FIFA Light The Poppy Powder Keg

How Football’s Governing Body Got More Than They Bargained For

by Johnny Connelly

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In the immediate aftermath of FIFA flexing their muscles on their long-held stance against ‘political’ slogans or logos being displayed on football shirts, the irony of getting angry about the use of the poppy in the sport remains lost on some.

The seemingly straightforward decision to either allow, or block the use of the poppy on football shirts in the upcoming England vs Scotland match has lit a powder keg in terms of emotional response from both sides of the argument. The question is, have FIFA made the correct call, and will there ever be a clear line of segregation between politics and football in the UK?

The emblem, intended as a mark of respect for those lost in WWI, has evolved into a cause of much controversy in football and across the mainstream media, much to the dismay of those closest to the genuine issue it’s intended to highlight.

Without delving too much into both sides of the argument, we should all be in agreement as civilised adults that getting passionately angry either way completely undermines both sides of the argument. Finding yourself vexed about something that’s there to show respect, is ironically disrespectful; and being staunchly against it to the point of exasperation because you view yourself as a pacifist, is deeply hypocritical.

Contributions from those who cannot articulate a calm and reasoned argument for or against such things is unwelcome. That said, FIFA’s latest input is at best inconsistent, and at worst, frighteningly ignorant.

The governing body of the sport we all love have made their stance clear with regard to the clash with the auld enemy; but why stop there? One could be forgiven for assuming that FIFA haven’t bothered researching the issue at a domestic level in the UK, as they’ve stopped well short of taking a stance on it.

Whether you think the poppy is a political statement or not is besides the point. FIFA have deemed it as so within the confines for the upcoming England v Scotland match, but how can the same type of display and subject matter be ‘political’ for an international match, but not a domestic one?

Several English Premier Division clubs, as well as Rangers and Hearts in Scotland make no secret of their Armistice Day tributes, but other clubs stay well clear of the issue. It’s not for anyone to say definitively whether taking part or abstaining is morally correct. It’s respectful and correct to allow people to mark the day as they see fit, not to ram the issue down their throat.

What’s not correct is the muddled approach from FIFA, and the media witch hunt which has emanated from something that was originally intended to be mannerly and deferential. Theresa May’s announcement that non-poppy wearers should be “named and shamed” does nothing but fan the flames of hatred. With all the problems that we face in the UK today, surely the poppy debate should be put on the back burner in Westminster?

FIFA too aren’t free of blame here. Their scattergun approach to these types of displays is typical of the disarray that mires the organisation. Their flip-flopping on the Irish Easter Rising display bewildered many fans, and where does it stop? Pyrotechnic displays incur fines sometimes, but not others. Carrying Palestinian and Israeli flags also can incur punishment inconsistently. Then there’s issues like racist chanting, which still falls under the radar in some countries. No wonder there’s confusion over what is, and what is not acceptable.

It’s a multi-faceted issue. People will continue to be passionate about matters that not everyone will always agree with. Unless there’s strong governance over to which extent political and religious messaging can interfere with football, then we’ll forever be stuck on this perpetual merry-go-round, debating the same handful of issues as and when the mainstream media see fit.

What I can’t understand is why the issue of poppy display (and others like it) tends only to be contentious in football. Rugby, tennis, baseball, golf, basketball, athletics etc all seem to be free of this. There’s no one right answer, but football in Scotland and England seems to be as much about political messaging and antagonistic behaviour as it is about the sport itself.

A blanket acceptance, or outright ban feels like the only way to put the issue to bed, although the execution of either could invoke yet more negative feeling.

If people could make a unified effort to keep their political opinions to themselves for 90 minutes, maybe we could enjoy the sport a little more. Who knows, it may even help to turn the UK government’s focus not towards an atrocity from over 100 years ago, but to the issues which cripple us today; unemployment, privatisation, current global conflict, poverty, and inequality.

5 Men Who Could Replace Ronny Deila

by Johnny Connelly – @hitthebyline

An uninspiring 2-2 draw for Celtic at Tynecastle has kept Aberdeen in the Scottish Premiership title race, and further added to the moans and groans from the Celtic support with regard to the leadership qualities of current manager, Ronny Deila. 

Osman Sow’s late strike secured a point for Robbie Neilson’s Hearts side, as Celtic blew the chance to go 3 points clear of Aberdeen in 2nd place. This latest disappointment means the Bhoys have won just 3 of their last 9 matches in all competitions, with growing discontent at the style of play on show.

