Archive | January, 2007

The Future of the FA Cup

Posted on 31 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

Is the FA Cup in decline? The media seems to think so. And declining crowds for Cup games, combined with the second boring draw in succession, would indicate that they’re right. And they are, aren’t they? So, what’s happened, and what can be done about it?

Until as recently as 1956, the FA Cup was one of only two competitions that the top clubs would be involved in over the course of the season, the other being the Football League. Reflecting back on that time, winning the League looks good, but winning the Cup looks glamorous. It’s memorable, too: compare the numbers of people who know that Blackpool won the FA Cup in Coronation Year with those who remember the Pompey title-winning side of the ’40s. That’s reflected in the crowd numbers at Finals – an effortless 100,000 at Wembley, every year, that could have been doubled had the stadium been bigger. Pre-1914 Finals saw crowds of at least 115,000. Now, the FA Cup has to share our attention with a noisier Premiership – that’s where so much of the Cup’s old hype and glamour has gone, effectively trumped by Sky Sports – and with enlarged European competitions. Seven Premiership clubs were involved this season in mini-league European formats, four matches in the UEFA Cup, six in the Champions League. When Liverpool retained the European Cup in 1978, six matches were all that they required to reach the Final. Now, six matches get them access to the last 16.

The FA Cup has to fight harder for our attention, and it has to do so without the help of that great feature of the competition between 1975 and 1991, “cup competition teams”. Over that period, the Cup regularly fell into the hands of a group of attractive, football-playing sides whose weaknesses and inconsistencies meant that they were unable to challenge seriously for the League title. West Ham United, Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur, all won repeated Cups, and by doing so put off the time when the demands of league success meant that Cup victory came in its wake.

Spurs’ Cup-League double of 1961 was the first in living memory. It was ten years before it happened again, in 1971 with Bob Wilson’s Arsenal. And 23 years before the next one, from Manchester United. Since then, the “feat” has been achieved twice more by United, and twice again by Arsenal.

The FA Cup is starting to look like an offer in a Viking catalogue: win the League, and get this historic trophy absolutely free. Little wonder, then, that interest begins to fade. At least the Champions League represents a challenge to England’s Big Four.

But there’s more to it than just that. The FA Cup has been through periods of top club dominance before. So often, it has been won either by the reigning League Champions, or by the club who would go on to win the League in the following season. In the late 60s and early 70s, the near omnipresence of Leeds, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea in the FA Cup Final made for what was until recently the Cup’s most predictable run of Finals.

Something has changed in the way the FA Cup is presented compared to other tournaments. The Champions League is the ultimate, despite its inability to deliver up worthwhile matches more than once or twice per season – it’s the Promised Land in that horrible, overused phrase. The Premiership Top Four is next, although the title has been beyond all but a choice of two clubs in any given season for some time now. The League Cup, currently known as the Carling Cup, comes out from hiding only when it is needed to pad out the trophy cupboard of a desperate member of the Big Four: that competition’s glory days of Liverpool and Forest are long gone and one suspects never to return.

And then comes the FA Cup. Have you noticed how it’s no longer a serious competition in the way the others are?

Instead, it’s become an expression of the age and history of English football. The draw, traditionally made quietly on the radio with a bag of wooden numbered balls, is now Traditional (TM), nailed like a tribal fetish to a televised ceremony that must happen on a Monday come what may. The focus of interest is not on the progress of the top clubs, as it is with both League and European competitions, but emphatically on the chances of little clubs both getting a “big club” “back at (insert name of little club’s ground)” and the little club’s chances of “bringing off a shock” and presenting the big club with a “banana skin”.

All this is done to a backdrop made up of images from (in football’s opinion)the distant past. The Matthews Final – which took place a year after the hydrogen bomb test – presented like something out of the Cecil Sharpe Archive; Ronnie Radford, whose goal against Newcastle is supposedly the sunniest moral moment in the game’s history, a righting of unwritten wrongs. Look at Malcolm Macdonald, kneeling in the mud! And the rest..

