Category Archives: The Red Revolution – NFFC Programmes 2012/13

Refereeing Mistakes (Burnley – NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

 

As the final whistle blew on an agonising home defeat to Hull City last week, a chorus of advent boos rang excruciatingly around the City Ground. Although it was far from a vintage Forest performance against the irritatingly compact Tigers, I’m pretty sure that the unfriendly jeers were being directed toward the three officials, who, through poor decisions, turned a goalless stalemate into a 2-1 defeat for the Reds.

 

After two controversial penalty decisions made it 1-1, the winning goal was bundled in by the hand of Paul McShane. Forest fans left the ground feeling aggrieved, having lost a game that we deserved at least a draw from.

 

As I walked along the River Trent, I heard one man cautiously whisper an age-old football adage to his disconsolate son, “These things even themselves out over the course of a season.”

 

But do they really even themselves out, or is it just another of Sepp Blatter’s old wives’ tales, used to mask the incompetence of referees and delay the need for radical reform within the game? I took the trouble to investigate further, using Forest’s 2012/13 campaign as a case study.

 

I trawled through the footage of our twenty games so far this season to try and discover how incorrect refereeing decisions had impacted upon our progress.

 

First and foremost, I was surprised to find out how few of this season’s ‘major decisions’ were actually wrong! By ‘major decisions’ I mean red cards (awarded or avoided), penalties (given or not given) and goals (allowed or disallowed).

 

Obviously in every game there are dubious decisions that go for and against teams (throw-ins given the wrong way, harsh free kicks, etc). I have stuck to the aforementioned ‘major decisions’ for two reasons. Firstly, because these are the decisions that actually directly change the course of a game and, secondly, because sitting in my Batman pyjamas tallying up every single bad decision from 30+ hours of football, whilst my wife is at work, may well lead to unscheduled divorce proceedings.

 

The results of my streamlined research are as follows. So far, during our 2012/13 campaign, there have only been two cast-iron, indisputable ‘major decision’ errors and both have gone against Forest. There are a further five decisions (including last week’s two penalty calls) which I personally believe were wrong but which cannot conclusively be called errors – three of these decisions went against Forest and two went in Forest’s favour.

 

The cast-iron incorrect decisions that cost Forest goals were the aforementioned Paul McShane winner for Hull City and the blatant Kevin Davies push that led to Bolton Wanderers’ first goal at the Reebok Stadium, back in August. In terms of these categorical mistakes, things haven’t evened themselves out for Forest so far this season.

 

But one of the big problems with this sort of analysis is that the majority of decisions are largely subjective. For example, Adlene Guedioura’s booking against Cardiff City seemed grossly unfair to me, as he appeared to simply lose his footing, but some spectators would interpret the situation as an attempt to unfairly win a free kick. This booking eventually led to a sending off.

 

Dexter Blackstock’s sending off against Derby County was a total injustice, in my opinion, but some neutrals feel that, if following the letter of the law, a red card was warranted. Similarly, the penalty Billy Sharp won against Leicester City seemed very fortuitous, but even after all the slow motion replays there was still a fraction of doubt as to what the correct decision should have been.

 

It would appear, whether looking at concrete cases or less clear-cut examples, that Forest have been a little unlucky with ‘major decisions’ this season. But that is as far as the analysis can possibly go! If you were to ask me where Forest would sit in the table, if all the wrongs were somehow righted, I wouldn’t have a clue!

 

If you delve deep enough online you’re sure to come across league tables that show the impact of bad refereeing decisions in the Premiership this season. I came across an ‘altered league table’, which suggests that, by correcting refereeing mistakes, Chelsea  should have been top when Roberto Di Matteo got the sack. I find it very hard to see how any such conclusion could have possibly been reached.

 

Firstly, the majority of decisions are so subjective that it is impossible to approach the task of re-calculating the league table without putting your own slant on things. There are just too many grey areas within football.

Secondly, even in the most clear-cut of cases, there is no way of determining what the effect of a reverse decision might be. Had Paul McShane’s goal been chalked off, the game would have inevitably panned out completely differently. Either Forest or Hull may have gone on to score the winner … or the game may have stayed at 1-1. This goes for any game; for that is the nature of football.

 

Although I have shown categorical refereeing mistakes to be few and far between, one thing is for sure … these errors do not necessarily even themselves out! Over the course of a season there will be winners and losers on account of poor decisions. The more they can get right, the better!

 

Having said that, the impact of these bad decisions is small and virtually impossible to measure; the best teams are the ones that don’t allow the performance of referees to be an excuse for failure!

 

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Fans Leaving Early (Hull City – NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

One of the most perfect moments a football fan can experience is to see their team score a last-minute winner.

To end ninety minutes of coiled endeavour by springing up in magic salute; to escape the grim clutch of mediocrity and grasp victory at the death, just as it seemed the opportunity had wisped away; to drink champagne at the last chance saloon, while opposition fans lie bleak and broken beneath our rising cloud of jubilation. That is, of course, unless you left early to beat the traffic!

If I could script an ending to today’s encounter, Lee Camp would score the winner with a 30 yard bicycle kick from a 94th minute corner … but how many would still be here to marvel at it?

A significant number of supporters, all around the country, leave many minutes before the referee has blown his whistle, regardless of whether the game hangs in the balance or not.

Perhaps, today’s real dream ending would be for all to remain, no matter what the climax holds. Nowadays, some fans don’t even give it until half-time!

The most entertaining game of the season so far has been Reading against Arsenal, in the League Cup, at the Madejski Stadium. Reading were 4-0 up after 37 minutes, at which point a battalion of disgruntled cockneys could be seen making their way toward the exits. After a series of scintillating twists and turns, Arsenal finally won the tie 7-5!

