Refereeing standards must improve for the sake of football

Many of you know by now that referees generally grind my gears. Since I can remember, fans and viewers have been subject to normally at least one reprehensible decision a game, some minor like an incorrectly awarded throw-in, and some major, like what Mark Clattenburg did in the awesome spectacle that was Leicester City vs Manchester United.

Clattenburg

That match finished 5-3 to The Crisps and left United fans and staff scratching their heads as to how a 3-1 lead was thrown away in such a spectacular manner. Twitter erupted, fans and neutrals alike criticising the decision of the referee to award a penalty for Rafael’s challenge on Jamie Vardy, amongst a host of other decisions, including but not limited to Ritchie de Laet remaining on the pitch for a host of hard challenges on Angel di Maria.

If you haven’t seen it, take a quick look here.

http://gfycat.com/ifr/WhimsicalCoarseCattle

There’s three fundamental things wrong with this decision. One: it isn’t a penalty. There is barely any contact and Vardy has moved his body in front of Rafael before going down in a rather flimsy manner. Two: there is a foul about 6 seconds before the penalty is given. Vardy has shoulder tackled Rafael to the floor. It’s debatable whether it is a foul (I think Rafael needs to be stronger), but it’s worse than the penalty. Three: it’s the same kind of foul. Take a look again, and you’ll see the two incidents are very similar, both are shoulder to shoulder until Vardy twists his body for the penalty, except Vardy’s is much more forceful. As a referee, if you can’t recognise that those two incidents require at least identical punishment then you should perhaps identify a new vocation and focus on that.

He had a terrible game, but, as an intriguing segue, he is not a biased referee. A lot of United fans have been claiming that Clattenburg has biased against them, reciting recent red card/penalty statistics as their evidence. If he hates you then he must really deteste Tottenham Hotspur, because in games between the two sides in 2005 and 2010, it’s not like he was totally “biased” against Spurs or anything. Remember the Nani-Gomes free kick drama? Remember Roy Carroll dropping Pedro Mendes’ shot over the line only for it not to be given? Clearly you’ve all conveniently forgotten the decisions that have been given your way by Clattenburg that were wrong. In my eyes, he’s just an awful official who let’s occasions and personal grudges get to him far too often.

He has been embroiled in sagas relating to the racial abuse of Chelsea players, the critique he gave Adam Lallana with regards to his supposed new diving mannerisms, and he is a man who let his personal vices get in his way when sending off Craig Bellamy back in 2009. Who could forget the his deplorable performance in a 2007 Merseyside derby; a performance so bad he wasn’t appointed to officiate an Everton game for five years. And yet, he will walk out at St. Mary’s this weekend to referee Southampton vs QPR like he’s actually trusted to do his job properly.

It’s unfair just to pick out him though. Incidents involving beach balls, dives, and more have all marred games and it’s something referees can easily avoid by just making the right decision.

What can we do about this? Video technology is the primary solution. Quite obviously, some referee’s cannot be trusted to get all the major decisions right, and may also not be able to make a decision due to poor visibility, etc. Most premier league and Championship grounds have big screens in their ground for all the fans to see, so why not replay decisions on there? An even better solution would be to utilise a review system, much like the three challenges in tennis and DRS in cricket. That way, managers have to be careful with what they protest about. I would argue rather than three challenges to decisions, one would be sufficient, as to stop constant challenges and keep the game flowing. I also believe that a referees job can be made easier if players were booked for getting in their faces. Players influencing decisions is just as bad and ruin the outcome of matches. This goes as far as certain players quadruple barrel rolling after a challenge, legitimate or not, to try and get them booked/sent off. In my eyes, if you’ve rolled over screaming, you are unable to continue as a result of a serious injury, so any player doing it should be substituted or booked.

Perhaps most of all, referees need to be trained to do the right thing… as obvious as it sounds. By this I mean, instead of looking at a match as being Leicester vs Manchester United, it’s Team A vs Team B, and you are not to show any sort of bias towards a bigger/smaller club, or towards the home team, etc. This should form a big part of training. You can be the most technically gifted fireman in the world, but if you’re afraid of fire, you’re useless. Similarly, you can be the greatest referee in history based purely on attention to detail, but if you can’t pull off the big decision in a big match because the crowd and players get to you, you aren’t a good referee. They need to be made of steel mentally. You can always get better at spotting fouls, but the right mentality is something that you’re more often than not born with, and takes a long time to acquire otherwise.

Football should be about football. Replacing referees with technology eliminates all possibility of an error, but would ruin the ebb and flow of a game, so isn’t viable. Referees as a result need to get better at making key decisions. At the moment, football is a bit like professional wrestling: it’s all about the story and the drama. It shouldn’t be this way. It isn’t entertainment. It’s competitive sport. I should be writing about a brilliant performance by Leicester to overcome great odds, but instead a referee is the centre of attention.

Less drama, less controversy, more football please.

