Football Footnotes: Everton - Paul Gascoigne
What could possibly be said about Gazza “Paul” Gascoigne that hasn’t been said already? The man is a walking cliché, from the tears of Turin to taking turkey to a gun-wielding murderer, via breaking his own leg trying to tackle Gary Charles, That Goal at Wembley and stints in China and at Kettering Town. You all know the story - the classic fallen hero saga, a sad decline from virtuoso to alcoholism. I don’t need to explain. I don’t need to explain.
I think the best way to write about him is to reduce him to the level of any other player, and explain my own experiences. I remember the back end of Gascoigne’s career, particularly when he returned from Scotland to sign for Division One promotion-chasing northerners Middlesbrough in early 1998, allowing the media to create a nice “prodigal son” narrative. By this point he was already a semi-mythical figure that people were aware, consciously or otherwise, was on the decline - otherwise why would he end up at Middlesbrough?
He played a handful of games as Boro were promoted to the Premier League, playing alongside Paul Merson, who continued his Indian summer on Teesside before moving on to Aston Villa early in the 1998-99 season. But while Merson demonstrated that a footballer could successfully recover from addiction, Gascoigne could not do the same, and his time at the Riverside was marred by off-field issues, including entering Priory Hospital for the first time in 1998 and a divorce in 1999, as well as injuries such as the broken arm he sustained when he elbowed Aston Villa’s George Boateng in early 2000.
At the end of the season, he joined Everton, much to the surprise of the media, who had assumed no Premier League club would rise to his £20,000 a week wage demands until Walter Smith, Gascoigne’s former boss at Rangers, decided to step in. They already had Mark Hughes on their books but evidently they wanted another past-it 90s hero in the squad.
Now while I remember his at Middlesbrough quite well, his stint at Everton only rings a distant bell for me. I have a vague recollection of him signing for them, but I can’t remember ever seeing him play for them. I had to Google it to see a picture of him in an Everton shirt. It just seems completely unfamiliar.
And yet he did play quite a few games for them - 22 starts and 16 substitute appearances, to be exact. Problem is most of these came right at the start, in the first three months of the 2000-01 season, before the inevitable injuries set in - after 13 appearances from the start to 5th November, he made only two more that season, both coming in March. Another trip to rehab followed, before resuming playing in September, after which he had a long run of appearances into early 2002, during which he even done a goal against Bolton.
Now it’s worth remember in this era of Everton’s Moyesian consistency that they weren’t always this good. The latter half of Walter Smith’s reign in particular was a struggle, though that’s no surprise with players like Francis Jeffers (although he was good then), Alex Nyarko (he wasn’t) and Danny Cadamarteri (he certainly wasn’t) in the squad. In 2000-01 Everton finished 16th on 42 points, as the bottom three of Manchester City, Coventry and Bradford were particularly disappointing. The following season was pretty similar, albeit with David Ginola, whose signing was announced on the same day as Gascoigne and unlikely future club legend Lee Carsley, replacing Mark Hughes as the other token shit old guy (NB Ginola’s stint there could equally fit this slot but we’re doing him for another club), and Jesper Blomqvist also inexplicably hanging around.
In March 2002, the inevitable happened - Smith was sacked. In from Preston came He of the Dour Expression, who decided (correctly) that Ginola wasn’t good enough and barely played him. Gascoigne, though, was in for a different fate - unimpressed by Smith’s sacking, Moyes couldn’t guarantee his future there, and so he wanted out of the SS Toffee. Meanwhile Burnley manager Stan Ternant was showing an interest - he had previously taken on Ian Wright in a similar short term deal in 2000, and had already tried to sign Gascoigne on loan, so with Smith out of the way and no transfer window to contend with, the path was cleared for His Geordieness to move to Turf Moor.
Essentially, the Burnley stint was the last of his career as a serious footballer. After 6 appearances in the last couple of months of the season, during which time the Clarets missed out on the play-offs, he was released. He went on trial to DC United before signing for Gansu Tianma in the second tier of Chinese football, a stint that ended prematurely with another period of rehab and the outbreak of the SARS virus. His last playing appearances in professional football were at a very bleak, desolate outpost - he made five appearances for Boston United in League Two in 2004, where he was briefly a player-coach (could you get a more mentally unstable manager-coach combo than Gascoigne and Steve Evans? And I’m not even trying to play that for laughs) until he left over a dispute over his desire to appear on I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here - an appropriate conclusion to the career of a man who became a celebrity who just happened to play football rather than a footballer who just happened to be famous.
England will revert to type in 2014
There will be injuries. There will be baffling selection choices. There will be outrage. There will be media hysteria. There will be dodgy World Cup songs. And there will be tedious, turgid football. It’s the England way.
It may begin with modesty, but don’t take this seriously. We also faced this in 2010 - a team that was clearly mediocre to anyone who understands football (and now looks frankly ridiculous in hindsight - Stephen Warnock!?) led to paired down expectations until the group draw had been made, after which The Sun’s famous E.A.S.Y. headline did all the work any cynic needed.
That was perhaps the point the English media lurched into self-parody about their national team - at least in 2002 and 2006 there were reasons for genuine hope; in 2010 it was clear England weren’t going to win, and yet all it took was one draw to change that. The results in that group proved its ridiculousness - England scraped out of the group in 2nd place before finally being demolished by Germany, though even then the media somehow weaselled out of giving the team a deserved caning for terrible selections by Capello and terrible performances by the eleven men on the pitch because of Lampard’s disallowed goal.
Some people wonder why people get so irate at the prospect of international breaks. It’s because for most of the people who get irate, the international break means watching England, and England have been turgid for years. The traditional narrative has been that England have been good in qualifiers before injury/referee-based “bad luck” in the finals. Some might suggest it’s only a recent Hodgson-based phenomenon that England have been poor in qualifying. This isn’t the case, though - actually it’s been like this for most of the last twenty years, but this has been largely ignored in favour of the usual nationalistic tubthumping from the media and their scapegoat-based narratives.
Let’s consider the Euro 2004-era England team, probably the one where England had the most quality in their first choice starting line-up, before Scholes retired, Beckham and Owen declined, and Rooney’s flair was sucked away. Back then England didn’t need gimmicks like Peter Crouch - they were genuine contenders on merit, lacking only in depth in attack and a viable left wing option. Though “what ifs” aren’t convincing ways of discussing this, it’s easy to think how good England could have been if, say, Alan Shearer was still playing for them, or even if (that old chestnut) Ryan Giggs had committed to them instead of Wales.
I’ve already talked here before about the famous night at Old Trafford in 2002 when Artim Sakiri ended any pretence that Sven-Goran Eriksson had intrinsically changed England. As I pointed out in that article, England had just scraped past Slovakia before the draw with Macedonia. In their next match, they put only two goals past minnows Liechtenstein, before a late Darius Vassell-inspired win over Turkey in Sunderland a few days later. They went on to scrape past Slovakia a second time, again after falling behind, while Macedonia also took the lead again in Skopje before Rooney and Beckham dug England out in the second half. This was followed by another disappointing display against Liechtenstein, and a final 0-0 draw in Istanbul which secured qualification.
