Football never fails to surprise, does it? Naturally, we should’ve come to learn this many moons ago, but following an unprecedented barrage of astonishing, ludicrous and heart-breaking headlines which entered our hostile media environment this week, with yet more to come, it seems any concept we had of normality in the beautiful game was foolishly held, to say the least. Predictably – in ironic circumstances – I have stepped up to the plate, or rather the keyboard, to even attempt to decipher the slurry of shocks, the absolute avalanche of absurdity and the bombardment of bat-s*** crazy (without wanting to exaggerate) of this week of footballing upheaval, and, perhaps perilously, as very little has sunk in by 20:41 on Thursday night as I begin to write this, detail why, in truth, it has been nothing out of the ordinary. With little inspiration required quite honestly from anywhere else other than the footballing columns of any respectable media agency (and that does not include The Sun), this could be a treacherously off-course ramble about the fast-paced nature of news, specifically in the sport of the round ball, the rectangular green field and the 22 players, but hopefully it should offer something a little out-of-the-blue, dutifully reflecting this mad, mad week.
19:57 – Sutton United kick off against Arsenal in the FA Cup Fifth Round.
20:23 – Arsenal go 1-0 up through Lucas Perez’s deceptive low shot, disrupting Sutton’s early stability.
21:09 – Arsenal add a second, with Theo Walcott finishing a well-worked move to effectively end the tie.
21:33 – Sutton reserve ‘keeper and all-around legend Wayne Shaw is spotted eating a pie on the sub’s bench, having earlier been pictured in the bar at half-time.
21:50 – The full time whistle blows; cue the obligatory pitch invasion by Sutton fans after a credible 2-0 defeat.
Having been the focus of a raft of attention prior to kick-off for his antics around Gander Green Lane – acting as a groundsman, goalkeeping coach, substitute and cult hero around the club in various stages – Wayne Shaw, hailed as the ‘saviour of the FA Cup’ by some, and condemned, if jokingly, as someone who ‘followed his [dreams] to the burger van’ by others (namely Alan Shearer), seemed to have become a timeless memory of our age in the FA Cup on Monday night. Caught on camera stuffing what he later referred to as a pasty in to his mouth – but more on that in a bit – his comedic sense, as well as his undeniable enthusiasm and loyalty to his array of roles, made him appear a shining beacon of hope in a monotonous landscape of soulless footballers, a distinct opposite of those professionals, dead-behind-the-eyes in their seemingly steadfast state of tedium, and we, as viewers, loved it. In comparison to the game, where the North Londoners efficiently, but unimpressively, assured their manager of another week of stability, as well as a tie with Lincoln in the quarter-finals, with a patient exploitation of the limitations in fitness and finesse in the non-leaguers, Shaw’s incomparable madcap behaviour certainly proved a silver lining to what, after considerable build-up, turned out to be a damp squib of a game.
10:32 – Sutton Chairman Bruce Elliott hints Shaw ‘will be brought back down to earth’ following his pie stunt.
10:41 – The Independent’s reveal of Shaw’s actions linking to an offer made on Sun Bet – Sutton’s shirt sponsors for the night – lead to his actions being linked to FA investigation.
13:11 – News breaks that the FA launches an investigation into Shaw’s potential breach of governing body rules.
15:56 – Shaw, who often slept at the club, as was his devotion, offers his resignation to the Sutton board, which is accepted, though rumours suggest he was forced to quit.
19:46 – Manchester City and Monaco kick off in a Champions League Round of 16 First Leg at the Etihad.
20:32 – Monaco ahead at half-time, leading 2-1 after Falcao’s diving header and teenager Kylian Mbappe’s emphatic close-range finish cancel out Raheem Sterling’s point-blank effort.
21:37 – The match finishes 5-3, with Pep Guardiola’s side the second English side to be leading in their European tie, alongside their cross-city rivals, 3-0 up against Saint Étienne. Falcao’s penalty miss proves costly, as even though his chip on Willy Caballero puts the Ligue 1 leaders ahead after Sergio Aguero levelled for City, a rapid succession of goals from Aguero again, Stones and Sane – each exposing a dubious away defence - leave the tie in the Mancunians’ hands.
Considering the day started, and was largely dominated by Shaw’s ‘pie-gate’ scandal, in the shock announcement that the goalkeeper had a motive to his pastry-themed shenanigans in settling a few bets for friends, there seems no better place for us to begin on a highly dramatic Tuesday. Surely unprecedented on the national scale, Shaw’s privately emotional resignation divided fans of the baked treat everywhere – had he inexplicably overlooked the reputation of his club and FA rules when justifying the odds himself, or was he simply an innocent victim – as a pasty eater, of course - of an organisation so dogmatic in its politically-correct approach towards the heart and humour of the non-league game?
For a servant so loyal to the leafy corner of South London, Shaw’s punishment for an ill-though-out publicity stunt seemed a little harsh; after all, it was hardly of the level of Sam Allardyce’s seedy dealings in London bars to avoid third-party rules in the English game, physically tampering with the credibility of the regulations his employers – the FA – set. While certainly, the credibility of some at Sutton suffered as a result of Shaw’s actions, I can assure the likes of Elliott and Paul Doswell that nobody thought any less of them as a club in the wake of the pie-eating (sorry, pasty-eating), and that the exposure they received on Monday, including Shaw as a key figure, was entirely positive for the side. In my view, as an entire group, they did themselves a huge disservice when they cast such a devoted character aside for the sake of reputation – spoiling the light-hearted picture of non-league serenity which they had just been coated with less than 24 hours previous.
Manchester City, on the other hand, redeemed their pedigree as European heavyweights against Monaco, playing out what some dubbed as ‘the best Champions League match ever’ at the Etihad, showcasing, for once, the true spirit of football after a controversial few hours previous. An encapsulation of many great European nights, the Mancunians roared back to their attacking best on a night of end-to-end entertainment that was complemented by a similarly high-octane clash at the BayArena, where Bayer Leverkusen hosted a rampant Athletico Madrid, presenting great value for money for the spectators present in a 4-2 defeat. Guardiola appears happiest when managing in such pressure cookers of matches, squaring off against the crème de la crème of world football, so perhaps it was no surprise that his forwards, including the suddenly resurgent Sergio Aguero – signalling a statement of intent with his well-taken brace – were so proficient on the night, softening the blow that Gabriel Jesus’ serious metatarsal injury posed the Spanish boss. While the Citizen’s defence leaves much to be desired – in the recurring lack of thought John Stones and Nicolas Otamendi place into their passes, and the ageing nature of their full-backs – if any English side is currently capable of challenging for the Champions League title, Guardiola’s XI is it, combining a plethora of experience, determination and level-headedness that cannot be equalled on such a stage until Antonio Conte’s Chelsea undoubtedly qualify next season.
17:00 – Jose Mourinho’s in-form Red Devils take to Saint Étienne’s Stade Geoffroy-Guichard pitch aiming to see out their advantage in the Round of 16 tie.
18:51 – Thanks to a 16th minute goal from Henrikh Mkhitaryan - a dainty slice across Stephane Ruffier from Juan Mata’s teasing cross - United ease over the line while adding to their advantage without captain Wayne Rooney, injured before the tie and rumoured to be in talks with a number of Chinese clubs before the national transfer window ends on 28th February.
19:46 – Leicester City kick off in their Champions League RO16 first leg in Sevilla, with expectations low following the Foxes’ poor run of form.
20:33 – Sevilla end the half 1-0 up and coasting towards a certain victory, dominating a defensively fragile Leicester side, with Pablo Sarabia’s header the sole effort to breach Kasper Schmeichel’s resistance.
21:35 – Claudio Ranieri’s English champions rise to the occasion in the closing stages, but trail 2-1 heading into the second leg at the King Power Stadium as Jamie Vardy’s six-yard finish reduces arrears following Joaquin Correa’s instinctive response to a defence-splitting Stefan Jovetic run on the hour mark.
If Tuesday had been a 24 hours of great drama, then Wednesday appeared to have taken a back seat following United’s low-key victory in central France, only to be set alight at the very death by Vardy’s first goal in over two months, a lifeline for Leicester and what appeared at the time to be a glimmer of hope for Ranieri’s ill-fated 2016/17 campaign, showcasing a snippet of the explosive energy and industrious desire in the final 20 minutes which defined them last season. In truth, few of the Foxes fans who flew out to the Andalusian capital would’ve realistically predicted a victory after so many weeks of arduous torment in terms of results, so when charting their stormy season, this defeat seems little more than a great success against the three-time consecutive winners of the Europa League, also known as the side third in La Liga currently, in the midst of what, until about 42 hours ago (as this goes up), was a relegation battle in unprecedented circumstances for Ranieri. Little did we know what would follow less than a day later…
7:40 – Wayne Rooney’s agent Paul Stretford confirmed to have been in China, fuelling rumours that the Manchester United and England captain could leave for the Far East by the summer.
