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January 2013

Week 24 – Slayers (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

30 Jan 2013(Wed)

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Although the latter stages and final will remain directly overshadowed by the climaxes of the richer competitions – a scandalous downfall in which the Football Association itself has also been complicit – the third and fourth rounds of this season’s FA Cup have shown that its most appealing dimension is in rather rude health. Giant-killing is back, in vogue, bigger and better than ever.

Despite the apparently renewed determination of big clubs like Manchester United to make a real crack at the Cup – football’s oldest – shock results like Leeds United edging Tottenham Hotspur and Oldham Athletic’s nail-biting win over Liverpool mean that at least nine of the 16 places in the fifth round will be filled by teams from outside the Premier League. This will rise to double figures if League One side Brentford, only denied a famous win over near neighbours Chelsea by that Fernando Torres equaliser seven minutes from time, can finish the job in their replay at Stamford Bridge.

The most outstanding name left in the hat are the sole remaining non-league representatives, Luton Town. Having quietly started their Cup campaign back in October with victory at Cambridge United in the fourth qualifying round before unimpressive wins over tiny Nuneaton Town and Dorchester Town, the Conference outfit achieved the greatest upset in over two decades when Scott Rendell’s 80th-minute strike eliminated Norwich City on their own Carrow Road patch.

It was the first time that anyone from outside England’s four wholly-professional tiers had taken a top-flight scalp since Sutton United beat Coventry City in 1989; and the first away from home since Birmingham City 1-2 Altrincham in 1986. Significantly, these late-Shōwa scorelines came just before football’s economic landscape was forever changed with the advent of the Premier League in 1992.

Relegated from the old First Division to the new Division One that summer, Luton are no strangers to the flip side of the financial coin. They are certainly no minnows, having beaten Arsenal to win the League Cup at Wembley in 1988 and remaining one of just a dozen teams to have played in three or more FA Cup semi-finals since 1985. Indeed, their previous meeting with Norwich had come in the second tier’s latest incarnation, the Championship, as recently as 2007. But a serious of disastrous ownership sagas culminated in a total of 40 points deducted as the Hatters suffered three consecutive relegations and fell out of the Football League, their home for 89 years, in 2009.

The first seeds were sewn when John Gurney took over in 2003, leading the club into administrative receivership after a few weeks in which he fired manager Joe Kinnear and encouraged fans to phone in their votes – a sham – for his replacement. Things briefly improved before Gurney’s own successor, Bill Tomlins, was forced to resign in April 2007 with the club under investigation for illegal payments made to player agents. Luton dropped down from the Championship and quickly back into administration, resulting in a 10-point penalty that accelerated their descent into League Two before the nightmare summer of 2008. In the most Draconian punishment in English football history, it was announced they would have to kick off the following season on minus 30 points – 10 docked by the FA for the payments affair, and a further 20 by the League for failing to secure a smoother exit from insolvency. Recovery was impossible.

Another heartbreak three-peat – this time narrow defeats in the promotion playoffs – may have consigned Luton to a fourth season in the Conference, but financial stability has finally been secured under the Luton 2020 consortium led by television presenter Nick Owen. The compact, 10,226-capacity Kenilworth Road stadium has changed little since the glory days, save for the compulsory installation of seats to cover the old terraces, but confidence is slowly returning to the stands again. As Kevin Rye of Supporters Direct told The Guardian, “The key difference now is that the club is run by people who care, and that’s a very good starting point.”

Earlier this month, I had the pleasure of being present to witness the cauldron of noise that greeted the victorious Hatters when their 1-0 success over Wolverhampton Wanderers was a highlight of the FA Cup third round. For the fifth, they will return home for an eminently winnable tie with Millwall – currently ninth in the Championship – raising hopes of further headlines to follow.

If anyone at Luton is afraid to dream, they only need look at the example of Bradford City, who last week added Aston Villa to a list of victims that already included Wigan Athletic and Arsenal in becoming the first fourth-tier team to reach the League Cup final in fully 51 years – since Rochdale in 1961. The Bantams are another example of a club to which smiles and wider attention are now returning after a rapid decline; they played in the Premier League for two years around the turn of the millennium but spent too much in an attempt to stay there and suffered three relegations in seven seasons.

