Football Blog: Tangerine Flavoured

Sunday, June 21, 2020

Salt and vinegar but no chips


'Now for extended highlights of Tranmere...'



Football is back, back, back. 

Except it isn't really because you can't play it and I don't support any of the tiny amount of sides that are allowed to play. According to Wikipedia (only the best sources for you dear reader) England has "over 40,000 association football clubs*" and just 44 of them are allowed to play. That means that 0.001% of football is back. 

*Yes I did put the Wikipedia phrase in quotation marks, and yes, that was to try and imbue it with an authority it perhaps doesn't deserve. What do you want from a free blog on the internet? I don't even put ads on it FFS. Stop complaining. Eat your dinner. 

Most teams have had to live with the situation and some of them have gained or lost accordingly but seemingly the elite deserve different. In these strange times, sporting integrity is down to whether you can afford to stump up the sums to have your players tested and survive playing with little prospect of income. It helps if your costs are offset by a massive lump of TV money... 

Yesterday, I listened to a bit of football on the radio. I can't tell you what match it was. I did know at the time, but I forgot. That's how exciting it was. Two blokes describing something with the odd muted cry in the background. It might not even have happened.

Sometimes when I can't sleep, I make up football matches in my head. It usually does the trick. For all I know they were doing the same on Five Live. It might all actually have been a dream.

Last night I watched Crystal Palace vs Bournemouth on the telly. I couldn't say I found it an especially moving experience. It wasn't as good as when you're going through the freeview channels and you find that there's a Scottish 2nd division match in Gaelic on BBC Alba for example. There's something incredibly exotic about watch the 800 people in somewhere like East Fife or Ayr huddled under a dimly lit corrugated ironriron that was sadly lacking about the big BBC primetime return.

What I learned: 

1: Crystal Palace are a slightly upgraded version of Rotherham United. If you've seen Rotherham recently this will make sense. If you havn't, just imagine Crystal Palace sans Zaha and you more or less have Rotherham. 

2: Bournemouth weren't very good. One of the two people pointlessly stationed by the pitch let me know that 'the fans, if they were here, wouldn't be very happy' at one point, which was helpful. There's something incredibly through the looking glass about having an ex pro on hand to tell fans at home what they would be thinking if they were present in front of a stand where they visibly aren't.

3: The BBC obviously couldn't afford a proper crowd simulation so held up the noise of the sea in a seashell to one of the mics in the commentary box. It was so half arsed an effort to simulate the noise of a ground as to seem quite charming. 

4: Not much else really.

I've pondered for a while whether I'm being misanthropic about football's return. I've tried saying to myself 'FFS, can't you just enjoy something for what it is.' I've been thinking that it's grand to have football on telly again. What a wonderful thing it would be if everything was on Saturday afternoon except for one game on Saturday night on the proper telly. If only.

One game on the BBC would pull 3 or 4 times (or more if it was a big match) the audience that Sky do. Football could get back in its box and out of the corner it's boxed into by being on the box less but in front of more.... A weekly primetime outing should be enough, a big spectacle, not loads of games spread out unsatisfactorily, like when you've almost run out of 'fuck my life, this really must be butter, even though it doesn't taste owt like butter' and need to spread 3 slices worth across six pieces of toast. It would be grand.

I can believe...

My overwhelming respose to the game was to note what a hollow experience it was. It seems churlish to analyse the bored sounding commentators, struggling manfully to fill the silence and keep their enthusiasm levels up. Their words may have spoken of their contractually obliged thrill but their tone 25 minutes through the second half told a different story.
Is football without fans nothing? It's not exactly nothing, but the whole affair seems to unmask football a little. It all seemed a bit like seeing a supermodel without make up, wearing a scruffy tracksuit and buying a bottle of bleach in a corner shop. It was an action film but with all the CGI taken out.

Remember when the BBC solidered on with Grandstand, long after they didn't really have any sport to show? Think of Steve Ryder announcing 50 minutes live coverage of the women's u19 regional volleyball heats, followed by the Scottish curling (Renfrewshire district league) semi finals. Sports played in gym halls to the squeek of trainers on polished floors (or in the latter case, brushes on ice) with the breathy shouts of the players echoing through your CRT speakers...

Football always seemed so much more. These sports suffered from seeming a bit shit because there was no sense of spectacle. They felt a bit oddball. Why would you want to watch a game like this regularly when there's another game available, with chanting, intensity and colour aplenty? 

That's sort of what watching #boucry felt like. It wasn't quite the Hemel Hemstead u23 regional indoor tag rugby fives but it wasn't a million miles away either.

It makes me wonder if I do love football for something different than some of my peers. 

I watched the freekick that the Palace lad scored and I appreciated it. 'What a very good example of someone kicking a ball accurately' I thought. I didn't feel a thing. As the ball hit the back of the net, there was no thrill. No excitement. Not even surprise. It was one of those goals I saw coming from the way he shaped up. You can tell. Watch enough football and you become prescient. 

Why didn't I feel anything though...?
It's not because I don't support Bournemouth or Palace. I've watched plenty of games as a nuetral and I can usually invent a reason to support someone. I might prefer the kit, the sound of the teams name, I might have some sort of vague personal connection or any other of a myriad of reasons. In the case of Saturday's game, Palace's white kit with the double diagonal stripe is an all time classic, they're called Crystal Palace ffs and my grandad followed them. So I should have felt at least a little twinge of pleasure. 


Few better shirts exist... (other than tangerine ones obvs)

I really do like Palace pretty much as much as I like any Premier League side. I like how they're an anti fashion side. I like how Woy defies the odds and just gets them organised instead of trying to reinvent the wheel. I like how they still have 'a big lad' up top who just jumps about and gets in the way and I like their left back who got in a row with Katie Hopkins. I like how the enigmatic and intelligent Steve Coppell seemed only to be able to manage them and kept going back. Their victory over Liverpool in the 1990 cup semi final is one of the greatest dramas I've ever witnessed (followed closely by the epic final against Manchester Utd) and like Blackpool they have a kit that is instantly recognisable.

Without the hum of the crowd, it's nothing. I can't feel the buzz from the away fans as they realise their team are in command. I can't feel the way the home fans become edgy, I can't feel the relationship between the fans and the players... The real drama lies in the experience of the fan, the groan as the usual suspect sprays a misplaced pass, the sudden rush of energy as a favourite son picks up the ball, the way that sometimes the crowd take matters into their own hands and urge a struggling side to greater heights. The crowd inform the viewer as to what is going on, with a greater richness than any ex pro ever can.

On the TV this was evident, on the radio even more so.

Without crowds football really suffers. It becomes just another sport.

I love country cricket. An afternoon slumbering at an out ground or listening to local radio commentary is just about my idea of June bliss. Cricket works in the context of paltry crowds because it's a more cerebral game. You can lose yourself in the tactics and the strategy and the infinite variations of pitches and conditions. Cricket is rich with statistics and milestones, where as football analysis is an affectation. You can move the players about a bit and there are three basic modes of playing. All out defense, counter attack and all out attack. You can go down the wing or up the middle. It's not a game to satisfy the intellect. There's no time on the pitch for the players to really think. It's not like cricket, where there are so many variations of field position and types of bowler. You can sit on your own and watch a game of cricket and lose yourself in the mind of the captain. It's a bit like chess. Football is different - its appeal is visceral, emotional and hypnotic.

I don't want to make some wanky statement about football as theatre for the working class (partly because it's wanky and partly because for many years theatre was a working class activity, long before football ever was) but it's like watching a play in an empty auditorium. The greatest writers wrote with an understanding of the rhythms of the audience, they wrote in laughter, gasps of shock and moments of emotional release. That's how theatre works, without them, it's just words being read out. It comes alive through the shared experience of those on stage and those in the darkness. Football works in exactly the same way.
The whole thing has a feel of a rehearsal. 

Football without crowds isn't exactly nothing but crowds without football remain something. Crowds don't need football to feel thrilling, dangerous, joyful or angry. Football needs crowds to feel anything other than an empty exercise in technical appreciation.

I don't know if it's just because I don't really watch football on telly that much but I can't help feeling it's like eating dry cereal. It's like having salt and vinegar but no chips. 




Watch the above and then tell me that it's all about the football. I've been bewitched by football crowds since I was about 7. I remain so.

Far from being a morale boost, I'm finding the return of football a really strange, bittersweet example of how odd things really are. For all the optimism, watching a game in these circumstances just screams 'it's far from OK out there...' 

Seeing teams play, completely shorn of any cultural context, the game clinically extracted from the community that drives it is a bizzare experience. Others have expended words on whether this is just a speeded up endgame for the vision of modern football, one where everyone is a TV fan and the beautiful elite perform without the inconvenience and ugliness that supporters bring. I don't know, I somehow doubt it because it all speaks to the vital role crowds play. The biggest machine can fail to function with the smallest component missing.

What this should bring home to everyone is exactly what the supporters place is. They are as much the product being sold as the players are. Perhaps we might see a reflection on some of the reletive value we place on the different parts of the equation.

Supporters are taken for granted, they're subjected to absurd kick off times, inflated prices, access to games is squeezed by the spread of hospitality packages... Yet, when they aren't there, the game is a shadow of itself. A faded photocopy of the real thing.

