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.

209 to 1: The 2018 World Cup. The CONCACAF Commencement

March 23rd, 2015

I am making this initial posting now, with three matches still to preview, as games have started. I will add the others as soon as I can

CONCACAF, the Caribbean, Central and North American Confederation made their draw well ahead of the Asians, even though they were starting some two weeks later. Even when making the draw in January, they used the August 2014 FIFA rankings for seeding, allowing for many changes before the matches take place. The numbers shown in brackets are the seeds at February 2015, while I have underlined the seven seeds in the draw.

Bahamas (195) v Bermuda (180 equal)

British Virgin Islands (202) v Dominica (180 equal)

Barbados (142) v US Virgin Islands (197)

St. Kitts and Nevis (119) v Turks and Caicos Islands (176)

Nicaragua (177) v Anguilla (208)

Belize (167) v Cayman Islands (205)

Curacao (160) v Montserrat (170)

 

This shows how small changes can affect things, as if the draw was made on current seedings, three of the fourteen would have received a bye.

The matches are being played over a nine day period, starting at 23.00 (UK time) on 22 March in Barbados, and finishing on 1st April, after a 23.30 kick off (again UK time) on 31st March in Montserrat.

I will take the matches in order of commencement. UK times shown)

Barbados v US Virgin Islands (23.00 22 March, 19.30 26 March)

SO we begin in the former British colony of Barbados, independent since 1966 and home to a little over a quarter of a million. They have a long footballing history, starting way back in 1929 with a series of three games (all at home) to Trinidad & Tobago over a five day period. All three were won. Still it was friendly matches only for nearly 50 years. Before their first appearance in the World Cup, they had appeared in Olympic Qualifiers, and once in the Central American and Caribbean games. Playing two years ahead of the 1978 finals, Barbados started with a two legged game against Trinidad & Tobago, winning the home leg 2-1. After falling 1-0 in the away leg (and without an away goals rule at the time), they got home advantage for the play-off, but still went down 3-1. They then did not play in the next three tournaments, although they were in the 1986 draw, withdrawing without playing Costa Rica. When they did play again, it was Trinidad & Tobago again. This time they lost both legs.

It must therefore have been a relief to play Dominica in the first round four years later. Goals from Roger Proverbs (away) and Gregory Goodridge (home) meant they won each leg by 1-0, and got to play Jamaica a month late. This time both games were lost. In the 2002 World Cup, they had to face three knock out rounds, but successfully passed through ahead of Grenada, Aruba and Cuba. This gave them group matches against USA, Costa Rica and Guatemala – with a home win over Costa Rica, but five defeats in other games.

After 12 games in one qualifying series, Barbados only played 12 over the next three – just two ahead of 2006, St. Kitts and Nevis beating them twice, Dominica again proved easier before the 2010 World Cup with Barbados winning 2-1 on aggregate before losing 9-0 over two legs to the USA. Last time out they escaped having to play a knock out round, but lost all six matches in a group also involving Bermuda, Trinidad & Tobago and Guyana.

AT the same stage, the US Virgin Islands also lost six games, their opponents were Curacao, Haiti and Antigua and Barbuda. The USVI had not been exempt from the first round, and had beaten the British Virgin Islands in both legs of the first round games. The US Virgin Islands lie just to the west of their British Counterparts, and are not an independent territory, but a territory of the USA. This means the just over 100,000 inhabitants have US citizenship. Curiously, and in common with some other non-state US territories, citizens can vote in the presidential primaries, but not in presidential election itself. The Islands were known as the Danish Virgin Islands until 1917, when the US bought them for $25 million (paid in gold). The US Virgin Islands launched as a national football team in March 1998 with a 1-0win over their British neighbours. However, it should be noted that the three games against the British Virgin Islands in 1998, and 2011 remain the only wins in the team’s history.

The US Virgin Islands have played in four World Cups before this one, a total of 13 matches. They opened in March 2000 (ahead of 2002) with a 9-0 defeat to St. Vincent and the Grenadines, losing 5-1 in the home return. Four years later they went down by 11 goals (aggregate) to St. Kitts and Nevis, while in 2008 they played only one game, a 10-0 defeat in Grenada. I guess they conceded the tie without playing again. Hence by beating the British Virgin Islands last time out, it became their most successful campaign, even if the six group games ended with fourty goals conceded. After all they scored twice. Since then, the USVI have played two Caribbean Cup qualifying games, (both on Montserrat, losing to the hosts and Bonaire), and then warmed up for this world cup with a 2-0 defeat in Antigua

I am expecting Barbados to win both games, and USVI could drop to zero points on the FIFA rankings when the wins from four years ago drop off the list in July.

As I did not publish this before the first game, I should adjust to report to say I was completely wrong over the first leg. The US Virgin Islands won the away leg in Barbados thanks to a Jamie Browne goal. Browne was also the scorer in USVI’s 8-1 defeat to Anguilla in the last tournament. The winner plays Aruba in June

St. Kitts and Nevis v Turks and Caicos Islands (00.00 24 March, 00.00 27 March)

Of the independent states in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest in both population and land mass. In footballing terms, of course, there are some smaller dependent territories such as the Turks and Caicos Islands. St. Kitts and Nevis became independent from the UK in 1983, and could have separated further in 1998 when the population of Nevis voted in favour of breaking the union, but did not achieve the required two-thirds majority.

St Kitts and Nevis played their first international games in Caribbean qualifying games in 1979, when they played Jamaica twice – both away – and lost both by 2-1. It would be ten years before they tried again, this time losing a single match to Trinidad and Tobago by 2-0. In 1991, they played two games in the Cayman Islands, drawing with both their hosts (1-1) and the British Virgin Islands (0-0). The Cayman Islands beat Montserrat to qualify. St Kitts and Nevis played on home soil for the first time in 1992, and recorded their first win, a 4-0 victory over British Virgin Islands. They followed this up with a 10-0 victory over Montserrat. However, the only goal they conceded in this qualifying ground turned out to be crucial, as it was a single goal defeat to Antigua and Barbuda that put them out.

The following year, St Kitts and Nevis also staged a home qualifying group, drawing 2-2 with Dominican Republic in the first game. The Dominicans beat British Virgin Islands 3-1 in game two, leaving St Kitts and Nevis with a target to reach the finals for the first time. A 5-1 win over BVI meant this was achieved with a little to spare. The finals were in Jamaica and St Kitts and Nevis were grouped with the hosts (lost 4-1), Puerto Rico (won 1-0) and Sint Maarten (drew 2-2). This meant they reached the semi-finals where they were beaten (on penalties) by Martinique. They also lost the third place play off to Trinidad & Tobago.

The first attempt at the World Cup was in 1996, ahead of the 1998 finals. They played St. Lucia over two legs, winning the home leg by 5-1 and adding a 1-0 away win two weeks later. They ended that cup unbowed and unbeaten, as in the next round they were playing St. Vincent and the Grenadines. James Alexander Gordon should have been made to read out the second leg result. St Kitts and Nevis nil, St Vincent and the Grenadines 0. Aggregate 2-2 – St Kitts and Nevis go out on away goals.

No qualifying for the 1997 Caribbean Cup and St Kitts and Nevis were to stage half the finals tournament. Antigua and Barbuda shared duties. In group games, St Kitts and Nevis beat Martinique 2-0, and then lost 3-0 to Trinidad & Tobago. T&T had lost to Martinique in the opening game, but Martinique went out, and St Kitts ended up in second place. As a result, they stayed at home for a semi-final against Grenada, while T&T crossed islands to play Jamaica. St Kitts beat Grenada 2-1, but did not get home advantage for the final itself, where Trinidad beat them again, this time by 4-0.

