Wednesday, 30 May 2012

One in Ten

This is McFootball.

659 million fans. 1 out of every 10 human beings.

As I travelled home last night, I read the "news" (once Eden Hazard had let everyone rest easy on their seats rather than perching on the edge in excitement) - it was a rather slow news day - that Manchester United were gleefully telling anyone that would listen that they had 659 million fans worldwide. Oh, and that shows that the Glazers, like Guinness, are good for you.

Following the capitulation in the league, leaving bitter cross-town rivals as champions.

Following Chelsea lifting old Big Ears, in a year that United were appalling in Europe.

Following another year of mounting debt and a £71 million-sized black hole and the news that a long-term target and ego of the year chose to live in London, rather than the North.

Following all these and more, was the wonderful news that all is well at Old Trafford, cos we have considerably more fans than anyone. Richard Arnold, United's commercial director, might well have been sticking his tongue out and waggling his hands around his head, shouting "na na - na, na na", I'm not sure - but that is the vibe that I get from reading this.

"We finished the season in first place, and city finished winning on goal difference," he said. That's second place then, mate.

"Competitors come and go. The one thing that remains constant is Manchester United," he continued to opine, going on to tell us what a great job he and the club were doing to win fans all around the world, because United are so great.

Now, I gave my season ticket up about 6 years ago. I saw that lovely Rooney volley against Newcastle in the last game I attended as a paying customer. Since then, I have contributed the princely sum of £3.50 to the club, in the form of a pint of liquid refreshment a couple of years ago, whilst there as a guest of a friend at my one and only time in Old Trafford since.

That is about 350 pence more than about 658.5 million of those fans then. Put together.

Yet these fans are courted, cherished and celebrated. This is McFootball. The big challenge now is not to look after the local, long serving, paying fans - they will probably be there anyway, buying tickets and going to games.  No, the chalenge is to come up with ideas how they can make a few more of those millions spend a little more of their hard-earned on chasing the United dream, buy the tv plans, spend at the megastores and look ubercool in red.

Except this grand, old club club, as we all know, is much less than cool. Probably just about the most uncool football club on the planet.

Mind you, despite how sad it is that United have to report such "findings", they are obviously not alone in doing so. Take FC Barcelona, everyone's current favourite club, no?Alongside their wonderful current brand of football, they go around telling the whole world how great they are, usually just in a game of one-upmanship aagainst Real Madrid, how they are "mes que un club," Along with this recent upward trend in the actual footballing-stakes, they have found an upsurge of millions of admirers around the world that posture in their shadows and laud them as the greatest ever, wishing that every club could be run in the same way - from tactics, to academy (oh La masia, of course) to business (without actually knowing too much about any of them in a lot of cases). Despite all this - they are also held up as every inch the coolest football team. I find it all a bit mawdling, to be honest.

More than a club? You are just another football club, Senor Barcelona. Just like any other. You just happen to have hit a very purple (and blue) patch. Unless by "more than a club", you are counting all those basketball and hockey and whichever other teams bear your name and whose trophies reside in your museum. Perhaps more than just a football club, then.

Old news, but I found the Unicef shirts a little too much to stomach as well. Nice gesture, but we all know it was only to soften the blow of them realising that they had to act like every other club and sell the space on the front of the shirt like everyone else. Do a quick two-year hit for charity, everyone loves us, then BANG, and the dirt is gone. We can sell to highest bidder as the ad-free shirt no longer exists.

"But we represent a whole nation, the nation of Catalunya" is another attempt to justify the claims - the Espanyol fans that share your city put it quite well "Qatar is not Catalunya" - the shirt went to the highest bidder, no matter where the money was coming from (and there are plenty of rumours about the Qatar Foundation to cause worry).

Furthermore rumours abound that naming rights of the Camp Nou are under discussion - giving more credence to the thought that everything has a price in McFootball. History, tradition - even coolness.

Not got a particular axe to grind with these clubs. Just McFootball. But like our favourite fast food, we all love our junk football as well.


Friday, 25 May 2012

Withering Heights

Fine lines cause crow's feet around the eye of the beholder.

To my tiring eyes, Chelsea were about three minutes away.

Then again, one poor spot kick away.

And then again just a lottery penalty kick away.

