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Lincoln, Lincolnshire, United Kingdom
Senior news reporter at the Grimsby Telegraph, UEA History graduate, former BBC Kick Off sports reporter & Lincoln City fan.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Boxing Day blues for the Imps

Lincoln City 1-2 Grimsby Town
Sincil Bank, Saturday 26th December 2011.

Second half sucker-punch from the Mariners secures derby win in the lunchtime kick-off.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

If ever there was a game that defined the oft-cited phrase “a game of two halves” – today’s match-up between Lincoln City and Grimsby Town would be the textbook illustration. The Mariners battled to a 2-1 victory in the Lincolnshire derby, but were made to fight for the three points they took back down the A46 after what proved to be a rare entertaining Blue Square Premier fixture.

Despite the Imps’ sterling first-half performance, the Mariners secured the win with a ruthlessly effective 15/20 minute period after the half-time interval. Scott Garner and Liam Hearn were the goalscorers, but it was a complete turnaround and a combined effort from Grimsby that turned the tide in their favour.

But the Grimsby we saw in the second period couldn’t have been any further from the side that was chasing shadows in the first. But this isn’t a criticism; it was through no fault of their own. Lincoln were just better – they were industrious, tenacious, first to every ball, whilst showing glimpses of uncharacteristic skill, guile and craft that seemed so out of place for a non-league game. Alan Power – being deployed just behind the striker, Francis Laurent, due to Jamie Taylor’s late withdrawal from the squad – was the puppet master, pulling the strings exquisitely and showing a first-touch we’re more accustomed to seeing from more ‘established’ players from up the football league ladder, so to speak...

As you can probably tell, I haven’t seen much of Lincoln recently, hence my excitement at a couple of one-two’s. My last excursion to Sincil Bank – through no fault of my own – was the 1-0 defeat to Kidderminster back in August. The side that played today seemed like an alien form compared to that joke of a Steve Tilson team, and it was a delight to watch a Lincoln side play such attractive football that haven’t been seen since the early days of John Schofield’s reign.

Before I get too ahead of myself and encircle myself completely in sensationalism, I’ll calm myself down and state that we were only 1-0 up at the break. But the goal was entirely befitting of my previously devious description of our first-half performance. Conal Platt skipped past a number of challenges, raced into the box from the halfway line and poked the ball home when under pressure at the vital moment. The Grimsby players stood there like statues, but the mazy run by the on-loan Cambridge winger had just provided a telling moment of quality.

This wasn’t a Lincoln side that was happy to sit on its laurels though, and they maintained their high-level performance throughout the half. The Frenchman Laurent showed explosive bursts of pace, shrugging off one Grimsby defender, two...three...then four. He slalomed his way behind the visitors defence on a number of occasions, but the absence of Sam Smith was telling – that final touch and finish just wasn’t there. Otherwise, the game would have been out of sight before the Mariners even managed their first attempt on goal. And perhaps Lincoln should have had another goal before Platt eventually put them in the lead – as they were denied what seemed to be a clear shout for a penalty when Power was felled in the box early on.

But to be fair to the away side, they did rally towards the end of the half and caused a few problems in the City defence, with ex-Boston striker Anthony Elding heading across goal and wide after finally working out how not to be offside. Some things never change...

The above phrase actually proved to a perfect description of Lincoln’s second-half performance, which is what I have become accustomed to during my 15/16 years of supporting the Imps. While it would be overly harsh to label the Imps’ second-half ‘performance’ as a “collapse”, the positivity and adventure of the opening period had completely vanished. But let’s not take anything away from the visitors, their joint-managers had obviously given their side a good talking to (maybe they took it in turns?) and they re-appeared out of the tunnel as a rejuvenated side. Now we had a game on our hands, and now I could see why Grimsby had been on such good form coming into this match-up.

And it certainly didn’t take long for the Mariners to get back on level terms. In the 52nd minute, a corner was swung in by Michael Coulson, and substitute Scott Garner made the simplest of runs across his defender – directing a bullet header past Paul Farman in the Imps’ goal. The momentum had completely swung, and now it was Grimsby’s turn to make the most of their good spell, and Lincoln were back-pedalling further and further back towards their own goal with each passage of play.

Just eight minutes later, the final blow struck when the Mariners’ top scorer Liam Hearn was found in space behind the Lincoln defence, and he composed himself well, taking a touch before slipping the ball past Farman to give his side the lead for the first time in the match. Whilst the two sides seemed fairly evenly matched on the face of things, the away side were far better in front-of goal. This was evident in the final stages of the game, as the Imps went in search of that all-allusive equaliser, but struggled to find a way through.

The game petered out as Grimsby efficiently went about their business, and secured a win that made it 13 points from a possible 15 in their last five fixtures as the final whistle blew to the delight of the 1,800 travelling fans. Lincoln may feel slightly hard done-by, but they have the perfect opportunity to gain revenge on their rivals as they meet Grimsby again at Blundell Park on New Year’s Day.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Foursome from Yakubu lifts Rovers off the bottom

Blackburn Rovers 4-2 Swansea City
Ewood Park, Saturday 3rd December 2011.

Yakubu scores four times to sink the Swans, but continuing protests overshadow the much-needed victory.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

Yakubu fired in four crucial goals against Swansea to hand his side only their second league win of the season in Saturday afternoon’s pulsating and soggy affair.

Despite the win lifting Blackburn off the foot of the table, the three points failed to alleviate the pressure on under-fire Rovers boss Steve Kean. A small group of fans remained in the ground after the final-whistle to protest against both the current owners and manager, whilst throughout the game the chants of “Kean Out” became more and more evident as the match wore on.

On the pitch, the game was a highly entertaining encounter. After a lacklustre opening period which saw little goalmouth action, Rovers took the lead on the 20 minute mark after clever work between Yakubu and Gael Givet, with the former starting and finishing the move and then delightfully guiding the ball into the top corner away from the desperate dive of Michel Vorm.

The Swans got back on level terms with an equally well-worked goal, after patient build-up play in midfield, Mark Gower chipped a delightfully weighted cross to Leroy Lita, who did well to head across Paul Robinson as the ball went in off the post.

Just when it appeared the two sides would go in to the half-time break on level terms, Blackburn took the lead – and it was that man Yakubu again. A corner was lofted in by Morten Gamst Pedersen, and the Nigerian striker nodded in from close range after Simon Vukcevic struck a vicious volley back across goal.
And when Yakubu clinched his hat-trick soon after the interval, it looked as if the hosts would coast to the three points at Ewood Park. This was strikingly similar to his second; heading in from close range after Chris Samba nodded back towards goal, with the visitors evidently struggling with Rovers’ noticeable height advantage.

But this wasn’t the end of this frantic game, and Swansea were soon back on the scoresheet. Paul Robinson flapped at Wayne Routledge’s dangerous cross, and substitute Luke Moore smashed home the rebound.
With ten minutes left on the clock, the defining moment finished off the game for good - and it all happened in the space of a minute. Firstly, midfielder Joe Allen was given his marching orders after a second booking for a badly timed challenge on Junior Hoilett. As play re-started, Vukcevik was brought down by Swans left-back Neil Taylor just inside the area, and Yakubu cooly disposed of the resulting penalty to score his 9th league goal of the season.

