Category: Non-Bury

The Emperors Abdicate, but the Empire Will Live On

Yesterday, Lincoln City’s fraternal management team Danny and Nicky Cowley left the Imps for struggling Championship outfit Huddersfield Town, who just months ago were still plying their trade in the Premier League. In this post, I look at why, as talented as both men are, the void they’ve left at Sincil Bank can be filled, and doesn’t mark the threshold for what can be achieved at the county club.

Subject to intense speculation for what must’ve felt like an aeon for fans, the Cowley Brothers found the opportunity to take the cudgels a division above too hard to resist, writing in a statement full of class of their love and affection for everyone involved at Lincoln during a glittering, meteoric three-and-a-half years in charge.

Inevitably, a lot of the anticipation and reaction to the announcement from supporters was morose, and whilst my good friend Gary Hutchinson went on to suggest it wasn’t the end of the world for the club on The Stacey West blog, he did opine that the duo’s departure was “a dark day in its history”. I wholeheartedly disagree.

Yesterday was the strongest evidence yet that Lincoln City are still on the up, and more ‘relevant’ in a football sense than at any other juncture in my lifetime at the very least. Just like at Bury, it’s an extremely rare phenomenon for any manager (or management team) to attract serious, lascivious attention from another club, let alone one in a higher tier. Alan Knill made the leap to Scunthorpe United during the 2010/2011 promotion run-in, but was unable to prevent the Iron from being relegated to League One, where they would meet the Shakers in any case. His reign became more renowned for an accident involving a squirrel (yes, really), and the consistent image of him stood in front of the dugout, arms folded and powerless to prevent them from sliding further down the standings.

I’m confident in my belief that a similar fate won’t happen to Danny Cowley; the only parallel is that he’ll be inheriting a side with a very pronounced losing mentality – indeed, the Terriers won just once and drew a further three times under the auspices of Jan Siewert during his wretched 19-game tenure across all competitions. From the outside looking in, Huddersfield have an awfully lopsided squad, but the majority of which are not yet at the peak in their careers – this could mean that most of the dressing room are receptive to the meticulous ideas the pair will bring to the John Smith’s Stadium; given time, they’ll make a success of it, and the fact that they were top of the board’s shortlist suggests that they will be.

I’m sure they wouldn’t have wanted to end their trophy-laden stint on the end of a 3-1 reverse to Wycombe Wanderers (taking nothing away from the Chairboys whatsoever), but it is what it is. The Imps are sitting in fifth in League One, albeit having played a match more than most of the teams beneath them. Even so, that nominal position is a huge contrast to where they were in 2016 when a couple of P.E. teachers by day gave up that part of their careers to take over at a side that had just finished 13th in the newly christened National League, which was in fact the highest position at that point in the half-decade they’d been dwelling in.

Moreover, average attendances were hovering around the 2,500 mark, and in an anecdote oft-repeated since, the area was full of children wearing Manchester United, Liverpool, and Arsenal shirts, perhaps unsurprising given the plight of the Imps, but is nevertheless something that will probably chime with many readers and supporters of lower league teams.

Almost immediately, the Cowleys galvanised far more than the players at their disposal, but the cathedral city itself. Crowds doubled during their title-winning season, buoyed by the amazing FA Cup run to the quarter finals… but more importantly, people weren’t just along for the brief flirtation with the media spotlight. They kept coming back, and many who’d stopped going for one reason or another previously, returned through the turnstiles, feeling revitalised by the diligence and graft on the pitch and the fan-centred focus off it.

That rapport continued to go from strength to strength, with the Bank becoming a vocal and intimidating ground (for the right reasons) for their opponents to visit. I was asked by Gary to do some work around the clashes between Lincoln and Bury last term, with the second of these more than living up to its billing as a glowing advert for fourth tier football; one piece in particular drew praise, and engendered me to some of their fans on social media. I hadn’t written it to do so, but I felt it was important to dispel the notion of the Cowleys’ men as ‘cloggers’ and other lazy assessments of their tactical setup.

Given the intelligence and expertise in the boardroom now, I’m sure the appointment of the next manager will leave no aspect overlooked, regardless of the speed of which the decision is made. The two most prominent names I’ve seen mentioned elsewhere are Gareth Ainsworth, the Wycombe manager riding the crest of a wave at present; he was strongly linked with the vacant Queens Park Rangers post before Mark Warburton got the nod in May. Like the London club, he has a strong affinity with the Imps from his playing days, but it’s very difficult to foresee him leaving now to a divisional rival. I disagree with the idea that it would be a step down in any way to head north as I’ve seen been mooted on social media, however.

The second ‘option’ is Michael Flynn, working similar wonders at Newport County. He has taken the Exiles from 11 points adrift of safety in March 2017 to 60 seconds of extra time away from a penalty shootout in a play-off final away from a return to the third tier for the first time in 32 long years, all the while making Rodney Parade an impregnable fortress and enjoying forays in cup competitions. It would be an intriguing appointment, but the formation and tactics he employs do not look like a seamless fit for the gig, and that’s putting aside his own loyalty to the south Wales outfit for the sake of argument.

My pick isn’t currently managing at senior level, but has plenty of experience of doing so, even at 43. Michael Appleton left Oxford United for Leicester City to be Craig Shakespeare’s number two in June 2017, with the Foxes one year out from being Premier League champions and several months from being involved in the latter stages of the Champions League. Whilst it seemed like a no-brainer in many senses at the time, his superior would only last four months. Indeed, Appleton himself took caretaker charge of two matches, winning both.

Now at West Bromwich Albion as Under 23s manager, a club he had a previous association with during the latter days of his playing career (you can sense a pattern emerging), I don’t foresee the same anguish the other two would have in leaving their posts. Having had a baptism of fire in earlier managerial roles, he had a comparatively less fraught time at the U’s, gaining promotion in his second campaign to League One and taking them to the brink of the third-tier play-offs; additionally, they were also losing finalists in the EFL Trophy twice in succession, proving his ability to appropriately balance the demands of competing on two fronts.

Last year, he appeared on a very illuminating podcast with Not the Top 20, which gave a fascinating insight into both his personality and the way he operates, particularly to listeners like me that were familiar with the name since his emergence at United in the mid-90s, but not necessarily the man himself:

Current squad depth:

Lincoln 1920 September.PNG
An indicator of the current squad depth – positions and roles simplified for illustrative purposes

The first thing that’s immediately obvious is that the shallow end of the pool is up top and in support of the lone striker, which will hamper attempts by any other newcomer in changing to a two. I should add in the small caveat that with the Yellows, Appleton did most often employ a 4-4-2; however, he had the likes of Kemar Roofe and Chris Maguire to call upon – both of whom spent significant time on either flank, and when they were deployed in the middle, they’d often drift wide or drop deep to find pockets of space in between the lines, which in turn would create gaps for the attacking full-backs and wingers to move into.

At Lincoln, whilst there not be as big ‘names’ as those aforementioned, the collective attributes of Bruno Andrade, Tyler Walker, and Harry Anderson could make something akin to that a possibility. Ideally, someone else could be drafted in before January to share the burden carried by John Akinde, who still seems to draw harsh criticism from some circles.

Elsewhere, things are rosier, although last week’s EFL Trophy match perhaps highlighted the need for a fourth-choice centre back, which would multiply the formations available exponentially. Gianluca Bucci is still only 17, so it seems unlikely he’ll thrust into the fray unless things become desperate. Fellow promising youngsters Alex Bradley and Jordan Adebayo-Smith are out on loan with Harrogate Town and neighbours Boston United respectively.

The ingredients are (mostly) all there for a replication of the setup Appleton had at Oxford – a reliable goalkeeper, full-backs capable of bombing forward to regularly join in attacks, at least one dominant centre back (in both boxes), a central midfield two that can marry dictating the tempo with regaining possession; wide players who can both go outside and cut in; a second striker to make their marker second-guess whether to stay put or go with them when they drop off; lastly, a ‘target man’ to aim a variety of crosses.

Additionally, Appleton is a deeply working-class individual, who understands what’s required of managing a team away from ‘football’s hotbeds’ in England. Whilst Oxford weren’t quite as deep in the doldrums as Lincoln were when Appleton and Cowley were appointed, there was a shared perception that both were capable of something above their stations, and thus it was proven.

In his time away from senior management, Appleton has kept up with the machinations in the EFL, keeping a shortlist of ‘rough diamonds’ in the lower leagues, as well as young players from the top table who could be made available by their parent clubs for the second or third loan spell of their careers, as is his preference when making enquiries.

Like Cowley, it’s self-evident that he takes cup competitions seriously – that is certain to put a strain on a squad as shallow in some regards as the Imps’, but because they’re a well-oiled machine off the pitch, the bulk of compensation package for the brothers would almost certainly go back into the playing budget.

Whoever does get the nod, there might well be a ‘transition period’… but that ought to be no cause for panic – just look at what’s been achieved to date – just last night, Joe Morrell earned his first cap for Wales in a full international, which is testament to his ability and the high regard his club are now held in.

