AFC Fylde have done it the right way

It’s the business end of the season – well, in fact, some teams are already finished – and teams up and down the land are celebrating and commiserating at the end of a hard-fought campaign.

One team celebrating is AFC Fylde, who have been promoted to the National League for the first time in their history.

Formerly known as Kirkham & Wesham, the club based in Lancashire have gone on a meteoric rise through the non-leagues. BBC Sport did an article on them in the week (most media are only interested in non-league teams when they think they can get hits for it) and I must admit my response to their tweet was a touch on the facetious side.

However, since then, I’ve thought about that and it was perhaps a touch harsh, because AFC Fylde have made a far better fist of being minted in non-league football than many others before them.

Managed by Dave Challinor – who fans of a certain age will best remember for hurling footballs around for Tranmere Rovers long before Rory Delap made that fashionable – it has possibly been a longer road to the top flight of non-league football than they may have hoped.

They’ve lost in the play-offs in the past two seasons, but this year, they’ve finally made it.

But the project at AFC Fylde is not just about on the pitch. Their chairman David Haythornthwaite (belting name, by the way) has invested in the whole club. They have a new, purpose-built stadium, for a kick off, and their ambition has always been a long-term one. So good bloody luck to them.

At the other end of the same level of football sit Margate. Margate have been relegated from the National League South after a horrific season.

Gate are a club I have a real fondness for, having covered them for two seasons. I still know people at the club and to be honest I’m a bit annoyed at myself that I’ve only managed to see them play once this season – a 4-0 defeat at Ebbsfleet United back in August.

And while earlier on I praised Fylde for doing things the right way, I have to say that Gate did it all the wrong way – and are paying for it now.

They were bought by local businessman Bob Laslett in December 2013, and one of his first acts was to install Terry Brown as manager. Brown had success with AFC Wimbledon and Aldershot, and his appointment was a clear indicator that Laslett meant business.

It was too late for a promotion push in that first season, but they began the 2014/15 season as favourites for the title, having moved their training to London and cherry picked the best players from around the division – and even some from higher levels.

I started covering them that summer, and spoke to Laslett on a few occasions. Once he told me they could be “the next Southampton”. Ambitious, yes, but there is some potential in the area.

They eventually came third in the league, but snuck up through the play-offs. That summer, Brown signed a load more impressive players, some of them understood to be earning upwards of £800 a week – as part-time players. But while money was being thrown at things on the pitch, off it there was little progress. Thanet District Council probably didn’t help, but Hartsdown Park’s limited capacity was always going to hold Gate back. The matchday experience on a day where there was a big crowd wasn’t great, and average attendances never reached the levels they would have hoped for.

Maidstone United, just up the road, have taken a Fylde-like path, getting their new stadium in place first. They were promoted with Gate, but while they were getting crowds of more than 2,000 most weeks, Gate were getting around a third of that.

On the pitch, their new-look team wasn’t firing on many cylinders, and in December 2015 Brown was sacked, and replaced by Nikki Bull. Bull managed to rejuvenate the team and after a blistering start was named manager of the month and had Gate dreaming of the play-offs.

Away from the pitch though, all was not well. Laslett wasn’t at the games as often. I tried to call him a few times to get a story, but all I invariably found was his answerphone.

As these rumours started to whirr around, things on the pitch plummeted again, with defeat after defeat after defeat – and then in March, as top scorer Freddie Ladapo moved to Crystal Palace, it was confirmed that Laslett had left the club. The money that those players were earning simply wasn’t there any more. The club, so much potential and high hopes, was up against it.

In the end, a win over Hemel Hempstead in their penultimate game saved their skin, although not before a 2-0 defeat at Bath where Gate ended up keeping the ball in the corner to avoid conceding a third that would send them down.

Bull had a blank canvas in the summer. Not as much money to spend, but he worked hard recruiting top players. I was no longer covering them, but I was pretty sure they were going to be a force to be reckoned with.

I was wrong. They stuttered, and were pinning all of their hopes on a FA Cup run – but a defeat to Ryman Premier Harrow Borough, costing them a lucrative trip to Northampton, was the final straw. The squad was decimated, and Bull was left with no budget and a squad that would probably have struggled two leagues down.

Bull moved on before the relegation was confirmed, but under new boss Steve Watt – and with a takeover completed today – they can rebuild next year.

One team they will face in the Ryman Premier is Billericay Town, who have been taken over by Glenn Tamplin, and have already splashed plenty of cash. Jamie O’Hara and Paul Konchesky are the big names, but most of the rest of their squad has dropped down levels to play for them. Long-serving boss Craig Edwards has departed, with Tamplin taking charge until the end of the season.

