In recognition of the International break this week, let’s talk about the England team. They’re our national obsession, our regular source of hope and promise, yet unwavering provider of disappointment. There are obviously a lot of opinions concerning every aspect of them, from selection to management and ambition, as everyone feels involved in and entitled to their national side. Having a debate, whether it be from the national newspapers and broadcasters, the members of the FA committee, or even any of us average fans, is a good thing for the game as it helps progress happen. Within these debates, there are a lot of vital issues to the success of our nation on the international stage, but from some only more questions are thrown up. So I’m here this week to give my opinions on the direction of England, who are going into this summer’s European Championships, at least in my opinion, unsure of their potential. How far can they go? Who will be the players selected? How important are this week’s friendlies? Let’s find out…
Firstly, we need to set a few things straight. From a fan’s perspective, we hardly ever see or hear what happens in FA meetings or management talks, so it is hard to gauge a real opinion on how the FA are rating the prolonged period of disappointment or what our chances are this summer. But that is what is so captivating about international football; the unpredictability and the focus on the actual footballing side of things rather than boardroom meetings. I’ve never understood why people slate the international game for being ‘a waste of time’, when they will undoubtedly jump on the bandwagon after one win. It’s partly down to this attitude from fans that England have never performed that well at tournaments, at least in my lifetime (from 2001). Fans need to get behind the team at all times if they want to see any success; it’s almost like they enjoy criticising right now. Some target Greg Dyke and others in his position, some lay responsibility at Roy Hodgson, whereas most of the fans visible on social media blame Wayne Rooney. It’s not like he is personally bringing down our team, is it? How can the absence of our vastly experienced (record goal scorer) captain make us a better side? My philosophy on criticism is that if you realistically couldn’t do a better job yourself; don’t be so quick to lament somebody else for the job they’re doing.
Now that we’ve sorted that, let’s establish where the team could be left after this week’s two friendlies, Germany away today (Saturday 26th) and the Netherlands at home (Tuesday 29th). We all know that friendlies are about gauging the limits of the team, both tactically and fitness-wise, but by this point, and with the amount of experience Roy has in his squad, we should all have a pretty good idea of this. Well, especially from today’s match, we should get a perfect idea of where we stand as a team in preparation and expectation for the Euros. According to the current FIFA world rankings, England stand 9th in the world and 5th in Europe, whereas with UEFA’s rankings we are 3rd in Europe, behind only Germany and Spain. These rankings aren’t entirely representative of the truth, though, as the Netherlands are still ranked above this summer’s hosts France in both FIFA and UEFA’s lists. This is the result of a combination of France only being able to play friendlies instead of qualifiers and the 3rd place finish at the last World Cup by the Dutch. So we need a real test of our stature. This will come in the shape of Joachim Löw’s all-conquering, highly tipped German side and Danny Blind’s beaten and bruised side, fresh from the shock of failing to even qualify for Europe’s showpiece international tournament. Two very different challenges, good preparation for the types of situations the team will face in the summer, the pressure of the grudge match with Wales and the seemingly winnable tie with Slovakia.
These friendlies will be imperative, not only to the players Roy may pick to be on the plane in early June, but to the tactical approach to games he might take. If we set up to hold out the German attack including Mario Götze, Thomas Muller and Mesut Özil in the same way we did in our friendly in 2013, we will see a low-scoring stalemate decided by any glimpse of skill. The only reason I remember that match is because of the fact we had no shots on target in the whole game, despite the fact we has such legendary talent such as Tom Cleverley, Rickie Lambert and Jay Rodriguez in the squad. That is something we don’t want to see a repeat of. Defensive-minded football is fine, but not to the extent to which we have no serious goal threat for the entire 90 minutes. We need to express our attacking threat in players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Ross Barkley, as this is where I believe we are at our strongest, especially against the less-than-perfect German defence who lack experience past Mats Hummels and Shkodran Mustafi. On the other hand, we cannot go too gung-ho as the Germans pose a very true threat going forward, meaning we need to take our chances when they come and try to keep the ball at all costs.
For the next match, this time with the advantage of playing at an imposingly packed Wembley against the Dutch, the team should all be raring to go out and claim their places in the squad. We need to respect a strong opposition with the (often inconsistent) qualities of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Memphis Depay and Wesley Sneijder. Holland are an interesting and unpredictable proposition as they will most likely be blooding their eager-to-impress youth such as Jetro Willems, Riechedly Bazoer and Quincy Promes while learning a new style set revive them from their qualification slump. Danny Blind is a very strong coach, most likely to start using his man-management skills to mend the frayed tempers of the aforementioned Sneijder and Depay, but is yet to show his qualities as a manager. If he can adapt to the role quickly England should be in for a strong test, but on the other hand we could see the talents of Danny Welbeck, Raheem Sterling and Jamie Vardy come to fruition and hand us a solid win. I personally would hand Danny Drinkwater a start in this match to test himself against the midfield dynamos of Jordy Clasie, Ibrahim Afellay and Georginio Wijnaldum. This could be the perfect game for Drinkwater, who when paired with either Jordan Henderson or James Milner, would be ably supported in the fight for domination in the middle of the park. This is the game for Roy to explore his options and hopefully guide us to a morale-boosting victory.
