Thoughts on 2014/15

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Sean Dyche

Another year. A few things to look forward to and a few things to dread in unequal measure

No more laughing at United 

Before writing this I had a quick look back at United’s results last season because I’d almost forgotten how shit they were. David Moyes’ side lost so many times at Old Trafford that it completely devalued the achievement of winning there. Even Pardew won there. EVEN PARDEW.

It wasn’t just the defeats, either. It was the pervasive sense of blunder that accompanied everything United did. I mean, that story about Moyes’ high tech bunker was risible enough, but the full extent of their fall from the heavens was revealed when Steve Round got snapped with that ring binder at Everton. That was the final straw. Here was a club that had swaggered all over everyone for two decades, reduced to waving printouts that looked like they’d been knocked up in the school graphics department. And, of course, there was the plane, laying bare the breadth of twattery that exists within United’s fanbase.

The thing is, that’s happened. It’s done, and you sense that come October, it will feel like very ancient history indeed. While the arrival of Louis Van Gaal does not guarantee trophies it almost certainly rules out a repeat of last season’s humiliations. We’ve only had a handful of pre-season games but the swagger is already returning.

United fans are already bristling at the prospect of being good again, and will no doubt ram it down everyone’s throat if they are. Expect them to be unbearable.

Kind of wish I’d piled in more now.

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I tried to save Glenn Roeder’s Watford career

Ah, pre-season and the transfer window. Spurious conjecture and wild speculation command the attention of millions. It’s a great time to be alive, but back in the mid-90’s times were tough. You had newspapers, the odd paragraph on Teletext, and for the truly desperate, ClubCall – a premium rate phone line for fans to listen to pre-recorded transfer gossip.

Watford’s transfer targets rarely made the back pages of the nationals, so most of the significant information came from the Watford Observer – the local weekly paper. One update a week. It was hell, and in the summer of 1994 I could not wait to find out where Watford would be investing the large sums they had received from the sales of Paul Furlong and Bruce Dyer. Selling Furlong in particular was a huge blow, given that he was arguably the most complete centre forward in England at the time. But, despite the loss of such an irreplaceable talent there was also sense of expectation, because Watford had actual money to spend – a new experience for me.

Being naïve I assumed they would invest a good chunk of it on the team, which meant the manager, Glenn Roeder, could be pretty ambitious with his targets. I started to dream about a big name signing to shove in the face of the haters at school, especially Paul Lewis, the Luton fan I sat next to in maths. That smug bastard was already boasting about their new forward line of Plymouth’s Dwight Marshall and Peterborough’s Tony Adcock. We needed to think big.

However, after waiting a couple of weeks and hearing nothing about a new striker, I started to panic. Why was this all taking so long? I realised Glenn might need some help identifying suitable targets, so decided to lend him the benefit of my detailed knowledge of football things. Based on my expert insights and tactical nous I managed to narrow my focus to one target: Kevin Campbell.

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World Cup goals: Ronaldo is a worthy leader, boring Klose is not.

Ronaldo

Germany’s recent World Cup warm up game against Armenia proved to be significant for two reasons: one, Marco Reus picked up an injury; and two, Miroslav Klose’s 69th international goal established him as his country’s all-time leading goal scorer, beating Gerd Müller’s record.

It’s quite an achievement for Klose, but then he did require almost twice as many appearances to rack up his total. If Müller had played as many fixtures as Klose, surely his tally would be unachievably high? Maybe, but comparing footballers from different eras always comes down to opinions. Some would argue that life was easier for strikers in the 60s and 70s than it is today. Who knows how many Klose would have scored had he played in Germany’s exceptional team of that era?

The problem with judging Klose is that he is an inherently ordinary player with an extraordinary record. There is nothing remarkable about his game. He will not be remembered as one of the great strikers of his generation, and since Müller there have been other more obviously eye catching German strikers. Klose doesn’t have Jurgen Klinsmann’s athleticism, Rudi Voeller’s skill, or Andreas Moller’s ridiculously arrogant swagger. It is hard to imagine that he will ever be spoken of in the same way as any of these predecessors – and yet, there he is, sitting on top of the pile.

