Archive for the ‘Features’ Category

THE ASHES: Adelaide notebook … on sledging, selection and non-stories

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Legside LizzyBy Lizzy Ammon

4 December 2013

So sledging raised its head again, as it does with boring regularity, following Michael Clarke’s audible “get ready for a fucking broken arm” jibe to Jimmy Anderson.

The consensus is seems to be that sledging is fine as long as it doesn’t “cross a line” but where’s the line? Who drew it?

The truth is nobody has drawn it and no-one seems prepared to define clearly what they mean by it.

For his ‘GRFAFBA’ line, Michael Clarke was fined under the ICC code of conduct for a “level 1” breach.

A “level 1” breach is defined in the ICC code of conduct thus:

2.1.4 Using language or a gesture that is obscene, offensive or insulting during an International Match.  

[Note: Article 2.1.4 includes: (a) excessively audible or repetitious swearing; and (b) obscene gestures which are not directed at another person, such as swearing in frustration at one’s own poor play or fortune. In addition, this offence is not intended to penalise trivial behaviour.  

When assessing the seriousness of the breach, the Umpire shall be required to take into account the context of the particular situation and whether the words or gesture are likely to: (a) be regarded as obscene; (b) give offence; or (c) insult another person.  

This offence is not intended to cover any use of language or gestures that are likely to offend another person on the basis of their race, religion, gender, colour, descent, national or ethnic origin. Such conduct is prohibited under the ICC’s Anti-Racism Code and must be dealt with according to the procedures set out therein.]

 

Cricket-ballReading that definition, it’s clear this is not enforced with regularity or consistency.

“Swearing in frustration at one’s own poor play or fortune” – this must happen several times during the course of a day’s Test play. Rarely do we hear of players being charged for it.

Clarke’s only crime was that he was unfortunate enough to be near a microphone that was turned on when it shouldn’t have been.

The ICC document then goes on to say “This offence is not intended to penalise trivial behaviour.”

What is trivial?  What is not? When it comes to what’s offensive, that’s about as subjective as it gets.

Offence can be defined by either how it’s perceived or how it’s intended or a combination of both.

The code of conduct asks umpires to be moral arbiters without giving them clear enough guidance on what that means. It’s hardly surprising that it is enforced inconsistently.

If you progress through the code of conduct document and go on to look at level 2 and level 3 breaches, on another day Michael Clarke could have charged with one of them for the “broken arm” statement or he could have charged with nothing – such is the opaque nature of both the ICC code of conduct and the spirit of cricket pre-amble set out in the laws of the game.

It’s important to note that neither side have made any complaint at all about any of the sledging that has occurred on the pitch either during the summer in England or from the Gabba Test. It’s only comments within the media and certain sections of supporters who think that Clarke crossed this mysterious undefined line that is so often mentioned.

Sledging is what it is. It’s been around for as long as cricket itself. Cricket is a game that’s as much about mental toughness as it is about skill and trying to get inside your opponent’s head is an key part of your armoury.

Rarely are any of the sledges witty, erudite or amusing. Mostly it’s just instinctive aggression in the heat of the battle and some of it is macho laden willy-waving trying to show you’re harder than the other guy. That’s OK – cricketers aren’t employed for their erudite musings or their sharp wit.

Never underestimate cricket’s ability to be sanctimonious about itself though.

Cricket likes to moralise about its infamous “spirit” but when you ask the difficult questions about what that means in practice the answers come back to you in the same language as politicians use when they don’t want to answer your question.

 

Cricket-ballSelection speculation

One of the hallmarks of Andy Flower’s England reign has been stability of selection, a seismic shift from the bad old days of revolving door selection. From a purely selfish journalistic perspective, such relentless consistency of line-up has become dull. What’s left to speculate on? Rarely for the last few years has more than one place in the Test side been up for discussion and invariably that place has been six, and who should bat there.

But since Andrew Strauss’s retirement, England have been faced with more instability, trying to find a suitable opener to partner Alastair Cook; they’re now on their third choice in 13 months with Michael Carberry.

They’re still trying to find someone to stake a permanent claim on the number six slot. The first change seamer position has mostly been held by Tim Bresnan apart from the odd dalliance with Steven Finn, Chris Woakes and Chris Tremlett.

Not so long ago England were being praised for their strength in depth in the bowling department. That was a bit of a myth. Based on performances in the tour matches, Steven Finn and Boyd Rankin are some way off getting into the side – neither took their chance to impress at Alice Springs and Chris Tremlett has turned into the epitome of military medium.

England will be highly relived that Tim Bresnan has returned to fitness because the stock in the cupboard was looking a bit ropey.

The shock sad news that Jonathan Trott has had to leave the tour with a stress-elated illness means England are forced to have another re-think about their batting order.  They seem, understandably, loathe to move Ian Bell from the position he’s been so successful in and are more inclined to move Joe Root back up the order.

This still leaves the everlasting question of who’s batting at six. Jonny Bairstow, Gary Ballance or even perhaps Ben Stokes. With Matt Prior’s terrible form at the moment, the performance of the number six has become even more important than it has been in previous series and Ballance is the batsmen who they think probably has the most patience and determination at the crease.

England have gone from the epitome of stability to full of weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Australia have gone from the madness of the Ashton Agar selection at Trent Bridge to a side who, whilst still with areas of weakness, are settled and together.

 

Cricket-ballNon-Stories

The problem with Test matches that aren’t back-to-back is  that the absence of actual cricket leads to a plethora of stories that are not actually stories.

This week we’ve had a PA announcer at Alice Springs be accused of a racial slur against Monty Panesar when he merely announced his name as “It’s Montyyyyy” in the same way a darts announcer would say “180”.

We’ve had a brouhaha about three grown ups going for a drink in a bar and we’ve had Graham Gooch tell us what we already knew that Root or Bell will bat at three.

 

Cricket-ballThe pitch

Staring intently at 22 yards of cut grass is one the great pastimes for cricket broadcasters and journalists. Trying to analyse what it might or might not do in the course a five-day match and what that might mean for who plays. The cricket media are a knowledgeable bunch and they mostly get it almost right but this particular 22 yards is anyone’s guess.

It’s a drop-in pitch and whilst they might be making some educated guesses based on its appearance, the previous couple of Sheffield Shield matches and what the Adelaide Oval curator says, no-one actually knows.

The word seems to be that it might be very dry and may turn or may just be a slow, low dull one.

I’m sure we’ll know more when Beefy sticks his bic biro in it before the toss on Thursday (that’s Wednesday night, in English).

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Lizzy Ammon writes for SPIN cricket magazine  (here and on Twitter @spincricket), and for The Sunday People (columns here and on Twitter @peoplesport) and you can follow Lizzy on Twitter at @legsidelizzy

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‘Maybe the forces of darkness will force out AVB, but hell’s bells it would be a disaster for Spurs’

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

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Jonnie BakerBy Jonnie Baker

28 November 2013

Andre Villas-Boas is fighting to keep his job. I know this is the case because everyone says so. It’s everywhere you look, and, according to the DM, failed Roma manager Luis Enrique is already in the box seat to replace him.

And replace him Tottenham surely must. After last season’s shameful highest-ever Premier League points total and the shambolic start to this season that has seen the club enjoy their best start for many a year, it can only be a matter of time before the clueless youngster sends the Lilywhites to the bottom of the league.

I’m employing sarcasm here, heavily and with the kind of devil-may-care abandon rarely seen outside London’s most fashionable night spots. And why am I stooping so low? Because it’s all nonsense and tummy-rubbish of the poorest water.AVB1

To tell the truth, I’m not even entirely sure what’s going on here.

But let’s look at the bare facts. Spurs lost at home to Newcastle in a rather unfortunate manner – hit early on the break by Loic Remy they proceeded to whale the tar out of the Toon but failed to score with any of their 431 chances.

Then an interminable international break, then off to the Etihad – and the Oil Baron’s XI pulled their branded pants down in a comical fashion to the delight of billions. As the final whistle blew on that particular humiliation the nation’s soccer halfwits immediately began cranking out the clichés: underfire boss, hapless former Chelsea manager, big-spending crisis club, crouching Portuguese cheesewhistle flapbag.

I may have made one of those up.

