Tuesday, 10 December 2013

The Coyle Experiment

It was doomed to fail.  Previously, I compared Owen Coyle to being a little bit like Roberto Martinez   It’s clear now that’s how he got the job in the summer - talking his way into the DW vault and opening up a slight crack in the fabled Whelan Warchest (but not all of it, obviously).  Unfortunately for him, Martinez is the likeable one, he was able to come away with some prestigious silverware and a nice cushy job in Liverpool, in the face of some ridiculous results, Owen is the over-confident one, played his bluff with the last man you would want to play with and now he’s left to rue his mistakes, as his battle shorts are sadly tucked into the drawer once more.
- the pair could be a duo of confidence tricksters, talking their way into the hearts and minds of clubs and fans everywhere. And old ladies’ pension books.

At the time of his appointment, we had Bolton fans telling us about his shortcomings, in between fits of laughter and taunts of ‘you’re going down’ (we needed a Rosetta Stone to translate the Middle English, obviously).  If only Dave Whelan had talked to his Bolton counterpart beforehand...  To be fair to Whelan though, at least he pulled the trigger now, instead of letting Coyle turn and ravage the club for much longer than he did.

‘Ravaging’ are you sure? I can hear it now. Well, I didn’t believe it myself up until the Derby game. I wanted him to do well, simply because I thought some of the abuse he got from Latics’ fans was out of order. But after hearing various stories about his relationship with players and Whelan himself being quoted as saying on (his regular spot on) Sky Sports News “You can be lucky, get a great guy, the right man, like I got Roberto. You can be unlucky and get somebody who doesn’t get on with you, doesn’t get on with the team and doesn’t get on with the fans. And that is what actually happened with Owen” it’s understandable that he left. All this came just a week or so since the Chairman gave Coyle his support on the same channel. So what happened? I don’t believe for a minute that 3 defeats in a row was the reason behind the massive swing in his beliefs. Especially when Roberto lost many more games on the spin, including 8 in a row once, and racked up some ridiculous goals against. It was apparently Coyle who offered to resign and if it’s true, it’s an incredibly stupid bluff to play and perhaps sums up his thinking and management style.

On results alone, if it were up to me, I would have kept hold of Coyle until the end of the season.  I agree with the consensus that a manager needs at least a year to put his stamp on the club. Then again, I would have never appointed him in the first place. His connection with Bolton was immediately seized upon and the supporters never made him forget it. Owen seems to be a confident man and sometimes people mistake that for arrogance, and we don’t like that here. Or the fact he was a Bolton manager. The football got increasingly dire and achieved nothing – at least the football under Martinez, though foolhardy most of time, was entertaining to watch. I can count all the games that we should have won this season on both hands, but because of bizarre tactics and team selections, we’ve not being doing as well as we should be doing, especially with a squad that is full of players with Premier League experience, and wages.

As we know now, The Derby game was the final straw and you could sense that Coyle cracked after he had a go at the fans for having ‘lofty expectations’. He might have had a point, but the way in which he presented it just smacked of a venomous excuse for another poor performance.  It was clear that he wasn’t one of us, he probably wasn’t committed to Wigan Athletic enough.  Straight after the game, rumours started circulating about bust-ups with players (some of whom, including a international who had led the England defence a merry dance just a week or so earlier, weren’t even in the squad, but magically reappeared for the Leeds game a few days later) and by midnight we had heard that he had parted company with the club. Or if you were to believe the media: the Chairman crept up behind him and axed him in the back with a mischievous cackle, as the claret of his victim splattered the FA Cup, taking the shine off it slightly. If the rumours are true – then I’m sorry, but that’s made his position totally unacceptable. He sold the Chairman a product of Owen Coyle, the manager who likes to play decent football and can improve players. All we’ve seen is poor football and decent players being alienated and made to sit in the stands. Managers may moan about the lack of time that they get, but situations like this can’t go on because it will only harm the football club.