Imagine a world where once a week, we could all enjoy a game on the telly and bask in the atmosphere. Imagine a world where a greater slice of the wealth in football was channelled into reducing ticket prices or even into the communities around clubs, where football wasn't just a glorified soap opera, but something you could look at and take a bit of pride in what it stood for. It's all got a bit John Lennon and that's never a good look, but if you can't dream in the surreal world of mid 2020 then when can you?

In 21st century top flight football (and increasingly in lower league football) the only thing that gives a club its identity is the supporters. The vast majority of players have little or no connection to the communities they notionally represent. The likes of Trent Alexander Arnold, Chris Wilder and Dean Smith are very much the exceptions that prove the rule.

English football is a global brand, because it speaks of some sort of authenticity. It's the original manifestation of the professional game. The model from which the globe took inspiration. The brands 'Manchester United' and 'Liverpool' are symbols, loaded with geographical and historical significance in the minds of the global marketplace. In an era of endless transfer churn, rootless players and global consortiums, it's only Anfield and Old Trafford (and by extension, those who make the atmosphere) that really represent the long term appeal of those clubs. Players come and go, but the songs remain the same.

The supporters are all that remain when everything else is transient and has been bought and sold so many times that whatever authenticity was there has been been rubbed away by the oily fingers of greed.

Maybe the new normal could involve the game as whole recognising that actual supporters aren't simply bystanders. They are the essence of what makes football more than badminton or quoits. The direction of travel for as long as I can remember has been against the wishes of many the actual paying fans. Unwanted ground moves ripping clubs from traditional homes to out of town shopping malls, games rescheduled at the whim of TV directors, sanitisation of stadiums in favour of 'a better (richer) kind of supporter'

It's frankly a miracle that more fans haven't turned their backs on the game at the top level. Perhaps, this experience shows we could start listening to them, instead of simply telling them what they want is what they're getting...  

UTMP



Thursday, June 11, 2020

Cheers Armand! Goodbye to a misunderstood genius...


This article was mostly written in March and orginally published in Now That's What I Call Progress - the premier Blackpool fanzine which you can support (cos you get 32 pages of stuff all about the Mighty for just £2) by clicking the link above.

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As I write this (at the beginning of lockdown), I, like many of you reading this, am facing the prospect of not seeing friends and family for a long time. I'm also trying not to think about how some people might not see friends and family again ever. 

If you think that's a slightly morbid tone to strike, then I'm sorry, I have news for you. It's going to get even worse in the next paragraph. Are you ready? Brace yourself with a shot of whatever spirit you panic bought and buckle up. Ok?... Now, read on. 


We might not see Armand Gnanduillet again in a tangerine shirt. 


I told you it was bad. 


There haven’t, if we are brutally honest, been too many week in, week out thrills since the homecoming. We’ve had a particularly stodgy set of players and there are times over the last year when wondering what Armand will do next has been somewhere alongside ‘wondering when they’ll fix the advertising board the Fleetwood fans smashed’ or ‘timing how long Larry can keep his his arms folded whilst doing nothing else’ as a highlight of the game.

Big Armand is, in my opinion, a football genius. A maverick with (a rare quality in the modern game), his own style of play. He’s one part height and power, one part languid and powder puff, occasionally explosive and occasionally hopeless. He’s capable of 8ft leaps and shoulder charges that leave the opposition crumpled but equally capable of watching the ball sail overhead with little more than a glance in its general direction and a look of gallic disinterest.

To some, that’s infuriating. They see a player wasting his potential, a player, who if he attacked everything with a snarling relish could be unplayable. To me, I see a player who has worked out his chief weapon is unpredictability.

To play against Armand must be a nightmare. He drifts, he wanders, he occasionally sprints like his life depends on it. He isn’t lazy, he covers a huge amount of ground, you just don’t always notice him doing it as for such a big fella, he moves around like he’s got carpet slippers on. He sometimes plays like a carthorse, but other times a nimble ballerina. He’s totally unorthodox and for a defender that is disorientating. 

He’s also possessed of deceptively silken touch. Yes, sometimes the ball bounces off him like he’s made of concrete, but watch when his back is to goal and someone is running for him. The weight he puts on the ball is often perfect and the angles he sometimes conjures are mind altering. His vision is very good, his brain quick.

There’s the dribbles. Sometimes he looks like he should never attempt it again, staggering to a corner before tumbling to the ground like a felled tree. But every now and again, he just ghosts past two or three and on rares occasions will belt it in one of the corners. 

My absolute favourite goals are headers. I love how crosses so often come to nothing, but from time to time, you can see what is going to happen a split second before it does. For each aerial challenge he ignores, there’s another moment where he charges onto a Feeney cross and plants it, unstoppably into the back of the net. I loved Dave Bamber, I loved John Murphy and I love Armand. I like a player who scores headers.

I love how he thrives on confidence, how he wears his heart on his sleeve and a goal puts a real strut in his step. I like how he is visibly lifted by the North Stand singing his name. I like his air of total calm before a game as if he really doesn’t care either way. I like the way he seems like a decent lad. When the young keeper had to come on and replace Alnwick, it was Armand who came over and put his arm around him and made him smile. When Joe Nuttall was having one of the worst games I’ve ever seen a pro have at Rotherham, it was Armand who put his arm around him and spoke in his ear. 

He gets pushed and shoved and elbowed all the time, but he never lashes out. He’s just too cool. I like the way that when he gets knocked over in the box, or he misses a chance his incredulity is expressed with the flair of a mime artist, slow motion gestures and eye popping expressions of confusion or anguish. He plays like he knows it’s theatre and he enjoys playing his role.

Most of all, I like his spirit. I like that he’s not actually that good, except when he is. I like that he never, ever gives up. He just keeps on going, he doesn’t care if he’s just hit the corner flag, he doesn’t care if he’s mistimed his last jump or miscontrolled the last pass. He shows again. He trots back to his position and hits reset and is ready to go once more.

He is Armand and we could all take a leaf out of his book. He’s untroubled by failure, knowing that the next success is only just round the corner. Never fearful, never doubtful. Just soldiering on regardless. Life is a journey and there’s no point worrying about what went wrong or what might happen. Just keep going and doing your thing, whatever they say. Let’s all be a bit more Armand. 

He’s everything that so many of our best modern players have been. Flawed, imperfect but full of character. Unloved elsewhere, but somehow touched by whatever magic comes with the tangerine shirt.

He’s my favourite Blackpool player, my favourite player full stop and for a long time, I never imagined having another favourite player. Some of you won’t agree. You probably think Messi is great or something. You simply don’t understand his genius. 

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Now we're back in the present and I'm supposed to be homeworking, not writing about the big man. Go on, sack me...

I am genuinely sad he's gone. It seems all a bit 10 years old, panini sticker and full kit wanker (or them weird cards you get in FIFA that I don't understand for the yoot of of today I'd guess) to have a 'favourite player.' 

A bit of personality goes a long way. The 2010 side was special, not simply because we were in the Premier League, but because it had character. Loads of it. Brett and Keith weren't the *best* players, but they made the whole thing that bit more magical, because they were ours, and particularly in Southern's case, the success seemed unlikely but there it was... to everyone's astonishment, Keith Southern was a Premier League player. Who knew GTF was that good? Who knew that Evo was capable of excelling in the top flight or that Brett's legs *hadn't gone after all* (or that his head could make up for it anyway...)

I love it when a player surprises, I love it when an average player becomes a special one. Of course Armand isn't Brett, Keith, Evo or GTF, not even close, but I enjoyed his success in a similar way. I liked seeing him exceed his percieved level and watching him enjoy it. We didn't have that many players you could cite as 'playing above themselves' and if you can't celebrate that, without wishing to sound like a knob, I'm not sure what you expect to get from watching a team who have been *mostly a bit average* for the vast majority of the seasons I've watched them. You have to take the rough with the smooth and Armand was the rough and the smooth in one. 

I think he'd have done a job for us, even in a 'Critchball' style. For all the excitement about us playing an attacking high press like Liverpool or more accurately, like us (Aug 2009- Oct 2012) you need need players who fit the division to succeed. What works in the Premier League won't work just transposed with no adjustment to a division where you get no space and the chief skill of half the other teams is 'kicking you up in the air and getting men behind the ball' - Armand doesn't make coached runs or play to any particular style. He's a languid, deceptively skillful and unpredicatable chaos engine and that has its place in League One. Denying that is denying what League One is. It's a moot point though. He's gone. 

We're a lot further along than when I wrote the main body... We're arguing over whether it's 40, 50 or 60k dead. We're trying to work out how and if and when we get a season next year and who will pay for it. We're facing wage caps in football and face masks on the street and insecurity all around. We're wondering whether the recession will be devastating or just terrible, whether the government should face a reckoning or not, whether the virus will burn out or return with a vengeance. 

We know more and yet seem to know less everyday. Normal seems further away and yet within touching distance at the same time. There's a party atmosphere mixed with funeral solemnity, tinged with anxiety and sprinkled with a powder keg of social unrest. 

It's a strange time to say the least. 

Somehow, I imagine Armand facing it all with a sanguine expression and a nonchalant shrug. 

Go well big man. 

Cheers fella. 

