Category Archives: Football

Fleetwood Town 0 AFC Wimbledon 0: Torturous to Some

 

grumbler

Unusual for Graham Alexander to employ such a system: 3-5-2 (inevitably becoming 5-3-2); Alan Goodall, the old pro, sat between the centre halves rather than in front of the back four. But the wingbacks – were they conversant in the silky skills required to penetrate deep into opposition territory? Alas – not today. And the three man midfield – Murdoch, Sarcevic and new boy, Bobby Grant. Did they live by the psychic code of all great midfields? Were they each aware of the others’ movement and concession of space? Did they… gel? Not particularly.

I sat next to the grumbler of all grumblers today or rather an old man kitted out in sarcasm and negativity. It wasn’t pleasant. “£300,000 for Matt. £150,000 for Cresswell. What for?!” I am a team’s biggest critic but I at least know that players mostly feed off a crowd’s enthusiasm. To not expect anything from these “lumpen cart horses” in front of him or have one word of belief – it astounded me. Why had he been coming for 6 years?

He had been trussed up in the dangerous designs of having a ‘divine right’ to win. He had been spoilt. Was Fleetwood’s miraculous rise from the tenth tier to the fourth in a matter of fifteen years not there to be celebrated by the spectacle of each and every opponent to grace Highbury’s pitch? Wasn’t the visiting might of old giants like Portsmouth, Plymouth and Oxford enough? What did the old bugger expect? An easy stroll to the Championship?

From 100 fans to 3000. It was a fairy tale. The stands. The community. The set up. The brazen red letters on each programme – CODARMY. Not ‘Fleetwood’ made large font but a sign, a message to the opposition that we are together and prepared to graft and utilise every last ounce of sweat.

Expectation levels sometimes enter a realm which doesn’t entirely inhabit the real world. The young become impatient. The old offset their physical difficulties by moaning at able-bodied men. Some fans – most notably the proud, singing and bobbing unit in the centre of the Memorial Stand (accompanied by the beating of a war drum) – truly act as the 12th man. They understand that where we are is special. They do not take league status lightly. To be in one of the top four divisions of English football – by Christ, that is something for a town of this size.

Promotion to League One? Let us dream – yes. Let us try to sustain this momentum. Let us exploit whatever bricks have fallen into place. But booing if things go wrong, an attempt at humour with the dried-husk words of a menacing cynic? Leave them at home.

The team is trying. There are twenty-three different flavours, tastes and styles to contend with. Sometimes we’ll balls it up. Sometimes it will look bloody awful. But this was never meant to be choreography or theatre. It is blood and thunder, luck, random ideas, attrition – organised chaos with a circular piece of leather being thrust around the turf.

Did I curse Alexander for his tactics today? A little. Did I wonder why the hell he persists with two big men up front? Absolutely. Was I aware that the team void of Jeff Hughes and David Ball looks decidedly mediocre and without sufficient drive? You bloody betcha. Did I have my head down at the final whistle or rejoice in the contribution of our terrier and no.22 spark, Matty Hughes? Without doubt, the latter.

I applauded the team off the field despite my disappointment at only gaining a draw. I trumpeted individual performances which offered hope irrespective of the dip in form.

Can this team still gain automatic promotion? Yes. What if it’s only the play-offs or worse given the charge of Plymouth? We’ll live with it, regroup, understand just how far we’ve come, fully comprehend the privilege of playing in League Two.

And The Grumbler? A man I will have to sit next to for the Portsmouth and Rochdale games having pre-booked the tickets.

I will get my son to smear a hotdog in his face accidentally if he doesn’t see something in Fleetwood’s play – a blessed chunk of what I see every week; the player desperately working towards a cohesive unit; the slick passing of Big Jon Parkin (on a good day); the threat of Charlie Taylor when he smells a lack of speed; the bursting and compensatory runs of Gareth Evans in the knowledge that we do not possess any traditional wingers.

If he doesn’t see this, then feed him to the Kop. Cod Army! Cod Army! Cod Army!

 

 

Giant Killers Warm Up before their Big Day

giant k

Division Four

Hilton ‘L’                      3

Harper Brass ‘C’      6

Fifty years ago Oxford United knocked Blackburn Rovers out of the FA Cup 3-1 in what was arguably the biggest giant killing act in cup history. It was Division Four versus Division One – a team in only their second season of league football against established internationals.

Forget Wrexham/Arsenal (1992), Sutton United/Coventry City (1989), Wimbledon/Liverpool (1988) and Colchester/Leeds (1971). That afternoon at the Manor Ground in 1964, although perhaps not etched in modern minds, was cataclysmic – a real blueprint and precursor to Match of the Day stunners.

Hilton ‘L’, bottom of the table tennis tree, languishing in 12th place in Division Four, have had a run in the Warburton Cup (the local equivalent of the FA Cup) which has reverberated around the ‘grounds’ and will be highlighted in the table tennis annals should they go all the way.

Semi-finalists, dispensing with opposition in all three of the top divisions, Hilton ‘L’ have surprised many since their 2nd round defeat of seasoned Premier outfit, Burning Desire. That result (396.5 – 396), whilst incredibly tight and some might say fortuitous, maybe anchored itself to a greater destiny.