The point is England were playing within themselves. Despite having a vastly superior side to what they have now, the results weren’t exactly that much more impressive - they scraped past average sides with the decisive result being an uninspiring late win at home against their main challengers. They always did enough, yes, but that was it - nothing special. Go out and smash a team 4-0? Nah, don’t need to, just settle for 2-0. And people criticise Hodgson for being negative - this is under Saint Sven!
England’s qualification record has long been a source of pride, especially when being used to defend Eriksson and (of late) Capello. “We hardly ever lose”, “we beat Germany 5-1”, “we beat Croatia 4-1” etc. People remember the big results, they look at the stats, and they assume the two things must be related. Actually, if you look at the results in detail - and this continues from Euro 2004 qualification through all the phases since - the big results are the anomalies, with the majority of England qualification performances just being “good enough”. We all remember 2008 - we forget scraping through in 2006.
2008 is always portrayed as an extraordinary situation - McClaren is the convenient scapegoat. But to be honest, the only way in which it is extraordinary is in the quality of the teams England faced - on the surface, England’s form is much the same as under Eriksson. A quick analysis of England’s qualification campaigns of the 21st century seems to confirm this:
2002: England edged Germany on goal difference; after a disappointing start under Kevin Keegan, a 5-1 win in Munich under Eriksson sparked a turn-around, although it took a late David Beckham equaliser at home to Greece to secure qualification; meanwhile Germany completely changed their side after the defeat, banishing some of their mediocre players and changing their style of play, leading to them reaching the final
2004: England edged Turkey, securing it with a 0-0 draw in the final game, despite a hiccup against Macedonia; characterised by lots of narrow come-from-behind wins; Turkey would go on to lose to minnows Latvia in the play-offs
2006: England made hard work of a superficially easy group, eventually securing 1st place in the group with a late Frank Lampard goal in a 2-1 home win over nearest rivals Poland; qualification had been secured with a previous turgid 1-0 win over Austria, a team who had already snatched a 2-2 draw in the previous tie; England had also stumbled to a shock defeat against Northern Ireland, and only won by more than two goals once; Poland would be eliminated in the group stages after losing their first two matches against Ecuador and Germany
2008: England finished 3rd behind Croatia (future quarter-finalists) and Russia (future semi-finalists) after losing three games, all to the teams that finished ahead of them; ultimately what cost England, though, was the two 0-0 draws against Macedonia and Israel; even in victory they were occasionally disappointing, as evidenced by a narrow win in Skopje and failing to score in the first half in Andorra; despite this, they did pick up handy 3-0 wins against Israel, Russia and in both matches against Estonia
2010: England won nine games out ten in a poor group, losing only in Ukraine; but even in one of England’s best campaigns of recent years, there was still cause for concern, including once again failing to score against Andorra in the first half, another scoreless first half against Kazakhstan, going in level at half-time against Belarus, and a late win at home to Ukraine; Ukraine and an under-par Croatia took points off each other which prevented either from mounting a serious challenge, with Ukraine also drawing against Belarus; Ukraine would lose to Greece in the play-offs
2012: England once again made hard work of a routine group, drawing in three out of the eight games, including both games against nearest rivals Montenegro; England’s six-point margin of victory in the group flattered them, as neither Montenegro nor Switzerland were consistent, taking points off each other and both being tripped up by a resurgent Wales towards the end of the group
2014: England drew four of their ten games as they edged Ukraine by a single point; despite big wins over the minnows Moldova and San Marino, England had failed to win a game against three of the five teams in the group until the final pair of matches, when they secured home wins against Montenegro and Poland; the three main rivals to England all took points off each other, with Ukraine succumbing to a crucial defeat at home to Montenegro early in the campaign, as well as throwing away a win at Wembley and drawing in Moldova
(and I haven’t even touched on qualifying via the play-offs for Euro 2000, or having qualification handed on a plate by Italy for the 1998 World Cup)
You see, England have been pretty average for at least some of each of the last six qualification campaigns. They have also been pretty good for some of each of these, but these good performances are largely isolated, and are usually followed by some more narrow escapes. The number of turgid 1-0s and 0-0s far outnumbers the number of convincing 4-1 or 5-1 wins against theoretically good (but actually overrated, in most of these cases) opposition.
The evidence suggests England have consistently been fortunate in their enemies. Despite slipping up on numerous occasions, generally they have not being punished by their rivals. The only difference in 2008 was that Russia and Croatia did take advantage of this. Looking at the bigger picture, England’s results in competitive fixtures under McClaren were no better or worse than they had been under Eriksson, or would not be in the 2012 and 2014 qualifiers under Capello and Hodgson; McClaren was just unfortunate that 1) England had two consistent teams in their group and 2) that the English media have a narrative and he’ll forever be pigeon-holed as a failure. Of course, that doesn’t excuse some of his management decisions, as England should have qualified - the point is that Eriksson, Capello and Hodgson weren’t/haven’t been that much better than him.
Being seeded for most of these draws has been crucial - if England’s ranking slump continues, they may find qualifying for future tournaments tougher, although conveniently the expansion of the Euros means that probably won’t happen immediately,
England fans may wonder why England’s performances “drop off” at the major tournaments. I don’t think they do actually drop off. England have played the same way in tournaments as they have done in the bulk of qualification campaigns - within themselves. Occasionally it all clicks and they pull a great performance out of the bag, but this is very rare and often depends on context.
This should be taken into account when looking at England’s wins over Montenegro and Poland - both matches were at home, both teams set up to defend and to play on the counter, and England needed the results. England won’t play with that urgency in their group games in the World Cup - there’s nothing to suggest they will, because it’s the same every two/four years.
In any case, there will be more controversy to come. There will be the usual outrage over selection issues when someone is inexplicably not called up. A key player will get injured just before and will either be ruled out or will be included but won’t be 100% fit. The media will hype it up, slowly at first but by the time of the first match they will be in “England will win” mode, even if it’s by stealth with phrases like “we may do better with low expectations” - there’s no such thing as “low expectations” when it comes to England at a major tournament. Victories will be embellished, embarrassing results will be airbrushed out, and obvious critical deficiencies will be overlooked.
But if this seems like I’m suggesting that this is unique to England, it isn’t. All teams have selection issues going into major tournaments. All teams go into the World Cup with hype and patriotism. And yet one will still win, and others will achieve more than what they expected. The hard luck narratives and “what if” stories will continue to form as ever when England inevitably fail to get out of the group/are knocked out in the second round/are knocked out in the quarter-finals (delete as appropriate), but these are just excuses.
