Glasgow kiss

For those not keeping up at the back, a quick recap.

Rangers – that is, Glasgow Rangers – hit a financial speed bump and went hurtling into a pile of consequences made from sponge fingers and quicksand. Whilst the team as it then was slowly drowned/had the HRMC kick them in the face, a ‘new’ Rangers was set up in a smooth/not very smooth TUPE transfer farrago.

The teams of the Scottish Premier League (SPL) voted almost unanimously to deny ‘new’ Rangers a place amongst them, leaving the Scottish Football Association (SFA, no jokes please) to soothsaye grave threats against the future of the game north of the border. Deny the new regen Rangers a place at or near the top table, the SFA warned, and it would cost the industry Tenty Hypergazillion Pounds, not to mention derail the SNP’s independence bid and force the womenfolk of the smaller islands into prostitution.

 In the face of wailing and gnashing of teeth in the Daily Record – Scotland’s answer to a question nobody asked – the SFA went round the other clubs in the League system to definitely not blackmail them into voting in favour of putting “newco” into the First Division rather than the basement Third. Rather than “won’t somebody think of the children”, the SFA has been screaming “won’t somebody think of ESPN funding and televised SKY games every Sunday?!”.  As a tactic, it’s close to the landlord of a backstreet dive persuading the regulars to allow a bankrupt old soak back to the bar even with his colossal bottom pinching problem.

In the ‘pro’ corner, the SFA and friends in the press (and, oddly, on TalkSport) point to the Scottish game as being irrevocably damaged if “newco” is denied a place in the First Division, suggesting that the lack of guaranteed money from four Old Firm derbies and all the rest of it would be too much for the game to absorb. Over in the ‘anti’ camp are most fans and, it seems, smaller clubs, for whom the notion of allowing Rangers something approaching a free pass is distasteful. Somewhere in the core of all this is the dubious euphemism “sporting integrity”, used a code word for “Rangers bring the money in, you clean shirt idiots”.

Losing a large team in England, say Man Utd or Chelsea or Arsenal, would impact every team and division in ways that even the Rangers situation hasn’t suggested yet. However I can’t see the English FA being so blatant as to effectively dangle a wallet over an open fire if the new regeneration of a ‘big’ team were not allowed an automatic place in the Championship. Over in Scotland the lack of much an impact zone beyond the Old Firm plus Edinburgh’s Hibs and Hearts makes the hole left by Rangers all the wider. It is, to be blunt, a necessary lesson for Scottish football to learn – if ‘newco’ Rangers were allowed into  Division One rather than Three, it would be a signal for other teams to carry on spending (and, for the purposes of libel laws, carry on doing absolutely nothing else out of the ordinary in the context of tax regulations.)

It’s not that fans, or me for that matter, wants to see ‘newco’ Rangers forced into the Scottish equivalent of non-league. For the crime committed, there must be a suitable punishment, and a free pass into Division One for the sake of television money is not suitable. If Scottish football has so few “pulls”, and so little alternative beyond the top of the SPL, that’s their own fault.

The danger is the ‘old firm’ (small letters) getting the arms twisted amongst the smaller clubs to help out the Old Firm (capital letters) get their monopoly back within two seasons rather than three or even four. Much smaller clubs in England have been knocked into the “one dog and his groundhopper” leagues, a threat which should be hanging over ‘newco’ if justice had any strength about her. For the good of Scottish football – which needs an institutional overhaul far beyond mere division constitutions – the SFA need to heed the call from fans and smaller clubs alike and accept Rangers as a Third Division side. Any other alternative would be as far removed from ‘sporting integrity’ as Irn Bru is removed from palatable foodstuffs.

Titanic, deckchairs, football ground

Working for the Football Association must me remarkable fun, and by “remarkable” I mean “barely”, and by “fun”, I mean “an alternative to slamming your dangly bits in a car door.”  It’s not as though football fans are ignorant of the constant stream of brain farts guffing from the collective mind of the FA, we’ve suffered down the years, from the Wembley reconstruction mess to the constantly bewildering way managerial choices are mishandled. Do they get rejects from The Apprentice to make these choices? I don’t want to imagine how that might work out. Sorry, Fabio, it’s just not working out (you being statistically the best manager we’ve had in 40 years, and all), so just dance in your pants, dance in your pants!

What the FA has splooged all over the place this week is somewhat niche in its audience though no less an example of them getting a simple task utterly Andover-over-Timperley. Having looked into how to resolve pressing issues amongst the cluttered number of divisions in non-league football they have announced the equivalent of shoving paperwork into a top drawer for looking at ‘you know, later, like when I’ve less, you know, busy?’.