Meanwhile, Bradford’s opponents at Wembley are perhaps the ultimate example to those hoping for better times to follow. Swansea City only avoided relegation to the Conference on the final day of the 2002/03 season, but put their money worries behind them with a new ownership structure that includes a 20% stake and a place on the board for their supporters’ trust. They are now one of the most attractive teams in the Premier League, boast the legendary Michael Laudrup for a manager, and – unlike Bradford, who won the 1911 FA Cup – now actually stand on the brink of their first ever major English honour.

Football, as Sir Tim Berners-Lee once said of his World Wide Web creation, is for everyone. The Cups, and the exploits of the supposedly smaller clubs therein, have reminded us of that.

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Week 23 – Value for money (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

23 Jan 2013(Wed)

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In times of such economic austerity, ever greater become our desire and need for ‘value for money’. The United Kingdom’s slide towards what would be an unprecedented triple-dip recession is clearly symbolised with a walk down almost any high street – where, in the last month alone, film rentals chain Blockbuster, electrical giant Comet, and the legendary music group HMV have joined the list of big-name retailers to enter administration and start closing their doors.

Amidst a tightening market, each have paid for their tardiness in recognising and adjusting their business models to suit the online paradigm shift in British consumer habits. In the cases of Comet and HMV, they have effectively ended up providing a free showroom service where customers can choose which products to buy, before whipping out their smartphones to seal an instant deal with the cheapest internet vendor. It is a lesson that should be closely observed by the big chain stores in Japan, where the deepest effects of the global financial crisis are arguably yet to hit quite so hard, and the wider public transition towards e-commerce is certainly a good few years behind.

Football, of course, exists in a bubble well beyond the stratospheric reach of the real world – inflated not only by oil money but also by the insatiable demand for domestic and global broadcast rights. Assuming, perhaps correctly, that a population with less money to spend and fewer shops in which to spend it will be more inclined to stay at home and watch television, Sky and BT have shelled out a collective £3.018 billion to show live Premier League matches for three seasons from 2013/14.

When the renewed – at significantly higher prices – contracts for overseas channels are thrown into the equation, the worldwide TV income is reportedly set to total around £5.5 billion. This will likely mean prize money of £100 million per season for the English champions, with the 20th-placed club receiving £60 million – Manchester City’s reward for winning the title last term.

Supporters are already demanding that the benefits are passed on, at least partly, to them. The expectation and fear, unsurprisingly, is that new profits will once again line the pockets of players and agents whose annual salaries already spread across seven or eight figures, but public anger over Premier League admission costs reached a head the weekend before last when Manchester City returned a third of their allocation for the away end at the Emirates – priced at fully £62 per head. The issue evolved into an embarrassing public relations gaffe for hosts and league alike when police were called over to assist the matchday stewards in forcefully removing the protest banners of those who had forked out the cash to travel south.

Arsenal’s counterargument was that a) City now represent top-category opponents and b) £62 was the same value as the cheapest home ticket. But quoting the general admission price ignores the fact that most of the crowd were season ticket-holders, for whom the average match will work out that bit cheaper, while £62 is frankly obscene whether you’re charging friends or foes. Unlike the armchair shoppers whose freedom to rent movies from Netflix and LoveFilm spelled doom for the less progressive services at Blockbuster, real football fans do not have the luxury of switching brands or picking and choosing where they shop. The more expensive clubs might one day face their own sudden recession if they prioritise day-tripper consumers over the unique customer loyalty they take for granted.

Arsène Wenger, of course, is rarely loath to talk about ‘value’ in the transfer market, even if cynics will point out an enormous wage bill padded out by top-dollar deals for unremarkable Arsenal squad players. Glazernomics have forced Sir Alex Ferguson to sing from a similar songsheet, while registration rules for European competition mean that there are fewer tempting ‘for sale’ signs available in January anyway.

Even at Chelsea, where money is obviously little object at board level, recent weeks have brought about an intriguing manifestation of supporters’ perceptions over value on the pitch. Throughout two years of toil since his £50 million move from Liverpool, the Stamford Bridge faithful have remained precisely that to Fernando Torres, even while the rest of the country laughed at the ‘2.75 goals per manager’ stat bandied about when Rafa Benítez was appointed in November. But all of a sudden, this is now being subverted – partly, perhaps, because of the forward’s association with his interim boss, but more noticeably ever since the spectacular arrival of Demba Ba.