The Blues are another club I’ve covered. Their stadium is about the same as Gate’s, and you can’t help fear that unless Tamplin can move forward with improving that, they too could end up hitting a wall and being unable to move on. And then where does that leave them? I get the temptation to sort the team out first – that’s the “sexy” stuff, I suppose, but without the infrastructure, that’s just a complete waste of time.

I’m pretty sure if you ask a Margate fan right now, they are quite happy to be free of the moneybags tag – and if they can have a settled season next year, there’s no reason why they can’t get back into the National League South… But ultimately they will need to sort out the stadium more than anything.

So, yes, Fylde have splashed the cash, but at least they’ve built something sustainable. Good luck to them as they try to take the next step.

Taking on the Football Manager “Fergie Challenge”

Football Manager blogs are all the rage these days. Sadly, in my house, Football Manager is not “all the rage” – unless you take that literally, because the very sight of a laptop and Football Manager can, in certain circumstances, lead to rage.

That is part of the reason that I don’t actually own FM17, the latest incarnation of the world’s best management sim. I used to spend hours playing these games, up into the wee small hours taking on the task at many different clubs.

Those days are long gone, but when I play, I do like to have something interesting to take on, so I decided to take on the “Fergie Challenge”. The premise is that you go on holiday until November 6, then take over the team next to bottom in the Premier League and try and make a dynasty, as Sir Alex Ferguson did at Manchester United.

I thought I’d try and make things a little tougher, so I went “on holiday” for a whole season from the start of FM16, setting my return date for November 6 2016.

So, the game ticked on as I sat there. Just who would be waiting for me?

Well, it was Burnley.

Obviously the Clarets had, just as in real life, got promoted in 2015/16, and were now in the top flight. The Clarets had got promoted in the game with just a handful of loan signings, and in the summer had added James Wilson and Chupa Akpom on loan, as well as splashing out on Jake Livermore and Idrissa Gueye. In real terms, the challenge shouldn’t have been too different from real life.

The big sticking point though was that when I took over – from Shaun Dyche – Burnley were in a right old state. From 14 matches, they had a whopping five points. FIVE. And a long way adrift already. The only reason they were 19th – and therefore the team I took over – was that Brentford, promoted with them, were even bloody worse.

The differences between the Fergie Challenge and actual Fergie soon became clear. When the Scot took over at Old Trafford he could make transfers straight away, pick any of the players at his disposal and was, after all, at a big club. What he didn’t have was the transfer window and two players not even registered to play. The two – Dyche’s only signing the previous year Bradley Dack and striker Ashley Barnes – both came to me within days to say they wanted more first-team football. Dack was happy to accept my very reasonable explanation that everyone would get a chance to impress in my regime. Barnes, however, got the hump and asked to be sold. So I put the wheels in motion to do just that, only for the massive pillock to refuse to agree personal terms with Red Bull Salzburg. Tosser.

On the pitch, I stopped a five-game losing run at the first attempt, drawing 1-1 with Southampton, before in the next game moving on to nine points by dismantling Brentford 3-0. Easy this… Or not. I lost the next four, while also spending time trying to reshape a squad that was paying massively over-inflated wages to bang average players who were nowhere near the first XI. Sadly, I completed this task too late to actually bring anyone of note in during the transfer window.

The squad was uninspiring at best. No offence to them, but Scott Arfield and George Boyd are not the sort of wingers I like in my FM sides. I want pace. I’ve tinkered with formations, but I can’t seem to get the best out of these players.

After beating Carlisle in the FA Cup, we had a week to remember in late January as we hit five two games running, beating West Ham and Leicester City 5-0 and 5-2 respectively. I was still a long way from safety, but if we’d kept that up, the best escape act since I kept Hearts up from minus 15 points on FM14 was in sight. I went on to win the league with them.

Sadly, there was to be no repeat. Eight dismal defeats in a row put us on the brink, a win over Swansea – who could have been caught if, you know, you believed in bloody miracles – gave us a bit of hope, and a 3-3 draw at Watford where we never trailed but ended up hanging on with ten men after Gueye’s red card kept us mathematically alive.

Taking the lead at Southampton gave us some more hope, but losing 5-2 put the nail in the coffin.

The relegation being confirmed led to a revolt. Tom Heaton, Michael Keane and Arfield all wanted to go straight away. We beat Brentford again, and as the season came to a close, the board suddenly decided they hated me. I was called to two meetings in two weeks to discuss my future. At the second of them, I was ordered to get nine points in the next five games or I was gone.

The summer was brilliant fun. I sold and bought an entire squad. I had money to spend, and although I don’t normally, I splashed the cash. The wage bill was fun to play with as well. Heaton replaced by a keeper on £30k a week. Ki arrived from Chelsea, wages of £63k. They weren’t alone. I had built a squad more than capable of not just getting straight back, but winning the Championship at a canter.