It’d be naive to think Celtic aren’t sizing up potential replacements for Deila. In the event that Ronny fails to get the Parkhead club back on track, here are 5 men who could potentially be his successor…

David Moyes

David Moyes

Just a few seasons ago, David Moyes was one of the emerging talents in European football management. His no-nonsense style was well respected in the English Premiership after a successful spell at Everton. When Sir Alex Ferguson hand-picked Moyes as his successor at Manchester United, it looked as though the Scotsman was on the verge of becoming a blue-chip manager of sorts.

Moyes fell victim to a transitional period of low resource and high expectation at United. He was dismissed less than a season in, despite having a better record both domestically, and in Europe than Louis Van Gaal (with considerably less money spent on transfers).

A shock move to Real Sociedad was next for Moyes. He took the reins with the club in 15th place in La Liga. After an initial upturn in fortunes at the club, form began to stagnate. Communication was touted as a problem by those at the club, with Moyes not being able to speak Spanish.

With Sociedad sitting comfortably in mid-table, Moyes was relieved of his duties. A win % ratio of just 28% at the Basque club was deemed unacceptable.

Gary McAllister

Gary McAllister

Something of a surprise addition to the list of candidates, the former Motherwell midfielder has yet to set the heather alight in his management career, but has gained enough experience to be a contender for the Parkhead hot seat across various management positions.

With a working knowledge of the Scottish game, international experience, and connections south of the border, McAllister is the polar opposite of current Hoops boss Ronny Deila. This shift in focus could be appealing for the club, particularly to boost the opportunities in the transfer market.

McAllister’s first stint in management came back in 2002 when he was appointed player-manager of Coventry City. He lasted just over a year and a half in the job, before resigning to spend more time with his family.

A four year sabbatical ensued, before he returned to management on a temporary basis as Leeds United manager. With the club then playing in the third tier of English football, McAllister turned things around magnificently, taking the Yorkshire club from 8th, all the way to the playoff final. A poor start to the following season led to his departure in December 2008.

Since then, he’s taken up various coaching positions, at Middlesbrough (working alongside former Celtic manager, Gordon Strachan), as Assistant Manager at Aston Villa (under Gerard Houllier), and First Team Coach at Liverpool (as part of Brendan Rodgers’ coaching staff).

Ian Holloway

Ian Holloway

Another potentially surprising name to be thrown into the hat, Iain Holloway would certainly liven things up at Celtic Park. His relentless attacking style has brought him mixed fortunes in management, but would at least win favour among the fans at Celtic.

The majority of Holloway’s career has been spent managing clubs in the English Championship, with his most famous success being when he propelled relegation-touted Blackpool to the dizzy heights of promotion to the English Premier League in 2010. After a whirlwind adventure on a shoestring budget, Holloway’s side went down fighting on the last day of the season.

The outspoken manager almost pulled off the impossible again the following season, taking Blackpool to the playoffs, and narrowly missing out on promotion back to the Premiership.

After Blackpool, Holloway took over at Crystal Palace in 2012. Things started well with a 5-0 win over Ipswich, and continued to go smoothly as he again managed to promote the club to the English Premier League. Things turned sour quickly after just 8 matches in the Premiership. Holloway came under pressure from the fans after amassing just 3 points in this time, and left by mutual consent.

His latest managerial position came in January 2014 when he signed a 2 and a half year deal to become Millwall manager. He was initially tasked with saving the club from relegation from the Championship, which he achieved by finishing 19th, 4 points above the drop zone. The 2014-15 season didn’t go so well, and Holloway was sacked for the first time in his career in March 2015.

Henrik Larsson

Henrik Larsson

Never far from the hearts and minds of the Celtic fans, Henrik Larsson will forever be idolised at the club. A section of the support backed Larsson for the Celtic manager’s job before Deila took over, and you can bet that should Deila be relieved of his duties, the super Swede’s name would be mentioned again.

Sentimental appointments rarely work out in modern football, but rarely do we see a player idolised so exclusively as the way Larsson is at Celtic. Larsson’s appointment would certainly unite the fans and bring back a buzz straight off the bat. The respect he’d command in the dressing room could only be a good thing, and his reputation across Europe could open doors in the transfer market.