Despite the win, Steve Kean’s job still hangs in the balance. With three crucial fixtures coming up against Sunderland, Bolton and West Ham - the next few weeks could well determine not only the direction of Blackburn’s season, but Steve Kean’s job – which will come under even more scrutiny despite Saturday’s morale boosting victory against Brendan Rodgers’ Welsh side.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Cunning Canaries enjoy slice of luck to add to Blackburn woes

Norwich City 3-3 Blackburn Rovers
Carrow Road, 29th October 2011.

Last-gasp penalty deprives Blackburn of first away win of the season as pressure mounts on Steve Kean.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

On Wednesday night, Blackburn Rovers almost conspired to lose a game in which they were 2-0 up after 93 minutes of normal time. They eventually came through that compelling cup tie against an in-form Newcastle side, but lightning struck twice on Halloween weekend as Steve Kean’s men were once again pegged back on Saturday afternoon - drawing 3-3 with Norwich City - surrendering a two goal lead once again.

Yet we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, Norwich City really are the masters of the comeback. The Canaries garnered a reputation for themselves in the Championship last season, based on snatching crucial last minute winners to aid their automatic promotion to the Premier League. However, Norwich were most certainly given a helping hand with this particular fight back.

Despite a bright first half in which the home side dominated the majority of possession, it was Rovers who took the lead in the dying seconds of the opening period. Unsurprisingly, it came from the right boot of highly-rated winger Junior Hoilett, who was Blackburn’s only real bright spark of the first half. The 21 year old Canadian starlet lashed the ball into the top corner of the net away from the desperate dive of John Ruddy. 
The lead was perhaps a little harsh on the tenacious home side, who had worked a number of promising situations only to lack the final ball. Nonetheless, Blackburn were far more assured in the second period and were unfortunate not to come away from Norfolk with all three points.

Despite this, it was the hosts who were back on level terms shortly after half time - courtesy of tireless striker Steve Morison - who lashed in a sublime volley from just outside the area. From here on, you’d be forgiven for expecting the momentum to shift in the Canaries’ favour, given the vulnerable state of the relegation-threatened Blackburn side.

Conversely, Blackburn soon raced into a surprise two goal lead courtesy of a quick-fire double from Yakubu and Christopher Samba. Samba nodded in at the back post after a delightful cross in from a Morten-Gamst Pedersen free-kick by the left flank, after Yakubu - the former Everton striker – had struck past Ruddy at the near post after the Norwich ‘keeper struggled to get down to the rasping drive.

A period of keep-ball followed from the away side, and it looked like the away side would play out the final 20 minutes of the match to secure their first away win of the season. Somehow, Norwich clawed themselves back into the game. Bradley Johnson’s hopeful long range effort deflected off Rovers defender Jason Lowe and looped over stranded ‘keeper Paul Robinson, who had no other choice but to watch the ball fly over his head and nestle in his net.

There was now a sense of inevitability that Norwich would grab a third, and in the 94th minute a questionable penalty was awarded for an alleged handball by Steven N’Zonzi. Grant Holt stepped up and dispatched the ball into the corner with aplomb, wheeling away to celebrate with the elated Carrow Road faithful.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Struggling Lincoln without a manager once again

A perfect opportunity for a new dawn at Sincil Bank, or just another plummeting drop within the viscous cycle of managerial instability?

Steve Tilson and his assistant Paul Brush were dismissed from their duties on Monday afternoon after an utterly disastrous 48 games in charge of the now non-league outfit.

The ex-Southend boss was responsible for the Imps' relegation to the Blue Square Premier, the first time the Lincolnshire club have not been in the football league since 1987. This occurred despite Tilson's men needing only 4 points from the last 11 matches of last season's League Two campaign. And things didn't pick up in the Conference either, with the Imps narrowly hovering above the drop zone after a terrible start; collecting just 12 points from 14 matches.

The 4-0 thrashing at the hands of semi-professional Tamworth last Saturday was to be Tilson's last game in charge. If anything, I'm expecting you to question why the man wasn't sacked much sooner.

And you'd probably be right. Ideally, Tilson should have been sent his marching orders as soon as the final whistle blew on our devastating 3-0 defeat at home to Aldershot on the last day of the season; a game that was held in front of 8,000 spectators and one where we only needed to match Barnet's result against Port Vale to guarantee our survival in the league.

Steve Tilson enjoyed a meagre 13 victories during his year as City manager

Of course, that's easy for us to say now looking back with hindsight, but bar a run of 6 straight victories at the beginning of 2011, there's never really been a point during Tilson's reign where even the thought of being optimistic was a realistic possibility. Seemingly, we went from one week to the next having to endure the feeling of constant disappointment after yet another capitulation to such household names as Accrington Stanley and Morecambe (no offence, if anything this is a compliment).

Oh, the Imps lost again. That's another week ruined.

Our wives/girlfriends/mothers (delete as appropriate) would ask, "how did it go?" as we returned from the game, to which we would mumble an inaudible reply and then go fetch the rope from the garage.

But Tilson is out of the door now, long gone. It says a lot, that when I was made aware of the news, I replied with a shrug of the shoulders, almost as if I was saying "oh well, there's another one gone". That now makes it four managers in five years since the heady days of the Imps' last successful manager (relatively speaking), the late, and utterly great Keith Alexander.

So where does the club go from here? On the face of it, the Imps are left with a handful of uninspiring candidates who have thrown their names forward. Ex-Rotherham boss Ronnie Moore has declared his interest, while Martin Foyle and David Holdsworth were spotted at Lincoln's game at Alfreton on Tuesday evening. Without too much investigation into how their careers have fared thus far, I'm nailing my colours to the mast - I don't want any of them three. Phew, that was a difficult choice.

Then again, it could be worse. Ex-Lincoln "legends" (the Lincolnshire Echo's words, not mine) Steve Thompson and Mick Harford have stated that they would be prepared to join the Imps on a short-term basis. Not that it should come as too much of a surprise, good ol' Thommo applies for every job going in the lower leagues (and was unsuccessful in his application last season, before Tilson was appointed).

Bizarrely, certain elements of the City support have expressed their support for the pair. According to some, the pair will "install passion", and "provide leadership". Well I could do that, doesn't make me a football manager does it? How about a manager who wins football games, eh?

Thompson's last couple of stints in management haven't been the most frivolous of occasions. He left Notts County in 2007 languishing towards the bottom of League 1. He was also the man in charge at Cambridge United as they plummeted out of the football league in 2005. As for Mick Harford, let's just say he's mostly remembered by Luton fans as a legend on the pitch, and not off it (16% win percentage at Rotherham, 27% at Luton and 12% as acting caretaker at QPR).

