Training – a perfect example of imperfect preparation

Training with Cotswool FC is an interesting experience. Certainly, the preparation for matches is a little lacklustre in terms of preparing us for the league games, and this is evidenced by our bottom-of-the-league status. Remember the Derby County team of 2007/08 who finished with 11 points from 38 Premier League games? I imagine they trained in a similar way. That’s not to say training isn’t enjoyable – it is, and that’s the whole point of playing for Cotswool. I think. It’s certainly not the success.

premier league 2007

Derby County - the Cotswool of the Premier League

Firstly, the training pitches couldn’t be any more different from the ones we use for competitive action on a weekend. When Saturday comes, we wade across the pitch in pursuit of a ball which is wallowing in the mud like a pig in shit. However, the training facilities of our local college (aside from the luscious 3G pitches which we unfortunately avoid like the plague) involve well-worn sand Astros from the 1990’s. After years of being trampled by overweight, flat-footed, beer-bellied blokes, these pitches have been compressed and squashed to being almost unrecognisable from what I’ve come to know as artificial grass. The surface more closely resembles a student carpet than a sports pitch. These astroturf surfaces provide a perfectly flat surface which are great for practising Barcelona style tiki-taka football, but not so great for preparing for the Downs League. A more suitable simulation of an average Saturday playing surface would perhaps be a giant bouncy castle with goals at either end, half inflated. Covered in shit.

The training pitches are essentially one giant sand astro about 80m x 250m, which is then divided into five pitches – each around 80m x 50m – separated by large nets stretched along a 7ft-high wire. These nets prove to be pretty hazardous, especially when you accidently step on the bottom of it and it swallows you like a giant polyester Venus fly trap.

astroturf at night

Venus human trap netting just about visible

The footballing philosophy in training also differs greatly from Saturdays. Training takes a stylish turn for the better and we play 3-touch football for the entire hour. This is great for developing composure on the ball, vision, passing and movement. What isn’t so great however is that we come to rely on playing the ball to feet and knocking short passes around like a poor man’s Spain. Should you dare to try and play short passes on a Saturday, you will soon experience a swift kick in the bollocks, or my previously mentioned elbow to the face. Downs League doesn’t have time for pretty football. Training encourages and empowers good, technical footballers who often fail to reproduce any kind of form on Saturday in the brawl that is the 11-a-side games (I would probably include myself in this category).

Corners are so often our undoing in league matches, so you would think that the sensible thing to do would be to practise some heading, marking and set piece tactics in training. Readers of previous blog entries will know that this isn’t Cotswool’s modus operandi. We don’t stand for such foresight and planning. What’s that you say – we’re conceding a lot of goals from corners? So be it. It’s nothing that can’t be solved using the three cornerstones of English football:

-          “Get into ‘em”

-          “Fuck ‘em up”

wet grass

Beware!

-          “Give it a clout”
Then there’s the speed of the game during a wet training session. Nothing knocks a player’s confidence like a complete and utter inability to judge the speed and bounce of the ball. On several occasions it has bucketed down with rain during training, making judging the speed of passes completely impossible. On the plus side, however, you can shoot from just about anywhere and feel like Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink (as in having a rocket-powered shot, not being a mental Dutchman). In fact, the speed of the rain-soaked pitch develops a very useful skill for the Downs League – I call it “hammer the ball into the ground and see where it goes”. This is particularly effective on Saturdays, where the pitches are more uneven than a teenager’s face. Because of this, a keeper in the Downs league experiences a Paul Robinson moment on average every 5 minutes.

As a result, I would argue that the main function of training is to help rebuild team camaraderie following what was inevitably another comprehensive defeat the weekend before, as well as keeping us out of the pubs for at least one night of the week. The opportunity to have a kick around with a smile on our faces midweek also encourages us to turn up the following Saturday – and so the cycle continues!

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English football summed up in 75 minutes

Running late for last Saturday’s latest instalment of the Bristol Downs League, I hurriedly headed for the pitches under a sky of light-grey mediocrity. “At least it’s not raining” I thought, as I put my boots on and joined the rest of my teammates for the warm up.

[By warm up, I mean standing around the penalty area lumping rock-solid balls at whoever the unlucky chump between the sticks is. All of the other teams in the league (without exception) huddle together pre-game, applaud each others’ names as the team sheet is read out, and perform stretches that wouldn’t look out of place prior to an Olympic gymnastic floor routine. Cotswool FC, instead, have a long and proud history of what is technically known as “dicking around” before a game, followed by 2 minutes of the famous warm up routine ‘jogging back and forth almost in a group, but not quite’.]