The ’empire’ won’t be destroyed just because of a change of personnel in the dugout. Supporters who returned under the Cowleys and the ‘plastics’ who have joined along the way (in turn tripling the gate) are not witnessing the zenith of what Lincoln are capable of. With an astute appointment like Appleton, the ‘glass ceiling’ is still some distance away. Becca Miller’s tweet below sums up the effect Danny and Nicky had on the club and the city as a whole. Sunny days are here to stay for one small corner in the east of the country.

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Struggling Dons Duke it Out, Plus More League One Analysis

The first of my weekly analyses of the third tier sees a diminished fixture list because of the maiden international break of 2019/2020.

Milton Keynes Dons clash with AFC Wimbledon in both a ‘grudge match’ and the first of two early kick-offs. Paul Tisdale has already stated that “it’s not just another game”, although he intends for his troupe to prepare for it in the same manner as always. The Buckinghamshire outfit have been underwhelming in their swift return to League One, only winning the xG battle once and conceding double figures in the first five encounters. The 3-4-1-2 that served them so well last season has been exposed by better quality this term, and the continuing reliance on Dean Lewington on the left has neither gone unnoticed nor unpunished by the opposition, and the lack of willingness to close down across the board is hurting their efforts.

Wally Downes has encouraged his young squad to “embrace the occasion”; still seeking their first win, there’s an argument to be made that they’ve already played most of the fancied sides in the competition at this juncture, and most of the pressure will be on their adversaries tomorrow lunchtime. Kwesi Appiah will be relishing facing a backline shorn of Regan Poole (with Wales U21s), and a side overall that rank as one of the bottom four during defensive duels.

The other early start sees an all-South Yorkshire clash between Doncaster Rovers and Rotherham United. Both clubs have been hit badly by the postponements (Bolton Wanderers and Bury matches in the first month of the season in Donny’s case), but Darren Moore’s charges remain unbeaten in the four that have taken place. They have garnered impressive results without being dominant, and the versatile Kieran Sadlier has been amongst the goals despite the vast majority of his shots being off-target. As you’d expect, much of the approach play has flowed through the quick feet of the evergreen James Coppinger, who has a tendency to drift to the right when deployed centrally.

Paul Warne will simultaneously be ruing the injury to Kyle Vassell, whilst comforted in the knowledge that there is plenty of competition to replace him for the next three weeks. The pace of Freddie Ladapo could see him move across the attacking trio, or Brentford loanee Chiedozie Ogbene might start. Michael Ihiekwe has been a rock at the back, monstering his opponents in the air – four out of five duels are won cleanly by him, and there’s no reason that should change tomorrow.

Bristol Rovers manager Graham Coughlan wants to “build a winning mentality”, particularly at the Memorial Stadium. His side will welcome Accrington Stanley to the south-west tomorrow, with the performances of the right-sided defender earning rave reviews at both ends. He has two assists to his name already, and his accurate crosses aiming for the far post seem to be getting a lot of joy. Ed Upson’s displays at the base of midfield have also been notable, and he should have time in between the lines with which to operate in.

Assistant boss Jimmy Bell has noted “the mood in the camp has improved” after two wins in a week, and the squad has been further bolstered by the very late loan signing of  Sadou Diallo Wolverhampton Wanderers U23s. His distinct height advantage over Séamus Conneely could come in handy during matches Paul Coleman anticipates regularly ceding possession and territory in. More positively, Colby Bishop has made a quietly superb start to life in League One, regularly hitting the target (and the back of the net) and making the most of the chances that come his way.

Coventry City are unbeaten going into their tie with Blackpool. The Sky Blues have given up less than 10 shots on or off target on average in the first six league games, which is reflected in the goals against column – two 3-3 draws have skewed the statistics. Mark Robins has said that “performances have been good… but we want to take it up another level”. Michael Rose has stood out in central defence, and the healthy competition for places up front has translated into early notches.

The Tangerine Army are also riding high in the charts, and Simon Grayson is adamant that when they do lose, “it won’t be through lack of determination or character”. Striker Armand Gnanduillet has hit four in a month, timing his diagonal runs into the box to perfection. There’s something perhaps a little unsustainable about facing so many shots with only five conceded to show for it, so I’d expect either a regression to the mean to occur soon.

Their coastal neighbours Fleetwood Town probably didn’t deserve to lose by two goals at Highbury against Lincoln City last time out. Joey Barton signed Jimmy Dunne on loan from fellow Lancastrian outfit Burnley on deadline day, and the centre-back might replace the one-paced Peter Clarke for the Oxford United encounter. The usually livewire Ashley Hunter has been off-colour thus far, but Paddy Madden has continued to rack up the goals. Ched Evans could earn a start to more closely mirror the visitors’ extremely predictable shape.

Karl Robinson for his part claims the O’s performances “have been sensational”, something that does not tally with the reality. Striker Matty Taylor is nearing a return, but the big concerns remain at the other end – they have conceded 13 from just 54 shots faced and an xGA of 8.04 in total, and there’s a real lethargy to Simon Eastwood’s goalkeeping thus far.

Tranmere Rovers only have a single victory to their name (tantamount to a free hit against a youthful Bolton side) that’s keeping their heads above the relegation zone. Otherwise, they’ve been defensively poor, shipping two per game in the other four fixtures, but they have a trio of players on two for the season at the right end; Connor Jennings especially has made the step up with consummate ease, making a very good fist of probing in behind Stefan Payne as Micky Mellon continues to shuffle the pack.

Gillingham have also not fared brilliantly under Steve Evans, and the first grumblings of discontent are likely to surface if they fail to come back from Birkenhead with at least a point. Again, take out the stroll against the Trotters and a more negative complexion emerges. The majority of the first choice XI are new signings as you’d expect under Evans, and some are struggling to adjust. One of the better performers has been Watford loanee Alex Jakubiak. Operating as the left-sided attacking midfielder in a trio or as a striker, his calm finishes have kept The Gills in contention in the games to date.

It would be remiss to analyse Wycombe Wanderers without making mention of the eyebrow-raising loan capture of Rolando Aarons from Newcastle United. Under Gareth Ainsworth, the Chairboys are one of a clutch of clubs yet to taste defeat, and quite where Aarons will fit in remains in question, with his manager saying “It’s becoming really hard for me to choose who to leave out these days because there’s a lot of players who deserve to be in the team, but I can only pick 11.” David Wheeler has been impressive cutting in from the left and offers a very different threat to Aarons in the air, helped in no short measure by the incisive passing of Joe Jacobson from the back to spring the front three into action.

Lincoln City are kept from the summit by Ipswich Town. Danny Cowley has once again been hotly pursued by teams in the Championship, but is very settled where he is at a club that continues to go from strength to strength. The trickery and pace of Tyler Walker gives Cowley two distinct options to choose from with which to plough the nominally lone furrow in attack, but the wider midfielders quickly make up the space to support their teammate. His rounded playing style and composure under pressure have helped the Imps into the promotion places, and the game tomorrow should be the most exciting in the EFL.

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James Hanson: No One Hit Wonder, Plus More League Two Analysis

The first of my weekly analyses of the fourth tier focuses on the many surprises thrown up in the early exchanges at both ends of the standings.

It’s reasonable to suggest that Bradford City have underperformed whilst adjusting to life back down in League Two. Gary Bowyer has tried out four distinct shapes in the opening half-dozen encounters, and has lamented the loss of all-rounder Jamie Devitt to the sidelines for at least a fortnight. The injury might, however, help to reduce the amount of tinkering he’s willing or able to do for the foreseeable future, starting with the clash at home with Northampton Town. The Bantams have ranked high in the number of shots thus far but close to bottom with those that have been on target (in the bottom four with both Wyscout and WhoScored), and could do with that changing quickly in front of a sizeable crowd against the visitors.

Keith Curle has stressed the importance of nullifying the threats the hosts possess in their ranks to further frustrate the slightly restless support. The Cobblers enjoyed a superb win over much-fancied Plymouth Argyle in their last outing, with Andy Williams bagging a brace as the focal point of the attack from a pair of Sam Hoskins’ crosses. However, they’ve had a similarly disappointing start to 2019/2020 overall, and Nicky Adams has yet to notch an assist despite an xA of 2.28 (third in the league) – I’d imagine that will change in a fixture that will emphasise pushing wide to create chances.

Cambridge United boss Colin Calderwood will be hoping his proclamation that “lessons have been learned” from their insipid defeat to Port Vale rings true. Whilst not yet living up to their billing from 2018/2019, Forest Green Rovers are likely to dominate possession once more, which could mean a repeat of chasing shadows for a second week. The performance and competition for places could mean a number of changes are made. The centre back pairing of George Taft and Greg Taylor have laid on more passes than anyone else in the squad, and they’ll need those balls to be accurate from defence to prevent being camped in their own third for long spells.

The Nailsworth outfit have not translated their time in control to goals thus far, not even striking once per game. Custodian Jojo Wollacott’s dismissal after half an hour last time out was the chief reason for drawing a blank; Mark Cooper has praised the quality of his attack-minded players in the lead-up to tomorrow, and there ought to be opportunities to climb off the foot of both the touches in the box and shots taken tables, and moreover, earn a convincing win to (temporarily) silence any doubt.