Ex-Lincoln and Luton striker Mick Harford (left), and current Radio Lincolnshire summariser Steve Thompson (right)

It's been an interesting week for me personally, and not only because of the sacking of Steve Tilson. I interviewed Tilson's predecessor, Chris Sutton, for the student newspaper in Norwich on Saturday afternoon. If only the interview had taken place after Lincoln's heavy defeat at Tamworth, and after Tilson's sacking on Monday; then it have provided an intriguing insight of the thoughts of the ex-Blackburn, Chelsea and Celtic striker.

Undoubtedly, Sutton struggled at times during his reign at Sincil Bank. But surely, as a guy experiencing his first taste in management, we should have expected that? Once again, with hindsight, didn't the England capped ex-striker deserve some more time in the job?

With Tilson, I think most supporters are in full agreement that he deserved to go (and as previously mentioned, may have left sooner). But what about John Schofield? What about Peter Jackson? We all look back on these "era's" with scorn, yet surely we have to question the reasons as to why their reign's were so unsuccessful. None of these managers have been in the job for much longer than a season, doesn't take a rocket scientist does it?

We must rid the club of the shackles that threaten to plunge the club even further into trouble. I know a lot of fans (not only Lincoln) have suggested that there's little chance of the Imps being relegated down another tier. But who knows!?

When will Lincoln reach their zenith, and escape from their seemingly never-ending nadir? And who will be responsible for it (if it ever happens)? These unanswered questions remain on the lips of all Lincoln fans (albeit not worded in such a pretentious manner), and arguably have been there for their entire lives.

This coming week is a crucial point in the direction of the club's future. If Bob Dorrian fails to deliver, the blame will fall solely on his shoulders.

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Southport more than a match for sluggish Lincoln

Southport 2-2 Lincoln City
Haig Avenue, 13th August 2011.

Relegated Imps begin life in non-league with a hard fought 2-2 draw in Merseyside.

Written by Matt Scrafton

A new look Lincoln City side were forced to settle for a point at Haig Avenue this afternoon following a cagey encounter.

Lincoln, who twice took the lead through headed goals by summer signings Sam Smith and Kyle Perry, played some neat football in limited spells, yet were caused plenty of problems by a dogged home side. With the skillful brilliance of the mercurial talent, John Paul Kissock, Southport cut Lincoln open on more than the one occasion, with right-back Adam Watts feeling the full brunt of Kissock's unpredictable talent and incisive passing with a wayward performance.

Yet it was the Imps who took the lead on the half-hour mark, in front of 578 away fans, thanks to an instinctive corner from Russell, which was expertly placed on Sam Smith's head following Ali Fuseini's curling cross. This came after Southport had dominated the opening 15 minutes of the match, causing several disturbances amongst the City defence yet failed to beat Lincoln's Joe Anyon.

Southport deservedly drew level just a few minutes before the half-time whistle, in a half that they matched the visitors. Josh Gowling hacked down Kissock 25 yards from goal, and predictably the diminutive figure fired into the top corner away from Anyon's leaping dive.

Whilst the City fans entertained themselves baiting the local stewards, the two sides arrived back onto the pitch for the second half, both unchanged. Lincoln came rapidly out of the firing blocks, edging one ahead again thanks to Russell's superb delivery from the right wing, following good build-up play from the midfield. This time it was ex-Mansfield striker Kyle Perry who nodded in from a difficult angle.

Yet just as Lincoln fans were celebrating excitedly and expecting their side to go on and win the match comfortably, they were pegged back for the second time just four minutes later. Fuseini dithered with the ball dangerously just outside of the City box, and Kissock impulsively slid the ball in to winger Shaun Whalley behind Watts, who then cut inside the Lincoln centre-backs and fired home at Anyon's near post.

Both sides traded half chances towards the end of the game, but neither managed to find a way past their opposing 'goalkeepers, which brought an end to an entertaining game where both sides were satisfied to share the spoils of the opening day fixture.

Attendance: 1,687 (578 City supporters)

Lincoln Match Ratings:

Joe Anyon - 6/10 - Didn't do much wrong, although he only had 1 or 2 shots to deal with. Can't fault him on today's game & he couldn't have done much about either of the goals.

Adam Watts - 4/10 - Struggled with Southport's wingers and was caught out on numerous occasions.
Josh Gowling - 6/10 - Won his headers and dealt with the long ball pretty effectively. Not great with his distribution, however.
Danny Hone - 6/10 - As above.
John Nutter 6/10 - Wasn't tested too much down Southport's right side, so was pretty solid. Good crossing ability and supported well going forward.

Gavin McCallum - 7/10 - Rarely found space due to the narrow pitch, but beat his man consistently when he had the opportunity. Crossing was also good.
Ali Fuseini - 5/10 - At fault for their second and rarely found himself involved in the play despite the assist for City's opener.
Alan Power - 6/10 - Spread the play well at times, as seen for the Imps' second. But failed to stamp his mark on the midfield.
Sam Russell - 7/10 - Impressive delivery from wide positions, corners and free-kicks. Hasn't got the pace of McCallum but he provides something different.

Sam Smith - 7/10 - Held the ball up efficiently and worked well with Perry at times. Took his goal very well.
Kyle Perry - 8/10 - my MOTM today. Won the majority of his headers, pestered the Southport defence and headed home expertly.

Monday, 8 August 2011

A neutral's take on Coventry v Leicester

Coventry City 0-1 Leicester City
Ricoh Arena, 6th August 2011.

My first taste of the new football season took me to the Ricoh Arena, where the Sky Blues took on promotion favourites Leicester City. How did the two teams fare?

Written by Matt Scrafton.

A game that will be remembered for two malicious challenges, both deservedly resulting in red cards, marred an otherwise unspectacular, yet comfortable opening day victory for Leicester City.

Sven-Goran Eriksson's promotion favourites secured the bragging rights in Saturday's lunchtime East Midlands derby, thanks to a well guided header from summer recruit, right-back Lee Peltier. However, the typical post-match analysis on message boards and radio phone-in's tended to focus on the two red cards that were dished out in the opening half by referee Darren Deadman.

Darius Vassell was first to be given his marching orders, following a dangerous lunge into a studs-up challenge on defender, Richard Keogh. This was just after 10 minutes, and seemingly Coventry now had a perfect opportunity to gain a surprise victory over their millionaire rivals. However, the aptly named Deadman returned the favour and sent off Coventry midfielder Carl Baker, following a robust, over-the-ball challenge on Richie Wellens not long before half-time. As if the 'tackle' wasn't enough on it's own to justify a red card, the sight of Kasper Schmeichel rushing 30 yards from his goal-line certainly made up the referee's mind.

But there was a game of football to be played, and Leicester efficiently went about their business while Coventry struggled to penetrate the visitors' sturdy defence and midfield. Gelsen Fernandes protected the back four superbly, proving just what an astute purchase most of us already knew he would be. On the rare occasion the lacklustre Coventry midfield found themselves behind the protective midfield shield, the Foxes defence was more than capable of keeping them at bay.

