Thursday, February 14, 2008

Pro Bowl - the Velvet Bear

The NFL has many problems. Fortunately, we only have the space and time to deal with one of them, because otherwise I'd be ranting on here until I was older and greyer than Joe Gibbs. For this week, we'll concentrate upon 'recognition'.

The NFL is big on recognition. The existence of a player is only validated if he has some sort of statistic attached to him, or some sort of special moment in NFL history. For example, no-one would remember Scott Norwood, had he not shanked the field goal attempt which would've won a Superbowl for the Buffalo Bills, but he did and as a result Jim Kelly has the unenviable statistic of being the only quarterback to be on the losing side in four Superbowls. Similarly, it is unlikely that David Tyree's career will be remembered for anything other than The Helmet Catch in this year's match.

The problem with this approach is that there are many, many players who will go through their career without breaking any significant records or doing something really dumb. How do you mark their careers? This being America, they've come up with two ways - the Pro Bowl and the Hall of Fame.

In this, the NFL is no different to a lot of other sports. Many of them have All-Star games (which is what the Pro Bowl amounts to) and Halls of Fame. The difference is that American Football is played exclusively in America. Even the Canadian version plays to slightly different rules. So, in every other sport, you have the chance of representing your country against another country. In American Football, like in Aussie Rules, you don't get that chance.

All of which means that, to the fan of this game, the Pro Bowl and the Hall of Fame take on a disproportionately large meaning. Getting to the Pro Bowl is like getting an international cap. Which makes it a shame that, every year, the game is as bad as watching an England friendly. Painfully, painfully dire. You'd see more tackling if you installed Dale Winton and Julian Clary as linebackers.

You want to know how bad it is? The game was screened by Fox because, in a very clever deal, if you want to screen the Superbowl, you have to take the Pro Bowl as well. They couldn't be bothered to anything more than their third string commentary team. This, for a game which is screened, for some inexplicable reason, on prime time television.

In truth, there was one decent, hard, tackle in the game. I know this because I only saw the highlights (which marks me out as a positive zealot, as most columnists won't admit to watching it at all) and the tackle was practically 10% of it. That tackle was made by Asante Samuel of the Patriots, representing the AFC. That's the same Asante Samuel who became a free agent last Friday (i.e. available for transfer) and who had one of the worst Superbowls in living memory. No ulterior motive there, then.

Another thing which makes the Pro Bowl a farce is that the coaches have only four days to work with their teams, because they don't get together until after the Superbowl. And the teams themselves are coached by the coaching teams which lost the Championship games in January, so in this case the Patriots and the Chargers. No coaching team, faced with a squad of players who normally represent other sides, is going to give away anything from their own playbook. So each side ends up running the basic plays every team uses, with the odd gadget (trick) play thrown in to entertain the crowd. So, on Sunday, we had a fake punt, two 15 yard penalties for fielding illegal defenses, an NFC touchdown largely due to the AFC only having ten men on the pitch and Devin Hester, the recordbreaking kick returner, opting to throw a pass instead of running a kick back.

The thing which really annoys me about the Pro Bowl, though, is that the players in it are selected with almost half the season still to play. This meant that, among other things, no fewer than 6 of the 22 starting NFC players came from the Minnesota Vikings, despite the fact that, come the end of the season, the Vikes faded faster than a cheap pair of denims in the Hawaii sun. At the same time, there was no place for Eli Manning, Plaxico Burress, David Tyree or most of the rest of the Giants' heroes.

In short, never has a game with 72 points in it (the NFC won 42-30, in case you care) produced such widespread indifference.

The Hall of Fame, however, is almost too far the other way. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, each year at least 15 players are chosen by a variety of means to go forward for election to the Hall. To these 15 are added one, two or three nominations by a 'Seniors Committee', which exists to put forward those long retired players who might otherwise be forgotten. I don't know of any time when that figure hasn't been two. Normally, therefore, there are 17 names up for consideration by an elite group of sportswriters, 44 of them this year.

First of all, there is a ballot to whittle the 15 non-Seniors nominees down to 10. Then the Seniors nominees are added and someone makes a presentation in support of each. Another secret ballot reduces the numbers further to 7, which is the maximum number of inductees each year, for some insane reason. There is then a show of hands for each player, with only those who get 80% of the votes elected.