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Urinating - worse than punching an opponent

A few minutes prior to the game, I headed for a few trees away from the pitches to empty the old bladder (to improve my speed, of course). On returning to the pitch, I was informed that this is an offence which – if seen by the referee – results in an immediate red card and a four-game ban. Apparently, this is part of the etiquette of the league and the respect for The Downs. This came as a bit of a shock, considering that it seems to be acceptable to commit GBH on an opponent during the match without even a yellow card, yet you can’t piss on a tree. Odd.

Anyway, the game got underway and in typical Cotswool fashion we were 2-0 down within 20 minutes to a couple of sloppy goals. Nevertheless, we dug in and kept the game competitive. Around 30 minutes into the game I realised that the skies had turned a darker shade of grey. The temperature started dropping and my testicles headed in the opposite direction. Then the rain came. I can’t think of a better description than to say it was absolutely c**ting it down. By half time (somehow still 2-0) we were all soaked through, not an inch of dry skin on any of us. A wry smile crept across my face as I realised I was the only idiot wearing Nike Pro under my shirt – which was a daft idea when I left the house and it was 8°c, but was now paying dividends.

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Neymar - loves Bristolian amateur football

After the usual pep talk at half time, we soldiered out for the second half. Almost immediately after kick off, I jumped for a header (which is reason enough to write a blog entry) and was promptly elbowed in the face, leaving me flat on my back in a puddle of muddy water and despair. With my cheekbone throbbing, I got up and got on with the game. The weather got worse and worse, as did the score line. 3-0 followed. Then 4-0. Brief respite at 4-1 was misleading and soon we were 5-1 down after 60 minutes. Bizarrely, a player who appeared to be Brazilian wonderkid Neymar appeared from the bench of the opposing team, did a few stepovers and promptly fell to the floor – almost in tears – with no one around. What at first seemed to be a peculiar fall was then explained to be a reoccurrence of a broken foot that he had only recently recovered from. In the true spirit of the Downs League, we offered to let them substitute him with another player, despite having used all three of their allocated substitutes. Whilst the referee wasn’t feeling the love and declined our offer, we applauded him as he was carried off the pitch and into the arms of the equally-miserable St John’s Ambulance crew. The compassion shown by both sets of players was a heart-warming moment in this otherwise utterly abysmal example of a football match.

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Fouls - more fun on a wet pitch

Time dragged on and the referee was soon being asked “how long left, ref?” every time the ball went out of play (he soon resorted to replying with “too bloody long”). The downpour continued and soon the pitch had become a 50:50 concoction of mud and water, with no grass in sight. The ball was sticking in places – leaving players to perform amusing air-kicks – and skidding in others. The ground was so wet, players were starting a slide tackle in one box and finishing it in the other.

The final straw came when, in one of our rare ventures forward, we lofted a cross into the opposing box. After a few token bobbles and deflections, the skid of the ball eluded a defender who accidently clattered into our striker instead of the ball. The referee allowed us the time to convert the ensuing penalty, and then called a halt to the game on the grounds that the conditions were too dangerous. This left me pretty annoyed that all of our perseverance in the face of Mother Nature’s best attempt to ruin our game was for nothing. In his final act of the day, the referee announced that the result would stand, as any game abandoned after 2/3rd completion (62nd minute onward) is counted as a result. In all honestly, I was glad that the last 75 minutes had actually counted for something. If we had replayed on a dry, hot day, the score would likely have been much less flattering.

As we trudged off, the water sloshing around inside my boots reminded me of when you are a little kid, sitting in the bath, and you slide up and down the tub creating a wave effect which inevitably overflows onto the bathroom floor.

Feeling a bit miserable (par for the course), I began the walk home. The adrenaline started to wear off, and my nervous system reminded me that my right foot had been stamped on twice during the game. My right shoe started to feel tight under the swelling, and my cheekbone began to hurt even more. I must have looked like some kind of disabled hobbit limping down the street, covered in mud, face bruised like a gypsy’s wife, in a monsoon, with no jacket. I started to wonder what it would be like playing football in the lower leagues of Madrid or Lisbon.

Enough of the moaning; a few days have passed and the wounds are healing. Same again next week? Why not. Forecast for next Saturday: rain.

rainyday

An accurate reflection of the visibility during the game

Should the ‘handball’ rule be changed?

