The End

22 Feb

It’s two years since I started writing this blog.  During that time I’ve written some stuff that I’m fairly proud of – looking back there’s also one or two posts I’m less enthralled about, not because of what I’ve said, rather the standard of writing.

Regardless, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed FootballFutbolFitba.  I do think though, that the blog has run it’s course.  I will probably come back with a new site in the future, possibly something more specific, rather than a general site where I simply wrote about whatever I liked.

Thanks to everyone who has visited FFF, and an extra thank you to anyone who took the time to post a comment.  I received some excellent replies to the articles posted.

I will continue to write for other sites when I have the chance and I will continue to tweet nonsense.

Bye for now.

Goals That Changed History – Costinha

6 Feb

Old Trafford 9 March 2004: It would be ludicrous to suggest Jose Mourinho owes his success to one goal.  Two Champions League wins, a UEFA Cup success and league titles in Portugal, England and Italy can be attributed to outstanding man-management skills, meticulous attention to detail and superb tactical awareness.

However, would Mourinho’s rise to the top of European club football have been so rapid had his FC Porto side not upset Manchester United at Old Trafford in their last 16 tie in Europe’s premier club competition?

After losing the first leg 2-1, the home side seemed to be in control after Paul Scholes headed home on 31 minutes.  However as the game moved into injury time, the visitors were still hanging on in there, winning a free-kick outside the United penalty area.

Tim Howard could only palm Benny McCarthy’s strike back into play and as the American keeper collided with his left-hand post, Costinha scooped the ball into the unguarded net.  Cue Mourinho’s sprint down the touchline.

Porto’s win blew the competition wide open and they went onto eliminate Lyon and Deportivo La Coruna before comfortably seeing off Monaco 3-0 in the final in Gaelsencherkin.  Porto were champions of Europe for the second time (also in 1987) and significantly, it was one of those rare occasions in the Champions League era when the winner of the competition has come from outside of the big four European leagues of England, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Mourinho left Portugal for England, and Chelsea, before the start of the following season.  His career, and his many successes along the way since then, have been well documented.

There is surely no doubting that even if Costinha hadn’t scored, and Porto had slipped out of the competition at the stage they were expected to, then Mourinho would have gone onto bigger and better things.  He already had a growing reputation following his domestic successes in Portugal and that victory over Celtic in Seville the previous year.

Mourinho’s personality hasn’t done him any harm over the past decade either.  Articulate, charismatic and treading a fine line between confidence and arrogance, the media love him and he is never out of the news for long.

However, it is equally fair to suggest that upsetting Manchester United and going on to win the competition raised Mourinho’s credibility, and his profile, to a new level.  If he was able to win the Champions League with a team from one of European football’s ‘lesser’ leagues on limited resources, what was to stop him doing the same with one of the games financial superpowers?

Roman Abramovich clearly thought the same, though Mourinho never did deliver the ultimate prize to Stamford Bridge.

Costinha’s late equaliser on that night in Manchester, was not only to have huge implications for his club, but also on the longer-term career of his then coach.

Financial Penalties Are No Longer Fine

19 Jan

In any walk of life, effective disciplinary measures should not only punish the guilty party, they must also act as a deterrent against future misdemeanours.  There can, therefore, be few practices more pointless in modern football than the use of financial penalties to penalise football players, clubs and governing bodies.  Fines have long been used to deal with breaches of discipline, but their impact has lessened dramatically over the last 10-20 years.

The game is now awash with money, thanks to TV deals, billionaire owners and other revenue streams: as a result, managers and players who operate in the upper echelons of club football earn salaries which, to some, could be considered obscene.  Yet those who step out of line continue to be ‘punished’ by being asked to hand over sums of money which are the millionaire’s equivalent of loose change.

In March last year, Sir Alex Ferguson was fined £30,000 (along with a five-game touchline ban) following comments he made about referee Martin Atkinson.  For many people, such a figure is equivalent to a couple of years wages.  However, it’s not likely to make much of a dent in the finances of a man who, according to FourFourTwo, has a personal wealth of £27million.

Then there’s El Hadji Diuof.  He received a penalty of £5,000 for his conduct during Rangers’ Scottish Cup replay loss to Celtic last season, where he was sent off after the final whistle.  The broad smile on Diouf’s face as he left a hearing at Hampden Park told it’s own story – when you can afford to pay a reported £300k for a car, money tends not to be an issue.

Clubs and national associations are no different.  In October, Chelsea were fined £20,000 for failing to control their players during the controversial loss at QPR.  That’s the same Chelsea who are owned by Roman Abramovich and benefit from a TV deal with Sky, the amount of which could feed a small country.

