I’ve moved!

If you’re here, you’re in the wrong place!

I’ve now moved to a new domain all of my own – www.endtoendstuff.net

Hopefully see you there!

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Ooops! It’s 2011! Already?!!??

It’s time for mea culpa and all that! Life has intruded on this blog and I’ve let it slip, but no more! I’m determined for this New Year to make much more frequent updates – there are so many things I plan to write about (managerial sackings and the scandal of parachute payments are just two) and so this blog is off to its own dedicated hosting space with its own URL – http://www.endtoendstuff.net. As soon as it’s up and running watch for updates …… I promise!

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BUZZ – Goal line Technology!

Just got back from the Reading vs Cardiff City game where Cardiff equalised through the classic ball that hit the crossbar and bounced on/behind the line (delete as suits your viewpoint!)   After seeing some of the calls for goal line/video technology I’ve got to wade in with these thoughts.

Firstly, there’s a big, big difference between the two, even though people tend to use them interchangeably!  “Goal line technology”gives an instant notification if the ball has crossed the line, while “video technology” involves looking at a replay, inevitably retrospectively.

For me, it’s a no-brainer that we should have Goal line technology for “line decisions” – where there is a factual question of whether the ball crossed the line.   The technology exists now the Hawkeye system tested at Reading FC’s Hogwood training ground a couple of seasons ago gave a buzz in the referee’s earpiece within 0.25 seconds of the ball crossing the line – and was deadly accurate too.

But for anything subjective (handball, fouls, etc, where intent needs to be judged) needs to be left down to the referee.  There’s no other way, as we’ve seen from so many TV replays where even in slow-motion it’s undecided.

As to video replays,for me this is an emphatic “NO” – they would change the game completely, because they have to either stop the game or take it backwards.   A perfect example is tonight’s incident – what if the ball had been cleared and Reading had scored at the other end.  At that stoppage, which might be several minutes later, the official then looked at the replays and decided that the ball had crossed the line and Cardiff should have had the goal.  Do they then take play back and wipe out the Reading goal – and what if there was a sending-off or injury before they got to the break in play when they can look at the replay? 

That way madness lies! It might work in cricket or tennis but they’re both games where there is a break after every ball or point, not a continuous flow of play that can go on for several minutes. 

Someone suggested giving teams a set number of “appeals” where they can stop play to look at the replay.  Good in principle, but how long before manager calls a ludicrous and fatuous appeal as a way of breaking up an opposition attack.  Again, a ludicrous idea that would massively change the game. 

Some have said it’s vital that the it’s the same at all levels of football – and this is also Sepp Blatter’s view.  Frankly, that principle was broken years ago, when the refs and linesmen at Premier League and FL games were given radio headsets to communicate with each other. 

That’s using technology to make things easier for them, just as replacing the tape across the top of the goalposts with a bar was all those years ago – so why not instant-notification goal line technology? 

PS – For the record, from where I was sitting i was convinced the ball was in by a good 6 inches.  There was so much spin from hitting the crossbar that no wonder it bounced out, but I thought it was definitely over the line!  But who knows without the use of technlogy?

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When they came for the football supporters ….

 “Football fan accuses police of using excessive force” is a familiar press story, always worth a few column inches, and one that we’re all pretty much used to seeing.  And if it’s not football supporters then it’s likely to be protesters of one kind or another, or even just people in the wrong place when protests are going on.  But football supporters being injured and crying foul at police treatment of them is a recurring theme.  Football supporters do really seem to be a regular target of the police for some reason. 

Every such story is sad, but what I find most shocking and disappointing is the reaction of so many football supporters to each of these stories.   There either seems to be a general acceptance of “well, that’s the way it is…” or, even worse, an assumption that “he deserved it” or “he must have been asking for it.

Indeed, when I discussed this with the guys I banter with on e-mail as a work-avoidance technique, I got some responses that really astounded me.  It seems the generally accepted attitude is that if you piss-off the police then you’re fair game for a beating.  For instance :   “It is a sickeningly lefty anti-establishment world where we go after honest coppers because some jumped-up, drunken idiot who doesn’t know how to behave is crying because his face hurts,” and “Quite simple – if you don’t want to get clubbed and have dogs set on you, then behave in an appropriate way. Going to football doesn’t give you an excuse to act like a complete prat.

Agreed, football doesn’t give you an excuse to act like a complete prat, but I can’t for the life of me understand why people seem to think that acting like a prat somehow makes it legitimate for the police to declare open season on you.  I’m sure we’ll all have been drunk and a bit lairy at one game or another, and if we’ve not we’ve then we’ll almost certainly been to matches with mates who’ve been drunk and a bit lairy.  Does this make us all legitimate targets?

