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The Championship crisis

The Championship – What’s gone wrong?

It was not so long ago that many pundits were calling the Championship one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. Good attendances, competitive football and highly unpredictable results. However, as the ridiculous sums of money in the Premier League grow higher and higher, the desperation to reach the top flight of English football is putting the Championship into an increasingly ugly state.

At points of the 2012/13 season it appears as if the people in charge of teams in the second tier are staging a competition to see who can run their club the worst.  From a chairman more impatient than Roman Abramovich and a hundred years of history being thrown away in the pursuit of glory, the Championship is heading down a road which could seriously damage English football forever.

While every club in the Championship dreams of making a push for promotion and getting themselves on Match Of The Day, the following four are chasing the dream harder than most:

Nottingham Forest

Being proud of your history is important for any football club. Without heritage, tradition and pride, football is nothing more than rich people kicking a ball around a field for an hour and a half. While every fan should be proud of their past, Nottingham Forest have more reason than most. Two European Cups, winners of the top flight, FA Cup winners on two occasions and four League Cups, Forest have a history which would be the envy of most Premier League clubs.

The majority of these successes came under the leadership of the legendary Brian Clough, a manager so unique that he is beloved by fans of Forest and Derby County, a similar feat to winning man of the year in Israel and Palestine. The man is so respected that whenever the two great rivals meet, they play for the Brian Clough trophy.

Clough managed the club for 18 years, winning everything there was to win as he took control of 907 matches.

By contrast, since Fawaz Al-Hawasi took control of the club on the 10th July 2012, the club has had a grand total of four managers. At the current rate at which Nottingham Forest are disposing of managers, they would go through 108 in the same period of time that Clough lead the club so magnificently.

Al Hawasi

The initial excitement when the Al-Hawasi family took over has long since faded for the majority of Nottingham Forest fans I come into contact with, as manager after manager is given the chop as the team continues to underperform, closer to the relegation zone than contending for promotion. The damage done to Nottingham Forest is far more than just a disappointing season however. Forest are arguably the biggest club in the second tier, with only Leeds United offering a valid argument for being of a greater stature. The chance to manage the Tricky Trees is a chance that any Football League manager would have jumped at until recently.

All that has changed, as the average tenure of a Nottingham Forest manager became around the same length as a Katie Price marriage. Al-Hawasi sacked Steve Cotterill two days after taking over at the club, talking of bringing in an “iconic manager”, before hiring Sean O’Driscoll. The former Doncaster Rovers manager was in charge for 26 games, losing just 7 and putting the club in serious contention for the playoffs. Nottingham Forest fans taunted Leeds manager Neil Warnock with “you’re getting sacked in the morning” after the Reds beat his side 4 – 2, however it was O’Driscoll who lost his job mere hours after the full time whistle.

Alex McLeish was the next man into the City Ground hot seat, a big name manager even if he’s unlikely to ever win any popularity awards in the city of Birmingham. The 26 games given to O’Driscoll looked like a lifetime compared to the Glaswegians reign, leaving the club by ‘mutual consent’ after just seven matches in charge.

Like a desperate drunk running out of options for a place to stay for the night, the only place left to turn for Forest was their ex. Billy Davies was the man in charge of Forest from 2008 – 2011, following in the footsteps of Clough by leaving Derby for their great rivals. He had departed the club almost two years earlier following successive playoff defeats and had not held another managerial job during that time. Davies was highly popular at Forest in his first stint, and in usual circumstances his return would have been met with tickertape parades and supporters openly weeping with joy in the streets.  Instead, there is a fear around the City Ground that the legacy of Davies will be spoiled if he fails to win every game 5 – 0 and becomes yet another name on the list of Al-Hawasi’s casualties.

Cardiff City

The rebranding of Cardiff City was the worst act of betrayal against a Football League club since the murder of Wimbledon by MK Dons, outraging football fans across the world. Everywhere in the world it seems, apart from in Cardiff.

While several hundred fans were furious, many thousands more accepted whatever the Malaysian owners threw at them in pursuit of a place in the Premier League. The Keep Cardiff Blue protest group was threatened with assault and even death if they protested at the ground, while my own personal protest resulted in my levels of abuse on social media matching that of Justin Bieber and a wide range of comments about how I should “watch my back”, mainly from 14 year old boys.