Stephen Pressley has been keen to stress he’s “doing everything he can to maximise the group”, and you once again feel that for Carlisle United to prosper, they’ll have to avoid lay-offs to their small squad… and the likes of versatile forward Hallam Hope to be fully concentrating on the task in hand. That should be an easier task now that the transfer window has closed and he remains in situ, but the Cumbrians have to halt the chances and goals they give up – they were extremely fortunate to keep a clean sheet against Scunthorpe United, losing the xG battle 1.98-0.18!

Stefan Scougall has gleaned two in five from the left side of central midfield, but is a big doubt for the visit of Exeter City. The Grecians are the early pace-setters, with a two-point cushion over their nearest rivals. Nicky Law always looks a class act down the left channel, but even more impressive has been Aaron Martin, especially since being shifted inside as the anchoring centre back in the three. It is partly on the back of his aerial prowess and reading of the game that have aided in their quest to shut out the opposition, making more defensive interceptions collectively than any other team. It will be intriguing to see how he organises his partners when they make the mammoth trip tomorrow, being matched man-for-man by Carlisle’s frontline.

Cheltenham Town have carried their excellent form (particularly at home) into the current campaign, crashing in eight goals in three league fixtures at the Jonny-Rocks Stadium. New signing Jonte Smith will be keen to get in on the action, having eschewed the opportunity to help Bermuda in the CONCACAF Nations League during the international break to ensure his transfer could go ahead without any hitches. Assistant manager Russell Milton took questions this week prior to the Stevenage encounter, much of which centred around what Smith will bring to the group, as well as citing the treatment table list for the Hertfordshire club’s travails up to this point.

Dino Maamria has challenged his troops “to put everything aside” as they seek their maiden victory. He’s rotated personnel in attack to address the string of ‘nils’ against their name, and they were unlucky not to bag a win over Macclesfield Town last weekend. The recent captures of Craig Mackail-Smith and Adam El-Abd add oodles of experience and game management to what was hitherto one of the younger rosters in League Two, although the former might have to settle for a place among the substitutes after Kurtis Guthrie got off the mark.

Callum Harriott has rejoined Colchester United after having a loan spell in Essex several seasons ago. His signing will add even more pace down the flanks, and John McGreal will be banking on it serving as another positive step in their recovery in League Two. Opposition managers are all too aware of the threats at their disposal, and the U’s propensity to get caught offside is testament to that.

Walsall chief Darrell Clarke has been channelling his inner Arsène Wenger ahead of the game, pointing to ‘mental strength’ as the key in shaking off a decidedly indifferent start. Picking the final pass forward has also been a problem – right winger Rory Holden needs more helps from the likes of Danny Guthrie in supplying the front two. The Saddlers rank bottom for key passes created.

Grimsby Town have blasted in 13 goals in six matches to date, and the deadliness of target man James Hanson, scoring half of his 10 shots on target. Granted, two have been penalties, but that takes nothing away from his personal and The Mariners’ rejuvenation in 2019/2020; his presence has been a constant thorn for defences, and at a bare minimum, he has had at least two efforts every match. Set pieces have been a huge part of their superb start, but Michael Jolley believes the “toughest test of the season so far” lies in wait tomorrow when Crewe Alexandra travel eastwards. His adversary for the weekend, David Artell, was effusive in his praise for Jolley, having coached together for the Alex U16s at an earlier stage in their respective careers.

The maturing Railwaymen were able to retain most of their brighter young talents from the previous term, and were at least the equals in terms of xG in the two defeats they have suffered to date (the 3-0 reverse against Plymouth was by no means an accurate reflection of that match). There are few better in the division in the six-yard area than veteran Chris Porter, who can count on Charlie Kirk on his immediate left to ping accurate balls to him.

Leyton Orient are yet another side with a 2-2-2 record, and head coach Ross Embleton believes they “are small margins away” from improving their results on the road. In the immediate future, they will look to do that back at base when they entertain Swindon Town. Josh Wright has proved to be a shrewd acquisition, adding goals and know-how from deep in midfield; the main issue remains conceding big chances that have undermined the low overall number, and this is surely not going to change tomorrow.

The Robins will be backed by a sold-out away end, and first-team coach Tommy Wright expects there to be plenty of goals to entertain them. ‘Wellensball’ has them three points off the top, with the loanee strike partnership of Eoin Doyle and Jerry Yates plundering eight between them. The progressive, riskier passing employed by the Wiltshire outfit is hard to defend against, doubly so when backed up by enterprising wingplay.

Macclesfield Town have continued their promising opening under new manager Daryl McMahon, already accruing nearly a quarter of the points likely to be required for survival as a minimum. Ben Stephens, who can play both up top and as a #10, has been instrumental in their form, acting both as chief creator as well as chipping in with his share of the goals.

Crawley Town are also faring much better than most pundits would’ve anticipated. Gabriele Cioffi is understandably pleased with both the application of his players and the depth at his disposal, the latter of which he added to earlier this week with the signings of Denzeil Boadu and Gyliano van Velzen, and he will be keen to see how they fare tomorrow – Reece Grego-Cox’s place on the right of the three looks most under threat.

It’s hard to recall a time in recent seasons where it hasn’t felt as though the manager of Mansfield Town‘s position is under serious scrutiny. Lying 19th at the table even at this early stage is unlikely to be tolerated for long, but thankfully for John Dempster, Ryan Sweeney’s red card against Exeter City has been rescinded. Sweeney is one of several big names that have not lived up to their billing, which has collectively overshadowed Danny Rose’s fine return in front of goal. Dempster is pinning his hopes on “the Stags soaring” against surprise bottom side Scunthorpe United.

Paul Hurst has endured a torrid opening to his stint in charge, hampered in some ways by injuries – his latest interview on the official site makes for grim reading in terms of expecting many of them making a return in the immediate future. Loanee George Miller has spoken of the need “for a chance to fall for him” to get off the mark, but his game has always been about making a nuisance of himself to create his own opportunities. Rory McArdle’s contribution cannot be sniffed at, but his effectiveness in the air at both ends has not led to much in the way of points.

Morecambe stalwart Jim Bentley has reverted the formation to a 4-4-2 since a costly couple of fixtures that kicked off 2019/2020. This had the desired effect temporarily until reverting to type in the past fortnight. Barry Roche, for so long one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the basement division, has not been at his best, and a solution must be found to plug the gaps if another long season of struggle is to be avoided. Lewis Alessandra’s made the most of his scant chances to date, scoring each of his four shots on target. He should get some further opportunities at home to Salford City.

The Ammies have given up triple figures already, facing 104 shots, by far and away the worst record in the league. Thankfully, that hasn’t translated into comparatively many goals conceded, and Jack Baldwin, on loan from Sunderland, is sure to take his place in the heart of the defence as a countermeasure to that particular stat. Jake Jervis joins a strong-looking forward line, but at present, it’s too easy to pass through their midfield.

Newport County are one of two sides to remain unbeaten in League Two at the time of writing. Rodney Parade has been a fortress for sometime, whilst on the road, they have ground out points when not performing at their zenith against opponents at least their equals on paper. Michael Flynn is adamant that the division “will be the most competitive it’s been in a long time”, something I’m also of the view of, and anticipates another bruising battle with Port Vale.

The Valiants have become tougher to beat under John Askey, who is hoping to take advantage of the Exiles’ absentees tomorrow. It’s no longer simply a case of hitting it to club legend Tom Pope and hoping for the best, as there now exists more depth and devilment in attack. Jordan Archer will be pushing for a place, and he takes up similar positions to Pope but with a change of pace. David Amoo helps to stretch defences that would otherwise remain pretty compact, and that will be the most interesting aspect during tomorrow’s game.

Plymouth Argyle boss Ryan Lowe has been quick to temper any notion of Jose Baxter “getting one over” the latter’s former employers, Oldham Athletic. Both manager and player have not seen things go all their own way in 2019/2020. As is now typical for a Lowe side, most of their attacks have come down the left channel (42%), with the middle relatively underutilised. It should serve as no surprise that they’ve also conceded the bulk down their left, and will have to get much closer to the winger. Chris Eagles should provide them with that chance if selected.

It’s been another term of off-the-pitch machinations overshadowing results on it, which have also been hard to come by so far. Head coach Laurent Banide will be hoping deadline day signing Filipe Morais’ return to Boundary Park will help inject the dressing room with a much-needed boost. The strikers have a single goal between them, and although Chris O’Grady’s departure to neighbours Bolton Wanderers was far from lamented, it has highlighted the lack of a potent target man in their ranks to finish off Gevaro Nepomuceno’s floated crosses.

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“Could You Spare Some Cutter, Me Brothers & Sisters?”

Paraphrasing a line taken from ‘A Clockwork Orange‘ as my inspiration, I’m delighted to launch my own Patreon page!

I’ve been writing about Bury on this blog for nearly three years. Unfortunately, their expulsion from the EFL, coupled with my move into freelance writing as a career, has meant that I have had to diversify what I write about in order to continue pursuing my passion and ambition.

