Thursday, 16 September 2010

The kids are alright

London's England's most densley populated city, both in terms of people and football teams. But how do these factors affect those clubs at the lower end of the footballing spectrum, namely in non-league?

AFC Wimbledon manager Terry Brown speaks to Hannah Duncan about the importance of attracting young players and youth development.

The kids are alright

Alec Stewart interview

Former England cricket captain Alec Stewart speaks to Hannah Duncan ahead of England’s one-day internationals against Pakistan.

Alec Stewart interview


Bromley flying high under Bird's wing

Blue Square South side Bromley are top of the league and unbeaten so far this season. Assistant Manager Hayden Bird speaks to Hannah Duncan about the Ravens’ flying start to the campaign.

Bromley flying high under Bird's wing


Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Brand Designs

What do Pride Park, The Emirates Stadium and Coventry’s Ricoh Arena all have in common? The answer is, well, pretty much everything.

Aside from choosing different colours from the Dulux chart, or the odd extra tier here and there, these are just a random selection of three ‘new’ grounds that boast absolutely no character, no identity and no individuality. Welcome to the 21st Century and its Ikea flatpack stadiums.

When the bulldozers moved into such classic grounds as Maine Road, Filbert Street and even the old Wembley (which was admittedly a bit worse for wear), we said goodbye to chunks of footballing history and genuine character.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the need for new and redeveloped stadiums. Safety factors, capacity factors and ultimately financial factors all come into play and often result in the requirement for a new stadium, but the one factor lost in all this is that horribly clich├ęd ‘X’ factor.

Throughout the course of my football match attendance days (roughly 16 years), I’ve watched and played games at 97 different grounds. And despite being able to tick off the likes of the new Wembley, the Nou Camp and the New Defence (Horley Town FC for all you non-league foes), my favourite ground is undoubtedly Oakwell. Take a bow Barnsley Football Club.

Oakwell is a ground with amazing atmosphere, real old-skool character and most of all, when you see it on the Football League Show, it’s immediately recognisable as Barnsley’s home (The proper northern style pub down the road also helped – ed).

Fratton Park was another from a similar mould. Alright, so all us Chelsea fans got a right soaking, but for the ‘proper ground’ experience (and the 5-0 win!) it was well worth it. Deepdale, too, deserves a mention.

But for how much longer will there be such stadiums left to visit and enjoy? Talk of new homes for Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton to name a few, mean the likely loss of yet more iconic grounds. And even non-league teams are heading in the same direction - Dartford’s relatively new Princes Park looks like James May had some spare grey bricks left over from his life-size Lego house.

It’s a harsh reality of the modern game. In a sense, the decline in character and individuality can also be seen in aspects such a kit design (oh for the days of Chelsea’s ‘tangerine and graphite’ number) and even managerial press conferences (Mr Mourinho’s eggs and omelettes aside of course).

Some new grounds have tried to replicate or replace old ‘landmarks’, such as the Wembley arch in place of the Twin Towers (admittedly in this case more for structural reasons than sentimental) and in a way, it’s nice that the time is taken and thought given to such traits, but they’ll never truly bring back the history of the Towers themselves.

Whatever highs your club reaches, whether they make a cameo appearance at the Champions League final, the FA trophy final or just manage to scrape three points on a Saturday against the local pub side, you can’t beat an away day at a proper ground, with 4 detached stands, half a roof caving in and a grubby old man in a string vest flipping burgers in the back of a van.

That’s what the beautiful game’s all about and long may it live that way...but I won’t hold my breath.

An Olympic opportunity

Today marks the first opportunity for the British public to volunteer to be London 2012 Games Makers. It’s a real opportunity for everyone to get involved in the world’s greatest sporting event, hosted in our own, wonderful capital city.

With a plethora of volunteering options available, there’s certainly something for everyone - from helping directly with the sporting events, to ticketing, medical services and press operations.

I’m not here to bleat on to you about how you should offer your time and energy (admittedly I’ve just completed my application form), I just wanted to highlight how easy and accessible it is to be part of something the tax payer is paying a fortune for (free for me then...jammy!). And if it persuades one or two people reading this to step forward, then all the better.

