Monthly Archives: February 2011

Punditry Revolution? Talk Sense.

Former England cricket captain Nasser Hussain tells an interesting story in his autobiography about Sir Ian Botham’s time as a selector. It’s worth quoting in full:

“The problem was that Beefy is such a legend, people do listen to him. Not only the David Graveneys [Chairman of Selectors] of this world but also people in the street. So you would jump into a cab and the driver would say, ‘That Ian Botham. He talks a lot of sense.’ And I would always feel like turning around and saying, ‘Well, in my opinion Ian Botham was a genius who could do things on a cricket pitch that no other man could before or since, but he couldn’t really explain to you how he did them.’ By the end of his time advising the selection panel, I was virtually listening to what he thought I should do and then doing exactly the opposite.”

I’m reminded of this anecdote when I hear folk on Twitter push for James Richardson to present Match of the Day. Some are calling for Guardian journalists to take up their positions in those punditry seats. In Bed With Maradona, the football bloggers collective, are even trying to launch a TV Revolution, such is the outrage in some quarters at the standard of punditry in this country.

But I wonder. Is there an element of preaching to the converted here? The very nature of Twitter, and indeed life in general, is that – more or less – you gravitate towards like-minded souls. The point is, one has to doubt whether the proverbial cab driver is merrily telling all and sundry that Jonathan Wilson ‘doesn’t half talk some sense.’ The feeling remains that he is more likely to be saying it about Alan Hansen or, heaven forbid, Alan Shearer.

It isn’t as though the idea hasn’t been floated. ITV have dipped their toe in the water with the presence of the football journalist Gabriele Marcotti on their Champions League highlights programme. Marcotti has provided an alternative slant on things – giving details that so many ex-pros don’t, while evidently biting his lip when listening to a colleague describe Inter as Milan for the umpteenth time. But has he really made an impact on the viewer? Could it be that the vast majority are still half-cut on the sofa wondering what the bloke they’ve never heard off with the funny accent is wittering on about?

It’s easy to become immersed in football when you love the game. Such is the depth of information available to the modern football fan. However, the job of mainstream television is to appeal to a broad audience and, all too often I’m afraid, that means the lowest common denominator. Where’s the mileage in delighting one person by providing a Zonal Marking chalkboard analysis, when ten others would much prefer to hear ‘media personality’ Robbie Savage indulging in a bit of – here comes that word – ‘banter’ with the touchline reporter.

The difficulty is that the more high profile the football match is, the more broad the appeal, and the more people will be watching. And that means you get World Cup games that are watched by my mum and my sister. When those games come around, they are the majority – not you and I. Consequently, they’re not going to want half-time of the England vs Germany match to be dedicated to a tactical breakdown of why Mesut Oezil is being allowed to roam between the lines … they want to know why Lamps’ goal was disallowed and what the hell we are going to do about it.

The great thing about football coverage these days is that however much information on the weekend’s games you want to consume, you can do it. There are tactical blogs, financial blogs, humorous blogs and sites focusing on everything in between – many are high quality and they’re all freely available at the click of a button. Twenty-five years ago, until a foreign player had been featured in World Soccer, the only detail you would know about him would come from the Panini sticker album – in other words: club, height, hometown and date of birth.

Maybe you’ll accuse me of under-estimating the general public. But right now, I think we should be thankful for how far we’ve come and enjoy the fact that the game we love is appealing to millions of people at hundreds of different levels in thousands of different ways.

There could well be a revolution one day. Until then, just remember: ‘That Alan Hansen. He talks some sense.’

BackPageFootball: Top 50 Players

BackPageFootball have put together a compilation of the Top 50 players in the World.

They have done so by asking their readers and selected bloggers/writers and then totting up the results. Let’s be honest, it’s got to a fairer way than anything FIFA could come up with.

The results are being released block by block. I provided the ‘pen pic’ for No.13 on the list: Iker Casillas. For that piece, and the rest of the players ranked No.20 – No.11 please click the link below:

BackPageFootball Top 50 Players in the World: No.20 – No.11

Picklive Game of the Week: Arsenal vs Barcelona

You may have noticed the Picklive banner on the site recently. The guys at Picklive have been really supportive of football bloggers – sponsoring awards and events throughout the year. However, their main claim to fame is a great fantasy football game that’s well worth checking out. Here’s the details:
Picklive’s ‘Five Minute Fantasy Football’ game has been revolutionsing the way that football fanatics in the UK can watch live sport, and thanks to a newly established relationship with GhostGoal, it could do the same for you too. The game is a thrilling cross between fantasy football games and in-play betting, and allows punters to compete in real-time for cash prizes during televised matches.
If you are watching tonight’s action this evening then why not sign up before and during the match to get three free games. Contestants then select a team of three players who accumulate points for all of their actions on the pitch; including passes, tackles, interceptions and shots. The three teams  that earn the most points in each five minute spell are guaranteed a cash prize. 
So just as you thought that the tension around Arsenal v Barcelona could not get any more palpable, Picklive – in association with Planet Swans – introduces another realm of excitement and emotion into the already potent mix present in live football. 
Tonight’s live game is possibly the most mouthwatering yet to appear on Picklive’s roster, with Arsenal taking on Pep Guardiola’s imperious Barcelona side. Both sides favouring fast and flowing football, and place a premium on ball retention, which is bound to be a incredibly high scoring game in Picklive terms.
You would be mad not to pick either Xavi or Wilshere in your side, as these are the focal points through which both teams direct their play. In fact the Catalan is just about the greatest player ever to feature on Picklive, amassing record score after record score – and on occassions out-passing the opposition on his own. 
So if you want to add more excitement into the mix during tonight’s game, then click here to sign up. In 10 seconds you could be winning cash from other fans whilst watching the match unfold.
Arsenal v Barcelona: ITV 1 7:45 K/O

Calcio Italia – Mar 2011

Another month, another superb edition of Calcio Italia.

The usual columns by Gabriele Marcotti, James Richardson and Tor-Kristian Karlsen are all there. In addition, there are also features by James Horncastle and Dan Ross.

I have contributed to the magazine – writing a They Retired The Shirt feature on Franco Baresi – which I hope readers will enjoy.

If you would like to buy the magazine it can be purchased from most WHSmith shops or ordered online here.

My First Game

There is an excellent series now running on top blog The Ball Is Round.

It looks at fans’ first ever football matches and ask them to recall the sights and sounds of those, often memorable, occasions.

I contributed a short piece to the series myself. If you’d like to check it out then please click on the link below:

Adam Bate (GhostGoal) – My First Game: Wolverhampto Wanderers vs Lincoln City, 1987

Giggs – Man Utd vs Arsenal – 1999

This goal had to be on the list really didn’t it. Thanks to Liam Blackburn for doing the business. You can follow Liam on Twitter @LiamBlackburn

“Instinct is action taken in pursuance of a purpose, but without conscious perception of what the purpose is”

Instinct can sometimes be a wonderful thing. In the professional era, sportsmen and women spend years finely tuning their skills and meticulously practicing for different scenarios. But sport, like life itself, never quite goes by the script.
The fact you simply cannot account for what happens once you’re out there is one of the things that makes football so captivating. You can’t turn to your playbook halfway through the match like you can in American football. You can’t turn to a specific bowler and set your field up to play a certain way like you can in cricket.
Three of my favourite goals of all time would have to be Marco Van Basten, Zinedine Zidane and Roberto Carlos. Each is a single masterstroke by their creator’s right or left boot. They represent three of the finest examples of technique that I have ever seen. All three in their own way push the boundaries of what I thought physically possible on a football pitch, yet each knew exactly what they were planning to do. They had to because they happened so swiftly. Van Basten and Zidane would have spent hours smashing volleys in at their prospective training grounds and Roberto Carlos no doubt knew he could bend the ball that way before he even set foot on the pitch that night.
This was simply not the case when Ryan Giggs scored against Arsenal in April 1999. When he picked the ball up, he could barely have envisioned what was to come.
The situation is important to consider because what Giggs did was actually rather foolish. At the time, Manchester United were struggling. In extra time of an F.A. semi-final replay, they were down to ten men and weathering a storm from the current double holders.
When the ball broke to Giggs some ten yards inside his own half, the last thing his manager would have wanted him to do was run directly at Arsenal’s vastly experienced back four.
Even accounting for his chosen route, there were at least two occasions where Giggs could have found a colleague and his team would have enjoyed a vital spell of possession. Moreover they’d have welcomed the respite from Arsenal’s attacking onslaught.
But Giggs ran and kept the ball under close control, slaloming his way past defenders before unleashing a rasping finish past Seaman. It wasn’t a run propelled by searing pace or defined by monumental trickery, it was a run based purely on instinct.
It was almost childlike naivety to think that he could sway past three defenders before slamming home. For those four seconds, Giggs was the annoying kid who thinks he can bypass his teammates and take everyone on before scoring. But this was never Giggs’ intention. His intuition simply told him to keep running and the scenario played out before him. There was little thought, little preparation, dare I say little in the way of technique, certainly not to the same degree of the three strikes I mentioned before.
Even the eventual finish was not taken from the coaching manual. Giggs was facing an acute angle with the imposing Seaman stood tall in front of him and Paul Scholes coming in at the far post. The situation screamed for Giggs to adopt one of the more familiar mantras of ‘hard and low across the keeper’ where an expectant Scholes would no doubt have been on hand to apply the finish should Seaman have parried it. But instead Giggs absolutely smashed the ball into the roof of the net. Instinct had got him that far and it provided the cherry on top too. Well, almost.
As Giggs wheeled away in celebration, there was no pre-rehearsed Welsh jig or t-shirt message for the masses to devour. Instead he whipped off his top and proceeded to allow the world to see a quite impressive ‘chest rug’. That, like the goal itself, was a spur of the moment thing. But it was just as iconic as the match winner.
The goal also had massive implications in this game and beyond. The match was stacked with drama from David Beckham’s magnificent opener, to Peter Schmeichel’s injury-time penalty save and then Roy Keane’s sending off. Winning such an epic battle was important in terms of the United-Arsenal rivalry and in terms of the end of season run in.
Giggs’ goal and the resulting win spoke volumes of United’s character that year. An unrelenting commitment to finding ways to win followed them throughout the 1998 and 1999 campaign. That was never more evident than the 1999 Champions League final where United sealed a quite remarkable treble.
But this goal ranks as one of the more pivotal moments of that season. Not only did it put United in their first final but it also installed a sense of belief. Had sensibility overcome instinctiveness who knows what would have happened in the final two months of that glorious year.