The FA Cup’s become a bit like Hymns Ancient and Modern, or the Book of Common Prayer – supposedly central to our national consciousness, but actually a museum piece, brought out on special occasions to be lauded by people too young to remember that all this was contemporary once. The over-emphasis on giant killing is a media construct – the “human element” that every story must have, apparently, if it is to get our attention. That it’s always the same human element, and that we’ve had it banged over our heads year on year, means it’s lost whatever impact it might have had.

Yeovil beating Sunderland in 1949 was a genuine shock. If a Conference side beat a Premiership side now, it would still be shocking, but it wouldn’t shock in the same way. It would be boredom shock: the kind you’ll feel if bird flu finally makes it out of rehearsals. (If that happens, of course, there’ll be boredom terror, too, to say nothing of boredom panic. And boredom hysteria).

In short, the FA Cup is a competition that the media treat essentially as a Robin Hood relic from the past, which fans feel has come to resemble a disused Portakabin parked behind Knight Frank or Jackson-Stops.

So, what to do?

Of course, the first question might be, is there anything that can be done? Is it even desirable to do anything? After all, the FA Cup was created to solve a problem that ceased to exist in 1888. And the League Cup was created because the FA Cup was so bad at providing revenue opportunities for little clubs, something that gets forgotten now. The huge European competitions are the triumphant realization of a long-held dream, one impeded by war and (let’s be honest) by us. We could just allow the Cup to continue as it is, with all its preservation society lustre and comforting familiarity.

And we can’t really look at reining in the Premiership and Champions League just for the sake of the FA Cup.

But we could do something to the Carling Cup, and it would make a considerable difference.

I propose four changes. One, get rid of the League Cup altogether – and, with the exception of clubs with European ties ahead of them, have every League and Premiership club enter the FA Cup in the First Round. That would ensure retention of revenue at present coming from the Carling Cup, and increase the chances of a decent payday for non-league clubs. It would present Premiership clubs with matches against minnows that would actually matter to the bigger club, forcing them to play full-strength, or at least reasonable-strength, sides.

Change number three would be to remove that fourth-spot Champions League place, and present it to the FA Cup winners. Change number four would be to move the FA Cup UEFA Cup spot to the fourth placed team in the Premiership. Or – let’s be imaginative – give it to the non-League club that lasts longest in the Cup, along with a grant for travel costs. That would provide the FA Cup with the financial status it currently lacks, and make the winning of it important in a way it isn’t now. And it would present some poor European club with a quite different sort of challenge.

None of this will happen. Next year, perhaps, the draw will be kinder to small clubs, and what with the return to a new Wembley, some of that churchly dust will blow off the competition. Perhaps.

(Wolves v Portsmouth, 1939: football commentary finds a new low…)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5u095Ibtm1Y]

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Eikon Basilike

Posted on 30 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

Today, 30th January, is the anniversary of the execution of Charles I of England. Partly from my aversion to the death penalty, and partly out of a habit born in my pretentious early 20s, I’ll be marking the occasion with some solemnity. Nothing whatsoever to do with sport, but everything to do with these guys.

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What Next For Wigan Athletic?

Posted on 30 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

In a conversation yesterday with BBC Sport’s Charlie Henderson, I predicted better days around the corner for Paul Jewell’s men. You can read the rest of my thoughts, and Charlie’s take on the whole “losing cycle” experience, here.

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Four Days At Troon

Posted on 29 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

Whilst assembling the previous post, I came across this marvellous 1973 film – warning: it’s long – and wanted to bring it to your collective attention. On-camera interviews probe the ambition and motivation of sports greats including Johnny Miller, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Weiskopf, Jack Nicklaus, Malcolm Gregson, Dave Hill, and Graham Marsh. I expect it’ll all be about passion and commitment, but you never know.