Richie Wellens sprawled on the floor in 'agony' following Baker's poor challenge

Although striker Lukas Jutkiewicz worked tirelessly up front on his own, and youngsters Gael Bigirimana and Cyrus Christie showed glimpses of promise, Coventry looked entirely unimpressive. Whilst they remained tidy and patient with their build-up play, they rarely found themselves in promising positions. And when they did, they were limited to long range pot shots at goal, which Schmeichel had no problems dealing with. It says a lot that the loudest cheer of the day that emanated from the home end was for a stray squirrel that managed to entertain the Ricoh crowd for all of 40 seconds or so.

Admittedly, you can't draw too many conclusions from an opening day fixture and certainly not against a club that should be aiming for the title this season. On the face of it, a 1-0 defeat to a side that has spent almost £10million is nothing to be ashamed of, and the Sky Blues certainly held their own. Aside from Peltier's headed goal, Leicester only had one or two opportunities for themselves; the most obvious of which rooted Joe Murphy to his line as Nugent's superb header bounced back across the line after striking the post. However, there was nothing on display that changed my pre-match opinion regarding the likelihood of Coventry struggling for Championship survival this campaign.

As for Leicester, they strike me as a Championship replica of Man City. For a club that has spent so much, you might expect a more expansive, exciting side that would go on to sweep away sides like Coventry 3 or 4-0. As we all know, that's never a realistic expectation and Eriksson knows that better than anyone. Instead, judging from Saturday's game it seems Leicester will be a ruthlessly effective side that will 'get the job done', to quote an age old footballing cliche. The Foxes have sufficient quality to edge out most Championship sides, and if Sven manages to capture one of his current striking targets - Nicky Maynard or Shane Long - then it's difficult to imagine anyone getting in the way of their title pursuit.

Although this fixture only served to wet my appetite for a real football game (I had to eat and drink in Tesco Express, for god's sake!), it made a nice change to see talented footballers like Gelsen Fernandes and Matt Mills, and a smart stadium (albeit bland, and nothing compared to your more traditional stadia).

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Udinese in La Liga

18th June 2011 – the day Granada CF defeated Elche CF and were promoted to Spain’s top division via the playoffs. Sounds fairly unspectacular, doesn’t it? In fact, it’s an engrossing tale that is worth our full attention, as I’ll try and explain.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

Granada are a modestly sized club who have been around for over 80 years now, and have predominately played their football in the lower leagues of the Spanish league system. Despite a flurry of top flight successes in the 1940s and 1950s, which included a club record sixth position and a cup final defeat to Barcelona, Granada are your typical definition of a yo-yo club.

However, things became so bad for the Andalusian side back in the summer of 2009 that they stared closure directly in the face, following a host of financial difficulties whilst they were struggling in Group IV of the third level. Their saviour came in the form of Udinese owner Gino Pozzo, who saw a money-making opportunity that turned out to be of benefit to both of his clubs, on and off the pitch.

His strategy was a simple yet entirely novel one. Pozzo’s solution to the crisis came in the form of an  agreement with Udinese Calcio, with the Spaniards incorporating large numbers of players contracted to the Italian club as well as receiving its youth players and reserves as part of the deal. So come the end of the 2009-2010 season, Granada unsurprisingly finished top of the third tier of Spanish football, gaining promotion to Liga Adelante. And they followed up their success with a 5th placed finish this season in the second tier of Spanish football, meaning a semi-final against Celta Vigo; a side more than accustomed to plying their trade in the top flight.

Granada successfully progressed to the playoff final in dramatic fashion, defeating Celta on the virtue of a penalty shootout after the game had ended 1-1 after 120 minutes. Granada took to the field with 6 out of their 11 first team players being Udinese-owned. In fact, in total Granada have 11 players ‘on loan’ from the Italian club, including stars such as Dani Benitez and Ghanaian international Jonathan Mensah. Elche could not halt the rapid progression of El GranĂ¡ either, who were victorious in the playoff final courtesy of a 1-1 draw, sending them to La Liga on the away goal rule. And the crucial goal was scored by a Udinese-owned player, 22 year old striker Odion Jude Ighalo to be precise.

The man who made it all possible: Udinese and Granada CF Owner Gino Pozzo

Now we’re left with the peculiar situation where essentially, Udinese have a team in both Serie A and La Liga. The majority of Granada’s squad is effectively a Udinese B side, the rest made up of local Spaniards. The club has incurred a complete transformation thanks to Pozzo’s entirely original scheme. Yet will the club maintain their current strategy in La Liga?

In fact, only in the past few days the club announced their intentions to provide a competitive team for their return to the top flight after a 35 year absence. The Andalusian outfit have still to fill a third of their squad, resulting in the restlessness of their fans, many fearing an instant return to the second division.

However, Director of Football Juan Carlos Cordero said: “We will have a competitive team to stay up, but there is no hurry and we don’t want to bring a player in just to appease the supporters”

Granada plan to have a 23 or 24-man squad for the start of the season in August and Cordero insists his club will not get carried away: “We know the players we want and they will come,” he says. “We are already in advanced negotiations with a few and they will occupy the places vacant at present. But we will not bow down to the demands of any player or another club.”

Clearly, owner Gino Pozzo is committed to the long-term future of Granada CF, not just selfishly providing a competitive platform for Udinese reserve and fringe players as some may claim. Already people are beginning to question whether or not Granada’s success is sustainable, whilst some are even questioning the legality of such an approach. However, Pozzo has ensured supporters that the partnership is not one sided, and is a permanent one. The deal is mutually beneficial; Udinese gain vital experience for their bright young talents whilst for Granada, it has completely revived the club and has elevated them up two tiers. Just maybe I’m getting too carried away here, but imagine if Granada had a successful year next season and qualified for Europe; and ended up playing Udinese in the Europa League. How intriguing would that be?

There are several loose connections between clubs around the world, yet none are as impressive as this.  If anything, it’s a surprise that such a deal has not been manufactured before. So is this something we’re likely to see more of? I see no reason why not.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Blackpool will be a 'breath of fresh air' to the Championship

Ian Holloway's 'Tangerines' were cruelly relegated back to the Championship on the final day of the Premier League season. I explain why they got exactly what they deserved.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

Their demise into the relegation zone was met with delirious cries from the media. One commentator pompously declared prior to their kick-off against Premier League champions Manchester United, "I'm sure I speak for every neutral watching today, that we all hope Blackpool avoid relegation". Well thank you for speaking on my behalf, but I'm going to have to disagree.

Whilst another bizarrely suggested Blackpool "didn't deserve to go down". Why, did their opponents cheat? Were they given a harsh points deduction? A la West Ham, had one rival side gained the services of a player that they didn't legitimately own? Or, more realistically, did they amass less points than those teams above them and thus, were worthy of their place in the relegation zone? I'll let you decide that one.

Let me give you a few facts. Blackpool were consistently praised for their gung-ho attitude which saw them supposedly score bundles of goals. 55, in fact. Pretty impressive for a side that has been relegated, but nothing out of this world is it? Admittedly, that is 18 more than Birmingham City, and 17 more than Blackburn Rovers. Yet these are two sides that are notorious for their defensive, containing, cautious style of football. Yet the Tangerines, who have been lauded as some sort of 'orange Barcelona', only managed to net 9 more times than Wolves, and 11 more than Wigan. And scoring 55 goals is all well and good when you have a tight, compact and organised defence, yet that is something Blackpool certainly don't possess. Holloway's men conceded an astonishing 78 goals in 38 matches.

