Sunday, 2 December 2012

A Cup of Love and Shysters

Today we live in a world where almost everything is so overrated and overhyped. I can feel a bit bile in my throat whenever someone refers to the Premier League as ‘The Best League In The World’, when it’s clear that its more flawed than a teddy bear, ravaged by a rottweiler. However, when you hear similar hype given towards the FA Cup, I think it's just.  In fact, I feel that in recent years, the FA Cup hasn't been treated with the love and respect it needs. Even by the very people who run the FA!  The big clubs are already trying to destroy it by calling for the scrapping of replays.  Replays, extra games that reward a smaller club another crack at a big boy, if they dare to go toe-to-toe with them and come out of a tie as equals.  It sums up the greed of clubs nowadays, who are only interested in their pursuit of a league place that will rake in those extra £’s, so they can spend it on another player or maybe a nice fat bonus for board members.

No doubt when half of them struggle to beat lower league opposition in January, you’ll be hearing the moaning from all quarters.  For us fans (well, for me at least) I love the FA Cup.  It gives a club from the bottom rung of the league ladder, watched by 30 people, to play against the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal or Wigan.  Of course, many of those clubs are normally out by this stage, but the dream is always there for lower league clubs, some of whom are in desperate need of a few quid to pay the bills.  Latics have had a somewhat chequered history with the cup in the past – some great ties against Leeds and Everton and as a non-league side against Birmingham and Hereford (which drew 27,000 at Springfield Park – still a record crowd for an FA Cup tie between two non-league sides!).  We all remember the ‘upsets’ against Canvey Island and more recently as a Premier League side against Notts. County and Swindon, but hopefully we can overcome our tendency to lose against lower league opposition and beat a decent Bournemouth side and get to the next round. Who knows? The last time we beat Bournemouth in the first attempt at a cup tie was in the 2005/06 Carling Cup. And you know what happened then!

The weekend hasn’t been without it’s controversy though, as Milton Keynes Dons played AFC Wimbledon for the first time.  It’s a game that Wimbledon didn’t want to play, as MK are a result of the demise of Wimbledon FC.  I’m sure all football supporters would agree that ‘franchising’ shouldn’t be allowed in football and that’s what MK are.  As a Wigan Athletic supporter, I know that even we could have been a victim of this, what with a planned move to Skelmersdale (another ‘new town’) which if put through, would have robbed a town of a club that applied to be in the Football League 35 times.  Would I be supporting Skem now? No, I wouldn’t. Wigan is my local club and these people just don’t understand that football clubs in Britain were formed for the local people, not some money-making shyster.  If the club has financial problems, then they obviously need to be sorted.  But if Pete Winkelman, owner of 'the Dons', was truly ‘helping’ the club, then why didn’t he try harder to keep Wimbledon in their local area?  Or better still, move the club 50 miles north and take advantage of a building project that he was involved in and a big city that didn’t have a football club in the league.  The argument we always hear, is that Wimbledon didn’t play in Wimbledon anyway. In the right world, I'm sure they would loved to have played in their local area, but for various reasons it was impossible at the time. Does that give Winkelman a good reason to uproot a club and move it away to another city and change its name? You decide.

Why Winkelman and his cronies couldn’t have started their MK club at the level which AFC started, is just beyond me (it would have been cheaper for a start!)  They say the people of Wigan don’t care about football, but people cared enough to form a club FIVE TIMES, four of them starting in the rungs of non-league.  The fans of Wimbledon went away and formed their own club, representing the people of Wimbledon and won promotion after promotion into the football league.  The only reason Winkelman wanted Wimbledon FC in the first place, was because they had a league place, a place that was there to be exploited.  I do feel a bit sorry for most MK people who get behind their club when they get the grief they do, because when someone plonks a football league club in their area, what are they to do?  And to be fair to MK, they are starting to engage with the local community and build links with them.  But deep down, the fans must know how the club started its existence wasn’t right.  If they had come up through the ranks of non-league, people would be applauding Winkelman and MK for their project.  

Following their 2-1 win against AFC, it’s time to let things lay.  Wimbledon fans have their league place back and Winkelman and the people of MK have their football league club and are chasing for promotion to The Championship.  