Since then St Kitts and Nevis have twice more played in the group stages of the Caribbean Cup, but not in any of the last six tournaments.

Back to the World Cup, where St Vincent and the Grenadines beat them again in 2000, this time winning both matches – St Kitts and Nevis had earlier beaten their opponent for this year, Turks and Caicos Islands by 8-0 and 6-0 (staging both games at home). In 2004 (qualifying for 2006), St Kitts and Nevis won in two knock out ties – firstly home and away over US Virgin Islands (agg 11-0) and then winning twice against Barbados (agg 5-2). This placed them in a group of four with St Vincent and the Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago and Mexico. [Mexico do not need an &]. St Kitts lost all six games, and switched the home game against Mexico (they were already out at this stage) to play in Miami, where they were rewarded with a crowd over 18,000. This is more than double the aggregate attendance from the four home games played before that.

Despite the away leg being switched to Guatemala, Belize proved to strong in 2008, winning 3-1 in that game and drawing the leg in St Kitts to go through. Last time out, St Kitts and Nevis had a bye until group games as there was only one knock out round and only ten teams were involved. St Kitts drew all three home games in a group with St Lucia, Puerto Rico and Canada. They also drew in Puerto Rico and won in St Lucia. This was not enough though – they lost 4-0 in Toronto and finished third in the group.

The Turks and Caicos Islands are still a British Territory, and have a population of just 31,000. IN footballing terms, they are an infant nation. I refer to the website at www.eloratings.net when compiling these stats. This is because the site has a reputation for accuracy and presents the scores in an easy to read fashion. They do include some matches that FIFA ignore as they are against non-FIFA nations. Still, the ELO Ratings show only 17 games for the Turks and Caicos Islands, with only two games at home. As it happens, these are the home legs in qualification attempts at the last two World Cups. They lost 4-0 at home to the Bahamas in July 2011, (and 6-0 away a week later). However, there other home game was a win over St Lucia in February 2008. With a 2-1 home win, they went down 2-0 away to drop out.

Turks and Caicos also played in qualification for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, but as I have already mentioned, they conceded home advantage and played both games away to St Kitts and Nevis in 2000, losing 14-0 on aggregate, while four years later both games against Haiti were played in the USA. Haiti winning 7-0 on aggregate.

The first ever games for the Turks and Caicos Islands were in February 1999, in qualification for the Caribbean Cup. Two matches both played in the Bahamas, with the hosts beating them 3-0 in T&C’s first ever game, followed by their only ever draw, 2-2 with the US Virgin Islands. The Turks and Caicos Islands have a habit of either not entering, or withdrawing without playing in the Caribbean Cup, so they have only entered qualification games in 1999, 2007 and 2014. They have never lost every game in these qualifying tournaments, and in September 2006 (for 2007 tourney), they lost to Cuba and the Bahamas (in Cuba), but beat Cayman Islands 2-0; while last summer in Aruba, they lost to Aruba and French Guyana, but beat the British Virgin Islands. This win is their most recent international, but has shot them up the FIFA rankings as they now have 66 points. Prior to the match, they were tied in last place on the list.

St. Kitts and Nevis are expected to get through without a problem, to play El Salvador in the next round.

Nicaragua v Anguilla (00.00 24 March, 22.00 29 March)

Nicaragua are one of two central American teams starting in this round, and by far the biggest of the states at this stage. The country is part of the Central American Isthmus and borders only Honduras to the North, and Costa Rica to the south. Nicaragua has a population around 6 million, and apparently started their national footballing career with a 9-0 defeat by El Salvador in 1929. This match does not appear on the ELO records, but their second game, 12 years later does. This was a 7-2 defeat in Costa Rica in the CCCF Championship of 1941. They lost a further 10 matches over the year in the same competition before beating Panama by 2-0 in 1946 to record their first win. Nicaragua did not play a home game until 1975, when they beat El Salvador in an Olympic Qualifying game, although the 2-1 score was not enough to overturn the 4-0 defeat in the first leg.

In the World Cup, Nicaragua first entered the 1994 competition, playing El Salvador home and away two years before the finals. They conceded five goals in each game, scoring once in the away leg. By the time of the 2010 World Cup, Nicaragua had played 12 World Cup matches, and managed one draw against St Vincent and the Grenadines, even then losing 4-1 away. Hence there 2-0 win in Dominica in 2011 ahead of the last World Cup may have been something of a surprise. Nicaragua won the return game 1-0 as well, but sandwiched these with two defeats to Panama. Nicaragua only played two opponents as the Bahamas withdrew without playing. The last competitive fixtures for Nicaragua was last September in the UNCAF competition, which double as qualification for the CONCACAF gold cup. The games were not played in the region, but in the USA and Nicaragua lost to Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras.

Anguilla are a British Overseas Territory, and are home to just 13,500. In 1991, they played Montserrat in their first football game. The match was a Caribbean Cup qualifier in St Lucia and was drawn 1-1. They lost to St Lucia 6-0 two days later. Anguilla did not win a game until February 2000 when they won a friendly in the British Virgin Islands by 4-3. Still they played a second friendly two days later at the same venue and lost 5-0. Between then and last month, the only other official match won was over Montserrat a year later in a Caribbean Cup Qualification game in Saint Martin. Saint Martin play in CONCACAF competitions, but are not FIFA members, so neither the match which they lost to St. Martin just after their win over Montserrat, or their win over the same opposition in Puerto Rico in 2010 count for the FIFA rankings. Still, Anguilla will boost themselves a little by arranging two friendly games at home to British Virgin Islands less than a month before the World Cup games. Anguilla won both these, by 1-0 and 3-1. Surely a boost to confidence after three heavy defeats in the last series of Caribbean qualifiers, (last September).

In the World Cup, Anguilla have entered in the last four competitions. While in each series, they were knocked out in the first round of two legged games, only their first World Cup game, a 3-1 defeat by Bahamas was actually played at home. Playing the Dominican Republic in both 2000 and 2011, they chose to play both games away, while the 2008 “home leg” against El Salvador was played in the USA. It was only in the two games in the first attempt, when they played Bahamas, that Anguilla scored World Cup goals, but they lost both games. Still in the first of the two matches in the Dominican Republic in 2000, they managed a scoreless draw.

Anguilla will do well to even score a goal in these ties, so Nicaragua should earn the tie against Suriname

Bahamas v Bermuda (23.30 25 March, 20.00 29 March)

The Bahamas became independent from the UK in 1973, and currently has a population of around 320,000. Wikipedia says that the Bahamas Football Association was formed in 1969, but joined FIFA in 1968- which is an unlikely state of affairs, hence I am more inclined to believe FIFA, who state the BFA were formed a year before joining FIFA. Wikipedia has the Bahamas as losing 8-1 to Netherlands Antilles in Panama, 1970. ELO Ratings do not mention them until 1974, when they beat Panama in the Dominican Republic, part of a series in the Central American and Caribbean games , which they followed with defeats by the Dominican Republic and Bermuda.

This is the sixth World Cup for Bahamas, but their first entry came to nothing as they withdrew without playing the games drawn against St. Kitts and Nevis. I have already mentioned the first two games actually played – when they beat Anguilla in each of two games in March 2000. The Bahamas played Haiti the following month, losing 9-0 away, and 4-0 at home. In 2004, Dominica conceded home advantage, so Bahamas played at home twice. While Bahamas drew 1-1 in the first game, they lost the second by 3-1.