England are not a great team and haven’t been for many years - they have played as a collection of eleven individuals rather than as a unit. They have consistently been playing turgid, uninspiring football in qualifiers and major tournaments for at least the last two decades. There’s no “bottling on the big occasion” mentality here - if anything, England usually rise to the challenge when necessary, but too often play within themselves against teams they should be beating, relying on moments of individual brilliance to get them through rather than a good team performance. The only time there was a genuine difference between performances in the two was in 2010, and even then it’s not as simple as it seems.
Though it’s not true that England’s star players are overrated as some suggest, it’s fair to say that for the last twenty years, England have been an average team blessed with enough outstanding players to just about get them through to major tournaments - think of all the moments that Beckham, Owen, Rooney and Gerrard bailed England out in matches.
England have lived on the edge of not qualifying all this time, partly because qualifying is not easy but mainly because they aren’t that good. 2014 is part of the rule, not the exception. The only thing this suggests is that the next major tournament will also be part of the rule, not the exception - if you’re hoping for a successful World Cup, prepare to once again be disappointed.
Ultimate Championship 2013-14: Update 1
It’s the international break and thus a good time to post the first official update on how the predictions are going.
Daniel Critchley - 68
Jack Howes - 74
James Bennett - 74
Stuart Bennett - 76
John Reid - 76
Joe Shennan - 78
Andy Charles - 78
Sam Robinson - 80
Jake Gibbons - 82
Nick Hancock - 82
Jake Phillips - 84
Will Beckman - 84
David Norris - 86
Keir Beales - 86
Dean Gripton - 86
Andrew Harding - 88
Daniel Critchley - 104
Stuart Bennett - 110
Nick Hancock - 120
Andy Charles - 120
Keir Beales - 122
John Reid - 122
Sam Robinson - 124
Jake Gibbons - 126
Isaac Leigh - 130
James Bennett - 132
Will Beckman - 140
Joe Shennan - 140
Dean Gripton - 144
Jack Howes - 154
David Norris - 156
Andrew Harding - 168
Dean Gripton - 132
Jake Phillips - 150
John Reid - 154
Andrew Harding - 154
Will Beckman - 154
Jack Howes - 156
Joe Shennan - 158
Keir Beales - 160
Andy Charles - 162
Jake Gibbons - 162
James Bennett - 166
Daniel Critchley - 176
Isaac Leigh - 176
Sam Robinson - 182
David Norris - 182
Nick Hancock - 184
Stuart Bennett - 194
Dean Gripton - 156
Isaac Leigh - 158
James Bennett - 160
Joe Shennan - 160
Daniel Critchley - 160
Jack Howes - 164
Will Beckman - 170
Andrew Harding - 172
John Reid - 174
Jake Gibbons - 176
David Norris - 180
Sam Robinson - 184
Andy Charles - 184
Nick Hancock - 184
Keir Beales - 218
Stuart Bennett - 220
Of the 16 League Cup selections, four have already been eliminated - Daniel Critchley (Liverpool), Jake Gibbons (Aston Villa), Keir Beales (Everton) and Stuart Bennett (Swansea City). This is fairly meaningless at this stage as no one has scored anything in this so far - it just means you won’t get any bonus deductions later on.
Daniel Critchley - 508
Dean Gripton - 518
John Reid - 526
James Bennett - 532
Joe Shennan - 536
Andy Charles - 544
Isaac Leigh - 544
Jack Howes - 546
Will Beckman - 548
Jake Gibbons - 548
Sam Robinson - 570
Nick Hancock - 570
Andrew Harding - 582
Keir Beales - 586
Stuart Bennett - 600
David Norris - 604
So the youngest entrant leads us all. It’s a young man’s game…though to be fair, I’d not want to be leading at this stage, because there are loads of changes to come. That said, a great starting point.
International Dream Teams, 1993-2013 - Italy
Yes, we’re resorting to that lazy format - but hey, at least we’re giving you some content, which is a rarity these days. Be grateful.
Anyway, the idea is that I’m putting together some dream teams covering the period 1993-2013 - covering the 1994 World Cup qualifying campaign right through to the current one. It’s a nice period to narrow down to given that it covers the Premier League/Champions League era and all the World Cups that both of us at Apocalypse Football have been alive for.
Obviously such a thing is inherently problematic (and pretentious - very pretentious, in fact, although you won’t find us doing Romania or Uzbekistan or anything that won’t get us hits), but the benefit of keeping it to a fairly narrow time period is most of the players have either played alongside/against each other or at least will have played alongside/against someone who will have played alongside/against the rest of them. It’s hardly comparing Gordon Banks with Joe Hart - at most there’s two degrees of separation which makes comparison easier. But Banks was better than Hart, obviously.
I’m starting with Italy because I like Italy. I picked the players based on performance at club and international level, particularly at major tournaments, in this case focusing on Italy’s successful campaigns - Euro 2000 and 2012, and the 1994 and 2006 World Cups:
GK: Gianluigi Buffon
One of the great goalkeepers of our time - not only a World Cup winner but also one of only two Italians to play in the finals of the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2012 (the other being Daniele de Rossi). He also has dozens of medals in club football, though no Champions League winners medal. And he shouts a lot, which is important in a goalkeeper.
RB: Gianluca Zambrotta
No great Italian right-backs of recent times sprung to mind immediately, but Zambrotta was converted to this role before the 2006 World Cup, so is good enough for this. I still remember when he was considered to be a midfielder, before being switched to left-back and finally right-back at Juventus, where he was part of a defence that won Serie A fair and square…oh wait.
CB: Alessandro Nesta
One of the greatest centre-backs of all time, Nesta has as close to a complete set of medals as you can realistically get. However, the “Nestavaro” partnership (because this is exactly what hipsters would call it if today was 2006) didn’t actually last in the 2006 World Cup due to his injury in the third group game. Even so, he’s still brilliant and he’s still playing for Montreal Impact.
CB: Fabio Cannavaro
It’s bizarre to think that in the post-Calciopoli world, Cannavaro has officially never won Serie A. Neither did he ever win the Champions League. But he did win the World Cup and the Ballon d’Or in 2006, and also has winners’ medals from La Liga and the UEFA Cup. And he was an outstanding defender. He probably shouldn’t have bothered hanging around until the 2010 World Cup, though. And he might have been on performance-enhancing drugs. But I don’t really care.
LB: Paolo Maldini
All of the players in this team so far are/were great players. Maldini’s in the discussion for the greatest. I’ve always felt it was such a shame in hindsight that he finished playing for Italy in 2002, when he surely would have been good enough to play a part in 2006 and get that World Cup winners’ medal he deserved. He just kept going - he was nearly 41 when he retired, after over 1000 games for Milan. Considering how good you’ve got to be to play 1 game for Milan…
CM: Gennaro Gattuso
I decided to go with the midfield combination from the 2006 team and the Milan team of the 2000s, in what what would no doubt now be termed a “double pivot” by pretentious twats. Of course the idea of having someone to pass and someone to kick people goes back years - why do you think Sir Alf picked Nobby Stiles? But this was a special combination - someone who was really good at passing and someone who could kick people really hard. Gattuso achieved a hell of a lot for someone who Dick Advocaat stuck at right-back when he was at Rangers. And he head-butted Joe Jordan. So for that, he’s great.