But, having conquered Germany, Klose has an even greater target within reach – THE WORLD. Mr ordinary has 14 World Cup goals, which puts him one behind first place on the leader board, a position currently occupied by Ronaldo.  Now, there is no debate about Ronaldo’s greatness. He is one of the greatest centre forwards to play the game, and his combination of phenomenal power with exquisite skill was, before injuries took their toll, almost unstoppable.

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Can’t help getting excited about the World Cup

Maradona BelgiumIt’s debatable whether there has ever been a golden period for the World Cup. If there was it was probably in the 70’s and early 80’s, when Brazil and Holland pretty much guaranteed entertainment. After that it’s been a mixed bag, and the event itself has become a grotesquely bloated vision of what it once was. Host nations plough billions into developing stadia while FIFA takes billions in sponsorship revenues. Tickets are set prohibitively high for many people to buy them, and local traders are shunted aside to allow corporate partners to reap maximum benefits from this four week harvest.

The process that decides where tournaments are to be held is a corrupt farce, resulting in outcomes so irrational they make a mockery of everyone involved. We have reached the point where the World Cup is being presented as some sort of purpose built Expo or World Fair. A chance for a nation with ridiculous resources to show what it can make and do, with the ability to play football matches barely considered, while less tangible factors like culture and atmosphere aren’t even on the agenda. FIFA has gotten so fat from the World Cup it can’t help itself. It doesn’t care about makes a good tournament for the people watching it, it only cares about how much money can syphoned off.  And, this year’s tournament in Brazil – which should be an amazing setting – has an overtly political backdrop, with demonstrations expected by local populations disgusted at their Government’s wasted resources when millions live in poverty.

So, there’s all that to digest. It’s hardly a great way to get into World Cup Fever (©FIFA). You could make a pretty convincing case that we should bin the World Cup completely and start over – if only to get rid of FIFA – but that would miss the point. The World Cup is just a reflection of the changes that have happened to football over the past two decades, and most of those have been driven by the major European leagues. For example, we have these pathetic rules to try and curb the ridiculous excesses of clubs under the ruse of ‘fair play’; the money comes from all over the world and no one really questions whether that’s ok; leveraged buyouts in football are actually a thing; and, Barcelona and Real Madrid – so often the toast of European football – are under investigation by the EU for irregular public funding’. If they’re found guilty it essentially means they’ve been systematically cheating for years. Wonderful.

And yet, despite the endless truckloads of manure slurry that FIFA has poured over the World Cup – it’s still fucking great because none of this club v club bullshit really applies. Players can’t play for one country for years and then switch to another for more money or a ‘better chance of winning trophies’ as it’s otherwise known.

Any nation can produce talented footballers, even tiny ones like Bosnia, playing in its first World Cup this summer. Of course, some nations exploit family ties to recruit talent from outside their borders, but the majority of footballers represent what they feel is their home nation, because they actually want to.

It matters to get to the world cup. It matters to perform well at the finals, and it definitely matters if you win one. Sometimes a nation has to wait generations for enough talent to emerge at the same time to establish a competitive team, like the Belgians this year. There are occasional once in a lifetime collections of talent, such as the Yugoslavians in 1990 and the Croatia side of 1998. Or, you get solid teams built around one magnificent star, such as Hristo Stoichkov’s Bulgaria in 1994. History is littered with teams that surprised and surpassed expectations.

The nostalgia that precedes each tournament tells you how much these moments live in the memory. People start talking about their favourite world cup goals and teams. The media start replaying highlights and writing about classic moments. People can’t get enough of it, because it remains a platform for greatness that can only be partially destroyed by greed. The swaggering egos of superstar footballers that are nauseating during the regular season become compelling at the World Cup, because here they don’t get many second chances. There’s no time to wage a campaign to get the manager sacked if you don’t like his approach (unless you’re France). That’s not to say the big names always turn up, but the ones that do are the ones that get talked about forever.

