba to carry on.

The winners of the six games, go into three groups of four along with six teams exempt from the knock out rounds. At this stage, it would be a major surprise if the highest seeds, Mexico, Costa Rica and USA do not breeze through, but any of the second seeds, Honduras (with Mexico in Group A), Panama (with Costa Rica in Group B) or Trinidad and Tobago (with USA in Group C) could fall to an improving form team from the knock out rounds.

Two teams from each group of four go through to a final series – a singular group of six with three places directly up to grabs, and that match against the last survivor from Asia for the others.

Africa.

Africa is the only confederation with no style of play-off. When it reaches group stage, the winners of the five groups (each of four teams) will qualify for the finals. Of course, five groups of four only requires 20 teams, and the CAF has 54 nations. One of these, Zimbabwe had their entry removed, thanks to being suspended by FIFA. That means 33 teams will drop out in two rounds of knock out games in October and November this year.

The draw is highly seeded, meaning that not only do the “top 20” avoid each other, but all of the “top 13” get to play a second round against the weaker states who played in the first round. Nothing really catches the eye in the first round games, but three second round games do.

Angola v South Africa. Angola have qualified once before, in 2006, while South Africa hosted the 2010 World Cup. South Africa are the seeded team, but this will be close.

Togo v Uganda. Uganda are seeded to beat Togo, who like Angola made it the German World Cup in 2006. Another close run game.

Morocco v Equatorial Guinea. Morocco have been to the finals four times, but none since 1998. Equatorial Guinea are the seeded team, but this appears to be mainly thanks to performances in the 2012 and 2015 African Cups of Nations. IN the first they were joint hosts, while for the second they stepped in as hosts at short notice. I expect Morocco to defy seeding and go through.

UEFA.

The European draws were always going to grab the headlines, despite no games taking place until September next year. If in the UK, the England v Scotland line up draws the eye, it is other groups that should do so. The recent surprise form of teams such as Wales, added to France not picking up many ranking points as they play only friendlies, while everyone else tries to qualify for Euro 2016 means that France and Italy both found themselves in the second group of seeds. With UEFA insisting these two play in groups of six in order to maximise their matches for TV, (52 teams in qualifying means seven groups of six, with two of five), they had an enhanced risk drawing against England, Germany, Spain or the Netherlands (who are also constrained to the six team groups). And it came to pass, with France in the same group as the Netherlands, and Spain playing Italy.

Group A features a third strong team in the form of Sweden, while Bulgaria may well be able to pick up the odd point to disturb the equilibrium. With one of the nine group runners-up missing out on play-offs, this is more likely to be a team from a close group, rather than one where the best two teams run away with the competition, except for points off each other. At least in group A, Belarus and Luxembourg are unlikely to take many points off the top three.

Groups B and C are more straight forward, the top seeds of Portugal and Germany should find a clear route with the second seeds, Switzerland and Czech Republic also expecting to come in as seeded. In Group B, none of Hungary, Faroe Islands, Latvia or Andorra are likely lads, while group C has Northern Ireland as third seed, but I think fourth seed Norway may finish above them and are more likely to nick points from the teams above them. San Marino hold no fear for anyone, and Azerbaijan have yet to see much progress from significant investments in their football infrastructure. Keep an eye open to see if they have any interesting naturalised players.

Both groups D and E appear relatively weak, but Group D in particular is another one where points may well be taken off each other. Wales are top seeds, Austria second, Serbia third and the republic of Ireland fourth. I do not believe Wales can win the group despite their recent good results, which makes this section wide open. Moldova and Georgia should get few points between them though. In group E, I suspect there is little to choose between Romania, Denmark and Poland, but the Romanians do have a habit of doing well in qualification. Montenegro, Armenia and Kazakhstan make up the group. None of these should present a problem on the field, but it does add to the logistics of anyone trying to see all their teams games. Missing Group F for the moment, we come across the other TV schedulers dream, Spain v Italy. At least in Group G, this pair should comfortably take the top two places, so the second team should get a play off position. Albania and Israel can both take the occasional good point without getting through, Macedonia and Liechtenstein should be able to present easy points.