CM: Andrea Pirlo
Since growing a beard to presumably make up for the loss of Gattuso and his facial hair, Pirlo has become the elder statesman of Italy’s outfield players (you don’t need a beard for that role but it helps). At 34 he’s still one of the best midfielders in the world, and a key part of the revitalised Juventus team. He is the perfect example of why Milan has been so badly run in recent years - they allowed him to leave for nothing. Since then, Milan have finished 2nd and 3rd, while Juventus have won two titles. And why the hell did Inter get rid of him in 2001? This is why Serie A is so bad now - not match-fixing, but fucking stupid clubs.
AMC: Roberto Baggio
In hindsight, it seems bizarre that Baggio, a wonderful talismanic figure throughout his career, wasn’t called up by Italy between 1999 and his final send-off friendly in 2004. I guess Italy had so many attacking options and Baggio had so many injuries there was just no room for him. No room for Baggio! But he was great, even when he was slogging away at Brescia. It’s scary to think how good he (and Italy) could have been if he had avoided some of those injuries. It’s scary to think how good this team will be with him in it…
AMC: Francesco Totti
Maybe Totti and Baggio together wouldn’t work. Maybe this team is only big enough for one talismanic attacking midfielder/striker/false-9-before-it-was-called-false-9…OK, hipsters, you got me - trequartista. But for now, we’ll work on the assumption that putting them together would not tear apart the space-time continuum and work brilliantly. 37-year-old Totti is still one of the best players in Serie A. He could still be key at international level if he could be bothered. But he isn’t, because he loves Roma. A great man. I just hope Byron Moreno isn’t the referee for any of this team’s games.
AMC: Alessandro del Piero
One of the great things about the team is the number of great free-kick takers in this team - Pirlo, Baggio, Totti and now Del Piero (capital D or not?). The three attacking midfielders would all switch around, and they can all do it because they’re all brilliant - even France’s 1998-based wall is going to have problems stopping them. And I’d have no worries about them giving up, because they all had long careers. Del Piero’s now into his second season at Sydney FC and is still a class act. He might have to fight the other two for the number 10 jersey, though.
ST: Christian Vieri
In 1999, Inter paid £32 million to add Vieri to a strike force that already included Ronaldo, Baggio, Zamorano and Recoba (they signed Adrian Mutu later that season too - and they go on about Man City and Bayern buying too many players…). People forget Vieri was so highly-rated and so good, presumably because of the injuries which interrupted his caeer. He played just 57 league games and scored only 14 goals in the remaining 4 seasons of his career after leaving Inter. He also missed both Euro 2000 and the 2006 World Cup due to injury. All these injuries definitely had nothing to do with doping. But based on what he did show, he’s still the best Italian out-and-out striker of recent years.
The remainder of the squad:
GK: Gianluca Pagliuca
GK: Francesco Toldo
DR: Christian Panucci
DC: Franco Baresi
DC: Giorgio Chiellini
DL: Fabio Grosso
MC: Daniele de Rossi
MC: Demetrio Albertini
AM: Roberto Donadoni
AM: Mario Balotelli
AM: Gianfranco Zola
ST: Filippo Inzaghi
Manager: Marcello Lippi
Some may question why Baresi, one of the best defenders ever, is sat on the bench here. It’s worth bearing in mind that Baresi was 34 by 1994 and his best days (at least internationally) were behind him. Perhaps that’s harsh, though. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Nesta and Cannavaro were incredible - in 20 years time, we will probably be talking about them both in the same conversations that we talk about Baresi now, especially as winning World Cups and European Cups are considered to be one of the main measurements of greatness (Stephan Guivarc’h and Djimi Traore aside).
Equally, I could have stuck Inzaghi in the team ahead of Vieri, especially as Pippo was in that World Cup-winning squad and Vieri wasn’t. He also single-handedly won a Champions League Final. But I think Vieri was the better player.
Balotelli’s career may be nowhere near over but I think he’s done enough already to be included in something like this. I needed more representation from Euro 2012, and he was considered to be the driving force behind it. He’s also brilliant on his day. He can play wide as well, something that’s lacking a bit in this squad. Di Natale and Cassano were in contention, but Di Natale hasn’t quite done his thing on the big stage and Cassano’s been too inconsistent. Balotelli is as well but I’m doing my bit for diversity, what with Balotelli being black and Cassano being a homophobe.
You could also level some of those criticisms (other than the homophobe one) at Zola, who never replicated his Chelsea from for Italy, to the point that he was frozen out in 1997 at the age of 31. But I buy into the romantic image of Zola. I have a team full of talismen. He fits perfectly. He may not have looked better than he was by coming to a developing Premier League, in the same way that Benito Carbone and Paolo di Canio looked great. But he was an important player in the English context and it was when I was growing up. And he’s not a fascist, which helps. Or a homophobe.
Lastly, I could have put De Rossi in the starting line-up ahead of Gattuso, because he’s probably a better player and history will undoubtedly prove I’m a fool. But De Rossi did this. So fuck him.
JB (obviously, because I come up with all the shit ideas)
The Most Championship Squad of Championship Players
With a bit of help from Twitter, I’ve picked the 23 players who, if you were kind, you could say best represent the Championship, or if you were unkind, you could say best represent the Championship.
GK - Paddy Kenny (Leeds)
DR - Neal Eardley (Birmingham)
DC - Martin Taylor (Sheffield Wed)
DC - Wes Morgan (Leicester)
DL - Clint Hill (QPR)
MR - Wade Elliott (Birmingham)
MC - Andy Reid (Nottm Forest)
MC - Jay Tabb (Ipswich)
ML - Luke Varney (Leeds)
ST - Ross McCormack (Leeds)
ST - Darius Henderson (Nottm Forest)
GK - Stephen Bywater (Millwall)
GK - Lee Grant (Derby)
Def - Chris Gunter (Reading)
Def - Luke Chambers (Ipswich)
Def - Sean St Ledger (Leicester)
Def - Bradley Orr (Blackburn)
Mid - Andrew Crofts (Brighton)
Mid - Chris Cohen (Nottm Forest)
Mid - Carlos Edwards (Ipswich)
Mid - Neil Danns (Leicester)
For - Marvin Emnes (Middlesbrough)
For - Jason Scotland (Barnsley)
Manager: Nigel Pearson (Leicester)
Good enough to stay in the Premier League? Probably not. Though having said that, it’s probably better than this year’s Crystal Palace squad.