That said, Larsson is relatively new to the management game, and his inexperience could be a major risk.

In December 2009, Larsson took his first management role, at Swedish 2nd Division outfit Landskrona. In his first season, he took the club to the brink of promotion, finishing 5th, and adopting an attractive 4-3-3 attacking style of play. His 2nd season was something of a disappointment, with the club sitting bottom of the league more than halfway through the season. A positive run of results propelled the club up to 10th, but the fans had expected promotion. Larsson stayed for a third season, but could only manage a 6th placed finish, and resigned shortly afterwards.

A short stint at newly promoted Falkenbergs in the Swedish top flight followed. Larsson managed to keep the club in the top division, but left after one season to take the top job at his former club, Helsingborgs, where he remains to this day.

Larsson has previously admitted that he would like to return to Celtic some day as manager, but whether or not that day will be anytime soon remains to be seen.

Michael O’Neill

Michael O'Neill

One of this year’s biggest stories in international football is the rise and rise of Northern Ireland under Michael O’Neill. The former Hibs player has transformed his home nation from footballing minnows, to a formidable force who qualified comfortably for the Euro 2016.

O’Neill has a great working knowledge of Scottish football, having played for Dundee United, Hibs, Aberdeen, St Johnstone, Clydebank, and Ayr United.

With Celtic being unable to attract a blue-chip or English Premier League manager, rising stars like O’Neill could be the club’s best bet to delivering sustainable success.

The Northern Irishman’s managerial CV is a short one, with just over a season at Brechin City under his belt, he left for Shamrock Rovers in 2009, where a modicum of success ensued. O’Neill took the Rovers to 2nd place in the league in his first season, and won the league in his second season. Another league title ensued in 2011. He also guided the team to win the Setanta Sports Cup in 2011, and recorded a notable victory over Partizan Belgrade that same year.

O’Neill’s biggest achievement by far has been the work he’s done as manager of Northern Ireland. With an average group of players at his disposal, he’s taken the nation to their first major tournament in 30 years by qualifying for Euro 2016. They topped a group containing the likes of Romania, Greece, and Finland, losing just 1 match in the process.

O’Neill’s success hasn’t gone unnoticed, with several English Championship clubs sniffing around him already. He’ll clearly want to reap the rewards of his efforts by managing the Northern Irish side at the finals in France in the summer, but beyond that, it’s expected that he’ll move on while his stock is high.

With O’Neill being potentially unavailable until the summer, the timescale could work out well for Celtic, as Ronny Deila would still have enough time to prove himself as a success. Deila will continue to come under fire until Celtic start to win, and win in style. The next few months could be crucial for the club either way. Time for Ronny to shape up or ship out.

 

 

The Curious Case of Leicester City FC

…and what the rest of the Premiership can learn from them

by Johnny Connelly

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Just weeks after miraculously avoiding the drop from the English Premiership, the footballing world snorted with derision as Leicester City appointed Claudio Ranieri as Nigel Pearson’s successor. Fresh off the back of presiding over the Greek national side’s worst qualifying campaign in modern football history, Ranieri took the reins, as armchair fans across the country united in their view that the Foxes would once again have a fight on their hands to avoid the drop.

Fast forward five months, and football fans have been left agog, as Ranieri is performing miracles. Leicester City are now the only side in Premiership history to be bottom of the league one Christmas, and top the next.

The man Jose Mourinho considered to be a “loser” at Chelsea (who’s the loser now Jose?) has continued to defy the odds this season, avoiding defeat in all but one fixture, having beaten Everton, Chelsea, Newcastle, Watford, and Crystal Palace to name but a few.

With the 2nd lowest wage bill in the league, Ranieri’s men sit at the summit of the table, but what is the Italian doing that’s so different to the rest of the pack?

To lift the lid on this, we must look as far back as Ranieri’s first few weeks at the club. After a positive string of results, the Serie A journeyman was asked about what he’s done to bring about the change in fortunes. His response was: “I’ve tried to change as little as possible.”

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Put simply, Ranieri is riding the crest of a wave. The players and everyone at the club were on a high from the relegation battle triumph at the end of last season, so why rock the boat? There was harmony amongst the squad. With a consistent tactical approach and a bit of belief, he knew that success wouldn’t be far away.