I keep seeing the topic of handball – particularly in the penalty area – being debated by TV pundits. You know the drill; it starts with an attacker blasting the ball into the penalty area (as either a shot or cross, or the well-known ‘cross-shot’ which is football’s equivalent of when you’re playing pool and you smash the cue ball into the pack and close your eyes, hoping for the best). A defender is 2 yards away with his hands down by his sides (where hands tend to be). The ball strikes his hand, blocking the shot/cross from reaching its destiny. The attacking team throw their collective arms in the air and – along with tens of thousands of fans – shout “HANDBALL!”. Many foreign players (perhaps because of an inability to verbalise their appeals) also point at one of their own hands – a particular favourite of everyone’s favourite horse-faced racist Luis Suarez – useful as some referees may not be familiar with what ‘handball’ actually refers to. Sometimes the handball is deliberate, sometimes not.

hand of god

Actual photo of Maradona's Hand of God

However, despite the rules being fairly clear-cut, there is always debate over whether or not it should have been a penalty. If I had a quid for every time I’ve had to endure Alan “they done that all game” Shearer and co-pundit Alan “time-and-time again” Hansen arguing over these decisions, I’d have enough money to attend a game at Emirates. To confirm, the FIFA rule on handball is a follows:

“A direct free kick is awarded to the opposing team if a player handles the ball deliberately (except for the goalkeeper within his own penalty area)…A penalty kick is awarded [if this] offence is committed by a player inside his own penalty area, irrespective of the position of the ball, provided it is in play.”

FIFA Laws of the Game 2011/12 – Law 12 ‘Fouls and Misconduct’

Clearly, the rules denote a deliberate intention to touch the ball with your hand. This is the key part of the rule – intent. I would estimate that 95% of the handballs that occur in the box are unintentional. We all know that the majority of footballers aren’t the brightest, but even the

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Vidic giving it the old 'accidental' handball

thickest ones generally don’t want to handle the ball and give away a penalty, unless it is in the extreme scenario of preventing a goal in desperation. On the whole, if someone kicks a ball at you from a few yards away, you’ll be hit by the ball before you even realise that it’s been kicked. It would require some kind of Matrix-like anticipation capabilities to deliberately get your hand in the way. I’m pretty sure the only player on the planet capable of this kind of witchcraft is this little pygmy.
So why do referees continue to give penalties for handballs which can’t be deliberate? It seems to come down to whether or the player gained an advantage. A referee may see it as deserving of a penalty if the ball is prevented from continuing on its course towards a likely goal, or at least a chance of a goal. However, according to the laws of the game there must be intent for it to be penalised. This got me thinking, and I think I’ve got a solution…

My recommendation would be to alter the rules to read as below:

  1. A direct free kick is awarded if a player handles the ball deliberately (except for a goalkeeper in his own penalty area). A penalty kick is awarded if this offence is committed by a player in his own penalty area. [as currently exists]
  2. An indirect free kick is awarded if a player gains advantage by way of handling the ball in a manner which is deemed by the referee as accidental. An indirect free kick may be awarded inside the penalty area, to be taken from the position of the offending player.
  3. If the above (2) occurs within the six yard box, the indirect free kick shall be taken from the penalty spot (with players allowed to stand on the goal line as per a regular indirect free kick from this range).

I think that the above would clear up the debate. If it’s deliberate, it deserves to be a penalty and the offending player will be dealt with accordingly. If it’s accidental and the offending player had no intent to handle the ball, I don’t see how this can warrant a penalty kick, especially when such offenses often occur on the edge of the box with little or no threat of a goal being scored. Thus, an indirect free kick in the box would essentially give the advantage to the attacking team but allowing the defending team a fighting chance of preventing a goal – a more accurate simulation of the event which would have occurred from the ensuing cross/shot.

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Blatter: can't hear public opinion

I’m pretty sure Mr Blatter won’t be looking to implement such a rule any time soon, as he is much too busy preventing goal line technology from being implemented. God forbid football should join other sports in the 21stcentury. Also, I don’t think he is one of my 15 subscribers.

Any feedback/debate on this is thoroughly welcome!

The life of an amateur footballer in Bristol

I have recently had the pleasure of joining the Bristol Downs Football League. Despite the name, this is not a league for sufferers of the chromosomal condition. Instead, this entirely independent league is a 4-tier system for amateur players in Bristol. The league is unusual in that all games – home and away – are played atop the blustery and exposed Durdham Down’s in Clifton. There is something quite charming about the league, the spirit of the game and indeed the Downs themselves.

Downs

One part of the illustrious Clifton Downs

The first thing that struck me was the use of communal Victorian changing rooms, located in the centre of the 400-acre parkland. The changing rooms are a complex of box-sized team ‘rooms’, shower areas and toilet blocks. The scent of urine, mud and sweat fills the corridors. Bristolian banter echoes around the brick maze, with the clattering of studs on the concrete floor providing a backing track. A long walk through the corridors leads me to a room, no more than 3m x 3m, filled with 22 men getting ready for the game. Apparently, someone thought it was a good idea to place both the first team and reserves in one room.