You see, ties like this and the controversy that surrounds some of them and the debate it causes between all kinds of people, just shows why the FA Cup is the first and best competition in world football. In some strange way, this could actually work to calm that hatred down.  One big step could be the removal of the name ‘Dons’ from the name of Milton Keynes.  Some of their fans claim that they are the ‘true Dons’ but yet their badge says ‘2004’.  By their own admission, they have no remaining link with Wimbledon FC.  Hopefully then, both clubs can move on - MK can get on and continue building their club on and off the field, and I’m sure fans of AFC Wimbledon will continue to do the same. Here's hoping.

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Jordi, Abuse and Getting Behind Your Team

I don’t know what it is with Wiganers, but we’ve always had an habit of making scapegoats out of players.  Jordi Gomez has been the top (if that’s the right term) boy for many an abusers vitriol ever since he joined the club.  Roberto has come out in the press saying that Gomez does get a little upset by it, but that he still works as hard as he always does, in the hope of turning in performances that’ll please everyone.  My first reaction to that was What the hell are we doing? These players play for OUR football club.  Why do we think its right to roundly abuse someone who is trying his best for OUR football club? His hat-trick against Reading on Saturday just summed him up - a talented player who looks capable of so many things, but often frustrates.

The bottom line of it is, Jordi is a luxury player - when he’s on top form, he’s brilliant, when he’s not - he stands out like a polar bear in the jungle.  I think it’s fair to say that he’s probably the best technical player at the club (‘technical’ is a term that smart arses use to describe a player that is comfortable with a football) but it’s rare that he’s actually playing in a position where he gets time on the ball or is able to dictate the pace of a game.  I can understand why he's used – he slows the pace of the game down.  Yep, you’ve read that right.  Gomez, despite his physical attributes, can use his much-maligned lack of pace to drop back and hold up the ball.  This allows for other players to get into position and for the team to knock the ball about at our own pace.  Bob has said that there’s always time in a game where we need to attack with pace, but that just isn’t possible to do for 90+ minutes, so there’s periods in games where we need to hold onto the ball and knock it around.

I don’t think it helps that Bob hasn’t given Jordi a regular role in the team, in a position that he truly excels at.  He’s been played on the wing and as a wide-forward, where it’s clear his lack of pace hampers the movement of the team.  The closest comparison I can make to this predicament, is Andreas Johansson.  Paul Jewell signed him and then genuinely didn’t know where to play him.  Well, he did, but ‘Jewellino’ preferred to play one formation, which was probably his undoing as Latics manager and nearly saw us relegated after a difficult 16 months.  Making his name in his native Sweden as an ‘attacking midfielder’ (basically, someone who plays just behind the striker(s)) Jewell played Johansson on the wing, upfront and rarely, in the centre of midfield.  We were mystified as to why he was signed.  Despite his homeless existence in Latics’ formation, he did chip in with a few memorable moments – 2 goals against Spurs in a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane and being the last player to be sent off at Highbury! Oh and he once played upfront with Paul Scharner (a defender and headless midfielder), but that’s probably one of his (and ours) most forgettable moments.  Sadly we never saw the best of him and he retuned to Scandinavia, playing for Aalborg in Denmark (under former Latics manager Bruce Ricoh, funnily enough) where they actually played him in his proper position and his contributions to their run in the Europa League was there for all to see.

There was many a moaning when Ben Watson appeared at centre-half during the latter part of the Fulham game and the entirety of the Bradford match.  Why is he playing there! Don’t laugh, but I’m going to compare Ben Watson to Barcelona here.  Barca are obviously a great side, but defensively they are regularly all over the place.  The team relies on everyone (even the goalkeeper) being comfortable on the ball, bring it out, pass it around and set up attacks.  There aren’t many ‘mixers’ in Spain for players to pump a ball into, so they don’t really need a back four of 6 footers.  At the time of writing, the preferred Barca backline contains Javier Mascherano, who for the vast majority of his career (and still for his country), plays as a defensive midfielder.  For Barca, he plays as a centre-half.  Add to that, his centre-half partner is Gerard Piqué, a player who struggled to come to terms with being a defender in England and you’ll be forgiven in thinking that this is a defence that’ll be piss easy to break down.  The beauty with it though, is that these players can knock the ball past you, before you can even think about closing them down.  Yes they make mistakes, but they’ll score 10 goals for every one they make, simply because the pair are able to bring the ball out of defence and give it to the midfield quickly.  Ben Watson, like Gomez, is technically gifted.  Contrary to popular belief, he’s decent in the air too, so it’s understandable that a manager with the philosophy of Martinez will look to his native model of converting ball players to play in different positions and roles in the team.  Despite defeats in both games, I think it worked – we dominated the last 15 minutes of the Fulham match and I’ve never seen Latics play such a one-sided match as I did against Bradford.  If we had someone who could finish (Kone on the bench!) then we would have been in the hat for the Quarter Finals and it was just bad luck all round when we went out on penalties (where Jordi missed one, which didn’t endear him to the moaners, I must admit!) I don't believe that Watson will be a starting regular in that postion though, as a club like Wigan doesn't have the talent to dominate the play for 90 minutes like Barca do, but for the latter part of a match when we are seeking a goal, it'll work as he's able to get that ball out quickly and pick the right pass.

