Thursday, December 8, 2011

The 2011/12 season is starting to become an annus horribilis for Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United.

Weakly crashing out of the Carling Cup and the Champions League in the space of seven days, and chasing down their Manc rivals in the Premiership title race with a string of stuttering performances, is not what the spoilt United fans are used to.

And neither is Fergie.

When you add United drawing City in the Third Round of the FA Cup next month, it’s not inconceivable that Man U could finish the season trophyless.

There is the good old Europa League to aim for now, although I look forward to Fergie playing the kids and crashing out of that at the earliest opportunity.

What a difference a year makes.

United’s 12th Premier League title was secured by nine points and they seemed to be putting together another squad of amazingly talented kids. The future looked as rosy as Ferguson’s cheeks.

Ferguson will be 70 years old in 23 days time. At his age, and with 37 major career trophies to his name, should Fergie have got out when he was ahead and quit at the top?

Obviously I’ve never been in any sort of similar position. All I know is that I can’t wait to retire.

I’ve always been puzzled by players who play on past when they should. I know there’s the whole missing of the game and not knowing what to do with themselves. That’s a buzz I’ll never know to fully judge.

Long term managers also know no other life. It’s what they love doing.

Outside of football, I feel the same about actors who make really shitty films when they don’t need any more cash.

Why would you not go and enjoy your money and rest on your laurels, knowing full well that the legacy you’ve left behind will stand the test of time?

Why risk tarnishing it and going out on a low point in your career?

Let’s look at this from the viewpoint of another sport I closely follow – gridiron, American football, throwball, call it what you like. Let’s be more precise, Canadian Football and the CFL (Canadian Football League).

My team is the Vancouver based BC Lions. They’ve just won their sixth Grey Cup (Canada’s equivalent to the Superbowl).

I know most of you don’t care about such a sport, but bear with me. There is a point!

The Lions Head Coach, Wally Buono, has the best winning record as a coach in CFL’s long history and this was his fifth Grey Cup triumph, and ninth final appearance. The win for the Lions came in their own home hosting stadium, becoming only the third team achieve this feat.

Buono is 61 years old, 62 in February. He has a good eight years on Sir Alex, but after the triumph he has retired as Head Coach.

There’s not going to be anything better than what he achieved this season, so why not go out on the top? Several of the veteran players have/will be doing the same.

Back to proper football now, and so Fergie should have done the same thing as Buono last May.

I know football is in his blood. He would probably happily coach till he dropped down dead. One of his mentors, Jock Stein, did just that and you could arguably say he died doing what he loved most.

It’s not my, or anyone’s decision to make, just Ferguson’s. But will he make the correct decision at the right time?

I’m no Man United fan, far from it, but with all that Sir Alex has achieved in the game, I’d like to see him retire on a high.

Maybe he still will win a Premiership, FA Cup and Europa League treble.

If he turns this season around and does that, then that surely must be the tipping point for his retiral.

Let’s just hope he doesn’t keep going on till he drops or until people start to say he’s lost it. This season is his hardest in a long time, but of course, Man United are experts at the second half of the season revival.

It would be horrible to see arguably Scotland’s greatest football manager bow out after a season of despair and failure.

If the past seven days are anything to go by, then he has possibly his toughest five months of his managerial career ahead, as he looks to salvage some pride and keep his reputation in tact.

That’s just as important as silverware.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Anyone that knows AFTN, and regular readers of this blog in particular, will know that we're not the greatest fans of top flight football at the best of times, or rather the mechanics behind the business end of it all.

As East Fife fans, I think it's naturally in our DNA to love watching lower league and non league football, in the smaller, more intimate environments. Or in other words, games where naebody turns up.

That's not to say we don't enjoy watching games from the English Premiership, because we most certainly do. Or at least did, until this season.

I've been finding it increasingly hard to get excited about this season's Premiership campaign.

For those that don't know, I'm currently a Scottish ex-pat, enjoying life in the new climes of North America. We've covered this fact before in AFTN, so for those that have heard it before, please bear with me.

Over here, we get an abundance of live and as-live football. Every top league you could imagine and also the SPL! European, Mexican, South American, even the A League down in Oz. The English Premiership is obviously the big draw and we get an amazing amount of games.

Every weekend, every game is basically shown in full at some point in the schedule. They draw big audiences. To put it in perspective, the recent MLS Cup final drew half the audience in the evening that a run of the mill EPL game had drawn that morning.

On a Saturday we get the early kick off game live, two or three 3pm kick offs live, and the teatime game live. We also get both the main Sunday games live, unless there's something like a Celtic-Rangers game to be shown instead. All the other games are shown, usually one after the other, in full.

That's a feast of football, of that there is no doubt. Sure it can be a bit of a football overload, and the pain in the ass that is the kick off times can be inconvenient, but hey, that's why PVR's were invented right?

This season though, I've found myself flicking through the TV guides on a Friday night and thinking "You know what? I really don't fancy watching any of these games in full". This results in me not getting up early to watch anything and not recording anything for perusal later.

Instead, I've found myself watching all the Championship games that have been on offer instead.