Did those who chose to leave early regret their decision? We will probably never know. Few dare to concede that they have ever left a game before the bitter end, least not when it turns out to be a twelve goal thriller. The premature exit is the dirty secret of many loyal supporters and you’re unlikely to hear any of them admit it out loud. Perhaps such sacrilege is reserved for the priest’s confessional.

Despite seeing bowed heads bob shiftily toward the turnstiles around the 85 minute mark every week, I have only ever known one supporter to be out (of the stadium) and proud!

The man in question, one of my best mates, was a Wolves Season Ticket Holder for over ten years and was famous for leaving games ridiculously early. He once travelled all the way to Old Trafford, watched seven minutes of action, declared “We’re never gonna score today” and promptly headed back down the motorway.

He also ventured home at half-time during Wolves’ Premiership encounter with Leicester back in October 2003. They were 3-0 down at the time, but went on to win 4-3!

Having so consistently made such reckless and regrettable decisions, he was the subject of near-biblical ribbings, yet still stands by these impulsive decisions. “Beat the traffic though, dae I?” will forever be his unyielding Black Country retort. Can avoiding a traffic jam prove eternal justification for such heinous crimes against football, and against his own wallet?

Most fans that leave early do so simply to get home that bit sooner and I can’t, in truth, offer any moral objection to their decision. I just wonder how they can possibly feel fulfilled without having seen the game play out to a close.

Do these same people leave the cinema ten minutes before the end? Do they even know that the Planet of the Apes was Earth all along … or that Bruce Willis was dead throughout ‘The Sixth Sense’ … or that Voldemort was really Harry Potter’s biological father? What I’m really asking is how can you truly experience something, if you don’t see it through to the end?

Those using this programme to disguise their face, whilst shiftily side-stepping toward the exit stairway, probably think I’m some sort of football elitist, dictating how supporters ought to behave. This is not the case.

Although I choose to stay to the end of games, I do so only because I think I might miss out otherwise. Each individual supporter is perfectly entitled to do as they please and enjoy football in their own unique way. Leaving the stadium early does not make someone less of a fan!

I brought the slightly tenuous cinema analogy into the equation, not to attack the early departers, rather to try and defend them. For, you see, I have a dirty secret too.

Many years ago, I walked out of the film ‘My Super Ex-Girlfriend’, without so much as a glance back in remorse. I don’t regret it, I don’t feel guilty about it and neither do I expect to be chastised for it – the film was irritating, styleless and ill-thought out. (In fact, it had much in common with Robbie Savage’s hair.)

As paying customers, football fans have every right to leave the ground as and when they please. Unfortunately, many of us are cursed with an inherent guilt that makes us feel obliged to stay until we’ve applauded our players off the pitch. But this is not the reason that I’m imploring fans to stay until the final whistle!

I suppose what I don’t understand is what the great rush to get home is? Is it really worth potentially missing a moment of pure football gold for? I could understand a little better if Gladiators was still on the telly, but now there’s nothing worthwhile until Match of the Day (and you’re very unlikely to miss that.)

Fans ought only to do what makes them happy, but I’ve witnessed enough last minute moments of ecstasy, and indeed agony, to know that staying to the death is the only option for me.

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Possession (Sheffield Wednesday – NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

Like many Forest fans, I watched our away encounter against Leicester City from the comfort of my own living room. When Cox converted the equalising penalty, I jumped up and screamed out his name in jubilation. Despite my next door neighbours now believing me to have a mild form of Tourette’s, I don’t regret the over-exuberant celebration one little bit. It was an invaluable point against one of the favourites for promotion.

My honest view of the game was that Forest showed tremendous character and resolve to salvage a point, having been outperformed, for the first time this season, by the menacingly impressive Foxes. After the match, I was surprised to discover that a significant body of supporters had a completely different perspective.

Some fellow reds are convinced that Forest dominated the game and deserved to win it. The reason being the possession stats that were published a short time after the match had finished.

The value of possession in football has recently been brought into sharp focus by Celtic’s miraculous home win against Barcelona in the Champion’s League. During this historic encounter Barcelona had a staggering 84% of possession and yet still fell to a 2-1 defeat.

Anyone who watched the game would have to admit that Barcelona completely dominated and, on the balance of play, deserved to win handsomely. But part of football’s irrepressible charm is that the ‘dominant’ team does not always prevail; Celtic may not have seen as much of the ball but they deployed a counter-attacking strategy effectively, ruthlessly converting their chances. It proves that football is not all about keeping possession; there are many ways to skin a Catalan!

Celtic’s giant-killing exploits show that impressive possession stats don’t necessarily win you football matches … but what I’m really interested in is whether or not a higher proportion of possession is necessarily indicative of a team’s dominance?

Despite Forest having 53% of possession, I’m still convinced that we were second best at the King Prawn Stadium last Saturday. Our passing wasn’t incisive, we struggled to create chances and, when we lost the ball, Leicester carved us open like a festive goose.

Although I tend to trust my own eyes above the match stats, I still wanted to find out where the discrepancy between the two lay. Basically, there are at least a couple of factors that skew the possession statistics, in this instance creating the illusion that Forest were the marginally better side last weekend.

Firstly, Leicester played a more direct fast passing style – most of their attacks starting with Kasper Schmeichel launching the ball into the opposing half. By contrast, Forest tried to pass the ball out from the back whenever possible. On the day, Leicester’s style proved more effective, but it meant they spent less time on the ball. Their first goal, for example, resulted from only seven seconds (three passes) of possession.

Another factor to consider is that for large periods of time Forest were a goal behind, and therefore chasing the game. Statistically speaking, when two relatively even teams are competing, it is much more likely that the team who has fallen behind will have a greater share of possession. The other team can afford to sit back and try and hit their opponents on the break. This is a common pattern for Championship games to take.

Think back to when Forest won 3-1 against Cardiff at the City Ground, earlier in the season. Forest looked easily the better side but because Cardiff were two or three goals behind for the majority of the match, they actually secured 51% of the overall possession.

