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Saturday, 30 July 2011

More Than a Club

More Than a Club

Season 2010-11 is one that will stick in the minds of most associated with Scottish football. For those of us of a Celtic persuasion however it is one that, due to some scarcely believable occurrences, will resonate within our club for many years to come.

Events on the pitch were mixed. Some wonderful football was played, a swagger that had been missing for too long showed signs of re-emergence. We had new heroes to embrace from as far afield as Honduras and Israel, closer to home a diamond of a striker was unearthed from the rough of the English Championship. In May we once again celebrated in the Hampden sun. However the crushing blow of European failure before the season was properly under way was a tough one to take, and of course on that ill-fated evening on a sodden Inverness pitch it became clear that the Championship flag would fly in the West for another 12 months.

It was matters off the pitch however where attention focused and the media glare was brightest. Our manager was lied to by one of this country’s “top” officials after a penalty bungle at Tannadice. The mainstream media missed no opportunity to deride Lennon as a “rookie” manager, and the portrayal of him as some snarling beast, barely able to contain himself was as appalling as it was inaccurate. Then of course we had the two events that made the blood of any ‘right minded’ individual run cold. It is a flawed society indeed that is no-longer shocked by mere death threats, but that is the situation we find ourselves in, it was only upon learning that we lived in a world where our manager had been the target of a viable explosive device that we experienced true shock. The image of a tracksuited Heart of Midlothian fan storming the Tynecastle technical area, with PC plod trailing in his wake, to launch a physical attack upon Lennon was beamed around the world. We now feared for our mangers safety and his sanity.

However when I look back on the season past it is not bullets or bombs, goals or defeats that stick in my mind. The moments I will take from 2010-11 are the ones that reminded me that as a Glasgow Celtic fan I really am privileged to support ‘more than a club’.

In a Scottish Cup tie we witnessed our ‘boy captain’ grow into a leader of men. With a swing of his left boot, McGregor was left clawing at thin air and the bhoys and ghirls in the Broomloan stand were sent into raptures, he then turned, raised his arms, and with barely a flicker of emotion stared down king rat himself. In one moment the armband around his bicep became a perfect fit and Celtic fans all around the globe rejoiced in doing ‘the Broony’.

Then on the last day of the season, with the title was gone, and with helicopter Sunday effectively a non-event, something extra-ordinary happened. Like the Tynecastle attack these pictures were shown by the worlds media, these were not images of hate however, what the world saw and heard was 60,000 people ‘doing the huddle’. Despite the fact that our great rivals had beaten us to the prize we all crave the most, the Celtic support rejoiced. It was breath-taking and it was unique.

People who do not share our allegiances mock us when we talk of ‘the Celtic way’, our insistence that winning is not the be all and end all, that it should be done in a certain style is derided by those out with the Celtic family. One of the reasons Gordon Strachan was never universally accepted by the support was his failure to grasp this, he was convinced we only cared about winning. Last season proved him wrong. Strachan’s reign may have been trophy laden but it lacked soul, the Lennon era has not yet yielded great silverware, though it will surely come, but the connection between club and supporter is back.

 Heavyweight (in all senses) hacks like James Traynor pour scorn on us when we ask that our manager is ‘Celtic minded’, but even deep down they must realise that our club is different. The normal rules don’t apply. Last season we reaffirmed our uniqueness.

It is unlikely that any of us will ever know if it’s a ‘grand old team to play for’, but we can be damn well sure that it is indeed a ‘grand old team to see’.

SPL the First Weekend

Thoughts from SPL matchday 1

So the first round of SPL fixtures have been completed with a week of July still to go. If you are looking for a detailed analysis of each fixture, player ratings etc. then you’re reading the wrong blog. I will however share some of my thoughts from the first weekend of the SPL.

First things first, at no point did any of the punters attempt to storm the dugout and attack the opposition’s manager, as far as we’re aware no manager/former politician/lawyer received a viable explosive device alongside their gas bill, no-one was forced to resign due to incompetence, dishonesty or for forwarding offensive e-mails. This surely signals a collective enlightenment within Scottish society (either that or the nutters are still in Benidorm stocking up on cheap fags).

In terms of matters on the pitch a few things stood out. Hearts outstanding first half display at Ibrox earned a share of the spoils and turned Rangers Flag Day party into a bit of a damp squib. The limitations within the Rangers squad have been well documented, and Saturdays display will serve as a reminder to new owner, Craig Whyte that the rebuilding of Rangers cannot be done on the cheap. While media coverage is usually focussed on incoming players there is no doubt that ensuring Alan McGregor remains at the club is the most important piece of business McCoist will conduct this summer. The Scotland ‘keeper was once again outstanding, and probably saved his team from a rare Ibrox reverse.

