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 If the Football League had rejected the proposals, the Premier League would have withdrawn the current £5m it donates to lower leagues – that’s £250,000 per club, or an eye-watering 0.5% of the money they receive for TV rights alone.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:

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.

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.

No Indian summers at Chelsea?

I’ve written previously about England’s Golden Generation and the innate technical definiciencies that have prevented them from succeeding on the world stage, versus the consistent domestic success many of the players have achieved. This dichotomy is perhaps perfectly embodied by Frank Lampard.

After 10 seasons of being ostensibly untouchable as a 1st choice, Lampard is starting to look increasingly surplus to requirements at Stamford Bridge. In his time there, he has scored 116 goals in the league alone, and is close to racking up 350 PL appearances. His record as a goalscoring midfielder is a tremendous one, and his longevity is admirable.

Lampard, though, has always had his critics. Since Jose Mourinho introduced 4-5-1/4-3-3 at Chelsea, and through the diamonds of Scolari and Ancelotti, the team has very much been tailored to suit his needs; he likes to arrive late in the box, he likes to pick the ball up on the edge of the area, he enjoys shooting from long range. And all through Chelsea’s period of success, he has had more technically gifted midfielders around him; not just a water carrier, but someone to silently pull the strings while Lampard makes all the headlines.

From 2003, Claude Makélélé was the relatively unheralded heartbeat of the Chelsea team, (at least until he had gone; abscence makes the heart, etc), while in Mourinho’s first season, Lampard was accompanied mostly by the oft-forgotten Tiago, or occasional stand-in Alexey Smertin. Michael Essien followed the season after, Michael Ballack has been and gone, Jon Obi-Mikel remains a perennial stand in. And all this time, the fulcrum of the midfield, Lampard has remained.

Now, while it seems he has finally fallen out of favour, it is by no means a vindication of his critics. It’s often been said that Lampard has “made the most of his talent,” technically lacking but possessing the unlearnable gift of being in the right place at the right time. It’s irrefutable that Lampard has been blessed by playing alongside incredible talent, and under managers willing to set the team up around his strengths. For his supporters, it’s playing alongside such players that has allowed him to fulfil his potential. For his detractors, it’s the proof that he has always been carried by his more gifted team mates, his achievements over-glorified by a fawning media and a raucously vocal Chelsea fan-base.

For me, his limtations have always been exposed when playing for England. He and Steven Gerrard must take equal blame for the national team’s recent failings, for the inability to adapt their games to make a central midfield pairing, for having egos so big they coudn’t rein in their gung-ho instincts. I’ve always suspected the main reason Gerrard and Lampard couldn’t work together was because they didn’t like each other very much, but that’s a discussion for another time.

This is no obituary, and Lampard is by no means on the scrapheap. But at the ripe old age of 33, it remains to be seen whether he will accept a more peripheral role at Chelsea, or if his need to be the main man will force him to look for pastures new. At that age, and with the pace of the Premier League, he simply can’t be the same player he was. Does he have the nous to re-invent himself as a player, step aside from the limelight and change his game, in the way that Paul Scholes did in his twilight years at Man Utd? Or is he so driven to “be the man” that he will search for success elsewhere? If that were to be the case, he would almost certainly have to take a cut in his reputed £140,000 a week wages. For now though, Lampard’s career remains in an unprecedented state of limbo.

Easy Hater

You have to admire Christiano Ronaldo’s recent response to an evening of Croatian insults. I mean, ‘I’m rich, handsome and a great player.’ At least it reassures the world those nasty Zagreb fans haven’t dented his precious confidence. But is he right? Let’s have a look.

1) Yeah he’s got a few quid, something to the tune of the (alleged) $38 million he earned in 2010. Certainly not to be sniffed at; 2) Handsome? Well, that’s more difficult for me, a paragon of heterosexuality, to give an opinion on this but, yeah – I’ll admit he has a certain oily charm. But then, so does a bag of chips, but ok, I’ll give him a tick here too. 3) Is he a great player? Well…yes, he is. He is a massively wealthy, good-looking arrogant man. I mean really, really, really arrogant…but yeah, lets face it – he’s a great footballer.