Much has been written on the subject of Cardiff City this season, but for those unaware of the timeline of events, a brief summary follows:

  • Cardiff City are defeated 5 – 0 in the Playoffs by West Ham at the end of the 2011/12 season.
  • Following this defeat, news breaks anonymously on the internet that the owners plan to change the bluebird to a dragon, changing the colour of the shirts from blue to red. In return the club would become debt free, a new training complex would be build and the stadium would be expanded.
  • The playoff defeat forgotten, fans react angrily to the proposed changes
  • Cardiff City issue a statement stating that the rebrand will not take place, and they will instead “search for alternative investment opportunities”.
  • The brainwashing of fans into believing “red or dead” begins, led by a number of ex-hooligans close to former Chairman Sam Hammam.
  • The club goes back on their word, changing the kit colour from blue to red, releasing a grotesque new badge.
  • Keep Cardiff Blue forms, and is promptly squashed when the initial meeting is met by threats of violence from fellow fans. Protestors are told “If you bring a blue banner, you will be buried.”
  • The clubs debt increases, while no plans relating to either the training complex or stadium expansion have emerged. However, heavy spending on transfers and wages see Cardiff City storm to near-certain promotion.

While many fans boycotted, many more continued to attend matches, either adopting the term ‘reluctant reds’ or even accepting the rebrand completely. With the team doing well on the pitch, those opposed to the changes became a silent minority. Despite a lack of vocal opposition, most fans did not completely give in to the whims of their Malaysian overlords, with blue the predominant colour in the stands.

Clearly this lack of “embracing the fusion of Welsh and Malaysian cultures” had to be rectified somehow to keep Vincent Tan happy, and sure enough a plan to force the rebrand down the throats of Cardiff fans was announced in the past week. Anyone who attended the fixture against Brighton and Hove Albion would receive the ‘generous gift’ of a free Cardiff City scarf, which was definitely to keep fans warm and in no way a cynical marketing ploy. Just to make sure as many people as possible accepted the ‘generosity’, the additional bribe of a free season ticket was offered to fans pictured holding a red scarf.

whatthefuckinghellisthat

As a final insult, the scarf (pictured below) calls the club by the wrong name, with a red bluebird to add further salt to the wounds. The official club spokesman used social media to make a big show of ringing Sky Sports last season to complain about the club being billed as ‘Cardiff’ rather than ‘Cardiff City’ in the build-up to the Carling Cup final, however they apparently have no such problems doing the same thing this year.

Who knows how far the rebranding of the club will continue and if they will ever play in blue again, but one thing is certain. At a time which should be one of the most exciting in the history of the club, the unity of the fanbase has been irrevocably damaged. Cardiff City will never be the same again, and not just because of the kit colour.

Leeds United

If there is one club that demonstrates the danger of ‘chasing the dream’ in the Premier League, Leeds United would be right up there with Portsmouth. From the Champions League to League One, overspending and unbelievably poor leadership saw Leeds move from a genuinely massive club to a national joke.

To say Ken Bates was unpopular in Leeds doesn’t really do it justice, with the former Chelsea owner doing everything in his power to alienate and drive away supporters. With this in mind, rumours of a takeover before the season began were met with an extremely positive reaction from Leeds supporters, with talk of big money to be invested to get Leeds back to where they belong.

As much as the football community loves to hate Leeds, they are a massive club who would add more excitement to the Premier League than many of the teams currently making up the division. Singing “We all hate Leeds scum” is a fashion statement for many football fans, declaring their hatred of the Yorkshire club simply because they’ve heard that’s what people do. Despite this, Leeds are a club I have a great deal of respect for. Living in the city for three years I soon discovered that if you live in Leeds, glory hunting isn’t an option. You support Leeds United, and that’s just the way it goes.

The men behind the takeover claimed to share this passion for Leeds United, and were initially welcomed as heroes when the takeover finally went ahead after many months of delay and uncertainty. Figures were thrown around of an investment of around £80m, with Neil Warnock to be given the funds he needed to make a serious push for promotion.