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I spent a while planning what formations might work for this squad. When I got back to it, I’d lost a key man – attacking midfielder Marco Djuricin – to injury for five weeks, but I had the strength to deal with that.

Or so I thought. We opened the season at Leeds United, and were handed our backsides on a plate, losing by five goals to nil. The tough start continued against Crystal Palace, and we lost that one too, 2-1.

Next up, in a continuation of that tricky start, were my old mates Brentford. I’ve beaten them every time… But not this time. A 1-1 draw. Remember that ultimatum? Yep. That one. Yep. Sacked. Game over.

I left it running for a bit until I got another job. By that time – I was at struggling Brighton in late November – the Clarets were up to sixth. I may well have created that Ferguson dynasty… I’m just not there to oversee it.

Spurs stuck in a middle ground

They may have breezed through in the FA Cup, but the 3-0 win over Fulham ended a pretty ropey week for Spurs.

Beaten by Liverpool, and losing the first leg of a Europa League clash they don’t really want to be in, Spurs needed a pick-me-up. Harry Kane’s hat-trick did that, but I reckon Spurs are a team stuck in the middle.

I feel a bit of an affinity for Spurs. I don’t support a specific team. I haven’t done for five years now (long story, which most people who know me closely are aware of), but Spurs are a side I’ve always had a soft spot for.

It started after Italia 90 I guess, when Gazza and Gary Lineker were among the England heroes who reached the last four. Sitting with two Spurs fans either side of me in my last job also helped. There’s something about them, and their propensity for snatching failure from the jaws of success is something I feel an empathy towards. Mercurial players have always been a big part of life at White Hart Lane and that gives them a touch of magic.

But here’s the thing – Spurs have got good now. Very good – but somehow they keep coming up short. They came third in a two-horse title race last year. For all of the glamour of Leicester City’s title win, Spurs really had their best chance to win the title in decades. Yet they not only blew it, they managed to blow up so spectacularly that the Arsenal fans still got to have their St Totteringham’s Day.

Spurs are so close, but they need to go to the next level. But what is currently their greatest strength is what is most definitely their greatest weakness as they look to push on.

Spurs’ strength is their starting XI, which is definitely in the top two in the Premier League. There’s not a lot of players in other first-choice XIs who you would say could improve those players who make up Mauricio Pochettino’s side.

But that means the problem is that when Spurs want to improve their squad, you either have to be an exceptional talent to dislodge one of those in that first XI, or be happy being on the bench. When the transfer window is open, Spurs aren’t being linked with the elite players, and their improvement in recent years means that despite their stature, impressive new stadium and excellent squad, they are still viewed as less of a draw than sides they have finished above for a few seasons.

Pochettino has shown in the past few years that he can improve players and sell them on for a profit – as Southampton and one of those clubs Spurs keep finishing above can testify. But now he’s at a club that doesn’t want to be a selling club. It’s a club who wants to challenge for the title, go far in the Champions League and maybe even reach a first FA Cup final for the first time in 26 years.

And that’s why the likes of Georges-Kevin N’Koudou are finding it tough to make the breakthrough, as Clinton N’Jie did before him. Moussa Sissoko is a decent player, but the only other competition for his vastly overpriced move were Everton. Spurs are now higher than that level – that top half, challenging for Europe mentality is what they had, but now they need to push on.

In attack is their biggest problem area. Kane is magnificent, and keeps on getting better. He is the perfect fit for Spurs’ shape and formation, but as soon as he is out, they have nowhere to turn. Vincent Janssen arrived from the Dutch league with a big reputation, but the expectation was for him to hit the ground running – but only as a back-up. Kane’s early season injury gave him a chance, but he’s not the first man to find the step up to the Premier League tough going – and now he is left feeding off rare appearances from the bench to try and build up some confidence.

But that goes back to the same problem for Spurs. Who are they going to get in to provide competition for Kane or who would be happy playing second fiddle to him? It’s a big issue as their results away at the other big clubs are what is ultimately holding them back.

It’s a problem I’m sure Pochettino and those in the Spurs hierarchy are desperate to solve – and one they’ll definitely want fixed by the time their new stadium is completed in 2018…

Southampton lead the way in Premier League’s FA Cup weekend of shame

The magic of the FA Cup is so-say alive and well after a weekend in which Wolves, Lincoln, Oxford and Sutton all pulled off superb ‘shock’ wins.