Yet apparently, we're told, this is to be congratulated. Comments such as "this is how the game of football was meant to be played" filled the Sunday morning papers. I apologise, I forgot there was a concise  encyclopedic blueprint, dated from the Greek ages, that taught us mere mortals how to correctly play the game. Of course, football is primarily a form of entertainment, and I don't doubt for one minute that many viewers were entertained by their kamikaze approach. Even the great Sir Alex Ferguson noted that "the Premier League will miss Blackpool, they play attractive and attacking football". Seemingly, neutrals require teams in the Premier League wholly dedicated to entertaining the 'foaming-at-the-mouth' masses, as opposed to playing sensibly and giving themselves a better chance of survival. However, a lost art form is that of defending, one that I greatly admire and feel is lost upon certain fans who impatiently require as many goals as is humanly possible. I'd suggest that if a constant stream of action is what you want, then basketball or 20-20 cricket is more suited to your impatient needs.

But back to my original point, one of my favourite performances of recent times was that of Jose Mourinho's Internazionale in the Nou Camp last year; a sublime example of organised and containing catenaccio football.  Who says goals = entertainment? I couldn't keep my eyes off that game. In no means am I suggesting Holloway should have implemented these tactics in each and every one of his 38 Premier League fixtures. But would it not have reaped more rewards had he adopted a more sensible approach? Just maybe, his sides would not have suffered such reversals as a vital 4-0 defeat at Wolves, or a 2-2 draw at Bolton (when they were 2-0 ahead on the hour mark), had Holloway not ordered his men to attack constantly in the naive search for an endless supply of goals.

Here's the so-called 'breath of fresh air' himself

Speaking of Holloway - what exactly is the appeal of this man? As referred to in my title, Holloway was constantly referred to as a "breath of fresh air" to the Premier League.  Such praise was based upon his apparent "no nonsense approach", who "told it how it is" and "was not afraid to speak his mind". I'm not entirely sure, but I think that translates to "a repetitive, boisterous man who has an inflated ego and loves the sound of his own voice". Or something like that, anyway.

So all things considered, I think it's fair to say Blackpool deserve their place in the Championship. People point to their attractive and attacking brand of football, but in riposte I'd highlight their equally alarming defensive frailties. Instead, I'd much rather see sides like Swansea and Wigan in the top division. Clubs with young, level-headed, up-and coming managers that are dedicated to a patient approach, possession football with a solid back-four. That's right, Brendan Rogers is "a breath of fresh air" to the Premier League.

Monday, 18 April 2011

PFA Awards get it wrong again

Tottenham winger Gareth Bale awarded PFA Player of the Year, ahead of Nani, Samir Nasri and Nemanja Vidic. Whilst team of the year has some glaring omissions too.

Written by Matt Scrafton.

Two years after Ryan Giggs was farcically awarded the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year award, the PFA have once again given the decoration to a player who was wholly undeserving of the accolade. Ryan Giggs' Welsh compatriot Gareth Bale has been named the Professional Footballers' Association Player of the Year. The 21-year-old beat off the competition from Samir Nasri, Nemanja Vidic, Charlie Adam, Scott Parker, Carlos Tevez and Rafael van der Vaart to win the supposedly coveted award. 

How did they manage to get it so, so wrong? 

Once again, it has been proven that the media's hype machine has far too much influence when it comes to footballing opinion. Gareth Bale (I initially typed Gareth Barry, now that would have been a joke!) is undoubtedly a very good player, but the best? He hasn't even been Tottenham's best player this season; that particular accolade belongs to Luka Modric, and I could even argue a case for Michael Dawson or Rafael van der Vaart (although his second half to the season haven't matched his earlier performances).

And if Bale is player of the year, how can he not be young player of the year too, given he was also nominated for that category? 

In terms of statistics, Bale has managed 7 goals and only one assist. Compared to Nani's 9 goals and staggeringly impressive 18 assists. So that suggests, to me anyway, that Bale's inclusion perhaps has more to do with his Champions League performances (well, a hat trick against Inter that eventually proved meaningless anyway) than his stellar Premier League contribution. Of course stats don't present the whole picture, but I'm of the opinion that Nani has been far more deserving of this award than the Spurs' winger. And I wouldn't stop there either, both Nasri and Vidic have been far more consistent over the course of the season.

I know what you're thinking, "yeh but the awards are voted for in January, not now". Then why is that? The votes should be made at this point in the season, with the results announced a few weeks later. Makes logical sense, doesn't it? Instead, players are handed their voting sheets in January, and to quote Michael Owen's Twitter comments, "I do think voting should be put back 2 months. Only half the season has gone when we post our vote. We definitely vote too early". And christ, you know the problems are glaringly obvious when you share the same opinion as Stan Collymore; "Not saying any of the winners haven't had good seasons, but do it Aug-May or don't do it at all. Problem is, ballots are given out and done as a bit of a giggle in the dressing rooms"

There is one argument that suggests this award is more accurate and honourable, as it's voted for by the players themselves, and not journalists, or fans. In that case, that only serves to prove that most footballers are stupid (something we already knew, to be fair). The PFA awards have always been flawed. Predictably, players vote for the well known players. Add that to the fact that it's voted for in January, means it shouldn't be considered as significant as it currently is. 

Team of the Year did not contain main nominees Parker, Van der Vaart or Adam

This caption neatly brings me on to the PFA Team of the Year. Firstly, Edwin van der Sar has had a good season, but has he been especially brilliant? I'm not so sure. Or has he just been more talked about recently due to his oncoming retirement? Apologies for being cynical, but I'd go with the latter, personally.

Ashley Cole and Bacary Sagna are hardly hugely incorrect choices; as they're both brilliant full-backs and are arguably the best two in the Premier League. Vidic and Kompany's inclusions are a given, as well. Wilshere has had a great season and has stepped up another level following his successful loan spell at Bolton, and is certainly deserving of his Young Player of the Year award (although if you're going to place Nani on the shortlist, which he shouldn't as he's too old, then he should have won it). 

Not that my opinion counts for much, but this would have been my personal choice (if they insist on using 4-4-2):

GK - Ben Foster (Birmingham)

DR - Stephen Carr (Birmingham)
DC - Nemanja Vidic (Man Utd)
DC - Vincent Kompany (Man City)
DL - Leighton Baines (Everton)

MR - Nani (Man Utd)
MC - Scott Parker (West Ham)
MC - Luka Modric (Tottenham)
ML - Samir Nasri (Arsenal)

ST - Carlos Tevez (Man City)
ST - Dimitar Berbatov (Man Utd)

Sunday, 20 March 2011

JT should never have been stripped of England captaincy

The importance of the England armband is a bizarre obsession with the English media and the national teams' fans. But is Capello right to reinstate John Terry as his permanent 'skipper'?