A message to Steve Parish: WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?

Back when Ian Holloway left Crystal Palace late last year, I earmarked Tony Pulis as the one candidate I didn’t want to see as manager. I have just finished baking a delicious humble pie, and I relish eating every last bite of it, leaving no crumbs, such is my commitment to admitting how atrociously wrong I was.

Less than a year later, all of his astonishing work has been undone, shredded, left in tatters, all in one fell swoop by a chairman who himself has performed minor miracles over the last 5 years in getting the club to the Premier League.

12405776333_2514835fc7_kPulis has been something of a managerial revelation, though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise. This is a man who has never been relegated as a manager, lest we forget. His forte seems to be taking relegation-threatened teams and turning them into competent mid-table teams with the potential to push on to promotion and the higher reaches with the right investment. He has done what he did at Palace numerous times in the lower divisions, with clubs like Gillingham, Stoke City, and Plymouth Argyle all benefiting from his managerial wizardry.

Unfortunately, this hasn’t come without a certain caveat, something that all football fans associate with Pulis: unattractive football. His second stint at Stoke ended after the owners felt a change in play style from Delap long throws, hitting long balls, and selecting an XI that rarely contained a player under 6 feet in height. When he came to Palace, though, the long ball style was a little less prevalent; instead Selhurst Park was treated to his usual rock solid defensive displays, but also a brand of counter attacking football which saw Yannick Bolasie, Marouane Chamakh and Jason Puncheon thrive as a trio in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and later saw Dwight Gayle(the physical embodiment of the antithesis of a Pulis centre-forward) hit major form, scoring two braces in the final two matches of the season. Pulis was a man who had reinvented his style to match the players he had. It married perfectly.

This season’s transfer window has bee somewhat of a disappointment. The only signings of note up until today were Frazier Campbell for a fee of around £600,000, while Brede Hangeland signed on a free transfer. Martin Kelly joined today for a fee of £1.5m. A total of £2.1m spent on a club trying to stay in the division? Leicester spent £8m just on one player in Leonardo Ulloa: that’s intent to stay in the division.

Steve Parish will no doubt have his reasons for not wanting to invest heavily. It wasn’t so long ago that the club was on the brink of not existing, after all. He will want to put money into developing the area around the stadium, redeveloping the training ground, and bringing forth youth.

But there is not statement of intent. No key signing. We remain without a proper left-back, and quality midfield options are hard to come by. What intent he has shown has been in the form of interest in re-signing Wilfried Zaha, a player Pulis reportedly has no interest in. The conflict then appears to be between what the manager thinks is best for the club, and what the owner thinks the fans want to see. After the award-winning season Pulis has delivered, Parish has to comply with his needs. Now that he’s gone, less than two days before a massive game against Arsenal, the club appears to be entering a state of ruin. Parish only has himself to blame.

The club’s biggest asset and arguably greatest manager has gone. Steve Parish needs to act fast to regain the fans trust. Let this be a message to all owners: you do NOT run the club, you merely fund it and own it, hence OWNER. The MANAGER manages the club, hence MANAGER. Literal terms, intended to be used literally.

A 27 year old winger from Leeds? That’ll be £11 million, please

Let’s be clear on this; football has had inflated price tags and wages for a long time now. I often shock non-football fans when I tell them that Derby County’s annual wage bill is above £10 million, despite not being a wealthy club (although they aren’t poor, either). However, in recent times transfer fees have, as Ron Burgundy would say, “escalated quickly”, and not always for players of true greatness. I’m looking at you, Ross McCormack.

 

How is the aforementioned player possibly worth £11 million to Leeds and new club Fulham? I’m not saying he’s a bad player, and 28 league goals last year shows how key he was to Leeds. However, he has never played in the Premier League, and whilst posting impressive goal returns in the 11/12 and 08/09 (for Cardiff) Championship seasons, he’s had very poor goal returns in other seasons to compensate; he only had 5 league goals in the 12/13 season. I’m sure Leeds fans will be sorry to lose him, especially with the turmoil of the new owner. However, they must also be laughing all the way to the bank on this one. Fulham may have substantial parachute payments, but they were punching above their weight in the Premier League for a long time, and aren’t exactly wealthy. In addition to this, they spent £12 million on Konstantinos Mitroglou in January; that’s a £23 million gamble on two players who haven’t played in the league that Fulham are trying to get back to.