Ultimate Championship 2013-14: The Average Predictions
I’ve compiled the average predictions from all the entries across the four divisions. This is what Twitter’s finest minds think will happen this season (ha):
1. Manchester City (1.53)
2. Chelsea (1.59)
3. Manchester United (2.88)
4. Tottenham Hotspur (4.59)
5. Arsenal (4.82)
6. Liverpool (5.65)
7. Everton (8.29)
8. Swansea City (8.65)
9. Southampton (10.41)
10. West Ham United (10.94)
11. Norwich City (11.12)
12. West Bromwich Albion (12.71)
13. Sunderland (13.24)
14. Aston Villa (13.88)
15. Fulham (14.00)
16. Newcastle United (14.18)
17. Stoke City (16.76)
18. Cardiff City (16.88)
19. Hull City (18.47)
20. Crystal Palace (19.41)
1. Bolton Wanderers (3.44)
2. Reading (4.00)
3. Watford (4.75)
4. Nottingham Forest (5.00)
5. Leicester City (5.25)
6. Wigan Athletic (6.00)
7. Queens Park Rangers (6.56)
8. Leeds United (7.75)
9. Brighton & Hove Albion (9.69)
10. Ipswich Town (10.00)
11. Derby County (11.63)
12. Blackburn Rovers (11.75)
13. Middlesbrough (12.88)
14. Charlton Athletic (14.25)
15. Birmingham City (14.94)
16. AFC Bournemouth (15.69)
17. Burnley (16.50)
18. Sheffield Wednesday (17.56)
19. Millwall (18.38)
20. Huddersfield Town (18.63)
21. Blackpool (19.25)
22. Barnsley (20.94)
23. Doncaster Rovers (21.94)
24. Yeovil Town (23.25)
1. Wolverhampton Wanderers (1.47)
2. Peterborough United (3.82)
3. Sheffield United (4.65)
4. Bristol City (4.76)
5. Brentford (4.76)
6. Preston North End (5.71)
7. Milton Keynes Dons (7.29)
8. Notts County (10.47)
9. Leyton Orient (11.41)
10. Tranmere Rovers (12.47)
11. Swindon Town (13.12)
12. Rotherham United (13.53)
13. Gillingham (14.00)
14. Crewe Alexandra (14.35)
15. Bradford City (14.71)
16. Carlisle United (16.29)
17. Crawley Town (16.76)
18. Oldham Athletic (16.82)
19. Stevenage (17.41)
20. Walsall (17.47)
21. Port Vale (19.06)
22. Coventry City (19.29)
23. Colchester United (20.12)
24. Shrewsbury Town (20.24)
1. Chesterfield (3.75)
2. Cheltenham Town (4.00)
3. Fleetwood Town (5.13)
4. Burton Albion (5.50)
5. Northampton Town (6.69)
6. Scunthorpe United (6.81)
7. Bristol Rovers (7.06)
8. Portsmouth (7.13)
9. Oxford United (7.63)
10. Rochdale (9.63)
11. Hartlepool United (11.81)
12. Wycombe Wanderers (13.88)
13. Plymouth Argyle (14.13)
14. Bury (14.31)
15. Southend United (14.31)
16. Exeter City (15.44)
17. York City (15.69)
18. Mansfield Town (16.06)
19. Newport County (18.31)
20. Torquay United (18.38)
21. AFC Wimbledon (19.44)
22. Morecambe (20.38)
23. Accrington Stanley (22.06)
24. Dagenham & Redbridge (22.50)
Predicting the Results
This didn’t work last year but I’ll try it again - if the tables ended up the same as those average predictions, these would be the results of the predictions league, though all this actually proves is who has the most orthodox and unorthodox predictions:
1. David Norris - 14
2. Joe Shennan - 16
3. Daniel Critchley - 20
4. Jake Phillips - 24
4. Andy Charles - 24
13. Dean Gripton - 30
14. Isaac Leigh - 38
15. Stuart Bennett - 40
16. Nick Hancock - 44
16. Jack Howes - 44
1. James Bennett - 22
2. Joe Shennan - 38
3. Sam Robinson - 40
4. John Reid - 46
5. Jake Gibbons - 52
12. Daniel Critchley - 70
13. Jack Howes - 74
14. Andy Charles - 78
15. Keir Beales - 80
16. Isaac Leigh - 98
1. John Reid - 38
2. James Bennett - 44
3. Jake Phillips - 50
4. Andy Charles - 52
5. Joe Shennan - 54
12. Daniel Critchley - 92
12. Dean Gripton - 92
14. Keir Beales - 96
15. Nick Hancock - 100
16. Isaac Leigh - 106
17. Stuart Bennett - 108
1. James Bennett - 48
2. Joe Shennan - 50
2. Will Beckman - 50
4. Andy Charles - 52
5. Andrew Harding - 54
5. Sam Robinson - 54
12. Stuart Bennett - 76
13. Jack Howes - 80
14. Nick Hancock - 82
15. Isaac Leigh - 98
16. Keir Beales - 142
Overall (assuming no points for cup winners)
1. James Bennett - 142
2. Joe Shennan - 158
3. John Reid - 170
4. Sam Robinson - 180
5. Will Beckman - 194
6. Andy Charles - 206
7. Andrew Harding - 214
8. David Norris - 216
9. Jack Howes - 226
10. Dean Gripton - 240
11. Daniel Critchley - 26
12. Jake Gibbons - 268
13. Nick Hancock - 286
14. Stuart Bennett - 288
15. Isaac Leigh - 340
16. Keir Beales - 346
Of the 16 people who have entered every division, these were the choices for the cup winners:
11 - Chelsea
2 - Manchester City, Manchester United
1 - Tottenham Hotspur
3 - Manchester United, Tottenham Hotspur
2 - Arsenal, Manchester City
1 - Aston Villa, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Norwich City, Swansea City
6 - Real Madrid
5 - Bayern Munich
3 - Barcelona
1 - Chelsea, Juventus
Jack’s Premier League Predictions 2013-2014
1. Man City
They have been carrying ballast the last few seasons in the form of Roberto Mancini. Shed of him, expect City to dominate. Their owners may torture some more prisoners to celebrate.
They play great football and have a great manager. And yet it will still be more fun to see which scandal John Terry is next involved in, and which mid-table Ligue 1 team Marco van Ginkel will be playing for in five years’ time.
3. Man Utd
So far David Moyes has done everything wrong as United manager. He’s not signed anyone of note, referred to himself in the third person and lost a pre-season friendly. He’s even hired the wrong Neville to be a coach.
Will Gareth Bale leave? By now, I’m past caring. If he’s sold, sell him before Jim White sheds his skin in excitement on Transfer Deadline Day.
They were becoming an increasingly slick outfit last season and look to set to become even slicker with some decent signings. Very appropriate given how Brendan is a snake oil salesman.
Peter Cook used to say there was a bad smell always emanating from Arsenal. He was right – The Emirates stinks of prawn sandwiches and Waitrose shopping bags.
