As we see another season of blood, sweat and tears (literally) at the non-league level pass by; nothing seems out of the ordinary in English football. Most fans are unaware that the leagues below step 4 in the football pyramid are closing up for the season, focusing almost exclusively on the Premier League and the success of Leicester City. This is clear across all forms of media, in fact you can hardly go five minutes on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram without seeing someone talk about the BPL in one capacity or another. While there isn’t anything wrong with this (BPL bosses would encourage it for the commercial benefits) I passionately feel that the non-league level of the game is often totally unappreciated by multi-media corporations and fans alike. This ignorance of a class of the sport often passed off as ‘amateur’, ‘second-rate’ or ‘low on quality’ is a real shame for the game, and one I believe needs to be fixed. But where is non-league football going wrong in terms of its promotion, branding and set-up? What needs to be done to draw fans back to their local clubs, untouched by professionalism?
To understand the problem, we need to look back through history. Well, it’s important to understand that all clubs were non-league when they started. Newton Heath, Woolwich Arsenal, St Marks (Manchester City) and Liverpool FC all started off as local sides, reflecting the landscape of the industrial revolution at the time through their players, who were builders, railway employees, iron workers and steel workers for example. Just look at the nicknames of football league clubs across the country, many represent the professions of the players back in the 1880’s and 90’s, notably Yeovil (the Glovers), Northampton (the Cobblers) and Luton (the Hatters). Well, this was the same across England. If all clubs have all at some point in their histories experienced the same level of football, surely their fans can all respect each club, from inner-city to quaint village, equally and view them all from the same point of view, no matter the wealth or success of some. Professional leagues in England only came into being 1888, with one league of 12 teams called the Football League, even before the times of penalty kicks and goal nets. So-called ‘semi-professional’ leagues were only respected as so by the Football League around 1905, when the Northern League and Southern League (originally the top leagues in the country before professionalism) were practically discarded in place of the ever-expanding Football League, and the Isthmian League was founded.
Considering this, surely fans of the top sides in the country should not be looking down their noses at non-league sides (I know they do), as they are clearly disrespecting their own club’s history, as well as the beauty of non-league. If they can’t understand the appeal of supporting your very own local team, the one you grew up living so close to, I think it shows that they aren’t true football fans. If you have never stood out on the terraces in all weathers, no matter how your team is playing, with only a thin metal barrier barring you from the players, you haven’t lived. To be there for your side through thick and thin, not tempted by the draw of ‘better’ football (whatever that means) at your closest city, and still be proud of what your village or town has achieved, I think it is one of the most special experiences in not only football, but life as a whole. My footballing journey effectively started on a hot summers day at the Caburn Ground, Ringmer back in 2011, when I was 9 years old (late age to be introduced, I know) as Ringmer FC faced up against St Francis Rangers FC in the last game of the 2010/11 Sussex County Football League Division One season. I have clear and truly fond memories of that day, as in the baking heat of late April Ringmer absolutely tonked Rangers 5-2, with a hat-trick from a certain striker named Darren Lok, who was my idol after the match and for the rest of the summer that year. I couldn’t wait to watch more of it. That just goes to show that you don’t need to see the highest level of football or the most expensive players on the planet to get hooked on the pleasures of football, or to have the most enjoyment on your Saturday afternoons. All you need are two teams of eleven, two goals, a ball, a FA-compliant pitch, a referee and two linesmen to have an official game. Whether that is at Old Trafford or at the Caburn Ground doesn’t matter, it’s the memories that count.
One argument I can never understand from the doubters of non-league football is that it doesn’t justify the entry price. If you want value at a game of football, why would you then spend your money at a match in the Football League, where an adult ticket can set you back around £40, with a beer, a pie and a programme probably costing another £10 or so? Surely you’d be better served spending, for example, at Lewes FC with £11 for entry, £2 for a programme and around £5 for a beer (which you can actually drink in the stands) and pie. You could even get all this at Lewes FC knowing that as an owner, the profits will all be going back into the running of the club rather than filtered out by an overseas investor who is rarely seen at matches. Surely this is a better option?
Non-league is where the spirit of the game still runs strong. It doesn’t charge you thousands of pounds a year just to support your team like at Arsenal, it doesn’t serve as a cash cow for all these transnational corporations and it doesn’t pay players stratospheric and totally out of touch with reality wages. Most importantly, though, it doesn’t exclude its fans. For my so-far exactly five years (total coincidence for this week) of watching football directly from the stands, I have seen a lot of different things, but one thing I have never seen or experienced is a team being out of touch with their fans. This is mostly because the fans are usually so close that they could tell their board members what they thought could be improved over a pint while watching the game, which is vitally important at any level. Without talking to the fans, these ‘big’ clubs are running as dictatorships, in which they are completely ignoring the wishes of the people who in the end are the only ones that matter to a club’s survival; the fans.
So, after all I’ve said, why aren’t fans across the country flocking to non-league teams? One big reason is certainly the lack of branding that the lower leagues have, as they are so often compared to Sunday League when they really aren’t of that level. These players, from the National League to the County Divisions are actually paid, believe it or not, and have to turn up for training otherwise they will be kicked out. It’s called ‘semi-professional’ for a reason, so why do people keep acting as if it is amateur? There is definitely an attempt to change this, starting with last summer’s renaming of the Vanarama Conference to the Vanarama National, which has certainly improved the opportunities for the league in terms of possible future sponsorship as companies would be attracted to the proud, nationwide impression given off from the name. But this is nowhere near enough, as it clearly hasn’t garnered extra focus on the league this season. Besides Cheltenham going up as champions and Forest Green Rovers (who I have a certain affinity for after my Football Manager 2012 career with them, taking them to the Premier League) about to finish as runners-up, I honestly couldn’t tell you about the Vanarama National League this season. I seriously doubt many others could either. This is definitely an issue for the league as it struggles for relevance amongst BT Sport’s packed schedule and any mainstream media.