I’m no legal expert, but as I understand it the use of force by the police should be reasonable, and should be appropriate to the level of threat posed to them and to other members of the public.  That’s a nice clear, understandable principle and I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s not a fair principle.  But more and more it seems to be generally accepted that if the person concerned is wearing a football shirt or has annoyed the police in some way – or even worse, both! – then this principle of use of force that’s appropriate to the level of threat can be conveniently ignored.

This principle surely should apply to everyone, shouldn’t it?  Even those who are breaking the law, who are drunk, who are noisy, who are boisterous, even those who are in the faces of the police?  The job of the police is to arrest people, so that the courts can judge their guilt and decide on a punishment if they’re found guilty.  But all too often the level of force used seems to be proportional to how much the person is breaking the law, or how much they’ve annoyed the police concerned. 

It’s astounding that the police act like that, but it’s also massively disappointing that so many football supporters seem to accept this as the norm.  I always thought the police were meant to be the good guys, the ones we can all trust.  That means they should be the ones who play by the rules, even in the face of extreme provocation or violence, even when the person they’re arresting is “asking for it.”  They need to be able to show maturity and restraint, even when those they’re arresting are doing anything but that.

The police get given special powers to use force that would get anyone of us else arrested – the freedom to use force with things like batons, CS gas, tasers, dogs and so on.  But we’re so often told that with power comes responsibility, and in return for those powers the police have the responsibility to use them fairly and appropriately. 

This general acceptance that exercising this responsibility doesn’t apply to football supporters, or to anyone breaking the law, is a dangerous, dangerous thing.  Because once you give the police the freedom to use whatever force they like when someone has pissed them off, you might as well not bother with the courts.  And once you’re into that mindset, who gets to decide where to draw the line on what is and isn’t an acceptable use of force?  It’s a slippery, slippery slope down to a place we all don’t want to be. 

When asked, everyone says they’re in favour of civil rights – but in reality they seem to be only in favour of their own civil rights.  Because if you’re happy to assume when something happens to someone else that “he deserved it” or “he was probably asking for it” you must also be happy to assume that the police are always fair and always right.

Fair enough if you’re happy with that assumption.  But not only are there plenty of examples that prove that every single police officer isn’t 100% whiter-than-white 100% of the time, but you lose the right to complain if they ever treat you in a way which isn’t fair and right.  Because once it’s the norm that the police are above criticism when they go over the top, or that it’s somehow excusable because “they have a difficult job and there are a lot of nasty people out there” – then going over the top will become more and more the norm and less and less the exception.  

So if you happily buy the “he must have been asking for it, the police would never do anything like that” line, don’t come crying to me or to any other fellow football supporters, if it ever happens to you.  Because, you know, he may not have been asking for it, and yes, they would.  And it could very easily happen to you, if you’re in the wrong place, close to the wrong people, or simply wearing a football shirt.

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The Hoffenheim Loophole

For several years, I’ve been evangelising the Bundesliga as actually being the “best league in the world” – despite what the Premier League media machine keep telling us.  It’s a toss-up whether it’s quite as competitive as the English League Championship, but it’s certainly one of the most fan-friendly with the best financial governance.  As a result the majority of its clubs actually make a profit.  Since they’ve got costs under control and haven’t had the crutch of ever-increasing TV revenues to lean upon, they’ve learnt to face up to their financial responsibilities and to budget properly, and the Bundesliga has strict financial rules and a grown-up licensing system that is properly enforced – surely the model that debt-ridden English football should be following?

I’ve espoused German financial regulation as a worldwide best-practice many times, so when Hoffenheim – a club I knew virtually nothing about then – purchased Gylfi Sigurdsson from Reading for £6 Million up front, with a reported additional £1.5 Million in future add-ons, I was tempted to find out more about this club.  What I discovered has shaken my faith in the German system of financial governance.

Because Hoffenheim seems to be a pretty artificial construction, a newly-created club in a brand-new stadium without a local supporter-base to sustain it, and what’s more one with a “sugar-daddy” ownership model, with one man pumping large sums on money into the club and calling all the shots.  In 2000 they were an amateur side languishing in the fifth tier of German football, but long-time supporter Dietmar Hopp, co-founder of software firm SAP, has pumped a reported 200 million Euros into the club and they currently top the Bundesliga.  But the club is not well-liked among German supporters. many of whom refer to them contemptuously as “Hoppenheim” or “E18.99 Hoffenheim”.