In November, the Bulgarian FA were asked to shell out £34,250 following racist chants from their fans during a Euro 2012 qualifier against England.  This pitiful amount was consistent with other fines handed out previously to the governing bodies of Croatia and Spain for similar offences.

There has to be change.  If fines were to have an impact, players and clubs would have to be deducted huge amounts – at their present levels the games decision makers are doing little more than urinating into a very strong breeze.

The guilty parties have to be hit where it hurts.  For players, that means extended match bans.  All the money in the world will provide little consolation should they miss out on a league decider or a cup final as a result of a previous misdemeanour.

UEFA recently had the chance to lead by example, but they missed the opportunity to basically deny Wayne Rooney his place at Euro 2012 when they reduced his ban for lashing out at a Macedonian opponent.  At least the FA provided Luis Suarez with a significant suspension – eight games – after the incident with Patrice Evra, but again, what difference does the £40,000 fine make?

For clubs points deductions and stadium closures are the real fear.  Using the Chelsea example, perhaps Andre Villas-Boas and his players would give more thought to their conduct if it were to have a genuinely negative impact on their title challenge.

Any punishment should also include a social aspect, almost like football’s version of community service.  Due to the obscene salary levels now prevalent in the game, the gap between players and ordinary fans is the widest it has been since the creation of the game.  Anything that helps to bridge that divide can only be positive.

Rather than asking for an offender to hand over a sum of cash that means very little to them, involve them in something that benefits them as individuals and the local community.  Imagine the goodwill that would be generated from players and managers coaching kids, helping out with amateur clubs or even attending training sessions with referees.  Such a system may be difficult to administer and enforce, but it has to be preferable to the current process.

In years gone by, the fining of top-flight footballers worked because their earnings were such that a deduction was noticeable and significant.  The huge hike in salaries over the last 20 years however, means that alternative penalties must be sought.

Goals That Changed History – Ralph Milne

19 Dec

Celtic Park 20 April 1983: Celtic’s clash with Dundee United would go a long way to determining who would win the Scottish Premier Division title.  Going into the match the home side were in the driving seat and another two points would make them strong favourites to clinch a third successive league title.

This was however, by no means a two-horse race.  Also in contention were Aberdeen, who would end the season by winning the European Cup Winners Cup in Gothenburg.  What would the SPL give now to have three evenly matched sides challenging for the league title?

Given what was at stake, it’s hardly surprising that the match was such a highly charged affair with five goals, a red card and an outcome that proved crucial in deciding the ultimate destination of the league championship trophy.

There was also no shortage of quality on display, which is hardly surprising when considering some of the players in the  starting line-ups: with Paul McStay, Charlie Nicholas, Davie Provan, Richard Gough, Paul Sturrock and Eamonn Bannon involved, brains were always likely to win over brawn.

Early pressure from United paid off when Paul Hegarty scored following an error from Roy Aitken.  However, the sides went in level after Nicholas equalised from the penalty spot his 47th goal of the season.

Just 7 minutes after the restart, the visitors regained control.  After Murdo McLeod pulled back Davie Dodds, Bannon made it 2-1 from the resulting spot-kick.  However, United’s hopes of holding onto their lead suffered a massive blow when Richard Gough received a second yellow card following an alteration with Provan.

The extra man advantage looked to be working in Celtic’s favour when Tommy Burns levelled the contest with just over a quarter on an hour to go.  However, the away side were not to be denied.

With 6 minutes left Bannon hooked a cross in from the right.  It was controlled by Ralph Milne – on his chest – before the midfielder unleashed a volley from around twenty-five yards out.  Pat Bonner in the Celtic goal was powerless as the ball dropped under the crossbar and sealed a memorable win for the visitors.

The win kept United in contention for the title but Celtic were still were top of the table.  That all changed the following week as United overcame Kilmarnock 4-0, Celtic lost by a single goal at Aberdeen.

Despite never having won the championship in their history, United did not show any sign of nerves during the run-in, rather they seemed to thrive on being the new league leaders.  Comfortable victories over Morton and Motherwell meant that another win on the final day, against local rivals Dundee, would clinch the title.

Another stunning goal from Milne, this time a chip from just outside the opposition box, helped United to a 2-1 win and they were confirmed as worthy champions, finishing a point ahead of Celtic and Aberdeen.  Prior to manager Jim McLean’s appointment, the club had never won a domestic trophy but the championship added to the two League Cups he had delivered in 1979 and 1980.

In domestic terms, United failed to build on that success with the title never having returned to Tannadice since.  However, when it came to European competition, they proved to be formidable opposition in the years that followed.