18:00 – Rooney releases a statement revealing his commitment to United and intention to remain in England.
20:01 – Claudio Ranieri sacked as Leicester manager just nine months after leading the 5000/1 outsiders to the Premier League title, leaving them 17th in the Premier League and 2-1 down heading into a home leg with Sevilla.
20:05 – Tottenham return to their European home of Wembley, attempting to overturn the 1-0 deficit facing them from the first leg of their tie with Gent.
20:53 – Spurs implode following Christian Eriksen’s early goal, as Harry Kane’s unfortunate own goal and an entirely deserved straight red card for Dele Alli hand Gent a surely insurmountable advantage at half time.
22:00 – Gent see their lead home, as despite tonnes of pressure from Mauricio Pochettino’s side and Victor Wanyama’s stunning goal, sub Jeremy Perbet wins the tie with a timely finish on the counter 82 minutes in to dump the North Londoners out of continental competition.
Likely the main inspiration in its massive diversity of news in quick succession for this style of blog, Thursday’s action, so close to when I was penning the first few words here, undeniably sent tremors across the often cosy atmosphere English football has. It did, however, take what I perceived perhaps to be the least surprising of the three events to truly awaken the pundits, armchair and studio alike, as well as Mourinho and Jürgen Klopp in Friday press conferences, in Ranieri’s sacking. On the back of a vote of confidence from the Leicester board just 16 days earlier and having salvaged a vital away goal in arguably the biggest match of the Foxes’ history to date, the world seemed to have been turned upside down when news (officially) filtered through that the Srivaddhanaprabhas (aren’t you going to question my spelling on that?) had given the Italian the push as the sun set in Leicestershire, before rumours first spread around 19:30 on twitter. While a serious majority argue the immoralities of ditching the man who built a title-winning empire from rags and bones in terms of Premier League finances, understandably so, many gloss over the serious deflation of form and the painfully visible lack of confidence or awareness present in what mainly are the same title-winning squad of last season when calling Ranieri’s corner.
From the evidence I have certainly witnessed in a season the boss formerly known as the ‘Tinkerman’ purchased Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, Nampalys Mendy, Bartosz Kapustka, Ron-Robert Zieler and Wilfred Ndidi for around £80 million, amongst others, he has failed to adapt a tactic now only too obvious to every other manager in the whole of England, let alone the Premier League, and who have learnt to counteract and nullify it. This, to me, presents a worrying lack of self-awareness on Ranieri’s part, as other than a handful of unsuccessful attempts at switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation, he has tinkered with little from the 2015/16 miracle, and has therefore paid the price. It’s no coincidence that the statistic flying around many social media pages – displaying how Sir Alex Ferguson has been the only of the last five bosses to lift the famous Premier League trophy to retire, rather than be sacked within the space of two years or so – proves the alarming trend of short-term winners in English football. While we greet our prime division as likely the most competitive league at such a level in the entire globe, boasting a dazzling array of unique tactics, world-class individuals and spine-tingling atmospheres, there is the tendency, as ever in life, for winners to become complacent. Failing to adapt your approach to changing circumstances, and also failing to recognise key events in your season which will later prove decisive have cost the likes of Roberto Mancini, Manuel Pellegrini and Jose Mourinho, heaven forbid, as while they will explain they followed a strategy that they believed suited the changing environment, what they did in truth was fail to ward off the returning momentum of their competitors. The way in which Ranieri has done this, however, has seemed puzzlingly public, refusing to adjust tactics to specific games, opponents or competitions, pursuing with dreadfully out-of-form players and not, in truth, ever losing his patience with either, or rallying his troops with a direct public call to arms.
A 4-4-2 specialising in warding off the rapid passing football of many top sides in the league, while utilising the pace of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki to exploit tiring and exposed defences when they clinically countered, may have succeeded last season. But when faced with an entirely fresh challenge, against 12 managers over the course of the past eight months who have arrived with new ideas, and a host of new threats on the pitch, Ranieri’s confidence in the same exact tactic was naïve to say the very least. More than anything, it is the defensive quartet of Robert Huth, Wes Morgan, Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs that have to take a significant brunt of such blame this season. Without a shadow of the assured nature, organisational qualities or rallying cries witnessed last season, Huth and Morgan especially have struggled to cope with the growing mob of pacey, or even equivalently powerful, strikers facing them.
Perhaps this was inevitable without the high-energy shielding of N’Golo Kante, but to be put to the sword on all but four occasions this season is embarrassing for the bedrock of last season’s miracle. For me, Yohan Benalouane and Marcin Wasilewski just demonstrated why they should’ve be drafted in earlier when the pairing impressed against Derby in the FA Cup replay, and when Demarai Gray also starred on that night, only to have not received a consistent run in the side for the rest of the season, Ranieri’s waning skills were only becoming more blatant to me. That’s without even mentioning the disgruntling of Leonard Ulloa, the understated hero so often of many a game last season, the loyalty to the desperately drained Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton, amongst others, and the deposit of just three away points all season – which I must point out even Ringmer FC have bettered. Honestly, the Champions League campaign of this term, and what will forever remain the unbelievable achievement of 2015/16, were the only saving graces to Ranieri’s drawn-out unravelling since the turn of the year, and while some argue he only suffered because of heightened expectations; I point to the statistics, with the 11th highest wage bill in the league, and now as the 20th highest grossing football club in the entire globe, relegation, with form that was surely heading that way, wasn’t going to be tolerated. Whether they stand a better chance of avoiding it with one of the rumoured Roberto Mancini, Alan Pardew, Nigel Pearson (NO), Guus Hiddink or Gary Rowett (the new Alan Curbishley, in that he’ll be linked to any job going), it cannot yet be said, but without an entirely admirable and lovable Italian doggedly playing on past glories, I feel that the change should be the shock Leicester players require. (On that note, I should just mention that the rumours that key dressing room figures forced Ranieri out are entire BS, they’d either have to be Oscar-worthy actors or incredibly sly dogs to pull it off, and I’d suggest they lack the intelligence to be either.)
What truly shocked me, however, this week was the castaway, callous and entirely apathetic attitude shown to Rooney amidst swelling rumours, which I hadn’t truly believed until Wednesday morning, that the threat of him moving to China was tangible. While it has to be admitted he has never been the best-loved of any England captain, and has been a much-maligned figure for his role in the lack of national success – having once been the beacon for world-toppling hopes – I had never imagined the British footballing public to wish him away to a career twilight in a burgeoning footballing empire without any desirable competition, atmosphere, history, living quality or moral reflections, without as much of a second of deliberation.
Naturally, as a Manchester United player once the gem in Fergie’s crown, very few opposition fans appreciated his skill without branding him – with expletives – a failure, a horrible person or, far worse than anything else, a poor footballer, and it is this aggressive spotlight fixated upon his career that has, at times, threatened to wane – ironically – his passion for the game. He has (twice) previously attempted to manipulate moves away from Ferguson’s United, but in the past few years, notably since his relationship ended on a frosty note with the Scot, and his influence on David Moyes’ campaign led to Louis van Gaal handing him the armband, his dependability as skipper – of both club and country – and selfless contribution to the side on and off the pitch, has for me been undermined by those who lament him for not recapturing the attacking form that led to 33 goals being scored in all competitions in the 2009/10 season, and 34 in the 2011/12 season. He isn’t that explosive striker who outruns defences anymore, granted, but he is a natural playmaker, perhaps the closest to a European or South American player we will ever experience in this country, with the ability to spot, but most importantly, spray searching passes long and short, stretching defences and causing ruptures which lead to goals, leading from the front, while also serving an undervalued purpose in the side. As we do rely more on passing football under the influence of European managers in the Premier League, it had surprised me that Rooney hasn’t experienced the game time of Juan Mata or Henrikh Mkhitaryan, as I expected things to change for United under Mourinho.
I expected width to play much larger of a role in the ‘Special One’s’ strategy, to be honest. For too long have United dabbled with Mata, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford on the wing, while mystifyingly finding the solution to the right-back issue in Antonio Valencia, instead of signing a stronger alternative to Matteo Darmian. A key factor of Ferguson’s United was width; when you think of the major players of his reign, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, perhaps even Andrei Kanchelskis and Luis Nani, spring to mind, players who were born on a touchline, set to hug the outskirts of the pitch and tear defences apart with pure pace and skill. We haven’t distinctly seen any replications of that since the Scot departed, and personally I think it has cost the Red Devils dearly, but as United’s managers switch to tactics that will tend to utilise Rooney’s attributes less, as a player who was trained to play off wide play, he will suffer.