During the Leicester game, one particular phase of play acutely demonstrated the problem of using possession stats to try and measure a team’s dominance. I am referring to Elliott Ward’s fantastic goal-line clearance from Martyn Waghorn’s close range shot. Prior to this eventuality, Forest had enjoyed 30 seconds of possession in and around their own penalty area, stringing together a sequence of 14 passes. Leicester won the ball and 6 seconds (one single pass) later Forest were inches away from disaster!

If you examine this small phase of play in isolation, Forest would appear to be dominating, but in reality we were penned into our own half, much more likely to concede than to score. Football is a game where possession means very little unless you can hurt the opposition with it.

I’m not claiming that keeping possession of the ball is not important, nor am I implying that this particular statistic ought to be overlooked when analysis of a game is undertaken. But one of my pet football hates is people trying to use possession stats, in isolation, to prove which team has performed better. Proportion of possession is just one element of analysis that can be used to paint a picture of how a game has transpired.

There is a key difference between ‘possession’ and ‘meaningful possession’; therein lies the reason that statistics and interpretation don’t always marry up. My advice is to trust your own football brain above all else!

Follow Me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss

Moving the Goalposts (NFFC Programme Notes – M’boro)

 

Two weeks ago I was delighted to receive an unexpected parcel in the post. My life is such that I slide gung-ho down the banister at the sound of a new pizza menu being shoved through the letterbox, so you can imagine my excitement when I actually had to sign for something.

I gathered the family in the Chris Cohen Executive Suite (or living room, as we sometimes call it) and opened the parcel with my ceremonial scissors. To my surprise, renegade sports author and lifelong Forest supporter, Rob Jovanovic, had sent me a copy of his latest book ‘Moving the Goalposts’.

It turns out he had seen my Blackburn article, in which I tried to highlight the buffoonery of football pundits, and thought I might be interested in his latest book, a collection of statistical football revelations that conclusively undermine said buffoonery. I’m planning to write my next article about the declining state of British meat, in the hope that someone might send me a mixed grill.

‘Moving the Goalposts’ is not the sort of book I would normally read and I certainly never thought I would be so compelled as to write about it in tonight’s programme. The chapter titles alone had me hooked and I genuinely loved reading each and every one.

But be warned, the book is addictive and has the potential to destroy marriages. I literally spent a whole day entrenched in it, only occasionally sticking my head above the parapet to say things like, “Did you know that, discounting friendly matches, Michael Owen is actually England’s all-time leading goal scorer.” As you can imagine, my wife was thrilled.

Jovanovic takes a scientific approach to common footballing conundrums, in a manner that is seldom seen within football non-fiction. Unlike with other popular sports, football and statistics are not inseparable bedfellows. If cricket and statistics are like Bert and Ernie, then football and statistics are more like David Cameron and Nick Clegg; they co-exist quite harmoniously when in the public eye, but there is a hidden coldness and distrust that privately festers. Or so I’m told.

Many people think that statistics have no real place in football. “Football is all about opinions”, “There’s only one statistic that counts” and the famous “Lies, damned lies and statistics” are just a few of the hackneyed maxims that enable football people to say whatever they like, without ever having to back it up.

‘Moving the Goalposts’ is clearly born out of the author’s frustration at listening to pundits and archetypal pub morons spout utter tripe, with seemingly boundless confidence. It humorously details the myths that consistently circulate the football airwaves and then unravels them with uncompromising fact.

A perfect example of Jovanovic dissecting a common footballing myth is his chapter on the case of Pele versus Maradona. I must have heard it said a hundred times that if Maradona had been removed from the World Cup winning Argentina team they would have been useless. Pele, on the other hand, is often claimed to be just one of many great Brazil players in an already great team. Being too young to have seen either play, I’ve always just accepted the summary of each player to be true.

Even Eric Cantona, usually the voice of reason, states that Pele was just a cog in Brazil’s World Cup winning machine, whereas Maradona literally dragged Argentina to glory, kicking and screaming. Jovanovic proves that, according to the cold hard facts, this was simply not the case.

During the two relevant eras, and discounting friendly games, the ‘Brazil team with Pele’ had a significantly greater win percentage than the ‘Brazil team without Pele’. By contrast, in terms of win percentages, Argentina actually performed better without Maradona. This shocking outcome just goes to show that, in the world of football, it’s folly to simply accept what is generally perceived to be true.

If, like me, you engage in a lot of down-the-pub punditry, ‘Moving the Goalposts’ may well empower you to take a more scientific approach to football talk in the future, but the real beauty of this book is that Rob Jovanovic does all the work for you. He even throws in a few gems specifically for us Forest fans.

In one of the many short chapters, Jovanovic compiles a league table based on the number of top flight points each English club has obtained over the course of football history. Though the book is more of an eyebrow raiser than a tear jerker, I did start welling up when I saw that, despite our recent absence from the top flight, Forest are still positioned 20th. Middlesbrough fans may be interested to know that they sit proudly in 18th. So, in terms of historical success, both teams remain pure Premiership!

Though a statistical non-fiction book about football sounds like it ought to be a difficult read, nothing could be further from the truth. Rob Jovanovic obviously enjoyed himself on this project and that bubbles to the surface of this enjoyable myth-slaying must-read. The vast research undertaken is compressed into concise bite-sized chapters, meaning fans can dip in and out of the book at their leisure. ‘Moving the Goalposts’ is the perfect Christmas stocking filler for any football fan.

Sean O’Driscoll (NFFC Programme Notes – Millwall)

 

In the depths of the joyless labyrinth of despair that was Forest’s last championship campaign, I used my ‘Red Revolution’ platform to write a desperate list of reasons to remain positive despite our faltering form.

