Extending our gaze beyond what Gareth Southgate recently dubbed an ‘island mentality’, as well as even our homely continent, this week we are analysing the current standing of global qualification scraps to secure positions both at the World Cup 2018 group draw at the Kremlin Palace at the very start of December, but more importantly at the tournament itself, come June 14th next summer. A tournament drastically devoid of anticipation even close to that of Brazil’s era-defining effort back in 2014, Russia’s campaign – already overshadowed by the perilously violence-prone ‘fans’ of the systemically racist and homophobic inner-cities, from Saint-Petersburg to Moscow and beyond – the ominous signs presented by last summer’s escapades of booze-fuelled carnage-hunters do nothing to paint the Russians in glory. When considering the appalling lack of response from Kremlin officials, which while unacceptable in Western culture, seemed to reflect the general apathy of Russian citizens in a society wholly reliant on patriotism and furious defiance to outside practices, cynicism blossoms. Away from Moscow politics, however, there is still a tournament to commence – which considering the state of human rights in each bidding nation, would’ve been better suited to runners-up Portugal and Spain, or, in my opinion, third-placed Belgium and the Netherlands – and before any action can begin in the newly revamped Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on 14th July 2018, 31 qualifiers have to be decided to join their ironically hostile hosts.
It would make sense, then, to see where we are in qualifying currently. With the 31 spots divided between six continental subdivisions of FIFA – thirteen available for the titans of UEFA, five on offer for Africa’s CAF, four or five (depending on inter-continental playoff results) for both the AFC of Asia and CONMEBOL of South America, three or four for CONCACAF of North America and either one, or more likely, no spots available for Oceania’s OFC – and with just 108 of the original 210 still standing, the competition for positions is intensifying like never before. World Cup admission is more financially rewarding for entire nations, let alone their footballing confederations, in the modern day, and to achieve a golden ticket – where odds can range from 22/1 for Pacific Ocean sides, to 4.15/1 for European nations and a further 2.22/1 for those fortunate South Americans – can pave the way for a far brighter footballing future for subsequent generations in a nation previously blighted with adversity.
Take Uzbekistan, geographically obscure and politically uncharted, or Saudi Arabia, rich in economic stance but untouched to date by blessing of a sporting nature, who both currently stand in positions to sneak qualification. The Uzbeks, lying in a third-place spot in the Asian Group A which would see them advance to a play-off with their Group B counterparts prior to an inter-continental decider, with fixtures against South Korea, group leaders Iran and China yet come, seem to have an intensely rigorous task ahead to achieve their first ever World Cup spot, but with a far-from-leaky defence, and a respectable array of promising younger squad options, they could yet spring a shock in a reputation-defying Asian qualifying tale. Saudi Arabia, themselves boasting the highest scoring rate of all Asians at this stage, sit proudly aloft Group B – containing distant favourites Australia and Japan – the former of which, while yet to lose in six matches, have drawn four consecutively, and the latter recovering in stages from a highly damaging opening defeat when hosting the UAE, yet to topple an unrelenting Arabian charge. Their chances will come, respectively, in June and September, and if the sands of time are to play to their part, I strongly expect this oil-fuelled soar from the ‘Green Falcons’ to hit turbulence on the road to Adelaide in June, when the perhaps waning force of Tim Cahill, captain Mile Jedinak and the (personally) fondly admired Robbie Kruse should hit a crest in front of the Aussie crowd.
Likewise, as the incomparable South Korean catalogue of 2017, certainly in comparison to 2010’s peak, dust themselves down from an inconceivable 1-0 defeat to rivals China this week; their form should recover to wrestle away momentum from competitors Iran and Uzbekistan in Group A in following fixtures. These are, in order, at home to the truly remarkable Syria, away to an unthreatening Qatar and with home advantage when taking on the Iranians, all before a final showdown with the Uzbeks in geographically testing Tashkent.
AFC Predictions; South Korea, Iran, Australia, South Korea (Automatic Qualifiers), Uzbekistan (Play-Off vs North American Candidate)
Setting route for a continent we covered extensively here during the African Cup of Nations just a couple of months ago, things seem a whole lot simpler within a CAF confederation blessed with natural playing talent, tainted though it is by the lack of political or economic development. Consisting of five equal groups of four nations, but rivalling another wave of AFCON qualification for relevance in the minds of managers, players and fans, the African system remains bluntly decisive – be the best in your group, or live to regret it. In many respects, then, good preparation for the reality of the World Cup, yet dragged out, just in this final of three stages, over the course of six matches each within around twelve months, this round-robin effect encourages glimpses of brilliance to assert dominance, rather than the repeated, patient mediocrity of UEFA’s fitness-friendly, establishment-biased approach. Seeing arguably a septuplet of sides already marginalised, with little hope of even claiming second place of their four, in Guinea and Libya of Group A, Zambia and Algeria, shockingly, in Group B, Cape Verde of Group C and Ghana and Congo-Brazzaville of Group D, clear favourites have emerged after just two rounds of fixtures to date – Nigeria, with six points in Group B, AFCON 2017 runners-up Egypt, with the same in Group E, and the Ivory Coast, on four points as the sole side to win a match in Group C to date.
Naturally, with a disobedience to authority, Africa is observing this international window with disdain – nations in contention for qualification organising friendlies to test tactical composure and squad harmony, while six minor nations enter the first stage of AFCON 2019 qualifying. It is, then, difficult to read how each group will subsequently unfold at this comparatively early stage, where the final four rounds of fixtures will take place from late August to early November, but with the majority of the old guard maintaining their positions of authority – albeit lacking Algeria, AFCON champions Cameroon and Ghana, the former duo trapped in a group of death in trailing an inspired Nigeria, and the latter struggling for identity with the retirement of Avram Grant and impending departure of Asamoah Gyan. The two West Africans, certainly, have plenty to look forward to in coming years, however certain their current misfortune appears, with youthful squads extremely capable of realising potential and national ambition in the future. Had they put together stronger runs of form prior to the draw for this stage of World Cup qualifying, you wonder, they may not have been in this mire they so miserably occupy, rather scrapping in the flimsy-looking Group A (where DR Congo lead Tunisia, Guinea and Libya) or taking advantage of low confidence in Group D, consisting of Burkina Faso, South Africa, Senegal and Cabo Verde, who all seem fully capable of qualifying, if not for their inability to handle pressure.
Intrinsically captivating will be how each side copes with the transition, come the early autumn period for us Northern Hemisphere citizens, from their AFCON campaigns. For the Ivory Coast, dramatically dethroned under Michael Dusseyer - whose sole tournament ended in tatters - opting for Marc Wilmots, the coach often uncredited for developing an astounding generation of Belgian ballers, has surely planted doubts in all competitors, with his reputation far exceeding his lack of experience in the region, and an exciting call for the future of football in the nation – where a similar array of youthful prodigies are at Wilmots’ disposal.
CAF Predictions; DR Congo, Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Egypt (Automatic Qualifiers)
To a confederation which comprises members of both the drastically contrasting North Americas and Caribbean islands, and just six surviving competitors for qualification remain in CONCACAF. With another decisive round of fixtures to be completed as a write this tonight (Friday 24th), big hitters –socio-economically, politically and athletically – in the USA and, to a lesser extent, Mexico, will aim to regain pivotal ground on current leaders Costa Rica, whom all in England gained a newfound respect for during the 2014 edition of football’s most prestigious tournament. The titans of the United States, certainly, have scores to settle following an unthinkably disastrous start to their campaign – thrashed 4-0 by the group leaders in the immediate aftermath of a damaging 2-1 defeat to the Mexicans on home turf, only days after thou who shalt not be named was named President – signalling the demise of Jurgen Klinsmann, a cult hero to some with vast degrees of experience upon which to draw, but an unrealistic proponent of youth, whose dream blew up his face, to others. With former LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena the first name off the rink to be called upon for his second spell in charge (the first being a remarkably successful period between 1998 and 2006), hopes are high that, with only four players outside of North America in the current squad, a new – but at the same time, nostalgic – sense of national pride should be established in a squad headed by an anti-Trump chief in Arena. Favouring the plethora of experienced heads utilised by Bob Bradley, prior to Klinsmann’s term, Arena is banking on mental, rather than physical, agility, in his nation’s unintimidating fixtures against Honduras and Panama in this window, with relative relics Tim Howard, DeMarcus Beasley and Clint Dempsey all restored to the side. Whether a viable plan or not in the long term, few can argue with Arena’s logic that the old guard can hardly perform any worse than the youth-friendly squad deployed by Klinsmann in previous stages – after all, the USA need results quickly, and men they can depend upon to deliver them.