Instead of a flurry of new signings and building a squad that could truly compete, they sold Luciano Becchio, signing Alan Tate and Steve Morrison, a situation similar to being promised a visit to the Ritz for Valentine’s Day and going down the chippy instead. While the new owners would have to sacrifice Tony Yeboah at half time while stamping on Yorkshire puddings to make themselves less popular than Bates, there seems to be a growing fear that the investment group don’t particularly know what they’re doing.

Leeds fans have marched on together through a lot worse than being just outside the playoff places in the Championship, but the early indications are that the bright new dawn at Leeds United may not be so bright after all.

Watford

The story at Watford is a very different one to those above, as the owners appear to be doing an excellent job and giving the side a good chance of promotion. This is not a story of damaging owners, but instead one of the incredible risks sides take for a shot at the money of the Premier League.

Raffaele Riva, Gino Pozzo and Gianfranco Zola are the main men at Watford FC these days, as strong an Italian connection you can get without half time pizzas and extravagant hand gestures. The really interesting changes however have been on the pitch, with Watford making 14 loan signings this season, 10 of them from Udinese. Currently the strategy is working, with the Glory Horns well in contention for one of the automatic promotion spaces.

The problem comes if the Watford Azzurri promotion campaign is unsuccessful and their Italian stallions return to their parent clubs. Watford will be left with a threadbare squad and increased expectations from the fans after the excellent way they have performed this time out, putting pressure on the club to spend big.

There is also the issue about just how much loan players care for the clubs they represent, especially towards the end of the season. In theory the Cardiff City squad which contained Craig Bellamy, Michael Chopra, Jay Bothroyd, Peter Whittingham and Chris Burke should have stormed to promotion, but poor loan performances saw the unity of the squad collapse as they meekly failed in the playoffs against Reading. Meanwhile, Swansea City were promoted without the star names, relying on just one loan player who was able to make a real difference.

Whether Watford will go the same way as that failed squad remains to be seen, but building an entire team around loan signings is a worrying trend for the future competitiveness of the Championship. With financial fair play coming in to place to prevent so called ‘financial doping’, squads full of loan players could be the next trend for instant success.

The lower reaches of the Spanish leagues contain reserve sides for the top La Liga teams. If British clubs go down the route of loaning vast numbers of players from abroad to avoid loan regulations, the Football League could essentially become another version of Serie B. I don’t blame Watford for what they are doing, the ridiculous financial incentives of the Premier League mean that it is inevitable clubs will do anything they can to get their hands on the top flight pot of gold. As with the Cardiff City rebranding and the Nottingham Forest manager massacre, the problem is how many clubs will follow in their footsteps if their plans are successful.

The Premier League hangover

With owners prepared to take such risks and fans prepared to make such sacrifices to their clubs, you would think that getting into the Premier League would result in guaranteed success and stability for a club. You only have to study the current Championship table to discover that this is far from the truth.

Wolves, Bolton and Birmingham City spent many years in the top flight between them, yet it is relegation to League One that is on their mind this season. Birmingham’s overseas investors did oversee a League Cup victory and a brave Europa League run, but relegation followed and the club has been left in limbo by Carson Yeung’s court case and the uncertainty over who is actually making the decisions at the top level of the club.

Blackburn Rovers are performing slightly better in the table, but this does not mean the club is being managed any better. The Venkys have become synonymous with bad leadership, as they talked about signing Ronaldinho and bringing back the glory days, but hired the dismal Steve Kean and were relegated instead.

While the Premier League continues to fool people into thinking it’s the strongest competition in the world and offer such financial incentives for those who battle their way into it, the Championship will continue to show as much dignity as a kebab shop at 3am after a Saturday night out. It’s clear to see that football in England cannot go on the way it is, however it will be the Championship and the Football League that suffers worst when the ivory towers come crashing down.

Against Modern Football?

Against Modern Football. It’s a slogan that is becoming increasingly frequent from football fans. It’s on banners, it’s on t-shirts, it’s on stickers and the #againstmodernfootball hashtag updates at around the same rate as swear words on Piers Morgans interactions. Are the jibes at the modern game justified? In this piece I look at the good, the bad and the ugly of modern football, before coming to a decision once and for all about the modern-day version of the ‘beautiful game’.