Amid the sea of unfounded optimism, I even listed Harry Potter defeating the evil Lord Voldemort, against all odds, as a potential reason why Forest might avoid relegation. In hindsight, I may have been clutching at straws … but it was a dark time to be a Red, back then.

Within my panicking pleas for positivity lay one genuine reason for Forest fans to remain hopeful – Sean O’ Driscoll had joined us, as assistant to our former manager Steve Cotterill. Little did I know just how big his role in the future of Nottingham Forest would be.

Long before he became involved with my beloved Forest, I had been following Sean’s career with keen interest, not least because he was born and raised in Wolverhampton, only a Greg Halford throw away from my own dwelling hole.

We Black Country folk are not the glam-rocking flare-wearing simpletons that the media depict us to be. In fact, more commonly you’ll find those from the Black Country to be a very down to earth and straightforward species. In the best possible sense, this is exactly how Sean O’Driscoll comes across.

In a recent interview he was asked what his ambitions for the season were. He answered simply, “to win the next game.”

He used to deflect the same thorny question with identical words during his time as Doncaster manager and it’s not the first time he’s bluntly conveyed such understated sentiments whilst here at the City Ground.

His words may not always capture the starry-eyed supporter’s imagination but they are always grounded firmly in reality. It would seem O’ Driscoll is defiant in his belief that the only route to success is through the tried and tested combination of hard work and time. The patient, meticulous approach is what will eventually get Forest back to the premiership. There aren’t any magic wands or secret passages. It’s boring but it’s the truth!

Personally I couldn’t be happier with how the season has gone so far, mainly because there are tangible signs of genuine progress. Are Nottingham Forest beginning to forge a new identity under the stewardship of their new manager?

It seems evident that Sean O’ Driscoll works to an unwavering set of core beliefs, which together form his ‘football philosophy’. This term is another that’s overused within the game – perhaps part of a growing ‘football rhetoric’ that O’ Driscoll himself so despises.

Many managers don’t have any underpinning philosophy; the decisions they make are mainly reactionary and their teams often develop organically, sometimes in spite of them. In the case of Sean O’ Driscoll, I believe the term ‘football philosophy’ has a real meaning.

He may be a football purist but at the heart of Sean O’ Driscoll sides are the values of discipline, organisation and togetherness. At the start of the 2012/13 season, these were the cornerstones from which O’ Driscoll began to build and subsequently there has been a core strength and solidity to the majority of Forest’s performances so far this season. We could play the prettiest football in the division but without organisation and unity we would, ultimately, be doomed.

Of course, O’ Driscoll is actively trying to implement the purposeful passing style of football that is central to his philosophy, but he’s doing so from a solid foundation. I believe we’re starting to see the fruits of our labour.

There have been times this season when our football has been breathtaking and there have been times when it has been patchy and uninspiring, but throughout our players have tried to play exciting, positive football. It will, however, take time for us to perfect our craft.

But the changes at the City Ground this season go beyond the decision to pass, rather than hoof, from the back. Forest have employed a more fluid attacking approach than that which we saw for the majority of last season. Although we have played a 4-4-2 for the majority of games, it hasn’t been at all rigid or predictable.

Whichever five players play in front of our colossal patrolling midfielder, Simon Gillett, they are encouraged to be adventurous and inventive. The side is full of exciting players, who are beginning to thrive on the opportunity to get in advanced positions and express themselves.

In the signings he’s made since taking over, O’ Driscoll has looked for certain types of players. Not only are the new players all good technical footballers, but they are also decision makers, brave enough to implement the aforementioned style of play.

Yet another football cliché tells us that there is very little a manager can do to influence the game once his players have crossed that white line. O’ Driscoll does not seem to allow this to be an excuse. You only need to listen to his interviews to know that he seeks to empower his players to make their own decisions during a game.

It helps that we now have strong leaders with calm heads carefully dispatched all over the pitch – players like Collins, Gillett and Reid are the glue that hold the team together. With a clear philosophy growing within the squad and players willing to impose it out on the field, it’s an exciting time to be a Forest fan.

I know talk of philosophy and identity are a little deep for a Saturday afternoon, so if I’m urging fans to do anything it’s to have a little faith in Sean.

 

San Marino (NFFC Programme Notes – Cardiff City)

 

“What is the point of San Marino?” quizzed Gareth Southgate, during the half-time analysis of last Friday night’s England game.

 

Actually Gareth, San Marino is a beautiful mountainous country with a rich culture and a high standard of living. Besides, you can’t just go around declaring countries to be pointless. That’s how wars get started!

 

He certainly did himself no favours in his bid to become Britain’s next foreign secretary. Imagine him at the EU summit: “Seriously, what’s the point of Greece? They bring nothing to the table.”

 

I am, of course, being a little unfair on the finely preened ITV pundit – after all, that’s not quite how he meant it.

 

San Marino visited Wembley last Friday night and literally kept all ten outfield players behind the ball for the entire game. Could they have gotten away with it, they’d probably have pitched tents and lit a bonfire in their own penalty box.

 

Their plan worked for an eyeball-gratingly dull thirty-five minutes, before England were awarded a penalty. Five goals later and San Marino still had their proverbial team bus parked directly under the crossbar.

 

In essence, what Southgate meant was “What is the point of this fixture?” Many share these sentiments.

 

When one team turns up with no intention of scoring a goal, let alone winning the game, the encounter is sure to be a very poor spectacle. But what exactly were San Marino supposed to do? Anyone with even a fraction of football knowledge knows that had any other tactic been employed, England would have completely pulverised them. In reality, 5-0 was a decent result for a nation that has only been victorious once in its 26 year football history.

 

Only a handful of their squad are full-time professionals. With their midfield made up of a butcher, a baker and a candlestick maker, how can they be expected to compete against our millionaire superstars?