A young squad, the core of which is represented by 15-year-olds Thomas Field, Jason Hill and Robert Shaw, Hilton are developing at a good pace and showing the flair and belief of a close knit unit. Diplomatic squad rotation tonight from coach, Brian Young means that Hill sits it out – replaced by the youngest member of the team at just fourteen (and the boy with two surnames), Harrison Jones.

The tactical shifting of Harper Brass’s top player, Faizan Bhura to no.2 on the card results in an opening ‘big guns’ clash between Field and Bhura – a match that would normally see out the evening.

Field, blue and white Stiga top, slightly roguish gelled hair, does not look fazed. Opposite is a 75% man in mean, Nike orange-striped trainers, yet his polished technique copes admirably. 10-12. Damn unlucky; noticeable fight in the youngster when 4-8 down. Field knows that he has to have these scraps in order to rise and test himself properly.

8-11. 9-11. It is commendable from Field – not enough, but extremely encouraging. Bhura, quite simply, is match savvy. Even at 5-1 down in the third he retained his cool, played the same strokes.

Shaw versus Haroon Khan next – a decade separates them in age. The blonde, Hilton lad (grey joggers) has an austere aura to him. He knows the standards he wishes to attain, yet the path to them may unduly frustrate. 6-11. 11-8. Shaw’s whipping forehand sends a warning out to Khan.

Khan, always upbeat, enjoying his third and finest season in the league, thinks he has this opponent despite the mishap of the second. His game has improved drastically – the soft backhand is no more and the deep, arching southpaw shots have a beautiful, navigational quality. 6-11. 4-11. Too much for Shaw.

Enter the saviour, Jones – unfancied, modest stats and up against the loquacious Kaushik Makwana (55%). 11-4: Persistent smashes. 8-11: Makwana sweeping backhands. 11-7: Improved feet from Jones. 10-12: Cruel. 11-9: Always in the locker!

It is hardly Oxford United (plus Harper win on the night). But the promise, the dream – that lives on.

 

 

Movers and Shakers II

Continuing this column in relation to the Blackpool manager’s job, I think the point I was trying to make is that the higher you climb in most disciplines, the harder it gets.

You are often barracked and jolted – left weary, yet with a better understanding of yourself. This is borne out in the following table which displays the average win percentage ratios when a player moves up a table tennis division:

                                                                Ratios*

Division                     2011/12-2012/13    2012/13-2013/14    Average

One > Premier                     4.07                            4.15                     4.11

Two > One                            4.02                            2.53                     3.27

Three > Two                         2.99                            1.83                     2.41

Four > Three                        1.65                            1.81                     1.73

  • Each number based on data from 4-7 players

Player ‘A’ in the 2011/12 season for example might think himself a giant with an 80% win record in Division Four, but the likelihood is that this would be reduced to a mere 48% once in Division Three (80 divided by 1.65).

If the same player were to go even higher, his figure would tumble by a ratio of 2.99 to just 16% and that is before the fierce winds of Division One and the Premier host his talents (if ever) indicating a final figure of just 1%.

It is a relatively straightforward methodology ascertained using limited player data, but it quite uncannily reveals across two sets of statistics (over nearly three seasons) the increasing difficulty of rising the divisions, thus reaching the top.

Jumping from Four to Three and One to the Premier seems particularly consistent, however going from Three to Two or Two to One would appear to have got easier judging from the declining ratios. That is one theory anyway. Another is that the players going up are technically better prepared.

Mike Audsley of Meadow Ben B is a good example of this (ratio 1.17 between 2011-13) and with the 2013/14 season yet to finish, Hilton E’s Wilson Parker currently stands at an impressively low ratio of just 1.05 (96.30% divided by 91.67%).

Such figures obviously pull down the overall average but they also stand as a testament to good coaching, commitment, belief and a solid dream; categories/virtues I know young Parker has in abundance (strong parental support being another key factor I would suggest).

This leans into a conversation I had with Bury cricketer, Matthew Metcalfe the other day concerning success and its key ingredients. He was fortunate to attend a talk in Salford by three-time Super League Grand Final winner, Brian Noble during which Nobby (as he is affectionately known) alluded to the absolute need for a dream or vision.

No matter how much rhetoric you provide to an athlete or player, there has to be an overriding vision that the team can buy into; not a cheap, prescriptive gimmick but rather a firm, achievable target – genuine desire on the part of the collective.

I have scoured the divisions and spoken to numerous people in an effort to understand what exactly it is that undermines or improves a person’s win percentage. Many answers have come back (respectively): a broken bat; demanding shifts at work pre-match; refusing to give up even at 10-6 down; playing in both the Bolton and Bury leagues; more practice; strength, mental agility and experience; incentive of winning the division.

My conclusion? Bluff generally only impresses a bluffer. No interview with Karl Oyston thus far.

 

 

Movers and Shakers I

yeboah II

I applied for the Blackpool manager’s job via email on Thursday, 23rd January at 1.59pm. I have worked for enough bounders with no foresight, vision or inventiveness to know that it was time for the little man to have his day.

