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Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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As I sat watching the final minutes of the Championship season, followed by the pitch invasions at Bolton and Cardiff, I questioned whether I was wrong about pitch invasions and for staying in my seat at the end of the game at Ewood yesterday.

For me, a pitch invasion is a release of raw emotion; a warm-blooded event; a last minute or last game of the season decider for promotion or safety. Rovers had that two weeks ago at the Keepmoat stadium. Yesterday’s pitch invasion was one of selfishness on the part of so-called Rovers fans, stealing and opportunity to get on the pitch and become one of the sheep taking selfies on the pitch and knee-sliding in to stupidity. It put a really sour end to what has been a magnificent season. Yes, the Rovers fans have been through a lot over the last decade and this is the first real achievement we’ve been able to celebrate, but the time and place for it was at Doncaster away when our destiny was sealed; and even then we made a mess of it.

I’ve said previously that one of the best things about the season has been the re-growth of the bond between the club and fans, and you could see from the players both at Doncaster and at Ewood yesterday, that they wanted to share the celebrations with the fans – an outcome which was achieved but with the sheen taken off it by the idiots running on the pitch before the end of the game.

What exactly is achieved by running on the pitch anyway? Yes, you get to go on the hallowed turf and maybe take a few pictures and steal some blades of grass; but surely being booed by your fellow supporters is a sign it’s not welcome? As is the sight of your players running in the opposite direction. Just leaving the pitch invader to take a few photo’s of a stand of supporters enraged at you and your actions, and then amble back off the pitch, in some cases, just to do it again a minute later.

People ran on the pitch before the end of the game yesterday for what reason I’ll never know. These reactions will most likely result in a fine from the Football League, and by rights there is also probably the potential for points to be docked – imagine the irony of running on a pitch to celebrate promotion which is then revoked because of the running on the pitch. I would estimate that at least 90% of the people who went on the pitch had not been to more than two games at Ewood previously this season, whilst the majority of the fans who stayed in their seats will have been season ticket holders who have sat through the painful recent years, their support never wavering. Those loyal supporters wanted a chance to celebrate with the players who have brought them so much joy this season – and do so from the comfort and safety of their own seat. I completely understand and agree with the singing of “Where were you when we where s***” to those who went on the pitch, and I joined in; they were ruining my day as well. It was amazing to see more than 27,000 and it was goosebumps stuff when I went up to my seat and saw the sea of blue and white, something we haven’t seen for a long long time, but the proof of the commitment of the support will be how many people return for the start of the next season in the Championship in August. I’d wager we will probably by looking at at least 10,000 shy of yesterdays figure. It’s not often Blackburn Rovers fans are accused of being “glory supporters”, but in this case I think they may have a point. “Where were you when we were s***” indeed.

There once was a time when I remember that running on the pitch was unthinkable, and you were guaranteed at least a stadium ban, if not a lifetime ban and a hefty fine. These days it almost seems a right of passage that when you win or achieve something, there has to be a pitch invasion. Take Manchester City for example, they had a pitch invasion at the Etihad two weeks ago. A pitch invasion when the league has been won with 4 games remaining, it was hardly edge of your seat stuff, and to a degree was somewhat pre-meditated. At Ewood yesterday the stewarding and lack of police was a joke that led to the pitch invasion. The stewards in place are not trained or physically able to prevent a pitch invasion, whether it be one rogue or a whole stand, and that only serves to add to the risk of a pitch invasion. Couple that with a lack of deterrent (no fines, arrests etc), people will carry on doing it. With over 27,000 at Ewood on a beautiful day with a party atmosphere and many beers drunk, the risk of a pitch invasion should have been identified, especially considering the number of extra tickets sold purely for the ‘party’ occasion, and extra police or specialist security brought in to prevent it from happening. What should have happened is on 85 minutes, stewards and police/security stood side by side should have lined up in front of the Blackburn End and Darwen End as a statement that it was NOT going to happen. Instead we ended up with fans running past beleaguered stewards and on to the pitch, and then the stewards helping them back in to the stand rather than cuffing them and carting them away. In recent years Rovers have been a laughing stock for the nation, and the one chance we have to show we are a big club (hopefully) on the way back, and we are again in the media for the wrong reasons, because of the minority.

It was a frustrating end to what has been a magnificent season, and for me I feel sorry for the players. They set out in August with one goal in mind, promotion, and they achieved that with two games to spare which is no mean feet. Yesterday should have been about celebrating them and their achievements. Instead, the season ended with the long-suffering fans angry at their own and once again with frustration for the fans. If I had to choose between a packed stadium every week but with fans who didn’t really care for the club; or a stadium half full but with true supporters who have followed the club through thick and thin, I think I’d prefer the latter.

Next season is going to be a massive challenge just to remain in the division, let along push for the top 6. There are some massive clubs already in there, with three more to drop down from the Premier League, and Rovers must compete on the pitch with significantly less financial backing than some of the other teams. It’s a challenge I’m glad we are facing and one I’m looking forward to, but for now, I can finally enjoy a summer without the worry of dropping further down the divisions, or what master stroke in idiocy the club will partake in over the summer months.

Mowbray’s dream lives on….

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Almost There…

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One more win.

(Or one more game where Shrewsbury don’t win).

If you’d have told me after the 3:1 home defeat to Doncaster back in August that we could potentially have automatic promotion sealed with two games to spare I would most likely have laughed in your face. We were awful that day. Abysmal. Possibly the worst I’ve seen us play in a very long time. I remember looking at the side that day and thinking “there’s a few new faces so it’s going to take a while for them to settle and find a rhythm; and we’re a big fish in this League One pond, so we’ll be many teams cup final”. The squad that day included Caddis, Dack, Gladwin, Smallwood, Whittingham and Samuel (6 out of 18, a third of the side) all making only their second competitive appearance for the side. Rarely do so many changes click together straight away (I hoped), and rarely does the first draft end up being the winning formula. Looking back at the squad that day and there have been a lot of changes which have brought us to where we are now – with Caddis, Ward, Gladwin, Samuel and Whittingham playing less of a part as the season has gone on, in part due to injuries. One thing about league football is that you don’t win titles or get promoted in August, with most promotion pushes coming at around Christmas time. I hoped.

The loss that day, following the loss on the opening day, have been two of only five defeats all season (the other three coming against Wimbledon, Oldham and Plymouth – the latter being the last which came on the 3rd February, sandwiched in-between a 32 game unbeaten run). The fact that Rovers have only lost once in a 33 game run is remarkable, possibly only exceeded in remarkableness by the fact they still haven’t guaranteed automatic promotion despite sitting on 90 points. In the last two seasons, 90 points would have guaranteed automatic promotion, and in the year before last it would have been enough to win the division. I’m not counting my chickens as there are still three games to go, but Rovers not to be promoted would take two losses and a draw (which has not happened all season) and for Shrewsbury to re-find their form and win all three. Skybet aren’t currently offering odds of Rovers to be promoted.

Tony Mowbray has does a fantastic job – in fact, ‘fantastic’ doesn’t do it justice. When he took over the club were already staring relegation in the face; their was a disharmony between the supporters and the club and its owners, and the future looked very bleak – if we had continued the way we were going we would be looking at League Two right now rather than a return to the Championship. I have to be honest I wasn’t too excited by the appointment and I thought the timing was poor coming on the back of a spirited performance in defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup. What I can say however is (I was wrong about Mowbray, he was just what we needed) “I was there for the beginning of the Mowbray revolution” – a 1-1 draw away at fellow struggler’s Burton Albion. At the time I thought this was a must win game if we wanted to avoid relegation, and in the end it turned out to be that way, but I think most Rovers fans saw a change in the team that night, and most would agree that relegation was sealed by the draw at home to Preston in the last minute later that season. During the game at Burton two gents behind me were jokingly making comments like: “look how hungry they look? He’s not fed them all week!” and “one week and he’s got them playing like Brazil”. I laughed at the time, but looking back Mowbray has done exactly that: he’s got them fighting for every ball with a never say die attitude, and he’s got us playing some nice football. Where in the past we would pass to midfield, go sideways and then go back again, we now seem to have that ability to open up a defence; something we have lacked since before we were relegated from the Premier League.

In hand with the performances on the pitch, off the field there is more of a connect between the club, the players and the fans. In this day and age it is easy to criticise overpaid players for fooling about on social media showing how big the gap is between them and normal life; but what the club and players have done brilliantly is use social media to build that bridge between the club and the players. If it isn’t videos of players having snowball fights, its the players praising the fans for their support, or praising each other, and always reiterating “it’s good to score/win, but the ultimate aim for the season is promotion”. A good example this weekend was the number of first team players who took the time to congratulate the Under 23’s on winning the PL2 – yes it only takes 30 seconds to send a tweet, but do you see the likes of Paul Pogba or Dele Alli doing the same? When they score a goal you can see what it means to each and everyone of the players, and that resonates with the fans. There is a feeling that the players know what the supporters have been through over the last decade, and they want to be part of something special which could, hopefully, get the club back up to the big time.