But the beauty of non-league football has never laid in its availability for purchase by corporations like BT Sport; it has always been in the ‘you had to be there’ moments, the memories that can never be shown on an action replay, the ones that you simply have to cherish. The problem for non-league football is how to blend the two sides of this, how to garner the income and draw in the fans while not appearing to sell out by its present fans. The solution that Lewes FC has had to this is to promote itself, not relying on its league to do the work and therefore cutting out the middle man in promoting itself to potential new customers. If all clubs had the blue sky thinking attitude of the match-day poster-famous, marketing expert, footballing hipsters at Lewes, there would a whole ground full worth of new fans waiting for them each season, not to mention the thousands of pounds and cult status that comes with it. Even in the face of relegation from the Ryman (Isthmian) Premier Division (level 7 of the football pyramid), Lewes have enjoyed the fifth highest average attendances in the league (which is not w**k Harry, yes I am talking to you). The point is that if clubs take responsibility for their own success, they will reap the rewards. Like a wise man once said, you are the master of your fate. Clubs have the choice of adapting and thriving, or doing nothing and being left behind.
No matter which methods they take in doing it, non-league clubs have to keep up with the times and advertise as much as possible, otherwise they will be left with only the bare bones of support left, not generating enough income to keep the club going. This has been clear in so many cases over the past few years, with more well-known examples including Darlington, Chester City and Kettering Town going through administration over the past decade, although all reformed as new clubs due to the strength of their fan base. More personal experiences to me include East Sussex sides Rye United and Sidley United, both of whom had to pull out of the Sussex County Divisions in 2014 and 2013 respectively, both citing financial collapse as the reasons behind their downfalls. While Sidley have recovered and now stand 1st in the East Sussex Football League Division One (the 13th tier of English football), Rye haven’t yet recovered as a club, despite having a population of almost 10,000 as a town. This just goes to show that clubs at the lower levels of English football don’t have the expertise to encourage more of the local population to come down and support their club, as even 500 fans is a good turnout for these sides, when their aims really should be higher.
People fifty years ago flocked to their local grounds en masse wherever in the country they were, irregardless of whether they were there for the football or just to meet up with friends. Football was as much a social and hearty thing back then, whereas now we are obsessed with the top names, the most expensive players and the glamour of shiny new grounds in the BPL. There is so much commercialism in the game today that it has absolutely lost its heart at the top level, forgetting the reason that we all come back season after season; it’s the heart, not the show. If anything, the BPL is Americanising itself, turning itself into a brand comparable with that of the NFL, NBA or WWE (I see you Joe), so it can appeal to foreign investors and television companies. For them, it’s more about the paint on the walls rather than the bricks and mortar, the brand name on the packet over the product, the topping on the cake rather than the sponge. And who prefers the topping to the sponge? Greedy people, that’s who.
A certain aspect of the reasoning for the total dominance of the BPL and Football League over non-league football is the lack of hometown pride that we have been manipulated to show these days by the media, both social and mainstream. There is a sort of social expectation, a peer pressure almost, into supporting a Premier League team, however tenuous the link between you and it today. There is no doubt that in any first meeting between two football fans there will be the question ‘who do you support?’ and either will be pressured into stating a well-known team. One thing I can’t stand is people who say their ‘English team is x, their Spanish team is y and their German team is z’ or so on, which completely ignores the whole concept of ‘diehard’ support. To name your local team as your favourite team these days is most commonly greeted with surprise, which just exemplifies the major shift in beliefs over the past half century. If you aren’t expected to support your local team, you never will, and no progress will ever be made. Unless the attitudes of the media can ever be made to change, we can never help non-league football become better, so we as fans have to take a stand and bring attention to any English football below level 4 of the pyramid. We have to be proud to follow our local teams.
The positive news for the future of non-league football is that there are a number of fightbacks against the status quo happening here and now. There are a number of organisations such as Non League Daily, Fans Focus and the Non-League Paper who stand up for the football of the working man (and woman) by spreading the word of the advantages of non-league. The thrills, the spills, the shocks and the downright ridiculous stories are all covered by these sites, proving invaluable to the growth of the game. Other initiatives such as Non-League Day every year during the September International break are totally game-changing as they actively expose all the advantages and joys of non-league football to normally BPL-focused fans, bringing in vital income for clubs. The success of the campaign in bringing more attention to smaller clubs in just the six years of its existence has been astounding, and amazing for bridging the gap between the tens of thousands of fans at BPL matches to the 100 or so at County level. All of this is good news for the game, but we need to keep up the pressure on people at the top, the FA and others, to expand the opportunities for non-league sides across the country. We don’t want to be moulded by them into a filtered down version of the BPL, we don’t want higher wages, we don’t want sponsorship around every single corner and we definitely don’t want people who will attempt to break apart our bond. That bond that all non-league fans, players and bosses share is a love of the game no matter how unglamorous or unlikely the situation is. What we want is the continuation of football clubs for all areas of the nation, and equal opportunities for each to succeed.
In the end, I can only go on making the case for so long. I hope that all of you reading this can truly appreciate the benefits and glory of non-league football in the same way that so many across the country do, and that you will feel empowered to make more significant moves to help the cause of these leagues. What is needed to help clubs survive and thrive in these conditions is more attention (like the articles about Horsham striker Terry Dodd last week, who I have to say was rubbish during his time at Lewes), more engagement and basically more fans. With fans comes income, opportunity and togetherness, a real connection for a club with its community. To get to the heart of these leagues, you only have to look at the faces of the fans on the terraces, no matter whether they have been there for five years or fifty years, to see how much it matters to us. I am a true believer that non-league football will always be superior to the BPL, the Champions League or the World Cup, as it is simply a believable and honest representation of the spirit of the game.