Celtic got off to a satisfying start with a victory at Easter Road over a dogged but limited Hibs. If Neil Lennon can keep star men Beram Kayal and Emiliano Izaguirre out of the clutches of their Premier League suitors, along with the mooted purchase of a new no1 and someone to provide a different option upfront, then the Celtic support will be confident that the Championship flag will be hoisted in the East in 12 months’ time.

Motherwell recorded an impressive win over Inverness and will do well to keep a hold of the talented Jamie Murphy who rounded off a flowing team move to open his account for the season. Also in that game Keith Lasley fired in an early contender for goal of the season only to be outdone by Kilmarnock debutant Rory Mckeown’s stunner against Dundee United.

All in all a relatively positive start to the SPL campaign then. I however have stumbled across an even greater reason for optimism, and it concerns the rather unlikely combination of the Scotland national side and South American silverware.

On Sunday night I settled down to watch the final of the Copa America, this is a tournament where putting the ball in the net has been maybe not expressly forbidden, but at the very least frowned upon, and the main objective for the majority of the teams seemed to be to repeatedly kick the opposition until an actual fight breaks out. Now any Scottish football aficionados will tell you these are qualities naturally present in many who have pulled on the dark blue jersey. Combine this with pitches that would make even the Fir Park groundsman blush and it becomes ever clearer that the Copa America is the natural home of the Scottish national side.

The Copa consists of the ten CONMEBOL sides plus two invitees, one of which is always Mexico. It’s time to start a campaign for that last place in the 2015 tournament. European football is heavy on passing and light on thuggery, our lack of success in international football is not a failing of tactics or technique it is purely a geographical issue. In a competition where the emphasis was on fouls rather than the more traditional goals we would surely excel. The players would bloody love it as well; imagine the money Kenny Miller would save on fake tan! And next to the Paraguayan midfielder Walter Ortigoza, Charlie Adam looks like the poster boy for Slimfast.

If we want to add to our Kirin cup success of 2006 (remember that?) then forget the Euro’s, we’ll still have a punt at the World Cup but the Copa 2015 is the way to go. The campaign starts here.

There is one moment from the weekend’s action that deserves special attention. It involved Dundee United’s mercurial/infuriating/utterly pish (delete as appropriate) attacker Danny Swanson. This young man managed to sum up every facet of his game in about 8 seconds of action. First his attempt at a clipping a free kick over the Kilmarnock wall barely reached shin height (infuriating) he then swept a sublime half volley into the bottom corner from the rebound (brilliant) then during his celebration removed his shirt (not very clever) the next phase of his celebration then involved the internationally accepted, ‘that’s my name’ back to the crowd point at name and number move, however having removed his shirt our Danny was left pointing to the back of his black vest (crowd left either laughing or shaking head in disbelief). I think instead of the murmurs of discontent from the Tannadice faithful the next time Danny’s on field decision ends a promising move, we should all just be thankful he’s managed to get out of bed and find his way to the stadium in time for kick off.

Football’s back and, for now at least I’m bloody delighted.

Scottish 'Fitba Reforms

Radical reforms are needed to revive Scottish football

As Scottish football gears up for another season, with a week still to go before we even reach August, reform is still very much in the air.

Scotland is without a doubt utterly obsessed with its national pastime. More people attend SPL games per head of population than any other league in the world and our footballing capital, Glasgow can boast 3 football specific stadiums with capacities north of 50,000, only Istanbul can match this.

Combine this level of fanaticism, with the crucial role played by our “wee” nation during footballs infant years, (“football came from Scotland” is the Tartan Army’s retort to football’s coming home) and logically we should have a thriving, absorbing spectacle that is the envy of more populous nations.

The reality though is quite different. The national side which used to compete regularly (if not successfully) at World and European competitions, has not been to a major tournament since France ’98, a whole generation of tartan army foot soldiers have been denied the opportunity to spend two weeks semi-naked, and vomiting while simultaneously trying to convince any passing Dutch/Swedish female fans to join them in the city centre fountain they have claimed in the name of the Kingdom of Fife tartan army. In terms of club football, our UEFA co-efficient is not only low, but is heading toward the, you’d be as well not bothering level, alongside the other Celtic leagues.

Now UEFA and FIFA statistics on team performance should be taken with a pinch of salt (England are apparently the 4th best international side in the world!) and to be honest what I find more damming is I cannot remember the last time I heard someone (excluding SFA/SPL employees) saying something positive about Scottish football.

No wonder then that reform is Scottish football’s “buzzword”.  Our former First Minister and (more impressively?) ex East Fife player, Henry McLeish, was recently charged with conducting a review into Scottish football and coming up with a series of recommendations aimed at returning some of our past glories. The first part of the review focussed on youth development and raised many pertinent issues, some which are beginning to be acted upon (the appointment of the Dutchman Mark Votte as SFA performance director is in particular a step in the right direction). In the second phase of the review Mr McLeish focussed on the ‘here and now’, this is where the arguments have started, and the media spotlight has shone brightest.