I’ve mentioned Watson, because of two points – first I feel it highlights the fact that it takes time for players to play in a new role in the team and secondly, he gets as much abuse as Jordi does when he’s on the pitch.  There has to be a link there, surely the most ardent Jordi hater can see that? Yes, you can bang on about how these overpaid and over-pampered footballers should be able to play as many positions as possible, but in reality, it isn’t physically possible for them to do so.  Could you really see Caldwell playing wide on the left of a front 3? Or Crusat in the nets?  One aspect I think fans forget is that football players are human beings.  Yes, they ARE overpaid and over-pampered, but strip all that material bollocks away and these people are still the same as you or I.  Imagine if your (I hesitate to use the word, but this is modern football) customers constantly abused you as you went about you work, trying your best in a role that you are unfamiliar with.  We’ve all been there and we’d all hate it and get upset.  The only difference is that footballers can change clubs easily, whereas we’d struggle to find work.  Instead of pondering on the negative aspect of that statement, look at the positive - I think it’s to his credit that Gomez believes in the manager, himself and more importantly, THE CLUB and is prepared to stick it out, ignore the abuse of a few Neanderthals and try to carve himself a place in the team.  It’s our club and his club, let’s get behind him from the first whistle to the last.  If you want to show your displeasure, do it AFTER the game (if you’re still there – yet another Wigan tradition I don’t understand), not when it’s going on.

We already struggle to churn up a daunting atmosphere inside the stadium for the opposition and when the majority of our fans are venting their spleen at the players, it’s only going to make them want to play away, where that pressure is off.  I recently took my partner to the Fulham match and I was embarrassed and angry at the folk behind us, abusing Watson, which could have been mistaken for pure hatred.  I shouldn't feel like that, I should be proud at showing off my club, even though we lost, we gave it a bloody good go against a decent Fulham team.   I was embarrassed by the fans. Our fans.  Shout at him (even though he can’t hear you!) fine, but it was descending into abuse, F’s and W’s were flying about the place.  I don’t want to subject my lady to that, not when I can take her somewhere classy like a Frankie and Benny’s or a Gallimores.  I’m just thankful I don’t have to take my kids there at the moment.  I learned how to support my club from going to Springfield Park and the early years at the JJB.  Where we encouraged the players, gave stick to the opposition and yes, moaned a few times.  But I don’t ever remember the fans booing a player or slating him with the most poisonous abuse you can think of.  What are the kids (of whom there are many) at Latics going to learn about supporting their club now? It’s okay to boo a player DURING a game? That they should sit back and wait for someone to put a foot wrong, before launching into a frenzied attack of swearwords that don't actually make any sense regarding the current situation on the pitch?  I know if I had kids, I'd be wary of exposing them to that atmosphere.  There's a pack mentality that exists at Latics (maybe it does at other clubs too, I don't know) but once they identify their target (in this case a gifted player, struggling to find his place in the team and in need of encouragement) they circle and attack their prey like a pack of ravenous wolves.  The thing is, I don't feel that these people actually understand what they're saying and maybe if Martinez came out in the local press a bit more and say why he takes certain decisions, then maybe people will take that on board and see it in action next time and understand.

I can’t speak from the point of view of Gomez, Watson, Martinez or one of the abusers, I’m speaking as a Latics fan and human being.  Let’s get behind our players, make them feel homely, encourage them on if they make a mistake (just like we did with Ali on Saturday) and maybe, just maybe, they'll feel more comfortable and play well, we’ll win more games at home, which will attract more fans to the DW and we can move forward as a club from there.  Remember – this is OUR club, lets muck in instead of sniping from the sidelines.