Belgium will be more than happy with their draw, in a five team group with Bosnia, Greece, Estonia and Cyprus, but the other five team group is far more open, with Croatia seeded but playing Ukraine as third seed, and Turkey as fourth. These are both teams that can cause an upset. Second seed Iceland may well be above their station, while Finland may not be the whopping boys that other fifth seeds are.

Finally Group F. England are top seeds, with both Slovakia and Slovenia in the group. The only care is that supporters travelling need to know when to go to Bratislava and when to head to Ljubljana. Members of the Scottish Diaspora in England should already be applying for FAN numbers from the English FA in order to apply for their tickets in November next year. Lithuania and Malta make up one of the less exciting groups.

Even with the seeding, competition draws never produce completely even matches, but this draw in Europe highlights the difference between the FIFA seeding and other ranks, and may push FIFA to once again reconsider if they have it correct. It is one thing to produce a ranking that moves teams up and down the tables quickly, producing headlines either way, but it is another to use it in seeding tournaments and reducing the chances of some of the World’s best teams reaching a major finals tournament.

From FIFA’s point of view, pot one contained the top nine European teams, pot 2 the next 9, etc., so if we add the ranking positions of the top four in each group, we could theoretically get numbers between 58 and 90 as the totals, with a mean of 74. Now lets try the exercise comparing the ELO ratings, instead of FIFA rankings for the top four in each group. (I have made allowances for teams not in the draw, on the Elo ratings page http://www.eloratings.net/europe.html ). I have chosen the top four from each group as the fifth and sixth seeds tend to be poor any every ranking system. I could have easily chosen three (FIFA totals would be between 30 and 54 with a mean of 42), and so I show these in brackets.

Group A – 48 (18): Netherland 2, France 5, Sweden 11, Bulgaria 30

Group B – 92 (44): Portugal 6, Switzerland 12, Hungary 26, Faroes 48

Group C – 84 (53): Germany 1, Czech 16, Northern Ireland 36, Norway 31

Group D – 83 (62): Wales 24, Austria 17, Serbia 21, Ireland 21 (the latter two being tied in the Elo ratings)

Group E – 78 (45): Romania 14, Denmark 13, Poland 18, Montenegro 33

Group F – 66 (38): England 4, Slovakia 15, Scotland 19, Slovenia 28

Group G – 74 (43): Spain 3, Italy 8, Albania 32, Israel 31

Group H – 91 (53): Belgium 7, Bosnia 19, Greece 27, Estonia 38

Group I – 67 (44): Croatia 9, Iceland 25, Ukraine 10, Turkey 23

No one can claim the ELO ratings are without fault, but the comparison between the two demonstrates that FIFA may have a problem with their rankings. It seems to me that this goes to add fuel to my feelings that Group A is very strong. Group G has two strong teams, but little completion to them. England’s task may not be as easy as some think, while Group I is certainly close to call.

The other point is that before the matches get under way, we have a number of rounds of Euro qualifying, and of course the 2016 finals in France. The rankings could look very different when we get under way next September

In the Theatre of the absurd, timing is everything.

July 10th, 2015

Wales have the timing down to a tee. At International level, it has been a good period for Wales. They are top of their Euro 2016 qualifyng group, after gong unbeaten in the first six games. But does that place them in the World’stop ten? Few people would really claim this, but that is where the FIFA rankings have placed them this week.

It is difficult to take the FIFA rankings seriously, despite improvements when they changed the calculation methods. Coca-cola pays well to have their name attached to the monthly press release from FIFA with the new rankings, and they need dramatic headlines in the press to bring them to people’s attention. Hence we have a rankings system that allows for a rapid rise for a few good results in competition.

Headlines are all very well, but these rankings also decide the order of things in competitions organised by FIFA. England, for example played five friendly games in the year before the draw for the 2014 World Cup finals. Results were not bad, England lost to Sweden, got a win and a draw against Brazil, drew with Ireland and beat the Scots. However, the ranking methods count friendlies and then average the results over a season. Even if England had won all five, it would have had a negative effect on their ranking! Switzerland on the other hand played only one friendly (also beating Brazil), and sneaked into the last of the seeded places in the draw.