Just those, tiny, tiny incidents away from losing the champions league final with the most withering and weak of performances I have witnessed in a Champions League final.

The kind of display that would have made their supporters scratch their heads and hang them in despair thinking, WHY?

It us understood and right to be applauded if you can beat the finest team Europe has seen for many years over two games,home and away, as they did with Barcelona. In those circumstances, use any means at your disposal, negative or otherwise. Of course, there can be as much to admire in defensive work as attacking.

But WHY get all this way to a one off final and then spend the whole match solely ensuring that the other side didn't score. And not even (perhaps Ashley Cole aside) doing very well at it -  surviving, as they did, with a chance in the lottery of penalties, only because their opponents had forgotten something important when bossing a game. Namely, how to propel the spherical object they have been passing around over the correct part of the white line and between the uprights.

With their shooting boots on, Bayern would have been well out of sight. Even without them (how many has Gomez scored this season? and how?) Bayern finally broke through and -but for an admittedly superb equaliser by Drogba once chelsea realised they ought to make a fist of it - Chelsea would have signed off from one of the biggest games that most of those players will ever be involved in, or wore replica kit and shinpads to, with a pathetic pffft.

This was Chelsea, let us not forget. Not Worksop Town. A team with the likes of Drogba, Torres, Lampard and Mata at its diposal. This was also a Bayern Munich shorn of its first choice central defenders. And although they got to the final and obviously a decent team -Barcelona at their pomp, they are not. (I realise that neither are Chelsea - but they surely had more to offer than that.)

Yet we awoke to stories of brave Chelsea heroes and pleas for interim manager Di Matteo to be given the job long term. "What more does he have to do?" are the cries of the permanently stressed out London press.

Or even - "this is how England should play in Euro 2012 and we can win it!"

It has brought to mind a certain derby match "title decider" that Manchester United gifted to Manchester city. United would not play for a draw - "never done that in my life" said Sir Alex. But the sight of his side ceding territory and possession and dropping deeper and deeper to defend the status quo was sadly not indicative of his statement.

Those fine lines appear again, though. But for a lapse of concentration on a corner, United would be champions now - and it would be down to a performance not unlike Chelsea's last weekend, and most unlike a United performance. A disappointing and withering attempt at getting a draw - but was that more understandable because only a draw was needed?

Fair play to Chelsea, though. Their name is on the big old trophy and despite being a million miles away from the best in England this season, they are the Champions of Europe.
We probably could have dispensed with the 120 minutes of football match, though, and gone straight to a penalty shootout.

That is why Mr Abramovich does not seem to be rushing to give the job to Roberto. He will feel that his money should be buying something a little more certain. Not a Euromillions ticket.


Wednesday, 16 May 2012

you can't be neutral on a moving train

A great spectacle for the neutrals.

Last weekend’s ending to the premier league season will have many words written about it, eulogising the greatest ending to a season ever, etc. Some will be succinct, others poetic. Some will be bitter and others will gloat.

The words above may not appear verbatim, but there will be an inference to that theory - that the pair of matches involving the Manchester clubs, the to-ing and fro-ing of the league title, right in to the dying seconds - and the relegation battle and "race" for third place - whilst being varying degrees of heaven and hell for the various sets of fans, was great stuff for the watching neutrals. But is it truly possible to be neutral when it comes to football?
Even at a park game on a Sunday morning, I will instantly take sides and find a reason to root for one rather than the other - they look a bit portly and ageing, I'll back them; that team's kit looks too much like manchester city's, hope they lose; the captain loves the sound of his voice too much, go for the opposition - I can't just sit or stand there and watch without investing some interest in to it and picking a team.

The FA Cup Final was a dilemma. Year by year I pick a favourite team in the final - but 2012? I have no time for Liverpool, yet the modern Chelsea also turn my stomach - or some of their players...or one at least...

It never used to be that way with Chelsea for me - perhaps we know too much about today's players and it taints our opinions. I would have chosen Chelsea for the win without hesitation in the past - I used to like those Zola and Vialli chaps - hell, we all did, didn't we? Further back in time, I always thought it was quite becoming - nay exotic, almost - that they used to have a striker with a girl's name. (Kerry Dixon to the under 30s out there).
Still. When it came down to it - rather them than the old enemy. Can't brush away all that history.

