Friday, 9 September 2016

Not making any 'Rash' decisions

It is almost a year to the day since a complete unknown took to Rochdale's Spotland pitch under the floodlights for a fleeting 20 minute cameo appearance for Manchester United in the Lancashire Senior Cup. For most youth players at Manchester United they will be embarking on a journey along a conveyor belt on their way to obscurity - just another youngster who was never going to make the cut into the prestigious senior squad. The man in question, however, was Marcus Rashford. The same man who scored an impressive hat-trick in this week's 6-1 thumping of Norway's U21s,
This emphatic scoreline comes only days after England's senior squad yet again struggled to break down a relatively poor Slovakian side, despite a man advantage, purely down to a severe lack of attacking threat and creative impetus - two ingredients that clearly Rashford has in abundance. Which makes you question why the young man has been omitted from both Jose Mourinho's and Sam Allardyce's respective set-ups.

Rashford completes his hat-trick vs Norway, and has now scored on both England and England U21 debuts
Roy Hodgson took a chance on him during Euro 2016, and if anything he looked our most substantial attacking threat - but I suppose that isn't saying much. Now, regardless of his success in the early stages of his career and being an exciting prospect with clear goalscoring prowess and attacking threat I firmly believe his feet should be firmly held on the ground for the time being.
The man who has the most significant effect on which path Rashford finds himself on in the coming years, and who could to some extent make or break his whole career is Jose Mourinho. Clearly, stocks in Rashford have spiralled even higher in the aftermath of Tuesday's superb hat-trick, and gives Mourinho (and Allardyce for that matter) even more to think about - if he wasn't in their minds he's certainly at the forefront of it now. However, without consistent minutes at Manchester United surely a position in England squads are untenable for Rashford especially with the likes of players on the cusp of England call ups such as Jermaine Defoe making a strong start to the domestic season. This is where Mourinho has a decision to make.
Despite an illustrious managerial career one potential downfall the media have identified is his lack of youth development, the complete opposite of Sir Alex Ferguson who guided the 'Class of '92' to cement themselves as legends at Old Trafford, even Louis Van Gaal offered many, Rashford included, the opportunity to break into the senior team.

Despite an extraordinary record, Mourinho has never relished youth development
As one of the most celebrated managers of all time, even if he is a controversial character, Mourinho must surely recognise he has a player on his hands, but as we've seen at Chelsea in the past the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku have simply been discarded by him in the past, and since gone on to do bigger and better things. In addition, only fourteen of the youth players Mourinho has claimed to developed have made more the five appearances under him.
Clearly Rashford should be handled with care if his potential is to shine through, he needs game time at the highest level for sure, however, as good as he is for an 18 year old opportunities are going to be few and far between with Rooney - club captain, and Ibrahimovic a major marquee signing this transfer window aren't going to be easy to overtake in the pecking order. However, what they do offer Rashford is the opportunity to learn vital lessons from the duo current leading the line for the red half of Manchester.
Regardless of whether he gives Rashford consistent minutes or not, Mourinho is in a win-win situation, because Rashford has so much time to mature as a player, and already oozes talent. The responsibility is on the older players to justify their inclusion ahead of him. When the opportunities do come around as a youngster under no pressure, he makes the most of them, illustrated by his injury time winner against Hull.
The same can be said about Sam Allardyce on the international scene. Yes, Gareth Southgate may be under scrutiny for not thrusting Rashford upon Allardyce - of course Southgate has identified Rashford's incredible ability in front of goal - it's what he's done tirelessly for the past few years with the likes Sterling, Kane, and Alli to name a couple that have moved on to bigger and better things after sensible nurturing. Even Allardyce himself has been under fire for not taking a risk with Rashford and freshening the national team up, but this surely would have been to much of a risk for his first game in charge. Regardless of if Rashford is in Allardyce's current plans or not, no harm has been done omitting him from the squad, clearly his game is developing nicely at U21 level, and making Rashford a regular fixture in the senior squad too early could see him lose momentum in his development as a world class player - see Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as examples of this. After all Rashford will still only be 20 years old when Russia 2018 comes around.
Above everything though, no matter what the future holds for this talented young man, perspective is the best way of concluding this piece. He's made something of his career - from an insignificant 20 minutes against Rochdale a year ago, he now has Guardiola's Manchester City in his sights. Not bad for an 18 year old I suppose!