Leicester’s fairly rigid 4-4-2 formation is something of a novelty now in the Premiership. Are the top clubs overcomplicating things? Underlapping fullbacks, False nines, trequartistas and gegenpressing are popular among the football hipster community; but is there more value in a simple formation, with clear instructions, complimented with a peppering of talent in the final third?

Some of the ‘bigger’ clubs in recent times can’t seem to get it right. Prior to his sacking, Mourinho tried everything at Chelsea: Playing without a recognised striker, playing a centre-half at right back, and even switching to 3 at the back. With every change he made, things got worse.

The revolving door at Manchester United has caused unrest there too. In just a few seasons they’ve switched from a well defined tactical approach via Sir Alex Ferguson, to a transitional

phase (which was given no time or support to bed in under Davie Moyes), and now onto a tedious possession-based game under Louis Van Gaal. How can any reasonable amount of success be expected here when there’s no consistency at the club? Van Gaal has spent over £250m in the summer, but still has players like Depay and Mata drifting in and out of the team, while the back four is currently made up of unknown entities such as Phil Jones, Paddy McNair, and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson.

Liverpool too continue to toil, despite the introduction of the ‘saviour’, Jurgen Klopp. The German has an infectious personality and is well liked in the game, but it’s clear the complex system he’s deploying will not work with the current squad of players. I suspect he’ll prevail in the long run (if given time), but a high pressing game with well-worn midfielders like James Milner and a striker as cumbersome as Christian Benteke just will not work. If the players can’t fit the system; devise a system that fits the players.

Leicester City’s simple tactical approach allows for two or three players to play a more expansive role. Enter Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. While the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United are suppressing creativity from players like Oscar, Hazard, Mata and Depay; Leicester are giving Vardy and Mahrez a free rein creatively, with dogged support across the field from the rest of the team. The results have been outstanding.

Vardy has smashed Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s Premiership scoring record, and Mahrez continues to drive through defences like a hot knife through butter. Other players in the side with less creative ability like Fuchs and Huth are given simple orders to follow in the game. The correct application of 90% durability and 10% creativity fused together is what’s given the Foxes a winning mentality.

Their approach to the 3-2 victory against Everton, and the 2-1 win over Chelsea illustrate this perfectly. On paper, Everton and Chelsea are stronger than Leicester, without question. The difference is that the Leicester side have clear defined roles, and the players know who they need to turn to for a moment of creative brilliance. Who do Chelsea turn to? Diego Costa has been in and out the side. Cesc Fabregas is sitting deep. Hazard’s confidence has taken a bashing. Then there’s Loic Remy, Ramadel Falcao, Oscar, Willian, Ramires, Matic and Pedro. How can a team who doesn’t even know who’ll be in the match day squad possibly have any collective creative reasoning on how they’ll win a football match? Very much a case of too many cooks, and a few too many egos.

Some people will point to the ever increasing pot of TV money which is giving the mid to bottom Premiership teams a bit of pulling power in the transfer market, but considering Leicester’s top two players cost a little over £2m in total, I hardly think we can point at financial muscle as any kind of indicator for success.

The real defining success for Leicester City this season has been their dismissal of the Champions League team glass ceiling. Ranieri has installed a real feel good factor. Where once Leicester would have parked the bus at Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge, the City of Manchester Stadium, and Anfield; they’re now having a go.

I firmly believe that this approach will inspire other sides to do likewise. Why go down without a fight when you can take the bull by the horns and potentially win the match?

Will Leicester City go on to win the Premiership? I certainly hope so, but if we’re being brutally honest, they have yet to climb the steepest part of the mountain. If Vardy and Mahrez stay at the club, and stay fit, the Foxes have a sporting chance. The whole country wants to see the league being turned on its head. Never before has one club received such overwhelming support from all corners of the UK. This in itself is a bigger success than Leicester could have hoped for. They’ve single handedly burst the repetitive bubble of the same handful of clubs challenging while the rest look on as spectators. For that reason alone, regardless of their final league position, this season is already a success for Leicester City.

Villa Park Backlash – The Sterilisation Of Modern Football

Media Horror at Fans’ Enjoyment of Football

by Johnny Connelly

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Even in the current climate of nauseating Ofcom complaints, e-petitions, and general public shock at all things that deviate even slightly from wearisome pre-scripted television shows; the media’s outrage at the pitch invasion at Villa Park on Saturday was a bridge too far for me.