For Costa Rica, a relative newcomer to the stage of international relevance, little seems to be impossible. Unfancied in a group of death last time the world saw them, with Italy, Uruguay and a sorry England in Brazil, their form under Óscar Ramírez, the successor (albeit interrupted by Paolo Wanchope’s brief stint) to Jorge Luis Pinto, the mastermind behind 2014, has been nothing short of astounding. Boasting few household names – other, perhaps, than Keylor Navas, Bryan Oviedo, Christian Gamboa and club colleagues Joel Campbell and captain Bryan Ruiz – and having only experienced their first defeat since a 4-0 dismantling from, who else, but the USA at the 2016 Copa America, in their most recent 1-0 loss to Panama (Edit; followed up by a 2-0 defeat to Mexico last night), they maintain great momentum, unrelenting in the wake of an outstanding tournament performance unlike that of Wales. Alongside a Mexican challenge unlikely to ever yield, led by a host of classy individuals in Javier Hernandez, Hector Herrera, Guillermo Ochoa and the evergreen Rafael Marquez, the North American tussle for positioning could be the most fiercely contested of all – especially when factoring the notoriously aggression-prone Hondurans, the little-known, but mightily stubborn and frugal Panamanians and the unfancied, yet unrepentantly positive Trinidad and Tobago faithful.
CONCACAF Predictions; Costa Rica, Mexico, USA (Automatic Qualifiers), Panama (Play-Off vs Asian Candidate)
Steering ourselves directly south to a continent perhaps best associated with the ‘beautiful’ element of the game, CONMEBOL plays host to another ten contenders, one of whom, it must be noted, eliminated after Thursday’s results in Venezuela, soon to be followed by Bolivia in the ‘nothing but pride to play for’ category. Having been the first continent so far on our global tour to adopt a straight single-stage match-off for a maximum of five spots (four automatic), the continent of Christ the Redeemer, Alpacas and Paddington Bear has so far seen an astounding 13 of their 18 rounds of games completed, with a distant leader in Brazil – achieving 30 of a possible 39 points and with a staggering +22 goal difference considering the attacking qualities of Luis Suarez, Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez, to name but a trio. Argentina and Uruguay naturally follow the lead, but for the former, sat in third place with a mystifying +3 goal difference, a damaging 3-0 lesson from the Brazilians and the malaise of captain Messi have done little to aid the highly-respected, but ultimately insipid boss Edgardo Bauza in his primary international employment, nor acquaint the likes of Paolo Dybala, Angel Correa or Lucas Pratto to the trials of the global game. Their campaign has been far from disastrous, but with a generation fading into the history books as failures – despite the obvious skill of Aguero, Ezequiel Lavezzi, Angel Di Maria, Ever Banega, Javier Mascherano, Gonzalo Higuaín, Nicolas Otamendi and Sergio Romero as a supporting cast to Messi – their World Cup hopes, even to equal the final appearance they achieved last time out, seem slim, especially when valuing the home losses to both Ecuador and Paraguay.
It is this brand of unsolicited shock that has kept the group alive as an entity, with just five points separating second-placed Uruguay from seventh-placed neighbours Paraguay, where Argentina, Colombia, Ecuador and Chile act as the filling, in order, to that particular sandwich. Goal difference does little to separate them either, so late bursts of form will be relied upon to secure places at training camps in the suburbs of Russia next summer. Chile, outside of the inter-continental play-off position, appear to have the most favourable fixture list; hosting Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela in Santiago, and having struggled on the road to date, the backing of local supporters could be decisive in their cause. Uruguay should be assured with Argentina the only other top-six side in their diary, while for Colombia away results in Quito, Lima and either Maturin or Merida (in Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela respectively) will be the difference between comfortable qualification and the hassle of a play-off. Ecuador’s charge – while with home games in the notorious altitude of Quito – should falter in coming months, as with only a single lower-ranked outfit to face in Peru, their schedule appears ominous. As for Paraguay, well it would take a minor miracle to overcome the tour de force of Brazil, as well as Colombia and Chile, away, or even claim a result in Asuncion against Uruguay.
CONMEBOL Predictions; Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Colombia (Automatic Qualifiers), Chile (Play-Off vs Oceanic Candidate)
Shipping ourselves over to my personal favourite of all the continents furiously competing, where in fact nobody expects even a sole representative in Russia, we wash up on the mesmeric, romantic shores of Oceania. Abandoned by Australia for being classed below their credible level of competition, and now including just eleven islands, which has since been narrowed down to six for the purposes of deciding two group victors to pit against one another in a two-legged tie in late summer, it is a continent decidedly ostracised by those within the halls of power and greatly undervalued in terms of spirit by the wider footballing community. If I was to dedicate an entire blog, or project, to any of these confederations, you can be sure the OFC would be, in a split-second, my choice, partly for the fact that four of its eleven members aren’t even recognised UN nations, and also due to its sheer dedication to the sport in the face of drastic little opportunity, from former British colonies such as Fiji, Samoa and Tonga to French-speaking regions in Tahiti and New Caledonia, the controversially American, would you believe it, American Samoa and the Portuguese-Spanish-Anglo-French melting pot of Vanuatu.
How are they performing in this edition of qualifying though? With New Zealand, clear favourites, sitting atop fellow modernists New Caledonia and Fiji in Group A, and the unforgettable Tahiti romping into a lead on the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea in Group B, our two finalists seem all but decided prior to even the unfolding of three final rounds of fixtures. With the New Caledonian Kanaks scrapping to achieve a highly credible 0-0 home stalemate with New Zealand, the sole side in the region boasting more than a couple of professional players, and with the Solomon Islands defeating the Tahitians 1-0 at home back in November, however, the battle for final spots may have allowed minor nations (in the context of the region) a glimpse of opportunity, one they will not easily give up fight for. New Zealand’s task, however testing in terms of squad harmony (with 16 different clubs and nine separate nations within the current squad of 22, Winston Reid having succumbed to injury) should be made a great deal easier by the international credibility of their options, and though stretched by battling amateurs and semi-professionals, their capabilities should see them home.
OFC Prediction; New Zealand (Play-Off vs South American Candidate)
The trudge back home from global adventurers is often a nostalgia-fraught one, and in this case it is no different, as we are forcibly reminded of the necessity of UEFA’s incessant programme of mass extermination – siphoning the wheat from the chaff in a brutal display of passing, passing and more passing in the own half of their most star-studded nations. It is rare not to realise the might of Germany, Italy, Spain, France, England, the Netherlands and Portugal, in something like that order, in these pedestrian parades of stamina, both mentally and physically, and for my money – though both Italy and the Netherlands are trapped behind immovable objects in Spain and France in their current stages of qualification – each of these sides are easy assurances of returns.
Without sufficient time, nor the will, to go into extreme depth on each group, I will at least offer my thoughts on the leading candidates, and the surprises; Group A, France performing professionally in the wake of a body blow in the Euro 2016 final; Group B, Switzerland spoiling the Portuguese honeymoon with impressive attacking turnouts; Group C, Germany making haste in dispatching vastly inferior opposition. In Groups D and E, arguably the weakest with only three of the top 19 European sides according to FIFA’s latest world rankings, Wales are another to be presented with a stark return to reality, four points off both a finally consistent Serbia and quietly blossoming Republic of Ireland outfit, while fending off Austria’s charge in the race to Russia, whereas Poland are assembling a tidy run of form in Group E, with Montenegro the surprise candidates for a play-off berth in the chasing pack, where Denmark and Romania would’ve been anticipated to apply pressure. Onto Group E, where Slovenia appear the only outfit capable of even testing Gareth Southgate’s familiarly ‘developing’ squad with a clearly weak underbelly in their wastefulness and inability to sustain meaningful stretches of possession, and the final result appears inevitable, yet reliable to deliver a few lessons to those who hopefully ease through. Things are altogether less predictable in Groups F, G and H, thankfully, with the mouth-watering domination of Mediterranean giants Spain and Italy impending – both on 13 points after 5 games, but threatened by Israel’s 9 – while Belgium, despite returning full points from their first four matches, have Greece and Bosnia & Herzegovina to thank for their high blood pressure, and Croatia are being pushed to their higher gears by the continually adept Icelanders, in a group of impressive technical ability.