UTMP






Sunday, June 7, 2020

GAME REVIEW: SOCCER TOP 6 SUPERSTARS (EXCLUSIVE)

There's a new game coming out soon that has the dominance of the FIFA series in its sights. It's been given the working title of 'Soccer Top 6 Superstars' and it aims to reflect the reality of contemporary football in a way that will take computer football to the next level of accuracy.

The fundamental gameplay differs little from FIFA or Pro-Evo so this preview looks at the unique points of difference that make this game such a nailed on facsimile of the genuine article.

Let me take you through some of the features it will have.

*New more realistic competitions*
If you choose to play as anyone other than about 6 or 7 teams, then you've got literally no hope of winning anything ever, even if you play it all night for 3 weeks straight and get really good at it. Even the League Cup. 

In international mode, all the world's leagues are there but there's barely any purpose in most of them.

*New transfer realism*
As soon as you get any good, then the incredible AI generated realism will kick in and whoever is any good in your team will get bought for a price the AI will not let you refuse and added to the teams that you already can't beat!

This amazing level of accuracy will be added to by the fact that, whilst you are allowed to spend the money you recieve, you won't be able to buy any of the obviously good players in the game and should a coding glitch allow you stumble across a wonderkid or unknown talent, then after a few months the same thing will happen until you end up buying a rank average striker from Derby County or a player on the fringes of the Danish national side who isn't very good at all. 

*New progress algorithm*

One of the most powerful features is how the computer generated teams improve over time. Each season the best clubs will get between 50 to 150% more resources and spawn more new players of a higher quality as a result of being able to afford better youth facilities. Thus the game will get harder over time and it will become increasingly pointless playing as anyone other than the top few teams. The challenge for anyone not choosing Chelsea will be to maintain their engagement beyond the first few weeks of owning the game. 

*Better crowd realism*

Crowd animations have had a full overhaul and Premier League grounds are now full of middle aged people (who get older each season that passes.) Crowd noise for meaningless midtable games is suitably muted, to the point where many matches can now be played out to a backdrop of listless grumbling. If you look and listen carefully, you'll be able to see stewards bundling out supporters with banners and hear announcements reminding fans 'this is an all seater stadium' if they get carried away and start enjoying themselves.

Never has a computer game portrayed the football experience with such relentless accuracy. 

You'll be able to look baffled in the comfort of your own home as the stadium announcer proclaims 'another sell out crowd at the Emirates!' whereas the screen will show empty seats all around.

*Increased precarity*

Whilst the game doesn't simulate the effects of the Covid19 pandemic on football finances, a new mode is available in which you can take control of a league 1/2 side - you can choose two paths - either 'ambition mode' in which it's almost impossible to achieve anything without the club going bust, the game data wiping itself and you having to start all over again or 'know your place mode' in which you get to play games but accept that finishing 19th in the Championship is the limit of your ambition.

A similar mode ('Aston Villa mode') is available for run of the mill Premier League clubs. Finishing eight twice triggers a cut screen of supporters clapping half heartedly with a resigned look on their faces. 

*More pointless stats* 

To distract from the fundamentally terrible premise of a game that offers the player no prospect of glory, there is a new 'media mode' in which well spoken, clean shaven university trained media types will shower you with completely asinine facts like 'This is the fifth time Rotherham have faced a team with both an A and an E in their name whilst wearing their away kit on a Tuesday night and their record is W2 L2 D1

Similar pre match cut screens will feature horrifyingly empty discussion about how 'the new stadium really is a springboard to a new level, just look at the catering facilities and the tunnel club Ron' which will leave you feeling nauseous and less optimistic about the future of humanity than Nietzsche on a down day.

*More pointless camera angles*

You'll have unrivalled access to seeing the game as you've never seen it before. Sock Cam and Nose Cam will give you a 'on the pitch' feel, whilst the build up to matches and half time will feature Lav Cam so you can see which of the players are feeling nervous or have just overdone the (officially branded) energy drinks. 

Again, this will add a whole new perspective on the whole pointless charade, allowing you to appreciate the stunning mediocrity of it all like the all seeing god you are. 

You can also look forward to Ray Winston shouting "Go on, spunk your money on this you muppet, what else have you got eh? Nothing! Nothing! Bet on this shit or I'll break yer fackin' legs" between each game just to give the reality cake a final tasty icing. 

*Club owner mode*

The game will also allow players into the boardroom where you'll be able to choose to play as one of the following characters

- the property speculator with a record for cutting corners on safety.
- the international arms or drugs baron
- the oligarch who got rich on post communist corruption and now owns the basic means of existence for half the eastern bloc
- the chancer (you won't actually have any money, but everyone will think you have so you'll have to win things quickly!)
- the shady international conglomerate (no one knows what you do, but you have a private jet with a logo on it, so they assume you must do something important) 
- the community led supporters trust chairman

If you choose the latter option, the game goes straight to the following cut screen, whilst a distorted voice on a loop repeats 'Alan, it's a money game these days and good intentions never won a trophy' for 23 days. You can switch off the computer, in fact, you can trip the electricity in your house but it will keep playing regardless. Wherever you go. In your sleep. Even if you can't take it anymore, your funeral will be accompanied by this noise, which will then haunt all who attend. It'll be like 'the Ring' but worse. For god's sake, don't be so niave. I beg of you...


Once you've chosen your 'owner personality' the game offers you a series of options, a selection of which are listed below: 

- Sign player you don't need and will probably dump in the reserves for £200k a week just to show you can and to impress fellow lizard people at illuminati meetings (yes/no) 

- Sue the nan of a young fan who turns up at the ground in some unofficial merchandise and admits, in tears, to your hired goons (aka supporter experience operatives) in the underground bunker you drag him to that 'my nan knitted the scarf for my sixth birthday' (yes/no) 

- sign letter to UEFA asking for 'more Champions League games' and 'more money for playing them' and go on the radio to decree that 'whilst we respect the traditions of football immensly' the FA Cup is getting in the way of things and the trophy should be put on a rocket and sent into space and never spoken of again. (yes/no)

- Start up 8 companies and spend your time selling things to yourself to avoid the tax man/bailiffs. Give £50 to a local youth charity in a photo opportunity with a massive cardboard cheque to assuage your conscience. (yes/no) 

- install metal detectors in the main stand to catch out the old boy who brings a thermos flask. Follow this up with a mealy mouthed statement on the club's website about 'need to balance the interests of supporters with the needs of our official catering partners in order to protect much needed revenue streams' (yes/no) 

- consider having old man silenced as he's written to the local paper in a display of rank ingratitude complaining that 'To be honest I don't like going anymore, it's twice as expensive as it used to be and nowhere near as much fun' (silence him/threaten him/sell his seat to foreign daytrippers who will but stuff at the gift shop and post 'on brand' selfies

In terms of reality, this new offering is unparalleled.

The question is, why the fuck would anyone shell out good money for a game deliberately designed to be like this?

See what I did there? 

Soccer Top6 Superstars will be available for Xbox, Playstation and all other major platforms from August 21. 

A companion TV series entitled 'Football' airs on Sky and BT at the same time. 

Next week's game 'ECB Middle Manager 21' where the player has to dream up increasingly bizzare ways to piss about with cricket in case anyone asks the question 'What do the ECB pay all those people to do?' 

UTMP. 

Friday, June 5, 2020

The Squad: Expert Review pt 4 - The Strikers

duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh......

This could be hard as I've rarely played up front and I'd never like to claim expertise I didn't possess. However, I've got one defining experience to draw upon. The time I played up front for England (against Maradona) and won the game. 

One of the highlights of my school years (as I think I've previously mentioned, I attended the same shoddy comprehensive school in the suburbs of Wigan as future Blackpool loan star Neil Whitworth) was a trip to France, in which we spent a frankly astonishing (viewed through the lens of modern risk assessment) amount of unsupervised time generally roaming around a French village from our youth hostel-esque base. In said village was a football pitch and naturally, that's where we headed, to play football and drink incredibly exotic little bottles of french lager procurred by one of our number who had got a bit of bumfluff. 

Some local lads appeared one evening, replete with a little monkey bike and after riding around us for a bit and failing to unsettle us (we were from Wigan, little more than a nuclear attack will alarm a Wiganer) they sauntered accross and despite the language barrier (I don't know why were in France, because we'd learnt no meaningful French) we established we would play a game, each representing our respective countries. 

The usual dynamic of team selection was thrown up in the air, by the fact that a) we were missing some of our year group who hadn't come on the trip and b) some of the coolest ladz were off necking with the coolest girlz, the simmering passions fueled by about 4 bottles of 3% lager each. Hence I ended up at the top of the pitch for once.  

We won the game 4-2 (just like the other World Cup final) and I scored twice. I can still remember one was a neat, placed finish into the bottom corner after running onto a through ball and the other was a scruffy bundled effort. I can remember little else about the trip. So much for opening young minds to exotic cultures eh? They took us to another country and all I can recall is doing the exact same thing we did on the rec every night back home... 

One other detail I recall came part way through the game when a younger kid turned up and shouted to the lads playing - they gesticulated to us to get another player on because they wanted this lad to play. He was tiny in comparison to both them and us and our faces were collectively incredulous - I remember gesturing to the lad I was near to indicate 'short/tiny!' and him turning and in a thick French accent saying 'Maradona!' 