It is not the bosses I am angry with though. It is the British public who, on the whole, have shamed themselves by wishing a player who has yet to get any sort of run in the United side this season due to injuries, away from the country, for no discernible reason other than that they see him as an easy target of frustration for his accolades at United and his failure, as part of squads heavy reliant on him for years, in a three lions shirt. If only, as on countless other occasions in his career, he could respond sharply to such a turbulent week with something special on Sunday – in the EFL Cup final against Southampton – it would, for me, top everything else we have witnessed and discussed.
Overall, though, on an diagnostic level, we will never refer to this week, and the multitude of shocking events – from pies and pasties to tumultuous European nights and Chinese whispers to Thai tears – that ran through it, leaving a 23-stone non-league goalkeeping coach and a Premier League-winning Italian manager down at the job centre, with reputations smeared alongside Rooney’s as a United player, as being a ground-breaking one in football. Despite what’s happened, what has, that we haven’t seen before? Well, Leicester playing in the Champions League knockout stages, yes, but we’ve seen, we’ve learnt lessons from and we’ve developed as a footballing community from previous examples of thoughtless actions costing jobs, professionals wishing away, and being wished away, from their clubs and countries only to remain, and formerly leading bosses being left by the wayside to keep up with the ever-revolving door of playing trends, so honestly, very little has been proven in the past seven days. You could ponder whether football has any mysteries up its sleeves these days, but to damn the sport with a judgement that it has nothing yet to prove, and has exceeded its use and limitations as a symbol of endless capitalist war – at a professional level – would be unwise, to say the least. Watch on, and let football prove the rest – you’ll be amazed.
If passing over the opportunity to condemn the seemingly impermeable Football Association of their crimes last week had seemed a minor offence in itself, we’re setting the record right this week; returning to usual procedure by highlighting the deranged share of riches in the world’s most historic, and most financially prosperous, club cup competition. Usually overshadowed by the romanticism of particular ties, astounding tales of individual players and recently the decision by many managers to rest entire first-choice elevens, the inequality of the FA’s premier cup competition; their financial reward packages, or lack thereof in many cases, is the aspect of the coveted subject that we will be attempting to shed light on in this miniscule corner of the footballing media spectrum. Hopefully, my personal insight into the experiences of many small-time clubs locally, and the juxtaposition of such discounted dots on the national scale with the loudest voices – complete with the existing financial budgets to prosper – of the Premier League, will ignite a new perspective upon the fixtures this weekend, and the following, unforeseeable future of the FA Cup, in each of you reading. Why? Well, personally, I truly believe that in the future of football in this country, this issue will only exasperate without sterner consideration from those at the top.
Some may argue the presence of Lincoln City and Sutton United – coincidentally, a side as a Lewes fan I have seen in FA Cup action before, when the U’s trekked down to the Dripping Pan for a Third Qualifying Round match in late 2013 – presents a realistic, if overly-favourable, depiction of the existing opportunities for non-league clubs in such an elite tournament in recent years. I say otherwise. They are far from stooges – Lincoln, seeing off Ipswich over two matches, and then overturning a single-goal deficit against a markedly David Stockdale or Niki Mäenpää-less Brighton and Hove Albion (well, there has to be some excuse as a Seagulls fan), and Sutton, impressively ousting the in-form duo of AFC Wimbledon and Leeds – but representatives of the fortunes of all other relevant non-league sides (those entered in the competition), they are not.
Two sides, though not unalike to a majority of their Vanarama National counterparts in this regard, who have spent heavily (in the circumstances) to have such a shot at success, without arguably the distant investor presence as at Football League clubs – Sutton’s boss Paul Doswell, unpaid in his position, ploughing £100,000’s into the club alongside chairman Bruce Elliott, redeeming pride in the club since its decline from the heady heights of the late 1980’s. Lincoln, another fallen giant in respect of their long Football League spell between the post-war period to the 2010/11 season (bar the 1987/88 season), can point to the healthy injections from South African hedge funder Clive Nates in aiding chairman Bob Dorrian’s efforts, which currently see them top of the non-league scene, imminent to regain their professional status and rise to their reputation as the dominant side in a 38-mile radius in Eastern England.
How often do you see non-league sides qualify for the Fifth Round of the FA Cup, though? Well, since 1994, there have only been two previous cases of non-league sides appearing in such an advanced stage in the competition – Crawley Town, memorably, in the 2010/11 season, and Luton Town, more recently, in the 2012/13 term. In fact, so seldom occurring is it, that only nine clubs from outside the top four tiers of the English footballing pyramid have achieved it in the post-war period – Lincoln and Sutton making up two ninths of that total, of which just less than half has arrived in the past six years. This is far from a renaissance period for non-league football on one of the biggest stages, however, as in the past, it was the case that there was less of a financial bridge between professional and semi-professional set-ups, with pot luck on the day a far greater factor than it now assumes, as the might of even the likes of League Two clubs Doncaster Rovers and Leyton Orient – at opposite ends of the table – far outstrips that, I’m sure, of Lincoln and Southport (the sides in the equivalent positions a league below). While League Two clubs can afford to purchase the odds and ends of Premier League and Championship clubs – more often on free transfers, it must be noted, but with telling wages – the respective sides a league below must settle with the offcuts of such sides as Donny and the O’s, either on the wrong age of 30, or lacking significant experience in most cases.
As the paltry broadcasting deal between the Vanarama National Leagues and BT Sport pales in comparison to the income Football League clubs receive, in addition to the shortfalls in prize money, sponsorship, transfer income and, less important in the modern day, gate receipts, there is surely a deficit in the way of hundreds of thousands of pounds between the semi-professional game and the lowest stretches of the professional ranks. That financial shortfall certainly plays a massive part in the competitiveness of such clubs – if you can’t afford, sustainably, to sign an ex-Football League winger on a free transfer because of agent fees, for example, obviously your season as a manager is going to be a whole lot harder, especially when clubs you face in the FA Cup can afford transfer fees in the millions and wages in the tens of thousands. It says a lot about the quality of managers Paul Doswell and Danny Cowley, at Gander Green Lane and Sincil Bank respectively, that they have achieved, together, but in entirely differing circumstances, an unprecedented record in the post-war history of the FA Cup.
While Sutton and Lincoln live their fairy tales, however, there are hundreds of equivalent, and lower-ranked, clubs waiting patiently for their day in the sun. With so little support on offer from the national FA to regional leagues and clubs, financial or otherwise, the prize money on offer, only raised minutely in 2012/13 (from £750 to £1,000 in the Extra Preliminary and £1,500 to £1,925 in the Preliminary) after calls on the likes of David Bernstein to stop ignoring the plight of semi-professional and amateur teams, is the main form of remuneration on offer from the FA to the practitioners of its sport; the heartbeat of its existence. If it doesn’t seem at least a little cruel to incentivise the short-term survival of the framework of your company with a series of perhaps unlikely victories against similarly financially desperate sides around them, then I think your moral compass needs inspecting. For example, after the FA reportedly received a record number of applicants for places in the Extra Preliminary Round this season, my club Ringmer FC, so acquainted, perhaps taking the position for granted, to entering, and failing in the cup every season, were rejected, along with 12 of the other 17 sides in their division, for apparently not performing well enough in recent editions to deserve a place over debutants, after 146 years of the competition, including Hollands & Blair FC, Longlevens and Ashby Ivanhoe. While the cup should theoretically be open to all clubs with the necessary ground grading, pedigree and paperwork, it seemed that this season, the FA’s capacity of 736 teams wasn’t sufficient to include sides from the second tier of Sussex county football, or step 10 in the pyramid. Presumably, this wouldn’t have been such a striking issue from the 2008/09 season to the 2012/13 edition, in which time there was between 758 to 763 sides consistently involved, and the Extra Preliminary Round began either a week or two after the birth of the league season, rather than a week prior.
