Wolves’ boo-boys – a monster of the club’s own making

26 10 2011

by Adam Bate

It’s been a tough week to be a Wolves fan.

The revulsion towards the behaviour of a significant section of Wolves supporters has been widespread – and the criticism has been coming from all angles.

The Guardian’s Barry Glendenning tweeted that the fans were “clowns”, ESPN’s Daniel Pountney suggested they “grow up” and the WSC message boards were alive with the hot topic: “Are Wolves fans fickle?”

But this was nothing compared to the assessment of those within the club itself. Mick McCarthy labelled his detractors “mindless idiots” while captain Roger Johnson had already called the fans “a disgrace”.

Everything points to the conclusion that Wolves fans are ungrateful characters who believe they have a divine right to success.

But there are two sides to this particular story. And although those within the club will now allow people to run with the idea of a small club and its over-demanding fans, for those living in this one-club city a very different picture emerges.

After all, there are many who remember the words of Jez Moxey, the club’s chief executive, back in March of this year when he told supporters:

“The aim is to get us back where everyone thinks we belong. We are kidding ourselves if we think we can usurp Manchester United, but we think we can get to just below that level – in the top three, four or five clubs where we can be competing in Europe.”

It was a remarkable claim as it far outweighed even the long-term ambitions of many a hardcore supporter. And while McCarthy was slightly more pragmatic, his comments in May appeared to buy into the idea of speedy progress:

“Every year I’ve been here we’ve improved. If we survive then I won’t be looking for that experience again – I’ll be looking for the experience of trying to finish in the top ten rather than out of the bottom three.”

When survival did come that month – with just three minutes to spare – the club was quick to announce a breathtaking redevelopment of Molineux that would see three of the four stands rebuilt.

To the surprise of many, it was reported that plans had been drafted that could see the capacity increased to an astonishing 50,000 seats.

The message was clear – this is a club going places – and supporters in a city badly hit by the financial crisis were encouraged to snap up the limited number of season tickets that would be available while Molineux’s capacity would be reduced due to the redevelopment.

Given these grand plans, there was some disappointment when only three players were signed in the summer.

Dorus de Vries joined on a free transfer as a reserve keeper, Roger Johnson arrived to much fanfare and Jamie O’Hara – a key member of the team that had survived on the last day – saw his loan deal made permanent.

But again the word from the club was emphatic. Chairman Steve Morgan told fans in an interview on BBC Radio WM earlier this month that Wolves were the fifth biggest net spenders in the Premier League over the past three seasons having spent more than £40million on new players.

It was a case of horrible timing. On the field, Wolves were embarking on their worst run of defeats in more than a quarter of a century.

Five matches were lost, with the team two goals down by half-time at home to QPR and Newcastle as well as losing the Black Country derby to West Bromwich Albion by two goals to nil.

When this scoreline looked set to be repeated against newly-promoted Swansea, things reached tipping point.

Nothing anybody says will convince people there was anything constructive about the chants heard at Molineux on Saturday.

But those season ticket holders did not pluck their grand ideas from thin air.

For the so-called 3Ms – Moxey, McCarthy and Morgan – this is a monster of their own making.


Rooney – Should he stay or should he go?

19 10 2011

This piece appears in full on TEAMtalk.

The last week has surely confirmed what we all knew already – Wayne Rooney is the most divisive figure in English football.

Wading through the views of journalists, ex-pros and – of course – the TEAMtalk Your Say boards, there appears to be no real consensus of opinion.

While Harry Redknapp and Alan Shearer have been quick to rubbish suggestions that England’s star man should stay at home for Euro 2012, others are calling for Fabio Capello to write him off as a talented liability.

Motormouth Stan Collymore and World Cup winner George Cohen believe Rooney should be dumped from the squad and seem to have the public on their side.

At the time of writing, a Sky Sports poll suggests 68% do not want Rooney selected for England.


Del Bosque right not to shoehorn in Silva

12 10 2011

by Adam Bate

This piece appears in full on TEAMtalk.

It’s easy to feel sympathy for David Silva when he speaks of feeling like a “supporting actor” with the Spanish national team. Silva has certainly been the star man in Manchester City’s ensemble cast so far this season.

But surely with the talent at Vincente del Bosque’s disposal, the Spain coach can be forgiven for not putting Silva centre-stage.

It is one of the curiosities of international football – teams are constructed that see world-class performers left out of the side while lesser lights in other positions are automatic picks.


What’s the Truth about Serie A?