There is nothing to hide in non-league football, unless you are the owner of Eastleigh, Whitehawk or Farnborough (a few blotches on the map), and that is what makes it so relatable and close. From now on, the mission needs to be to make the term non-league synonymous with heart, value for money, entertainment and unpredictability, not being amateur, low on quality, sloppy or short on stars, as from my experience it has certainly not matched any of those descriptions. From Darren Lok to Marc Whiteman, Christian Nanetti, Steve Robinson, Nathan Crabb and now Alex Laing and Jonté Smith for me, non-league football creates as many heroes as the professional game. Non-league football for me has been absolutely life-changing, as I’m sure it has been for so many others, and the one thing I really want from it is to offer so many more people the same thing, something that can change their perception and love of football forever. So one thing I would like to say to all people out there who are considering entering the non-league scene is go ahead, take a chance on your local club and you will be glad you did so.
This season’s edition of the world’s most historic and prestigious domestic cup competition has seen giant killings, last-minute drama and the battles between big earners and part timers during its course so far, making it one of the most memorable in recent history. From its stretch from the preliminary stages of qualifying all the way back in August, there have been hundreds of ties between teams all over England, in addition to six from Wales and one from Guernsey, who have all battled for glory, but now only four remain. They are four very different teams who many probably wouldn’t have predicted to even get this far, but nonetheless four very worthy challengers to the throne. In our two Wembley semi-finals this weekend, we have a north-west battle with two sides that have been overshadowed by their ‘noisy neighbours’ in achievements this season, while we also look forward to a clash between two teams either side of the Thames who have tailed off in form in recent months. That’s right; for your entertainment this weekend ladies and gentlemen, its Manchester United vs Everton today (Saturday 23rd) and Watford vs Crystal Palace tomorrow; two ties that promise a lot and will deliver a whole lot more, most importantly two finalists. So who stands the best chance of reaching that final on 21st May, and even winning it? Let’s have a look at the cases for each…
Firstly, we’ll head up to the heavyweights in the red corner; our most Northern semi-finalist, a team that has for so long recently failed to deliver on good performances, a team which most people would tip to win the competition now their closest rivals have been eliminated; Manchester United. They are the self-styled ‘biggest team in the world’, adored by fans and hated by rivals, with a legacy unquestionably rich, yet a team seemingly unable to win trophies recently. A team in the shadow of the domineering success of Sir Alex Ferguson’s golden generation of genius and talent, incapable of yet finding a true successor to what currently seems to be a poisoned chalice and crumbling under the pressure of the fans’ unrelenting desire for silverware. There’s no question it is in the blood of true Manchester United players and fans to keep winning, after all it is what they are known for across the globe. Boasting the largest (or possibly most patient) worldwide fan base of any Premier League team past or present, their business model simply can’t survive without triumph. They need this trophy. Desperately. Without it, they would have gone three seasons without a trophy (barring the Community Shield, which David Moyes effectively picked up on behalf of Fergie) and a further 12 seasons without an FA Cup triumph. For a side that has won 11 editions of the cup, that is completely unacceptable and needs fixing now for the sake of their respectability.
So how are our (yes I am speaking as a fan now) chances? Well, at least in my opinion, they should be (fingers crossed) pretty healthy, considering our recent form compared to the other three remaining sides. Having won five or our last six matches in all competitions, we should be coming in to the game today with bags of confidence, especially considering one of those wins was 1-0 against Everton only three weeks ago. Louis van Gaal has grown a team of clean sheet specialists who aren’t afraid to play ugly to get a win, as long as our attack is up to speed on the day to capitalise on any chances. The players are established and comfortable in the system now, which is starting to come to fruition just at the right time. The defence is controlled, expansive and brave with the partnership of tough-tackling yet classy Chris Smalling and dependable, inch-perfect passer and set piece specialist Daley Blind finally proving van Gaal right for sticking by them and not signing a continentally-recognised central defender. Matteo Darmian (a bargain at the rumoured £12 million or so) is proving his worth as both a right and left back, with excellent attacking ability and growing defensive confidence, usefully versatile in a period in which injuries have forced van Gaal’s hand in these positions. The real issue is who will be the fourth defender to nail down a starting berth, whether that is on the right or left (hopefully the left considering Darmian really should be at right back). Luke Shaw has been unfortunate to miss a majority of the season, Ashley Young is inconsistent and increasingly injury-prone and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson is inexperienced at this level.
These issues pester on in midfield, where nobody has really had an outstanding season for such a high-aiming side, with Morgan Schneiderlin acclimatising, Michael Carrick’s bandwagon coming to a halt and Bastian Schweinsteiger simply failing to stay fit for long periods. Don’t even talk to me about Marouane Fellaini. He’s the cult hero and the butt of all jokes, an infuriatingly comical player who is seemingly unplayable for all fans due to his cardinal sins to the beautiful game. He butchers the stereotypical image of the artistry of European midfielders in the ilk of Iniesta, Xavi, Andrea Pirlo and Ruud Gullit with his own elbows-and-all style, as if a tree had just been uprooted and given a five minute lesson in how to play football. Granted, he has his moments, but mostly it is baffling to see the reasons for which he is trusted so deeply by van Gaal.
Despite all this, I believe that the key players for United in this tie will lie in the final third of the pitch. Against an Everton side whose strengths are most obvious in offense, United will have to negate these threats by keeping the ball in the opposition half as often as possible. By doing this, they will allow the likes of Wayne Rooney, Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard to work their magic with the ball at their feet, with fast-moving and free-flowing attacks hopefully creating a few goals. It will certainly be a different game to the West Ham quarter-final replay last week, in which United only fed on scraps to create their goals, as I believe Everton’s openness will be their downfall. With constant pressure and high possession stats, United could outwork and outclass a mentally fragile Everton side. If we do, we should definitely have the confidence and ability to win the whole competition.