The regular crowd should survive future threats, in my mind, and though a handful of second-tier nations seem highly capable of throwing away seemingly assured qualifications to sides, on paper, inferior to them – in the consistently frustrating Czech Republic to Northern Ireland, Denmark to Montenegro and even Wales to the ROI – few shocks should ultimately be sprung upon us, unless in the play-off stage, pressure strikes the Netherlands or Italy.
UEFA Predictions; France, Portugal, Germany, Serbia, Poland, England, Spain, Belgium, Croatia (Automatic Qualifiers), Italy, the Netherlands, Switzerland, the Republic of Ireland (Play-Off Winners)
There we have it then. 31 qualifiers decided (at least if I announce my beliefs that Chile would beat New Zealand in a play-off, and that Panama would edge a close battle with Uzbekistan), but whether, even after the events of this weekend of international football, they will be made to look foolish picks by the footballing gods, nobody yet knows. Such exclusive qualification rights should never be taken for granted as they often are in England, I believe is the moral of our global exploration, as the plight of Oceania’s finest, and the unbelievable trials passed by those in Asia, not to mention the extinguishment of hundreds of dreams to date, prove how valuable these golden tickets are. For now though, there is little we can do other than watch action unfold and count down the days to June 14th 2018, without, of course, naively ignoring the inglorious cultural sideshow that will, hopefully, not come to the fruition that some warn. As ever, I hope the experience is one of inspirational unity, expressing shared passions and goals, as football, in every crevice of its far-reaching resonance, has forever been in place to empower, not divide. If Russia can embrace this, and its 31 guest nations, then the ordeals of qualification will be made entirely worthwhile.
Throughout the recent string of contract announcements from across the Premier League – and further afield, it must be mentioned – I’ve noticed a worrying trend, depending, of course, on where you stand in the footballing hierarchy. If you happen to be a player, agent, sponsor or investment mogul, these declarations of intent are faultlessly favourable, but for all fans who transpire to wholeheartedly care for the future of the sport, both financially and morally, contracts that tie (often in-form, but lower overall pedigree) players and managers to their specific club until the next decade can surely only seem quizzical and manipulative of supporters of that respective club. All too often in my experience of the press releases surrounding these contract extensions are ambiguities which fail to be fully deciphered by those tasked with reporting on such occasions – those silenced by their allegiances - and certainly for me, it paints a picture of mistrust for both fans and those most closely involved with the contracts themselves, the players, that very few of these contracts are eventually seen out by those involved. Amongst a host of questions we should rightly have in our arsenal to tackle the stigma surrounding this profound and widespread issue in the modern-day game, this week we ask; is the short-sightedness of certain officials, blind or highly manipulated, really at the crux of football’s complex circuitry of interconnected and all-too obvious crises?
As someone (a non-Spurs fan then) not quite as obsessed by the news of contract extensions as the wider media seem to be, you might not be overly familiar with the eerily increasing trend weaving its way into many football clubs; the intention to secure the services of their prime products, in management and playing talent, for, in many cases, half a decade. Now, this may not seem overly unrealistic for a player or manager to remain at a single club of their affiliation for such a period of time, especially considering the loyalty of such hailed figures as Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger, Ryan Giggs, Francesco Totti, Javier Zanetti, Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and Paul Scholes. Even Mark Noble, Andy King and the putrid figure of John Terry can claim spaces in such veritable exhibitions of exacting loyalty. Their breed is especially rare, however, and in a BBC Sport study conducted in November 2015, it was revealed the average stay of Premier League players at their sides was 2.82 years. By my assumptions, with the influx particularly of Europe-based players into lower-half Premier League clubs in recent seasons, I would anticipate that average to now be closer to 2.5 or so.
This, in itself, is our first sign of short-sightedness. Consider the rapid reaction of managers such as Marco Silva and Walter Mazzarri of Hull and Watford respectively, who have undertaken the signature of eighteen players in a collective total of three transfer windows this season (eight by Silva in January, 10 from Mazzarri in summer and winter combined) and the offloads of 16 individuals in the same period, with three from the Portuguese on the Humber and the remaining thirteen from the Italian in Hertfordshire. Perhaps these decisions were taken as part of the wider scaling-up of their personal philosophy for the structure of their squad, but I highly doubt either of them consider such obscure English regions of no discernible historic footballing achievement to be their long-term abodes and pinnacle of ambition, leading them, undoubtedly, to make their exits – by resignation or sacking – within the current average tenure of a PL boss. As of today (Saturday 18th), the average stay of all 20 managers (including what would’ve been Aitor Karanka’s, before his reign was rudely interrupted by sacking this week) is 2.52 years, held up by Arsene Wenger’s might two decades – the mean dropping to 1.58 years when ignoring the stint of the Frenchman in North London, which I highly anticipate to culminate this summer. It makes a mockery of the six years Manchester United handed David Moyes in his contract back in 2013 after Fergie had personally pinpointed his countryman to be his successor, that’s for sure.
It appears plainly obvious, then, that for the dozen or so players currently in the Premier League that have achieved, or are close to exceeding, a decade in their club devotion – Wayne Rooney, Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines, Theo Walcott, Julian Speroni, Lucas Leiva, Ryan Shawcross, Angel Rangel, James Morrison, Noble, King and Terry, if you’re ever stuck in a Pub Quiz – there are hundreds of bit-part individuals that make a mockery of the system of long-term contracting. Even though you might only refer to five of this dozen as current regulars for their club, their loyalty is invaluable to the Premier League as a system that apparently values academy production, as well as clubs who also advertise a similar ideology, as they maintain extremely telling statistics, preventing them from sliding to embarrassing levels. Seven, you might notice, are English, and although only Noble is the exact product of a sole club from academy to first-team, they are the treasured remnants of a system that previously favoured players of their incredible talent and determination, yet now fails to provide significant opportunities for such individuals to flourish – especially with coaches who are increasingly abandoning youthful exuberance for experienced tactical astuteness in Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte.
It is ironic, perhaps, that in the notable experience of Everton, who boasted the longest life span of player at any current Premier League club at 4.14 years in BBC’s study back in 2015 – though one I suspect has dropped with the departures of Tim Howard, Leon Osman and Tony Hibbert recently -, their star man in Romelu Lukaku is now rejecting the offer of a long-term, club record contract. At a Merseyside club who pride themselves on their ability to coax players, from near and far, into their long-term vision and overall ethos, it must be a bitter blow to realise the ambitions of a striker whose ilk had not been before witnessed at the Goodison in the coldest way possible; the absolute refusal to even discuss extending his stay for another botched shot at continental qualification. For one of the most admired forwards in the Premier League, and world football alike, personal drive and the realistic analysis of where the Toffees are in his ambitions to play Champions League football must come before dedication to the Evertonians, as if he had, in fact, placed his signature on a contract tying him to the Goodison until 2021, he would soon discover such a statement of intent was impractical. In his position, it is impossible to commit until after the turn of the decade, as another three to four seasons of tedious 7th or 8th-place finishes, unless they could dislodge one of the Manchester or North London clubs, or even Chelsea or their cross-city rivals, which in their financial position seems extremely improbable, would see his career go stale, requiring an eject option quicker than that installed in the Batmobile.