But for Wales, the time is right – the first time they appear in the top ten, and it is ranking that will be used to determine the seedings when the World Cup qualifiers are drawn later in the month. As a result, Wales will be seeded in the top group in the draw, along with Germany, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, England, Spain and Croatia. Teams missing out include Italy, Switzerland and France. The French having no way of retaining their ranking as they play only friendlies before hosting Euro 2016

The draw for 2018 will be in 9 groups, with two of them having five teams, the rest having six. Russia do not take part as hosts for 2018, while UEFA’s 54th member, Gibraltar has so far been refused permission to join FIFA as well. All group winners qualify, with eight of the nine runners-up competing for four final places

Thanks to UEFA’s centralised TV contract, they need to maximise the number of matches for the “big six” countries, England, Germany, Netherlands, Spain, Italy and France. Hence all of these six will be drawn in groups of six teams – but they are not kept apart except by the seeding. Hence if Wales are lucky enough to be drawn into one of the two five team groups, they cannot face France or Italy. England, however must have these two as potential opponents! Scotland and Northern Ireland are both in pot 3, while the Republic or Ireland are in pot 4. The seven minnows in the final pot are Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, Georgia, Malta, San Marino and Andorra.

Had it been a European qualifying draw we are waiting for, then the seedings would be different. UEFA maintains its own ranking, which has less publicity and is published less frequently. The cynic in me says the main reason UEFA does this, is so as it does not have to use the FIFA rankings. UEFA will not publish their rankings until after the October round of Euro qualifying games. The rankings will be used for deciding the seeding of play off games the following month and for the finals themselves the following summer.

Unofficially, the rankings can be seen at http://www.footballseeding.com/national-ranking-uefa/ England, ranked 9th by FIFA, and hence 6th in Europe are 5th on the UEFA ranks, behind Germany, France, Spain and the Netherlands. France keep their ranking as they do not drop points due to not playing in the current cycle. Wales may be 10th in the World, but they are only 29th in Europe.

A third set of rankings, which takes account of both friendlies and competitive games, but does not penalise teams for being outside of tournaments can be found at http://www.eloratings.net/ it is a useful site as the result of every game that is used in their database can be viewed. On this ranking, England are 8th in the World, 4th in Europe, while Wales are 25th in Europe (43rd worldwide)

The Surinamese Conundrum

June 9th, 2015

We are still three years from the 2018 World Cup, and with the shenanigans now affecting FIFA, we cannot even be certain that it will be staged as planned in Russia. However, we already have had one round of fixtures played in each of Asia and the CONCACAF federations, with a total 13 teams knocked out on the field of play. A further two (Zimbabwe and Indonesia) are suspended by FIFA and are unlikely to play any part in the competition.

As an aside, the reasons for these suspensions were perfectly good. It has been a surprise that Indonesia were not banned much earlier.

The second rounds are now underway in these two confederations. In Asia, they are group games, meaning that each team plays on until March next year. For CONCACAF, it is still a knock out competition with ten more teams losing their chance before the official qualifying draw takes place next month, (it is only then that the European teams know who their opponents will be).

The first match in this round for CONCACAF took place in Nicaragua, where the home nation defeated Suriname by 1-0. This was not the biggest game in qualification. No one would expect either to get anywhere close to being included in the finals, and CONCACAF themselves have not even bothered to fill in the match stats. The home team started with 10 players from the local league, and one who played in Costa Rica. The away team was of similar nature, with the local players supplemented by one playing in Trinidad.

It could have been a lot different, Suriname may be ranked around 150 by FIFA, and may be a small country with a population not much over half a million. But it has produced a lot of footballers. Edgar Davids, Clarence Seedorf and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink were all born in Suriname, while Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard and Patrick Kluivert are all sons of Surinamese émigrés.

In May, a team of players who all qualified to play for Suriname (under FIFA rules) played a game in Almere, Netherlands. Most of the players were from the Netherlands Professional Leagues, although also included were Lorenzo Davids (cousin of Edgar, playing in Denmark) and Nigel Hasselbaink (nephew of Jimmy Floyd, playing for Hamilton Academical).

