Penalty Shootouts (Newcastle United – NFFC Programme Notes)

One of my most painful childhood memories was watching my hero, Stuart Pearce, miss a penalty at the Italia 90 World Cup. I remember thinking that it was a cruel and unfair way for England to lose the semi-final but, twenty-one years later, penalty shoot-outs are still at the heart of all tournament football.

It’s because of a penalty shoot-out against Notts Country that Forest progressed past the first round of the League Cup and it could be by the same means that we win or lose tonight. Surely there has to be a better way?

Football is becoming so commercial that, if tonight’s match ends in a draw, I’ll half expect to see Ant and Dec emerge from the tunnel with the results of a public vote concealed in a golden envelope. There have been worse ideas …

As ridiculous as it sounds, before the invention of the penalty shoot-out, the outcome of tied tournament matches was decided by the toss of a coin. More recently matches went to umpteen replays until there was an eventual winner but, rightly or wrongly, there simply isn’t time for this within the structure of the modern game. Perhaps, therefore, penalties are a necessary evil?

The biggest criticism of penalty shoot-outs is that they are more of a lottery than a sporting contest and the winning team will prevail, irrespective of ability. It has often been said that penalty kicks only require a small subset of a footballer’s skill and that using them to decide the result of a drawn game is like playing crazy golf to decide who wins the Ryder Cup. Personally, I’d pay good money to see Lee Westwood putt the winning shot through the legs of a giant plastic gorilla.

There is also a suggestion that penalty competitions put too much pressure on individuals. Roberto Baggio claims it took him three years to get over his 1994 World Cup Final miss. Coincidentally that’s the same amount of time it took the ball to land, after he ballooned it wildly over the bar.

The strange thing is that Baggio was a wonderfully gifted player and a prolific penalty taker. But penalty shoot-outs are very little to do with ability and everything to do with nerve. The team who wins is most likely the team that handles the pressure of the occasion best.

They could be accepted as an inconvenient but unavoidable footballing truth was it not for the fact that they have been publicly admonished by the most powerful man in world football.

Sepp Blatter, the eighth president of FIFA and fourth in line to the Qatari throne, has the following to say on the subject: “Football is a team game, while the penalty shootout is all about the individual.” So if the self-elected dictator of the footballing world opposes penalty shoot-outs, why do they still exist? Maybe there is no viable alternative?

I know what you’re thinking. Why doesn’t Sepp Blatter just award each tied match to the highest bidding country … or perhaps the country with the most turbulent political past? In actual fact, his views on the topic are refreshingly reasonable.

The idea he supports is to decrease the number of players on the pitch during extra time, creating more space and thus increasing the likelihood of a winning goal. The factors that determine which team progresses would become the strategy of the manager and the adaptability of his players. There are a few variations on this theme but the general idea is that as more time passes the number of players per team is decreased. The winning team would be the one that scores first.

I think the idea has a lot of potential, but to be honest it will probably never be tested. It’s even less likely that it will ever take the place of penalty shoot-outs. The reason is that, although they are fundamentally unfair and undermine tournament football, penalty shoot-outs are fantastic to watch!

During the 2010 World Cup, I had people around my flat for the glamour fixture of Paraguay versus Japan. The non-football-loving women locked themselves in the kitchen, bemoaning the strain that twice daily televised football had put on their relationships.

The match was a boring 0-0 draw, the sort you could quite happily knit a jumper to, but as soon as the cry of ‘penalties’ was bellowed, the women rushed in to watch and everybody was literally on the edge of their seat. Despite having no allegiance to either team, it was seven minutes of compulsive drama. That is why penalty shoot-outs, the most cruel, unjust and electrifying way to end a game, are here to stay.

Derby Day (Derby County – NFFC Programme Notes)

It’s derby day at the City Ground, and over the course of the next ninety minutes, everything else in life will fade into nothingness. It’s a fixture that both captures the imagination and consumes all who are part of it.

Forest and Derby fans may have a ‘strong dislike’ for one another but the football season is so much richer for having the two teams in the same league.

I love every aspect of the derby day experience: the incredible atmosphere, the irresistible banter, the high drama, the heroes and villains, the hope of glory, even the fact that I’ll probably be teetering on the edge of despair until the final whistle blows.

Some imbeciles try to defile the great tradition of the two clubs by inciting violence but the vast majority of fans make derby day a fantastic occasion to behold, no matter what happens on the pitch.

I, like so many other fanatics who will fill the ground today, am only interested in the football. In fact, the nearest I have ever come to a Derby related altercation was when I came across what I presumed to be a friendly ram, whilst on a cross country pub crawl over the summer.

In an attempt to impress my peers, I casually booed in its general direction … but it took exception and mercilessly charged toward me; head lowered with a menacing look in his eye. They’re not the docile creatures Countryfile would have you believe.  I don’t mind admitting that I ran away like a scalded alley cat … but I’m sure our players will be much braver when locking horns with the Rams today.

