Sunday 26 October 2014

London Sports Writing Festival: Football journalism, with a brain

Football is a simple game. In fact, it's one of the few games where everywhere you go in the world, it's played with the same few rules and garners almost the same level of popularity. But that doesn't mean it can't be complex, and analysed if that's what you want. 

Last night's The Blizzard panel discussion at the excellent London Sports Writing Festival, took place at the home of cricket, Lords. Chaired by the Football Ramble's always funny everyman host Marcus Speller, it featured France Football magazine's Philippe Auclair, freelancer Miguel Delaney and Blizzard founder Jonathan Wilson. The Blizzard is a magazine/book which features long-form writing on football history and the modern game. Its deliciously printed pages are a hive of long-forgotten detail and emotional responses to football.

The esteemed panel essentially spent an hour answering a variety of rather disparate questions from Speller and the audience whilst consuming red wine. Subjects ranged from their favourite Roy Keane anecdote (Auclair's recollection of the fierce Irishman backstage at the festival switching over from El Clasico raised a laugh) to pontifications on the imminent future of the Africa Cup of Nations amid the ebola crisis. Wilson, who writes for the Guardian, appears on its ever-glorious Football Weekly podcast, and has authored some of the best football books in recent years, was in fine form.

Watching him discuss the evolution of tactics - the subject with which he is most associated - and how different managers adapt and introduce their ethos is impressive. Wilson moulds his off-the-cuff knowledge of a mind-blowing array of facts with a genuine love of the beautiful game. Listening to him, alongside the likes of Barney Ronay, Amy Lawrence, Barry Glendenning and host of others on the podcast, there's a benchmark for football journalism which is, and should be, widely recognised. Special mention should also be given to the BBC's Tim Vickery, one of Auntie Beeb's biggest talents whose status as the UK's foremost South American sports journalist was laid bare during the World Cup this summer. 

Clearly many see beard-scratching pontification over tactics or unknown lower league European players as the domain of the football hipster - those keen to look cool by knowing about different things than the average bloke down the pub. 

But for me, football is as much about the stories behind the game - the people, the politics, the decisions and the history - as what happens on the pitch. So much football journalism is a simply '[INSERT NAME] player said [INSERT BANAL COMMENT] about [INSERT FORTHCOMING WEEKEND FIXTURE]'. 

As a journalist, I understand how pages are filled in this way but I think it's condescending to increasingly well informed football fans to assume they just want to read platitudinous comments, match previews and reports. As with the banal, ex-player pundits who stalk our TV football coverage, there's no reason to assume we can't handle intelligent, genuine analysis. This week I blindly enjoyed a lively 0-0 away draw for Sheffield Wednesday at Brentford which gave me the opportunity to sing, shout and jump up and down, the following night I marvelled at Real Madrid's tactics in putting Liverpool to the sword. 

Wilson, Auclair, Delaney and Speller created an hour-long reminder that journalism is about informing people and football, at its heart, is about taking what you want from a simple game. 

Sunday 5 October 2014

Sheffield Wednesday's Yorkshire derby draw at Leeds highlights the Blades' absence

There was plenty of blood and thunder to be found on the pitch in this Yorkshire derby, it's just a shame it wasn't happening in south, rather than west Yorkshire. 

For all the excitement of a fiery game which could have gone either way, a feeling that this is a secondary sideshow to the main event of yesteryear couldn't help but prevail. 



Perhaps it's because my dad is a Sheffield United fan so it adds extra spice in our house.

A average-sized faithful of 1,300 Owls fans travelled to Elland Road - with many put off by the early kick-off, the fact it was on telly and, crucially, the obscene 45 quid ticket demands - and were in fine voice. Plenty of back-and-forth between the fans, shots of angry managers and crunching challenges definitely gave this the feeling of a derby, particularly in the second half, but the empty seats and consigned nature of the players at the end belied a game which just wasn't against the Blades.

But the game itself was an entertaining affair. A bright start from the Owls was backed up by their usual defensive resolution - playing the offside trap beautifully as the partnership of Loovens and Lees continues to mature, albeit with some frailties. Keiren Westwood behind them - later named Man of the Match - was again in fine form showing great agility and was modest in saying the final result was a “fair reflection” of a game which would have been lost without him. 

Leeds' goal, stroked home from a high ball by defender Giuseppe Bellusci, was a bitter pill, not least watching controversial president Massimo Chillino dance on the sidelines but came after a host of chances early in the second half.