The aftermath has made interesting reading. Without trying to sound pompous, 8 years in the Premier League has given me a good insight into how the national media work, as they run a story about your football club that you know for a fact sounds a bit iffy. A journalist friend of Owen Coyle (which strikes me as a strange relationship, to be honest) was the first to run the story on Sunday evening and has since been sounding off on Twitter, swearing at Wigan fans etc. Maybe because Owen got the boot, but I think mostly because he’s lost something to write about for the foreseeable future. But he’s been using his last trickles of information to have a go at Whelan, blaming him for the lack of time, budgets and the Europa League. For me, the Europa League isn’t an ‘excuse’. You might be able to make an argument for the former two, but for a club like ours, the Europa League is a joy to play in and I don’t believe that the competition has hampered us – playing more games can only make you improve as a team, surely? Coyle signed 13 players, so more games would be beneficial for them to acclimatise to the club, their new teammates and his tactics. What has hampered us is bizarre tactics and team selections with players who would get into most Championship squads and probably a few Premier League ones too. Hardly the fault of the Chairman, is it? And anyway – our results in the League AFTER Europa League games reads 3 wins, 1 draw – and 1 defeat. Can you guess when that 1 loss came? Yep, against Derby. We’ve lost more games and put in more baffling performances at times when the players have had more recovery time.

Despite my criticism of him, I don’t entirely blame Owen Coyle – everyone at the club needs to take stock of things. Dave Whelan for appointing him in the first place, the players for being poor and the fans for producing a negative atmosphere from day one, that wouldn’t have helped one bit. Ironically, if everyone learns from this and applies themselves better in the future, then you could argue that the Coyle experiment was actually a success!

So the next in line is Uwe Rosler. I can’t really say too much about him at the moment, because he’s been in the job for a matter of days! I feel a bit sorry for Brentford, because I know how much losing a manager can affect your club. Just look at us and Roberto at Everton now! Uwe came across well in the press conference, very cool and calm, as he outlined some of his plans. The thing with Coyle, was that despite being a good communicator, you get the feeling that he was trying too hard to convince you, as he uses clichés to try and explain things. He never set out a footballing philosophy. You don’t get that with Uwe, he just sat there and said what he was going to do. I’m quite frightened of him to be honest.  The main thing he outlined was his style of play and his ambitions. We’re a club that lost its way under Coyle and hope Uwe can steer us back on course. We’ll have to wait to find out of course, but the signs are already more positive than they were under Coyle.

Looks like Roberto Martinez has got a new partner in the ‘conning old ladies out of pension money’ racket.

First published on Football League fansite 'We Are Going Up' on 10th December 2013

Sunday, 14 July 2013

On the Rebound

Relegation from the Premier League. It’s a sentence that normally sees fans and players alike in   When it comes to Wigan Athletic supporters, we don’t really seem too bothered.  Okay, that’s not strictly true, it’s horrible to see the club you love bow out from the most-watched league in the world.  But after the cup parade 6 days later, 30,000 turning out to celebrate the success, the general mantra was ‘we’ll be back’. It was a time for celebration, not just winning the oldest and most prestigious competition in world football, but for 8 years of upsetting the odds and all the big boys along the way. 
floods of tears, worrying about the future of their club.

We’re actually coming down in an excellent financial position, having posted profits in the last couple of seasons, no longer in need of handouts from the chairman and there’s no real need to sell our players if we (and they) don’t want to. We’re in a great position to bounce back in a year or two, but for now, there isn’t anyone who isn’t looking forward to the new season. And even if we never get back up, we’ve always got the memories of winning the FA Cup and being in the top division for 8 years. If you said that we were going to do that after we went up in 2005, nobody would have believed you.

Undoubtedly, the FA Cup win saved our season. I honestly don’t know what would have happened if we had lost that too!  Before the final, we constantly heard THAT question - “Staying in the Premier League or win the FA Cup? After seeing the reactions of Arsenal fans after they sealed the 4th best team title (sponsored by Barclays) and our own demise from the league, I now know the answer. How can an extra £40 million buy moments like we experienced on May 11th? They can’t. I was with family and friends, some of whom were screaming, crying, hugging stewards and attempting to take shirts off in a fit of joy, but comically failing, when Ben Watson headed in that winner to seal the unlikeliest of wins for a club that is very much for its local community. It’s why we go to watch the football, it’s not about money, it’s about making memories, achieving things and experiencing them with your family, mates and fellow townsfolk. That’s what these modern football ‘fans’ don’t seem to understand, unfortunately.