Nottingham Forest against Derby County epitomises everything that is great about football. We should absorb and relish every second of today’s encounter because there is no guarantee the two teams will be playing against each other next season.

One of the best home matches I’ve ever been to was against Derby back in 2003. It had been four and a half years since Derby’s last visit and, as a result, the atmosphere was phenomenal. The Forest faithful played no small part, as goals from Marlon Harewood and Darren Huckerby helped us secure an impressive 3-0 win. As I walked home, cars were wildly beeping their horns and people were singing and dancing triumphantly along the River Trent. I’m told a similar celebration takes place outside Pride Park, every time Derby get a point at home.

But we all know football to be a cruel mistress and if you’re going to enjoy the euphoric highs, you have to be prepared to endure the devastating lows. A year on from that famous victory and Forest were beaten 4-2 at Pride Park. My lasting memory of that game was an innocuous back pass ricocheting off a Kenco coffee cup and leading to Derby’s second goal. To this day the taste of coffee at football grounds is like bitter ash in my mouth.

Whether it’s corner flag induced brawls, ex-players coming back to haunt their old clubs or rival managers kneeing each other in the back, the matches have produced great drama over the years. It’s a bit like an episode of Hollyoaks Later, but with better acting.

If anything the last few games between Forest and Derby have had more in common with a pantomime than a soap opera, with Robbie Savage and Kris Commons playing the part of the archetypal pantomime villains, as far as Forest fans are concerned. Of course both have now left the Rams for pastures new. One of them can be seen prancing around on a Saturday, trying to salvage the last remnants of his dwindling career, in some meaningless contest that no self-respecting football fan should care about … and the other has been signed up for the new series of Strictly Come Dancing.

With both Forest and Derby ringing the changes over the summer, today is a day when new heroes and villains can emerge; the toast of one city will be the scourge of the other.

If Forest win I can proudly wear my shirt about the town or else find that disobedient ram and sneer at him from a safe distance. If Forest lose I’ll probably just stay in bed until December.

There’s no glossing over the fact that it’s been a disappointing start to the season for us, but a win against our biggest rivals could be the inspiration needed to kick-start the promotion push, just like it did back in 2009.

More so than ever the players need our unyielding support and I’m sure that’s exactly what they will get. With every defeat the eventual victory is that much sweeter … and what better way to get our first home win of the season than by beating Derby County today.

Ishmael Miller (West Ham – NFFC Programme Notes)

I think I’m justified in describing myself as a die-hard Forest fan. I’ve been a season ticket holder for years, I go to as many away games as I can, I know all the words to Mull of Kintyre and I boo aggressively every time I pass a flock of sheep. Cut me open and I bleed red blood.

However, there is a dark and disturbing secret that I’m almost too afraid to admit … I have married into another club. Although our children will be Forest fans, they won’t be pure-bloods … and the shame is almost unbearable.

But don’t panic … my wife isn’t a Derby fan … I don’t think any priest would permit such a union. My in-laws are, in fact, fanatical West Bromwich Albion supporters.

As a rite of passage/form of mild torture, I have been forced to go and watch the Baggies on several occasions over the past few years and, though it pains me to admit it, I’ve been impressed by their dynamic attacking football. One player who I particularly enjoyed watching was Ishmael Miller.

The 24 year old was on my wish list at the start of the season and I was thrilled that the ‘transfer acquisitions panel’ finally responded to my weekly telegrams and signed him up. Built like a boxer and fast as a puma, Miller is a player, whose mere presence can reduce competent centre halves to blubbering wrecks.

However, it’s a common misconception that he’s just a big target man for defenders to hoof long balls toward. He is a skilful striker, who prefers to receive the ball on the floor and relishes the opportunity to run at defenders. He always wants the ball, is comfortable in possession and has the pace and power to hurt teams. The acquisition of Ishmael Miller will give Forest a better platform from which to play good passing football

Although he is primarily a centre forward, he can also be employed in a wide role and is adept at cutting in from the right hand side and unleashing scorchers with his left foot. He’s very one-footed but this doesn’t seem to make it any easier for defenders to contend with his strength and speed.

One of the major positives is that Ishmael is still young and, under the guidance of Steve McClaren, can become an even better player, as the season progresses. At present, he is probably best described as a raw and exciting forward – passionate, selfish and hungry. If he gets a faint sniff of goal, even very persuasive wild horses won’t convince him to play a square ball … and I think Forest need a player with this mentality to lead the line.

One of the things that might concern Forest fans is his goal-scoring record. He scored 16 goals in 97 games before joining us (an average of about one goal every six games.) However, I’m confident that this ratio will improve, with a prolonged run in the first team (something he’s been deprived of over the last two seasons.)

But – and I know I risk being publicly flogged for making this outrageous claim – a striker can be an integral part of a team, even if he doesn’t score goals. I believe Ishmael Miller is going to be vital to the balance of our team and I think he’ll help us to win a lot of football matches.