In short, the FA was tasked with sorting out the perennial problem of cutting back the weeds and cleaning up the rock garden that is the middle bits of the non-league pyramid. As currently constituted, the pyramid resembles a capital “A” written by a drunk, blind monkey, on fire, in space, which makes the latest decision all the more frustrating and self-defeating. Pushing back decisions into the never-never might work for the full-time, professional leagues; it tends not to have much of a positive outcome for semi-professional or amateur sides. Non-league football has been allowed to develop its current wobbly state precisely because decisions on the geographic spread of divisions and the number of teams in each league have been deferred and delayed year-on-year.

In broad terms, each step down provides for each division to become more geographically specific. Blue Square/Conference Premier is a national league, fed by the geographically spread Conference North and South feeder divisions, themselves fed by the Northern/Midlands/Southern feeder divisions, and so on. Due to the unpredictable nature of the football season, with some relegations/promotions not confirmed until April or May, fitting teams into the right place can be an arduous (read, improvised) process. Don’t need to tell fans of Durham or Bishop’s Stortford or King’s Lynn about being plonked into the wrong leagues. Having to travel across the East Coast Main Line for every away trip, Durham have recently requested to be demoted from the Northern League Division One for financial reasons. King’s Lynn were wound up by the Courts. Bishop’s are wound up by not being able to travel south for any away game in their “northern” leagues.

By expanding divisions at Steps 3 and 4, the FA is putting more stress and strain on the financial constraints suffered by teams who can’t add extra away days without feeling the pinch. There’s no argument for expanding the Premier League or Championship, so how can it be justified further down? What compensation will the FA offer for the inevitable damage to non-league grounds after four (or more for ground share clubs) games being played across winter or spring?

From Step 4, the FA should look at streamlining the feeder leagues whilst ensuring the geographic spread is as tight as possible. It’s not the kind of thing which looks to me as brain surgery, and yet the great and good suits always make the easiest task the hardest execution. There can only be one consequence from this week’s decision – more games for clubs which can’t always afford it, more games for fans who can’t always travel, and less confidence amongst teams towards a streamlined, relevant league structure. Deferring decisions on this can’t wait any longer.

England rules the waves

Not since the Hart Family was blown up by the producers of Family Affairs (oh don’t tell me you haven’t got a clue what I mean) has there been a soap opera storyline quite like that blurting from the top floor offices of the Football Association?. This is archetypal “shower scene/was it all a dream” stuff, now that we know that West Brom manager Roy Hodgson has been approached to take the poisoned chalice/Titanic-like helm/leader of the Opposition type role which is the England manager position.

Parts of the sports press have had their hearts and minds set on a particular kind of England and English football for as long as they’ve been copy and pasting press releases into their pieces. The name “Roy Hodgson” tends not to pass across their keyboards surrounded by positive adjectives. In the pursuit for an English manager to take on the English role (“We gotta have a man who can speak to our BOYS AND LIONS!!!111”), there is a tendency to look over the ‘wrong kind’ of Englishman. None of this foreign muck any more, we’ve tried and failed too many times….over…about forty-five years……and we’re not about to start turning around that particular boat now by looking past candidates who have been walking through the streets of central London wearing neon-lit arrows attached to their shoulders with the slogan “Well, it’s obvious, innit” flashing away.

On the way to the big twist ending so liked of the daily drama scribes are two men who would be  the perennial bad boys of Albert Street or Costa del Eldorado.  Hodgson is the nice but dull character with the story arc taking in successive promotions at a small firm of travel agents before an embarrassing event at Heathrow Airport cuts him down to size at the expense of the show’s bad boy rival, namely one Harry Redknapp, and audiences soon fill their boots with the daily exploits of the rough and ready  businessman (NOT a wheeler-dealer).  Having his wicked way with the girls at the factory or contacts at an industrial estate, Redknapp becomes the loveable rogue in the shape of Mike Baldwin, loved and hated for being rough and ready and eager to sniff out a bargain rather than doing things by the book.

The England job has always had the air of farce about it, not least because, as with coverage of soap operas and reality TV, the press have muddled up reality and hype into a bundle of breathless farce. “Hodgson verses Redknapp” is perfect for tabloid sports writers, because it can be boiled down to “English verses Foreign” or even “Honesty (perceived) verses Dishonest (perceived)”.  As with soap opera actors, characters are given nicknames and are subjected to pantomime boos (“TURNIP!” “FABIO THE FLOP!”). There is no reality in the hyper-real sports reporting bubble.