The season after winning the league, United reached the semi-final of the European Cup, only falling to Roma in circumstances which have later been shown to be dubious, to say the least.  Had they managed to reach the final, United would have been underdogs against eventual winners Liverpool, but they would have been more than capable of causing an upset.

Three years later, United’s UEFA Cup run saw them memorably defeat Barcelona home and away before eventually losing in the final to IFK Gothenburg.

As for Ralph Milne, he left Tannadice in 1987 and following spells with Charlton Athletic and Bristol City, he joined Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.  He failed to make his mark at Old Trafford and fans south of the border may not remember Milne with any great fondness.  However, anyone in Scotland who seen him play will remember a gifted midfield player who contributed to one of the most significant league title wins in the history of the Scottish game.

 

Goals That Changed History – Alessandro Calori

24 Oct

Stadio Renato Curi 14 May 2000: It shouldn’t have come to this.  With eight games left in the 1999/00 season, Juventus held a comfortable nine point lead over Lazio at the top of Serie A.  However, losses to Lazio, Milan and Verona meant that going into the last day of the campaign, Juve held only a one-point advantage – a win at Perugia was required to secure a third Scudetto in 4 years.

Lazio had to defeat Reggina at the Stadio Olimpico and hope that 85 miles away, Juventus would slip up.  The side from Rome did all they could, recording a routine 3-0 victory with goals from Simone Inzaghi, Juan Sebastian Veron and Diego Simeone.

The real drama came in the other match.  To say that the weather conditions at the Renato Curi were poor would be putting it mildly.  The torrential rain became such an issue that referee Perluigi Collina delayed the start of the second-half.  Collina then wandered around the sodden pitch – ball in one hand, umbrella in the other – trying to decide if it was at all playable.

The contest did eventually resume.  A free-kick from the left wasn’t properly cleared and the ball fell kindly for Alessandro Calori – the centre-back guiding a right-footed shot past Edwin Van Der Sar.  Juventus’ chances of regaining parity then suffered a blow when Gianluca Zambrotta was sent-off.

It just wasn’t their day.  Despite having a side containing the likes of Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane and Edgar Davids, Juve failed to reply.  The other Inzaghi – Pippo – squandered possibly their best opportunity, sending a side-footed volley over the bar from close range.

Perugia held on for the win, sparking wild celebrations in Rome amongst Lazio players and fans, their match having long since finished.  For the side from the capital, it was only the second league title in their history, matching the achievement of 1974.

Juventus bounced back from the blow of losing the championship on the last day, landing the Serie A title again in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006.  However, the last two of those titles were stripped from them as a result of the Calciopoli scandal.

Lazio were also caught up in the match-fixing saga.  An initial punishment of demotion to Serie B was later reduced to a points deduction.  By this time, the financial position of the club had altered dramatically, with huge debts having been amassed during the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  The days of spending fortunes on world-class players were over.

Not surprisingly, guiding his side to a championship also boosted the career prospects of Lazio coach, Sven Goran Eriksson.  Less than a year later he was gone, as he took charge of the English national team.  Would he have been such an attractive proposition had Calori not struck that crucial last-day goal?  We’ll never know, though given his failure to land an international title, some England fans will no doubt wish that his success in Italy hadn’t brought him to the top of the FA’s list.

The Hardy Tale Of Honduran Football

20 Sep

My recent piece for the excellent Oval Log

The Liga Nacional de Honduras cannot match Argentina’s Primera Division when it comes to the technical ability of its players.  Nor does it possess the flair of Spain’s La Liga or the financial resources of England’s Premier League.  However, it can lay claim to being every bit as competitive as its more illustrious counterparts.

The Central American nation have, from a football perspective, impressed beyond their own borders in recent times – the national side appeared at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and the Honduran youth teams have qualified for the Under-17 and Under-20 equivalents on a number of occasions recently.  The likes of David Suazo, Maynor Figueroa, Wilson Palacios and Emilio Izaguirre meanwhile, have seamlessly made the transition to European club football after catching the eye of foreign observers whilst appearing for their clubs and for Los Catrachos.

Naturally, the starting point for most Honduran players is their domestic championship.  Since its formation in 1965 (replacing the previous amateur championship), four clubs have dominated the league.  Like many other nations in the Americas, Honduras operates on an Apertura and Clausura basis, meaning two champions each season.

Must successful of all are Olimpia.  Hailing from the capital city, Tegucigalpa, the Leones have not only been champions of their country a record 23 times, they are also the only Honduran club to win CONCACAF’S version of the Champions League, lifting the trophy in 1973 and 1988.  They have also reached the final on another two occasions.