After two draws in a week, including conceding a last minute equaliser, I thought we had piled the pressure on ourselves. Yes it was still in our hands, but it relied on us not throwing away two many more points going in to the last four games – a tough ask considering the recent form of the likes of Peterborough and Charlton. What I hadn’t accounted for was how much Shrewsbury would drop off a cliff like a set of Pirelli tyres after 30 laps of a Grand Prix. Two draws and a defeat in their last three games has been a welcome drop in form for Rovers, and it coincided with them losing at Wembley in the Checkatrade Trophy. It can’t be overestimated how big an effect a defeat at Wembley can have on a team, especially when it is to lower league opposition and you are the favourites (something Shrewsbury can’t have been too familiar with going in to a tie at the national stadium) – but it has turned out that way. Going in to the last three games of the season it is difficult, given their recent run of form, to see them winning all three games – let alone Rovers losing two or three. They’ve still to play Peterborough at home (which will be tough given how they played in the first half at Ewood last week), Blackpool away (another tough game given Blackpool have won their last four scoring a total of 13 goals and conceding only one), and MK Dons (who may potentially still be fighting for survival). In comparison, Rovers have Doncaster away (who are almost certain of survival and can’t make the play-offs), Charlton away (a very tricky game given their recent good form and push in to the play off positions), and Oxford at home (they may not be out of danger but it is a game Rovers would expect to win). As I say, I’m not counting my chickens, but we should be able to get across the line in advance of the last game of the season.

Congratulations must go to Wigan who guaranteed promotion this weekend – 93 points with three games to go means they could break the 100 point barrier and that would be a massive achievement. They’ve so far lost more games than Rovers, but not drawn as many. What amuses me on social media and even in comments from their manager Paul Cook is how they are trying to create a rivalry with Rovers claiming how pleasing it is for them to achieve promotion before us and how happy they will be if they win the league ahead of us, claiming we got carried away with ourselves. I don’t think any Rovers fan looked at the table when we went to the top and Wigan had 3 games in hand, and thought “that’s that wrapped up”. Also, I don’t think many Rovers fans care about winning the league – the sole aim of the season has been to get promotion. Whether that be in first or second place I don’t think anybody cares (I’d even take Play-Offs at a push!). I think this says a lot about Wigan and their ambition though – ask a supporter of any club below the Premier League and they would say the same: the goal is to get to the big league, it doesn’t matter how you get there. Focussing and bragging so much about a league title in the third tier of pyramid screams short-termism for me; I like to think at Ewood we are looking at the bigger, longer-term picture of where the club wants to be at the end of the next decade: back in the Premier League. Yes a title is nice, but at this stage and level, that’s all it is, a nice to have.

Looking back at the last short stay Rovers had in the Third Division, that side also came second, with a total of 59 points (from the same 46 games), finishing 3 points off top and 1 point above third. I hope we don’t go into the last game of the season with the potential of only finishing one point above Shrewsbury; but if come 7:30 pm on the 5th May, we have finished second by just a point, I for one won’t care.

Mowbray had a dream……

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Fly Eagles Fly

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What a Super Bowl!!! Although I’m relatively new to American Football, this is one of the most exciting and end to end games I have watched, and the fact it came in the biggest game of the season only adds more kudos to it. Despite the Philadelphia Eagles finishing the regular season as the number one seed, they had been underdogs throughout the Play-Offs against first the Atlanta Falcons, then the Minnesota Vikings, and finally against the New England Patriots, due to the loss of their quarter-back Carson Wentz to a torn ACL and LCL on the 10th December. Without the injury he would surely have go on to be the league MVP.

Triumph against adversity indeed, not to mention the fact they had never lifted the Vince Lombardi trophy before this, having lost twice in the big game, and as they where facing the Patriots – a team who has appeared at the Super Bowl more than any other team, and returning for the fourth time in seven years. This is American Football though, the story of the underdog, the story of the American Dream, and the league which wants to be open and competitive – a team winning their third trophy in four years is not a good advertisement for “America’s Game”. Perhaps our footballing game needs to take a look at how the American’s do it before we end up with a game so detached from the real world of day to day people and so elitist people switch off and the bubble bursts.

As underdogs, any fan around the world without an association to either the New England Patriots, or Philadelphia’s rivals, was rooting for the Eagles – perhaps more in hope than expectation. I wanted the Eagles to win, but in my head I half expected Patriots domination and the Brady-Belichick partnership to set a new record for Super Bowl wins as a coach and quarter-back combo. In the preceding week when the Patriots came from behind to beat the resurgent Jacksonville Jaguars, although the Jags led from the off and gave themselves a relatively healthy leading at the end of the first half, there was something inevitable about Brady getting the job done to come from behind to win (albeit with the assistance of the officials, stopping the Jags from a potential pick six by blowing the whistle too early). My wife said she hated the fact that the inevitable always seems to happen when it comes to the Patriots, and that it didn’t seem fair that they were able to keep doing it. I felt it my duty to remind her that as she is a Manchester United fan, this is what every other football fan in England felt throughout the 90’s and the 00’s – that feeling that United would always come back to win a game late on, and usually would get some assistance from the officials. Looking from the outside in, I hope she saw and felt my pain for the last two and a half decades. In my eyes, the Patriots have been the Manchester United of the Alex Ferguson era – conquering all in front of them with a swagger and a confidence that just makes supporters of other clubs hate them more. If the Patriots where the Manchester United in this story, the Eagles where something akin to a Leicester City or a Blackburn Rovers – an underdog who had come from nowhere with no-one expecting them to even mount a run in to the Play-offs; they have a talisman in Wentz (Vardy/Shearer), a coach daring to be brave and attacking (Ranieri/Dalglish), and fans hungry for success for a long time (never won the top division before/81 years).

‘Our’ football can learn a lot from the American variation of the game, and I think it needs to before it consumes itself with greed and elitism. The National Football League prides itself on its parity – on ‘any given Sunday’ any team can beat another team (look at this season: the Patriot’s again won the AFC Championship, but lost to the Kansas City Chiefs (who only made the Wild Card week of the Play-offs), the Panthers (also made it to Wild Card week) and the Miami Dolphins (who finished 3rd in the AFC East), whilst being run close by the Texans, the Buccs, the Jets and the Steelers before the post-season) – in a regular season of 17 games, they lost almost a fifth of their games. No team in the NFL has gone a full season unbeaten since the 1972 Miami Dolphins who are the only team in history to go the whole season and post-season unbeaten. Look at the Super Bowl finalists for the last ten years: 14 different finalists (out of a possible 20). So how do they keep the playing field so level, and what football learn from this?

1. The Draft

The NFL draft ensures that the worse performing team in the league gets the first/best pick of the eligible college football players that year. Each teams position in the draft is determined by their final standing the previous year – so for the 2018 draft, the Cleveland Browns will pick first (again), and the Philadelphia Eagles will pick last each round. There are currently seven rounds, and the draft is undertaken over a weekend. The College players don’t really get a say in where they go, but that is accepted, as they have ‘made it’, they have beaten the odds to get signed for a team in the NFL. There are occasions where the order is changed and a team may ‘trade up’ by offering a team in a higher draft place a player or future draft pick in exchange for their pick in a certain round; if there is a player a team has identified as key to their development, it is a small price to pay for the better pick. Interestingly during the 2017-18 season the Dolphins traded star Running Back Jay Ajayi for a 4th round pick – a deal seen as somewhat bizarre given how good Ajayi has been for the last couple of seasons given the low round of the pick, potentially even more bizarre now he will have a Super Bowl ring on his finger. If a player isn’t selected during the Draft rounds they become an un-drafted free agent and can sign with any team who makes them an offer – the player can’t return to College though. Players drafted through this process are known as “Rookies” and they don’t command the fees the seasoned pro’s do – that said the league minimum paid $435,000 for the Rookie Season; it sounds like a lot compared to an every day job, but consider that Alex Smith’s recent move from the Chiefs to the Redskins will see him pick up an average of $23.5m a year over four years.

The Draft system wouldn’t work in our football as we don’t operate a College system for player development and recruitment – footballers are often signed to teams from a young age and they develop and either make the first team or are sold on; there isn’t an organised ‘talent-pool’ as such where players can be picked from to give the worst team the best player. What the Draft does do is ensure that transfer fees aren’t a barrier to team development through player acquisition. By the rules, the worst team gets the theoretical best player – in football, the worst team would commonly be the poorest team, and as such not able to afford the best players, whatever age or stage of development. Think Theo Walcott leaving Arsenal aged 16 and going to Tranmere – it just wouldn’t happen.