But where should Everton, our unfancied challengers in the blue corner, be pinning their hopes? Just because I think they are likely to lose today doesn’t mean that they will roll over easily by any means. In fact, they could be inspired by the current media storm over Roberto Martinez’s non-emotive and misguided reactions to their recent performances, as their players, if they have any sense of commitment, will want to prove a point not just for themselves but for their manager also. If they want to prove they are more than just a team of three (Romelu Lukaku, Ross Barkley and John Stones) like the media’s perception of them is, they will have to go out on that Wembley pitch, work for each other and give it all they’ve got. We all know that they can switch it on or off in a moments glance, their scintillating, clinical play against Chelsea in the quarter final proving this, although on the other hand they could just as easily disappoint yet again, as their performance in the Merseyside derby showed. After the game, I had a look through the stats and was instantly shocked by the complete outclassing Liverpool handed them. 13 shots on target for Liverpool from a total of 37 attempts, whereas the whole Everton team could only muster three shots in the whole 90(+8!) minutes, all of which were off target. It’s an absolute embarrassment if that is all you can offer in probably the most important match for the supporters all season, away to your inner-city rivals.
Away from all their problems in the league this season, the cup has been an escape, and a valuable one for Martinez, who probably would’ve been removed already had he not reached this stage in the competition. Let’s not forget that Martinez has actually won the FA Cup before, in his last season with Wigan (2012/13) before jumping the sinking ship of their relegation. He surely views this competition as a safe haven, and one which he has managed to successfully mastermind a way through before, utilising his skills of rotation, man management and strong transfer knowledge to his advantage. He has attempted to do the same during his time in charge of the blue half of Liverpool, but has been constrained by less competitive budgets and diminishing resources, not being able to tie players like Gerard Deulofeu down long-term. This fact was made abundantly clear in a table released by the FA yesterday, in which the total amounts paid to agents this season were compared, and Everton were bottom in terms of spending with less than half a million pounds, which pales in comparison to the £2,329,142 average across the Premier League. Some argue he should have done better in his position, and yes while I agree he should’ve, he hasn’t really ever had the full support of the board, which has differed in direction, not allowing the club to move forwards.
If Everton do end up lifting the trophy on 21st May, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they did considering they have the fourth highest scorer (Lukaku) and the ninth highest assister (Deulofeu) in the BPL right now, it could be a job-saver for Martinez. Winning just two more matches in this competition will secure them a tidy winner’s reward package and advertise them to possible to summer signings. Lose this semi-final, and surely it spells the end for the Spaniard’s reign at Goodison Park, considering they won’t get any European football next season from their current league position.
Their key players, in my opinion, today will be Phil Jagielka and Gareth Barry, simply because they will provide the experience and calm required to succeed in game-changing situations, having both played numerous times at Wembley before. Jagielka, back in the side in place of the suspended Ramiro Funes Mori, will need to provide a real captains performance in keeping out the threats of Rashford, Martial and Rooney alongside the highly-rated yet slight liability John Stones. Barry will be right in the thick of it, up against the likes of Fellaini, Herrera or Mata, while also needed to keep a hold of Rooney in the middle of the park, so will be called on often, trusted with the responsibility nonetheless. It could be a tight battle providing these players perform.
Score Prediction: Manchester United 2-1 Everton
Next we focus on the seemingly out-of-focus (at least to the media in the wake of Leicester’s exploits) yellow-and-black Hertfordshire club who have revelled under the weight of no expectation from the general public at the start of the season. Personally, I think that they have been one of the most watchable sides of the season, far more so than low-scoring Leicester, as they have dared to take risks in their play, with players like Odion Ighalo, Nathan Aké and Allan Nyom going under the radar despite their top performances. For me though, the most underrated player of any in all 20 clubs this season is Étienne Capoue, who has completely risen to the challenge of anchoring Watford’s mostly Championship-quality midfield and led by example not only in the centre of the pitch, but all over, as his work rate has shown. In his first season with the club, he has also had to recover from a demoralising two years at Tottenham, but has performed with total confidence, which must be inspired by the management. Quique Sanchez Flores also has to be one of the most ignored managers in the BPL, as his achievements in keeping Watford in and around the mid-table spots in just his first season, not just at the club but also in the whole of English football, have been outstanding. Not to mention his fashion sense, which is far above any other ‘head coach’ in the league. His rugged beard, classic scarf and woolly jumper combo is better than Tony Pulis’ unrelenting use of tracksuits any day of the week.
That’s enough about their achievements so far this season though. For Watford, their problems have come in the big games, which is surely to be expected for a team of their stature, but will have to improve if they want to break into the top half next season. Their form since the turn of the New Year has been less than impressive, but they have found solace in the cup, which has kept fans satisfied for the time being. Reaching the final of the FA Cup, considering only this time last year they were just about to guarantee automatic promotion to the Premier League, would be an amazing achievement. They have defied all expectations, especially after they basically recruited a whole new management team, first XI and subs bench during last summer’s transfer window, which most regarded as the desperate rebuilding of a Championship-quality side while they had the money available to do so. Well, somehow their players have gelled quickly enough to bring results, and the icing on the cake of their very respectable season would be the possibility to be there on the last day of the English football season to be crowned champions.
Against Crystal Palace, another side which have dramatically faded since Christmas, the Hornets should fancy their chances of reaching that showpiece match on 21st May. Considering they have the 7th best defensive record in the league this season (only conceding 40 goals from 34 games), Watford should be optimistic of keeping things tight at the back on Sunday, significantly more so against a side that have been noted for their lack of goals in campaign in the Eagles, who only have the joint sixth lowest goals scored total with 36. Having said that, Watford’s problems in front of goal have also been plain and clear, with a paltry 33 goals scored, which equates to a poor 0.97 goals a game, mainly down to the bad luck and breaking down in partnership of Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo. These two were scoring goals for fun back in September and October effectively in competition with each other, but the goals have dried up recently, and for their team to stand any chance of winning on Sunday they have to perform. Without them, I honestly can’t see where the goals in their team will come from, so their finishing from chances created by the likes of Jurado and Adlène Guédioura (stepping in for the suspended Nordin Amrabat) will have to be perfect.