The blog itself and future video and audio content on YouTube and a podcasting platform (both of which will be coming soon) will always be free for everyone to access. I’ve yet to make any money whatsoever from my blog itself since its creation, with the ads on the site not generating enough revenue to pay me more than the minimum $200 threshold WordPress specifies to pass that along.

I’m not a fan of asking for money in any shape or form, and any money received through Patreon will have no direct effect on the type of content I produce – that is, I’m not simply going to start chasing the money, I’m going to continue writing in the same manner I always have, which has received excellent feedback from people within and without the sport.

I greatly value the small but extremely dedicated readership I have garnered up until this point, having started BMiE as a way of overcoming overwhelming grief and a deep dissatisfaction about the way my day job/career was going, having ignored doing what I was good at and took enjoyment from doing for far too long. BMiE did start with a slightly lighter tone to reflect the ‘hobby’ aspect of its formation, but soon developed into a more serious body of work.

With the above in mind, I have taken the step of creating this page you now find yourself on. Hopefully, If you have read this far, it means you are at least mildly interested in BMiE, which earns you my eternal gratitude – please read below to find out more specifics about my plans for the future. 

How are things going to change?

‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. As much as that mantra is a little tired, it does ring true for me and my plans. Events outside of my control (especially surrounding Bury) have dictated to an extent the path I am now on. The style in which I write will remain exactly the same, which is kept consistent across my social media channels.

How much are you asking for?

$3 a month. As simple as that. If you want to contribute more, I won’t say ‘no’, but I wanted to ensure it’s as simple and as low as possible. I only envisage this changing if I receive a lot more support than I’ve bargained for!

What’s the long-term plan?

To be able to make enough from BMiE and my freelance work for others to never have to consider going back to a career I hated. The figure in my head is comparatively low to be able to achieve that. I also want to finish my (football) scouting studies and gain press accreditation. Obviously, I also hope that the bulk of what I write about can return to being about a club with ‘Bury’ in its name, but there are no guarantees of that…

Additionally… if you sign up to become a patron in the first month, you’ll gain access to extra content (and I stress ‘extra’, because it will never be in place of anything now), as well as being able to suggest articles for me to write about – I’ll come up with a system of choosing the best ones, depending on how things progress. There is a permanent link in the blog’s sidebar to join!

https://www.patreon.com/burymeinexile

What to Expect for the Foreseeable Future

Hopefully, you’ll have seen my post on Bury from earlier today, and the subsequent announcement from the ‘working group’ kicks things into the latter of the month.

The effects of the summer’s machinations on my budding freelance writing career have been massive, in terms of the opportunities I’ve been able to take up (or not, as the case might be); the general level of enthusiasm I’ve had for crafting pieces, given that I had to abridge my analysis of League One and Two and focus almost solely on the financial side of the game; lastly, the feeling that I’m playing ‘catch-up’ on a season that’s already a month old.

It’s time to shake that malaise off, though. As I’ve said before, I want to continue to write and enjoy it to the fullest again. As you might’ve guessed from the redesign, there will be a broader view of local football, taking in matches in person that will be played out as high as the zenith of the Championship to as low as the 10th tier in England (which might still be where a team called ‘Bury’ will be in 2020/2021), as well as wherever observers would transpose Welsh football. Below is a map and a list of potential clubs that I’ll be visiting during the next nine months or so:

Local Clubs
WordPress has an awful habit of compressing/resizing images – to see it more clearly, right-click ‘open image in new tab’, then delete the dimensions at the end of the URL
Local Clubs
The number in parentheses corresponds to the tier the club ply their trade in

What struck me when researching teams in close proximity to where I now live was the sheer number of them. I would never have envisaged that before, and to the best of my knowledge, the Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire areas are not renowned for playing host to a litany of outfits in the upper reaches of the non-league system; an interesting quirk of the current campaign is that the county city of the former have been placed in the National League North, meaning their away trips are often quite arduous for the top level of regionalisation. How the expansion will affect them or the division of clubs from next year remains to be seen.

Additionally, I’ll be resuming my analysis of League One and Two, looking at each side week by week in a snapshot, dissecting their tactics, players, and perhaps most tellingly (depending on the personalities) the managers’ quotes about how they think their charges are faring. I’ll also be reviewing books more frequently, starting with ‘One Football, No Nets‘ by Justin Walley. All of these changes, along with the work I’ve put in the redesigned site (which will be finished by tomorrow), should mean there are at least two posts per week that are easier to find and read… and it will never be about the frequency for me, always the quality. I hope you’ll support me along the way, because I think the future, despite everything, is going to be exciting for the blog.

 

Less is More: Why Having Fewer Football Matches Just Makes Sense – Part 2

Please read Part 1 first if you haven’t already!

European Super League

I hadn’t planned on leaving it so long to write the concluding part, but I now feel compelled to bring it to publication in light of the rumour mill swirling about the ‘European Super League’. a concept that has been mooted for almost as long as I can remember, and one that just never seems to go away, each time gaining a little more traction – not necessarily with league bodies or the fans themselves, but with those whose interests usually centre around profit margins above all other concerns.

In a document leaked by Der Spiegel, five Premier League teams would initially be involved, and the founder sides’ membership of the breakaway competition would be ‘guaranteed for 20 years’, as clear an indication as you’re likely to get in paper of the permanency of the idea.

The reaction has been vociferous, but as you’d expect, not all of it has been in opposition. Admittedly, none of the people I’ve directly spoken to about it have been in favour, and the dividing line has been centred around whether the FA and the Premier League should do all they can to retain the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal… or let them go.

There are similarities to the formation of the Premier League itself in 1992: clubs with larger fanbases/worldwide audiences wanting a larger slice of the revenue generated to match their ‘status’. Though some of the ‘actors’ differ, the Football League, as it was known then, decided against calling their bluff, in a move that has had untold consequences that are still being felt today. The corridors of power have changed in the quarter of a century since then, and with the benefit of hindsight, they really should have done so. Governance of football at all levels in England is a jumble, which might actually help hasten the elite outfits’ abrogation from the domestic calendar altogether.

Whilst FIFA have threatened to ban players from participating in national team games who are part of the ESL, you have to wonder how much of that is sabre-rattling, together with a degree of shock at this exposé, coming mere days after their own proposed expansion of the Club World Cup was postponed, being resisted by many of the same clubs named in the publication.

Restructuring – The ‘How’

The first part was entirely dedicated to why I felt it was necessary to reduce the number of matches played in the domestic game (which I would also apply globally, although there are obvious complications in trying to enforce that). The method is actually quite simple, and has been made easier in this scenario by assuming the five teams mentioned above. The Premier League’s current composition of 20 is actually something of an anachronism in the current climate, and there have been intermittent calls from a whole number of different vested interests to cut that total down. My slant isn’t to do so to somehow magically improve the English men’s national side, and their run to the semi-finals of this year’s World Cup could easily be used as a large fly in that metaphorical ointment. I come back to the same reasoning I had six weeks ago: it’s just better for the people who matter – the players themselves, the clubs they play for, the fans, the transport network…

Let’s get into the meat of the post. My solution is to propose six leagues consisting of 16 teams each. The rough structure of the top two tiers would remain pretty much as they are currently, and the current third and fourth divisions would be regionalised, much as they were in the mid-part of the 20th Century. Such a measure would necessitate the occasional ‘rebalancing’ of the leagues; for example, would a hypothetical side that plays in the Birmingham area north or south? This issue would arise infrequently, and sides in the Midlands area might find themselves shifted from one to the other to keep journey times and associated costs down for the other members.

Here is a look at how the overall structure would function, using the current standings of the remaining 87 of the 92 teams in the top four leagues to inform the methodology, and adding several of the National League leaders to ensure parity:

New League Structure
(If you have any trouble reading the text in the screenshots, open them in a new window and remove any text after ‘.png’ in the address bar – they will then appear at full size/resolution)

I envisage that the promotion and relegation spots would also be equalised three up, three down; the third promotion spot would be contested in a three-team play-off, with the highest ranked of the trio receiving a bye to the final to be played on neutral ground; this would mean there would be less chance of any one side having nothing to play for as their season draws to the close, and the reduction in games would statistically make it likelier that the battle for positions are tighter. This could also work for the Premier League, where instead of promotion the outfits in third to fifth are vying for, it’s a place in UEFA’s primary and secondary continental competitions (should they still be running in the event of a Super League), much like what happens in the Eredivisie now.

The addition of four to the overall number in the PL/EFL pool to 96 would, of course, have a knock-on effect to each domestic cup, too. Firstly, the Checkatrade/EFL Trophy would, for all intents and purposes, retain its current structure, but eschew the Category 1 sides from the competition, having been an unmitigated disaster in both the esteem in which the poor sibling of the three is held, and on the already paltry crowds that attended matches before current EFL chairman Shaun Harvey’s masterstroke.

As I mentioned before, the group games in the first round would all be played close together at the end of pre-season. The groups themselves would be quite static in terms of who plays who, keeping each mini-league as tight-knit geographically to each other as possible. The only initial draw would be to determine which of them would have the advantage of playing two of the three matches at home in the current single round robin format. Additionally, just like now, the subsequent knockout rounds would be regionalised, pitting the ‘winner’ from north and south against each other in the final on neutral ground.