Olimpia’s tally of titles could be even greater had they not been denied in the finals of both the Apertura and Clausura last season.  The latter of those defeats came against their city rivals, Motagua, who triumphed with a 5-3 aggregate to clinch their twelfth title (second on the all-time list), and their second straight Clausura.

From the northern city of San Pedro Sula come Real Espana.  Other than Olimpia, Espana are the only side to win three straight league titles (achieved in the 1970’s) and are this season’s other defending champion, having won last year’s Apertura.

The last in the quartet of Honduran super-powers are CD Marathon.  Also from San Pedro Sula, Marathon are long-standing rivals of Olimpia, their contests are known as the Clasico Nacional.  Marathon also have the wonderful nickname of El Monstruo Verde, or The Green Monster.

Other clubs of note include Platense, who were champions in 2001 meaning they were the last side from outside the ‘big four’ to win the title.  Vida and Victoria meanwhile, have both regularly reached the play-offs over the past ten years.

The ten teams in the top-flight play each other twice, meaning 18 matches each in the two different stages of the season.  With no domestic cups currently played for, the league title is the be all and end all for Honduran club football.

Then it becomes interesting – for most seasons since 1970/71, the sides finishing in the top four positions have then competed in play-off semi-finals over two legs, with the winners meeting (again over two legs) to decide who will become league champions.

There will though, be a slight amendment for the 2011/12 campaign, which kicks-off on 6th August.  The top six will now qualify for the post-season, meaning 3rd will play 6th , and 4th will play 5th in eliminators to decide which clubs will join the top two in the last four.

This change could potentially lead to a more open competition with more teams having the opportunity of winning the title.  However, it must be considered somewhat unfair that a club who ends the regular season in the bottom half of the table, could feasibly end up national champions just half a dozen games later.  Any league system which does not recognise the team who gain the most points as champions will always be contentious, but this appears to be a rather extreme example.

In a social context, Honduras doesn’t have its problems to seek.  Political unrest led to the country’s president, Manuel Zelaya, being removed from power in 2009, while drugs and the demographic make-up of the country – 50% of the population are aged 19 or under – contribute to gang culture being a huge issue.  The ‘maras’ dominate everyday life in many areas, and have links to other gangs in the USA and other countries.  It’s also reported that more than half of the population live below the poverty line, and around one-fifth of adults are illiterate.

However, when it comes to providing a football league where there is genuine competition and a platform for young players to showcase their talents before moving overseas, Honduras is by no means a poor relation.

Celtic’s Prince of Goalkeepers

4 Sep

My recent piece for In Bed With Maradona on John Thomson, whose image will be the header picture on the blog for the month of September.

In early September, a theatre in Glasgow will host a production which focuses on the life of a former footballer who most of the audience will never have seen play.

Their knowledge of John Thomson will have been gleaned from the occasional grainy piece of newsreel, anecdotes passed down through the generations, and media articles – they all tell the tale of a young man whose life was tragically cut short due to his bravery on the football field.

Thomson was born in Kirkcaldy, Fife in 1909, before moving with his family to the mining village of Cardenden.  Like most young men of his age, Thompson was expected upon leaving school to work in the local mine.  Aged just 14, he joined his father at the Lady Josephine colliery in nearby Bowhill, where as an oncost worker he spent his days some 300 yards underground, unclipping the chain clips of wagons which carried coal.

However, Thomson’s aptitude for football – more specifically, goalkeeping – set him apart from most of his contemporaries.  Despite being only 5ft 9, his early performances meant he was something of a sensation in the east of Scotland.  After a short spell with local team Bowhill Rovers he joined junior side Wellesley Rovers with local newspaper the Fife Free Press stating that the club had: “unearthed a champion goalkeeper.”

There have been various suggestions as to how Celtic became aware of Thomson.  According to the club’s manager at the time, the legendary Willie Maley, he was advised of a promising young keeper by a friend who lived in Fife.  Regardless of the circumstances, Celtic liked what they saw and paid a fee of £10 to take Thomson to Glasgow.

It took around six months for him to be given his chance in the first-team, but after his debut in a win against Dundee, Thomson never looked back.  He quickly established himself as an automatic choice and the honours soon followed.  Celtic lifted the Scottish Cup in 1927 and 1931 and Thomson was also called up by his country, making four appearances for the national side.

As a keeper he had it all.  His grace and agility were matched by his bravery, as he regularly threw his head and body into places were some players in the modern era would be reluctant to place their feet.  With regular shoulder-charges (and a bit more) from opposing players, goalkeeping in the late 1920’s and early 30’s was not for the faint hearted.

