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January 2014

Week 24 – Play it again (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

26 Jan 2014(Sun)

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I am not entirely convinced that the United Kingdom is quite so conservative a country as its externally projected image would have many believe. Governments seldom present a truly accurate reflection of the national will since democracy, whose parliamentary version originated in the old Kingdom of Great Britain 300 years ago, is not always very democratic. The current leadership of our three major political parties have each recorded double-digit negative scores in the latest net approval ratings, and with conservative agendas serving largely to protect the antiquated status quo – the scandalous loss of a once-in-a-generation opportunity to pursue electoral reform in 2011 being a prime example – public disillusionment is unlikely to change much before the next general election. But in spite of this, most of the Brits I speak to are actually rather progressive, both politically and socially, while instinctively sceptical of anything that smacks of conservatism for conservatism’s sake. Perhaps much of this also applies to Japan, as well.

However, the major area where we Brits do generally lean towards proud, nostalgic conservatism comes in our cultural institutions – notably sport, and football in particular. After the insanely busy Christmas and New Year calendar come, instead of a well-deserved winter break for all concerned, the opening rounds of the FA Cup. And, just as any players who aren’t yet injured reach exhaustedly for the last few drops in the water bottles, drawn matches are decided by playing the whole damn 90 minutes all over again.

Replays were seen as the natural means of determining a fair winner from the moment that knockout football first arrived. In the second round of the first ever FA Cup, a team called Hampstead Heathens drew 1-1 with Barnes (now a rugby club) on 23 December 1871, and only secured their progression after a further meeting two weeks later. But then football went international, and a total of four knockout matches at the 1934 and 1938 World Cups had to be replayed. Amid tight schedules on foreign soils, this was clearly unsuitable, and from 1954, only finals could be taken to a second game while any other ties would be settled by the drawing of lots. Neither event ultimately happened at a World Cup, but Italy did eliminate the Soviet Union via the toss of a coin en route to winning the 1968 European Championship.

In 1970, FIFA and IFAB ratified the use of penalty shootouts, thus bringing order to a European Cup where level scores after two legs had necessitated a third game until 1968/69 and then a coin toss the following season. Everton were the first beneficiaries, beating Borussia Mönchengladbach on spot kicks at Goodison Park in the 1970/71 second round with future managers Howard Kendall and Jupp Heynckes both successful with theirs. This then became the global standard – Czechoslovakia beat West Germany on penalties to win the 1976 European Championship final, but the Germans edged France in the first ever World Cup shootout after their 1982 semi-final. A provision to replay the World Cup final was originally maintained, but abandoned after 1990.

However, the FA Cup replays went on unabated and, originally, ad infinitum. What to do if the replay finished level too? Simple – you played another. Famously, Fulham reached the 1975 FA Cup final having required a second replay to overcome Hull City, a third replay against Nottingham Forest, and a further replay on neutral territory in their semi-final with Birmingham City. 12 matches to get through six rounds might have been worth it if they hadn’t wound up losing at Wembley to West Ham United. When Arsenal won the Cup in 1979, they had needed four replays (i.e. five matches) to beat Sheffield Wednesday in the third round, finally achieving a result five days before the next round kicked off. When qualifying rounds are included, the record is five replays, with Alvechurch United finally beating Oxford City 1-0 to reach the competition proper in 1971/72.

Only when the police advised ten days of notice for additional fixtures, rather than the four-day turnover as was common for second and subsequent replays, was the penalty shootout finally introduced to the FA Cup from 1991/92. Manchester United were the first top-flight team to fall victim, losing to Southampton in a fourth round replay. But 127 years of tradition came to an end in 1998/99 when, in contrast to the old World Cup provision, it was announced that the FA Cup final would no longer even go to a single replay – due to fixture congestion and the desire of travelling fans to see the trophy presented on the day.

Ever since, the topic has been open for debate. Semi-final replays also fell by the wayside that season after the epic encounter of Arsenal – the last ever FA Cup final replay victors in 1993 – and Manchester United fell between the two legs of United’s last four European tie with Juventus. An expanded Champions League has complicated the situation further, and while advocating the tradition of a busy festive period, José Mourinho became the latest to call for replays to be abolished altogether ahead of Chelsea’s fourth round game with Stoke City on Sunday. Had the Blues drawn, their huge visit to Manchester City next Monday would have been moved forwards 48 hours to Saturday evening – just three days after Wednesday’s round of Premier League fixtures – in order to accommodate the replay.