There seems to be a genuine problem developing in the wide world of soccerdom and the anti-AVB tissue of mind-dribble is a perfect example of this growing plague. For the sake of brevity, we’ll call it ‘the paradox of perceived wisdom’.

Bear with me here, because I’m making it up as I go along, but I respectfully suggest that if the media comes to believe something is the case eventually reality, or at least that perceived by the consumer of the aforesaid media, will come to reflect the narrative created by it.

AVB2Look at Tottenham. Bale was sold for £80m-odd million in the summer along with various other members of the playing staff – Clint Dempsey and so on. That money, and only that money give or take, was then reinvested to bring in seven new players with the club’s transfer record being broken on three separate occasions. Now, despite the fact the club only spent what it had recouped from sales (and the whopping supposed wage rise is not what whopping when you look at how many went, who, and who came in, on what), Tottenham are said to have stretched their finances in a bid to challenge for the title.

Everywhere you look, this is taken as read.

Elsewhere, in the wake of Spurs’ tonking at the hands of the Manchester lottery winners, AVB is reported to have said the players should be ashamed of themselves. He’s widely reported to have ‘crossed a line’ and ‘lost the dressing room’.

Discounting the fact that even had he said such a thing, it’s hardly a hanging offence, what he actually said after the match was: “We have to be ashamed of ourselves, and react to a defeat like this.”

Note the use of the first person plural pronoun there, denoting a shared responsibility for a poor performance. And rightly so, since I’m pretty sure it wasn’t the manager who shanked a clearance and opened the floodgates within the first 15 seconds. But, since the football mouthpieces and the internet say so, he’s blaming anyone but himself.

I’ve whined about it before, but the proliferation of football media with the advent of the internet is creating a terrifying trap into which we can all too easily stumble. If enough people say something enough times, it will become true or, at the very least, it will be perceived to be true.AVB

I’d make more hilarious jokes, but this is a genuine concern. I, for instance, know a bit about the old soccering, but I certainly have no idea how to manage a football team. I wouldn’t presume to know and I wouldn’t presume to offer advice to athletes with many more impressive tattoos than my own. Why then do we accept the opinions of particular commentators on these things as gospel? Especially when, and it does happen, those views will cost professionals their livelihoods?

Football is, at its basest level, an entertainment. A diversion. Granted one that can evoke the most ridiculous swings of emotion in even the most level-headed. But when we’re driving perfectly competent individuals out of their jobs on the back of the scantiest of evidence, isn’t it time to just calm down a bit and let them get on with it.

Maybe the forces of darkness will succeed in driving AVB out of Tottenham but hell’s bells it would be a disaster for the club.

But it would make Alan Sugar happy. And if we can’t put a smile on the face of a multi-millionaire football empty vessel during this most festive of seasons, why bother even getting up in the morning?

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More Jonnie Baker

‘He copyrighted making a little heart with his hands. That’s all you need to know.’

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“Poyet’s dark hint that Riley wouldn’t apologise because he’s foreign is irresponsible and insulting”

Monday, November 25th, 2013

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CHRISTOPHER DAVIES is a veteran football writer who paid 17 shillings and sixpence to be at Wembley for the 1966 World Cup final. A former chairman of the Football Writers’ Association, he is the current editor of FootballWriters.co.uk and the author of  ’Behind the Back Page: The Adventures of a Sports Writer.‘ Here he explains how it is indeed the case that facts don’t always get in the way of a good story, in this case on the subject of referee “apologies”.

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Chris-DaviesBy Christopher Davies

25 November 2013

IT IS golden rule of journalism / a joke / a cliché  – maybe all three, delete as your prejudices deem applicable – never to let the facts interfere with a good story. Don’t tell ‘em the truth … don’t knock the story down … just print the juicy bits.

And “Mike Riley phones West Bromwich Albion to apologise for referee cock-up” is a much better story than “Mike Riley didn’t really phone West Bromwich Albion to apologise for referee cock-up.”

The head of the Professional Game Match Officials Ltd telephoning Steve Clarke to say sorry for Andre Marriner’s decision to award Chelsea a last-minute penalty that saw the Blues draw 2-2 rather than lose 1-2.

As we say in the trade, a good yarn and one that had legs (we also say that).

The story saw Barclays Premier League managers, led by Sunderland’s Gus Poyet, demanding Riley apologies for every refereeing mistake against their club, too. A can of worms had been well and truly opened with the contents spilling everywhere. If Riley apologised to Clarke, he must apologise to every manager.

I am sorry to pour cold water over it and if you prefer to believe the story that has been on the back pages, then look away now. You won’t like the reality.

Riley phones Premier League managers regularly as part of an agreement with the League Managers Association to discuss refereeing issues. It can be to explain why certain decisions were made, or points of law, trying to make a manager appreciate that in real time with one view from one angle and without the benefit of a dozen slo-mo replays how a referee could have made an error … or occasionally to just say: “He got it wrong, sorry.”

When Riley spoke to Clarke he did not try to defend the indefensible. The coming together of Ramires and Steven Reid was not a foul, it was not a penalty.

Marriner made a human error, just as Petr Cech and Liam Ridgewell had earlier in the match which cost their teams goals. Sometimes Riley may say to a manager: “It was a soft penalty” but a soft penalty is still a penalty. With Marriner there were no excuses and Riley uttered the S-word.

Clubs usually acknowledge that conversations between Riley and their manager should remain private, but West Bromwich – for whatever reason – decided to put it on their web site. A back-page lead was handed on a plate to football writers.

Of course, no club has ever put on its site “our manager was wrong to slag off ref.” Life, well football life, doesn’t work like that of course. Such apologies are a one-way street.

Poyet’s dark hint that Riley would not apologise to him because he is foreign is irresponsible and insulting. Two weeks earlier Riley had spoken to Swansea manager Michael Laudrup about a penalty awarded against his club. To the best of my knowledge, Señor Poyet, Laudrup is still foreign.

Poyet was angry – and some – at Wes Brown’s dismissal by Kevin Friend at Stoke. Robbie Savage, who no doubt has an extensive knowledge and appreciation of the laws otherwise he would not make such a statement, said it was “the worst sending-off ever in football.”

All opinions formed after watching the usual replays in slow-motion from various angles, of course. Interestingly, the reaction of the commentator for Match of the Day was: “Wes Brown went flying in there…” so he obviously thought the Sunderland defender could be in trouble.

If and when Riley phones Poyet their conversation may go something like this.

Riley: Gus, it’s Mike Riley…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: About West Brown’s red card…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: You thought it was harsh…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: First of all, Gus, the fact that a player gets the ball is irrelevant in law…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: Commentators keep saying ‘he got the ball so how can it be foul?’ but they are wrong. Unfortunately, the public now believe if a player touches the ball as he makes a tackle it can’t be a foul…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: If a player lunges at an opponent in challenging for the ball…using one leg or both with excessive force and endangers the safety of an opponent he is guilty of serious foul play and must be sent-off.

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: Brown did lunge in at Charlie Adam with studs of one boot showing and for a second it looked like both his legs were off the ground so he would have had no control over the outcome of the tackle…

Poyet: [censored]

Riley: Adam wasn’t hurt, but the referee decided Brown was guilty of serious foul play. I’m sorry you were so upset but in law the referee was correct…his decision certainly justifiable.

Poyet: [censored].

The Sunderland manager later tells friends Riley said “sorry” to him, too.

 

If you liked this piece, you might also enjoy: ‘It would help the credibility of those who criticise refs if they actually knew the laws’

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‘Fluke or finance, the title processions in Europe in 2012-13 should be a serious concern’

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

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EUROPE’S major leagues delivered a string of titles by procession in Spring 2013 as a group of the biggest, richest clubs across the continent romped to runaway victories. Most leagues have always had one or two dominant clubs but is there something else afoot now? And what if anything does that say about the state of European football? This piece first appeared in the debut – and current – issue of Eight by Eight (cover below), available on order now.

 

8by8 debut issue coverBy Nick Harris

5 November 2013

Last season, the wealthiest clubs romped to runaway victories in Europe’s major leagues. In Germany, Bayern Munich became Bundesliga champions with six games to spare and finished the season with a 25-point final margin over their nearest challengers, Borussia Dortmund. In England, Manchester United triumphed with four games left and finished 11 points clear. In Spain and Italy, the corresponding games to spare and points margins for Barcelona and Juventus respectively were four games, 15 points and two games, eight points.