A lot of what is said in this second part of the report makes sense. The re-introduction of a winter break would be welcomed by most, and a reduction in the number of administrative bodies is long overdue.  What has really piqued the interest of fans up and down the country though, is the proposals referring to league re-construction.

Two leagues of ten, SPL1 and SPL2, a league of fourteen, a league of sixteen, relegation playoffs, championship playoffs, split, no split. Throw this combination of words and numbers together in any way you see fit and what you get will probably match one of the ideas debated by Scottish Footballs governing bodies. McLeish’s report favoured an SPL1 and 2 each with 10 teams where playoffs to decide relegation/promotion would be utilised. At the time of writing this seems to have been rejected (although to be honest it’s bloody hard to keep up).

The plan to save our national game seems to involve little more than adjusting a number somewhere between ten and the mid-teens. Numbers are important in this debate however, namely 5.2million (Scotland’s population) and forty two (the number of League clubs in Scotland). Put bluntly there are too many clubs competing for the attention (and cash) of a small and dwindling audience. Scottish football is being weighted down by clubs that really have no business being part of the league set-up.

There are far too many clubs who are allowed to cling onto existence purely because they are football clubs. There financial results make them unviable as businesses and they do very little to enthuse their supports (the most recent average attendance figures for div3 I could find showed under 500 passed through the gates per game). The problem is that these clubs can do no more than ‘tread water’, occasionally a ‘sugar daddy’ will come along, plough in some funds and the club will have its moment in the sun only to fall spectacularly back to earth, remember both Livingston and Gretna have represented Scotland in European competition in recent years, Gretna no longer exist and Livingston are in the midst of a long slog through the divisions. Most clubs in Scotland have nothing to play for and there is nothing to encourage them to strive for anything beyond the status-quo.

We should be discussing a top division of 16 teams with a 30 game season, a second division of 10 teams with a play-off system between the two leagues. The lower leagues could be regionalised (as McLeish proposes) but they should be run in summer months when the top two leagues are dormant, Celtic and Rangers should be encouraged to enter their reserve teams in these regional leagues (Celtic in one, Rangers in the other, swapping every year). Attendances, revenue and ambition would all increase for those at the bottom of the footballing pyramid, combine this with a play-off system between the winners of the two regional divisions (Celtic and Rangers B teams would not be allowed to win promotion) and the bottom placed second division side and almost every club would have something to play for, and a more importantly a reason to improve.

Alongside these proposals we should be trying to make SPL TV a viable alternative to Sky and ESPN and the ‘pocket change’ TV deal we were forced into. Clubs that are failing should be left to die or even more controversially encouraged to merge, this is undoubtedly unpopular but surely one thriving club is better for an area than one mediocre and one on its knees? (The city of Dundee I’m looking at you).

Scottish football must be streamlined, incompetence should not be tolerated and equally innovation must be encouraged, and rewarded. We can no longer afford to carry the deadweight that is dragging the game down. It is time for difficult decisions to be made, without pandering to sentimentality.

Once the current proposals are debated and watered down they will amount to no more than re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Scotland’s population is the most obese in Europe (must be all those ‘Killie pies and East End Park bridies) and our national game is similarly overburdened, it’s time for a crash diet.

Football Lacks a Feminine Touch

The formation and potential make up of a British Olympic football side has been much discussed recently. Most of the debate has centred on whether the Celtic nations will actually participate, and if they do, what players will form the side that competes for the gold medal on home soil. Also there have been some suggestions as to who should be awarded the spots reserved for those over 23 years of age.

One aspect of the potential GB Olympic side that has not really been given much coverage though, is who should be given the honour of being appointed manager/first team coach. There does however seem to be a general consensus that Stuart Pearce will step up from his duties as England U21 manager. Now, I have nothing against Pearce per se (even though he did once put David James on up front when managing Manchester City) however his appointment shows a real lack of imagination and highlights a deeper problem within the game on these isles.

The path into management is a well-trodden one. Players who have been deemed to display the necessary qualities (determination, professionalism etc.) during there playing days are, if they show the inclination to do so, in high demand when clubs begin the search for someone to step into the managerial “hot-seat”. Depending on the profile of the player, they can often be awarded jobs at the top level of club, and sometimes international, football with no applicable managerial experience. Occasionally the desire to appoint someone of a high profile, or a “fans favourite”, overrides even the lack of a relevant accredited coaching qualification (yes I am thinking of Alan Shearer).

In my opinion, this blinkered approach to managerial appointments has been to the technical, and tactical, detriment of our game.

During the Premier League era there has undoubtedly been a small, if significant move away from the belief that to be a success as a manager you had to have been a success as a player. The likes of Arsene Wenger and Rafael Benitez have shown that the lack of a significant playing career is not necessarily a hindrance when it comes to carving out a career in management.

The appointment by Chelsea, of Andres Villas Boas is even more of a step away from the traditional model. Villas Boas had no playing career to speak of and at 33 is the same age as some of the elder statesmen in his squad of global superstars. To win the much vaunted “respect” of the dressing room he will have to rely on his qualifications, his CV and his training methods being sufficient to impress the likes of John Terry and Didier Drogba.