So what’s that, er… three-nil to Mr Ronaldo, the hat trick, the old three for three. Turns out that he is indeed rich, handsome and a great player. A kind of adonis of a human being, a glowing example of footballing achievement. But is this the sole explanation of why he is oh so easy to hate?

Actually, yes. Very much so. You see, with your average football fan, you can find the perfect microcosm of the human animal at large. And that animal at it’s petty heart, despite all protests to the contrary, is of course a jealous, jealous thing. Yeah, of course we dislike you for your success, and yeah of course its our flaws and not your brilliance that’s the problem. Its just…do you have to be such a dick with it?

An Englishman abroad

Liverpool to Lille, “I raised an eyebrow,” Joe coolly explained. As well he might. Bench-warmer to playmaker, and that’s playmaker at the French Champions, playmaker in the Champions League. It’s a good move, Joe. I’d lower those eyebrows.

But how can he be sure it’s not going to be a case of out of sight, out of mind? Is this really the best way to get back into the thinking of Mr Capello? (I’m assuming Mr Capello will be too lazy to take the hour and a half train from Kings Cross to Lille; he still hasn’t quite mastered the English language, so…) All I’m really saying is, he could have gone to Tottenham, QPR, even Villa – might that not have been, I don’t know a bit…safer?

It was probably the fact that these three wouldn’t meet the alleged £90,000 per week wage demands made by Cole and his entourage, that saw the crafty cockney (can i use that, or has Eric Bristow copyrighted it?) hot footing it to his local Euro Star. But what must be considered as well, in the (admittedly mandatory sycophantic) unveiling press conference Cole spoke of having always wanted to play abroad. He also stressed his admiration for the French Champions style of football; they’re like Barcelona apparently.

So maybe I should suspend my cynicism and applaud the move as a brave and innovative way of coming in from the international cold. So good luck to him. And if all goes well maybe we’ll see other international rejects taking a similar approach to resurrecting their England careers. Heskey to Marseille? Wayne Bridge to Olympiakos? Joey Barton…I don’t know…somewhere in Turkey?

Best man for the job?

After this week’s news that clubs may be forced to interview black candidates for vacant managerial positions, 30 yard sniper looks at racism in football management.

Kicking racism out of football management is something I feel strongly about, but the ‘I’ is not the ‘I’ that supports and admires the message of the ‘Kick It Out’ campaign, but rather the shamelessly selfish one that wants my team to win, to be managed by the best available.

Charlton Athletic Football Club should stand as something of an example; they are, after all, one of only two English League Clubs to currently employ a black manager. The point of this is not to aggrandise my club for being on the right side of a shameful fact, but to show the decision to appoint Powell for what it was: a good football decision by an astute board.

Following on from the colossal dynasty left behind by Alan Curbishley, the decision makers at Charlton were left with a hard job. Who ever they appointed would inherit a poisoned chalice that would be passed around a string of unfortunate bosses.

Firstly, in May 2006, Iain Dowie was appointed. A hard working, respected ex-pro, renowned as something of a thinker for a footballer (he has a degree in rocket science, or something along those lines), and who at the time was still broadly thought of as a promising young manager. All of these things are all well and good. But as a former player and manager of local rivals Crystal Palace, he had no affinity to our club, he had no real proven track record in Premier League management, or keeping teams up whilst there. I don’t think it came as much of a surprise to the majority of Charlton fans when he was sacked twelve league games later with only two wins to his name.

Anyway this isn’t the time to list and evaluate everything that came between Curbishley and Powell (I’d quite happily do it, but…) Lets say managers came and then they went. Some had management pedigree (Pardew), some understood what the club was about (Parkinson and Kinsella) but none had that particular magic formula that makes a certain manager work at a certain club.

After the defeat on penalties to Swindon in the semi-finals of the play-offs (this was a very dark time, as you can imagine adjusting to the thought of playing a third season in the third tier of English football must have been), new owners were required, a new direction; something new and fresh was needed.

