Friday, 16 February 2018

A groundhopper like no other: the story of George Willmott

Who is the most obsessive football fan you’ve ever known? Not the most fixated with one particular club necessarily, but the person who was the most fanatical about the game of football. I’ll wager I can top yours… though for some reason it’s taken me 15 years to put the story in front of a wider audience.

In 2003, while studying for a postgraduate journalism qualification, I was doing a project on obsessive football supporters. I sourced a few diehard fans, typically meeting them in the pub of their choice and letting them spill their guts about the lengths they would go to in support of their club. These were largely formulaic affairs – how they got the bug, how many games they’ve been to, most memorable away trips, how many seasons it was since they missed a game and why they missed it (generally it was because somebody died). However, one fan stood out, not only as the most interesting person I spoke to for my project by a distance, but also as genuinely one of the most fascinating people I’ve ever met.

His name is George Willmott and for at least seven consecutive seasons he set out on a quest: to attend a match at all 92 English league grounds in one season without missing an Arsenal game. Below is the article I wrote about George in 2003, published today for the first time.


George Willmott is a football addict. His addiction began in childhood and has stayed with him to this day. Now, ten years into retirement it is consuming him more than ever and has almost completely taken over his life. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

George, 75, is an Arsenal fan. [NB – this article was written in 2003. If George is still alive, he’ll be 90 now.] If he told you that he goes to every Arsenal game in this country you might think that was impressive. If George then said that he can count the number of Arsenal home matches he has missed since the late 1940s on his bare hands you would say it was extremely commendable. But that isn’t even the half of it.

Since retiring, George has devoted his football seasons to an annual groundhopping quest which is quite possibly unique in this country.

Every season, while never missing an Arsenal game in this country, George endeavours to make an annual pilgrimage to watch a match at every single one of the 92 stadiums in the Premier League and Football League. It is worth considering the logistics of such a challenge for a moment.

Just as an experiment, next summer when the fixtures come out, consider how you might visit all 92 grounds for a game IN ONE SEASON without missing a single game of the team you support. Consider the ticketing, travel, accommodation, not to mention the inevitable solitude of the quest and, quite frankly, the not inconsiderable risk of a nervous breakdown.

Some people prefer things broken down into bite size chunks, so here’s some bullet points for you. Imagine doing all of this in one season: 
  • Every Arsenal home game, including European games
  • Every (domestic) Arsenal away game
  • Every other league ground among the 92 where Arsenal don’t have a fixture.
Reckon you could do it? You’ve got about 270-280 days to do the lot. Arsenal games take up typically a minimum of 43 of those days (38 league, 2 cup, 3 Europe), often far more, so you’re left with about 230 days, maybe less. And – bad luck – friendlies and reserve games don’t count towards the quest. Then imagine attempting this over and over again each season.

In the seven seasons to date that George has attempted this daunting task, he has succeeded five times, falling just short on two occasions. It’s a wonder that he’s ever achieved it at all. Most football games are played on Saturdays. Arsenal play most Saturdays.

George agrees to be interviewed at his Clapham home. His little kitchen is full of commemorative mugs, one for every team in the league. It’s colourful and endearingly quaint.

Those who like to think they are hardcore football supporters may now be realising that they never knew what the top end of the scale was. To use a footballing analogy: George is Thierry Henry and we are the trainees who clean his boots. But then all groundhoppers have to start somewhere – even George.

“My first game was at Chelsea on 15th October 1938, against Arsenal,” he says. “It was 4-2 to Chelsea. I was only ten at the time and couldn’t see much. It was a bit overwhelming, all these massive men around me. So they engineered it that I went down the front and sat on the tarpaulin around the pitch. My boyhood hero Ted Drake scored one of the two Arsenal goals that day.”

Chelsea keeper Vic Woodley under pressure from
Arsenal's Ted Drake during George Willmott's
first taste of live football in October 1938.
George’s passion was born. However, he didn’t start going to games seriously until he had completed two years of military service in the Army in 1948. Highbury was rarely without him subsequently.

“Between 1957 and 1965 I had eight seasons where I saw every match home and away,” says George. “That’s my longest unbroken record. Getting married then curtailed my efforts going to away games somewhat, but I still went to the home matches.”

So how does George plan out each season? There must be so much admin required. Allowing for Premier League and cup games, he goes to around two dozen grounds each year when Arsenal are playing away. But what about all the rest?

“I have one or two friends who go to matches with me,” he says, “so I find out where they want to go first, to see if it fits in with my plans. I try to get the midweek matches at grounds where I can get back to London after the match.

“I’ll spend an hour planning from time to time, getting some ideas. It’s really not until after Christmas that I sit down and make a list of all the grounds I haven’t visited and put possible dates against them. Before then a lot depends on which cup ties come up and which get replayed. You couldn’t do what I do by just going to league games. You need to go to cup competitions, too. After Christmas I’m hopefully getting down to the last 30 or 40 grounds.”

One thing that strikes you about George is how normal he is. For someone to attempt something this unusual, season after season, you would think they would have to be at best eccentric. George is just a charming, well-spoken, mild-mannered gent. Far from having a one-track mind, he is a keen fan of opera, enjoys reading and particularly relishes getting stuck in to a crossword.

The one sign of obsessiveness is his fondness for accuracy. He has a filing system of several boxloads of index cards, detailing every game he’s ever been to. Any time I ask about a particular fixture, George likes to be able to tell me exactly when it was and what the score was.

Yet this trait of wanting to get his facts and figures absolutely right is perhaps just force of habit. George spent much of his career as an accountant, including five years at the FA.

In January 1995, George needed a heart operation to replace a faulty aortic valve. (Coincidentally, the same operation that Arsenal’s Nigerian striker Nwankwo Kanu needed while playing in Italy for Internazionale in 1996.) George also needed a triple heart bypass at the same time.