So who will make up the squad for the tournament in the summer? Personally, I would assort the 23 to three goalkeepers, eight defenders, eight midfielders and four strikers, allowing us the flexibility to revert between any of Roy’s previously used 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 formations. The three goalkeepers, barring injury, should be easy to decipher; Joe Hart, Jack Butland and Fraser Forster. Hart is our obvious number one, but could be pushed right up to kick off by the impressive Butland, who has outperformed many players older than him in his position this season. He has earned himself his promotion from under-21 first choice to a regular back up for the full side, topped off with the possibility of two more caps to add to the collection in place of the injured Joe Hart in this week’s friendlies. Forster has also exceeded expectations this season in the few games he has played since his recovery from a 9-month lay-off from a broken kneecap, helping Southampton only concede eight goals in their last eleven games and being rewarded with a return to the England squad in the process. Hart and Forster’s experience at the last World Cup should also prove useful.
Next, let’s look at the case for the defence. With eights defenders in my squad, I would pick four centre backs and four full-backs, with some capable to fill in for the others in-game if the situation requires it. For my centre backs, I would see Gary Cahill and Chris Smalling as our two most obvious and likely to start together come the Euros. So after those two, we are left with a choice of two from John Stones, Phil Jagielka and Phil Jones, with the minute possibility of James Tomkins, Scott Dann or Ryan Shawcross if injuries cause replacements. In my opinion, Stones should be rewarded for his meteoric rise from lanky teenage defender at Barnsley to imposing first-choice at Everton with a place as a result of his good form in the first half of the season, and the possibility to gain vital knowledge from the Euro experience. So, Jones or Jagielka, Phil or Phil? Tough one to call in my opinion, as both play the role of the more tackle-hungry, tight marking battlers in the heart of defence, put their bodies on the line for their team. From Jagielka’s performance at the last World Cup, failing to prevent Mario Balotelli or Luis Suarez from scoring against us, a lot of questions were asked about his suitability at this level. His desire is unquestionable, but his technical ability has often been found lacking, although on the other hand the same could be said at the same times about Jones. His lack of appearances this season through injuries could cost him by the time Roy picks his squad, although his versatility and experience for his age (20 caps at the age of 24) could tempt Hodgson to think long and hard about his pick.
At full back, we have a number of quality options with many in-form names being thrown around, but we need to get serious on who can nail down those two spots. My two right-backs would definitely be Kyle Walker and Nathaniel Clyne, as they have both had very solid seasons, ably displaying their maturity and talent. Walker is the more attacking option, well known for his love for bombing forward and supporting attacks for Spurs, but it isn’t relentless running that is needed at international level, as we saw with Glen Johnson’s poor performances against both Italy and Uruguay two summers ago. In tense games that can often be decided by a single goal on the international stage, we need an all-round full back who can ably revert with his centre back when they reassume positions tracking back, support the winger in front of them and is able to get into the face of the opposition’s attackers. For me, Nathaniel Clyne is this player for England, and has shown it with his controlled, solid performances in the qualifiers. Playing under Jürgen Klopp has only aided him in his training, as he now understand the mentality of ‘Gegenpressing’, high tempo, continuous pressure on the opposition designed to rush them into mistakes so your team can profit.
At left back, there is a whole different proposition. Ryan Bertrand and Danny Rose are occupying the two spots this week, but that is not to say Leighton Baines or even Luke Shaw could return and makes their names heard. Personally, if all four were fully fit and playing as they have this season, I would pick Bertrand and Shaw. Seeing as Shaw would have to recover quickly to stand a chance, I wouldn’t take the risk, but rather pick Leighton Baines as my second choice. In my opinion, Baines is more complete than Rose, whose performances, while impressive attacking-wise, can often be erratic at the back, leaving the more experienced Baines to take my spot, especially if he can impress in Everton’s run-in.
Central Midfield is our next subject, where I believe five players will be picked. On current form, I believe that Alli, Barkley and Jordan Henderson are sure-fire picks. The fourth place I believe is between Milner and Jack Wishere, where unless the latter can return with a bang, the former will be picked for his fourth straight international tournament, vital experience to blend with Alli and Barkley’s rawness. For the fifth spot, I believe it’s a three way fight between Eric Dier, Danny Drinkwater and Michael Carrick. This could be a very interesting battle depending on the first two’s performances in the friendlies, as they will be keen to impress Roy. Certainly on form, Dier and Drinkwater seem to have the upper hand on Carrick, who has had a difficult season with injury. This is the risk with which he experience comes with, the risk of his body becoming more prone to niggles at his age of 34. As I think it was Danny Murphy pointed out on Match of the Day 2 last week though, his experience at the top end of the game is very useful in the pursuit of success, as any squad needs older players who know the game inside out and how to play it in different situations.
While Dier and Drinkwater may only have two caps between them (prior to the two friendlies) they have undoubtedly earned their places in the current squad on club form, playing similarly pivotal roles in each of their sides fights for the title. They both play deeper roles, shielding their defences while also having the ability to play killer balls forward, creating goal scoring chances. They have both linked up with English international strikers (Kane and Vardy) and are both products of talented academies (Sporting Lisbon and Manchester United, whilst both played for the England youth teams). But it is here where the similarities end. It is at this point that Roy needs to make his pick of the two. Will it depend on which one wins the Premier League? Will it depend on which would complete the squad more, with Dier being able to play centre back? Will it depend on who has more future potential around the squad? I think this one is too close to call, a final decision that could anger either sets of supporters equally.