Up front, the second half partnership between Stevie May and Gary Madine for Wednesday looked lively and both could have scored via a cluster of chances but for a lack of composure. The Owls' goal, rifled in by Chris Maguire from the edge of the box after good work by Jacques Maghoma, was a delight. With the ball on the bounce, the first time finish was a fantastic moment, and one which fans will hope he can repeat consistently if the blue and white wizards are to stay in the top 10. Fans will also hope the result heralds a repeat of last season, when a 1-1 draw at Elland Road was followed by a 6-0 thrashing of Leeds at Hillsborough.

Wednesday's squad remains unfeasibly shallow to compete for the play-offs at this point but, after a nightmare start to last season, we're basking in the glow of a team with a rare tight defence and good endeavour.

On this evidence, only enduring the sight of the Blades making a successful promotion push will bring our arch enemies - and a true derby game - back to S6 soon. 

Thursday 25 September 2014

Sheffield Wednesday's thrashing by Manchester City lays bare the task in hand

The last time the Owls took on Manchester City at home, I had a splitting earache. This time round, it was more of a headache as I sat in the pub as the goals racked up. 

The pain of watching underwhelming former England forward Darius Vassell score the winner in that particular 2007 FA Cup tie was only outmuscled by the vice-twisting pain in my right ear watching the match in my uncle Len's living room. 

A quick glance back at the highlights does little to make the memories happier. A relatively strong Owls side who have not been surpassed in terms of league position by following squads in the intervening seven years attempted valiantly to stave off Stuart Pearce's Manchester City with a team consisting of Joey Barton and Steven Ireland alongside the hapless Vassell. 

But if the years between the two ties have been defined by success (City's clutch of trophies, star players and two league titles) and lack of it (the Owls endured another stint in League One since), then tonight's match can be seen as immaterial.

The Blue and White Wizards entered the game in fine form, with defensive fortitude ironically proving the bedrock of a side who have calmly and rightfully taken up sixth position in the league unexpectedly this season. 

Whilst few of the #WAWAW ('We're all Wednesday aren't we?') chanting faithful harbour serious confidence a promotion push is possible despite the Owls' lofty position, there's still plenty of the emotion carried in the name of Everton loanee Hallam Hope. Even a failed takeover by Azerbaijani businessman Hafiz Mammadov, which collapsed after a long summer earlier this month, has failed to dampen spirits around S6.

But tonight's game proved that dreams of promotion need to be tempered. The realities of the modern game mean that, without investment, the Owls cannot expect to compete with a team that were so long their counterparts in near-achievement. Not least as boss Stuart Gray fielded a weakened team against their big money opponents.

Wednesday proved resolute and confident at times in the first half against the holders. A defensive line up led by lone striker Gary Madine valiantly fought off a Sky Blues team featuring several players who appeared in this summer's World Cup including Edin Dzeko and Frank Lampard. 

And it was Lampard, fresh from bashfully sticking a knife into Chelsea hearts at the weekend, who clipped the Owls' wings, slotting home from James Milner's cross just after half time.

There was, predictably, only one winner after the Romford boy's finish as Man City showed their class. Kamil Zayatte's sending off aided the inevitable and Lampard's rounding off of the victory summed up a night which said a lot about the last 15 years for Wednesday.

The margin of the eventual victory may have punctured the Hillsborough team, who have undoubtedly been looking forward to this glamour tie, but it's irrelevance must be noted. Wednesday's league position both now and at the end if the season will dictate whether a buyer - and thus a future - can be carved out for the much-patronised 'sleeping giant'. 

A flashy win against globally recognised opponents fielding a strong side would have been nice, but not essential in attracting the kind of overseas investors we need. Chairman Milan Mandarić this week claimed he turned down a multi-million offer for an Owls player in the transfer window, but he needs to stick or twist in deciding whether to invest in the Owls or ship out quickly. Could this be the decisive season in Wednesday's rudderless recent past? 

Sunday 7 September 2014

Sheffield Wednesday: Where next from here after failed takeover?

As Sheffield Wednesday's proposed takeover by Azerbaijan-born magnate Hafiz Mammadov crumbled to nothing this week, questions again resurfaced over the club's future. 

Fateful photo: Hafiz Mammadov and Milan Mandaric
The fate of the £40m takeover, first announced as a done deal with just Football League ratification needed by current owner Milan Mandaric in June, had felt inevitable since the first reports Mammadov was in financial difficulties began to surface. 

