Closed Season

One football fan's attempt to ignore the Premier League.

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One Pod Beyond: Episode One

The first episode of my new Walsall FC podcast.

This week: Looking back to the League Cup win over Brentford and looking forward to the new League One Season. PLUS: some forthright views on Preston manager Graham Westley and making plans for the Saddlers’ European campaign…

Direct link here http://bit.ly/OPVEbD or listen via the Flash player below.

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Notts County v Walsall Preview

I don’t really do previews of games but I’m going to make an exception for Walsall’s trip to Meadow Lane this weekend. This has very little to do with the game on Saturday and everything to do with a game that took place last night. In case you aren’t aware of the story, here’s a little background. Juventus opened their new stadium last night - a welcome replacement for the hugely unpopular Stadio delle Alpi - and marked the occasion with a match against Notts County, the club who famously provided ‘The Old Lady’ with her black and white stripes.

Richard Williams has an excellent piece in today’s Guardian about the match and while reading it this morning it suddenly struck me that this provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for a preview of a Walsall match that contains a number of sentences that I never thought I would ever get the chance to write. For instance:

Notts County got a good result against Juventus on Thursday night but Walsall will provide much tougher opposition.

And how about:

County manager Martin Allen rested striker Lee Hughes for the first half against Juventus, doubtless with one eye on Saturday’s tricky-looking fixture at home to Walsall.

This is brilliant! Right, one more:

Lee Hughes may have beaten Alex Manninger to score a late equaliser against Juventus but he will have a much more difficult task against Jimmy Walker/David Grof and his Walsall teammates on Saturday.

There they are - preserved for all eternity on the internet!

Seriously though, it will be interesting to see how County follow up last night’s game - the match against the Saddlers comes barely 36 hours after their trip to Turin. Will they be inspired by the experience or will the journey have taken its toll? One thing’s for certain, the game also gives Walsall a little more to play for. Because if they can get something from the game then they will officially be better than the two-time European Champions.

That’s how it works. Oh yes.

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Falconry with Roman Abramovich

I was talking to my plumber the other day (lovely chap; comes from Doncaster but supports Leeds. There’s a perfectly good football team in Doncaster but we’ll let that go for the moment.)

Anyway, we got on to the subject of the perils of the ‘single benefactor’ ownership model in football. This is something that Michel Platini is quite hot on and Tim the plumber is no different. “Take Roman Abramovich” he said to me, which seems as good a place to start as any. “What if someone took him hunting with birds of prey and he decided he liked it more than football?” This is a brilliant point, not only because it addresses the very real dangers of football clubs being subject to the whims of an individual, but also because it is utterly plausible.

If Mr Abramovich was going to have his head turned by another hobby then surely falconry would be the logical choice. Very rich people love exotic animals - nothing says you’ve arrived like your own private zoo! And Russians love hunting. Surely hunting with exotic animals could give the notoriously morose-looking billionaire a new lease of life. It certainly sounds more appealing than, say, watching your expensively-assembled football team getting tonked at home by Sunderland.

In fact, falconry seems so tailor-made for Roman that one must conclude the only reason he isn’t engaged in raptor-based blood sports night and day is because nobody has told him about it. Readers, it is our duty to rectify this. Because one unhappy oil and gas oligarch is one too many! And when one starts to think of the potential effects on Chelsea Football Club then we really are into no-brainer territory. The liquidation of the club and the sale of Stamford Bridge to pay their debts need not concern us for the moment. Rather, let’s focus on the extra charity work that Ashley Cole and John Terry could devote their time to. You won’t be able to move at Great Ormond Street for former Blues stars signing unsold copies of their autobiographies for sick kiddies. And with one less team in the Premier League success is virtually guaranteed for the national team!

To this end, I have decided to invite the Chelsea owner to accompany me on a full day ‘falconry experience’ at the Yorkshire Dales Falconry Centre.