Eleven minutes later, I received a response from the chairman’s PA, Dawn Butterworth advising me that without the necessary coaching badges such an appointment was “impossible”. I quickly pointed out that badges can be taken after the appointment and she conceded some ground citing the James Beattie case at Accrington Stanley (a fine and qualifications deadline).

Completing FA Level 1 (32 hrs), Levels 2 & 3 (UEFA B Licence – 165 hrs) and then the UEFA A Licence (Championship managers and above) which is run over 21 days would take some doing, but for the sake of a modest 18-month contract on £5000 a week, I was prepared for the hardship.

My communication to Karl Oyston consisted of numerous points: my understanding of the game having watched football since the 1978 World Cup final; a pedigree in terms of success (don’t laugh – golf Junior Knockout winner at Breightmet Golf Club in1986 & back-to-back table tennis promotions in the Bolton League 2011-2013); a head for numbers; knowledge of great footballing debuts.

It was the latter along with my firm belief that a sharp scouting eye is more important than having played professionally that I wished to press home (straight from the Arsene Wenger school of management).

I have had the privilege of witnessing Eric Cantona play in a Leeds United shirt for the first time at BoundaryPark in February 1992. Three years later I was mesmerized by the presence of Tony Yeboah scoring his debut goal at Old Trafford. In 2000, it was the turn of Rio Ferdinand making his home bow in a more sensible 4-4-2 formation (following the disastrous 3-5-2 employed at Filbert Street). A strutting, more confident centre half I had never seen.

All these players – as long-time fans of BWFC will know having seen the sublime skills of Jay-Jay Okocha – had one huge, seismic quality in common: they were able to excite. Their presence and audaciousness was from another world. To quote Jon Howe: “Like Cantona before him, the reverberations from Yeboah’s arrival were so immediate, so openly emotional and so telling.”

Finding such greatness within the ranks of the current Blackpool squad was my aim – players maybe rashly overlooked, footballers just not motivated correctly, men simply played out of position or psychologically strangled by the existing system. Could I put myself alongside the bookies favourites’ Micky Adams, Barry Ferguson and Karl Robinson? Yes – why the hell not. Was I delusional? Only in part.

I kindly included a list of transfer targets given the impending deadline: Tom Eaves; Josh Vela; Craig Dawson; Ivan Klasnic. I would fool Freedman into releasing the first two for a pittance. We would have our rock, Dawson. And Klasnic – the perfect foil for Eaves – would light up a crowd once more.

What has this got to do with table tennis? Did I even get an interview? I will tell you next week.

 

 

Slumped Shoulders and Modest Applause

Blackpool, opportunistic and clever like the two ice-cream vans parked up on Sefton Lane, spoiled the anticipated party today. An unusual gamble from Bolton’s Dougie Freedman – giving no.17, Robert Hall his full debut – left the right of defence exposed and more than likely unsettled the back line which in the first half conceded two early goals.

It was a truly inauspicious beginning – one which only a high-spirited dreamer might think Bolton able to reverse. Two players excelled for Blackpool – Matt Phillips and Ludovic Sylvestre – and it was soft complacency that allowed both stars joyous and incredulous celebrations.

2-0 down. Where to go? Bolton appeared lacklustre, far from the balanced side that had orchestrated this final day cliffhanger. Some fans will credit Freedman for his 37th minute substitution which preceded the drama of injury time goals from Eagles (45+2) and C Davies (45+4) thus levelling matters at 2-2. I will not (I am four years older than DF and have a sure-hearted conviction). The refulgence of Eagles came from the middle – not his new-found position out on the wing (compounded following the introduction of Sordell).

Replacing Hall was a lesson not in tactical genius but how to deflate a young player actually gaining in confidence and starting to show beautiful ball control with his imperious left peg. It is possible that the roving menace of Davies and Sordell together – following the withdrawal of Hall – opened up the Blackpool defence, but I would counter this with the theory that Eagles simply raised his game, proved that he was the best player on the park when mindful of his own threat.

The second half, despite the hope and longing sequestered, proved to be a difficult affair. Sure, Medo still allowed Pratley to scamper forward. Chungy Lee hinted at mesmerizing runs of old. And Ream’s distribution was competent. But beyond the transient, intricate passing and the palatial, if belated brilliance of Eagles stood a team not quite hungry enough.

Their slumped shoulders and modest applause to the fans during the ‘lap of appreciation’ suggested disappointment and the hurtful knowledge of a further 12-month sabbatical from the Premiership, yet they must now begin the process of knowing how to boss the opposition. Anything less will leave them as also-rans.

I am optimistic. Tom Eaves has the look and touch of a broad-shouldered Cantona (his ‘two feet by the post’ shot signalling future audacity). Robert Hall has a whistling, sniper-like shot (and his positional sense will improve). Josh Vela and Stuart Holden – well, I needn’t be the town crier for these marvels. Three more players (GK, CH & a 30-goal-a-season striker) and a sprinkle of luck and we will be there, looking down on the pack in 2014.

* This piece was edited down to 400 words and published in The Bolton News on Mon, 6 May 2013