The application process itself is quick and simple, especially if you’re looking to kill a few minutes in the office! And the rewards and future opportunities could be sensational. Personally, I want to be part of the Games in some capacity, having resigned myself to the fact that my footballing career won’t kick-off enough in the next two years to be selected as part of the Great Britain team. Damn giving up judo when I was a kid...!

I therefore decided the best way to ensure I’m in amongst the action (hopefully slap bang in the middle of the Olympic Stadium!) is to volunteer and to match-up nicely with my University degree in Multi-media Journalism, I decided my first choice option (applicants get three choices) should be in Press Operations.

The cunning Baldrick-esque plan is to volunteer, be part of the greatest sporting event to come to England in recent times (probably since the 1966 World Cup) and hopefully meet some high flying journos in the process who can offer me a job! Brilliant hey! Well, one can hope...

But aside from the grand plannage side of things, how amazing would it be to be there not only as a spectator – which in itself will be pretty damn amazing (though if I get tickets for women’s beach volleyball they’re going on Ebay!) – but to help make London 2012 the fantastic Olympics it deserves to be.

This has really and inadvertently turned into a recruitment drive blog, so I may as well go the whole hog a whack a link up too. So here you go, volunteer, get involved, be part of London 2012...just don’t make your application better than mine!

London 2012 Games Maker application

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

Budget or bust

On a day that’s seen Conference North side Ilkeston Town wound up for good and League One’s Sheffield Wednesday face a narrow escape from the same fate, a new debate over football club finances is likely to erupt.

AFC Bournemouth, Southend, Crystal Palace and Portsmouth (to name but a few) all faced severe financial difficulties and either entered administration or survived winding up orders last season alone.

No longer is it just the odd club here and there with over enthusiastic or downright dodgy owners spending money that doesn’t balance with the income. It’s getting to the stage where it will soon be the majority of sides not just in the red, but covered head to toe in it.

Threats of point deductions for entering administration just don’t cut it. All that achieves is to punish the paying fans and the management and players who have worked day in day out on the training pitch to get the club into whatever league position they’re in. Should a club sustain such a heavy points deduction that their season is concluded with relegation, it’s automatically a downward spiral. Players leave for a better standard of football, the team degenerates and followers (not fans who would stick with their club through thick and thin) turn away and spend their money elsewhere.

But what can be done? It’s not easy to find the right balance of deterring clubs from spending beyond their means whilst also not landing them in more trouble.

Should a blanket law come into place covering all English and Welsh clubs, preventing their expenditure from surpassing their income, it will only serve to stop our teams competing with others across the globe. No longer will our teams be able to sign the best foreign talent ahead of the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan. It may even cause our home grown talent to seek pastures new in foreign leagues, where they would have no spending restrictions.

And if the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal can’t continue the relative English dominance in the Champions League, the number of spots for English teams in Europe will decrease, having a negative effect on tv deals. This means the top sides will not only have less money, but there will be less to filter through the pyramid – causing even more financial problems for lower league clubs in particular.

The only real way for football as a whole to move into the black is for FIFA to step in and put similar expenditure laws as outlined above across all of the sport’s governing bodies, keeping clubs from different nations on an even keel.

Whether they take a stand or not, one thing’s for certain, something has to be done to save our beloved game from itself.

"You'll win nothing with kids..."

With the transfer window coming to a close on Tuesday (although not properly locked as Rafael Van Der Vaart still managed to sneak in), Chelsea proved to be one of the least active Premier League sides in the market.

The departure lounge at Stamford Bridge was awash with activity, as we said goodbye to Joe Cole, Juliano Belletti, Ricardo Carvalho and Michael Ballack and good riddance to Deco, but the arrivals gate was comparatively calm.

Ramires proved to be Carlo Ancelotti’s major signing, following Yossi Benayoun to West London, but despite rumours of a replacement for Ricardo Carvalho rife in the press, nothing materialised.

