Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Once bitten, twice shy...

pic from

Aaah - here we are, two corking semi-finals in the much-maligned FA Cup - two derbies to stir the soul and raise the passions in two football mad cities - that's more like it. And the winners of the ties will get the chance to battle it out on a special one-off day at Wembley in the Cup Final.

Except, obviously, it isn't a special one-off day, because they'll have just played there to earn the right to play there on a special second-time-in-a-month day in the Final.

I know this has been going on for a while. I know that big fat over-budget white elephants don't pay for themselves. But it just doesn't feel right.

80,000ish scousers will have to find a way to get down to London, from the various parts of Wales and the North West that they live. The cost of the tickets is astronomical, the travel likewise. And half will have to do it again four weeks later (although, not quite half, as the corporates will have a much healthier share of the final, naturally). If Liverpool make it, they will be repeating a trip they have made very recently in the League Cup.

Manchester had to do the same last year, city making the trip twice in quick succession.

The London club's fans have it a little easier, travel-wise, of course - but Wembley semi-final tickets carry Wembley semi-final ticket prices.

It is the voice of common sense nagging away at everyone that surely Old Trafford and the Emirates stadium would be more appropriate.

But football does not exist in a common sense world and the old reliable cash-cow fans can still be milked, even in these semi-skimmed economy days. The tickets will be sold, the money will be found and all will seem rosy down wembley way.


Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Tales of Scotland, League One, Financial Management and the Pub.

Reports stated recently that Glasgow Celtic are said to be "in talks" and hoping to apply for a berth in England's League 1. That's Division 3 in old money, lest we forget. Presumably in an effort to show just how much they would like to be in the English League, whilst also thinking they would only be that far down the pyramid for a short time.

The reports have naturally since been dismissed by both the League itself and Celtic officials. But it is a question that has, and will, keep rearing its head as football clubs and leagues - or Brands - search for ways to continue to survive and, if possible, prosper in difficult times.

Newton Heath Library

Difficulties with financial management at clubs is not a new issue. (as an example, in 1932, now mega-monolithic Manchester United had to be saved from extinction by James Gibson, a local businessman, who wiped their debt clear - the club having already been saved from financial ruin a couple of times before - oh look, they are in millions and millions of pounds worth of debt again!).

However, it is an interesting anomaly that today, many clubs are still facing ruin, some chasing dreams that look like they can no longer come true, at a time when fans and the sporting media are so financially savvy.

Each club will have business directors, fans groups are well-versed on the financial side of football (some taking control of clubs, or at least placing themselves in positions where, should the worst happen, they may be able to step in) and the sports pages are also regular haunts for financial news, and vice-versa with sports news making the financial and business pages. Successful businessmen are usually the people in charge of clubs, drawn like moths to the flame - but football can't be run by the same model as successful businesses and the majority have their wings severely singed.

Football is such a global game now, that the song "we support our local team" has become less of a stick to beat opposition fans with and more a sign of insularity. Clubs need more and more money to just tick over and chasing that money involves getting the "product" out to as many people as possible - not just looking inwards at the locals.

It is clear that, for the long-term health of the game, something radical needs to be done. That awful phrase "thinking outside the box" seems the only appropriate way describe it.

So, that is what Celtic and, if they survive their current predicament, Rangers are looking to do.

The Scottish League can no longer contain, nor sustain them. They are far too big in comparison to the other teams, causing a real imbalance. It has been said in some quarters that some clubs are losing fans, not to the Old Firm, but from Scottish Football altogether as there is absolutely no competition in the league. The familiarity of the same two teams battling it out for the title each year, whilst all the others share points between themselves, is breeding contempt.

Many of the other leagues in Europe, of course, have the self-same problems - but not to such an extent, perhaps, at the moment. A European Super League looks inevitable at some point - it just remains to be seen, when, in what form, and with which teams involved.

As for Celtic applying to join the English league - if the league don't want them - start them off in non-league - see how much they really want to make the move. It will probably only take them a couple of years longer to get where they think they should be and once they do make it to the league, they will at least have earned it. 

Just think of what a tremendous boost it would be for the economy of many English towns and their off-licences - it could even save the English pub!