People won’t remember Arsenal finishing 4th last season, but they’ll remember record-breaking Wigan Athletic - the first club to win the FA Cup and be relegated in the same season (I swear that some Latics fans are proud of that achievement!)  After the parade, and many drinks in a nightclub later, I was to witness an FA Cup winner dancing on top of the bar (whilst wearing a leg cast), with a wet floor cone on his head, throwing drink at the revellers below, who duly threw some back in between fits of laughter and chants about a (now-former) Latics striker who shares a name with the item that adorned the head of the said FA Cup winner.  That incident alone put my faith back in footballers and their attachment to a football club!

Fast-forward to the summer, which hasn’t been without its metaphorical rainy days. Roberto leaving was a blow and I must admit that I felt disappointed that he didn’t feel ‘equipped’ to get us back.  There were an handful of games last season that could have kept us up, I’m not one for blaming our demise solely on injuries and bad luck, but with the margins being as fine as they are and the mistakes that were made, he and the players can’t be absolved of any blame. Just like how they were responsible for that great cup win.  The least you expect is for them to want to give it another season to try and put it right? Maybe I’m being unfair, but that’s how it feels from this side of the pitch.  I honestly wish Roberto – and any departing player - all the best, we have to move on and accept that if these people want to ply their trade at the top level, to get on with their careers, then it’s best to let them go and start afresh. Maybe it’ll work out for the best for all concerned in the long-run?  Roberto achieved some great things off the field for us – establishing a decent wage structure, youth policy and he’s left a good squad for the new manager to build from. Well, until he signs them all, anyway! But we’ll always be thankful for the memories we shared. The manager was loved by most at the club, which is why it’s so hard to see him leave. Bloody hell, it’s like seeing your abusive (in an ‘inflicting comedy defending on your supporters-sense’) partner leave for somebody with a bigger bank account, someone who can give them what they need, albeit with a bigger credit limit.

Owen Coyle, eh? There’s a rebound shag if there ever was one. There was a bit of wailing and gnashing of cyber teeth when the former Bolton man was appointed.  Aside from the ‘rivalry’ with Bolton, his penchant for slipping in sponsored names and wearing shorts on the sidelines got his detractors backs up. But if they cared to look closely, then they’ll see that, apart from his last year or so at Bolton, he’s actually done quite well in his managerial career. What we’ve learnt so far is that he can talk a good game, just like Roberto. In fact, they’re that alike, that persuasive, I can just imagine them teaming up as a duo to rip off rich old ladies on a cruise ship. One, a swarve, Mediterranean-type who everyone fancies. The other, a gruff-looking but worldly-wise gentlemen, who’s just as adept with a table tennis bat than he is at going through handbags (maybe wearing a cravat too, I can just see him in one). I don’t think the fact that he got sacked at Bolton should count against him, as there are always circumstances that work against you sometimes and maybe that’s what Roberto meant when he claimed that he wasn’t ‘equipped’?  Perhaps him going to Everton was the right time for us, more so than himself? Maybe the club will benefit from fresh ideas from someone who knows the league? Time will tell. But there’s no doubt Owen has shown potential to be a good manager in the past, playing half-decent football, so I think he’s worth a go. As long as he stops us conceding ridiculous goals, then he’s made a good start anyway!