What also isn’t conducive to the Draft system is the geography of the Football game – it is played all around the world, with an open market for players sales and recruitment. The logistics of a world-wide draft would be mind-boggling, not to mention the algorithms for working out what place pick each team should have.

However, looking specifically at the UK, there are a lot of players who, at the end of their YTS contracts, are tossed on the scrapheap and left to fend for themselves in the real world, often with nothing more than GCSEs. Soccer camps and systems like the Glenn Hoddle Academy are aimed at getting former football scholars back in to professional football after being released. There are good footballers being lost this way, maybe a Draft-like system can be adopted to try and get these players new clubs. Consider this: an NFL Combine-type event is held for all the players to showcase their skills in a range of areas during a week; at the end of the week the teams in the football pyramid are placed in order of worst to best (from say Conference level to Championship) and they can pick through a number of rounds – if a team doesn’t like the look of anyone they can decline to pick. Wages could be set at capped levels for each round of the Draft. I’m sure the players themselves would relish the chance to show what they can do and get a new club; and the clubs get a chance to scout youngsters and sign them up for agreed wages – win win.

2. Transfer Fees and Salary Caps

The NFL (and NBA) do not operate a system whereby players are transferred for vast (or any) sums of money. Instead, they are either traded for another player or a Draft pick, or their contract runs down and they are free to join whoever they like (an unrestricted free agent). In some instances, a players contract may run down but they may then be given the ‘Franchise Tag’ – the tag binds a player to the team for one more year if certain conditions are met; each team only has one ‘Franchise Tag’ – this is often used to extend the bargaining period for new contracts. An “exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five salaries at the player’s position as of a date in April of the current year in which the tag will apply, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. Exclusive franchise players cannot negotiate with other teams. The player’s team has all the negotiating rights to the exclusive player. A “non-exclusive” franchise player must be offered a one-year contract for an amount no less than the average of the top five cap hits at the player’s position for the previous five years applied to the current salary cap, or 120 percent of the player’s previous year’s salary, whichever is greater. A non-exclusive franchise player may negotiate with other NFL teams, but if the player signs an offer sheet from another team, the original team has a right to match the terms of that offer, or if it does not match the offer and thus loses the player, is entitled to receive two first-round draft picks as compensation.

This approach ensures that no team can dominate the market by paying extortionate transfer fees which rule other teams out of potential deals. This is further supported with the ‘Salary Cap’ which every team is subject to. In a nutshell, this is a cap set by the Collective Bargaining Agreement of the league, which all the teams must stay within – if a team violates the cap rules, they could be fined up to $5m for each violation, contracts may be cancelled and/or draft picks lost. There is a also a salary floor to go with the cap. Both the cap and the floor are adjusted annually based on the league’s revenues, and as such they have increased year upon year. Each season all teams combined must spend on average 95 percent of the cap or more on salaries. If the league doesn’t reach this limit, it must pay the players the remaining amount. The Salary Cap for 2017 was set at $167m, for 2018 it will be around the $178m mark. Cap space in conjunction with player recruitment needs (e.g. key positions needing to be filled) dictates how much a bargaining power a team has to sign free agents or in salary discussions as part of trades; the greater the cap space, the more you can spend on a player (think Alex Smith going to the Redskins – this represents a big chunk of their cap space). On the other hand, think about Kirk Cousins – he was a Franchise Tag player who will likely now be released as Smith arrives, but he is seen as a more than competent quarter-back, so his options may very well be linked to who needs a quarter-back and who has cap space.

So, although you don’t see extortionate transfer fees, it does potentially lead to massive contracts for some players, potentially creating disharmony in dressing rooms. However, it does keep the playing field level, as no matter the spending power of the owner or chair-person, they are restricted to the Salary Cap and Floor, which is the same for every team. The FA and UEFA tried to do something similar with Financial Fair Play (FFP) but the richer teams just found a way around this as it was aligned to club earnings rather than a line in the sand for all the teams in the league; if anything this only served to further stretch the gap between the haves and the have nots. The current landscape in England is that the clubs at the top of the league are pretty much the richest clubs (Manchester City, Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea) and the teams at the bottom are the poorest – what this is creating is almost leagues within leagues, as the richer clubs only pull further and further away from the rest of the league, and from the normal world experienced by the fans.

Is a Salary Cap the way forward? In my opinion, yes. In the Premier League, the Championship, and Leagues 1 and 2 to an extent, the income of the majority of clubs is dictated by the TV money combined with the wealth of the owner – if you have the wealthiest owner, you can spend the most money on the best players which will mean you make the Champions League every year, stay in the Premier League, get richer and further pull away from the poorer sides, creating more disparity and less competition (in theory). We are at a tipping point now in football where we can go two ways – we can stick to the norm and allow the richer clubs to get richer and move further and further away from the rest of the sides in the division and potentially country, towards what seems an inevitable European Super League; or we can do something about it now and look at ways to keep the spirit of competition alive by restricting either transfer spending or wage spending, or both. Look at the Premier League this year, Manchester City have spent a small fortune on what was already an expensive side, and surprise surprise they are running away with the league. If we don’t stop cap spending the game is going to get further and further away from those who love it.

The next TV deal is around the corner and it is likely the cost of the TV rights will again go up, meaning more money for teams to keep paying the exorbitant transfer fees and wages. And although on the surface it looks like it makes our league better, does it actually? Look at this way, TV company’s have to pay more money for the games, who foots that bill? The supporter with their subscriptions. The cost of transfers and wages go up – yes TV money helps pay for this, but who else pays? Supporters in the cost of their tickets, day out at the ground and merchandise. As players and clubs get richer, the supporters who are the lifeblood of the game get poorer. We now have a Premier League which is actually a top 6 and then everyone else, this isn’t good for competition.

Do transfer fees really mean anything these days? As the numbers get more and more obscene, there looks to be no limit on what a player can be transferred for, and does it really matter for the clubs paying the money? They can afford it and more so what is the point of the transfer fee? In the last transfer window some of the biggest deals were done outside of transfer fees with Sanchez and Mkhitaryan moving without fees but for extravagant wages. On the flip side, do contracts really mean that much, with players well known for signing a new four year deal only to leave before the end of the next transfer window. Would there be something to be said for getting rid of transfer fees (similar to the NFL) and basing player movements on contract expiries and trades? It would put more emphasis on the contracts players sign and make them think twice before signing somewhere for the sake of it when they may actually already be eyeing up a move elsewhere. Add in a salary cap for each division and you could quickly bring the game more in line with the common man, whilst also preventing some clubs from over-spending and finding themselves in financial trouble, and stop the rich clubs from spending their way to glory.

3. Man of the Year

To follow on from the point of footballers being more detached from the real-world with the money they earn and spend, the NFL has the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. This is an award presented annually by the NFL to honour a player’s volunteer work and charity work, as well as their excellence on the field. Each year the winner is selected from 32 nominees from the 32 different teams. Wouldn’t it be good to see some of the best players in the Premier League go the extra mile for charity and see some recognition for it, surely it would make them more relate-able to the average football fan?

The last thing Football can learn from the NFL is with regards to video referees and the impending introduction of VAR in to the beautiful game. Yes, in NFL it used to confirm if a touchdown should stand or not, but the players don’t like it and it slows the game down massively, in some circumstances to the point that a touchdown is scored and a team cannot celebrate for 3-4 minutes until it’s been confirmed by people watching the game thousands of miles away. Although what they do well with their video referees is display the footage to all in the stadium so they can see what is being reviewed and can better understand the final call. By not having this feature in football often means the fans at the game are left in the dark with regards to what is actually happening and what is being reviewed, and why the eventual decision is given; yet another way that the armchair fan benefits when the fan at the ground doesn’t.

The NFL and the English Football are two completely different sports in more ways than one, but at the same time there are lessons to be learnt from our American counterparts to ensure we don’t lose the game we love and to ensure we can keep it competitive – now more than ever we need to look at what we can do to keep the Premier League competitive without the risk of crippling and destroying clubs.

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VAR… And why you should never slap a sign

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Despite the best efforts of the most incompetent referee I have seen at Ewood in many a year, Blackburn came away from the top of the table clash with Shrewsbury with the much needed 3 points to keep the pressure on the top two in League One. On a weekend when VAR (Video Assistant Referee) has been a big talking point – is it the answer to a long-lasting problem, or does it just take the higher echelons of the game even further away from jumpers for goalposts.