Fuck me, that kid was good. He was the best player on the pitch by an absolute mile and we had a lad who'd played for Man Utd youth. I've never seen a kid so talented. Like Joe Cole in that advert that Joe Cole is famous for but more of a grubby looking French kid than Joe Cole. I often wonder if he went on the be a player, he was that good. My mate had trials for Wigan and Man City and Bolton offered him youth terms but this lad was twice the player and about 5 years younger. 

Some things you'll never know... 

With my credentials firmly established, lets do this! Strikers, here goes. 

Armand Gnanduillet

What can I say about the big man that does him justice? He's my favourite player in years and years. Partly because I love it when a player who gets stick comes good and mostly because he's invented his own way of playing that is individual and eccentric. Languid and loping around one minute, looking comically disinterested and then suddenly a beast, out of nowhere, pouncing and deadly. He's the most efficient footballer ever. Yes, the traditionalists and unimaginative would like him to jump for pointless headers, so they feel they are getting there money's worth, but Armand works on a different level. Misunderstood genius. Why battle for what you can't win? Armand is good at being Armand and that's enough for me. 

I imagine he's a nightmare to play against. You cant work out if he's any good, let alone what he's going to do and when you think you've got him sussed, he'll pull out some mad trick you weren't expecting, like completely ignoring two crosses, but absolutely nailing the third, or doing a step over in slow motion that looks like it'll never work, but suddenly he's going past you, despite it seeming like a physical impossiblity. 

Who couldn't love his facial expressions and gesticulations of anguish or astonishment when something doesn't go right? It was worth travelling to Rochdale just to watch Armand's solo mime show of disbelief when the referee stopped the game, but he'd played on. It last for about a minute (I'm not exagerating here) and was executed with a precision that would have the most dedicated practitioner of physical theatre expressing their wonder at his range. 

He's also fucking ace. He's a better player than half the crowd give him credit for and he deserves the adulation that the North give him. Yes, he picks his battles, but he never gives up. He moves all the time in a static team and even on a bad day is worth his place for the disruption up front and the presence at the back. His touch and brain are much better than his gait and stature suggest and he's a canny player if you put into his chest. Many say Critchley won't fancy him. I'd suggest if Critchley is the man we hope he is, he'll recognise that variety is the spice of a decent league one team and in the unlikely event that the big man says 'Neil, I 'ave decided to zign zis 'ow do you say, contract' then no matter how many battery farmed well groomed athletic young men from the Sky Sports clubs he can get his hands on, there's no one quite like Armand. 

Joe Nuttall. 

Nuttall big money signings work out (see what I did there) and poor ol' Joe is one who definitely hasn't. I've spent a year really, really hoping that his physicality (fuck me, the lad looks dynamite) would be matched by the performances it hints at. To be honest, this feels quite cathartic, because I'm going to say what I've seen. He does the right runs, but doesn't seem to judge what to do at the end of them. He's pulled up for fouling or brushed off the ball. There's no in between. It's like he hasn't learned the tricks of the trade. His performance against Rotherham away in particular was hands over the eyes stuff. When through on goal, he looked as fearful as an animal heading to an abatoir. His head looked gone. 

I wonder if Nuttall is actually a striker. He seems most comfortable to me in that weird left side role that Emile Heskey played for England in that odd period where Sven kept picking Emile Heskey for no other reason than he wanted someone to play in a weird left sided role that only Emile Heskey could play. See also Danny Welbeck a bit later when he kept getting picked to play the same role but on the right. He's not a bad player, sometimes he does some lovely stuff in build up play, but I'm not sure he's the player we want him to be. 

He looks like he doesn't have that desperation to score that marks out a striker. Armand will miss, then miss again, then miss again, but he'll keep going at it and it'll come good eventually. Nuttall's head drops, he looks nervous. Someone once said to me, if you are good at something, never judge yourself by it. Tell yourself it's just a hobby you care about. If you want to be a serious artist, just imagine your painting is as important as say, cooking a nice dinner. No more. Caring too much is the enemy of genuine achievement. That's the genius of Armand and Joe hasn't worked that out. It seems to hurt on a deep level when he gets stuff wrong. 

That Bolton goal though. Got to be a candidate for moment of the season. 

Ryan Hardie. 

His specialism appears to be doing curved runs and not getting that near the ball. He never got much of a chance and Larry binned him off after he missed one chance, which was a bit mystifying because we didn't really have many other options in the cupboard marked 'strikers who are different from Armand.' 

I might sound like I'm doing him down. I'm not, It was quite nice seeing a player moving up front, but he appeared to be doing the sort of movement a totally different team would require. Off he went to Plymouth where he scored a goal every 9 seconds - A record which would suggest he might be worth having around if we can afford the luxury of players next year. 

Nathan Delfouenso 

If Armand is substance over style then Fonz is the opposite. As gifted a player as almost any in League One he needs to be given a job and to stick with it. He gets shifted about because he's good at football on a technical level, but never seems to quite deliver. We love him, he loves us. He lifts the soul on a dreary day with a shuffle, a burst of pace, a drop of the shoulder and a shimmy and then he pops it over the bar and a bolt of agony passes through his body. How many times has he been there. How many times has he cursed himself for not keeping his head down, for not just putting his laces through it? 

I've expended so many words on Fonz this year that I can't say any more. If he can't do it this coming year, in a footballing team, in a division where he's as good as anyone at the basic technique required to play football, then I don't know when he will. I really hope he can. 

Gary Madine

If Gary Madine was a vehicle, he'd be a big American Truck. In fact, I can well imagine him as a trucker, sat in a diner eating loads of pancakes and bacon and wearing a 'Make America Great Again' hat, chewing a tooth pick in a vest and check shirt. That's not a value judgement. Writing requires me to soak up the words from the ether and channel them through the keyboard and that's what was in the air. 

He's fucking mint at heading and stuff like that and I think he got dogs abuse in some games for playing on one leg but he's a hold up player and we don't have any goalscorers unless Hardie can come good. He's why we won't keep Armand but somehow, I can more readily imagine Armand as a Critchley player than I can Madine, even though Madine is a technically better footballer. 

He's likely on the sort of wages that will be causing a few flutters at the moment as Simon and Ben go through the balance sheet in a conversation that I imagine goes a bit like this... 

"There's good news and there's bad news Simon - the good news is, we sold the last three kids away goalie tops online, so that's £46.50p added to the £18 we got for selling the youtube sponsorship and the £9.32p we found when we had a good rummage around down the back of the seats in the Corner Flag"

"What's the bad news Ben - give it to me straight..."

"Basically everything else"

Adi Yussuf:

I imagine him and Jamie Devitt in a French film about two alienated young men who seek silent solace in each others company. Whilst they have little in common, they bond over their mutual isolation, the fellow leper status. We follow each man alone, through the back streets of Blackpool, their shoulders slumped, trudging, oblivious to the world around them. We watch them together on a bench, no words exchanged, Adi, listlessly chucking bread at the pigeons, Jamie, staring into the middle distance, playing with a hole in his jeans. They sit, under the pier when the tide is out, their backs against the barnacle encrusted victorian metalwork, in the background, children play football, barefoot on the sand, the image blurred but the shouts and screams carrying to the viewers ears on the wind, but Jamie and Adi are numb to their joy. They ride a tram, to nowhere, gazing out the window, but seeing nothing. They sit in a cafe, drinking piss weak tea, an unread newspaper between them. They watch a beggar playing a tuneless song on a whistle. They go their seperate ways, only a look, a slight nod signals their parting and they're filmed in their beds, staring blankly at the ceiling. The day has passed, but nothing has happened. 

Film4

1:10 am La vie ne commence jamais (Life never starts.) 

A portrait of listless despair in black and white set at the English seaside. 

Ewan Bange:

He's big and he probably wonders why he doesn't merit ten minutes here and there if Joe Nuttall keeps getting a go. That's all I can say. Like a few others, I'd like to see him get a shout from time to time. 

Tony Weston: 

He's apparently potentially ace and will probably be living proof that we can't have nice things because the Premier League clubs are like a bunch of thugs preying like Mafia, on anyone who dares to have something they want. If money was under control in the game, a player like him would stay with us, given as we've got one of the most well regarded youth coaches in the world game and he'll be a hell of a lot nearer the first team than he will at a club with 670 players from all around the world. Also, it was great when they changed the rules to make it so it was above board to poach kids and pay next to nothing for them. Twats. 

----

I don't think we've got any players to score goals. With the exeption of Armand none of the above have looked like bagging many and therefore it's sods law that it's Armand who will likely be going and the other lot staying. It's troubling that the weakest area of the side is the one where we've probably got most players per position. Madine is a good player at this level, but he's not got an obvious partner and I also don't know if he fits the athletic game Critchley will probably want to play. It's putting a hell of a lot of faith in Hardie to suggest he'll be the man and Fonz has shown time and again, he's better creating than scoring. 

Maybe big Joe will come good. 

Which is probably, if you had to give the season a title, an apt phrase to name it with. 

You can read about the rest of the team by clicking the links below: 


UTMP

Thursday, June 4, 2020

The Squad: Expert Review pt 3 - The midfield

'Fuck it, when it comes to me, I'll just run with it...'