Personally though, I feel that this game will be dictated in midfield, with Watford’s very capable hands (and feet) of Ben Watson, Valon Behrami, Capoue or possibly Mario Suarez all looking to impose themselves on the game, claiming control of the ball in the process. All of these players are notably defensively-minded, which could prove a help or a hindrance in the match, but is yet to be seen. If they focus too much on containing the opposition, including the easily game-changing Jason Puncheon, they might find themselves cut off from their attacking options, limiting goal scoring opportunities. This is the danger for Watford, and one which has proved their downfall in recent games, so they have to smart up and encourage their players to be mindful of both sides of their duties, both defending and attacking. After all, as the old saying goes, points mean prizes. Or was that goals win matches?
Alan Pardew is another manager who will be sick of fans and critics noting the importance of goals this season. The form of Palace’s strikers this season has been absolutely appalling, with their five strikers (Dwight Gayle, Frazier Campbell, Emmanuel Adebayor, Connor Wickham and Marouane Chamakh) only bagging 7 goals together, with 5 of those coming from Wickham. They have relied deeply on their wingers Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie to create and finish chances, with Alan Pardew persisting with his tactics of making the most of their skill and pace, trying to outrun and out pass the opposition, but often failing. Why he hasn’t changed his outlook is unclear, and surely remedied with new signings in the summer, but for now he needs to make the most of what he has. It could be a case of trying to be too optimistic with a side that has only just settled into the rigours of the Premier League after three seasons, but to be successful in his occupation you have to aim as high as is humanly possible and then hope for some luck.
Some solace for Crystal Palace this season is the good form of their midfielders, with Yohan Cabaye, Mile Jedinak, James McCarthy and Joe Ledley all proving their worth with numerous leading performances. Obviously Cabaye is the standout player from those, with the ability to create something from nothing almost naturally, while the latter three are quite similar in style, often cancelling each other out when paired together. For example, when the bearded duo of Jedinak and Ledley, who are very good midfielders normally, are played together, they can have the same problem as Watford in not creating enough attacking opportunities. It’s almost a re-enactment of the problem England had for years, where they couldn’t play Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard together for fear of their play not adding anything to the team when they both do the same thing, only this time its actors aren’t of the same quality as the originals.
From my view, Palace’s key player on Sunday will surely be Jason Puncheon, as the responsibility of creating chances for both his wingers to explore the space out wide and for his striker, looking likely to be either Wickham or Adebayor right now. With Yannick Bolasie having at best a 50-50 chance at the moment of featuring in the match, Puncheon will have to step up and lead the three of Pardew’s irrepressibly favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with all of his skill and guile. He certainly has the ability to unlock Watford’s partnership of what in my opinion should be Capoue and Watson, but it is whether he is in the right mental state for the match which will be the deciding factor. Players shouldn’t have to be reminded of the importance of an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley, but all these sports psychologists are employed for a reason these days. Behind Puncheon, Cabaye’s performance is surely a given, and Scott Dann’s solidity at the back is as good as you can get in the Premier League. Palace’s full backs (probably Pape Souaré and Joel Ward) and will also be a vital cog of their play, countering Watford’s pace on the wing with their own attacking capabilities, proven by Martin Kelly’s goal against Spurs earlier in the competition. In goal, Wayne Hennessey is a slight liability, and of course we know their problems up front. It could be a tight tie between two bottom-half teams desperate to reach a history-defining final. On Sunday, as we hear London calling, the nation will listen.
Score Prediction: Watford 1-0 Crystal Palace
So there you go, those are my breakdowns of the two games and my predictions. I could be totally wrong, but the beauty of predictions, as is the beauty of football, is that you never know quite what is going to happen. Leave a comment below of what you think the scores will be, who will win the whole competition and enjoy the two games!
This season in the Championship (or the English Second Division as it used to be known) has seen as much drama as is possible in any league across the world, with record signings, unbeaten runs and history-making games. While there has been success for some, most notably Burnley, Middlesbrough and Brighton & Hove Albion, for many there has been disappointment, with Bolton, Charlton and Nottingham Forest all having borne the brunt of damaging campaigns. Considering many people across the country see the Championship as a second-rate or less entertaining competition in England and Britain, it often doesn’t gain the recognition or coverage it deserves in the modern day premiership-fuelled media. It is for this reason that, in my opinion, there hasn’t been nearly enough attention on the way the top of the Championship is being dominated by the sides who can afford to sign top quality foreign players. For me, this ambitious risk-taking method of transfer business is one which threatens the development of young home-grown talent, and turns this league on its head. What were once a number of hearty underdog sides are quickly metamorphosing into commercially-engrossed teams who will do anything within their means to get promoted. Is this just what they need to do to keep up with the modern game, or is it a worry for the future of English football?
The stereotype of the Championship, at least from what you read from the media, is that it is a stanchion of the English game, producing British talent, and making up for the numerous faults of the Premier League. For the past few decades, it has certainly lived up to its billing (alongside League 1 and League 2) by helping the likes of Jack Butland, Troy Deeney, Rickie Lambert, Aaron Cresswell, Demarai Gray, John Stones and Dele Alli (not to mention most of Leicester’s current squad) progress into the top level of the game in this country. While there’s no doubt this is still going to happen for many more years to come, my concern with the Championship is that these players will be squeezed out of opportunities at lower-league clubs by the influx of cherry-picked, highly talented players mostly from across Europe.
