27 February 2008

Defending the indefensible

Anyone who has ever listened to BBC 5 Live’s weekly ‘Fighting Talk’ panel programme will be familiar with the ‘Defend the Indefensible’ round, where contestants are required to talk for 20 seconds in support of an apparently untenable position. For instance: ‘The BBC should abandon its bid for the Champions League coverage if it’s going to affect even one minute of crown green bowling.’ (What’s so indefensible about that?!?)

Since the events of Saturday lunchtime, when Arsenal’s Eduardo da Silva suffered a season-ending – and potentially career-ending – injury after a tackle by Birmingham’s Martin Taylor, the airwaves, print media and the Internet have been filled with anger, bile and, in a handful of cases, worse. The overwhelming volume of emotional outbursts is hardly surprising given the horrific nature of the injury suffered by Eduardo, but I find myself in the unusual position of wanting to stand up for the difficult-to-defend positions of some of the key parties involved.

Let’s start with Mike Dean, the referee whose decision it was to issue a straight red card to Taylor. Some have said Dean only chose to send the player off in response to the obvious severity of Eduardo’s injury. There have even been some dissenting voices (notably Taylor’s former boss, Steve Bruce) claiming the tackle did not even merit a booking. Others have pointed out that we have seen a number of more dangerous tackles escape with lesser (or no) punishment this season, so perhaps the red card was a tad harsh.

I say two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because some obvious red card challenges have been missed by officials does not justify leniency in the case of others. The overwhelming weight of opinion from pundits and fans who have seen the video replay seems to agree unreservedly with Dean’s decision, and it’s hard to argue that a player who jumps in with studs raised and catches an opponent halfway between ankle and knee does not deserve to be dismissed for dangerous play. Dean made the right decision; it is other, more lenient refs who have been in error. And the fact that Dean went on to have a poor game thereafter – Birmingham’s goals came courtesy of a questionable free kick and a penalty award which was simply wrong – can perhaps also be excused given what he had witnessed earlier. Either way, it’s probably best to draw a line under the game, and I don’t see why Mr Dean should have to justify his decision.

What of Martin Taylor? Birmingham have understandably circled the wagons around their player to protect him, but he has nonetheless been an easy target, the poster boy for all that is wrong with our dangerous, reckless footballers. Certainly Arsene Wenger didn’t help with his initial post-match reaction, claiming that Taylor should never be allowed to play again. But there is nothing in the video replays or the player’s history to suggest there was any malice aforethought; it appears more to be a misguided, ill-advised challenge by a defender early on in a game where he has simply been outfoxed by an opponent’s quick feet. A red card offence, yes, but no more than that.

As Alan Hansen said on Match of the Day, Taylor didn’t sprint 15 or 20 yards and lunge in two-footed. Nor did he jump in with the obvious intent of, say, Roy Keane on Alf-Inge Haaland, or Ben Thatcher on Pedro Mendes. He made a mistake, albeit one with terrible consequences, but a mistake was all it was. And it’s not as if this was the first time a player has suffered such a horrific injury: to the aforementioned Haaland add David Busst, Djibril Cisse, Alan Smith and countless others. Not to mention Cameroon international Marc-Vivien Foe and Seville defender Antonio Puerta, who both died playing the game they loved.

Taylor’s actions are certainly not worthy of the death threats he has allegedly received on a Croatian website set up in support of Eduardo. Some people need to get a sense of perspective. Or a life.

Finally, Le Prof. I’ve mentioned Wenger’s post-match comments already, which were clearly made in the heat of the moment but, as his later statement of retraction said, were excessive. That should have been the end of that, and yet some have chosen to point out that Wenger’s words fall short of a full apology. And on no less a serious station than 5 Live, I even heard it suggested yesterday that Wenger may have been forced into his retraction by an Arsenal board who are keen to maintain a positive PR position and cordial relations with Birmingham, a club to whom we have sold (Pennant, Upson, Muamba, Larsson) or loaned out (Bendtner, Djourou) several players over the past few seasons. The ferocity of the accusations aimed at Wenger from fans all over the country on Saturday evening before his follow-up statement was perhaps understandable: again, an emotional reaction in the heat of the moment as callers jump onto an already speeding bandwagon. However, the insinuation made by professional journalists more than 48 hours after the event is unsavoury in the extreme and totally uncalled for.