Alternatively, the big boys have yet again shown that for them, the only magic thing about the cup is letting their best players have a weekend off.
I lost count of how many times I heard teams had made nine or ten changes for their cup games. Gary Neville – probably the least nonsensical pundit about – tweeted that he thinks teams are right to blood their youngsters in the cup. One or two, perhaps. Not eight or nine.
Of all the teams who let themselves down with their team selection this weekend, Southampton are the ones with the most to apologise for.
The Saints aren’t going to win the league. They aren’t going to qualify for Europe via the league. They also aren’t going to get relegated. They’ve had a great run in the League Cup and deservedly booked their place in the final in midweek.
A home tie against Arsenal – who they beat on their way in the League Cup – live on TV, was a chance to progress again. Chuck it all at the cups. Give the paying fans something to get excited about.
They did at least reduce ticket prices to £15 for the game, but that in no way excuses the line-up Claude Puel named. Arsenal were not at full strength by a long chalk, but that they could canter to a 5-0 win says a lot more about Puel’s chosen side than the Gunners.
Liverpool’s exit was avoidable but not at all surprising as Jurgen Klopp failed to learn any lessons from the previous round against Plymouth, while Brighton and Newcastle were also perhaps guilty of taking their opponents too lightly.
Those two though are a little more understandable – they are desperate to win promotion this season and a cup run alongside 46 league games is a lot. I still think, however, they have let themselves down.
Spurs, 4-3 winners over Wycombe in dramatic fashion, also made a raft of changes, but their side should have done better. It wasn’t brimful of kids, it had plenty of experienced players in there but so early had to do it all again at Adams Park next week.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s great to see the underdogs having their day. But something needs to be done to ensure that the FA Cup becomes a priority for the big clubs, not an inconvenience. The quality of the competition suffers with these second-string teams, and I’m sure everyone will be praying that Lincoln and Sutton aren’t paired together in the draw.
The FA Cup – and its final – used to be known around the world. I still think for most fans it’s massive. But the clubs – especially those at the very top – just don’t seem to get that anymore.

Magic of the Cup? Does someone want to tell the BBC and BT?

It’s been a while since I’ve written a blog. That’s kind of how I roll – that’s why a book I started writing five years ago still sits, 20,000 words lovingly written, definitely unfinished. Time catches up with me, and I don’t make enough space in my work/commute/boyfriend/lazy arse schedule to do things like this.

So to those of you (are there any of you?) who have been waiting, I apologise.

Anyway, a blog. A blog… Ah, yes, the FA Cup third round. I’m old enough to remember the days when this was THE weekend of the year. It was huge. I can still remember being in the back of the car (I think it was a G Reg white Ford Escort) aged 10 listening to the radio as Wrexham beat Arsenal in 1992. I remember Woking winning at West Brom the previous year, and of course Sutton beating Coventry in 1989. I was proper giddy when I covered a game at Gander Green Lane a couple of years back and it LOOKED THE SAME. They’ve built on it now, but when I went it still had those vast open ends behind the goal. It was all part of the general magic of the cup. In my previous life as a lower-league football fan, reaching the third round was the Holy Grail – would there be a home tie against one of the big boys?

That isn’t the case anymore – and hasn’t been for some time. Money in the game has had such a huge effect on the FA Cup. When smaller teams get to the third round, they don’t want a big boy at home. They want them away. They want a share of the gate receipts and sod the chance of actually having your own Matt Hanlon, Tim Buzaglo or Steve Watkin. That the TV companies have actually picked some ties where small clubs are going to bigger ones for live coverage makes it even worse.

You have to admit the draw was a bit of a stinker for the romantics of us out there – but even so, the BBC and BT Sport both got it wrong. Massively wrong. The Beeb were always going to get their mitts all over the biggest all-Prem tie of the round – Manchester City’s trip to West Ham – because they don’t show a lot of live football, so they have to get the big guns when they can. Nothing to moan about there.

Preston against Arsenal was the other obvious choice for coverage, and BT snapped that one up – and Cambridge v Leeds isn’t a bad shout from BT Sport to be fair to them, a bigger club going to a smaller one, and if you’re going to get a Championship side on the road, then it might as well be them as they do travel in numbers.

But after that? Well, well, well. Tottenham v Aston Villa, Manchester United v Reading and, worse of all, Liverpool v Plymouth fill up the televised slots. All home bankers, and all ties where the Premier League side will probably look to rest players. Liverpool have horrible previous for this. Last year against Exeter – a tie that was rightly shown live from St James’s Park – Jurgen Klopp showed a complete lack of respect for the competition and the opposition with an inexperienced line-up. He’s already sown the seeds to do the same this year as well, moaning about fixture congestion on Monday when also not making changes to his Liverpool side.

I’m sure it’ll be a great experience for the Plymouth fans and players on Sunday afternoon at Anfield, and I’m sure that the Liverpool youngsters who play in the tie will also get something out of it. Good luck to them all – but it doesn’t mean that I want to watch it. I wouldn’t watch a game between an U23 team and a League Two side in the shockingly bad Johnstone’s Paint Trophy format (and I’m not alone in that one), so why would I want to watch it in the FA Cup?