Sadly, our British love of old convention is no longer matched by either modern-day relevance or even visible enthusiasm. The Football Association proudly boasted this month that the 29 third round ties played on their original dates produced an average attendance of 18,297 per game – the highest since 1979/80. But this overlooked the fact that the overall average attendance in league games this season for the 29 sides playing at home was 22,442, meaning that gates were actually more than 18% down on those usually seen at the stadiums in question. Over the 16 fourth round ties played this past weekend, average crowd figures fell by 6% compared to league matches for the 16 home teams.

The disinterest is evident in Cup matches between teams from the same division – every one of which so far this year has attracted fewer spectators than the corresponding league encounter. Newcastle United are used to virtually filling their 52,405-capacity St. James’ Park, but there were more than 20,000 empty seats for their third round loss to Cardiff City. Even holders Wigan Athletic could only attract 9,542 people – 38% down on their mean attendance since relegation to the Championship – when they beat Crystal Palace, a division above them, on Saturday. Nottingham Forest suffered a similar percentage drop for their 5-0 giant-mauling of West Ham United despite not having enjoyed Premier League football themselves this century.

Fans are, thus, voting with their feet, and the instance on replaying drawn matches is beginning to feel awkwardly preposterous. There are many reasons for the FA Cup’s decline in popularity, but one way to restore the special ‘magic of the Cup’ would be to simply make it like any other. Attract fans back by the more exciting prospect of results decided on the day – as was the FA’s justification for scraping replays for the final – even if that did mean extra time and penalties. Though many, myself included, would miss the nostalgia, anything else would be little more than conservatism for conservatism’s sake.

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Week 23 – Of saints and sinners (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

19 Jan 2014(Sun)

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In the era of Premier League and heavy external investment, few club boardrooms have exactly met with universal approval. The abhorrent Glazer family have loaded hundreds of millions pounds worth of debt onto Manchester United, which has since been serviced in part by pricing lifelong supporters out of Old Trafford. Venky’s turned Blackburn Rovers into a bad joke, George Gillett and David Hicks threatened to do the same at Liverpool before they were thankfully forced out, while Peter Ridsdale ‘lived the dream’ at Leeds United and sent them plummeting towards the third tier. Even Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, beloved of Chelsea and Manchester City fans for the trophies their finances have delivered, are criticised more widely for furthering English football’s unhealthy dependence upon big spending.

As such, it ranks as pretty unusual when an 18-year-old breakthrough star footballer, coveted by most of the country’s biggest clubs at an estimated price of £20-30 million, tweets his profound disappointment at the departure not of a teammate or manager, but the executive chairman. Last Thursday, Southampton left-back Luke Shaw took to Twitter and wrote, “Gutted with that news, but would just like to thank Nicola Cortese for everything he has done for me and the club! All the best to him!” Similar sentiments have been echoed by virtually everyone associated with the Saints, but the fear now is that, in the absence of their visionary leader, the St. Mary’s project will unravel with the successive departures of Shaw, various other key players, and the highly-rated manager Mauricio Pochettino.

Their visionary leader? Cortese was not quite hailed as such when, in his senior role at Banque Heritage in Geneva, he brokered the deal for German billionaire Markus Liebherr to purchase Southampton in July 2009 then found himself appointed as chairman a month later. But, then again, Saints fans were in no position to be choosy.

Just two seasons after reaching the FA Cup final and finishing eighth in 2002/03, the club’s 27-year spell in the top flight had been broken when ‘Agent’ Harry Redknapp took a year away from local rivals Portsmouth and oversaw their relegation to the Championship. The bizarre, short-lived appointment of England’s Rugby World Cup-winning coach Sir Clive Woodward as technical director failed to halt the slide; come April 2009, the team were relegated to League One with a ten-point deduction to be applied the following season due to their parent company having gone into administration. A takeover bid from the Pinnacle Consortium led by Saints legend Matt le Tissier fell through, and the survival of the club was in question until Liebherr and Cortese came along.

The Italian banker had previously run the sports business desk for Credit Suisse, but this was his first ever role inside a football club. Undaunted, he put his financial background to good use by quickly overhauling Southampton’s entire management structure – lamenting clubs’ tendencies to spend their income one or two years before they actually receive it during an interview with The Times in March 2010 – and laid out a five-year plan to return to the Premier League come 2014. Despite the mess that had greeted his arrival, Cortese recognised the potential of their UEFA four-star rated, 32,689-capacity stadium and a renowned setup for scouting and developing young players like Theo Walcott and Gareth Bale – coupled, of course, with his own executive mind.