Understandably, as a pensioner, George needed some rest after his operation. To put things in perspective, Kanu didn’t make his comeback on the football field until a year after his equivalent procedure. With the operation a success, George put his feet up for just over a month and was back at Highbury for the 1-1 draw with Leicester in mid-February.

George Willmott required the same heart operation to
replace a faulty aortic valve as Nwankwo Kanu
had while playing for Internazionale in 1996.
The operation appears to have been the catalyst that has driven George on to even greater achievements. Since the Leicester game in 1996, a European tie with Deportivo in 2000 is the only Arsenal match George has missed on UK soil. He doesn’t travel abroad to watch Arsenal, though. When they are away in Europe, George has to settle for watching on television – unless there’s a game on somewhere. He doesn’t much care for watching football if he can’t actually be there in the flesh.

“I can’t abide football on television,” he says. “I find it terrible. I don’t have Sky. I can’t see any point because if there’s a match on I want to go to it. People ask if I tuned in for Manchester United against Real Madrid – you know, great matches like that – and I say ‘No, I was watching Swindon play Plymouth’.”

On 9th November 1974, George completed his set of all the league grounds at Exeter City as they drew 0-0 with Scunthorpe United. He became the 13th member of a select group of journeymen football fans known as The 92 Club.

His achievement inspired his daughter (Ellen) and son (Simon) to follow in their father’s footsteps. Though Simon had already visited certain grounds, he and Ellen visited every ground together with their father. They completed the 92 in 1983 while in their teens, becoming two of the youngest members of the club.

“Since then I gather that somebody has actually taken a child aged two around the grounds,” says George. “That will take some beating.”

It was also after the heart operation that George started trying to visit all 92 league grounds annually. He succeeded at the first time of asking in the 1996/97 season and has repeated the feat another four times since. Only twice has he fallen short, on both occasions by just one or two grounds.

“I’ve done it five seasons out of the last seven which is pretty good going really,” he says, modestly. “I shall try again next season. I’ve been bitten by the bug now. I’ll at least want to see how many grounds I can get to.

“So much depends on the fixtures that are chosen for television,” says George with a heavy sigh. “It was annoying from my point of view last season that so many of the Football League’s televised games were kicking off Saturdays at 5.30pm, which is hopeless. If they stuck to Friday nights and Sundays I’d stand a much better chance of getting to them.”

In 65 years of watching football, George has been to a staggering 1,628 games at Highbury (including friendlies). One wonders how high the total number of games at all grounds might be. Short of totting up all of the entries on each of his countless index cards, this would be almost impossible to work out. One thing is certain, though. Over six and a half decades, George has seen some great games, countless wonderful goals and many tremendous players.

“My favourite ever Arsenal player was a goalkeeper, Jack Kelsey,” says George. “He played from the early 1950s for about ten seasons. He was a Welsh international who unfortunately got injured in a friendly match against Brazil which ended his career.

“Although it has been said about a lot of goalkeepers, he had enormous hands. If he went into a full-length dive for a shot, he wouldn’t push it round the post, he would catch it at full stretch."

Jack Kelsey, the former Arsenal and Wales
goalkeeper and George Willmott's all-time favourite
player, demonstrates his enormous hands.
“Tommy Docherty took a free kick once up at Preston and it was going right into the top corner of Kelsey’s net. As Docherty started to celebrate, these enormous hands came out of nowhere and caught the ball.”

So does George appreciate the enormity of his achievements? You would be hard pushed to find anyone else with the determination to match his feats. Most fans (this writer included) couldn’t stomach long trips to Carlisle, Plymouth, Hartlepool and Swansea every year, even if their own team was playing. To go on such long journeys as a neutral – just for the love of the game – requires something more than enthusiasm. You wonder if he realises that he is totally addicted to football. This question is put to George as gently as possible.

He grins. “I think one can safely assume that, yes.”


Postscript (Feb 2018): I sadly lost the telephone number and address I had for George many years ago, so I’m sorry to say I don’t know if he is still alive. If he is still around, I hope he is still enjoying his football. But if he has passed on then I hope all who knew him will remember him for his incredible dedication to watching football. I told George back in 2003 that I hoped to get this story published somewhere with a sizable readership of football fans, so I hope he wasn’t too disappointed that I failed. I did at least pass him a copy of the above article at the time it was written, which he said he’d enjoyed reading.

I sat on this story for years after I graduated, with the idea of getting it published in a national newspaper, football magazine or website. Observer Sport Monthly were impressed with his accomplishments but didn't want the story. At one point, The Guardian were quite keen but they said they needed something to peg it on, such as a strong Arsenal angle in the news that this could sit neatly alongside. In retrospect, I probably wasn't pitching it very tactfully and editors must have wondered what sort of copy they'd receive if they commissioned me. I never really found a suitable peg and the years sort of drifted away. Eventually it felt like the moment had passed and the story has sat on various laptops of mine ever since.

Fifteen years since I wrote it, I thought I should probably publish it for posterity, rather than George’s unusual story be lost. At least this way there is one account of his impressive achievements on the internet.

If you’d like to use George’s story anywhere, you are free to take it, edit it, use excerpts, or do what you like with it. I’ll appreciate a credit as the author, of course, but on this occasion I mainly just want people to know the story and imagine themselves in George’s shoes. 

George was obviously not groundhopping for recognition, but simply out of a deep love for the game. But hopefully in future the occasional groundhopper will stumble across this story and be inspired in some way by his accomplishments. Even groundhopping, a pursuit that is both endlessly nerdy and yet strangely pleasurable, needs poster boys and George Willmott is certainly that.

Nice one, George.

Friday, 3 June 2016

Claudio Ranieri Q&A at the Italian Cultural Institute: the best bits

Claudio Ranieri tonight gave a question and answer session at the Italian Cultural Institute in central London. He spoke with great eloquence and passion about football and his incredible achievement with Leicester City last season. 