That idea about toll roads could come in as well, but keep it with the state - fans pay to cross the border, national debt would come down sharpish.

I do, however, recall with dread the condition that Manchester was left in the morning after Rangers played in the Europa League final, a couple of years ago. Walking across town was like walking on the dancefloor at the Ritz nightclub, feet sticking to the ground, and there was an overpowering frangrance of stale beer, cigarette ash and vomit seranading the nostrils of the early morning commuters.

Now, obviously, a game against Stalybridge Celtic is not going to cause 100,000 ticketless fans to cross the border wreaking havoc in Stalyvegas, but I do suspect there would be sellouts galore - a great cash boost for the clubs. However, I still get a picture of the wild west when a stranger comes to town: kids being dragged off the streets, shutters being closed, a hush falling over everyone as the massed hordes make their way to the ground.

A lot like how my elder sister describes watching tommy doc's united away from home in the seventies.

I await the next move with interest...


Saturday, 17 March 2012

On and off the pitch - Athletic ruled....

Athletic Club de Bilbao are well and truly en vogue at the moment - or should that be a la moda? (or, of course, the basque equivalent, which I am unfortunately not equipped to translate!)

van-Basten like...
The team, currently standing in 7th position in La Liga, well and truly outplayed and outclassed the English champions in both legs of their recent Europa League clashes - both on and off the pitch, causing a stir around Europe and drawing much praise for their high-tempo, direct - but skilfull - take on Barcelona's pressing game, and the boisterousness of their fans.
As is befitting a club with so many connections to the English game, England - it's press and it's people, was particularly enamoured by Athletic's performance - and not just the "anyone but United" brigade.

Athletic are a club with a red-and-white striped kit, taken home by a basque traveller from a trip to Southampton; they proudly bear the anglicised moniker "Athletic Club"; their most successful manager was an Englishman, one Fred Pentland; Howard Kendall is a fondly-remembered ex-manager; their ground, San Mames, is often referred to as "English" in style, being very close to the pitch  - and the team are known, certainly in Spain, to play in a more English style, with a direct approach, built around a tall centre-forward. The connections are numerous.

With all this in mind, the two games against United were the biggest to come around for some time. The champions of England coming to town - a time to test themselves against a different style of opposition to the usual Spanish teams and to show their calibre to the watching football world, in an entirely different spotlight to that in which they struggle to be seen because of the traditional big two El Classico teams.

Judging by the response of the players after the games, Fernando Llorente for one calling the feat "increible", this clearly meant a great deal to all concerned.
Athletic Club de Bilbao were brilliant over both games. It was a breath of fresh air to see a team attack Manchester United so vibrantly and freely at Old Trafford - many others withdraw in to their shells and look to limit the damage they expect to be caused. Not Athletic. Back home, whilst not quite reaching the same heights they had in Manchester, they still proved formidable opposition - and could quite easily have score three more goals than they had. Even though a United fan, with the game seemingly out of our grasp, when Andoni Iraola found himself tap-dancing around the penalty area and clipping his shot wide - I was actually willing him to, if not score, at least bring a save out of David De Gea.

The Basques attacked from the off, pressing with a very high line when not in possession. United looked suprised by how relentless the pressure was. No reckless challenges were made, just constant harrying until the opposition hurried a pass and gave the ball away. Whilst in possession, their passing was crisp, they always had space and a couple of options to pass to, and they invariably found their man. Take the pass for Fernando Llorente's opener at San Mames - Fernando Amorebieta played a searching diagonal pass from well inside his own half, floated towards the corner of the United penalty area, which Llorente just had to jog a few yards backwards (unnoticed!) - the easy part - and then execute a van Basten-like volley past De Gea - who surely was not expecting a first-time hit from the frontman.
The stadium exploded with joy. The already raucous fans dared to believe once more that they could make some headlines of their own and could defeat the mighty Manchester United. They needn't have worried at all - the heart that los Leones displayed throughout the 180 minutes, matched with their tenacity and not to mention their technical ability was a sum total that would have steered them past anyone in this mood.
Shambles Square, Manchester
And boy did those supporters deserve the performance they got. 8000 made the trip to Manchester last week - they swamped the city, taking in the sights of the Town Hall and having pictures taken next to traditional black cab taxis, also turning the shambles square area of Manchester into a veritable bay of biscay of red-and-white. And they sang and roared and sang again - even seranading Old Trafford to the sound of "You'll Never Walk Alone" to wind up the home fans.
Back home, they made more noise in their more familiar "Catedral" as opposed to the "Theatre" in Manchester. They even found time to give an ovation to Ryan Giggs (who was quite anonymous in the game, really) and to Wayne Rooney's fine goal. Easy to do when you are coasting, true, but a fine sight nevertheless.