Last season they committed the heinous act of sacking a decent English manager for a younger, better Argentine manager. They will be a superior team for it.
They were awful last season, performing limply on a weekly basis. Joe Kinnear’s Viagra pills will make them less limp this season.
9. Aston Villa
They used to bore so many people to death they were a bigger killer than the Plague and Harold Shipman combined. Last year they were refreshingly manic. It’ll be a more sober affair this time round.
10. Norwich City
Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Ricky van Wolfswinkel. Ricky van Wolfswinkel. RICKY VAN WOLFSWINKEL. RICKY VAN-WHAT A GREAT FUCKING NAME WOLFSWNKEL.
Will Paolo di Canio like his hero end his days dangling from a garage with citizens throwing fruit at his corpse? Who knows?
Roberto Martinez announcing Everton would finish 4th is quite simply the most misguided statement since Chamberlain proclaimed peace with Germany.
13. West Ham
Why is he called Big Sam? He’s not big. He’s a bit overweight. We should call him A Bit Overweight Sam. That’s better.
Best run club in the league – on and off the pitch they are a remarkable story. Even Jonjo Shelvey has looked good in preseason for them. Laudrup though still doesn’t look like he really fancies it, he’ll be gone by March.
15. West Brom
I once spent a whole day at work shredding paper, literally getting bits of paper and putting them in a shredder. That still wasn’t as boring as West Brom.
Everything about Fulham is half assed. Whether it’s Dimitar Berbatov hurrying a defender, Martin Jol’s hair loss and even the new owner’s tache, they never give it the full 100%.
Terrible kit, terrible owners, not very good in the transfer market so far. The only good thing about them is that they wind up both UEFA bigwigs and idiots by being a Welsh team in an English league.
18. Crystal Palace
They replaced Wilfried Zaha with Jerome Thomas, the equivalent of replacing the Monet Lisa with dog shit on a flannel. And subsequently spent £4.5m on a guy with thirteen goals for Peterborough. They’re going down.
You think you have cleared your club of all traces of bellend when Tony Pulis is disposed of. So what do you do? Hire Mark Hughes, and contaminate your club once again.
20. Hull City
Looked like the worst Premier League team of all time whilst winning promotion. Having made some decent signings have progressed from being the WORST team of all time to merely ONE of the worst teams of all time. In boxing parlance it’s like progressing from Audley Harrison to Frank Bruno.
James’ Premier League Predictions 2013-14
Here I go again on my own. Going down the only road I’ve ever known - screwing up badly and making myself look like an idiot. Don’t trust me. Except on Hull.
1. Manchester City
New manager. I must admit I was quite impressed with how he did at Southampton last year. They’ve also signed Ferdinand as well. I fancy their chances. Still, Gareth Barry…
Romelu Lukaku to take the league by storm; John Terry to take the league by Stormfront. For a bonus point, predict which team Lucas Piazon will be loaned out to this season.
3. Manchester United
This is the part where everyone realised David Moyes was something of a hack, a limited manager who did merely OK with a good bunch of players and could never beat a decent team.
4. Tottenham Hotspur
If it keeps on raining, Levy’s going to break. When Levy breaks, have no place to stay. Mean old Levy taught me to weep and moan. He’s got what it takes to make a Mountain Man leave his home.
No one should take Arsenal seriously any more. Why? Because Arsene Wenger. They may make 1 or 2 slightly sensible signings at most, but who cares? Still Arsenal, still Arsene Wenger.
Drama! Excitement! Controversy! All that and more in Being: Brendan, the new fly-on-the-wall documentary following former Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers as he bids to get his career back on track.
7. Swansea City
List of personnel cleared for Mission Oystermouth, as dictated by Huw Jenkins: “me, Michael Laudrup, Michael Laudrup’s agent, Michael Laudrup’s wife, Michael Laudrup’s agent’s wife, their families, their families’ servants, their families’ servants’ tennis partners, and some chap I bumped into at the mess the other day called Miguel.”
With perennial disaster-averter Roberto Martinez now at the helm, expect an eventual return to the heady days of the Howard Kendall era - albeit the Howard Kendall era when he was drunk.*
9. Norwich City
Communist hero Chris Hughton did a surprisingly good job last year and now he has got rid of Tory villain Grant Holt they might be quite good. But only for one season as teams playing in yellow aren’t allowed do well for long.
10. West Ham United
Owright, guv’nor. Get outta mah pub. Rickay. Apples and pears. Lahndon. West ‘am. Andy Carroll. Sam Allardyce. Mid-table safety. No one gives a shit. Again.
English football’s official Catholic team are, by papal decree, obliged to pick up a few miraculous wins this season. Expect Jay Rodriguez and Gaston Ramirez to pick up their first Spain caps.
12. Newcastle United
…get it. Joe Kinnear. It sounds like Joke Near. Which is funny because he is a…Well, actually they still have some decent players there and had a lot of injuries last year and Mike Ashley’s terrible decisions have a habit of working out quite well.
13. West Bromwich Albion
A bland team deserves a bland opinion: they won’t do as well as last season but they won’t do badly either. They won’t get relegated. Where is East Bromwich anyway?
A team with an average age of 57 but now with the addition of Venezuelan lunatic Fernando Amorebieta. Expect a series of near-wins to be turned into defeats against the big sides.
15. Hull City
Hull will survive. They will. Steve Bruce. They will survive. I’m telling you. Listen to me. How much more to fill this? Steve Bruce. They will win matches. Trust me.
16. Cardiff City
Bad for English football, bad for Welsh football, bad for football in general - and yet Malky Mackay still has a job as a football manager. Unbelievable. Meanwhile, Franchise FC Mk 2 will survive this year because there are worse teams.
17. Stoke City
Anti-football’s Tony Pulis has been replaced by anti-football’s Mark Hughes, suggesting he will continue Stoke’s commitment to ignoring full-backs. Expect them to inexplicably, frustratingly, agonizingly stay up yet again.
18. Aston Villa
Children, come quick. Look at what Uncle Paul has done. He is assembling a team of inexperienced young players not good enough for England. This will end well.
I don’t expect the self-anointed samurai, pseudo-fascist, and speaker of all things that people on the terraces believe Paolo Di Canio to be around in time to see the January transfer window. That might save them. But unlikely.
20. Crystal Palace
The truth is Ian Holloway is what we imagine Harry Redknapp to be, albeit with a West Country accent. But “facking run araand a bit” only works so many times. Aaron Wilbraham.
The 2013-14 English Football Season Review
- In response to Liverpool’s recent statement about words that are now banned at Anfield, Chelsea announce that Stamford Bridge will now be patrolled by Thought Police, with fans even banned from thinking about being racist. The following day, John Terry and Frank Lampard make shock switches to the A-League.