 

I agreed with a statement by a friend recently that Cristiano Ronaldo’s £80 million move to Real Madrid in 2009 was a catalyst for recent inflation in the transfer market. Zinedine Zidane’s record move (also to Real Madrid) in 2001 was untouched for 8 years, yet with Kaka and Ronaldo the world record was broken twice in one year (2009). Just four years later, Gareth Bale’s move to (you guessed it) Real Madrid broke the record again, but in the meantime numerous transfers have exceeded Zidane’s £45.6 million landmark. If spending £80 million on a player is ever justified (and I don’t think it is, but let’s stick to the football context), Ronaldo was certainly worth it in 2009. However, are we seriously suggesting that Gareth Bale was the best player in the world last year? He’s a great talent, and I rate him very highly, but I would argue that he’s not even in the top 5. The problem is, other clubs with great players now look at these fees as benchmarks for valuation demands. It looks like Liverpool will get £75 million for the disgraced Luis Suarez. Suarez is a phenomenal player, but we have seen in just one year his price tag nearly double from the £40 million offer from Arsenal in 2013. I would argue that price tags such as Bale’s have played a part in this. You can see the thought processes; if Tottenham, without the treasure of Champions League football, can demand £80 million+ for their talismanic player, why can’t Liverpool?

 

This brings me back to an original point I made about players who aren’t worth the inflated fees. These crazy money moves aren’t restricted to top European clubs. Take the inspiration for the title of this blog, Conor Sammon (need I say more? He cost £1.2 million!). I argued until I was blue in the face that Wilfried Zaha was nowhere near good enough to warrant a £15 million move from Crystal Palace to Manchester United in 2013 (remember that Palace were in the Championship at the time), and to be fair my Crystal Palace-supporting co-host Kris agreed with me. This is where football can make hypocrites of all of us. As a Derby County fan, I’m guilty of making similar conclusions; if Zaha was worth £15 million, how much is Will Hughes worth? Granted, that’s just the opinion of one fan. However, I’m confident that the decision makers at Derby County will be thinking along similar lines, and why shouldn’t they? Fans and board members alike will see how other clubs are claiming big bucks for their best players, and in turn they will want what’s financially best for their clubs. Before Craig Bryson signed a new deal with Derby, my brother told me that he’d take £2 million for him. I disagreed strongly, and whilst I did state his importance to the team as a key reason, it wasn’t long before I compared Bryson to similar or lesser players who went for more money, and in turn noted that we should ask for more money. Most of us are guilty of this.

 

What’s the solution? Caps on transfer spending and wages are obvious answers, but FIFA and UEFA will never have the guts to implement them. It remains to be seen how effective Financial Fair Play will be, but teams such as PSG have treated it with contempt so far; they paid £50 million for David Luiz (ask yourself whether he is worth that!) and allegedly bid £60 million for Eden Hazard after being fined £20 million by FFP. Inflated transfer fees are an endemic problem in the game, and we could spend hours listing hundreds of players who haven’t justified the fees spent. It’s a vicious cycle, caught between clubs wanting what’s best financially in light of other clubs placing ludicrous valuations on players. No wonder many people are disillusioned with the modern game.

 

We may laugh and say that it’s just how football is, but imagine a similar approach in other walks of life. Think of concerns over a housing bubble at the moment, for example. I do fear that, one day, there will be an almighty Wall Street Crash-style collapse in the footballing world, and it’s not hard to see why. We’ve come a long way since Alf Common first broke the world record fee when he moved from Sunderland to Middlesbrough in 1905. The fee? £1,000.

A SmokedSammon prediction-based preview of the 2014 World Cup

Ladies and gentlemen, it is upon us at last. Football’s greatest festival starts on the 12th of June with a match between the host nation and sure-fire favourites Brazil, and Croatia, a solid team praised for nurturing great footballing talent for a nation of it’s size. And already, many micro-stories have developed; Neymar, Brazil’s golden boy, goes over on his ankle in training and remains a doubt for the opener, Eduardo will sing the national anthems of both his birth country Brazil and his national team Croatia before the game, and of course, the riots rage on, continuing to cloud what is supposed to be a wonderful event that serves to bring the world closer, not drive it apart.

As a result, I start off this post by offering a few words on the situation. To those that have been negatively effected in any way by the riots, I speak on behalf of the world when I say our thoughts are with you. Pictures like the one below are examples of things no one wants to see happen, and the emotional and physical harm caused to innocent citizens over the last year by rioting is something I cannot articulate in mere words.

35 buses were set ablaze by rioters in April. Image sourced from http://www.saach.tv

Brazil brought the World Cup back for the first time in 64 years to catalyse a change in fortunes for the largely impoverished nation. Instead, it’s served to only anger the public further. The corrupt democrats in charge have pumped all their resources into the World Cup, leaving those sectors in real need of monetary defibrillation to survive on their own. Indeed, some $10bn has been spent on stadiums and infrastructure alone. How dearly could those in need have used a mere fraction of that money? And, given this state of affairs, is the World Cup affordable? Will it leave the country in a more dire situation than before? As someone who doesn’t claim to be a financial expert, I’m not really in a position to answer these questions, but I assume those in charge will have to at some point, as more and more people, enraged by a corrupt, ethically uneducated and financially unstable system, continue to be ravaged by racism and poverty, and prove that the face we see of a nation that is all about samba, heat, partying, women, and of course football, is nothing more than a facade.