Follow me on Twitter: @DLster

Friday, 19 August 2016

Farcical Fridays

Last Saturday the most anticipated Premier League season for years (although that's what we say every year) made an overdue return, and to be quite honest, what an anti-climax it was, with reigning champions Leicester City going down two goals to one against an extremely depleted Hull City team. Gary Lineker presenting Match of the Day in his pants was probably the only true highlight of Saturday, with the fixtures only being able to be described as dour. But I digress.
The purpose of this piece is to discuss the arrival of Sky Sports' new addition to their footballing broadcasts; 'Friday Night Football', and it's possible impacts.

Friday Night Football: A good idea?
Now, as a League 2 fan who dabbles into the depths of non-league on a regular basis too, the fact that the Sky Sports corporate steamroller have ventured into a Friday night prime time slot as part of their £8bn TV deals means very little to me, and quite honestly I was unaware of it happening until very recently. It has no bearing whatsoever on my attendances at Wycombe Wanderers games, and its introduction will purely give me the option of watching a Premier League game at home or in the pub on a Friday night if I wish to do so. However, for many, the introduction of  'Friday Night Football' will have consequences - some positive, and some negative.
The clear winners here, are without a doubt the broadcasters, another box has well and truly been ticked, they have managed to secure Premier League football on a Friday, meaning effectively it could mean that we could see the stars of the Premier League, and the likes of Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher grace our screens every day between Friday and Monday, another nail in the coffin away from the old school tradition of purely having games on a Saturday at 3pm and the odd few on a Tuesday night. But like I've alluded to before, the giants of the corporate sports world (Sky and BT) care very little about fans, rather customers and viewing figures, and alongside this - lining their pockets with hard cash. If Friday Night Football is a success, which I'm predicting it will be - with the likes of Rachel Riley and Jeff Stelling involved, it could prove to be an extremely profitable venture. Obviously the arrival of Friday Night Football will also go down well with those who are Sky viewers, another opportunity to savour the delight of one of the most elite leagues on the planet - and with the prospect of more televised football it will likely mean more Sky Sports subscription purchases - another profitable tributary in the ever flowing monetary stream that is Sky Sports.
Another benefactor of the new Friday fixtures are pubs, as someone who has worked many a Friday night behind the bar I know that Friday is more often than not the busiest night of the week, the added incentive of football being televised is only going to see an influx in the amount of people visiting their local. Although, if you're like me and were unaware of these Friday games, I doubt it is likely to make too much of a difference to some establishments... regardless Sky Sports win in terms of exposure and pubs buying the rights to show these extra games.
Now, I fully appreciate the likes of BT Sport and Sky Sports and their ease of use, the users ability to discover new sports and their ever growing influence on sporting culture, however, the introduction of Friday Night Football could prove to be extremely detrimental to both football fans who regularly attend matches, and smaller league and non-league clubs who already live in the shadows of the superstar teams of the Premier League.
Although the Premier League have recognised the extortionate ticket prices and have therefore capped away tickets to a maximum of £30, the concern is logistic nightmares these Friday night matches could bring to away and home fans alike. Take tonight for example, as Southampton travel to Old Trafford to take on Manchester United, an 8pm kick off. A fan driving from Southampton would take on average three and half hours to arrive at the home of Manchester United, meaning your Average Joe working a 9-5 weekday job hasn't got a hope in hell of attending the match, whereas if the fixture was played on a Saturday they would more than likely be able to take the trip. In addition to this public transport is far from trustworthy, or frequent for that matter, with trains available after evening matches, especially on a Friday, at a premium. It would be a different story if television money acquired by clubs from the broadcaster was used to help out their fans that evidently care for the club, but obviously this feeling isn't a mutual one. This means fans could become alienated from their club, and attendances could prove to suffer because of this - Sky Sports win again.
Away from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League in the ever so different world of the football league and more so non-league there are concerns that the introduction of football on a Friday could see attendances continue to fall. Already faced by Tuesday night televised Champions League matches, some non-league clubs, such as Wealdstone and Oxford City who play in the National League South have begun moving fixtures from a Tuesday to a Monday night, as attendances have plummeted as the obsession with the biggest club competition in Europe continues to grow. It could indeed prove to be beneficial with football fans looking for another local club to support on a Saturday, however, time will very much tell.