Who am I, you might think, to judge this portion of the side, given I've previously staked my claim to goalkeeping and defensive expertise? My experience in midfield came later in life, when I won a transfer from 'playing on the rec' to 'playing 5-a-side with work colleagues in a dismal effort to recapture the spirit of youthful freedoms' 

Playing goals is rubbish in 5-a-side so that was out and there were already two lads who'd got the 'standing about at the back because you can't be that arsed' berths covered. Midfield it was and I'm happy to report I combined the tireless terrier like attitude of a Norman Hunter with the golden vision of an Andrea Pirlo.

Some might suggest I'm over egging it and I was more of a dogs home David Perkins/John Doolan mongrel but you've trusted my judgement enough to read the first two parts of this squad review so I'd hope you'd trust me to describe my own abilities.

Safe to say, I'm ready to cast the same expert gaze over the midfield as I did over the defence and the goalkeepers. My considerable experience puts me in a position to give you the following exclusive insight into playing midfield: 

It's fucking knackering.

Keep that in mind as this review makes you remember the parts of the season where it didn't appear we actually had a midfield and try to think of KDH instead. Please can we keep him. Please? 

*note to reader - if you are a straight woman or a gay man, you can tweak the metaphor used later in the piece for KDH and Ronan in your own head. It'll work just fine. 

Jamie Devitt: 

Who is this lad? Saying he signed amidst a high expectations is a bit like calling Fleetwood a seaside resort. There's a few ice cream vans and the view is lovely, but let's be frank, it's going to be a disappointing holiday. Devitt's signing prompted a few optimistic shares of him scoring some nice goals and hopeful statements like 'Carlisle fans don't think he's complete shite!' but he wasn't the Charlie Adam many were pinning their hopes on.

It seems a shame he never played. Whatever Tezza McP saw in him Larry McG certainly didn't and the gollumesque yorkshireman sent the cuddly scousers' big signing packing very quickly indeed, without so much as a Football League Trophy match to show his worth. Which seems odd in some respects considering Devitt reputedly could pass a bit and liked a shot. Which at times, were the precise qualities missing from the team.

Who knows. Critchley might fancy him. Very much doubt it. 

Kieran Dewsbury-Hall:

When KDH (as young people call him) made his debut, I thought he looked like a headless chicken. 

About 30 seconds after I'd made that thought known, he scored. 

Since then, I've never had a negative thought about him. Hard working, intelligent and already a leader at a tender age, he's basically too good for this level. 

It's like we're an average bloke going out with a beautiful girl and we know it can't last but we're just enjoying every moment in her company. The goals, the bustling purpose, the energy, the effortless, calm distribution, the fist pumping crowd rousing celebrations. He might be the equivalent of an extraordinarily beautiful girl who is out of our league but if so, he's got a lovely personality to match. We can't get bitter. It's going to end one day and that day might be soon, but he'll let us down in such a way that we'll always have the memories. He'll say we can stay friends, he'll mean it as well, he'll say 'it's not you, it's me' and he'll mean that as well. We'll dry our tears and wish him only the best, but when we see him 5 years from now on the arm of some rich club in the elite league, our hearts will skip a beat and we'll remember the time he was ours. 

He's special. 

Liam Feeney:

Talking of special. The Starman is ace. Last year he looked crap. Terry Mac seemed to do everything other than play him on the right wing and when Larry decided to play him where he belonged everything clicked. 

He's under rated in my opinion, probably because he's not as viscerally thrilling as some wingers, lacking the seering pace or trickery of a crowd favourite. I can't not like the lad. He works hard, he puts in a mean cross and though he's not always pinpoint, he gets the ball in time after time after time and sooner or later that yields a reward. Both him and his lanky partner in crime  show the quality of just keeping on keeping on and I think Feeney has another year in him yet.

He's also my lads favourite player. 

Feeney's the kind of player that when people go 'Fucking hell Feeney, we need better players than this shite' I want to club them to death with a rolled up fanzine whilst shouting 'you bought a ticket to a League One football match, it doesn't say 'the Bernabau' on the ticket does it? What did you actually EXPECT TO SEE? Were you born this miserable or has life ground you down to this bitter husk?' 

Ben Garrity:

Get him in the team! He might be good! 

He might not, but I like a player from non-league. Whether he's the next Brett or the next Rory Prendergast, we'll not know till we see him play. He's made the bench a few times so he can't be total gash in training. 

Sullay Kaikai: 

I think many would say 'the juries out on Kaikai' but I'm going to make a case for a not guilty verdict. He was decent early on and we suffered when he got crocked. So much so that Larry seemed to rush him back into the side before he was fit and he never seemed to recover from that.

He's potentially the most exciting player we've had in ages - where Feeney is as reliable and steady as wingers get, Kaikai is everything else. Is he a winger? A striker? A player in the hole? What does he do best? Who knows?

His touch is sublime. Watch him warm up when they play the keep ball passing game, he's unreal at it. Little moment in games are spellbinding, taking the ball in, close to a defender, spinning away like a dervish. When he gets running, it's a sight to behold, slaloming, close control, exocet pace, splitting defenses like a speedboat makes a wake on water.  

He's not had the impact his ability suggests, but if I was Critchley, I'd be wrapping him cotton wool till he's totally fit then coaching him till I could coach no more because he's got the exact attributes you need to make a decent team special. 

Yeah, 'tactical discipline' and all that shite... shut up. People who spout that shite probably thought Glen Hoddle was right to leave out Gazza and Le Tissier for David fucking Batty and Paul Ince. Where did that get us eh? 

Connor Ronan: 

Ok, this is going to get weird. 

Remember the KDH bit? The beautiful girl stuff? Good. Connor isn't quite the conventional beauty that KDH is. He's the slightly less mainstream looking girl. The star of some indie cinema or the singer of a cultish band. The lads (lads lads) wouldn't fall for him in the same way because he'd challenge their tastes a little bit. Much easier to project their masculinity by having KDH on their arm.

But fuck me, I love Connor Ronan. The single most entertaining player I've ever seen play football live is Wes Hoolahan. To say Ronan reminds me of Wes is the biggest compliment I could possibly give. No one reminds me of Wes, apart from Wes. That's how special Wes was. He's not the finished article, he does the odd daft thing and he lacks the polish, the sheen, the perfection of his loanee partner, but that's the exact point.

He could be just about imperfect enough to be ours. He's unconventional enough for that guy at Wolves with the ridiculous beard to not see what he has in front of him and... you never know... you never know.

A side with him and Kaikai in would be mental. I'd pay to see it, even if we'd have to score 5 to win each week. I fear the tragedy will be that he'll join Charlton, Sheffield Wednesday, Rotherham or some other turgid run of the mill club like Ipswich. Offer him as many rides on the Knott End ferry as he likes and a season pass on the trams. He'd be mad not to take it. He's made to play in Tangerine. 

We can't live without hope. It's the hope that kills you. 

Sean Scannell 

Remember the lad before? The one who was ranting in my imagination about Liam Feeney? 

Now he's ranting about Sean Scannell and this time I want to say 'Yes, clearly he's not fucking good enough, but show a heart man! What's he supposed to do? Give up and go and photocopy shit and get some cunt who thinks he's achieved something because he's attained the status of a middle manager in a non-job in a non-fucking-business doing shit no one fucking cares about setting him targets that he doesn't give a flying fuck about just because his knees have gone? eh? How would you like me screaming at you everytime you didn't live up to someone's expectations even though you are trying your best? Where do you work? A fucking petrol station eh? Right, I'm coming tonight and going mental because you didn't say '£56.43p' in a cheery enough manner. Twat. Give your fellow man a fucking break' 

The lad is a tragedy because you can see that he's a really good player in his head but his body just doesn't let him do it. That goal against Lincoln. Lets remember that eh? I hope he can do 30 minute cameos for Dagenham and Redbridge, Forest Green or someone of that ilk because there's nothing sadder than a player whose flame is dwindling before it's time. Watching him trot up and down the touchline and warming up hopefully is too painful to bear for another year.  

Nathan Shaw: 

All I can say about Nathan Shaw is more or less what I said about Ben Garrity minus the non-league bit. I didn't see either of his appearances this year but if he managed to get into Larry's side twice, despite being a *young homegrown player* then he must be not bad. I'd really like us to go mad and try playing some young, fit, hungry kids and seeing what happens.  

Jay Spearing: 

He played in the Champions League y'know. Which sort of proves my point above. There is no way on earth today's Spearing is a 'Champions League' kind of player, but he was young enough and hungry enough to make it onto the pitch and do a decent job.

He's the player I'm most conflicted about. I can't help thinking if he was a bit bigger, he'd be a really top class player but he isn't and that's why he's playing for us. Some weeks I'm convinced he holds the team together with sheer effort and other weeks I think he holds us back in his conservative approach.

I think possibly the problem is, Spearing is very good at doing the simple things well, retaining possession and playing the right ball. He rarely seems to risk a pass when the pass is speculative. For part of the season, we were plagued by a chronic lack of movement and thus his options were inherently defensive. He's also been partnered with other players like him, who have been industrious and worthy but haven't really been foils to his terrier like style. Give him a creative partner or a side that moves in front of him and we might yet get a real indian summer from him.

Whether Critchley sees him as an important influence or a symbol of the past is a very interesting question.