It was a pleasure to be in the room and listen to Ranieri impart his wisdom and wit and get to see a side of his personality that he perhaps doesn’t generally offer up to football journalists. Despite his impeccable manners and all-round decency, the impression that strongly came across is that Ranieri is a hugely motivated coach who is driven by his will to win. Even today you could tell that he is not basking in his and Leicester’s spectacular success. Instead, he is fully focused on next season and trying to make the bookmakers eat their words once again.

There were plenty of media in the room (and I hope some of them will write stories based on Ranieri’s quotes that are widely shared and read), but there was also no shortage of (mostly Italian) members of the public, from ages 7 to 70, all grateful for an audience with the reigning Premier League champion.

Italian football expert and author John Foot was posing the questions, before it was opened out to the floor for people to ask their own. Almost everything Ranieri said this evening was interesting. Below is a roundup of some of the many quotable things he said tonight. 

Claudio Ranieri took questions from John
Foot (right) at the Italian Cultural Institute

On being given the chance to join Leicester and come back to England and the Premier League…
I was so happy, so pleased to come back to the UK and coach a Premier League team, especially after my experience with Greece. It was completely different there. I didn’t feel like a trainer. Coming back to the most beautiful championship in the world made me happy.

I had a great chemistry with the president straight away. We hoped not to suffer too much and to reach 40 points. The idea was that we would fight for two seasons. Then after that we would fight to qualify for the Europa League, and then finally we would fight for the Champions League. This was my plan.

On being asked when he first believed Leicester could win it…
When Hazard scored! [laughs] In all honesty, it was when we heard the final whistle. This is the truth.

On the magnitude of Leicester’s achievement and the good feeling it has generated…
Everyone was on our side – except for Tottenham. It was not a miracle, but it was pretty incredible. Only later will we be able to really tell this story. Now we are still too close; it’s like an erupting volcano.

On what makes this Leicester side special…
Normally not all 11 players ‘play’. A team is strong when at least eight play and three are dragged behind. We had all 11 playing every single match, with one idea – trying to win.

On his coaching methods at Leicester and whether he is a ‘quiet leader’…
It would have been difficult to get angry at Leicester this season! I would have to be really nasty to have got angry with them. I never told them off or made them feel guilty. Instead, we would analyse mistakes in training and try to correct them. I always tried to encourage. There was no blame. We tried to improve individuals and the team. This relaxed and united the squad. 

On the time he substituted Totti and De Rossi at half-time while managing Roma… and went on to win the game…
It’s lucky I won! Otherwise I would have been crucified outside the Stadio Olimpico.

On the mindset of Italian football fans…
We are more critical, more tactical. Here in England there is a cultural aspect that differs; people want to see a good game, the team winning and fighting to the end. In Italy, sometimes the whys and wherefores weigh too heavily on the players.

On those people – even among his friends – who said he was a loser because he always came second…
Any town in Italy breathes football. You have to win. I was very happy in my career but some friends thought I was a loser until a month ago. I have always pushed back against this. I always had a will to win a great championship. But now that I have done it, I am focused on trying to win the next one. My strength is that I have an honest, transparent relationship with my players. I am really sorry if some of them can’t always play, but they know that the common good is the team.

People said I was a loser, but those people forget the contexts in which I came second. I’m not a loser. I never felt like one. I believed in myself. I haven’t changed – the people judging me have changed.

On managing Gianfranco Zola at Chelsea…
By coming here, [Zola] has been [Italy’s] best ambassador. At Chelsea, when we got off the bus, even the opposition fans would clap Zola.

On whether having no superstars at Leicester made them easier to coach…
[In my career] I have trained everybody and anybody. I started with inter-regional football. It’s difficult to speak about the type of players you coach. It always depends on how the team goes – and so I can say that Leicester is wonderful and always full of sunshine!

On the bookies quoting pre-season odds of 5000/1 on Leicester to win the title…
The bookies were wrong. They said I would be the first to be kicked out [sic]. They made a mistake. It’s wonderful. I am sorry, though, for the fan who cashed out his bet [before the end of the season] – his son was in a wheelchair and the money was important. But some people did win, at least.

On the resilience of his Leicester team…
There were times when we were two goals down and we were able to come back and win 3-2. These changes in the wind gave strength to the group. I told my players, ‘I don’t care if you lose, but fight to the very last second’.

On being asked by a small kid in the audience how it felt to win the title…
I can’t explain. It’s a wonderful feeling; a moment of deep satisfaction. I saw many happy people. This is something I like. I’m happy that I was the person who could synergise this team. We could feel in the dressing room that the whole world wanted us to win. But it’s impossible to say [how it felt]. Happiness maybe? I don’t know! [Addressing the kid:] When you eat Nutella, how do you feel?!

On living in Leicester…
When I joined Leicester, I only knew the city from my time at Chelsea. I like to live within the city – I want to breathe what other people breathe. I tell the players that we are the representatives of the city of Leicester. I go to the supermarket with my wife and I push the trolley. I don’t like to hide.

A fruit and vegetable seller asked if I would sell fruit for him if we won the title – so now I’ll have to go and do it. Maybe I’ll go at 6am when there’s nobody there!

On whether he’ll change his methods next season…
I need to continue with these players in the same way. We are looking for new players, too. Psychologically, I don’t know… I need to feel it. After the first game last season, I told the players, ‘You’re so strong, but you don’t know just how strong you are’. You only see me when I’m playing with journalists but inside the changing room I am quite different.

On being asked by another kid: ‘Where did you get “dilly ding, dilly dong” from?’…
It comes from a long time ago. A former Cagliari player sent me a bell – I used to use it to say, ‘You’re getting it wrong… dilly ding, dilly dong! You’re sleeping! Wake up, you’re getting it wrong!”