In March 2008, they played both qualifying games against the British Virgin Islands at home. Fortunately for the Bahamas, the first leg was the home game (1-1), so by drawing again in the second leg (2-2), the Bahamas went through to play Jamaica. This time it was the Bahamas who gave up home advantage and they lost 7-0 and 6-0 in the two games.

Oddly, they won both the last two World Cup games, 4-0 away and 6-0 at home to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Despite this good start, they withdrew without playing the group games of the next stage, when they could have played Nicaragua, Panama and Dominica. They have also been absent in the recent runnings of the Caribbean Cup, so they have not played since the games against T&C in 2011.

With a population of 64,000; Bermuda is the most populous of the British Overseas Territories. Bermuda have produced a number of well known players in the English Leagues, with Clyde Best and Shaun Goater the best known. From 2006 to 2013, the Bermuda Hogges entered in the Premier Development League, a fourth tier league in the USA. The team was part owned by Shaun Goater.

The National FA were formed in 1928, and they affiliated to FIFA in 1962. Their first game, was a friendly in Iceland which they lost 4-3. In 1967, they won an away Olympic qualification game in the USA.

Bermuda’s World Cup records goes back to the 1970 World Cup when they started with a three team group playing both USA and Canada. They drew the home match against Canada 0-0, but lost the other three games. Still they were not entered in the next five World Cups. When they played again, a late goal from Goater gave them a 1-0 win over Haiti. Goater scored again to increase the lead in the second leg, and while Haiti managed to level the aggregate, Haiti went through on away goals. Next up were Antigua and Barbuda who were beaten twice, placing Bermuda in a group with El Salvador, Canada and Jamaica. Bermuda started well, with a 1-0 home win over El Salvador. They drew their other home games but lost all three away games

Again, they did not push on in the next tournament. Instead they withdrew after drawing to play Trinidad & Tobago. Bermuda were unbeaten in the 2002 competition, with two wins over the British Virgin Islands, followed by two draws against Antigua and Barbuda. As the home leg was 1-1 after 0-0 away, Bermuda went out on away goals. Similarly four years later, they easily overcame Montserrat (20-0 on aggregate), and then narrowly beaten by El Salvador (4-3 aggregate) and in 2008 they won away legs in matches against both Cayman Islands and Trinidad & Tobago. In the first round they had drawn the home game, so sent through but T&T beat them in Bermuda and went on to the group stage. Finally, they started with group games in 2011 – and played four at home after Barbados conceded home advantage. They still went out, but not far behind Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago – the defeats in these two countries were their first two games.

Since then, Bermuda’s rankings have not been helped as most wins have been against non-FIFA teams, Four wins when staging the Island games in 2013 (against Froya, Falkland Islands, and Greenland (twice)) mean nothing to FIFA. Still they have warmed up with a draw and a win against Grenada

Bermuda start as narrow favourites to go through to the next round, which would mean matches against Guatemala.

Belize v Cayman Islands (02.00 26 March, 01.00 30 March)

The winners play the Dominican Republic in the next round

British Virgin Islands v Dominica (23.00 26 March, 22.00 29 March)

The winners get to play Canada in June

Curacao v Montserrat (00.00 28 March, 23.30 31 March)

For the right to play Cuba.

The other matches in the second round are

St Vincent and the Grenadines v Guyana

Antigua and Barbuda v Saint Lucia

Puerto Rico v Grenada

209 to 1: The 2018 World Cup. 1. The nature of nations

March 8th, 2015

It may be well over three years before the 2018 World Cup fills our TV screens, but the tournament is just about to start in some of the lesser known footballing corners of the world. FIFA now has 209 members, one up on the numbers available for the last World Cup, and for the first time ever, all the members are believed to be entering into the draws. I am saying believed to be, as the qualifying draw does not actually take place until 25th July.

When the draw takes place, for countries in Europe it will still be a year before they start the new round of matches, as the 2016 Euros are completed first, but this is not the way of the rest of the world, where the playing of Continental and World competitions are mixed (and in some cases combined).

So you may ask. If the qualifying draw takes place in July to reduce the 209 countries in the World Cup to the 32 finalists, why am I starting to write in February. The reason is simple. Even before the July draw, the effort to pare down the numbers will have started. The North, Central and Caribbean American Association (CONCACAF) drew its first two rounds back in January, while the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) made its draw this month. Both areas will start with two legged knock out games in March.

Before I get onto the draws, which of course mean little except local pride – as they involve a few teams with no hope of being in the final 32 beating other teams with no hope of qualifying, I want to bring FIFA’s headline number to the fore.

209?

FIFA has 209 member associations, which makes it the largest international organisation in the World. The United Nations only has 193 members, which means to all intents and purposes there are only 193 countries in the World.

We all know one of the major difference, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is represented as a single member of the United Nations, but it has four members of FIFA competing separately. But this is not the end of the British involvement in the World Cup. Britain still has remnants from its empire. There are fourteen British Overseas Territories that for various reasons have not become independent states, or parts of other independent states. These territories are not independent, and so do not have their own representation at the United Nations, but six of them are FIFA members. The six are mainly Caribbean based, and all members of CONCACAF. They are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands. Hence the country (by United Nations standards) known as the United Kingdom has no less than ten FIFA members.

The British are not the only nation with old empires or other associations. The USA accounts for two more members of CONCACAF, in the form of the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Both have a status that stops short of making them full states, but gives the islanders US Citizenship. The USA also lays claim to two of the Pacific Island “nations”. Guam (which is a member of the Asian Confederation) and American Samoa (Oceania). Also in on the act are the Chinese. The two special administrative areas, Hong Kong and Macau had become members of FIFA long before administration returned to China in the last years of the 20th century. The change of sovereignty from Britain and Portugal to part of China has not changed their status with FIFA and they still run as independent members – both are part of the Asian Confederation. The fourth Chinese member is a matter of political fudge. Back in the 1970s, the United Nations accepted the political reality that China existed, and was not a province of Taiwan, (which refers to itself as the Republic of China). The situation ever since is that Taiwan has been effectively a self governing state, it has always fallen shy of calling itself independent, while the Chinese always claim Taiwan as part of their nation. It is something of a diplomatic faux pas to show an outline map of China which does not include Taiwan, as shown by the London Olympic Committee when they made the mistake, and were forced to quickly apologise.

While the United Nations transferred their seat from the Republic of China (i.e. Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China (i.e. the Mainland), and left the smaller territory not represented, sports organisations were more flexible in allowing both to stay members. So the Taiwan now plays as Chinese Taipei in international football

The Netherlands accounts for two more of the Caribbean territories in Aruba and Curacao. Newcastle United’s Dutch International Vurnon Anita was born on Curacao and could have played as an international there, but for some reason, having moved to Europe at the age of eight, he has chosen to play for the Netherlands instead. The French also have two island groups, New Caledonia and French Polynesia, both of which are members of the Oceania Football Confederation. French Polynesia is normally referred to as Tahiti for football. These leaves two final FIFA members which are considered parts of other nations, in the Cook Islands (Oceania) which is affiliated to New Zealand, and the Faroe Islands (UEFA) which is still part of Denmark.

That leaves one special case – Palestine. Palestine has some representation at the United Nations, but is not a full member state. As its neighbour, Israel has conveniently and politically aligned itself into UEFA, (there is no definition that includes the area within Europe), there is no argument with Palestine being a member of FIFA. They joined in 1998 and have taken part in international competition ever since, even though they had to wait until 2008 to play a home match.