Blackburn where by far the better team on Saturday and deserved to be leading by a goal to nil following another superb free-kick from Chico Mulgrew, when the worst decision I have seen at Ewood in a thirteen years was given. A Shrewsbury through ball to Carlton Morris was chased down in to the area when David Raya came off his line, got a firm two hands to the ball pushing it away for a corner kick, before the player followed through, tumbled over Raya and went to ground. The Blackburn End cheered the goalkeeping efforts – the referee, John Brooks, couldn’t wait to put his whistle to his mouth. Raya was booked in the aftermath arguing his innocence. Despite the referee’s poor view of the incident from behind Morris, he seemingly didn’t consult his linesman who was on the touchline on that side – even though he would have had a clear view of the incident. Without doubt it is the worst decision I have seen since Gerald Ashby sent Henning Berg off and awarded a penalty in a 4-2 home defeat to Manchester United in 1994 – despite Berg clearly getting to the ball first.

Brooks’ incompetence didn’t stop (or start) there – Shrewsbury’s full back Beckles looked like the last  man when he brought Dominic Samuel down to award the free-kick Mulgrew scored from, he was given the benefit of the doubt, and then given it again later in the half when he cynically broke up a Rovers attack – if he hadn’t been booked it would definitely have been a yellow, but he was just given a stern word, again. I’m still unsure what Paul Downing’s goal was disallowed for in the second half, and although it’s easy to say when you’ve won the game, I’m not convinced Rovers penalty in the second half should have been awarded. In comparison, the referee took an age to give that decision – the complete opposite of his actions in the first half. Brooks lost complete control of the game with 50/50s seemingly being awarded on the basis of a coin toss, despite neither side claiming a foul. The result of the growing frustration was me open palm slapping a metal sign mounted on a concrete wall – not the brightest of ideas, but at the time I needed a release from the madness that was the referees performance. Evidence of how far the game had slipped in to mayhem was the Shrewsbury keeper Henderson giving grief to the front rows of the Blackburn End when the second goal went – baring in mind the front rows are usually occupied by children – and then returning items thrown from said crowd when the third goal went in, with at least double the venom and force. The referee left it to the players to sort the mess.

I’m not saying that the Blackburn fans are blameless in the Henderson incident, but it would never have escalated to that level had the referee maintained control of the game.

So where does VAR come in to this? Well, at the minute it is being trialled in the cup competitions, and then it will be brought in for the Premier League – it will take some time before it can be used in the leagues below the Premier League, as seen in the fact that the League Cup Semi Final at Ashton Gate can’t use the technology, and it will almost never be used in non-league and Sunday football. Much alike goal-line technology.

The beauty of football is that it is simple and can be played anywhere by anyone – the concept is the same: an even number of players on either side, two sets of goalposts, a field of play, and a ball. You could play it on the beach of Brazil and you could play it on a car park in Grimsby, the game would be the same. Introducing technology takes the game even further away from that played by school children and by pub-goers on playing fields every night and weekend, another reason children would rather watch football on the TV or play it on a games console. Another reason the top leagues are breaking further and further away from the pyramids below them.

It is an inverted approach which doesn’t make sense. The top league in England is home to the best referees – full time, well paid, athletes in their own right. In theory they should be the ones who least need the assistance of VAR and goal line technology. The technology should help those who need it most, further down the divisions – before, if Darren Ferguson gets his way, shoots the lot of them.

On the face of it Ferguson’s comments are outrageous and indefensible – but I have to agree with him to an extent. The standard of officiating below the Premier League and the Championship is often sub-standard and this is where the stakes are the highest with bad decisions ultimately potentially leading to a club going bust, players not being paid, and normal everyday people losing their jobs. To add insult to injury, what happens when a Premier League referee makes a bad call? They are demoted to the lower divisions, further adding to the poor standard of referees down the leagues.

To put this in perspective, lets take the Blackburn Vs Shrewsbury game on Saturday as an example – if Rovers lost the game they would have been 8 points behind Shrewsbury and potentially at the mercy of the play-offs which ultimately, could have resulted in another year in the third tier. Now, yes, Rovers have been mismanaged and that is why they are in this position, but to not go up could be crippling given that investment has been made to get out of this division – especially if the reason for not going up was due to no fault of the players or club, but down to poor refereeing decisions.

This may sound like a rant against referees but it isn’t, it is a rant against the system for introducing the new technology, and ultimately, a rant at the technology itself. If it has to come in, use to help those who need it most, but if it was down to me I would leave football as it is without the technology. What makes the game so brilliant and what makes fans so fanatical is the decisions, right or wrong, and how they affect the outcome of a game. The last week has even shown that the technology isn’t fallible and its implementation isn’t to the benefit of the fans at the ground, whilst it’s also another reason for managers to moan about the referee anyway (“why didn’t he consult the VAR?”). If we look at the NFL, for example, they have got to a stage where every touchdown is reviewed by a group of people sat hundreds of miles away in New York. In some instances, a player may score a touchdown, celebrate and get ready to kick the extra point, before the decision is overturned and the play re-played. Quite often, a touchdown is scored and even the TV commentators don’t know why replays are being shown and what could possibly be being challenged. All goals are being reviewed in football under VAR, so it is only a matter of time before we get to that stage.

“If it ain’t broke don’t fix it”, that’s what I say. Unless we are talking about my hand, which has been in agony since the Shrewsbury game – imagine the shame of having to tell a doctor that the reason I’m sat in his A&E ward is because I slapped a sign? She actually asked if I meant punched – “no, slapped”. The shame. Luckily an X-Ray showed no brakes or fractures, just the loss of my dignity.

Onwards to Fleetwood away and hopefully another three points to keep the pressure on.

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Mid-Term Review – Blackburn Rovers

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The Christmas period can often define a football teams season – propelling them in to the promotion or title challenge, sinking them towards the dreaded drop zone, or sentencing them to a season of mid-season obscurity. Blackburn Rovers went in to the busy Christmas schedule sat in the League 1 promotion places and handily placed to make a push on the automatic promotion spots on the back of an unbeaten league run stretching back to the 14th October (10 games) – a positive Christmas could well have seen Rovers enter the New Year in the second automatic place.

What followed over the festive period was a frustrating 1-1 draw away at Northampton which saw Marcus Antonsson miss a penalty late on to win the game; a good, although not comfortable, 2-0 win at home to Rochdale; another frustrating draw, this time 2-2 with Scunthorpe at home in a game which Rovers twice led but conceded soft goals and despite pushing could not get a winner; and then a disappointing 1-1 draw away at Rotherham, again conceding late on. This has left Rovers where they started, in third place, but now some 5 points behind second placed Shrewsbury and 7 points behind league leaders Wigan; perhaps more importantly though, we remain 9 points above Rotherham in 7th place, with a game in hand, and the unbeaten run stretched to 14 games in the league.

To have not picked up more points during the festive period, especially considering the number of times we led in games, is disappointing – 2 extra points would make the league table better reading, placing us 3 points behind Shrewsbury who are the next visitors to Ewood, and who Rovers have a superior goal difference against – but to be in 3rd place, in touching distance of the teams above us at just past the half-way stage should be seen as a good thing. You would be hard pushed to find anyone leaving the first home game against Doncaster realistically saying that they would be disappointed with this. Consider this, if we had stuck with Coyle, we would be at the opposite end of the table without doubt. We find ourselves in a good position with games on hand on the teams directly below, and with 21 games to mount a challenge, catch and hopefully surpass the teams above us, well, at least one of them.

With the January transfer window looming and the good form of some of our players – Dack and Mulgrew in particular – there is always a worry that this good unbeaten run could be disturbed by departures, but the initial word from Mowbray is that the aim this season is promotion and we won’t be selling anybody who has the ability to help us achieve this goal, which can only be seen as a positive, combined with the rumours of additional reinforcements coming in with Adam Armstrong, Amari’I Bell, and the much maligned at Ewood Jason Lowe (on a free transfer I can think of worse players to bring in, and his time spent away from Ewood coupled with the performances of those who replaced him should give him a much needed reality check and kick up the backside).

So if Rovers are to push on for automatic promotion, what’s needed? For a start, thankfully Mowbray didn’t take my advice and give up on the Bradley Dack experiment as he has been magnificent since bonfire night!

1 – David Raya Martin – the best passer of a ball we have at the club possibly with the exception of Dack and Mulgrew; has been fantastic between the sticks and has probably got us 6-7 points in the process. Should’ve been in the team ahead of Steele last season well before he was.

13 – Jason Leutwiler – not seen enough of him to pass fair judgement, but thought his indecisiveness from a corner helped Hull get the winner yesterday. That said, he hasn’t had much game time.