Following the tabloid led execution of Fabio Capello (successful manager around the world until he came up against the Collective England for the English Corps. of tabloid sports writers), the ‘papers have been rallying around the establishment choice. Redknapp has been the industry favourite for years, to the extent that it appeared nobody else would be considered. His Spurs side were riding high enough in the league for his supporters to use that alone as evidence for suitability in the run-up to this year’s European Championships. Yes the FA has midhandled the Capello resignation and subsequent selection process to such a degree that we could be entering the competition without a manger in charge at all, but at least there’s ‘Arry proving his worth every week!

Consequently, and it can only BE consequently, Spurs have plummeted like the proverbial since the New Year, doubtlessly because like all people who have been promised a new job sometime down the line concentration levels do seem to wander. That Hodgson was perceived to have failed at Liverpool made the press all the more eager to big up ‘their man’. All the international club and country experience Hodgson has enjoyed could only have been responsible for not quite ‘getting’ what a club side like Liverpool really wanted from a manager, and our ‘Arry can seek out the no-nonsense English way of doing things like no other. “We want an Englishman for England” was just code for wanting ‘one of ours’, wide-boy accent an’ all, to follow the considered, complicated tastes of Sven and Capello.

Point-by-point, it’s the West Brom manager who has the more trophies and achievements as well a world-wise experience. Back-page journos always want conflict, within and beyond any dressing room bust-ups and the like, which is partly how the contrived rivalry has been fostered over so many years. Tabloids have brought down people at a finger-click, and will do so with Roy at their whim, as and when it’s seen that Redknapp would have made better/more credible/logical choices in his position.

The press bring down their enemies in the end – fictitious television baddies and political wannabes alike. Whether they will do the same to Hodgson before, during or after the forthcoming European Championship depends on what kind of storyline twist they fancy attempting for their own entertainment. There will be no real war of words between the two favoured candidates in front of the cameras, of course. Each instalment will be more breathless and contrived than the last, leading to a summer showdown with Poland/Ukraine as a suitable backdrop. Nothing ever gets resolved in soap opera land because it suits the television companies to keep characters living, dying, marrying and divorcing month after month – it suits both front and back pages if the same happens with ‘Arry and Roy. If you think television drama is the loser with the popularity of soaps, you wait to see what happens to football at the end of all this….

shaking up the House

In the light of whatever Chris Huhne does/has done to him next, the whiff of ‘reshuffle’ is in the air. Politicos like their reshuffles – it’s a day of intrigue and cunning, and often on a wing and prayer desperation. 3D Chess it ain’t.

Read any diary or memoir from those at the heart of Government – or those who wish they were – and the dreaded reshuffle period would lay behind their words as a ghost, a constant narrative waiting beneath the surface. Alan Clark would spend days plotting his move across the board – who is up, who was down, who did “The Lady” prefer to keep close? He would write about the sharks scenting the first drops of blood in the water – exactly, I presume, what is happening now around the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

Reshuffles are bewildering for most observers outside Britain. The soap opera which is the Westminster bubble goes as cuckoo-bananas as a shed load of Crossroads scriptwriters, with all the traditional trappings of news gathering thrown into one overflowing pot of nonsense. Doorstepping ministers, zoomed in close-ups of a ministerial car driving along Downing Street, the BBC reporter within the Houses of Parliament talking about “sources close”, which can often mean “what I’ve just been told directly” as much as it can mean “what Twitter is currently assured is happening.”

The ups and downs of Ministers and Secretaries of State is a world away from other businesses. It’s when politics becomes more ‘sport’ than ‘statesman’, with each self-taught expert in a specific field suddenly whisked off to another patch where they know nothing. Stephen Dorrell was sent to the newly created Department for National Heritage with no knowledge of modern British cinema – Gyles Brandreth writes in his diary how the new SoS was given a video of ‘Four Weddings and Funeral’ in his ministerial red box. Yes, the “Zeitgeist Tape” really does exist.

Chris Mullins writes in his diaries of the Blair years how his time in the lowly foothills of Government was markedly annoying by the very nature of the merry-go-round process of reshuffling. Just as one Minister for Africa builds up a list of contacts, off he goes somewhere else, sometimes sideways, rarely up, often straight out.