The signings he’s made so far seem to be hitting the mark too.  Stephen Crainey, Chris McCann and James Perch all have experience at this level.  Marc-Antoine Fortune has always looked like a dangerous attacking player every time I’ve seen him play against us, Scott Carson is a great signing at this level and despite people always pointing to a few high-profile mistakes, is still one of the better English goalkeepers out there. Thomas Rogne was highly-rated at Celtic before having some injury issues and Grant Holt has been scoring goals everywhere he’s been. In fact, I could put up an argument to say that our squad could be stronger by the end of the transfer window than it was when we went down! The likes of Ben Watson, James McArthur, Callum McManaman and Jordi Gomez should excel at this level and if by some minor miracle we can keep hold of Shaun Maloney and James McCarthy, we won’t be short of the hard work and quality needed to get back up. But as a club, we’re under no illusions that this is a difficult league with some great teams in it. With the Europa League to contend with as well, a top 6 finish will be a decent return. It’s going to be an interesting couple of weeks before the end of transfer window and I’m dearly hoping we can hang on to our players and bring in a few more to bolster the squad.

From a supporter point-of-view, what matters most is that we’re back in a proper footballing league again. We can compete and generally enjoy our football again, instead of shitting ourselves when a defender squares the ball, whilst waiting for the Benny Hill theme tune to play.  All those away trips to new and old grounds are already being planned. Games that won’t cost £60 for a restricted view and our support being called ‘shit’, despite it equating to 20% of the town’s population. Along the way, we’ll be meeting supporters who are truly passionate about their clubs and not just there for day trips. I can’t wait.

And we might actually win a game or two!

First published on Football League fansite 'We Are Going Up' on 14th July 2013

Thursday, 11 April 2013

We Support Our Local Team. All Of Us.

Once the elation of reaching our first FA Cup Semi-Final had died down, my thoughts suddenly filled with dread 'Those bastards are going to crucify us if we don't sell all our tickets'.  'Those bastards' turn out to be the national press, those witches and warlocks who seem to be able to cast a spell upon any gullible fool who reads a webpage or even a newspaper - and low and behold - they went ahead with their now-tiresome 'Wigan fail to sell their tickets' stories, which must be a macro or a shortcut on their keyboard by now.

Let's get this right - Wigan have sold around 21,000 tickets so far.  Our average attendance is around 16,000 home supporters. But more crucially - and take this in - the entire population of our town is 80,000.  The problem Wigan has, is that it's a small town surrounded by two major cities, both of whom contain four of Britian's biggest - and successful - football clubs.  When we say that our 'population' is 80,000, people like to point to the population of Wigan Borough, which is 300,000.  People don't seem to understand that 'Wigan Borough' is just a name for the area, just like 'Greater Manchester' is.  It's basically a drawing on a map.  Those smaller towns in the borough are mostly populated by descendants of post-war 'immigrants' from Liverpool and Manchester, so who should they support if they do indeed take to football? A town that they don't even live in, or their parents' team?

Another tedious cliché is that Wigan is a 'Rugby Town', based on the success of the rugby club.  Somehow they don't take into account that their crowds are on a level, even sometimes lower, than the football club. Unlike the football club though, the rugby are able to draw support from those smaller towns I mentioned, because they ARE the Manchester United and Liverpool of Rugby League, there are no other successful rugby clubs in any of the major cities, let alone 4 of them.  If you like Rugby League in the Wigan Borough, you're only going to support Wigan Warriors, or maybe Leigh Centurions. Everyone wants success and only those who are truly proud of their town and who they are, will support their club.  And that's what Latics fans are. They're not glory-hunters, sat on their arse in a pub with another city's shirt on, they support THEIR football club.

It was interesting to see how Burnley, with a similar population to Wigan, got many plaudits for talking a good chunk of their population to Wembley for their play-off final a few years ago, yet Wigan get pilloried for doing exactly the same.  Unlike Wigan, Burnley are able to draw on support from smaller towns around theirs, as the only rival for 30 miles is Blackburn Rovers, so it was obvious that they were always going to sell out.  We have this, what must seem like, a bizarre phenomenon in Wigan where people either support one Wigan team, or the other.  The problem is though, the majority of those that watch the football have no interest whatsoever in Rugby League, whereas many of those who watch the rugby, do actually watch football.  But they can't be seen watching Latics, so what do they do? In short - the myth that Wigan is a 'Rugby Town', is absolute rubbish. Ask 100 rugby fans which football team they support, then ask 100 Latics fans which rugby league team they support. I don't have to threaten to run naked down the street this time, as I know what the result will be.