Non-League teams have changed fixture dates to retain attendances
By no means has this piece been a tirade against Sky Sports, merely a way of analysing the effects of the introduction of Friday Night Football. However, what is clear to me is that we've enter into a new realm of televised football, in which money well and truly talks with sports channels getting preference over football fans. Evidently, not everybody is happy about its introduction, however what is clear is that it has arrived, and it's here to stay.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Money talks, absurdity rules.

It is almost three weeks since the European Championships in France came to a climax, a tournament to forget for England and one to savour for the likes of Wales, Iceland and the eventual victors Portugal.
Since the completion of the European tournament I must say I have been struggling for inspiration to compose a meaningful post. I refuse to post generic rubbish about the transfer window using the 'insert player, club and price tag' framework, as let's be honest a good nine times out of ten nothing at all comes of posts like, as after all they are purely rumours, and away from the transfer window, no pre-season campaigns or any other footballing happenings for that matter have really struck a cord with me.
That was until a few days ago when it was revealed Juventus had shelled out a cool £75.3 million for Gonzalo Higuain, making him the third most expensive transfer in history.

Gonzalo Higuain unveiled to the media as a Juventus player
Now, this post may sound like a contradiction of myself - 'I refuse to post about the transfer window', but in this case this transfer is about much more than that, it is the astronomical, absurd figures that are becoming more and more ridiculous, but also more frequent in football, which makes me question whether owners of these 'mega clubs' are putting business first and almost amassing their own 'fantasy teams' to illustrate their riches and prestige before what should really matter - football itself.
In a world which has recently seen major volatility in the global economy following the UK's surprising exit from the European Union, football's own economy has not been effected one jot, instead fees for players and their along with contracted future wages have visibly sky rocketed.
Don't get me wrong a player such as Higuain comes with an impressive goal scoring record (36 goals in Serie A last season, a record) and will definitely bolster the Juventus front line. However, he by no means is the first name to pop into your head when you're thinking of a consistently world class performer, a few individual honours to his name, but nothing ground breaker, he didn't even feature in last season's Ballon D'Or squad. Yet still worth upwards of £75 million. On a side note, a deal likely to be around £100 million for Pogba?
Ten years ago that would be unheard of. The mind boggles. However, it just shows just how much money now talks at an elite European domestic level, if teams don't have the financial backing behind them they will get left behind at the highest level (in the most part - Leicester winning the Premier League will never happen again).
Market inflation is clear to see, to put things into perspective, in 2003 Manchester United acquired Cristiano Ronaldo for £15 million (after add-ons), in 2016, Jordon Ibe signed for Bournemouth for the same price. Now, no disrespect to Ibe, as a player who came through the ranks as a youngster at my club Wycombe before moving to Liverpool, I respect his talent, however, if you compare the two players abilities at this stage in their career, and their possible potential, there is no comparison.
But who is to blame for this baffling level of inflation we now see in the footballing market place? Well, clearly there are multiple factors that have a bearing.
A transfer has three main 'actors' - the clubs, the player himself and the player's agent, all of which have different requirements that should be adhered to in order to complete a deal. It seems to me that clubs are charging more for players to pay for their insane wage bills, as well the shear amount of money at clubs disposal the market level is being pushed ever more skywards. You could argue introducing wage caps would solve this problem, but players will just go elsewhere. In order to attract world class players you need to offer competitive wages, and with clubs becoming richer and China starting to entice players away e.g. Hulk, Ramires and Pelle to name a few, wages and player prices will continue to rapidly grow, it is a vicious cycle of greed from a player's perspective. Let's be honest no player dreams of playing in China.
Greed isn't a trait that used to really exist in football, players wanted to play football because they loved the sport, they wanted to play for their home team and they wanted to win for themselves and the fans. Back in 1996 Alan Shearer signed for Newcastle, at £15 million it was a lot at the time, a record fee, but the rest as they say is history - an enigma, a cult hero, he cared for the club and the club cared for him. However, these days things are different, players come and go, with many players (and their agents) always looking for that next big pay-day, a reason why China is such a coup for many players these days - who wouldn't say no to over £200,000 a week to kick the ball about a bit, without having to show any passion or care for the club you've signed for. It has become merely a power game - sign a player for obscene money - gain from commercialisation. This is business, not football.