- Bayern Munich begin their Bundesliga campaign with a crushing 5-1 win over Borussia Monchengladbach despite some surprising tactics from Pep Guardiola. He names a starting line-up that contains 10 midfielders, including playing Mario Gotze as a “false right-back”, Luiz Gustavo as a “false goalkeeper”, and Philip Lahm as the only striker.
- On Deadline Day, the football world is stunned when Manchester United sign Doncaster Rovers’ Louis Tomlinson for £15 million. David Moyes is said to be impressed with the boyband member’s energy and agility, and bats away claims that this was a last resort after their previous bids for Ilkay Gundogan, Leon Osman, Jermaine Jenas, Tom Huddlestone, Jermaine Jenas and Jermaine Jenas were all turned down. Meanwhile, Swansea City buy every known midfielder within the Spanish province of Murcia, and Christopher Samba rejoins QPR from Anzhi Makhachkala for a fee in the region of £12 million.
- David Moyes appeals for calm as Manchester United slump to their fifth consecutive defeat under his management. Though he concedes that a centre-midfield combination of Michael Carrick and Louis Tomlinson “may not be the ideal solution”, he adds that shirt sales have rocketed since Tomlinson’s arrival. Moyes dismisses speculation that the money was being used to service the Glazer family’s debt, adding “I will have money to spend in January”.
- Newcastle United appoint Joe Kinnear as their new manager after Alan Pardew departs St James’ Park due to “creative differences”. Newcastle immediately release a statement announce the transfer-listing of “all of the foreigners. All of them.”
- After falling out with Northampton Town over the use of their Sixfields ground, Coventry City owners
SISU Otium Entertainment deny that they are exploiting fans when they announce a ground-share with Lincoln City.
- As Manchester United remain mired at the foot of the Premier League table, One Direction announce that they have been bought by the Glazer family. The other four members of the band are registered as players. A PR spokesman for the Americans denies that this has been completed by borrowing heavily against potential shirt sales: “we would never do anything so reckless.”
- Celtic win the Scottish Premiership.
- Paolo di Canio faces another media storm but once again denies he is a fascist after celebrating victory over Newcastle in the Tyne-Wear Derby by waving a giant version of the flag of the Italian Fascist Party in front of the Stadium of Light crowd. But Joe Kinnear stands by his rival manager, telling journalists “If he wants to support that Massalino or whatever he’s called, that’s his choice. I’m sure he’s not that bad - it’s not like he’d start a war or anything.”
- Cardiff owner Vincent Tan faces increasing scrutiny after the
Bluebirds Red Dragons lose 6-0 to Swansea in the first South Wales Derby of the season. “I’m telling you, those red shirts are definitely lucky,” says the owner of the bottom-placed club, who immediately announces that the club’s stadium will be painted entirely red, including the pitch, goalposts and the man who sells the programmes.
- Drugs scandal! Five Manchester United players test positive after their 2-0 defeat at home to Arsenal. The result leaves United 18th, behind even Mark Hughes’ Stoke City side, who have scored 6 goals in their first 11 matches.
- “No, really, we’re doing what we think is the best deal for the club,” announce the owners of Coventry City, as they confirm a deal to move into the ground of Conference club Barrow for the foreseeable future.
- Manchester City’s owners announce they are buying several ruined English monasteries and abbeys as part of their “holistic approach” to running the club. They also deny that they are so boring that authors of mildly-amusing satirical season reviews can’t think of anything to write about them other than a terrible pun.
- In a bid to try and match Manchester United’s purchase of One Direction, Arsenal announce that they have bought the rights to Justin Bieber. Arsene Wenger claims it is “their biggest signing in years” and jokes “yes, I know, I’m signing another youngster”. However, they face a barrage of criticism from their younger fans telling them that the Canadian pop star went out of fashion years ago, just like Arsenal.
- As the halfway point of the season approaches, Steve Bruce tells journalists that he is “quite surprised” that his club sits on top of the Premier League, and warned fans not to expect the title challenge to last, despite being 10 points clear of Chelsea. He also confirms that the club will not be spending much in January to remain on top, and that his targets remain the same as ever: “yes, I think we’ll still be looking at the usual players: the Asamoah Gyans and the Lee Cattermoles of this world.”
- Barcelona confirm that Lionel Messi has signed a new contract that will keep him at the club until 2134, including the rights to all cloned copies of the Argentine and his sperm. The club’s Qatari sponsors will reportedly foot the bill for Messi’s £267 million a week contract, which the club claim was a “bargain”.
- In a bid to keep pace with the latest celebrity signings, Liverpool announce they have signed every character in The Simpsons. However, the press conference confirming the deal is ruined when manager Brendan Rodgers storms out after being told that The Simpsons hasn’t been cool for at least 10 years, just like Liverpool, and that the characters don’t exist, just like their hopes of making the top 4.
- After yet more defensive calamities, Arsenal decide to loan their defending out for the rest of the season. As part of the arrangement, Dagenham & Redbridge gain the Gunners’ own brand of poor positioning, hapless error-making, set-piece confusion, fear of anyone with pace, and Steve Bould.
- Manchester United manager David Moyes says that the club will not be making any more signings during the transfer window after signing Torquay United defensive midfielder Damon Lathrope for a fee in the region of £500.
- Anzhi Makhachkala announce the Deadline Day signing of Christopher Samba from QPR for £12 million.
- Manchester United announce the sacking of David Moyes due to the team’s poor run of form that has left them 14th in the table and well adrift of the European places. United chief executive Edward Woodwardwould says “we are only looking for the best possible replacement. We want to hire the best manager available.”
- Manchester United announce the appointment of Alan Curbishley as their new manager. “No, this appointment was not motivated by money,” states chief executive Edward Woodwardwouldwud. In his first press conference in the job, Curbishley says “this is the one I’ve been waiting for.”
- Paolo di Canio is sacked by Sunderland as the club deem dressing for a match in black military uniform “a step too far”.
- Celtic win the 2014-15 Scottish Premiership.
- Coventry City’s owners vehemently insist they are not taking advantage of their club as they announce a new ground-share deal with Highland League side Wick Academy.
- After the sacking of the club’s 16th manager of the season, Blackburn Rovers advisor Shebby Singh insists that newly-appointed gaffer Jack Howes is definitely the right man to lead the club forward long-term. Howes tells journalists “this is like when Mr Burns named a dog his executive vice-president”, although it is not clear who he was referring to.
- Jack Howes is fired as Blackburn Rovers manager.
- With the title race reaching a nail-biting conclusion, a nation holds its breath, as SS Murata and AC Juvenes/Dogana go head-to-head for the San Marinese football championship. Meanwhile, in England, Steve Bruce proclaims that he is “proud, quite proud” as Hull City are crowned English champions for the first time. However, he is still upset about “that dodgy offside call against Norwich in January.”
- Real Madrid announce the signing of the entire Hull City squad for the 2014-15 season.