The Good

Holmesdale Fanatics – Crystal Palace F.C

Glance at any social media website during a televised game featuring a European club and it’s likely you’ll see numerous envious comments on how good the atmosphere is. Manchester City recently took on Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League, with the magnificent travelling support winning universal praise. I was lucky enough to be in attendance, and for long spells of the game my attention was drawn away from the action on the field to watch in admiration as BVB put on a masterclass in football support.

While people are rightly quick to praise the fantastic atmosphere on display from many Europeans clubs, and bemoan the fact British football cannot produce something similar, attempts to do something about it are widely mocked. Crystal Palace established the Holmesdale Fanatics in 2005, looking to improve the atmosphere off the field and inspire the team. Rather than taking Crystal Palace as an inspiration, many fans deride them. I will admit that the ‘Next stop – Wembley Park’ banner displayed at the Carling Cup Semi-Final had the desired response in winding me up, but the Palace ultras group have outdone themselves in recent weeks.

First of all a banner displayed against Cardiff City, saying what many fans of the team formerly known as Bluebirds felt but were not allowed to express:

This was followed by a true work of art for the visit of their South London rivals Millwall

For anyone who doesn’t understand the presence of the Turkish flag, it’s a reference to Millwall’s charming habit of displaying this particular item when they play Leeds United (more on them later) regarding the deaths of two of their supporters in Istanbul.

The Palace supporters are not just about clever banners and bed sheets with evocative slogans on them. They are an ever-expanding group of fans who support their team for 90 minutes in a passionate and non violent way. The support is highly organised, coordinated and you better believe they’re loud. The support Palace fans gave their side away at Charlton on a televised game this season looked more like something produced by an Italian ultras group. A lot of teams could learn from Crystal Palace, with similar fans groups offering Britain the chance to savour the atmosphere which was once the envy of Europe. The term ultras is seen by many as a negative thing with hooligan connotations, you only have to take a trip to Selhurst Park to see that this is not true.

Safe standing trials

Many modern-day football fans will never have experienced the thrill of a terrace, especially those in the higher divisions. Fortunately for me Cardiff played at Ninian Park up until 2009 and therefore I was able to stand on both the Bob Bank and the Grange End Terrace. Many fans of a similar age to me will not have been so lucky, with their experience of the terraces nothing more than nostalgic stories from their older counterparts. However, the days of standing up to watch football in Britain could be coming back. This Hull City statement on safe standing is non-committal, but is certainly promising for fans who dream of seeing a return to terraces in Britain. The Bundesliga and other leagues around Europe show it can be done, and with the recent Hillsborough report confirming what all decent people knew anyway, that Liverpool fans were totally free from blame for the disaster there. With this report now out in the open, there is no legal or sensible reason to oppose standing.

Aston Villa have also confirmed they are interested in trialling safe standing areas, with the Football Supporters Federation continuing their superb work campaigning for the rights of the average football fan.

The folding seat system used by German teams, allowing them to comply with UEFA competition regulations where standing is banned.

The revival of Portsmouth and Rangers

After deciding to boycott Cardiff City for their rebranding exploits, I received roughly 23,039,924 tweets asking if I would “rather be like Rangers or Portsmouth?”. The answer was yes then, and even more so now. Rangers sit proudly on top of the league, breaking records for attendances with their heritage and tradition well and truly in tact. Meanwhile on the south coast, Portsmouth look set to be taken over by the supporters trust. While they still face the possibility of a ten point deduction which would send them crashing down the table, they currently find themselves just outside the playoffs and defying their labels as relegation fodder for yet another season.

There’s no doubt it will be a long road back to the top for these two clubs who battled extinction, but it will be done in the right way. No ‘fusions of cultures’ or ‘expensive principles’ for these two. Rangers will surely be back in the SPL within a few years, having served their punishments for allowing themselves to get into such a financial mess. Celtic and the majority of Scottish football will have a good old laugh at them while they get back to where they belong, but the fact is Rangers and their supporters are facing up to the situation they find themselves in with pride and dignity.