Nevertheless, the show must, and will, go on. As a result, I shall now proceed to not predict the path of the World Cup. Indeed, I have learned my lesson from the last time I tried to do that.

The Small Matter of England

What will the starting line-up be against Italy?

This question can be answered two ways: 1) Who I want to start, and 2) Who Roy Hodgson will actually select. Below are the answers to both of those questions.

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                                                                            2)ScreenHunter_04 Jun. 10 16.28

I have gone for the line-up that I feel that most people would like to see walk out in the first game; a standard back 5, a Gerrard-Henderson central partnership, starts for Lallana, Barkley, and Sterling, and a complete lack of Wayne. I don’t feel the need to justify this too much, but this, in terms of momentum and form from the Premier League season just gone by, is our strongest XI. Plenty of attacking guile and creativity, Gerrard pulling the strings, and Henderson doing the legwork. The back 4 looks suspect, but it’s more or less the best we have available to us.

My prediction for Hodgson’s XI is based in a couple of things. Firstly, the infatuation with HAVING to playing Rooney, as staggeringly unbelievable as it is after the completely uninteresting season he has had, is present, and we have to deal with it. Crow-barring Rooney in the side is seemingly Hodgson’s priority if recent friendlies are anything to go by, so expect to see Wayne fill in at right-back if Glen gets injured just to squeeze him in (you never know, it might work, not hard to be a better defender than Glen is it). Secondly, is a similar infatuation with Wilshere as the saviour of our central midfield. This isn’t necessarily Hodgson’s problem, but the country seems to love him to bits, so I could see Hodgson going with him. I have so many issues with this; he’s barely played this season and, given how much of a glass cannon he is and how people target him, it’s a bit like putting a plate of Jaffa Cakes (other cakes/biscuits are available) in front of a 7 year old and telling them not to eat them. Not to mention, what do people see in him exactly? 4 assists from 29 games for someone who supposedly has such a great eye for a pass is poor. All I see him do is run forward with the ball and give it away, it’s frustrating. He mustn’t start. Finally, the inclusion of Welbeck in friendly teams is very divisive. His record for England speaks volumes; 8 in 23 is decently prolific for someone stuck in a left midfield position. However, I would not consider any Manchester United player for the starting XI. They’ve been dreadful this season, and none of them should feel entitled to starting place just because of the badge they wear on weekends. You have to earn your place, and Sterling, Lallana, and Barkley have all done that.

How far will England get?

I wasn’t entertaining the idea of anything above 3rd place (in the group, of course) up until this recent bout of friendlies. Italy however, have lost a crucial player to a broken leg in Montolivo (we wish him a speedy recovery). A 0-0 against Ireland and a shock 1-1 against Luxembourg of all teams sees them enter the tournament with precisely no momentum. At this stage, I can’t see them trouncing us, and a draw could see it go down to goal difference for second place, and we can do that. Uruguay will win the group with 9 points, of course, but 4 points and a lot of goals will see us through. I would then expect a match against Colombia, and on paper, the two are very evenly matched. Should we beat them, the quarter finals would see us more than likely face Brazil, and that is as far as I could see us going. Realistically, reaching the last 16 can be seen as a relatively successful campaign.

Who will be top scorer?

I’ve earmarked five potential top scorers for this tournament. Some come as no shock, some do.

Neymar

As much as his injury scare could throw this into doubt, and as much as I strongly dislike the little wussbag (1. n. bag of wuss), he is Brazil’s star man, and his record of 31 goals in 49 appearances speaks volumes of his ability to conjure goals. The Confederations Cup Player of the Tournament goes into the World Cup as the man to take the Golden Boot from.

Fred

Looking to steal Neymar’s spotlight is strike partner Fred, who has come right back into the fold in recent years after a baron patch in his career between 2006 and 2010. Now that he is back firing on all cylinders, and fresh from being joint top scorer with Fernando Torres at the Confederations Cup with 5 goals, he can be considered a real threat to opposition defences.

Miroslav Klose

As sentimental as this selection may be, Klose has the opportunity to go down in World Cup history. Currently on 14 goals, he needs 2 goals to beat Ronaldo’s record of 15 goals at World Cups. No one will be hungrier for goals than Klose.

Lionel Messi

He’s in the very lucky position of having accomplished everything there is to do at club level at the age of 26. He has 86 appearances for Argentina and 39 goals, but only 1 at a World Cup, in the 6-0 drubbing of Serbia and Montenegro in 2006. Trust me, he will be as motivated as anyone there to cap of his gleaming collection of medals and trophies with a World Cup win, and the conditions will suit him down to a tee. But first, he has to break his scoring drought, and I can see him doing that in fine style in a group Argentina are set to walk through.