On whether Leicester’s title win will usher in a new era and make football a ‘passion’ for people again…
No. This has been a bubble. This is unique and won’t change anything. People say maybe others can do what Leicester did? But a lot of money will be spent and only one team can win the league each season and the others will have lost a lot. It won’t change. Money governs everything. I really hope there won’t be a Super League or this will make things worse; the spirit of the game will disappear.

On coaching being a balancing act…
If we win, I bring the players down. If we lose, I bring them up. You can’t transmit any negative energy. You must keep the players away from pressure. It’s a balancing act for every coach to keep the windsurfer on the wave.

On his top three career experiences…
Cagliari, which was my springboard; Valencia, which was my first time abroad at the age of 47, where I learned another language and won a cup; and this one [Leicester].

On whether there is anything he misses from Italy, or any aspects of Italian football he would like to see introduced in England…
No. When I go to a country I want to enter into that country completely, to understand it. I think to myself: how can I be a part of this and improve what has been given to me? I just bring what I have accumulated over my years of experience.

On all the praise he is receiving in the weeks since Leicester won the title…
Things change. In two months these conversations will be ashes and I start from scratch. I’ll put my accolades to one side. We will have to fight to be in Europe – the minimum aim is the top 10. No team will buy me back now – I have no will to move.

On whether he’d want to coach the Italian national team…
The experience I had with Greece was not a positive one. With the Italian national team, maybe it would be governable [sic], but at the moment I feel the need too much to be out on the field every day. People ask if I’m stressed. No! I’m stressed when I don’t have a team to coach. I need this daily relationship. Maybe in 5, 6, 10 years [my feelings] may change. [At this point he glances at his wife in the audience.] My wife is shaking her head.

When asked if he has any advice to any managers of teams (not necessarily footballing or even sporting)…
Would it disappoint you if I said I don’t know? I know I have empathy with my players, but I don’t know how I do it. I am myself. This is the way I am. I am given a task by my president and this is the law to me. I left big teams more than once because this spell with my boss had been broken and so I could no longer lead my team.

On whether he would like to sign any Italian players for Leicester…
I never look at nationality or the colour of somebody’s skin. I see if they are integrated in our changing room. Depending on the country I’m coaching in I want an English ‘soul’, or a Spanish ‘soul’ – because those players are the pillars and others must adapt. If you take away that DNA then you lose something.

On the wider significance of Leicester’s Premier League win...
People falling in love with [Leicester’s win] is about something bigger. I could have been anybody, but people needed this in order to believe in the idea that we must never give up.

Ranieri: "I really hope there won’t be a Super League; the spirit
of the game would disappear." [Photo: @iiclondra]

Note: Ranieri was speaking in Italian and a simultaneous translator was provided. As a non-Italian speaker, this service was necessary for me. While the translator did a superb job, in the event that any bilingual journalists write up any of Ranieri’s quotes with slightly different phrasing to that which I have used above, please assume that their version is more authentic to precisely what Ranieri said in his native tongue.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Leaked minutes from a meeting of the Fellowship of Footballers Forced to play at Fullback (FFFF)

The following document is a leaked copy of the minutes from a recent meeting of professional footballers forced to play at fullback. It is reprinted verbatim in the public interest as this website seeks to raise awareness of their plight. May they suffer in silence no longer.


The Fellowship of Footballers Forced to play at Fullback (FFFF)

Bi-annual Meeting minutes
August 3rd, 2015

Leandro Bacuna, Elliott Bennett, Chris Brunt, Jack Colback, Craig Gardner, Bradley Johnson, James McClean, Kieran Richardson, Jeff Schlupp, Antonio Valencia, Ashley Young.

Kieran Richardson

Antonio Valencia

  • Welcome and New Members
  • Old Business
    • Tony Pulis
    • Strategies for confronting managers
  • New Business
    • FFFF as an abbreviation
    • Alex Neil: a new threat?

Chairman Richardson welcomed the Fellowship to the meeting. Additional seating was sourced for first-time attendees Bradley Johnson, Elliott Bennett and James McClean.

Craig Gardner will assume responsibility for ensuring there are sufficient chairs in place at the commencement of the next meeting, with Ashley Young now identified as having an ability deficit in this area.


Tony Pulis

Chairman Richardson picked up the discussion from the last meeting regarding current West Bromwich Albion FC manager Tony Pulis’s propensity for playing non-fullbacks at fullback.

The Chairman noted that Pulis would appear to have dispensed with the strategy, deployed during his time managing Stoke City FC, of playing centre-backs at fullback. Consequently, Albion defenders Jonas Olsson, Gareth McAuley and Craig Dawson have politely declined an invitation to become members of the Fellowship, though Olsson has added the caveat that he would “definitely like this reviewed” in future if necessary.

Craig Gardner and Chris Brunt (both currently employees of Pulis) then spoke at length about their manager's emerging trend of picking “literally any midfielder, regardless of stature” at fullback. It was noted by the Chairman that the FFFF recognises how severely this is hampering not only the careers of Gardner and Brunt, but also that of new Fellowship member James McClean.

McClean then spoke with great emotion of his dismay at being deployed at fullback in friendlies since his signing this summer, stating that he was promised he would “definitely play on the wing” but hadn’t realised that this would entail marking the opposition’s wingers and playing at fullback. [At this point the members all rose and linked arms in a show of support to McClean.]

Pulis remains the greatest danger to the FFFF's ongoing work, with both members and non-members urged to avoid signing for one of his sides. 

Strategies for confronting managers
Members Jack Colback and Ashley Young spoke in turn of how they successfully overcame spells of being played at fullback against their will. Colback referenced his time at fullback under the stewardship of Paolo Di Canio at Sunderland AFC, noting that the Italian had placed Colback there due to a misunderstanding where Colback was adjudged to have “looked at him funny”, resulting in a lengthy spell in a previously alien position, from which the player gained nothing but humiliation and the loss of respect of his friends, family and loved ones.

