Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Managing the game away – Margin

As the football season finally creeps to its infuriatingly late conclusion, there is growing support for a return to a fairer league structure and wider distribution of television and sponsorship money. Sadly though, this comes at a ludicrous price.

With May now almost over the people who run football can soon cast off the irritating distraction of fans and football so as to discuss what really matters. Money! As such this is a dangerous time for fans. The 39th Game was shelved not binned last year, but for now we face another threat.

New proposals would see the Premier League extended to two divisions. This would create something akin to the historic English league that presently languishes in the third and fourth tier of our national game. Alone it is a positive suggestion and might even set a trend that returns us to the simple unified four division league structure of days gone by.

However, while there is even political pressure from Parliament for better distribution of wealth within the game, this move is attached to an awful idea that should be blocked. You see, for some god-awful reason that has been adequately explained to absolutely no one, the change would include the loss of over 100 matches per season for the affected clubs.

This is not a joke. This is not a flippant remark meant to raise a smirk about the silly ideas that men with money come out with. This is a serious proposal. You see, the Premier League would be expanded to include 36 teams across two divisions.

That would mean each top flight team loses four matches, while a whopping twelve games are taken from each second tier side.

This is clearly an awful idea. Football is very very popular. Fans like watching their team play football matches. And most of the money that clubs make comes directly or indirectly from playing football.

Yet despite all that, most of the clubs concerned may approve of the move.

Among the 36 clubs involved there are sixteen who arrive at the table as non-Premier League teams. For them any chance to climb aboard the greatest money-spinning gravy train in world sport would be embraced at almost any price.

Then there are thirteen of the top-flight twenty who have at some stage experienced life outside of the Premier League. They understandably fear that fate returning one day. As such most, if not all, would welcome the safety net of a second tier of Premier League cash. Indeed their anxieties will be all the more acute right now after seeing recent top flight regulars Charlton and Southampton financially imperilled and plunging into the third tier this season.

And so to the permanent members of the Premier League.

The present top eight, excluding Fulham in seventh, make up the permanent members of the Premier League. And they don’t see relegation as a serious concern. Indeed this season has shown why. Spurs suffered the worst ever start to a Premier League season. They were still bottom three weeks into the January transfer window. Yet few expected they would go down. They splashed the cash, bought in a good manager, and they may yet qualify for Europe.

These teams have no interest in the second tier of English football unless a gem of a youngster turns up there. Indeed they somewhat resent sharing TV and sponsorship money with the rest of the current Premier League. Only Newcastle United among the rest can compete with them for interest among television audiences. Adding a lot more little watched sides will not drive up commercial contracts very far. But it will mean spreading the cash more thinly.

Of course we should not ignore the years of whining from Fergusson, Wenger and numerous less lasting managers about there being too much football in England. They have complained long and hard that what football needs is less football. Apparently players tire and clubs can’t compete in Europe while playing in three domestic competitions.

Fortunately that argument is defunct.

The Premier League once had 22 teams, not 20. FA Cup ties could run to countless replays rather than jump to penalties after 120 minutes. The league Cup had rounds with two legs and even required teams playing in Europe to start in round two rather than round three. Football has been more than adequately cut now and everyone knows it, especially after Manchester United’s expansive and successful year.

Instead those top clubs will note that they sell out of high priced tickets regularly, and that the loss of two home games would cost millions in lost revenue.

So it seems that those seven clubs, which form something of a ruling minority within the game, should block proposals for all the wrong reasons. And that is a good thing. Not because fans don’t want a fairer league format, but because we love football and don’t deserve to have yet more of it taken away from us.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Test cricket can be boring, and England defeats depressing, but I’m always glad it exists - Wooley

The size of the crowds has been far more worthy of mention than the cricket on display at the Riverside this week. A mediocre England side faced a dispirited West Indies on a wicket sapped of any life, as the Durham board tried to guarantee five days of advertising revenue, and in the process ensured that whatever happened in between those ad breaks resembled cricket in only the loosest possible sense.

I won't test your patience by explaining at length why the ECB needs to ensure pitches conspire to provide some element of a contest, or why £30-£60 is too much to charge someone to sit in the open air and have the skin on their face eroded by fearsome gales. If the ECB loses money on this game, they only have themselves to blame - contempt for one‘s audience has rarely scaled to these heights since Lou Reed made his fans pay for ‘Metal Machine Music‘.

Anyone who attended the Riverside on Friday, only to sit through hours and hours of lashing rainfall (at least those of us watching in our local pub got to enjoy ‘highlights’ of an equally dull 2007 version of this fixture on Sky Sports) can console themselves with one thought - at least they weren’t at Lords. I say this having turned up for the season opener at the self-styled cradle of cricket a month or so ago, fully aware that sitting and watching the rain fall was a distinct possibility, and was told that no refunds would be offered for lost play. The MCC believe, even when you watch no cricket at all, that the mere use of their plastic seats for an afternoon merits a £15 charge.

And yet I love test cricket. Its sad to think that through mismanagement, arrogance and over-indulgence, the five-day game may genuinely be under-threat. Was it really only five years ago that England won seven consecutive home tests in front of packed houses? Was it only ten years ago when sell out crowds were a given, even to watch England (about to be ranked the worst team in the world) lose to New Zealand (the team relieved of that dubious honour)?

When the music paper Melody Maker closed earlier in the decade, John Peel observed that it was something he felt an enlightened Government should preserve, if only for the good it had done in the past. I feel the same about test matches.