Bayern claimed their title in the first week of April, the earliest in German history. They lost one league game (equaling the German record), amassed 91 points (a record) and finished with a mind-boggling goal difference of +80 (a record). Seventeen Bayern players scored at least one league goal and four reached double figures: Mario Mandžukic, Thomas Muller, Mario Gomez and Franck Ribéry. Bayern kept 21 clean sheets of 34 (a record), had a winning streak of 14 games (yes, yet another record), and amassed 15 away wins (another—yawn—record). This was dominance on an epic scale, but it wasn’t unique.

Manchester United sealed the Premier League title on April 22 with a 3-0 win against Aston Villa. Their $39 million Dutch striker, Robin van Persie—who finished top scorer in the league with 26 goals—scored all three goals inside 31 minutes. The win left United 16 points clear of archrivals, Manchester City, who eventually trundled home in second place, 11 points off United’s pace.

In Italy, Juventus sealed the Serie A title on May 5 after a 1-0 win against Palermo gave them an unassailable 14-point lead over chasers Napoli, and they coasted home to finish the season nine points clear.

Barcelona in Spain and Paris Saint-Germain in France both clinched their titles on the same May weekend. Barça were atop the Spanish table from the first match of the 2012–13 season and never left that summit. They bagged the La Liga title when rivals Real Madrid failed to beat Espanyol on May 11. Barça eventually finished with 100 points, 15 points clear of Real. PSG won their first title in 19 years after a 1-0 win at Lyon on May 12, although they had been at the top of the table in France since January 21. A sign of how far PSG have come so quickly—thanks in large part to a flood of Qatari petrodollars—is that two of their stars on title night were the world’s wealthiest footballers, David Beckham and Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

We can debate whether Manchester United benefitted from internal upheaval and transitional seasons at rivals Manchester City and Chelsea (they did); whether Barcelona’s only significant rivals, Real Madrid, were hampered by civil strife (they were); and whether Juventus benefitted from being by far the biggest net spenders in Italy in the transfer market over the past two years (they did).

But the underlying message is clear: Winning is now a rich club’s game. Bayern, United, Barcelona, and Juventus are all among the world’s 10 richest clubs by earnings, and PSG is owned by Qatar Sports Investments, a subsidiary of a Qatari sovereign wealth fund with tens of billions of dollars at its disposal.

Competitive balance in the elite leagues of Europe is worsening. This is proved by data released in June by the academic team at the highly respected CIES Football Observatory in Switzerland. “At ‘Big 5’ league level, the spread in points in 2012–13 was higher than the average measured during the last decade,” it found. This is related to greater financial disparities: Revenues of top clubs rose more than those of middle- and bottom-ranked ones.

“Without new regulatory mechanisms to improve income distribution, competitive balance will be further jeopardised through the transformation of top level clubs into global brands, [through] their regular participation in the increasingly lucrative Champions League and investments made by wealthy owners.”

It is ironic that income from the Champions League is a reason for the growing disparity between the elite and the rest. The Champions League, of course, is the flagship club tournament of European football’s governing body, Uefa, which is simultaneously in the process of implementing its sensible new Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. One of the aims of FFP is “to encourage clubs to compete within their revenues.”Euro title romps 8by8

Yet Uefa has helped create a community of haves and have-nots, via the billions of euros of Champions League prize money over the past decade that has gone primarily to the same group of clubs who turn up in the Champions League more often than not. “Competing” and “within their revenues” are becoming mutually exclusive terms for many.

The ‘“big” clubs in the Champions League are not just United and Co. from the Big-5 leagues but dominant teams in every league. Among those winning entry to the 2013–14 tournament were clubs who made easy work of their home titles.

Celtic secured the SPL title in Scotland with four games to spare. Shakhtar Donetsk won the Ukrainian title with four games to spare. FC Copenhagen secured the Superliga title in Denmark with three games to spare. Galatasaray sealed the Turkish title after moving 10 points clear with two games remaining. Over in Amsterdam, Ajax thrashed Willem II Tilburg 5-0 to wrap up the Dutch title before the last round of games They had been on top since early March.

The only tight finish in any significant league was in Portugal, where Porto were not certain of pipping Benfica until the final day.

Whether Europe’s easy-street endings in 2012–13 were a fluke or a flexing of economic muscle should be of concern not just to the fans of clubs affected, for better or worse, but to the guardians of the game.

Sure, most leagues have one, two, or three clubs that have won a large chunk of all that league’s titles. Manchester United (20), Liverpool (18), and Arsenal (13) have won 51 of England’s 114 titles between them since 1888–89. Bayern Munich have won 23 of Germany’s 101 titles, with 22 of those titles coming in the 50 years of the Bundesliga era. Juventus (29), Milan, and Inter Milan (18 each) have won 65 of Italy’s 109 titles. Real Madrid (32) and Barcelona (22) have won 54 of Spain’s 82 titles. Rangers (54) and Celtic (44) have won 98 of Scotland’s 117 titles, with no interloper at all since Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen in 1985. In Portugal, Turkey, and the Netherlands, powerful triumvirates have won more than half the titles.

Even against this historical backdrop, the title winners across Europe’s major leagues in 2012–13 were particularly concentrated within this group. The English title went to the “biggest” club that has also won it most often, United. The same was true in Italy (Juventus), Germany (Bayern), Denmark (Copenhagen), Turkey (Galatasaray), and the Netherlands (Ajax).

In Spain it went to one of that nation’s duo-poly clubs (Barça), as it did in Scotland (Celtic) and Portugal (Porto). In Belgium, the club with the most all-time titles, Anderlecht, won again, as was the case in Greece (Olympiacos). In Switzerland, the club with the second most all-time titles, FC Basel, won for a fourth season in a row and for the seventh time in 10 years.

Christian Seifert, the chief executive of Germany’s Bundesliga, runs a league that produced both of the Champions League finalists of 2013—Bayern and Dortmund—and can revel in acclaim for a competition that is famously populated by fan-owned clubs offering cheap tickets to exciting games in big, full, energized stadiums.

When he talks about the future of the game, it’s worth listening, and when we met in May a few days before Bayern beat Dortmund in a Wembley thriller, he told me it is time for Uefa to start working toward greater redistribution of football’s riches. “I do believe the Champions League money should be spread more evenly across all the clubs in the leagues from which the competitors come, not just those clubs,” he said. “Unless that happens, the gap in wealth will only grow more.”

His point, he stressed, was not that of redistribution will change everything or that further domestic redistribution of finances should be planned—yet. Bayern have been huge for as long as they have existed. They had revenue of $498 million in the last financial year, almost double that of Dortmund. That means, naturally, they can buy better players, pay more salary. And win more—probably.

But with one eye on this season’s results and a cautious nod to what could come, Seifert says, “If Bayern win the league the next two seasons 20 points ahead, I would say, Yes, something should change.”

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The debut issue of Eight by Eight is available for pre-order nowRead another story from the issue here, and download a free preview here. (Cover illustration by Diego Patino). Follow Eight by Eight on Twitter: www.twitter.com/8by8mag

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POSTSCRIPT ….

We won’t know for some months yet whether it will again be all the usual suspects winning in 2013-14. But certainly the bookmakers in early August 2013 did not expect too many contenders in each of the major title races, as the graphic below shows. And yes, there is a surprise candidate or two doing much better than expected (take a bow, Roma), but come season’s end they will be the exceptions, not the rule.

Horse title races 13-14

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Is the idea of NFL finally taking off across the Atlantic?

Tuesday, October 29th, 2013

WillisALEXANDRA WILLIS is a multimedia sports journalist who flits between WimbledonSportingIntelligence, the TennisSpace and a few other outlets, while tweeting copiously and trying to improve her (terrible) backhand in her spare time. Follow @alex_willis on twitter

On first viewing, American Football is pretty baffling. It looks very much like a lot of helmeted people running around crashing into each other. Each passage of play takes place at a hurtlingly-intense speed, but only for a few minutes at a time, stop-start, stop-start, the clock halting for injuries, timeouts, commercials, and cheerleaders at odd and inopportune moments.