Colback revealed that he was only able to end his time as a fullback by "waiting patiently until the gaffer hated all the others even more than he hated me". This was assessed by the members to be a good strategy when managed by Di Canio, but too long-winded to deploy under most managers.

Young spoke of how he was able to overcome his spell at fullback for Manchester United FC last season by “basically just still being a winger and waiting for the actual winger in front of me to lose form”. This was deemed to be one of the most successful strategies for ending an unwanted spell at fullback, one that fellow members Bacuna and Schlupp said they would be aggressively pursuing in the coming season.


FFFF: a good abbreviation?

The Chairman asked the group to consider whether 'FFFF' is somewhat unwieldy as an abbreviation for the Fellowship of Footballers Forced to play at Fullback, noting that it is quite laborious when spoken out loud. “Nobody can be bothered to spell out 'Eff-Eff-Eff-Eff',” he said, “but on the flipside, much as we’d like to be an acronym spoken as a single word like ‘Fifa’ or ‘Uefa’, public take-up on 'Ffff' may not be a resounding success. Chris Brunt summed up the feelings of the group with his closing remark that ‘Ffff’ would “look like someone had farted” in written form.

A brief discussion of alternative options had mixed results, with perhaps the best suggestion being that of Craig Gardner, who suggested ‘F4’ as preferable to ‘FFFF’. The Chairman was then forced to remind the group of the seriousness of these meetings when Ashley Young flippantly suggested a rebranding to ‘Fullbacks 4 Justice’ and that Chairman Richardson could "launch the new logo dressed as Batman". Young apologised for this remark and concurred with the Chairman’s view that he is “not as clever as he thinks he is”.

Alex Neil: a new threat?
New members Bradley Johnson and Elliott Bennett addressed the group for the first time on the subject of their manager Alex Neil playing them at fullback in pre-season friendlies. With both players established members of the Norwich City first-team squad, Johnson wondered if it was a case of Neil, a relatively recent appointment as manager, “letting the lads know who’s boss”, while Bennett felt that it may have been “because friendlies are just a laugh, a bit like training”, though conceded he was experiencing sleeping problems and recurring nightmares about “having to mark Hazard and Sterling” this season.

The group agreed to monitor developments regarding Alex Neil's approach, with the Chairman stressing that Neil “probably isn’t another Pulis, but we can’t afford to be complacent”. Consequently discussion of Alex Neil will remain scheduled for the next meeting, but will not be upgraded to the permanent place on the agenda afforded to Pulis at the present time.

The meeting adjourned after the singing of the traditional Fellowship anthem, We Shall Not Be Moved.

The next meeting will be held on 4th January 2016.


The FFFF's Mission:
Footballers should not be forced to play at fullback. Having to play at fullback is degrading and should not be inflicted upon elite athletes unless they have specifically chosen to play there. If you are a footballer being played at fullback without your explicit consent, contact the FFFF today and we can act as your voice. Together we can enforce positive change and stamp out footballers having to play at fullback against their will.

Monday, 22 June 2015

AFC Bournemouth's financial underbelly

Image: Chris Parker, Flickr

*blows away cobwebs*

Is there life in the old blog yet? It's been a while. But I have at last written a new thing, over on The Two Unfortunates, all about Bournemouth's finances, owner and promotion to the Premier League.

Here y'are...

Friday, 30 May 2014

The 10 best names at the World Cup

Once I had the idea to write this piece, I was dismayed to see that Bwin had already beaten me to it. They've got a couple of the obvious ones, such as Carlo Costly and the gloriously monikered Yeltsin Tejada. However, in my opinion there were some pretty key omissions from their list, so here's an alternative Top 10 Best-Named Players at Brazil 2014.
Costa Rica and Alajuelense
You genuinely cannot beat a reserve goalie from an exotic nation who sounds like he has every chance of being cast as the next Dr Who. Or, as suggested by @GavHutchinson: "Right Arm, Fast (Vauxhall End)". That is also spot on. Patrick Pemberton: the most dashing, debonair name at Brazil 2014.

2) Frickson Erazo 
Ecuador and Flamengo
Wow! A name that is as satisfying to say as it is wonderful to gawp at. Frickson Erazo. FRICKSON Erazo. Frickson ERAZO. He sounds like man in a Vic & Bob sketch, perhaps a visiting cousin of Vic's from the Tropics, who keeps a bread-stick behind his ear for no apparent reason and carries a bright green tree-frog around in a Tupperware box with air holes. 
USA and Rosenborg
Notoriously debauched Scandinavian hard house DJ, best known for releasing a banging compilation CD every summer.
Bosnia and Elazigspor
I'm refusing to call him anything other than "Onion Bhajis". Just you try and stop me.

5) Serey Die 
Ivory Coast and Basel
An appealing figure, during his career he has: 1) cancelled his own contract; 2) been sent home from his new club after the president saw him in action and assumed they'd hired the wrong man; 3) been suspected of match-fixing; 4) slapped a 13-year-old ballboy in the face resulting in an eight-match ban. I like him already. He's also a midfield enforcer called Die. 

- "Hi, looks like you'll be marking me today, what's your name?" 
- "Die!"
- "Hey, take it easy pal, game's not even started yet... Jeez, this guy's a loony."
Ghana and Esperance
You just know the poor sod's going to score a calamitous own goal and have endless "awful" and (for those trying to be more original) "offal" puns made on his name. I'm hoping, like his Indiana Jones namesake, he runs as if being chased by a massive runaway boulder.