Unless I’m very much misunderstood in the theory of pyramids, I don’t believe the FA could’ve placed another slab at either step nine or ten, which would provide the extra demand for places amongst sides at this level, who compete in the Extra Preliminary Round. Why then, are clubs like Ringmer, but also league leaders Saltdean United, 3G-pitch equipped Steyning Town and consistent performers Bexhill United, amongst a catalogue of others, being denied their only source of income from the FA? To my calculations, there are 1,005 clubs from step one to ten in the English footballing pyramid – already leaving a quota of spaces overflowed by exactly 269 teams, which is 30 sides less than currently exist in step nine alone. Ignoring this obvious faux pas on the part of the FA, as analysing the torture of regionalised organisation in the endless events of unpredictability for county FA’s would take us forever, surely it would make sense either to exclude step 10 in the competition, or include each side at that tier. The only issue there is, obviously, the FA won’t see sense.
In its current guise, the Extra Preliminary Round of the FA Cup ostracises, objectifies and threatens to condemn certain clubs to the end of their existence. In selecting only the cream of the crop of regional, semi-professional football around the country, the FA limit so much of what makes the historic FA Cup so great, yet so tarnished currently by the primary word of its title. I can understand, certainly that there are a number of sides who don’t live up to the ground grading regulations that the organisers set to enter the competition, and that one or two sides might miss out on the relevant paperwork in the time; but there is no coincidence in this occurrence. The lack of FA funding for these sides, strangely, restricts the possibility of what these clubs can manage. If they can’t afford a new set of floodlights – as I have come to recognise well, on my non-league travels this season, many couldn’t before they had no choice but to cobble together the funds this season – or purchase even the most minimalist of stands (yes, some sides at this level can’t – Billingshurst the prime example, bereft currently of either), they realistically have no choice but to pull out of application for a tournament so coveted for its financial opportunities at this level. Due to the growing lack of board members so far down the pyramid, and the discouraging absence of young attendees at the matches, the funds for such clubs are drying up desperately, where, you would assume, the FA should step in to save such clubs from administration and eventual collapse in worst-case scenarios. But no, it seems the self-interested cronies on the FA Council, who, as former chairman Greg Dyke regularly pointed out, are predominantly elderly white males (currently 90 of the 120 members are over 60, while just 12 of the 120 are female, or from ethnic minorities), are far too busy sucking up to the biggest, most self-sufficient leagues and clubs in the country. This may be the opinion of a cynic, but it is one that is increasingly impossible to ignore.
The FA preaches grassroots funding; their practice, in reality, proves their eye is somewhere else entirely. According to an August 2015 article, the FA were committed to investing £260 million of their undoubted billions, which, conveniently, was supplemented at the cost of the taxpayer, rather than from the organisation’s own pockets, but realistically, how far does £260 million get you in today’s game? To my knowledge, 3G pitches, after grants from Sport England, can cost anything from £500,000 to £1,000,000 for the very best spec – floodlights, fencing, goals, various pitch markings, planning permission, grading and, in the impending event of, like Ringmer, making it your match-day pitch, the club facilities surrounding that. Realistically then, if the FA say they’re currently spending £260 million over a four-year cycle from 2015 to 2019, they’re only going to be able to help purchase, let’s say at the minimum price, 520 3G pitches around the whole of England, or maybe 450 or so when clubs find their own chunk of investment. When you consider there are 637 clubs at steps nine and ten alone, and that 3G pitches are becoming increasingly popular -Sutton United, Maidstone United and Steyning Town just three examples off the top of my head of the recipients of these fantastic facilities - in the English game, you do honestly wonder whether the FA is doing all it can to aid the development of the un-professionalised expanses of the game. Especially when factoring in the 30 ‘city hubs’ that the FA is aiming to build by the summer of 2019 – just one, in Sheffield, currently brought to fruition.
It’s hardly worth, either, entering the FA Vase (for 592 sides below step eight of the pyramid), or the FA Trophy (for the 276 sides from steps five to eight), if you are looking for a godsend of a payday as a non-league club. Of the eleven sides below step eight to reach the Third Qualifying Round in the FA Cup this season – each from the ninth tier, where 299 clubs reside – who received £7,500 for their efforts in getting to that stage, on top of the £10,925 they would’ve gained by winning in the previous four rounds, they would have to reach the semi-finals of the FA Vase – a highly unlikely occurrence, unless a fortunate injection of cash has seen them strip local clubs of each of their best players – to even equal that figure of £18,425. In reaching the Second Qualifying Round, as Ringmer did this season, of the FA Vase, they would’ve only earned £1,400 on top of the big fat total of zilch they won in the FA Cup. You do begin to realise the frustration of many non-league chairman towards the FA as an organisation when this occurrence leaves them perilously close, in many cases, to liquidation, every season – especially when considering the case is very similar in the FA Trophy - the success of village team North Ferriby United in the 2014/15 edition of the top non-league cup competition not quite as romantic as it seemed, as they were bankrolled by Hull City owner Assem Allam’s daughter Eman, and husband Steve. If clubs already receiving more than their fair share of income to bolster playing budgets, build new 3G pitches and improve ground grading results are the only ones with a realistic shot at success in these competitions, what is the actual point in other sides entering, when they might only get through a round or two, earning themselves a measly few hundred or thousand pounds to help run the club for an entire season?
It is undeniably inconsiderate on the part of the FA to place clubs in this lottery of survival. From last season, four sides in steps nine and ten alone folded or withdrew from competition – Mickleover Royals, Northampton Spencer, Northwich Manchester Villa and Pilkington XXX, and while this can’t be blamed on the lack of FA funding alone, it certainly played a pivotal role. Royals, for example, didn’t participate in the FA Cup, and were knocked out in the First Qualifying Round of the Vase last season, Spencer got through a single round in both competitions, Villa were eliminated in the Second Qualifying Round of the Vase, while not entering the Cup, in similar fashion to XXX, who faced the same fate in reaching the SQR of the Vase.
This, quite easily, could be the fate of a side like Ringmer again this year, as nothing, truthfully, has changed for clubs at our level, despite what some at the FA might like to tell you. As I’ve said before, the examples of financial shortfalls claiming community hubs in their football clubs have bitten far closer to my area in Rye United and Sidley United, both fortunately back in action now, in comparatively smaller capacities than before, but with the ambition and level-headedness to survive this time. The FA can’t let clubs manage on their own though; for many people, their local football club is their life, and with so much – emotionally and financially – invested in its fortunes; it is heart-breaking to see your efforts go, effectively, to waste. Realistically, there is no safety net in place, nor will there be for the continuation of their lives as semi-professional or amateur clubs, and really, there is very little alternative when you are a sustainably-run village club like Ringmer but to point the finger of blame at the FA, and a system of remuneration amongst the cruellest in human existence, especially when you peruse the salary of a ‘Head of Strategy’ at FA HQ – reportedly between £88,000 and £95,000 annually, for what? I don’t see a very positive ‘strategy’ in place at the FA currently, nor, I imagine, do any club chairman at the semi-professional level.
If anything, I see the FA, throughout their current system, playing the role of Ancient Roman Emperor, overseeing the carnage of the gladiatorial battles from a safe distance as to not get spatters of blood on their togas, gleefully congratulating the sole victors of the brutal battle at its conclusion, but brushing aside those viciously culled in the midst of battle. The trouble is, for these clubs, it isn’t the physical culling - the knocking out of the tournament at such an early stage - that is most agonising, rather the callous ignorance of the FA in their case, too busy handing the spoils to the beefy gladiator who won the battle, in the form of millions of worthless pounds for someone like Manchester United, to perceive the plight of the undermined and the ostracised. That, at least in my opinion, is how it feels for endlessly frustrated, but passionately unremittent, non-league club officials and fans currently, and I think it is unacceptable.
Unless, as Dyke, four fellow former FA chairmen and the Culture, Media and Sport Committee argue the Football Association, who have been wallowing in their own self-interest for countless decades now, failing to open themselves up to forward-thinking or diversity, self-reform, it will be impossible for this situation to change for clubs of Ringmer’s level – and I use this as an example, rather than a cry for personal salvation. Something has to give, and I highly doubt that will come under the hypocritical stewardship of the likes of chairman Greg Clarke or chief executive Martin Glenn, feeble businessmen of insufficient conviction or vision to attempt to challenge the institutionally flawed, erroneously self-governing FA Council of stubbornly self-interested relics from former glories.
It is, quite honestly, a disgrace, and a disservice to the practitioners of their sport, that this case has persisted over the years of increasing division between the top tiers and those left without, so I, for one, believe the Government have to force through reforms for our arrogantly impervious FA, or allow such ignorantly unethical acts to continue. It is now or never quite honestly, and if our sporting community beacons are to survive, the FA Cup as a playing field needs not to have equality, but equity, for clubs, as it is not the measly £3.3975 million (over six rounds) that Manchester United accrue for running out their second-string side that is important, it is the £3,425 that clubs, who actually get a place and get through the Extra Preliminary and First Preliminary Rounds, for example, get sent, which can, realistically, be the saving grace for a troubled club. Fine margins matter down here, and the FA needs to hear that at every opportunity available.