Much has changed financially in football since Alan Shearer signed for Newcastle back in 1996
Unfortunately, the ever increasing popularity of football isn't benefiting football supporters, who dedicate their time and money to supporting a club, but instead football 'consumers', those who go to big game once in a lifetime, or sit in front of their Sky TVs week in, week out, those are the people these clubs at the top of the footballing pyramid are catering for - with clubs being obliged to sign big players by these so called fans, only ever seen on YouTube highlight reels, just to keep the peace. With the hardened supporters then having to pick up the pieces in terms of increased ticket prices, and watching eleven players on an ego trip kick a ball about for a six figure sum.
With broadcasters now shelling out £5.14 billion for broadcasting rights - a 71% increase from three years prior - and with Premier League teams seeing between £65 million and £100 million of this figure, you can understand why player prices are rapidly inflating - and why valuations that used to be outlandish now don't even raise a solitary eyebrow.
Regretfully this is the world of football we now live in, and it is very unlikely to change anytime soon, if anything the 21st century footballing mantra of money buying success and riches will only escalate. Give it 20 years and £75 million for a 28 year old will be a comparative steal.

Monday, 11 July 2016

Wycombe Wanderers - back to winning ways?

Without a shadow of a doubt, Wycombe Wanderers have been on a whirlwind journey over the past few seasons, surviving relegation to the conference by the skin of their teeth on the last day of the season, followed by Wembley heartbreak with the club being only seconds away from what would have been a well deserved promotion to League One. However, last season was somewhat of an anti-climax, high expectations going into the season, a chance to push on from the disappointment of a sickening play-off defeat. Ultimately, a lack of consistency was evident and any opportunity of promotion slowly ebbed away at the turn of the year.
The lack of consistency that was clearly visible was down to a number of factors. Not as the Chairboys manager Gareth Ainsworth suggested because Wycombe Wanderers is a small club, with a small squad and a lack of material and immaterial resources, this simply isn’t an argument, as after all Accrington Stanley, possibly the smallest club in the English professional leagues had an exceptionally strong season. Rather, poor results were down to loan signings not really paying off (they were pivotal in the previous season), a lack of tactical awareness at times, injuries to key players and probably the most significant of all – a distinct lack of goals (45 all season, only Yeovil and Newport scored less) – defensively the squad was sound, but if you don’t score goals, you don’t win matches, it is as simple as that.
The rationale behind a recognisable lack of goals was most probably the lack of an attacking mindset the team seem to have, it was as if the team knew to an extent how to go about scoring a goal, with brief spells of brilliant high tempo passing football on offer in nearly every fixture, which would nearly always lead to a goal or a significant chance, however, on the most part, aimless balls forward to strikers was the order of the day at Adams Park. Clearly, this wasn’t the right way to go about scoring goals, especially with the Chairboys’ regular strike partnership of Paul Hayes and Garry Thompson somewhat past their prime, yes, they work hard and when build-up is done in the right way they picked up goals, but more often than not they were out-paced by younger sprightlier opposition defences. Other younger attacking options such as Gozie Ugwu (Yeovil’s top scorer in 2014/15) and Rowan Liburd (11 goals for Reading U21s), who looked to offer a lot more panache up front had little or no impact when it came to scoring goals, mustering only two between them all season.
Paul Hayes celebrates his goal against Plymouth Argyle in the 2014/15 Playoff Semi Final