The Basques are a proud people - and this was the perfect opportunity for them and the team that probably represents them the most (Real Sociedad fans will beg to differ, naturally!) to showcase what they are made of around the world - they did this with relish and aplomb.
Whether this form can be transferred back to La Liga for the rest of the season remains to be seen - I can't quite see how such energy could be expelled every game - but following these performances, quite a few more eyes will be watching Athletic and their Leones than even were before.

Keeping hold of their coach, Marcelo Bielsa, and the myriad talents that make up their squad will now, unfortunately, be a very difficult task.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Classy Spanish Midfielder

Spanish midfielders are, of course, the best in the world at the moment - you only have to think for a second to come up with the names Xavi, Iniesta, Alonso, Fabregas, Javi Martinez, Mata etc.etc. Clubs around the rest of Europe are eyeing the Spanish conveyor belt of talent with envy - Barcelona are so well stocked with them that every time another becomes noticed elsewhere, they are immediately linked with big money moves abroad - probably with their agent having one eye on a future move, back to one of the big 2.

Want news on all these stars and more from La Liga, without having to listen to Guillem Balague's endless predictions of Mou's next move or contract negotiation, or statement that Pep is going nowhere? Want do dip a little deeper in to the well of Spanish futbol?

Look no further than - (centrocampista being the Spanish for midfielder - see what I did, there? Seamless) it's an absolute treasure trove of stories and information on all aspects of the Spanish game - a classy midfielder of the webosphere - without the Marca tradition of relegating news of anyone other than Real Madrid to a paragraph or two, 20 pages in.

Hey, they even found a space for an edited version of yours truly's last post on Athletic Club - hence my kind words, obviously! (don't ignore here for the full versions, though!)

Check there for more on the trendiest club of the moment, Athletic of course, and previews of tomorrow's exciting return leg in the Europa with Manchester United - we're in for an early evening treat if the first leg is anything to go by!


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Bilbao Baggins

Whether or not Manchester United believe that they are too proud or esteemed a club to be in the Europa League, rather than the Champions League, that is where their under-par performances have landed them this season. That said, with the group stages already out of the way, the competition has thrown up some rather tasty match-ups. Games that look very “European” - with the old-fashioned, pre-champions league meaning of the word – on paper, at least.

Manchester United vs. Ajax is a fixture to stir the soul of Europe-past – and the games actually provided a very enjoyable few hours, collectively (admittedly, United’s poor home performance gave the tie more impetus than it should have had after the first leg) – this Europa League lark isn’t so bad after all...

Next up is Athletic Bilbao. Nostalgia takes hold again. It may be tainted by my knowledge and support of Manchester United, but to me, it looks once more like a proper old-fashioned European Cup tie. There were famous tussles between Athletic and United in the late 1950s – the ill-fated Busby babes progressing at the Basque club’s expense back in the ’56-’57 season.
The fixture also stirs up much more recent memories for me, to 2001.
As a child, I had harboured thoughts of being a journalist or a writer of some sort – until, at A-level time, I had my head turned by the thought of practising Law. This choice was also quickly shelved, when I realised I wasn’t very good, began work in an office, and got used to seeing a pay-check every month.

At the time that the Champions League was in its early incarnation, European football was still an exciting, exotic arm of the game, open only to the elite. AC Milan were kings.
I married in to a Spanish family and in my efforts to ingratiate myself to the Father-in-law, quickly became aware of a whole-new world of football, which sky (and channel 4, with Football Italia) was making its first tentative steps in. The words “el Classico” had not yet entered our everyday footballing vocabulary, and football trips in to Europe were still a rare and unpredictable beast.