It’s a snip at just £105 (including lunch) and they’ve said they’ll set aside a field for his helicopter (or decommissioned space shuttle or whatever). With the long, empty days of the close season stretching before him, Roman will need something to keep him occupied other than worrying whether Vladimir Putin really likes him or not. Who knows, this could even be the start of a new all-consuming passion. Tim the plumber will hopefully be coming along too - it was his idea after all - and obviously I’ll keep you all updated as to how the day goes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got some invitations to post!

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David vs Goliath’s Brother-in-Law’s Mate

Beating one of the big boys in the cup (especially the FA Cup) used to be one of the highlights of supporting a lower league team. But then the big boys decided that boring old domestic cups weren’t worth bothering with any more and so another important bit of football died.

Can you imagine how long the Orient fan in the office full of Arsenal supporters had been waiting for Monday morning to come along? Not so long ago the equation would have been simple: Team x > Team y = bragging rights duly awarded. Of course, since managers stopped the quaint, century-long tradition of playing their strongest team in every match things are less clear cut. So now the Orient fan who rejoices in his team’s result is simply met with a condescending smile: “sorry old chap, that wasn’t Arsenal you drew with, it was Arsenal reserves.” Few organisations do hegemony better than the Premier League. Not content with insulating their fattest cats against the horrors of a level playing field in the league, now they are even providing them with built-in excuses against the humiliation of an authentic giant killing.

The hypocrisy is breathtaking. Wolves and Blackpool are fined for fielding weakened teams to protect the “integrity” of the Premier League, yet the integrity of the original knockout competition means nothing. Typically, the FA simply look on impotently as their blue riband competition is devalued to an extent that would have been unimaginable even a decade ago. There have been countless column inches devoted to “reinvigorating” the FA Cup. This is code for getting teams to take it seriously again - and this isn’t just a problem that afflicts the top division, plenty of Championship teams put out weakened teams too these days.

The solution is straightforward - teams need to be punished if they field shadow teams in cup competitions. There’s even a precedent for this. In 2006 the Football League announced that teams participating in the Football League Trophy (now the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) would have to field at least six players who had played the most games in their respective positions during the current campaign. Teams who fail to comply with this are fined. Clearly, financial penalties wouldn’t make a difference to certain clubs so I would tweak this slightly and dock teams league points. Nothing too harsh, three points per offence should do it. I guarantee that this would focus managers’ minds. Instead we will doubtless get more “focus groups” and “working parties” while the Cup hobbles on as a pale imitation of its former self.

And so, in thirty years’ time, the Lidl FA Cup’s highlights package (2AM, Channel 5) will open with Ronnie Radford, Mickey Thomas and…a chap from Team x beating three Belgian teenagers in Manchester United shirts before scoring past…who’s that again?

Ah, the romance of the FA Cup.

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Richard Scudamore: Moustache-Twiddling Supervillain

Is Premier League supremo Richard Scudamore the most cartoonishly evil man in football? If he isn’t then somewhere in Monaco a man with a big white beard and a Leeds United sunhat is looking nervously over his shoulder.

Take yesterday’s announcement of the Premier League’s new Elite Player Performance Plan. Essentially a proposal to radically overhaul top clubs’ youth academies, the EPPP was heralded by Scudamore as “a strong plan going in a positive direction”. Worried that our budding football stars don’t get enough time to hone their skills compared with their foreign counterparts (kids in Holland and France spend twice as long being coached compared to our youngsters) the Premier League have decided that now is the time to do something about it. And who could argue with that?

Er, well how about Football League Chairman Greg Clarke, who immediately predicted that “thirty to forty league clubs would give up youth development” if the EPPP came into force. How so? Well, the Premier League’s plan involves taking a greater proportion of the country’s best young players from a much wider area and, should any slip through the net, paying Football League clubs LESS upfront to sign their best young players. Mind you, it could have been worse. The Premier League also discussed their clubs’ reserve teams playing in the Football League. Ultimately this was rejected with Scudamore describing it as “too radical”. Andy Williamson, the Football League’s Chief Operating Officer had a better word for it. He called the idea “offensive”.