When this writer visited St. Mary’s four years ago, there was evidence of both their future promise and the size of the task at hand. With one end closed entirely due to lack of demand, a ground barely half-full witnessed an influent display from Alan Pardew’s Southampton as they struggled to overcome non-league Luton Town in the FA Cup third round. But progress was ultimately secured thanks to a magnificent free-kick from a forward named Rickie Lambert, signed from Bristol Rovers the previous summer after a decade-long career in the third and fourth tiers of English football. Also in the starting eleven that cold January afternoon were 21-year-old youth product Adam Lallana, and a French midfielder called Morgan Schneiderlin who had been recruited at the age of 18 from Strasbourg.

There is a fine line between the ‘ruthlessness’ of successful business and the ‘impatience’ of firing football managers for a few unfortunate results on the pitch, but Cortese toed it perfectly. Pardew, who of course went on to lead Newcastle United into Europe, was relieved of his duties that August for former Scunthorpe United boss Nigel Adkins to lead Southampton to successive promotions – thus achieving the five-year objective two years early. However, there was outcry throughout the game last January when the likeable Adkins found himself unceremoniously replaced by Pochettino with the Saints 15th in the Premier League table. The chairman, whose calculating nature had already rubbed some fans and ex-players like Le Tissier up the wrong way, was just another man in a suit who ‘simply didn’t get it’.

In hindsight, it was actually Adkins who didn’t get it. Before that first season back in the top flight, it is said that the manager presented his plan for avoiding relegation to Cortese, who was unimpressed with the premise that just because Southampton had still been in League One a couple of seasons previously, they shouldn’t hold much loftier ambitions. Last April, the Italian then offered his own presentation to the squad asking how, not if, they could eventually win the Premier League title. This vision excited the likes of Shaw, Lambert, and Lallana – not to mention Pochettino, who Cortese had researched for six months before hitting it off in a first meeting which confirmed that, as planned, the Argentine was the man for the job. Excellent results and attractive performances on the pitch have been testament to the decision.

Alas, not all has been as smooth off it. Liebherr passed away in August 2010, leaving the club in the ownership of his daughter Katharina. Somewhat less enamoured with football than her father, who had trusted Cortese implicitly, the heiress to the £3 billion family fortune has sought a more hands-on role behind the scenes. A stable place in the Premier League and the promise of further television money jackpots to come put Southampton’s current value at around £100 million – some seven times the Liebherrs’ original investment. Rather than continue to feed funds back into the club in pursuit of Cortese’s biggest goals, Katharina has taken personal control of the pennies with a view, almost certainly, to cashing in and selling up. For the man who called Southampton his ‘baby’, his position as chairman was suddenly untenable.

Once again, the future for the Saints is uncertain. Pochettino, who had commented last May that he “would not understand staying in this role if Nicola was not here”, admitted to having had a sleepless night after his friend’s resignation but pledged to see out the season before reassessing his position. For Cortese, a job at AC Milan has long been rumoured, but as suggested in the Sunday Express this past weekend, he could yet assemble enough backers to enable him to purchase Southampton himself. The dressing room and the supporters will surely be praying that there is credence to the latter story and their baby can continue to enjoy the healthiest of upbringings.

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Week 22 – Crystal balls (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

13 Jan 2014(Mon)

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Just as the end of the old year is a time for reflection, the beginning of the new year is one for looking forward. During my trip back to the United Kingdom over the festive period, I dug out my old crystal ball to predict – with remarkable insight and accuracy – what will happen over the remainder of the 2013/14 season.


JANUARY
With just three days remaining before the close of the transfer window, Arsenal suffer a major setback away to Southampton when star striker Oliver Giroud severely strains his back – ironically, while attempting to close a window on the team bus. Luis Suárez promptly offers interviews to every British broadsheet, explaining that he needs to move down south to London before his three-year-old daughter’s Scouse accent becomes permanent. Arsène Wenger offers a domestic record fee of £50,000,002, but an impasse is reached when Liverpool insist he puts the two-pound coin back in his pocket and fishes out a fiver instead. Wenger refuses and signs Cameroonian forward Andé Dona N’Doh, the runaway top scorer in the French third division, instead.

Meanwhile, recently-appointed Cardiff City manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær is buoyed when Vincent Tan promises to augment the playing squad with a Champions League-winning striker and a rapidly up-and-coming all-rounder. It transpires that the Malaysian has simply given squad numbers to Solskjær himself and to Alisher Apsalyamov – the 23-year-old friend of Tan’s son who held roles including head of recruitment and trainee painter/decorator at the club in 2013.


FEBRUARY
The heavy rainfall that has plagued much of England since Christmas continues unabated, making for a tricky surface at the Etihad as Chelsea come to town. Attempting to warm up on the near-side touchline, which resembles a day four mudbath at Glastonbury, Juan Mata delights the Manchester City fans by repeatedly slipping and falling onto his backside. José Mourinho can barely hide his disdain, saying Mata “needs to stay on his feet like an English gentleman, and not like those backstabbing Spaniards I used to coach in Madrid”. The game finishes 0-0.

