playing on the right

Breathless, verbless news coverage met me this morning. BECKHAM INJURY SHOCK WORLD CUP LATEST.

I had assumed – expert on right-sided midfielders that I am not – that common consensus amongst front-room Fabios had agreed upon the notion of Beckham barely featuring in South Africa at all, almost to the point of inventing a Walcott/Wright-Phillips hybrid capable of combining pace with accuracy of crosses. Until such a splice actually exists – no, don’t think too much on that either – I will continue to largely sit out the 2010 equivalent of the mid-90s baroom discourse on “Why the left in English football is an almost impossible position to fill”.

If the sight of both Beckham and former England posterboy Michael Owen limping off with injuries on the cusp of middle age is not too much of a reality check for people (don’t….just don’t….), I found solace and reality all bundled together in a footballing context down at the humble setting of the Unibond Premier league. While my own club Burscough continue to suffer from successive poundings and High Court nail-biting, two places below the plucky stalwarts from Durham FC make things all the better to be alive.

In short, Durham beating FC United of Manchester 2-1 at Gigg Lane may not seem to much to make life seem nicer in a roundabout, barely tangible way. However the details really do shine a big light of reality on the hyperactive, hypereality of Premier League excess and showboating celebs. Durham barely have the right to exist, stripped of their sponsors and funding after an FA ruling against plastic pitches and “University teams”. With almost 30 games of this season gone, Durham had a goal difference of minus-120, not even a draw to their name, and the ignominy of a 6-point deduction for pulling the “Sunday League trick” of registering a player under a false name. That Durham won at all is worth celebrating; that their fans have stuck by them through cricket score drummings with Newcastle or Sunderland or Middlesbrough or even Conference side Gateshead on their doorstep is worth more than just a pint lifted to the skies. Durham sum up far more than a romantic notion of “real” football; they did what they could over a very hard season to brush themselves down, offering local teenagers the chance to play against semi-pro and ex-League players, and did so every week from Kendal in the north to King’s Lynn in the south with a good natured smile on their face every time.

King’s Lynn, of course, were wound up for debts far less than the hourly wage bill of Manchester United. That Durham got their first ever win against FC United of Manchester surely adds that extra line of black irony to the story. Long may Durham have success when the inevitable relegation occurs.

I am no more a football “purist” than I am a real-ale evangalist. It is just refreshing to have moments away from the big brands and tiresome Big 4 soap operas. Long may the lower leagues offer this break from the ‘norm’.

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Old Firm, new challenges

My post last week concerning proposals to bring Celtic and Rangers into a modified two-tier Premier League brought a very considered response in the Comments section from a reader called “Martin”. This post is a part reply to him. It would appear, following the Premier League vote last week, that this “Anglo-Scottish League” proposal has been roundly defeated.

Martin says, “Having a two-tier Premier League would divide television revenue between 36 clubs rather than 20, and considering only two of those would be Scottish teams, 14 English clubs would be better off, increasing competitiveness at the higher end”.

I think this statement presumes the television revenue would be fairly distributed and evenly granted between clubs. This presumption, under the new circumstances of an Anglo-Scottish league, lacks logic. The larger clubs, the “Big 4” of the Premier League, already command far more attention and television coverage than even those mid-table sides in the same league: it would be fanciful to suggest that Norwich or Hull or even perhaps Aston Villa would see similar benefits to a two-tier league than Manchester United or Arsenal. “Increasing competitiveness” could well be the end result, although not instantly; the special atmosphere between the “larger” clubs and Celtic or Rangers is often because of the rare European Cup ties between the sides, a relationship which would become lesser as the novelty of regular matches wears off.

Martin then lists a number of “cross country” examples, including the Welsh clubs which play in England (Cardiff, Swansea, Wrexham, Colwyn Bay, and Merthyr Tydfil), Monaco in France, and Derry FC in Ireland, amongst others. He is absolutely right to point out these examples. And he is right to suggest that “..[t]he only way that clubs from smaller nations will ever be able to compete with the financial monopoly of the big clubs is to play in their leagues, or form cross-country leagues.”

With all due respect, Celtic or Rangers playing regular league football in England is not quite the same thing as Cardiff or Wrexham playing in England. That the Old Firm are “big fish” in a small nation is perhaps entirely a consequence of a mis-handling of the Scottish Leagues over generations. If something must be done, why not the “Atlantic League”, where similarly sized nations could share revenues across borders without the wholesale negative consequences to England’s footballing system?

Martin says that the Old Firm “leaving Scotland will improve the competitiveness of that league, and fill the ground two times more a season at every English club they play“. I cannot agree completely with this all-done-and-dusted assumption. For sides already struggling in Leagues 1 and 2, the promise of expensive jaunts up to Glasgow twice a season to be roundly thumped in a stadium atmosphere completely alien to the rest of the League does not exactly glisten with gold.

Inventing traditions in football does not work. FIFA see this with their ill-fated World Club Cup competition, a globe-trotting failure completely disconnected from fans who have no attraction to watching unknown Asian clubs stretch out results against a seemingly never-ending rota of different African also-rans. There could be a great amount of financial benefit from introducing Celtic and Rangers into the English Premier League, not least for those larger clubs and more affluent fans for whom the lucrative profits would rush out of the gates and flood the club shop. Ultimately, however, the logistical difficulties and questionable benefits further down the leagues tip the balance against the proposals.

I would like to thank Martin for taking the time to respond to my first post. He makes a good case for the proposals, but ultimately I think the whole idea would do more harm than good.

Premier League II

I could not put it better myself, really. Everton really must be having a ‘mare with David Moyes is now getting all Satire-waving about the “inevitable” coming of “Premier League 2”.

On the most basic argument, any additional top league in English football featuring the Old Firm rivals Celtic and Rangers would put an end to the long serving tradition of British football. As a kind of “thank you” to inventing the modern game, the four Home Nations are awarded four separate seats on the FIFA and UEFA top tables; England, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales. Okay, we’re not quite unique in this, France has a separate international team within its borders, but I won’t give away this pub quiz answer today….

For Celtic and Rangers to become permanent, full members of the otherwise English Premier League, the whole future set up of the national and international game would change forever. UEFA and FIFA have made it quite clear that a separate English international football team would not exist were the Old Firm to become members of any national football division. Remember the fuss regarding Cardiff winning the FA Cup not being able to take part in European cup competitions? Think about that writ large.

If the idea of a joint Anglo-Scottish football team doesn’t jump out at you (oh imagine the pubs before kick-off…), what about the future of the lower leagues? The amount of money trickling down to even League 1 and League 2 levels is not torrenting down in great waves; an increasing number of Conference and non-league sides are up against the financial wall including Hyde, Farsley Celtic, and Chester. The possibility of having a “walled garden” outside of which survive a withering clutch of barely solvent league teams is nothing short of offensive.

“Mighty” Anderlecht are about discussing the “Atlantic League” theory in case a British “Premier League 2” falls flat. If the notion of pan-European league fills you with a logistical shiver down the spine, you may not be the only ones. But the future of British football, which is far more than sepia-tinged nostalgia for half-time pies and giant killing, relies on the four Home Nations having leagues of their own. Cross-border leagues do not exist in any other country in the world; for clear and unique reasons, the United Kingdom does not suit the notion of a grouped league football format.

Healthy and economically strong our football teams are not (Spurs aside, and there are rather dodgy non-politically correct suggestions for why…). Bringing English and Scottish leagues together in any form would merely produce an incredibly exclusive clutch of world-famous franchises kept away from the motley crews (and indeed, Crewe) below. As a fan of football, and of the lower league game specifically, the prospect does not thrill me with joy at all.