WSC #289 – Loan Rangers

The March 2011 edition of When Saturday Comes is out now and I’ve contributed a piece to the mag:

Loan Rangers – Why selected teams benefiting from other clubs’ players tilts the playing field.

Snappy title I know. But hopefully people will find it interesting and, as ever, there’s plenty of quality writing in the magazine. This month there is stuff from Ian Plenderleith, Matthew Barker and Andy Brassell among others, so get down your newsagents or order it / check out a preview online here.

Bjartmarz – Víðir vs Víkingur – 1991

Björn Björnsson has been a Víkingur fan since birth, and a Manchester United fan since age of six. You can follow him on Twitter @bjornfr. This is Björn’s account of his favourite goal:

When you live in a country of 300,000 people, football is sometimes a bit different. The quality of football on show is not that high, unless you’re catching the first seasons of a youngster destined for overseas success. You support your local team, which in Reykjavik means your neighbourhood team. And when you want to play football, you just go train with your local team’s youth setup like your friends do.
I was slightly different, having lived in a village far from the next proper team, and dad happened to be an ex-player for Víkingur of Reykjavík. So when moving to Reykjavík aged 8, I was already a Víkingur fan, and this meant a bus trip across town to go to training (I was crap, but it was just for fun anyway). Championship wins in 1981 and 1982, the first since 1924, helped to keep the love alive through the fickle years of childhood.
But success can be fleeting especially in a ten club amateur top division, and within three years the team had broken up and been relegated. Crap football seemed there to stay especially after not bouncing straight back. At the second try, though, we succeeded, thanks in large part to five goals in the last two matches from a 25 year old named Björn Bjartmarz who’d never quite made it as a regular but kept on playing for the local team he’d been with since a kid.
The next three years were a struggle against relegation, the odd good player came in, mostly castoffs from other teams. Then 1991 happened.
A proven goalscorer had been brought in, a couple of Yugoslavs and a wanderer or two and suddenly there seemed to be some promise. The first half of the season didn’t go too well, but at least we weren’t quite relegation fodder. But suddenly it all seemed to click and a six game winning run brought us to the top on goal difference. A draw for both top teams in the second to last round and suddenly all Víkingur needed to do was to win at already relegated Víðir from the town of Garður, a 50 minute drive from the capital.
The nice folks at the National Road Service decided to do some roadworks that day, so as a result, I and hundreds of others were on the road when Víðir scored after ten minutes and our challengers were also taking the lead in their match. We got to the game and it all seemed a bit bleak.
But early in the second half Víkingur forced a corner and from it a certain Björn Bjartmarz, now 29, fresh off the subs bench which had been mostly his lot ever since the promotion season, headed towards goal and a Víkingur defender steered it in. 1-1.
And then within a minute of the restart Víkingur pressed on and my favourite goal was scored.