When the 25-man squads were released on Wednesday, Chelsea fell well short of the cut-off mark, naming just 19. It begs the question as to whether Ancelotti is planning to utilize the youth more this season, with youngsters such as Patrick van Aanholt, Jeffrey Bruma and Fabio Borini waiting in the wings, or whether a costly error has been made over the past two months.

With Carvalho linking up with former boss Jose Mourinho at Real Madrid, the Blues have been left short of cover in central defence. Injuries or suspensions to either of John Terry or Alex means Branislav Ivanovic (currently injured himself) will be the likely candidate to be drafted into the middle. No problem as a straight swap, but it leaves the right side exposed to the ‘safeguard’ of Paulo Ferreira – and who knows what he’s capable of! His performances so far this season don’t bode well.

That is unless Jeffrey Bruma, who has just signed a new four-year contract, is deemed ready to step up to the mark. Ancelotti’s youth policy has so far looked promising, ‘blooding’ the likes of Bruma, Van Aanholt and Borini, as well as midfielder Nemanja Matic who is currently on loan at Vitesse Arnhem.

Other youngsters such as Scott Sinclair and Miroslav Stoch have departed Stamford Bridge this summer, indicating that those remaining are a cut above, or else surely they would have followed suit, or at least been shipped out on loan.

Of those remaining, Patrick Van Aanholt is my personal ‘one to watch’. The Dutch defender more than held his own when deputising for Ashley Cole last season, even having the confidence to make several nippy runs into the opposition box.

Sadly one of the brightest youth prospects has had to hang up his boots on his short-lived career in the past couple of weeks. Defender Sam Hutchinson has struggled with knee injuries for several seasons and, despite making a handful of first-team appearances last season, has called it a day at the tender age of 21.

It’s a huge blow both for him personally and for the club – he certainly looked to have a bright future at The Bridge.

But even without Hutchinson in the ranks, Chelsea do appear to have a handy crop of kids waiting for their big chance. And that big chance is likely to come this season with limited senior options available. I’m just waiting for Alan Hansen’s words of wisdom…

England should take Hart from a bright goalkeeping future

Gordon Banks, Peter Shilton and Ray Clemence – an elite group of England goalkeepers whose numbers haven’t grown much in recent times. David Seaman, undoubtedly a contender to be mentioned in the same breath as the greats, sadly had his international career blighted by his ‘flapability’ – notably against Brazil in the 2002 World Cup – leaving our favourite gypsy impressionist just out of contention.

But this evening, as Fabio Capello’s side take to Wembley’s (now much improved) pitch in the first competitive game since the World Cup non-showing, it could be the beginning of a new dawn for England’s number one shirt.

Joe Hart is set to make his competitive debut for his country as England host Bulgaria, following a fine 2009/10 season and a superb start to the new campaign for the youngster.

If you’re not Fabio Capello, you’re probably still of the firm belief that Hart should’ve gone to South Africa as number one in June, but bygones will remain bygones – now is Hart’s chance to shine in a position England have found almost as difficult to fill in recent years as left midfield. Now is Hart’s chance to show why he should have been selected ahead of Rob Green against the USA and to cement (or firmly iron) ‘Hart 1’ on the back of the green jersey.

Admittedly, the former Shrewsbury man has little competition on the international stage at present, but that shouldn’t detract from his quality and what he can achieve. He has not become first choice for a lack of alternatives, if anything he makes the alternatives look thoroughly non-league.

That’s not to say we should be swept up into a new ‘Golden Era’ frenzy. Yes, Kieron Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere and Hart himself should be the future of England, but so once were Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Wayne Rooney and John Terry…and look where that got us.

Hart is quick to say he is a long way off becoming a permanent fixture between the sticks for his country - he’s not yet certain of keeping Shay Given on the sidelines at Manchester City. But against Bulgaria tonight and Switzerland on Tuesday, the 23-year-old could take a big step to staking his claim for the shirt. His predecessors Scott Carson and Rob Green have both looked good in friendlies but crumbled under the pressure of a competitive situation. Let’s hope Hart doesn’t go the same way – I’d put a sizeable bet on him not.