Even the games I do end up recording, I find myself just fast forwarding through and just watching the goals or any interesting incidents that catch my eye.

Now it’s got nothing to do with the football or entertainment on offer, on the whole. It's just that I can't muster up any excitement about the 20 teams in the Premiership this season.

I'll quantify that by saying right from the off that I'm a West Ham fan, so a lot of my interest went out the window right there and has turned to the Championship, which has been the best English League for excitement for years now anyway, and one which I've always followed closely.

The last few years we had the excitement of watching promoted teams like Hull City, Burnley and Blackpool try (and ultimately fail) to punch above their wait, as they end up in relegation dogfights that have provided twists and turns up to the final kick of the season's ball almost.

When Blackpool went down with the Hammers, I knew the writing was going to be on the wall for me with regards to watching the Premiership this season. Right there you were losing exciting football, underdogs and Ian Holloway.

Sure we have three new promoted clubs, but they're not exactly the underdogs the way the above northern contingent were.

Norwich are kind of blah. I do want them to stay up, as they are an unfashionable club and have a very promising Scottish manager at the helm. I know that when it's getting to the end of the season, if the Canaries find themselves in a relegation battle, that will be enough to get me to tune in, but just not right now. Last season I went out of my way to watch every Blackpool game in full.

The way Norwich are going they could find themselves safe without any need for a dogfight, which is great for them and all smaller clubs with strange aspirations to just stay up.

The same is true with Swansea. I also would love them to avoid the drop, primarily because they're not English!

Then you have last season’s Championship Champions. There is so much to dislike about QPR. They had the big foreign money investment and splashed the cash. Also, how can you cheer on any team that has Queen AND Rangers in their name?!

Existing teams like Wigan, Blackburn and Bolton don't exactly get the juices going when you see the fixture list for the weekend ahead. And if they're playing each other, then just forget it.

At the top, it could get interesting if Spurs keep up their charge. The football they played at the weekend was breathtaking to watch at times. Still hard to like them though.

If Man City run away with the title, which I think they will have all but wrapped up by the end of March, then it's going to be an even less exciting Premier League run in than we get in Scotland most years.

So for now, my disinterest in this season's Premiership will continue.

I will watch games of the top sides battling it out, even though they usually end up just disappointing and not living up to the expectations. I'll tune in for any interesting derbies or games with some player animosity thrown into the mix.

And I’ll sit here hoping above hope that West Ham, Blackpool and an unlikely club like Brighton, fill this season’s three promotion places come May. Not sure I’ll be getting that wish in full.

On the whole though I'm going to be relying on the good old Beeb's 'Match of the Day' to cover the day's games and keep me up to date with all things Premier League.

It's like I've been transported back to my childhood days of the 70's, as I avoid the day's results until I can settle down to watch it.

And you know what? It's been really refreshing.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Watching Sportscene on Sunday evening, one of the weekend debates was obviously about Rangers' Sone Aluko and his apparent dive to win, what turned out to be, a match winning penalty against Dunfermline at Ibrox.

Pundits in the studio and punters online have all had their say on the matter.

To us it looked like Aluko knew exactly what he was doing. He had nowhere to go, he went down theatrically, he won a penalty by embellishment.

Most angles show no contact, one shows the possible slightest of knocks that looked nowhere near enough to send a grown man crashing to the deck the way it did.

The immediate question was whether the SFA would punish Aluko for diving. Today, we got our answer.

The SFA are proposing a two match ban for simulation, and the matter will be heard by a tribunal on Thursday.

Now this is all well and good (and it really is), but the end result of these hearings simply do not go far enough if we are really serious about stamping this blight out of football.

The introduction of video evidence has been a great innovation to the Scottish game and punishes cheats. At least most of the time.

The punishments don't always hold up when clubs end up appealing them, ala Hibs and Gary O'Connor, when a similar incident led to a two match ban first being proposed, then quashed on appeal.

Clearly post-match punishments also serve as no deterrent to players, who are prepared to take the gamble if it earns their clubs vital points. In a lot of ways, you can’t blame them.

Realistically most fans don't care if they win a game due to a dive or an act of cheating. I'd be lying if I said I would. I want the win.

On the other hand, if my team were to lose due to such actions, I would be livid. We're hypocrites. Most of us are if we’re being honest.

When the punishments are handed out later though, they need to be way more far reaching.

Banning a player for a game or two and/or fining the guy, means very little these days. It has to be the clubs themselves that are punished.

Rangers won the game, and all three points, due to Aluko's actions. Those points could be decisive in the Championship race at the end of the season or even the relegation dogfight.

Punishing Rangers, or any club, for their players diving by docking them three points (no matter what the outcome of the game) is way more likely to see these antics curtailed pretty quickly.

Ultimately, I would rather we had video evidence than nothing at all. The alternative is what we had before, with all such players getting off with nothing more than their reputations being tarnished.

If we're ever to stamp this blight out of our game though, then the punishments need to be way more far-reaching.

And I can think of no better way to start that off than by punishing the SPL leaders.

There's the clear message.

No matter who you are or how big a club you are, you WILL be punished in a manner which hurts you.
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