The only comparable business is football management, less so in modern times though it’s still there. Familiar names, similar gossip behind the scenes, who is up and who is unfavoured, who shall spend more time playing golf? There is an understandable amount of exhaustion at the same-old same-old around football managers and the merry-go-round of sackings and hirings. It’s a game within a game, with backs recently stabbed quickly patted, and often by the same person. Politics would be richer for giving Ministers a full 5 years to understand their jobs – but it would be far less interesting for the rest of us. It’s a game we’re addicted to; we’re all a little bit like the sharks in the water.

Adventures in Groundhopping

The football website BornOffside is just over one year old and from Shamrock Rovers to the stadia blueprints in Qatar, it’s been quite a journey. There’s a lot of exciting things to come from the BornOffside lads in the coming months, so if you’ve not checked the site out yet, be sure to do so.

As I noted a few months ago now, this current football season is one where I’ll be hopping around the lower and non-league grounds (…within affordable public transport reach, natch), and scribing about the experiences for BornOffside.

It’s been two months already and I’m ticking off some great little games and cracking grounds, but much more than that, I’m enjoying people watching, comparing pies and noticing how all right-backs are frustrated centre midfielders who just want a CHANCE IN LIFE DAMMMIT.

By way of a catch-up, here’s the run down of my adventures thus far. There’s  more to come, hope you enjoy the ride as much as I do….

A day trip to Squires Gate, and then to Lancaster, covered in The First Weekends.

An early FA Cup qualifier saw Prescot Cables take on Warrington, all scribed up as Prescot Punch

Trying out plucky little Flixton against the “phoenix club” AFC Liverpool in Flawed Phoenix

Taking the 30-minute walk from my house down the road for Bamber Bridge in Bridge Too Far

Making my way to North Wales to take in the beautiful game from the vantage point of the Welsh First Division, which I hope was translated accurately as Y gêm hardd

Down the West Coast Main Line for the charms of Wigan, only without the threat of bumping into Gary Caldwell, which was all a bit all pastry, no filling

Last weekend I found myself on a park in Radcliffe for the lowest level of non-league football I have ever watched. It should be up on the site later this week, so check it out.

pies, chips, and anoraks

One regular column inside the Non-League weekly newspaper is called “Diary of a Groundhopper”. Written by different fans every week, its tales and regales follow the national football scene which exists beneath the 92 League teams, beneath even the Conference and its feeder divisions. From the website 50 Yards Wide, this one description of a groundhop should give you the idea of what is meant…

With our original plans thrown into disarray by the lack of a referee at Talysarn, it was a case of any port in a storm at 1-30pm on Saturday. Luckily, Llanllyfni is no more than a couple of miles from Talysarn and arriving at 1-40 it was good to see both teams out warming up for the 2pm KO.Ths is one of those grounds that you’d struggle to find if it wan’t a match day. The goals, pitch perimeter fence, dugouts & advertising boards (banners to be precise) all disappear once the game is over, leaving an open field behind the village hall. However, with everything set up, it feels very much like a proper venue, the only thing it lacks is cover.

Another site, now moved, called “Extreme Groundhopping” lists the grounds visited by the author so far – Arsenal’s Emirates and Bolton’s Reebok joined by Brantham Athletic (they play at a Social Club of the same name, and I’ve never heard of them), and Norwich United (played within the Ridgeons League Premier Division).

Everything in life collects its obsessives. Ale festivals are great for this, one table always reserved for the men of a certain vintage exchanging tour anecdotes like society-ball veterans transported from another age in anoraks and t-shirts. “Selbeh 92, ‘member that, eh? Nowt like that any more, Grimsby last year being an exception, of course!”

Train spotting, it almost goes without saying, has the same effect upon men (though, and this is absolutely true, on the train from Wigan one afternoon I spotted a man and woman sat around a picnic-table at the side of Platform 4. Romance, right there).

The groundhopper is distinctly, absolutely, completely British. It’s the very best of the eccentric and the obsessive, the man who makes lists, the woman who always puts clothes in order of colour. We’ve all heard of “doing the 92”, a creditable trophy to chase for any football fan, which requires the committed individuals involved to watch a full game at every one for the ninety-two League stadia. (There is a very good dedicated website, soon to be updated for the coming season). As it happens, there may be purists who are shaking their head at this slap-dash explanation. Just watch the game? What about having to buy a programme? What about doing it in alphabetical order? Of postcodes?

Despite being a hobby, ostensibly, the ”rules” pervade the whole groundhopping community. Ever heard of stamp collectors who tend not to accept British definitives or anything from WH Smith starterpacks? Then we’re in the same arena here.