Reflecting on a dismal goalscoring season it is clear that Gareth Ainsworth has identified these concerns and has already opened up his black book of contacts in order to rectify this situation as he looks to construct a side capable of reaching the heights of League One which had slipped further and further from their grasps last season.
Prior to today, three signings had been made by Ainsworth, all of which looked to reignite the dwindling flame that the Wanderers strike force had become. The first signing – to whom I wrote about previously was Dayle Southwell from Boston United. Clearly, from Liburd’s performances and other self proclaimed academy wonder-kids in the past that have graced the hallow turf at Adams Park in the light and dark blue, Premier League academy players aren’t always the players to go for at League Two level, for the primary reason that most academy players won’t be able to adapt to a more aggressive game played by more seasoned and experienced professionals. Instead, bringing in a player like Southwell who was prolific at Boston (54 goals in two seasons), who has experience at playing at the uglier end of the footballing spectrum, and who also evidently has an eye for goal could well be much more beneficial when making the step up to League Two.
The second and third signings were both wingers, and both of which are likely to add an extra dimension to the attack. Paris Cowan-Hall – who returns to the Chairboys from disappointing spell at Millwall where ultimately a broken ankle saw any chance of becoming a seasoned player at The New Den impossible. Prior to leaving Wycombe for Millwall, Cowan-Hall impressed management and fans, with his footballing mind, blistering pace and flair, seeing him find the net on ten occasions, and also racked up multiple assists whilst at Wycombe. He is joined by Myles Weston. Weston, whom has played at a higher level at the likes of Brentford, Southend and Gillingham, as well as having 4 international caps for Antigua and Barbuda is another dangerous attacking player who in Ainsworth’s mind is a player who without a doubt will ‘bring pace, creativity and a goal threat’ to proceedings. Hopefully, once the season begins the link up play will improve and more crossing opportunities will emerge to assist the newest Wycombe Wanderers signing, iconic cult hero – Adebayo Akinfenwa.
Akinfenwa with manager Gareth Ainsworth
The question is, is the man known as ‘The Beast’ all he’s hyped up to be? Or have Wycombe Wanderers purely signed him to become the new face of the club’s main sponsors Beechdean Ice Cream?
Personally, as a fan, for the club it is a great coup, especially knowing that many other clubs, with much greater financial backing were pursuing his signature. Despite the fact Akinfenwa is coming to the end of his career aged 34, the stats don’t lie, 71 goals for Northampton, 21 at Gillingham and 19 goals at AFC Wimbledon. The fact he was released by AFC Wimbledon following their promotion to League One should be overlooked, regardless, it is clear that the strength of an ox and the eye for goal that he possesses has been a reason why he has been so successful wherever he has played – especially at League Two level, where most defences, including when he’s played against the Wanderers in the past just don’t have the capacity to deal with player built like Akinfenwa is. Combine this with the new impetus that the Chairboys will soon have on the wings in Cowan-Hall and Weston, there could be great scope for many more goal scoring opportunities than in the previous domestic campaign.
Even if Akinfenwa doesn’t slot into the Ainsworth’s starting XI, he could prove to be a great option if the team was searching for a goal, and also to give relative old-timers Hayes and Thompson some respite if fixtures got too congested.
Off the field, I feel as if ‘The Beast’ will also be beneficial to the rest of the squad and the whole club. In the dressing room, a big character such as Akinfenwa, along with all of his playing experience could really be beneficial to younger players coming through the ranks, and his leadership qualities and enthusiasm could see the team really pushing for promotion again. From a business point of view, Akinfenwa is also a very clever signing, following his unveiling as a Wycombe player earlier today, fans and social media went into relative meltdown, purely based on this, I’d expect ticket and merchandise sales to definitely increase, which can only be a good thing for a small team, with big aspirations.
Time will tell, Akinfenwa is expected to make his Wycombe Wanderers debut in a pre-season friendly against Le Havre on Tuesday 12th July.
Follow me on Twitter: @DLster

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

How do you solve a problem like the England National Team?

Around 48 hours ago I was sat in my local pub filled with anticipation. This could be our year, we have the ability to really do something in this tournament, and show our class to the rest of Europe. Today, I sit here sun burnt (cheers Wimbledon), but more importantly bemused and frustrated. England had embarrassed themselves again. England had crashed out of the Euros losing 2-1 to Iceland, in what could arguably be described as the most demoralising defeat in recent Three Lions history.

Iceland celebration as their Euro fairy-tale continues
Unfortunately, as an Englishman this result wasn't completely unexpected, the sense of deja vu loomed large, and the dismal atmosphere of blame and loathing following the traditional fallout of an international tournament had well and truly returned.