(For more detail, see Paul Fletcher’s excellent blog post on this subject at the BBC Football League website here.)

So far, so Scudamore. We’ve come to expect this selfish, one-eyed rubbish from the former Yellow Pages salesman and instigator of the infamous “Game 39”. But it’s the cynical way that he is spinning this as a solution to the national side’s problems that really grates. Because, naturally, players schooled at Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea will be in a much better position to walk into the England side won’t they?

Not necessarily. Football League clubs have been picking up the late developers and Premier League rejects for years and quietly helping them fulfill their potential. Fifteen of the twenty three-man squad for England’s game against Denmark last week spent some of their nascent footballing careers outside the Premier League. Hardly surprising when the top teams prefer to import expensive foreigners rather than giving their own kids a chance. The end of Football League youth teams will inevitably mean the end of a hugely important conveyor belt of talent.

Still, I doubt the top brass at the Premier League are losing any sleep over this. In fact, Scudamore increasingly seems to relish his villainy, how else to explain this bizarre quote from Monday’s launch:

“This is a supertanker that’s very difficult to stop now,” said Scudamore of the Premier League’s blueprint for better dream factories.

Way to coin a metaphor, Dick! Just the right balance between confident and downright threatening. In fact, haven’t we heard this somewhere before? An evil villain at the helm of an unstoppable supertanker?

Yes! Richard Scudamore is actually now modelling himself on megalomaniac Swedish shipping tycoon Sigmund Stromberg from The Spy Who Loved Me. As Wikipedia helpfully reminds us:

After contracting two scientists to create the technology to track nuclear submarines, Stromberg uses this technology to capture a Soviet nuclear submarine and a British submarine. By tracking the subs, Stromberg’s specially adapted tanker, Liparus, sneaks up on the subs, forces them to the surface through methods using some kind of high frequencies to disrupt the sub’s electrical system and captures them inside the tanker.

Which, let’s face it, seems pretty similar to Scudamore’s plan for hoovering up the best young footballers in the UK.

There’s a name for people like Richard Scudamore. And, funnily enough, it rhymes with supertanker.

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Jake Humphrey is no Manish Bhasin

Tuning in to the Beeb’s coverage of the South Wales derby on Sunday I was dismayed to discover that the show was being helmed by Jake Humphrey. Humphrey is better known as the face of the corporation’s grand prix coverage (I refuse to refer to it as “F1”) yet seems to get the occasional football gig too. I am not a fan.

My first problem with Humphrey is that his head is far too small for his body. This makes it look like he is always leaning backwards, which in turn gives the impression that he is not taking things particularly seriously. The best football presenters have gigantic heads that fill the screen - think Jeff Stelling or the much-missed Ray Stubbs - making it look as if they are perpetually on the edge of their seats, the better to convey the excitement of a late equaliser for Macclesfield or a second yellow card at Sincil Bank.

But it is not just Humphrey’s microcephaly that grates. He also displays a flagrant disregard for the unwritten rules of Football League broadcasting. The first and second of which are: YOU DO NOT TALK ABOUT THE PREMIER LEAGUE. Other Football League presenters understand this (more on this later) so why has Humphrey not received the memo? Watching a game of football on the television for those of us who choose to do without Mr Murdoch’s Tawdry Cabinet of Wonders is one of life’s rare pleasures. We do not wish to have our entertainment sullied by fatuous comparisons with games we have no interest in. And yet here was Humphrey Clanger* opening up coverage of Swansea v Cardiff by hoping that the game could live up to the excitement dished up by Newcastle and Arsenal the previous day.

NOT INTERESTED!

I’d much rather see a tight, niggly game between two sides whose supporters genuinely despise one another, settled by a genuine moment of quality from a pantomime villain who looks like he’s fallen off the roof of a cathedral. And, to be fair, that’s exactly what I got. However, I also had to sit through Humphrey’s patronising, disinterested anchor-shtick which has clearly been carefully honed during the many hours he has spent trying to talk over the 600BHP whine of Eddie Jordan. This reached its awful nadir when he asked guest pundit John Hartson how long it would take to get back to London on the M4.