The question on rules was asked on the Non League Matters forum. It’s worth only enjoying this reply in all its glory;

To watch a game, you should be there from start to end, including extra time if played. (Note, Should, not Must).

For example, different people have different ideas of what to do if they miss the start, maybe due to circumstances beyond their control. This is always a potential problem on long trips.

Some will not go without a programme, or without a pasty crimp or whatever.

Some make detailed accounts of players, goal scorers, even perhaps numbers of corners – others would not be able to tell you the score if you ask 7 days after the game.

I think everyone keeps some sort of record, although I know some that are trying to create records from memory, having not kept them from the start of their football watching. [I am lucky in that from the first time I watched a match and decided this was for me, I actually kept a list of the games seen – although some friendlies were not on the list, and a match at Barking which my grandfather had taken me to some years previously was not recorded]

So talk to other hoppers at games, exchange views on here – make up your own mind and then be true to yourself, (no one else is counting for you

Yes, that’s right, an earlier poster was concerned by the sale of pies or burgers for a groundhop to “count”. We’re in dangerous territory, folks.

(You would be, in very enjoyable territory as I understand it, if you watch a game at Devon where burgers are of such massive consistency that the use of excessive tomato ketchup is recommended as otherwise the mouth would almost run out of saliva).

Accusations of ‘not being proper fans’ are thrown at groundhops as though some of the mud will stick. It’s bizarre to think such finger-pointing could have any validity; there’s enough struggle to deal with the hypnotised SKY brigade, for whom football exists for glitz, glamour and the top 10 Premier League places. Groundhoppers may not have a single team of their own to follow, though why should this be considered a handicap? Hobbies breed snobs, true, and it’s true on both sides. It can lead to awkward conversations with potential future fathers-in-law. (“Don’t have a team, eh? Poofter, hmm? One of those give votes to black disabled lesbians, I suppose?”)

I have experienced two different extremes of the groundhop within the British Isles, from the extreme of walking 30 minutes down the road to Irongate (home of Bamber Bridge, which is not called the QED stadium for God’s sake…), right to the train-bus-Metro-unintended-overnight-stay-in-Newcastle weekend to watch the FA Cup Qualifier between Burscough and Howden. All fans should have at least one nightmare away trip story, after all.

The groundhop status taps into an argument right at the core of the non-league game. Notwithstanding notable exceptions – most Blue Square Premier sides, AFC Halifax, FC United of Manchester – crowd sizes can be very small, and rather quiet. Messageboards and forums hum to the sound of perennial questions – does non league football even count? How low down the pyramid is acceptable? What’s the widely held distinction between teams playing Sunday kickabouts on the park and Suffolk County games?

My opinion has always been open minded, perhaps over-romantacisesd. There is a moment of the Saturday afternoon, in my way of thinking, when hundreds of referees across the country blow whistles in unison, momentarily and fleetingly uniting all the levels of football as one, before the differences blossom again and all games return to their rightful place in the strata. At one broadbrush level, there’s little difference between the very highest and most low of games, though only somebody so deep in denial that they hold an Egyptian passport would argue that the playing fields genuinely are level. Sadly the anorak tendency within non league has allowed the inverse snobbery to build within otherwise genial fanbases. Yes, the ‘culture’ amongst some lower league sides is at the opposite side of the Premier League glitz and glamour. That perhaps is the whole point, and should not be the measure by which some fans decide validity of support amongst others.

For groundhopping, my rules are fairly straight forward. Enjoy yourself. It’s a game of football, the significance of which should not override the more important specifics, such as roundly criticising the rightback with the acceleration of a mobility scooter and suggesting the liner closest to you enjoys extra-curricular activities with someone other than his wife. Taking a month out of supporting your team – I don’t recommend this often – to take in five or six complete unknowns in new stadia could be just the break you need (that is, if you’re an Aston Villa fan not otherwise in need of education). If there’s any judgemental element to this, it’s unfortunate and it’s human nature. Different strengths can be found all over the stands and terraces, it’s unfortunate that the mud sticks strongest below the League line.

So let’s just shake off all the complexities here. There’s only a month before the season starts, and that means it’s time enough to plan fantasy football teams, train journeys to far-flung away games, and ensure everyone knows not to purchase pies from Altrincham….

Burscough FC

The following is a complete copy and paste from a news report concerning Burscough FC, the club I support.