Champions League Final - thought there might be a chance I could be neutral on this one, until I heard the "breaking news" that John Terry, despite being suspended, would be allowed to lift the trophy should Chelsea win (insert loud shouts a la Jim White on Sky Sports News for full effect). Deal sealed, come on Bayern.
The Europa League Final - well, the whole of Britain seemingly wanted Athletic Bilbao to triumph. The Channel 5 coverage of them sweeping all-comers aside (once the country had woken up to the tournament, when the high-profile Manchester teams dropped in to it) was a joy to behold. We all had new darlings to root for and to cheat on our other halfs with.
So, was there anyone who was actually neutral on the "greatest final day" in this, the Premier League's "greatest ever season"? I haven't met anyone that has any slight interest in football who has purported to be neutral this last weekend. Yet the whole Manchester duking it out for the title scenario ought to have only got the city of Manchester excited, oughtn't it? Shouldn't it have been a strictly local affair?
No longer. And not just because of the "Anyone But United" mentality that usually ensures neutrality goes out of the window. No - QPR gained a whole new raft of fans for the day, Sunderland too.

But then, the whole country has disliked Manchester United for a long time now, creating this ABU nation. We all know someone who claims to support them and spends many moments rubbing noses in the fact. The geographical location of fans is a weak argument in the modern game, but it still has the power to upset - especially when so many local clubs are suffering. The "club's" commercialism, polarising manager and relentless pursuit of silverware in this televisual age have all added to the mix, creating friends and enemies simultaneously in very large numbers.
Pretenders to the red throne have come and gone over the 20 years of the Premier League (I know football didn't begin then, but it is the accepted yardstick for the all conquering tv era), but United have come back time and again - I'm sure that most of the country have prayed for one challenger to stick and to really threaten the United dominance. Be careful what you wish for.

The Mancunian Way

Mancunians seemingly appear to have a chip on their shoulders. It manifests itself outwardly in a bravado and cockiness. A belief in always being right - or at least, not caring if anyone thinks they are wrong. A fast, clipped style of speech, with shortened vowels, the local tongue serves to make the listener think that the speaker is supremely sure of himself and what he is saying. It also serves to differentiate the true mancunian from those in the various mill and hill-towns that orbit the city.
One thing that causes them consternation is that there is another large industrial city 30 miles away that the world seems to love more. The scouse wit, music and football are the modern disputes, where trade and industry once stood. But for all the bravado and hipster talk about Mancunian music (which I love), Joy Division, New Order, the Roses, Happy Mondays, Oasis, Hollies - the Beatles trump them every time (and I'm not even a fan).
To the greater reaches of the country, Manchester feels left out and tries to propel an image of coolness after years in the doldrums. It clings desperately to an image of the hacienda and the baggy revolution of the Madchester scene, whilst trying to project a more modern image to the world as well. The victorian powerhouse still feels that it is owed a debt from the time it was the city that made the money that London spent.

So, the fact that the city of Manchester has probably long punched above it's weight in our London-centric country, has created the character of its people.

United were obsessed with catching Liverpool on titles. Knocking them off their perch. It hurts that the years of domestic success have not propelled them too much closer in European terms. manchester city now have that obsession. They want to be top dog in the country and they have the resources to make it happen. That it will come at the expense of their cross-city rivals will make it ever sweeter for the fans.
Voices are heard on the morning commute - "it's really good for them, because they haven't won the league for so long..." ; A caller to Talksport yesterday morning revealed that he was overjoyed for them, as he had a great affinity for city, even though he was a Huddersfield Town fan. His reasons? Denis Law left his club for city and his own team once lost 10-1 to them.
The blue-half of Manchester have long enjoyed being the plucky underdog. Everyone's favourite clown, they have been loved because of their glorious failures as they stumbled in the dark reaches of the oppressive shadows that are cast by the powerful monolithic presence across town. "God loves a trier. They deserve success for all they have been through over the years." Like a little lap-dog, they have consistently revelled in this petting, believing everyone liked them more. They very nearly fell for their own joke against QPR, until the true superstar in the team, with no real knowledge of this byline of city tradition, stepped up in the dying seconds.
I don't expect this feeling towards them to last too long. A sea-change is occurring, with them encouraging jealousy and dislike at an astonishing rate, like a lottery winner flashing his wad. Because, if you think that a new name on the trophy is refreshing and it is great that the reds are to be usurped by the once plucky underdogs, then just watch this lot go.