There are a fair number of non-league teams who have got this far. Sadly none of them pulled out a massive tie, but the TV money on offer would make such a difference to them. They all have big stories to tell (bigger than Aston Villa travelling to Spurs for the first time in, ooh, one season) and deserve their moment in the sun.

Of the ties to miss out, Sutton v AFC Wimbledon seems the hardest done by – I’ve already talked about Sutton’s win over Coventry, but who were the holders of the cup at that time? Wimbledon, long before that club was moved to Milton Keynes and replaced by this glorious phoenix club who have risen from the very bottom to the same division as the franchise lot. If you want upsets, the number of league places between these two is far superior to Manchester United and Reading. And the glamour of the cup is far more prevalent at Gander Green Lane were two smaller clubs, both with FA Cup pedigree, go all guns blazing for a spot in the fourth round, as opposed to watching the reserves from a club who view the Cup – especially the early rounds – as an inconvenience going through the motions against sides they really should be beating easily.

And that’s the crux of it. Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham are all trying to get into the Champions League. Or even win the Premier League. That’s much more important to them than winning the FA Cup. Go out to Villa at home? We’ll get over it, as long as our best players don’t get injured. The FA need to come up with a way to make the great competition a priority again.

And I’d suggest not letting broadcasters pick crap ties like they have done would be a decent start…

Bristow was wrong – and gave too many people the chance to be outraged

Eric Bristow, eh? A dinosaur, from another era, who has got himself into trouble over social media comments.

While the comments he has made are reprehensible, there can be no doubt that Bristow is a victim of social media.

And I don’t just mean his own social media accounts.

I know this is a sport blog apparently, and there is obviously a sporting angle, but this time I’m going to let off some steam about something I am increasingly becoming frustrated with.

Fifteen years ago, Bristow could have held the same views as he does now. He probably did. But he had no outlet for them, short of going out of his way to appear on TV to discuss it, and had this abhorrent story about abuse to young footballers had broken back then, I’m pretty sure Bristow’s name would not have been on the list of possible guests to discuss it.

But now, at 9.24pm on a Monday night in November, Bristow can let more than 100,000 people directly know what he is thinking. And it probably only takes one person to be outraged and it’s all over the web. A tweet, which takes seconds to compose, can stitch you right up.

Again – and I do feel the need to point this out – Bristow was wrong. What Bristow said was outrageous, ridiculous and simply put plain stupid. Let’s add in “ignorant” as well. Completely indefensible.

But what can be said, is that social media has given everyone a voice. It’s played a massive part in the downfall of journalism as well – I’ve long said that now everyone thinks they are a journalist, and the immediacy of social media means that speed of information is more important than quality.

It does also give people a platform. Would anyone care about Katie Hopkins or Piers Morgan if they couldn’t idly inflict their views on us? The newspapers, the desperate ones that still remain, make it even worse. They promote their drivel in an attempt to get people riled up. Quality doesn’t matter to them any more either, it’s all about the click rate. They scour social media looking for outrage responses. They used Twitter comments as their TV reviewers in many cases.

Hell, I’ve seen today a paper that I used to work for mocking their readers for criticising the fact they wrote a story about a supermarket running out of sandwiches. How I’ve not sworn in this paragraph is a miracle. I’m not linking to it any more because it’s already had too many clicks – I know this because I’ve read it once. That’s one more click than that pointless, gutter, non-journalism deserves.

I’m on Twitter a lot. It’s part of my job. But some of the stuff I see on it is pathetic. It gives everyone equal chance to share their views, and while in so many aspects that is brilliant, it also gives morons a voice I’m not sure we want to hear. Like the woman – hypocritically living in France – who this week has proudly shared her racist letter of complaint to John Lewis over their advert featuring a black family.

Perhaps it was altogether better when no-one actually cared about your views and the only platform to share them was face-to-face, where you could be challenged and those who weren’t interested could just walk away.

Because you can rest assured, I see hundreds of things a day that I really wish I hadn’t on social media. Clickbait, filthy horrible clickbait. You can almost picture it now in these scuzzy offices (not calling them newsrooms), the sort of place where a plane crash wipes out a football team and your first thought is how to get your interpretation of tragedy read the most.

It’s not journalism, it’s not respectable and frankly – pardon my French – it can fuck right off.

 

UnBallanced? The curious case of England’s unpopular batsman

Mike Atherton. Nasser Hussain. Mike Gatting. Allan Lamb. Four top England batsman of the recent past. Granted, they weren’t in the best England teams, but if you had those four in your top six, you would have few complaints.