I could copy and paste the dozens of angry, confused and emotional messages and forum posts from across the League and Non-League communities, or the Burscough fans who have found themselves in the middle of one of the most rapidly developed rug-pull stories in a part of the football industry which has an unfair share of unfortunate events. I could let rip myself, because the walks to and from work have given ample opportunity to refine exactly what I feel about the people currently travelling down the road which would see the home of football in Burscough – over a century of the game in the middle of a small village in West Lancashire – vanish at the stroke of a pen. From many perspectives, that fate has already occured. Victoria Park is a no-go area, the club effectively wiped off the map without a chance for supporters to gather their thoughts.

Across the Internet, and beyond, the reaction from football fans up and down the Leagues has been edifying. To their credit, Skelmersdale are being as welcoming and supportive as they can, though the finer details of the ground share into which Burscough is being forced lies beyond the finanical reach of those desparately trying to save the club from extinction.

The Burscough supporters message board can be found here. As of last week, the club’s official website has been taken down for reasons unexplained.

The future of Burscough FC is in the balance after the Chairman and Secretary were sacked by post and the team was moved to nearby Skelmersdale in dramatic new developments in the long running ownership saga.

Discussions over the club’s future has led to the owners of the club sacking the Chairman and Secretary with immediate effect, as fans wait and see if they will even have a club to follow next season.

Chairman Frank Parr and long-running secretary Stan Petherbridge were sent letters on Saturday (13 May) informing them they are no longer needed at the club.

According to Keith Forshaw of the Burscough Supporter’s Club: “This morning Stan Petherbridge was informed by post that his position as club secretary has been terminated with immediate effect.
“Martin Gilchrist has appointed his son as the new secretary. Stan was informed to end any correspondence regarding the club and cease to use any official BFC letterheaded paper.”

Meanwhile, Chequer Properties, the owners of the club, will pursue a ground share with nearby Skelmersdale United, moving the club out of Burscough for the first time since its foundation in 1946.

Owners Paul and Martin Gilchrist have signed an agreement to share the ground and plan to sell Victoria Park. However, unlike when the company bought the club last year, they refused to promise to offer Burscough an alternative ground once they moved out.

A covenant on the ground states the current site can only be built on if there is another site for the team to play on in Burscough.

This means any move to Skelmersdale should be temporary, but it is believed Chequer Properties are searching for ways to bypass the covenant and permanently move Burscough out of the town.

However, things could get even worse for Burscough because of the added cost of renting Skelmersdale’s ground. With crowds of around 150 expected to drop dramatically once the club is no longer playing in Burscough, the club’s days seem numbered.

The club’s website has been removed, with only a sign stating it is ‘under construction’ in its place as fans await the owner’s future plans for the club.

Fans are already in discussions about the possibility of a new Burscough team owned by the fans after seeing their team, which won the FA Trophy as recently as 2005, ripped away from the village it serves.

A member of the Supporter’s Club says ‘wheels are in motion’ to create a new supporter-owned club, and talks have begun with Supporters Direct, an organisation which advises on setting up and running football trusts.

Property developers Chequer bought the club last year when it was struggling financially. Chequer had already bought the rights to build on Victoria Park and completed a takeover of the club when previous owner Chris Lloyd.

Chequer Properties originally promised no intervention in the playing side of the club, but have already sacked manager Andy Gray in February to the dismay of the supporters.

Chris Stammers, Gray’s replacement, was forced to deal with player sales as the club struggled in the Evo Stik Premier and were relegated to the First Division this season.

Initial considerations

It’s very easy to over-romanticise the FA Cup. Worse culprits than ITV are hard to find, with the broadcaster assured of the similarity between it and the TARDIS, the game as a time-machine able to whip up mythical good-old-days of level playing fields and jumpers for goalposts.

(“Level playing fields never existed,” comments the cynical old friend of mine. “We’d struggle not to do our ankles on the molehills.”)

It is ten years after – this should be the only time I type this today – “magic of the Cup” was debated within a stitch of its life following Manchester United’s decision to fly half-way round the globe rather than take part. From fair-weather fans to utter fanatics, the future of the Cup and by extension English football was exhaustively debated and analysed, with my then boss at the time agreeing totally with “Brand Utd” sidestepping the competition “they have clearly outgrown”.

The discussion comes round again this season, related in that spooky-fate-and-fortune sort of way to Manchester United. Following the turning of Old Trafford into a holding bay for Texan debt, plans scrawled on the back of naan bread by disillusioned fans created FC United of Manchester, a protest club which would turn into something non-league football had not quite seen before. Fan-owned, eschewed of shirt sponsors, and now with share-save style promotions to raise money for a new ground, FCUM made an extra slice of history their own this week by beating Rochdale in the First Round Proper of the FA Cup.