Why do none of these play for the National team? It appears to be a matter of politics. For reasons best known to themselves, the Surinamese have decided not to play any player who is not a citizen of the country and holds a Surinamese passport. The law of the country prohibits the holding of dual citizenship, so players cannot hold both Suriname and Dutch passports.

Other countries play to FIFA rules which are more relaxed. The majority of the players in the Algerian National Team are French citizens.

There have been moves in Suriname to change the situation, with a move to allow for dual nationality. Even if passed, it may not make a difference. The Netherlands also has laws against dual nationality, with only a few exceptions permitted. A professional football player would not be granted an exemption from the rules, and would not want to give up the citizenship that allowed him to play professional football anywhere within the European Union.

Suriname can still choose to allow these players to play for them. They are qualified under FIFA rules, so it only takes local will to change the attitude and they can join those nations with players who first step foot in their “homeland” to play an international.

But then perhaps it does not matter. Suriname’s team of foreign professionals lost in Almere, to another team who use mainly players with Netherlands passports. In fact their opponents, Curacao are still a constituent part of the Netherlands. Curacao may use players from the Netherlands League, and may be coached by a famous footballing son, but no one is expecting to see them in Russia (or wherever the finals are held). And all the best players will still decide they are better off declaring for the Netherlands. The coach of Curacao was born in Amsterdam, but could have played for his mother’s home country, Curacao – or by FIFA rules for his father’s place of birth, Suriname. I have already mentioned his name, Patrick Kluivert won all of his 79 international caps for the Netherlands.

New Beginnings.

May 3rd, 2015

The old chapter finished at about 4.50, on Saturday 2nd May. The ball was passed to Jamal Lawrence, and the referee blew the whistle for full time. Hence, Lawrence with 16 minutes of League football to his name became the last player to play the ball while Cheltenham Town were members of the Football League.

There has been much on social media, blogs and newspaper columns to try and work out where it went wrong. All the serious analysis comes to the same conclusions – there were many faults both on and off the field.

In the end, it does not matter where we lay the faults, as we cannot turn back and must look forward, and forward means the Conference, renamed as the Vanarama National League for next season. Having given the sponsors their obligatory mention, I will now refer to our new home as the National League, but in this article, the word Conference is used historically. It is a very different league to the Conference we left 16 years ago, and so using a different name seems appropriate.

When we were promoted in 1999, we were, along with all our rivals, a semi-professional team. There are still semi-professional teams at this level, but for the main part, the National League is England’s fifth level of fully professional football. Nineteen of the 24 clubs averaged over 1000 in attendances in 2014-15, although the majority dropped to three figure crowds on occasion. The costs of watching the games will be barely changed. Cheltenham Town have announced that the prices will be the same as last season. I think seven of the 24 in the Conference last season had a lowest price that was more than the £16 for adults at Cheltenham last season. Of those that were cheaper, most were only a pound or two in difference. Eastleigh appear to have been the cheapest at £12 to stand, followed by Southport at £13.50.

Tranmere Rovers have announced that ticket prices for 2015-16 will be more expensive than us, but have promised their playing budget will be in the top four, (a dangerous promise, when you do not know what the other budgets are). They have also stated that this is sustainable (but they may have a less than text book definition of the word).

As a subject, Budgets now create a lot of discussion among football supporters. Sadly, most of it is ill informed with a very wide discrepancy between the amounts some clubs are said to be paying and the budgets they are paying them from. Some of this is pure guesswork, some is generated by agents who state their players are being paid more than is true, in order to squeeze more out of the next club. Despite all the hype, there is still a clear factor that the majority of clubs in the Conference (and for that matter, the Football League) are living beyond their incomes. This generally means that they are relying on the generosity of a small group of people who own the clubs to subsidise the game. Cheltenham is no different to other clubs in this regard, Paul Baker (and to a smaller extent, other directors) funded our entrance into the league in 1999, and we have leaked money ever since – posting a loss more often than not. There have been a few exceptions, and I do not have all the figures, but I would estimate that we have taken a total subsidy averaging at least £100,000 per season over our 16 league seasons. More to the point, we need to carry on this type of “investment”, if we wish to be competitive in the National League.

