Act in haste…

The standard end to that saying is “repent at leisure”, however after Alan Hutton’s two-footed horror tackle on Shane Long last Saturday, no such repentance has been forthcoming from various sources at Aston Villa.

Peter Grant, assistant manager at Villa, yesterday wandered into cliché corner in saying Hutton “is not that sort of player.” Of course, there is no surer condemnation of someone as “that sort of player” if someone is forced to go on the record, after seeing the potentially career-ending actions of a player, and say that’s not something that they do. (Go figure).

McLeish’s staunch refusal to denounce Hutton’s tackle is not only symptomatic of Modern Manager Myopia (MMM), but also hypocritical and evidence of his lack of being able to coach a team to success without fouling the opposition. In the build up to the West Brom game, he had told his charges to “get in the faces” of the opposition. Would it be rude of me to suggest “play better football” is a better tactic for winning matches? It may be obvious, but if Gabby Agbonlahor or Darren Bent had been the recipient of a similar challenge, McLeish would have been screaming blue murder, not saying that tackles like that happen in every game (they don’t), and that people don’t say anything when the player doesn’t get injured (they do). It’s an insult to every team Villa will come up against to be so wilfully ignorant of the actions of one of his players.

Villa are slowly morphing into the turgid anti-football team he nurtured across the city. Randy Lerner may not be committing the same amount of his resources to the club as he did under Martin O’Neill, but has certainly backed his man well enough; £9.5m for Charles N’Zogbia, £3.5m for Shay Given, £1m for Jermain Jenas (loan), and also Hutton will be on a fair chunk of wages as well. N’Zogbia has failed miserably. Jenas is yet to play, but will do nothing at all if his career so far is anything to go by. Hutton has never looked capable in the Premier League. Given appears to be the only decent signing, though his refusal to come off his line at set pieces has been and always will be his achilles heel.

McLeish’s teams have nothing that marks them out football-wise, other than they are usually 4-5-1, inflexible, and dull. Villa fans don’t tend to speak too highly of the reign of Gerard Houllier, but there were certainly some signs toward the end of last season that his philosophy was becoming ingrained in the team. But Houllier has gone, and gone with him the more cultured, continental approach to the game. In comes the “get in their faces” approach. And two-footed, mid-air studs up tackles.

McLeish assertion that “in ten years’ time you won’t see any contact at all in football” is not only pathetic scaremongering, but also an indication that he has no idea how to cope when being “physically assertive” towards the opposition is no longer allowed. Ostensibly non-contact football already exists; it’s called Futsal. Instead of whingeing about the demise of being able to clobber opponents, he should be trying to find a way to make his teams cope without it. And Hutton should be banned for 5 games – maybe then he’d think twice about nearly wrecking someone’s career. If McLeish needs to ask the question “how can you stop in mid-air?” then I’d suggest he asks his players to try those tackles again – using him as a guinea pig.

SniperTube episode 5: Man Utd Special

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? On the wrong end of an absolute tonking. By the time the 5th or 6th one goes in, you’re so far beyond caring that you’re busy chatting to the bloke next to you about politics or kabbadi. What’s that, we’re down to 10 men as well? Ah well.

Yep, we’ve all been there. Some more than others, it has to be said. And when the most domestically successful team in English football gets a jolly shellacking, we have to savour the moment, since it happens so very, very rarely. And then dredge up and bask in a load of other whuppings for good measure.

After three years of treading water in Division 1, Crystal Palace would finally be relegated in 1973. But it wasn’t all doom and gloom at Selhurst Park, where one of their 7 home victories was against one of the less well-remembered Man Utd sides (they finished a lowly 18th that season). And what a victory it was, too:

Apart from the pure joy of listening to Brian Moore saying “Manchester United simply don’t know which day it is”, it’s also great to see moustachioed genius Don Rogers (“…in a way, doing a Pele”), Palace’s rather dark red and light blue striped kit, and rubber “goalie gloves” taken straight from the washing up bowl and onto the pitch.