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1968: My Year

Posted on 29 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

It’s tax return day, so this is merely a reflection in video on some of the sporting events of the year I was born: 1968.

It was an Olympic year – Mexico’s:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aodCkVOzj8g]

It was a good year for Manchester United, too:

Jackie Stewart beat Graham Hill in the German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring in the most astonishing conditions:

It was a year that allowed you around Le Mans with Stirling Moss in a Ford GT40:

Here’s the actual race:

It was a good year in aerosport, too:

But that wasn’t a patch on the cricket:

The year saw the sad death of Jim Clark at Hockenheim:

And the boxer Jess Willard passed away. Here he is knocking out Jack Johnson:

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Music and Sport

Posted on 29 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

Both at the same time, from the country that treats opera as country, if you see what I mean, in 1945. The football at the end is Roma v Torino, and is rather worth the wait.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S0-3_APWA_Y]

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From Around The Grounds

Posted on 29 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

passavotchka003.jpg

From our correspondent, George Orwell:

Now that the brief visit of the Dynamo football team has come to an end, it is possible to say publicly what many were thinking privately before the Dynamos ever arrived. That is, that sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before.

Even the newspapers have been unable to conceal the fact that at least two of the four matches played led to much bad feeling. At the Arsenal match, I am told by someone who was there, a British and a Russian player came to blows and the crowd booed the referee. The Glasgow match, someone else informs me, was simply a free-for-all from the start. And then there was the controversy, typical of our nationalist age, about the composition of the Arsenal team. Was it really an all-England team, as claimed by the Russians, or merely a league team, as claimed by the British? And did the Dynamos end their tour abruptly to avoid playing an all-England team? As usual, everyone answers these questions according to his political predilections. Not quite everyone, however. I noted with interest, as an instance of the vicious passions that football provokes, that the sporting correspondent of the russophile News Chronicle took the anti-Russian line and maintained that Arsenal was not an all-England team. No doubt the controversy will continue to echo for years in the footnotes of history books. Meanwhile the result of the Dynamos’ tour, in so far as it has had any result, will have been to create fresh animosity on both sides.

Highlights from the Dynamos’ tour can be downloaded free of charge from here. Commentary from Arsenal’s match with Dynamos was included in one of the recent BBC Radio programmes made to celebrate the 80th anniversary of football commentary – it consists mostly of the commentator admitting that the fog is preventing him from seeing what’s going on.

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Optimism Redux

Posted on 26 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

My candidate won:

Platini has said he will limit the number of automatic Champions League places to three clubs per country, a worry to England who presently have four, while also saying he will try to cap the amount of money a club can spend, a threat to Chelsea’s financial muscle.

He said: “We must always see to it that the strong help the weaker ones. Let’s defend the national associations against the interests which are threatening them. It is a game before a product, a sport before a market, a show before a business.”

…although that last sentence might need unpicking at some stage.

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Knowledge and perceptions of sport psychology within English soccer.

Posted on 26 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

That’s the title of the paper to which this summary refers:

Pain MA, Harwood CG.

School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Loughborough University, UK. m.a.pain@lboro.ac.uk

The aim of the present study was to examine knowledge and perceptions of applied sport psychology within English soccer. National coaches (n = 8), youth academy directors (n = 21) and academy coaches (n = 27) were surveyed using questionnaire and interview methods. Questionnaire results revealed a lack of knowledge of sport psychology that appeared to underpin some of the most significant barriers to entry for sport psychologists. These included lack of clarity concerning the services of a sport psychologist, problems fitting in and players’ negative perceptions of sport psychology. Overall, however, lack of finance was the highest rated barrier. Six barrier dimensions emerged from the interview data: negative perceptions of psychology, lack of sport psychology knowledge, integrating with players and coaching staff, role and service clarity, practical constraints, and perceived value of sport psychology. These findings were broadly compatible with the survey data, with finance emerging as a major barrier and misconceptions of sport psychology being common. Our conclusions are discussed in relation to the practical implications of the study for both applied research and the provision of sport psychology services within English soccer.