The most radical change would come in the EFL Cup. Given more room to breathe, and now played on Saturdays, the first round would have a regionalised, unseeded draw, and be free of any Championship outfits. Every subsequent round would be nationwide, ensuring as far as practical that very few sides in the third and fourth tiers would go too long without pitting their wits against a team they wouldn’t normally come into direct contact with. The semi-finals would be single leg affairs, and just like the Checkatrade, a draw would be made to determine which teams were the hosts.

The most notable differences in the FA Cup would be the necessary increase of teams in the First Round Proper from 124 to 128. There would be no regionalisation from the entry of EFL sides, and, just as now, the third round would bring all the top two tier teams. The semi-finals would not take place at Wembley, and would instead follow a similar pattern to that outlined in the other cups; that ‘privilege’ would be reserved solely for the final of the FA Cup and no other competition. Replays would be scrapped, but because of a more equitable redistribution of money in the game, this would have much less impact than it would do otherwise.

How would all of this affect the calendar in reality? Let’s take a glance at Bury’s fixture list for 2018/2019. I haven’t added all the remaining rounds of competitions they are in, but you can still see, it’s quite relentless:

Current Fixture Structure 1Current Fixture Structure 2

Discounting friendlies, the bare minimum they will play from August to May is 50. A win tomorrow and any avoidance of defeat in 90 minutes next Tuesday will take that total to 52.

Now let’s look at an extreme example of a season in the new model, assuming for the sake of argument it takes place in 2019/2020:

Example Extreme Fixture List 1Example Extreme Fixture List 2

If the Shakers could somehow go on a cup run on all fronts (stop laughing at the back), and participate in a play-off, their total number of matches, discounting the pre-EFL Trophy friendlies, would once more be 52. But it’s very unlikely they’d come close to this number, and, given their recent history, it’s much more probable that it would be under 40. This would leave several occasions where they wouldn’t have a fixture of any kind on a weekend, allowing more time for players to recover from injuries and for other off-pitch matters to be worked on, which can sometimes be confined to quite a tight window in the summer.

Other Things To Consider

The ramifications of a European Super League are difficult to determine, but the impact would surely be felt worldwide. The domestic game in England would be affected, as would the national teams if FIFA made good on their threat. Either way, a big rethink is required on what matters most in football – is it higher crowds, better welfare for players and a more equitable way of reinvesting in grassroots, or the constant crowbarring in of more and more matches, blatantly disregarding health and logistics, and financial greed? A reduction in fixtures would not in isolation be a silver bullet, but, along with other measures I’ll write about in future, could improve matters substantially.

 

Less is More: Why Having Fewer Football Matches Just Makes Sense – Part 1

One of the more derided slogans/hashtags in football as of late has been the EFL’s adoption of ‘Every Game Matters’, particularly in relation to the much-derided current guise of the Checkatrade Trophy. If you ever think the phrase might ring more true if there were actually fewer matches, then read on…

Since 1951, at least one of the divisions in the English professional game has seen each side contest 46 fixtures, but the way the sport is played, the culture that surrounds it, and how it is consumed, are all so far removed from the early post-war years. In the seventh decade since four clubs joined to make up ‘the 92’, the sport has transformed, and not necessarily for the better in every instance, with some of the elements that have built up alongside it completely alien to any supporters who are still following their side all this time later.

Many issues are present in 2018; some are unique to the domestic setup, but most are universal in nature. I will explore a handful of them below, with the potential impact of reducing the ‘football footprint’ discussed at length. The method will take up the rest of this post.

Ticket Prices

One of the most immediately apparent problems for many fans is simply the price of admission to a match itself, even before taking into consideration other associated costs, such as travel, food, a programme, merchandise and/or memorabilia.

Take as an example my local side, Bedford Town. After a series of relegations in the past decade, they now find themselves down in the Southern League Division East, the eighth rung on the pyramid, their all-too brief stint in the Conference South a distant memory. Even so, they still charge adults £10 for league matches, which even on Non-League Day, is probably sufficient to make supporters of other sides baulk. That’s not even meant as a criticism of The Eagles per se, but it does make you wonder how exactly that policy has come to be, and been retained in the face of demotions and a 2017/2018 average of just 229.

Regularly heralded (and regarded with no small sense of jealousy) as the league to look to for sensible pricing and the prominence of safe standing areas, a ticket for a Borussia Dortmund home game in the incredible atmosphere at the Westfalenstadion can cost as little as the equivalent of £15, which does come with a small surcharge for the derby against Schalke 04 and Der Klassiker. Although not without problems of their own, they are minute by comparison to the sky-high fees at their contemporaries in the Premier League, and still relatively pricey quite far down the divisions.

Suppose though that the number of home games suddenly fell for EFL clubs from 23 to 15. Would you immediately expect huge discounts? No, that doesn’t seem likely, but there are cases at the present moment where putting on matches actually costs the hosts more than they take in from gate receipts. This can happen for a number of reasons, including footing the bill for policing.

If done sensibly however, I believe that higher attendances are possible. In my proposal, there would be fewer midweek matches for a start, but they would not be eliminated completely; they retain a special place in many people’s hearts, and should be reserved for games contested between local teams. The EFL launched an ad campaign two and a half years ago to boost crowds, but failed to address two of the major sticking points within their sphere of influence: the fabled ‘fixture computer’, which has deemed Exeter City against Stevenage to be a sage choice for an early autumn Tuesday night encounter next week. The visitors have, as you’d expect, advertised the availability of streaming for the match, making more than a subtle nod to its incredulity.

As I said in my previous article, the logistics involved for fans to make long journeys come with their own barriers, even before the price of a ticket. In this vacuum, streaming will continue to become more prevalent and possibly start to erode overall figures. A greater proportion of the slimmed down calendar falling on Saturdays could reverse that growing trend, but it would need to be in line with other measures to have a real impact.

Squad Sizes & Injuries

In the era of seven substitutes being standard, it’s no surprise that overall squad sizes have vastly increased, even from when I started going to games in the mid-90s. Back then, there used to be just three, and the quandary for many managers was whether to risk omitting their second choice goalkeeper to maximise their other options, which tended to consist of at least one utility player, expected to cover almost every outfield position if called upon.

The EFL, as it always seems to, then followed the Premier League’s lead, gradually increasing the number up to seven across all the domestic competitions. With the greater exposure to different tactics and formations that the game has seen in the past decade or so, spurred on by the proliferation of YouTube videos, analytics and social media, the era of the utility player has come again, but now instead of the role being isolated to a single individual, almost everyone is now expected to perform at least two different roles, sometimes in multiple positions. The increased flexibility demonstrated by most managers, coaches and players alike has not gone hand in hand with keeping the training pitch from swelling, however.

 

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Without a FIFA-imposed limit on player registrations, we now have a situation where an elite club like Chelsea can send 40 players out on loan. They, of course, are far from alone in this ‘stockpiling’ practise, but by far and away have the largest squad, and the loopholes afforded to them and other top-tier clubs regarding home-grown players (HGP) and the quota of 25 named individuals ensure a higher degree of flexibility than you’d derive at first glance of the current rules.

A reduction in the number of teams in each league, along with the proposed loan limit by FIFA, ought to avoid the hammer blow anticipated by some owners and managers further down the divisions if the Council approves the changes. Without a significant cutback in the schedule, clubs with tighter budgets, which are usually more reliant on the trickling down of talent from above on temporary deals, would invariably be carrying fewer players as a result. According to Transfermarkt, the average squad size in League Two at the time of writing stands at 27, rounded to the nearest whole number. It’s difficult to foresee that still being the case, should the overall match count be reduced by a third.

Additionally, with games spaced further out, it would allow injured personnel more opportunity to get back fit, as well as the recovery time for those who do feature to increase. Far too often, teams are expected to fulfil fixtures within 72 hours of each other. There have been many scientific studies into this, and even if you don’t buy that argument, I do think the quality on the pitch suffers. Although it might go against some people’s perceptions somewhat, I don’t think professional footballers have it easy in terms of their ‘work’. You also have to keep in mind that the levels of fitness and athleticism required only seem to be going in one direction.

Crucially, this measure could also have the effect of ensuring young players have more gametime. In line with a strict quota for each age category, it should ensure that the reduction in matches doesn’t actually impact minutes so much. Without these limits, it would be counterproductive.

Domestic Cups

Heavily dependent on which level of the game the side you follow is (and in Bury’s case, their beyond woeful record in my lifetime), domestic cup competitions can be the highlight of a campaign or utterly unwanted distractions from the league and European quests. As alluded to in the previous section, the packed schedules and lack of importance placed on the FA Cup and League Cup especially, are reflected in the stands. Obviously, there are exceptions to this, particularly when considering deep, unexpected runs – Rochdale and Lincoln City are prominent examples of this phenomenon; the Imps managed to reach the quarter finals of the FA Cup in 2016/2017 under the Cowley brothers, which did wonders to reinvigorate local interest in the club, and they are still reaping the rewards from this success now.