Moving on to the wings, I believe we should take three along to France, all having the ability to switch flanks if required. Taking this into consideration, my picks would be Raheem Sterling, Theo Walcott and one of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain or Adam Lallana. Sterling and Walcott have both shown in the past, both on club and international levels, that they are able to be versatile and with their experience (20 and 42 caps respectively) should be musts for the squad. The Ox or Lallana is a decision that requires the context of the style England currently play, mainly because our tactics require versatility, pace and accuracy from our wingers, with the ability to both score and set up goals. With this in mind, my personal decision would be Oxlade-Chamberlain, who despite his disappointing season has always performed in big games, such as England’s friendly against Brazil in 2013 and in the Champions League for Arsenal (2 goals scored and 2 assisted from 7 games last season). Lallana appears to rely more on his skill rather than raw pace, which can make his play more frustrating when it doesn’t come off, which has been the case for the last few inconsistent seasons. He didn’t really get going at the last World Cup either, so if I was him, I wouldn’t get my hopes up before some better performances.
Now to the players that crown any team, the cherries on top of the cake; the strikers. While there has been some debate about this position on social media, I don’t see the decisions to be too difficult. Harry Kane is probably our main striker now, Jamie Vardy is there on his brilliant record-breaking season, and Wayne Rooney is our captain, our lynchpin, our big name player in the squad. I honestly can’t understand the calls for him to not be in the squad for the summer, the argument is completely nonsensical. You simply cannot drop the leader of the group, our record goal scorer and most admired (by fans abroad and in Britain) player simply because he has been playing in a system that doesn’t suit him this season. Yes, he hasn’t scored as many goals as normal for Man United, but that is in a team that, according to Squawka, have 17th out of 20 in the Premier League table for chances created (19th in key passes and 15th for amount of assists). Rooney’s game relies on a bevy of attacking talent combining, a taller striker to work off (which he would have in Kane) and skilful, pacey wingers (Sterling and Walcott). He can play behind the striker, allowing him to use his long and short passing skills, his vision and leadership in uniting attacks, setting up and finishing chances. He has shown this so consistently for England, one of their best performers in the last World Cup, and the country’s second top all-time scorer in international tournaments with six goals. His ability in dead-ball situations is also well-known and probably the best we have to our disposal, particularly important in knock-out matches decided by penalty shoot-outs (although we’d probably still lose them). For me, the last striker spot is taken by Danny Welbeck over Daniel Sturridge, as the former is trusted by Hodgson, can also play on the wing, has a great record for England (14 goals in 33 games) and is in good form. From my point of view, the latter is a liability with his injuries and inconsistency and, despite his goal at the last World Cup, should not be risked this time round.
So how far can we go at the Euros? Well, by my own predictions (which aren’t always great) I believe we can get to the quarter-finals, where according to UEFA’s Euro 2016 draw plan, we could meet Belgium. From my understanding of it, the winner of the round of 16 match between Group B winners (hopefully England) and the 3rd place team with the most points from either Groups A, C or D (I think Romania, Ukraine or Czech Republic) will face the winners of the other RO16 match between who I think will be Portugal and Belgium. If my prediction does materialise and we win our group (and RO16 match) a very tasty match up with Belgium should really test us. In my opinion, this is where our talent will meet its match in the likes of Courtois, Hazard and Lukaku (not Fellaineh, sorry lads) and we could fall, perhaps in extra-time or on penalties. From that, we would miss out on a potential semi-final against defending champions Spain.
But does a quarter final finish, equalling our result last time round, constitute success for us? Or would it mean the end for Roy at the age of 69? If my prediction was correct, I think the nation would feel lukewarm about the result, slightly disappointed but still a tad satisfied. It all depends on how we perform, how much promise we show, if we could’ve gone further if it were for some better luck. I believe this will be Roy’s last tournament in charge, but I think it will also be one he is looking to go out on a high with. Who knows what will happen? To be honest, we have to just wait and see. This is where the excitement of it all starts. Let’s hope it all goes to plan and we can spring a surprise, for the sake of our country. 50 years after the home glory of the World Cup, it would only be fitting to have some more success. Please?
From my perspective as a fan in the world of football, there are a number of serious issues concerning the game at this moment in time. Corruption scandals, sky-high wages conflicting reality and rising ticket prices are just a few of these. While I have already covered some of these, and will continue to on this website, I wanted to focus this week on some of the smaller, less covered topics that I feel need addressing. While some may seem tedious, petulant or minor, I completely believe that these are problems that are in need of fixing to make the game better for all involved.
To kick-off this rant, let’s pinpoint where the blame for anything can lie. Let’s be honest, no-one is immune from wrongdoing, whether they do it subconsciously or not. So all the fans, players, managers, owners, board members and sponsors out there, be wary of your actions in future after reading this, and make sure you try to stop others doing the same things.