2 – Ryan Nyambe – much preferred at right back to Caddis. Has pace and strength and looks like he enjoys getting forward. One of the first names on the team-sheet for me. Also played well at centre-half against Hull which gives us options if needed.

3 – Derrick Williams – I don’t think he’s having a great season this year and it’s frustrating to see him push forward and stop most times rather than taking a man on. I do think he has suffered having to do a lot of Antonsson defensive work for him though which has left him exposed at times.

15 – Elliot Ward – hasn’t played much but has looked vulnerable when he has.

16 – Paul Caddis – steady enough but lacks any real quality to set him apart from a standard run-of-the-mill full-back you might see up at Pleasington on a Sunday morning. He doesn’t really have the pace to get forward or to counter pacey wingers which leaves us exposed at times – much prefer Nyambe in the position.

25 – Paul Downing – perhaps the biggest mystery of the season is why MK Dons let this man go on loan to a club in the same division. He has been a revelation at centre half partnering Mulgrew. No nonsense defender who would be the first piece of business for me in this transfer window signing him up to a permanent deal.

34 – Scott Wharton – I haven’t seen enough of him this season to pass comment but I would have expected to see him get game time in the cup competitions which would suggest Mowbray doesn’t fancy him (yet). Looked assured when he played in the Championship last season and had a good eye for a cross-field ball. On the bench is probably right for him at the minute but I would expect/hope he would see game time ahead of Ward and Nyambe at centre-half if injuries or suspensions dictated a change.

6 – Richie Smallwood – I wasn’t sure about him when we signed him and worried he’d be another Hope Akpan who was there but never really contributed much – luckily I was wrong. Very similar to Jason Lowe in many ways but he isn’t afraid to put a tackle in and gets the crowd going; he’s also not afraid to get forward. One of Mowbray’s best acquisitions and another who’s name is one of the first on the team-sheet.

11 – Peter Whittingham – disappointing. I hoped when he signed he would be somewhat of a play-maker in midfield to orchestrate attacks and chip in with a few goals, but he’s yet to get going (probably the reason he’s dropped down a level). At the beginning of the season I thought we’d signed a player who’s legs had gone but I think he is coming to terms with the fact he isn’t the player he once was and is being asked to play in a slightly different role. A good squad player, but others get in before him.

22 – Ben Gladwin – I can’t believe we actually signed him permanently and can’t send him back.

23 – Bradley Dack – I wasn’t too sure about him and where he fit in the side earlier in the season, and wondered whether trying different formations to fit him in was a wise choice but he has made me eat my words and more. We look a far better team with him on the pitch and he offers us a threat every time we go forward. Rightly deserved his nomination for League 1 Player of the Month in October, and will be key to pushing for the automatic spots. To lose him in the window would be a killer.

29 – Corry Evans – he’s struggled with injuries again this season and has been somewhat disappointing when he has played. I’m still not sure what he is – a combatant midfielder to break attacks up, or a creative midfielder. If we received an offer for him in January I’d probably take it as I imagine he’s one of the bigger earners and we have managed without him so far this season. Doesn’t replicate what he does in a Northern Ireland shirt for Rovers.

31 – Elliot Bennett – doesn’t always provide the quality, but his effort and ambition is 100% every week. He would get a starting place for me every week for that alone. He can chip in with the odd goal (usually a belter) but I’m not one hundred percent sure where his best position is – I don’t think he’s a winger, but I also don’t think he’s a central midfielder, somewhere in-between. A good player at this level who will cause team problems and get amongst it.

32 – Craig Conway – see above. Another like Bennett who always gives one hundred percent. He’s struggled to hold down a place in the side so far but when he has played he has provided much needed width and pace, whilst providing defensive cover for Nyambe. Another good player to have in this division.

28 – Willem Tomlinson – there are a few at Ewood who don’t rate him, but I think it is harsh to pass judgement at this stage. In most instances he has been asked to come of the bench and shore up the midfield, not provide that defence splitting pass, and he has done what has been asked. I saw more from him in the FA Cup game against Hull which he started, to suggest that he is capable of more, and is a good squad player.

35 – Lewis Travis – I’ve only seen him once, off the bench against Hull, but he was man of the match for me. Showed lots of enthusiasm and passion and wasn’t afraid to get stuck in, but also was happy asking for the ball and passed well. On that substitute appearance alone he did more for me than Evans, and definitely warrants a place on the bench, if not the starting eleven.

8 – Harry Chapman – showed much promise earlier in the season as a pacey and tricky winger who has unfortunately been lost to injury for the last couple of months. He was a good weapon to have off the bench late on and if we can see him again during the run in he could play a massive part.

9 – Dominic Samuel – started the season with much promise with a run of goals but these have dried up over recent weeks. He puts the effort in but can go overboard at times which has seen him miss games through suspensions. Decent at this level and a good option to have up front.

10 – Danny Graham – I worried about Graham at the start of the season and whether he would accept being a League 1 player, or sulk around for the season, but he can definitely not be accused of that. He has thrown himself in to the promotion fight and although he doesn’t have the little pace he once had, he is a handful up front and always looks likely to score when through on goal. His experience and passion could be key in the run and hopefully he can teach some of the younger players a thing or two (if Nuttall put himself about like Graham he probably wouldn’t be in League 1).

20 – Marcus Antonsson – he hasn’t really played as a striker this season and has been asked to play out-wide which he doesn’t look one hundred percent comfortable with, especially when concerning defensive duties, but you can’t argue with his goalscoring record (7 goals in 19 starts). He offers us some aerial presence and when you start to question whether he should be in the team he usually pops up with a goal. Another who looks good at this level, but I do worry about how the neglect of his defensive duties may impact us in the long run.

 38 – Joe Nuttall – I was so excited when this lad got his chance in the first team and took it, but since then he has definitely gone off the boil. I don’t know if it’s disappointment at being dropped, or because he isn’t happy coming off the bench, but since that early flurry of goals he hasn’t looked interested. We need options in attack and he could play a pivotal part in taking the weight off Graham and Samuel for goals, but he needs to start showing effort to the fans – could learn a thing or two from Graham.

There is room for improvement and additions in January are always welcome, so long as they don’t disrupt what looks to be a harmonious squad. I think another attacker/striker would give us more options and I think Armstrong from Newcastle would be a good addition at this level. We are somewhat light at full-back and I don’t think Hart has proved he is good enough even as a deputy, so someone who can play at both right and left full-back would be a good addition. A decent winger to cover until Chapman is back would give us options and if we could get someone from the higher divisions on loan until the end of the season that would give us options. Not forgetting, Darragh Lenihan is still to come back and he provides options at centre half and central midfield.

 All in all I’m content with the team and optimistic about the rest of the season. The ultimate goal has to be automatic promotion, but it would be somewhat unthinkable to not even make the play-offs given the run we have been on, and we should have the quality to overcome any of the sides which may come up in the play-offs – but let’s hope it doesn’t come to that!

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It’s Nutt-all bad for Rovers

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As the last international break of 2017 draws to a close with a series of games won, for the most part, by the odd goal, I found myself laughing somewhat in disbelief at how far Blackburn Rovers have fallen in the few years. Yes, I have laughed ironically at the state which we find ourselves in: marooned in League 1, the third tier of English football, with increasing debt, a local rival thriving in the top division, and competing in the first round of the FA Cup for the first time in three decades; but possibly for the first time this season, the true delicacy of our situation was brought home when a work colleague asked me who we had last weekend – I had to laugh as I uttered a phrase I never thought I would say (and I mean no disrespect to Walsall fans with this): “We haven’t got a game this weekend mate, no not because we have too many internationals, but because Walsall have too many internationals”. To be fair to the work colleague, he was a Manchester United fan, so I imagine he was welcoming of a week of international football when Jose’s bus could be parked up, valeted and given new tyres ahead of the Christmas run in.

This time 5 years ago, Blackburn Rovers were returning from the international break to play Peterborough United (to be fair we will be playing them this year as well) in a game shown live on Sky, on a Saturday. Incidentally, Henning Berg’s only win in charge of Blackburn, and a game when Jordan Rhodes bagged himself a hat-trick. That season, international breaks were routine as we were in the Championship where all football comes to a halt, but looking at the squad we would have had the likes of Martin Olsson (Sweden), Jordan Rhodes (Scotland), Morten Gamst Pedersen (Norway), Marcus Olsson (Sweden), Josh King (Norway), Adam Henley (Wales) and Colin Kazim-Richards (Turkey) all jetting off to World Cup qualifiers. This time around we had Corry Evans joining up with Northern Ireland for a World Cup Play-Off, and Charlie Mulgrew joining up with Scotland to play the Netherlands – that is it. A sign of how far we have come in such a short space of time.