Despite denying the reports, the silence from Mammadov over the deal, and Mandaric's increasingly desperate comments meant fans' hopes of a deal had pretty much gone when first the start of the season, and then the transfer window, came and went. 

For Mandaric it has proved an embarrassing disaster. Updating fans of his every dinner meeting and allowing the Owls to carry the dubious Land of Fire logo on their shirts before the deal was done have further led to the continuing feeling of farse that surrounds the club. He has admitted his desire to please the fans clouded his judgement, hardly the actions of a canny businessman.

Mandaric's open desire to sell the club he purchased in 2010 and aided the promotion in 2011-12 has proved a saga typical of modern football. A number of figures have appeared in the executive box, chequebook remaining firmly in the pocket during his tenure and the Mammadov 'deal' was met positively by the fans. With the squad, and ground, in need of investment a takeover by an owner with deeper pockets has felt like an inevitability. 

On a personal note, while I understand the realities of competing in the modern game means a big bucks owner is almost a pre-requisite for any club with hopes of reaching the glitzy Premier League, I was uneasy when the deal was announced. Here is a club with rich heritage, strong links to a football mad city and with a large and loyal fan base. The idea of selling out to an oil and energy tycoon with links an Azeri regime with a poor human rights record, albeit one of owns RC Lens and FC Baku already, does not sit well with the ethos of the club.

It has pained me to see how Nottingham Forest, a club I worked for for five years, have seemingly turned around their ailing financial situation so easily. Forest-mad Kuwaiti owner Fawaz Al Hasawi took over in 2012 and, despite being unafraid to flex his muscle in hiring and firing managers, has invested in a squad that are looking strong and sitting pretty at the top of the table. Is there no equivalent for Wednesday, a club of similar stature?

Of course, the pain over the protracted takeover has been overshadowed by an unexpectedly bright start to the season. On a shoestring budget, manager Stuart Gray has assembled a squad lacking depth but with a defensive solidity rarely associated with Wednesday. If Mandaric is to find a new buyer for the club, and he insists (rather unconvincingly) the offers remain out there, then it's vital the team are performing and at least hinting that promotion is a possibility in the near future. 

If a new owner is not found then it appears unlikely Mandaric himself is likely to step up his spending on the squad. I was proved wrong in my unease when the controversial Serbian took over, with his reputation at Leicester and Portsmouth distinctly tarnished, but he has backed the club so far. 

But in the here and now, significant investment is needed to keep a club whose fans deserve good times to return to Hillsborough but have far from earned the right to compete at the highest level on the pitch during their 15 years out of the top flight. Without investment, middle table mediocrity appears most likely, and relegation remains a realistic fear.

Troubled times as ever in S6 then, but a resolution of sorts could prompt some imminent decisive action.

Thursday 21 August 2014

Opinion: Football ticket price march - a refreshing reality cheque?


Fans of dozens of clubs from the Premier League and Football League marched on their shared headquarters in London last week to vent their fury at rising ticket prices.
I’ve discussed on this blog before the extent to which clubs care about the huge stress their supporters put on their own finances – ie not a huge amount. However, I was heartened – in covering the event for the Evening Standard and London Live – by the sense of reality most fans seemed to have.
Chatting to those on the march, most understand that the clubs are businesses which won’t simply slash prices because they’re asked to and that fans are a captive market whose single-minded loyalty can be exploited.
It is worth noting the sense of pride I felt in seeing a bunch of bedraggled but noisy football fans walking down Oxford Street singing with the Primark-addicted masses and tourists open mouthed watching on.
When the march reached the FA headquarters, however, without any obvious, pre-planned chants the crowd perhaps didn’t make Richard Scudamore and co really hear their fury. Simply standing there briefly and heading for a much-needed pint was probably not the best tactic regardless of the rain. This report gives an interesting insight into the meeting.

Whilst I don’t agree with some of the Football Supporters’ Federation’s goals – it needs to recognise football does move on and change with the modern world – the pricing of football tickets in the UK is obscene and the federation's campaign an excellent one. To pay more than to go to a gig or the theatre, often to see your team lose in the rain following an awkward kick-off time, feels greedy and that’s before time, travel and frequency of matches are brought into the debate.
A recognition that this is a long battle was a feeling in abundance, which was refreshing, and in the short-term if prices could simply plateau that would feel like a real victory. Ultimately, no one wants to watch games played in empty stadiums and more needs to be done to prevent this from happening.