Villas Boas may very well be an exception, but his appointment led me to consider the amount of untapped coaching potential out there with no route into the game, and more specifically, with the continued rise of the women’s game I began to wonder, could a woman ever be appointed manager of a top level club?

I posed this question on twitter and to people I know involved in (the lower echelons of) the game. The overwhelming consensus was that it would be impossible for a woman, no matter how skilled, to command a dressing room full of battle hardened grizzly footballers. There was almost universal agreement that within those particular confines, sexism was still prevalent. Incidentally while everyone I spoke with agreed that the ingrained sexism still evident in football, would be too large an obstacle to overcome in regards to a female managing a group of males, none would admit to being sexist themselves.

The conclusively negative nature of the responses I garnered, initially led to me dismissing the notion as entirely unrealistic. However after further consideration and debate, it became clear to me that while the chances of a female manager at the top level are remote, there are far fewer stereotypical prejudices to overcome when you begin to consider some of the other technical/coaching positions that are now part and parcel of almost all clubs.

Roles such as; academy director, chief scout and in some cases director of football, are utterly integral to the success of a modern day football club. They are also, crucially, a step removed from the testosterone and machismo of the dressing room. There is nothing to stop these positions being filled by adequately qualified female candidates.

British football is often criticised (fairly or otherwise) for being stuck in the “dark ages”. One of the reasons cited for this is that most coaches come from the same background, with the same thoughts and ideals drummed into them. The woman’s game is much less established and therefore its participants are naturally more open to a new way of thinking. An influx of females into the male game could conceivably bring with it the more modern “enlightened” approach our game is crying out for.

The benefits would not only be restricted to on the pitch matters. Imagine the public relations boost a club would enjoy if a high profile position was filled by, for example, a former England woman’s international. Clubs are always on the lookout for ways to attract new fans through the turnstiles, and this would be one very effective way of marketing yourself as a family orientated club. I admit some would potentially see the appointment as based purely on PR, rather than footballing grounds but that attitude would surely disappear if faced with on, and off pitch success.

To enable any of this to become a reality, there would have to be a concerted effort to encourage more women to take the necessary qualifications. The resulting increase of properly qualified coaches would also have the result of raising standards within the woman’s game itself. As our European counterparts (notably Spain) have proven, the number of qualified coaches is directly proportionate to the level of player produced.

Admittedly clubs may be reluctant to take what may be seen as a radical departure from the norm, and would probably need some encouragement to do so. I see no problems with a system that forces clubs to interview at least one woman when an appropriate position becomes available. The NFL has a similar rule (the Rooney rule) regarding Black and Hispanic candidates for coaching roles and it has been hailed as a success in its remit of raising the ethnic diversity of coaches within the league.

It seems to me that football is disregarding a huge amount of knowledge and potential, for no reason other than, at best traditionalism and at worst institutionalised sexism and I personally would have no problems with a woman occupying a high profile role at my club (or country).

I genuinely believe that the acceptance of women into high profile, technical roles, within the men’s game could be of great benefit to all concerned.

I would be very interested to get some further opinions on this matter? Maybe you agree with me, or maybe you think the male and female games are better off without any crossover? Either way would love to know your thoughts either on the comments section or via twitter.

The Fight Against Racism Lacks Punch

The Fight Against Racism Lacks Punch

During one of my frequent visits to one of the many websites dealing in transfer rumours and speculation (in my defence it’s the close season and I’m bored) I began to wonder, what was the most outlandish rumour that I’d come across during this, the silliest of silly seasons? A few came to mind, Eto’o to Spurs, Thiago Alcantara to Bolton, there are of course many, many more. However one rumour, through its sheer implausibility, stood out amongst all others. Emmanuel Adebayor was reported to be a transfer target for Russian giants Zenit St Petersburgh. On the face of it this is a move that would make sense, Zenit, backed by the Russian oil giant Gazprom, are one of the few clubs in Europe with the means to provide a financial package that would appeal to both the former Togolese captain and his current club, Manchester City. A spell at Zenit would also give Adebayor the chance to add to his medal collection, something the player has said is key to any future move. The reason this potential transfer is so unlikely though has nothing to do with football, the problem is the colour of Adebayors skin.

During Dick Advocaat’s successful spell in charge of Zenit he claimed that he would like to sign a black player but that it was not possible. The clubs most fanatical supporters (the Ultras) would not accept it. This group of supporters have a huge influence over the policies of their club, to a level beyond anything we have ever witnessed in this country. I should point out that Zenit say that Advocaats quotes were misrepresented and current manager Luciano Spalletti claims he is free to sign whomever he wishes, irrespective of race, meanwhile, the Zenit line-up remains exclusively white.