This year, the vote was a farce. How the selectors arrived at their decisions is incomprehensible to anyone who does not appreciate the monumental ego of some sports journalists. This leads to decisions which sometimes beggar belief. This year, for example, they failed to elect Cris Carter, Bob Kuechenberg and Paul Tagliabue, each one an astonishingly bad decision.

Carter was up for election for the first time. Statistically, only about a sixth of first time nominees get in anyway. But Carter was something special, a receiver of sublime skill and electric speed, who set numerous records during his playing career. Instead, they selected Art Monk, a very good receiver on his 9th attempt to be elected, a fine player in his own right but as close to Carter in terms of talent and ability as Jeffrey Archer is to Geoffrey Chaucer. The reasoning? Basically, the electors had got tired of discussing Monk every year and decided to elect him to put an end to the debate.

‘Kooch’ was one of the offensive linemen in the Dolphins team which went unbeaten through the 1972 season. He’s been trying to get in for about 18 years now. Applying the same logic which applied to Art Monk, he should’ve been in the Hall in the last century, let alone last year. But he’s not in and he may never get in, because two of his fellow Dolphin linemen are in already and the perception is that, whilst he might be good enough, they don’t want another one of that team in the Hall. Even allowing for the fact that the ’72 Dolphins routinely annoy as many people as they please, with their famous champagne popping celebration when the last unbeaten side in a season is defeated, this is still crazy. If someone is good enough to be a Hall of Famer, they are good enough to be a Hall of Famer. End of story.

It is actually the last of these which really grates with me. Paul Talgliabue wasn’t a player, he was the commissioner of the NFL before Roger Goodell. During that time he expanded the number of teams and brought more money into the game than ever before. He may have been lax on one or two things, and maybe the owners did wring more money out of the TV companies than he thought was possible, but history shows that he was a force for good in the game. There have only been three commissioners in the history of the NFL. Goodell won’t be eligible to enter the Hall until he retires, but Tagliabue’s predecessor, Pete Rozelle is in there despite having achieved no more than Tagliabue did in his time. Having one in and not the other is like electing Bill Shankly but not Matt Busby to a football hall of fame. Yet Tagliabue may never make it (Rozelle took 8 years, but part of that was because he managed to annoy players, fans and journalists alike with his conduct during his final years in charge). Why? Because he didn’t like journalists, didn’t like giving interviews or passing on information. So most journalists don’t like him. Remember who the Hall of Fame electors are? There’s your problem. “Forget how much good the guy did for the game, I could never get an interview from him, so he’s not going in”.

I could write more on this - there’s a whole story on the punter Ray Guy which needs to be told one day - but then I’d never get around to the team-by-team review of the season. One bit of sad news to end with is that the Vikings’ defensive end Kenechi Udeze has just been diagnosed as suffering form leukaemia. In the week where the three Washington Redskins’ players in the Pro Bowl all wore the number 21 in honour of their late colleague Sean Taylor, it is hard to hear of another young talent whose life is in danger.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Ninety-Nine quid well spent! - PremCorrespondent

I've just been on Ebay and spent the most gratifying £99 I've blown since that night in 1972 when I bumped into half the [Ed. Never gonna happen!] team on their way into Miss Lightlegs' Parlour on Colchester's infamous Redman Street.

That's right! I've just bought my very own special edition commemorative Munich Disaster scarf memorabilia pack. Seeing it listed on there took me way back to that morning Edwards flicked up a ball on the training ground - glanced me a look - and blasted it at me to make me drop my pie. The Bastard!

The scummy prawn sandwich muncher with no sense of heritage who was selling it now has to give me his address for the cheque. And Dave the Knife has been itching to pay me back for pointing him towards Colchester for a while.

Whether Dave does the business or not, at least the scum selling their scarves watched an abysmal defeat to a side that last week were creamed easily by champions-elect Arsenal. And to think, most of the players on the pitch weren't even conceived when City last did the league double over United.

Sticking with conception, wives across the country were given an early Valentine present when millions of men turned off the Chelsea Liverpool bore draw half way through and asked instead if there was anything needed doing round the house.

And with the competition holding the door open for them, Arsenal destroyed a very poor Blackburn side 2-0 to take a firm grip of the shiny silver pot toped by a small golden crown. Granted 2-0 hardly sounds like a thrashing. But this one was and should have better embarrassed Rovers than their defeat to the same opponents' second string in the League Cup a few weeks back.

That poor Chelsea draw probably gave a boost to the other corner of North London too. Three goals in the last half hour saw Spurs claim three away points that even the remaining Busby Babes could still take if they needed them.