Sunday 10 August 2014

Opinion: Sheffield Wednesday's season opener brings wizardry and worries

An opening day away day in sunny Brighton is about as idyllic an Owls match as you can attend, and a 1-0 win amongst a healthy 2,600 roaring Wednesdayites added to the feeling this was the perfect match day. As an 'exiled' fan living in London, a southern season opener was an extra treat. 

Classic new season optimism has been tempered by the prolonged delays to Hafiz Mammadov's takeover of the club, handled in the inimitable Wednesday style (announce the done deal first, flail in public later. This is, after all, a club which sacked its manager on Christmas Eve 1973). 

But the matter was shoved aside for the first Saturday of the season and signs were encouraging. The defence, consisting of Loovens and Sam Hutchinson, looked solid. It was an unusual feeling to see Wednesday defenders calmly intercepting through balls and nipping in with tidy tackles. 

Hutchinson, making a remarkable return after retiring four years ago and signing following a loan spell last season, simply looks a class act. He's clearly a player who reads the game well, can pass and play comfortably in defence or midfield, which he did in the second half. Like Majid Bougherra before him, I'd take a short spell with a classy defender like Hutchinson than a more dedicated long-term centre back lumbering towards the end of their career. The Owls are increasingly a club typified by their reliance on players at the club for short stints so we should embrace this positive.

The game itself was unspectacular. We were under the cosh in the opening stages but Brighton, spearheaded by former blue and white wizard Chris O'Grady, couldn't rustle up much on target. Likewise, Giles Coke's wonder strike came as a bolt from the blue, not least for my wife - attending her first Owls match - who was distracted by a kid coming past to go to the loo and missed it all together.

Seeing Wednesday through Anna's eyes was an interesting experience. She was puzzled by their choices in the final third; confused - as was I - as to how Nuhiu could be a professional athlete given his lack of pace and exasperated by the Owls' lack of ambition to seek a second goal even after Brighton had a man sent off.  And it definitely brought home that almost all of our songs are about United. Whether I'll convince her to come often I'm not too sure but the ever reliable funny, fun and vocal nature of our support seemed to make the day. That, and a trip to the shops in nearby Lewes. 

Ultimately it was a lucky win for Wednesday who were outplayed at times and lacked endeavour going forward. Stevie May's arrival from St Johnstone could be vital to an attack which lacked bite with the immobile Nuhiu short of swift players to bring into play while Gary Madine remains unproven at this level. But if the Owls can build on a defence which looked, at least in this match, more solid than in recent years, perhaps this could be a season to remember.

As for the takeover, I'm conflicted. Clearly the squad needs investment, and Hillsborough does too (the Amex's shiny facilities highlight this), but ceding control of our club to dubious overseas ownership with no link to the club does not sit well with me. I'm aware the realities of the modern game mean this second option is likely to happen sooner or later and the idea of this squad achieving promotion appears very fanciful. 

A promising start then, but plenty of questions over the future remain.

Monday 16 June 2014

Could Bosnia's swashbuckling march to the World Cup win them new fans?