Try figuring out what’s going on from the commentary, and you’ll almost be more confused. There’s endless terminology – snaps, downs, huddles, fumbles, rushing yards, sacks, punts, pick sixes, field goals, touchdowns. Then all the positions – quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive lineman, defensive lineman, linebacker, cornerback, kicker, punter.

Then add the fact that you can’t easily spot who’s who because they are covered up in helmets and pads to prepare for when they certifiably will crash into each other.

And just when you think you’ve found a player you think you know, you realise it can’t be him, because he is in fact off the field. The teams are divided into two armies who switch on and off depending on which of them is on the offensive, marshalled by another army of watchful coaching staff in headphones clutching sheets of tactics. And we haven’t even mentioned any of the rules (I wouldn’t dare). Or why they wear towels.

It’s as bizarre to Brits as cricket is to Americans. And yet, even without understanding a thing, it is a compelling spectacle.

One player hiking the ball from the ground in front of him to his team-mate behind him, who throws it to another team-mate, who will, in theory, catch it and run with it does not sound like the most difficult thing in the world.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Minnesota Vikings at Wembley, September 2013

But, firstly, (and the following simplification is more for my benefit than yours, I promise), the quarterback and the offensive line have to hold off the opposition trying to charge him down for long enough in order to make that pass. At the same time, the recipient of that pass has to break his cover and get free, then catch the ball, and then hang onto it as he tries to gain some yards. And that’s in the knowledge that players who are just as fit, fast and powerful as he is will be careering into him in a way that they say feels like being in a car crash 12 times in an hour. And all of that is just for a first down, a first step forwards. Then they start all over again.

Meanwhile, the other 19 people on the field aren’t just standing around watching. They are blocking, charging, diving, all in some way either trying to make the play possible, or prevent it.

All of which means that when all those moving parts come together, as these players and teams seem to manage every given Thursday or Sunday or Monday, they have achieved so much more than just kicking a ball to one another, as our kind of football players do.

Then there’s the players themselves, celebrities from high school to college to league. Some are as worshipped as Messi (see Adrian Peterson, Peyton Manning, Calvin Johnson), some of them far more controversial than Joey Barton could ever dream of being (see Manti Te’o, Michael Vick, Ben Roethlisberger). Even their names have character. D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Baccari Rambo. Barkevious Mingo. Captain Munnerlyn. And Chad Ochocinco. Although he made his up.

All of which is to say that the more you learn about football, and my knowledge is infantile to say the least, the easier it is to understand why it is the sport that dominates the American national consciousness.

“It all starts with game itself, the strategy, the power,” Roger Goodell, Commisioner of the National Football League told a group of curious English writers at a Sports’ Journalists Association event in London.

“But it transcends the game. When you add the fans’ passion, it just becomes explosive. It brings communities together in a way that I don’t think any other sport can. Part of it is that in our game every team has hope. The hope is a great thing for us.”

That appeal is also why, slowly but surely, it is making itself better known on this side of the Atlantic too, and, since 2007, there has been an annual NFL game played at Wembley, the nation’s most famous stadium.

“Initially, it was difficult to get teams to do it,” Goodell admitted. “There were risks involved. One, you were taking away a home game, which the fans didn’t like. And two, the coaches would worry about the possible disruption, because it is still a game that counts, and they only get 16 a season.”

Those teams also had to be compensated for loss of earnings, travel expenses, and such, figured to be “a seven-figure loss” on each game.

“But every team that has come over has had a great experience,” Goodell continued. “And the fans might not like losing a home game, but they understand that in some ways it’s very good for their communities. It’s building now to the point where we have far more teams who want to come.”

This year, that ‘NFL International Series’, as it is officially named, expanded to two – the Minnesota Vikings against the Pittsburgh Steelers a month ago, and last night’s encounter between the Jacksonville Jaguars and the San Francisco 49ers. This year too, for the first time, it wasn’t just the attendees of each game who got an NFL experience. This year, for the first time, a sort of tailgating came to Wembley, the tradition where fans arrive early and sit, drink and be merry outside the stadium in the hours before the game begins.

The success to date has been such that next year, Wembley will host three NFL games – the Jaguars back again to play the Dallas Cowboys, the Atlanta Falcons to play the Detroit Lions, and the Oakland Raiders to play the Miami Dolphins.

In fact, last night’s appearance by the Jaguars is the first of a once-a-year-four-year agreement brokered by their new owner, Shahid Khan, also the owner of Fulham Football Club, who has made no secret of the fact that he would like to see the Jaguars (or Jaguras, as they were embarrassingly mis-spelled on the field last night), play a game a year at Craven Cottage from 2016 onwards.

But current demand aside, there is the lingering wonder whether the novelty of this shiny new sporting toy will simply wear off. What if future games are not the high-scoring touchdown triumphs that this year’s pair have been? Will a matchup between two unknown teams garner the same interest as a blockbuster face-off?

photo

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell in London

It is after all not the first time that the NFL has tried, and failed, in Europe. The American Bowl, a series of pre-season exhibition games held at sites outside the US, ceased in 2005, and NFL Europe, a developmental league that began in 1991, was discontinued in 2007. But those iterations were not the real deal.

The current International Series, by contrast, is part of the season proper, featuring some of the biggest and best players in the sport in games that matter. And that top-down approach is what is proving to be the draw. Just ask the 180,000 people who turned up to Wembley, many of them leaving with merchandise and a taste for more. Or Channel 4 and Sky, both of whom are broadcasting selected NFL games this season. Or one of my friends, who has not one, not two, but three fantasy NFL teams this year, and burns the 3am Sunday and sometimes Monday Night Football oil every week from London.

So it is that Goodell, regarded as one of the most powerful men in sport, is at present not saying never to the idea of an NFL team based in London, although there is a sense that he wants a team back in Los Angeles first.

“The great thing about our fans in the UK is they seem to want more and more, and we want to deliver that,” he said, when pushed for a timeline on the topic. “And as long as we continue to see that growth, I don’t know where it will go, but I don’t rule out there being a franchise here in the UK.”

The greatest impediment to a London team would not be money, the NFL has plenty of that, but more the toll that the travelling would take on the teams. Convincing a few teams to travel to London once a year is one thing, but requiring eight different teams to take on a long-haul flight and a time difference for the eight London home games, especially those based on the West coast, is quite another. Not to mention the London-based team travelling eight times the other way.

Logistics aside, the NFL’s international ambitions do not stop with a hop across the pond. ‘The London experiment,’ as Goodell calls it, is one part of a long-term view for the NFL, which is simply to grow awareness, fandom, commercial power, everywhere.

“We are trying to globalise our game,” he said matter-of-factly. “But we’re not trying to tackle the whole globe at once, we have do it differently from basketball, soccer. But if we create the success here [in London] to the extent that they want franchises in Frankfurt, Moscow, Shanghai, that’s a good problem to have.”

This is not to say that the NFL and the sport does not have its problems – the concussion controversies rumble on, drugs are always a fear factor, what players get up to when they are not on the field, the discussion around who pays for new stadiums. But those seem to be pinpricks in its popularity, to the extent that a New York Times opinion piece recently described baseball as “irrelevant compared to the leylandii-like growth of the NFL”. To the extent that 45% of the NFL fan-base is female. To the extent that Goodell maintains that 85% of American parents want their kids to play football. This very website, SportingIntelligence, reported it as the best-attended domestic sports league in the world.

The jewel in the NFL’s crown is that being a football fan is not just about watching and understanding what happens on the field itself. There are so many other things which revolve around and add to what those men on each game day’s ‘active’ list are up to which make it must-see TV, in a way that is so big and bold and refreshing when compared to our more genteel, traditional attitudes. The pre-gaming, the anthems, the cheer songs, the food, the beer, the jerseys, the fantasy leagues, the apps, – even the NFL RedZone countdown clock  – you are told it is the biggest and best thing out there. And guess what, it is.

“Everything is an event,” Goodell said. “And we want to make each of our events bigger and better, to capture that same attraction. The draft is now an event, it is now bigger than most sports’ play-offs.”