Imagine though if more of the elite clubs felt that they could put XIs out closer to their first choices. I don’t think giant-killings would suddenly become things of the past, as the mentality and tactical approach to one-off knockout matches can, and do, vary wildly from the league. The reduction in the ‘bread and butter’ fixtures would not, I envisage, be reflected be in the domestic cups. The main change apart from potential team selection would be the increased emphasis and focus on the games, and it could reinvigorate both competitions; with more gaps in the calendar, League Cup matches could be moved to weekends, and the EFL Trophy group stage games could serve as the final ‘warm-up’ ties for participating clubs in pre-season, each encounter played a bit closer together than the season proper to ensure match fitness is the main result yielded from them. Interest in the competition has always been relatively low, not helped in any shape or form by the organisers bending over backwards in permitting Category 1 academies to field U23 outfits.

Continental

In theory, UEFA competitions only affect several clubs in England each season. A reduction in the number of matches played in the Champions League and Europa League is next to impossible to envisage, and with a third competition being (re)introduced in 2021, that’s even less likely to change. The financial incentives increase with each passing year, as does the imbalance between the haves and have-nots, both in terms of the clubs plying their trade in the ‘Big Five’ leagues and on the continental stage to the nations further down the coefficient, to those who miss out on Europe altogether.

Again though, the easing of the tight domestic schedule would allow more time to recover for the players, and potentially make it easier/more affordable for supporters to travel overseas. These changes would work best if reflected across all of the countries affiliated to UEFA, as well as where possible, the synchronisation of calendars. It makes more sense for the leagues in Germany, Spain, England and so on to start and finish at the same time, especially when considering the international scene…

International

Currently, there seems to be a fudge regarding the scheduling of nations’ games and the domestic schedule. In England, some clubs actively seek to rearrange their games so that they don’t coincide, even if the gap is mere minutes, as the broadcasting invariably affects attendances. Ideally, it would be much more prudent to simply avoid a clash altogether via one of two methods: allowing the national sides a free run during the year, or, much more preferably, for FIFA (and UEFA in turn) to realign the calendars around the world – not for the benefit of one continent in particular, but for better, more streamlined governance of the sport on a global scale.

England-v-Belgium-FIFA-World-Cup-2018-Group-G-Kaliningrad-Stadium.jpg
Fans are more likely to see improved performances from their national sides if the players involved have lighter playing schedules and more chance to bond with one another, rather than the ‘interruption’ of the domestic league, as it’s often portrayed

These matches would then be played in tranches after the respective domestic seasons have finished. Take as an example qualification for the United 2026 World Cup, as even in this hypothetical scenario, it would doubtlessly take years of negotiations and staggered changes for it to be fully realised. Most European would probably play between eight and 10 matches in order to qualify for the tournament, and more time and focus being devoted, relatively speaking, to this could only benefit everyone involved – for example, managers and coaches working with the players for longer periods on all aspects of the game. The players themselves would also reap the rewards, as they’d be able to build more of a sustained team spirit, with more knowledge of what makes each of their compatriots tick both on and off the field. These instances shouldn’t be reserved for all-too brief encounters during the season, nor for just the major tournaments themselves.

Counterproductive Ubiquity

This is probably not a concept that everyone will agree with me on, but one of the beauties of anything in life for me is that everything you enjoy doing is finite. There’s a beginning and an end to it. Perhaps without that, it would cease to have quite as much meaning.

Even in my 32 years, there has been a marked change in just how prominent football is from a cultural point of view, and no, it’s by no means all negative… but it’s quite hard to escape, even if you have no interest in it whatsoever. Front pages of newspapers are almost as often given over as the back to elite pros, complete with naked agendas. Social media is awash with ‘hot takes’, instant judgements on players and, as I’ve frequently been witness to, a ridiculous overemphasis of how important football is, with many people unable to make the distinction between the personal and the professional.

As much as I like writing about it, watching it, and even sometimes attempting to play it (badly), it does feel as though it’s now at saturation point – omnipresent, almost.

Reducing the number of matches played is not a silver bullet to assuaging that reality, but it would allow for more time to absorb and reflect on the events just played out, and for more critical, long-form analysis of the mores and idiosyncrasies of football to receive their due attention. As the beautiful game basks in this reflective glow, I maintain my view that it’s actually going to end up hurting it in the long run. The relentless scheduling and pace lowers quality and attention spans, the sport in turn becoming more of a product to be consumed without always being appreciated for what it is. It might just reinforce many people’s love of the game, if it’s allowed to breathe that little bit more freely. But how do we get there? Find out in Part 2…

iFollow You, iFollow Me: Is the Broadcast Blackout Dying?

Saturday, the 8th of September 2018 marked a watershed moment in the long and storied history of English football. During the international break last weekend, the EFL streamed 15:00 kick-offs on their iFollow platform to domestic customers for the very first time during the ‘broadcast blackout’, prompting a vociferous reaction in some quarters. Is the new development all bad (or indeed, all good)?  This blogpost takes a closer look…

Mission Creep

The EFL announced iFollow in May of last year, primarily targetting two key groups of people: ‘exiled’ fans overseas and UK-based scouts and ‘anoraks’ (like the author of this piece), allowing the latter of these groups to play back the same footage supporters in other countries could enjoy live a day after first being broadcast. One of the inadvertent disadvantages of this move was that as a customer, you now became tied to your particular club, unable to listen to the commentary of the opposition your side were facing, which I often found more insightful than Bury’s, as well as being restricted to watching bare-bones highlights on YouTube or Channel 5 (as it was at the time) of any match not involving the outfit you held dear.

I know that the ability to watch games live was extremely well-received by fellow Shakers fans. Kieran Lomax stays up into the small hours of Sunday morning to get his fix in Australia, there now exists a fan club based in Poland and most prominently of all, the Norway branch increased their social media following considerably, especially when posting goal clips to Twitter mere minutes after they had been scored. I have not seen any viewing figures for Bury, but even if they turn out to be in just double figures, it has definitely helped them all feel ‘closer’ to the club they support, and this is bound to be replicated with other teams, too. Although Sunderland are one of several clubs that have chosen not to be part of the iFollow platform, their own streaming equivalent regularly attracts a number in the low thousands from outside the UK, according to new owner Stewart Donald. Either way, it helps to generate revenue on top of the current Sky Sports broadcast deal and that wouldn’t have been present beforehand, which will increase considerably from 2019/2020, whichever distribution model clubs agree to adopt.

However, as the link above alludes to, the streaming of matches within the UK was introduced earlier this season, with the EFL heavily advertising this fact both before the campaign commenced and in the days leading up to its advent. For full disclosure purposes, I took advantage of sadly not being able to revisit Sincil Bank for the first time in well over a decade due to work commitments by watching Lincoln City host Bury. I was under the distinct impression at the time that such instances were solely going to be the preserve of Tuesday night league matches (and Checkatrade Trophy games from the second round onwards) due to the ‘blackout’, until seeing the official Grimsby Town Twitter account promoting the availability of last Saturday’s thrashing to a domestic audience. I was actually quite shocked, which doesn’t happen often.

 

FAQs.PNG
It should be noted that the above worded response on the EFL’s own iFollow FAQs page gives no indication whatsoever to anyone reading it that 15:00 Saturday matches could be available in the UK during international breaks…

 

Slowly but surely, the relentless reposting from almost all of the League One and Two clubs of match streaming being available in the UK got the attention of one of the more vocal owners of an EFL club: Andy Holt of Accrington Stanley. Holt, along with the likes of Darragh MacAnthony and Alan Hardy, is one of the few leading figures at an EFL club to have a considerable social media presence, which he sustains through the good and bad. Through that channel, he has been extremely open with the public regarding Accrington’s finances, as well as his hitherto unwavering support for the EFL’s extremely controversial changes to the format (and entrants) of the Checkatrade Trophy. He, too, was caught out by the news (although his club are not part of iFollow), and throughout last Friday, did some investigating of his own whilst fielding questions from other users.

What he managed to uncover was that the EFL had taken advantage of a loophole in UEFA’s rulings governing the definition of the blackout to their members, which don’t cover periods when domestic football continues during international breaks. Holt was particularly aggrieved, as it was not brought up either implicitly or explicitly during the EFL’s Summer Conference in Portugal, later stating it had been part of the not-at-all daft sounding ‘Project Genie’, and now clubs have been presented with a fait accompli that could be hard to row back from, even if the collective will is there.

The Response

Reaction from fans in general has not been as universal in its condemnation as I would’ve anticipated. In a poll I conducted on this topic on Twitter, these were the results:

 

 

Firstly, I accept that a poll on Twitter with a sample size of 784 is hardly a) scientific and b) wholly representative of views. However, I conducted it in a completely neutral fashion, refraining from responding to any of the worded responses to my post to ensure it was as ‘ecologically valid’ as it could be in the circumstances.