5 10 2011

by Adam Bate

Sam Wallace (The Independent): “You go to Stoke, they’ve got an identity. You go to Bolton and that club’s got an identity. When I watch Serie A you don’t feel that so much about the smaller clubs there.”

Shaun Custis (The Sun): “You watch Serie A do you? I didn’t think people did that anymore. Genuinely, I didn’t.”

Neil Ashton (Daily Mail): “If you watch the last couple of weeks both the games have been 0-0 draws.”

Shaun Custis (The Sun): “Italian football has dropped off the map. You do get the feeling there is so much more competition in this country – you do feel that teams at the bottom can win the big games at any point.”

Sunday Supplement, Sky Sports, 25/09/2011

It’s quite an exchange and while it kicked up a storm on Twitter it may well have tapped into a common view among English football fans.

Thankfully, some of these views can be challenged by looking at the statistics.


Neil Ashton’s facile point that the recent televised games had ended goalless suggests he is of the view that there are fewer goals scored in Italian football. Is this true?

In short, yes it is. Over the past three seasons there have been 2935 goals in Serie A at an average of 2.57 per game. In the Premier League there have been 3058 goals at an average of 2.68 per game.

Interestingly, however, Ashton may be surprised to note that in two of the past three seasons there have been more goalless draws in the Premier League than in Serie A. In total, in the last three completed seasons there have been 98 goalless draws in England compared to 82 in Italy.

So why are there both more goals and more goalless draws in the Premier League than in Serie A? That may have something to do with the heavy beatings that the top teams in England are capable of dishing out on a regular basis – and it strikes at the heart of the debate about competitiveness…


Custis’s claim that the teams at the bottom of the Premier League can win the big games at any point is an interesting one.

If it were true that England’s weakest sides were getting better results against the top teams than their Italian equivalent then that would certainly indicate a greater competitiveness. But it isn’t true.

Comparing the results of the bottom three sides against the top three sides in both England and Italy is revealing in so much as what it does not reveal. It does not bring to light these miraculous results that justify Custis’s “feeling” he gets.

In 2010-11 the three relegated teams from the Premier League (Birmingham City, Blackpool and West Ham United) managed one win, three draws and 14 defeats against England’s top three (Man Utd, Chelsea and Man City).

That one win was for Birmingham against Chelsea (memorable for you Shaun?) and, admittedly, it’s one more than the Serie A sides managed. However, Italy’s bottom three (Bari, Brescia and Sampdoria) did get seven draws against Serie A’s top three (Milan, Inter and Napoli) meaning that they took more points off the top sides than their English equivalent.

Perhaps Custis and co were hinting at a more general competitiveness than is shown in the results. But a look at other key performance indicators only serves to highlight the competitiveness of the Italian league.

The spread of average possession stats for 2010-11 – per the WhoScored website using Opta statistics – show a greater disparity in England (38% to 60%) than in Italy (43% to 59%).

The pass completion rates tell a similar story. The spread in England is from 64% to 84% but in Italy there is remarkably consistent with Lecce bottom of the pile with a respectable 73%.

It’s a similar story so far in 2011-12 and the early indications are that Serie A is set for a wide open title race with just three points separating the top eight.

It adds weight to the argument of Italian football expert James Horncastle when he says: “At this moment in time Serie A is the most competitive it’s ever been.”


The notion of identity is a more difficult matter to prove. And yet, it should come as no surprise that an English person should detect a greater sense of identity among English clubs.

Sam Wallace points out Bolton Wanderers are a club that he sees as having a clear identity – but one wonders whether this identity resonates among the Italian public?

It’s tempting to conclude that this supposed contrast between England and Italy reveals nothing more than the journalist’s own ignorance.

Perhaps it’s best to leave the final word on this topic to James Richardson, former presenter of Football Italia on Channel 4, who says: “There is no country with a stronger regional identity than Italy and it is absolutely expressed through the clubs.”

Stoke City: Evolution?

25 09 2011

by Adam Bate

It was no surprise to hear Jon Champion use the term “Neanderthal” to describe the Stoke experience on ESPN at the weekend. After all, when it comes to Stoke City, everyone seems to be pre-occupied with the notion of evolution.

This time last year, the man often seen as the personification of Stoke’s direct approach launched not a throw-in but a defence of his club’s style. Rory Delap said: “People go on about us being a long-ball team and relying on set-pieces. Well, we had to do a job to get in the league and stay in the league, but now we are looking to progress. But it won’t be an immediate change, it has to be slow.”