It does almost entirely depend on the respective position of a player’s club, however, such long-term decision making. For example, as Spurs continue to commit a bevy of integral individuals to their post-2020 cause on an almost weekly basis, in the form of Hugo Lloris, Dele Alli and Harry Kane until 2022, Eric Dier, Danny Rose and Ben Davies until 2021 and the quartet of Kyle Walker, Harry Winks, Moussa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen until only 2019 (the shock of it), theirs is an approach based on the continuity of Mauricio Pochettino – with the departure of Karanka, currently the fifth longest serving PL boss – and the continued improvement in playing standards towards a potential league title. Stadium developments are in place to maximise match-day income and boost club reputation, they have an increasingly effective transfer strategy of responsibly minimal reinvestments (excluding the appalling £30 million paid for Moussa Sissoko, that is), and perhaps most importantly, they boast a burgeoning array of locally-sourced starlets thriving under the stewardship of arguably the most youth-friendly PL coaches in Pochettino, with routes into the first team squad. Theirs is no short-sighted plan.
But once again, Spurs represent the minority at such a level. Few clubs aside the Lilywhites have such a detailed and regimental long-term direction for the next footballing year, let alone the next five. Their opponents in the FA Cup semi-final, for example; Chelsea – a mere 20 miles apart across Hampstead Heath and Hyde Park – are now synonymous with the sacking of world-class managers, making their way through eleven separate permanent tenures over the past decade (although Jose Mourinho and Guus Hiddink made up four of those), despite also winning ten major trophies in that same period. Sadly, despite the obvious flaws of their ruthlessly impatient approach to the beautiful game, Roman Abramovich’s model has yet to prove unsuccessful over a period of more than an aberrational season or two, though perhaps more a result of the quality of coaches employed over the years rather than the club’s wider strategy.
The West Londoners tend, of course, to purchase players in their pomp, and in doing so, have to spend above market value – indeed with transfer outgoings only less, at £507,459,000, than both incessant Manchester clubs in the past five Premier League seasons – as their approach is to buy big to win big. The unrelenting engulfing of expensive assets and the shockingly unethical continent-wide seizure of talented youngsters at impressive prices – only to send 30 of them out on loan, with usually 28 of them sold on for a profit in subsequent seasons – also results in the Stamford Bridge-based club boasting the highest income in sales in the post-2012 period at £320,650,000. This total, it must be noted, is the only over £250,000,000 – other than Spurs’ (£314,450,000) – representing the success of starkly contrasting means to a similar end; overall financial stability and playing achievement, the former of which the Premier League leaders only achieve through commercial income, and the latter of which Mauricio Pochettino’s are yet to make a reality.
When Victor Moses is captured proudly penning a contract extension to commit himself to the Blues until 2021 (one of the main inspirations for this blog, which I have been debating for a while), this is where Abramovich’s scheme seems to have faltered. Antonio Conte, thanks to a supreme debut season in English football and a pedigree for medium to long-term projects (in modern terms at least) with his three seasons spent at Juventus, may yet see his personal reign prolonged until such a distant future, but for Moses - a seemingly forgotten man in the Kensington area since 2013 - a six month spell of form, revitalised at wing-back under the Italian tactician, hardly, in my opinion, warranted his next four years being decided. Having failed to deliver on glimpses that once saw him tipped for a future internationally with his adopted England in successive loans at Liverpool, Stoke and West Ham, Jose Mourinho’s response to the Nigerian-born winger’s presence at the club despite a positive previous season under Roberto Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez, Moses was surely on the brink of departure this summer until Conte opted to explore existing options within his squad for a new system inspired by successful Italian forays.
Given Chelsea’s reputation for stemming the flow of poor form with the almost immediate offloading of individuals at fault, Moses could yet be out of the club, given his second-rate status beneath such superstars as Diego Costa, Eden Hazard, Pedro, N’Golo Kante and David Luiz, especially if after a sole season of prosperity, his talent again flatters to deceive. I fully expect Conte’s system to be hotly challenged, possibly even exploited by many other managers with the squad capabilities of Mourinho’s star-studded United, Pep Guardiola’s rigorously trained City troops, Pochettino’s increasingly aesthetically easy Spurs catalogue, (INSERT NAME HERE’s) cultured yet unpredictable Arsenal and even Klopp’s developing blend of youth and fast-paced skill at Liverpool, so the sudden phenomenon of wing-backs could be as soon cast into short-lived glory as it was proven a masterstroke. At the very least, I cannot, under any form of intoxication, foresee Moses’ questionable tactical credibility and limited box of tricks fulfilling the needs of Conte, nor any possible successor in his position, until the turn of the decade. It is both unrealistic and irresponsible to even suggest the notion that they would, risking more the future playing days of Moses than the affairs of the club itself.
Players, in this sense, seem qualities only fully appreciated in the relatively short periods in which they can sustain physical and mental talents superior to those of any competitors – and for a business, I picture this as devaluing for the clubs involved in its disgrace. How can they seriously expect a player handed such an offer to truly believe his time is going to spent kicking a ball around for that specific fan base for the next four years, unless of course, they have been presented a realistic and appealing long-term plan like at Spurs? Clubs, currently, are either blazing the most short-sighted, ridiculous business trail across a plethora of imaginable industries, or deceiving their employees into prolonging their futures for the sake of the potential fees players and suitors would later have to pay to escape such legal ties in their departure to a new club. Who benefits the most? The agents, of course, while clubs make a pretty penny from the short-lived success of a particular individual, as in the realistic state of football currently, no player is factually expected to deliver more than the average 2.82 years of diligent, often brilliant, more often substandard, service to their club before passing onto the next stage in both their lives and careers.
Managers, also, are hardly expected, when hired on the prospect of turning around fortunes, to last more than the PL average of 2.52 years, so should we really be accusing football of short-sightedness at all, considering the existing and well-documented examples of limited working timeframes? Personally, with the cases of Moyes and Moses, alongside many others whose contracts who panned out, or inevitably will unfurl, into embarrassing and low-profile departures, I think the cause requires exposure into the public eye by further revealing from those in the know. Acrimonious exits are often the desperate result of running down contracts, and all too often, due to the short-sightedness of previous deals to extend stays in the midst of an protracted peak in form, players are left, as in Lukaku’s example, to seek other suitors after the metaphorical honeymoon period has passed, while their present employers meekly and unconvincingly deny any such wantaway figures exist within their changing room walls.
In this state of affairs, you do begin to wonder whether such long-term contract extensions are done for two simple objectives; to appease long-suffering fans only assured by the proclamation that their most coveted players will be continuing to ply their trade on the furrows of their home pitch, and to ward off potential courters. Whether the second of these objectives actually works is to be disputed, as the cases of Wayne Rooney and David De Gea, affirming their ‘loyalty’ after disputes about potential departures to Chelsea/Man City and Real Madrid respectively, could easily be contrasted with those of Luis Suarez and Thiago Silva, who left seven months and a mere 12 days respectively after penning long-term contracts of roughly five years in both cases. If courting clubs have the funds to supply an employer’s needs, then certainly –barring a breakdown in fax communication – a deal can be forged for said coveted individual, and if Real Madrid picked up the phone, tapped in the number discovered for Daniel Levy from the yellow pages, or páginas amarillas, and enquired about the availability of Harry Kane’s services for a price similar to that paid for Gareth Bale, say, I think it would be incredibly difficult for Levy to repel such offers.
A contract is no object to those that can afford to render them useless, and in many regards, they are worth even less considering the cultured negotiating hand of players and agents in the modern game. Clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the services of their most coveted individuals, and in many ways, you have to sympathise with their position; especially further down the pyramid, when the godsend of a hefty financial departure can be the difference between economic struggle and years of prosperous redevelopment. This is simply a bi-product of the globalised market that the Premier League, amongst a host of competitors, boasts, as traditions of one-club men and of first-team opportunities for academy graduates are fading into oblivion, having been almost completely hunted to extinction, where a small collective of underappreciated individuals remain.
For football to be continually so impressively entertaining and competitive, however, one could argue that this global interchange of goods has to be so callous for the soulless individuals being shipped home and away. For new tactics to be implemented, and new individual styles of play to be tested on the highest stage and appreciated by the masses, there is a basic requirement for such capitalism to overtake any theories or comprehensions anyone would’ve had about the restrictions of football, phasing in what we now see as the almost incomputable, rapid movement of players and coaches across cities, countries, continents and the globe.