Edin Dzeko

My surprise inclusion here is Edin Dzeko. In the same group as Argentina, he will be up against Iran and Nigeria, and with a record of 35 goals in 62 games, he’s more than capable of causing severe damage. Providing they fend off Nigeria for second, which I predict they will easily, they’re likely to meet Switzerland or France in the last 16, and again, Dzeko can make them pay too. Definitely one to keep an eye on.

Honourable Mentions

Probably the biggest omission is Luis Suarez. After the season he has had, the momentum he is carrying into the World Cup is tremendous, and he is also someone acclimatised to the heat and humidity of South America. He is however, in a group with Italy and England, who tend not to roll over easily.

Similarly, Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t make the list. His group is very difficult much like Suarez’s (Germany, Ghana, USA), and Portugal have been wholeheartedly unimpressive in qualifying. He’ll need his team to up their game if he wants to progress out of the group stages and score goals.

The likes of Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard miss out too. With Lukaku potentially out for the first two group stage games, his task could prove too difficult, and Eden Hazard, despite a quality season for Chelsea, only has 6 international goals from 45 games, which is simply not good enough.

Last tournaments’ Golden Boot winner Thomas Muller also doesn’t make the cut. He’s been totally anonymous this season, and, despite being excellent for Germany overall, Joachim Low could opt against starting Muller altogether. We’ve sen both Gotze and Schurrle play down the middle, and Klose and Podolski are both experience international strikers.

Finally, Brazilian-come-Spaniard Diego Costa doesn’t make the list. A big advantage he has over other European strikers is… he’s Brazilian. This will feel more homely for him. Currently being treated for a hamstring injury though, he may not be match fit, by which point Vicente del Bosque may have already decided to stick with his tried and trusted false 9 formula which bought him the European Championship in 2012. Then there’s the question of whether he’ll fit into the tiki taka style of play, and also his lack of international experience.

Surprise Packages?

I touched upon Dzeko being a surprise contender before, and I would like to extend that to Bosnia and Herzegovina. They should finish 2nd in their group, and a game against Switzerland or France could see them advance to the quarter finals, some achievement given they were nearly banned from competing in 2011 by FIFA, which would surely have set them back.

People keep talking about Belgium as surprise contenders. With their squad, what exactly is a surprise? If they got 9 points from Russia, South Korea, and Algeria, I would be totally unsurprised. If their beat second place in Group G, likely Portugal or Ghana, again, not surprised. They should make the quarter finals at least with their team. A more likely surprise would be if the Netherlands could repeat 4 years ago and beat Brazil, provided they can advance from a tough group B.

My major pick for a surprise though is Ghana. The World Cup 2010 semi-finalists* could go all the way there again this time if recent dominant results in friendlies give any indication. With Kevin-Prince Boateng and Asamoah Gyan back out of retirement, their side is full strength, and I would love to see them get retribution for that act of footballing terrorism.

The Winners?

It’s boring to say Brazil or Argentina, but they’re too obvious to look past. However, I do fancy Germany to go the distance, their team is ridiculously strong and they all have a lot to prove given a lack of international trophies since 1990.

Everything said, let’s try and enjoy the World Cup as a united World. We can joke about Martin Demichelis and watch in awe as Luis Suarez commits sin again. Our jaws can drop to the floor as one as Ross Barkley spanks one into the top corner from 25 yards, and we can cry in unison when we do tumble out. But let us not forget about the tragedies and realities the World Cup is bringing, and pray that in the end, football can bring everyone together and to their senses, and someone does the right thing.

*Uruguay don’t count

The story of football’s secret title

I start this article with a question. Which title has been held by both Brazil and Curacao (formerly Dutch Antilles)? Has been defended successfully by England more times than Argentina and Germany? Has been held by 48 different nations? A title Scotland has had more success with than any other nation? Not got it yet?

It’s Friday 30th May. Uruguay take on Northern Ireland in what would seem like any ordinary friendly. However, there are penalties if the game ends in a draw. People across the country take to the internet to find out why, and notice there is something on the line.

“Northern Ireland can win something tonight. Their friendly against Uruguay will see the winner take home a trophy, could see penalties.” – @FullPitchPress on 30/05/2014

What is this trophy? Well, Uruguay are the current holders of the Unofficial Football World Champions (UFWC) title, spawned in 1872 and virtually manifested by the CW Alcock Trophy, and a goal from Christian Stuani secured a successful defence over the Northern Irish. They won on the 16th October 2013 in a stunning back-and-forth encounter with Argentina, ending 3-2, their 17th of 19 (and counting) UFWC victories. Let’s first lay down the rules: a nation wins the title by defeating the current title holder, winning one ranking point in the process. A draw sees the title remain with the holders, though draws do not contribute a ranking point. The title is defended in every single international “A” match played by the holder, be it a friendly, qualifier, or World Cup final. The title has it’s own official reptilian mascot called Hughie and even an array of merchandise.

Below is a table of the top 10 most successful nations, and the results may seem a little surprising.

ScreenHunter_02 May. 31 18.31

*Adapted from Ranking table at http://www.ufwc.co.uk/rankings/.