Steering clear of what you could adjudge, in hindsight, to have been the most dramatic and impactful topic of the week; the vote of no confidence by MP’s to the much-maligned yet irrepressible force that is the English Football Association, we’re continuing here with our upbeat outlook on 2017 with a celebration of three of such an organisation’s jewels in their rusted, blood-spattered crown. Considering the hefty barrage of criticism we had in store for the FA last blogging year, I felt it fair to let the Government deliver their punishment in this largely unprecedented example of intervention, and while this does not mean my opinion on the matter is non-existent, nor supportive of the FA, I decided against such action this week. Swerved, in this case, in favour of an ode to a trifecta of home-grown coaching talents often appallingly unheralded by the wider footballing community for their remarkable achievements in the Premier League, as well as the Championship, League One - and in the case of Clement – the overseas market, and whom I admire greatly for far more than the performances of their sides on the pitch.
Amidst a curious constant reshuffling of managerial approaches, often from each and every corner of the globe, in such divisions, Sean Dyche, Eddie Howe and Paul Clement, coincidentally all in action with their sides either tomorrow or Monday, have sailed under the radar, offering a markedly differing series of philosophies to those usually attributed to products of a failing FA coaching system lacking direction, and reaping the rewards for such self-governing bravery. Compared to a 2009/10 Premier League season, in which Clement first stepped into a role as Assistant Manager at Chelsea, the number currently of English bosses in their home top flight has halved, as eight began the season in charge of clubs as diverse as Blackburn, Spurs and Portsmouth, only for just four PL clubs to opt for an English approach currently – sides with some of the smallest budgets in the league in Crystal Palace, Swansea, Burnley and Bournemouth. Notably, each of these clubs – bar Bournemouth, with Russian owner Maxim Demin enjoying a favourable relationship with Howe, and vice-versa – have British involvement in terms of ownership, with Swansea boasting majority British ownership alongside Burnley and Crystal Palace until this summer, when Americans Stephen Kaplan and Jason Levien invested; translating into each side having home-grown chairmen. The separation between our focused trio of coaches and that of Crystal Palace, Sam Allardyce, is well, noticeable, as while sharing a nationality, a potent fissure in philosophical perception of the sport draws unfavourable comparisons for the man the FA opted for, before embarrassingly ditching in scandalous circumstances last autumn.
It is not by luck, or by receiving the opportunities that favouritism threw their way, however, that Howe, Dyche and Clement have succeeded in their careers. Heading back to their playing days; the contrasts between each could not be greater – Dyche having competed on the field for 18 years for a range of sides equivalent now to League One level, Howe enjoying only two consistent periods of injury-free action, both at Bournemouth either side of the Millennium, and Clement the product of just two non-league sides in the outskirts of London, before, as previously mentioned, abandoning playing at just 23 years old. It is worth noting, however, that each plied their trade as a central defender, a possible impact on their reading of the game, from back to front (although little proof of that suspicion is demonstrated by Howe’s Bournemouth side of late) and a definite insight to the footballing culture in this country, as well as the methods of FA coaching in producing such specific new-age coaches.
For centre-backs, the demeanours of these three differ greatly from the stereotype, of which the likes of Allardyce, and many thankless EFL managers, have had shackled to their careers throughout – one of old-fashioned stubbornness, aggression and candour – another key quality of this notable wave of modern English managers. Dyche, Howe and Clement aside, Garry Monk, Keith Curle and most prominently Gareth Southgate all exude this unassumingly down-to-earth, chirpy yet methodical aura of quiet scheming. Far opposed to the self-commanding bravado and slick approach to the media that the likes of Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Walter Mazzarri impose also, they field a refreshingly grounded black-and-white-ness, almost as if the dry martinis of what can often be a portentous cocktail bar of zesty, abrasive characters in Premier League football.
Where the Guardiola’s of our world would tinker with formations and individuals each match; experimenting with left-backs in the middle, diminutive Brazilians up front and offloading the national Number 1 in favour of an incompetent Chilean, only to childishly release their anger on journalists, the Dyche’s, Howe’s and Clement’s of the same scene differ completely. They offer understated tactical approaches tailored to counter each set of opposition they receive, a mutual trust in their players and a catalogue of canny signings without as much as a word of frustration in their lack of financial freedom. This is, of course, in comparison with clubs like City, who can afford to splash out on a reported £225 million worth of players wages for the 2016/17 season – top of such a table for spending -, while Swansea sit 14th with £59 million, Bournemouth 17th with £34 million and Burnley just one spot off rock bottom Hull City (for whom the lack of spending was enough to force Englishman Steve Bruce to resign), with £33 million.
It is evident, then, that on the comparative shoestrings, our three find themselves dramatically outperforming the likes of Sunderland (20th currently in the PL, yet 10th in this table, spending £68.3 million), Leicester City – 16th in the PL, but 11th, with £66 million in seasonal wage bills – and most any club in the Premier League currently, at least if you gauge how much each side spent for each of their points (as prior to Gameweek 25) this season. Burnley, a huge credit to Sean Dyche’s unpretentious squad building and realistic tactical organisation, top the charts for fewest millions spent per point at this stage, losing just £1.138 million of their 2016/17 wage total to be 12th, and out of the relegation scrap, while after Hull, whose £25 million was spent on just 23 senior players when the study was last updated here on January 20th, Howe’s Bournemouth follow, with £1.308 million leaving Demin’s pockets for each of the 26 points so far towards survival. Swansea’s total, it must be said, was affected by the poor form that Francesco Guidolin and Bob Bradley left them in, with their 21 points costing a comparatively pricey £2.809 million each, although with Clement having achieved six of those 21, his impact in just four league games – three of those against top five clubs in Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City – is clear.
In coping with the financial constraints they are posed on a daily basis, an incomparable reality to that faced by Guardiola, Mourinho, Conte and Wenger alike, Howe, Dyche and Clement – managers of the clubs with the three smallest stadium capacities in the entire Premier League it must be noted – must tailor their footballing teachings to such a narrow spectrum of opportunity. In cities and towns built on labour-intensive industry, Swansea and Burnley have transformed greatly in financial respects since the turn of the century under the stewardship of most dramatically Huw Jenkins and Barry Kilby as respective chairmen, while Bournemouth – infamously recovering from the ten point deduction imposed for going into administration to save their position in League 2 in the very last game of the 2008/09 season – have simply pulled off a minor miracle in recent years. With Howe placed at the helm at just 31 years of age in that season, with a transfer embargo and ten points to make up on their relegation rivals, his has been a story to savour in the rise of his club, bar nine months spent at Turf Moor in 2011, from the wrong end of the Football League to mid-table Premier League security. While not undermining the efforts of Dyche and Clement, the latter of whom, in keeping with many men in his position prior, can’t have had much time to study the finances of the Welsh club – with only five managers post-John Toshack (1978-1983) having survived a two-year period in charge – Howe has quickly become the sweetheart of the footballing press in this country as the voice of the victims of football’s incessant financial free-for-all, a credit to his loyalty, pragmatism and grounded nature.
None of these men, as possibly anticipated, have performed such miracles playing an ugly brand of football either; they are entertainers, a vital part of a profession that, with the reliance on televisual income currently, as well as astute tacticians. Howe, certainly, hasn’t asked his Bournemouth side to retain the methods that they would’ve discovered in desperate times in League Two, instilling what has been referred to in some quarters as an Arsenal-esque style; favouring a flowing passing approach when faced with opportunities to counter and pressing with intensity, especially utilising the fitness of wingers Junior Stanislas and Ryan Fraser. Jack Wilshere, behind either Benik Afobe or the unfortunately injury-plagued Callum Wilson leading the line, has proven an inspired signing for the Dorset side, providing a guile that has rarely existed before at the club, who were lauded for their quintessential 4-4-2 of last season, and finally standing up as a leading man in this term’s more expansive 4-2-3-1. The eighth highest passers in the division, despite being a side more often without the ball, and tellingly the second lowest tacklers also in 2016/17, the Dean Court-based outfit plainly prefer a cleaner-cut approach, personified by Harry Arter, the 15th highest passer this season, Simon Francis (the 23rd) and Steve Cook (36th, and the second highest for a non-top five club centre-back) as lynchpins of Howe’s philosophy.