7) Waylon Francis 
Costa Rica and Columbus Crew
Easily the most 'hick' name at the tournament, how delicious it would be if the boy Waylon becomes one of its surprise stars. It could only be better if he was called Cletus. The name Waylon also makes me think of Steve Earle's character in The Wire, so bonus points there.

8) Fred 
Brazil and Fluminense
- "Hi, I'm the main striker for host nation Brazil. I am, essentially, a figurehead for a troubled nation's hopes."
- "Wow, you must have a really exotic name like Rivelino, Ronaldinho and all those other brilliant -inhos, right?"
- "Well, not so much."
- "Oh. Well I assume you're blessed with astonishingly silky skills then?"
- "Nope. I'm pretty functional to be honest."
- "I have to admit, I'm feeling pretty underwhelmed by this conversation. What is your name then?"
- "Fred."
- "Fredinho?"
- "It's just Fred."

9) Mohamed Lamine Zemmamouche 
Algeria and USM Alger
Zemmamouche! Zemmamouche! Will you do the fandango?

10) Mehrdad Pooladi 
Iran and Persepolis
Look, I've resisted including Miguel Angel Ponce in this list. I've avoided the temptation to chuck assorted Bums, Suks and Dongs from the South Korea squad in here, but I'm not so mature that I can resist a man called Pooladi. Plenty of great jokes start with a "poo" and so does his name. His name is sometimes spelt "Pouladi" with a "u". If you spell it that way then you are just the worst. Unless the BBC and various others have deliberately misspelt it for a giggle, in which case we are just the worst. Either way: "Pooladi woah-oh-oh, Pooladi woah-oh-oh..."

Monday, 3 March 2014

England appoint Aidy Boothroyd U20s boss. Hope springs eternal, eh?

Aidy Boothroyd.
Boothroyd: new Eng U20 boss. This is not a joke.
Well, that's debatable actually...

Some days you wonder if anybody even turns up for work at the FA. I have visions of a solitary, fusty chap in his eighties steadfastly manning the ship – replying to letters, making a few decisions, pottering away quite happily in a small office in Soho Square. We'll call him George...

[dream sequence]

George quietly bumbles about his business undisturbed most days. Occasionally Trevor Brooking pops in with a ham and mustard sandwich, scratches his head as if not knowing what to do, before leaving again with a baffled expression an hour later. That's unless there's a showpiece game coming up, when a load of haircuts in fancy suits suddenly rock up claiming they've been "working from home".

But most days George is on his tod. He's been told he can bring in an office temp if he wants, but he doesn't like to be a bother, plus that would mean fixing that new-fangled computer whatchamacallit. The old thing hasn't worked since 1997. A dusty Encarta CD-Rom lies next to it, long since repurposed as a drinks mat and covered in coffee rings.

Recently a letter arrived from Gareth Southgate's agent, which George opened, in which it became apparent that Southgate wanted to appoint a new manager for England's Under-20 side. "Under-20s?" thought George? "I don't think we have an Under-20 side. Perhaps he means Under-21s. I'd best give him a quick tinkle and check."

The phone rings and goes through to Southgate's agent, Ashley Woolfe.

"Good afternoon Mr Woolfe. I'm calling with regards to your letter about Gareth wanting to appoint a new member of coaching staff. I just wanted to check if there'd been an administrative error. Your letter discusses the matter of Gareth appointing a manager for the Under-20 side. But we don't have an Under-20s, as far as I'm aware."

"Actually George, turns out you do. I must admit it came as a surprise to Gareth when he found out about it last week. It would appear that other countries have been focusing on this age group for some time now and we've been a tad left behind. Can't the FA find somebody who'd be willing to give it a bash?"

"Well, it's just me in the office today. It's just me in the office most days actually. I try and pass things up the chain of command, but unless it's to do with a sponsorship deal I don't generally hear anything back."

"I see. Well, since this appointment is rather small beans, perhaps you could arrange something yourself, George? I'm sure a man of your experience has a wealth of contacts."

"I suppose I could see if Phil Neal's free. Although saying that, I think he's got rather a lot of after-dinner work on at the moment, wouldn't want to overload the chap. Tell you what, I'll have a look into who else is out of work and see what I can do. Stay on line, I'm getting my book."

And so George reaches to a shelf on the wall. There, next to some signed photos of Tim Flowers and a dusty old box of Terry Venables' The Manager board game, sits a tatty old contacts book. George's pride and joy. He flicks to the pages marked '2013/14 Managerial Departures' and thumbs down the list.

"Still there Ashley? Right... hmmm... let's see.... Sean O'Driscoll? Too much of a fancy-dan for my liking. I don't like watching his teams play. You'd think they'd never heard of hitting the big man up top. Tony Mowbray? Personally I can't understand a word the man says, and again, his teams are a bit tippy tappy aren't they. Nobody ever won anything playing football like ballet, did they? Ah, now then, Aidy Boothroyd's available. There's a hot young coach with a bright future. I had him earmarked for the top job a few years back. Not sure why the hell he's out of work, poor chap. I'll offer him the job, it'll get him out of the house. Cheerio then."

[dream sequence fades to black]


So that's that. If you're still reading, sorry it wasn't very exciting. But now that I've created an ambiance of measured calm (read: boredom) with that gently paced opening scene, hopefully it affords the following highly considered and cerebral observation the necessary space to breathe. What I'd like to say, as eloquently as possible, is:

Aidy Boothroyd?! FOR F***'S SAKE, FA!!

*downs bottle of bleach*




Deep breath. I feel mildly better now, but Jesus H Batman On Stilts, what are the FA playing at in appointing Boothroyd? Answers on a postcard.

Have they ever watched a Boothroyd team play football? It's an absolute abomination. A relic harking back to the early 1980s – all high tempo, put 'em under, let 'em know you're there, game management and all that guff.