Firstly, let’s talk about the players. For most of us, they are the most important people at the club, as they are, in the end, the ones that take the club in the direction required (or not, in some cases). Professional players are idols for all football fans young and old, as they live a lifestyle completely the opposite to anyone else in society. They have responsibilities to act in a manner reflecting their club, their community and the game, as they hold a vital role in our culture, not just in the U.K but worldwide. The World Cup is widely regarded as the most prestigious competition in world sport, with perhaps the exception of the Olympics, meaning any actions players take are seen across the earth. Footballers are regularly featured, not just on the back pages, but in the front of most tabloids, which at the ages of anything from 16 to 40 can be a big weight on their shoulders. But this is something they should accept with the job, as although a vast majority play because it is their true passion in life, all they do at the end of the day is kick a ball around for our entertainment, for our approval.
So what gets on my nerves about them? Well, aside from their wages and lifestyle off the pitch, there a number of things. The fact that some players dare to cheat, full in the knowledge of what they are doing, is the biggest part for me. I’m absolutely sure that a number of desperate, or just immoral, managers tell their players to target winning free kicks or penalties during matches, purely to win games. The amount of clearly visible dives over the last five years is crazy in the Premier League or La Liga, as talented players have lowered their morals to test the officials of their capabilities as qualified professionals. Most accounts of diving can source their heritage to the game in South America and the Southern Mediterranean, as these country’s players are renowned for their expertise in play acting to win games. The very fact that dives are even being disputed on Match of the Day on Saturday nights is a real sign of where the game has come, and proof that players need to be reprimanded equally, and soon.
Another aspect of the playing stage that annoys me is the fact that on the back of the shirt that player has been awarded by the club, they have the addition of their surname. I believe that this revolution, which we see as commonplace in football these days despite the fact it only started in 1993, is a totally financially-based one that disregards the history of the club. Where was the first World Cup that started the trend of names on shirts held? The USA, of course! The home of commercialism, capitalism, and the business idea of selling more products by attaching a famous name to it. Now that this has evolved into the absolutely farcical and self-obsessed concept of first names of players emblazoned above their self-chosen number, I’m in despair about how much power the players now hold. If somebody suggested even 30 years ago that in 2016, the names Memphis, Alexis and Virgil (Depay, Sanchez and van Dijk) would be seen on the back of shirts in the Premier League, most fans definitely wouldn’t have believed it. It’s something I completely disagree with.
The next thing I cannot stand about players is how, even in non-league level at Lewes FC, they will steal yards further up the pitch when taking free kicks or throw-ins. Why do they do this? To be able to put in less effort kicking or throwing the ball as far? To challenge the authority of the officials? It’s the same thing with holding the ball up in the corners with five or ten minutes left, holding a 2-1 lead. It never ceases to baffle me how determined football players are to win that they would employ such ugly and borderline (in football terms) illegal tactics.
My next target for ‘constructive criticism’ as business managers would call it, are the board. In our age of growing democracy, as most would like to see it, across the world, many football fans are wondering why they don’t get to have a say on who will represent them on the board of their club. This is an inexcusable lack of respect for the fans of nearly 96% of the clubs in the top 4 divisions in England, with only four clubs being fan-owned with an equal vote for all. Another board responsibility is making commercial decisions, or at least employ an overpaid Chief Executive, Chief Financial Officer or Commercial Director who will. These decisions would include how often to release new products, such as the biggest seller at the club; the shirts.
It makes me sick how clubs can dare to release such minutely differing kits every season, with a home, away, third and even ‘continental’ option. How the clubs, in partnership with sporting titan brands such as Nike, Adidas or Puma, can get away with convincing hundreds of thousands of fans to fork out £50 or so every season for a piece of factory-produced material is a criminal ploy of our trust in the club. It’s also the type of sponsors seen on the shirts that is totally wrong if the clubs want to set an example to children across the country, as betting companies and beer brands aren’t really the kinds of logos you want children to become sensitised to. 7 of the 20 Premier League clubs are sponsored by betting companies, one by a beer company and the most immoral club in the BPL, no prizes for guessing, are sponsored by Wonga, a payday loan company who make millions in profit out of desperate people every day. Somebody needs to take a stand; otherwise the clubs and the sponsors will keep making mammoth profits by leeching onto our loyalty.
Where better to turn after the board than to the fans, a number of the latter taking great joy in berating the former, and others working at their club, when things don’t go as planned on the pitch. That is if you believe what you see on fan forums and social media, especially Twitter. In fact, this has become so commonplace that Arsenal fans have been widely associated to post-match rants about Wenger and the board, only to forget these arguments a week later. You just might even see them restart their complaints after another loss to Stoke, Watford or West Ham. It is laughable how extensive sofa pundits have become in the modern day, although I do have to admit to becoming one on a number of occasions. Any Manchester United fan would have to with the season we’ve had.
But it is a particular brand of self-righteousness on Twitter than I absolutely hate; the fans who reply to the English FA’s tweet of the latest squad for friendlies or qualifiers with so much shock and anger it’s as if Roy Hodgson has personally gone and stabbed Aaron Cresswell or Ryan Shawcross in the back. They get so wound up over a selection of players who, most likely, have much more international and continental experience than whoever Andy or Steve down the pub have suggested. Face it mate, James Tomkins and Marc Albrighton aren’t going to get a call-up in the near future, if ever, for England. So what is the point in taking a good ten minutes of your time using your 140 characters to explain how Troy Deeney has been in great form and how his style of play would definitely beat the tactics of the German team? It’s not like Roy is going to get his phone out halfway through his press conference, scroll down to your comment and realise that every decision he has made has been wrong, running off shouting “I’m off to get Troy Deeney for the sake of our country!”