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Man Utd walked the league in the 99-00 season, 18 points ahead of nearest challengers Arsenal come May. Here though, it’s early October and the season is still very much finding its feet. And as soon as you hear Martin Tyler say something about “Phil Neville’s been put there to do a job on Gianfranco Zola”, you know the United defence is going to be in for a long afternoon:

There’s so many things wrong in this video. Jody Morris scoring, then doing that trombone celebration; Chris Sutton scoring, who cost £10million (30YS Videprinter: Ten); and finally the conclusive proof that all ‘keepers who wear jogging bottoms are ultimately doomed to fail.

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Post Love it Newcastle under Kevin Keegan were something of a busted flush, but no compilation of teams beating Man Utd 5-0 is complete without Little Kev’s moment of small revenge. Fergie’s men famously overhauled the Geordies 12-point lead to take the title in 1996, but then Shearer was bought for £15million that summer in what was really Keegan’s last throw of the dice. He would leave the job just a few months later, but not before this:

Keegan’s last hurrah showed just how wonderful that Newcastle team could be on occasion. Everyone remembers Philippe Albert’s chip, but David Ginola’s strike for 2-0 was almost as incredible. Keegan resigned in January 1997, saying that he’d taken the club as far as he could; Kenny Dalglish took over and Newcastle finished 2nd behind Man Utd, just as they had the previous year.

Elite Selection

The 72 clubs of the Football League today voted in favour to set course for Oblivion Central, having departed Common Sense (East) some time ago, after a stopover at Blackmail Town forced chairmen to repeatedly smash the panic button.

It’s the arrival of the Elite Player Performace Plan, a plan devised by the Premier League (originally titled Let’s F**k Football – Together) to ensure they can get the best players off lower division clubs for next to no money. If the Football League had rejected the proposals, the Premier League would have withdrawn the current £5m it donates to lower leagues – that’s £250,000 per club, or an eye-watering 0.5% of the money they receive for TV rights alone. It’s little wonder they’re trying to ensure they get better value for money with such a huge outlay whilst receiving so little in return.

“There is always the danger under the new scheme that larger clubs will become more predatory but we hope we don’t see that,” were the pie-in-the-sky words intoned by football league chairman Greg Clarke after the motion was passed. The EPPP removes what little protection smaller clubs had against getting their best players stolen by larger ones. The only possible outcome of all this is that big clubs will become more predatory. Hope doesn’t even factor into the equation, the whole thing is designed so that big clubs put less effort into getting the better players for less money. Why in God’s name have the clubs agreed to this? In what realm of warped fantasy are you living, Mr. Clarke? And whatever you’re taking, please can I bloody have some?

The youth development of a club will be categorised into one of four sections. Category one, the highest level, will cost up to £2.5m. 46 clubs voted in favour. Statistically, most of these clubs can’t afford to put 50p in the electricity meter; what chance then, of multi-million pound investment in youth development when the maximum fee that can be recouped for a player under 17 is £100,000? Category three and four clubs will no longer be allowed to sign players under 12. The more you look at the figures, the more it becomes incomprehensible that the people in charge of their clubs would make such a decision.

I’m loathe to bring partisanship into the argument, but my club, Crystal Palace, have been stung before, and there is still a lot of resentment about the way the authorities handled the whole affair. The transfer fee for 16-year-old John Bostock was set by a tribunal at £700k, with the fee rising to £2m – when the moon loses her child in a week when two Mondays come together, or something equally as likely (Bostock starting 40 league games for Spurs and playing for England – I think I’ve got as much chance of doing that as he does).

Palace were looking for a fee of at least £2.5m, having rejected a £900k bid from Chelsea when he was fourteen. “It’s beyond me and it makes me question why I bother with football,” said then-chairman Simon Jordan. “One of the reasons the Premier League is the best in the world is because it’s made up of 50 per cent foreigners. So when big clubs buy our young and don’t use them, how the hell does that benefit the national game?” Unusually prescient and wise words from SJ at the time. Bostock has since played just 3 times for Spurs. Jordan gave up bothering not long after.

And that’s exactly what’s going to happen when these rules come in. Chairmen, coaches, young players – they’re all going to give up bothering because it simply isn’t worth it. Clubs have no reason to develop their youngsters for fear of being pillaged by the big boys, shedloads of kids are going to miss out on the chance of becoming a professional, and our national game will suffer as a result.