You are reading that correctly: in it’s most unofficial sense, Scotland are the best team on God’s green Earth, with England a close second. 48 years of hurt my backside, right? It’s not quite as clear cut as that, it never is. We’ve haven’t held the title since 1975, which spanned from the first victory against West Germany in March until a 2-1 loss to the former Czechoslovakia in October. Since then, we’ve had four shots at the title, the first being the unforgettable loss to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup on penalties, then a loss to France in a friendly at Wembley in 1999, followed up by draws in friendlies against France (1-1) in 2000, and the Netherlands (2-2) in 2009. So really, it’s only 39 years of hurt and counting, thanks Baddiel and Skinner. In fact, the legitimacy of the table has come under scrutiny from many sides, as a lot of Scotland and England’s points came before the inception of the World Cup, where there was a lack of competitive opposition and the two spent the better part of 60 years trading victories, in matches solely competed between nations of the British Isles until Hungary got a shot in 1909. But hey, who are we to complain?

The first ever UFWC match was England vs Scotland, and, in an exact mirror of modern day British Isles-based football, it was a dour 0-0. Their second encounter ended in a 4-2 victory to England, so yes, we we’re the first (unofficial) world champions. The first non-Isles nation to capture the UFWC title was Austria in 1931, winning it from Scotland in style with a thumping 5-0 win. A full match report can be read here. The first team outside of Europe to clinch their first title victory was the USA, beating England 1-0 at the 1950 World Cup, only to lose their newly-won honour THREE DAYS later in a 5-2 thrashing by Chile. As mentioned earlier, Curacao won their only title as Netherlands Antilles. This puts them level on wins with a much bigger footballing nation: Mexico. Mexico had won their title from Czechoslovakia in June of 1962 and held it for the next 9 months undefended, until one of the shocks of competitive football saw Netherlands Antilles beat them 2-1 for their title in June 1963 at the CONCACAF Cup in El Salvador, an own goal by Jesús del Muro proving all too costly for the Mexicans.

As I have already mentioned, England haven’t held the title since 1975 and have only had four opportunities since then to reclaim it. Well, shot number five could well be around the corner. If Uruguay can overcome Slovenia on Thursday 5th June, the UFWC will make its 12th appearance at the World Cup, a competition in which no team has entered with the title and walked out with it still wrapped around the proverbial waistline, the Netherlands coming closest by reaching the final in 1974 and 2010 before being defeated by West Germany and Spain respectively. The first defence would be against Costa Rica, and provided that there are no shocks there, England are next in line. Can they take our tally to 74 victories in the group stages of the World Cup? We shall have to wait and see if they can defy the odds against Uruguay and reclaim the title which we held before anyone else.

All statistics sourced from the UFWC wesbite at http://www.ufwc.co.uk.

But David, you were The Chosen One

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After month upon month of fan unrest and heavy speculation, David Moyes has finally been put out of his misery. His sacking puts one final coat of gloss on what has been a truly harrowing season for everyone involved with the Red Devils. The dossier for what went wrong is full of fan and professional opinions, containing varying degrees of aggression, sympathy and philosophy.

For a start, Alex McLeish was one of the first to come out and say what has been said about every sacking this season: he needed more time. This got me thinking: What exactly is time? Managing a football club is not about how much time you have to make slight advancements, it’s about how well you use this time to get the best out of your club and players. Take Brendan Rodgers and Tony Pulis as examples. In two seasons, Rodgers has taken Liverpool from Mid-table obscurity to the verge of their first Premier League title in 24 years. Pulis, who I was not originally fond of as the man to save Crystal Palace, has taken them from relegation fodder to mid-table consolidation on merit in 23 games. David Moyes has had 35 games and three cup competitions to prove his worth, and clearly, he hasn’t used what time he has had effectively enough. This is Manchester United, the creme de la creme, and there is no place for time wasters at the top. You’d think, over the course of the season, they would have got better, gone on a run of form, or maybe won a trophy. But they haven’t even shown signs of improving performances on the pitch, let alone winning matches. When Mauricio Pochettino entered the fray at Southampton last season amidst a relegation scrap, the fans were on his back from the get go; what he did was use the time he had to make them a defensive unit who could break out quickly from opposition attacks, and now they’re more than secure in a lofty 8th place after a phenomenal season. Moyes? He’s come in, and by the looks of it tried to teach canny playmakers Shinji Kagawa and Juan Mata that the only way to attack is to pummel the box with crosses until something goes in. This has been the one major disappointment for me this season: severe one-dimensionality.