In my naïvety I thought this was impossible under the Bundesliga regulations which I’ve admired so much, because of the “50+1” ownership rules and the financial licensing system.  This 50+1 ownership model requires that 50% + 1 of every Bundesliga club is owned by its supporters, through membership schemes.  This has been phenomenally successful, and most clubs have vast and successful membership schemes.  The only exceptions are VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer Leverkusen, both of whom were subsidiaries of large companies before the 50 + 1 ownership regulations came about.  The licensing system means that clubs cannot over-spend and go into debt, as their business plans for the season are submitted to the Bundesliga every year who subject them to detailed scrutiny.  Only certain types of income are allowed to be considered as such, and above all debt is outlawed, and only if a club’s finances are sustainable and everything else is in order are they issued a licence to compete.

So what’s going on at Hoffenheim?

Firstly, they seem to have found an ingenious way around the ownership rules.  Although more than 50% of the club is owned by its members, as the rules dictate, it seems that these same rules don’t define anything to do with voting rights.  So whilst the membership of Hoffenheim is around 3,300 – a figure itself pitifully small by Bundesliga standards – a set of onerous conditions restricts the number of members who get to vote.  I understand that among these conditions is the rule that to qualify to vote a member of the club must also have been employed by the club for a minimum of 5 years – which restricts the electorate to no more than double-figures, all of them on the club’s payroll.  You really do have to congratulate Hoffenheim on the ingenuity of this loophole, which while legal is clearly quite contrary to the spirit of the 50+1 rule.

As to the financial regulations, here the situation is a lot simpler.  Debt is outlawed, so any money coming into the club from a benefactor has to be given as a donation, and so cannot appear on the balance sheet as debt or as any kind of financial liability.  So the 200 Million Euros which Dietmar Hopp has put into the club has been as gifts – not lent to them or exchanged for equity.  It is genuine, non-refunable donations.

That is, of course, far better than the English model, where much of the vast sums of money being put into football clubs by benefactors is not being donated, but instead sits on clubs’ balance sheets as debt of one kind or another, storing up problems for the future.  And the immediate response is to say “well done” to Hoffenheim – after all, they’ve been lucky enough to find someone to give them free money with no strings attached – the dream of every football supporter, surely?

Well, yes, but it’s not quite as simple as that.  When I was looking at this, lots of English clubs sprang to mind as parallels.  Chelsea and Manchester City were obvious ones because of the large sums of external money that have come into those clubs, and MK Dons sprang to mind as a club “created” where there was no traditional supporter base.  But the club that most closely parallels Hoffenheim isn’t an English club after all.  It’s Gretna, who were forced to dissolve in 2008 after a rapid rise up to the Scottish Premier League and the Scottish Cup Final.

Gretna were founded in 1946, just a year after Hoffenheim, and until the last decade both teams were local teams, rattling around the lower, semi-professional, leagues.  With very similar sized populations (Gretna 2,705 in 2001 and Hoffenheim 3,272 in 2010) both teams clearly could not sustain top tier football clubs without outside investment, and when they found it both teams rockets up their respective leagues.  But whilst Hoffenhiem still have Dietmar Hopp, Gretna lost their wealthy benefactor 3 years ago. Brooks Mileson died in 2008, and even before his death severe health problems meant no funding from him for Gretna, and from that point Gretna’s fall was a dramatic as their rise had been.

No-one doubts that Dietmar Hopp, like Brooks Mileson, is a genuine fan who legitimately wants to see the best for the club they love.  But you have to wonder what the future holds for a club so obviously dependant upon one source of gift-funding, especially when that funding means they have far outgrown their roots and their ability to support themselves from their local supporter-base.  It may all end well for Hoffenhiem, but I really wonder how sustainable it all is without Hopp’s millions, and just what might happen should Dietmar Hopp become ill or fall under the proverbial Bus Nummer Neun.

But above all, this has shaken my faith in the Bundesliga regulations, which I previously thought were the perfect model that English football should follow.  Although they are much better than anything we have here, they’re not as perfect and waterproof as they seemed at first, and it seems that no matter how tight the rules are, some-one will be devious enough to find a way to evade what the regulations were written to enforce.

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Non-League Day

As my way of supporting non-league day, I went to see Bracknell Town vs Wootton Basset Town.  I’d not been to Larges Lane since the early-80s, but it looked reassuringly the same as I remembered it – in fact, I couldn’t see anything that had changed since that time.

After a decent chat with the guy on the gate (not something you’ll ever get at Reading) we went through into the clubhouse and grabbed a drink, and had a nice chat with TC who’d previously pre-welcomed us on Twitter.  Pleasantly cheap beer, no queue or scrum at the bar to get it, no trying to get a minimum-wage worker to understand you or to actually give you the right change, and a much more pleasant place to drink in than a drab and crowded area surrounded by breezeblocks.