My second point for fans, and it is one I feel strongly about, is to not join in with these idiotic and nonsensical football firms, defending their clubs honour by having alcohol-induced street brawls with opposing fans. It’s not a good thing for any club for a small portion of their fan base to be influenced or involved in these shameful groups of fans who would rather run the risk of possibly committing murder instead of watching the actual football. I’m all for supporters clubs and collected fan projects, but violence is not the way to show support. They are clearly deluded people if they think their actions in bad mouthing and threatening another club’s firm with violence is going to, in any way, make their team the better one. That is not what football is about, that is committing a crime and serving a prison sentence, wasting your life for no good reason. The programme Football Fight Club on BBC Three gives a great example of this.
This type of over-passionate ‘support’ leads me on to the opposite of the spectrum in terms of supporter loyalty; it’s the fans who give up on their team after a disappointing season. ‘Glory hunting’ is a term I don’t like to use lightly as I believe it negatively judges a whole band of fans, who all have differing stories about how they starting supporting a certain side. I must myself admit to have started following Manchester United during their glory years, I believe the morning after my dad explained to me that Michael Owen had scored a hat-trick against Wolfsburg in the Champions League. I didn’t know what a hat-trick was at the time, but I did become interested in the club and was hooked after a family trip to Greater Manchester later that year.
I may be biased, but I feel that this kind of chance meeting of a fan and team is fine, but it is the constant chopping and changing of teams that irritates me. I saw it every year in Primary School, with some people swapping from Liverpool to Man United, Man City or Chelsea as soon as one beat the other. It was only once Manchester City won the Premier League in 2011/12 that any of their fans came out of their shells across the country. Coincidence? I don’t think so. The same happened in France after Paris Saint Germain began their era of dominance. You can’t throw away your side for another in the blink of an eye; that’s not loyalty. I wonder how many new Leicester City fans will have bragging rights for the next season…
As I said at the beginning, no-one is exempt from blame in such an opinionated and constantly changing sport, but that is where the joy of debate about football lies; we all know that at some point we have or will be in the wrong. Now that we know what our issues are, we need to sort them out; otherwise I can see football fans, players, managers and owners getting a worse name for themselves in the modern day media. I’m sure I’ve missed out loads of other minor problems or things you hate in the sport, so drop a comment with them if you want to get it off your chest. One last thing, English people calling it soccer, please don’t. If you are a company doing it, trying to expand into the American market, don’t do it. If you are a normal football fan doing it, what’s wrong with you? It’s called football. It always has been and always should be.
In a week that saw the financial muscle match of Russia vs Qatar, or Chelsea vs Paris Saint Germain as most of us prefer to call it, in the Champions League, we saw an era of money-dictated success summed up in around two hours. A day later, in not quite so glamorous conditions, but with the same message to football, a Turkish businessman, Ziya Eren, completed his takeover of Crawley Town. The very same Crawley Town that, in May 2005, defeated my home village team of Ringmer FC 2-0 in the final of the Sussex Senior Cup. The same Crawley Town that only six years ago were in the Blue Square Conference Premier, finalising a deal for new owners who would fund the club moving up into League 2. Does this overseas investment represent the future of lower-league English football? Is that where the next series of Middle-Eastern or American investors will risk their funds? On the other hand, can the fan-owned revolution take off from non-league to the Football League and above?
In England at least, there has been a clear shift from British-based owners to foreign-based investors in the past 30 or 40 years, something I commented on during my first blog this year. Well, while this revolution shows no signs of stopping, there has been a separate, seemingly rebellious, direction being taken by a number of non-league clubs in England in the last decade. With Exeter City the first English team to take this step in 2003, they sent a big message to other clubs at their level, as when they were in financial trouble, they turned to their fans. 38 other professional or semi-professional English clubs have officially become totally or majority fan-owned in the following thirteen years. This may not seem like a lot, but these clubs have had a massive impact on the outlook of English football, changing how people perceive football clubs to be run and how clubs can return their support from the community. Fan ownership is something I am very passionate about.
Just 12 months after Crawley Town did beat Ringmer in the Sussex Senior Cup final, a team that I have mentioned before in these blogs, Lewes FC, won the same competition. Another four years after that, and Lewes became in financial peril after two relegations in three seasons from the Conference Premier to the Isthmian Premier League, the 7th national tier. Just hours away from a club-ending winding up petition, a group called Rooks125 saved the club and decided to hand over ownership to the fans. In a period of stability, results on the pitch have hardly improved, with only one top half finish in the five seasons since (including this one, bottom with eight games remaining). However, off the pitch, we have over 1000 owners paying just £30 a year to own a part of Lewes FC, creating funds of £30,000 on top of match-day profits and sponsorship deals. Being in touch with their fans and the local community has allowed sponsorship openings with businesses in the town, more teams to be started and a new 24-hour 3G training pitch to be built. On this pitch, schools, rugby, cricket, stoolball teams and 5-a-side squads can play alongside all of Lewes’ eight teams (obviously not at the same time).