Wayne Rooney might have a lucrative new contract, but Dennis Bergkamp’s goal against Holland will be resurrected every four years for eternity. That’s what the World Cup provides – immortality.

It’s a wonderful thing. It is depressing that FIFA will have done everything they can to sterilise the setting for this year’s tournament, but Brazil is still the most iconic nation to play host to this event. Personally, I think the Russian World Cup will be pretty cool because it’s an interesting place, and it will showcase a lot of the lesser known towns and cities that rarely make the news. After that things look a bit shit, granted. But, even then, I doubt people will switch off. FIFA know this – it’s what enables them to be complete bastards and get away with it, but I don’t want to finish on a negative, and Qatar is still eight years away.

The World Cup in Brazil is about to start and it’s impossible not to be excited about that. Come at me, football. Come at me.

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The worst Premier League idea yet: B teams

B-Team Logo 2

A couple of years ago the Premier League strong armed the football league into accepting its proposed Elite Player Performance Plan. If you can’t recall the particulars it basically gave Premier Clubs greater freedom to hoover up young players from smaller clubs. It means any player showing a glimpse of potential is likely to end up on the books of one of the country’s largest clubs, joining huge first team squads before being farmed out on loan for three or four seasons to try and prove themselves. In other words, a massively accelerated version of the current trend, undermining the incentive for smaller clubs to invest in youth development. It means those smaller clubs are only likely to keep hold of the lesser talented players, while the best ones will be signed to a bigger, bloated fish as early as possible.

The logic behind this policy is that the big fat clubs know best. They have spent the most on shiny new academies, and players can’t develop unless they’re running on a tread mill wired up to computers like some sort of military experiment to create the ultimate weapon. Stability and a gradual introduction to first team football are no longer important factors, apparently. This probably sounds like sour grapes from the fan of a Football League club – which it is – but it seems Premier League expansion isn’t going to stop there. The FA are considering plans to introduce one of the worst ideas that European football has to be offer in the form of ‘B’ teams.

You may have noticed that many of the major clubs in Spain and Germany have ‘B’ teams competing in the lower divisions of their professional or semi-professional structure. This means clubs like Bayern Munich and Barcelona can run an entire second string set up for their younger players, giving them regular competitive football against real clubs with experienced pros, instead of academy fixtures played at training complexes.

It means they can blood their vast squads of first team hopefuls in a professional setup that they control, instead of packing them off on loan to various clubs in the lower leagues. This sounds great for the big clubs, and the FA no doubt hopes it means better long-term development of future England players (where have we heard that before?). However, for fans of lower league clubs, this proposal stinks. Competing against clubs of similar size and status is enjoyable because it has purpose – your club taking points at their expense. It is a competition, after all.

The Premier League would surely like the competitive challenge provided by the Football League and Conference in a way that it can control more directly. But, taking points off a glorified reserve team is as far removed from the romantic ideal of football as you can get. These ‘B’ teams will not really be competing with the established league sides they face – they will have a ceiling beyond which they cannot pass, so even if  they continuously win their division, they will not be promoted.  No one really cares about these ‘B’ teams – their home fans will be anoraks with nothing better to do, essentially the same people that used to attend reserve team matches when they were a thing.

One of the best things about football in England are the attendances in the lower professional and semi-professional tiers of the game. They are remarkable compared to most other countries. And, now the Premier League want to rip it all up because they’ve decided ‘B’ teams are the way forward. It’s much easier to destroy things than it is to build them, so you’d hope Greg Dyke and his Commission at the FA have second thoughts before rushing to accept the proposals they are currently considering.

However, it’s not like the FA has track record of getting things right, so we should probably assume that this is going to happen one way or another within the next five years. If the Premier League wants this to happen – it probably will, and press reports suggest they’re broadly in favour. Another limb hacked off the corpse of English football.

 

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