Written by Matt Scrafton

A year after being theatrically stripped of his England armband amidst a stormy cloud of vicious tabloid allegations, Chelsea defender John Terry will once again lead out Fabio Capello's men as captain when England face Wales in their first Euro 2012 Qualifier. As a result of Rio Ferdinand's prolonged spell of absence on the sidelines with injury, it appears Capello's decision to reinstate Terry is not just a stop gap until he returns, but seems more than likely that this will be a permanent appointment. A decision that has predictably been met with criticism from all corners.

Firstly, I think it's important to study the way Terry was first stripped of his captaincy and just why it came about so publicly. Prior to England's disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa, manager Fabio Capello felt it necessary to 'award' Steven Gerrard the captaincy, following Terry's alleged misdemeanors. Terry had supposedly been involved with Wayne Bridge's ex-girlfriend, although these are allegations that are currently being denied by the woman in question, and are subject of litigation. In order to maintain the team spirit within the camp, Terry was demoted to a mere peasant amongst the flock of England's average XI, with Gerrard taking the reigns and 'leading' England to a disappointing Second Round exit at the hands of a stunningly superior young German side.

With that in mind, just what is so special about this supposedly sacred piece of cloth? It's not like in cricket, where the captain has several roles to play and is clearly the most influentially important individual within the starting line up. In football, the captain's only official responsibilities are; to take part in the coin toss, a demanding task if I've ever seen one (well, this is England players we're talking about, after all); and picking up the trophy when a team wins a trophy. Which let's be honest, isn't a required talent of an England 'skipper...

In addition, contrary to common misconception, captains have no special authority over their team mates when it comes to challenging a decision made by a referee. Referees will sometimes call over and converse with each sides captain, but only in specific circumstances when questioning their side's general behaviour. So, all in all a captain doesn't have to do that much at all. To make it clear, I'm not completely demeaning the role of a football captain; they still have an effect on their team mates and can prove to be of great assistance in terms of leadership and proving a good example to your team-mates. But as important a role as the media will have you believe? No, I don't think so.

Ferdinand succeeded Terry as England captain

This issue has been brought to a head by Rio Ferdinand's ongoing back problems, that don't look likely to defuse any time soon. So who else could Capello have given the armband to? Gerrard? Lampard? Maybe even Rooney? In all honesty, none of them are especially 'good' captains - they don't bring anything special to the plate that Terry already doesn't, especially Lampard who's been in the same Chelsea side that has been led by Terry for the last 6 or 7 seasons. As badly as Capello has mismanaged this situation, something that can't be denied, John Terry is the stand-out leader in the England camp. It's evidently visible to notice Terry's influence within the Chelsea dressing room, especially under Jose Mourinho's helm at Stamford Bridge where the London born defender excelled and led his club to a number of trophies. And then under Avram Grant's stint with Chelsea, there were several rumours that emerged suggesting that, as the now West Ham boss began to lose control over the dressing room, Terry would often take matters into his own hands and lead the team talks in the dressing room before and at half time of their games. Terry is a figure that demands respect, and in the main, he receives it. Whatever personal issues certain England team-mates might have with him, and I'm sure there's plenty of them, I doubt there's many of them daft enough to question Terry's significant superiority in terms of leadership abilities and the manner in which he organises the team. To regrettably quote the former England manager Steve McClaren, Terry is "a natural leader".

And to those who question John Terry's apparently 'loose' morals, I can diffuse that argument pretty swiftly and effectively. If we were awarding the captain's armband to the individual within the England camp that had the least allegations and scandals to their name, well we wouldn't be left with many candidates would we? Let's be honest, JT is an appropriate leader for the England national team, they're a perfect match for one another.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Disgraceful 'Old Firm' scenes should come as no surprise

Recent Old Firm trouble sets an ugly and unruly example of the Scottish game. Whilst roots of the violence can be traced back to a century of sectarianism and religious division between the two Glasgow clubs.

Written by Matt Scrafton

Both Celtic and Rangers have recently agreed to a range of supposedly innovative measures in an attempt to tackle and combat the trouble that was witnessed in the recent Scottish Cup match between the two SPL heavyweights.

The violence was apparently so serious it was met with a ferocious backlash of political scorn; as several Scottish ministers felt it necessary to weigh in with their ill-informed views, when usually they wouldn't cast an eye over the Old Firm fixture. As a result, the proposals were agreed at an "emergency summit" involving key ministers, representatives of the two clubs, the police and of course the Scottish football authorities; the body who are usually armed with dealing with such trivialities. All this after last Wednesday nights confrontation saw a violent altercation between senior officials, three Rangers players were sent off, 13 yellow cards, arrests of 34 supporters inside the stadium and even allegations of the use of racist remarks by Celtic manager Neil Lennon; just to top it all off. Sounds lovely doesn't it?

If the authorities really deem it necessary to get to the bottom of the vast array of problems that are unleashed when this fixture is played, they could at least do a proper job of it. They can play the match behind closed doors if they really want, or close public houses prior to kick-off, or even arrange for a more heavier police presence. The truth is, none of it will work. It's obvious to what the real reasons are behind the problems that arise whenever this fixture is played. According to official national statistics, "the violence, sectarianism, alcohol misuse and domestic abuse dramatically increases when the two "Old Firm" teams play each other". Well it's not really a statistic of sort, but it's certainly something we already know.

The key word from that quote, is of course - "sectarianism".

I don't intend to insult your intelligence, but if you're not aware; the rivalry between the two clubs has roots a lot deeper than just your ordinary local sporting derby. It is infused with a series of complex disputes, mostly based on the religious division between the Catholic core that makes up the majority of Celtic's support and the Protestants at Rangers, as well as Northern-Irish based politics (Loyalist and Republican).

An Anti-Poppy banner at Celtic Park which bares the slogan "Your deeds would shame all the devils in hell, Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan. No bloodstained poppy on our hoops".
This is the key aspect of this infamous football rivalry; the level of madness surrounding Old Firm matches means what would normally be regarded as basic football 'dust-ups' elsewhere, have far more wider and dangerous ramifications. As you'd expect with such deep cultural and religious tensions between the two sides, the match has been at the centre of a plethora of chaos and controversy throughout its entangled past. In 1980, opposing fans thought it appropriate to brawl on the Hamden pitch in the aftermath of a victory for Celtic in the Scottish Cup Final. In more recent times, several missiles were thrown onto the pitch by Celtic fans in a 1999 league fixture, one of which struck referee Hugh Dallas, forcing the game to be stopped whilst four Celtic fans had earlier invaded the field of play to confront the unfortunate referee who had found himself at the centre of this hotbed of hatred. The Old Firm rivalry fuels far more assaults on Old Firm derby days than any other normal British league or cup fixture, and some deaths in the past have come about as a direct result of this fixture. An activist groups that monitors sectarian activity in Glasgow, has reported that on Old Firm weekends violent attacks increase "ninefold over normal levels".

