Monthly Archives: April 2017

Can English football benefit from a Draft?

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This week I watched the NFL draft for the first time, and despite being slightly wary of whether it would be an entertaining and enjoyable experience, I absolutely loved it. The question in mind throughout was “could this be introduced in to English football to make it more open and competitive?”

 For those people not familiar with the NFL Draft, in a nutshell, the team which finished with the worst record the previous season gets the first NFL Draft pick, working down to the team who won the Superbowl picking last. There are 7 rounds to the draft, each following the same order, resulting in 253 players being ‘drafted’. The players available for the draft are those eligible from college football – that meaning: those who have been out of High School for 3 years or more; those who submit as an underclassman whom the NFL then grade, giving the players the chance to go in to the draft or continue at school; those who have graduated from College within 1 year; if you didn’t go to college you can apply once four seasons have passed since you or classmates graduated High School. The usual route in to the draft is to be play College Football, be scouted, and attend the NFL Combine and school Pro-Days. All seems pretty straight forward – the worst team from the previous season gets to pick the best player out of the system to give them the chance to improve, and ultimately to keep the NFL competitive; that is where the phrase “Any Given Sunday” comes from; in the NFL, any team can beat any other team on any given Sunday. It is rare that the worse team one season, is the worse team the following season. Similarly, the Superbowl is not often won by the same team in consecutive years.

Straightforward, right? Wrong. To improve their prospects, NFL teams will trade for better picks. For instance, if you like the look of a player in the draft and your team has a need for that position, but their pick is further down the list, they can trade with a team higher up the list to get a better chance of acquiring that player – but this usually costs them; not in financial terms but in terms of additional picks. In this way, a team may trade their first pick for multiple picks in later rounds or even the following years draft. For example, the LA Rams traded their first round pick in the 2017 draft in addition to other picks, for the Tennessee Titans overall first pick in the draft in 2016 to enable them to sign Jared Goff (a strange decision given that Goff hardly featured in a poor first season for the Rams in their maiden year in LA). In this years draft, the Chicago Bears who were due to pick third overall, traded up one place with the San Francisco 49ers and took Quarterback Mitch Trubisky, costing them their 3rd, 67th and 111th pick in this years draft, and a 3rd round pick in next years draft. A lot to give up to pick one slot earlier, for a quarterback who isn’t highly rated by everybody and who the San Francisco 49ers probably wouldn’t have picked. So why do it? The risk in the draft is that if you don’t pick up the phone and make the deal with the 49ers, someone else might, and they might take that pick that you wanted.

The actual NFL Draft programme itself may seem boring on paper: you watch 32 teams each make the equivalent of 7 picks over 3 nights. In round 1 once the draft starts, each team has 10 minutes to make their pick and notify the NFL; once they have submitted their pick, the next team is on the clock. As the draft goes in to the later rounds, the amount of time teams have to make their pick reduces (7 minutes for round 2 and so on). The Cleveland Browns who had the overall first pick, you would think, wouldn’t need all 10 minutes to make their pick as they have had months to review the options and make their decisions, but they hang on in case the phone rings and there is a trade on offer too good to turn down. As was the case this year, they took Myles Garrett as predicted, with all the action happening for the 2nd pick. From an entertainment perspective, the time actually flew in the open rounds as you get ‘experts’ take on who each team will pick, and then who has been picked, with trades happening all the time. In the later rounds, for myself, I wasn’t too familiar with the players on offer so the excitement waned a little.

From a football perspective, the whole Draft event is very much like Transfer Deadline Day on speed. Jim White would no doubt lap up the job of NFL Commissioner presenting each pick to the fans.

On a serious note though, is there scope for something like the draft in English football? Every year we are told that it is harder and harder to break in to the top 6 of the Premier League, and that the gap between the divisions is getting greater and greater, but nothing is being done to stop this and make the divisions more competitive. Whilst at the same time, every club bemoans the way the transfer windows work which result in the over inflation of prices and teams paying over the odds for players on the last day – think Moussa Sissokho. So could a Draft-like system help?

The first stumbling block is the nature of the Draft in that it is College footballers who are drafted. In England we don’t follow a system whereby the best young players are picked from schools or university’s as part of an open forum; we operate by club scouts scouring schools and amateur leagues to find the best young prospects and offering them contracts. For the most part, these players are then not seen again for a number of years until they surface in the Youth Development Squads and then the first team (or if you are at Chelsea, you’ll be loaned out for multiple seasons and then sold in to obscurity for the most part). The Chelsea reference is intended as a joke, but there is a serious side: a lot of young talented footballers are snapped up en mass by the bigger clubs and then continuously being loaned out without ever being given a fair crack at the first team. I know why teams do it, bulk buy and hope you find the next star, whilst also preventing your rivals acquiring the same potential star. But for the individuals involved it doesn’t necessarily work, and surely these players would be better suited joining a team lower down the leagues and actually playing; which ultimately would create more of a level playing field, as young talent can help improve those teams. An additional benefit would also be more home grown players getting game time.