Millwall deserve all the plaudits and many pats on the back for selling all their tickets.  But once this season is over, how many of those 31,000 supporters will be at The Den in August?  On Tuesday night, the crowd was around 9,000 for a game against Sheffield Wednesday.  I don't understand why people are getting on our back for selling just over our average attendance, whilst the vast majority of the Millwall fans are clearly just there for the one-off and couldn't really give a toss about the Tuesday game which ended in a 2-1 defeat against near-rivals Sheffield Wednesday, which left the Lions 5 points away from the relegation zone.  Personally, if I was a Millwall fan, I'd be asking why can't at least half of these people attend more regularly?  Maybe then the club will have a bigger budget which will help them progress and more support inside the ground will always generate more noise and lift the players.  I think it's a bigger 'shame' for Millwall selling out, than Wigan not selling 10,000, if I'm being honest.

I could go on and slip in even more excuses, after excuses - like the fact that there are no suitable train times to get back to Wigan, not to mention the ticket and travel prices - but I'll leave it there and get myself ready for the big day in a positive mood and not dwell on this any longer.  Here at Wigan, all we're after is some respect for our support of OUR football club, like every set of supporters do.  How about CELEBRATING the fact we've sold 21,000 tickets, which amounts to a quarter of our population? The amazing story of the club who has played at Wembley in the FA Trophy, Football League Trophy and now the FA Cup? Give people some positive news for once.

Is that too much to ask?

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Can We Play Away Every Week?

I'm sure I'm not the only one who dreads home games? Not because of the football, because of the utter gobshites I have to sit around.  It's all well and good shouting and screaming all sorts of abuse at the players, but doing that instead of supporting them and making POSITIVE noises just isn't the correct way of supporting your football club, in my opinion. 

Now before I get anyone steaming in with the old 'Well I've paid my money, I can boo if I like' comment, fair enough, but is verbally abusing a player the right thing to do DURING a game? If you want to show your displeasure, do it AFTER the match. When the game is going on you need to support your team, make them feel comfortable so they get a result which will please your wallet.  Imagine if you're at work, with your boss or customer constantly abusing you just because you're doing your job, it'll hurt won't it? You'll end up growing resentful of that person and lose respect for them.  Now I'm not saying football players try any harder when they're cheered on, as opposed to when they're not, but it creates a comfortable atmosphere for them to settle down and play the game without any nerves. If you feel comfortable and happy at work, you'll probably find you'll be more productive, rather than when you're looking over your shoulder for a snidey comment from someone. Can you imagine what they feel like knowing every potential stray pass will lead to all sorts of abuse from thousands of people? Football isn't a computer game where you enter some instructions in and expect to win. It's a game that's played by actual human beings, with emotions and everything.

But seeing as our fans EXPECT football to played that way (pay your money, sit down, expect to be entertained without giving any encouragement), I'm going to present some numbers to show how bad our home form is.  I'm not really a person to judge anything on stats though, I think they're extremely useful, but I don't agree with people who base an whole point-of-view on them.  In this case, I'm going to use them as a guide to ask why our home form has dipped dramatically since the arrival of Roberto Martinez.

During his first three seasons in charge, Roberto has a home win percentage of 28% with away wins at 17%. A big difference you might think? Not really - you should be aiming to win at least twice more at home as you do away.  For a club who have been struggling for the last 4 years, our away win percentage is very high when compared to our home performances.  It's only the first season (2009-10) that shows a big difference between the two - we won 6 at home and 3 away, with 7 home and 3 away draws.  We also conceded 24 home goals and 55 away. In total, we collected 25 points at home, compared to 11 away.  From that you can see our away form is pretty bad and we draw far too many games at home.

It's from the second season though that things dramatically change.  That season saw us win 5 at home and 4 away, however we conceded LESS goals away than we did at home that season. The draw count is similar too - 8 at home and 7 away.  15 draws out of 38! There's the problem right there. The points totals are slowly coming together too - 23 at home and 19 away. That means we collected 8 more points on the road and lost 2 at home, from last season. 

