Sunday, 21 April 2013

Championship Ready for Relegation Battle

With just two rounds of matches left (3 for Blackburn, 4 for Millwall), there are still 10 teams that could mathematically join Bristol City in slipping from the 2nd tier in a fortnight's time. There are so many teams still involved that the number of 6-pointers is too many to copy out here without just recreating the fixture list. Of course realistically Ipswich are almost certainly safe, and it seems unlikely that Millwall will fail to pick up enough points in their remaining four games to avoid being a cup-run casualty. The three teams currently on 51 points are evidently in the most trouble but anyone could theoretically have an unpleasant and uncomfortable afternoon come May 4th.

More relegation woes for Wolves?
In terms of form, Wolves and Barnsley appear to be unlikely to pull themselves out of the mire. Wolves have 1 win in 4, with 3 defeats, while Barnsley's impressive recent draws against Palace, Cardiff, Derby and Forest won't count for much if they can't arrest a 5 game winless run. Peterborough on the other hand are near the top of the form table. They lost 3-1 at the weekend to Derby, but were undefeated in 10 prior to that and certainly seem like they have enough fight to avoid the drop.

Given the absolute shambles at the club currently, it is no great surprise that Blackburn are right in the mix. Two recent wins stopped a slide which saw them collect just 2 points from 21, and may prove sufficient to prevent the biggest crisis of all, another relegation. That said, I can't imagine the squad will have the same fighting spirit as their neighbours, so if they fail to pick up points from their game in hand (away at Millwall), they could yet be in serious trouble. Huddersfield have probably the easiest fixtures (Bristol City away and Barnsley home) from the teams down there but a Yorkshire derby against a battling Barnsley could easily be the crucial game to watch if Town can't get a result away at Bristol.

Jermaine Johnson - the reason
Sheff Wed will escape the drop
Then there's a whole host of teams of 55 points, needing just a win from their remaining games to secure Championship football for next season. Wednesday travel to Peterborough and then host 'Boro on the last day, Blackpool host Derby and then go to Bolton, Burnley are away at Wolves then home to Ipswich while Millwall have 4 games left, 3 of which are at the Den. Of the four teams, only Burnley seem to be in any danger realistically - they have only 1 win in 9 (against Bristol City) and face two other teams in the fight, and so could quite feasible slip back in.

Jordan Rhodes - pretty much the only
good thing about Blackburn's season
Whatever happens over the next two weeks, it is a fascinating end to the season. Last year, 41 points would have been enough to avoid the drop, and this year Bristol City are already relegated despite having that total. Last year, the final gap between 11th and 19th was 14 points, this year it's currently 4. Quite a few of the teams here could very feasibly still finish in the top half of the table. It may yet come down to goal-difference, in which case Huddersfield will be in all manner of trouble, while Sheff Wed, Blackburn and Peterborough are so close that they might end up looking at goals-scored.

In terms of the odds, bookies seem to be following the league table, with Barnsley favourites for the drop (1/2), Wolves (8/11) and Peterborough (4/5) next most likely and Huddersfield (9/2) and Blackburn (11/2) seen as the only other realistic candidates. Wednesday (25/1), Blackpool (66/1), Millwall (66/1) and Burnley (80/1) appear to be pretty safe as far as the bookies are concerned.
What's certain is that it'll be coming down to the last day, and the edges of lots of seats will be under severe stress at around 2.30pm on Saturday 4th May...

14Ipswich Town44151217?1357
18Sheffield Wednesday44151019?955
19Huddersfield Town44141218?2254
20Blackburn Rovers43131416?853
21Peterborough United4414921?951
22Wolverhampton Wanderers4414921?1151
24Bristol City (R)4411825?2041
The bottom of the table as things stand today

Friday, 12 April 2013

Will ladies' football ever be a truly popular national sport?

This weekend sees the beginning of the 3rd Women's Super League (WSL), the elite competition of ladies' football in the UK. Eight clubs now compete to be crowned the greatest in the country. With a competition specifically designed to raise the profile, standard and professionalism of the game now entering its 3rd season, has it started to yield the desired effects? 

In terms of money, it faces the dilemma of wanting to increase the finances involved, but simultaneously avoid a huge imbalance in the favour of larger clubs like Arsenal and Chelsea. Consequently, clubs are currently only allowed 4 players on a salary of £20,000 or more. And, yes, that is an annual salary.

At the end of last year's WSL season, the BBC presented a Q&A with the FA Head of National Game, Kelly Smith (read it here, and its recent follow up video here). Inevitably the tone was positive, that progress was being made and that interest and support was up. Unquestionably, overall attendance has increased 10% and the highest attended individual match (5052 spectators at Arsenal vs Chelsea) was more than twice that of 2011, although it taking place at the Emirates may have benefited this somewhat as well.

Most sports across the UK have seen a significant swell in interest and participation post London 2012, and women's football is no exception. At the Olympics, interest was high, with an average attendance of 25000, including 70,000 seeing Team GB beat Brazil in the Group Stage, and 80,000 watched the USA beat Japan in the final, both at Wembley.