Bosnia-Herzegovenia qualification for their first World Cup on the same night as England secured their place in Brazil, sent the football hipster crowd abuzz with chatter of the eastern European nation's debut, rather than the Three Lions. Alex Lawson reports on why Bosnia's maiden tournament has caught the imagination. 
Bosnia lost their opening match 2-1 to Argentina
When star man Edin Dežko hit out at Bosnia-Herzegovenia manager Safet Sušic following a 2-0 friendly defeat to Egypt in March, it was typical of the fiery nature of their team spirit. Dežko, fresh from a title-wining season with Manchester City in which he played an unexpected starring role, has led from the front in a national team typified by military precision and oppressive attacking flair with 10 goals in qualifying.
Sušic has drilled his squad hard and his retort to Džeko's complaints that he was not taken off when he asked due to injury was "he will play when I tell him to play. I decide. I don't care if I have the players' support". Bobby Robson, he's not. 
Sušic, a legend as a player with Paris St Germain, has perhaps been hardened by previous attempts to reach major tournaments. Bosnia were denied a place in the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012 by Portugal and will be keen to avoid Ronaldo and his Iberian troop who overcame Zlatan Ibrahimović's Sweden to reach the tournament. 
Bosnia have quickly become the discerning football fan's choice. Sušic has created a slick brand of football with an adventurous 4-1-3-2 formation which has snared them 30 goals in 10 qualifying matches, albeit with a leaky defence. In a tenacious qualifying campaign, they outmuscled the sturdy Greeks and Lithuania to reach the finals as group winners.
Neutrals will also be enticed by what making their World Cup debut means for the tiny country with a population of 3.8 million. The war torn 22-year-old nation has had little to shout about since it was borne out of the former Yugoslavia and local reports suggest the country is abuzz with anticipation ahead of the tournament. Bosnia and Stock City keeper Asmir Begovic has spoken of the immense joy of giving something positive to a country which has suffered "years of trouble, hurt and pain." Džeko himself overcame a childhood in the country's capital of Sarajevo typified by attacks on the city.
So what of the team prospects? In what appears a relatively average group containing Argentina, Nigeria and Iran, Bosnia have been widely tipped to take the second qualifying spot behind many pundit's tournament favourites, Argentina. Their brand of attacking football will doubtless put the team on the offensive and forward-thinking midfielders Edin Visca, Senijad Ibricic and Izet Harjovic could help power the team through to the knock-out stages.
However, Bosnia's sting in the tail could well be their lack of depth. Eyebrows have been raised at the fact just two strikers - in the form of the talismanic Dežko and VfB Stuttgart's Vedad Ibišević - have taken the trip to Brazil. Bosnia could receive a harsh lesson in tournament football if suspension or injury test the number of players at Sušic's disposal. They acquitted themselves well in their opening game defeat against Argentina and will still be hopeful of making it through.  
While Bosnia's team and population will be thrilled by their maiden World Cup voyage, it's clear that Sušic and his men mean business, are not there to make up the numbers and could well charm a few more ardent fans of the beautiful game. 

Article originally appeared on Footymatters.com

Saturday 24 May 2014

How Hull City have propelled matchday analysis to the next level

Few would have anticipated Hull’s eye-catching return to the Premier League as the East Yorkshire club comfortably avoided relegation and reached the FA Cup final. Even fewer, perhaps, would have anticipated that a large part of the team’s success can be attributed to pinpoint performance analysis. 
The Tigers – who have faced off-field controversy over their owner’s desire to change the club’s name – finished the season four points clear of the bottom three, and only a dip in form at the end of the campaign prevented a higher-placed finish.
The FA Cup Final may have been one of the reasons behind a return of just one point from the last 15, but away from the cup the highlight was a 3-1 Premier League win over Liverpool at the KC Stadium, their first ever win over the Reds.
The January signings of of Nikica Jelavic and Shane Long have given Hull’s attack a new dimension, while Tom Huddlestone and Curtis Davies have added a steady hand to the side. But while performance analyst Laurence Stewart has played a far quieter role, it has been an equally effective one.
Stewart joined the club in the summer of 2009 when Phil Brown was manager, and has served under Iain Dowie, Nigel Pearson, Nick Barmby and now Steve Bruce in aiding Hull’s rise. He believes the science of performance analysis is becoming ever more common.
“I think that football analysis is constantly evolving and moving forward as it is one of the boom industries within professional sport,” he told Footymatters.com.
According to Stewart, Premier League and Championship teams have stolen a march on many of their European rivals in using sophisticated analysis to inform their play, contrary to the common perception that the British game is tactically naive compared with foreign incarnations.
Stewart has witnessed an evolution in techniques for analysing what’s happening on the pitch with software such as Sportscode, as well as Prozone and Scout 7, used to catalogue the minute detail of a game and present them in a simple form, easily understood by most players.
On matchday, he sits in the stands with a radio link to the bench, recording and annotating a live feed of the game. At half-time he’s present in the changing room to offer a video review to the players, and feedback key stats to staff.
“The key is working out what information is key to your staff and what information can be provided to help decision-making live during the game,” he added.
Away from the KC Stadium, Stewart works rigorously with the players in training, breaking them into playing units of defenders, midfielders, and attackers to discuss the previous game in the early part of the week, and then study their next opponents in detail in the run up to the weekend’s match.
“As a newly promoted team I think one of the things we have done very well is continued with the working practices that we employed last season in the Championship”
Stewart’s role in studying the opposition has also been vital this season as so many clubs have used very specific tactics. Whether it’s Liverpool’s high tempo burst out of the blocks – his work helped Hull inflict one of only six defeats on Brendan Rodgers’ side this season – or Southampton’s pressing game. Frequent use of the same tactics have been a feature of the season.
“There are some trends within how certain teams play, but these can differ from game to game depending on formations, injuries and squad rotation,” said Stewart. “Many people would have outlined Liverpool as a possession team early in the season and more recently they have been a very strong counter-attacking side, so although teams can have a certain style they may change from game to game.”
He believes that a continuity in Hull City’s approach to match preparation has helped maintain the momentum built up during promotion last season.
“As a newly promoted team I think one of the things we have done very well is continued with the working practices that we employed last season in the Championship,” said Stewart, adding that it is important to fully understand a manager’s playing style and the players’ capabilities.
But while statistical analysis is a closely guarded process on the touchline, it has come to prominence in the media. Stats specialists like OptaSport have become Twitter hits while former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville’s in-depth Sky Sports analysis has found widespread praise.
Stewart said: “I feel that the use of stats and analysis by pundits is something that has generally been beneficial to the industry and magnified its uses. It has brought it into the homes of many more people.
“Some of the information that is presented may not always be the information that a club would be reviewing but I can see that it is interesting to the public. Many statistics regarding possession and passing are often used within the media to judge a player’s performance, but they simply do not provide enough context to adequately assess a player’s contribution.”