The Bad

“Finishing in the top four is like a trophy”

A group of Arsenal fans are unhappy with the way money is being favoured over trophies

Arsene Wenger insisted at the Arsenal AGM that finishing in the top four was the same as a trophy and a higher priority than both the League Cup and the FA Cup. The League Cup (sorry sponsors, I refuse to call it the Capital One Cup) is treated as an annoying distraction, to the stage where teams are actually mocked for trying hard in the competition and trying to win it. With the exception of the untouchable Alex Ferguson, it is likely that a manager of one of the title contending sides would be sacked if it was the only silverware in the cabinet at the end of the season.

The League Cup being treated poorly is one thing, but the FA Cup is another. The day Cardiff City reached the FA Cup Final was the proudest day of my football life (not to mention the drunkest), with FA Cup final day another football tradition suffering in the modern game. Far from it being the most special day of the season, with build up from the crack of dawn culminating in a showpiece event, it is now not even the only game of the day. Premiership and Football League fixtures take place alongside the cup final, while sponsorship of the competition means managers, players and pundits are being forced to call it ‘The FA Cup with Budweiser’ with widespread ugly branding detracting from the tradition of the trophy.

Nobody dreamed of scoring the goal that secured fourth place for their team as a child, just as fans don’t line the streets to watch their team parade a giant number four from an open top bus. The solution of course is to award the winners of the domestic trophies a Champions League place, but it is a footballing tragedy in itself that players and clubs should need an additional motive to win a trophy.

Cardiff City playing in red

You probably knew this one was coming. It’s just wrong, and it always will be. Reluctantly accepting the rebrand is one thing, but those people old enough to know better who have actually bought a red shirt need to have a serious word with themselves. This may well be the season that Cardiff City go up to the Premier League, and sadly many people will say the change was worth it if they do so. I believe, along with a dwindling group of others that any victory which involved selling your pride is no victory at all. I also strongly disagree with the franchise in Milton Keynes continuing to use Dons in their name, despite having no connection to the Wimdledon FC side which owned that nickname. MK Dons should change their name to something which leaves the soul of Wimbledon at rest, or better still fold completely and remove their ugly stain from the world of football.

The Ugly

Racism in football

I have worked out that at a rough estimate I have attended around 450 football matches in my life so far. If chants about an inappropriate lust for sheep are discounted, I have only witnessed three instances of racism at these games, with one of these being Montenegro supporters against Ashley Williams for Wales. I won’t mention the names of the teams involved in the other incidents as I don’t wish to label all their fans as racists, these were isolated incidents from a few moronic individuals.

While the racism in British football crowds is nothing compared to that in Eastern Europe, when Liverpool and Chelsea fans are complaining about the bans given to their players for racial abuse there is clearly a problem. If a fan shouted similar disgusting language they would be banned from every football ground in the country for at least  three years, if not for life. While players can get away extremely lightly with saying such dreadful things on the football pitch, the problem is not going to go away. By not making an example of John Terry and Luis Suarez, young supporters are not getting the message that racism is unacceptable. Rightly or wrongly, young people idolise footballers. When star players at clubs like Liverpool and Chelsea can get away with such actions, how can the FA claim to be combatting racism?

The recent events in Serbia which saw Danny Rose racially abused while playing for England U21’s rightly shocked the nation. However every weekend, players found guilty of racism will run out to play in English football stadiums. The racism in Eastern Europe is often appalling  but our own house is far from in order.

Character assassination of Leeds United

Aaron Cawley shames himself, not Leeds United

The Friday night encounter between Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United produced a number of incidents the likes of which are normally only seen in Britain during terrible Danny Dyer films. A smokebomb was thrown on the pitch after the opening goal for Wednesday (worst of all, it wasn’t even the right colour), chants related to the deaths of two Leeds supporters in Istanbul and rival supporters attempted to get at each other in the corner of the stadium. All of this was bad enough, but the headline moment was still to come.