 

Their entire population would only just fill the seats at the City Ground and a decade of football investment in San Marino wouldn’t cover the cost of Ashley Cole’s ivory back scratcher. To put it in more quantifiable terms, England against San Marino is equivalent to an elephant fighting a peanut.

 

So, should the likes of San Marino even be competing with the top countries in Europe?

 

Southgate, and many others in the football world, would argue not. There have, over recent times, been calls for the football minnows to be somehow lifted out of the qualification process.

 

The main proposal, which stems from football journalists and industry experts, rather than the game’s governing body, is to give countries like San Marino and The Faroe Islands their own special tournament. The winner of this tournament would be awarded the privilege of being allowed to compete against the rest of Europe.

 

I have only one question. Could we be any more patronising?

 

What is the problem with us Englishmen? We spend all summer bemoaning the fact that we are technically inferior to the rest of Europe, then when we find a team who we are significantly better than, we put all our efforts into making them extinct!

 

San Marino’s footballers deserve their opportunity to wear the national shirt with pride, competing against all the teams in Europe; not just those of similar size and collective ability.

 

If I was of San Marinese descendancy, and I pray that some day I discover I am, then I would shudder at the thought of being hidden away from the rest of Europe, like some embarrassing fungal infection.

 

One of the main reasons football people advocate the phasing out of these ‘smaller footballing countries’ is the hope that it might alleviate the terrible evils of fixture congestion. Frankly, I think people over-estimate the difference that taking the ‘international whipping boys’ out of European qualification would make to the football calendar.

 

There are only four European countries that fit the specification laid out by those wishing to rid football of its perennial underdogs. Andorra, The Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino all have tiny populations and consistently finish bottom of their qualifying group, with few or no points. Beyond that there aren’t such tangible gaps between nations, in terms of either size or ability.

 

Clearly, taking only four countries out of the equation would make no impact on the congested fixture list. If there is to be a pre-qualification round that truly shakes up the international scene it would have to include countries such as Moldova, Kazakhstan, Cyprus and probably Northern Ireland too.

 

To avoid international relegation, Scotland might even need to start winning some games … and that goes against everything they stand for!

 

A further concern is how football’s governing bodies could possibly calculate which teams warrant dropping into international obscurity … and which teams don’t. They can hardly rely on the FIFA rankings; we’d probably get more accurate results using Pythagoras’ theorem. If England are the fifth best football team in the world then I am the fifth best Bhangra dancer this side of the Arctic circle.

 

Luckily the dark lord himself, Sepp Blatter, has shown no sign of indulging Gareth Southgate and the band wagon of jingoistic journalists who paint these nations as such a terrible inconvenience to the international game.

 

Football is supposed to bring the world together and I, for one, won’t stand idly by while the ‘inconvenient countries’ are cut adrift.

 

Long live the minnows of the footballing world – those who flounder on in spite of inevitable defeat. The Faroe Islands, Andorra, Derby County … and, of course, San Marino.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss

To boo or not to boo? (Derby County – NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

 

To boo or not to boo? That is the question.

Over the past few years, the East Midlands derby has been played out to a symphony of jeers and catcalls, the like of which would make even Mussolini blush. What’s more, the thunderous boos will most likely provide the soundtrack to today’s encounter, no matter what happens on the pitch.

Football stadia become but poisonous pantomimes when two bitter rivals such as Nottingham Forest and Derby County meet. But what is it that compels grown men and women to boo with such verve and conviction when derby day comes around?

Personally, I just don’t have it in me to pull off a good old fashioned boo. I have tried to master the art but I just can’t muster up enough hatred, even when faced with our fiercest foes.

As I have mentioned in previous episodes of ‘The Red Revolution’, I practise my booing technique whilst passing fields of sheep on the motorway … but for all my endeavour in the pursuit of an aggressive battle cry, my feeble boo sounds more like a cow that’s been kicked in the groin.

If truth be told, I rarely feel the urge, or see the need, to express myself in such a way. Though, many fans seem to boo whether the occasion warrants it or not.

Over recent years the increased hissing and hollering has been largely down to the number of players (and managers) who have, bravely or foolishly, crossed the divide from one side of ‘Brian Clough Way’ to the other.

In light of the inevitable abuse that accompanies moving to your club’s arch nemesis, why is it that so many players opt to venture over to the ‘dark side’?

Some Reds fans have suggested that Derby has become something of a feeder club for Forest. All Derby’s best players eventually end up at the City Ground, whilst Forest give the Rams first refusal on any players who become surplus to requirement.

Perhaps, more realistically, the reason is purely geographical. These players fear going too far South, where people drink strawberry flavoured lager and jig about on chimney tops with Dick Van Dyke. And they fear going too far North, where life is nowt but battered Mars bars and Byker Grove. So they stay in the East Midlands; where it’s safe!

Footballers do not necessarily want to uproot their families and migrate to a different part of the country every time they move clubs. There are many factors that can force a player’s hand – quality of schools, availability of houses and, in the case of Kris Commons, proximity of KFC.

Often, though fans cannot necessarily be expected to sympathise, a move to local rivals is the most practical choice for the modern footballer … especially when the old enemy are desperate to have you!

Although I know I risk a public flogging for this mutinous announcement, I don’t think Nathan Tyson, formerly of Forest, is a player who warrants being booed. He was an essential member of the squad that got us promoted from the dank cesspit known as League One, he was ‘Man of the Match’ in his last game for the club against Swansea in the playoff semi-final defeat (2010/11 season) and, whilst wearing the famous red shirt, Tyson gave everything he had to the cause.

Had he signed for any other club, his return to the City Ground last year would have been met with polite applause. As it happened, and precisely because he had joined the Rams, Tyson’s substitute appearance was greeted with vicious hostility.

The negative reaction of the fans is even stranger when you consider what a gentleman Tyson used to be. He even helped out the groundsman by collecting the corner flags up at the end of games.