Beware all now that there are two Mancunian clubs at the top. The ABU nation could quite easily become the ABM nation - Anywhere But Manchester. After all, Manchester not only has the former-richest club and perhaps biggest club in the world as a resident, but also the new richest club in the world and latest Premier League champions.

If the blue moon really is rising, the mancunian streak in their fans will let everybody know about it all too soon. Like United's fans they will be brash, bold and loud. But rather than the loveable Eddie Large and Curly Watts of the past, they really will be the Gallagher brothers of the now (x40-odd thousand.) They will also multiply and replicate throughout the land as their success continues.
A match-goer at Goodison Park informed me that there had been a loud cheer during Everton's game against Newcastle United, at the news that QPR had taken the lead against manchester city - his reasoning was that their fans were already getting up his nose (of course, to offer balance, later Sunderland fans enjoyed the schadenfreude of seeing the last-seconds drama of the blues tearing the title out of red hands).
Remember the lemon-sharp bitterness of Mike Summerbee last season after Rooney's overhead kick won the derby? He embodies the fans that have suffered for years at the hands of the reds - they will revel in this glory (and they do have every right to, I can't deny them that). Remember Niall Quinn's most biased of co-commentary slots during the derby last month? On the red side - remember Gary Neville's one-eyed United playing days and hilarious tantrum resulting in a sending off a few years back? And Alex Ferguson's flippant "noisy neighbour" comment. All results of the Mancunian pressure cooker as the temperature has slowly risen.
The repercussions? United will do everything possible to stem the blue tide - it was only goal difference this time, no panic stations just yet... so if the two are to duke it out at the top of the table regularly, a mancunian monster may well have just been created.

If you managed to be before, you may not be able to be neutral any more and may have to make your choice - who is the least worst? Perhaps though, the best idea for all non-fans would be to try and learn to become completely neutral  - let their rivalry become parochial and localised and everyone else can just ignore them? Or you can hope that a third team or more can join the fun - imagine the sky coverage on the final day then...

Whatever. I wouldn't be able to be neutral - if I didn't have one already, I'd have to pick a side.


Friday, 4 May 2012

Looking California, Feeling Minnesota

As it says on the club website:

" 'The club set up in protest to Malcolm Glazer's takeover of Manchester United' is a statement often used to describe FC United. But while there is no doubt that FC would not have happened without the American invasion, it was the catalyst, the final straw, but not the sole reason."

Many reasons collided at once for a minority group of militant Manchester United fans who had grown disillusioned with the modern game and it's trappings: kick off times dictated by TV, escalating ticket prices, matches taking place in soulless "theatres" and the perceived ever-widening distance between the club and the local community as it sought, ever more avariciously, new global revenue streams.

An idea, first floated when Rupert Murdoch's BskyB attempted to buy the club in the late nineties, was resurrected as a last resort. Start their own club. Supporters as members - each with a vote. Reasonable ticket prices. FC United of Manchester was born in 2005 and the club began it's odyssey in the 10th level of football.

Manchester United were my club. Whilst to the pedantic I am not, strictly speaking, a Mancunian, I was born just six or seven miles from the city centre, in Ashton-under-Lyne, the town that gave us world cup winners Sir Geoff Hurst and Simone Perrotta (with Jimmy Arnfield being born just a couple more miles away, in Denton). With that proximity, I was destined to be either a Red or a blue. With family ties, and particularly an elder sister who rampaged with the team in Division 2 in the seventies, my Red allegience was set.

Eventually, after years of attending matches, either paying on the gate to get in the Stretford End or the E stand seats behind or later with a season ticket, the same problems that irked the militants rose their head for me. Added to the mix, a further child born, I was skint and low on free time - the season ticket and plastic seat gave way to the comfort of the sofa, I'm afraid.

A big part of my football fan education, however, had also taken place in the non-league. As a young kid, if not going along to Old Trafford, I would attend matches in the old Northern Premier League with my grandfather, watching Mossley AFC at Seel Park. They would be taking on such evocatively named teams as Witton Albion, Frickley Athletic, Stalybridge Celtic, Northwich Victoria, Kidderminster Harriers.