Of course, some clubs make a hell of a lot better use of their academies than others. But leaving youth development in the hands of each club is by far a much more natural, organic way of producing players. Forcing these categories on teams creates is just arbitrarily restricting their ability to be remunerated for nurturing young players. How can league 2 clubs like Torquay or Morecambe, with average gates of 2,500, be expected to fund a £2.5m spree, just so they can have under 12′s on their books? It is absolute madness.

The last thing clubs in the Football League need is more of a talent drain than there already is. The clubs who voted in favour of this have been banjaxed by some incredible financial short-termism. It is stupidity, denial and ignorance of monolithic proportions. We’ve seen many clubs on tip-toes at the brink over the last 10 years; soon I fear there’s going to be a lot more going over than before.

EDIT 21/10/11: James Daly’s song about the whole saga:

SniperTube episode 4: El Tel, O’Neillism, Head-over-heelism

Football and music have generally had something of a blustery relationship. The times when they have got it right can pretty much be counted on one hand: World in motion, Three Lions, and…well I wanted to say Diamond Lights, but there’s quite a few people who would disagree. To put it mildly. But despite the slim pickings, they both return to the well from time to time to try and rekindle something from the dying embers of what should have been a perfectly decent romance, only to find a mausoleum of bitter memories of why they didn’t get on in the first place.

We will remember Kevin Keegan for many things. A glittering career with Liverpool, Hamburg and Southampton. Winning the ballon d’or two years in a row. That post-match rant. His disastrous spell as England manager. But Keegan was never shy of dabbing his hand in other areas of the media, appearing on BBC’s Superstars gameshow and avertising Brut aftershave in a spot alongside Henry Cooper. (Well if you must see the two legends in the shower together, it’s here). But for our first main event, Keggy dons a brown jacket and some pretty exciting cream flares, picks up the microphone and quite literally lets rip with a torrent of vocal transnificence:

In all fairness, he makes a relatively decent fist of it, but you can see the look of absolute terror in his eyes. This is a man who has agreed to something without a full knowledge of the possible ramifications: dressing up like a crooner and miming someone elses song in front of some TV cameras and an audience. The song reached #31 in the UK chart, but, blazing a trail for Anglophonic curly-haired career-mutant David Hasselhoff 10 years later, reached the top 10 in Germany where he was based at the time. I’m just finding it hard to imagine Gary Barlow writing a schmaltzy love song for James Milner to warble, though I’m sure it would be quite enjoyable in a sado-masochistic way.

Speaking of Take That alumni, we now look at a memorable encounter between Robbie Williams and the legendary Martin O’Neill:

Williams struggled for long periods with self-esteem issues, and one can’t help feeling O’Neill’s brazen face-to-face evaluation of his talents – “[You] can’t play, you can’t write, you can’t strum a guitar – I thought you’d really struggle” - really can’t have helped matters. Credit is certainly due for him not being a fawning media luvvie, however.

From a chilling slapdown of one man’s talents, to someone that definitely didn’t have any naysayers around to stop him from going on TV and making an arse of himself, it’s Terry Venables. If you thought Keegan looked scared, the look on the faces most of Venables’ QPR team mates in the audience is akin to a group of men waiting to be ushered into a gas-chamber:

The notable exception being Frank McLintock, who must have either hated Venables, or had a father that insisted on his family attending weekly karaoke sessions at the local boozer on a Saturday night, and was therefore so accustomed to a grown man going up in musical flames, he had no way of empathising with the shame.

Fit and proper person?

There was a recent article in the Evening Standard about the current situation regarding the ownership of Arsenal, in which the writer, Dan Jones, encouraged their fans to embrace the overtures of significant minority shareholder Alisher Usmanov, who is considering moving to secure shares to bring in his stake in the club above 30%. This is a meaningful amount as he would then be able to gain access to the club’s accounts, and he would be subject to the Premier League’s “Owners and Directors test” (the efficacy of which is certainly a debate for another day). If passed, he would then increase pressure on current majority shareholder Stan Kroenke for a seat on the board, a notion that the American has so far refused to entertain.

“Silent” Stan took over in April of this year, something that looked rather unlikely 4 years ago when then-shareholder Danny Fiszman said, “We would be horrified to see ownership of the club go across the Atlantic” – despite having sold a small amount of shares to Kroenke the previous month. It was at that time that David Dein ended his 24-year association with the club, citing “irreconcilable differences” with the board. With £470m of new stadium debt hanging around the club’s neck, Dein was strongly in favour bringing in a wealthy new investor to alleviate some of the financial pressure that had been placed on the club. The rest of the board preferred to keep the club “in the family,” so to speak, and hoped the club could continue to succeed whilst living within its means and paying off its debts.