In truth, the man who provided that precious flag-waving memory would have known exactly what was in store when he signed a contract at Pride Park. Similarly, Kieron Freeman will expect the same treatment here today, should he feature. Neither truly deserve your boos.

I fully expect my words to fall on deaf ears. Fans have an irrational contempt for players who dare return to their former club donning the enemy colours. Over the past few seasons the heckling has become even more intense and uncompromising. Even Nigel Clough, who went from Forest hero to Derby’s chief shepherd over the course of sixteen years, can’t escape the frenzied jibes!

Whilst I disagree with what you boo, I will defend to the death your right to boo it.

Football supporters pay enough money, and invest enough time and emotion, to boo whoever they wish.

And of course, very occasionally it’s actually deserved!

Robbie Savage, former Derby captain, used to bask in the glory of his own villainy. Whatever club he played for, whatever club he played against, Savage was a magnet for abuse and hatred throughout his career. He minced around the field with the thick skinned arrogance of a man who was booed out of the womb!

Then, of course, there was Kris Commons, the tubby winger who all Forest fans love to hate. Having publicly declared himself a loyal Forest fan whilst secretly plotting an escape to Pride Park, Commons was relentlessly taunted as nothing more than a pie-eating mercenary … or words to that effect.

The chorus of boos that greeted both Savage, when he mockingly waved his Derby scarf in the City Ground centre circle, and Commons, when he wobbled his belly like a bowlful of jelly, were completely justified. They pretty much demanded it.

So, I’m not saying there is never a cause to boo. I’m asking fans not to cheapen the boo by going gung-ho on any former Forest player whose ever had a lamb dinner or watched an episode of Shaun the Sheep.

Some will say that I’m taking the whole issue too seriously and that meaningless booing is all part of the pantomime that is modern football. I ask only this … do we really want to draw comparisons between our beautiful game and a worn out old pantomime? I can’t think of anything worse.

Do we really want players dressed in sequins, with silly blonde wigs, spouting irrelevant camp drivel? We’d just be playing to Robbie Savage’s strengths.

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss

Sky Sports News Deadline Day (Birmingham City – NFFC Programmes Notes 2012/13

 

I’ve had something of an explosive relationship with Sky Sports News over the years – sometimes I love it, sometimes I can’t stand it but since 1998 it’s been a staple part of the football addict’s daily diet.

I remember when dad first joined the digital revolution, opening my eyes to the thrill-a-minute world of sports news broadcasting. I was in immediate awe at the concept of a channel which provided my leather-cased brain with 24 hour access to football.

For the first year or two I watched nothing else. I even insisted on having it on in the background during Christmas dinner just in case there were any festive hamstrings that might compromise the fortunes of my fantasy team for the Boxing Day fixtures.

If Sky Sports News had been invented ten years earlier half the male population of the United Kingdom wouldn’t even know that the Berlin Wall had fallen. Instead all eyes would have been on Ray Wilkins, the prodigal son, crossing the Scottish border and making his long awaited return to the English game. Some say the two events were of equal political significance.

Of course, back then, Sky wouldn’t have had the luxury of all their modern gizmos. Rather, the progress of Wilkins’ move from Glasgow Rangers to QPR would have been reported using a globe and some finger puppets. It’s a far cry from the giant iPad they use these days.

For all the joy the channel had initially brought me, I finally grew tired of it.

They over-dramatise everything to the point where the terms ‘Breaking news’ and ‘Sky Sports exclusives’ have lost all meaning. At 28, in the twilight of my life, I no longer crave the frenzied excitable tones of Jim White, who greets the news of Everton signing an unknown Ecuadorian with the same level of anxiety as a layman might greet the apocalypse.

If, like me, you try to detach yourself from the Hollywood hype and hysteria that Sky Sports has brought to the world of football, then you should probably leave the country when transfer deadline day comes around.

Since its inception, I have protested vehemently against the restrictive transfer window system and the detrimental effects it has on the game. It creates unnecessary panic, promotes reckless expenditure, gives players too much power and has an adverse impact on youth development. Basically, it has helped to achieve everything it initially set out to prevent from happening.

Last season I boycotted transfer deadline day, thus demonstrating my opposition to the flawed system and the inflated, glittery, Americanised way in which Sky Sports presents its showpiece event.

But on the morning of August 31 this year something astonishing happened. Suddenly, as if by some omnipotent Kuwaiti force, I became all turned around on the subject!

He, who had once so proudly watched ‘Bargain Hunt’ and ‘Diagnosis Murder’ just to avoid Sky Sports’ deadline day coverage, was now fixated on Jim White’s meerkatesque eyes. The excitement of the Gold Rush atmosphere had gripped me and I was reconverted!

Was it the fact that I thought Forest might actually sign a player? Had my previous stance been the product of bitterness at the club’s consistent failure to sneak players under the window minutes before it shut? Do all our feelings towards Sky Sports News exist in direct correlation to how our club is prospering at any given time? In short, yes to all of the above.

It’s been a summer of exceptional business by the powers that be at The City Ground. Before the final day of the transfer window, Forest had made nine stellar signings. It’s been a progressive and exciting time to be a Red… our faith in football, and all that comes with it, restored.

But there’s something a little bit special about beating the deadline and getting that last important signature. So, from 7am on transfer deadline day, I held firm to my instinctive belief that the Al Hasawi family would deliver that long anticipated deadline day excitement.

It was compelling viewing from start to finish. I literally festered in my own juices for the entire day. I daren’t turn over, in case I missed a Range Rover with tinted windows being driven through the gates of a Premier League club. I daren’t turn over in case I missed the moment that Joey Barton finally got deported to France. But, most of all, I daren’t turn over, in case the yellow bar at the bottom of the screen finally read ‘Nottingham Forest’, after so many barren last days of August.