Awareness in this country, of the overt racism of many involved in Russian football, has increased recently, this can mainly be attributed to the reporting of a couple of high profile incidents. The move of the half Nigerian, half Russian striker Peter Odemwinge to West Brom, from Locomotive Moscow was celebrated by the Locomotive Ultras with a banner thanking the English club, accompanied by the image of a banana. Incidentally come the end of the season it was the baggies fans who had cause to thank their Locomotive counterparts, after a sparkling debut campaign from Odemwingie helped West Brom to the (relatively) dizzy heights of a mid-table finish. They say ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ and the look of incredulity, mixed with rage, on the face of the great Brazilian Roberto Carlos as he was racially abused for the second time during his stint at Anzhi Makhachkala, illustrates the horrifying nature of the racism problem which blights Russian football far more eloquently than the range of my vocabulary permits. The site of one of the most iconic footballers of his generation, an utter tank of a man, so visibly affected by the words and actions of these pathetic cowards is one of the most upsetting I have seen in football.

The Russian Football Union has handed out fines to some of those involved, it has also promised tougher sanctions for anyone found guilty of racially aggravated crimes. However a financial penalty of roughly £30,000 is of no real consequence to the oligarchs who provide the financial muscle of clubs such as Zenit. And the chances of these proposed further sanctions including something potentially effective, such as a points deduction are slim. Herein lies a large part of the problem when it comes to dealing with the racists, individual national associations, all throughout football, are unwilling to enforce the kind of punishments that would dissuade the continuation of such behaviour. The large clubs, in all countries, hold too much sway within the corridors of power of their respective associations. The ramifications of enforcing a level of punishment actually relative to the crime of racism are too great for any organisation that relies on the co-operation of its member clubs, for its day to day operations.  It’s much easier to hand out token fines, and release “plans of action”, which are in practical terms only one step up from attempting to sweep the problem under the carpet.

Logically as football fans we should look to our governing body to lead the fight against racism. FIFA, however say they are not willing to interfere with the disciplinary processes of national associations. This by the way is the same FIFA who are happy to interfere with a countries tax laws to suit their needs when they bring their World Cup roadshow swinging into town! Anyway would you trust FIFA to administer the appropriate sanctions? The £40,000 and £15,000 fines handed out to Spain and Croatia respectively, after racist abuse of English players suggests not. To entrust FIFA with a task as vital to the wellbeing of our game as eradicating racism, would be to desecrate the wonderful work (not to mention the personal sacrifice) of many individuals and institutions involved in this field over the years. FIFA claim to abhor racism, yet through their paltry fines and the awarding of the World Cup to Russia, without any genuine guarantees regarding the eradication of the racist behaviour already discussed, their words are not matched by their actions.
To my mind the only way to ensure the application of appropriate sanctions is the formation of an international body, independent of FIFA, with the remit of monitoring all forms of discriminatory behaviour in football, and the means to enforce a punishment they see fit. For example, if a clubs support is found guilty of racist chanting, this new body could then impose a fine on that club, equal to their average home gate receipt or a set percentage of their turnover/wage bill. This would ensure that the sanctions meted out are much closer to being equally punitive, regardless of the financial clout of the club. There would also be the option of closing stadiums, hefty points deductions and the ability to withdraw licenses required to take part in non-domestic competitions.
This is the level of punishment that I believe necessary to at least begin to eradicate the cancer of racism from our game. Only a truly independent body, made up of people with experience of the campaign against racism, and respected figures from the world of football, working without the limitations of national boundaries, can be trusted to impose these long overdue sanctions.
Racism is still a relevant problem in football, and unless we begin to think outside the box in terms of tackling it, we will be guilty of allowing this affliction to fester indefinitely, therefore doing irreparable damage to the game we all love so much.
Would really like your feedback on this. Do you think we can rid football of racism? Is the idea of an independent body workable? Leave a comment at the bottom of this page or get in contact via twitter, I’d love to hear from you. 

Can Football Break its Gay Taboo?

Can football break its gay taboo?