Such a chasmic difference of opinion was always going to lead to an acrimonious departure, but Dein still had his stake in the club and believed he could achieve his vision for it by other means. In August 2007, he sold up to Usmanov’s investment vehicle Red and White Holdings, a not-so-subtle nod to the ambitions of the company. From that point, both Usmanov and Kroenke started gradually increasing their share allocation in the club, with neither wanting to pass the 30% mark which would force a mandatory takeover bid. Kroenke was appointed to the Arsenal board in September 2008, and finally bought a controlling stake this year when Fiszman sold his shares due to declining health. He also acquired Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith’s shares at this time.

And so here we are this week, with Usmanov’s machinations once again in the spotlight. Dan Jones’ article in the Standard made light of convictions Usmanov received in the USSR in the 1980′s: for “complicity in an official’s receiving bribes and extortion”, though such an explicit description was notably absent from said article.

I found myself thinking Usmanov was rather desperate in trying to portray himself as whiter-than-white in the media. If he had done nothing wrong, if his record was so immaculate, why were the Arsenal board so ferociously keen in keeping the club out of his hands? He has been portrayed as “the bad guy”, but has spent the last 3 years waging an intense PR war to convince the entire world of his benevolent nature.

Finally, I remembered. I saw it in Private Eye. The reason not a bad word has been written or spoken about him is because the media is shit-scared of upsetting him and incurring his considerable wrath. This was part of a letter he sent to all major UK newspapers prior to 2008:

Mr Usmanov was imprisoned for various offences under the old Soviet regime. We wish to make it clear our client did not commit any of the offences with which he was charged. He was fully pardoned after President Mikhail Gorbachev took office. All references to these matters have now been expunged from police records . . . Mr Usmanov does not have any criminal record.

Why would a completely innocent billionaire take such an aggressive stance against the media? Well, I’m afraid I can’t tell you. My resources simply don’t compare to those of The Man. However, if you’re wondering where I’m going (or indeed where I’ve been), I’ll direct you to the sole beacon of investigative reporting to have taken a stance, and why Silent Stan’s Arsenal takeover is by far and away the preferred alternative:

http://www.craigmurray.org.uk/archives/2007/09/alisher_usmanov/

I had originally taken umbrage with Jones’s article because he implied it’s was Arsenal fans’ entitlement to success that should push them into backing a more wealthy investor. The feeling of contempt I felt for the article led me into writing this piece. Unfortunately, I don’t feel in a position to comment on the real motivations behind his piece, as I don’t have a lawyer. Yet.

Individual Bargaining

The collective negotation of TV rights between Premier League clubs has so far remained largely untouched. Despite the top flight being decaptitated from the rest of the Football League in 1992, this ostensibly socialist approach to the distribution of wealth has tinges of a hangover from the pre-premier dark ages. Not to ignore the dearth in variation of title-winning teams since then, one can still argue that the league as a whole has at least maintained some semblance of competitiveness.

We should grateful that La Liga is so shamefully two-sided. Barcelona are thrilling to watch of course, but the self-propagating financial superiority that they and Real Madrid enjoy over the rest of the league starkly illuminates the danger of allowing the big boys to plough their own furrow when it comes to TV money. Dave Whelan, the Wigan chairman, has never been one for understatement, but his branding of Ian Ayre’s suggestion that Liverpool sell their own foreign TV rights as “diabolical” is not too far wide of the mark.

Ayre’s logic is sound, of course; the Asian markets are dominated by fans of the new-school big 4. But it’s just not as a cut and dried as he is trying to make out. If the big boys start going it alone, then the top flight will be on a one-way trip to La Liga-dom that will take decades to recover from. The Premier League is already two-tiered enough; those with Champions League aspirations, and those trying to avoid relegation. Start breaking up the collective bargaining and you start truly destroying the league. The reason the Premier League is such a successful foreign export is precisely because of the collective bargaining agreement, not in spite of it. Who’s going to pay good money to watch Liverpool tank a load of no-hopers 7-0 every week? No-one. It’s pointless.