The two sets of supporters engage in archaic chanting, in Celtic's case they encourage and readily support the continuation of the IRA on Old Firm match day. There is no room for religion within 'sport' (something that is supposedly set up as entertainment for the masses). In Glasgow, more than any other British city, football fans seem to spend more time obsessing about their neighbouring club than they do about their own. Now, both teams are in the spotlight and predictably not on the account of the more endearing and entertaining side of the game.

So what is the answer? The Scottish Football Association are seemingly more concerned with the current declining status of their Premier League; with consistent talks taking place to discuss what can be done to revamp their aging and failing system. Some have claimed that the only way to 'save' Scottish football would be to expel Rangers and Celtic altogether. Whilst this notion seems far too extreme and arguably a brainless idea; there is certainly a bigger problem that exists that has failed to be tackled for far too long now. The two conclusions that we come to and seem most appropriate are that 1) Celtic and Rangers need each other to exist and 2) Scottish football does not need Celtic and Rangers to exist. Glasgow's not-so-dirty-secret (sectarianism) is open for all to see, and for too long now the footballing and governing authorities have turned a blind eye to what is, in essence a severe case of entrenched racism fueled by alcohol. Discussing the expulsion of the Old Firm clubs from the Scottish league system would be utterly pointless and as a topic of debate is a non-starter - as who exactly would have them? I know the English certainly wouldn't...

I'm not pointing the finger at either club, I think we can all agree that both teams have been equally responsible. Then again, when I begin to think about it - I'm not quite sure which club I loathe more, they're equally as detestable as each other.

Then again, Rangers do have El-Hadji Diouf...

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

To set the record straight

Apparently "the magic of the cup" is back alive after non-league Crawley Town were drawn to play Manchester United in the 5th round of the FA Cup. I'll explain why this isn't the case.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011
Written by Matt Scrafton.

To quote several leading tabloid newspapers in the past few days, Crawley Town drawing global giants Manchester United in the fifth round of the FA Cup "is what dreams are made of" and "proves that the romance of the cup is not dead". Well actually, no it isn't.

It comes as no surprise to me that the mainstream media have once again failed to deliver anything that resembles balanced journalism. They got their Sunday morning back page story when the ironically named "Red Devils" defeated League Two Torquay United 1-0 in the fourth round, and then were drawn to play Manchester United in the next round, and boy they weren't going to let anything get in the way. Not even the truth? Hard line facts? No of course not, this wouldn't be the British media if they did that.

Now let me say this first; Crawley Town getting through to the fifth round of the FA Cup is an extremely impressive achievement and they have obviously done well to get there.They are clearly a very talented side; they've already defeated Championship side Derby County and League 1 outfit Swindon Town on their journey so far, and they also sit in second place in the Blue Square Premier this season. It would be a miraculous achievement if all this had been done by sticking to a shoestring budget and scrambling together a first eleven made from local plumbers and promising 17 year old kids, like other non-league side are forced to do. 

But with Crawley, that isn't the case at all. They are a small club from West Sussex that only managed to muster an average attendance of 1,003 last season, despite finishing in 7th position. Just how do they manage to be so successful with such a small average gate? Well, Crawley's co-owner Bruce Winfield managed to persuade "close friends and business acquaintances" to become shareholders and to pump millions of pounds into the club. Sounds a bit dubious doesn't it? Basically, the club are allowing a crook (am I allowed to say that?) to splash millions of pounds of cash from anonymous sources, who have yet to come out and tell Crawley fans who they are, and just why they have signed up for this 'project'. I wonder why that is? I think we all know the answer to that question.

And what is the reaction from our media? Of course it's to tell us that in fact, Crawley aren't a badly run or badly managed club at all. But in fact they wish to praise them from the high heavens and tell us how they're a club who are leading the way, showing all other football league/non league clubs that throwing millions of someones else money is the best way to go about your business, because you won't be punished and if anything, you'll be rewarded. And even though Crawley spending more than all of League Two put together is a recent development, the club certainly have a questionable past. Firstly, during the 2005-06 season the owners were forced to slash the players/staff wages and place every player on the transfer list, as the club were struggling at the bottom of the Conference table, and as a result attendances and income dropped. This resulted in the club going into administration, and although they finally survived the drop, they were eventually deducted three points at the end of the season for breaching the annual playing budget. All this was overseen by Chairman Chas Majeed, who was announced as bankrupt only a few days after the club were forced to go into administration. Surprisingly enough, Majeed still remains involved with the club and some have suggested he's heavily involved with the current ownership. In May 2007, it was confirmed that all of Crawley Town's debts had been cleared. However complications emerged and as a result the club were given a six-point penalty for the new season, and a transfer embargo was put in place because of financial irregularities. Of course, Crawley Town aren't the first club to go into administration and certainly won't be the last, My own club Lincoln City flirted with such disastrous times when ITV Digital when bust at the start of the new millennium. It's an unwanted yet depressingly familiar part of football nowadays, and of course Crawley should not be punished years in advance due to the actions of extremely suspect businessmen from days gone by. However, what shouldn't be allowed to happen, time and time again, is for the club to continue overspending, when most other football league/non league clubs are forced to live within their means, as of course they should have to.    

So is it fair, that Crawley who continue to spend so grossly, are rewarded for spending money that isn't really theres and punish other BSP sides who continue to run within their budget? Just yesterday as the transfer window closed, Crawley announced the signing of Willie Gibson from Dunfermline for £150,000. This comes after the club splashed £100,000 on striker Matt Tubbs, and £160,000 for ex-York forward Richard Brodie this season, whilst also being linked with ex-Arsenal midfielder Robert Pires prior to his move to Premier League Aston Villa. Crawley's victory over Torquay last weekend was lauded as a surprise victory - but why? With the squad they have assembled and the money they have at their disposal, they should be beating League Two sides with comfortable ease! And is it fair that Crawley will most probably earn a coveted £1 million from their tie at Old Trafford, which will go to covering their debts? Surely that just proves that cheats DO prosper, and sets a negative precedent for other clubs to follow suit?   

The despicable figure of Crawley Town Manager, Steve Evans
And I've got ALL this way without mentioning what is worse about the club. Forget the money, this fella' takes the biscuit. Steve Evans is a vile creature. You might think that just because I'm a Lincoln fan I might be slightly biased against the ex-Boston Manager. But trust me, I have enough reasons to hate him, and the entirety of lower league/non league fans share similar views (Premier League fans seemingly don't acknowledge his existence). During his tenure at Lincolnshire side Boston United, he oversaw three promotions; taking the club from the Southern Football League to League 2 in five seasons. Great achievement, I'm sure you'll agree. Well, actually no. Each of the three promotions were tarred with some kind of accusation(s) in the form of off the field cheating. In 2002, he was suspended from the club and found guilty by the FA as a result of contract irregularities, and then suspended from the sport altogether for 20 months following his involvement in Boston's successful years in non-league football, where the contracts of Boston's players with the FA contained false salary details. The club's cheating was so successful that they gained promotion to the Football League in 2002, with a squad of players they were paying secret contracts to with inflated wages. That season, Boston pipped Dagenham & Redbridge to the title on goal difference, although the FA docked them 4 league points they decided to hold it over for the next season, as opposed to letting Dagenham going up as champions as they would have rightly deserved. What poetic justice it was to see Boston relegated from League Two in 2007, and who were they replaced by? No other than Dagenham & Redbridge. Not content with off the field controversy, Evans is also well known for his confrontational touchline behaviour; which has resulted in him appearing in court yet again, after using abusive language to a match official in 2005. In 2006 in a league fixture versus Grimsby, Evans was escorted from the stadium after berating the fourth official, and in the same season was sent from the dugout after an altercation with a Wycombe player. What a lovable character, I'm sure you'll agree.