In a previous article I discussed footballs role in breaking the stigma surrounding depression. The response to this was absolutely fantastic, with people from all walks of life contacting me through twitter to give me their opinions and share their experiences. It reinforced my genuine belief that football, despite its many ills, can still be a force for good and one of the most powerful tools we have in breaking down the barriers that are still prevalent in our society. During discussion of my article on twitter however, one issue continued to raise its head. Can the footballing world ever accept homosexuality?
In the 1970’s and 80’s racism was rife in British football. Players such as Viv Anderson, Cyrille Regis and Garth Crooks (amongst many, many others) were regularly subjected to torrents of vile abuse emanating from the terraces. Racism seemed to be ingrained in the psyche of a large percentage of the match going support. Fast forward to today though and huge progress has been made. I am not claiming for a minute that football has eradicated racism entirely, but imagine the reaction of the supporters you sit amongst if you tried to start a monkey chant at your next home game. I am of course writing this in the context of British football, recent events in Russia involving Peter Odemwinge and Roberto Carlos have shown that racism still thrives and may be on the rise in many footballing cultures. Racism became unacceptable in a society where it was previously the norm, will homophobia ever achieve the same level of revulsion that racism now attracts?
The reasons for the retreat of racism are many and varied, great credit must go to clubs, associations and charities who helped to educate people and alter their perceptions. Something that is often overlooked though is that the talent, commitment and ability of these black players eventually won over the fans. The colour of their skin became less and less relevant as players such as the aforementioned Regis wrote their name into club legend with their displays on the park.
Would supporters come to accept a gay player if he scored a hat-trick in the local derby, or cup final? I happen to genuinely believe they would. There is though one rather obvious problem with this theory, for there to be a ‘gay’ hat-trick hero there first of all must be a gay player. In this country we have had one openly gay professional footballer, Justin Fashanu could not even rely on the support of his brother John (also a professional footballer) and tragically committed suicide eight years after announcing he was gay. The rampant homophobia of certain fans can be illustrated by the horrifying ditty ‘he’s gay, he’s dead, he’s hanging in a shed, Fashanu, Fashanu’ still occasionally heard when Ipswich visit Fashanu’s old team Norwich.  John Fashanu has since expressed his regret about the way he dealt with the situation, it should not have taken the suicide of his sibling for him to come to realise that he was in the wrong.
We do have some evidence that there are gay players currently plying their trade at the top level of British football. The publicist Max Clifford has claimed he advised two Premier League stars to keep their sexuality a secret. These individuals should of course be able to be open about their sexuality just as they would in any civilised society, however it is hard to argue with Clifford when he claims that football is “in the dark ages” and “steeped in homophobia”. Whatever you think of Max Clifford he has made a career of judging how the general public will react when confronted with a front page splash, and then spinning that story to the benefit of whoever is signing his cheque that week (I do not think much of Mr Clifford as you may be able to tell!). And he has effectively judged the story of a gay footballer as “unspinnable”.
The name Anton Hysen may not mean anything to the majority of you, but recently he has become the only openly gay player in world football. By all accounts the reaction amongst players and fans to his ‘coming out’ has been if not wholly positive then at least not wholly negative either. No disrespect to the young Swede but he does not have the footballing ability to become the poster boy that gay football requires, he will never score in the Champions League or in a World Cup, he does not have the talent to break down footballs last remaining prejudice. However, Hysen who plays in the Swedish fourth tier, does have a higher profile than would normally be afforded a player of similar ability. His father Glenn is a former Swedish international and previously plied his trade at Liverpool, his brother Tobias has also played for the national side, in short he is part of a Swedish footballing dynasty. The fact he is a Hysen has not only raised his profile but has to some extent made the fact he is a gay footballer more acceptable. Hysen has no intention of becoming the face of gay football and of course he should be under no obligation to do so, he is after all just a normal young man looking to go about his life the same as everyone else. I genuinely hope, and to an extent believe, the case of Anton Hysen is a small step in the right direction. I am however aware that I may be being overly optimistic.
There have been a few positive signs from the wider sporting world. The most obvious of these being the ex Wales rugby captain Gareth Thomas, whose announcement that he was gay has been met with an overwhelmingly positive response. His status as a national hero was already cemented, his sexuality has not diminished his fine achievements on the pitch and he has largely been supported in his decision to come out (the Independent newspaper put him joint first in its annual pink list). Unfortunately the thought that despite its macho image, the average rugby supporter is a more tolerant beast than their equivalent football fan remains a relevant one.
It does seem doubtful that we will see a player appear in both World Soccer and Attitude in the near future. It’s not just the level of abuse that would inevitably rain down from supporters on matchdays but maybe more crucially the lack of support from their peers. The Fashanu tragedy may have played out in the 90s but have attitudes really changed since then? The excellent secret footballer column in the Guardian and the player column in 442 magazine have laid bare the ruthlessness that can exist in a Premier League dressing room, especially with regards to sex. It is not an environment that encourages tolerance and understanding. The English FA attempted to produce an anti-homophobia video but was unable to find anyone from the footballing world to front it. The fear of ostracism was too great.
Football needs one brave individual to stand up, someone whose talent will be more noteworthy than their sexual preference, someone whose value to the team was so great that it overcame the homophobia of his team-mates.  That is surely the only way the most ingrained of all prejudices can begin to be eroded, education can play its part but on its own is not enough. In a world where players have been the victims of homophobic abuse because they have admitted to reading the Guardian or occasionally attending the theatre, that individual would need to be prepared to sacrifice his quality of life for the greater good of a society that would offer him no thanks in return.
Incidentally if that player is out there and holds any ambition to represent his nation in the World Cup he’d better hide his sexuality until after 2022, as FIFA have decided the best place to hold footballs showpiece event in that year is Qatar, a country where homosexuality is illegal. Well done FIFA.
This is without doubt an incredibly complex issue with no obvious solution and no easy answers, but it is an issue that for the good of the game needs to be properly debated. I would really appreciate any comments you may have, either on here or via my twitter account which you can access from the about the author section of this site. Thanks.