Stopping for a moment, let’s do the math. I originally stated there were 209 FIFA members, compared to 193 in the United Nations. I then quoted 10 British members of FIFA, (compared to a single UN member), and four for USA, three for China, two for the Netherlands and France, one each for Denmark and New Zealand in addition to the nation at the UN. With the addition to the list of Palestine, I have enumerated 24 FIFA members who are not UN members, and only one (United Kingdom) the count in the opposite column. In other words, I have counted too many additional nations.

This means that dotted around the World there are seven recognised nations, members of the United Nations which are not members of FIFA. As it happens, six of the seven are island groups in the Pacific Ocean, and grouped together, the population is barely more than 300,000. These are Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Tuvalu. The seventh is a slightly different case, being situated in Europe, and having a football team in one of Europe’s major leagues. This is of course, Monaco. The leading team from Monaco plays at the only football field in the principality and in the top division of the French League. Monaco has decided not to attempt to join UEFA in order to ensure the status of their club. This is despite the example of countries such as Wales, San Marino, Liechtenstein, and Andorra – all of which have teams in the leagues of neighbouring countries, while fielding their own national team and having local competitions for entry to European Club competitions.

Monaco’s main club competition is played between company teams, with some games played on a small ground across the road from the Stade Louis II. The road is however the border between Monaco and France. So the matches are actually staged in France. The other ground I know to be used also abuts the border, but is on the French side, while Monaco’s reserve and youth teams also tend to use grounds in France. There is no sign that Monaco will attempt to change their status in International Football at any time in the near future.

The Vatican, for those who wonder has observer status with the UN, and hence is not a member of either organistation.

One may have noted that UEFA’s newest member, Gibraltar has not yet appeared on my list of non independent countries in FIFA, and you would also know that they are not a UN member. Despite having become a full member of UEFA, Gibraltar are not members of FIFA and thanks to opposition from Spain, this is not likely to change. Gibraltar managed to get various courts to support their bid for joining UEFA, especially as the organisation had tried to preclude their joining by changing some rules after the application had been started. The rule changes prevent other semi-independent territories from becoming UEFA members in the future, so the door is now closed to Jersey and Guernsey, and those disputed zones of Eastern Europe – Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Kosovo cannot change their UEFA status until their statehood is confirmed. Kosovo, at least gets to play some friendly internationals in the meantime

Gibraltar’s status as a member of UEFA, but not of FIFA is not at all unique. With the exception of CONMEBOL, the South American Federation, all the Federations that makeup FIFA have some members that are not also part of FIFA. Some are associate, rather than full members which does limit them to regional, and possibly continental football.

For UEFA, Gibraltar is the only oddity. The other 53 member states are all full members of FIFA as well. The home nations all compete in the Olympics as the United Kingdom, a team that would include any Gibraltarian Olympians. The Faroe Islands also does not have an Olympic team, being Danish in this regard. CONCACAF has six members who are not FIFA affiliated. They are all in the Caribbean, and are Bonaire, French Guiana, Guadeloupe, Martinique, Saint Martin and Sint Maarten. French Guiana, Martinique and Guadeloupe are all French territories with clubs actually playing in the French Cup, (along with the two French territories mentioned in Ocenaia). Saint Martin is also French and shares an Island with the similarly named Sint Maarten. Sint Maarten and Bonaire both remain parts of the Netherlands. None of these six, all recent additions to CONCACAF are members of the IOC, (International Olympic Committee), and four more of the dependent territories, Anguilla, Curacao, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands lack direct Olympic representation.

Africa has two associate members who play only in regional competitions. They are Reunion, a further French territory which enters a team in the French Cup and Zanzibar – the latter is a semi-autonomous region of Tanzania (which includes a good portion of people who might like full independence). Mayotte, which also has a team in the French Cup does not enjoy even associate status. Reunion and Zanzibar are also not members of the IOC, South Sudan, which is the most recent addition to membership of both the United Nations and FIFA is not as yet a IOC member. It was represented by a single runner at the London Olympics, Guor Marial, who was listed as an Individual Olympic Athlete and finished 47th in the men’s marathon.

Asia has one associate member, the Northern Mariana Islands. The NMI are, like Guam, territories of the USA. The actually changed affiliation from Oceania in 2009, having joined the East Asian Football Federation a year earlier. The Northern Mariana Islands recorded their first ever victory, a 2-1 win over Macau in an East Asian FF Qualifying game in 2014. They also played in the qualifying competition for the AFC Cup (a second ranking Asian competition, now disbanded) in 2013. As the World Cup and Asian Cup qualification procedure is being merged in Asia, there was speculation that NMI would take part in a World Cup qualifying, although they could not qualify. There is a precedence for this, as the Pacific Games used to be used as part of the World Cup qualification procedure even though it included non FIFA affiliated countries.

In fact the practise of using the Pacific games as part of the World Cup qualification regime was ended not because of the inclusion of non-FIFA members, but because of the inclusion of Guam – a member of the Asian Football Confederation. Oceania itself has three associate members, Tuvalu and Kiribati are both independent countries and members of the UN, so I have no doubt they could move up to full member status and join FIFA if they wanted, as could those four other UN members already mentioned, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, and Palau. It is surprising that the OFC does not try to push their membership through, as increasing the number of countries (and hence number of votes in FIFA congress) may not actually do anything to improve football on these Islands, but could help them to get a full slot in the finals, rather than one play off slot. The final member of Oceania is Niue, which like the Cook Islands is a generally autonomous state, but “I association” with New Zealand. Niue’s best ever football result was a 14-0 defeat by Tahiti in the 1983 Pacific Games, their worst result was a 19-0 defeat by Papua New Guinea on the following day. The first two days of September 1983 representing their entire international football history.

The Early Draws.

Although CONCACAF put out is draws first, it will be in Asia that the first matches are played. For reasons of their own, the AFC are not using recognised international dates, but are scheduling the two legged games on 12/17 March. Unless home and away matches get switched, all the home teams are seeded. IN Asia, the seeding tends to be meaningful, even if they are derived from FIFA rankings, as there tends to be a significant difference in quality as one drops down the rankings. I would not be surprised therefore if all five seeded teams got through, and I would certainly be surprised if more than one of the lesser teams broke ranks and qualified. I am putting the FIFA rankings (as at February 2015) in brackets. The draw was done using January 2015 seedings, which is poor news for Nepal and Pakistan, both of which rose up the rankings, and would have been seeded (in place of Chinese Taipei and Timor Leste) had the draw taken place later.

India (171) v Nepal (180)

Timor Leste (187) v Mongolia (194)

Cambodia (185) v Macau (188)

Chinese Taipei (186) v Brunei (198)

Yemen (179) v Pakistan (172)

Sri Lanka (173) v Bhutan (209)

 

The twelve countries that open this session of the World Cup have a varied, if unsuccessful World Cup pedigree. The first match to be played in the 2018 World Cup, some 1221 days before the final will also be the first International Football match to be played in East Timor

Timor Leste v Mongolia

Known in English as East Timor, Timor Leste first tried to declare independence (from Portugal) in 1975, but was then invaded by Indonesia, which took control for the next 27 years. They finally became independent in 2002, the first “new country” of the 21st Century. They made their footballing debut in qualifying games for the Asian Cup. This was in a group of three teams, with all matches played in Sri Lanka. East Timor actually went ahead three minutes into their first international, through an own goal by Mohammed Hamza. Falling behind, an East Timorian, Cabral scored an equaliser for East Timor, but it was not enough as Sri Lanka scored in the 89th minute to win the game. Timor Leste lost their other game in the series to Chinese Taipei (3-0).