There was a brief moment of panic when I thought I’d sat on the remote control and switched over to watch ‘The Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ but it turned out they were just broadcasting live from a Premier League training ground, where the traditional flock of unruly adolescents had gathered. If you were glued to Sky Sports News all day then you’re sure to know exactly what I mean.

Even though they always seem to have the sort of faces you could grill fish on, their antics are an important part of the Sky Sports Mardi Gras. Lurking on the coat tails of a flustered reporter, whilst making explicit gestures towards the camera and chanting the name of the top flight journeyman whom they anticipate the imminent arrival of, these fanatical gawpers embody the spirit of deadline day … in their own unique way.

One of the most entertaining parts of the day was when Alex Ferguson declared that he had no idea where Dimitar Berbatov was. It led to a procession of texters claiming they’d seen him buying a boneless banquet at KFC near Colchester, or similar such deluded tales. As is often the case with missing items, Berbatov was probably in the last place we’d ever expect to see him … his own half.

His disappearance reminded me of the time that my little sister misinterpreted one of Sky Sports bite-sized team news summaries. It read ‘Stern John still missing’ and she subsequently spent the rest of the day roaming the streets looking for him with her pink plastic binoculars, putting posters of his face on telegraph poles.

Even though he’s 35 and has had more clubs than Lee Westwood, I would still have cracked out my champagne and funnel if Stern John had returned to The City Ground.

It was getting desperate; I was sure a signing would come … but time was running out.

Finally, as the day’s business drew steadily to a close, the famous Sky Sports yellow bar, so often the bearer of bad tidings in days gone by, was ignited. Breaking News from The City Ground!

Billy Sharp and James Coppinger had signed for us! Two players who have been such consistent thorns in our side over previous campaigns, two players of undoubted pedigree at this level, two players who will provide the invaluable competition for places that could well be the difference between success and failure.

I love transfer deadline day!

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss

Football Vs The Olympics (Charlton Athletic – NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13)

 

Nothing represents summer like the sight of an impromptu twenty-five-a-side game in the local park; jumpers for goalposts, shirts versus skins, mothers impeding the field of play to give unwanted dinner updates. It’s football in its purest form.

A couple of weeks ago I was saddened to see the local youths, usually seen belting a football to one another, running down the street at a frantic pace, hurdling over parked cars as they passed them. One was holding a flaming torch aloft, another swung a hammer in his hand and the third was carrying a bow and arrow. It’s fair to say that the Olympics truly have inspired a generation. Even a local policeman got into the spirit of things, sprinting after the youths, clutching a relay baton in his hand. It made you proud to be British!

But the Olympics weren’t just about raising petty crime levels, the overwhelming spirit of the games captured us all and ensured that football was temporarily forgotten about. Even those like me, who vowed to stay loyal to the beautiful game, in sickness and in health, committed many forms of Olympic adultery. In fact I was so inspired by the Olympics that I went out and bought a new plasma TV, even though I had to give up my gym membership in order to pay for it. Such is life.

Sadly, whilst the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis were capturing the hearts of the nation, football was being admonished like a petulant child. It sulked on the ‘naughty step’, castigated for previous misdemeanours, lectured on how to be more like its estranged Olympic sibling.

“Football can learn a lot from the Olympics.”

I must have heard that phrase a thousand times in the wake of the games. Unfortunately, as wonderful an idea as it is, the words are so hollow and naïve they could form the chorus of a One Direction song.

We all knew that football had its problems long before the Queen parachuted into the Olympic Stadium and, in reality, as enjoyable as it proved to be, the games taught us little or nothing about how to cure football of its ailments. Football and the Olympics are intrinsically different; making comparisons between them is ultimately pointless.

Take the issue of ‘diving’ as an example. Olympic Bronze medallist Tom Daley’s Double-Arabians were very easy on the eye, but put him on a football pitch and his dives wouldn’t be nearly convincing enough. Where were the screams of agony, the obligatory clutching of limbs and the miraculous recovery upon the brandishing of a yellow card to the culprit?

Unfortunately, the aforementioned cheating and bad sportsmanship that has become an inherent feature of our game will not simply disappear because a few grey-suited men with rose tinted spectacles order footballers to ‘be more like the Olympians!’

We are only a couple of weeks into the new season and already we have had footballers on strike, managers assaulting linesmen, and referees’ authority undermined at every turn. The football disease runs too deep.

It’s not just players and managers who are under scrutiny either. Many anti-football drum beaters are wagging disapproving moral fingers at supporters, specifically those who attend armed with javelins of hostility.

This is, of course, in stark contrast to the soul-warming sportsmanlike environment of the Olympic Stadium. An overwhelming feature of the games was the incredible value of passionate home support. It’s a far cry from the poisonous cauldrons of angst and tribalism that modern football stadiums often turn into on a match day.

Inherent within the game is the edgy rivalry between teams that simply doesn’t exist within the Olympic sports. The football mentality dictates that we remind our fiercest rivals of all their shortcomings; whether it’s that their trophy cabinet is bare, their star player is grossly overweight or that their fans have been known to engage in controversial farmyard activities.

The spicy atmosphere of the stands manifests itself on the pitch. What’s more, most fans wouldn’t have it any other way.

Even if games became ‘home fan only’ affairs, the football experience would not be one of unbridled positivity, such as we witnessed in London this summer. In football, supporters tend to accept nothing less than perfection. No matter how endearing their effort, we cannot help but curse the hapless striker who so consistently fails to hit a cow’s backside with a banjo. This is not the Olympic way.

The Olympics teach us to rally behind competitors who give their best. In football, there is simply too much at stake. We fans have invested too much, both financially and emotionally, to treat our football teams with the care-free warmth we so readily offered our Olympians. Winning is everything in football.

It’s true that there is too much money in the game. It’s the very poison that taints the game’s image; it’s what makes football so deathly serious, so relentlessly cruel and so difficult for outsiders to understand. In that sense the game of football is a victim of its own success. If it weren’t so compelling, there wouldn’t be a problem.