Previously, I've eluded to this being the 'golden generation' of English football, and despite the major upset in France I stand by my comment. Without a doubt, on paper the quality of player is there, the likes of Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford all have great potential and are slowly fulfilling it. The squad is also complimented by experienced veterans such as Wayne Rooney (albeit against most fans' wishes), alongside a consistently free scoring strike force and a relatively strong back line which in itself has attacking qualities too, England looked a force to be reckoned with. However, as it conspired over the past couple of weeks, after witnessing four relatively woeful performances, what has become apparent is that the team lacks the correct mental attitude to become a force on the international scene. It's all well and good battering minnows in qualification, if this isn't reflected in competitive matches it means nothing. Therefore, although the manager alone shouldn't be to blame, I believe that the decision chosen by Roy Hodgson to resign was the correct one, and realistically his only option after such an awful tournament.

Pundits and fans alike can argue until they're blue in the face; 'the players aren't good enough', 'the system is flawed', 'blame the Premier League' - some arguments more valid than others. But as it stands, we are currently without a manager, and this issue needs to solved before a real post-mortem as to what went wrong in France can really take place, and if Greg Dyke's projection of Qatar 2022 victory has any hope.

The question is, who is the right man for this arguably impossible job?

The answer? One who can erase the negative mentalities players have coming into tournaments caused by the culture of fear created by England fans. It's nonsense that if you believe we didn't have the ability to beat Iceland, because clearly we did. After all, we beat the Germans only weeks prior. However, what was clear wass that Hodgson hadn't learnt from and reformed the team based on mistakes made in the past - progress hadn't be made, and the negative mentality of the past prevailed, rather than players pushing on for the required equalising goal.

Whilst the job is a massive coup for any potential manager, recruitment is one hell of a minefield, some shortlisted names (a pretty long list at the moment) such as Harry Redknapp have already ruled themselves out - identifying the job as somewhat untenable. Personally, I believe the manager should be British, have Premier League or international experience and prior understanding of how the FA works (and preferably not be Gary Neville after his self destruct at Valencia).

A man who ticks all those boxes, and is marked up as a strong favourite by bookmakers is Gareth Southgate. Southgate could potentially be seen as the obvious replacement for the England management role. He has experience in the England set-up as both a player (57 caps) and has also been in charge of the next generation of England players at Under 21 level. Southgate has mentored several players and brought out their potential, and are now frequent fixtures in the senior squad - Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane to name a few. He has also guided the Under 21 team to the Toulon tournament crown in 2016, however, a year prior his team flopped at the European championships, finishing bottom of the group - however, what he does advocate is giving youth a chance, a possible opportunity to find fresh, exciting talent.

Gareth Southgate. Bookies favourite. But is he the right man for the job?
As a player he more than anyone will understand the emotional slumber the current cohort of players are in - as he missed the decisive penalty against Germany at Euro '96, and therefore could be a great replacement for Hodgson - a man who could rid England of this losing mentality. On the contrary, despite knowing the England 'formula', from recent events it is clear that this 'formula' is clearly a losing one. These doubts are also reinforced by the fact the last club job that Southgate had was at Middlesbrough - one that led to a relegation and a sacking.

A second suggestion would be Sam Allardyce. Personally, I don't understand why the FA have a fixation with keeping the traditional FA formula alive, because it clearly isn't working. Or for that matter, why foreign coaches such have been a common appointment in past times e.g. Capello and Ericsson (both failed). Sam Allardyce has been in the business for a long time. He is a manager that has a reputation for knowing what he needs to do in order to create a winning team, and has a formula that sees failing teams (England?), punch above their weight, much like at Sunderland this season. His managerial record is also untarnished with no relegations to his name. Although the style of football that he drills into his teams may be portrayed as unfashionable and boring (just ask West Ham fans), it does the job, and he gets results - at the end of the day players want to play for him, and they must have a good mentality to do so. Personally, as an England fan, I would just like a manager who gives the squad a prolonged period of stability, followed by progress and results at major tournaments, and the way in which we play is a secondary thought. However, as a character, I'm not sure how suited he would be in the role - as some of his comments may rub certain people in the FA up the wrong way.

My third and final pick, is up and coming coach Eddie Howe. Yes, he is young. Yes, his Bournemouth team isn't exactly teeming with big international characters. And yes, one solid if unspectacular year in the Premier League doesn't exactly set the world alight. However, the man would bring something different to the England set up, a different footballing system from what we are used to, and one who has an understanding of how to salvage a bad situation into a winning team - guiding Bournemouth on minus point in League 2 to the Premier League, making him a hot prospect in the managerial game.