While the Blues were winning the European Cup through the sheer willpower of Didier Drogba, there was always an excuse for second-choice Torres, and fans have generously appreciated his efforts following the number nine’s elevation to main man at the start of this season. But Ba’s immediate impact – two goals in the FA Cup at Southampton and another against the same opponents in the league – has removed the wool from their eyes. The glorious passing skills of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, and company really do provide the dream environment for any striker, so if the man they signed for £7 million can hit the jackpot, why can’t the superstar brought in for seven times that? The Spaniard’s inclusion for Sunday’s 2-1 win over Arsenal was greeted with bemusement; his withdrawal for Ba on 80 minutes with unsubtle cheers.

Incidentally, after years spent harvesting the fruits of his home country, France, Wenger now believes the best value can be found among players developed in three other markets – Germany (where Ba made his name), Spain, and Japan. It is only a shame that the United Kingdom’s stricter immigration rules make it difficult for Premier League clubs to target the J. League directly.

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Week 22 – If it is broke (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

16 Jan 2013(Wed)

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“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a fine but overused mantra, suffering as it does from the short man syndrome of knowing it will never quite be on a logical parallel with its polar opposite. Mending things that are broken is, after all, very seldom a bad idea. In just this past week – admittedly not my most fortunate – since returning to Japan from a greatly-enjoyed holiday back in England, I have repeatedly proven this simple principle by obtaining a prescription to help see off the norovirus, and purchasing a new Blu-ray Disc player and earphones to replace those that successively gave out on me during my own recuperation. If only I can find a way to overcome the start-up problems that are now suddenly afflicting this computer, my stress will be right back down to Somerset levels.

Brendan Rodgers, too, has acted quickly to start fixing what was quite clearly broken at Liverpool. No sooner had everyone’s New Year’s Day hangovers subsided than Daniel Sturridge was being paraded at Anfield following the conclusion of his less-than-secret – shock, horror – transfer deal from Chelsea. Essentially left with just one forward to fit into a front three after Andy Carroll was foolishly allowed to leave on loan without a replacement arriving, plus injury to summer signing Fabio Borini, reducing the side’s overreliance on the mercurial talents of 19-goal Luis Suárez was, for Rodgers, an obvious first priority of 2013. Although £12 million was an inflated tag, in Sturridge he has acquired a striker capable not merely of deputising for, but complementing the Uruguayan as the perfect foil.

Suárez has scored exactly one third of Liverpool’s goals so far this season, with his roving movement and hunger for the ball making him an ideal fit for the former Swansea City manager’s style of play. But the major problem has come when his runs take him away from goal and there is nobody following in from midfield or the flanks to take his place at centre-forward. Borini struggled to adjust to his role on the left before breaking his foot in October, Steven Gerrard cannot be expected to demonstrate the box-to-box dynamism of old, while the promising and versatile Jonjo Shelvey is far from the finished article. Sturridge demonstrated his goal threat from wide areas as a favourite of André Villas-Boas at Stamford Bridge, netting 13 times last term, while his preferred central position has already yielded two in 100 minutes with the Reds.

It is in the latter role that the possibilities are most exciting. The alacrity of Sturridge in pouncing upon a ball parried straight out, Yosuke Fujigaya-style, by David de Gea set Liverpool up for a much-improved second half in Sunday’s 2-1 defeat at Manchester United (our featured match on Foot! TUESDAY). This was a quick reminder of the usefulness of actually having someone waiting in the middle.

Beyond the 23-year-old’s predatory instincts, however, are the options and freedom his presence offers for Suárez. It was a slight surprise that Sturridge did not start at Old Trafford, but when Rodgers acted to repair the damage of a dismal first half, most would have assumed Stewart Downing the most likely to be replaced, with Suárez nominally switching to the left. Instead, Lucas Leiva was the one whose day ended early as the orientation of Liverpool’s midfield triangle was inverted; the number seven dropping back to sit behind the substitute as its point. Now, he had the liberty to connect midfield and attack most effectively. Suárez denied Michael Carrick the space to control the game as he had masterfully in the opening period, while allowing the previously-anonymous Gerrard to push on.

The shift in momentum was not enough to bring the team a first win of the season against a top-half opponent, but it did hint that their struggles when conceding the first goal may not be quite as much of an issue any longer. In contrast to managers at some other big clubs that have fallen on difficult times, Rodgers enjoys the patient backing of a board and fanbase who appreciate the long-term nature of his blueprint. It is important that immediate expectations remain realistic, but if Sturridge and Suárez can add an efficient, clinical edge to Liverpool’s neat passing play, there is still an outside chance that Champions League football could return to Anfield next season.

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