The situation is bad enough already, with one player facing a long road back to health and another vilified by many fans who, before Saturday, wouldn’t have known him from Adam.

Why do we feel a need to point the finger of blame at all and sundry, as if doing so will make everyone feel better and absolve the game and the fans of all their other sins?

Perhaps that is the only truly indefensible position in this sorry affair.

26 February 2008

What home advantage?

Being of a suitably anorak-y disposition, I'm always attracted to interesting trivia, coincidences and statistics on sport.

For instance, much has been said since last weekend in relation to Arsenal striker Eduardo da Silva and the horrible injury he suffered at Birmingham. But did you know that he also holds the distinction of being the scorer of the first ever competitive goal at Arsenal's Emirates Stadium at the beginning of last season? The only thing is, he did it while playing for Dinamo Zagreb ...

Anyway, that's not the little fact I wanted to share here. That would be this, for which I have to thank Bill Edgar of the Times who recently highlighted this in his regular slot on The Game podcast:

Much has been said over the years about the reasons for teams enjoying a significant advantage when playing at home: vocal crowd support, familiarity with the surroundings, lack of travel fatigue and so on. And, statistically, 'home advantage' is an established fact in every sport known. For instance, if you look at the results in every division of English football since the Football League began - that's a sample size approaching 400 - there has never been a season where there have been more away wins than home wins in any division.

Until now, that is.

As of today, with 390 of 552 fixtures (71%) already played in England's League Two - there have been 19 more away wins than home ones.

Why? I have no idea. But the fact is that 13 of the division's 24 teams - including the top three and five of the bottom eight - have won more games on their travels than they have in their own back yard.

If the trend continues - and there is no reason to suppose it won't - we will have borne witness to one of the most anomalous and gloriously trivial seasons in football history.

Now that's got to be worthy of a pub quiz question or two in the future ...

25 February 2008

Tackling the real problem

Arsenal and Croatia strike Eduardo da Silva is 25 today. He will be spending his birthday in hospital after an operation on a double compound fracture of his leg sustained in a tackle by Birmingham defender Martin Taylor on Saturday. He will also no doubt be wondering if he will ever play again - he will certainly not play for Arsenal again this season or for Croatia at Euro 2008 - and if he does whether he will be the same predatory goalscorer he has been over the past couple of years.

A great deal of energy has been expended over the past 48 hours to rush to Taylor's defence, with comments such as "he's a gentle giant", "he hasn't got a malicious bone in his body" and "he's absolutely distraught" being used to mitigate his role in the affair.

Conversely, radio phone-in shows like 5 Live's 606 have been inundated by callers condemning Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger for saying Taylor should be banned for life. It was an excessive and ill-advised comment - and one which Wenger quickly retracted - but perhaps understandable in the immediate aftermath of a highly emotional situation. For all his intellect and air of calmness, a heart beats within Wenger's chest just as it does within any other football manager's, and while I for one wish he had never made the comment, I am curious as to why so much vitriol has been directed at one of the victims of the crime rather than its perpetrator.

Quite frankly I'm more disgusted by the less widely reported comments of former Birmingham manager Steve Bruce, who stated that "some would say it is not even a yellow card".

Let's be clear about this. I've seen video replays of the tackle and it is evident that Taylor flies in, uncontrolled, from the side with a raised boot and makes contact about hafway between Eduardo's knee and ankle. It is clearly a red card tackle. There is no sign of malicious intent, but that is neither here nor there: it was reckless and dangerous.