But what do they all have in common? Well, they all average less than 39.25 in Test matches. That seems like an arbitrary number to judge them on (although it’s close to 40, which was always the benchmark for a top career), but 39.25 is the current Test career average of one Gary Simon Ballance. Yorkshire’s left-hander may have had a stinking tour of Bangladesh – 24 runs at a sparking average of 6.00, with a top score of nine – but the bloke still averages nearly 40.

So that makes the fact that many England fans – myself included – want him gone by the start of the series in India this week a touch odd. All the best players have a bad run of form, but often stats like those Ballance – four hundreds and seven fifties in 21 Tests – mean a player should be stuck with.

But Ballance – who also must rile journalists on a regular basis thanks to Word’s autocorrect – doesn’t seem to have much in the bank. He started off quite well, but for me I don’t think he’s ever looked convincing at the crease. His recall in the summer didn’t seem to make a lot of sense – he wasn’t exactly scoring barrel loads of runs for the all-conquering Yorkshire – and he didn’t back it up with his performances against Pakistan.

Yet come the end of the series, a lot of experts put him ahead of the likes of James Vince and Alex Hales – who also struggled – saying he looked “assured” and “worth another chance”. He went back to Yorkshire, with Trevor Bayliss calling on all batsmen in the county game to step up in the final weeks of the season, but despite continuing his uninspiring form, he was still on the plane to Bangladesh.

It seemed likely that he wouldn’t play, with young gun Haseeb Hameed and Ben Duckett both ready to make their debuts. But when it came around, Duckett opened, and there sat Ballance at four. He probably wasn’t helped by the fact he was in so early in all but one innings, but, oddly, on the one occasion he did go in a bit later, he got out to an absolute horror of a shot, the sort that even I (season average 17.78, Kent Village League Division Four) wouldn’t come up with.

I have no idea why I just can’t take to Ballance as an England batsman. It’s not the fact he was born in Zimbabwe – we’ve had more than our fair share of African top-order men in recent years. I can’t even say it’s about his personality – I’ve seldom seemed him interviewed, but he’s probably not the dullest we’ve had. His stats aren’t too bad either, but it’s just that he never looks at all comfortable. I don’t think he’s the sort of man who is regularly going to score big tons, his stroke play isn’t dashing and I don’t think opposing attacks will fear him.

England’s batting in Bangladesh was a big issue. They need to find more stability, and Ballance doesn’t seem to be the man to do it.

So what’s the option? The previously mooted Hameed opening with Duckett at four is my preference, especially with the current number four (whose name I’m now officially fed up of typing – it does have a double L, Microsoft) not an option.

Sadly, I fear it’s not going to matter a lot – I fully expect England to get walloped in India – but going forward we need to find the right balance in our batting. And I don’t think Gary is the right bal(l)ance for this task.

 

TV Times

Football on TV has become a talking point in the past week or so, not least because Sky have reported a slump in viewing figures this season.

The 19 per cent drop was announced last week and certainly raised a few eyebrows – but if you think about it, the clues were there. Special offers aplenty being advertised, their on-demand services being offered to customers from other suppliers and the massive furore they made over Red Monday, which turned out to be more like Dead Monday.

I’m not a Sky customer anymore. Fittingly, the Virgin Media men were in my house arranging my exit from Sky as David Cameron quit as PM following the EU Referendum result. I didn’t actually leave Sky because of the cost, or the TV, but because of their god awful broadband service, and even worse customer service, which included one braindead operator advising me that my wifi would suddenly stop being disgraceful if I moved the router into the middle of the room, and another asking me if the washing machine may be affecting it.

With Virgin, I still have Sky and I also have the added bonus of BT Sport as well. But despite this plethora of Premier League live TV options, I don’t think I’ve watched a full game all season. Part of that is down to my own circumstances, and the fact that as I’ve got older, I’ve not felt the interest I once had in professional football, but at the same time, it’s down to the product.

Super Sunday last week comprised of Middlesbrough v Watford and Southampton v Burnley. No disrespect to any of those clubs, but, well, there’s nothing super about that line-up in the slightest. Then again, 24 hours later we had Manchester United’s trip to Liverpool, the fabled Red Monday, which turned out to be even bloody worse.

The excellent Football 365 summed it up pretty well, and I think the points I made about why England are so crap also ring true here. Entertainment isn’t the aim of the game anymore – not losing is. Jose Mourinho got dog’s abuse for how he set up his United side at Anfield, but in the current climate, that has to be seen as a good result for United.

Gary Neville was also on form with his comments about a picture of a section of Liverpool fans taking pictures of the Manchester United boss. Sometimes you just wonder if the money has gone into the game and ripped the heart of it. Liverpool v United was always a massive game when I was growing up, passion in the stands and on the pitch. Nowadays, it’s just not the same.