Clement, in contrast, has inherited, rather than developed his own crop of individuals, one that with his guidance earned him PL Manager of the Month for January, a richly deserved tribute considering his could’ve easily been a baptism of fire against Arsenal, Liverpool and Man City. My perceptions of his adaptations to previous methods witnessed at the club, however, could be worthless, as this article by Wales Online perfectly captures the essence of his philosophy. Mr Wathan, kudos to you. In encouraging a stronger work ethic, casting his presence over the development of players on the training pitch, and finally imparting palpable confidence in his squad, a huge distinction to the visible malaise of relegation candidates, Aston Villa-esque in the prior months of the season, Clement has definitively proven his worth following so many years under the wing of Carlo Ancelotti. For him, any pressure is only to keep up the good work in what are bound to be the most challenging few months of his career upcoming. When posed with the position as the closest of our three to relegation, his will be a sweat-inducing next 14 games, especially with the form of Hull and Sunderland perhaps finally demonstrating signs of tangibility, but for Clement, a man who has perceived the beautiful game from more angles than most, I’m sure his calming professionalism will prove pivotal.
Dyche, ludicrously overlooked in my opinion for his perceived reluctance to adapt to the Premier League’s styles, and perhaps better regarded for his gravelly tone – of which I consider my impression to be a forte – and cult hero status with the Claret’s fans, who affectionately nickname him the ‘Ginger Mourinho’, is, admittedly a curveball to our other noted approaches, to say the least. 18th for passes attempted in this season’s stat count, their imposing Mancunian centre-back partnership of Ben Mee (76th) and Michael Keane (87th) represent their only involvement in the top 100 passing players to date, while goalkeeper Tom Heaton (112th) ranks as their fourth highest; a slightly daunting statistic, especially when coupled with the fact that Dyche’s side are dead top for long balls attempted in comparison. Perhaps not reflecting well on defendants of the Kettering-born boss’ approach to top-flight survival, it has been an undeniably effective strategy in gaining home points, which the Lancastrians can be universally grateful for in seeing them to 12th place, ahead of comparative financial giants Southampton and Leicester, with 28 of their 29 points accrued at home to the tune of 21 of their 26 goals scored, and just 11 of their 35 goals conceded – the other point salvaged just 35 miles down the M60 at Old Trafford. A side built on defensive organisation, in similar circumstances to his Portuguese counterpart’s, the lack of overall threat offered by what is honestly a Championship-standard squad, the Hendrick’s, Keane’s, Heaton’s and Defour’s aside, in a predictably stubborn 4-4-2 formation does little to aid Dyche’s cause, but in my view, he has managed stretched resources better than either of the aforementioned. This tenacity for a fight is replicated consistently by his side, one which in cases of dropping points is often unfortunate, and by not fearing the repercussions of practicing what is often now considered an outdated approach, Dyche has, in turn, moulded a squad similarly robust, impervious to setback and steely-eyed in the pursuit of such pivotal points.
There is much to be said; also, about this trio’s reliance on home-grown talent, and trust in the products they are offered. Spending a reported £34 million or so on seven senior signings this season, including the record £15 million signature of Jordan Ibe, of Howe’s 27 used players this season, 19 are British or Irish, and five of the remaining eight are products of British academies (Josh King, Nathan Ake, Brad Smith, Max Gradel and Emerson Hyndman), reflecting the success of youth football in this country. While Swansea, with the remnants of Michael Laudrup, Monk and Guidolin’s reigns evident in a heavily international squad, may not boast the same success as Bournemouth, Clement’s belief in the likes of Alfie Mawson, Jack Cork, Kyle Naughton and new signing Tom Carroll to date has been impressive, with the Reading-born boss keen to ensure the academy products of the club, some from an under-23’s side currently top of Division Two in PL2, see further game time in future.
In Clement’s position, however, you can’t blame him currently for holding back, where Dyche’s studiously assembled squad put such words into action. Costing them a reported £39 million to add Robbie Brady, Hendrick, Defour, Ashley Westwood, Johann Berg Gudmundsson and Nick Pope to their squad, alongside Joey Barton on a free and Jon Flanagan on loan, Dyche has bought well in a range of areas, while remaining true to home-grown talent, with 20 of his 25 players featured in all competitions British or Irish (even when counting Bath-born Ashley Barnes as Austrian, after his sole under-20 cap for the nation). If these statistics aren’t proof of Howe and Dyche providing the backbone of British and Irish talent in the Premier League, then I might just know what could hit the stats home; in Gameweek 15, when Burnley entertained Bournemouth in a 3-2 home win, just four of the starting 22 were overseas players, while just seven of the two match day squads, totalling 36 individuals, were of the same demographic. On the same day, just five starters at Leicester vs Manchester City were British or Irish, six qualified in the same category at Arsenal vs Stoke City, and another half a dozen, including solely Troy Deeney for Watford against Everton, started at Vicarage Road.
Inevitably, this may lead to the assumption that Howe, Dyche and Clement fit the mould of future England managers, an opinion that when set upon, can blight a manager’s entire career. Each has their qualities, each has their obvious flaws for the role that I dearly hope Gareth Southgate can prove himself in. Southgate, developing agreeably in the incumbency to date by fulfilling the presentable, responsible and trustworthy stereotypes made of him, as if attempting to impress a prospective father-in-law, while returning some of what I have to admit have been the most impressive Three Lions performances I have seen in recent years, has racked up the miles on his journey to the top, and firmly deserves this opportunity. Much will be proven when inevitably qualification for Russia 2018 is assured, and with the considerable international experience of Southgate, albeit blighted by the image of his blazing penalty miss against Germany in 1996, it should be fascinating to prove just how pivotal such lessons are to a manager in his position. Hopefully, it will be the difference between the tenures of Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Steve McClaren and the late Graham Taylor – each devoid of any playing knowledge anywhere near to the international scene – and the likes of Bobby Robson and Sir Alf Ramsay, restoring pride to a nation universally tied with the sport. Rather that, at least than a Glenn Hoddle – washed up 20 years later on ITV, babbling on about very little, showed up even by Ryan Giggs as a pundit.
Back to Howe, Dyche and Clement, however, and for me, it is, perhaps surprisingly the latter, whose approach I believe is best suited to the international platform. A career coach, and juxtaposition to what I just described in requiring international experience, Clement has proven, in two admittedly short spells at Derby County and Swansea so far that his methods are effective, on players of a seemingly diminishing quality, to restore their motivation, work rate and performance levels of their glory days, as well as younger players, in encouraging them to raise their game in matching their elders.
Dyche, I perceive to be far too closely comparable to Allardyce for the public’s liking, despite as men being worlds away, while Howe, an interesting prospect maybe even 20 years down the line, a testament to his extensive CV at such a tender age, surely has high odds of stepping into the St George’s Park office one day. One appearance for England’s under 21’s does not seriously constitute international ‘experience’ in my books, so it would be his stockpiling of club management that he would be forced to draw upon. Having already proven he can seamlessly switch between systems, such transferrable tactical nous is a vital pillar of an international manager’s knowledge, and with the development of individuals he has displayed throughout his Cherries tenure, not least inspiring what is still mostly his Championship-winning squad of 2014/15 to step up to the Premier League challenge, it is easy to see why Howe was linked, briefly, to the England job post-Allardyce, and why he will continue to be mooted in future. He will, as is the nature of the beast, need to be battle-hardened if he ever assumes the role, and without a serious setback to his Bournemouth career so far, at least another decade, I believe, of club management, is necessary before, surely one day, he will be able to command the role, typically modest though he would be in it.
Inspiration is something, at times, difficult to pinpoint. It’s a subconscious player on each of our decisions, and I prefer to believe that each of us, as football fans, have been rounded by our memories, our heroes, our enemies and the hindsight we hold on each of them. Personally, I believe there are a lot of admirable qualities, as kinsmen and as sportspeople, to learn from individuals such as Howe, Dyche and Clement – not least their professional, yet closely relatable, approach to everything they do. They may not be grand trendsetters; they may not be world-famous masters of the sport, obnoxious philosophers requiring a constant ego massage or ground-breaking names to set alight a stadium, but I’ll tell you what they are; tenacious, studious, approachable and unselfish.
They don’t ask for anything from us, they do their job because they love the game, their team and their fans, and when they carry it off with such ease, who is to criticise them? Howe has charm, Dyche has grit, and Clement has an incredible interpersonal talent, all of which any manager would be proud to be attributed to I’m sure. Above all specific tactical plans that any manager could be lauded for, I believe personal characteristics crown individuals in such an intrinsically testing position of physical and mental stamina, ultimately guiding them down a path towards success or failure. Look into every minute detail, or base your decisions upon two or three factors – it’s your choice as a manager, and on the most basic of psychological human levels, this can only be decided by your way of thinking. Howe’s, Dyche’s and Clement’s in particular have inspired mine recently, and I just wanted to articulate how I respect them as such, as I believe there is much to be studied from one another, with football just a outlet of that across our lifetimes.