Assem Allan, owner of the club once known as Hull City, holds a joint press conference in Cardiff with Vincent Tan to officially confirm their respective teams’ long-rumoured name changes. The subsequent league encounter, now billed as Dragons vs. Tigers, attracts a record live audience on J Sports in Japan, albeit consisting mainly of confused Nippon Professional Baseball fans.


MARCH
Adnan Januzaj is the hero for Manchester United as his last-minute, goal-line clearance protects a 0-0 home draw with Olympiakos, which takes them through to the Champions League quarter-finals on away goals. Shinji Kagawa is not involved in the second leg, with David Moyes claiming he is still jet-lagged from Japan’s friendly against New Zealand two weeks previously. Incredibly, United are now the only English team left in the competition, although Arsenal were left cursing their luck when Dona N’Doh was put clean through on goal to complete a remarkable five-goal turnaround against Bayern Munich, only to snap his Achilles at the crucial moment.

Back home, Cardiff Dragons are racing up the table after wins against Tottenham Hotspur, Everton, and Liverpool, but Ole Gunnar Solskjær is suddenly fired when he refuses to pick Alisher Apsalyamov over Gary Medel for the away trip to West Bromwich Albion. The Kazakh promptly succeeds him as player-manager.


APRIL
Arsenal appear to have run out of steam; reduced to nine men in a 2-0 loss at Everton when Jack Wilshere is sent off for an ill-advised impersonation of Tourette’s sufferer Tim Howard, and Yaya Sanogo is injured with no substitutes remaining. It is their fourth straight reverse following that night of nearlys in Munich, prompting trophy-starved Gooners to wonder if Arsène Wenger perhaps should have tried harder against FA Cup giantkillers Yeovil Town back in February.

Hull Tigers become the latest team to end an Old Trafford hoodoo, winning away to Manchester United for the first time since 1952 courtesy of a 15th goal of the season for skin-headed Tom Huddlestone. David Moyes is given reason to smile, however, as a pair of uncharacteristically fluent victories over Bayer Leverkusen and Zenit St. Petersburg lands him a place in the Champions League final at the first attempt. Sir Alex Ferguson, whose executive seat is now located a mere two rows behind the dugout, seethes in quiet envy.

Manchester City break all sorts of records by scoring 23 times in the space of two home games, against Southampton and West Bromwich Albion. But Chelsea remain in title contention as City’s puzzlingly poor away form continues with one-goal defeats at Selhurst Park and, more surprisingly, Old Trafford.

Alisher Apsalyamov is sacked after his first five games in charge at Cardiff resemble José Carlos Serrão’s ill-fated spell at J. League side Gamba Osaka. Vincent Tan appoints himself as manager.


MAY
On a dramatic final day of the Premier League season, Manchester City are stunned as already-relegated West Ham United become only the second visiting team to earn at point at the Etihad all season. However, City are still crowned champions as Chelsea fall an agonising five short of the 27-goal winning margin required away to Cardiff Dragons, who join the Hammers and Norwich City in the Championship.

There is finally some joy for Arsenal, who are elevated to third in the final standings when Tim Sherwood’s 2-3-5 formation for some reason fails to deliver victory against Aston Villa. Spurs slip to fifth, one place ahead of Manchester United, while Liverpool celebrate claiming the final Champions League place.

But there is still time for an unexpected twist. Despite Sir Alex Ferguson going on national television the day before the Champions League final to claim that if he could never beat Pep Guardiola, then David Moyes would never stand a chance, United redefine the art of parking the bus to take overwhelming odds-on favourites Bayern Munich to extra time. Then, in the 117th minute, a hoofed clearance from late substitute Shinji Kagawa catches a freak gust of wind and sails through the Lisbon skies over the head of Manuel Neuer, who had advanced as far as the halfway line out of sheer boredom.

As the ball drops down into the net, the roar of exultation in Manchester is matched for volume only by the angry cries of disbelief in Liverpool, who will be the last team ever to surrender their Champions League birth to the holders before the new rules come in a year later. Police close both the M62 motorway and the Manchester Ship Canal in fear of the biggest national disturbance since the English Civil War.


JUNE
On a day where all the major media organisations are busy with the opening match of the World Cup, Vincent Tan quietly slips out a press release assuring Dragons fans that relegation doesn’t mean the end – he has secured the use of a major international stadium for the 2014/15 campaign, whose capacity could potentially make his side the best supported in the entire English league system.

Curious locals gather outside the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, excited to hear more details. But Tan is not there. He was, of course, talking about the Bukit Jalil National Stadium in Kuala Lumpur.

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