As domestic football returns for Blackburn this weekend we find ourselves 7th in the table, just 1 point behind Rotherham United in the 6th place and on the same points as the aforementioned Peterborough United, 12 points off first place, and 11 points off the automatic places; but with 2 games in hand (thanks to international breaks) on the teams directly above us, and a game in hand on those occupying the top two places. That said, I would rather have points on the board, than games in hand. What seems to have been a regular occurrence over this season and the last few, is the bad timing to which the break arrives – unbeaten in five in the league and FA Cup (I don’t count the EFL Trophy), and a young and upcoming striker coming in to the team and scoring goals for fun. Especially when you consider that for all the chances we have created and the performances we have put in, the inability to get a second goal and finish teams off means we are were we are in the table – turn two of those draws (say against Fleetwood and Plymouth) in to wins that puts us on 31 points in third place with a game in hand – both games we should realistically have won both on paper and in reality.

I’m of the opinion that we are a big fish in this league and the majority of teams will setup with a game plan to stop us playing and winning, rather than preparing in a way which takes the game to us, and we have not taken advantage of this. Each game I have been to this season we have started off on the front foot and really taken the game to teams – for the first 10 minutes, and then we have reverted back to passing it sideways and backwards without ever really creating anything. The shining lights have been the creativity provided by Bradley Dack and the wing-play provided by Harry Chapman, whilst not forgetting the excitement that Joe Nuttall has brought back to the stands in the form of a youngster given a chance and taking it in the first team. The problem is Chapman has been resigned to twenty minutes from the bench most weeks; Mowbray seemed to have something against putting Nuttall even on the bench despite his goalscoring exploits in the Under 23s side; and to accommodate Dack Mowbray seems to need to change the formation of the team to fit him in. At this level, at home at least, we should be playing two strikers. The 4-2-3-1 we have played with Graham up front on his own doesn’t work in my opinion – as good a finisher Danny Graham is, he is no longer going to chase balls down and hassle defenders for 90 minutes; if he is challenging for the ball is more often than not our furthest man forward, so if he wins the knock down, he then has to get himself in a decent position. Although to be fair, he usually wins the ball and then it takes us that long to do anything with it, he has two or three defenders on him by the time we even think of getting the ball to him. We don’t play attacking enough football – yes it might be too open and we might concede, but lets have a go and play with two front men and two wingers. The emergence of Nuttall and Samuel this season show we have the options up front in addition to Graham and Antonsson;and although Chapman looks to be ruled out through injury for at least a couple of months, we still have the likes of Conway, Bennett, Harper, Dack and Gladwin who could do a job out wide. Leaving Smallwood to break things up in the middle of the park, and Evans to pick the ball up and get things going. I don’t have a problem with passing sideways and backwards and keeping the ball, as long as it results in creating something. At the minute we seem to get to the half-way line and then go sideways or backwards and in most example then resort to lumping it, when the opposition has got men back to defend. Blackburn Rovers fans would grumble and moan if we played like Barcelona because it’s too slow. Most Blackburn Fans would tell you the best football they have seen at Ewood was with Wilcox and Ripley out wide, or with Duff creating from the wing. It looks to me as though Nyambe and Williams want to get forward to support but I don’t know whether it is the formation or instructions, they rarely get past the winger to provide another option.

All is not lost though – we are a third of the way through the season and we are one point off the Play-Offs with 2 games in hand and 93 points to play for. If we were in the bottom half of the table and playing badly I would be worried, but we’re not. I’m confident that Wigan and Shrewsbury will drop off at some stage, we just have to stay in the conversation, be consistent, and put a run together in the last third of the season – we have no-one saving themselves for the World Cup so we should be able to give it a good go. It’s all about momentum after the turn of the year. If I’m being honest, I’ll take second in the league on goal difference; it would be nice to be the beneficiary of goal difference for a change after last year.

Looking to the long term and how we get back to the Premier League? The only way I can see this happening at the minute – and this is what I call the dream – is back to back promotions, riding the crest of the wave from promotion from League 1 to take us from the Championship (how many sides do you see make the play-offs the season after promotion? See Preston and Bristol City in recent-ish years). Get in the Premier League, don’t spend big and then take the prize money. If that means immediate relegation, so be it, the prize money should put us back on level terms financially and secure the immediate future of the club. How we best achieve that on a shoestring is through a blend of experience and youth, finding the likes of Nuttall and other youngsters who are on the up before they are deemed of high value, and using their rise to move up the leagues, without breaking the already broken bank.

Easy enough right? Let’s get to work…..

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International Breaking in League One

Dom Sam

For as long as I can remember, Blackburn Rovers have always had good strikers leading the line, scoring the goals. I have been somewhat privileged by some of the goalscorers I have seen grace the turf at Ewood in Blue & White – Shearer, Sutton and Jansen as a starter for ten.

As the season takes a break for Blackburn Rovers for the International fixtures over the weekend (Rovers have retained some sense of pride whilst being in the third tier by at least still having enough players on international duty to warrant the postponement of fixtures – 3, the bare minimum), it is a good time to reflect on the first month of the season and to provide an update on my previous post “False Start or False Dawn” which questioned whether the poor start to the season (two defeats in two) was a reflection of how the season was going to be yet another disappointment or whether it was a slow start owing to new faces and systems not having settled yet.

Four games in and the table looks a whole lot healthier for Rovers. After defeats to Southend and Doncaster in the first two fixtures, the following two saw them beat Bradford City on their own turf with a narrow 1-0 win, and then a first home win of the season beating MK Dons 4-1 – we’ll not mention the League Cup defeat to them down the road, our season does not need a cup run!

Although performances haven’t necessarily been fantastic, it does seem that some of the simple mistakes have been cut out and we have a degree of creativity – at the end of the day, the sole purpose of this season is to get out of the division. It doesn’t have to be pretty, it just needs to be effective. If it takes another 42 1-0 wins with balls bouncing off backsides to go in, I’ll take it now, yes please sir.

With the International break came the end of the Summer Transfer Window – the end of the biggest period of spending in English Football history, and the end of the madness; just how can Kyle Walker command a transfer fee of £50m when Leonardo Bonucci cost a seemingly resurgent AC Milan just £37m?! At the end of the last season I thought there would be an exodus at Ewood with the likes of Graham, Mulgrew, Lenihan, Lowe, Akpan, Bennett, Mahoney, Guthrie and Stokes all leaving the club. There needed to be exits to balance the books given the decrease in TV money for the League 1 season, but Mowbray needed to keep us competitive. The fact the majority of players leaving the club were those out of contract, and that we have managed to retain the services of the likes of Graham, Mulgrew and Bennett, whilst adding to the squad (even spending some money we must’ve found down the back of the sofa at Brockhall) is a good sign for the season to come, and also a sign that Mowbray’s wishes are being heard by the Venkys – it would have been easy to sell our best assets to balance the books and leave us struggling for the season.

One of those players brought in during the Summer window was Dominic Samuel, purchased from Reading for an undisclosed fee. In the opening 6 games of the season (4 league games and 2 cup games) he has found the net 3 times, and is managing to keep the experienced Danny Graham out of the side. I’ve said in previous blogs that I thought our style of play at times so far this season hadn’t suited Graham, but what hasn’t suited Graham has definitely worked for Samuel – he has looked sharp off the ball, put himself about, and has taken his chances. At this moment in time, he has to be our first choice striker.

Three goals in six games is not a bad strike rate for forward at any level (maybe with the exception of Ronaldo and Messi), but having decent forwards has always been a strong point for Rovers – over the past few seasons with the likes of Rhodes and Gestede leading the line, with a better – or more consistent – defence, we could potentially have pushed harder for promotion. After the defeat to Doncaster after the first home of the season a friend said to me that we didn’t have a commanding centre forward to dominate the opposition; someone who when the ball came in to the box would kill if it meant he got his head to the ball first. Samuel isn’t the finished article yet, but he has the attributes and the desire to become that one day. What also helps, is that he puts himself about, chases down lost hopes, pressures goalkeepers – all things that get the crowd going, something that has been lacking from Ewood in recent seasons – Richie Smallwood must also get a mention here as another who gets the crowd going by pressuring the man on the ball and putting a tackle in. He doesn’t do much different to the much maligned Jason Lowe, but instead of standing off the opposition, he puts a foot in and rushes them in to playing the ball, pressuring the pass, forcing mistakes. 

I’m not getting carried away, but Samuel is heading the right way towards becoming a fan favourite at Ewood – especially if he can keep getting the goals and propel the sifde towards promotion. Looking at former strikers to have graced the turf like Speedie, Shearer, Jansen and McCarthy, he has plenty of good examples to follow if he wants to reach that goal.

