Thursday, 31 January 2008

Euro 2008: Plenty Of Football, No Patriotism

Since I started watching football over ten years ago, I greeted major tournaments with enthusiasm and while my head said England could never win it, my heart would say it was possible. Occasionally the two would overlap and I would be convinced England had a chance. Not this summer. With the England players enjoying their summer holidays and Steve McClaren wondering "what if", Euro 2008 will take place without the Three Lions. While most England fans are disappointed at the national team's absence, it gives us all a chance to appreciate the football on offer at a major tournament, rather than watching wall-to-wall news coverage about an England player's metatarsal.

Firstly, the pre-game programmes and half-time analysis will not focus on the issues surrounding the England camp. Nor will we have to put up with Garth Crooks and Gabriel Clarke reporting aboutthe contents of Wayne Rooney's lunch during half-time. During the last World Cup, I was unable to focus on the other stories of the tournament due to my obsession with England. Indeed, it took me a week to recover from the trauma that was England's defeat against Portugal and I only took a passing interest in the semi-finals before recovering to watch the 3rd/4th play-off and the final itself. This time, however, like much of the football appreciating section of the nation, I will be watching the football on offer. The European Championship has often been a more exciting competition than the World Cup, due to the fact that the majority of the 16 teams competing are of a higher standard than some of those contesting the World Cup. This means, without England we can watch the football on offer, and be enthralled by the drama of the tournament, rather than England's campaign.

Of course the main attractions will be the giants of European football; France, Italy, Holland, Germany, but there will be other teams competing. Since I will be in Switzerland for the tournament, I will be supporting them. It would mean that the atmosphere in the joint-host nation would be sustained for longer, and since I have links to the country, perhaps it will finally bring out the hidden patriot in me.

The fact is, the quality of football in majour tournaments, and the coverage and devotion to it, is often sacrificed in favour of England, since the broadcasters and the fans are too busy with the latter to care about the former. With the absence of England, perhaps we can pay more attention to a great tournament this time round.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

The England Fashion Show

England will wear their new away shirt for the first time against Switzerland on the 6th February at Wembley. Pictures of the new shirt have been leaked and it will probably be the worst-selling England shirt in years due to the failure of England to qualify for Euro 2008. The design is an interesting metaphor for the England side; a promise of change, but ends up being a re-hash of the previous effort.

The red shirt, like the England side, isn't a poor one or in the case of the shirt, a fashion disaster. Initially it looks different, with the flags on the shoulders and the England crest moved into the centre. But after a while of looking at it, you realise. It's basically the same shirt. Nothing has really changed.

Steve McClaren promised a New England. He brought with him a new ethos, he wanted to make the national team like a club side. The press praised Mac after he had beaten the heavyweights of world football, Greece, Andorra and Macedonia, while praising "Club England". Of course, the media relationship turned sour after disappointing results cost England their place at Euro 2008. By the end of McClaren's tenure, the only way in which New England was successful, was the Patriots maintaining their unbeaten record in the NFL.

The new shirt, like England, will not be at Euro 2008 and is therefore likely to be a failure in terms of sales. Svensport loves new kits, but the current shirt looks like a training shirt. In all fairness, it doesn't look terrible, but doesn't exactly inspire a sense of change nor does it break from the past. Fabio Capello must ensure that England cannot be compared to the designs of their shirt.

Friday, 25 January 2008

The British Concept Of Failure

After Andy Murray's first round defeat to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga last Monday, certain sections of the media were once again calling him an underachiever, and dubbing him the "New Tim Henman". It was widely acknowledged that Tsonga was one of the toughest opponents that Murray could have faced in the first round, although no-one expected him to reach the final, after his stunning victory over Rafael Nadal on Thursday. So if the media knew this would be such a difficult match, why question Murray's ability as a tennis player? The answer is that in Britain we see success as absolute victory, rather than progress. Some people should realise that Murray is still young, and has plenty of time to put in a challenge for a Grand Slam.

The case of overreaction to a defeat has been enhanced further following Federer's exit from the Australian Open at the hands of Novak Djokovic this morning. Articles such as this have started to appear on the BBC's 606 messageboard. While it is not a particularly damming article, it does jump to a lot of conclusions after one result. No-one expected Tsonga's rise this tournament, but he has gone from being a player that Andy Murray in the first round on Day One to a player that John Lloyd declared on the BBC's coverage of the Australian Open that could win many Grand Slams, further evidence of the sometimes fickle nature of the media. Tsonga has received support from the French tennis bodies, despite being a bit older than some of the other top tennis players such as Gael Montflis and Richard Gasquet. The media has not criticised him for his lack of success and with the absence of pressure has managed to reach the summit of a Grand Slam. Andy Murray has had to contend with negative press and accusations since the moment he broke onto the scene in 2005 and if this is the way we treat our elite sports personalities, perhaps we don't deserve any at all. Sport is a competition which means there will inevitably be winners and losers and no nation can be the best in all.