And it's not just me who thinks that. Here is what Alan Hansen, former Liverpool captain and Match of the Day pundit, had to say about both the tackle and Wenger's reaction to it:

"It is a horrific injury but I think what you've got to understand first is that Taylor's not run 15, 20 yards and jumped in with two feet. He's made the tackle from a standing start and he's just been done by a bit of pace ... It is a red card, he mistimed the tackle.

"I'm glad Arsene Wenger has retracted his initial statement. We've all been there and emotions run high. In 1987, Jim Beglin broke his leg against Everton. I was the captain of Liverpool, he was my room-mate, and it was a horrific injury. I said things after the game that possibly I shouldn't have said, and I do regret saying them. You could see how the Arsenal players were with this horrific injury and emotions run high, you say things that later on you regret. Arsene has made this statement, he's cleared it up and hopefully that's the end of it."

Notwithstanding the fact that it was only the third minute of the game, it was a sending-off offence. (And, even as an Arsenal fan, if it had been Eduardo committing the same foul on Taylor, I would have had no problem with a red card either.) A lack of intent does not excuse it, just as a drunk driver who accidentally runs down a pedestrian must bear responsibility for his actions.

Most importantly, I hope now that people realise exactly why the authorities are trying to stamp out dangerous tackles - even though, as Hansen indicates, Taylor's tackle was some way from being the worst tackle we have ever seen.

And that is exactly the point.

Why is it that so often a clearly intentional, two-footed lunge from a player who has sprinted 20 yards to make a 'tackle' in full view of the match officials receives only a yellow card or even goes unpunished in the interests of letting the game flow or not ruining it for spectators by sending a player off?

How often do we justify dangerous and excessively physical challenges with this "it's a man's game" clap-trap?

How many more times do we have to witness a David Busst? Or Ben Thatcher's assault on Pedro Mendes? Or any of the countless but ultimately harmless two footed-tackles we have witnessed this season?

How many more players have to lie in hospital with shattered bones, wondering whether they will ever play again? Or even if they will be able to walk properly?

Physical contact will always be a part of the game (which is as it should be), as will serious injuries. But for how much longer will we allow players who operate outside the agreed rules of the game to escape suitable punishment? And why do we always insist on defending the perpetrator as much as we sympathise for the victim?

On a positive note for Eduardo, we have seen the likes of Djibril Cisse and Alan Smith recover fully from equally serious leg injuries, and while Busst's career-ending injury was similar, what ultimately did for him was not the broken bones but the complications caused by post-op infections (he contracted the MRSA super-bug).

For now, it seems that the operation went well and the current prognosis is that Eduardo could be playing again within 9 months, barring further complications. I'm sure all right-thinking football fans will join me in wishing him a full and speedy recovery. On a day when I would ordinarily be concerned that Arsenal dropped two vital points thanks to a controversial late penalty, that's really all that matters.

8 February 2008

The buck starts here

As the wags (not those ones!) put it yesterday, it was as if April Fool's Day had come early.

The English Premier League's announcement of its proposal to add a 39th round of games to its calendar starting in January 2011 - it is not entirely coincidental that the current TV rights will be up for renewal at about this time - wasn't really that much of a surprise, coming as it does on the back of successful forays into the UK by the NFL and NBA.

However, it was still shocking.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore almost pulled off the impossible task of painting this proposal in a positive light, but his arguments aren't really watertight when submitted to any remotely serious scrutiny. It was, he said, a pro-active move to both promote and defend the Premier League's global brand awareness against the expansion of, for instance, the NFL (and not just about the money). It would be like having the oft-proposed winter break, only with a game in more favourable climates in the middle (plus several thousand air miles, plus a hectic PR schedule). It would be an opportunity for UK TV viewers to watch all 20 Premier League teams play live on the same weekend (assuming you actually want to watch the best part of 20 hours of football in two days, of course). And it would generate human interest stories about fans in other countries getting to see their favourite teams in the flesh (assuming they live in or near one of the host cities and actually support one of the four teams they will host) and following those loyal fans who have not missed any of their team's games home or away for 35 years (assuming they can afford the cost of travelling, of course).