For example, during Brighton & Hove Albion’s rise from League 1 to Championship play-offs over the past five years, young players such as Elliott Bennett, Jake Forster-Caskey, Liam Bridcutt, Solly March and Lewis Dunk were all given their opportunities to impress. This was a great thing for the club, having either gained new first team players (March and Dunk) or reaped financial profits (Bennett and Bridcutt). While this was a golden period for the club’s academy, it cannot be denied that at this current moment in time, there is a lack of youth products coming though. From my point of view, this is in direct correlation to the club’s fight for promotion, as only two British players under the age of 22 have made a start for the club this season (March and James Wilson). Whilst it could be argued Chris Hughton has a more experience-based philosophy, I think it is still vital to the future of the English game to allow more young British players the experience of first-team matches.
This is not only an issue for Brighton, but for the whole of the Championship. During the 2015/16 season, an unbelievable 50.78% of all players to have been in the match-day squad for at least one league match for any of the 24 clubs are foreign (including Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish players). If you assume that realistically about 40% of the remaining 49.22% players which are English players are over 23, you are left with around 10% of all Championship players who are actually products of these team’s academies and have been given an opportunity. From this minute 10%, probably only 2% will have the talent or the chance to play for a Premier League club, and then a mere 1% or less will be chosen as part of the national squad, under 21’s or senior. If we really think that we can continue like this and still produce the quality of players to be able to compete in the latter stages of international tournaments, the FA and us fans are well and truly mistaken. Yes Butland, Gray, Alli, Cresswell and Nathan Redmond have all progressed from the second division, but these players are only the tiny, tiny minority who actually make it (hopefully all to the international stage). It makes you really wonder how much talent has slipped from the fingers of the FA in the past decade or so.
It could be argued that asking for more British academy products to be blooded is both narrow-minded and discriminative of talented continental players. Personally, my belief is that if all these fans begging for England to be successful in the Euros and the World Cup are serious about it, and the FA really believes in its targets of reaching both the semi-finals of Euro 2020 and winning the 2022 World Cup, changes need to be made. Surely these changes need to include the scaling back of the importation of European talent rather than the expansion of it? Now, I know that youngsters from South America, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands to name but a few grow up aspiring to play in England because of the professionalism (and money) we have in our lower leagues, and I am not one to criticise or stop them from being signed. Yes, their leagues aren’t as competitive as ours, and facilities are often better here than in the poverty-stricken inner-cities of Brazil or the small, agricultural towns of the Netherlands, but this is not an acceptable excuse for the way that local talent has been stifled at clubs across the country.
Imagine yourself as an 18 year old at Birmingham, Leeds, Derby or Cardiff etc. who had been snapped up at the age of 8 or 9 and trained for a whole decade at not just the club you play for, but the club you have grown up supporting. You have progressed through all the youth teams, met all of the targets that you had been set, only to be told you don’t have a future in the first team, now or ever. How would you then feel about your situation? Understandably, most would feel annoyed at the management, the board and the decisions taken to buy in players of your position from the leagues of Europe and South America, when you haven’t even been given a fair opportunity. Hundreds, if not thousands of players find themselves in positions like this throughout the top English league every year, some of whom could’ve had the same talent as Marcus Rashford, Timothy Fosu-Mensah (both Man United) Alex Iwobi (Arsenal) or Zach Clough (Bolton) but haven’t been able to show it. This waste of talent is just the bi-product of our capitalist throwaway culture, in which we all subconsciously feel that we can safely get rid of perfectly suitable items and replace them with new, flashy, improved products every week, month or year depending on the goods, without any negative impact. Realistically, if we all looked at what we did, we wouldn’t repeat our actions, which is how recycling started, why we all believe in buying local food produce now, and why we are fascinated in exploring the possibilities of solar, wind and hydroelectric energy rather than fossil fuels now. Hopefully, in a similar way to all of these changings of guard, the members of the FA will come to their senses and actually start the process of changing squad rulings, with a quota of young home-grown players larger than the current one, if there is one.
While I can’t find a set of official squad rules on the number of home grown or non-British players allowed or suggested for clubs in the Championship (leave a comment if you can), I can assume that they are fairly similar to those in the Premier League. The latest update to the FA’s squad rulings saw slight improvement for the BPL, with the number of non-home grown player restricted from 17 to 13 of the 25 registered, although their definition of a home grown player has now changed. What once had to be an English player, born and raised in their area is now a player of any nationality who has trained in England for three years under the age of 18. While this helps a few players across the country, born in countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica or Australia to English parents, it could set a dangerous precedent into encouraging clubs to look into ways of persuading (bribing) parents of Spanish, German or Italian players to move to England and have their sons trained at English clubs to get away with the rule. This is where UEFA and FIFA are expected to move in and possibly deliver transfer embargoes (such as Barcelona’s recent one), but their evidence is not always guaranteed and they cannot always deliver justice.
While the FA’s work does need continuous momentum and improvement, they should be celebrated for their useful changes so far, and given our support to be able to do what they can. I personally think that more can still be done, with a lot of different options to choose from if we want to become as successful as Spain, Germany or France on the international stage. If you observe the second divisions of these highly-competitive nations, such as the Liga Adelante (Spain), Serie B (Italy) and 2 Bundesliga (Germany) there are a number of stats that differ to the Championship. Most notably, in my opinion, are the goal scoring charts, comparing all scorers in each of the second divisions in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. Firstly, it is quite clear that both the amount of games and the overuse of different players contributes to the amount of different goal scorers, with 358 different players having got on the scoresheet in the Championship up until all games today, comparing to 260 in the Liga Adelante, 275 in Serie B and only 229 in 2 Bundesliga. From these numbers, though, the most important facts are the percentage of goalscorers who have nationality of the country they play in (excluding Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and Irish players in the Championship). In the Liga Adelante, it is 20.38%, for Serie B it is 27.27%, it stands at 42.36% 2 Bundesliga and in the Championship it is 47.21%. While the German stats may surprise a lot of people, considering this is a country which won the last World Cup and are probably slight favourites for the Euros, they still pale in comparison to the English ones. Germany probably make up for their lower league disappointments in their bevy of talents across top clubs across Europe, for example Toni Kroos at Real Madrid, Mesut Özil at Arsenal and Sami Khedira at Juventus, while England don’t have players of this calibre.