Regularly ridiculed for the extent of its tenure this year – a tribute seldom reserved in recent editions – by ignorant, populist-pandering Western social media pages targeting materialism over credibility, we return to covering the 2017 Africa Cup of Nations again this weekend, hopefully in a considerably more accurate manner than the aforementioned. Afflicted in my own integrity as a source, however, by the simple fact I wasn’t able to catch any live action (despite expecting to do so, with the coverage being widely advertised as on ITV4 as usual this year, only to find out Eurosport had bought out the rights from this tournament onwards), I will attempt to utilise the limited information I have gathered over the course of the Gabon-based biennial celebration of African football – mostly from the BBC, in the form of radio coverage and reports – to recap an extremely telling three weeks. While the final ball of the tournament is yet to be played, with my pre-tournament favourites Egypt taking on surprise package Cameroon in Libreville tomorrow evening, and losing semi-finalists Burkina Faso and Ghana squaring off in the third-placed playoff tonight, with many lessons learnt in the 30 games to date in the tournament, there is plenty sufficient to discuss in this week’s Talking Points, which we will delve into straight away…
Firstly, I would like to apologise about my pre-tournament predictions, aside from Egypt’s resurgence, from a few weeks ago on this site. I misjudged Cameroon, Burkina Faso and DR Congo, while overrating Algeria, Gabon and, most prominently/shockingly, the Ivory Coast – defending champions, with an impressive squad, but ultimately, and mightily, over-egged by slapdash fans, who underestimated the severity of losing some of their senior stars. It is on this theme that we will begin. Form, especially, should’ve alerted me to such dips in the achievement of the Desert Warriors, and Les Éléphants, on such a high-pressure, immediate stage for the sides – one where their fans are the closest they could possibly be. But this is part of the unpredictability, the charm of the sport, that statistics, and recent performances, all too often mean nothing in the state of play in a tournament where a split-second occurrence can change the fate of a side for years, and despite not having the vast array of matches that the Euros, or the World Cup, can boast, this is one of the aspects that AFCON masters. In pitting such a competitive collection of physical, technical and managerial talents against each in other in such close proximity, in this case the current political hotbed that is Gabon – similar to that of Brazil in 2014, with the public protesting in the streets, and boycotting games – there was always bound to be drama. Disappointments for some, and heady heights for others.
Away from the tangerine and emerald-kitted assailants to the previous throne – dramatically ousting Ghana after a marathon penalty shoot-out in the 2015 final – ultimately toppled from such heights by my wildcard Morocco, suffering a debilitating 1-0 defeat after nervy draws against Togo and DR Congo, there were great successes in the early stages. Uganda, without an AFCON appearance since the late 1970’s, and the latter stages of Idi Amin’s truly tyrannical reign – far worse than that of Sepp Blatter or Richard Scudamore – lived up to their reputation as spirited defensive battlers, only edged out by a single goal by the rattled duo of Ghana and Egypt, before finding their delirium in Farouk Miya’s emphatic plant to give them the lead against Mali (only for their opponents to equalise with an equally stunning goal). Tunisia, also, while not in the same position as the Cranes, achieved where nobody imagined they would, roaring back into action after falling, by some fault of their own, to a defeat against a clinical Senegal side, with a deconstruction of rivals Algeria, and then a demolishing of brave minnows Zimbabwe, whereas Burkina Faso, a small country with clear footballing talent, pipped rattled hosts Gabon, and eventual finalists Cameroon, to top spot in Group A. Scoring in each of their matches at the tournament, with previously widely unrecognised journeymen strikers Aristide Bancé and Préjuce Nakoulma stepping up alongside the likes of Bertrand Traore, Paulo Duarte’s side could perceive themselves as the Gareth Bale-inspired Wales side of last summer incarnate, as they overcame huge obstacles to reach a stage where they could even take Egypt to a heart-wrenching semi-final penalty shoot-out.
In the heat, or rather humidity in the densely-forested Gabon’s case, of battle, however, there were always going to be those who failed to rise to the occasion. As the first round of matches paved the way for a decisively nervy subsequent two rounds of group stage football, with five draws from the eight matches played, and an average of 1.5 goals per game – six of the 12 goals scored in Group B – those with heaps of expectation on their shoulders largely crumbled. After Riyad Mahrez salvaged a point against a hard-working Zimbabwean outfit in the opening round, his efforts could ultimately not be matched – his Algerian team scoring in the last minute after being consigned to defeat against Tunisia, and failing to edge out a Senegal side who showed glimmers of their quarter-final failure to come, with Islam Slimani’s brace only ensuring a 2-2 draw - too little, too late for the North Africans.
For Gabon, the pressure was heavier than on any other nation, and especially fixated upon maverick forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, who, despite taking on the Ronaldo-esque role as captain and catalyst, and scoring two inspirational goals in Les Panthères’ vital first two games, couldn’t conjure the necessary spark from his teammates in front of probably the largest attendances of the tournament in order to qualify. They will go down as the only side, other than the eventual victor, to have gone undefeated at the tournament, but, unable to provide the requisite attacking goods, such a trivial detail will be of little solace to their less-than-quietly discontented supporters. The same could also be said of defending champions, arguably the best known of Africa’s many footballing jewels, the Ivory Coast, who flattered to deceive on such a magnitude that even Leicester City’s shocking season to date was made to look a minor blip. Ultimately, losing the Touré brothers, alongside Gervinho and Boubacar Barry, was evidently too heavy a series of body blows for boss Michel Dusseyer, who resigned in swift fashion following the group-stage exit. Understandably, too, but when provided with the likes of Wilfried Bony, Salomon Kalou, Eric Bailly, Serge Aurier and Wilfried Zaha, albeit the latter on an incredulously short-notice call-up, the test of a position should be smoothed considerably, especially when you note the Frenchman had built the side over almost two years. Stifled by a tenacious Togo and following up the stalemate with an end-to-end draw, arguably lucky against a well-plotted DR Congo XI, the expectation to eliminate Morocco in advancing themselves was burgeoning across the globe, and after dismally petering out with a late 1-0 defeat, the embarrassment on their hands was unanimous, national legend Kalou retiring just days before Dusseyer handed in his notice. They will rise again – after all, they are the modern institution of true African football -, but the recovery will be a painful one for the likes of Bailly, Aurier, Franck Kessié and Assane Gnoukouri (20 year-old Atalanta and Inter Milan midfielders respectively), as well as Zaha, providing he has the guts to stay on board.
Ghana, arguably the long-serving bridesmaids to the Ivoirians during their assent to the peak of African football from the mid 2000’s, as a more consistent, highly organised alternative to their rivals’ explosive, clinical style personified by the likes of Didier Drogba and Gervinho, certainly demonstrated the flickers of promise during this tournament, but as their reliance on the Ayew brothers and Asamoah Gyan as spearheads increased, it became all too clear their hopes were extinguishing. Something I did pinpoint prior to the tournament’s outset, the lack of overall squad depth available to outgoing boss Avram Grant was a telling factor, alongside the importance of key figures currently so desperately lacking form.
While both Ayew brothers, alongside Christian Atsu – devoid of a goal or assist to his name, but demonstrating he was no one-trick pony after 2015’s commanding performance – and Gyan, a victim of the lack of competition in the leagues of the UAE, all brought close to their A-games with them on the plane to Gabon, the overall make-up of the side featured few in terms of real stars. Cordoba goalkeeper Brimah Razak, unfortunate enough to have had his penalty saved by his Ivoirian counterpart Boubacar Barry, before having the dagger plunged deeper when conceding Barry’s subsequent kick, and the trophy itself, in the final action the 2015 final, had a disappointing few weeks, perhaps affected by returning ghosts – an unsettling presence for his defence, one largely built on youthful promise, between the sticks throughout. Perhaps, for Razak – at 29, still with a few tournaments left in him - along with the likes of Daniel Amartey, Frank Acheampong, Thomas Partey and Baba Rahman – so unlucky to have been ruled out of the remainder of this year’s edition after just 39 minutes of their opening match -, the future is bright, with a number of opportunities for them upcoming, especially in enemy territory, the Ivory Coast, in just two years’ time.