Footballers, for the most part, work just as hard as competitors from any other sport. They haven’t landed upon fame and glory by chance. Unfortunately, because they have so much money, they have become completely detached from supporters, often from reality.

The sport-loving nation cannot relate to the modern footballer in the way it related to our Olympic heroes. This is true whether the players are humble, honourable, intelligent professional athletes with passion and integrity, or whether they are Joey Barton.

I loved the Olympics. Any human being could draw inspiration from the courage and determination displayed by our Olympians. But to say “Football can learn a lot from the Olympics” is as useful as saying “Football can learn a lot from The Lion King.” They are worlds apart.

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss

The English Penalty Disease (NFFC Programme Notes 2012/13 – Wigan Athletic)

Image

 

                                                            David Batty

 

Jamie Carragher          Gareth Southgate        Stuart Pearce               Ashley Cole

 

David Beckham          Frank Lampard           Paul Ince                     Chris Waddle

 

                                                            Steven Gerrard

 

                                                            Darius Vassell

 

Substitute: Ashley Young

 

No, this is not my all time England XI. I don’t know which would be a worse judgement call, David Batty in goal or a Leicester reject up front? Strangely, apart from that, it’s a pretty strong line-up.

 

These twelve players represent the unfortunate souls who have missed for England during penalty shootouts. It seems that no matter how we prepare, Englishmen have an inherent psychological defect that prevents them from converting penalties when it matters most.

 

For those who think I’m exaggerating the problem, just take a look at the statistics. Since 1990 England have competed in ten international tournaments, six of which have ended with us being knocked out via a penalty shootout. We have only once been victorious, against Spain at Wembley during Euro 96. We went out of the same tournament in the next round, having lost to those damned efficient Germans in yet another penalty shootout.

 

Back in 1996 we were actually fairly good at taking penalties. We scored ten out of a possible eleven penalty kicks, with only Pizza enthusiast Gareth Southgate missing. In that particular tournament it was understandable for people to blame our semi-final exit on good old-fashioned bad luck.

 

Since then, a regretful pattern of penalty trauma has emerged and it’s no longer feasible to blame our failings on bad luck alone. Over the years, England have scored only 66% of their penalties during shootouts, conceding 81% of those taken against them.

 

The only countries to boast a worse record are Gabon and Costa Rica, both of whom have conceded 100% of penalties taken against them in shootouts. Fingers crossed we draw one of these two in the knockout phase of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

 

Tonight fills me with utter dread, because I know there is a real possibility this cup tie could go to a penalty shootout! Not only will it be a venomous reminder of how English hopes were dashed in Kiev this summer, but there is also a chance Forest’s fate could lie at the feet, or perhaps in the mind, of an Englishman.

 

This time last year, with England’s Euro 2012 hopes in mind, I campaigned for the abolition of penalty shootouts, but having received no response from Sepp Blatter, I’ve had to resort to trying to solve the puzzle that has plagued football-kind for the last twenty years: why are Englishmen so bad when it comes to penalty shootouts?

 

Gerrard, Lampard, Beckham and our very own Stuart Pearce were all considered expert penalty takers as they took the dreaded walk from the centre circle. Some of the other names in the lineup would not have inspired such confidence, but all would have dispatched their fair share of successful penalty kicks within the comfort of the training ground. All this matters little.

 

The scoring of a penalty in the high-pressure environment of the shootout has absolutely nothing to do with ability. It doesn’t matter if you are the most technically gifted player in the world; anyone can miss a penalty. Some of the best players the world has ever seen – Baggio, Shevchenko, Pirlo, even John Aldridge – have all missed crucial historic penalties. It’s all about having the right mentality in that key moment.

 

So why is the English mentality so consistently wrong when it comes to taking a penalty kick?

 

Perhaps if we kept possession of the ball better throughout the hundred and twenty minutes before the seemingly inevitable shootout, our players would be less physically and mentally tired and would be in a better frame of mind when they come to take their crucial kick.

 

It’s worth pointing out that in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals England were completely outclassed by Italy. It was a minor miracle that we managed to keep the score at 0-0, only to be knocked out, yet again, on penalties.

 

Perhaps players like Ashley Young, low on confidence after being run ragged by the fluid Italian midfield, stepped up lacking the self-belief that is required for such moments of intense pressure.

 

I would never blame an individual player for missing a penalty; I am bringing up the example of Ashley Young to illustrate that an inherent lack of confidence could be the cause of the penalty saga that has now spanned three decades.

 

Andrea Pirlo, who scored the pivotal game-changing penalty for Italy, had been the player of the tournament up to that point and so subsequently exuded boundless confidence, as he delicately kissed the ball with his laces. He made it look so, so easy.

 

It may be that the cumulative effect of all those famous misses has spawned a negative national mentality when it comes to taking penalty kicks. As soon as extra time ends, the football loving English public bow their heads in readiness for defeat; sub-consciously, the mental approach to a penalty shootout may well be the same for our players. If we expect to fail, how can we hope to succeed?

 

There’s no single reason why England so consistently loses shootouts; equally, there’s no magic solution that can transform our penalty-taking fortunes. A successful penalty taker needs to be confident, self-assured and decisive; three things that don’t come all that naturally to polite, self-doubting, over-thinking Englishmen. Granted, footballers would normally ooze the arrogance required to mercilessly bury a penalty … but under the spotlight of an all-or-nothing shootout they become just like every other Englishman, terrified.

 

We have to somehow change our collective mindset and nurture the self-belief required to win a penalty shootout. No amount of practice will help our players; it’s all about building an impenetrable fortress of mental strength within our national psyche.

 

Or we could just try and win the game in ninety minutes!

 

Follow me on Twitter: @Dave_Abbiss