Clearly, as a second point, Moyes has been tactically inefficient. Insistent on utilising the outdated 4-4-2 formation, Kagawa and Mata have find themselves playing as widemen this season. Let’s take a short walk across the conurbation to Manchester City; they also play a variation of 4-4-2, but Silva and Nasri have all the freedom they could wish for, playing more as a rank of attacking midfielders in a 4-2-2-2 formation than wingers in a 4-4-2. Moyes tried to change the formula when van Persie succumbed to injury, and it worked to a degree, with Mata proving to be much more effective in his natural #10 role. However, drafting in Ashley Young on the right was a massive mistake. Being ambidextrous, he can play on either side, but he still favours his right peg, which means one thing: a barrage of crosses from the right. Even a change in formation to one that suits his players more did nothing for his one-dimensional approach to attacking. And yes, Kagawa was still stuffed out wide where he doesn’t belong. Playing Januzaj or Zaha would have been a much better decision than Young. They both have the ability to create and excite, and having them mix up their positions with Kagawa and even Mata would have made for a visually pleasant and effective attacking display. The defensive issues haven’t been addressed either. Phil Jones needs to play in a single position to develop as a world-class talent, and none of the old guard have replacements lined up. £27.5m for Fellaini looks even worse when you consider some of the transfer dealings for some the world’s most promising defenders have gone right under their noses: Medhi Benatia and Angelo Ogbonna cost a combined £23.3m in the summer to Roma and Juventus respectively, a brand new defense for £4m less than the cost of Fellaini, and they’ve missed their chance. His relentless and hopeless pursuit of Cesc Fabregas wasted, you guessed it, TIME. While not like for like, Christian Eriksen, Tottenham’s most impressive player this season, cost £11m. Can someone please explain to me the logic in not signing him over the overvalued and out-of-reach Fabregas? One final note: giving Wayne Rooney a £300k-a-week deal is not a statement of intent, it’s a statement of witlessness. Let him cry about his “lack” of wealth and sign a new, promising, hungry player on the back of a solid world cup; Abel Hernandez, Jackson Martinez, Alessio Cerci, Ciro Immobile, Mattia Destro, Son Heung-Min and others all have the potential to break out if taken.

It wasn’t all Moyes’ fault though: the fans have to take their portion of the blame. They’ve been blowing hot and cold about facing the prospect of a life without Fergie, knowing this season wouldn’t be as good as the last 20 or so they’ve enjoyed. There was a sense of optimism around the club at first, but when things started to go sour a few months into the season, and home losses racked up, that turned to disdain. Not being used to not succeeding is hard, I know, but speaking from experience, you back your team and manager through everything. From Moyes’ first loss to his last, the majority have been the exact opposite of supportive and silent at matches, barring boos for their own team. Sure, you cheer the team when they win or draw, but the reaction to losses has, on the whole, been pretty sad. Take Crystal Palace again; not to be biased, but we have the loudest support in the Premier League at home regardless of the result, and are always topping the away support numbers lists. United fans just don’t have that in them, particularly since the Glazers have come in, where everything has just felt like a business and not a club.

While I believe this sacking is long overdue, the timing means that no one is going to gain anything from this sacking. Sure, Ryan Giggs gets his chance to interim-manage the team, but three games from the end of the season, it isn’t going to make any difference. Sacking managers at this stage is just pointless unless there is a ready-made replacement in the pipeline, so they should have given Moyes those three games, and then sacked him if they were poor, or just sacked him anyway, considering how dogged a campaign it has been for them. Same goes for Hughton, who was sacked with five games left: if he was that bad, why not sack him sooner to give a new face the chance to resurrect the season? With Norwich now looking certain to be relegated, one has to wonder whether the power to sack a manager should be taken well out of the owner’s hands. Of the twenty managers who started this season, only eleven have made it to the end of the season, and ten have been sacked altogether. That number is far too high, so something in the regulations has to change in order to protect managers.

All in all though, Moyes’ time is up. The shortlist is being drawn up as I write this. One can hope, for the neutral, Steve Kean, Terry Connor, Leroy Rosenior, or the dynamic duo or Paul Jewell and Chris Hutchings make stunning returns to high-end football management, or maybe even a management consortium comprised of all five. For United fans, they’ll be hoping the second dawning of the post-Fergie era goes markedly better than the first. Hell, it can’t get much worse, right? Only time will tell.

Winning football matches or playing attractive football? Attractive football, every time

As I start, I know that I’ll be in a minority with this viewpoint, and open to ridicule. Who wants to lose with dignity when you can win with bruises? Nevertheless, I firmly believe that attractive and entertaining football should always be the priority.

 

On my football radio talk show which I host with Smoked Sammon creator Kris Coombes, the excellent question in the title was put to us by Jake Buckley. I knew that I’d be up against it when Kris and guests Alex Harman and Tom Lilley unanimously said “results” with haste. My housemate listening to the show said that he groaned when hearing this, correctly predicting my contrary view. The charge levelled at me is that football is a results business. I agree, but it’s also an entertainment business. The escalating and extortionate cost of attending football matches is clear for all to see; why would people want to pay good money to watch teams lump the ball in the air? Do you part with large sums of money to see David Silva or Jonathan Walters? Brian Clough got it right when he said “Any idiot can coach a group of players to kick the ball as hard and high as possible and then gallop after it…give me time and I could train a monkey to do it”. You wouldn’t go to a musical festival to see bands focusing all of their efforts on making sure that every note is played correctly (the football equivalent is ‘playing to percentages’); you want to see and hear verve, noise and excitement.