Looking at the National League for next season, the first thing one notices is the number of ex-football league clubs at this level. There will be 10 clubs who we have played during our league stay. As well as Tranmere, taking the drop with us, we will again meet Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town, Macclesfield Town, FC Halifax Town, Wrexham, Chester, Torquay United, Lincoln City, Kidderminster Harriers and Aldershot Town.

This is not strictly true, as two of the clubs, FC Halifax Town and Chester are reformed clubs. FC Halifax Town were started in 2008, and commenced life three divisions below the Conference. They had dropped to the Conference in 2002 and just avoided relegation, despite having a ten point deduction when they entered administration. The new club were promoted in 2010, 2011 and 2013.

Chester FC replaced Chester City. The earlier club had dropped to the Conference in 2009, but did not complete the first season at the level. They were also started three divisions lower, winning the championships three seasons in a row. They did finish in a relegation position in 2013-14, but with Hereford and Salisbury expelled from the Conference, they got through the AGM cup.

Perhaps the most interesting case is the one we will not meet. Barnet won their third promotion to the Football League, all as champions of the lower division. Originally promoted in 1991, Barnet spent four seasons below the league (2001-5) and are now Champions again after a two season spell. This time around, there was potential that their plans would be thwarted after leaving Underhill. A lot of fans were unhappy at moving out of the borough, with the chairman Anthony Kleanthous being considered as much to blame as the council by many. As a result, crowds dropped by 30% in the initial season at the Hive. The successes in 2014-15 have moved the figures upwards again, but still not to those reached in the league. Meanwhile, they have managed to fight off complaints from the local council over the size of the stand, which was greater than originally planned for.

There are also plenty of clubs who we have faced before in non-League circles.

Forest Green (5th in 2014-15), finished 12th in 1999. They reached the FA Trophy final in that year, and again in 2001 – both times losing 1-0 and hence not adding to their 1982 Vase triumph. They moved to the New Lawn, just up the hill from the old one in 2006. I have seen Cheltenham play there at reserve level. In 2010, they should have been relegated, but were reprieved when Salisbury were demoted for breaking financial rules (that is the same Salisbury who suffered a similar fate 4 years later – some never learn). At the time, FGR were reported in dire straits financially, but the takeover by Dale Vince that summer has breathed a new lease of life into the club and they are now on the up and up, with reported budgets far outstripping ours (despite a much smaller income).

Woking (7th in 2014-15) finished 9th in 1999. They were relegated to Conference South in 2009, and returned as champions in 2012. We have faced Woking twice since joining the league. The meetings were in the Football League Trophy (I think it may have been under LDV sponsorship at the time) in 2005. We played twice as the first game was abandoned due to fog, winning the second game 5-1. In the same season as playing us, Woking reached the FA Trophy final, beaten by Grays Athletic at West Ham (during the Wembley rebuilding).

Dover Athletic (8th in 20014-15, 11th in 1999). When Cheltenham Town returned to the Conference in 1997, they lost their first game, at Dover Athletic’s Crabble Athletic ground in front of 982 spectators. I was not there, but thought it was the omen of a difficult season ahead. When I did get back to Dover, on the 4th April 1998, it spelt out possibly the greatest point in Cheltenham’s history up to 1998 – a match against Southport at Wembley. While we went upwards, Dover headed in another direction. They were relegated to the Southern League in 2002 and switched to the Isthmian two years later after restructuring removed Kent from the Southern league remit. In 2005, they were relegated again and with re-organisations, needed three promotions to regain Conference Football. The first two of these were achieved in successive seasons, 2008 and 2009, they then stayed in Conference South until the 2014, winning promotion through the play-offs despite finishing fifth in division. As I think is well known to us, Dover Athletic reached the third round of the cup for the first time in their history this season, losing to Crystal Palace.