What sets the PL apart from La Liga is that most teams believe, on their day, they can be competitive in a one-off fixture against a top 4 side. I’m not talking about a cup tie giant-killing – I can only remember Chelsea putting sand on the pitch to stop a superior team in the last 10 years – I mean a mid or lower mid-table side raising their game a little and getting a result. Man Utd have looked irresistable going forward this season, but you feel they could still be vulnerable at the back, and they will have a rocky patch at some point – they always do. All it takes is one result to trigger a period of uncertainty and lack of confidence.

That’s not to say the league is open, by any means. I’m not naive enough to think that. But I saw Barcelona’s procession to the Spanish title last year, and it was pathetic. Boring. I don’t want the same thing to happen in this country, and that’s why I’m advocating resistance to this newly mooted breakaway from collective bargaining. The finances of almost all the Premier League clubs are screwed and skewed enough without removing the one thing that keeps it interesting.

Top 10 Centre Back songs

A good, solid centre back pairing is the bedrock of any decent team. And, getting away with fouls and handballs in the box is also a useful talent to have – just ask Nemanja Vidic or John Terry. Here we celebrate these towering bastions of defensive stability with our Top 10 centre back songs.

  1. Keowner of a lonely heart – Yes. Martin Keown was one of the most feared stoppers of his generation, winning 3 league titles and 3 FA cups with Arsenal. Perhaps his most famous moment came against Man Utd at Old Trafford in 2003, when Ruud van Nistelrooy missed that penalty, resulting in this fracas. Prog rockers Yes reached #28 in November 1983 with arguably their best song.
  2. Golden Brown – The Stranglers. Wes Brown spent 12 years and 232 games filling in for various superior alternatives at Man Utd before finally departing for Wearside to try and play a bit more regularly. He once had a special solo training session during an England call-up to work on his technique. Golden Brown was The Stranglers highest charting effort, peaking at #2 in January 1982.
  3. Love is a Butterfield – Pat Benatar. Obviously he was usually a right-back, but still. Danny “I can’t believe it’s not” Butterfield spent 8 years at Crystal Palace, managing to squeeze in a few months on loan at Charlton in 2009 to oversee their relegation to the third tier. Pat Benatar reached #17 in March 1985 with her new wave call to arms.
  4. My old man’s a Distin – Lonnie Donegan and his group. Sylvain Distin was one of the most consistent defenders in the Premier League throughout his 5 years and 206 games for pre-money Manchester City between 2002-2007, while he was ever present in the league for Everton in 2010-11. Lonnie Donegan’s skiffle song, now reworked by fans of many teams to sing about popular players, was a number 1 hit in March 1960.
  5. Oops! I Dunne it again – Britney Spears. The Premier League’s all-time top own-goalscorer simply has a habit of being in the right place (for a striker) at the wrong time (for a defender), though let’s be fair to him – he has scored an equal amount at the right end as well – ten of each. Britney Spears may have been not that innocent when she reached #1 in May 2000 with this effort, but she did go that mental a few years ago.
  6. Itsy bitsy teeny weeny yellow polka dot Maldini – Bombalurina. Paolo Maldini is widely regarded as one of the greatest defenders of all time. He made 902 appearance for AC Milan in a 25 year career beginning in 1984, and also played 126 times for Italy over a 15 year period during that time. Timmy Mallett’s Bombalurina musical spin-off spent 3 weeks at #1 in 1990 with this aural travesty.
  7. Samba di Janeiro – Bellini. Christopher Samba is quite literally the biggest bloke in the history of the world. A no-nonsense, no-finesse, old-school centre-half, the kind they don’t really make anymore. Bellini’s classic Eurotrance effort reached #7 in 1997.
  8. (Don’t fear) the Rieper – Blue Oyster Cult. Marc Rieper is best remembered for his time at West Ham and Celtic (where he won the Scottish Premier Division title) in the mid-90s. A foot injury prevented him from playing again after 1998 and he finally called it a day in 2000. Blue Oyster Cult’s classic riff-laden song reached #16 in May 1978.
  9. Stam by your man – Tammy Wynette. Jaap Stam was one of the most feared centre backs in the Premier League before he was mysteriously sold to Lazio in 2001. Fergie allegedly got rid after Stam made some rather candid observations about the club in his autobiography, in which he notoriously described Gary Neville as a “busy c**t.” Tammy Wynette warbled her way to #1 in 1975 with her country & western homage to fidelity.
  10. (Feels like) Evans – Fiction Factory. There are a few ways to describe Jonny Evans, but perhaps the most polite way would be “Joker in the pack” after he became a byword for defensive frailty at Man Utd. Fiction Factory made #6 in January 1984 with their only top 40 hit. There are some really excellent haircuts on offer here.