The worded responses were generally centred upon the themes listed below:

A good thing

Considering 30% of respondents voted for this, I could only find one genuinely upbeat reply without caveats: in a nutshell, they stated that for fans with genuine reasons as to why they can’t attend match(es), it can only be construed as a positive. To expound, it could be the case that a person simply can’t afford to attend any longer, even if they live within spitting distance of the ground. The BBC’s Price of Football survey conducted last year showed that the average price of a matchday ticket even in the fourth tier was north of £20, and that’s without purchasing optional extras, such as a programme or food and drink.

Additionally, I know of several people who have mental and/or physical health conditions that make travelling to games extremely difficult to say the least, but who nevertheless are as much a fan as those who are able to attend in person. Alternatively, someone could have working patterns that preclude their presence at games, but who could still make use of streaming. I have seen conflicting breakdowns of just who receives what when someone buys a match pass, but I think it’s unlikely that the club they support would receive none of the proceeds, even in the worst case scenario.

A bad thing

As you’d probably expect, there were a plethora of these. Chief amongst them was the desire to keep the blackout sacrosanct; many are fearful of the impact a move they perceive as ‘the thin end of the wedge’ would have on both attendances and, as a consequence, the very future of clubs that are mostly reliant on gate receipts as their main source of income.

Others are reluctant even with the convenience that streaming every match would provide to partake, either because of the financial hit to the club, the experience watching away from the ground cannot hope to come close to emulating the authenticity of the sights, sounds, and even smells of being there in situ with like-minded people

Unsure

Of course, the issue is not black or white in many people’s minds. A proposed ‘workaround’ I’ve seen (and have seriously entertained) is to lift the blackout… but only when tickets for matches are sold out. There was once a similar scheme in the NFL, but that has since fallen by the wayside, and in truth, it’s difficult to compare two sports with vastly different infrastructures.

Along a similar vein, a club could charge the equivalent of a match pass to fans to enter their ‘home’ stadium, with footage beamed back from where their team are playing. This has occurred occasionally in the past, but has usually been confined to special events, such as major international tournaments and EFL play-off games. Widening this scheme to include long-distance away matches could be a way to counter at least some of the criticisms and concerns levelled at this stage.

The elephant in the room is arguably the Premier League. Long gone are the days when even eight or nine of the 10 ‘gameweek’ fixtures kicked off simultaneously, save for the final matchday – Sky Sports allow this to maximise the unfolding drama. Is there an appetite at the top table of the game in England to lobby for the blackout to be a thing of the past?

Supporters’ Direct

As you’d expect, the umbrella organisation issued a scathing response to the EFL’s move, making some good points before tripping themselves up with the following paragraph:

"You could say it is purely coincidence that Northampton Town, Exeter City,
Morecambe, Accrington Stanley, Portsmouth and Sunderland all suffered their
lowest league attendances of the season so far on Saturday.  I say there is
no such thing as coincidence."

I would’ve expected a deeper analysis (i.e. any) than a cursory glance of the attendance figures, which even now, not all clubs report in the same way, and the “That many are here? really?” sentiments I can echo from the recent match at Milton Keynes Dons.

Below is a table that details the figures:

crowds.PNG

They’re all, with the exception of Sunderland, within 1,000 of the average; in the first four teams’ cases on the list, within several hundred. None of the away followings that I could find data for exactly swelled the grounds they visited, with Burton Albion and Fleetwood Town posting some of the poorest away support in any of the four tiers (in terms of numbers). Notts County are unexpectedly propping up League Two, Morecambe is quite a long distance trip from Wiltshire, and Cheltenham Town are also struggling.

Five of the six hosts’ crowds are actually up from 2017/2018 on average. Sunderland’s long-suffering support have doubtlessly been buoyed by the feelgood factor Stewart Donald has brought with him to the club as the new owner, despite plying their trade on the third rung for the first time in 30 years. Accrington Stanley are in the same division as the Black Cats after a well-documented absence of over half a century. The massive caveat is that all of these sides have played just three or four times in the league at home during 2018/2019 to date, so the sample size is simply too small to draw any meaningful conclusions either way, and especially to draw a relationship between correlation and causation in terms of iFollow streaming.

Other Points for Consideration

The ‘Matchday Experience’ vs other comparable forms of entertainment

In some ways, it’s remarkable that attendances are either stable or on the increase in the pyramid. Very few outfits in the top four tiers are sharply decreasing through factors other than a demotion (Blackpool being an obvious exception to that). There are constant myriad complaints about the cost of matchday tickets throughout the divisions, with many supporters being priced out through a whole host of factors too numerous to mention at length in this post. The bottom line is that in the current era, there are many other forms of entertainment that people can partake in that are cheaper or comparable in terms of length and cost to a football match: going to the cinema, a concert, downloading a video game, film or TV boxset (or streaming them), watching other sports (such as rugby and cricket)… the list is endless, and many of these are more prevalent and accessible to more people than ever before.

Take this as an example. Even if you’re a family of fans and your number one pastime is football but the cost of seeing your beloved side from the comfort of your own home is a fraction of the time and effort it would take to get there, you’d be hard-pressed not to at least give streaming serious consideration, especially if your disposable income isn’t very high. If football clubs want to continue to attract young families with children through their doors, they must pay more heed to ensuring that the whole day is a positive one, and firmly focused on keeping them ‘happy’, regardless of the result on the pitch. This could take the form of having fun things to do in or around the ground which are free or as close as possible to being free to participate in. The competition for people’s hearts and wallets is only going to get fiercer in the years ahead.

Local Economy Suffering

One aspect I didn’t see anyone mention in their responses was that of the local economy of wherever the team they follow are playing at that weeknight/weekend. Supposing that attendances did noticeably drop across the board because of the expansion of domestic streaming, there would almost certainly be a profound knock-on effect to businesses and services situated in the town and/or adjacent to the stadium. Pubs and betting shops, not exactly everyone’s forté in the current climate anyway, would be under pressure. The same is likely of restaurants and takeaways, particularly those that are independently run, as they are perhaps less able to absorb any shortfalls. Of course, not every matchgoer frequents any of these establishments at a home or away encounter, but it is equally the case that there is a degree of dependency on football supporters visiting in good numbers.

 

 

Conclusions

A meeting has been convened by the EFL, set to take place next week, to discuss this very issue. I predict a similar outcome to the one that concerned the changes to the format of the Checkatrade Trophy. The ‘genie’ has escaped the lamp, and the ‘competition organisers’ will be extremely loath to put it back inside, especially if it deems the experiment last weekend to have been a success in terms of revenue. The EFL will use the broadcast deal set to commence next season as a carrot, and will also point to the increased guaranteed income that the runt of the proverbial domestic cup litter that has come about since the inclusion of U23 sides from Premier League and Championship Category One academies. If they can find a way to convince enough boards that their incomes will be protected by their latest project, expect the majority to fall in line.

From an outsider’s point of view, it has become increasingly unclear to me where the lines between FA, PL and EFL begin. The current burning issue is not going to go away anytime soon, and whilst the FA are still considering the incredibly short-sighted sale of Wembley Stadium, the domestic game at all levels runs the risk of being undercut by a slapdash embrace of streaming, without due care and consideration to the substantial knock-on effects that could well occur.

Personally,  I am in favour of what I’d considered to be the arrangement before last weekend. Keep it to long-distance away matches whilst a more coherent strategy is thought up, which needs to involve all the stakeholders, including non-league clubs, many of which often use the international break as a way of enticing those without a fixture to watch to attend. Technology will only continue to advance and intertwine more with football, and whilst in many ways I embrace that reality, I place zero trust whatsoever in the corridors of any of those three organisations to safeguard the grassroots and the clubs a proliferation of streaming will affect the most. If the EFL truly believe that ‘Every Game Matters’, perhaps they should look at adopting the mantra of ‘less is more’ so that football is more affordable for everyone… which will be the focus of my next post.

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group H

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Previous previews:

Group A

Group B

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F

Group G

 

Poland

 

Head Coach: Adam Nawałka
Odds to Win: 66-1
Likely XI:

Poland
Tactics & Players to Watch: Nawałka has experimented with a 3-4-2-1 in the build-up friendlies. Without the rock-solid Kamil Glik for at least the first two matches, they’re more likely to retain the change of shape to cover more ground centrally. Again, the wing-backs are tasked with supporting the attacking options and will lay on lots of whipped crosses for potent captain Robert Lewandowski to get on the end of. The Bayern Munich superstar will be assisted by Arkadiusz Milik once more, who will play off him to the left. On the right, Piotr Zieliński will try to play both of them in behind the backline and has been in fine form for Napoli. Karol Linetty will dictate the tempo in the middle third, shuttling between the back three to collect the ball and playing one-twos with Gregorz Krychowiak to bypass their opponents.
Prediction: They should be able to shrug off the disappointment of Euro 2016 in an intriguing group at this tournament. Glik is a big miss and the front three will need to up their game to cover for his absence, such is the Monaco centre back’s utility at both ends of the pitch. The last 16 might be as far as they go, but it’s not exactly out of the question that they could go a little further, should enough players in the XI be on song.