Clearly there are many benefits for non-league, lower budget teams to be fan owned, but a lot of people are sceptics of the concept for Football League teams on a larger scale. Granted, the idea didn’t go as planned for Stockport County, who became bankrupt in their four years of self-ownership following 2005, having to rely on private investors to bail them out. Some argue that a consortium of 20,000 or so supporters of say a League 2 team wouldn’t be able to provide the same amount of regular investment for top-name players or ground improvements purely because they aren’t millionaires. It’s a sad fact, but some people do still think like this, valuing immediate success and flashy Jaguar-driving, champagne-drinking owners over community values and democracy for all fans. If those 20,000 or so fans paid £25 every year like the price of becoming a member of the Dons Trust, AFC Wimbledon’s owners, the club would make £500,000 out of it, which at League 2 level can mean a whole new subs bench worth of players.
Looking back through history, fan ownership in football can draw its roots back to Germany, where it has thrived in achieving lower ticket prices and fan-based projects such as safe standing. This is one of the main reasons that clubs such as Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and St. Pauli rank so high in many fans must-see experiences. It is actually the law in Germany that clubs cannot be owned by a single company or investor, making sure there can’t be any dictatorial chairmen holding their clubs to ransom like Mike Ashley or Karl Oyston at Newcastle and Blackpool respectively. At Bayern Munich, arguably one of the top 5 biggest clubs in the world, you can become an owner for just £23.26. With Borussia Dortmund, you can buy a share on the German Stock Exchange for around £3, whereas at Schalke the cheapest membership for adults is £19.40. Bundesliga clubs involve their fans by giving each paying member a vote in board elections, handing them the right to have their say in how the club is run. Isn’t this how football is supposed to be run?
This example is also used at Barcelona and Real Madrid in the Liga BBVA, capitalising on their worldwide status and millions, if not billions of fans, and creating a worldwide ownership scheme. From Barça’s 140,000 members all paying £136.45 every year, the club will make £19,103,258.79 annually. Almost £20 million every year just from the owners; the fans. While that might only mean one player for the club, they make hundreds of millions in television deals, high-profile sponsorships and win bonuses. If any sceptics doubt the financial sustainability of a club being fan-owned, just look at how the two Spanish giants are performing in all the sporting rich lists. Premier League clubs could easily make just as much profit, and that is without businessmen, who claim to care about their clubs, tidying off some financial profits for their own pockets, such as the Glazer clan at Manchester United.
All this evidence of success with fan ownership, both on a local scale and a much larger continental one, points to one big question; why haven’t Premier League clubs followed? To put it simply, it can be blamed on our culture in the UK, where we have accepted businesses, and therefore football clubs, to be run by the richest in society, without the workers or the customers having a say. We used to have a very strict social order, and in many ways we still do, in which we won’t stand up for what is right when those better off than us act against our will. Just look at all the owners of Premier League and Championship teams; I can assure you that none of them came from low income backgrounds. So by this logic, apparently being rich should guarantee you more opportunities and make you immune of any wrongdoing. It’s time we took a stand against such a brutal and pre-determined world by lobbying for more lower-league clubs to follow the examples of FC United of Manchester, AFC Wimbledon or Lewes FC (of course). It would be unrealistic to imagine any BPL clubs adopting this method within the next five years, but I know that there are a lot of disgruntled fans at non-league level who want to change their club; and I encourage them to do it. They could make a real change. After all, football isn’t all about spending and winning; it’s about community, heart and enjoyment; for anybody to win anything, there needs to be runners-up and losers.
Fan ownership means closer community links, more opportunities for fans to be involved in what is ultimately their club and more controlled finances. It is something to be celebrated; it’s a form of Western democracy and equal rights in a world of traditionally totalitarian Russian, South-East Asian and Arab ownership. It is an opportunity to escape from all the doom and gloom of modern day ownership and create a closely-bonded set up between the board and fans, allowing everybody who has been loyally paying the players’ wages every week of every season. Fans have the right to have their voices heard, to have people who represent the views of the regular fan on the board, to know that the club they have grown up with is in safe hands.
If this method grows in the lower leagues and proves successful, there could be significant pressure on future governments to follow Germany’s example. This would obviously never happen under a Conservative Sports Minister, but with another government it could be possible, and I personally believe it could reflect the game in a more positive light; take it back to what football is really about. To put it simply, ownership and investment is a question for the fans to pressure board members on the future direction of their club. Do they want short-term, risky, unguaranteed success, or would they prefer a more stable, community-friendly approach that has shown to be less successful in terms of trophies? It’s a difficult decision and depends on your values and ambition, but I know which side I’m on.
It’s fair to say that the Barclays Premier League has seen one of the most unpredictable and pulsating seasons in its history over the past seven months. Whilst a lot has been made of Aston Villa’s poor form at the wrong end of the table, what everybody is focusing on right now is the fierce battle for the title. With ten games left for most sides, and realistically the top six sides all having a chance of winning top prize, we are all set for hopefully one of the best title races in BPL history. Obviously a lot can happen between now and Sunday 15th May, but the question on everybody’s lips is who will win the title?