One of the reasons this number is so high in England is a result of the massive disparity in quality and income between the Premier League and the Championship. These days, the Championship is basically seen as a landing ground for the weakest Premier League teams by the BPL organisers, with numerous victims of the big time struggling in the second division today (Bolton, Charlton, QPR, Wolves, Blackburn, Cardiff etc.). Teams of their calibre have certainly deserved to be in the big time before, but in the long run they all made big mistakes while up there. To stay competitive with the rest, they spent above their means, failed to keep up with the others and eventually were all relegated, losing millions on managers and players, which put them into a hell of a lot of debt. Power got to their heads, and some like Blackpool and Portsmouth have had their clubs ruined by it, The thing is, the BPL spotted this and now pay out parachute payments of £60 million a year, so these clubs can now afford to try the same thing over and over again, managing to convince BPL quality players to stay with a pay rise. This system won’t benefit the English game though, as small clubs will never be allowed to progress (unless they have a Russian billionaire owner like Bournemouth). You could safely bet that Newcastle, Aston Villa and the final relegation victim (Sunderland or Norwich) are going to finish in the top 6 or so of the Championship next season, purely because they are going to be rewarded for failure by the BPL.
To conclude then, I believe that the SkyBet Championship, the English Second Division, just the Championship or whatever you want to call it, has major ingrained issues concerning its control over clubs. It could be argued that these are as a result of the failures of the Premier League, which I certainly agree with, but it doesn’t mean responsibility can be taken away from the league’s directors. The FA are certainly trying their hardest, it just seems that nobody wants to cooperate with them on the aim of bringing through more British talent. Maybe league sides are just so self-obsessed and greedy that they will do anything within the rules to win, ignoring the importance of promoting their own youth. In my eyes, the Championship is becoming a carbon copy of the BPL in bypassing their own academies (which they have spent millions on building up, only to hand pick about one or two players a year to promote), which is just heart-breaking to see. Sure, it’s a slow transition, and I doubt the situation will never become quite as bad as in the BPL, but it is a pressing concern if we as a country do want to be seen and respected as one which does value its youth.
If clubs aren’t encouraged to give young players a chance, we wouldn’t have players like Dele Alli, Jack Butland, Theo Walcott or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in our national side or in the BPL. Germany’s players, Spain’s first-teamers and Brazil’s regulars are all products of heralded academies, and the only way they got to where they are today is through being given an opportunity by their clubs, by proving their doubters wrong, and becoming successful. If England wants to get to the same level, they need to make their clubs do the same. It’s not just about buying the tractors and pretending to know how to use them when your friends come around, it’s about putting everything into place and hoping for some luck. If they take risks and sow the seeds of youth, they will be able to reap the rewards at just the right time.
As Real Madrid became the subject of a shock 2-0 loss to perennial German understudies Wolfsburg in the Champions League this week, there was a widespread gasp across the footballing world. This gasp was not only drawn by the result, but by a controversial act in the second half’s play; Real Madrid’s Brazilian left-back Marcelo head butt on Wolfsburg’s German midfielder Max Arnold. Not only did this attack go unpunished, but Arnold was the one booked for his understandably provoked response (a few harsh words) to Marcelo’s dramatic face-grabbing fall to the ground. The very fact that a dive, that became clear to hundreds of millions across the world thanks to television footage, led to the booking of an opposition player despite the fact Champions League matches have five top-level officials in charge, is, in my opinion, totally unacceptable at this point in time. If some of the best officials in the world cannot spot a seemingly obvious dive from five different angles and punish it, surely football needs to change the way it looks at both the rule books and its methods of refereeing.
The main aspect of this debate to look at is that this is not a one-off incident, in fact far from it, in modern-day football. On Match Of The Day, you are likely to hear the pundits talk about at least one situation of a contentious dive almost every week, which I think if you looked at today from the looking glass of any time before the 1990’s, would be unbelievable. If you think of all of the famous dives and play-acting situations in football, quite a few spring to mind almost immediately. These include Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, David Luiz for Chelsea and Ashley Young for Manchester United, who all won game-changing decisions such as red cards (for the opposition) and penalties. Even as a Man United fan, I cannot stand up for what Young did on a number of occasions to win penalties and games for the team, as I don’t think that as a player it should ever be acceptable to play up the incident to convince officials to hand your team an advantage.
Despite this opinion, which I’m sure all of you reading will agree with (if not, are you sure you have any morals?) clearly nobody working at FIFA, UEFA or any national FA’s who have the power to change things agree with us. If they actually took action when they saw incidents, surely FIFA should’ve imposed stricter, clearer rules after the 2002 World Cup. In the semi-final, Brazilian icon Rivaldo completely ruined his public image by clutching his face and falling to the ground after the ball, passed (petulantly, yes) by Turkish defender Hakan Unsal hit his thigh when he was about to take a corner. This was a comical but highly embarrassing moment for football, yet the only thing that happened as a result was a £5,180 fine (less than 6% of his $125,000 weekly wage at Barcelona at the time) and no ban at all. Rivaldo soon stated that he would have done the same thing again, clearly asserting to FIFA that he had not learnt his lesson and that their punishment was nothing to him. If they ever want to punish players properly, you have to do it on the same level as Luis Suarez’s ban of nine international games and four months of club football. You can clearly see from Suarez’s cleaner behaviour in recent months that the ban has worked.