Tim Sherwood’s Aston Villa side ended 58 years of hurt, securing an FA Cup semi-final trip to Wembley at the expense of bitter rivals West Brom. The newly arrived gilet devotee spurred on his Villa side to an enthralling 2-0 win. We had the romance of the cup, red cards, a late winner, and even a pitch invasion or two to boot.

Short of a decent standard of football being on show (it was Aston Villa remember), the match was a spectacle for fans of the respective teams and neutrals alike. Everyone enjoyed it. Well, everyone except the BBC commentary and analysis team.

As the clock ticked down, a ragtag band of Villa fans made a dash for the pitch. A horrified Jonathan Pearce cried out: “We’ve got fans on the pitch! The game’s still going on!”.

Pearce’s words were strikingly similar to those of Kenneth Wolstenholme during the dying seconds of England’s famous 4-2 World Cup Final win over Germany in 1966; but the media furore that was incurred by virtue of the fans’ euphoria couldn’t have changed more in the 49 years that passed since then.

Jonathan Pearce’s wet blanket approach to football fan enjoyment was soon echoed by crisp enthusiast, Gary Lineker, and token Geordie thicko, Alan Shearer. With the BBC having set the tone, the morning papers followed suit. Shock horror at ordinary football fans enjoying a fleeting moment of spontaneity in the game. That wall to wall condemnation of the pitch invasion will forever serve as a marker for me in the game. When did football become so sterile and marginalised?

The pitch invasion at Villa Park was a beautiful one; an exertion of joy by football fans who’ve been suffering for a long time, and will now get something to shout about at one of the most famous football stadiums in the world. At a glance, you could see that those who ran on the pitch were ordinary football fans, not thugs. Even young kids got involved. A rare moment that they’ll be talking about for years to come.

I’m not advocating a pitch invasion every week. Nor am I suggesting that security developments since tragedies like Hillsborough should be undone. There was no thuggery, just good clean fun, albeit thanks to some unusually lax stewardship and policing. It’s clear to me that there’s a correlation between the decline in the impulsive, chaotic element of football, and the increase in money in the game.

Football seems to be becoming less and less about the punter going through the turnstiles; and more and more about how much cash can be force fed from broadcasters into an already morbidly obese handful of chosen leagues.

Only last month, Sky announced a deal that equates to around £100m per English Premiership game. This represents an increase of over 70%. I wonder, will the fans see a 70% reduction in their season ticket prices? They probably deserve one, seeing as Sky will be making them attend games at odd times like 12 noon on a Sunday to accommodate another two or three games per channel, per day.

For all the cash that’s been thrown at the English Premier League, where’s it got them to? Manchester United have gone from a near perfect football club, to a rudderless money pit, watched by football tourists, attracting B-list mercenaries to warm their bench. Chelsea’s ‘special one‘, has compared Stamford Bridge to a morgue. Arsenal’s Emirate’s Stadium is regularly referred to as ‘The Highbury Library’, and Manchester City even resorted to running a 2 for 1 offer on their Champions League tickets, thanks to woeful attendance figures.

Football on TV could be a great thing, but it’s failing to serve the fans at present. Sky forces the hand of all other broadcasters, and has been the driving force behind this pooh-poohing of all things spontaneous. When they should be concerned with the product and the appeal behind it, their focus seems rigidly stuck on punting you another HD box, with a subscription longer than most EPL players‘ contracts.

Leagues outside England, Spain, Germany and Italy all face the same problem. Scrambling for the scraps off the table of the TV money men. The game will die a slow, painful death unless this changes.

Peter Lawwell’s suggestion to shun the paltry £2m TV deal in Scotland is a bold one, and a step in the right direction, if nothing else. His argument is that the likes of Celtic could make more than this, if they reverted back to football at 3pm on a Saturday. At last, someone fighting the corner of the fans!

Do I think his suggestion will turn the game on its head? Probably not, but it’s as positive a step as could possibly be taken by someone representing a club in a ‘smaller’ league at present. Lord knows that the required changes won’t come from FIFA or governing bodies of that ilk. Perhaps a shift in technology could wrestle the control away from the big broadcasters in the future, but until that time, the status quo remains, and the big broadcasters hold all the cards.

The broadcasters’ control is suffocating the game. The poisonous discrediting of the Villa Park pitch invasion is just the tip of the iceberg, and drastic change is required before the beautiful game turns irreversibly ugly.