This article on MSN by Tom Reed appeared on the 11th December, shortly after the 2007 Sports Personality of the year. This absurdly written article uses ludicrous examples and is a perfect example of the sporting culture of Britain and it's cynical nature. He uses the examples of the 2007 England Rugby World Cup side, who exceeded all expectations to reach the final, Lewis Hamilton who was a whisker away from the Formula 1 title and Ricky Hatton, who took on the best pound-for-pound boxer in the sport. He calls them all losers, and says he does not understand how the British public celebrate their achievements. All three examples he used made progress, and managed to compete with the best of the world, but ultimately lost. France did not reach the final, Alonso did not come as close to the Formula 1 title as Hamilton and Hatton lost to the best in the business. He says that France would not have sympathised or celebrated their football team for losing to Scotland and the Australians would not "wax lyrical" about their 2005 Ashes winning side. Of course they wouldn't. Scotland and England were the underdogs in both examples and it is a genuine failure to lose. Both France and Australia were among the best teams in their respective sports and to lose to Scotland and England is a sign of going backwards, not that of progress. This is in stark contract to the England rugby team, who were not expected to get anywhere near the final, and Lewis Hamilton who was in his rookie season. If these achievements, not failures as the article would have you believe, cannot be celebrated, then Britain does not deserve to have any sporting stars.

This attitude is what some blame for the failure of grass-roots football to produce English players, as parents and coaches think that ten year olds should be convinced that victory is the only goal rather than developing their skills. Of course it is not wrong to have a winning mentality, but unless ambition is relative to skill, further disappointments will inevitably occur. The media failed to recognise Tim Henman's achievements, anyone who reaches No.4 in the world, six Grand Slam semi-finals, two of which were on surfaces that were not his preferred grass and two of which were to one of the greatest players the game has seen. Despite this, Henman is still referred to as "the nearly-man". We must hope that Murray does not suffer the same treatment.

Monday, 21 January 2008

An NFL Odyssey

It was 3 a.m., I was tired, sick and in serious need of sleep. Yet I continued to watch as the NFC Championship game headed to overtime after the Green Bay Packers and the New York Giants could not be separated in normal time. The game had been exciting, but tense, as the team I had picked last August had battled over four quarters to secure their place in the Superbowl. Then, my hopes of seeing the Packers in the Superbowl evaporated as Lawrence Tynes scored the points that secured the Giants the NFC title. It was disappointing, but the season had proved to me that American Football was as entertaining a sport as any other.

I had always disregarded the NFL, seeing it as an imposter, posing as rugby. I criticised the stop-start nature of the sport and saw it lacking the "fluidity" that Rugby Union and football have. However, these claims are unfounded and are just typical responses that British sport fans give when asked about American football. The first time I watched American football was last year's Superbowl. For some reason I was still awake when the match started and watched the first ten minutes. I could see why so many people found the sport entertaining, but never saw myself as being a follower of it. This summer, I decided that perhaps I should find out a little bit more about an American sport, considering I had absolutely no knowledge of baseball, basketball, ice hockey or indeed NFL. Picking a team was surprisingly easy. I had thought about picking the New England patriots, simply because they had England in name, but once I had researched the history and philosophy of the Green Bay Packers, there was no turning back.

At first I simply followed the results of the Packers, but my interest fell at the wayside for a while. However, it was restored after the game at Wembley. The match between Miami and the Giants was a dour affair, the contest ruining the hallowed turf at Wembley, yet I watched the match and was beginning to understand the sport a little bit better. I immediately started following Green Bay, with gamecasts on the Internet, and on TV whenever I could. Since Green Bay are from such a small city, they are rarely televised on national American television. Five broadcast Sunday and Monday night football, so I could watch some matches when I was suffering from temporary insomnia. I was hooked, and was eagerly anticipating the play-offs.

The Packers managed to defeat the Seahawks in the Divisional Play-offs, before last night's epic encounter with the Giants. The winner knew that they would face the New England Patriots in Arizona and the Giants seized their chance with that last minute field goal. The drama was there, as was the tension. This was big. The Superbowl is one of the most viewed events in the world. Not bad for a sport that is supposedly restricted to North America.