Timor Leste sat out the 2006 World Cup qualifying, but entered a team for 2010. With the home stadium not suited for playing, they travelled around 700 miles to play the home leg on the Indonesian Island of Bali. Playing Hong Kong, they again lost 3-2, and then a week later went down 8-1 at the Hong Kong Stadium. In all, they lost their first 13 straight international games before drawing against and in Cambodia, in an ASEAN regional qualifying game in 2008. The score was 2-2. IN the summer of 2011, the World Cup came along with a pair of games against Nepal. This time they elected to play both games, just three days apart in Kathmandu. Both games were lost, with an aggregate of 7-1. East Timor have had some limited success in the 2012 and 2014 qualification games in South East Asia. The 2012 matches were played in Myanmar, and East Timor beat both Cambodia (5-1 no less) and Laos, while in 2014, playing in Laos, they gained a 4-2 win over Brunei, and a 0-0 draw with Myanmar. To date, East Timor have drawn 2 and won 3 of their 32 international games, (using the ELO Ratings database). East Timor’s World Cup record is four matches played, all lost.

The National Stadium in Dili has played host to Kylie Minogue, but not yet an international football match. Hence, the game on March 12th, is not merely the start of the World Cup, but also the historic first international game at the venue.

Mongolia’s debut on the International Football Scene was in 1960, when they played in a tournament in North Vietnam, losing three games to North Vietnam themselves (3-1), China (6-1) and North Korea (10-1). They then took a short sabbatical, not playing again until the 1998 Asian Games in Thailand, where they lost two games, to Kuwait (11-0) and Uzbekistan (15-0).

Mongolia’s World Cup debut was in 2001, in Asian qualifying for the 2002 World Cup. They were in a group of four teams, with all matches played in Saudi Arabia. Mongolia had to play Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Bangladesh (in that order) twice. After five defeats, Mongolia had lost all, without a goal and conceded 20 goals. The sixth game was a 2-2 draw against Bangladesh (neither of which could go further). This was the first time Mongolia had avoided defeat. In 2003, they won an East Asian Qualification game by 2-0, their first ever win. In the last three World Cup’s Mongolia’s participation has been limited to a two-legged first round game – played nearly three years before the finals. In 2003, a 1-0 home defeat to Madives was the first official international played in Mongolia, they lost the second leg by 12-0. Four years later, Mongolia lost 9-2 on aggregate to North Korea, and last time out Myanmar beat them, but the aggregate was just 2-1, and Mongolia won the home leg 1-0. Mongolia’s World Cup record is 12 games played, with one win and one draw.

East Timor are seeded to get through to the next round, but climate may be all important. East Timor is still within its wet season, not as hot as it can be but humid and sticky, by comparison they can expect dry and sunny weather in the return leg, and if they are lucky the temperature may rise above freezing point.

India v Nepal

India actually qualified for the 1950 finals in Brazil. However, two caveats apply. Firstly every one of their potential opponents in Asia and Oceania (Australia, New Zealand, Burma and Indonesia) withdrew so India qualified without playing, and secondly, India themselves withdrew without playing in Brazil. The myth is that this was because FIFA had banned barefoot football, but in reality it was more to do with the expense of the trip, and the feeling that the FIFA World Cup was secondary to the Olympics.

India also entered the competition in 1974, but withdrew without entering the draw, so it was 35 years after they could have played in the finals, when the opened their world cup account in the qualification rounds for the 1986 World Cup. Krishanu Dey scored India’s first world cup goal, to put them 1-0 up against Indonesia in Jakarta, but in front of a 70,000 crowd, they succumbed to a 2-1 defeat. India played two more away games – a draw in Thialand and a win in Bangladesh before starting their home campaign – by this time Indonesia had played five of their six games, and picked up four wins (2 points for a win in those days), so India needed to win all three games to reach the next round. It was not to be, as Indonesia took an early lead in the first game, and despite a late equaliser, India could not turn the game around as Indonesia had at home. Perhaps this was down to the crowds – the Salt Lake Stadium is known to regular see 80,000 watch Kolkata derbies, but for this game, only 10,000 turned out. The matches against Thailand (draw) and Bangladesh (won) were seen by even lower turnouts. For the 1990 World Cup, India were drawn in a five team group with South Korea, Singapore, Malaysia and Nepal. Home and away was abandoned, in favour of a series of games in Seoul, followed by a return series in Singapore. India thought better of this, and withdrew without playing.

They were back in 1994, and have played in every World Cup since, but they have never got out of their first group, or won a two legged qualification game. India have won eight and drawn 10 of their 33 World Cup games to date. Their last outing, in July 2011 was a two legged game against UAE, with India going down 3-0 in the away leg, so the 2-2 draw at home would only be a consolation. India enjoyed some success in early Asian Cup and Asian Games, (when the number of entrants were much fewer than today). They were runners-up in the 1964 Asian Cup in Israel, where the lack of contestants meant qualification was not required, and won the Asian Games tournaments in 1951 (home soil) and 1962 (Indonesia). In recent years they have had to content themselves to success in the South Asian Football Federation regional tournaments, India have reached the last five finals, winning three and are likely to stage the 2015 edition. They also staged the AFC Challenge Cup (a now disbanded competition for second ranked nations) in 2008, and by taking the title, they were given a place in the 2011 Asian Cup, where they failed dismally. This was the only time they reached the finals in the last 30 years. The most recent competitive result was the final of the 2013 SAFF Cup in Kathmandu, where they lost 2-0 to Afghanistan.

Nepal, who India play in their opening game also have a World Cup pedigree dating back to matches played in 1985. Nepal had joined FIFA in 1970, and the AFC two years later, but did not start to appear in the major tournaments until the 1980s. Nepal made their World Cup debut in 1985, when they lost 2-0 at home to South Korea. Two weeks later, Malaysia were held 0-0, again in Kathmandu. Nepal lost both away games, 5-0 in Malaysia, and 4-0 in South Korea. Four years later they lost all six games, and again did not score in attempting to qualify for the 1990 World Cup. Not surprisingly, they sat out the 1994 tournament. They also sat out qualification for 2006 (withdrawing after the draw was made – avoiding a match with Guam, who in turn also withdrew without playing). The first goal and second point was in the qualification for 1998, a 1-1 draw with Macau, while four years later they beat Macau twice (matches played in Kazakhstan) while losing the other four games in the group. With the change in recent years to two legged matches at the start of the competition, Nepal drew Timor Leste, (East Timor to you and me) in the last World Cup. This gave them the advantage of an opponent without a suitable ground, so both matches were played in Nepal. Nepal won both of these, 2-1 and 5-0, and even drew the home match of their second round game against Jordan. This of course was immaterial, as the first leg was played in Jordan, and Nepal were 9-0 down (lets repeat that in teletype fashion – nine) from the first leg. Overall, Nepal have won 4 of their 28 World Cup games, and drawn three.

The first leg of the games will be played in the Indira Ghandi Stadium in Guwahati, North Eastern India. The stadium has been recently renovated and used for the home games of North East United in the recent Indian Super League. Reports suggest sizable and vociferous crowds, which is what India will be hoping for. The second leg, five days later will be in Kathmandu at the Dasarath Rangasala Stadium.