 

Senegal

 

Head Coach: Aliou Cissé
Odds to Win: 150-1
Likely XI:

Senegal
Tactics & Players to Watch: The two holding midfielders will not participate in attacks from open play but captain Cheikhou Kouyaté has proven many times in the Premier League that he can pose a big threat from long range and set pieces. He and Idrissa Gana Gueye will play the ball back to the defence for them to hit long for the pacey front four to run onto. Cissé has plenty of options to choose from for three of the four spots; Sadio Mané is obviously a shoe-in and often plays behind the main striker but can just as easily be found on either flank; Keita Baldé is another exciting, quick winger in a roster full of them and even more remarkable is that he’s adept with both feet.
Prediction: If they can keep the ball in the final third for long spells, it stands them in good stead to get out of the group. The holding midfielders lack any kind of creativity and Kalidou Koulibaly aside, the defence is far from special. If the backline are pressed, it will severely impinge on their gameplan. If they strike early on against Poland in their opening game, it blows the group wide open, even more than it already appears before a ball is kicked. Equally, they might finish bottom – neither outcome would be a surprise, despite their array of attacking talent.

 

Colombia

 

Head Coach: José Pekerman
Odds to Win: 40-1
Likely XI:

Colombia.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Pekerman sets Colombia up in a conventional 4-2-3-1, where he instructs his side to press assertively in wide areas. Davinson Sánchez, off the back of a superb season for Tottenham Hotspur, will be the standout player in defence. His playing style is well suited to the variety of opposition he will come up against in the group stage. Carlos Sánchez will collect the ball from him and look for James Rodríguez whenever possible. The latter will come deeper when he needs to and then look for the darting runs of the wingers. Mateus Uribe will cross from the byline frequently for Falcao, who is deadly in the six-yard area. Juan Cuadrado will do much the same and he always poses a threat in a bright yellow shirt.
Prediction: I think they’re being somewhat overrated in the betting and other predictions I’ve read and these are partly based on their performance at the last finals and a cursory glance at the more famous names on the teamsheet. David Ospina always has an error in him, the defence and midfield (James aside) are nothing particularly special. Up top, Falcao is only ever involved or useful in one phase of play, making him one-dimensional and the side will be even more reliant on the Bayern Munich playmaker than in 2014 to carry La Tricolor out of the group. They won’t live up to their billing.

 

Japan

 

Head Coach: Akira Nishino
Odds to Win: 250-1
Likely XI:

Japan
Tactics & Players to Watch: Captain Makoto Hasebe anchors a very forward thinking midfield and can also fill in at centre back if required. Samurai Blue will press and counter through quick interchanges between the flanks and Shinji Kagawa. The two-time Borussia Dortmund schemer has lost a yard of pace but maintains a silky touch and an eye for goal. On the left, Takashi Inui netted two in the most recent friendly against Paraguay and might get the nod, although there are plenty of choices for Nishino on both wings. Keisuke Honda, having redeemed himself at Pachuca in Liga MX and now restored to the national team, will drift inside from the right and make late runs into the area. The full backs will both bomb up the field to cross from deep. Shinji Okazaki’s work rate is key to unsettling opposition defences and Yoshinori Muto will either press the backline or step back to allow balls and space in behind.
Prediction: Expectations are very low back home, especially given that Nishino has had a mere handful months to assemble his squad and try out his ideas. The impressive victory over Paraguay has lifted things a bit, with Inui and Kagawa both looking to be back to their best. They will still need their defence to be on top form to progress, but second spot is not beyond them, especially if they’re underestimated.

 

I hope you have enjoyed these previews. I have no national team affiliation or inherent bias, other than hoping (but not expecting) some surprises in the tournament, and not just in the group stages!

World Cup 2018 Preview: Group G

These previews will be as free from well-trodden ‘narratives’ as is possible. There are a plethora of other ones out there – some well-informed, some… not so much. I have opted for brevity over bells and whistles, but I still think they provide a fresh take on the most highly anticipated tournament.

Previous previews:

Group A

Group B

Group C

Group D

Group E

Group F

 

Belgium

 

Head Coach: Roberto Martínez
Odds to Win: 10-1
Likely XI:

Belgium
Tactics & Players to Watch: It’s already very well-documented that neither Yannick Ferreira Carrasco nor Thomas Meunier are especially suited to sitting back; the former is a winger by trade but both have plenty to offer going forward and the Red Devils will always be in the final third in large numbers. Martínez emphasises attack, which is a good fit for the personnel on the roster. It can be possession-based or quick, reasonably direct thrusts.The flanking centre backs split, both to offer passing options for the goalkeeper and to sweep up after the wing-backs. If selected, Axel Witsel will be the closest approximation Belgium have to a holding midfielder. Kevin De Bruyne now adopts a similar role at both club and national level, dictating the play as only he can. Dries Mertens will be deployed just behind the main striker (unless a tactical change is required).

Eden Hazard will stretch the defences with his unpredictable trickery. There are plenty of options on the bench should they be needed – not least of which, is his younger brother, Thorgan Hazard, who takes up similar positions but is more of a creator than a short, sharp passer. Michy Batshauyi enjoyed a fruitful half-season on loan at Borussia Dortmund; he’s more fleet of foot than Romelu Lukaku and you can guarantee at least two of the three sides in the group will bunker down against their vaunted opponents.
Prediction: Along with Argentina (and now Spain, after today’s huge news), there is a wide range of outcomes that are possible for Belgium. They might find Tunisia tricky to break down and England seem to have a setup that’s keenly matched for Martínez’ formation and tactics. I think they’ll come second in the group and be beaten by the Three Lions in that last game. That will make their path to the final trickier on paper. It can then go one of two ways – either the head coach swallows a bit of pride and employs more players with defensive mentalities to balance things out or they could fall embarrassingly early. I actually think it will be the former – they, like Uruguay, have a decent chance of winning it. It’s do or die.

 

Panama

 

Head Coach: Hernán Gómez
Odds to Win: 1,000-1
Likely XI:

Panama
Tactics & Players to Watch: Contrary to popular belief, Panama will more often appear as a 3-4-3 than a 5-4-1. The emphasis will still be to keep things watertight. Captain Róman Torres is a muscular leader in a backline that will sit deep and initiate counterattacks when they regain possession. Fidel Escobar will be key from set pieces and watch out for his long-range shots. Once the opposition have been stymied, despite most of their ages, the starting XI can be deceptively quick on the break. The wide midfielders are key to maintaining their shape and supplying the frontmen, who are all capable of getting behind the defence at speed.
Prediction: They will not be walkovers and could easily steal at least a point from their Group H opponents, who will surely collect one or two knocks from their physical style. The longer in each game they can maintain a clean sheet, the more their belief will increase that something can be gleaned. Goals at the other end are also an issue, so, whilst qualification is probably beyond them, competing with two of the more favoured sides in the world will be an achievement in itself.

 

Tunisia

 

Head Coach: Nabil Maâloul
Odds to Win: 750-1
Likely XI:

Tunisia
Tactics & Players to Watch: Playing out of defence in a methodical manner is how the head coach has sThe wingers will shuttle up and down the wide spaces, offering protection to the full-backs and support to the lone striker. Shorn of more potent options through injury in the build-up to the tournament, Wahbi Khazri could start in that position. Whilst at Rennes on loan, he stepped into that role because of an injury crisis and excelled, taking on defenders with relish, beating them on the dribble and scoring a decent amount of goals. The Eagles of Carthage will be heavily reliant on him to break the deadlock, as well as the vast experience of custodian and captain Aymen Mathlouthi to keep clean sheets and organise a young defence.
Prediction: Tunisia have shown in recent friendlies that they could be a big thorn in the sides of both the heavy hitters of the group. If they frustrate one of them as they managed to do for so long against Spain recently and come out with a point, then there’s a slither of hope that they could sneak through, as long as they dispatch Panama. It could then come down to goal difference, which isn’t likely to favour Maâloul’s charges. They have never won a game at any of their four previous finals, but I think that unwanted record will be broken this time around.

 

England

 

Head Coach: Gareth Southgate
Odds to Win: 16-1
Likely XI:

England.PNG
Tactics & Players to Watch: Southgate has proven his tactical flexibility and willingness to devise a system first, then match the players to it. In a 3-5-1-1, John Stones will likely be the leader of the centre back trio, and his style revolves around turning with the ball and picking out teammates with a good selection of passing. The wing-backs will provide almost the entire width in the XI, although Kyle Walker might step out of the back to cover gaps on the right. Raheem Sterling’s creativity and pace are key to unlocking defences that will be high in numbers and deep on the pitch. Should he be unavailable or the manager feels in need of another player with vision, Ruben Loftus-Cheek will be tasked with pulling the strings from the middle third, utilising the speed of the side to latch onto his through balls.
Prediction: The group shouldn’t phase them too much, although they will do well to remember not to get caught up the pitch in numbers, especially in the wing-back areas. The current crop of players are more comfortable in possession than previous iterations and the tactics match what many of them are used to (and suited for) at club level, playing for the elite. Reaching the quarter finals would represent a good return for Southgate in his first tournament at senior level, with many on the roster not yet at their peak in terms of age. There would be no shame in losing to Germany or Brazil at that stage, and, with muted expectations and harmony in the camp, the near future looks bright for the Three Lions.