Matty Virtue

I like Matty Virtue a lot. He plays with heart and soul, he chucks himself in at crosses, possessing a slightly Clarkson-esque ghostlike quality, he's got a magnificent strike on him and he seems a really humble lad for someone who was captain of Liverpool's kids. 

Is he good enough? I don't know. He lacks a yard of pace. That shouldn't stop him being a really decent footballer in League One at least but I can't help think of someone like Chris Beech when I think of Virtue. Wholehearted, commendable player who is just short of being a week in week out player. He's young though and he looks like he lives for it and I really want him to succeed. As much as I think of Beech, I also see a player who could get better and better. 

If Spearing has suffered from the players around him, I think Virtue hasn't been used to his best sometimes and occaisionally his inexperience has shown. He was excellent playing ahead of Spearing in the last few games up until the Tranmere match, where he was terrible and Spearing coming on changed the whole rhythm of the midfield for the better.

That Sunderland goal.  

Grant Ward: 

One of the weirdest sights of the year was Grant Ward playing in central midfield but with the tactics and technique of a winger. It didn't work and he got substituted. In a slightly later match he came on up front and ran around a bit as a substitute. That also didn't work. Given as footballers spend most of their time not scoring or setting up goals (even the really good ones) it would be harsh to rule out Grant's career as over on the basis of those glimpses. He did also manage a piece of ridiculous control, pulling the ball down like it was magnetised to his feet. So there's that.

File under 'why did we sign him?' and 'maybe he'll come good' and 'people who might be the new Sean Scannell'

In memorium. Those who have left us. 

One of my favourite moments this year was when Callum Guy mistook the adulation for Charlie Adam after the Reading home game, as a response to his applause to the North Stand. Bless him. The look on his face. At one point, someone I know was hoping 'that Callum Guy lad could be the answer' and I knowingly said 'If Callum Guy is the answer, then I'm more worried about the question' like a right twat. I think he'll be a decent player at Carlisle. 

Jordan Thompson merited a song, a transfer fee and a move to a higher division. That lad from my imagination can have a go at me in return now because mostly my reaction to Thompson was 'for fucks sake Thompson, get up!' He has skill and touch and I think we could have seen a very special player if he'd had a different set of managers, but sadly, my abiding memory is of him flattering to deceive and falling over too much. He might never have given the ball away, but he didn't do enough with it, relative to his ability.

I'm getting fatigued now from all these midfielders so I'll finish by saying Harry Pritchard always seemed to have the feel of an RAF pilot who had fallen through time from the 1940s and ended up playing wide right for us. I can't think of anything bad to say about him, but he doesn't evoke any special memories either. 

---

That's the midfield. It was probably the worst bit of the team last year, (apart from strikers that weren't Super Gnando) yet, when I go through it, there's some really decent players. The way we suddenly played football under Dunn, then Critchley suggests that at least some of the midfield suffered under Larry's tactical rigidity and perhaps before that, Terry Mc's direct approach. I'd love to have seen Thompson really coached to unleash his potential. Sullay used right, could be devastating. Feeney is decent, KDH and Ronan are so good I can only discuss them in a weird metaphor (that on reflection seems a bit homoerotic.) Spearing is Spearing and Virtue has his virtues. Look at that lot and it shouldn't have been a season where game after game felt so devoid of spark.

Still, like the defence, we're losing our best players but there is a bit of quality left. Who knows who we'll bring in. I'm not going to pretend to be a mystical sage but whilst our tactics havn't got the best out of what we've had, we've cried out for either a playmaker or a really dominant midfielder all year. 

Only the strikers left. Thank fuck. 

Be good.

UTMP

Sunday, May 31, 2020

The Squad - expert review pt 2: Defenders

In the previous blog in this series, I cast an expert eye over the goalies. Today it's the turn of the defenders, an area I have equal or perhaps greater qualification to discuss having given up goalkeeping in my early teens, whereafter I favoured playing centre back. I was often 3rd or 4th pick for 12-a-side games on the rec so anyone questioning my judgement really should wind their neck in and accept that those of us who've played the game to such a high level have a deeper understanding of it as a result of our experiences 

Ollie Turton

Our Ollie is an odd one. He's decent enough if played as a classic right back but not quite good enough to play as the utility player that Larry seemed to want him to be. 'Not as good as Danny Coid' seems an apt description. I find Turton hard to write about. He has few distinguishing mannerisms. He's broadly competent at what he's intended for but unremarkable. Reviewing him makes me feel a bit like those people who review functional things on Amazon. 

"This door mat is great for for wiping your feet on. I tried it as fruit bowl, but not so good at that: 3 stars" 

"This plastic plant pot is great for putting plants in but it's not so good for drinking out of due to the holes in the bottom. If I could give it 3.5 stars I would" 

"This dessert spoon was adequate for apple crumble and custard but when I attempted to use it as a golf club I found it sadly lacking: 3 stars"

Teddy Howe

Fast as lightning this lad. I know cos I saw him play. 

For Reading.

As a Reading player he seemed like the ideal man to play on the right of a back 5 as a marauding wing back. For us, who knows? Doesn't look like he'd belong in a 3 and Feeney has been undropable on the right whilst points have mattered. Had the season not been nuked by a virus, Howe would have probably got a chance as Critchley experimented. Otherwise, we've not yet worked out Howe he fits in. (you get this for free. Shut up) 

Ryan Edwards

I like to think that Larry left Critchley a note saying 'look after Nathan for me, he's a nice lad, sorry about Big Joe, try not to hit him, he's not doing it on purpose and don't, whatever you do, play Ryan at right back' 

Like Turton, it's harsh to judge Edwards on what he did when playing out of position. Especially when the world and his dog could see playing a player, whom the phrase 'big lumbering centre half' could have been coined for, in a position that draws upon almost none of his natural attributes wouldn't work. To be fair to him, though he always seemed to be teetering on the edge of calamity, his application and experience seemed to just about get him through and that's to his credit.

At the centre of a back three, he looked decent. He reads the game well, and whilst not blessed with pace, having Tilt alongside him seemed to work, a kind of calmness aligned with chaos. It's slightly surprising that considering our early season form coincided with Edwards at the heart of the defence, we've never seen him there since. He drifted to the preriphery of the squad, perhaps a victim of deficiencies on paper as opposed to in his actual performances in his natural position.

Ben Heneghan 

Big Ben is not as good as I want him to be but too good to not want to keep. Look at the lad. He's massive and athletic, he wins the ball in the air without looking like he's trying and strolls about doing pointing and being really good at that backwards running that defenders do. There's a real player there, but I feel like he needs to play alongside someone rather than be the fulcrum of the defence and I'm not sure we have that player. Putting a real footballing centre back in the back three would take the pressure off his distribution. 

If we're going to play 'we'll score one more than you' I'd persevere with Husband alongside him and someone else equally as mobile on the other and leave Ben to just head it away in the middle. Like it or not, that's a big part of League One and I can't see many players being as good at it as Heneghan is. 

Taylor Moore

He is the 'someone else' I refer to above. The lad is sheer class. Rugged, powerful but composed on the ball. How he isn't in Brizzle's team mystifies me. Maybe Covid cost cutting will make him available for less but I can't see how there aren't Championship clubs lining up for his services. Rumours of West Brom seem perhaps a tad above his level, but that's how good he is. 

He's truly adaptable too. He could play in the middle, on the flank or, if we wanted to evoke memories of Big Sam, in the middle of the park as an Andy Morrison tribute act. He looks comfortable running with the ball, but perfectly capable of giving it a belt when needed.

Sign. Him. Up. Get Bola in his ear about the dangers of turning your back on regular football.

James Husband

My 9 years olds first football related joke was 

'Dad..' 
'what?'
'Is Husband's wife called wife?' 

Boom. Tish. 

It's taken me nearly a year to stop calling him Stephen. One mad tackle aside, I think he's been spot on. There were games when we were marooned in the midseason doldrums of mediocrity where his desire and energy stood out a mile. Add this to the fact he was stuck out on the left side playing two positions for no reason whatsoever and I think he's had an excellent season.

He made a difficult position kind of work (everyone else who has done it has looked exposed) and when shifted to left side of a three maintained his ability to surprise with well timed forward runs. As a left sided centre back, I don't think he's the man for a team built on miserly defence, but absolutely the man for a team who want to play intense, athletic football on the counter attack. 

Marc Bola: 

The Bola that left us looked like an Arsenal graduate. Full of confidence and skill, he was the player who impressed me most last year and his departure seemed inevitable and well earned. 

What ever has happened at 'Boro has done him no good at all and he looks to have lost his positional awareness and confidence to put in the right ball. He didn't get many games to be fair and those he played were in the unlucky left wing-cum-fullback role that did no one any favours. 

You'd imagine Bola will be going back to 'Boro but if you subscribe to the multiverse theory, then somewhere there's a Blackpool side in 20/21 ripping teams to bits with the pace of Bola and Howe the basis of their explosive counter attacking style. Not sure that somewhere is our dimension though. 

Jordan Thorniley

This is a weird one. Held in huge regard by fans of the massivest club going, a regular a division above, he got a few games, in which he didn't distinguish himself and disappeared thereafter. There must be a player there and it's odd that Larry signed him and showed so little faith in him. He seems an odd fit for the way we play - a bit small to play in the middle, but not really the attacking option you'd expect for flank either. 