Gateshead (10th in 2014-15, 5th in Northern Premier League 1999). My only visit to the ground was way back in 1987 when we drew 1-1. Our goalscorer was Mark Boyland and the crowd was 233. That was a single season stop at the level. They returned to the Conference in 1990, meaning we played twice more before relegation. On that occasion Gateshead stayed up until 1998, so we met again when we got back to the Conference, 0-0 at the International Stadium, and a 2-0 win at home (Eaton and Victory). Gateshead dropped back to the Northern Premier League in 1998, and dropped another division in 2003. In 2004, they returned to the Northern Premier’s Premier Division, but the introduction of the Conference North (and South) meant this was still the third level. Gateshead came up to Conference North in 2008 and moved back to the National division a year later, after play off wins over Southport and AFC Telford United. They have since established themselves at this level, participating in play offs for the Football League place in 2014.

Altrincham (17th in 2014-15, Northern Premier Champions in 1999). Altrincham were the Conference (or Alliance Premier League if you prefer) champions in the first two years of competition, and regular opposition in our first spell at the level. However, when we returned to the Conference in 1997, they dropped down for two seasons in the Northern Premier League. 1999-2000 was a singular year at Conference level, and they have split the 16 seasons we have been in the League between the top two levels of non-League, playing 8 seasons at each, with two relegations and two promotions. The last promotion was through the 2014 play offs.

Southport (19th in 2014-15, 18th in 1999), and of course our opponents at Wembley in 1998. For that point alone, we will be pleased to welcome the Sandgrounders back to Whaddon Road. In 1977, the non-League teams reached an agreement that only one Southern League, and one Northern Premier League team would be put up for election to the League. This achieved a dramatic effect with Wimbledon and Wigan Athletic getting the nod for promotion. Southport finished 91st in the league in both seasons, and while Wimbledon replaced Workington (92nd), Rochdale did not go down the following year, but Southport exited the league instead. The football map today would look a lot different if the league had not shut up shop after this. Meanwhile Southport played on in the Northern Premier League until winning promotion to the Conference in 1993. Southport have spent more time at the top level of non-League than the second while we have been away, but they were relegated to the Northern Premier in 2003, and re-allocated to the Conference North on its formation, becoming first champions. They won Conference North again in 2010.

Welling United (20th in 2014-15, 20th in 1999). With the similarity of Welling’s positions, one should remember that in 1999, there were 22 teams in the Conference, and three relegation places, so when we drew at home to Welling on the last day of the season in 1999, we thought we had consigned them to relegation. As it happened, financial problems at Barrow meant Welling were reprieved on that occasion, but not after finishing 20th again a year later. They have played below the National level, in the Southern Premier, and then Conference South when it started in 2004. In 2013, they were Conference South champions, and returned to National level football.

Barrow (Conference North Champions, 19th in 1999). Barrow were members of the Football League from the founding of Division 3 (North) in 1921, until 1972. Then despite finishing above Stockport County and Crewe Alexandra, Barrow were dumped from the league in favour of Hereford. They played in the Northern Premier League and became founder members of the Conference, and then switched quite frequently, with relegation in 1983, 1986 and 1992, and NPL Championships in 1984, 1989 and 1998. This means we met four times in our first Conference spell, year one and the final three years, with Barrow the only team below Cheltenham when we dropped down in 1992. Barrow were an early visitor to Cheltenham in 1998-9, with our 4-1 win (Walker (2), Brough and Eaton) witnessed by 2005. We travelled to Holker Street in early March with Knight scoring in a 1-1 draw. As already mentioned, Barrow finished above Welling in 1999, but were forced out of the division due to financial problems. With no play offs, second and third places in the NPL in 2003 and 2004 did not earn anything, other than a place as founder members of Conference North. In 2008, Barrow finished fifth, and beat second place AFC Telford United (home and away), and the third placed Stalybridge Celtic to take a place in the National division. Relegated again in 2013, Barrow return as champions and looking better than they have done in the recent past.

The final group of teams are the new friends, teams we have not faced in league competition before.