PMID: 15513275 [PubMed - indexed for MEDLINE]

Whilst that reflects my own thoughts on the matter, the item about financial barriers is new to me.

As for the misconceptions about sport psychology – the longer I look at this, the more forgivable they become.

For better or worse, British football has history, tradition, a way of speaking. Now, I can write all I like about that history being misapprehended, and I can complain about how tradition is preventing us getting what we say we want from the England team, and I can shrug wearily at the more-working-class-than-you competition that football-speak encourages.

All that is just the way it is. I might not like it, but I can tell when I’m in a tiny minority, and I’m in one here.

And is it just my observation that sport psychology has rolled into football town, with its caravan stuffed with medicines for golfers and tennis players and athletes, crying “roll up!” expecting “the peasants who inhabit these parts” to gather gratefully round?

Of course, the locals ignored it. I don’t blame them. The longer I pursue this career, the more hot my embarrassment that its public faces are Oliver James and Paul McKenna. (And what is it with psych stuff and balding, short-sighted men? That’s quite a good description of me, for a start. And think Freud, Jung, Adler.) If that’s how I feel, how is someone with no need to know much about all of this going to respond? With suspicion, at the very least?

And I begin to wonder if there isn’t something just a little bit rude about the failure to express sport psychology ideas in the language of the sport being addressed. If I were to compile a list of the top ten all-time British sports psychologists, six of them would be football managers from Scotland and North-East England. And I don’t think I’d make it to ten even with their help. Did any of those men use psychological terminology to their players (some did in interview, but that’s a different matter) or did they find a more successful way to put things across?

The very word “psychology” doesn’t help. That tricky quintet of consonants at its front, the OED’s equivalent of a dirty mac. For most people, the introduction of the word into conversation means that something has gone badly wrong. It has illness, madness, all over it. And that’s psychology’s fault, not sport’s, not football’s. After all, this is the body of knowledge that found it necessary to say “object relations” when all it means is how well you get on with folk. You can’t blame someone in sport if they suspect that sport psychology is a conspiracy to get them into a straitjacket. Because there are psychotherapists out there who say that “we’re all broken”, that we all need “therapy”, we all need it for all of our lives..

That’s part of what’s behind the “history” on this site. There are problems in playing football that aren’t to do with physical practice or tactics or fitness. Some of the answers to those problems are to be found in the game’s history, surely? Or at least some idea of them? (Albeit I also enjoy the history purely for its own sake and always have).

And if we do want to import ideas from outside football, in the way Clive Woodward did so briefly and yet successfully for rugby union, can we not at least have the basic politeness to say, when in Rome?

UPDATE: Serendipitous smiley. And why not.

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Youtube Nostalgia

Posted on 25 January 2007 by JamesHamilton

Purely for it’s own sake. Although there was that phrase “steely and determined” a few posts ago, and there was always plenty of that about Revie’s fantastic, unlucky Leeds side of the 60s and 70s. This clip is as much about Leicester as Leeds, though:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2pn9FBehfo]

And some sober analysis – no, really, and you can relate this to the passion-and-commitment issue if you care to – by a young Brian Clough. Intelligence, attention to detail, knowledge. A great broadcaster as well as manager:

A trivia question for you – who were the first team to have won one of the big three domestic trophies to be relegated from the Football League?

It was Headington United, of course, and here they are in the 1954 FA Cup against Bolton Wanderers in front of Pathe News (who, rather like Eurosport sometimes, always seemed to use the same inexhaustibly-enthusiastic commentator):

Here’s the second Derby County Championship winning team, playing Burnley, who at one stage in the late 1950s and early 1960s were seen by many as the most modern, forward-looking club in the country (you’ll have to follow this link on this occasion, but it’s worth it).

And a graceful tribute to Bill Shankly:

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