Next year’s SuperBowl in New York, for example, will see 14 blocks shut down around Times Square for the entire week preceding February 2nd to create what will be ‘SuperBowl Boulevard.’

“We can only put 76,000 people inside the stadium. We want another half a million to experience the SuperBowl. It goes beyond just a simple game,” Goodell said, asserting that “there’s never been a better time to be a fan.”

So, British sporting enthusiasts. Next Sunday evening from 6pm, why not turn on Channel 4 or Sky,  pick a game, pick a team, and see if he’s right.

You may not understand it, but hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

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Arsene Wenger – what is he good for?

Thursday, October 24th, 2013

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ARSENE Wenger has helped to transform English football, on and off the pitch, since his arrival at Arsenal from Japan in 1996. Silverware and plaudits followed but since 2005, when the ‘big money era’ of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour’s Manchester City have led to increased competition in the Premier League, the Gunners have gone without a trophy. Has Wenger been under-achieving? Has he in fact been performing as well as resources dictate, or better? What are those resources? The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust asked Sportingintelligence to look at some of these issues, and that culminated in a presentation to Trust members in London on Monday. That piece of work is available in full as a free PDF download HERE. The main part of the work is published below, but all the supplementary materials are available in full here: Arsene Wenger – what is he good for?

 

By Nick Harris

24 October 2013

APART from helping to transform English domestic football culture, on and off the pitch, and delivering Arsenal fans two Doubles, an Invincibles season plus multiple domestic and European finals – what has Arsene Wenger ever done for Arsenal?

The research laid out in this article and in the supplementary material concludes:

FIRST: Consistently and with the rare exceptions of two seasons out of the 17 between 1996-97 and 2012-13, Wenger has produced teams that have either out-performed expectation on the pitch given the resources available to him off it, or at least met those expectations.

It is well established that he has not spent much, net, in the transfer market. This research shows, using official club accounts, that in the 17 seasons from 1996-97 to 2012-13 inclusive, Arsenal spent £444.5m on transfers, and received £341.3m, so spent £103.2m net in those 17 years.

BUT the research also shows that much of that net spending was laid out on agents’ fees and other ‘normal’ costs of deals, and the ‘real’ net spent over those 17 years was more like £23.4m. This is tiny compared to any of Arsenal’s main competitors.

Arguably more important, Wenger has very frequently out-performed Arsenal’s wage spend – and wages are a key determinant of success in elite football.

 

SECOND: Analysis suggests that Wenger’s worst ever Arsenal season, in terms of performing less well than finances should have dictated, was in 2005-06, when as well as finishing in the top four of the Premier League (again), he also took Arsenal to the final of the Champions League.

 

THIRD: That season, 2005-06, was the worst ever not just because Wenger had more to spend than key rivals yet finished behind them, but because Arsenal amassed the fewest points of any Wenger season (67), finished as low as any Wenger season (fourth), and had less ‘team stability’ than any other season of the Wenger era.

‘Team stability’ in this context considers how many Premier League starts, combined, Wenger gave to his “core” XI players in that season, whoever they were.

We have looked at every season of the Wenger reign and found the 2005-06 season to be the least ‘stable’, with only 64% of starting places going to “core” players. This is the lowest % of the Wenger years.

In the Invincibles season the comparative figure was as high as 83%, similar to the 1998-99 season when Arsenal lost the title by a point to another of the era’s best-ever teams, Manchester United’s Treble winners.

This ‘woeful’ 2005-06 season for Wenger, in which Arsenal took the lead in the Champions League final before losing 2-1 to Barcelona, is compounded in statistical terms by being one in which Arsenal spent more money in the financial year – £23.75m cash – on transfers than any Wenger season bar one up to that point, and also had more ins and outs for cash than any financial year before or since.

 

FOURTH: That perhaps Wenger is telling the truth when he speaks, often, about wanting value in the transfer market, and wanting to buy players when they are better than he already has. Because he knows, from that 2005-06 season, and from the following season and a few others, that all business is not necessarily good business. And too much business can have a negative impact on the team, if selection becomes too ‘unstable’, which we can show, in a general sense, for Arsenal and key rivals, is a bad thing.

 

FIFTH: Evidently there is some issue at play hindering Arsenal in recruitment. Whether this is the loss of key ally David Dein still being felt from 2007 – a view to which I still subscribe – is debatable. There are also those who argue that for all the huge cash balances of the past half dozen years, there really has not been as much money to spend as Arsenal have sometimes made out. Again this is debatable.

 

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SO THE INTENTION of this exercise is to present some key basic facts and data to digest, in order to help you make up your own mind.

Do you fall into the camp that believes there are three ages of Wenger?

  • The silverware years of 1998 to 2005.
  • The ‘big money’ barren years when Chelsea and City as well as United have bought success.
  • The renaissance years, just getting underway.

 

Or is Arsene Wenger a busted flush?

Let’s start with a financial analysis of transfer and wage spending in the 12 years from the Millennium to summer 2012, taking into account Arsenal and their key current ‘rivals’, who together comprise the so-called ‘Sky 6’ – so that’s Manchester United and Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham and Arsenal.

Why those six? Because they are relevant to now in a way that say, Newcastle United and Leeds, and to a lesser extent Aston Villa and Everton and other top-four challengers are no longer relevant. They are today’s ‘Big Six’.

And why 2000 to 2012? Pragmatically because the things we want to look at for six teams over 12 years fit into our first big graphic; but also because these years comprise the boom years of the second Double and Invincibles season, take in the ‘big money’ age of Abramovich and Mansour, the Arsenal ‘decline’ post-2005 and the emergence of the contemporary Arsenal, with its mixture of home-grown players, ‘home imports’ from other British clubs and growing financial power that allowed the purchase of Mesut Ozil, and quite possibly more big-money signings to come.

So what are we looking at?

1: Net transfer spend each season between 2000-01 and 2011-12, which means the difference between what each club spent in each of those seasons and what it received. If a club spent £10m in a year and received £10m, it had net expenditure of nothing. If it spent £20m and received £10m, it had net expenditure of £10m. If it spent £10m and received £20m, it had net income of £10m. How do we know how much each club spent? For the purpose of this exercise, we are using the official cash expenditure on transfers each financial year, according to official club accounts.

2: Wage expenditure. For this exercise, we are using the total wages spend by each club on all their employees each year, according to official club accounts. The biggest single expense of any football club is player wages. They account for (very, very, very roughly) about 70 per cent of all wages at a club, although this varies. So if a club’s total wage bill is £100m, then you might reasonably expect around £70m, give or take a few million, to be spent on player wages, as opposed to on managers, coaches, executives, cleaning staff, ticket office personnel, marketing people, stewards and all the rest combined.

3: This first graphic – which contains 306 separate pieces of information – also tells us where each club ranked in wage bill each season (1st, 2nd, 3rd etcetera) and where they finished in the league each season.

Article continues below. Click on the graphic to enlarge

Net trans & wages 2000-12 PL big 6

 

We are interested in wage expenditure particularly because of the strong link between wages and performance in the Premier League. This is a well established relationship as anyone who has read ‘Soccernomics’ will be aware. Over a period of time, clubs spending more on wages will, generally, do better in the Premier League than clubs spending less.

Sportingintelligence also contributed to a study in 2010 in association with the Wall Street Journal (link here) that found the relationship between wages and success to be around 85 per cent – ie: wage spending is 85 per cent responsible for finishing position. In the NFL, the same study showed it was 14%.

Anyone interested in a more detailed look at wages and success in the Premier League, or with insomnia, can see further articles on the same subject here, and here in an article that focused on an exception that proved the rule, QPR last season.

To massively simplify the theory that wages = success, it goes as follows: when you spend loads of money on wages, it’s because you’re getting great players, who will do better than less good players on less money.

It is very much an ‘all other things being equal’ theory.

The first graphic above showed: transfers, wages, wage rank and performance over 12 years for six teams. Elsewhere, in the season-by-season pages of the supplementary materials, you can see most of the individual permanent transfer deals by Arsenal in the period; loans not included.

The big six against each other

The graphic ranks the ‘big six’ in order of their total net spending on transfers plus wages combined over the 12 years in question.