I soon became enchanted by the team from the industrial north of Spain. The Basque Country, to be precise – a region – nay, country, that sees its history and present as a separate entity to the rest of Spain. This team spurned all that was exotic about La Liga – with an English-sounding name, Athletic Club. They sounded English, wore English-style shirts, played an English-style game – in fact, have a long history peppered with Englishness. The fact that the club has a self-imposed embargo on signing “non-Basque” players just added to my curiosity.

Around 1999 I began to write short articles, just for fun, and sent some off to the United fanzine, UWS. Flushed with the success of most being printed, and a half-page stint in FourFourTwo, I had a been bitten by the writing bug again. So when Athletic Bilbao came to a town near me on a pre-season friendly in 2001 (vs. Bolton Wanderers) – I had to be there. Surely everyone would want to hear about the Club’s extraordinary success in the face of such restrictions?

For some reason, I got it in my head to call Bolton and see if they had room for a “freelance” writer, who was interested in the workings and traditions of Athletic Bilbao. “That’s fine,” replied the voice on the other end of the line, “We’ll put you on the list - just park up in the Press Car Park and we will issue you with a Press Pass.”

And so it was that I sat myself down in the press section of the Reebok Stadium, in front of Bolton legend, (super) John McGinlay (reporting for local radio) and sandwiched between reporters from Marca and the Mirror. All around me were shiny new laptops, gleaming under the lights in our lofty perch. I marvelled at the sight of those and the rather thoughtful desks and power points provided for each seat – as I dutifully unfolded my A5 note book and scribbled on it with my pen.

Athletic were formed by a combination of British Steel and Shipyard workers and Basque students returning from England. Formed with the anglicised name Athletic Club, they reportedly inherited their now-famous red-and-white striped shirts from a club member returning from Southampton, who was charged with buying new kit. He recognised the local teams colours were those of the City of Bilbao. (Many of the shirts bought found their way to Madrid, where Athletic Club had founded a youth club – later Atletico Madrid).

They faced an enforced name-change in the 1940s, when Franco decreed (following the civil war and an attempt to re-centralise the state) that all teams should have “Castilian” names, thus becoming Atletico Bilbao – this later reverted following the dictator’s death.

Athletic have long had a policy of using only players that are of Basque origin (this can include the French Basque Country) – now relaxed slightly to include those who have been “raised” by Basque clubs – making their “cantera” of young talent the envy of many. Foreign managers are fine – in fact, the English connection has shown up many times in the past, Howard Kendall having a stint there in the late 80s.

On my night at the Reebok, the team was set up with a very tall, physical side with an British-style centre-forward (much like today, with Llorente) and a magician of a player running round, pulling the strings - Julen Guerrero. I wanted to find out from the players what it was like to play for their local team – representing a whole people or “nation”.
I forfeited the opportunity to hear “Big” Sam Allardyce’s probably genius post-match conference and positioned myself in front of the team coach – getting ready to harangue the players in my best Spanish.

“What does it feel like to play for Athletic, to represent the Basque people...?” I stuttered to Guerrero, thrusting the match programme in his face and smiling.

“Yes. It is good – very nice” he smiled as he waved his pen across my match programme and disappeared on to the bus.

Perhaps I should have asked the question in Euskara, the Basque language?

Marcelo Bielsa is the coach in charge of the present-day team. A man who has stuck to the playing traditions of the club and also instilled a more skilful and quicker passing game in to the team – built around the monolithic presence of Fernando Llorente – a man who could, quite possibly, terrorise a Nemanja Vidic-less United defence. Athletic also had 4 players in the Spain first team for their friendly match last week against Venezuela – so the matches should be an interesting test for both teams.

The 4000 away tickets for the Old Trafford leg of the tie have been sold out, as the club is enveloped in Europa League fever – and following the tense affair that the Ajax match became, United fans should also look forward to the game as a trip in to the unknown in what can become a sterile game at times (not to mention that Bilbao is supposed to be a fantastic city to visit).

Bielsa commented that “we are excited about experiencing a fiesta of football” when recently discussing the United games – all I can say is,

Yes. It is good. Very Nice...