You could also argue that the Premier League is simply following the NFL model which worked pretty well at Wembley last year. But the NFL only played one international game, not a whole round (although this will increase gradually over the coming years), money was not the prime motivation (increased TV rights revenue was minimal), the schedule was arranged so that both participants had their bye week (when they do not play) immediately after the trip to aid recovery, and long-haul flights are already part and parcel of the NFL anyway: for instance, for the Giants to travel to Wembley was no more draining than a road game in, say, San Francisco. Again, the argument doesn't really hold water.

Unsurprisingly, the reaction of fans in this country to this proposed change has been passionate, emotional and almost unanimously negative - as it was when Sky signed up to the first Premier League TV deal, as it was when the Taylor report called for all-seater stadia. It has been seen as further proof of the greed of the Premier League, a callous disregard of the fans who feel increasingly disenfranchised, a needless strain on already weary players, and a destruction of the symmetry of a league system where every club plays every other club home and away once per season.

Of course, as is generally the case when any change occurs, there will be winners and there will inevitably be losers. Putting emotion to one side, whether the Premier League's proposal is actually a good thing depends, on balance, on which way the scales tip.


The Premier League, which will benefit from the global exposure of its brand, as well as defending the status of football as the global sport from the ongoing expansion of American sports.

The clubs & their owners - especially those who are already actively seeking to penetrate growth markets in Asia and the USA - who will benefit both from the global exposure and their share of an estimated £100m additional revenue from hosting fees, ticket sales, TV & sponsorship rights.

The five host cities, which will benefit in both commercial and prestige terms.


The FA, which will see its power base eroded further by the growing prominence of the Premier League.

The FA Cup. If the international round of fixtures blocks out two weeks in January as proposed, what does this mean for the status of the world's oldest cup competition, which traditionally holds both 3rd and 4th round games in January? In particular, it would appear the writing is on the wall for 3rd round replays.

The players, who will have to fit in another game in an already busy schedule, plus the draining effect of several thousand air miles.

The Football League. More money and TV exposure for the Premier League teams will mean a widening of the gap between the Championship and the top division.

The England national team. The players will be more tired which may impact on our performance in the major summer tournaments (assuming we qualify, of course), and the status of England as a footballing brand will inevitably be eroded at the expense of the Premier League clubs. (As if Fabio Capello's job wasn't already hard enough!)

Other national and regional governing bodies. For instance, what impact will hosting teams like Arsenal, Man Utd and Liverpool on an annual basis have on the status of Australia's A-League?

Do the negatives outweigh the positives? It's not as clear-cut as either Scudamore or many fans would have you believe, and it depends to an extent on what you believe is most important for English football: a commercially successful Premier League, a healthy top-to-bottom league system (incidentally, yet another club, AFC Bournemouth, went into administration yesterday), or a successful England national team.

Personally, I think a balance of all three is essential for the long-term future of the game: I would advocate the proposed move if a meaningful proportion of the commercial gains trickle down the footballing pyramid, and if the league was reduced from 20 to 18 clubs to relieve the pressure on the fixture schedule - I'm confident neither of these will ever happen.

Of course, there is still some way to go before these proposals become reality; you can be sure FIFA will have some thoughts on the matter. But these days it is hard for any sport - let alone the cash cow that is football - to ignore the numbers. And when everything is totted up, the lure of the lucre will probably prove too much to resist.

There's certainly a significant weight of history which suggests that will be the case.

Should the Premier League's 'international round' become reality, it will not be the death of football's soul, as many have suggested over the past 24 hours.

Football's soul died a long time ago.

7 February 2008

We deserve everything we get

Ever since the return of English clubs to European competition following the post-Heysel ban, the stereotype of our fans as yobbish, unsophisticated, moronic hooligans has proven difficult to shift. The provocation of rival fans - I'm thinking particularly of those in Italy and Turkey, most specifically Roma - has not helped. Nonetheless, I think it is fair to say that at times we - by which I mean a tiny, tiny minority - have not done much to help ourselves.