Speaking after Stoke’s stunning 5-0 FA Cup semi final triumph at Wembley in April, Tony Pulis was also keen to articulate the idea of an evolutionary side. Pulis said: “The team that won this semi-final is much different to the one which started out in the Premier League two and a half seasons ago in that we have become more expansive. It’s a case of evolution not revolution.”

Perhaps this is a good time to clarify this is no hatchet job on Stoke City’s style of play. The idea that there is a right way to play football is a risible concept. Beauty can be found in a tiki-taka passing move, a fast counter-attack or a long-ball through the middle. This piece merely seeks to answer the question – ‘Is Stoke’s style of play evolving?’

The first port of call should probably be to look at the Opta statistics for ‘short passing’. Although the quality of ‘style of play’ remains subjective, these stats are usually considered to be indicative of an aesthetically pleasing brand of football. Indeed, a feature of the better sides has been the number of short passes they have played per game.

For 2009-10 Arsenal topped the table for short passes ahead of Manchester United and Chelsea and this pattern was repeated again last season. This is in line with the widely held belief that Arsenal are a nice team to watch – better than their results would indicate. The start of this season has seen Manchester City climb to the top of the short passing table. This supports the idea of a team that is evolving and indulging in a more expansive game with better players.

Number of Short Passes per game: 2009-10, 2010-11, 2011-12 (part)

The evidence for the evolution of Stoke City’s style of play is somewhat more flimsy. Stoke City were at the bottom of the short passing table in 2009-10, 2010-11 and have already taken up their customary place after the early exchanges of the 2011-12 season. What’s more, there is a remarkable consistency. Stoke played an average of 215 short passes a game in 2009-10, then 220 a game last season and 221 a game this campaign. Well I guess they do say evolution is something that takes place over millions of years.

Another key performance indicator in terms of style is the ‘Goals from Open Play’ statistic. The common belief that Stoke rely on set-pieces should not preclude success from open play situations. And yet, while the top four of the ‘Goals from Open Play’ table for 2009-10 exactly mirrored (in order) the actual league table, Stoke languished down in 17th. Last season saw only a particularly turgid Birmingham side score fewer goals from open play. So far this season it is only the luckless Swansea that have failed to score as many as Stoke from open play.

But the key for Stoke fans must be that the team’s results are going in the right direction. Stoke have finished between 11th and 13th in their first three Premier League seasons and it would be no surprise if the team significantly improved on that showing this time around. And the key to that has to be the improvement in personnel:

While four of the starting eleven remain the same, the superiority of the current side is clear. This is further highlighted by the presence of high profile players such as Wilson Palacios and Matthew Upson on the bench.

So given the improvement in the quality of players, perhaps the real question ought to be: ‘Why is Stoke City’s style of play not evolving?’

It would seem the real evolution of the side has been in buying better players to play the same way rather than actually changing the style. Peter Crouch is the T-1000 model Terminator; an upgrade on Big Mama Sidibe. Elsewhere in the team, there is Jonathan Woodgate – regarded by some as the greatest defender England nearly had. He has impressed but, importantly, only within the framework of Stoke’s style – Woodgate completed just 14 passes against Manchester United.

One suspects Tony Pulis has realised this is the best way forward. He has experimented with introducing players such as Eidur Gudjohnsen and Tuncay to play between the lines and these players have been unable to be assimilated into the collective.

As a result, it would seem that Stoke’s real evolution may well be in purchasing superior players to fit into their already effective system. But don’t expect that to stop people inside and outside the club paying lip service to the God of style.

Loyalty? The Football Fan is a Hypocrite

9 09 2011


by Adam Bate

Welcome to September. It’s the month in which we say goodbye to summer and football fans everywhere say hello to the squad of players they now know they’ll be stuck with until January. The transfer window has shut but the recriminations continue. And Arsenal fans etch the date of 7 April into their diaries – the day on which Samir Nasri will return to the stadium that he found just a smidgeon too quiet for his tastes.

Nasri is not a popular boy at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium. He didn’t show any loyalty, you see. Oh sure, he spoke of a desire to win ‘trophies’ but in the world of football we are only too familiar with that little euphemism. Let’s assume a doubling of his salary helped smooth the deal.

The Arsenal message boards were suitably apoplectic. Cesc Fabregas had moved to Barcelona for love. That the Catalan giants happen to be the finest team on the planet and not exactly notorious for rewarding their superstars with nuts and berries was to miss the point. The judgement was clear – Nasri’s betrayal was beneath contempt.