There’s little doubt stats and close analysis are now commonplace from football boss to blogger. Their impact has never been greater in the dressing room, and with the World Cup in Brazil fast approaching, intelligence on every major player around the globe will doubtless become vital.

Sunday 20 April 2014

Opinion: Do the Premier League or clubs really care about away fans?

If a shop had one customer who purchased goods twice a month and another who bought a maximum of twice a year, it's pretty clear where the majority of their efforts lie. A similar approach appears to be being taken by football clubs with visiting fans.

An event held by the Football Supporters Federation (FSF) in London this week devoted a significant proportion of time to discussing attending away matches. The football fans body has spent much of this season campaigning for it's Twenty's Plenty initiative - it demands away fans should not pay more than £20 for an adult ticket or £15 for concessions - and has rolled that into a wider drive called Away Fans Matter. 

The campaign aims to highlight the difficulties facing away fans including sky-high ticket prices, eye-watering train prices, inconvenient kick-off times moved at short notice for television and facilities at away grounds. The FSF note that the raft of problems, as well as the economy over the last six years, has hit attendances - in the Premier League 9.6% fewer away fans attended last season than the one before and figures were even harsher lower down the football pyramid. 

It's a campaign which strikes a chord with me. As an 'exiled' Sheffield Wednesday fan living in London, I go to as many away matches as home. I love the pack mentality of arriving at an away game and for a bellowing singer like me, it's a buzz often missing at Hillsborough. But it does cost a fair bit with trains, food and a pint or two - and I usually grimace at the facilities or poor spot in the ground we're allocated. For fans visiting Hillsborough it's even worse. Most visiting fans tell me the Leppings Lane end is horribly antiquated and unpleasant, a fact made all the more mortifying by the tragedy on April 15, 1989 - 25 years to the day before the FSF event.

FSF chief executive Kevin Miles did, however, outline some interesting progress in improving the away experience. The Premier League has awarded each club £200,000 to spend on away fans for three seasons and clubs have approached the initiative in different ways. Some have spent it on refurbishing away ends, some discounts on train travel or free buses - which interestingly proved controversial as many small, independent bus firms rely on football business. 

Miles argued discounts on tickets was the only fair use of the funds  "Not everybody wants to go to a game on a bus, get money off a pint or DVDs of their own team playing on the away concourse," he said. "The only thing that every fan does is buy a ticket."

The advent of reciprocal pricing as a result of campaigning appears to represent some progress. Following banners and marches, Newcastle United have discounted ticket prices for visiting West Bromwich Albion and Swansea fans and received the same treatment at The Hawthorns and Liberty Stadium. The FSF's next campaign is an attempt to break down price categorisation whereby fans of top teams such as Chelsea and Manchester City have to pay 'category A' prices wherever they go while lower profile teams enjoy cheaper prices.


"Could another drastic drop in the number of away fans damage the price of the next lucrative TV rights deal?"