Last night's friendly international at Wembley was a case in point.

Yobbish? I don't know exactly how many idiots there were who decided to shout out during the minute's silence in observation of the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash - not a Manchester United tragedy, or even a footballing one; simply a human tragedy. It may have been as few as three or four: even so, that would have been three or four too many. The authorities had threatened to ban anyone who interrupted the silence; sadly, I doubt they were able to enforce that.

Unsophisticated? The booing - again, a minority of the crowd, albeit a significant one - which accompanied a patient England passing move which probed the Swiss defence, from side to side, backwards then forwards again, for not being direct, exciting or 'English' enough. You would think years of watching England teams pumping aimless long balls forward while their opponents run neat passing triangles around them would have educated the screaming hordes who seem to believe that 'up-and-at-'em' remains a viable tactic in the modern game. Apparently not.

Moronic? How about the chant of 'There's only one David Beckham' that rang out when his replacement, the younger, fitter and arguably equally talented David Bentley misplaced a pass? I've said it elsewhere and I'll say it again here: just because a player is on 99 caps does not automatically grant him the right to his 100th; caps should be earned on merit, not handed out like a present at a retirement party. And as for getting at Bentley: yes, I know there is some 'previous' because of the way he ducked out from an under-21 tournament last summer, but the lat time I checked the point of supporters is that they support their team, not tear strips off them at every opportunity. As it was, Bentley has a thick enough skin to ignore the boo boys and ended up having a pretty good game: promising.

Hooligans? Thankfully there was none of that on show last night, although I'm not sure how anyone could get riled up enough to pick a fight with the peaceable Swiss.

Thank heaven for small mercies, I suppose. Even so, it's hard to argue that England (and English) fans don't deserve their bad reputation on the basis of last night's evidence. It leaves me dreading what might happen when they attempt the minute's silence at this weekend's Manchester derby, a situation which will be much more emotionally charged.

6 February 2008


Geoff Bent, 25
Roger Byrne, 28
Eddie Colman, 21
Duncan Edwards, 21
Mark Jones, 24
David Pegg, 22
Tommy Taylor, 26
Liam 'Billy' Whelan, 22

And to the other 15 men who lost their lives in the crash of flight 609 ZU at snow-covered Munich Airport on February 6th 1958: rest in peace.

As a football fan and a human being - notwithstanding the fact I support one of Manchester United's biggest rivals and was born a dozen years after the Munich air crash - I will mourn the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the Busby Babes with the respect that any human tragedy deserves, and I sincerely hope that everyone who attends games this week at which a minute's silence will be observed will do likewise.

Terrace banter and witticisms have their place in football. But not here.

I can stomach much of the foul, sometimes slanderous abuse which is part and parcel of the atmosphere at football grounds (although I choose not to join in with the more distasteful chants). I personally abhor the growing trend to boo during the opponent's national anthem at England games. But I reserve a special place on my blacklist for anyone - and I should acknowledge that we are talking about the smallest of small minorities here - who considers it clever to shout out during a minute's silence. I have been present at perfect you-could-hear-a-pin-drop silences at sporting events a number of times; I have also been unfortunate enough to be part of poorly observed ones. The former is uplifting, life-affirming and unbelievably moving; the latter leaves one thinking that the bad reputation football fans have long been saddled with is not entirely unfair.

Without wanting to sound overly melodramatic (I know, I know: too late), the behaviour of spectators tonight and this weekend will be a window into the soul of contemporary football fans. I hope we like what we see.

5 February 2008


Q: When is a record of 18 wins in 19 games not good enough?
A: When the one you don’t win is the one that really matters.

In a recent blog, I said the following: ‘Don't be surprised if the Giants … produce their own fairy tale ending. Many of the previous 41 Super Bowls have been disappointingly one-sided games - I have a sneaky feeling this one won't be.’