However, it is unlikely the FA will take a risk and throw the dice. And this could be the root cause of all English footballs' problems. The FA are too fixed in their ways to make a significant change, and I have absolutely no doubt that until a major revamping does occur England will continue to be a failing footballing nation. The talent is there. Rational thinking seems to be elsewhere.

Follow me on Twitter @DLster

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

B teams: The Death of lower league football?

Back in 2014 Greg Dyke - FA Chairman announced a revolutionary plan to restructure English league football as we know it today. His idea was to introduce B teams to the football league pyramid and add a third division to cater for these new teams in the future - seeing the football league system go from 92 teams to 100, across five divisions. Most rational thinking FA members and clubs responded to it extremely negatively, giving his idea the proverbial two fingers, and Dyke's vision was rightly quashed. However, it seems in recent weeks this idea of B teams playing on same platform as League 1 and 2 teams has resurfaced.
To most league fans with any sort of understanding of the historical standing of the league system they would identify giving B teams the opportunity to compete alongside league sides could completely damage the integrity of the footballing pyramid in the future. However, money talks, and the recent news that the Premier League have paid £1 million for so called B teams to participate in the English League Trophy from next season is disappointing.

Barnsley lift the English League Trophy
On the surface, this news could be celebrated, the system hasn't been compromised, it is merely giving youth players the opportunity to play in a competitive cup competition, with the chance of silverware and a final at Wembley to play for. However, if you venture past the facade, this has the potential to just be the beginning - a Trojan Horse - a way of infiltrating the Football League. A way of identifying how successful a new system with B teams could be. Personally, this just doesn't sit right with me.
Now, the first clear issue with B teams from the Premier League being incorporated into this tournament, the clue being in the name, is that it's the football league trophy, not some sort of poor excuse of a Premier League reserves cup. As a supporter of a football league club, I do understand that the ELT is by far a priority for football league managers, with low prize money, the inconvenience of extra fixtures and sometimes extra travel - it's relative meaninglessness reflected by low attendances and the fielding of weakened sides, with teams only really starting to give any attention to it with the coup of a Wembley final on the horizon. If anything the trivial nature of the ELT will only become even less desirable for league clubs, with the already wavering competitiveness of the competition becoming even less so. On top an already relatively congested fixture list will be lengthened by at least three games, with the cost of holding these games likely to outweigh the benefits to clubs with low budgets. It could be argued that costs will be covered by increased attendances it matches featuring these B teams, with the supposed glamour of playing Premier League names, but in all honesty if Manchester City B team turns up, you'd be very unlikely to be treated to the likes of Aguero and co. Football league fans dream of playing the likes of Premier League goliaths, not their youngsters - as promising as they may be.
Another objection of this plan, as insignificant as it may seem, is the unpredictability of the plans,and the possibility that they could escalate into Dyke's original five tier division system plan. If the proposed plan of five divisions and 100 clubs got the go ahead, although B teams could progress passed division 3, theoretically, this is fair, however, the idea alone challenges the integrity of the league system and without a shadow of a doubt a bottleneck of quality B team sides would occur. This would put the concept of promotion and relegation as we know it in jeopardy. Not only that, it would mean that league positions that could feasibly be filled by non-league teams with great potential on the cusp of the football league, will instead be taken by B teams with no history, no real opportunity for league progression, and is purely just another cog in the machine of the ever expanding corporate empire the Premier League is becoming.
As a football fan, I do understand that the idea of introducing B teams does have its merits as well. It would give upcoming talent a platform to develop their skills up against well drilled, disciplined professionals that are normally playing to a higher standard than that of U21 level players, with the possibility of unearthing the next English superstar.
Although it is clear that B teams can be successful - just look at Spain and Germany for proof of this, with the likes of Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta all thriving at FC Barcelona B, before becoming cult heroes for the senior squad. It is also clear that a strong youth set up translates well into future first team performance both domestically, in Europe and also on international stage. However, this alone doesn't mean that B teams are the answer.