So perhaps the Draft in its purest duplication in football in England would not work, but there is the potential for a sort of draft to be implemented once youngsters reach the Youth Development Squads at their clubs, or even a draft-like system for loan signings. So my two proposals for implementing a draft like system to improve competitiveness down the leagues, increase the number of home-grown players getting game time, and ultimately getting players game time are as follows:

  1. Youth Development Draft – each team has a certain number of players who they can choose to retain from the Youth Development Squad, which excludes them from the Draft. The remainder of players who are due to “graduate” from the Youth Development Squad are entered in to a Draft. The sequence of Draft picks are determined by where a team finished that season – 24th in League Two would pick first, with the Premier League Winners picking last. The Draft would continue until all eligible players that season had been taken.
  2. Loan Draft – before a player in the Youth Development Squad reaches “graduation age” (say 21 for example) they can be made available for loan, similar to the current system, where again, a draft approach would be adopted for all these players, with the order of picks following the above. The traditional system for loaning ‘above-age’ players would still be followed; with the additional caveat that if a player is listed for loan and not loaned out before the draft, they can also be included as part of the draft.

This would allow the big clubs to spend millions on superstars to keep their clubs progressing, but it would get more youngsters playing week in and week out, improving competitiveness throughout the leagues and increasing the number of home-grown players getting game time which can only be good for the Home Nations national sides. It would also stop so many promising young players dropping out of the game for good. Its just an idea, but with so many clubs struggling to compete financially, surely this is a sensible way for them to improve their playing squads and outlooks.  

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The Critical Path

New-Blackburn-Rovers-Third-Kit-2013On Monday night, Newcastle United did what so many teams set out with the intention to do but so often fail – return to the Premier League at the first attempt. At the opposite end of the table, this weekend (weekend of the 29/30th April) are also the first weekend that Blackburn Rovers could mathematically be relegated. It could have been so much different though.

 In my current line of work, Project Management revolves around the critical path of projects – what milestones do you need to meet in order to deliver a project on time and on budget. At Ewood Park, this weekends potential relegation and continued demise all goes back to the Summer of 2012, the Summer following relegation from the Premier League. It was at this point in time that the wheels were set in motion for the club to end up in its current state. I’m not denying that there have been opportunities to realign the critical path and avoid the fate which potentially awaits the team, but ultimately, decisions made (or not made) that Summer are what will sentence the club to its fate.

Yes, you can argue that the demise started when the Venkys bought the club in November 2010, or even when they sacked Sam Allardyce later that year; but the line in the sand moment followed relegation in 2012 when there was an opportunity to start afresh, an opportunity for the Venkys to admit to their flaws and turn it around being the club drifted to far in to the abyss.

At the beginning of their first season in the Championship, the Blackburn Rovers squad was arguably better than the one that had been relegated, and better on paper than many teams promoted since. The signing of Danny Murphy was met with excitement: a midfielder confident on the ball who could unlock defences, with his old mate Dickson Euthu beside him to do his legwork and protect him; and once he’d picked that pass, the experienced Portuguese international Nuno Gomes to put the ball away or slide in the most prolific man in the Football League, Jordan Rhodes. At the very least, the team should’ve been challenging for the top 6.

That Summer in 2012, the Venkys spent serious money on both transfers and wages, investing in an attempt to get the club promoted at the first time of asking – but they made one big mistake; they kept Steve Kean.

Steve Kean will forever be seen as the man who oversaw the beginning of Blackburn’s downfall. Yes, he may have been a good coach, but he was not a manager. A bigger more self aware man would have resigned at the end of the 2010-11 season when Rovers stayed up on the last day, aware that he was in over his head, but he didn’t. Instead he stayed on and oversaw a horrendous 2011-12 campaign which ended in relegation. By not removing him from his position, but still investing, the Venkys may as well have burnt their money as there was no way the fans would get behind Kean and the team the way a team needs when they are pushing for promotion.

The Venkys had many viable reasons to sack Kean as well as his poor performance as a manager: his off the pitch issues regarding drink driving; the charges of slander from Sam Allardyce; and the continued unrest from the supporters – but they kept him in charge, and in doing so started the club along the critical path to where we are today.