Football and the Fight Against Depression

Depression and Football

Depression amongst sportsmen has been a topic of some debate recently. The case of the England cricketer Michael Yardy who had to return home from the Cricket World Cup because of his depression brought the issue to the fore. Unfortunately the reaction of Geoffrey Boycott (who joked that Yardy’s depression may be as a result of his below par bowling performance) showed that there is still a real ignorance in the world of sport toward a very serious, and increasingly common problem.
There are a number of professional footballers who have admitted to suffering from depression in some form or another throughout their careers. The most high profile of these cases was of course the tragic suicide of German international Robert Enke. Top level players such as Neil Lennon and Stan Collymore have also spoken about their battles with depression. Despite these players being well known and highly visible their “revelations” have not sparked any meaningful re-action from the footballing community.
Depression in the macho world of football is still a taboo subject. The general opinion seems to run along the same lines as that of the misguided Boycott, that depression is something you can just shake off with a few good performances or a team bonding session down the pub. When the culture of bravado that surrounds football is ingrained in you, it must be incredibly difficult to admit that you are in the grip of an overwhelming and all-consuming illness. When that admission is then treated as a weakness and very probably dismissed, it makes it all the harder to speak up.
Attitudes in football must change, and admittedly there has been some progress in England’s lower leagues, with all players being issued with information regarding depression. This of course is to be welcomed, but football clubs and the footballing authorities can, and should go further.
Football is in the unique position of being a social reference point for many of the people who are considered the most vulnerable to depression. As the effects of the recession continue to reverberate around the country, young men from working class backgrounds are increasingly likely to suffer from depression. They are also the least likely to seek help, the consequence being, that they are also the most likely to take their own lives. This socio-economic group has been the traditional supplier of footballs players and supporters and I believe football has a moral duty to help them.
One of the most valuable things that football can do is break the stigma surrounding depression. It is still seen as something that only happens to people who are down on their luck, people who have nothing going for them, however Lennon and Collymore were highly regarded, well paid Premier League players and Robert Enke was going to the World Cup to represent Germany. Anyone, at any time can be affected.
Depression is at its most destructive when it is ignored and allowed to fester. People who suffer from depression need professional help, they cannot just “pull themselves together”. Football needs to encourage a frank discussion of the facts surrounding what is a very serious illness. Whether we think they are suitable or not, footballers are role models for many young people, if high profile footballing personalities are prepared to talk openly about depression without fear of reprisal then the subject becomes normalised in the minds of the general public. This can only help those affected to seek help instead of attempting to suppress and in many cases ignore this damaging affliction.
Depression at its more advanced stages leaves the sufferer in no doubt as to its presence. However in its infancy it can easily be missed or disregarded, there is an ignorance amongst many (especially young men) as to the symptoms of depression. This is where the footballing community (clubs and associations) can step in and use their positions of influence, to educate the people that enable and justify their existence.
Depression is measurably easier to treat and manage if it is recognised before it reaches its all-consuming stage. If clubs at all levels were encouraged to talk to their players from youth to first team, if associations and clubs could combine to reach out to the masses and explain the early signs and triggers of depression then what a difference that could make.
Education about all aspects of health, physical and mental should be at the core of football. There is a real chance for football to re-assert itself as a force for social wellbeing and tolerance within its support structure, many of our greatest clubs were in fact formed with these grand ideals at their heart. With all the negativity that currently surrounds football and footballers now can be the time for a return to those ideals.
Ignorance, a lack of dialogue and therefore the stigma surrounding it, are the factors that more than any other, allow depression to fester and subsequently ruin lives. Football is in a unique position where it can address all these factors. This is a chance that cannot be missed. Football has a moral obligation to help those who have allowed it to grow, from its humble roots, to the global behemoth it has become.

Football and the Big Society

Can “The Big Society” save football?