 

Image source: http://www.rovers.co.uk 

 

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False Start or False Dawn

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Two weeks ago, on the dawn of the new season, for the first time since probably when we had just been relegated from the Premier League, I had a sense of optimism about the season ahead. Given the signings we had made, the players and manager we had kept hold of, I was relatively confident that we would be finishing in the play-off spots at least, hopefully in the automatic places. I had turned my nose up at the naysayer pundits who thought we would face another season of struggling and I put my money were my mouth was and backed Rovers to win the Division.

An opening game away at Southend is not the ideal start for a team faced with the task of escaping the third tier of English football for the first time in almost three decades; it is probably the further journey and not a glamorous ground to say the least; and in Phil Brown they have a good experienced manager, and with players like Michael Kightly in their ranks, they undoubtedly have some quality. Before every game for the last couple of seasons, when asked how I thought Rovers would do at the weekend I have invariably responded “I’ll take a point”, and that was my response ahead of the Southend game – except, knowing that these are the sort of games we should be looking to win to get out of the division; saying “I’ll take point” for the next 46 games will only get us 46 points and that is nowhere near enough to mount a promotion charge. But in this instance, given the context, I was confident it would turn out to be a point gained rather than two dropped.

I was not surprised when we conceded first, and I wasn’t surprised that it was a moment of brilliance from Charlie Mulgrew that drew us level, and given recent history, especially in away games, it was no surprise when we went behind again and ended up losing. An opening day defeat away against a team who would be pushing for the play off’s was not the end of the world I thought, hopefully it would be the kick up the backside the players needed. On to game two, the first home game of the season.

The first home game of the season, the match football fans look forward to all summer, and what better way to kick off at Ewood than to face newly promoted Doncaster Rovers – a team who only a few months earlier where two divisions below Rovers. Surely this was what was needed to get us off the mark and some points on the board. Again, I was that confident I put us in my accumulator (for the record I also had Chelsea in that accumulator). Unlike the Southend game, this was a game against a newly promoted team, at home. Regardless of who you are playing, if you are looking for promotion you should be looking to win all your home games. Last season my optimism for the season lasted just 12 minutes against Norwich at home, I suppose I should just be happy that the optimism lasted in to the second half of the second game this season.

I think what is most disappointing about the start we have made is that it is the same old story – in fact not even the same old story, at least towards the end of last season we were taking the game to the opposition. Judging by Saturdays performance, teams view us as a big fish in this league and are happy to set up for a point with men behind the ball, and hit us on the counter-attack, something Doncaster did brilliantly on Saturday. The problem with this is that we are far too happy to pass the ball across the back four (three or five depending what stage of the game it was on Saturday) and wait for something to open up – which on most occasions it doesn’t because Tugay retired over 8 years ago and we are still looking for someone to provide that spark and creativity. What this does is put us under pressure and gets the fans frustrated (I am happy for us to keep the ball if it leads to something, but I am fairly confident that Barcelona would get booed off Ewood for “not getting it forward”) – with Ward and Mulgrew at the back it only takes one bad touch or misplaced pass and anyone with a bit of pace is away and in (see Mulgrew chasing back and conceding the penalty for Doncaster for reference). The only bright spark from the game – other than the final whistle – was the introduction of Bradley Dack who looked like he wanted the ball and looked like he wanted to go forward and create.

This brings me on to the formation and line-up on Saturday. We played with a formation that Mowbray will claim is a 3-4-3 with wing backs which enables us to get players forward when we have the ball, but which reverts to a 5-4-1 when we don’t. Call me a purist but at home in the third tier of English football what is wrong with 4-4-2? In a 4-4-2 system everyone knows their job and at home it puts at least two people up front to either deliver the ball to in the box, or to get the ball to for one to win and flick on. The problem with the 3-4-3 was that to often Danny Graham was isolated at the top of the pitch having to win the ball, hold it up and then try and do something with it – at his age and condition he should be in the 18 yard box waiting for the cross or the flick on to tap in the goal. This isn’t helped by the players tasked with getting forward to support him being Peter Whittingham and Elliot Bennett. Bennett has the pace and the legs to do this, albeit everything he tried on Saturday failed. On the other hand, Whittingham is coming towards the end of his career – lets face it, not many years ago he was touted as the best player in the Championship, if he was still of this calibre he wouldn’t be being released and dropping down a division. On Saturday I thought it was a case of his legs having gone and that he had fallen off the edge of the cliff with this being one season too many, but looking back now, I don’t think he has played as a winger for a number of years, and it was a similar role he was being asked to perform on Saturday. He is no longer a player who is going to get the ball on the halfway line and run at defenders, if he ever was. Surely his best position is in the centre of midfield orchestrating things. I was really impressed with signing him in the Summer – I only hope this isn’t a repeat of the Danny Murphy saga which promised so much and delivered so little.

What was evident on Saturday is that we struggle to break teams down when they retreat and often this leads to us creating opportunities for the opposition. To sections of the fans it looked as though the team didn’t care, but so early on in a season with many new faces and new formation which changed multiple times throughout the 90 minutes, it must be difficult for the players, who are also coming to terms with the league they find themselves in. Before the season started I thought that our best chance of getting out of this league was to leave the negativity around the owners on the other side of the turnstile and get behind the team 100%, and that with a good start the negativity would stay outside and allow for momentum and confidence to build. To resort to chants of “You’re not fit to wear the shirt” after 70 minutes of the second game of the season helps no-one, no matter how poor the players performed I hope to think it hurt them too. Many of them have reputations which are dwindling by the season – they need to get out of this division for themselves as much as for the club and the fans. I will get absolute pelter’s for this but I was not, and am still not, disappointed that Big Sam got the sack. At the time we were a Premier League team who took to the pitch every week in the hope of a long throw, a corner or a free kick to give us a chance to get the ball in the box for the ‘big lads’ to cause trouble and get it in the net. At Premier League level you pay your money (and lots of it) to be entertained, not to cheer winning a set-piece or subjecting world class players to being roughed up. Even now when we are in League 1 I stick by this opinion. However, we are in League 1 now. Don’t get me wrong, there are players of real quality in this division, and I hope as the season goes on we see that many of these are in fact wearing the blue and white halves, but there comes a time when the ball has to stick up top to give you a chance of winning football games. I’m not saying “lets play the statistics and keep putting the ball long and in to the mixer until it drops for us and we score”, I like all other football fans, like to see good skilful, free flowing football – but when you are trailing to a recently promoted team by 2 goals with 20 minutes, or when you are struggling to create anything, there is always an argument for putting another striker on and just getting the ball forward. It’s a last resort, but it always has to be remembered as a resort.

So where does this leave us? From the above it may sound like we are in a relegation battle already, but we are only 2 league games in of a new season with a lot of new players still to gel and find their place. If we are still playing this bad come Bonfire Night then yes, we have a problem – but I don’t think it will come to that. I was sceptical about Mowbray when he was appointed, but in the end he was Sam-Gallagher-taking-the ball-in-the-corner away from keeping us up, so we have to keep faith with him; any calls for his exit are misplaced (if he did go, who exactly are we going to turn to with any experience of getting out of this league). We have Bradford away up next which is by no means the perfect tonic to get over the defeat – they are decent side who themselves will be looking at promotion this season; but this could be to our advantage. The fact they are looking up the table and already have two league wins under their belt, and are at home, will mean that unlike Doncaster, they will look to create rather than sit behind the ball, and that could work in our favour, as could the fact that we have not had a midweek game so Mowbray has had another 7 days to work on formations and tactics. The least we need out of the game is a draw and a positive performance, especially with them Dingles down the road coming up. In an ideal world, we would be 4 games (including the EFL Cup) and 4 wins in to the season, brimming with confidence, looking forward to facing them with al the pressure on them. In true Rovers style, it hasn’t played out that way and we have somehow managed to put more pressure on ourselves, playing a team which, it pains me to say, are two divisions above us in the football pyramid.

Image from http://www.bbc.co.uk

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Uncle Jack’s Legacy could be our Saviour

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As the dust settles on Blackburn Rovers relegation from the SkyBet Championship to League 1, the enormity of the situation becomes greater almost with each passing day – not just the task of getting back to the Championship first, and then the Premier League; but also just balancing the books and remaining in existence.

Rovers relegation on the the final day of the season at Griffin Park made them the first former Premier League Champions to be relegated to the third tier of English football and the first time the Lancashire club had been in the old third division since 1979, when Rovers finished bottom of the old second division. In 1979, the hiatus from the second tier lasted only one season, with Rovers promoted at the first attempt, finished second in the division to Grimsby.