That first season in the Championship when optimism about an immediate return should have been so high, and the quality of the pitch should have been so much better that the previous season, turned in to a shambles which saw 5 different men managing the team in some capacity over the season. Suffice to say, the opportunity was well and truly missed. Financially, the club has never recovered and the spending from that Summer has ultimately crippled the club.

As a result of the over spending without success, the wage budget has had to be slashed to a fraction of what it was in 2012 and has had to operate on a shoe-string transfer budget relying on freebies and loanees. For the 2016-17 season Rovers only paid a fee for one player, left back Derrick Williams, just over £200k – markedly different to the £8m spent on Jordan Rhodes.

Before the first game of the 2012-13 season against Ipswich Town, newly appointed Global Advisor Shebby Singh told fans that Kean was 3 straight defeats away from losing his job. This may have been an attempt to get the fans on site but it hardly got the fans behind the team; many seeing 3 losses as a necessary evil to rid the club of Kean once and for all. Surely if Singh wanted rid of Kean this should have been done in the Summer when there was good reason (relegation, drink driving, slander), leaving the club with the opportunity to bring in a manager experienced in the division and given them the funds (or even just the players) to get the team promoted. Kean eventually resigned from his position as manager after 4 wins in 6 to start the season (wins which ultimately kept us up as fate would have it), the night before the away game at Charlton Athletic, despite having travelled with the team, saying that his position had become “untenable” and he was no longer prepared to carry on as manager. How this became known to him only at 7pm the night before a fixture having travelling down to the hotel is beyond me, and is another examples of the mans selfishness and incompetence. At the time of his resignation Rovers had lost only one game (at home to Middlesbrough the game before) and they sat 4th in the table after a draw the following day at Charlton. What followed can only be described as a circus (2 different permanent managers and 3 caretaker stints which ultimately resulted in Rovers narrowly avoiding relegation). A modern season equivalent would be Rafa Benetiz leaving Newcastle, their big signings never being seen again, and Newcastle finishing the season they were supposed to get promoted, in 18th place.

It is as clear to see today as it was back in 2012 that what should have happened was Kean should have been sacked, at the latest in early Summer in 2012 (if not months before), and a fresh start made. A manager with experience of the Championship, or just with any managerial experience, would have given some hope of promotion with the squad assembles that summer. A Crystal Palace squad many had predicted to be fighting for survival won the pay-offs under Ian Holloway, and remain in the Premier League to this day. I can’t say who the appointment should have been but like a Steve Bruce, a Mick McCarthy, a Neil Warnock, or other similar manager with experience of promotion would have been perfect. We could have done worse than try and twist Souness’s arm to come out of retirement. In fact, when Michael Appleton left after his short stint, Mark Hughes was without a job and without many offers – he would have been ideal. Yes he would’ve cost money, but it would have been money well spent. He would have had the supporters on side immediately and looking upwards. Instead, when Kean finally left, we opted for Henning Berg who had no experience of management in England and limited experience elsewhere; and after Berg was sacked we opted even more inexperience in Michael Appleton; as boardroom unrest began – something which has continued to this day.

The team that played on the last day of the 2011-12 season consisted of: Kean, Olsson, Givet, Dann, Henley, Formica/Morris, Pedersen/Rochina, Olsson, Lowe, Hoilett and Yakubu. The one which started the first game of the next season in the Championship consisted of: Robinson, Lowe, Givet, Dann, Orr, Formica, Murphy, Etuhu, Pedersen, Gomes and Kazim-Richards. The team that got Crystal Palace promoted that same season: Speroni, Ward, Moxey, Delaney, Gabbidon, Dikgacoi, Garvan, Jedinak, Williams, Zaha and Wilbraham. Out of these 3 the one most likely for promotion surely has to be the one which started the 2012-13 campaign for Blackburn.

So as Newcastle head back to the Premier League it is through sad eyes that I think about what could have been had the right decisions been made back in 2012 – that could have been us. Who knows, had we got back in to the Premier League we may even have achieved that Champions League promise. Instead, we head in to this weekends fixtures knowing that realistically back to back wins are needed against Aston Villa and Brentford to have any chance of staying in the second tier.

Final note, as I have put this piece together, another level of Kean’s incompetence has become apparent. In that season we got relegated, Rovers took a young Frenchman on loan. He only made 9 appearances and failed to find the back of the net, but has since found the net 72 times in 154 games and sees himself 3rd in the top scorers list of the Bundesliga, behind only Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. That man was a certain Anthony Modeste. In his first appearance for Rovers he won a penalty and rightly wanted to take it, only for David Dunn to take the ball off him and miss – if he’d took the penalty and scored, who knows what might have been…

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