(Remember for teams of the Pyramids, the Cup starts in August).

FCUM polarise and divide opinion to this day. Their reputation within the hitherto stuffy world of non-league is polarised. Frankly the atmosphere and attitude was long overdue for some clubs at the lower levels, whose grounds desperately needed the singing, chanting and enthusiasm of League football which FCUM almost always guarantee. The terraces of some provincial towns must thing the echoing choruses of football crowds have been missing for generations. When Burscough, the team I follow, played Boston some years ago, their supporters acted just as they would in the League, an attitude FC has maintained despite long years clawing their way through Leagues were polite applause can be sneered at…

The FCUM attitude to the FA Cup has been one of hyperactivity, giddyness and outright hunger for success. The jokes about meeting Manchester United in the Third Round are told with straight-faced seriousness…..

…..which reflects very differently to the attitude in the London Borough of Merton…..

Below are three Tweets sent to me in response to questions forwarded to those AFC fans suggesting their potential game with MK Dons could be boycotted or even forfeited:

@doktorb Not really. It justifies them. And they say we’re arch rivals, but we’re nothing of the sort.

@doktorb why? The idea of playing the franchise isn’t like playing rivals you realise. I don’t want rivals to go bust.

@doktorb i genuinely would not want to be there which is different from principled boycott stance

The extent of the disquiet – to put it mildly – amongst AFC Wimbledon fans against a potential match with MK Dons utterly stunned and silenced me. There is no charity, no olive branch, no eagerness for playing “rivals”. The two teams may appear to have been cut from the same protest movement cloth….It is only on closer inspection that the different patterns are discovered. Although a minority of AFC fans want the game to go ahead, there is no pounding-heart nostalgia amongst the majority. FA Cup or not – achievement of making the First Round Proper or not – “Franchise FC” would not be welcome at the “home of the Dons”.

(I highly recommend this WSC blog on the subject)

Such is the continuing problems at the heart of the oldest club cup competition. AFC fans are clearly principled – mayhaps too principled to the point of blindness. It is just as easy to over romanticise the fan-power teams as it is the Cup itself. How we all paint the game in the garish pop-art colours of the ITV title sequence, wrap every fault in scarves and wooly-hats. There are hooligan tendencies within the fan base of both AFC and FCUM, there are non-league fans unhappy at the perceived easy ride given the ‘novelty factor’. Nevertheless both sides have ultimately transformed the non-league organisation as much as the game.

There will always be exceptions to prove rules. FC fans are out there now sharpening defiance against ever playing Manchester United, and of course AFC Wimbledon fans who are excited by the prospect of playing Milton Keynes look forward to each respective replays. Ultimately, however, the Cup is only a symbol for the sides at their level, an icon too far to reach, the fervour amongst clubs and fans overblown and knowing. It has not been the Cup we’ve wanted it to be for years. Blame whoever you like for ‘reinventing the wheel’.

It keeps on spinning. AFC Wimbledon and FC United of Manchester find themselves positioned on opposite sides…

Together in Olympiad Dreams

And so, fittingly, David Beckham’s career ended with a throwaway line at the end of a television interview. Fabio Capello, standing awkwardly in the stripped down ITV set of littered lighting rigs and television sets, shrugged his shoulders without perhaps understanding how often that pose would reverberate across the world. “A little too old, I think,” he sighed, and then back to the studio. What do you say, as Johnny Logan would have put it, when words are not enough?

It had all the atmosphere of a Big Brother “surprise eviction”, a suitable end to a man whose football career ran parallel with the explosion in football’s popularity revival; the early dawn of the Premiership, Euro1996 – all came at Beckham’s time, and he followed the celebrity route of ‘Cool Britannia’ for all that it was worth and more.

For Beckham’s greatest hits DVD will inevitably feature images far removed from his days as floppy-haired posterboy for Manchester United; from the his-and-hers thrones on which he and Victoria were married to the endless underwear commercials.

The loss of “late” Beckham’s dead-ball specialities to England may be a gain picked up by another national side, one whose very existence is probably as contentious as some of Golden Balls’ fashion choices. For the man whose very career veered off tangent as precisely as a curled freekick (albeit not perhaps with as much cheer) could well have a role as coach of Great Britain’s Olympic football team.