American football is an exciting, intriguing sport and deserves to be accepted as such. The match at Wembley showed the interest from fans in Britain and Europe and the NFL will return to the UK next season after the success of the Dolphins - Giants game. Television viewing figures increased 40% following the match and the NFL will look to capitalize on the rise. NFL is perhaps well poised to capture UK audiences. The matches on Sky Sports generally start at around 6 p.m., perfect for catching the football fan who will have just watched Super Sunday. While Five broadcast games, they are generally at ungodly hours, although I have caught a fair few this season. Surely the NFL, when the rights contracts are up for renewal, should offer a free-to-air highlights package that isn't on at 1.00am. This would ensure that the sport could regain some of the popularity it achieved in the 1980's.

The skeptics will still be out in force, calling the sport "American Rugby" and ignore the sport.
I, for one, genuinely can't wait for the Superbowl, even though the Packers have not reached it. It will be broadcast on Sky Sports (and on HD) as well as live on BBC Two on the 3rd Februrary.The fact is, NFL is a superb sport, capable of capturing the imagination of sports fans everywhere. It's also the perfect way to spend a Sunday or Monday night when one can't sleep.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Second Coming

Only in Newcastle could this happen. The Premier League's version of Eastenders never fails to dish up plot twists and sensational storylines that entertain us and keep our eyes glued to the screen, something that Eastenders often fails to do. Following the departure of "Big Sam", the supposed messiah of Newcastle United has taken his place. "King Kev" who has given us some of the Premier League's most dramatic and defining moments is back at St James' Park. While there is no doubt that the fans are excited by this appointment, the question lingering over Keegan is can he reproduce the attacking football that propelled them to a whisker of the Premier League title in 1995/96?

Keegan went on record last year as saying that it would be unlikely that he would ever manage again. The man who wore his heart on his sleeve had seemingly fallen out of love with the game. Relative success with Newcastle was followed by a promotion with Fulham and an average performance with England. Promotion from the old Division One with Man City in 2002 was followed by the club re-establishing themselves in the top flight. However success was difficult to sustain and he left in 2005. Football has changed a lot since Keegan left Newcastle, heck football has changed a lot since Keegan left Man City! Keegan will not be able to recruit the likes of Alan Shearer, Les Ferdinand, Faustino Asprilla, as players of those calibre will inevitably be infatuated with the big four and the promise of Champions League football. Keegan has two weeks of the transfer window remaining to improve the squad that has appeared to have stagnated. The defence is the most obvious area that needs strengthening and perhaps a combative midfielder to challenge the ageing Nicky Butt, the erratic Emre and the jail-prone Joey Barton. Up front, Newcastle are well catered for on paper with Mark Viduka, Alan Smith, Obafemi Martins, Shola Ameobi and Michael Owen, with the latter's future called into doubt by the tabloids over accusations made in Owen's autobiography. Surely though, the hatchet will be buried as Owen is the quality of player that Newcastle can ill-afford to lose.

The team that Keegan inherits has some decent players, but the style of play is what the fans want improving. Keegan was famed for his expansive, attacking football and the supporters will be keen for it to return on his second stint on Tyneside. Allardyce should not have been sacked, but the reality is that he was and now Keegan must pick up the pieces. A side in 11th place does not immediately suggest one that is in crisis, but it is well below par in terms of what the fans expect. Which is of course the problem, but the expectations of Newcastle fans being out of proportion has been well documented already. Keegan, unlike his predecessors, will be given time, that there is no doubt. Only Sir Bobby Robson has delivered any success at St. James' Park since Keegans departure, and should the current side get anywhere near what Robson achieved, Keegan will have done his job.

Premier League titles are out of the question this time round, unless of course, Ashley provides sufficient funds, and Champions League football could be a pipe dream, but in terms af managerial appointments, there are far worse ones that could have been made if these were the goals of the Newcastle board. If nothing else is achieved, this will have been one of the greatest footballing stories of the last few years, and one that has the neutral intrigued. The fans call him the "Messiah", but whether the second coming of King Kev results in a miracle will depend on the patience of the fans and how Keegan reacts to the changes in the footballing world since his last post.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

It's Grim Up North

The favoured euphemism of football bigwigs was again employed to describe the sacking of Sam Allardyce. Newcastle, the perennial "underachievers "had dispensed with yet another manager by "Mutual Consent" after Eight Months in charge. I gave the board some credit, I thought the sacking wouldn't happen, but despite a change in ownership, the lunatics are still in charge of the asylum.