This is what Slater, Varney and Murray (Chairman, Executive Vice Chairman and Director respectively) did, what was so important for my football club. They thought about exactly what was needed, and didn’t just cast their line in to an overstocked pond to pull out whatever they hooked, ready to chuck it back the moment it began to flap uncomfortably about (you’ll notice I have a penchant for overextending fishing metaphors, wonder where I get that from…)

The result of this careful deliberation was Powell. At the time Slater said,

   ‘As soon as we met Chris, it was clear he was the stand out candidate.’

And that the point isn’t it – they gave him the chance to impress in an interview, he did, they followed through and gave him the job, and now they’re supporting him and his vision for the club. They facilitated a summer spree that saw 16 new arrivals at The Valley (importantly, Chris Powell signings). The results have been immediate.

Now, of course I am aware that football makes us all look an ass from time to time. So if the results take a downturn seeing Powell sacked by Christmas, then what?

Hopefully it will be seen for football reasons, Charlton can move on, and so can Chris Powell (having proved himself an articulate, insightful and charismatic boss – which he is by the way). It is an area of concern, though, seeing as black managers do seem short on the second and third chances most need to find their feet in such a tough profession (Ince, Barnes). The football management industry is overcrowded and massively competitive (even the Paulo Di Canio’s of this world having to start at Swindon).

All football clubs take advantaqe of the abundance and diversity of the playing talent on offer. So when it comes to choosing a manager, clubs should cast their nets high and wide (again, with the fishing, sorry). Don’t look to the same faces, which allows select few managers play swapsies with our clubs as they inch their way up the greasy pole. Such narrow thinking may not be borne of prejudice, but it is certainly as stupid.

When you want to hire a new manager, get everyone in to explain what they want for your club, what they can do for your club. Because if you are a Chairman and you’ve got someone in front of you enthusiastically explaining their vision, if this vision match your own hopes and dreams, then whatever colour they are won’t matter. If clubs are forced to interview black managers in order for this to happen, then that can only be a good thing.

Contextual healing

When people talk of coincidences, they tend to be of the happy variety; or at least, if the opposite is true, they’re described with a wry smile. “You’ve planned a late-night shopping trip to Bluewater? I’m having two fillings that day as well. What a coincidence.”

But there are no smiles to be had about the unfortunate coincidental theme surrounding the football world this week. Monday’s stories surrounding a rather distasteful and upsetting email, allegedly accidentally sent by Garry Cook to Nedem Onuoha’s mother disparaging her battle with cancer, were followed by the death of football fan Mike Dye outside Wembley prior to the England vs Wales game on Tuesday.

Cook has immediately scrambled to a defensive position, saying his email account was hacked and he was on holiday in South Africa at the time. And those internets haven’t reached that part of the world yet as well, he didn’t say. It’s not an implausible argument, though; I daresay most office workers have had a prank email or two sent in their name before, though I doubt it would have had such a negative and directly personal impact on their lives, or the lives of its recipients.

Meanwhile, several arrests have been made regarding the death of Cardiff City and Wales fan Dye. The possibility of an inter-club rivalry being behind the attack were played down in the initial reports, but it’s a sad fact that this man’s death was caused by people whose side he was supposed to be on.

So on the one hand, we have a Chief Executive of a football club on a multi-million pound salary allegedly making light of a life threatening illness to the sufferer, and a Welsh fan who lost his life at the hands of other Welsh fans outside Wembley on the other. And so you are left wondering once again, how many times does football have to learn its lessons?

I’m finding it difficult to articulate my feelings towards Gary Cook. Football has a rather chequered recent history with men of his ilk; men from corporate backgrounds who serve the bank balance above all else. But really, I don’t need to say anything; I can let him do it for me, here talking about former Man City owner and all round top bloke Thaksin Shinawatra:

“Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Does he have plenty of money to run a football club? Yes. I really care only about those three things. Whether he is guilty of something over in Thailand, I can’t worry … I worked for Nike who were accused of child-labour issues and I managed to have a career there for 15 years. I believed we were innocent of most of the issues. Morally, I felt comfortable in that environment.”