So who are our candidates for top spot? Current leaders Leicester City are certainly the bookmaker’s favourite at the moment, but those bookies could be set to pay out big bucks if those who backed the Foxes at the start of the season are proven right. Spurs are a close second, in both the table and the odds, with Arsenal’s chances becoming ever slimmer by the day right now after three consecutive losses in all competitions. Manchesters City and United are always in with a chance every season, and this season’s second surprise package West Ham round off the top six, sitting only 11 points off top spot. Everybody has an opinion on who will win out of those six, but there a lot of contributing factors that need to align for any sort of success to follow in each team’s title chase. Let’s separate this to a team-by-team basis to decipher all those opinions and statistics we are bombarded with.
Firstly, let’s talk about Leicester. There are no superlatives left unused by those in the media to describe how unbelievable their season has been so far. Within the past 24 months, they have gone from Championship winners to bottom of the Premier League in December 2014 to true BPL title contenders. All this while keeping their squad nucleus of Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater and Jamie Vardy, who have all played out of their skins this season. Their story of rags to riches in such a money-dominated league as the BPL is probably the most heroic and noteworthy in the nigh-on 24 year history of the competition. There is no doubt Claudio Ranieri has worked hard to reinvent Leicester’s purpose in the Premier League, revolutionising their tactics and inspiring fearlessness in his players. His counter-attacking 4-4-2 tactic has been a joy to watch this season, creating shockwaves by actually breaking up the dominance of the game-controlling 4-2-3-1 amongst the top clubs. Their game plan, quite simply, is perfectly built to win big games, but the problem is that they may come unstuck against similarly defensively-minded teams, like Norwich last Saturday.
Their form is certainly looking good at the moment, with only one loss in their last 10 games, against title rivals Arsenal. However, they have drawn four of those ten, when to be winners by mid-May they will have to start winning those games, start seizing the chances they have been prone to miss in the last few games. Another issue they may have is injuries/suspensions to key players, such as Riyad Mahrez or Robert Huth, as like we saw against West Brom on Wednesday, the injured N’Golo Kante could’ve won the game had he been involved.
Next we come to Tottenham Hotspur, the perennial bridesmaids in North London to Arsenal in the Premier League era, the consistent under-achievers possibly now realising their potential when those around them fail. Over the past few years, some fans have complained about the failure to replace star players such as Gareth Bale or Luca Modric, but few have had issues with the replacements of Hugo Lloris for Huerelho Gomes, Harry Kane for Roman Pavlyuchenko or Kyle Walker for Vedran Corluka. This steady development of young, often British youngsters and involvement of them into the first team can lay a lot of its credit with Mauricio Pochettino, who has worked wonders creating an attacking, fast-paced team. There is no doubt that Spurs have a hungry squad, with exciting talent such as Dele Alli, Joshua Onomah and Heung Son-Min, but there is a big question mark hanging over them; are they a title-winning squad? I know I may get hate for this (Tyler) but I personally don’t think they are. They are certainly a good team, but they don’t really have the experienced heads required, the previous title-winners that some like Manchester City do.
Harry Kane’s stuttering form will also be a concern for fans, as when any team’s number 9 is not firing, they aren’t going to pick up as many points as they need. Based on the fact that they don’t have a quality backup to Kane, I believe they need to get him in the goals soon or see their hopes fail at the last stage.
Move just over four miles down the road, and we come to our next stop; Arsenal. What to say that hasn’t already been said season on season before? Once again they have begun to falter after a promising first half of the season. It has become the footballing equivalent of Tim Henman’s Wimbledon fate; a cruel cliché, always top 4 finishers, never fulfilling their title-winning ambitions. Arsene Wenger has made a career out of it, never to better their golden days of the Invincibles. I for one have always admired how Wenger gets his teams to play; slick, precise passing slowly building up to well-worked goals. To have played so beautifully and to have recruited such talent such as Alexis Sanchez, Petr Cech and Olivier Giroud (who I rate very highly), yet not win the BPL would be criminal. Sadly Wenger does not seem to realise this, even defending his team’s second-half collapse against Swansea on Wednesday night, which must infuriate Arsenal fans. If he continues with this passive attitude, the club will never win the league under him, as they won’t have the hunger or ruthlessness required to dominate.
Arsenal’s ability to retreat into their shell, lose their belief and bottle it in big games is second to none in the BPL, their poor records against Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City over the past few years easily representing their mistakes. Personally, I think it honestly comes down to ability. Arsenal have international players, yes, but barring Sanchez or Cech, they don’t have world class players. Instead of building a squad, Wenger needs to learn to take a risk and splash the cash on individuals or risk being left behind. Don’t get me wrong, Wenger has been a great manager in BPL history, he just hasn’t become respected on the same level as Sir Alex Ferguson. It takes more than just great to win the title.
For our next contenders, we find Manchester City, wounded from consecutive league losses to Leicester, Spurs and Liverpool, waiting for a certain Pep Guardiola to arrive. From the outside, it appears the players might have packed up for the season and are arrogant enough to believe they are already guaranteed places under Guardiola. 10 points behind Leicester, I can see disbelief amongst Pellegrini’s camp, a lack of effort in such a vital period of the season. From what I saw of them against Liverpool on Match of the Day on Wednesday, City appeared ragged and lethargic, with their captain Vincent Kompany at least three yards off the pace, devoid of emotion. Even Pellegrini couldn’t be bothered to get out of his seat and shout some orders or encouragement to his team.