 

Football fans are a loyal bunch. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean that teams should play the most negative football on the presumption that fans will keep coming back for more; this same premise means that clubs often charge ridiculous amounts for tickets and replica shirts, knowing that fans (however disgruntled) will cough up. Stadiums are prone to losing supporters if the style of football is dreary; a smattering of die-hard loyalists won’t make up the financial difference. Sky Sports know this all too well; is Stoke v Crystal Palace going to be televised over Liverpool v Swansea? Of course the bigger teams get more coverage, but the point still stands. Football fans want to see a good game and leave the ground feeling they’ve got their money’s worth; they don’t want to be massaging a sore neck from looking skywards for most of the game.

 

Pragmatism has to play a part. I perfectly understand teams who are battling for survival towards the end of the season grinding out results more; fans do demand this, and I accept this. The same is true for teams battling for silverware; I remember Man City towards the end of the 11/12 season favouring a more cautious approach, having blitzed teams earlier in the year. However, over the course of a season, attractive football should be a priority. People may sneer back that if you’re not winning, it’s irrelevant. However, this isn’t good for the long term; take Derby County as an example. In the 06/07 promotion season we were the masters of grinding out 1-0 wins, and didn’t play the greatest football. I confess that I was one of the many who didn’t care one bit about the football we played; I was chuffed to see us winning so many games, and sure enough we beat West Brom 1-0 in the play-off final (despite being outclassed for most of it). The 07/08 Premier League season? You know the rest. A tiny bit of consolation would have been if we had given it an honest go at playing nice football, and to go down with a few plaudits. Instead, the football was dreadful, and fans certainly didn’t feel ‘entertained’. Long ball football can bring quick fix results, but at best you’ll reach a point where you stagnate in mid-table (Stoke), and at worst you’ll have the sight of Claude Davis trying to find Kenny Miller with a hopeless punt up field.

 

Who says you need stacks of cash to play football in an entertaining way? Through steady progress and footballing continuity, Swansea City under Roberto Martinez, Paulo Sousa, Brendan Rodgers and Michael Laudrup built up ‘Swanselona’ from League 1 to the Premier League and a League Cup win, gaining plenty of admirers along the way. The Championship is fast developing as a good footballing league; I would argue that the vast majority of teams who get promoted from it are teams capable of good football, and who at the very least don’t rely solely on the route one approach. A positive approach can reinvigorate a team so much. Nigel Clough did strive for good football at Derby County, and we often saw good footballing performances. However, he too was culpable for resorting to negative tactics. Steve McClaren took over with the Rams in 14th place, and with a change of formation (from a lopsided 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3/ 4-1-4-1) and a more positive approach they are (at the time of writing) in 3rd place.

 

Ultimately, it’s hard to deny that none of the very top teams play long ball football. Granted, the likes of Jose Mourinho favour a counter-attacking and restrictive approach, and this can pay dividends. Nevertheless, Mourinho’s teams still play football on the floor, and utilise this with some incredibly talented players. Furthermore, he can still be outperformed by more positive sides; who can forget Barcelona’s 5-0 mauling of Mourinho’s Real Madrid in 2010? Or Dortmund’s thrashing of Real Madrid in the Champions League last season? I hate the stereotype of the British game; even playing football at an amateur level I still hear cries of “put it in the mixer” and “gerrit in”. The national side has all too often prided itself on a direct, physical approach; Jack Wilshere (a little too proudly) notes “we have to remember what we are…we tackle hard, are tough on the pitch… you think of Spain and you think technical, but you think of England and you think they are brave and tackle hard”. What’s been the reward? Years of dreadful failure, but (contrary to belief) not underachievement; our technical limitations are obvious. Gus Poyet got it right when he noted that in Britain we all too often praise defenders if they can boot it clear, and wingers if they’re fast, without asking questions such as “can they pass it? Do they have a good touch?” You could have Usain Bolt on the wing, but if he can’t cross or pass the ball, how is he any use, even if he beats the full-back?

Attractive football is vital because it entertains the fans, but rather than be in conflict with results I think attractive football ultimately brings results. The best technical sides, ultimately, win the top prizes. Tactical nous and flexibility play a part, and the best teams don’t always win, but they mostly win. Teams lower down the divisions can be rewarded too if they have the confidence and conviction to carry out attractive football; Gus Poyet turned Brighton from being a League 1 relegation threatened team of long ball hoofers to a slick passing outfit competing for promotion to the Premier League. Football is a results business; attractive football more often than not brings those results. As fans, we deserve good football.