The next season saw our away performances improve further, although we conceded 7 more away than we did at home, we won 6 of those games, compared to 5 wins at home. We also only scored 2 less goals away than we did at home.  It's the points that make the most interesting reading though - we only collected 1 more point (22) at home than we did away.  You can see that our total collected points are about to overlap each other and go in opposite directions.

From those stats, you can see that season-by-season our home form is regressing and our away form is improving - even this season has seen us collect more points when playing away.  As I said previously though, these stats can only be used as a guide, as in reality football squads change and circumstances may arise. I mean, do you honestly believe we'd be in the same position if we didn't have so many injuries and dodgy refereeing decisions (both for and against)? Statistics can't predict that. What we can say with some certainty, is that we just don't get enough points at home under Roberto and it's a huge problem. We've drawn 4 at home this season - twice as much as we've won. Is this the fault of the manager? On the other hand, the away stats alone suggest he's doing a decent job - our 3 away wins this season puts us on a par with West Brom, Liverpool and Sunderland (2 of those beat us at home, by the way).

Now I'm not saying it's the fault of the fans that we're shit at home, what I'm saying is that, for some reason, the players obviously don't feel comfortable playing at home and regularly perform better away, as they're playing without the added pressure of needing to play well at home. So we're not exactly devoid of any blame, are we? You could also push some of that blame on the manager and the players if I'm honest.  I don't think the manager, especially, does enough to explain why he takes certain decisions, which can only rile up those ready for a screaming session when they turn up at the stadium every other week.  But these people aren't bad people who do it because they really want to, yes they're gobshites, but they're frustrated. Frustrated that we can win and perform well away but play awful at home. The team have a duty to win a few games of football in front of their home supporters, fans have a duty to support them in that quest.  It isn't the fault of one single group, it's all our fault. We're a club, we're supposed to be in this together. Let's start pulling in the same direction. Who knows? We might even get somewhere.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

African Cup of Nations Preview

...or African Nations Cup as it's otherwise called.  As a friend pointed out last year, 'African Cup of Nations' sounds like a cheap brand of coffee that supermarkets like to roll out. Maybe flavoured with essence of horse, who knows?  What I do know, is that I enjoy watching this tournament.  True, some of the earlier games could be a chore in watching, but apart from the European Championship (where I think it's fair to say, that the majority of the teams are more evenly-matched in the former 16-team format) it's probably the best continental tournament to watch. It's the latter stages that make this cup exciting and I don't think any other tournament provides as many heart-warming stories from players who genuinely love playing football for their country.

Last year, Zambia (with their jean-wearing French coach Here Renard, screaming audible instructions from the sidelines) won the cup for the first time in a nail-baiting penalty shoot-out against overwhelming favourites Ivory Coast.  What made the victory though, wasn't Zambia's last-ditch defending or Gervihno's penalty miss, before Stopilla Sunzu (who has just recently signed for Reading) hit the winner, it was the fact that Zambia's 1993 squad were killed in a plane crash, a sort distance away from the stadium in Libreville in Gabon.  Incredibly, the 1994 tournament in Tunisia saw a hastily-picked Zambian team reach the final under the management of Sunderland's 1973 FA Cup hero, Ian Porterfield, but despite taking the lead in the 3rd minute, their opponents, Nigeria, went on to win 2-1.  Considering, with all due respect, that this was basically a Zambian reserve team, imagine what could have happened if those players hadn't have perished in that plane crash?  Watching the footage of the team celebrating that win in 2012, you could see on the players faces how much this game meant to them, it's a story that shows the true drama of football and how it can mean so much to people.

Due to recent troubles in Libya, this edition of the tournament has been swapped with the one that was due to take place in South Africa in 2017 and I think it'll be intriguing to see how the country's football infrastructure has change since hosting the 2010 World Cup.  Organisers are hoping for bigger crowds, which has proved to be a problem in the past, due in no small part to the expense and the sheer travel involved.  Otherwise, the stadiums are in great condition and football seems to be as popular as ever in South Africa.  They are up against tournament debutants, Cape Verde (who could provide another great story) in the opening game today, which will be worth a watch.