India ( in Blue) Line up before losing 4-0 to Australia in Qatar, 2011

Cambodia v Macau

Cambodia have been playing International Football since 1956, playing as Khmer or Khmer Republic before switching to the name of Cambodia. They opened with a home game against Malaya in qualifying for the Asian Cup. They lost this 3-2, and the return leg in Malaya by 9-2. They were regular participants in Malaya’s annual Merdeka tournament, gaining the occasional draw, and finally started to win games in 1967, playing a group of Asian Cup qualifyers in Burma (now Myanmar). They then beat India 3-1 and Pakistan 1-0, but lost to the hosts by 1-0. For the 1972 Asian Cup, they actually won through qualification, playing in the finals for the first and only time. They beat Kuwait to reach the semi-finals of what was just a six team finals tournament. They lost the semi-final to Iran (the eventual winners) and the 3rd place play off to hosts Thailand.

Cambodia’s opening World Cup was in 1997, playing in a four team group searching for places in France the following year. The games were home and away and they started poorly, losing 8-0 to Indonesia in Jakarta. They got a point from the return game, but lost home and away to both Uzbekistan and Yemen. It was a similar story in 2001, trying to get to the Japan/South Korea World Cup. Cambodia managed to draw one home game (1-1 v Maldives), but they had already been beaten 6-0 in the Maldives, and went on to lose twice to each of Indonesia and China. Cambodia did not play in the qualification for Germany 2006. They lost twice to Turkmenistan in 2007, while in the last World Cup, they beat Laos in the home game, by 4-2 – but were 4-2 down after 90 minutes of the return in Vientiane. Two extra time goals gave Laos the second round game against China. Cambodia’s last competitive matches were also in Laos, in qualifying for the 2014 South East Asian Championships. Cambodia win two (against East Timor and Brunei), and lost two (against Laos and Myanmar).

Macau played their first international, at home to South Korea in 1949. They lost 5-1. The second attempt was at home to Australia, some 21 years later. Macau lost 9-0. Five years later, they tried again with Panama is the rather surprising choice of visitor. This was Macau’s first win, by 2-1. Competitive football started with Asian Cup qualification matches in the Philippines, with the opening game on Christmas Day 1978 ending in a win for South Korea. They then lost to China as well, but beat the hosts in the final game of the series.

Their opening World Cup game was in 1980, playing for a place in Spain 82. Macau only had to make the short trip across the Pearl river to play three games in Hong Kong – again over the Christmas period. They lost each game by 3-0 to North Korea, China on Christmas Eve, and to Japan four days later. In 1985, playing for a place in Mexico 86, Macau were in a four team group with China, Hong Kong and Brunei. Hong Kong and Macau played standard home and away games, although the Brunei vs China games were played on neutral venues – one each in Hong Kong and Macau. Macau won both games against Brunei, but lost the rest.

Macau sat out qualifying for 1994, but were back in the hunt for the 1998 World Cup. This time the group was against Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Malaysia and Nepal. Nepal however withdrew without playing, and Macau lost all six games, scoring only once and conceding 46. These games were played in only two venues, so Macau played three games in Malaysia, and then three in Saudi Arabia. Four years later, the same format was used for a group including Japan, Oman and Nepal (who did turn up this time). The games were played first in Oman, and then in Japan. Macau drew their first game in Muscat, and won their last game in Tokyo. Both of these were against Nepal. The four games against Oman and Japan were all lost.

Macau and Nepal were to meet again in the 2002 qualification games. Again neither were to play at home (although originally they were planning to play in Nepal). The other teams in the group were Iraq and Kazakhstan, with the first series of games in Baghdad, and the later series in Almaty. This time Macau lost all their games. As with the other teams I have mentioned, the last three World Cups have started (and finished) with two legged games. For Macau, the opponents in 2003 were Chinese Taipei (aggregate 1-6), then Thailand in 2007 (aggregate 13-2) and finally Vietnam in 2011 (aggregate in 13-1).

Macau’s last competitive game was a 3-2 win over Mongolia in the East Asian championships preliminary qualifying. Having drawn with the tournament host Guam, and then losing to Northern Mariana Islands, Macau were already incapable of qualifying. Mongolia did still have an outside chance. The one advantage for Macau is as Northern Mariana Islands are not FIFA members, the match did not count against them in the FIFA Rankings.

 

Chinese Taipei v Brunei

I have already mentioned something of the Taiwanese history. They have been playing international football in Asian tournaments since 1954. Indeed they entered into the 1954 World Cup, but withdrew without playing, the other two teams in the region, Japan and South Korea ending up settling the finals place in a two legged game. Similarly, four years later, they withdraw after being drawn to play Indonesia They then ignored the next four World Cups completely before finally trying their hand for qualification in 1977, ahead of the Argentina tournament the following year.

Although members of the Asian Confederation, Chinese Taipei were something of an inconvenience, thanks to the politics which meant the chance of meeting China itself was not acceptable. However, the solution was found by placing Chinese Taipei in with Australia and New Zealand. Oceania did not have its own qualifying groups at the time. Hence in 1977, the Taiwanese team lost twice each to Australia and New Zealand, and did not get a match on home soil. Both Australian games were played in Fiji, with Chinese Taipei’s first World Cup game being a 3-0 defeat. They lost 2-1 in the second game and then played two games in New Zealand, losing both by 6-0

In 1981, Australia, New Zealand, and Chinese Taipei were joined by Fiji and Indonesia, Chinese Taipei were defensively frugal, not conceding a goal in four home games, three of them draws, with Indonesia beaten by 2-0. All four away games, played in a 16 day period were lost.

The qualification for 1986 saw another political misfit joining in. Chinese Taipei played against Israel, as well as their two old foes, Australia and New Zealand. No home games this time, as theu travelled to play two matches in each of the opposition countries, losing them all, and conceding 36 goals in the process. Nothing learnt from their relative success in the previous series.

While Israel were again made to play Oceania teams in preparation for the 1990 World Cup, Chinese Taipei did not have to face them again. Instead their involvement was limited to a two legged game against New Zealand, losing 4-0 at home, 4-1 away

For the 1994 World Cup, Chinese Taipei were at least allowed into Asian qualification, in a group of five teams until Myanmar withdrew. Their other three opponents were Iran, Oman and Syria – this was a two venue group with the opening six games in Iran, then six in Syria. Taiwan lost all six of their matches, conceding 31 goals in the process. For 1998, the mix of opposition was more varied – Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Bangladesh. Again it was a two venue tournament, with a series of games in Malaysia, followed by a series in Saudi Arabia. Chinese Taipei started with a 2-0 defeat to Saudi, (in Malaysia), but then beat Bangladesh by 3-1. Their third game saw them lose 2-0 to their hosts. A week later, they drew with Malaysia in Saudi, but then lost 2-1 to Bangladesh before crashing 6-0 to the second host. As Bangladesh only got points for beating Chinese Taipei, the Taiwan team avoided finishing bottom of the group. It was a similar story ahead of the 2002 World Cup, the group games were played first in Uzbekistan, then in Jordan, with Turkmenistan is the fourth team in the group. Chinese Taipei fell to six defeats and did not even score a goal, while conceding 25.

You may have spotted it above – from the 2006 World Cup onwards the first round in Asia was a straight knock out game, and in November 2003, Chinese Taipei had to face Macau twice, winning the first match 3-0 at home, and then adding a 3-1 away win. The reward for this success was a group with Palestine, Uzbekistan and Iraq. Now all the Taiwanese home games were at home, but most of their travels were to alternates. They did play in Uzbekistan, but met Palestine in Qatar, and Iraq in Jordan. It almost goes without saying that they lost all six games.