The last TV deal was mammoth. It works out at around £113,000 a minute. When I posted this Tweet, I got some flak because of the teams I mentioned, but, jeez, I wasn’t wrong, was I?

It’s not good value for Sky and it’s not good value for the customers paying £100 a month either. That’s a lot of money for a lot of people, and all the time there is a sub-standard product being served up, that’s going to be the case.

The fact there are two TV deals is madness as well. I get the need for competition, of course, but the only people who lose out are the fans. When it was just Sky, it was a lot more manageable than it has been since you needed two subscriptions to watch all the football. The same has happened with cricket too – BT Sport are showing the next Ashes – and it’s always the customer who loses out.

It’s a never-ending cycle though. The money goes into the game, the passion goes out of it. Is the bubble going to burst? Ever? I don’t know.

The other thing I was going to mention was El Clasico. A game that until, what, 15 years ago, no-one in England really gave two hoots about. But now everyone cares, especially when it was announced that the first one of the season won’t be shown on British TV because it kicks off at 3pm (our time) on a Saturday. Another blow for Sky…

But it flags up an old rule which causes much consternation. No live football can be shown in this country at 3pm on a Saturday – the traditional time that most matches still start at.

There were some excellent points made in the debate around this – and the other issue of Sky’s dwindling viewing audiences – not least by this Liverpool fan (and I don’t like to agree with Liverpool fans at the best of times) who I assume means “streaming”.

As someone who has watched a lot of lower-league football in my life and a load of non-league in the past three years, it’s an issue I find interesting. I genuinely don’t think in this day and age, it would be such a big deal. The modern way of social media and smartphones means that goals and highlights can be seen in an instant. I have Match of the Day series linked out of habit – in truth, it’s something to delete later in the week. If I want to see a goal, I can watch it on my phone, or on Sky Sports News. When I do watch MOTD, I only watch the games. I barely bother with the dull interviews, and never with the punditry.

And that’s another thing – the level of punditry in this country is at an all-time low. All these people are getting slated for their dull views, but still the likes of Owen and Savage get work. I’ve done a few bits of radio summarising in the past year or so and I enjoy it, I think I’m not boring and I certainly don’t just state the bloody obvious at times as so many do.

But, hey, I’m just a journalist, what do I know?!

How do you solve a problem like England?

It’s a question people are sick and tired of pondering. I’d go as far to say that apathy towards our national football team has never been greater.

The whole Sam Allardyce thing was a totally unnecessary farce – what was the bloke doing?! – but it doesn’t change the fact that watching England has become a chore.

I’m a football fan, I don’t support a club side, but at the moment, I can’t be bothered to watch the national side either. I didn’t even watch ten minutes combined of the two qualifiers this week.

It’s an odd one, qualifying campaigns. We tend to breeze through them, but when we do that, even that isn’t good enough. We won every game in the campaign for Euro 2016, yet people still moaned that we weren’t getting the results we should. I guess they were ultimately proven right in France that England just aren’t good enough.

But when have we been? I can just about remember Euro 88, but for me Italia 90 was the start of my interest in international tournaments. Then, as chronicled in the brilliant One Night in Turin, expectation was low – both on and off the pitch. But thanks to a spirited performance the likes of which we’ve barely seen since, England got to the semi-finals. As an eight-year-old, it was a brilliant spectacle.

Since then though, the euphoric Euro 96 aside, it’s been a let down. Time after time after time. There’s themes through it as well – shonky results in group games costing us later in the tournament by getting us a tougher draw, or being unable to beat one fella from 12 poxy yards.

It’s all just generally uninspiring. England’s three games so far this season have brought three goals for and none against. How bloody riveting. It’s naïve to expect England to steamroller every team they come up against, but the pride, the passion, that’s what we want to see.

For about a minute in Euro 2016, that pride and passion appeared. A manic final attack against Wales and Daniel Sturridge slammed home, sparking wild celebrations. Surely this was the start of something? Nope. A pathetic showing against Slovakia in the final group game meant second place in the group, and, well, the less said about Iceland the better.

But what’s wrong? Well, I think the national team is the biggest loser in all the money that’s now pumped into the game. Both before and after the Sam Allardyce reign – all 90 minutes of it – we’ve seen discussion about who should be the next manager, and let’s face it, the list of English candidates is not a long one. But that’s because with all the money the top clubs have, they go out and get the best managers. And that means someone who has won top-level trophies. The days of a manager – like Allardyce – winning the fourth tier and going on to be a top-flight regular are probably behind us. Chris Wilder isn’t going to end up in the top flight, I’m pretty sure.

The likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United have their eyes on the Champions League, and therefore as admirable as the job Eddie Howe has done at Bournemouth is, he’s not going to be on their radar.