- The second Champions League semi-final tie is won by Barcelona as Bayern Munich are judged to have forfeited the second leg. Pep Guardiola claims it is his new philosophy, a so-called “false team”, whereby every player remains in the dressing room for the full 90 minutes. Barca will face Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the final after they edged Real Madrid in the first semi-final. The second leg in Madrid had culminated in Mourinho reaching orgasm in front of the Spanish media at the final whistle.
- Stoke confirm their Premier League survival once again, finishing just above the relegation zone despite having scored only 12 goals all season. Meanwhile, Vincent Tan begins a project to paint the entirety of Cardiff red after his club finishes bottom of the table, while Joe Kinnear insists he will remain the boss of “The New Castle” in the Championship after they finish just above. Obviously Palace are the other relegated side. Obviously.
- Liverpool edge past defenceless Arsenal on the final day to finish 5th. Sticking to a promise he made back in February if that was to happen, Brendan Rodgers does the David Brent Dance on the Anfield pitch after the final whistle. He doesn’t get the joke.
- The five members of One Direction announce their immediate retirement from football as Manchester United are confirmed in 15th place in the Premier League table. The band release a joint statement saying “This was one cool, crazy adventure that was well weird.” Alan Curbishley resigns as manager a few days later, stating “I’m sure there’s another job out there waiting for me.”
- Fernando Torres is the Man of the Match as Chelsea defeat Barcelona in the Champions League Final 27-0. 16 of Torres’ 21 goals are from outside the penalty area. As the celebrations begin and John Terry runs onto the pitch from the stands in full kit, light erupts from the eyes and hands of Jose Mourinho and his heavenly voice booms “I have done thy bidding, Father”, before slowly ascending to Heaven in front of an aghast crowd.
- The five mystery Manchester United players accused of taking drugs are acquitted on account of the substances not being performance-enhancing. Rumours that the new One Direction single “has been played a lot” inside FA HQ in recent days are strenuously denied.
- Pep Guardiola heads off on an expedition to the equatorial jungles of Africa. He denies that he has been sacked by Bayern Munich, claiming that he is merely practising his new philosophy of being a “false manager”
- England are knocked out in the group stages of the World Cup. Yes, this one’s actually serious.
- Coventry City state “this one’s definitely for the long-term” as they announce they will be sharing grounds with Romanian Liga III side CSU Vointa Sibiu.
- Paolo di Canio confirms he will stand as a candidate in an upcoming local council election for the Labour Party. Billy Bragg welcomes the announcement.
- Bayern Munich announce they are signing every player in the Austrian Bundesliga.
- QPR announce that they have signed Christopher Samba from Anzhi Makhachkala for £12 million.
- Spain win the World Cup. Duh.
- Football is declared over.
Predicting the unpredictable: how to predict League Two
Predicting the final tables in the lower leagues is a thankless task - you may get a few things right, but you definitely will get a few things catastrophically wrong. No more is this apparent in League Two, which is perhaps the most difficult league to predict, especially if you’re coming from a background of following the big leagues like the Premier League, the Bundesliga, La Liga or the SPL. So here’s a short guide on how to predict the lower leagues and what to expect this season:
1. Big clubs don’t always do well
In the past few years we’ve seen Luton, Grimsby and Stockport, amongst others, slip into the Conference, while Northampton, Bristol Rovers and Plymouth Argyle are amongst the bigger clubs to have toyed with a similar fate. No club is too big to struggle, and there is likely to be another big name who will be in the relegation fight this season.
2. At least one team expected to do well will surprisingly struggle
Further to the above point, you’ll see a whole bunch of clubs - usually the bigger clubs in the division - predicted at the top by all and sundry. But all and sundry usually have a habit of assuming that those clubs will be at the top because of their status, and there will inevitably be one of those that they have misjudged. You will not be able to accurately predict this, though, so don’t even try - otherwise you’ll end up picking the wrong one and look even more of a tit when you’ve got two clubs wrong instead of just one.
3. At least one team expected to struggle will do surprisingly well
The reverse of this is that there’s going to be one club who everyone has predicted will finish at the bottom, based on size or lack of money, who will have put together a deceptively strong squad, often with a lack of established League Two “big names”, and will surprise everyone by putting in a strong campaign, putting a few of the noses of the bigger clubs out of joint. If, as was the case in 2010-11, a number of smaller teams do well, expect whinging from the fans of big clubs that the “tinpot” clubs are taking over and how that’s “unfair”. Boo hoo.
4. Managers > signings
It’s common practice when deciding who’s going to finish where to look through a list of incomings and outgoings to see who has gained or lost impressive players. But as League Two is more based around creating a good team rather than a collection of individual stars, it doesn’t quite work. Plus with the enormous turn-over of players during the season, the squads at the starts aren’t necessarily representative of the form they will take by the end. Instead, it’s best to look at the managers - those managers with a history of building good League Two sides have a tendency to do it again and again. Inexperienced managers are wildcards - some will do well, but most will flop, because most of them have been hired because they’re cheap and won’t argue back to the stingy chairman that appointed them.
5. Don’t listen to Premier League journalists and their ilk
Last year on Life’s a Pitch, Mike Calvin suggested Barnet were potential dark horses for the title under their new young manager Mark Robson. Robson lasted as sole manager until October 11th and left the club on 28th December, and Barnet were eventually relegated. This year he and his gang are (inexplicably) tipping Newport County for promotion. Don’t listen to them. Journalists who focus on the higher divisions usually don’t understand the lower leagues - they just skim, missing the nuances of the lower leagues, so it’s best to steer clear of their opinions.
6. It’s impossible to analyse League Two properly
Having said that, it’s impossible to do anything but skim League Two because it’s impossible to watch it all. People have criticised Match of the Day for being only a small sample of Premier League action that’s not representative of how a team performs, and yet League Two highlights footage basically just consists of the goals…that’s it. With very few live matches, it’s difficult to get a grip of who is good and who isn’t, and who the star performers in a team are. So often it’s more useful to speak to individual fans who watch their team week in week out to get a feel for it than notional experts like Peter Beagrie and Steve Claridge. But…
7. Don’t listen to each club’s fans
The one thing about lower league fans, especially at this time of year, is that they tend to be over-optimistic. Enormously over-optimistic. While the Premier League clubs have their self-hating core, smaller clubs tend not to, instead choosing either tub-thumping myopia (those doing all the chanting and the one bellend with the drum) or bookish pacifism (those standing at the back watching quietly), both of which tend to lean more towards positivity. It’s rare that you get someone critiquing their own club without lurching into full-blooded frothing at the mouth and reactionary angst. So when fans come to make predictions, they usually predict their club will finish a lot higher than they are likely to - anywhere between 5 and 15 places or thereabouts, perhaps even more if they are totally deluded. When was the last time you saw a lower league club fan predict their club to get relegated? It doesn’t happen, but some teams have to be relegated at the end of the season, so don’t listen to them. Or at least factor it in, anyway.