Callum MacDonald

I wasn't sure whether to include him as defender or a midfielder but his performance against Peterborough was one of the invididual highlights of the year. You can see why he's not made it at a higher level but also why he was at Derby in the first place. He's got excellent technique and applies himself brilliantly, making good choices more often than not. He's not the biggest, quickest or trickiest though.

Why Larry didn't trust him is a mystery, when Dunn and Critchley got a tune from him and almost every time Larry DID give him a go, the side looked better for it. When we managed a randomly good cup performance away at Reading in the middle of a period of abject mediocrity in the league, it was no coincidence that MacDonald played. 

In every winning side, there are stars and there a players who just do a job well. I think MacDonald feels like one of those latter types. He's good enough defensively to interchange with a full back and offers decent delivery when he gets forward and gives everything. 

Michael Nottingham: 

Barely played and gone on loan, Nottingham is a bit of anachronistic player in that he's quite good at defending but not much else and there's only so much room for that in 2020. He'll never let you down for effort but I think he's reached his peak as a player and I'd guess we've seen the last of him. 

A word for those who are no longer with us. 

The most notable departure was Curtis Tilt. Rotherham and aspiration aren't words that always feel comfortable putting together but Tilt feels that if he can make it there, he'll make it anywhere and so he's gone to the New York stadium to sit on the bench. Good riddance said many, but whilst he was heart in the mouth, incomprehensible slips, frankly unpickable for a short period of this year, I think (Moore excepted) an on form and focussed Tilt was the best defender we've had on our books since homecoming. He went with my good wishes. At least his paddy at Larry was passion. 

Nick Anderton headed for Carlisle. He's a trier and he has a sleeve tattoo. He seemed to be the living embodiment of the sort of player Gary Megson would probably like. Imagine an entire team of Nick Andertons. I can't decide if that would be terrifying or terrible. Again good luck to the lad. 

Rocky Bushiri came and went and whilst many would prefer to forget him he is perhaps a useful reminder that the plan 'Just get some Prem kids on loan' isn't always as foolproof as you'd hope. He wasn't ready for the job he was asked to do but there was ability there. I thought Larry might have tried him on the right of defense because whilst the middle didn't work because he lacked the focus/positional sense/awareness to play it successfully, he did have the odd flash of football in him. Never happened though. Should have had me instead of Dusty Miller as his go to man. 

The summing up bit. 

Without the loanees we're weak. Edwards did ok at the outset but is he the fulcrum of a promotion winning defence? Heneghan and in particular Moore are huge players to lose. We've got some quality on the flanks and it does seem curious that Critchley is being linked with a left sided full back. That said, I'm not sure how anyone can really speculate with any confidence about signings as club finances are completely up in the air. Is Thorniley a mistake borne of January madness or will he come through and prove himself the player Wednesday fans said he was? Only time will tell. 

With that blandishment I'll bid the defence adieu and wind up another exciting edition of the blog about which everyone says 'he goes on a bit doesn't he?' 

If you missed it, you can read up on our massive goalkeeping stockpile here. 

Next time: look forward to a comprehensive expert review of the midfielders, fully informed by my later career shift from defence to midfield in 5-a-side.  

UTMP





Friday, May 29, 2020

Stop saying 'bail out' - Damien Collins MP and 'saving football'

A jungle is an ecosystem. A lion doesn't eat everything for the sake of it. It would grow fat and get eaten if it did. Whether or not it had a crown, which frankly is a mental thing to put on a lion. 

This blog references 'When Sky Invented Football' podcast. It's grand and you should subscribe. It's the best football podcast I've heard in ages.  

I'm coming out fighting for this one. Towel in the corner, gumshield in... I'm on my best behaviour as well. Writing in proper sentences and everything...  

The episode in question concerned Damien Collins MP and his plans to save football from itself. It seems he and Steve Baker MP, alongside Charlie Methven from Sunderland had all inputted into the process. I'll be honest. That's not my ideal dinner party line up. I have prejudice. We all have. I apologise and promise to curb my instincts and give a fair and unbiased reaction to their thoughts.  

I'll start by saying there's significant merit in them and some overlap with my concerns and thinking about solutions. A strengthened financial regulator and local fans being able to audit finances are key points I agree with. The ambition to see the German model become a part of the English game is welcome as were many other sensible and measured points. 

Here's the thing though. I can't bring myself to endorse this as anything other than a sticking plaster for the immediate situation (welcome as it is) because it doesn't get to the heart of football's problem with itself and unless we address that, the sticking plaster is pointless. One thing that sticks in my craw as I'm listening (to the point it's inspired all this) is the repeated use of the phrase 'bail out' to describe the idea of the Premier League paying any money to EFL clubs. 

It might be unfair to single out a seemingly innocuous phrase in this way from a well meaning and well thought through attempt to bring financial sanity to the game and rescue clubs from the brink, but, this is 28 years of hurt, disenchantment and unfairness we're talking about. I've heard this phrase used all over the place and in the midst of otherwise surprisingly refreshing ideas, it had a particularly nails scraping on the blackboard effect. 

Since when did football fans do 'fair' and 'measured' anyway? 

Here's some reasons why the Premier League aren't 'bailing out' any clubs in any meaningful sense and why we should think of any 'rescue package' (to used more inaccurate nomenclature) as more akin to war reparations or attempts to right the wrongs of colonial history... Melodramatic? Maybe, but I think fair, given the evidence I will lay out below. 

In 2018/19 Liverpool announced a £42 million pound profit and a turnover of £533 million. They received £152,425,146 in total from the FA in the form of TV rights, international rights and various other incentives. The figure that stands out to me, is the payment of £36,451,842 'merit payment' - a disgusting marketers term for 'prize money'. 

Liverpool got £36,451,842 for finishing second. They didn't WIN anything yet were rewarded with a figure of such astronomical size that I had to count the numbers to make sure it was right. Liverpool's total payment (that's money they were paid for simply competing, not money they earned through the turnstiles or selling shirts, transfer dealings, sponsorship etc) of £152,425,146 is greater than the combined turnover of the ENTIRE League One clubs combined. 

Lets just breathe. What I am saying is not, 'Liverpool earn too much money because they are a big club and it's not fair because little clubs don't have as many fans' - I am saying Liverpool are GIVEN more money that the entire third tier EARN, on top of their considerable revenue generating power that comes from being a big, historic and successful club. 

Liverpool are alloted that money because at some point we decided to reward teams for being 'popular on telly' instead of simply rewarding sporting merit in the form of trophies. We decided that it was ok, to allow a system whereby the big clubs would have a competitive advantage over the smaller teams further enhanced by the financial system in place. Liverpool received £45 million more than 17th place Brighton and already have turnover that exceed the Seagulls by £400 million.

It's like having two X-factor competitors, one with a backing track and a mic and the other shouting from behind the stage, then pretending it's 'competitive' and the one with the advantage 'deserves the rewards that go with winning' (and calling it a 'great spectacle' to boot) 

Guess what happens next? - in the 2019/20 table, Liverpool are a long way ahead of Brighton! Who knew that would happen? Anyone have punt on Brighton to finish above Liverpool? 

Yet Brighton themselves have a turnover that just about equals the entirety of League One... Are we spotting a problem yet? Brighton aren't fundamentally a 'big club' - They've rarely spent much time at the top table and plenty of time picking up crumbs off the floor and yet their earning power vastly exceeds any clubs from a similar level that not so long ago they were at. 

Are we yet seeing what is at the heart of football's financial problems? It's like a mind bending painting (put the effort in and imagine!) where a series of weight lifters are lifting weight disproportionate to their size. The biggest one has two balloons on a cane raised above his head and is being feted and showered with prizes whilst the weakest is sweating trying to lift the weight of two articulated trucks, getting nowhere and being lambasted by the crowd for 'not trying hard enough' 

What are the losing weightlifters supposed to do in the circumstances? Give up? Has the winner really earned his victory?

It's literally easier for the already rich clubs to compete and every year it gets a little bit easier. 

Let's drop another fact in the mix. The League One clubs earn NO prize money from the league AT ALL. Not even for winning it. Not a penny. They receive approximately £1.5 million in TV revenue and the excruciatingly named 'solidarity payments' as a grudging acknowledgement that the other half exist. It's a bit like throwing 50p from the window of a Bentley at a refugee and shouting 'there you go, one day, you can be like me!' or giving the losing weightlifter from earlier a bit of chalk for his hands, whilst giving the winner an even lighter cane as you do so. 

Let's add in the Champions League for it is relevant. Liverpool earned 111,000,000 (euros - almost £100,000,000) for winning the Champions League. It's safe to say Brighton didn't enter that.   

Surely it's fair to recompense clubs for the extra games in Europe? Perhaps, but it certainly doesn't cost that much to stage and travel to those games + they get extra income through the gates. They are, effectively already recompensed. 

Lets add ANOTHER fact. Clubs currently get £15 million just for reaching the group stages. That money would pay for the entire wage budget of 2.272 League one clubs. That is a fact...