It may not be an admirable, or favourable, impact of the scaling up of the sport as a business, and for investors, it costs them no small fee to continue the competitive upkeep of their club of choice, but it presents us with the melting pot of nationalities, skillsets and characters that are immediately interchangeable from club to club at a moment’s notice (in Harry Redknapp’s case at least) that we, as viewers, lap up in the billions of pounds for those in the high castles. Short-sightedness is perhaps the key quality of the sport, and for this very reason, it matters very little, in terms of the financial and reputational cost, to those investing, as while they have to toe the line of the array of legal agreements in their oil, food, leisure or investment banking industries, they can afford a fritter on football, casting aside all sense of accurate business judgement in favour of what appears an uncontrollable tit-for-tat skirmish to achieve short-lived, nonetheless enjoyable, success. For those wishing to dissociate themselves with this side of football, this is a complex and overawing disfigurement on the sport they love, but for others, it is merely an easily and conveniently forgettable aspect of today’s game, fuelling their fire of affable, gluttonous consumption. Short-sightedness – be it indistinguishably deliberate or accidental – however, will never blight us non-leaguers; after all, we never expect players, or managers, for their part, to stick around for too long in the first place…
Excuse me for paraphrasing a cringe-inducing cliché, but six months is a long time in football. The reason I say this is not because of a single player, or specific league’s remodelling in that time period, but rather concerning the affairs of what is now the minority club in Glasgow, the blue half, formerly rigidly Protestant-based Rangers FC, and how, since we spoke here exactly six months ago - as of Saturday 11th – about the failures of Scottish football in the 21st century, the Gers have done little to challenge this slide, waning in their ambitions to be scrapping with Celtic for titles. In fact, only a matter of minutes after that blog has originally been uploaded, back on September 10th, few fans could’ve missed the statement of intent Brendan Rodgers’ Hoops delivered to the rest of Scotland by dissecting the Teddy Bears in a 5-1 romp at Celtic Park, a Gameweek Five signal for how the remainder of the season would already pan out in the SPFL. The second match, notably, after which Celtic led the division of the season, that momentous and embarrassing defeat for the Ibrox-based side saw the five-time consecutive champions continue in pole position for the rest of the season, and the Gers soon slide down to mid-table, before recovering to second and now bronze medal position, trailing Aberdeen, while also setting the tone for a 2-1 Celtic victory in the turnaround on New Year’s Eve.
In that time, while a 33-point lead has opened up between the sides just under six miles apart over the M74 and the River Clyde, and the Hoops have eliminated their rivals with a late Moussa Dembele goal in the Scottish League Cup Semi-Final, there has been a far more distinct diversion in the retrospective of what has already been an extremely telling season for both sides. While Rodgers’ credibility, alongside that of the SPFL, has been called into question as a result of Celtic’s utter domination – 27 points ahead of their nearest competition in the Dons of the East coast, having only dropped two points all season and conceded 16 goals from 27 games – a matter which has been brushed off by the former Liverpool boss and the league alike, congealed in a state of malaise after such pre-season optimism; Rangers acrimoniously parted ways with Mark Warburton, their first ever English boss, on February 10, capping a bizarre tenure.
Having almost achieved an astounding treble the season previous – delivering the fans the glory they had been long-deserved in the Scottish Championship title, the Scottish Challenge Cup trophy and so nearly the Scottish Cup, only edged out by two late Hibernian goals in a 3-2 final defeat – this term had been a distant stretch from that anticipated success, though one Warburton had been expected to see out and rework in the summer before his controversial departure. One which I doubt we have heard the last of, as legal action may be on the horizon after Warburton questioned the Rangers statement, which noted he had resigned. After the honeymoon period of the Londoner’s first season, in which no fewer than eleven permanent signings were made – all of sufficient quality for the SPFL, I hasten to add, with nine having experience in English League One football or higher – ended, reality setting in over the scale of their challenge to even compete with Celtic in a match, let alone over 38, it has seemed a distinct possibility that Celtic may consolidate their run for another five seasons.
The whole of Scotland looks to Rangers - still, I must note, the most successful Tartan club with 54 league titles, 33 Scottish Cups and the record for the most league titles and trebles of any professional club in the world – to go toe-to-toe with the Bhoys on a consistent basis, and without a pillar of great reckoning in south-west Glasgow currently, very little else dares to heel Celtic’s dominance; both financial and football-wise. Aberdeen, despite filling a gap vacated by the liquidation of the Gers in May 2012, haven’t seriously presented a title challenge to Neil Lennon’s or even the vulnerable Ronny Deila’s Hoops sides in the meantime. Hearts, despite presenting some promise since their 2014-15 promotion back to the Premiership, haven’t sufficiently rattled the Bhoys either. Without clubs who could’ve previously been relied upon to tussle for European places in Hibernian, Kilmarnock, Motherwell and St Johnstone either, Scottish football desperately requires a spark of hope to topple Celtic’s mundane handle on power.
This metaphorical spark is supposed, traditionally, to arrive from the Teddy Boys, with Old Firms not just the highlights of the season’s action, but also title-deciding matches which can only be decided by a moment of timeless brilliance. Who can provide this in Ranger’s current set-up? This is exactly what the period of relative silence, prior to the past week, from Rangers’ board has been focused on, while under-20’s boss Graeme Murty has taken temporary reigns of the first team in the month since Warburton’s exit. Chaired by Dave King, with Managing Director Stewart Robertson heading The Rangers Football Club Ltd. area of the business, the board have now decided, without remorse or second thoughts, to shed Warburton’s rate of steady progress, using his own contacts as a manager to improve the playing standard of the squad. How would they instil a second dawn in the phoenix that now is Rangers FC, though?
Well, that was exactly this week’s revelation. Heading down a route where they will field a Director of Football alongside Pedro Caixinha, the relative unknown quantity of a manager who will be announced accordingly prior to this weekend’s coincidental cross-city clash at Celtic Park – it appears Rangers are going the way of many an ambitious pretender to the throne by approaching a smarter route to success. Having been turned down over the DoF position by Southampton’s highly-rated director of recruitment and scouting Ross Wilson, a 34 year-old Glaswegian, and apparently courting Paul Mitchell, a similar prospect who has just vacated his position at Spurs – though an individual who reportedly has loftier ambitions – you can’t blame the Gers for not aiming high in their attempts to restyle the club’s footballing outlook. It is noticeable, after all, that as current and former Southampton employees, Wilson and Mitchell have been obviously admired for their ability to create significant abundances of cold, hard profit through the tales of player scouting, development and sales that are now so synonymous with the Saints. If there is one way to gain ground on Celtic, it is through the financial artery, the deciding foundation block of the Bhoys’ continued authority in Scotland.
Finance, as we have all become accustomed, is the fundamental to success in the sport – at least, when combined with capable management both on and off of the pitch. If anything, though, I would argue it plays far larger a role in Scottish football, in similar fashion to many minority European leagues; Wales, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland and Greece, for example, included. As with any established division, the top leagues in each of these nations - from the rugged coastlines of Gaelic nations at the very west of the continent to the idyllic shorelines, tainted currently with the much-overshadowed plight of Syrian refugees, in the economically strained east – have pre-meditated top dogs. Clubs, for example, of the brand of The New Saints, Anderlecht, København, FC Basel and Olympiacos – who, respectively, have won the six Welsh Premier League seasons, five of the last ten Belgian First Division titles, ten of this millennium’s Danish Superliga terms, seven consecutive Swiss Super League gongs and an astounding 18 of the past 20 Greek Superleague seasons – are dominating their nations with their vast array of superior resources.
Qualifying automatically for a hugely significant cash prize, not only from sponsors and league officials, by winning their division (almost) year on year, these clubs reap the rewards of Champions League nights by pumping funds into the playing facilities, so such dominance can be continued. With København and Basel, out of my five examples, boasting by far the largest stadiums by capacity in their respective nations, and the other three clubs only lacking in this category by virtue of circumstance – with TNS not actually located in Wales (but in Oswestry, a few miles over the border), Anderlecht’s Constant Vanden Stock Stadium a mere 3,700 seats behind its leading league counterpart in Liège, and AEK Athens’ lease on the Olympic Stadium of 2004 far outstripping Olympiacos’ seating potential – there seems a clear pattern to success for these clubs. By developing into not necessarily the clubs representing the biggest cities, but instead growing to have a vice-like handle on footballing ability in their nations, they have each exploited a system in Europe which aids, naturally, the best-equipped nations (Germany, France, Italy, England and Spain the largest quintet by national population of UEFA’s sides), while ignoring the understaffed.