But as the percentage of repeat offences in prisoners across Britain and other highly developed countries across the world in recent years have shown, imprisoning (or banning from a footballing perspective) is not always effective. There is a lot of recuperation and psychological help needed for law breakers, whether that is in football or not. A different example in which this helps is in parenting, as studies show that parents who explain what their child has done wrong to them and how it affects others, rather than just telling them off, have less problems in future with bad behaviour. I’m not saying we should treat footballers like children (although they sometimes act like them), but the authorities should definitely focus more on these hands-on, psychology based courses to teach all footballers how to act according to the law in game situations. It would employ some of the millions of psychology graduates at least.
Another approach needed is to stem the flow of this behaviour at its cause. In the case of play-acting, the areas it is synonymous with include Spain, Central America and South America. These definitely aren’t the only regions where diving and feigning injuries happen, but they are the most notorious through history, as a result of their footballing culture, in which strong, physical play is encouraged from a youth level, particularly in defenders and midfielders. If you look at the way the Honduran national team play, flying into tackles with little regard for safety, or the methods of centre backs such as Walter Samuel (Argentina), Rafael Marquez (Mexico) or Mario Yepes (Colombia), you begin to see the extent of their physicality. To counter this, the opposition attackers have found out that with their pace and trickery, they can easily deceive the tiring referees by getting in their blind spots and taking a tumble when they feel a trailing leg edging anywhere near them.
Barcelona’s current South American strike force of Lionel Messi, Suarez and Neymar (Argentinian, Uruguayan and Brazilian respectively), who all grew up under the Latin-American system, have made themselves known, not just for their incredible skill, but for their use of play-acting techniques in helping their teams get an upper hand. Yet nobody has questioned their behaviour (barring Suarez, which was for biting and not diving), meaning some of the most iconic players in football right now are being encouraged to continue this. Is this setting a good example for children who are going to pursue a career in the game? You wouldn’t allow a banker to steal money from a different bank, a chef to poison the food of another restaurant or a car maker to break the machinery of a rival company, so why do we allow footballers to cheat and sabotage the chances of the opposition?
But in reality, this discouragement of behaviour at grassroots level has not yet materialised anywhere across the globe. While many managers of top teams in European nations would explicitly reveal they do tell their players to refrain from cheating and play to the rules of the game, I know for a fact that there will be a number of others who encourage their teams to bend the rules slightly to their advantage. For the number of incidents of play-acting at Barcelona and Real Madrid over the past decade, you’ve got to assume that the coaches figured a few cases of dives winning free-kicks, penalties or bookings for the opposition into their game plan. The thing is, these coaches, as well as the players, are so desperate to win, just because they know they are at the pinnacle of the game and success for them is as much of a business concern as a footballing one. They know that if they fail to win these big games, they will not be able to survive at the club, so they will do anything that is in their power to do so, whether it be to the laws of the game or not.
My personal viewpoint on this problem is that something serious needs to be done soon to stop this unlawful and cheap, dirty behaviour to make the ‘beautiful game’ worthy of its name again. My solution to the major issue of play-acting on the biggest stage would be to explore the possibilities of video technology. Many sports, including rugby, cricket, tennis, American football and basketball all use video replays and extra officials to make unquestionable, reliable decisions, ones that could dictate whether one team wins or loses. These sports have all had success with this technology, with the pre-installation doubts of the replays wasting too much game time proving unfounded when supporters got used to the systems. If you just think about all of these sports, do you associate any of the players in them with cases of cheating? I certainly don’t, partly because they aren’t paid such astronomical fees as footballers, but mostly because the rules in these sports clearly outline what is fact and what is fiction, that players can’t get away with cheating. When video technology is used, there is less scope for game-changing mistakes, and surely we value the right result with the right decisions over a maximum minute-long delay possibly two or three times a game.
Just look at the achievements of HawkEye’s goal-line technology in chalking off or allowing contentious goals in the Premier League, the Bundesliga and Serie A, not to mention the World Cup, in the past five years. Their technologies work effectively in split-seconds, moving the game on quickly, hardly impacting on the added time in each half either. If the FA, UEFA or FIFA hopefully invested in opportunities to explore how far video technology can go to enforcing the rules of the game in a similar way to rugby union, I believe that football could regain justice for unfair play and convince its doubters that it is a truly democratic and beautiful game.
So considering all of this information, surely there will have to be movement soon from the FA, UEFA or FIFA soon, realising that the growing pressure from supporters, clubs and officials does mean something to the game. They cannot go on failing to listen to everybody involved in the sport, as they will never get anywhere without taking the consideration of the people that they, taking everything they do into account, serve on the boards of these organisations. What do they do all day if they aren’t examining the cases of Marcelo, Neymar and Suarez, for example, into account, if they’re not trying to fix the problems in the sport? But without our criticisms, they will never realise where they can improve, and they will escape any blame for failing to act, with the one thing that will always stand, far longer than any committee members will be around or we will be lovers of it; football, taking the brunt of the damage done. Surely it is not the game, which cannot be represented or singled down to one person, that should be in the wrong here; it should be the people who ultimately decide everything that happens in it, the rule changes, the bans and the fines, the FA, UEFA and FIFA members.
Surely they could just be honest with us over whether they have seen and are doing anything about these problems or are not going to act, rather than brushing everything that is clear, video evidence and media reports, under the carpet as if it is a dirty secret at these organisations. In the end, we all lose out over this, as the game will never improve. It only deteriorates the perception and image of the game to non-football fans and outsiders if nothing happens, so why aren’t they doing anything to change this? Are they out-of-touch or just totally corrupt, bowing down to the demands of big clubs and big name players for the money that can be made from sponsorship? These are questions that need answers from the top, and soon.
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!