Top of this list are Eastleigh – a team playing in the Hampshire League when I first watched them. They could attract over 100 spectators even then, which was more than par for the course. This season the average has been around 1750 – mid table in the attendance list, the record of 4216 was set during the season, for the visit of Bristol Rovers. When I visited, the ground was known as Ten Acres, but it has now been rebranded as the Silverlake Stadium – and I am reminded as I go to work by the sign promising that when my car gives up the ghost, Silverlake will pay a scrap value for it! Eastleigh were formed in 1946 and went by the names of Swaythling Athletic and Swaythling before 1980. In 1986, they were founder members of the Wessex League, which now operates as a Step 5/6 League (equivalent to the Hellenic). The remained at this level until 2003, when they won the title and took promotion to the Southern league. This was a good time to join, as re-organisation a year later moved them from the Southern League (East) to the Isthmian League (Premier), two steps below the Conference. They only spent one year in the Isthmian, finishing third and defeating Braintree and Leyton in the play offs to join Conference South. In 2011, a takeover by the Oxfordshire insurance brokers Bridle Insurance gave them the finances to progress further, they lost to Dover Athletic in the Conference South play offs of 2013, and then went up as champions the following season. The plan when Bridle took over was to reach the Football League in five years. With play-offs this season (even if beaten), it is possible to say they remain on track.

Braintree Town started life as the works club, Manor Works in 1898. The works were part of the Crittall Window Company, and gave the club the nickname the Iron. They took the name Crittall Athletic in 1921, and became founder members of the Eastern Counties League in 1935, and the Essex County League in 1937. They switched league’s frequently, dropping back to the local league when money was tight, but playing semi-professional football in the Eastern and various London leagues when they could. In 1968, they added the town name to become Braintree and Crittall Athletic, in 1981 they dropped the works name and played as Braintree for two seasons, before adding a Town. This change brought with it successes, with the club immediately winning the Eastern League title twice in a row, with four runners-up positions before joining the Southern League in 1991. They played five seasons in the Southern League (Southern Division). Playing in a division with Braintree at one extreme, Weymouth, Poole and Weston-super-Mare at the other was proving difficult, and Braintree successfully petitioned the FA for a switch to the Isthmian in 1996, although this meant starting in division 3, an effective drop of two levels. This gave them several Essex matches, and no journeys further than Camberley – two successive promotions did not extend the travelling distance beyond Hungerford. Braintree spent three seasons in the Isthmian first division before being promoted to the Premier in 2001. In 2005, they lost to Eastleigh in the play-offs, but the following season went up to the Conference South as Isthmian champions. After five years at that level, Braintree claimed the title again and promotion to the national level for the first time

Bromley come into the National League as Conference South champions. The ground is Hayes Lane, although not improved when rebuilt after a fire in 1993 remains a classic – the sort of ground that a non-league ground should be. It is not surprising that Bromley have spent most of their existence in the old Amateur leagues around London. They were members of the Southern League’s second division for two seasons in the 1890s, but soon moved on. They joined the Isthmian League in 1908 and were champions in their first season, repeating the fete in 1910, 1954 and 1961. They have also won the Athenian League on three occasions. Bromley have twice won the Amateur Cup, in 1911 (they beat Bishop Auckland 1-0 at Herne Hill) and 1949 (Romford, 1-0 at Wembley). In 1999, Bromley were relegated to the Isthmian First Division, then the third level of below the league. Re-organisation in the Isthmian area placed them in Division One (South) in 2002, but this returned to Division One in 2004, although this was now Step 4. In 2005, Bromley were promoted to the Isthmian Premier through play offs, and in 2007 they moved up to Conference South in the same way. Bromley finished as runners-up that season, and beat 5th placed AFC Wimbledon in the semi-finals, and then Billericay (on penalties) in the final. Having missed out in the play offs last season, (they lost to Ebbsfleet, who in turn fell to Dover), Bromley took the title this time around.

Having mentioned ealier that we will play one ex-league team, either Bristol Rovers or Grimsby Town, depending on the result at Wembley on May 17th, the last two of our opponents will be decided by next week’s promotion play-offs, with Chorley playing Guisley, Boreham Wood against Whitehawk for the honour of playing us next season. Chorley have played two seasons, 1988-90 in the Conference, meeting us both times, while for those with very long memories, we also played them twice in the FA Trophy, 1978-9.