When the news broke and one or two choice words were aired on Twitter, Northampton Town fan Ben Trasler had the following to say. (Boothroyd of course having recently been let go from Northampton for turning them into an incompetent shower of ugly hatred that was – and may still be – on course to drop out of the Football League).

"When winning, it's ugly. When losing, it's barbaric," said Trasler. "God, it was awful. He's the reason we're in the poo*".
(*Not the actual word he used.)

I can't really better those sentiments. There are a few unscrupulous types managing in the lower leagues, but there can be none more steadfastly committed to winning ugly than Boothroyd. To watch a Boothroyd side is to willingly torture your own eyeballs. Seriously, my corneas would rather take a direct spray from a can of Lynx Java followed by a plunge into a heavily over-chlorinated swimming pool, than watch a Boothroyd side close out a 2-1 win. The closing minutes of a narrow Boothroyd win are football's equivalent of trolling. 

Every time I've seen his teams play, I come away a little sickened. It's as if he spends serious time on the training ground teaching his players how to master little niggly fouls that aren't quite worth a yellow, how to charge down clearances with your studs up so your opponent might smash his toes to smithereens on the follow-through, how to spend 40 seconds getting ready for every throw-in when protecting a lead, how to pump the ball into the channels so it plops just short of the corner flag and both defence and attack then embark on a sprint race to get there first, before all getting there at roughly the same time, the ball almost an irrelevance as they inevitably crash into each other. It's a dispiriting experience.

And this is how we want England's promising Under-20s to be taught how to play? Our mentality in England is that, if you're a gifted teenager, we'll bung you straight into the Under-21s anyway. Or even the full squad. So who goes in the Under-20s? The slightly less capable teenagers and 20-year-olds, I guess. The ones who need working on if they're ever going to make the step up.

And Boothroyd will work on them, alright. You can take that as read. But in this age of pristine pitches in which highly technical sides like Spain and Germany dominate (while the England national side consistently founder), what good is Boothroyd going to do with our young nearly-good-enoughs that aren't quite the real deal?

He's probably going to make them play like grotty little sh*ts, isn't he. That's going to win us future World Cups for sure. Hey Sepp, maybe just give us all the trophies now to save time, eh?

*slow hand clap*

Well done, FA. Top marks.

Boothroyd: not a good thing.
But I suppose we shouldn't be surprised. Stuart Pearce and Peter Taylor were hardly names to make us think the FA were going to propel this technically semi-talented crop of young English players into something that might make us proud. 

A key driving force behind this appointment would presumably have been FA 'director of elite development' Dan Ashworth. Indeed, he is quoted as saying: "I’m delighted with the appointment of Aidy, he’s an outstanding coach of younger players and has a fantastic record of developing youth."

Wasn't Ashworth supposed to be a progressive appointment by the FA? I seem to remember some people being quite pleased when they prised him away from West Brom with the prospect of more than doubling his £200k annual salary. And yet apparently Dan Ashworth is "delighted" with Boothroyd. This ought to trouble anyone hoping for England to "do something" at any international tournament at any level in the future. And, frankly, if the Under-20s won the 2015 Toulon Tournament by playing to a Boothroyd template, it would give me very little encouragement for the future, because that way of playing is thoroughly old hat at the highest level. I know football tactics can move in phases, and maybe there's just a chance that kick-and-rush will have it's day again in the future, but we can't be planning for it on the off chance that a direct and heavy-handed brand of football has an elite resurgence.

A couple of years ago Zonal Marking editor Michael Cox tweeted this clip of England Under-21s training under Stuart Pearce. If you haven't seen it, I urge you to have a look (it's less than two minutes long). 

The squad are playing a game of 'two touch'. It's both hilarious and heart-breaking as the young players, limited to two touches, resort to raining shots in from anywhere rather than rely on their technique and movement to craft something better.

The FA put this video ON ITS OWN WEBSITE, as if it's something to be proud about. "Check out how much our young boys like smashing the heck out of footballs, folks! Brilliant eh?"

Listen carefully and you'll note at one point a distant voice incongruously yells: "Is anybody there?" 

Sometimes I ask the very same question about the FA. The lights are on but nobody's in.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Bournemouth v Liverpool this Saturday lunchtime could be an FA Cup cracker

Saturday's early kick-off in the FA Cup Fourth Round sees AFC Bournemouth host Liverpool, in what should hopefully be an easy-on-the-eye encounter. Two talented young managers with similarly attractive playing philosophies  it might just be the perfect way to start your weekend

These two sides have met twice before, both in the FA Cup, both times Bournemouth were the hosts, and on both occasions they played out hard-fought draws before being given a hiding at Anfield in the replay. But given those ties took place in 1927 and 1968, it's probably about time the two teams were drawn against each other again.

Bournemouth have been so impressive in recent seasons over the course of Eddie Howe's two spells at the club (though the less said of Paul Groves' lacklustre tenure in the middle, the better). When Howe first took the job in 2009, he inherited a team languishing at the foot of League Two, a 17-point deduction hanging over their heads. He kept them up against all the odds, but bigger surprises were to follow. The following season he got them promoted under extremely trying circumstances  the club were under a transfer embargo for virtually the whole season and frequently failed to list a full complement of substitutes on their teamsheet. On one occasion teen striker Jayden Stockley was hauled out of his GCSE exams to make up the numbers on the bench. Slim pickings indeed. In short, Howe was a miracle worker right from the off.

After 100 games at the helm, Howe was lured away in January 2011 to Championship football and Burnley. But he and his family struggled to settle, and by October 2012 he had made the difficult decision to drop back down to League One and return to Bournemouth. It proved to be a wise move all round, with Bournemouth rocketing up the table and clinching another ahead-of-schedule promotion, while Burnley have also improved markedly since Sean Dyche took over from Howe. Win-win situation.