But there are some positives for City. They certainly have the talent required to win games at the tail end of a season, with world class talents such as Sergio Agüero, David Silva and Yaya Touré. These types of players have the ability to win games on their own, reflecting this in the club’s wage bill, the highest in the Premier League. They play exciting, gung-ho football which either works perfectly in bombarding teams, or ,as we have seen this season, can fail to live up to standards in big games. If City can comfortably win their seemingly simple next couple of games against Aston Villa and Norwich, they should have confidence to carry into the Manchester derby. That game could be the make or break moment of their season, defining their achievements.
Now we have to touch on a subject very close to me, as being a Manchester United fan, I should know about our current predicament. From the start of the season, I think most United fans would’ve predicted a solid top-4 finish, improving without pulling any trees up. It could be said we are still heading for that, but the season we have had has been a truly mystifying one, with a surprisingly strong summer, a wobbly autumn and a poor winter contributing to our current position. Since the turn of the year, we have been picking up and Louis van Gaal seems to be more accepting of differing opinions within the club, finally playing a more expressive game. Regular injuries to key players have hampered our cause, admittedly, but at certain points LvG has look like a doomed man, with a team that never seems to string good performances across the pitch together. From what I’ve seen of their play this season, too much focus on fixing our defence crippled our bland attack, however now that he has freed up our attack the defence look incredibly panicked.
If anything, Manchester United are, ironically enough, the underdogs of this title race, undoubtedly possessing the quality to win most of their remaining games, but lacking the consistency. We have a very tricky run-in including Man City, Spurs, West Ham and Everton as the picks of the bunch. Realistically, we have to win at least three of those vital games to even stand a chance of competing. If Rooney, Smalling, Schweinsteiger and Valencia can return with a bang, we could be in for a shock on the level of the ‘Miracle of Medinah’. I wouldn’t bet on it though.
Finally, we arrive at a ground that within a year will likely be a pile of rubble, Upton Park of West Ham. Personally, I think Slaven Bilic has been the managerial signing of the season in the Premier League, as he has completely transformed the style of play the players there are used to under the previous management, and prompted a radical change in the club’s ambitions. He was the perfect match for the club; a cult hero in his playing days there, a respected yet self-deprecating character who was on the same wavelength as both Davids Gold and Sullivan. With the massive leap from mid-table security to Continental football at the Olympic Stadium surely about to be realised, Bilic is treating fans to another golden age of football in the claret-and-blue territories of London. In many ways, Bilic and Ranieri have been on a very similar path this season, but the difference will be seen by May.
The Hammers’ form has been scintillating this season, mainly due to a squad clear-out during the summer, crucially swapping players like Kevin Nolan, Carlton Cole and Stewart Downing for Dimitri Payet, Angelo Ogbonna and Manuel Lanzini. These continentally-trained players suit Bilic’s free-flowing, powerful style of play far better, while his man-management skills are shown from the adaptations of Mark Noble, Michael Antonio and James Tomkins to the new tactics. This may not sustain a title push this season, though, as all of the clubs above West Ham are likely to pull away during the Hammers’ fixtures against Chelsea and Stoke, while consecutive games against Arsenal the Leicester will definitely be challenging.
From all of my thoughts, it is very hard to spot a clear winner from these teams. If there’s one thing I will go out on record saying, it’s that this will be the tightest fight for years, maybe even decided on the final day. By my predictions, I will say Leicester City will win the league, and to be boring I will say it will be by two points ahead of Spurs. Honestly, the most points any side can realistically achieve in their final 10 (or 11 for Man City) games is 21 points, due to the mixed results this season, where anyone can be anyone else. Looking at all the last 10 games for each side, I believe most will be tight, low score lines in which counter-attacking football will conquer for Leicester. The Foxes will prey on any lapses in concentration and make potentially match-winning breaks. Taking this into consideration, Kasper Schmeichel and Jamie Vardy will be the key elements of the side, one saving goals and the other scoring them, as quick end-to-end movement is their skill.
While Leicester’s sole focus is on the league, Spurs still have the Europa League to deal with and 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th are still in the FA Cup. This could be the deciding factor of the title race, managing objectives. I think Ranieri’s cool head and experience will prevail over the youthful shape-up of Spurs, who I believe will slip up in the big games. Arsenal will recover from their slump but fail to have a major say on the final day, Man City may relinquish fourth spot to rivals United, who I think could finally gain form, and West Ham will continue surprising, but not quite enough to crack the top four.
This is all in my theory, at least. I could be proved totally wrong. Leicester could crumble, Arsenal could majorly falter without Petr Cech and Man City could win all of their games, a lot of things are unpredictable. In fact, there is no need to predict it all. Just sit back, relax and take it all in. But what would we do on the days without football? Joking aside, the only thing I can say without doubt is that when it is all over, we will surely look back at the 2015/16 title race as one of the classics. It has been the feel good season (apart from for Villa fans), so let the good times roll. After all, it’s only football!
If you like, drop a comment below saying who you think will win the title and why!
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!