Mike Dye’s death, apparently at the hands of a hooligan element of the support, shows we are still trying to deal with the legacy of football hooliganism which traces its roots back to the 70’s and 80’s. Whether an incident like this is sporadic or isolated or not is a moot point. No football match and no football team is worth dying for. Things may be better on the whole for the majority of football fans these days, but that will be of little consolation to the family of the 44 year old man who died on Tuesday night.

 

End of the road for “Golden Generation”?

The much maligned former England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson did not have the best of luck during his reign as the national manager. Despite achieving a hitherto unknown level of consistent success at major tournaments, his teams would lose three times at the quarter final stage whilst there, twice on penalties to a borderline-nemesis Portugal side and once to a far superior Brazil team.

He was more cursed, however, by the tabloid’s christening of a select few mainstays of his team as the Golden Generation; a group of players including (but not limited to) Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney. On paper, (or even a liquid crystal display), formidable names. Players who, seen by the media to be turning in top-class performances week after week in the Premier League, should transfer their domestic prowess into becoming an all conquering international force.

Now very much in their twilight years, this Golden Generation have all but had their last chance to justify their reputation, to show the world that they really were that good. And for all the hype, for all the column inches filled lambasting Eriksson (and more recently Capello), clamouring for his crucifixion as he strangled this astronomically talented bunch of English players, we can look back at the last decade and say, “Were they ever really that good?

The ultimate vindication for Eriksson was provided rather tidily by his former no. 2, Steve McClaren. Hailed in some quarters as the saviour after a 4-0 friendly win over Greece (one recalls Gary Lineker’s sickeningly jingoistic performance as anchor of that night’s TV coverage), he was unable to steer the almost exact same set of players through a relatively easy qualifying group for Euro 2008. Which leads back to that same question: “Were they ever really that good?

The answer is no. Eriksson was able to over-achieve with this team, McClaren spectacularly under-achieved. Despite what the catastrophically inaccurate FIFA rankings may tell you, England are not the 4th best team in the world. England are a quarter final team at best; McClaren showed what they are capable of at their worst.

It’s often flouted that the influx of foreign players since football began 20 years ago has had a detrimental effect on player development and the performances of the national team. Given how many major trophies England won in the 60 years previously, I would say that’s a very questionable opinion. No, foreign players are not the problem. English players are the problem. The Golden Generation are the problem.

If one considers a young English player, they will have a certain amount of natural ability, irrespective of any experience gained playing competitive football. I would posit that matters not whether there’s a foreign player ahead of him in the first team or not, because a) the ingrained technical deficiencies of 98% of English players mean they would not help improve England’s chances at major tournaments; and b) if they were good enough, if they had the natural ability within them, they would get their chance. If they don’t feel they’re getting a chance, they should get the hell out on loan to a Championship side and show the manager what they are capable of.

The Premier League both blessed and cursed the Golden Generation. On the one hand, they were able to play every week with tremendously talented and technically gifted players; but in doing so, the true limitations of their game were hidden, unexposed from the cold light of day as their faults were covered and absorbed by their foreign team mates.

John Terry, for years, went unpunished for handballs and fouls in the area, his lack of pace covered for by various centre-back partners and Petr Cech at Chelsea, but there was no such safety net at international level. Frank Lampard, given free reign at Chelsea to be the fulcrum of the midfield, disappeared for England when there was no-one to carry the water for him in midfield. Only Wayne Rooney really comes close to being the genuine footballing superstar and powerhouse that we want him to be, but he doesn’t seem to want to do it at international level.

The upshot of this is, it’s not their fault they can’t do it for England. It’s the FA, it’s the clubs, it’s everyone who encourages the blood and thunder, brawns over brain attitude to developing players and playing the game in this country. It’s far too easy to blame foreign players and foreign managers, because it means avoiding the real problems at home.