But do the Premier League's clubs really have an appetite to improve the experience for away fans? For those visiting from the big clubs, allocations quickly sell out every season so price is unlikely to be a factor in filling the ground. As players wages continue to balloon, a reduction in the price of tickets for fans who visit infrequently is unlikely to be appealing. FA rules stipulate away fans must be charged equivalent prices to home fans but then often take other measures to justify charging more. 

Perhaps a surprising contrast is the Premier League's stance. Miles claims that chief executive Richard Scudamore is concerned about the reduction in numbers of away fans. Away fans obviously punch above their weight in adding atmosphere to proceedings and as such a lack of them could, Miles claims, damage the chances of another huge hike in the next TV broadcasting deal. But is that true? For many clubs, a televised match has meant swathes of empty seats for years. A TV game on a chilly Friday night has often kept home supporters not owning season tickets and away fans at home. Would another 10% drop in attendance really stop a broadcaster shelling out for the rights?

Miles is more concerned by the clubs' approach. "The clubs are less keen to see that big picture," he said. "Some of the clubs only see the away fans as people who come once a year, don't spend in the club shop and cost more to police." As TV money has become far greater than ticket sales in the Premier League, so fans actually being in the ground has slipped down the agenda. 

Clearly football clubs are businesses and many will prioritise their biggest customer, TV, over fans. But an acknowledgement is needed that away fans are not simply a bunch of drunk idiots arriving in a city to intimidate the public, buy a few pies and leave but the essence of why we attend matches rather than become armchair fans is vital. 

The FSF's goals are largely admirable and a refreshingly realistic approach is being taken to much of the issue. However, if the £20 ticket target is achievable, the impact on attendances at lower league clubs where ticket revenue is far more important and prices not much cheaper, needs to be carefully studied.

Yes, away fans matter and their voice needs to be heard.

Article originally appeared on Footymatters.com

Sunday 9 February 2014

Opinion: Will the Brazil 2014 World Cup be a Sochi or a South Africa?

The derisory comments made about the infrastructure in Sochi at the Winter Olympic Games have been round the world twice over but will have served as a deafening alarm bell for officials in Rio de Janeiro. 


 As one of the last high profile global sporting events before this summer's football World Cup, FIFA and Brazilian authorities will be watching the fan and media reaction to Sochi's shortcomings closely. Many of the comments, largely coming via Twitter from journalists, complaining about the accommodation and organisation in Sochi have been either deliberately humorous pictures of minor hotel faults or attempts to add insults to injury. 

It's clearly become rapidly cool to undermine the Olympic organisers - not least as Russia's authoritarian image means looking disorganised in public will hurt more - and the hashtag #Sochiproblems hosts an avalanche of quips.

But underneath the jokes, a serious warning lies. In Sochi, the stadia and slopes are in fine fettle but if everything else falls apart then the media and fans quickly make their voice heard.

FIFA's deliberate change in strategy over the last decade to use the World Cup as an opportunity to allow countries to develop their infrastructure at huge costs has proved a controversial one. The motives of FIFA - who notably takes large revenues from the World Cup's host nation - should always be questioned given its dubious record but the idea it may help the development of infrastructure and create jobs is admirable. 

As when South Africa was preparing for the last World Cup in 2010, much of the build up to this summer's tournament and 2016's Olympics has been dominated by questions over whether Brazil will be able to handle fans descending en masse, the likely political demonstrations and fan safety. While safety concerns - aside from a few stray live wires in showers - have not been foremost in the build up to Sochi, political debates over corruption and homosexuality in Russia have been. Last year's Confederations Cup was overshadowed by clashes between protestors over Brazilian state spending and police and it appears likely this will happen again.

Brazilian authorities can ill afford for the World Cup to go wrong with the Olympics coming so rapidly down the track afterwards. They will take heart from the fact South Africa coped admirably with the fans and crime stats were low. The tournament ran smoothly and the Vuvuzela, perhaps unfortunately, became a global hit.

However, it should be noted South Africa's stadiums predictably sit like so many before it (Athens anyone?) as rarely used white elephants. Even sports-mad and built up London has struggled to find an ideal solution for its Olympic stadia so Brazil will need to make sure plans are in place for new build stadiums. 

With fears over the safety of the builders at the Brazilian stadiums already hitting headlines, the pressure on Brazil to get it right is ratcheting up. The whole world wants a spectacular and colourful World Cup in arguably football's spiritual home. Let's hope #BrazilProblems remains confined to jokes noting the national team's embarrassment of riches in midfield.