Mike Ashley, the billionaire owner of Newcastle United has gone on record saying that he is going to have a more hands-on approach at Newcastle following the parting of company with Allardyce and that he should have sacked him at the beginning of his tenure. "Big Sam" is a manager with a proven track record and turned Bolton from a Championship side to an established Premiership side, and the performance of his former club so far this season is testament to his achievements. Allardyce said he had a 5 year plan for Newcastle United, and this would mean stability for a club that has not achieved much since the days of Kevin Keegan, who is ironically being linked with a return to St James' Park. Ashley has been trying to court the Newcastle faithful since day one and this has ultimately meant that Newcastle have not progressed in that time. The fans who are still dellusioned, wanted Sam out and Ashley duly obliged.

The club have not won a major trophy since the 1969 Fairs cup and yet the fans still believe that they are a huge club. How can a club that has not won a league title since 1927 consider themselves such a big club? Newcastle is a one-club city and have fantastic support as a result. However having huge support does not make a team a major club. Clubs have to have on-field success in addition to huge gates to qualify as big a club as the fans seem to thing they are. Allardyce did not deliver instant success and while many fans did defend him, the enduring image of Allardyce's reign will perhaps be the fans shouting "You don't know what you're doing" at him. Ignored were the pledges of a five year plan when the fans called for Allardyce's head when the club sat at 11th, which was deemed unacceptable after the club finished 13th in 2007.

The fans expect too much and yet another manager has left the club, with Newcastle no nearer to achieving the dizzying heights that they reached in 1969. A dismal 6-0 thrashing at the hands on Man Utd yesterday summed up the situation perfectly. The previous board treated a legend and true gentlemen of the game, Sir Bobby Robson appaulingly and there were hopes that a combination of a new manager and regime would turn the tide for the Toon Army. However before they can do anything, the fans should lower their expectations. But if there is one positive to take from Allardyce's sacking, it is that Ashley has promised to put his replica shirt away.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

New Stadia: A Tale Of Two Very Ordinary Towns.

At the weekend, the injury hit Maidstone United lost 2-1 at "home" to AFC Wimbledon in the Ryman Premier Division. The inverted commas surrounding the word home are necessary punctiation. This is because although this was a home fixture for The Stones, it was played in Sittingbourne. Maidstone United, have been without a home in the county town of Kent since the original club sold their ground in 1987 to MFI. The club assumed that they would have council support to build their new ground and purchased land on which the proposed groun was to be built, however the planning permission never materialised and the club went bankrupt in 1992.

The club reformed at the bottom of the football pyramid in time for the 1993/94 season and since then have managed to haul themselves to the Ryman Premier Division, one division below the Blue Square South. However their home games have not been in Maidstone since the new club was created. There have been plans, and there has been a long, drawn out process to bring the Stones back home, yet progress has been lacking.

Planning permission for the ground was first given in 2004, and ground has been broken at the site at James Whatman Way, but funds have been the main issue, with £1.5m being the reported total cost of building the new stadium. The latest news is that investors have been in talks with Maidstone's chairman, who would be willing to invest in the club, but have the council done everything they can to bring the Stones back home?
Surely, the council could be assisting the club in their efforts. The match against AFC Wimbledon was a record attendance for Maidstone since the club reformed, although this could be partly to do with the attractive nature of the fixture. Maidstone however, have been consistently well supported throughout their tenure in the lower leagues and the demand for sport in the town is certainly there, as the Maidstone cricket festival showed, when it was still a regular fixture and the 2007 Tour de France was well attended. The money involved is a lot, but the town lacks a major sports team. The Stones need the money to ensure the long-term survival of the club and it looks as though the funds for the ground will come from private pockets.

The new proposed Eisstadion

This is contrast to another example. Zug, Switzerland is the home of EV Zug, an ice hockey side. It is a much larger club but the town of Zug is smaller than Maidstone. While The Stones' greatest moment came when they got to the Division Four Play-offs in 1989, EV Zug won their only league title in 1998. EVZ average about 4,000 - 5,000 fans every match and play in the Eishalle Herti. The Herti isn't exactly the most glamourous of sports arenas to say the least, but the plans are there to build a new stadium which can't fail to be an improvement on the current one. Zug, is one of the most wealthy towns in the world, with it's tax regulations appealing to rich companies and individuals, so funds are not the issue. While Maidstone have had to compete with the Maidstone borough council, Kent County Council and various environmental groups, Zug have had a relatively smooth passage for their new ground, even though Swiss regulations cause building projects to drag on for a bit. Of course Zug do have the advantage of having an existing stadium in the town they represent.

While the stadium at James Whatman way was pencilled in for completion at the beginning of the 2006/07 season, this has obviously not happened. Zug's stadium may take a while, but at least they will probably get it.