Tall, gangling, and only a bit talented, even by our standards, Björn Bjartmarz had done a Maradona, an Owairan… at least it looks like that to me, to this day. Trying to describe it in further detail would only take the magic away.
Technically if we won by three goals less than our challengers we’d lose the title, and 2 minutes after his first Björn scored his second of the game, and of the season and made sure that even if the wait from the final whistle in our game to the final whistle for our challengers was exciting, it wasn’t too horrible.
And in the end we were champions, and the local lad who’d never been the best of players had cemented his place as one of the greatest stars in the history of Víkingur football club.
The uncut video, from the lead up to the goal-producing corner to the end of the celebrations of the third goal takes up exactly five minutes, and can be found here

As for the years since then… well, winning the title proved too costly, relegation happened, and most of the years since then have been spent in the second tier. But we’ll always have Garður and possibly one of the best goals ever to clinch a Championship, anywhere.

Mackie – Aberdeen vs Celtic – 2001

Calum writes at his blog Good Feet For A Big Man and tweets @calumcm … This is his favourite goal:

A goal’s a goal, of course, and they all count the same. Except it isn’t, and they don’t. A winner is better than a consolation, a 20-yarder better than a tap-in and a goal in the last minute tops one in the first. Usually. Within those guidelines, beauties and scrubbers are distinguished. There are no hard and fast and rules. Goals, by their very nature, divide opinion. By and large, a goal will upset as many people as it will excite. Except in Scotland. Scottish football has its own rules and principles. Well, two rules and two principles: goal against Celtic, good; goal against Rangers, good.

When David Cameron was trying to hammer home the difference between ‘big government’ and ‘big society’ he should have used the analogy of the SPL. Big government, you see, is like The Old Firm. It’s a bunch of big city boys power wielding, intent on spoiling things for the rest of us. Big society? Well that’s the rest of us. That’s Aberdeen and Dundee United, Kilmarnock and Motherwell. Old and tired clubs being slowly suffocated by the bloated bullies at the top. If he’d said that Scotland would have understood. Then voted Labour anyway.

If anything, Scottish football was even more top heavy as 2001 drew to a close than it is now. At season’s end The Old Firm had a combined goal difference of +131 goals and second placed Rangers finished 27 points above their nearest challengers (Livingston). When the eventual champions traveled North to snowy Pittodrie, Aberdeen on the Saturday before Christmas, they did so with Henrik Larsson, John Hartson and Chris Sutton in their ranks. There isn’t quality like that in Old Firm strike-forces these days.

Their hosts, however, were on a rare post-80s high. Having won our previous eight home matches, the Dandy Dons were one match short of equaling a Fergie-set record of nine consecutive, home league victories.

I was 16 and seated in the incongruously tall Richard Donald Stand (or Dick’s Erection). In the first half, in front of us, Eugene Dadi performed the Marseille turn, Derek Young had an effort blocked on the line and Rab Douglas (in a precursor for what was to come) let a Robbie Winters shot trundle through his legs to clip the post behind him. Celtic were struggling.

At half-time it was 0-0 and cautious optimism reigned. No one got carried away, at least not after Neil Lennon had sprinted into the cover of the tunnel to avoid the barrage of snowballs. Celtic were famous for the lateness of their winners and Tam Cowan was making a career out of jokes about Celtic matches ending too late to be included in the evening papers.

Even when Hartson handled in the box and Winters dispatched the penalty to send us in front we were worried. Our keeper made a great save, Phil McGuire headed off the line. We were very very nervous. Captain Derek Whyte’s late red card made things worse.

Then, with watches being checked all round 19 year-old Darren Mackie hared alone after his typically heavy touch into the Celtic half. The Belgian international Joos Valgaeren showed his experience in getting his body between the spry striker and the ball and carefully rolled it back to Scotland’s number one. Probably, a more experienced player than Mackie would have backed off then, and rejoined his teammates in defence. He didn’t. Instead, he absolutely exploded from behind Valgaeren taking the big Celtic goalie by surprise and possibly causing his slightly weighty first touch. Bravely, Mackie lunged at the ball, won it and leapt to his feet, somehow closer to the ball than Douglas. It rolled slowly goalwards and probably would have crossed the line without the final dash of youthful exuberance Mackie applied in lashing it into the net from millimetres out before sprinting off again in delighted celebration.

2-0. The Dick Donald Stand throbbed with excitement.

A win-clinching goal from a few millimetres, in the final minutes, with no assist, for a team with 10-men, courtesy of a goalkeeping howler, to secure a record-equaling run combines the good and the bad of goal evaluation criteria. The opposition tip the balance. Celtic lost one league game that season, and Darren Mackie’s precocious lash sealed it. On that day my young eyes saw that things could be different. That youth could triumph, that the little guys could fight back and stick it up the man. Of course, the status quo returned. We lost our next home match. Celtic won the league. Big society turned out to be aggressive conservative bollocks. But goals are about moments, and in Darren Mackie’s moment things were different.