Leeds United scored a fantastic equalising goal with the clock running down to the end of the game. It was the kind of strike that sends away fans a special kind of loopy, with people who really shouldn’t have their tops off in public and multiple bruises on the shins from colliding with seats. However, a section of the Leeds fans took it too far, in particular Mr Aaron Cawley. Having invaded the pitch, he shamefully hit Wednesday goalkeeper Chris Kirkland with both hands in the face. A dreadful incident and no mistake, but the widespread outpouring of abuse towards Leeds which resulted was totally uncalled for. Walk down any busy high street in Britain on a Friday night and you’ll see incidents ten times worse than this one.

Dave Jones has faced some awful chants after the false allegations against him and I can only imagine what it would be like to go through his terrible ordeal. Having said that, labeling every Leeds fan as a “vile animal” and calling for them to be banned from every away game was simply unacceptable. In 2006, Cardiff City supporters were banned from attending a fixture away at Wolves. The club statement at the time backed by every member of staff said this move “detracts from any system of natural justice.” The Cardiff City manager at the time? Dave Jones. Aaron Cawley is a thug and an idiot and anyone who went on the pitch will probably regret their actions for three years or so when they pick up their banning orders. Despite these blemishes, over 5,000 Leeds supporters backed their team immaculately during the game. Leeds United have an away support which put most sides to shame, supporting their local team loudly and proudly. Dave Jones and the media should not allow the Aaron Cawleys of the world to stop the decent law-abiding fan from being allowed to display their passionate support. Watching football is not a crime. Dave Jones, many media sources and the ‘we all hate Leeds scum’ Twitter masses would do well to remember that.

Ticket prices and kick off times

When six non-league clubs charge more for their cheapest season ticket than the Premier League winners, then you know something has gone seriously wrong with football. The lowest cost of a ticket to every Manchester City home game is £275, with Blue Square Bet Premier clubs Alfreton Town, Barrow AFC, Forest Green Rovers, Gateshead, Macclesfield Town and Newport County all charging figures in excess of this.

Move up a tier into League Two and there are even more clubs charging more than the Manchester club, including rock bottom of the Football League Barnet. It is these smaller clubs who need the revenue from their fans who attend matches more than ever, no money spinning tours to the Far East for these guys. Yet how can the likes of Barnet stop potential fans from spending their money on an Arsenal shirt instead of getting them through the turnstiles at Underhill if they charge such ridiculous prices? This is no dig at Barnet or any of the other teams listed here, they are forced to charge this kind of figure because of the obscene money in the sport. When clubs are threatened with going out of business for less money than Wayne Rooney makes in a day, it’s clear that football is in the process of eating itself.

For the fans who can still afford to go to matches, the next hurdle put in their way are the increasingly ridiculous kick off times for television. This includes putting the Swansea vs. Cardiff derby at 11:20am for SKY coverage, while fans of teams such as Newcastle and Sunderland often have to leave for away games at the time most people are going to bed due to early Sunday games. Support one of the more attractive sides for television coverage such as Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool and you may as well make alternative plans for pretty much every Saturday afternoon all season, as the game will be shifted to an inconvenient and often ungodly hour. The fans will go along with this due to the sheer loyalty to their teams, whereas they would have been driven from any other business long ago. This level of dedication shows why a football supporter should not be treated like a customer. After all, nobody ever got a tattoo to show their love of their favourite supermarket or named their child Subway.

One day in the distant future the common football fan will take back the game. Clubs such as AFC Wimbledon, Wrexham, Portsmouth and S.V Austria Salzburg will be seen as the inspiration. Supporters will be valued over merchandising contracts and TV deals, and the game will once again be beautiful. Sadly I can only see this outcome arriving once many clubs have collapsed under the financial pressures that come with modern-day football. The sport is not all bad, and the promise of a return to standing and the attempts of clubs like Crystal Palace show that I am not the only football supporter who believes they were born in the wrong generation. The standard of football itself is usually good, and you’d have to either be an emotionless robot or a Manchester United fan to have not screamed like a girl when Sergio Aguero won the title in the dying seconds of last season. Despite this, the value of money over success and the treatment of a match going supporter as an annoyance rather than as essential, means I have to agree with the many groups around the world who display banners in various languages against the modern game.

No Al Calcio Moderno

Gegen Den Modernen Fußball

Against Modern Football