Such is the myopia of the football fan that you would be forgiven for thinking every playing squad in the land had been assembled without assistance. But Arsenal’s squad, like others, was not acquired by cherry-picking a handful of talented young scamps found kicking a can in the local park. Instead, their charges were acquired from Southampton, Charlton and Cardiff; from Auxerre, Lille and Marseille.


Macheda – Man Utd vs Aston Villa – 2009

5 09 2011

 by David Yaffe-Bellany

In many ways, this goal is quintessential Manchester United. The youth of the scorer, the lateness of the hour and the nature of the comeback all emblematic of United under Ferguson’s stewardship. Aspects of a period of success, tied neatly together in one moment of startling poignancy.
The setting was, fittingly, Old Trafford. Devoid of luck, United welcomed Aston Villa with the wounds of Liverpool’s annihilation three weeks prior still fresh, still burning.
In second place, United needed a win to return to the summit; their seemingly impenetrable seven point advantage sliced to ribbons by two consecutive defeats.
In retrospect, it is bizarre that the 2008/09 incarnation of Manchester United ever struggled to regain their crown – reigning European and world champions, blessed with the talents of Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo, their greatest challengers were Liverpool, a team that a year later would find themselves struggling to qualify for European competition.
Nevertheless, there they were on April 6th, 2009 – the dream of an eighteenth league triumph slipping further and further away. Brief hope was kindled early in the first half, when a Cristiano Ronaldo free kick flew into the top corner; the type of goal only he could score, of a sparkling variety that sadly has been rarely replicated in English football since his big money departure.
After losing 4-1 to Liverpool, this United side had acquired somewhat of a penchant for self destruction – a trait no better illustrated than by the events of the next hour. First, John Carew rose elegantly to nod in a Gareth Barry cross before, fifteen minutes after the interval, Gabriel Agbonlahor headed home from close range. 1-2.
I remember vividly sitting in my basement, the memory of premature victory celebrations after Liverpool’s 2-1 loss to Middlesbrough fast taking on a sort of karmic significance. Chants of “beat someone, beat someone” echoed across Old Trafford; as for me, I was too stunned to say anything.
My anxious, twelve year old mind was inexperienced in dealing with United’s love of brinkmanship. Against Bayern in ’99 I had watched in a cursory manner, not consciously aware of goings on, reportedly more interested in the little dog twoing and froing across the house. My grandmother’s celebratory phone call, quickly stymied by pleas of ignorance, was made minutes before I popped in the cassette tape to take in Moscow ’08, and shielded me from tension’s unyielding grip when John Terry stepped forward to take his spot kick.
But now there was no protection. Martin Tyler’s melodious commentary made up for the articulacy that had deserted me, his summations of United’s position in the standings, quite dreary. 
On eighty minutes, some sanity prevailed. Taking matters into his own hands, Ronaldo thrashed a low shot towards goal, where, somehow, it trickled by the goalkeeper’s despairing lunge. I remember seeing the seventeen year old Italian lad who had come on twenty minutes previously slap Ronny furiously across the chest in celebration. The guy’s got spunk, I thought.
As the game drew towards it’s latter stages, the prospect of a draw became increasingly attractive. When Fergie threw on another teenage forward 87 minutes in, I yelled some not very complimentary things at the television. And then, the moment which defines this article: My Favourite Goal.
Forever the forgotten architect of some of United’s landmark moments, it was Ryan Giggs who played the pass. Less than a year later, from a similar spot on the pitch, he would caress an equally vital ball through to Michael Owen. Needless to say, such symmetry could not be appreciated at the time of Macheda’s strike – Owen was battling relegation at Newcastle.
Standing readied on the edge of the box, one hand outstretched, the other prepared to hold off the attention of Luke Young, Macheda received the ball and turned. Right footed, falling to the ground, he unleashed a curling effort that softly glided into the net. Martin Tyler let out a shrill cry, his voice reaching previously uncharted altitudes. Machedaaaaaa!
Mobbed by teammates, Macheda staggered over to the nearest stand and – pushing past police officers – flung himself into the arms of his crying father. The beauty of the moment, untainted by a subsequent booking, will never leave me.
Two years after winning the adoration of millions, Federico Macheda’s career has taken a turn for the worse. Relegated with Sampdoria, his future at United is anything but safe. However, even if the winner against Villa remains his greatest goal, the man called “Kiko” will forever find comfort in that one moment. The one moment, in my eyes at least, which ensures his immortality.
Read more by David Yaffe-Bellany at In For The Hat Trick and follow him on Twitter @INFTH