For the last two cups, the draw has been less kind, and Chinese Taipei have fell at the first hurdle, to Uzbekistan (11-0 aggregate) and then extremely narrowly to Malaysia. Malaysia won the first leg 2-1, and extended the lead twice in the first half, each time being pegged back to level on the day. With 15 minutes to go, Chinese Taipei took a 3-2 lead from the penalty spot. However, this turned out to be the final goal of the game, and they went out on away goals. The goalscorer was Xavier Chen. Chen was born in Belgium to a French mother and Taiwanese father, and played in the Belgium under-19 team. He was then persuaded to switch allegiance to Chinese Taipei, but apparently has played only one game for them. AT the time, he played for Mechelen in Belgium, but he is now playing in mainland China. Since then, Chinese Taipei has played in two East Asian Cup qualifying tournaments, and one for the AFC Challenge Cup – Each time they have managed a solitary draw but lost their other games. The last East Asian group was played in Taiwan, where they were beaten by Guam and Hong Kong. In the final match, they drew 0-0 with a North Korean side who had already secured the place in the finals later this year.

Brunei’s world cup history is somewhat shorter. The country only became independent in 1984, after nearly a hundred years of being a British protectorate, (with a small gap when it turned out protectorate did not mean protected – at least against Japanese forces during World War II). Brunei have played in only two of the World Cup qualifying tournaments, attempting to achieve a place in the 1986 and 2002 finals. On both occasions they were placed in four team groups. These were groups with home and away matches, although while Brunei did indeed play both Hong Kong and Macau both home and away in 1985, they did not play either in Brunei or China for their games against the Chinese – instead these were played one each in Hong Kong and Macau. Incidentally, both Hong Kong and Macau visited Beijing, with Hong Kong winning their game there, and in doing so both qualifying for the next round and causing a riot among local soccer fans, rather embarrassingly for the Chinese officials, who had to get the army out to restore order.

Anyway, back to Brunei, who did not enter in the next three World Cups, but returned to the fray in a bid for a place in the 2002 finals. The opposition was Yemen, India and UAE, and all six were lost, with Brunei not even scoring a goal, (they conceded 28). In fact, Brunei’s greatest success had come in 1999, just not in official internationals. A Brunei team had been playing against the states of Malaysia, and Singapore in a Malaysian competitions since the 1920s when all were part of the British empire. With a population much smaller than most of the states, Brunei were not generally known for their successes, even after Singapore (who frequently won the title) pulled out in the mid-nineties. In 1999, Brunei shocked the Malays with a win. They beat Sarawak in a match that to date is the only final for both teams, and the only time two teams from Borneo reached the final. (Sabah, the other Borneo team has lost on three occasions). It was also the last final (to date) to be played at the historic Merdeka Stadium in central Kuala Lumpur. The team representing the Brunei FA was replaced in 2005 by DPMM, a team owned by their former goalkeeper (who just happens to be the Crown Prince of Brunei).


DPMM playing a Malaysian League match against Kedah in 2007

Having sat out the 2006 and 2010 World Cups, Brunei found themselves under FIFA suspension due to “government interference with the football association”. The argument hinged on the fact the FA had been suspended (along with many other sporting institutions in Brunei) for not correctly submitting paperwork. This was one of the periods when FIFA was authoritarian on such issues (they have always been remarkably inconsistent over such things). Brunei’s authorities did not quickly resolve the dispute, despite the effect this had on DPMM who had almost completed a first successful season in the Singaporean S-League. They had already won the league cup. The situation was not resolved until late in 2011, well after World Cup qualification had started DPMM returned to the S-League in 2012, finishing as runners-up twice (2012 and 2014) and winning the league cup in each of those year. The head coach for 2014 was former Blackburn Rovers coach Steve Kean, and he also took on the national team for their four games in the South East Asian Cup qualification last October. This resulted in four defeats for Brunei at the hands of East Timor, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.

Chinese Taipei should take this tie without too much difficulty.

Yemen v Pakistan

While Nepal may consider it unfortunate that they were not-seeded, when a draw that took place after the February rankings had been released would have been easier for them, Yemen have a similar problem from being seeded. It also shows the volatility of the seedings that win in a home friendly against Afghanistan pushed Paksitan 17 places up in the World rankings.

Other more local issues also conspire against Yemen. Just ask yourself when the FCO ever considered the Yemen a safe place to go to. Certainly not for many years now. Yemen is one of the generally ignored hotspots of International politics, as it does not have the comparative oil wealth of its immediate neighbours. One result of all this is that there has not been an international game played in the Yemen since 2012, when Palestine won there in a friendly.

South Yemen was a former British Colony that had been abandoned as more trouble than value, while the North was formed after the collapse of the Ottoman empire in 1918. The two generally got along with each other, despite occasional short lived disputes. Still the unification in 1990 certainly did not lead to prosperity. South Yemen played at various levels of football from 1965 to 1989. They only entered for one World Cup, the 1986 tournament when they were drawn against Bahrain and Iran. This was at the height of the Iran-Iraq was, and when the Iranians withdrew rather than playing games at neutral venues. The South Yemen – Bahrain games were played in March and April of 1985, with the first game played in Aden, South Yemen. Bahrain won this by 4-1, and a 3-3 draw in the home match saw them through to the next round. The Bahrain game was not only South Yemen’s only home World Cup tie, it was their last home match of any type. Curiously, the last tournament they played in was a tournament in Kuwait, soon before they united with the North, which also involved both Iran and Iraq (South Yemen lost to both, while they drew 0-0 with each other). The South Yemeni side did bring their international career to a halt with a win, 1-0 over Guinea, in the same Kuwaiti tournament

Like South Yemen, North Yemen also started to play international football in 1965. In fact both territories debuted in the 1965 Pan Arab games in Egypt. South Yemen starting with a 14-0 defeat by the hosts on September 3, while their Northern counterparts went down 16-1 to Libya. Like the South, North Yemen entered for the 1986 World Cup and played in March and April of 1985. North Yemen’s World Cup debut was a home defeat by Syria, 1-0. They then lost 5-0 in Kuwait, and 3-0 in Syria before returning to home soil to wrap up the campaign with a 3-1 defeat by Kuwait. North Yemen did enter the 1990 World Cup and played Syria and Saudi Arabia in qualifying. They lost three games by 1-0, and the fourth (Syria away), by 2-0. The game in Saudi Arabia was the last game played as North Yemen.

The first game for the United team was a 1-0 win in Malaysia, part of preparation for the 1990 Asian Games in China. At this time the captaincy of the side was rotated between players from North and South. At the games themselves, Yemen drew 0-0 with both Thailand and Kuwait before losing their third game, by 2-0 to Hong Kong. Next up was 1994 World Cup qualifying, with a two venue, five team group. Yemen’s first World Cup game was a 1-1 draw with Jordan, in Jordan, and they followed this up with a 5-1 thrashing of Pakistan. Iraq showed themselves somewhat stronger, and beat Yemen 6-1. Yemen then beat China 1-0, before heading to China for the second legs. Here they again drew with Jordan, and again beat Pakistan, but lost to both Iraq and China finishing third in the group. Only Iraq progressed.

Four years later, Yemen beat Cambodia twice, and drew with Indonesia twice, but came second in a group where Uzbekistan beat them twice. This was a home and away group, as was qualifying for 2002, where they came even closer to getting through the first round. Yemen won two of their three home games, beating Brunei and UAE, and drew with India. Away from home, they also drew with India and beat Brunei, but lost to the UAE. India had an identical record, but UAE won four games (all the homes and Brunei away) to win the group by a point.