That's right. The only team outside the big three that might win something this season played Derby in a meaningless warm up ahead of two Uefa Cup games and a League Cup final. Under Ramos Spurs are better than Liverpool, and with Chelsea looking tired that three to one bet I took might yet pay off.

Of course another team better than Liverpool under their less new manager is Aston Villa.

Now I'll admit that I spat brandy across the pub when Kevin's plucky Magpies took an early lead - away from home – and through Michael Owen of all people. But there was never any doubt a defence that has worsened since sacking Titus Bramble would be overwhelmed.

So when Carew finished off his hat trick no one could deny the big man his accolade as Martin O'Neil's new Emile Heskey. No one except Joey Barton perhaps, who seemingly punched Shaun Maloney whilst out on bail awaiting trial for another violent assault.

Sticking with sides better than Liverpool, and granted this theme could last a while these days, Everton managed to go one better than their lower profile neighbours this week.

That's right. While Liverpool played out bore draw, Everton played an even more yawn inducing 1-0 win against Reading, whose form of late must offer the Toon Army some hope that Newcastle will remain in top flight for next season.

Of course hope is hard to foster at St James’ Park when sides like West Ham have already put their season into cruise control.

Like Spurs, Birmingham City have improved under their new manager. They have become better organised, more resilient, and a little sneaky when dealing with the ref. So when the Hammers didn’t finish the job with a follow up to their excellent opener, it was only a matter of time before a Lucas Neil special was rightly punished with a penalty to give the likely relegation survivors a valuable point.

Adding to the Newcastle gloom, Middlesbrough became the highest placed North East team as a 1-0 win against an increasingly adrift Fulham took them up to 12th. And Sunderland won a fourth consecutive home game putting them 14th, and just two points off the plummeting black and white stone, though they were largely outplayed by Wigan.

Oh, and on top of all that, Portsmouth scored a ludicrously offside goal to take an ill-deserved three points from the Reebok in a game that saw England Number One David James put in a man of the match performance.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Don't touch the merchandise - AndAnotherThing

If you have ever watched a reserve game, you may be forgiven for wondering what the difference is to a first team game. There are a couple of first-teamers recovering from injury in the stiffs, a couple of players who have provoked the big chap in the long coat's ire, and a few kids on their way up.

A strange atmosphere of pointlessness hangs over the whole thing. For the bigger players in particular there really isn't much to play for, except perhaps not being seen too visibly sulking. That remains the first choice centre-forward's job after all. Otherwise it's the same as a normal game. You still leap up involuntarily if your team scores, and you can still negotiate the purchase of a Balti Pie and some luke-warm German urine in a plastic glass at half time.

Reserve football is a top day out. But, in practice at least, your club is really no more than this. It is no more than four or five teams playing at different levels in the same colour shirts, all backed up with a couple of history books. It is only the support that really makes the otherwise rather empty framework of a football club come to life, and with that it becomes… pass the sickbag… a "brand". Support is the essence of a club.

How did the brand of your club come into existence? Was it in 1992 when an assortment of good spin fairies and marketing witches invented the Premiership product? Amazingly no. Whatever Scudamore and his evil minions might like to pretend, the Premiership and the assorted club chairmen over the years have "just" developed and profited from their brands. These were instead created over the course of a hundred years or so by the exploits of players, managers, and above all the unfailing support of their core support.

Fans' relationships with their club are profound and tribal, informed by location, family history and psychology, love, dreams, irrationality, nerdiness, and quite probably psychosis. Over the last 15 years, these poor saps have been squeezed for every last penny, every cubic millimetre of their seemingly ridiculous and outdated loyalty has been market-researched and exploited to within an inch of its sorry life.

They have seen ticket prices rise to Royal Opera House levels as attendances at some grounds slumped. They buy a new shirt for their kids every year now, instead of every two years as was the tradition. And they can only watch most live games on pay TV at home or in pubs.

Indeed don't think Match of the Day will stay free forever. Here in France the recent bidding for TV rights has seen the national "free" channels lose out to Canal Plus (pay) and Orange (mobile phones) with the result that anyone who doesn't subscribe will see just one and half minutes per weekend of football on the news. All of this, we have learned to live with and, masochistically, even find ways of quite enjoying. We have been sold back at a phenomenal price what was actually ours for almost nothing. We're loving it.

The soaring TV revenues have lead to even quite average footballers earning in a week what a doctor might in a year. Understandably the behaviour has become correspondingly ludicrous. Rich comedy is afforded by the antics of Cashley Cole or Jermain Defoe but every now and again your laughter inevitably turns sour and bilious.