It has actually been a while since I last watched test match cricket in the flesh. I have always meant to take this activity up again, but for various reasons not unrelated to the size of my student debt, I haven’t cheered England on in person since 2001. In fact by splitting the cost of a ‘member and friend’ two-person season ticket for the St Lawrence Ground, I have spent less to watch the entire 2009 season of country cricket than some spent watching Alastair Cook nudge his way to three figures on Thursday.

Frankly, Andrew Strauss might be quite glad of that as in the past I’ve hardly been a good luck charm. Although England had already lost the 2001 Ashes by the time I decided to go to the Oval test, some pride had been rescued as Mark Butcher’s impish 173 not out inspired a fourth-innings run chase at Headingley . And besides, this was the venue where Phil Tufnell had shuffled in to take eleven Australian wickets four years earlier.

This time, alas, he was playing in what was to be his final test and was tonked for 174 runs out of an Australian total of over 600. On the final day, however, I was still confident that England (who had made over 400 themselves on first innings) would bat out for the draw. Ramprakash was in form having scored a hundred in the first innings, and he would surely see us through. He didn’t, of course. As Aristotle once wrote, when Ramprakash be top scorer, defeat shall surely follow. McGrath and Warne saw to it that the wise old owl wasn’t wrong, and we were in the car and on the way home by mid-afternoon.

Why was I so optimistic? Madness is the only possible answer. After all, two years earlier, in 1999, I turned up to the Oval expecting England to salvage their reputations and chase down a challenging (but not that challenging) total on the final day of the summer’s last test. Instead, as soon as Atherton and Thorpe were out, England meekly rolled over.

Some of you will remember this game as the one which ended with a baying mob of angry England fans booing Nasser Hussain as he was interviewed by Channel 4 on the balcony. I’d like to say that I was part of that mob (bit of history and all that), but the truth is that we were so let down that we’d already packed the thermos and sandwich-cooler into the car boot and were negotiating the Kennington traffic.

And yet, on both occasions I enjoyed the test match experience. Mexican waves were embraced, overpriced burgers were consumed and fawning, uncritical programme notes were read. There was even good natured banter with opposition fans (something you’re not likely to enjoy watching England at Wembley or Twickenham), and an Australian couple even passed round a selection of cheeses to console our spirits.

Of course, despite the prospect of pass-the-cheeseboard, the rowdy test match crowd is not a place for those of a more delicate disposition. A couple in front of me sipped Champagne throughout the day’s play, placated their very, very bored offspring and, after lunch, announced to the friends they’d bought a Surrey membership simply so that ‘we can sit in the Pavilion when we come to the Test next year’. I suppose, for some people, even a cheeseboard does not console one from having to sit near a fat man sunbathing with his top off.

A test match ground is also not the place to be if you want to watch the cricket. The best place for that, obviously, is at home, where you see the day’s play in intricate detail on television. So why do we come? Sometimes, its impossible to say. Yet, if someone now offered me the chance to attend a test this summer, I would probably go . Although, having said that, in my ticket-less state, I’m glad that the £60 I don’t really have, I still don’t have, rather than having even less than that.

You may have noticed that I’ve yet to mention the obvious elephant in the room - Twenty 20 and, specifically, the Indian Premier League. Surely, these don’t need to be a threat to test cricket. The presumption that cricket fans are going to choose to watch the Indian domestic league ahead of their own teams is not grounded in fact. Given that there has been room for six home tests and ten one-day internationals each summer since 1998, there is room for both tests and shorter games now.

India loves cricket, probably more even than England loves football, and has been crying out for a genuinely competitive domestic format, which they now finally have (although hosting the event in South Africa every time they hold a general election is surely unsustainable). The Indian board want to earn as much as they can, and clearly have an eye on football Premier League television revenues. The players, too, are eager to earn as much as they can, and clearly have their eye on Premier League salaries.

But will the IPL organisers be stupid enough to pay future Kevin Pietersens so much before they know for certain they will help their teams win? I doubt it. Chris Gayle may wish he was still in South Africa, but I’m sure Owais Shah (whose stint as a non-player on the IPL bench cost him his England place) hopes he will never have to go back.

I haven’t been watching the IPL, for two reasons. First, its on Setanta, which I don’t have . And second, it’s the Indian league - I’m from Kent. To enjoy sport, I need to care who wins. I want to have my mood lifted when my team wins and to be able to act like a spoilt primary school pupil when it doesn’t (that’s part of the fun). I’m sure the IPL is high quality, and I’m sure that the players are taking it seriously, but (much as was the case when I watched Real Madrid v Barcelona or Inter v AC Milan), the obvious talent on display didn’t mean that the results of the games actually mattered to me. But, I’m glad for the Indian fans, who will care, and deserve a reward like the IPL for decades of rampant enthusiasm.

Back in England I’m hoping (just like like Premier League season ticket holders pray that Scudamore doesn’t move the key fixture deciding their season to Bahrain) that clear heads prevail within the ECB. Cricket fans want test cricket to survive, cricket boards want test cricket to survive, cricket journalists want test cricket to survive and (give or take the odd big-hitting all-rounder) players want test cricket to survive.

To finish, I’ll quote Gideon Haigh (just as I did in my last article, but then he remains the finest of all writers on the game, and he has a new book out, which you should buy) - “the same boneheads who insist that they must ‘give the people what they want’ are seldom if ever around when the people actually want something”.

We all want test cricket to survive. If it doesn’t, Giles Clark and Latit Modi will have a lot to answer for.

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