The landscape has changed somewhat since the last visit to the depths of the Third Division; not only is it now regarded as League 1, but the financial gap has never been greater. Back in 1979, a footballers wage would have more akin to the regular man’s and in the third division many players would probably have a second job to supplement the income from football, a trade they would more than likely continue at the end of their playing career. In 1979 Peter Shilton became the highest paid player by signing a new contract with Nottingham Forest for £1,200 a week – putting this in perspective, the majority of the Blackburn side relegated at Brentford would have been on at least that, and that is playing for a second tier side. The Clubs themselves were worth a lot less financially then than they are now, and there was no lucrative TV deal to support clubs – they relied on gate receipts, sponsorships and generous owners; but the days of Jack Walker’s investment were still some 12 long years away. In the same year, the first million pound transfer took place with Trevor Francis moving from Birmingham City to Nottingham Forest for £1m – in 2012, Championship club Leicester City paid £1m for non-league Fleetwood Town striker Jamie Vardy.

Fast-forward 38 years and Blackburn Rovers find themselves back in the third division staring at a completely different prospect to that which would have been seen by then player-manager Howard Kendall and his team consisting of Jim Arnold, Stuart Parker and Kevin Stonehouse. For a start, the club are already in dire straits financially with debt already spiralling before the relegation (at the beginning of the 1978-79 relegation season, Rovers reported a profit of over £110,000 enabling the club to reduce its debts by about a third) – the impact of relegation financially will most importantly mean they will only receive £1m in television money for the 2017-18, compared to the £6m they would have received in the Championship. Even if Rovers could get 10,000 through the gate at Ewood every week, this would only make up £3m of the difference, and it is likely this money has already been allocated elsewhere – so it is safe to assume the £5m shortfall will have to be made up elsewhere. Most likely this will be wages and transfers (the club only spent £250,000 the previous summer).

The problem Rovers have is that the goal for the season has to be promotion at the first attempt, the cost of failing to achieve this could be catastrophic. But the books also need to be balanced. In 2012 when the club were relegated from the Premier League to the Championship a massive gamble was taken using the parachute money to bring in the likes of Danny Murphy, Dickson Etuhu, Leon Best and Nuno Gomes to name a few, all on high wages for the division – the gamble did not pay off and is, in my opinion, why we are in the football and financial situation we currently find ourselves in. Obviously the transfer budget is not there this time around for a spending spree (probably for the best), so the club need to be careful with wages. The wages paid in the Championship are going to be too high to sustain, especially for a club on the edge of the financial precipice already – so the club need to balance the release of those on high wages at the end of their contracts, with the retaining of the quality of those who remain under contract with, whilst also bringing in funds from the sale of assets to help to continue to balance the books. Mowbray has said the same since relegation, that we need to ensure we are competitive both on the field and financially. It truly is a massive balancing act.

The first action came the day after relegation with Paul Senior resigning from his role as Director of Football and Operations – he was the man thought to be responsible for bringing Tony Mowbray in, but given the lack of funds, is there much need for the role at League 1 level when you are hamstrung in the market looking only at loanees and free transfers. My opinion is that I would rather his wage be spent on someone who can improve out chances of promotion, ie a striker.

 Ten days later, news was announced of who was being retained and released by the club at the end of the season (those who are out of contract and either being offered a contract or not). The list of those released: Jason Lowe, Adam Henley, Hope Akpan, Danny Guthrie, Gordon Greer, Wes Brown, Joshua Askew and Ramirez Howarth. Those who were offered a new deal were just Connor Mahoney and Lewis Travis – it is worth pointing out that although they have been re-engaged, it does not mean they have to sign for the club. In addition to the above list, a number of the scholars at the club (8 to be precise) have also not been retained. It is also worth pointing out that according to the Clubs website we do not currently have a goalkeeping coach.  So were does this leave the squad?

 The remaining playing squad consists of:

Goalkeepers: Jason Steele, David Raya, Andy Fisher (3) 

Defenders: Derrick Williams, Charlie Mulgrew, Elliot Ward, Ryan Nyambe, Scott Wharton, Jack Doyle, Lewis Travis, Matthew Platt, Lewis Hardcastle (9) 

Midfielder: Liam Feeny, Darragh Lenihan, Willem Tomlinson, Connor Mahoney, Corey Evans, Elliot Bennett, Craig Conway, Connor Thomson, Joe Grayson, Joe Rankin-Costello, Tyler Magloire (11)

Forwards: Anthony Stokes, Danny Graham, Lewis Mansell (3)

On paper this is not a bad squad, but I would expect there to be further departures – before the start of the season I would expect the club to receive offers for the likes of Graham, Mulgrew, Evans, Bennett and maybe Conway. It will be interesting to see how the club responds to these offers, as I would imagine these will also be the highest earners at the club. Do they sell and save the money, or do they try and keep hold of them in the hope they can get promoted at the first attempt? In many ways, these decisions could mould the future of the club – do they take another massive financial hit for the year and gamble on an immediate promotion? Or do they cut their losses and almost start from scratch, putting trust in the academy and youth development players? If history is anything to go by, the latter may be the more sensible option. The fans won’t be happy with this as they will want to see a team that runs away with the division, but in the long term this decision is more sensible financially, and could secure the long term future of the club.

One way to look at it is if Rovers had stayed up on the final day of the season, yes they would have received more money, and yes they have a good experienced manager in Mowbray, but would that additional money be spent on keeping the club competitive in the division or to pay off existing debts? Neither of which is a long term solution – like putting a plaster on and amputated arm. Would it not make more sense to take the hit and get relegated; accept that financially we can’t compete and ‘start again’. Release those players who the club have no obligation to retain freeing up money from wages; wait and see what offers come in for those players who have a saleable value (and as such also the higher wages) and bring funds in from their sale, and save money from their wages; and then promote from within, utilising the youth development squad complimented with sensible free transfers and loanees to provide the experience?

When Jack Walker bought the club back in 1991 he wanted to make it self-financing in the long term, developing youth who could go on to play in the first team, reducing the amount of money which would have to be spent on transfers. In 1996 an official youth structure was put in place and in 2001 Brockhall Village Academy – during and since this period, the Blackburn Rovers youth teams have been one of the most successful in the country, and players who have emerged from it have included the likes of Neil Danns, Joe Garner, Paul Gallagher, Alan Judge and Phil Jones. Others have come through the Academy and been sold or released and have gone on to have successful careers. The academy at Brockhall is still widely regarded as one of the best in the Country.

academy4x3195-495529_478x359Upon relegation a lot of media outlets jumped on the band-wagon of “Jack Walker turning in his grave” at what the Venkys have done to his football club; and they would not be wrong. However, at this eleventh hour, Jack Walker could once again provide the saviour and hero of the club. His foresight to build the academy back in 1990’s may have produced some talented gems over the years who the club have reaped the rewards of financially and on the pitch, but in the clubs darkest hour, the Academy could be the shining light that not only rescues the club financially, but allows them a second chance on the pitch. What is clear is that under absolutely no circumstances should the idea of selling the academy and/or the land it is built on be considered. During the last campaign the likes of Mahoney, Raya, Wharton and Tomlinson all made appearences for the first team and none of them looked out of their depth – yes they are only a small percentage of the players available, but it is a sign that even without the ‘big names’ we could still be competitive in League 1. Like all Rovers fans, I want a quick return to the Championship (and hopefully eventually the Premier League) but not at the cost of the club going out of business. If it takes a few years, but it means we are on a level footing financially as a result, I’d take that.

You never know, financial stability may make the club more attractive to local businesses who want to invest and tempt the Venkys to part with the club, I’m not a marketing guru but I can’t imagine they will get much positivity publicity globally from owning a club in the old third division.

 

Final Thought – similarities between 1979 and 2017:

The 1978-79 season started disastrously and there was unrest from the supporters and local press, and despite signings, the manager Jim Iley was sacked at the end of September after only 172 days. The club was by now embroiled in a relegation battle and Caretaker-Manager John Pickering was appointed, and then given the job until the end of the season in February 1979. A number of players where signed and this brought an upturn in results, but the damage had already been done and the club where relegated, but there was support for Pickering who had done a good job in his time at the helm – not too dissimilar to the support shown for Mowbray in 2017. Back in 1979 however the board decided not to renew Pickering’s contract and instead brought in Howard Kendall as a player-manager, despite him never having managed before. Despite his inexperience, Kendall’s Rovers finished second in the league which largely owed to an unbeaten 15 game run which consisted of 14 victories and draw. If Mowbray was to leave Ewood during the summer, could there be some symmetry with what Kendall achieved in his first role, and what David Dunn could potentially achieve if given the nod?

 

Note: Facts and content from the 1978-79 season taken form the book “Blackburn Rovers: The Complete Record” by Mike Jackman – well worth a read for any Rovers fan.

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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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