Guisley have never been this high before, but reached the semi-final of the FA Trophy in 1994, beating Cheltenham in a third round replay. Boreham Wood played us in the FA Cup in 1997, with Cheltenham winning at Meadow Park 2-0, after a home draw. That leaves the rapidly rising (and reportedly heavily backed) Whitehawk. They were Sussex League as recently as 2010, winning promotion in that year, and also in 2012 and 2013 (all as Champions of the division).

A few more things about Conference life. We will start the FA Cup in the final qualifying round. This season that took place two weeks before the first round proper with 32 matches. There are 24 exempt teams in the round, and hence 40 come through from the third qualifying round. There is no seeding, and a semi-national draw in the round. We will start the FA Trophy at the First Round. Again we will be one of 64 teams playing, with the 24 National League teams meeting 40 qualifiers, no seeding and a semi-national draw. This season, the matches were scheduled on December 13th. The second round was four weeks after the first, but then the fixtures were close together, with matches every two weeks, and the semi-finals on successive weeks at the end of February. This is a recent change to allow the final to take place at the end of March, and avoid a potential clash of priorities with the play offs.

Since I wrote this, it has been announced that the FA Trophy and FA Vase (for Step 5/6 level clubs – Hellenic and equivalent) will share the day and play both Wembley finals on May 22, hence the round dates may well be more spread out over the second half of the season. There are no league cups for the Conference, so apart from the FA Competitions, the only other cup we will play in is the Gloucestershire Senior Cup, where we tend not to field the first team

With the Play offs for promotion completed, we now know we are playing Guiseley and Boreham Wood. Guiseley beat us during their run to the 1994 Trophy semi-finals. AT the time, two Wembley appearances in the FA Vase were still fresh in their memories. Both the 1991 and 1992 finals were packed with goals, eight in each. In 1991, they were shared evenly with Gresley Rovers, requiring a replay at Sheffield United’s ground, where Guiseley took the honours. A year later they returned to Wembley, but were defeated by Wimborne, 5-3. In 1999, Guiseley were one division below us in the top division of the Northern Premier League, but were relegated a year later. They returned to the Premier division in 2004, as part of the realignment caused by the creation of Conference North/South. They won the title and promotion to Conference North in 2010. In five seasons of Conference North Football, they have reached the play offs on every occasion, and this is the third time they have reached the final. Last season they fell to an extra time defeat to Altincham. For this year’s final, they claim over 900 supporters made the journey across the pennies to Chorley, where they were outnumbered in a crowd of 3418, and found themselves 2-0 down at the break. The comeback took place between the 60th and 80th minutes, with Chorley appealing unsuccessfully for a last minute equaliser when the ball came off the underside of the crossbar.

For visitors heading to Yorkshire next season, Guiseley is well known as the location of the original Harry Ramsden’s Fish and Chips Restaurant.

Like Guiseley, Boreham Wood were a division below Cheltenham in 1999. In their case this was the Isthmian League’s premier division. Also like Guiseley, they were relegated a year later. Here the comparison ends, as Boreham Wood returned as division champions a year later. They were relegated again in 2003, and after the re-organisation of the divisions a year later, they found themselves in the Southern League’s Eastern Division. The opposition in this division were still based around North and East London, so it was not a big change. When Boreham Wood won the title in 2006, they were placed in the Isthmian Premier again. Four years later they moved up to the Conference South thanks to play off wins against Aveley and Kingstonian

Boreham Wood is more famous for its neighbour, the Elstree studios. (Studios is plural, as there are several film and TV studios around). One of the studios is well known for both Indiana Jones and Star Wars, but by all accounts the final started like a dull night on Eastenders (filmed at another Elstree studio). Boreham Wood finally broke through on 67 minutes, Lee Angol curling a free kick around the wall. Sam Deering levelled from the penalty spot, but Whitehawk despite having the best of the final minutes could not make it count, and the game went into extra time. Junior Morais scored the winner for the Wood within minutes of the start of extra time, and this time there was no comeback.