That logic extends to the players as well – and the money every club is getting from the TV rights is only going to make things worse. No club in the Premier League needs to bring young players through any more. They can compete with almost any club in the world for the best talents in terms of both wages and transfer fees.

There’s no need for a Burnley, a Watford or even a Bournemouth to bring through their own players, so they don’t bother. It’s a results game, immediacy is key. What’s the point of blooding the youngsters and losing when that defeat could cost you your Premier League status?

Funnily enough, I’ve finally got around to watching Class of 92 this morning. I can’t see that happening again in the future, all the time the money is there. Yes, Marcus Rashford is breaking through at United and there are a handful of others, but the criticism of Jose Mourinho’s cull of the rest isn’t really that merited as none of the former crop seem to be in the same league as the likes of Beckham and Scholes.

So the knock on of all of this is that the English players aren’t getting the chance to breakthrough at the big clubs unless they are an exceptional talent – and those who don’t make it then end up down the system, and then, as we’ve seen time and time again, get big price tags on them, halting their ambition to get back up the leagues.

So the player pool is ever dwindling – and all the time the players are earning the extortionate wages they get for their clubs, pulling on an England shirt is sadly never going to mean as much.

So, nearly 850 words later, how do you solve a problem like England? Well, I think I’ve solved it.

Stop caring. England will be what they will be, and there doesn’t seem to be anything us fans can do about it.

Crystal Palace man’s on-loan opener is great to see

I was at passport control at Gatwick Airport in January 2015 when I got a text from Margate press supremo Ryan Day to tell me that striker Freddie Ladapo was on his way to Hartsdown Park.

At that exact moment, it wasn’t my number one priority, but I’m sure if pushed, I would never have predicted that 21 months later, he’d be on the books at a Premier League club and scoring on loan in the Football League.

And score he did yesterday, Oldham Athletic’s leveller in what ended up being a 2-1 win just up the road from Margate at Gillingham.

Now while I obviously enjoy the final outcome of that match, I’m even more pleased for Freddie.

Now 23, over his time at Gate I got to know him fairly well in that journalist/player way. I even once woke him up with an unsolicited phone call at around 9.40am one day. We spoke several times after games, and I was very fortunate that my relationship with him and the club was such that I had all the inside track on his move to the Eagles.

He’d arrived at Gate technically from Kidderminster Harriers, who had loaned him out to Grays Athletic, where he’d banged in plenty of goals in the first half of that 2014-15 campaign. He kept on scoring for Gate, a hat-trick at Met Police being among the highlights – we spoke after that game and he admitted he’d forgotten to ask for the matchball that he was gleefully clutching – and set up the winner as Margate won the play-off final, 1-0 at Hendon.

Like most of the Margate side, he struggled in the early stages of last season, but once Nikki Bull took over, he was an absolute revelation. Usually in a lone striker role – one that I think even he had a few doubts about initially – he grew in front of our eyes.

His form in December and January that season was sparkling, and the transfer talk started. After the game against Bishop’s Stortford two days before the window shut, I managed to talk to him. I knew what was going on in the background, but he showed his maturity by simply insisting he wanted to focus on his football.

Offers from Grimsby and Barrow were snubbed by either the player or the club, and he kept banging the goals in. His decision to stay at Gate was vindicated when he got the chance to go on trial at Crystal Palace. A hat-trick against Watford U21s later and Freddie was in with a shout of a dream move.

It was a protracted move, happening around the time of big changes at Hartsdown Park, but as we spoke on the phone during it, Freddie remained level-headed, but incredibly excited at the opportunity. He had worked his backside off for this chance – he never had a job away from football as a part-time player, spending his time in the gym or running in a bid to be in the best shape possible.

Again, we spoke just after the deal was done and he was great. He certainly got better at the interviews as we went along – and without blowing my own trumpet, I think I helped him. In one of my final chats with Bull before I left my old job, he told me of another player who had grown from the experience of being at Gate, even being interviewed by the likes of me was a massive thing for them. That’s another big cross in the Trinity Mirror ‘non-league football isn’t worth covering’ box…

Freddie grasped his chance at Palace and played a bit for the first-team in pre-season, and was even on the bench in a couple of early Premier League games. Then came the loan move to Boundary Park. He’d always been expected to go to League One or Two, but Oldham seemed a tad surprising – and a tough one for him to go in to.

But he’s done it now, and that moment for him at Priestfield – where he once scored for Gate in a Kent Senior Cup semi-final – is one he will cherish.

It’s not an Ian Wright-style rags to riches story – he began his career at Colchester so has been in the system before – but to see a bloke who two years ago was playing against the likes of Peacehaven & Telscombe netting in the Football League is, simply, bloody brilliant.

I hope it’s the first of many for Freddie.