Chelsea spent most, with £2.078 billion, then Man Utd on £1.43bn, then City with £1.4bn, then Liverpool with £1.3bn then Arsenal with £1.1bn and Spurs on £777 million.

The year-by-year spending on transfers and wages is self-evident and these next two graphics depict that spending visually. Arsenal’s net transfer spending is 1/10th of Chelsea’s, or £57m v £570m. Note that Arsenal’s net spend is for those 12 years; the total net spend for the 17 years, as mentioned earlier, is £103.2m, much of which wasn’t transfer fees at all, but related costs.

Article continues below

Cumulative trns spend big 6 from 2000-12.

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Cumulative net spend wages 2000-12

 

So how do the ‘Big 6’ compare when measuring (wage) resources versus achievement?

In the 12 years in question:

Chelsea did not do better than their resources in any year, under-performing against their wage bill eight times and doing only as well as expected four times.

United did better seven times, worse three times and as well as expected twice.

Manchester City performed better once: when finishing ninth in 2002-03 when wages said they should have finished 10th. They have otherwise under-performed apart from the title-winning season when they did as well as expected.

Liverpool did better than expected four times in the period, worse four times and as expected four times.

ARSENAL out-performed their wage spending seven times, did as well as expected three times, and under-performed in 2005-06 and 2006-07. We’ll come back to that – but it’s better than any rival.

Tottenham did better than their wage bill six times – and worse six times, in the period under review.

 

The first age of Wenger

That record shows that he:

1: Took Arsenal to third place, second but for goal difference, in his first (incomplete) season.

2: Did the Double in 1998.

3: PL Runners-up by a point in 1999.

4: PL Runners-up in 2000, when also runners-up in Uefa Cup

5: PL Runners-up in 2001, and FA Cup final

6: Double in 2002

7: PL runners-up in 2003 and FA Cup winners

8: Invincible PL winners in 2003-04 and two Cup semi-finals

9: PL runners-up and FA Cup winners in 2005

 

Vieira left in summer 2005, Arsenal moved to the Emirates in 2006 and David Dein left in 2007 in the wake of Stan Kroenke, who he introduced to the club, arriving as an shareholder.

The second age of Wenger

The post-2005 ‘down’ period: 4th in 2006 and Champions League finalists; 4th in 2007 and LC finalists; 3rd in 2008; 4th in 2009; 3rd in 2010; 4th in 2011, LC r-up and R16 loss to eventual CL winners Barca; 3rd in 2012; 4th in 2013 and CL loss to eventual winners Bayern.

Before we look at why Wenger may have been influenced not to spend a lot of money after 2006, because of what happened in 2005-06, let’s look in more detail at transfer spending, reports versus reality.

First, a graphic, explanation afterwards.

Article continues below. Click to enlarge

Wenger era transfers, reports v reality

 

TRANSFER spending is a contentious issue at Arsenal precisely because there has been so much attention on whether Wenger has been free to spend.

The graphic above contrasts a) spend by season as reported by the media and as detailed on a deal-by-deal basis in the supplementary material with b) the money going in and out of the club in cash on transfers each season as documented by the accounts.

The accounts show that cash spending on transfers in the Wenger era from 1996-97 to 2012-13 inclusive was £444.5m.

That was actual cash, out, detailed season by season in the graphic. It is also £84.5m more than the transfer spend that most people reading ‘respectable’ reports will expect to have been spent. As the detailed deals show, Arsenal have reportedly (according to the media) spent only £360.1m in that time.

When it comes to selling players, the real amount received according to the accounts, in cash, has been £341.3m, which is very close to the reported amount of £336.7m.

The reported net spend over the period is a tiny £23.4m, while the actual net spend is £103.2m – and the difference almost certainly lies primarily in unreported parts of deals when buying players, namely agents fees, and then subsequent payments in add-ons later, not initially reported.

Why do we think this? Two reasons. First, because of the amortisation figures: £315.5m for the Wenger era.

Amortisation is a ‘book’ figure that spreads the total cost of buying a player across the term of that player’s contract. So that’s the transfer fee plus any agent’s fees, plus signing-on or other costs. If a player joins for £10m on a four-year deal, and let’s add £2m more in agent fees and signing-on costs for £12m total, it will be ‘amortised’ through the books at £3m a year over four years. When players renegotiate their contracts to extend them, the amorisation cost is ‘re-set’.

So if the player, after two years, signs a two-year extension, the club will have only £6m of his original fee left to amortise, also over four years (the original two remaining plus the new two), and the charge for him will reduce from £3m a year to £1.5m a year. In this way, the amortisation charges up to any one point will not wholly reflect the money spent – there will be tens of millions pounds remaining unamortised; effectively if not exactly the difference between actual cash spent and the amortisation figure.

Our second ‘check’ that reported figures are generally accurate comes when we compare those numbers to profits on player sales as detailed in the club accounts. The two columns ‘reported receipts’ and ‘profit on player sales’ on the graphic above, depicted in the graphs on the right-hand side, closely if not exactly mirror each other. The profit on player sales is slightly less  over 17 years combined (£302.9m) than the reported receipts but this simply means that not all the receipts have been profit – just most of them. This of course demonstrates that Arsene Wenger has, over a long period of time, kept his net spending on players (fees aside) down to a minimum.

Whether or not he should have to done so, of course, is an entirely different matter.

Before we consider that question, we’ll quickly have a detour to why, when everything is taken into account, that 2005-06 season was Wenger’s worst.

1996-97 team pageOn each of the season-by-season pages (they’re in this download, and each one looks like the example on the left from 1996-97), there is a team of players started most often that season in the Premier League by Wenger.

Why the League? Because it is the bread and butter competition, the first priority, the staple of the season.

Why starts? Because over the whole season it will reflect the most important players.

The teams as laid out are therefore not meant to suggest, always, that Wenger played that formation or those exact players in that place on the pitch, and certainly not that the 11 main players in each formation were played together in that formation every week, although in many weeks they may have been.

The layouts simply show a ‘core’ XI who started the most league games.

The only times these 11 players were not the 11 most used is when, for example, a key role would have gone uncovered by using that 11.

In 2001-02 for example, none of Arsenal’s goalkeepers reached 20 league starts, but 11 outfielders did. But David Seaman, with 17 starts (with Wright making 12, and Taylor nine) gets into that season’s most-used XI.

The ‘stability’ number for each season is calculated by working out how many starts the core XI players made each season, and working out what percentage of the ‘perfect’ 418 (or 38 games times 11 starting places) they added up to.

The season-by-season pages show you stability number for every Arsenal season, and also the stability number for the champions each season when that wasn’t Arsenal. The title winners are at around 70% in most seasons, if not all, and often a lot higher.

The next graphic illustrates contrasting Arsenal seasons, Invincible versus ‘In Transition’.

The stability in the Invincible season was 83%, and in 2005-06 it was 64%.

That equates to each of the core XI playing an average of 32 league games each (of 38) in the Invincible season, but 24 each in the 2005-06 season.

Small margins matter in elite sport, and that is some gap.

Invincible v In transition

I’m sure some Arsenal fans will be wondering what these season’s stability number is sitting at. Up to an including last Saturday’s thrashing of Norwich, it was at 82 per cent.

SO WHERE has Wenger gone wrong? Arguably that 2005-06 season indicates signing too many players – and having too many players moving in and out in one season – was a bad idea. Whether this is also his own private assessment, only he will know. Of course there have been misses on transfers along with many hits, and it doesn’t require a non-Arsenal fan to list some of those.

The trophy-less years have also coincided, of course, with the advent of the ‘big money’ from Chelsea and Man City. Abramovich’s first season of ownership in 2003-04 was transitional for them but by 2004-05 and 2005-06 they had spent massive sums on new players and wages; and Manchester United in turn responded to that before Sheikh Mansour arrived at Man City in 2008 and started his own spending.

The last time Arsenal’s wage spending was even as high as third in the Premier League was 2007-08, and they finished third. Since then it’s been fourth or fifth and Arsenal have performed as well or better each season. Wage inflation has been enormous across the league, of course, as this next graphic shows in detail for Arsenal.

Look at the wage bill in 1989-90 (£2.79m or 36.5% of income), and then look at 2012-13: £154.49m or 55.1% of income.