Eddie Howe 
Bournemouth have spent quite a bit of money to get to where they are now (bottom half of the Championship, but looking good enough to stay up). It's very possible to argue some of that money was badly spent, with the two biggest signings  Matt Tubbs and Tokelo Rantie  thus far not offering sufficient return on investment. But for the most part Bournemouth have signed talented, technical footballers with a strong work rate. Howe has a way of playing and it requires good technical ability and lots of graft. Most of his signings have bought into this ethos.

Howe's methods are not wildly different to those of Brendan Rodgers. Indeed, Bournemouth captain Tommy Elphick used the press conference ahead of the game to praise Rodgers and speak in glowing tones about how he tries to get Bournemouth playing in a similar way. "We aspire to be like Liverpool so it's a good time to play them to see how far off we are," said Elphick. "There's a lot to learn from a team like Liverpool and a manager like Brendan Rodgers. The key is having no fear. If you give them too much respect they will hurt you."

In terms of similarities, both managers will shift between a single striker and two up front depending on the fixture and/or if the temperature of the game demands it. And both Rodgers and Howe like to have good technical players in central midfield that are constantly on the move, with a wide range of passing. For Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva at Liverpool, read Harry Arter and Eunan O'Kane at Bournemouth.

Both managers like to play the ball out from the back too, so hopefully Saturday's encounter will be an elegant game with plenty of good technique on show. If you've only just crawled out of bed with a stonking hangover, there are worse ways to nurse yourself into the weekend.

The aforementioned O'Kane is in a rich vein of form. The diminutive central midfielder is the sort of player for whom one's appreciation creeps up the more you see of him. His build is not particularly athletic, but he's constantly near the play, knows when to keep it simple, and is excellent at positioning himself in such a way that he either intercepts the pass or dissuades the opponent from releasing the ball at all.

Harry Arter is in a similar mould, with but more bite to his play, a greater range of passing and a bit more of a goal threat too. A cousin of Scott Parker, you can see similar tenacity in his game at times, though too many of his all-too-regular yellow cards come from his inability to stay out of the referee's ear.

Eunan O'Kane. [Photo: Mick Cunningham]
At right back, Simon Francis is the most dependable player in the team. When needed, he'll be up and down the touchline all game, and must get through a tremendous amount of running over 90 minutes. When he gets to the byline, he's capable of whipping in dangerous crosses.

Honorable mentions to: attacking workhorse Lewis Grabban, who has scored some invaluable goals this season and never stops running; classy wide midfielder Matt Ritchie, whose shots from range are as dangerous as his haircut is daft; and goalkeeper Lee Camp, who has proved to be an excellent shot-stopper and has recently made his loan move from West Brom permanent.

Of course, along with Camp, Bournemouth's busiest players on Saturday could well be their centre-backs. Particularly if Luis Suarez sees some pitch time. The club are fortunate to have three good ones. Elphick and Elliott Ward have been getting the nod over Steve Cook of late, but whichever pairing Howe opts for, they are all capable and competent. The worry is whether capable and competent will be enough.

Finally, if tiny right winger Ryan Fraser sees any time on the pitch, I'd like to see him in a race with Cissokho. Fraser is seriously rapid once he's got some open space in front of him.

Anything's possible and it's not a bad time to be playing Liverpool. After their strong start in the Premier League, their recent points haul has been somewhat more modest, and they may be starting to prioritise finishing fourth over cup competitions. They will surely have half an eye on their huge game with Everton at Anfield on Tuesday evening.

They have some key men missing too. It's unlikely that any of Lucas, Johnson, Agger, Sakho, Flanagan or Luis Enrique will see any time on the pitch this weekend, so it's clear to see that it's in defence where they might be a little stretched. That said, they still have good options in Skrtel, Toure, Cissokho and Kelly. But will they really want to play all four when the same back four might be needed in the Merseyside derby three days later? Perhaps the likes of Aussie left-back Brad Smith will get a rare start?

If Suarez starts and is paired with Sturridge, you fear for Bournemouth's chances. But if Rodgers opts to keep them in reserve for Tuesday then Bournemouth must look to grab the initiative first half before Liverpool potentially introduce reinforcements later on.

Bournemouth don't have masses of cup upset pedigree, but they did knock Manchester United out in the 1980s and narrowly lost to them 2-1 in the 1950s. They would have knocked them out twice in the 1980s, had Steve Bruce not cynically trodden on Luther Blissett's heel in 1989 when he was about to score a late winner. The referee hadn't kept up with play and missed the foul. Predictably, United won the replay. With apologies to Worksop, Heybridge Swifts et al, the Liverpool game this weekend is unquestionably Bournemouth's biggest game in the FA Cup since that day 24 years ago.

If Suarez and Sturridge both start, Liverpool to be leading at half-time and full-time looks reasonable odds at 19/20 (BetVictor). If neither starts, I'd be tempted by the draw at 9/2 (various), but of course those odds could plummet fast once teamsheets are confirmed, so be poised and ready to bet around 60-90 minutes before kick-off if you're getting on that one.

Harry Arter's customary yellow card may well make an appearance, but 8/1 (Betfred) on him being the first player booked is not really value, so wait for Betfair odds nearer to kick-off. I prefer 31/10 on Victor Moses to score anytime (Unibet). The Nigerian has had hardly any game time since early December, but would seem likely to get a run-out here.

Victor Moses: a good anytime goalscorer bet?
The final word goes to Eddie Howe, ahead of what will hopefully be the game of the round. "It's a great challenge. It's a rare opportunity to pit our wits against one of the best teams in the world. This is a really special game. Not just for us as players but as fans, and the buzz around the town. We don't want to show Liverpool too much respect and freeze on the occasion."

"Better managers and players have tried to keep Suarez quiet and failed. It's one of the biggest challenges in world football."

AFC Bournemouth v Liverpool, Saturday 12.45pm, ITV1