There was no requirement however, for Thomson to be reminded of the dangers of his occupation.  In 1930, a match against Airdrie left the keeper with a broken jaw, fractured ribs, damage to his collarbone and two teeth missing.  Thomson’s mother Jean was so concerned by his injuries that she urged him to quit the game, stating that she’d had a premonition that her son would be killed playing football.  Nearly 18 months later, Mrs Thomson’s vision would become a horrible reality.

On 5th September 1931 Celtic travelled across Glasgow to Ibrox stadium for a league encounter with their oldest rivals.  The match was goalless early in the second-half when Rangers centre-forward Sam English ran onto a through ball from team-mate Jimmy Fleming and bore down on the Celtic goal.  Thomson, as expected, was off his line at the first sign of danger.  When asked previously what went through his mind when he faced such situations, Thomson replied that his only thought was keeping his eye on the ball and going for it.  It was no surprise therefore when he threw himself head-first at the feet of the onrushing English.

Thomson’s head collided with the knee of the opposing player.  He lay motionless on the turf and very quickly, many witnesses both on the field and in the crowd, realised that this was no minor injury.

It was reported that a single female scream was heard from the main stand at Ibrox.  That was said to be Margaret Finlay, Thomson’s fiancée who had attended the match with his brother Jim.

Thomson was removed from the field by stretcher and taken to Glasgow Victoria Infirmary, on the south-side of the city.  He had suffered a lacerated wound over the right parietal bones, resulting in a depression of the skull.  An operation was carried out to try and alleviate the pressure caused by the swelling in the brain.  It proved unsuccessful and John Thomson died at 9.25pm that evening.  He was 22 years old.

Glasgow was united in grief, Scotland a nation in mourning.  Thousands gathered at Glasgow’s Queen Street railway station to see off trains taking fans to Fife for the funeral.  Many others who were unable to afford the fare instead walked the 55 miles to Cardenden.

It’s estimated that around 30,000 people were in attendance as Thomson was buried.  Despite the traditional religious divide that exists with Scotland’s two largest clubs, Thomson was not a Roman Catholic.  Instead he was a member of the Church of Christ, a small Christian sect whose members conducted services themselves and took charge of events as ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’ was laid to rest.

Amongst the tributes paid to Thomson, Maley said of his goalkeeper: “Never was there a keeper who caught and held the fastest shots with such grace and ease.”

The journalist John Arlott meanwhile, described Thomson as: “A great player, who came to the game as a boy and left it still a boy; he had no predecessor, no successor.  He was unique.”

It would be remiss not to note the impact that the events of that tragic incident had on the other party involved.  Sam English was born just a few months before Thomson and after playing junior football with Yoker Athletic, had earned his big move to Ibrox.  An official enquiry confirmed what most observers already knew – that English was an honest player who made a genuine attempt to win a ’50-50’ challenge with a goalkeeper.  There was no malice whatsoever.  Thomson’s family agreed, making it clear that they did not hold English in any way responsible for the keeper’s death.

Sadly, not everyone shared that point of view.  Opposing fans – from various clubs, not only Celtic – never allowed the striker to forget his involvement in Thomson’s death and he was mercilessly barracked wherever he played.  Even after leaving Ibrox and playing for Liverpool, Queen of the South and Hartlepool United, the player’s ‘reputation’ seemed to precede him.

English retired from the game in 1938 aged just 28.  He described the part of his career which followed that day at Ibrox as “seven years of joyless sport.”

Sam English died in 1967, at the age of 58.

Over the years there have been various efforts to ensure that Thomson’s name lives on.  In 2008 a campaign backed by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown led to Thomson being inducted into Scottish football’s Hall of Fame despite failing to meet the normal criteria of 50 international appearances.

In 1983 the John Thomson Memorial Committee was formed, with the aim of promoting Thomson’s memory in his local area.  Their activities include an annual football tournament (bearing Thomson’s name), which is contested by local primary school children.  This year will also see the JTMC, along with Celtic Graves Society, organise a pilgrimage from Celtic Park to Cardenden, following the route of those who walked to Thomson’s funeral in 1931.  They will reach their destination on 4th September.

The following day sees the ‘The Prince – The Johnny Thomson Story’ begin at Glasgow’s Kings Theatre.  Its opening coincides with the 80th anniversary of Thomson’s passing, and a potential audience of thousands are set to attend over an eight-show run.

The fact that so many people are prepared to attend or participate in such events, gives credence to the words which adorn Thomson’s headstone:

“They never die who live in the hearts they leave behind.”

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