This was enough success to mean that when the lowest seeds in Asia played knock out matches, prior to group games for the 2006 World Cup, Yemen were not in those lowest ranked teams, and went through to group matches with UAE, Thailand and North Korea. Crucially none of these had played in the first round, and Yemen finished bottom of the group, with one win (UAE – home) and two draws (North Korea Home, Thailand Away). North Korea won the group. For the 2010 World Cup, Asia played two knock out rounds prior to groups. Yemen won through the first of these, with an aggregate win over Maldives (3-0 home, 0-2 away) but then lost to a single goal in Thailand after a drawn home game. Yemen were given an exemption in the first round for the last world cup, but despite having staged the Gulf Cup (which includes Iraq) at the end of 2010, by the time of the games against Iraq in the summer of 2011, Yemen was considered an insecure country to play in. Iraq won 2-0 at home, while the return match was played in Al-Ain, UAE and ended scoreless

Pakistan came into existence with the partition of the sub-continent in 1948. Their first international match was a friendly in 1950, when they went down 5-1 in Iran. Two years later they played a small tournament, the Colombo Cup in Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was then known), drawing first with India (0-0) but then beating both the hosts and Burma. They did not try for the World Cup until the 1990 edition, when they were grouped to play home and away games with Kuwait and UAE. Pakistan’s first Word Cup game was a 1-0 home defeat by Kuwait, they then lost both away games before scoring their first World Cup goal in a 4-1 home defeat by UAE.. I have already mentioned the 1994 campaign insofar as they lost both games to this year’s opponents, Yemen. Pakistan actually finished bottom of the group with eight defeats out of 8. They scored just twice. They increased the goals scored yet again for the next World Cup, going up to three. All three were scored against Iraq, two at home and one away, but Iraq were to hit 6 in each game. Kazakhstan also played in the group and put ten goals past Pakistan. In qualification for 2002, Pakistan were not to play at home, but only in Lebanon and Thailand. The fourth team in the group was Sri Lanka (now under current name). Again Pakistan increased their goal tally, reach five goals in the six games. Four of these were against Sri Lanka, including Pakistan’s first World Cup point from a 3-3 draw in Lebanon. Hence Pakistan gained their first draw in their 19th World Cup game.

Moving onto knock out games, Pakistan played Kyrgyzstan over two legs in 2003, well ahead of the 2006 finals, losing both games aggregate of 6-0.They have since increased their run without scoring to three World Cups, but have managed draws in the away leg against Iraq played in 2007 (after losing 7-0 at home), and the home leg against Bangladesh in 2011 after losing the away leg 3-0. The “away” match to Iraq in 2007 was played in Syria – so this is not the first time Pakistan have been helped by problems abroad.

Apart from Yemen not enjoying home advantage, the first leg being played in Qatar, Pakistan have gained moderate results in recent competitive games including wins over Macau and Bangladesh in 2013. This gives them hope that they may finally win a World Cup game, and actually win the round.


Sri Lanka v Bhutan

Sri Lanka became independent from Britain, along with India and Pakistan in 1948. It operated under the name Ceylon until 1972. Their first international football matches where in the Colombo Cup (already mentioned for Pakistan) in 1952, when first India and then Pakistan beat the hosts 2-0. Although Colombo (when not detecting in a dirty raincoat) is the capital of Sri Lanka, the Colombo cup was not fixed to the city or country, and was played in Burma, India and Pakistan in successive years. It was in India, in 1954 that the Sri Lankans first drew with the hosts, and then beat Burma. Sri Lanka made their world cup debut in the qualifying games for 1994. They were drawn in a two venue five team group with games in Japan and the UAE. They also had to play Thailand and Bangladesh. Their first World Cup game was therefore a 4-0 defeat by UAE in Japan. No goals were scored in the 8 game series, 28 were conceded and all 8 games were lost.

Only one venue, Qatar was used for the four team group including Sri Lanka ahead of the 1998 World Cup, this started poorly when Sri Lanka went down 3-0 to the hosts, but they improved to get a 1-1 draw with India, and then beat the Philippines by 3-0. Two venues, Lebanon and Thailand were used before 2002, with Pakistan making up the group. Sri Lanka got nothing from games against either host, but they managed to draw the first game against Pakistan (3-3), and win the second match 3-1. Sri Lanka started 2006 qualifying with a two legged game against Laos, drawing the away game 0-0, and then winning the first World Cup game to be staged on their own turf by 3-0. This gave Sri Lanka home and away matches with Turkmenistan, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia. In Colombo, Sri Lanka managed draws (both 2-2) with both Indonesia and Turkmenistan, but they lost the other four games. In the last two tournaments, the first series of two legged matches also turned out to be the last, Qatar winning both games before the 2010 World Cup, while the Philippines accounted for them last time out, with Sri Lanka managing a draw in the home game


Action from the 2010 AFC Challenge Cup in Sri Lanka

Bhutan, a small landlocked country in the Himalayas is the first country in the World to measure Gross National Happiness. According to Business Week magazine, it is quite good at this. Being rated the happiest country in Asia. Happiness does not require being defeated in early World Cup qualifying games, and as far as I know, this is only the second time that Bhutan have been included in the draw for the World Cup. On the previous occasion, 8 years ago, Bhutan were drawn to play Bahrain but thought better of the idea and gave their opponents a walkover.

Bhutan first appeared on the football scene in 1982, with a 3-1 defeat in Nepal. They played 8 local games, all losses before going into hibernation for a dozen years. On their return they lost a few matches in the South Asian Cup and then entered the qualification rounds for the Asian Cup. This meant four games in Kuwait, with Bhutan scoring only in the last of these, an 11-2 defeat by Yemen, the group hosts beat them by 20-0. By June 30 2002, World Cup Final Day, the record of Bhutan in international football was simple. Played 20, Lost 20. Naturally they were bottom of the FIFA rankings. They also had never staged a home game. Then along came the Dutch advertising agency wondering who was the worst team in the World, (spurred on by the Netherlands failure to reach the 2002 finals). They decided to invite the lowest pair of teams of the FIFA World Rankings to play a challenge match. Montserrat accepted the challenge, but with their home crowd having been destroyed by a volcano, a single match in Bhutan was agreed. FIFA agreed to play this on World Cup final day, a few hours ahead of the main event. Wangay Dorji put Bhutan into the lead after five minutes as Bhutan took the initiative. It took more than an hour before the score was increased, Dorji scoring from a free kick. With Montserrat tiring at the end of the game, Bhutan eventually won 4-0 and Dorji completed his hat-trick. The referee was an Englishman, Steven Bennett. Bhutan did not exactly push on from this, losing all three games without scoring in the next South Asian tournament, but they had got the taste for staging the occasional home match, and were rewarded with the early qualifying stage for the 2004 Asian Cup. The opponents were Guam (beaten 6-0) and Mongolia (0-0) which put Bhutan through to the next stage. Six matches in Saudi Arabia in which Bhutan lost every won without scoring a goal. Bhutan’s third and most recent win was in the 2008 South Asian Cup, where they beat Afghanistan by 3-1 in Sri Lanka. Bhutan are now in last place of the FIFA rankings, the only team without a ranking point, which means they have lost every game played for the last four years – they have played 11 games in that time, but the run actually goes back 19 games since the win over Afghanistan.

Despite their low rankings, Bhutan are actually unbeaten in home games. The three matches mentioned in this piece (two wins and a draw, no goals conceded) are in fact the only games they have played at home. I suspect Sri Lanka will gain enough of an advantage at home, that it will not matter if Bhutan can retain this status for the return game.

The Winters Tale.

February 24th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where do we go from here?

February 14th, 2015

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

  1. Success.
  2. Failure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Speak too Soon

February 2nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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