NOTE: ‘Freaky’ high income in a few seasons of stadium development, years ending 2009 and 2010 especially, from property sales income, does not reflect football income alone those years.

The continuing ascent of the wage bill, from £2.79m to £154.49m, or up by more than 5,400% between 1990 and 2013, does reflect football inflation of the Premier League years.

Article continues below. Click to enlarge graphic

AFC income, wages since 1989-90

 As a blast from the past, a snapshot of a bygone and more transparent era, here is a more detailed breakdown of Arsenal’s wage bill from 1989-90 as listed in the accounts. It was the last time they provided such detail.

Article continues below. Click to enlarge graphic

89-90 pay by employee >30k

Back to the current Arsenal, and the search for a first trophy since 2005, Arsenal insist that they are now ready to combat the ‘big money’ of their main rivals with their own big money. Ivan Gazidis has been saying this with some fervour for some months now; and the summer deal for Ozil did demonstrate that the cash was in fact there to be spent. And I’m sure there is more, certainly tens of millions more for January, if the right players are available.

Wenger has been notoriously reluctant to spend. These ‘interim years’, the post-Vieira, post-Dein, new stadium and new owner years have, for those and other reasons, have contributed to the lack of spending. Finding the right replacements, doing the right deals, staying within comfortable financial limits and coping with the in-fighting of the boardroom have all undoubtedly contributed to lack of ‘significant’ activity before Ozil.

Not getting Suarez or Rooney or Higuain or Lars Bender or whoever was not lack of money but lack of pre-planning or availability, I would argue.

What about cash? It’s been there for some years.

The cash pile at the end of 2012-13 was £153.5m; 11-12 was higher, £153.6m; 10-11 was £160.2m; 09-10 was £127.6m; 08-09 was £99.6m; 07-08 was £93.3m; and 06-07 was £73.9m with £35.6m and £71.6m the two years before.

How much is there to spend?

Tens of millions. The Arsenal Supporters’ Trust’s own analysis of the most recent accounts concludes some £50m should be available for Wenger in January for players – if he wants it.

Not all of the £153.5m that was there in May was available, because around £30m needs to be kept in the debt service reserve account. A chunk of the rest is season ticket income, and I know the AST have put this as high as £65m a year ago, calculating therefore a ‘usable’ balance of £46m a year ago.

Arsenal could safely spend a few tens of millions in January, and as much again and more next summer, even if you err on the side of caution.

But Wenger is cautious; we know that.

The wage bill can soon balloon when you decide to pay £200,000 per week, or £10.4m a year plus national insurance and pension and other costs.

A squad of players, even only 25 of them, costing £11m each per year, is an utterly unfeasible £275m.

That’s without dozens of other young pros, a manager, coaching staff and all other employees.

Ridiculous? Don’t think there won’t be pressures for pay rises once a player or a few are way ahead of the rest.

Until now, Wenger has also been good for equality in the dressing room. I’m sure he still is.

It’s been one of the many reasons Arsenal should be thankful for him. Debatably.

 

More stories on Sportingintelligence that mention Arsenal

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REVEALED: The best paid teams in global sport

From £200m Messi to £20m Lukaku: Europe’s 60 most valuable players this summer

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Aston Villa, Man City and the fascinating polorisation of clean sheet statistics

Friday, September 27th, 2013

By Brian Sears

27 September 2013

Aston Villa did not manage a single clean sheet between 8th December last year, when they ‘enjoyed’  a 0-0 draw at home to Stoke, and last Saturday’s 1-0 win at Norwich.

In between those two momentous days for their defence, Villa played out 26 Premier League games in which they conceded at least one goal in every Premier League game.

On 11 occasions they conceded one goal, 10 times they conceded twice, three times they shipped three goals, once it was four goals and once it was, erm, just the eight goals, at Chelsea. That was just before Christmas; the total in the 26 games was 52 goals conceded, or two per game.

In that same nine-month period the next fewest number of clean sheets by a current Premier League club were the four that Crystal Palace achieved while still gaining promotion from the Championship, and the five each for Fulham and West Brom.

In that same period (but with one extra game played each), Manchester City had the most clean sheets, 15, followed by Liverpool, with 14. Coincidentally, it is Clean Sheet City who visit Typically Dirty-Sheet Villa at Villa Park this weekend.

Our first riveting graphic shows the clean sheets kept by the other current Premier League clubs during Villa’s non-clean nine months.

We also consider the number of goals that clubs shipped when they did concede. And herein lies a conundrum. City had 15 clean sheets but in the 12 other games, they conceded 26 goals at a rate of 2.17 per game, which is more per game than Villa, and indeed, more per game than anyone but Newcastle.

There could be a lesson here: when Man City concede, they really concede. Get past them once in a match and you’ll have them on the ropes.

Article continues below

 

Villa clean sheets

 

And another thing ….

Away from the Premier League, here are some Football League sequences. They’re self-explanatory but it’s eye-catching that QPR have not conceded a league goal for almost 10 hours.

And as Leeds and Millwall prepare to meet, the respective form looks far better, sequentially, for one side than the other.

Sears sequences 28.9.13

 

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’11 goals, two hat-tricks, three pens, one red and several punch-ups … it was the greatest final ever played on American soil’

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

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Major League Soccer Commissioner Don Garber recently announced plans to extend his organisation’s geographic reach by adding five new franchises by 2020. The new entrants will boost MLS to 24 teams – a haunting reminder for older American fans who witnessed the North American Soccer League’s swift demise after peaking at 24 franchises in the late 1970s. But, as Ian Thomson writes, it’s not as if the NASL or its predecessors, including the ‘one year wonder’ of the United Soccer Association, were without their thrills and spills.

 

Ian ThomsonBy Ian Thomson

23 September 2013

Factors underpinning soccer’s current growth in the United States bear little resemblance to the balmy, barmy days of Pelé and the New York Cosmos.

Americans bought more tickets for the FIFA 2010 World Cup in South Africa than fans from any other country except the hosts.

Jurgen Klinsmann has guided the Stars and Stripes to a seventh consecutive World Cup in Brazil next summer, and only Klinsmann’s native Germany boasts more registered players than the U.S.

Soccer is no longer the foreign pastime that it was in 1967 when multi-millionaire sports promoters first launched a new continent-wide professional league, the United Soccer Association (U.S.A).

As chronicled in my new book, ‘Summer Of ’67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil,’ the U.S.A comprised 12 teams from the LA Wolves and the San Francisco Golden Gate Gales in the west to the Boston Rovers, New York Skyliners and Washington Whips on the eastern seaboard.United SA 1967

Then there were the Chicago Mustangs, Cleveland Stokers, Dallas Tornado, Detroit Cougars, Houston Stars, Toronto City and Vancouver Royal Canadians.

Except these teams weren’t quite what they seemed. They were, for one summer only from late May to mid-Jul 1967, the alter egos of clubs from elsewhere, mostly Britain, including Stoke, Sunderland and Wolves, and Dundee United, Hibernian and Aberdeen. (Full list right).

And in an extraordinary denouement that determined North America’s first soccer champions on 14 July 1967 at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, the Wolves and the Whips (or Wolves and Aberdeen) played out the greatest final ever played on American soil.

There were 11 goals, two hat-tricks, three penalty kicks and last-minute equalisers in normal and extra-time. There was an early sending off, countless punch-ups and a heartbreaking golden own goal in sudden-death overtime to decide, eventually, the outcome.

The highlights are in this video, which has a ‘scratchy’ picture early on but clears after the first minute or so:

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Jack Kent Cooke, a cable television magnate who owned the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA and a stake in the NFL’s Washington Redskins, had secured England’s Wolverhampton Wanderers to represent his Los Angeles Wolves franchise. After his Wolves had won, he told a crowd of almost 18,000: “There isn’t a writer in Hollywood, there never has been one, who could have written a script for the game tonight.

“Next year and the year after and all the years to come, we’re going to be proudly privileged to bring you wonderful fans major league soccer here in Los Angeles.”Summer of 67

Professional sport had blossomed in the post-war years as rising disposable income allied to advances in television and transportation fostered a generation of heroes on baseball diamonds, basketball courts and football fields. America’s traditional sports expanded beyond their northeastern strongholds to California, Texas and elsewhere in the south and west.

