Leaning Towers

For a almost a decade after the ban on English clubs competing in Europe post-Hesyel ended, the English champions (mostly Manchester Utd, but also Arsenal, Leeds and Blackburn) struggled to make an impact at Europe’s top table. The powerhouse of continental football was Italy, being represented in 7 consecutive European Cup/Champions League finals between 1992-1998.

These were testing times for English teams in Europe’s elite competition. Whilst the Cup Winners Cup was kind, (Man Utd winners in 1991, Arsenal in 1994, Chelsea in 1998), the gulf in class between in the English champions and their continental counterparts was highly visible. The aura of English clubs, created by the European glories of Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa – winners of 7 out of 8 finals between 1977 and 1984 – was long forgotten. The English stranglehold on the European Cup was lost on that tragic night at Heysel when 39 Juventus fans were killed. In the ensuing 5 years, the English club game would be left behind.

Without wanting to rely too much on a held opinion, however true it may be – that English players are not as technically gifted as their comrades from mainland Europe – English clubs and players in the early 90’s had lost whatever edge they had over European teams that allowed them to dominate the 70’s and 80’s. The enforced 5 year sabbatical created a power vaccum that needed to be filled, and as the English clubs returned, that power had very much shifted to Italy.

In a self-perpetuating cycle of success begetting success that we would witness first hand in the Premier League at the turn of the century, the lustre of Serie A would attract top talent from around the world: Van Basten, Batistuta, Rui Costa, Bergkamp, Sensini, Boksic, Deschamps to name but a few, joining the plethora of home grown talent which would make it the benchmark by which other European leagues would measure themselves.

But, as with all occurrences and all situations, this too would pass. Arguably, the biggest turning point, the pivotal moment which saw the power slip away from Serie A would again involve Juventus, this time as they were pegged back from 2-0 ahead in their Champions League Semi-Final second leg against Manchester Utd, losing 3-2 on the night of April 21, 1999 and going out 4-3 on aggregate.

Whilst the two Milanese clubs would enjoy further Champions League success in the next decade, the end of collective bargaining for TV rights in Italy and the all-consuming sprawl in popularity of the Premier League as it began to dig its claws into every corner of the planet signalled a fading in the Serie A star. As the money gushed into the coffers of the Premier League clubs, and with Sterling trading very strongly, so did the talent turn its head. Just as Britain quietly assimilates the parts of other cultures who have immigrated here into its own, so would the Premier League become technically more pleasing whilst keeping the high-tempo and intensity more associated with the kick and rush heyday of times past.

Of course, it would be highly remiss of me not to mention that the current dominant forces of Europe lie in La Liga’s two horse race. Barcelona have set the bar; only Mourinho’s doggedly defensive Inter Milan team stopped them winning 3 consecutive Champions League finals. The rest of Europe, Real Madrid included, have been left playing catch up, trying to find a way of dealing with the relentless pressing and passing, without being Tiki-taka‘d into submission.

But, this too shall pass. Barcelona trailing by Real Madrid by 3 points after 16 games may not be a sign of their imminent demise, but it at least gives hope to others that they may not be as invincible as was once thought. And if the torch of continental domination is to be passed once again, the two Anglo-Italian ties in the 2nd round of the Champions League could act as a power broker.

Arsenal, having seemingly put their early season woes to bed, face a Milan side level on points with Juventus at the top of Serie A. January may provide the Gunners with the chance to bring in defensive reinforcements, but their somewhat creaky back line could struggle to deal with the attacking prowess of Pato, Robinho and Ibrahimovic. Chelsea and their under-fire manager Andre Villas-Boas must take on Napoli, conquerors of Man City. A swift counter-attacking side, their front of three of Lavezzi, Hamsik and the lethal Edinson Cavani will surely trouble Chelsea’s weakening defence and out-of-sorts goalkeeper.

The last time there was no English representative in the last 8 of the Champions League was in the 1995-96 season, when Graeme Le Saux and David Batty’s comical in-fighting saw Blackburn finish rock bottom of their group. If the same outcome were to be repeated this season, it would be a far less ignominious situation for the clubs, and the league as a whole. The longer-term significance, though, would be far greater.

Diminishing returns

Perhaps the greatest strength of Sir Alex Ferguson is his Man-Management abilities.  Rarely does a Manchester Utd side take to the field not 100% certain that they will win the game, whilst being terrifically motivated and focussed on their task. This is his psychological trump card, for where many great collections of players have failed to deliver the goods, throughout his managerial career, Fergie’s teams have been utterly relentless in their drive for silverware and success. His ability to mould the collective persona of his teams around his vision of success is what sets him apart.

Another of his vital skills is the ability to know when the team needs to be rebuilt. It’s happened countless times; first of all, imposing his will on the dressing room, and ending the drinking culture at the club with McGrath, Robson et al. Then in the early 90’s, having to rebuild the team as the likes of Pallister, Bruce, Irwin and Hughes were phased out. He’s been able to cover superstar-sized holes in the team after a player’s departure: Ince, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, and still he keeps on building successful teams.