On Sunday night, Super Bowl XLII was neither disappointing nor one-sided, producing one of the greatest upsets ever as the New York Giants – 13-point underdogs with some bookmakers - beat the undefeated New England Patriots 17-14 in a game which was every bit as close as the scoreline suggests. The winning touchdown came on an Eli Manning pass to Plaxico Burress with just 35 ticks left on the clock.

It was a great game; not a high-scoring one, but great nonetheless. Yardage and points truly had to be earned the hard way, and both teams traded spectacular catches and bone-jarring hits in equal measure. And, of course, hanging over the proceedings like a fog, was the Patriots’ drive to become only the second team after the 1972 Miami Dolphins to complete a ‘perfect’ undefeated, untied season.

Several images stick in the memory. The Giants’ defense regularly battering Tom Brady, the New England quarterback, to the tune of five sacks and a dozen more knockdowns. Wes Welker, the Patriots’ tiny wide receiver, darting about like a dragonfly in a field of (literally) Giants, fighting for every possible yard. Eli Manning's miraculous escape from a nailed-on sack on a critical third-and-5; this, the same Manning who has been criticised throughout his career for his tendency to panic under a heavy rush. The resultant soaring, tumbling, overhead catch by David Tyree to set up Burress’s winning score. And, finally, Jay Alford’s crushing sack on Brady on the Patriots’ final desperation drive, a waist-high hit so powerful it seemed to almost slice the quarterback in two.

When all was said and done, the lead had changed hands three times in the fourth quarter, the first time this has ever happened in a Super Bowl. And, against all odds, it was the Giants who rendered the Patriots’ season ultimately imperfect.

In terms of unpredictability, excitement and tension, you can’t ask for more than that.

In the final analysis, the best team in the NFL, the one who set records left, right and centre in the regular season, were only the second-best team in the Super Bowl.

Although Eli Manning was named as MVP (following in brother Peyton’s footsteps), the real stars of the show were the Giants’ defense. For one night, they made Tom Brady, the NFL’s best quarterback, look distinctly ordinary. And, by maintaining constant pressure on Brady, they found a way to stop the supposedly unstoppable New England offense, which had set new NFL benchmarks for total points (nearly 37 per game), touchdown passes (Brady) and touchdown catches (Randy Moss). Uncompromising, physical, smash-mouth defense: this truly was prototypical Giants football.

So the Patriots will return home licking their wounds, having missed out on the chance to achieve the perfect season. Other opportunities are definitely gone forever. Before the game Tom Brady was being talked about as possibly the greatest quarterback of all time, on the brink of matching Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana as the only quarterbacks to go 4-0 in Super Bowls. Now that’s not to say he won’t return and record his fourth victory, but his record will be forever imperfect, never four-and-oh.

As for the Giants, they are virtually unrecognisable from the team who splashed their way to an unconvincing 13-10 over the Miami Dolphins – the NFL’s worst team in 2007 - at a soggy, muddy Wembley in October. And it’s equally hard to believe that the Eli Manning who marshalled his team so effectively in the playoffs is the same quarterback who threw 20 regular season interceptions (joint worst in the NFL) and ranked a lowly 25th in passer rating. Maybe, just maybe, we will now see the Eli Manning we all expected when he was selected with the first overall pick of the 2004 draft.

Of course, Super Bowl success does not automatically elevate a quarterback to the status of greatness – Baltimore’s Trent Dilfer springs readily to mind here – but Eli Manning has shown throughout the playoffs, not just on Sunday, that, at long last, he has the potential to be more than merely good. Which Manning shows up at the start of next season – Regular Season Eli or Super Bowl Eli – will go a long way to determining the Giants’ chances of defending their title.

As 70,000-odd people trudged away from Wembley last October, nobody would have suspected that we had just watched the Super Bowl champions-elect. So roll on the New Orleans Saints versus the San Diego Chargers on October 26th. Make a date: maybe Wembley might just play host to the eventual Super Bowl champions for the second year running. Now wouldn’t that be something?