I. Kid. You. Not.

You wouldn’t get this with Bhasin. Good old Manish. Folk chuckle at the way he was “disappeared” to the Football League Show (BBC Sport’s equivalent of the gulag) but even though there is absolutely nobody watching he refuses to change the presenting style that made his name. This basically involves staring hard at the camera with panicked eyes and a very thin smile, as if he has seen someone crouching behind your sofa and is desperately trying to draw your attention to the fact. Bhasin never looks relaxed, never ad-libs and never, ever, mentions the Premier League.

In short, he is the very model of what we want from our Football League anchors. Jake Humphrey would do well to observe a master at work.

*For more information on this pun, please click here.

Filed under Jake Humphrey Manish Bhasin Football League Cardiff City Swansea City

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Bothroyd makes England easier on the eye.

One of the major benefits of not watching Premier League football is that I have extended my ban to include not watching the Premier League footballers who turn out for England. This has clearly caused panic at the FA who - mindful of Closed Season’s huge influence within world football - responded by forcing Fabio Capello to pick Cardiff City’s Jay Bothroyd for last night’s friendly with France at Wembley. This was the first time a player from the Championship had turned out for the national side since David Nugent famously attained his 1:1 ratio of goals to appearances, three and a half years ago.

So, shouldn’t I have celebrated this happy event by eagerly tuning in to see a player representing the Football League (who once very nearly signed for Walsall!) pull on the famous white jersey for the first time?

In a word: no.

Firstly, Don Fabio’s fashionable new 4-2-3-1 formation (such a success at Barcelona and Inter - why not try it with English players?) meant that Bothroyd had to settle for a place on the bench. Mind you, the Cardiff striker must have been a bit piqued to see that Capello had favoured Mark Hateley up front - undoubtedly a great target man but surely getting on a bit these days.

Secondly, watching England against any half decent side is utterly depressing. Why would anyone voluntarily sit through that? You can see my dilemma: I wanted to support Jay Bothroyd but I didn’t want to support England.

Then I had an idea. A friend of mine is a whiz with video editing and I knew that he would be recording the game so I asked him to put together a compilation of Bothroyd’s entire contribution. I watched it this morning and I must say it’s a brilliant way to take in an England game. The entire thing is about 45 seconds long and is a kind of English riposte to Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, the artist Douglas Gordon’s infamous film that follows the French playmaker for the entire course of one Real Madrid game.

Bothroyd: A 21 Minute Cameo consists entirely of the big front man contesting long balls pumped up from the back and watching crosses sail over his head. Mind you, all the other things that make up the England Experience are there too - the patches of empty seats, the booing, the shots of Stuart Pearce looking wistful as he remembers a time when English determination and physicality was actually a match for Johnny Foreigner’s technical superiority. As a highlights package it takes some beating.

I hope the FA repeats the Bothroyd experiment. It harked back to a less cynical age, when people were genuinely thrilled that Steve Bull got an England call up when Wolves were, to all intents and purposes, a non-league side. Besides, I really enjoyed my bite-sized chunk of England v France. It was exactly the right way to watch the national team - entirely without context and over very, very quickly.

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David James’s Existential Crisis.

David James isn’t like other footballers. David James has studied psychology. David James often gives strangely passive-aggressive post-match interviews. David James writes his own column for the Observer, which isn’t even written by a journalist or anything! But hang on a minute. There’s a reason why footballers’ columns are ghostwritten and it has much less to do with their skills as writers than it does the fear of them accidentally revealing just how detached from the realities of modern life they really are.

For every sub-editor employed to tidy up Michael Owen’s subjunctives there are presumably two more tasked with removing all references to his platinum hovercraft and the undersea lair he’s just bought in Hawaii. But “Jamo” is different, isn’t he?