Three things have happened that threaten the Ferguson dynasty, of which only two are rectifiable by him. Firstly, Roy Keane has not been properly replaced as the enforcer in their midfield. Secondly, Paul Scholes, despite being a shadow of his former self in the last 4 or 5 years of his career, finally disappeared from view, and despite having years of warning, the goalscoring, creative thrust from midfield also hasn’t been replaced. The players brought in to try and plug the gaps have varied; there’s the energy of Park and Anderson, but no guile; there’s Michael Carrick, who has a very high pass completion ratio (file under “does nothing”). Darren Fletcher is aggressive and bullies referees, but his overall fitness is lacking and in all honesty, is nowhere near as good a footballer as Keane was. Ryan Giggs is a 38 year-old left winger who has been shunted into the middle due to a dearth of viable alternatives. The centre of their midfield has gradually drifted away, and doesn’t look like coming back anytime soon.

And finally, The Glazers. Before they arrived, you could have bet your bottom dollar that something would have been done before there was a bona fide crisis. Despite continuing to fund large outlays on some players, this midfield problem, which started as a crack but has since been eroded into a gaping hole, doesn’t look like it will be solved soon. It is almost a certainty that he will buy in January, and buy big. But in the back of his mind, he will be thinking Juan Veron, Juan Veron. And worrying about making the same mistake, and history repeating itself; in the 2005-06, they failed to qualify from their Champions League group (which had Benfica in it), and finished a distant 2nd to Chelsea in the Premier League.

Man Utd strike such fear into the hearts of their opponents that even with a 2nd rate central midfield, they have been able to win games and league titles (see last season). However, their main weakness has now been exposed. They will still win many games, but teams will go to Old Trafford with less fear now. They will know they can be beaten. All the man-management in the world cannot hide that the heartbeat of the Man Utd side is weaker now than it has been in the last 20 years. And with the added blow of Nemanja Vidic being out for the season, the crisis doesn’t look like resolving itself anytime soon.

 

Rite of Summer

Watching the draw for the group stages of an international tournament has always been something of a mystical experience. For one thing, they are almost always presented in English, despite it not being the mother tongue of the people running the show. Further, we come face to face with the “Question in English | Answer in Russian/French/Ukrainian” interview technique, though what illusions of spontaneous human multi-lingualism one may have held are shattered when the hostess reads her reactions to the interviewees answers off a pre-prepared card.

The show begins. Having never witnessed Cossack dancing in the past, I find the opening section of the show to be quite fascinating. Finally, I had discovered the inspiration for MC Hammer’s famous trousers. Our genial hosts are an extremely pretty Ukrainian lady and a Polish man, whose authentic English accent with a hint of Estuary is slightly unnerving. Has he been in Eastenders? After a short video montage, we stare down the barrel of truly unlistenable football-themed Europop, along with some rather creepily enthusiastic backing dancers.

Following this, one member of each of the previous 13 winning teams is wheeled out, holding an authentic signed football from that tournament. After the introduction member of Italy’s 1968 winning team, the camera cuts to a chirpy-looking Fabio Capello, sporting easily the biggest smile he’s managed during his tenure as England boss. Then follows one of those socially awkward moments where no-one’s really sure of the proper etiquette: the formal introduction of a football. The official match ball of Euro 2012 is dangled from a cable and receives a fairly generous, if slightly uneasy round of applause.

After what feels like days of foreplay, we are then forced to watch an instructional video for the machinations of the draw. It’s like sitting in the staff room at Woolworths and watching a 10 minute video of a man lifting a box “correctly”, leaving you with the same feeling of your life ebbing away before your eyes.

UEFA General Secretary Gianni Infantino then takes over, hosting with all the flair of a strict headmaster handing out end of term awards to over-excited children. Zinedine Zidane is chided in French for being too enthusiastic with his handling of the first ball. Peter Schmiechel’s bolshy attempt at ad-libbing after Denmark are again drawn with Portugal leads to a few moments of decidedly awkward silence as Infantino desperately tries to get back on script. Any tension there may have been prior to the show has long been replaced by an overwhelming desire to get the whole thing over and done with as soon as possible so everyone can get down the pub.

The dignitaries in attendance who had long ago slipped into a coma are about to be startled by another bout of feisty Europop, but apart from that, the whole thing is over. Ireland are drawn with Croatia, Italy and Spain (gulp), while England face Sweden, France and co-hosts Ukraine. Back in the BBC studio, Mark Lawrenson is visibly aggrieved at Ireland being drawn in the toughest group, while Martin Keown raises his eyebrows bullishly and thinks England “will be fine.” Without Rooney, Martin? We’ll see.

Group A: Poland, Greece, Czech Republic and Russia;
Group B: Holland, Denmark, Portugal and Germany;
Group C: Spain, Ireland, Croatia and Italy;
Group D: Ukraine, France, Sweden and England.

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.

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?