There was the recent rape allegation at Manchester United's Christmas party where top comedian Rio Ferdinand wheeled in a couple of busloads of would be WAGs while the players left their poor old Eileens at home. We see John Terry, our national captain, scream at some unfortunate referee week after week. We see the amazing mathematical hazard that lets the top four play each other on the same day twice a season. We see the Tevez fiasco. We see a decision not to allow Spurs and West Ham to cancel an illness stricken game made and announced on the Highbury touchline. And worst of all we see England's national team play.

We see, chew over, swallow, and digest all of this, washed down with a vintage bottle of Britain's saving grace, our supposed ability to laugh at ourselves and "get on with it". Yet if we ignored a weekend's action and took to sheepdog trials instead, the "product" would have little more value than the reserve games mentioned above. Of course we'd have to import a few aircraft carriers filled with sheepdogs from the Falkland Isles, but you take my point.

This brings us to the Premier League's recent cock-eyed proposal to play a 39th game in far-flung world cities. This must serve as the final straw. We have swallowed all of the above because of our deep and passionate ties with the clubs we love. If you'll pardon my French, the piss has not just been taken, it has been ripped out, processed, put in dinky bottles with a picture of the club mascot on the front, and sold back to us with a prawn sandwich.

An outrageous amount of metaphorical laughing and pointing at fans' gullibility has no doubt quite rightly been done in the game's boardrooms. This time however a line has been crossed. It is quite possible with this scheme that Spurs-Arsenal will be played in Miami and a Manchester United-Manchester City will take place in Beijing. And this will apparently provide "travel opportunities".

If you need help following why that is plain WRONG then I will draw you a proverbial diagram. For the first time in 120 years, the perfectly even field that League teams compete upon will be shat on from on high. Your club can draw Chelsea three times while your neighbours get three against Watford. There is absolutely no further argument required to explain why this is WRONG and cannot work.

I must say now that I would actually quite look forward to seeing Sir Alex or Wenger's reaction to such a fixture-based injustice. But, oh no, silly me, even that subtle and rare delight will be denied us because they will be SEEDED! They won't have to play another "top four" team three times., and thus when the league campaign starts, all teams will no longer be deemed equal under the rules of the game.

And why are we doing this? Because apparently "90%" of the potential audience can't get to see a game. Well this may come as a surprise to Scuddy, but there is also a substantial audience in Britain who can't get to see a game because of ticket prices, a lack of sufficient seats, or ludicrous kick-off times that don't coincide with transport schedules.

Strangely the concern for these people has drawn no response. Ticket prices have not fallen and Sky's kick off times still don't correspond to railway timetables. But, hey, no doubt those changes are in the pipeline.

They want to use the games abroad as a "development tool" in Africa and Asia. Now I couldn't say that with a straight face if I was tricky Dicky Scudamore himself. I would have to be protected by a black curtain with a hole for my eyes and mouth so people couldn't see me cringe. But that's what they say so it must be true. Likewise no corporate ticket sales will be allowed, and this is in no way just an effort to make yet more money for people who by any reasonable standards have too fucking much already.

Now let's finish with some unjustified sexual metaphors. Perhaps that will help.

This scheme is rampant, it is a right old goer - in three days it has threatened to perform the most unspeakably saucy acts on the sorry arses of the fans' understandable yet foolhardy belief that they might have a chance of getting a ticket for a home game.

It has swaggered into the living-room in a pair of knee-high leather boots and proclaimed its desire to shaft the whole League fixture system up its battered old ring. It has pranced around in edible lingerie taunting inhabitants of Third World countries with the promise of a sizzling Wigan-Reading in their boudoir.

If the pole dancing stripper that is the English game is being lunged at by her despicable and power drunken audience made up of Sky and clammy chairmen, then us fans must be the bouncers. We grew wary and failed as they lingered too long when stuffing bills in her garter. We let the lewd degrading suggestions slide because they were drunk on power. But now the perverts have climbed onto the podium by men unfastening their belts and thus breaking the one rule that matters most.


So this has to stop here. Not because you couldn't make an argument for the scheme on its own. But because it must be viewed in the context of 15 years of total disregard and disrespect for the people who put these bastards where they are and without whom the EPL would still be the old Football Combination, albeit with knobs on.

So make your protests heard. enough is enough.

Down Shep !

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