The tournament isn't without it's critics though, with Europeans moaning about the fact that the cup is played in January, meaning that the clubs lose their players for a couple of a months.  I think it's incredibly arrogant for people to start playing the 'superiority card' (because that's what it is) by saying the tournament needs to be played in summer.  Personally I've never been to Africa, but I'd imagine that large parts of it are extremely hot during the summer months and playing a very intensive football tournament may not be the best pursuit to partake in.  If heat isn't your bag, then maybe the cup could played in torrential rain and thunderstorms during the wet season in Central and Western Africa? Sadly, football has fallen victim to selfish society, with clubs and their fans who believe because they pay an exorbitant amount of money to a young man who grew up in Africa, that they own this person and he's got no right in representing his country.  Ask the Zambia players if they'll rather stay in Europe and collect their wages, instead of playing for the honour of their country - you don't need to be Sherlock Hound to work out the answer.  International football used to be the ultimate honour for a player, whereas today it's solely about the money and pride in playing for your country has disappeared.  It's what we Europeans are missing, not just in football, but possibly in life too and that pride is what makes the African Nations Cup a great tournament to watch.

As for the teams to watch, many aren't looking past the Ivorians, but seeing as they've only actually won the cup once and their 'golden generation' starting to show the signs of age (sound familiar?), it won't be too much of a surprise not to see them win the trophy.  Ghana are always a decent outside bet and Nigeria, who have had an awful couple of years, resulting in their government banning the football team from playing competitive matches for two years, would want to put up a good show on their return.  Former Latics winger Victor Moses could prove to be a key man.  Hosts South Africa could be a decent outside bet, they've improved as a side since the World Cup and being at home, they too would want to put up a good show.  Last year's winners Zambia shouldn't be discounted too, especially with the amount of young players they have coming through.  And their coach, the previously-mentioned Herve Renard, is always worth a watch, just to see him shout at his players!  It's normally the games you don't expect to be good, to be good, so I think it's well worth dipping into the group stages at some point, who knows? You may see the next African star to be exploited by a European side!  The Northern African teams, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, are relative outside bets but games involving these teams are normally interesting to watch as they contain mostly European-based players (moan, moan, moan), so the clash of styles is very prevalent when they come up against other African sides.

With UEFA possibly ruining the European Championship by expanding, then having it being played all over Europe (or more likely, in the richest countries) AFCON is a great alternative and could be viewed as a throwback to football tournaments as they used to be.  But best of all - it's different.  Imagine if everything was the same, ran by the same people and the same wallets. It'll be rubbish, won't it?

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The Greed of Modern Football

Believe it or not, there was once a time when footballers used to earn less than an average punter.  Before Jimmy Hill led his campaign, football was the only professional occupation to have a maximum wage, meaning that players wages couldn't top a certain amount.  Even though the top wage was a nice sum of money, it was rare that anyone actually earned it.  Clubs could do what they wanted - and with them not being liable to pay their players their full wage during the close season, many had to find a job in order to pay the rent.  On a house owned by the club, naturally.  Clubs could also retain a players' registration once their contracts expired, meaning that they could play god with a players' career and not transfer their registration if they didn't want to.  Football used to be a job where people played it for pleasure, a job which was far easier than working in a factory or down a pit all week.  The lack of money and lack of support from a club seemed like a easy ransom to pay.

These days, it's the supporters who are being held to ransom by the very club they support.  Once, we were the lifeblood of the club, the ones who used to pay the wages and fill the pockets of greedy directors who hung young men out to dry.  Today, we just fill the pockets of greedy directors.  We're not needed to keep a club running.  I don't care if Arsenal are a top side in London - £62 (or £94 against Spurs) is just TOO MUCH for a average person to afford in a climate where more people are being made redundant than jobs created.