Those hoping that James’s much heralded intellectualism might triumph over the traditional Premier League player’s grossly inflated sense of entitlement would have been disappointed to read his returning Observer column on Sunday. You can read it yourself here if you wish but the unremitting catalogue of hardship and degradation involved in being Bristol City’s best paid player of all time is pretty hard to stomach.

Nevertheless, it’s worth recapping James’s appalling treatment at Ashton Gate (if only to stop Steven Gerrard accidentally signing for Millwall). The list of indignities includes: having to remember to bring and clean his own football boots; being forced to travel to games on a coach – even when the games are further north than Birmingham!; coping with a ball that is different to the one in the Premier League and enduring constant questions from non-famous team-mates about Wayne Rooney and playing for England.

Inevitably, James admits to having second thoughts about playing for a team that isn’t very good. “How did I end up here? I must confess it wasn’t part of the plan… I’ll be honest, there are days when we get beat and I think: ‘What am I doing here?’” All very encouraging for those who bemoan the lack of honesty and insight from modern footballers, but what exactly are his team-mates and the fans who pay his wages meant to make of this? And what happens if Bristol City get relegated to League One? Perhaps football’s loss will be literature’s gain. One can only imagine the Dostoevskian depths of soul-searching his prose will have attained by the time the team bus finally gets to Hartlepool.

David James is not your average millionaire footballer – he is honest and this is refreshing. But what this honesty actually reveals is that he’s not so different from his former colleagues as some people (including David James) might like to think.

This piece was first published on the WSC website.

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Snake oil salesmen unwelcome

With Premier League football on hiatus during the international break, all eyes have been on the high court in London where lawyers for Liverpool FC owners Tom Hicks and George Gillett have been arguing that they’ve been deeply misunderstood all along and that in trying to replace the current board with members of their own family they only have Liverpool’s best interests at heart - as the club slides ever closer to being repossessed by the Royal Bank of Scotland.

I have to admit, I’ve been following recent events at Liverpool avidly. But doesn’t this go against my self-imposed Premier League exile? Well, no, I don’t think it does. You see, I don’t consider this a Premier League story. Liverpool’s struggle to rid themselves of the vampiric Americans has been rehearsed many times before in the lower leagues, albeit with predictably less media hysteria. As such, this is a football story that has little to do with the division Liverpool happen to be in. And that’s why, while it’s tempting to wallow in the difficulties of a Big Four (sic) club (especially when their fans release self-regarding rubbish like this), all football fans should hope that Hicks and Gillett are banished from our game forever today and that the £144m loss they make on their time as Liverpool owners serves as a warning to other speculators hoping to load debt on to football clubs in grotesque leveraged deals.

Of course, fans of teams like Chester City (RIP), York City and Notts County know all about the perils of enthusiastic “businessmen”. These clubs, and many more like them, have been victims of the football authorities’ laissez faire attitude to club ownership. The fact that it has taken one of the biggest clubs in the world getting into trouble to bring the issue of sharp practice in football club ownership into focus is deeply sad but may yet lead to better protection for clubs and their supporters. The Premier League did a reasonably good job of sweeping last season’s horrendous mess at Portsmouth under the carpet but a club like Liverpool going into administration is Kryptonite to Richard Scudamore’s beloved Premier League brand and surely even he and his patsies colleagues at the FA now realise that something must be done to protect all clubs from dodgy takeovers, whether they be by casino capitalists or simply conmen on the make.

But that’s a potential longer term benefit. In the short term we must hopefully enjoy the losses incurred by Liverpool’s American owners. Because while it’s nice to think of glory-hunting armchair fans and rentaquote celebrity Scousers squirming at the thought of Liverpool on -3 points, the thought of two acquisitive private equity vultures having to sell their $18m holiday homes after having their fingers burnt by English football should actually be far more comforting for fans. In any case, given the twists and turns in this story so far, we may yet get to do both.