Saturday, November 07, 2009

Some changes are just too hard to swallow

Source: Irish Times

The Irish Times - Saturday, November 7, 2009

SOCCER ANGLES: Some supporters have been so disillusioned with the direction their clubs have taken, they have walked away and formed their own, writes MICHAEL WALKER

THERE ARE weeks when you simply feel like walking away. This is one of them. This has been one of those weeks when you feel old, out of time and beyond comeback. You feel that the accumulation of dissatisfaction at the way the game has gone, and at who is leading it wherever, means that you will never be able to recover the enthusiasm that brought you grinning with anticipation to the grounds in the first place.

There are small landmarks along the way that you notice individually and collectively. You shake your head but you move on because that is what you do.

Sponsorship on shirts – that was a big moment (just how clean and attractive did Liverpool’s sponsor-less jerseys look in Lyon on Wednesday night?). And for all of us there comes a point where you start asking yourself about the whole thing, the game as a whole.

Does it matter to you in its morphed form the way it used to? Why is it frequently so irritating? Why do businessmen keep wanting to change it to cover up mistakes they have made? It shouldn’t be like this. We should be revelling in the intrigue of the most interesting Premier League season, arguably, since its inception 17 years ago. Manchester City and Liverpool are almost worthy of daily commentaries on their own – and often receive them.

There is a puzzling feel to Manchester United’s form, while Arsenal’s upsurge will be measured afresh when they host Chelsea at Ashburton Grove at the end of the month.

Ashburton Grove. This is one of the streets that circles Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. For a short time, prior to the selling of ‘naming rights’, that is how Arsenal’s new home was known – Ashburton Grove.

For those inclined not to refer to limited companies when they discuss goings on at grounds, Ashburton Grove fulfilled/fulfils a purpose. Keeps you connected.

But already you sense that year by year, as Emirates embeds itself in the collective consciousness, references to Ashburton Grove will dwindle.

Emirates, an airline, have signed a 15-year deal with Arsenal to sponsor the stadium. Fifteen years is a long time and in the continual loop of 24-hour football coverage it means that the word Emirates must be mentioned nationally dozens of times a day, maybe hundreds of times on matchdays.

Does this make you want to get to Heathrow pronto? I don’t know, but it does means that the term Emirates will be linked, in fact entwined, with Arsenal to all of those born this century.

It will then be up to others to explain Highbury, marble and Herbert Chapman.

When we were young we learned this by osmosis. Presumably this is the same process the branding people are relying upon when they persuade businesses to attach themselves to sport. To some of us Formula One is a cavalcade of advertising yet to many fans of that particular enterprise there seems to be no pause whatsoever sparked by the names of Red Bull, Renault and the like. Its part of their scene, part of their culture.

There has never been the same prominence in football, but that is changing and not only at St James’ Park stadium. (Wow).

Giovanni Trapattoni’s former club were Red Bull Salzburg and once we got over the initial chuckle about that, references to Red Bull Salzburg became commonplace.

What was mentioned less was the club called Austria Salzburg. It was founded in 1933 and formed the basis of what is now Red Bull Salzburg. Red Bull changed the club’s colours to match theirs and the new management reportedly decreed: “This is a new club with no history.” Alienated Austria Salzburg supporters said no thanks to this and, as with FC United of Manchester, waltzed off with determination and pride to form their own new club – called, once again, Austria Salzburg. Starting in the seventh tier of Austrian football, they are now in tier four.

Just as fans of AFC Wimbledon – and FC United – have proved, it can be done. These people had such a strong feeling that the game they loved was wrong, so they walked away. This is intense emotion and at its beginning must entail a thrilling release. It’s sustaining it that must be problematic.

Because the mainstream goes on and you have bought your ticket out of it. And then you look over your shoulder and find that not only is it still going on, it’s bloody interesting too.

But look closer and the problems surface. Bolton Wanderers left Burnden Park for the Reebok Stadium 12 years ago. Last season the average home gate was 22,500, Bolton finished 13th bringing this season a ninth consecutive year in the Premier League. But on Thursday they released their latest financial figures showing they are £60 million in debt.

Why? Essentially because Bolton pay their players too well. This means debt which in turn has led chairman Phil Gartside to seek extra revenue. He is proposing that Rangers and Celtic be allowed into a reconfigured Premier League 2 so that clubs fighting for survival in the existing Premier League have a bigger safety net.

But here’s a question: why not pay your players less? If they don’t accept that, get others. If they’re worse, then accept relegation. Be self-sufficient. Don’t change the league to suit you.

But no. Instead of self-sufficiency, it’s all about how matters as important as the name of Stamford Bridge can be altered as the economic scramble goes on. And who benefits, and for what?

Drogba a good reason to watch

DIDIER DROGBA is 6 to 1 to be first scorer in the Chelsea-Manchester United match tomorrow. That’s the same Drogba who has scored in eight of his last nine Chelsea appearances and who struck another two goals at Atletico Madrid this week.

If there were a vote now for Player of the Season, Drogba would be a contender along with Vermaelen at Arsenal and Bellamy at Manchester City. Drogba’s equaliser at Stoke was as beautiful as it was brutal.

We have known the man from the Ivory Coast for over five years since his £24 million transfer from Marseilles in those early Jose Mourinho days. On many occasions he has been correctly criticised for his willingness to go to ground and his emotional volatility – hence his Uefa ban this season.

But as was the case with Robert Pires when he was at Arsenal, the longer he stayed, the more we appreciated what he brought. It is the same with Drogba: he is some player, some leader and some scorer. A reason to watch.