This is exactly the predicament Scottish football currently faces. With Celtic qualifying annually for the Champions League, invariably reaching and then bowing out at the group stage, while secondary and third-placed sides falter against their Maltese, Kazakh, Slovene and Danish counterparts, from recent examples, in qualifying for the group stage of the Europa League, Scottish football is being embarrassed on the continental platform. Again, this is why Rangers, with the second highest stadium capacity at the Ibrox of any Scottish club, are being so desperately relied upon to deliver salvation. Rich in their history of overturning great deficits in resources to produce seismic European shocks, Rangers - a side who, less than a decade ago, reached a Europa League final having drawn at the Ibrox in the Champions League against Barcelona and overturned the likes of Sporting Lisbon and Fiorentina on their way to the Etihad-based final – many believe, are still capable of such efforts. Not in their current state of affairs, certainly, but with the financial foresight of their bitter rivals, quite possibly.
This relies, however, on them capitalising on as big a pot of prize funds as they can this July and August, entering the Europa League First Qualifying round and hopefully overturning the likes of Jelgava, Irtysh Pavlodar and Trakai; with whom a tie will surely spawn the headline ‘Trakai Fixtures’, with each already assured of a place in such a round as Latvian Higher League runners-up, Kazakhstan Premier League third-place finishers and A Lyga silver medallists in Lithuania respectively. It is imperative that Rangers, under forward-thinking stewardship as of this weekend, transform their league position and lofty expectations; to seize Celtic’s opportunistic power grab, winning each title since the Gers’ penultimate season in the Premiership, into corresponding success on the continent. Without these results, their league ambitions will be entirely redundant, as despite their continued income from loyal season ticket holders, filling a vast majority of the 51,000 or so seats inside the intensely atmospheric Ibrox, they will have few other significant revenue streams. As aforementioned in last year’s Scot-based blog, the SPFL have to share a measly £2 million worth of sponsorship from Ladbrokes per season between both themselves as an organisation and their 42 teams, while broadcasting income amounts to £35 million both nationally and internationally – resulting in a maximum revenue, from figures I can find online, of a mere £1.75 million or so come the end of this season for a side in third place, and something in the region of £2 million for second.
When transfer outlays, excluding the agent or signing-on fees paid to the half a dozen free signings, as well as the undisclosed fee paid for Lee Hodson, amounted to £2.375 million for seven purchases of varying quality and price in this season’s transfer windows for the Gers, including the £1.5 million spent solely on talisman Joe Garner, how are the SPFL meant to condone such meagre payments when aiming to make a fairer, and more competitive, Premiership? Currently, it is nigh-on impossible for clubs to escape the quicksand of the SPFL system; where as soon as clubs think they have wriggled free, they only sink deeper into the mires if the financial system. Many, it has to be said, are unlikely to make any significant operating profit currently, unless they are as self-assured as Celtic, or as frugal as Partick Thistle, who, of their eight signings this season, only spent on one – an undisclosed fee for Portsmouth’s Adam Barton – or Ross County, who covered their costs this season of nine free signings and Jason Naismith for an undisclosed fee by letting go of Jackson Irvine to Burton Albion for £300,000.
It makes sense, then, when this is the situation for many Scottish Premiership clubs – without mentioning the 30 mostly semi-professional clubs below them, for whom I comprehend how difficult balancing the books is, having been the boss of Championship club Queen of the South for the past two seasons of my FM17 save – for Rangers to adopt a mentality similar to Southampton’s in the Premier League. Aiming to promote more promising youth team candidates into the first team for subsequent sales, which could be hugely profitable in the right circumstances, while also developing the existing livestock they hold to find the peak at which they can be offloaded, then targeting suitably prepared replacements with a highly efficient scouting programme, if truly following in the Saints’ path, the Teddy Boys could transform Scottish football in this way. While only taking the existing business plans of practically any optimistic club around them to new heights, Rangers should be able to directly compete with the Bhoys within a few seasons of the successful application of this strategy, providing they do gain the revenue from Europe, and transform their transfer tactics.
Having drafted in five over-thirties in the summer transfer window, Mark Warburton’s transfer strategy seemed a marriage of convenience with his chosen individuals; 33 year-old Joey Barton, 37 year-old Clint Hill, the well-travelled Niko Kranjčar of 31 years, once highly-rated Matt Gilks lugging 34 years and Philippe Senderos, who should start informing his complexion of his relatively meagre 31 years of age, each cheap options on their last legs, whom Warburton clearly thought he could rejuvenate. Contrast that with Claude Puel’s transfer windows with Southampton, and the only over-30 in sight is third-choice ‘keeper Stuart Taylor, who has only made a staggering 75 league appearances at 12 clubs over the course of a 20-year career, while the highly-regarded 29 year-old Martin Caceres was only drafted in as a free signing after a series of defensive injuries this year. In Nathan Redmond, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg, Sofiane Boufal and Manolo Gabbiadini, the Saints have a quartet of highly profitable prospects in their early-to-mid 20’s, who can benefit the club in two departments; in first performing impressively to assure another season of Europa League to mid-table security, before being sold for bumper profits. This must be the model Rangers follow to find their second dawn.
The signatures this season of Jordan Rossiter, Josh Windass, Matt Crooks, Hodson, Joe Dodoo and Jak Alnwick suggested some intention to move this way for the Gers; Hodson the only individual, at 25, over 23 years old in this contingent entirely sourced from English clubs. Honestly though, the prime market the Ibrox club can ever hope to sell these guys to is the English Championship, and the lower brackets of that at best, unless serious development is undertaken by the likes of Dodoo, a striker with two goals from 12 games, or Windass, without a goal to his name in 13 league appearances. Reliance on loan signings must be a habit waned off by Caixinha and the future DoF if Rangers are to succeed long-term also, as while a couple of loans a year might supplement a squad for a charge at success, sourcing some of your best players for a year from a Premier League club’s academy isn’t a financially beneficial strategy in the wider perspective of the club. It is not necessarily the culture of the club that will have to change, however, as this has already been diluted enough from the May 2012 liquidation and subsequent four seasons clawing their way, with loyal players on greatly reduced wages, back to the Premiership from League Two, but there will be a revamp of employee ethos as soon as Caixinha and his Director of Football counterpart march through the doors. Perspective will be key; approaching every decision with an eye on both the future and the present, and while this may create a few teething problems, most sacrifices will be worthy come the time the programme is in full flow.
What of Caixinha, then? Is he, despite his shadowy image, the right man to take the club forwards in this courageous shake-up of the status quo, radically rethinking what has worked in the previous four seasons, admittedly against much weaker opposition, to reclaim their rightful spot as, or at least as crown princes to, the kings of Scottish football? Well, having spent an uninspiring decade as a goalkeeper in the regional divisions of Portuguese football, he rose the ranks as first a youth boss at boyhood club Deportivo Beja, and then senior manager at amateurs Vasco de Gama Vidigueira, before embarking on a six-year long partnership with José Peseiro, becoming assistant at Sporting Lisbon, Panathinaikos and the Saudi Arabian national team to name but a few destinations. Later impressing in restricted circumstances at two lower-table Primiera Liga clubs, and making a name at Santos Laguna in Mexico, where he steered them to an unexpected 2012-13 CONCACAF Champions League final and 2014 Apertura Copa MX victory, as well as the Clasura 2015 title (the second championship of a peculiar Liga MX season layout), leading to a mystifying career choice in then moving to Qatari club Al-Gharafa, where Caixinha has achieved little in a two year stint.