But is there a danger that it will be like many other Olympic sports, in that the general public don't really care about it unless there is a major tournament on, or it happens to be on TV? How many people go onto the BBC's Women's Football page specifically to look up results or get the latest club news? Who knows what the Cyprus Cup is, or whether beating Canada twice in a month is remotely significant or impressive?

Last weekend Rachel Yankey became England's most capped football player, joint with Peter Shilton, with 125 national team appearances. A huge congratulations to Rachel for such a feat, but I fear it will be looked upon a bit like players who play hundreds of times for minor nations in the men's game, becoming more of an obscure pub quiz trivia answer than an achievement inspiring awe and respect.

Women's football is hardly new in England, having been played (and popular) in the early 1900s, until what turned out to be a 50 year ban from 1921 stopped its genuine progression and growth in its tracks. And now that men's football is so utterly universal and financially significant, it will take a massive ongoing effort from all quarters for the ladies' game to get a real foothold in the market. The reality is also that a large percentage of the female population still strongly dislike football. Saturday night dates ending at 10.30pm for Match of the Day may have something to do with this, but until there is a wider enjoyment of the sport, it may be hard for the game to really grow and develop.

Although it is unfair to compare to the men's game, there are definitely positive signs that the game won't sink into a post-Olympics hangover and back into relative obscurity. Chelsea have just signed a Brazilian superstar for the new season, ESPN are continuing to provide significant WSL coverage, the BBC are showing some of the matches from this summer's European Championship and the FA WSL Cup has ongoing sponsorship from Continental, one of the biggest sponsors of major football tournaments in the last 20 years.

In terms of the national team, there are an awful lot of similarities to the men's side of thing (unfortunately). Looking ahead to this summer's European Championships in Sweden, we currently sit 7th in the FIFA rankings, not quite able to break into the very top levels, but always close enough to get our hopes up. Sadly, we appear to be similarly afflicted by major tournament woes. At the Olympics, Team GB won all 3 group games, including beating Brazil, only to tamely limp out 2-0 to Canada in the Quarters. At the 2011 World Cup, we again won our group, including a victory over eventual champions Japan, only to lose in the first knockout round, on penalties, having conceded an 88th minute equaliser. They are still England after all.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Respect for Referees still a Real Problem

Despite the FA's Respect campaign being nearly 5 years old, I don't think many would argue the fact that football is still a long way behind other sports in terms of the respect shown to match officials. We still see players disputing virtually every decision and appearing outraged the instant a foul is committed. We still have players surrounding the referee and managers storming onto the pitch at full-time. And how often do TV cameras still catch players shouting profanity at the ref after a decision goes against them?

Scenes like this are still too familiar
Of course there has been improvement, such as a significant decrease in the number of bookings for dissent, but the truth is that fundamentally players and managers still complain almost instinctively, usually before the ref has even had a chance to blow the whistle. Is it not embarrassing to see players cry out to the ref as though he's committed war crimes when in fact he's already in the process of giving the foul? 

Watching the Six Nations recently highlighted just how well managed the disciplinary side of the game is in rugby union, and consequently emphasised how much more football has to do. The ref calls over the offending player and the captain, has a quick chat (which everyone can hear over the mic) and everyone gets on with it. There is the odd question in reply but no pathetic whinging or mock despair and certainly no aggressive abuse. Players accept the decision, and potential punishment, maturely and with minimal fuss. Even for controversial decisions there is limited argument, due in part perhaps because the players have the sense to realise it is of no benefit, but is more likely to be detrimental if anything. There are sanctions such as the loss of 10 metres or the reversal of a penalty for excessive arguing. 

Of course there are differences between sports, not everything is immediately transferable. The loss of 10 metres for example would have virtually no effect in football but can be very significant in rugby. The differences between officiating football and rugby, from the perspective of the referees themselves, was discussed in a group interview recently (it can be read here). A major point of discussion was the relationship between players and referee, which to me seems almost entirely absent in football and certainly a long way from the ideals set forth by the Respect campaign.

A while back Gary Neville wrote a piece about the futility of arguing with refs, which had taken him years to realise. Far from having even the slightest influence on a referee's decision, constant complaints and aggressive behaviour proves much more likely to harden a ref's resolve against you. Have you ever seen a decision overturned because players complain or get in the official's face? Why then does it continue? Players need to be better educated to this fact, managers need to do more to control them and all round the professionals need to set a better example. It's completely in the culture and nothing is going to change while young players at the clubs and watching on TV see how their idols behave. 

Not exactly powerful and inspiring imagery
The Premier League has a Fair Play League table, in line with UEFA's equivalent, and points are awarded not just for avoiding yellow/red cards but also for respect to referees, behaviour of team officials and even behaviour of the fans. The scoring system can be read here. Rewards are given out for such things but the reality is that a fairly insignificant cash prize isn't much of an incentive to a Premiership club, so as long as they believe that pressuring referees enhances their chances, why would they ever change?