Due to inane and archaic rules too dull even for me to wander into, Great Britain can only take part in the Olympic football tournament as a team under that name and the Union Flag, although protests from Scotland and Wales leaves the side currently managerless and open to players only from England and Northern Ireland. A side led by Beckham would ensure the press – for whom Olympic football is one of the marginal sports nobody covers, like shooting and swimming and anything outside the athletics track – would give coverage to a side for which Beckham would be too old to captain. And what better send off than the overblown, over-priced, other worldly cuckoo-banana land of the Olympic Games?

History will be kind to Becks – every retrospective will focus on the halfway line goal against Wimbledon and the important Greece goal with more reverence than the Argentina sending off or Hollywood glamour chasing – but ultimately he will be remembered as one of many England youngsters for whom Fate decided would be a flawed talent. Football is littered with them, some never return from desperate introspection and others earn millions as the starman standby, making cameo appearances for the good of sponsors and sports editors. Olympic glory, perhaps the most suitable of all, awaits the man whose football career began and ended with a camera lens trained straight down the eyes…

We Will Never Surrender

Fabio Capello has delivered cryptic assurances to straight forward questions relating to his future as England manager. I noticed a bod from the FA – sorry, “Club England” as they seem to be branded at the moment – was hastily filling in blanks and putting forward his own opinion with all the urgency of a jumpy husband at a RELATE meeting. So begins, depressingly familiar as it all is, the tabloid-led blame game and leaked managerial suggestions in the diary columns.

We’ve been here too many times. To borrow a phrase from the coalition government, we can’t go on like this.

Many branches of the “Club England” tree – ugh, sorry, “Club England”, it’s like “Centrica” all over again – are need of urgent surgery. It is not enough to offer a few “frank” analyses of the Germany thrashing before moving on to the next round of qualifying games. With only two years between the Hungary friendly and Poland/Ukraine 2012, there is a loud ticking clock above the entire structure of English football.

In his excellent (and 5 year old) article “Football Fans are Idiots”, Sean Ingle outlined a blueprint which seems just as relevant today. Certain sections of the football fan base are gluttons for punishment, and as the England campaign from the Mexico friendly onwards showed, those Premiership players who demand respect in the Premiership sure don’t know how to earn that respect on the international stage. Wayne Rooney’s “emotional outburst” was very much his real feelings, doubtlessly shared by many of his team-mates.

But the mindset of the players internationally is only one part – and a small one – of the English disorder.

Capello must be allowed to stay on as manager until 2012. The merry-go-round has to stop. There are players who could find a place in a younger, more experimental England side leading up to 2012 (which, to be very radical, we concede as not an achievable winnable aim to calm down the England Flag brigade)

Names like Jack Wilkshire (currently being toughened up at the Reebock), Danny Welbeck (given time to mature at North End), Joe Hart (topping up his tan these past two weeks), Micah Richards, James Milner, Aaron Lennon….There are possibilities and probabilities, but under the constant and instant pressure of the “Three Lions” tabloid culture, slowly-slowly long term planning seems far harder to promote.

No need to look to the Americas; across the Atlantic there are the Dutch and Germans showing intelligence, quick-thinking and fluidity; and there are the French and Italians creaking along in slow-motion soap operas. Or /real/ operas, I suppose. England resemble the latter far more than the former: under Capello, it really shouldn’t be that way. From the “player index” mess through sex scandals and the own-goal assisted Japan ‘victory’ to the Emile “Turning circle of a whale” Heskey, it has not been England’s finest hours.

But changing players and formations, and ditching the hoofing up-and-under strategies, all involve the team at the stage of adults facing the limelight. Someone somewhere in “Club England” needs to spend months, if not years, at schools and junior levels finding out exactly what is wrong with football at grassroots level. Is it Government funding, school teachers, scouts preferring “traditional” types to “continental” skills in the young talent they recommend, the fact that England has only 2,000 registered football coaches, far behind almost every other country in UEFA.

There are too many questions about the lack of funding at lower league and Non-League level, the lack of support from the FA and Premiership clubs for smaller sides often in the same postal code as the larger, debt-ridden names. It would be brilliant for the men in charge, so easy, so easier to ditch Capello, give the under-performing England stars their limelights back again, ready for another overhyped throw at Poland/Ukraine. It would be lazy, too, and another lost opportunity.

Let us get out of our system the “goal that was”, the apologies and the tabloid rants. Let us stop this managerial witch-hunt. There are plenty of English sportsmen and women who are far more deserving of our praise – the cyclists, swimmers and indeed our cricketers (whose achievements on Sunday were completely overshadowed) – football should work from the bottom-up before it goes totally tits-up.