For once, I'm not going to blame the players for the rise in ticket prices, because lets face it - there is no club that pays it's entire wage bill on gate receipts alone.  Wages of players have gone out of control since the abolishing of the maximum wage, but is it really the fault of a player when a club offers you that amount of money?  Once the maximum wage went (and more recently, the introduction of the Bosman rule), then clubs knew they had to do something to keep their better 'assets', rather than see them go to a rival for nothing. Paying them a ridiculous wage seemed like the only way for them to do it.  Is that really the fault of the player?  .

Looking back, you can see that it's the clubs that created this high-wage culture in football, through their own greed and for them to act all innocent about the issue and blame players, is just wrong.  Don't get me wrong, today there's probably many players out there who are only interested in money, but when you grow up in a culture that throws £1,000 a week at a 16 year-old, in order to keep him at the club, how are you supposed to turn out? On another hand, Football players seem to be an easy target for this type of criticism, whereas movie actors, for example, are paid $20 million for 3 months work on a film that isn't that great anyway. And who foots the bill for it, after it's passed from studio to studio to distributor to cinema? You the moviegoer!  Football seems to be too transparent at times, giving people the opportunity to tear it apart, but yet when it comes to the important things like finance and where it goes, the truth is hard to find. I wonder why?

If we look at the league now, the majority of each clubs outgoings are paid off with money from Television.  Latics relies on this even more than most clubs though, but still keep lower ticket prices to attract supporters.  True, our chairman had his fingers burnt with trying to rise prices during our second season (when in reality, he should have lowered them to keep those 'new' supporters who appeared from nowhere for our first season in the PL), but since then the reality has set in that people from Wigan can't afford to spend £35 a week each on a football match.  Statistics show that our fanbase is slowly growing and without the heavily discounted tickets, this wouldn't happen.  So fair play to the club for actually having a think about things and putting a long-term plan in place.

When I mention something like the above though, you always get the same argument 'well, Arsenal are better than Wigan and don't need to attract supporters'.  True, but there's always that loyal Arsenal supporter who will never be able to afford a season ticket.  The club knows this and they know that a richer type will roll up and splash the cash. Maybe buy a Bruschetta or two?  But are they a true supporter? Do they love the club? Are they only there for a status symbol, so they can brag to others?  If you ever hear that argument from someone, just point out that Bayern Munich charge barely £100 for their cheapest season ticket.  Bayern Munich, one of the world's most successful club sides. Argument over.

To be honest, I'm sick of hearing how the Premier League is 'the best in the world' - just compare it to Germany.  The only people that rock the 'best in the world' statement are the media types, SKY especially.  Personally, I'm a football supporter, you know one that actually wants to go to every game but can't afford to these days.  In Germany, they don't just offer fans cheap tickets, they offer free use of public transport and some even offer free away travel.  And this a league who gets LESS TV money than England.  The atmosphere inside the grounds is amazing too and that's because the true supporters are able to afford a ticket.  Football shouldn't be excluding these people, it NEEDS these people to further enhance their 'product' to the world, watching on their televisions and computer devices.  People will point out that Germany has a problem holding on to the very best players, but again, England gets much more TV money so holding on to them shouldn't be a problem.  And if things carry on the way they do - Germany will become the more attractive model to foreign television, in a couple of years anyway.

As I've said - let's stop this argument of 'the ticket prices pay for the players', because they clearly don't.  Obviously, the bigger clubs are able to spend more than the likes of Wigan because of an higher income from gate receipts, but Arsenal have been making profit upon profit every year and spending very little on players. Even if they halved their ticket prices and then drew up a sensible wage structure, they'd probably still clear a profit, or at least break even. But they have owners and directors to make money for. Some clubs have loans to pay off - and that's where the majority of the ticket money is going to. And that's the problem with the game - too many third parties who aren't interested in developing a football club for the local community. Which is what the majority of clubs were formed for.

I really hope the league gets a kick up the arse and lowers the prices, which will get the true supporters back. Maybe if something was done about getting more away supporters to games, the atmosphere inside every ground will be even better? Just think about it, Premier League and club directors - maybe you'll end up getting EVEN MORE television money to slip into your big pockets?