The Changing Face of English Football

As those of you with a Sky Sports subscription will be aware (or anyone who has watched a game down the pub recently for that matter), this season marks the 20th anniversary of Premiership football on Sky and 20 years of the Premiership full stop. Now seems as good a time as any to take a look back at how things have changed over those 20 years, for better or worse.

The biggest impact has to be the impression Sky themselves have made. No longer is the armchair fan limited to a single game a week as they were in the final years of the Football League’s hegemony; instead the average fan can remain committed to their armchair for a good proportion of the weekend, soaking up the finest that English football has to offer. Enforced shopping trips with the Mrs. aside, that is. Of course, in addition to the Premiership, there are a plethora of other offerings on the table over the average weekend, varying from the Championship to Spanish to Blue Square Premier football – if you know where to find it. Some may argue that we are now over-saturated with football; for me, it’s just great to have the option to dip in as and when.

The biggest argument against this TV inspired change is the loss of what was once a sacrosanct time on the weekly calendar: 3 o’clock on a Saturday. For fans of some teams, the bigger clubs especially, it can be weeks on end between a traditional Saturday afternoon kick off and the next. The full ins and outs are perhaps an argument for another time, but I I don’t think it’s been overwhelmingly detrimental to the game’s lifeblood, the fans. Those separated from their clubs by geography or perhaps a financial barrier can be more connected to their clubs than ever before. The neutral has also been benefited by the ability to soak up game after game, which would be much more of a challenge if all games kicked off simultaneously. At least, I find it a challenge to be in two or more places at once, notwithstanding the fact that my terrible memory makes me promise to do just that with annoying regularity. Though rarely with football matches, it must be said.

Tied into the increased influence of television on the English game is influx of foreign players. The money pumped into the game through television rights contracts, both home and abroad has allowed the Premiership to attract some of the world’s best players. With this has come an overall increased technical level of the game in this country as a whole, as well as bringing the associated and hugely predictable cries of “they’re ruining the game for our lads” and things of that ilk. The increase in foreign talent on these shores, coinciding with an improvement in most top level playing surfaces has, many would argue, improved the quality of football on offer to the viewing public. For instance, the last 20 years have seen the rise of Arsenal’s brand of passing football, which, arguments about their current form aside, I doubt would have been possible with the quality of English players and pitches 20 years ago. Sure, the increase in foreign players on our shores has reduced opportunities for some of our younger players leaving some calling for limits on foreign player numbers (something which has mostly disappeared and then reared its head again in the past 20 years), but these foreign players must leave gaps in European & world football elsewhere. Football, like much else (and fittingly so I would suggest), is about the survival of the fittest and I, for one, would prefer to see English players adapt, improve and look for new opportunities in order to carve out their careers, rather than being given a relatively easy ride by some arbitrary limit on foreigners.

The past 20 years have also seen a significant change in the match day experience. Terraces are now a thing of the past, with most stadiums also doing away with the view-obstructing concrete posts that permeated most clubs’ grounds during the bulk of the 20th century. With this mostly positive investment in infrastructure has come price rises to go with it, not only in ticket prices but in the cost of refreshment. This all adds up to a more expensive match day experience and together with the earlier point regarding the increased influence of television, has led to many more fans taking to the sofa or the pub, to soak up their weekly football fix. These things add up to what on the one hand is a more consumer friendly experience but which also negatively affects the atmosphere at a lot of grounds, especially amongst home fans. I, for one, would be interested to see figures charting the increase in the number of times the chant “shall we sing a song for you?” is heard from away fans these days.

So that concludes a rather brief look at how the face of English football has changed over the last 20 years, and then only really at the top level. I’ll be exploring some of these ideas in more detail over the coming weeks as we continue look at how the Premier League has changed the footballing landscape over its maiden 20 years.