Another quietly favoured, and richly talented, West African nation, Senegal, appeared; at one point at least, likely victors of this winter’s championship. Blossoming under the control of home-grown coach Aliou Cissé (a rare breed amongst most African federations, favouring a European approach), the tough-tackling defensive midfielder who plied his trade in France and England during his playing days – with spells at PSG, Birmingham City and Portsmouth featuring on his CV – appeared to have reignited the once-holy reputation of a nation with little glory since their runs to the final and quarter-final of AFCON and the World Cup respectively in 2002. Sporting a perfect blend of experience and youth in all the right areas, and an extensive range of skillsets within his squad, Cissé, having tested his tactics during a duo of friendlies in the build-up to the tournament, set about dismantling the defences of first Tunisia, then Zimbabwe, while remaining regiment at the back in two 2-0 victories, before understandably rotating his squad in the final fixture, having already qualified after announcing themselves as the most exhilarating attacking side in Gabon, securing a 2-2 draw with their desperate Algerian opponents.
I have no qualms in admitting Senegal, with Mané appearing the business while his presence was lazily targeted as the sole factor lacking in Liverpool’s poor run at the same time, were my reworked favourites for the tournament at that stage, having demonstrated the requisite flair and rigidity at the correct ends of the pitch to even topple the likes of Egypt – without hardly even utilising Moussa Sow, Moussa Konaté and Mohamed Diame, as the talents we respect them, from the bench.
Alas, it was not to be for Les Lions de la Teranga, perhaps the expectation raised from having qualified for AFCON the knockout stages, unbelievably, for the first time since 2006, seeping into their psyches, as their defeat to the hands of Cameroon, in the first set of 90, and 120 minutes alike in which they hadn’t found the back of the net for 353 days – a 2-0 friendly defeat to Mexico – consigned their efforts again to eventual failure. Failure, not just because of the lofty ambitions targeted for them by onlookers such as myself, but in the long-term view, in which many will regard this as a generation of footballers arguably equal in ability to that of 2002, and a painful one I’m sure for Cissé, the captain of that early-noughties side, to take after such considerable improvements recently.
With Cameroon – depleted by a number of high-profile withdrawals in the build-up in a persisting case of an unorganised payment structure on their FA’s part – having to turn to hungry, uncredited second-choice players of questionable quality just to compete at the championships, such a response from Hugo Broos’ reserves would’ve been unexpected, to say the least. Exceeding the expectations set out in the group stage, notably avoiding a defeat even when defending an onslaught against Gabon in their final game where many would’ve crumbled, their defence grew into a respectable unit, despite only featuring a single individual of continental competition standard, Lyon defender Nicolas Nkoulou. Teamwork, surprisingly enough for a side only assembled in the wake in a series of short-notice withdrawals – much in the theme of the tournament, Gabon having only been announced as hosts after Libya, unsurprisingly, were stripped of the rights in April 2015 – was the bedrock, the key quality demonstrated by Broos’ mightily impressive pack of Indomitable Lions, befitting of their tag this time. Ridden of the infighting, hostility and pay disputes that shackled their 2014 World Cup campaign, with prima donnas Benoit Assou-Ekotto, Alex Song, Benjamin Moukandjo ditched in the fallout, and big-time Charlies Joel Matip, Henri Bedimo, Eric Choupo-Moting and Allan Nyom axed from the 35-man January squad after proving themselves as nothing but egocentrics solely motivated by pay, a new platform was built for Broos, a highly experienced former Belgian international, and veteran of the 1986 World Cup, to rework the side.
Once made glorious by Roger Milla’s exuberance, in a tradition continued by Rigobert Song and Samuel Eto’o, the West African state was once the cradle of African football, before undergoing a brutal implosion from 2010, it appears that with the cool head of Broos at the helm, a team of effective nobodies, built on the very foundations of footballing ethics, will ensure the revival of their nation’s sporting scene having just reached this stage; the final. Displaying serious mettle, some said reminiscent of the 2002 final, in which they also defeated Senegal on penalties after 120 minutes of stalemate, to edge out a side otherwise destined for another final appearance, their defensive organisation – one of the intrinsically challenging projects facing modern day managers – had been exemplary ever since they fell behind to minnows Guinea-Bissau in what was a decisive second match. In keeping consecutive clean sheets against Gabon, Senegal and Ghana; or if you prefer star names, the qualities of Aubameyang, Mané and the Ayew brothers, they have proved their rightful status as one of Africa’s top modern beacons of footballing light currently, on their biggest stage. I give them little chance of replicating such ground-breaking efforts against by far the leading side of the AFCON scene in Egypt, but I had also expected, when planning this blog on Thursday evening, to be discussing Ghana’s success here, before being shocked just a minute after tuning in to BBC 5Live’s coverage of that semi-final to be struck with the far-post finish of Michael Ngadeu-Ngadjui, certainly the find of the tournament with two goals and three clean sheets from centre-back, so anything is surely possible.
Egypt, for what it’s worth, haven’t quite yet lived up to my own expectations of their quality, despite seemingly easing their way to the final. I had expected the Pharaohs to tear up a few defences in the tournament with the blistering pace of Mohamed Salah and Ahmed El Mohamady, but having been centred on the Stade de Port-Gentil for their first four fixtures at the championships, they haven’t particularly found their shooting boots, scraping three consecutive 1-0 wins against the tenacious Uganda, battle-hardy Ghana and plucky Morocco after a dreary 0-0 opening with Mali. With much of the focus instead fixated upon truly veteran goalkeeper Essam El Hadary’s exploits in becoming the oldest player ever to grace AFCON, the side’s defensive qualities were never placed in significant doubt, but when released from the wrath of the Port-Gentil stadium for the semi-final against Burkina Faso, they fared little better in squeaking a victory on penalties, El Hadary unsurprisingly the hero in saving two of the West Africans’ efforts.
Another stalemate, dare I say it, is likely against a Cameroonian outfit similarly unsupportive of attacking freedom, and it could well take another snippet of brilliance from Salah, be it a free-kick, late assist or thundering 20-yard effort in the ilk of his individual contributions to this point, to separate what are likely to be two incredibly nervy sides when push comes to shove on Sunday night. As Mohamed Elneny hopefully returns to fitness after missing both knockout stages to date, softening the blows of losing Braga forward Ahmed Hassan and Al-Ahly marksman Marwan Mohsen to injury, and with no fitness concerns for their opponents, it appears a tight final, one to relish in the anticipation of as two sides so seemingly unalike, from alien spectrums of African environment, footballing culture, socio-economic and politics standpoints, go head-to-head for a history-defining prize; the rule of African football.
When peering back at this tournament, however, it may not be the football that is best remembered. The political unrest, demonstrations and boycotts from Gabonese citizens, the half-empty stadiums, the parched pitches, especially that of Port-Gentil, lack of overall enthusiasm generated throughout the lucrative markets of Europe, North America and Asia, and the painful pandering to mockery by numerous media stations may be the lasting memories, which would be a great shame in my opinion. Yes, the games admittedly haven’t been to the standard of yesteryear, but with a number of stunning free kicks, pulse-raising penalty shoot-outs, romantic tales of underdog achievements and long-standing records broken, in the circumstances of Gabon taking over from Libya with less than two years’ notice, the CAF having immeasurably less resources to aid organisation than UEFA, for example, would, and with only 16 sides of the requisite quality to make an occasion of the championships, I would argue that AFCON has made the best of a bad lot. Compared to the 2.12 goals scored per game at last summer’s Euros, there has been, to date, a healthy 2.06 flying in at this winter’s AFCON, although admittedly with 21 of the 62 goals coming in Group B alone, perhaps action was limited to a few sides.
That, particularly, isn’t the argument we’re having here though. I believe the scepticism, and cynicism, towards AFCON comes from a gross ignorance. I am a great advocate of the draws of international football, especially in regions such as Africa; perhaps its due to the fact the real eye-opener to football for me was the 2010 World Cup, which typified so much of what makes international football great. It’s far from a parade of patriotism, instead a celebration of common beliefs, and goals, bringing such divergent forces together in one space, in one time. If anything could be more uplifting than this, utilising the transcendent power of sport to unite, rather than divide, then surely it would’ve already come to fruition. Moving onto qualification for Russia in 2018, these African nations will be forced back to the drawing board in a challenge which offers the pinnacle of achievement in their sport as a prize; a spot in the World Cup finals, a carrot many can barely contain themselves for. Either Cameroon or Egypt will compete in the Confederations Cup this summer in the formerly Soviet state, something that will prove the other extreme from the humidity of Libreville tomorrow night, with opposition of vastly differing quality scheduled. Let battle commence for a place in history, then, with the next page in the history of African football awaiting a scribe, for the future to be shaped by one of these two astonishing sides.
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!