Has top level football ever been so far removed from the common man/woman? Weekly wage packets broke the £100,000 mark a while ago and are now creeping closer to £200,000+, in the midst of a deep recession ticket prices continue to rise, owners come and go, whilst using great institutions as their play thing and games that kick off on a Saturday at 3pm are becoming the exception rather than the norm.
The recent farcical antics at FIFA have only served to underline that football is rotten. Amongst the revelations of bungs, suspensions, parliamentary enquiries and an election that would not have looked out of place in Zimbabwe, the most interesting aspect was the re-action of the British public. There was some excellent coverage and much consternation in the broadsheets but what about actual football fans? Well, as one, they simply shrugged their shoulders. There was an acceptance that this was how football operated at that level.
Top level football is broken. Is there anything we can do about it? Can we fix football?
Unfortunately I’m not sure we can, the only way FIFA and the top clubs would take any notice of us is if we stemmed the river of pounds, euros and dollars flowing into their bank accounts (and back pockets). This would take a mass mobilisation of football fans all around the world and the breaking of the tribal loyalties many fans feel toward their club. As fans we are just not prepared to starve our clubs, they rely on our blind loyalty.
So what can be done? Let’s ignore FIFA, UEFA and the (Barclays) Premier League for a while. We have allowed ourselves to forget how wonderful a force for good football can be. The economic gloom shows no sign of lifting yet football in its purest form is one of the cheapest pastimes available, an increasing obesity epidemic has the potential to pile untold misery on this country for generations to come, yet football is one of the healthiest habits you can have, tabloid headlines constantly tell us our society is broken, yet there are few things that have united people of various creeds, colours and clans throughout history as the simple joy that a game of football brings.
It may sound counter-intuitive but why can’t we use the recession to spark a change in football? The Tories are not traditionally considered a friend of the football fan but is there anything that epitomises the spirit of their flagship “Big Society” than football?
This is the time to re-claim football, make it about having fun again, celebrate its inclusiveness, focus on what made football great. People loved football long before “Super Sunday” and corporate hospitality. We don’t need the inbred “FIFA family”. Get in contact with your local council, arrange a tournament, speak to charities that are active in your area, don’t allow it to become cynical, involve your community.
Football by virtue of its popularity can lead the way to a healthier (in all senses) society, big or not.
We may never change things at the top, but we can have some fun and do some good starting from the bottom.

Can the Internet Spark a Tactical Revolution?

Can the internet spark a tactical revolution?

Football fans on the internet get a hard time from the mainstream media and people within the game itself. Isolated comments and forum threads are pounced upon and used as evidence of a sinister and socially retarded community. Now, there is no denying there are some strange characters who are in possession of a warped sense of reality, amongst the on-line footballing community, if you think this problem is exclusive to football I urge you to check the comments section of almost any article posted on the web (be prepared for a potent combination of hatred and sub-standard grammar).
If you are prepared to ignore the vitriol and the bitching though, there is evidence of a new breed of football fan, one who may be of great benefit to the game in this country. This new fan is informed, tactically aware and willing to embrace new ideas.
During the build up to the Champions League final between Manchester United and FC Barcelona it became obvious that the most interesting and valid discussions were taking place not on the pages of the tabloid press or in the ITV/Sky studios but on fan sites and forums.
Should United play with three at the back to counter the “false no.9” role performed by Messi? Would it be a good idea to use “inverted full backs” against Barca’s “inverted wingers”? Is the best way to disrupt the rhythm of “Tiki-Taka” to put someone on Busquets all the time? These were all questions posed and debated in great detail on various, much derided forums. Now whether or not these would have had any impact on the outcome of the game is irrelevant, in a country where tactics is a still seen by many as a dirty word there is a lively tactical debate going on, albeit separately from the mainstream media’s coverage.
Football in this country, depending on your point of view is either in danger of being left behind, or has already been left staring forlornly at the Spanish, Dutch and Germans disappearing over the horizon.
Whenever a team from these shores, either club or international, suffers a defeat at the hands of some stylish foreigners the inquest inevitably begins. Questions are asked about the teams desire, their passion and occasionally their technical expertise. Do the players like the manager? Can he motivate the team? The closest our newspapers and TV stations get to a discussion on tactics is usually a denouncement of the current formation and very little in the way of alternatives. For a genuinely wide ranging and intriguing debate you really have to venture on-line.
Football fans in other countries have in general, always been more tactically aware, and in-depth discussions regarding tactics are the norm in mainstream media outlets, Italy being a good example of this. With the game in general becoming more technical and with the tightening of rules regarding tackling, the traditional British style of “getting stuck in” is becoming less and less viable.
Talking about tactics doesn’t make you soft. Passion and desire are important but will only get you so far. You cannot take a team to a major summer tournament tell them to play at a high tempo and then be surprised when they run out of steam.
As a nation we need to become more aware of tactics, and embrace tactical innovations as an intriguing way to enhance the game, not something to be viewed with suspicion.
The debate will not take place on the back page or editorial of the Sun or the Mirror, they will continue to be more interested in hair transplants, super injunctions and borderline xenophobic headlines. The modern day football fan is not an idiot, their appreciation (and I believe enjoyment) of the game is being stunted by a sub-standard media. The really interesting opinions are coming from fans, and the internet is the perfect platform to express and debate these opinions.
 Increased tactical awareness can only be good for the development of the game in this country, and the often lamented internet football fan is the key to a more enlightened footballing future. Don’t allow yourself to be “dumbed down” by sensationalist headlines and stories with no substance, there is a world of knowledge out there that has the potential to increase your appreciation and enjoyment of “the beautiful game”.
Who knows, in years to come instead of the usual pub debates regarding “bottle” and “heart” we may find ourselves discussing the merits of the advanced libero. And the game will be all the better for it.