An important part of my pre-match ritual is the pre-match burger, so just before kick-off I went to get one.  A real culture shock – they’re all cooked to order as they sell so few, so when I came back on schedule exactly seven minutes later it was all ready waiting for me, hot and exactly as I’d asked for it.  You certainly don’t get that at Reading – in fact you’d not be able to buy a portion of luke-warm chips from a van outside the MadStad for what that cheese and bacon burger cost me.

And so to the match.  Little flashes of skill were on show, but nothing too consistent, as you’d maybe expect at this level – and whenever there was a touch of skill the next one  was inevitably poor – a perfect example came when one player (who will remain nameless!) controlled the ball, turned sublimely to make himself space, then injured himself kicking the ground and not the ball when he tried to clear it.  That summed it up in many ways, and the majority of the game was played in the air – which was maybe a good thing considering the state of the pitch, very bumpy with noticeably long grass.

But above all there was passion, which to me is what the game is all about.  I can tolerate players who aren’t much good (anyone who’s seen me play will understand why!) but I do demand that players give their all.  I just can’t stand players who don’t play with total passion.  So I can even forgive WBT’s lumbering number 9, who had the presence of a Bob Latchford or a Malcolm McDonald, but alas none of the skills – but he was getting stuck in and clearly giving his all.  And almost without exception these players gave everything and were totally committed – much more than many of their professional counterparts who earn thousands a week doing what these guys do for expenses.

At half-time with the scores level it was back to clubhouse, and again no queues or hassles getting a drink.  I must, to my eternal shame, admit to being engrossed in conversation with TC about the finances at this level of the game, and so missing the first 4 minutes of the second half – shades of the prawn-sandwich brigade at Wembley there, perhaps!  Sadly, that meant missing Bracknell score two quick goals – the second of which, I’m reliably informed, was an absolute cracker!

Rushing out after that, and taking my beer with me (again, something you’ll not get at any club in the top 5 tiers of the game) the second half came alive.  Right in front of me, down in the corner, the WBT centre-back pushed the Bracknell Town centre-forward over and the referee, for reasons best known to himself only, decided it was right to send both of them off.  An inexplicable decision from where I was stood – since when has “being pushed over” a sending-off offence?   Now, I know that the game is desperately short of referees, and that up-and-coming refs should be encouraged and not criticised – but there really are limits.  This referee had unfortunately forgotten to bring any presence or authority with him – so much so that things got comical at times.  One of the things I really love about non-league football is that everyone there can hear everything that’s said – by players, crowd and ref – so the whole ground heard the ref tell the WBT number 7 “If you shout at me again you’re in the book.”  The credibility of this threat was zero as about ten other players were yelling at the ref at exactly the same time!  These are the joys of non-league games, and it gave an opportunity for the crowd to call “Ref, he’s shouting at you….” every time number seven opened his mouth.  Priceless!  The game got a little fractious and was always in danger of slipping out of the minimal control the ref had of it, but that also gave plenty more laughs.

What was now a thoroughly entertaining game got even better when another Bracknell player was sent off for a careless elbow – I’m sure it wasn’t deliberate, but there was certainly contact and so it must have been careless, and that gave WBT the advantage of 10 vs 9 and they piled the pressure on.  But Bracknell soaked it all up and when they scored a third on the break ten minutes from the end, the match was all but over as the stuffing had been knocked out of WBT.  But all in all a really enjoyable game, and a great re-introduction to Bracknell Town.  For me, the two stand-out players were the Bracknell number 3, who was unflustered in defence and confident on the ball, and their number 8,  scoring an excellent late goal and looking lively and inventive at all times.

Looking back on the game, we had car parking, a programme, a burger and two rounds of drinks for less than the cost of a single match ticket at Reading – an absolute bargain, without all the grief of getting there or being subjected to any offensive crowd control (including the ever insidious “control” of being told how to support team by use piped music, overbearing PA systems, music after goals and all the other little ways that professional clubs try to take away the spontaneity of football crowds.)  It’s a different experience, but there’s so much to recommend it if you hate the money-orientated world of professional football today.  Yes, the skill-level was lower, but the passion-level certainly wasn’t, and what was noticeably missing was diving, play-acting or any of the less savoury aspects of today’s professional games.   Also missing were ludicrous rules on standing and drinking within sight of the pitch – a wonderful throwback to what football used to be like and what it can be like again.

The only down side?   Well, I wasn’t impressed by the gang of vocal 12-year-olds whose idea of wit was near-continuous homophobic chanting, and while it’s great to see kids at matches and we all know what kids of that age are like, it’s disappointing that no-one at the club had a quiet word with them about what is/isn’t acceptable.  But even that did have its amusing side.  The kid who seemed to have the loudest voice was merrily abusing away while wearing an FA “Respect” armband.  Now that, Alana, actually is irony!

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