Lamar Hunt, the son and heir of Dallas oil tycoon Haroldson Lafayette Hunt, sparked American football’s expansion (that’s gridiron, not soccer) after establishing the American Football League when his attempts to buy an NFL franchise were rebuffed.

A $36 million contract with broadcaster ABC allowed Hunt’s AFL to attract top players and eventually force the rival leagues to merge in June 1966. One month later, the first stand-alone broadcast of a soccer game was shown on U.S. television when NBC aired the FIFA World Cup Final between England and West Germany.

“We had the biggest television audience in United States sports history for the Super Bowl game, 65 million viewers,” said Hunt after the first AFL-NFL championship game in January 1967. “But do you know how many people all over the world watched the World Cup soccer matches? Four hundred million.”

The potential for the world’s most popular sport to bring in television dollars was irresistible. Two rival ownership groups announced plans to begin soccer leagues in 1967. Hunt’s Dallas Tornado joined the United Soccer Association, which circumvented a lack of local talent by importing 12 teams from Europe and South America to compete in its inaugural two-month summer tournament.

1967_wolveslosangelesCooke turned England’s Wolves into his Los Angeles Wolves franchise (winning team from 1967 pictured left). Cagliari of Italy played under the guise of the Chicago Mustangs side run by Arthur Allyn Jr., the owner of the city’s White Sox baseball team. Hunt welcomed Scotland’s Dundee United, including teenage defender and future coaching legend Walter Smith, to Texas.

This was an era when soccer players were largely working class lads from industrial towns earning average wages. They lived in standard houses and joined the regular workforce after their careers had ended. Many of the players had barely strayed from their home countries. Former Manchester United captain Martin Buchan, who represented the Washington Whips with his hometown club Aberdeen, had never even been on a family holiday in Scotland.

Yet here they were jetting around North America, checking into grand hotels like Toronto’s Royal York and the Washington Hilton, rubbing shoulders with rock and roll stars like Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Stevie Wonder and being feted by their affluent hosts.

Cooke’s prediction about the future domination of the United Soccer Association proved premature. The U.S.A merged with its rival, the National Professional Soccer League, to form the North American Soccer League (NASL) that stuttered through the early 1970s before its dramatic decade of boom and bust.

The measured growth of MLS and soccer’s entrenched popularity suggest that history is not about to repeat itself.

 

“Summer Of ’67,” featuring interviews with 16 players from the United Soccer Association tournament, is available in Kindle and paperback formats via Amazon.co.uk

Follow Ian Thomson on Twitter @SoccerObserver or visit www.thesoccerobserver.com

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‘He copyrighted making a little heart with his hands. That’s all you need to know.’

Friday, September 13th, 2013

Jonnie BakerBy Jonnie Baker

13 September 2013

On a good day, I reckon I could probably manage nearly 20 keepie-uppies – which is four times the number Gareth Bale managed when presented to the salivating hordes at the Bernabeu. I am, therefore, worth some £344 million on the open market. You may start the bidding at some Monster Munch and a drawing of a Vauxhall Astra.

Now he’s finally gone, we – by which I mean the deluded masses who claim to follow Tottenham – are left to discuss his departure and are questioned closely by approximately no-one at all as to how we feel in the wake of his exit.

Many, presenting themselves as the voices of reason, claim to wish him nothing but success as he prepares for his Real debut against Villarreal on Saturday.

They prattle endlessly about what a wonderful privilege it has been to witness his rise to pre-eminence. Ignore them, they are false prophets. He’s a swine.

This is a man who copyrighted making a little heart with his hands when he scored. That’s all you need to know.Bale trademark

The sooner Godzilla razes Real Madrid to the ground, the better.

Does that make me a dreadfully petty creature? In many ways even I was slightly embarrassed by my sheer naked fury when Bale was ‘unveiled’ and Snr Perez began his gormless hagiography of Bale’s ‘new home’ at the ‘greatest club in the world’. Rubbish, they’re the Harlem Globetrotters of world football, if the Harlem Globetrotters were regularly beaten that is.

While I was simmering with an exciting new brand of electric hate I did, however, manage to restrain myself from indulging in a novel form of behaviour that appears to be raising its shaggy head: telling the club you support how to conduct their business – and expecting them to do it.

The Bale sale to ‘partner club’ Real for whatever sum it was is all very venal, all very upsetting. But it’s not like he was even worth €100m.

How upset can one truly be about such a turn of events?

Would you, for instance, swear about it on the internet? Undoubtedly.

Would you look askance at a passing Seat Ibiza? More than likely.

But would you set up an internet petition, present it to the club and demand the ‘special relationship’ be dissolved and we never do business with Real again? Because that’s what’s happened.

There can be no greater example of the sense of entitlement which appears to typify the bantering, roistering, Sky mega-fan of the modern era.

Bale PerezWhat we are dealing with here are supporters who have taken it upon themselves to advise one fairly large business on how best to trade with an even larger business despite holding the thick end of bugger all information on the dealings at hand. Actually, scrap that, they’re not advising anything, they’re demanding it.

And it’s not just Spurs. An Arsenal fans group had the front, the boggle-eyed temerity to produce a cack-handed business plan and present it to the board. Not content with simply posting it and anticipating it being used to line the bottom of the office hamster’s enclosure they proceeded to run to the press and demand it be put into action forthwith.

And, lord help us all, it ran as a news story. What in the name of Darren Jackson is going on here?

By all means call Talksport and whatnot and hold forth with mentally excited views while professional agents provocateur whip the listenership into a frenzy. Pepper the internet with witless rambling – and no, the irony is not lost on me – or maybe even appear on Sky Sports Fanzone where you are positively encouraged to indulge in toe-curling ‘bantz’ with rival idiots and make a show of yourselves.

Christ alive, if the fancy takes you, why not head down to the stadium gates on deadline day and show the nation your tattoo of Ian Woan?

But when, one day in the not-too-distant future, you shake yourself from a Bovril induced funk and find you’ve spent the last six weeks preparing a 10-point plan for the reshaping of board room policy at the Emirates, take a moment, breathe deeply and ask a trusted family member to smash you in the face with a shovel.

You, me and every other gormless turnip don’t have the first idea what is really going on at our chosen soccer franchise. No amount of bumptious correspondence dashed off to the chairman is going to change that.

So let’s call an end to internet petitions, five-point plans and other half-cocked fan involvement.

There is no need for our input at board level, we have a much more important job than that. I mean, who else is going to call a professional athlete we’ve never met a cod-eyed German fancy dan?

I’m looking at you Mesut Ozil.

 

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Newcastle seek 20th Premier League win against Villa in 20th shared season

Friday, September 13th, 2013

By Brian Sears

13 September 2013

Newcastle have been in the Premier League for 19 of the completed 21 PL seasons since the top division was revamped in 1992-93. They missed that inaugural year, and then the 2009-10 season.

Of all the teams they’ve played in those 19 seasons, this weekend’s opponents Aston Villa have provided them with the most Premier League points: 68 of them from 19 wins and 11 draws.

A couple of the current Premier League clubs, Crystal Palace and West Brom, have allowed Newcastle more points per game (2.17 and 2 respectively), but they have only played Newcastle six and 14 times in the PL, whereas Villa have met them 38 times.

In those 38 meetings, Newcastle have lost just eight, two of them from 19 games at St James’ Park plus six at this weekend’s venue, Villa Park.

The graphic below shows Newcastle’s PL record against every opponent, split into current PL clubs (left) and former (right).

They have excellent records against Norwich and Sunderland of the current clubs, even better records in the PL against Oldham, Forest and QPR, and excellent records versus Birmingham, Coventry, Sheffield Wednesday, Watford, Swindon, Barnsley and Derby.

When Newcastle’s whole Premier League record is considered it’s also apparent how much they miss the Premier League presence of near-neighbours Middlesbrough from whom they plundered 49 points in their 26 derby games.

At the other extreme, Newcastle’s next visitors to St James’ will be Hull, who Newcastle failed to beat in two PL meetings five seasons ago in a campaign when Newcastle were relegated and Hull survived by being one point better off.

NUFC in PL

 

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