He hasn’t scored a lot of Championship goals but he has played a major part in three successful promotion campaigns … this has to be more than a coincidence.

The last time I saw Ishmael play for West Brom, I had lost all feeling in my legs and arms on a bitterly cold January night back in 2010, as Forest beat Albion 3-1 at the Hawthorns. I secured bragging rights over the in-laws, as Forest completely out-footballed Albion for the entire game. However, the last fifteen minutes had me covering my eyes and reaching for somebody’s hand to squeeze, because Ishmael Miller (who had just recovered from injury) had been brought on as a substitute.

It was exactly the same last season, when we played QPR at Loftus Road. He is a frightening prospect and a man who can single-handedly change the complexion of a game. I’m just glad he’s on our side nowadays … not least because grabbing the hand of the bloke sitting next to you is frowned upon at football grounds.

Although I believe the introduction of Radi was the turning point against Leicester last week, Ishmael played an integral part in the comeback. His strength and composure meant that the ball was sticking in the final third, allowing the midfielders to get into more advanced positions and eventually leading to the two goals.

Ishmael Miller is a striker who has all the assets required to be a success in the Championship. Defenders may know what he is all about, but there’s very little they can do against such power, pace and ability. If he features in today’s game you’ll see the colour drain from the faces of the West Ham back four.

Financial Fair Play (Leicester City – NFFC Programme Notes)

 

It’s no secret that since the formation of the Premier League in 1992, English football has been walking a financial tightrope. Most clubs lose money every year and only continue to exist because of investment from rich owners and/or high interest loans.

The current amount of debt in the Premier League is estimated to be £2.6billion. The existing debt of the 72 Football League clubs totals around £700million.

Due to the sheer size of the football industry and the amount of money it generates, it’s possible that the majority of clubs could go on like this for another decade … but not indefinitely. Most people within the game have realised that unless something changes there may be dark times ahead, hence the introduction of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) regulations.

The basic principle of FFP is that clubs must balance their books – they can no longer be propped up on stilts of debt. In other words, expenditure on wages and transfer fees must not exceed income received from gates, TV money, prize money and commercial income.

Nottingham Forest’s total loss for 2010 was £12.3million. It is a similar story for a lot of Championship teams, year upon year, but when the new regulations are fully implemented this will no longer be allowed to happen.

Forest’s business model is currently sustainable because of the investment of Nigel Doughty but in order to comply with FFP (which is due to be implemented in time for the 2013/14 season) the club will no longer be able to spend more money than it makes.

One area of expenditure that falls outside of UEFA’s glare is that of youth development and it’s within this area that Forest’s future strategy lies. UEFA’s decision to not include this area of expenditure within their review will undoubtedly provide young British players with a better opportunity to succeed in the game and as a by product it may well have a positive impact upon our International team.

The main reason that Forest, along with the majority of football clubs, are currently losing money every year is the astronomical salaries of players (in 2010, Forest spent more on salaries than their total turnover for that year.)

In theory FFP will solve this problem and in turn make league competition in England a lot fairer. At the moment clubs who have the richest owners, or are willing to be the most reckless in terms of accruing debt, are able to pay the highest salaries and therefore can attract the best players. The implementation of FFP is supposed to reduce the amount of disparity between wages, meaning clubs will be competing on an even playing field.

However we all know that the amount of revenue available to Premier League Clubs is far greater than that available to Football League Clubs. It’s estimated that promotion to the Premier League is worth about £90million over a three year period. The concern is that by eliminating the potential for lower division clubs to speculate, you are driving a wedge between the Premiership and the Football League. Those who do not secure promotion within the next few seasons may be cut adrift … and that’s not the only potential flaw.

I have little doubt that FFP is a well intended step in the right direction and UEFA, along with the Clubs who have supported the motion, should be applauded for it. My major concern is that in itself it isn’t enough; the real problem is the amount players are paid and the principle of FFP alone does not directly address this.

Decreasing the salaries of players is not going to be an easy task and it’s not necessarily something that all clubs want to do. Manchester City’s recent success has been solely based on the fact that they are willing to pay higher wages than any other club. What if clubs just seek to drastically increase their revenues to avoid the difficult task of lowering their wage bill?

The problem of debt in football would be solved but the increased revenues would have to come from the fans in one way or another. Perhaps the cost of tickets and merchandise will be increased. Perhaps all televised football will be pay per view in years to come. Or perhaps Football grounds will be completely dedicated to commercial hospitality.

I appreciate that these are cynical leaps but it represents my fear that by telling clubs they have to balance their books, but not specifically attacking the cause of the problem, i.e. player’s wages, there is the possibility that the bigger clubs (who do not necessarily want an even playing field) will increase revenues by whatever means they can. Other clubs will be forced to do likewise just to compete and the average football fan may be completely priced out.

I believe that FFP is a necessary and positive change to the financial running of the game but I think that in order to achieve fairness and avoid making football inaccessible to the masses, the details of UEFA’s plan must include firm guidelines on how football clubs are to reduce salaries.