Carles Puyol and Xavi playing for FC Barcelona B in 1998
In order to quell the dangers of the possible death of today's lower league football a restructuring at youth level is required, not at senior level as Greg Dyke very naively believes. In order to harvest talent and keep it in the England, a shake up of both the youth league system, but at the same time also the way loans from Premier League clubs work is necessary. For example, if the youth Premier League was given a face lift, with more consistency in fixtures and played at bigger venues, rather than unkempt training grounds, it would appeal to more players and fans alike, this in turn would give young players the opportunity to get a taste of the professional game. This alone could possibly encourage more young players to stay in England, rather than make a name for themselves elsewhere. Making a conscious effort to overthrow the loan system could also make an impact. Chelsea currently have 8 players under the age of 21 out on loan to teams outside of the UK, with many others recently being recalled from Dutch club Vitesse - an evident feeder club for Chelsea. Now, if the youth system in England was improved, these players (most without a senior Chelsea appearance), would without a doubt have the opportunity to play week in, week out. Instead, many of them are rotting away on loan and have very little chance of breaking into the Chelsea first team - if they were of the required calibre they'd be there already. Playing in England however, would mean they would understand the pace and style of play, be much more closely monitored, and potentially increase the likelihood of breaking into the senior setup.
So overall, B teams are not the answer, although they can be a great platform for new homegrown talent, in the long run they will do more harm than good. Instead investment is required in youth league development.
It needs to be remembered the Premier League isn't the be all and end all in English football.

Saturday, 11 June 2016

Teargas and Tears.

The excitement surrounding the European Championships really came to a head last night, with a strange, but nonetheless spectacular opening ceremony followed by a highly competitive clash between hosts France and relatively ranked outsiders Romania. France took the game with a 2-1 victory, with their winner coming through a spectacular Dimitri Payet effort - which was clearly a emotional moment for him.
All eyes now all turn to England, who open their campaign against Russia this evening. With many other nations perceived to be in a transitional period, this could be the year that the 'golden generation' of England players could shine through and bring home the first major international trophy for half a century.
Much like the 1998 World Cup, England begin their quest for silverware in Marseille, and much like the team in 1998 - a team that featured the likes of Beckham, Scholes and Owen, there are high expectations that the team will perform.
This is where you'd expect the similarities to end, but unfortunately it seems that the grizzly scenes of violence and hooliganism that broke out between locals and travelling England fans around the streets of Marseille's Vieux Port have also made an unsavoury return. Back in 1998, the culture the England fans brought to France, such as binge drinking and ear splitting patriotic music didn't go down too well with locals in the area, leading to confrontation - punches thrown and missiles launched, culminating in riot police and tear gas. Fortunately, the troubles were short-lived and the rest of the tournament was conducted in good humour and high spirits, before England crashed out in a penalty shoot-out against Portugal - a game which saw David Beckham infamously see the red mist.
Now, two days into the tournament it is clear that violent clashes between England fans and locals, other fans and police have reignited. Personally, I find it extremely disappointing that what should be excitement has turned to fascist chanting and violence from a small minority of England fans. Now, as a football fan, I understand that supporter identity is important to Brits, whether this be on a domestic or national level - I am all for showing passion and loyalty and getting behind a team be this through chanting, donning the three lions shirt or symbolic banners and flags, however, travelling to France should be all about supporting the team, not what has been reported as unprovoked violence in some cases, and even if provoked we should be the bigger men and not rise to it. The Euros should be about football, not fights.

England fans confront Police and Russian supporters
Today's third wave of trouble has been blamed upon Russian fans who are vastly organised, however, whoever is to blame, it has left the quiet port of Marseille appearing more like a war zone, with litter and missiles strewn across the ground and crushed bottles underfoot. Accompanied by the smell of teargas in the air. More importantly, it has meant that emergency services are having to police the area on a major scale for mindless hooliganism that is completely unnecessary. With France on such high alert for terror following November's horrific bombings, resources are being stretched to the limit to deal with mindless thuggery that could be utilised in areas of high security risk i.e. Stadia and Fan Zones.
Yes, I agree that the excitement around the England team is high, and with starlets such as Dele Alli in the squad, alongside strikers in Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy in great form many fans can see England making great progress despite Roy Hodgson electing include a weathered and somewhat ineffective Wayne Rooney in his squad, but this doesn't permit hooliganism on any level.

High hopes for England's 'golden generation'
If the 1998 World Cup is anything to go by, any tournament that starts with teargas on the streets, will end in tears on the pitch.

England take on Russia tonight, 8pm, ITV.

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