Known, away from his patchy managerial record, for his tendency to spend little time at each club – this will be his twelfth club in 18 years -, and for his reported friendship with fellow Portuguese Jose Mourinho, having both made early career progression at União de Leiria, though at different points in the club’s history, Caixinha seems a huge risk for Rangers’ board in the stewardship of a new future in west Glasgow. A maverick, some may argue, with such little control presented in his career, and with little rapport built up with the media or club officials during his short spells, his management style, if from the Portuguese textbook, will be to inspire players with a fiery touchline demeanour, while structuring a system around the natural flair and attributes of his individuals. In this regard, Caixinha could be set for success in a Scottish Premiership crying out for a return to the atmospherically crackling, leg-crunching, all-action way of the Old Firm derbies. To rejuvenate a squad I believe only to be mid-table English Championship in quality, in comparison to Celtic’s easily lower-half Premier League squad stacked with minor internationals and Scottish regulars, will be a significant task on Caixinha’s checklist, and one I can only realistically foresee him achieving to a certain degree with a far prolonged stay than his current average – just fewer than two seasons. It was a bold move to trust this obscure Portuguese individualist with arguably, at such a pivotal stage in its history, Scottish football’s biggest job, but so often, bold calls have been shown to succeed in Scotland – it must be something in the waters.
On a weekend, then, of what is set to be the most competitive Calcutta Cup in recent Six Nations history between England and a resurgent Scotland, as well as an Old Firm paling into insignificance against the largely decided league positioning of the two sides and the divisive installation of a new era at one of the sides, I believe Caixinha, and the Rangers Board, have juxtaposed their decision perfectly. If Caixinha can prove to be half as beneficial to the Gers as Vern Cotter has to Scottish rugby, then he will have performed admirably, as his new side require such transformation, in terms of ideology and performance alike, to even worry the Celtic titan that is currently so commanding that they will have to borrow the heart of Stuart Hogg, the unrelenting force of Jonny Gray and the cunning of Finn Russell, who will pose the seemingly unstoppable English XV all sorts of issues on today’s Twickenham pitch. It is a great task facing Caixinha, fortunately, he certainly seems the cut of individual up for it, but to be successful, he will require much more than raw passion, as while it might go some way to diminishing the hefty gap between the Glaswegian rivals, the application of a long-term plan is the key to charted success. It’s about time the Rangers lion roared back into force – for the sake of Scottish football’s future – and nobody is underestimating the scale of their task, but I for one truly hope they do succeed, and awaken the sleeping giant.
Not truthfully having ever been a sincere critic of referees, and their respective assistants alike, throughout my footballing life, I find it difficult to bring myself to lambast those brave souls sent to unfavourable outposts of the beautiful game, while having to endure toxic atmospheres, every week. For the sake of the credibility of individuals in their position, and also of the sport as a larger entity, however, I felt at least one voice had to step forward and present the painful reality of rooting for your side at a number of levels – especially in non-league football – only for your fortune to be crushed by inexplicable officiating on a week-by-week basis. As you may have presumed, the case study of Ringmer FC, and my season to date reporting on their misfortune, will present flesh to the bones of these accusations of incredulous decision-making on the part of many a regional official, as while having been a personal struggle for fairness in the sport, I believe Ringmer’s experiences encapsulate many of the fears cynical, battle-weary semi-professional and amateur practitioners of the sport currently have. In a world of interconnected rants waging on about referees in the Premier League and Football League, where technology is increasingly reliant upon to spare the blushes of - in the kindest possible sense of the word - clueless officials, it is, once again, those further down the pyramid, silenced by a gargantuan pay gap, who suffer with the unfit officials produced from a half-hearted and backwards FA, only to be told things will improve.
Certainly, press on referees has not been short measured by any means recently – with Mark Clattenburg the first of a raft of modern officials to hit the headlines, a stark contrast to those in the profession a matter of decades ago, who kept their head down, did their job and only stepped in if absolutely necessary. Nowadays, any casual football fan could pick out the name of a Premier League official through the sheer subconscious impact of match commentary, a testament to their controversy, barring on hatred, amongst fans. Who these days doesn’t have an opinion on Mike Dean, Andre Marriner, Martin Atkinson, Lee Mason or Bobby Madley, simply because of a single disputable decision made by these most under-pressure of individuals in the centre of action? They rarely escape mention in the coverage of such games (possibly due to the constant search for information many media sources struggle through these days), and increasingly, though I doubt the truth in this link, this trend is continuing into non-league matches. Without actively pursuing such fame, today’s referees have almost become equivalent with the players in their importance on the pitch, and while their role in keeping order and commanding respect from hopefully each and every person in the stadium should not be understated, it is a reality few want to continue in when officials have the ability to grab headlines.
It is not these levels of comfortable financial security where refereeing issues are most prominent, despite what we as an audience might be bombarded with on a weekly, if not almost daily, basis – and this is why we turn our attention away from the petty complaints of those who are used to having their own way *cough*MOURINHO*cough*, and again to our favoured station, non-league football. Reliant upon regional, usually county, FA’s to provide sufficiently qualified officials for each game, such clubs go through the same process fortnightly – when at home – of welcoming this group of three soulless, alien figures into the boardroom, laying on refreshments, allowing them to enforce the law for 90 minutes, paying their fee and seeing them drive off for the foreseeable future. If anything, the rapport, over time, between club officials and referees is one that - on positive terms – can be stronger than that of counterparts in the Football League, as both sides recognise the value of the sport at that level, and feel passionately about it. On occasion, however, this relationship can develop beyond professionalism, and when on the touchline, or in the middle, officials, as I have seen this season, have begun chatting – casually, it must be said – with their mates in the crowd. How that can be acceptable I’m not sure, even at the informal platform of semi-professional football, as it surely undermines the credibility of those making key decisions into the threat of a buddy-buddy sudden ‘lapse of concentration’.
This is only the first of a plethora of crimes I have witnessed to date this season. Shocking inconsistencies, late abandonments, the failure to control players and an all-too mouthy relationship with their on-pitch clients have all come under fire from my beady eye over the course of the past eight months or so, and not without good reason I’d hope. It was not until mid-January that the tide began to seriously turn in terms of officiating for us Blues, but ever since, with a run – as the side 18th, or bottom, of our table – of two draws and four losses, dropping twelve points from winning positions, three of which were 2-0 leads, and the other a 3-0, we have witnessed some inexplicable decisions alongside the respective mental fragility of our youthful side, particularly in defence. In games against Langney Wanderers and Mile Oak, both away, we have had free kicks awarded for last man challenges from the home defence – or so we thought, the former overruled by the referee after the linesman flagged for the offence. In both occurrences, however, neither opposition defender was shown as much as a card, despite making no attempt to play the ball each time, hauling down our strikers who would’ve gone on, you’d imagine, to score. When, in the same game against Mile Oak, three of our players were booked for their involvement, as first offences I may add, in preventing the quick taking of a free kick that everybody in the crowd immediately assumed to be Ringmer’s, before the referee had blown his whistle for the kick, too, you can understand our frustration with the inconsistencies in officiating.
Obviously, with two of these Blues players being carded directly for dissent, I understand the importance of the respect programme employed by the FA and the rule changes earlier this season which were said to give referees more license to condemn the use of foul language, but surely, in terms of importance to the outcome of a match, a last-ditch tackle on the attacker, rather than the ball, should surely warrant superior punishment to dissent. Call me crazy, but that is how I thought the rules were structured to work. In fact, those three yellow card decisions were made only more potent by the subsequent decisions not to hand second yellows to two of those Ringmer players, as later committing fouls, one of which I recall to having been the hacking down of an Oak player 20 yards out which led to a goal from the set-piece, actually worthy of bookings, the decision not to then take action only demonstrated the unacceptable double-standards of referees at our level. That’s without mentioning the lack of action the same referee took for what I’d definitely refer to as the most blatant handball and stamp I’ve ever seen on a football pitch from Oak players in the second half…
The shameful fact here is that I could list the series of seemingly mindless calls made by referees at our level for paragraphs and paragraphs. Take the total lack of concern our referee at Langney showed for our goalkeeper Dan Hutchins as he was knocked to the ground in a clash of heads at a last-minute corner, allowing a Langney sub to score in an open goal. Coincidentally, that was only reminiscent of a duo of carbon copy cites for controversy at a Lewes vs Kingstonian match I remember finishing 2-1 to the away side in 2013, for which referee David Spain, now infamous around the Dripping Pan, chose not to allow similar examples of the K’s striker heading the ball out of Lewes’ ‘keeper’s hands from preventing the London side grabbing their goals. It is not just ignorance of the rules, as I’m sure they would tell you they are well-versed in each and every line of their FA bible, but it is the abundance of bad habits forged over decades of uninterrupted control of local games that convolutes their interpretation of such rules.