And he doesn't stop there, either. Despite seemingly having millions of pounds at his disposal to purchase the best talent available to him; Evans still prefers to use bully boy tactics, encouraging his players to dive, cheat, foul and do whatever they can to overcome their opposition. You could potentially appreciate their success if Evans had managed to assemble a talented team that played football with guile and in an entertaining manner. But assembling the best talent of non-league along with reputable footballers from the football league, just so you can cheat your way out of the league is just a waste. Steve Evans and Crawley Town are clearly a match made in heaven.

So, despite what the media have been telling us; this isn't a dream tie or proof that the magic of this country's beloved cup competition is back. This is the worst tie possible, two despicable teams facing off against one another, to the delight of the ill-informed masses. Is it possible that both teams are knocked out? If not, then I'll settle for a 10-0 win for the "Red Devils" of Manchester. If this is the kind of "romance" the media want in the FA Cup, then we might as well give it all up for good.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

The sad state of English football journalism

Sunday, 23 January 2011
Written by Matt Scrafton.

Why do we continue to persevere with such poor standards of football analysis? Football is the most popular sport on the planet, yet why is British coverage of Formula 1 and Cricket infinitely superior?

Following today's allegations that Sky Sports presenters Andy Gray and Richard Keys made sexist comments towards the female lines woman during their commentary of Liverpool's 3-0 victory away at Wolves, it got me thinking - just why is it that our country has such low standards of football journalism?

Football journalism is in a poor way at the minute, preferring to employ ex-professionals to sit on their couches and in radio studios to discuss the latest happenings in the world of football. First of all I'd like to ask - what's the obsession with employing ex-professionals? Logically, you'd think the best pundits will be those who have played the game at the highest level. But apart from the odd individual (I'm thinking Clarence Seedorf, Leonardo, Lee Dixon etc.), that doesn't appear to be the case. It's a depressing state of affairs when people like Alan Shearer are considered "football experts", and proceed to tell us how "a simple 4-4-2 formation is always the most effective" and how shin high challenges are okay "because the man won the ball". It's infuriating to think that goons like Shearer, along with his clueless pals Mark Lawrenson and Alan Hansen are declared experts of the game, when there are far more knowledgeable journalists that watch football on a world-wide scale, not just typical Premier League fanboys. Shearer may be clued up on Tyneside and possibly the English game as a whole, but does he really deserve the opportunity to voice his opinion on England's mainstream broadcasting channel? Renowned names in the world of football were 'foreign' to Shearer during the World Cup, would this occur in other sports? And it wasn't just Shearer, the BBC's coverage of the World Cup in general was an embarrassment from start to finish; it beggars belief that people that get paid massive salaries to basically watch football for the entire year, say things like "can't say I know anything about the Slovenian team". I do love Alan Shearer, he was my footballing hero when I was growing up and was a phenomenal striker, but as a pundit? Just no. The time when he and Alan Hansen were laughing over Karl Henry's attempt to break Joey Barton's leg on Match of the Day pushed me over the edge.

Compare the state of football punditry and commentary to that of cricket, and Formula 1; two sports that are far less popular than football. The pundits know their sports inside out, they are articulate, well-versed and not at all patronising when putting their balanced views across. They speak to the nation as informed fans of the sport; not a collective group of children that aren't familiar with basic concepts of a sport. The BBC are able to produce a fantastic coverage of Formula 1, with the informed views of ex-drivers Martin Brundle and David Coulthard, the somewhat erratic yet utterly compelling opinions of ex-team boss Eddie Jordan and a young, dedicated presenter in Jake Humphreys. 

Is it too much to ask to have mainstream television and radio shows presented by someone like James Richardson? Or Gabriele Marcotti? Guillem Ballague? It would be great to have top journalists alongside ex-professionals to give a more rounded view of the game. I mean, look at the who the BBC have employed to lead their popular 606 radio phone-in show; none other than Robbie Savage. Apparently people find him entertaining? Can't say he does anything for me. But one thing I can say is; he's an ignorant buffoon. I once remember him commenting on Man City's Yaya Toure when sitting in the commentary booth during the Man City v Liverpool game; "I never knew this lad was this slow, how did he get in the Barcelona team?". It's damn right ignorant comments like that, that irk me and fellow like minded individuals. I'm not saying I'd make a brilliant pundit or commentator, but I'm only a casual fan who enjoys watching the Premier League, The Football League, Serie A, Bundesliga, La Liga amongst others; so I'm pretty confident I'm more informed than Savage.

606 co-host Robbie Savage, a man that declares he "says it how it is"

The worrying thing for me is, the majority of the fans that watch MOTD take their word as gospel and spout the same drivel when talking to their mates down the pub, or whatever location they choose to discuss their beloved sport. I'd be the first to admit that Shearer is a terrible pundit, and worryingly ignorant; despite being my footballing idol since I was a young child. Hansen's terrible, so is Lawrenson. Mark Bright and Garth Crooks (once said Dover v Gillingham wasn't a real derby because no one really cares about the game) make for terrible viewing on the Final Score programme on Saturday afternoons. Even Lineker doesn't know much, but he's not a bad presenter so I suppose he get's away with it. The only guy I don't mind on the BBC is Lee Dixon, he's not too bad and seems quite clued up tactically, but 
but has a tendency to just agree with the others on the panel, particularly to avoid conflict

It seems that a lot of people within football have a bizzarely arrogant attitude, suggesting that the bigger name you are, the more your opinion matters. I mean, it's not like we want to hear balanced, informed views about the game do we? We just want to be told the basics of the game by the most famous and talented ex-footballers available for comment. Oh no wait, that's wrong. Most consider BBC Radio 5 Live to be the best in terms of expert coverage of football in this country, and I'd probably go along with that too. Yet even they have Alan Green fronting their commentary team; a man who basically tells us how bad the game is and how bored he is. They're only ruining their own credibility by promoting their product with the likes of Green and Savage, and bringing them down to the levels of their main rivals; Talksport. Don't even get me started on the idiocy of that show

There is an answer to all this, of course. It's tough, but quality journalism is out there. It can usually be found away from the mainstream tabloids and television shows, and written by normal people like me and you. People who can effectively analyse, write in a diligent and well informed manner whilst not patronising the reader/viewer, or bending over for the bias of journalists whilst trying to keep in the good books of certain managers. Good luck in your search for all this though, you'll need it.