What of it? Liverpool as they are fond of reminding us, haven't won the title for thirty years and thus we have to play through a pandemic to make sure they do. English clubs face few barriers to group stage entry and receive further cash everytime they win a game within it (the groups often contain at least one 'weak' side from a European nation without the luxury of a £9.4 billion TV deal)

The top clubs (we've established are rewarded lavishly and disproportionately) can 'fail' and still scoop significant 'prize money' - even if Klopp hadn't licked Liverpool into shape and they'd finished 4th and lost all their games in the group stages would still have a) got another go at it next year... (why?) and b) been £40m better off than Brighton - Less than £145m (which was the gap in income) but never the less a significant sum. 

To sum up the disparities at work - League One clubs recieved 1.5 million (plus the odd bit of cup revenue) for their existence. Every other penny was earned through turnstiles or commerce. Liverpool (with considerable commercial advantages) received £250,000,000 just for playing in two of the tournaments they were part  

So, what we are undeniably seeing, is a system that distorts the nature of the game. One in which the already successful (or those with the external resources to buy into that elite) become part of a self perpetuating cycle of riches. 

There is no way into this group of teams by sporting merit alone. No matter how good your 'measured growth plan' is. The money within the game (which, prior to the the 'split' was distributed centrally and in a fixed and fair manner) is 'trapped' at the top. It's not trickling down as (some readings of) economics would suggest it should. How can it? The river has been dammed. The lower league water bed is dry. We don't need bailing out. Precisely the opposite. We need the water to flow downstream, like it should. 

We didn't dam the river! We need to blow the dam up. Now. We're literally dying down here. 

Thus, to return to the original point, whilst Damien Collin's proposals are well thought out and sound radical, they don't address the single biggest issue in the game. It is not 'bad ownership' that is ruining the game. It is a financial model which means that 'bad' ownership is really, the only alternative for a football club to attempt to achieve it's core purpose (winning matches, promotions and ultimately the league) - Without that purpose, it isn't football. 

Forest Green may knit yoghurt, share falafel and do communal yoga, but without the football, it would just be a picnic park. Shrewsbury may have had 'a great day out' but they were gutted when VAR (don't get me started) robbed them of a goal against Liverpool. Blackpool might have been 'on the best trip' in 2010/11 but it hurt when we went down as much as it does anyone else when it happens to them. Football fans of all teams want to win. 

There are terrible owners. I am a Blackpool fan. It would be insane to pretend otherwise. I'm saying no more on that. There are property speculators and sociopaths and all sorts of weird types who are attracted like moths to football's light only to smash it and leave clubs and by extension communities in darkness.

Yes, Collin's ownership proposals would help that. I agree wholeheartedly and applaud Collin's assertion that 'we need stable finances to attract the right sort of owners' - yes, we do. We really, really do. (see my writing on the Newcastle situation for an expansion on that) - but, the fact remains that many clubs are in difficulty, not because there owner wants to flog the ground and build houses or is convicted criminal who wants to run off with their revenues, but simply because they want to live the dream and it got out of control. 

That's the point of football. To try and win. As we saw above that dream costs incredible, eye watering sums of money. That are literally given out to a small pool of clubs that are at a considerable advantage even over the clubs in the same division as them who in turn are at a considerable advantage to the clubs in the division below who in turn are at... It's that painting again... It's the little guy straining every muscle, urged on by the taunting. Trying to lift that impossible weight... 

The club owners can either choose to try (and possibly do both themselves and the club an injury) or they can just not bother trying at all.

Supporters in general have one demand of players and by extension clubs. They expect them to TRY. If the team isn't trying, then that is the one thing that will really cause a crowd to turn on their team. That applies to the board as well. Fans will be patient, but if they feel a board of directors isn't trying to compete, then fans will mutter, grumble, boo, chant, protest, then they'll eventually (some of them) give up and walk away. This is true. A football club the fans perceive not to be trying their absolute best to compete is an unhappy place. 

We know as a football fans you can't expect to win every week. I'm a Blackpool fan and we've never won the league (but we have had a Ballon D'or Winner,  England's 1966 MoM, won the most famous match of domestic football ever played anywhere in the world and we've got Armand Gnanduillet and thus are magical in ways most of you can never understand....) and we might never win it in my lifetime, but I have to believe it's possible, however unlikely. More to the point, my 9 year old son has to believe it MIGHT happen. 

People are impatient, people tell themselves all sorts of things to justify doing what they do (and what others do if they believe it will fulfill their dreams. It's perfectly possible to understand why a club might invest significant sums of money into achieving what they and their supporters dream of doing. It's literally how business works - you dream of giving your customers a product they love to buy. But I could throw the life savings of everyone in my town at competing with Amazon and I wouldn't stand a chance. Find another niche you might say - Amazon have already got the online shopping world sewn up. Fair enough... I'll set up a poorly read football blog with no obvious income stream and populate it with dense articles about obscure players and finances. That's my ticket out of the ghetto sorted! 

But what does the football club owner do? He can't 'find another niche' - The owners of clubs who've tried and failed to break into the elite or fallen from the top table at the wrong time, the small but ambitious clubs, looking to build on success and grow, the teams whose investment has taken them so far and can see 'the next level' in sight - what are they supposed to do? Go and play cricket instead? They are football clubs. Their very purpose is to compete with other football clubs. 

We can talk about community ownership and be misty eyed about the 'value' of clubs to the people who support them. I know the value of my club. I am writing about it at gone 11pm on a Friday night because I love the absurd nature of supporting them. I see, week in, week out, the hope, the elation, the grumbling, the sheer excitement and total disappointment that it brings to thousands upon thousands. To those in the stand and those far away for whom it's totem of home. 

But... and it's a big one this... they aren't purely community or social facilities. It isn't 'a culture hub.' A youth club doesn't have to 'beat' the youth club up the road to satisfy it's core purpose. It can do what it does That can be different to the next one.. The theatre doesn't have to put on 'a better play' than the next theatre. It just has to offer something distinct and of quality. It can attract a totally different audience with a play that has totally different qualities. That's not an option for a football club. It can do great work, it can be run for better or worse, it can be managed cleverly or poorly, but ultimately it has to try and win (and it does have to win *sometimes* or it will decline terminally) - it can't 'pivot' to another approach. It's trapped by it's purpose and trapped in a rigged system. Of course it overspends to try and compensate. What else can it do?  

Every football fan wants one thing. They want their team to try and win - that is the glue that bonds the community - black, white, rich, poor, Tory, Labour, Christian, Atheist, whatever... the one thing that unites us is (and it's absurd, but 132 years of history are the evidence) that we want to win. We understand that we often don't and sometimes we know for almost certain we won't, but we need to know we might. That's how little football fans ask for. Just a possibility. That's it. 

The authorities that run the game have failed to respect that simple fact and it is that which is ultimately leaving clubs in a position where they must live at the edge of their means (even with well intentioned owners) and take gambles that can cost a community dear. The grotesque inflation of the leading teams finances can only have negative consequences for those below. We should ABSOLUTELY curb spending in League One, but if we don't do it at the top, then the job of the regulatory bodies will be a nightmare and the flame of competition will grow ever dimmer. We'll see even less teams able to dream, to win, to excite and the game will be worse for it. 

If we are serious about financial control (and the thought Damien Collins put into his proposals suggests he is at least making more than the usual token effort) then there is one simple way to do it. Curb the money given to Premier League clubs for simply existing and impose a salary cap. This will free up money for the broader game, open up competition and reward sporting merit above simple brute force spending. 

If public money is to be spent rescuing clubs, we have to rid ourselves of the illusion that football is beyond regulation or that the money is 'tied up' and big clubs 'need it' - they haven't earned, they stole it and built a system that rewards them for that year after year after 28 years. 

I repeat. If public money is going to be spent supporting football clubs then we need to rid ourselves of the illusion that football is beyond regulation. 

The Premier League should not be untouchable whilst the rest of the game continues to adapt to what it has done to it. The primary driver of this crisis might be Covid19, but ultimately (to use an insensitive but apt metaphor) football has a serious underlying health condition that I have (to torture the metaphor) diagnosed very clearly above. 

I'll be happy to put my taxes into supporting the game at every and any level when the entire sport is made to look at itself, stop messing about with different governing bodies and look after itself holistically, not simply protect the interests of the few. 

If we're going to talk about community when speaking about football politically then we need to make the phrase 'football family' mean more than expressions of  mawkish sentiment on twitter. There are clubs dying. If my sister is skint, I'll help her out. That's 'family' - I won't lecture her on how my 'market value' is such that I am entitled to ignore her completely whilst burning cash in front of her and at the same discussing the words 'values' and 'integrity' with an entirely straight face. That would be a frankly psychopathic way to treat someone I consider 'family' 

It makes you think eh? 

I commend Damien Collins for his efforts to address this issue and am surprised he got so much right. I'm not well disposed to lectures on football from politicians but it was a decent effort as they go. 

What says a lot is, despite his unwillingness to countenance questioning the Premier League and all who sail in her, he seems to care and understand a damn site more for the game than the shower who run the FA. 

I got through the entire piece without saying 'tory' or making disparaging remarks about charlie methven. I deserve a drink. 

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Season Review - A fantastic damp squib!

So, it seems, the season is about to end after all the speculation and we won't get to say goodbye. Given the spectacular levels of ...