The attractions of non-league are the local rivalries, the reasonably-priced beers at the club-house (with a view on to the pitch), the family atmosphere and the fun. Sometimes it is like a trip back to a bygone age. The word community is the most appropriate - and a real attachment to the town that the club represents. FC United are seeking to make those deep roots with the community and have devised excellent plans for a ground and sports facilities in the North Manchester suburb of Moston.

FC United of Manchester brought all those old names and experiences back, mixed with larger crowds and the songs and colours I knew and loved - and a cracking atmosphere. It was a long road that was being travelled for many disparate reasons, so by God, the supporters (nay, members) were going to make the best of the journey. But it still wasn't quite United for me and I retreated back to the side-road of my sofa, with little excursions every now and then to keep the engine ticking over - always keeping an interested eye on their progress.

Football itself seems perpetually at a confusing crossroads. As the leagues further down the pyramid search for sustainability and look to offer a sleeker package to keep people coming through the turnstiles, changes are occurring outside the Football League which have a similar resonance to those within. Clubs are going out of business, or struggling desparately to make ends meet.

Clubs are, despite the odds, still an attractive investment for some. But, for fans, ownership appears to be a lottery - with no effort on your part whatsoever, you could be a winner and be landed with a Sheikh Mansour. Or, more likely, you could end up with the Venkys or a George Reynolds.

It is the old adage of the theory of evolution -the survival of the fittest. Every club must find a way to adapt and swim against the Premier League/Sky tsunami. Alongside the supporter-owned models of AFC Wimbledon, FC United, Ebbsfleet United and the like, there are those that are helped with heavy investment in the teams such as Crawley Town and Fleetwood Town.

Another survival route is "sponsorship" deals by Father-clubs, such as that by Manchester city, whose reserve team has for many years used Ewen Fields in Hyde, Greater Manchester to play their matches. Hyde (United) gave up their ground's colours, red turning blue, as well as the "United" part of their name (and Manchester United-like club crest) in return for their soul and investment in the ground along with the honour of continuing to host matches for the ridiculously named "Manchester city Elite Development Squad."

Echoing Crawley and Fleetwood's successes, Hyde FC have now found themselves just recently promoted as Conference North champions and will ply their trade in the Conference for the first time next season.

Then again, unfortunately there are the Northwich Victoria and Darlingtons of the world...

Thanks to an ill-fated relocation and financial difficulties that have plagued the club, Northwich Victoria found themselves expelled from their promotion position in the Evo-Stick Northern Premier League this season, leaving another place up for grabs. This was gratefully (but also humbly) accepted by FC United of Manchester.

As is the way with teams that sneak in to competitions at the last minute (famously Denmark in the Euros, of course), FC United made light work of the play-off semi-final last weekend against Chorley, before a crowd of almost 3000, setting up a final this weekend against an age-old name in footballing terms - Bradford Park Avenue.

It is very much a case of the old versus the new. Bradford Park Avenue have been there, done that. They have experienced league football, reaching the heights of the First Division and drifted down through the league. They suffered the ignominy of being voted out of the league in 1970 and liquidation a few years later. Numerous homes and starts and false-starts now leave the club in it's current position and a battle-royale against the upstarts from Manchester.

Ironically, considering the involvement of a club that holds 3pm Saturday close to heart as the correct time for football, the game now kicks this Sunday, 6th May 2012 at 2pm. The final was originally scheduled for Saturday at 3pm, but police concerns over the amount of fans attending and coinciding with a Bradford City match have resulted in the (unpopular) change.

My son is a footballing worry to me. He plays the game, he wears the shirts, but he has no interest in watching. I need something to spark that interest. The roar of the crowd, the songs, the thwack of the ball as it is cleared up field, the screams of "man on", the wrapping up in a preposterously coloured scarf and hat in the winter and the dressing down and carnival atmosphere of the warmer months - he needs to experience all this before he is lost to WWE or whatever acronym fake wrestling goes under nowadays. Maybe now is the time to think about starting again with him? To re-enter the fray at non-league level?

Or would that make me a gloryhunter?