In my opinion, far too many referees become rigidly set in their ways, as many individuals would do in any profession as unvaried as refereeing, clouding their vision over time of what is the correct way to go about their business. We, as football fans, deserve better, I believe, and that does not have to come from technology, despite my great remonstrations of its requirement at the top tiers, as in non-league football, the war will forever be fought by referees, the front line guardians of the laws of the sport. If they can’t carry out their job correctly, then what hope does anyone else in and around that pitch have?
In that regard, it may have been a timely reminder that the powers that be have work to do when on Friday (3rd March), as the IFAB (International Football Association Board) met at Wembley for their annual conference – with Gianni Infantino present alongside FA Chairman Greg Clarke – discussing a range of rule modifications they branded as ‘what football wants’. Unlike the statements of many other governing and organisational bodies, however, the IFAB’s press bit came across, while trigger-word aplenty in its structure, as a diligent, honest portrayal of how they do realise the issues posed to the surveyors of the sport, at its most basic level, and how they intend to challenge the increasing power of crafty players against referees. Something, in my eyes, football has been crying out for a long time, and applicable at practically any level, the role of the captain will be evaluated, hopefully with the conclusion that increased responsibility on the part of less self-interested, more permanent captains could lead to a dramatic fall in the degree of foul tactics deployed, while also improving an official’s ability to make objective decisions. Especially prevalent in the regular occurrence, which I have always found worthless and morally devaluing, when entire mobs of players swarm the referee to create psychological pressure to increase punishment on an opposition player at the event of a foul, the accountability on the captain to not only prevent this manipulative act from occurring in the first place, but also to communicate any information received from the referee to their teammates, would be compellingly increased, allowing officials to make the most accurate decisions possible, you would hope.
Alongside the more profound and visible deployment of VAR’s (Video Assistant Referees) into ‘live’ testing this year, with an upcoming World Cup presenting the perfect opportunity for further use, the research and testing into the concepts of sin bins and the discussion of how to tackle time wasting best, I believe the IFAB does have the best interests of global fans at heart, exploring possibilities which could radically reshape our sport for the better. These ‘modifications’ they discuss though, have to come to fruition for all levels of the game before long, as players, coaches and fans can hardly be trusted currently to uphold the extents of the law – far too preoccupied in self-interest to care periodically or otherwise about the ability of officials to make clear decisions, unless of course, they are on the end of what they perceive to be a poor run of calls. Considering this unfavourable, but realistic, description of where such bands of individuals with split loyalties lie in the game today, perhaps you could ascribe the IFAB’s potential rule changes into a ‘naïve’ category, arguably impractical in the game today. Where most Premier League players will be forced to comply with such rulings in order to maintain their reputation from the beady eye of the gaggle of pundits and unscrupulously critical twitter fans, there are no such concerns for non-league players, and that is my concern as the IFAB’s commendable, obviously favourable suggestions come unstuck.
They rely, almost entirely, on the goodwill of captains and playing officials in the game today, something, at times, I am both sceptical and cynical of, having witnessed so little of it recently. For these regulations to be brought into action, then, I believe the culture of youth football, most prominently, has to be drastically altered. Of course, over time coaches will become more conscious of the restrictions of the laws of the game, but in the short-term, unless a hard-line approach is taken by officials to those who dare disobey, I cannot see the role of the captain being sufficiently developed to cope with the modern approach set to come into force. There will forever be the section of the footballing clique who target loopholes in the rules of the sport, and while unfavourable, their techniques, far too often, have been proven to work. Perhaps not as high-profile as the recent stand-off by Italian forwards to the ruck in their Six Nations match against England, or the underarm bowling of Trevor Chappell, under the orders of older brother and captain Greg, in the infamous Australia vs New Zealand ODI clash of 1981; the relentless demonstrations of holding the ball up in the corner when protecting a narrow lead, the clear timewasting on the part of goalkeepers especially and the pinching of yards at free kicks and throw-ins are unwanted, yet undeniably effective, blemishes on the credibility of the sport. To exploit the rules so, not just undermining the credibility of the officials present and of the rule makers sat in an office overlooking Wembley’s hallowed turf, but also the intelligence of opposition players and fans present, creates a dark shadow that few wish to discuss within the sport. For the sake of such integrity, then, it seems there are few options available other than to impose the dreamscape culture we desire at a youth level, before hopefully witnessing the results.
In the short-term, irrelevant currently of any potential law changes at the non-league stage, blame has to be portioned on a number of shores; officials, many for failing to retain any passion to improve after settling into a self-serving pattern of mediocrity; players, for forcing their plainly biased, often uninformed opinions upon officials, often under the instruction of managers; club officials, for, on the majority, failing to establish a regiment set of behavioural guidelines; fans, for their apathy towards the wider issue and tendency to immediately target referees, and governmental organisations for blindly ignoring such issues. Whether such self-pity is likely to persist, in a system that honestly suits nobody in terms of even-handedness currently, is for each of these groups to decide, but I’m certain where I stand, as with many admirers of the beautiful game; all I want to see are correct decisions being made, and for the referees not to be the main concern come the start or the end of the game. They are often selfless, outspoken, unfairly tainted individuals, but the unemotional facts clearly portray, in my minds, that officials currently aren’t equipped well enough to uphold the laws of the game in the way which, I’m sure, they would like.
There are many referees who escape the hubris that a vast deal, certainly that I have seen recently, are otherwise dogged by, and there are many referees that I admire greatly, Michael Oliver, Bobby Madley, Jonas Eriksson and Mehmet Yildiraz in particular – but they are an exclusive breed at the very top of the game. For the majority of supporters and club officials further down the pyramid, we are left with the David Spain’s, Nicholas Baker’s and Barry Cox’s of the presumably short list of regional officials to oversee what, in many occurrences, is difficult to describe in terms of performance without turning to expletives. It is no wonder we have a blame culture centred on officials, but to see beyond this, and actually progress as a sport, frustrated cynics have to put aside their differences and communicate the distinguishable issues they have faced with these same officials over a diplomatic table, including the other parties involved in the credibility and upholding of the laws, if they want tangible changes.
As a regular attendee at Ringmer recently pointed out in the immediate wake of an exasperating home draw, the club, as a microcosm for football as a wider entity, ‘needs smarter support’. This resonated particularly with me, ever the methodical, pompous young fan, as I have never, in my view at least, connected, by any means, with the brand of support which, I have decided, target individuals on the pitch, whether players of their cause, opposition or officials, with lazy hollers of light-hearted abuse possibly more interconnected with their personal vexations. In fact, I have, for the extent of the six or seven years I have been a true advocate of Ringmer FC and Lewes FC, I have always pictured myself as a stereotypically English supporter, in the sense of the national psyche of unemotional calm in the event of crisis and quiet disapproval of any opposing forces of brash negligence, perhaps arrogant in my rising above the extroverted chants and taunts involved in the game, even a soul unsuited to what has become the ‘typical’ form of supporter identified in England in the past 50 years; violent drunks searching a release to their week of pent-up rants. It is such an image that English football has to shed, because I wholeheartedly agree that in football, alongside most every subject in life, a little more application of the old grey matter would go a long way.
Referees, in my eyes, should not be the ones we turn to first to blame. They represent, arguably, all that is wrong with the game – a maelstrom of the respective issues that a number of vital groups are blighted with - and for football fans, that is enough for them to become the immediately persecuted. If more respect is afforded their way, we might be able to uncover a more enlightened footballing horizon. For me, that would be a beautiful thing, but as distant as it seems currently, is it likely to occur? Is the standard of refereeing set to improve with the mutual advancement of the role of the captain in modern football? One can but hope. For everyone involved in football to feel valued is a massive thing, and for officials, I believe that this issue is most immediate of any group, so we can wish, for their sake and football’s alike, that such amendments, de jure and de facto alike, press on, allowing the grass rectangle to be a much more tolerable place to inhabit on a Saturday afternoon, for them and us alike.
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!