Once you’re out on the pitch (following an orienteering exercise in locating which one of the 25 pitches you are scheduled to play on) you can’t help but worry about the playing surface. The pitches are so uneven they remind me of the Wavy Top building (see below) from my days at Loughborough University. In fact, there are some pitches on which parts of the touchline disappear temporarily from view. It wasn’t long into my first game before I succumbed to the pitches, as I let a slow pass bobble over my foot and out of play, leaving me looking like a short, white Emile Heskey.

Wavy Top

Classic example of a Bristol Downs League pitch

It had been six years since I’d player 11-a-side football on a regular basis. After a while, you get used to the relentless basketball-like nature of Power League 3G kick-abouts. Coupled with watching the bowling green pitches in the Premier League week-in week-out, I’d almost forgotten what ‘real’ pitches looked like. However, after a couple of games you learn not to trust the bounce of the ball (think of a rugby ball being dropped down a flight of stairs), and get used to the ball flying around the pitch like a giant game of pinball.

Without doubt the most pleasant surprise has been the way in which the game is played. I had expected to leave the Downs in an Ambulance most weeks, after going 90 minutes with a team of Joey Bartons and Lee Cattermoles constantly looking to remove one of my vital organs every time I touched the ball. Instead, I found a league which is generally played in a fair manner with respect given to both the opponents and the referees. Perhaps this is because my team are languishing at the bottom of the 2nd of 4 divisions, and rarely do we threaten a team enough to warrant an aggressive response. Nevertheless, my experiences thus far have been largely positive, and even the usual in-game abuse ends with a joke and a handshake.

Cotswool

The Argentina shirt design inspires us to greater levels of performance...perhaps

So far we’ve been relatively fortunate with the weather too, having enjoyed sunshine in 3 of the past 4 games. The one bad day in that period was, however, the kind of weather that would make Sir Ranulph Fiennes say “you know what lads, let’s cancel this trip and play FIFA instead”.

All-in-all, it’s been good so far. It’s not one for the purists, but it is good old fashioned ‘English’ football in every way. Gentlemanly conduct from beer-bellied blokes/hungover students, occasionally trying to play ‘pass-and-move’ football but generally trying to avoid getting the ball stuck in the quagmire by lumping it over the top of the centre backs in the hope of someone getting a toe-end on it. No matter what pitch you play on, in what weather conditions, and against who you’re competing, you can’t beat getting back to competitive football*.

Downs panorama

A picturesque view of the Downs

*Expect a less optimistic blog entry when I’ve had my nose caved in by the aforementioned Lee Cattermole-wannabe, been racially-abused by the local Luis Suarez, or had my right tibia and fibula sent in opposite directions when I attempt to run at a defender.

Villas-Boas becomes sixth managerial casualty of Abramovich era

Andre Villas-Boas was today sacked by Chelsea after just nine months in the job. With The Blues languishing in 5th place, 20 points off leaders Manchester City, Abramovich has wielded the axe for the sixth time in his nine-year tenure at the London club. The change in management will certainly please Lampard and co. who never bonded with Villas-Boas in the way they did Jose Mourinho, or to a lesser extent Carlo Ancelotti. However, questions must be asked of Abramovich after yet another manager fails to meet his exceptionally-high standards.

This Chelsea squad is in need of a complete rebuild, and that is what AVB should have been allowed to oversee for many years. Teams in transition will inevitably suffer from a dip in form and fortunes – just ask Arsene Wenger. The problem that Villas-Boas had from the start was that he was never totally in control at Chelsea. The club’s failure to generate home-grown talent from their Cobham training ground led to substantial investment in promising young European players. However, these signings were often not selected by AVB but by the powers above. In the January transfer window, Chelsea announced the signing of exciting Belgian winger Kevin de Bruyne from Genk – a move that the Londoners had been working on for over 6 months. Upon announcement of the deal, Villas-Boas commented:

It’s a target that’s decided by the club…it’s the club policy for the future. I’m a manager who respects club policy. A club has to look to the future, whether it’s with this manager or another.

The signing of de Bruyne followed deals to bring Romelu Lukaku, Oriol Romeu, Thibaut Courtois, Lucas Piazon and Juan Mata to Chelsea. Whilst well over £60m was spent bringing these players in, only Mata and Romeu have made an impact on the first team squad. Indeed, de Bruyne and Courtois were immediately loaned out to gain further experience, whilst Lukaku and Piazon have been largely confined to the reserve team. This recruitment policy clearly points to the future, as did the signing of the hottest young manager in Europe (at a cost of £13.3m) following a season in which his Porto side went unbeaten in the league (only the second Portuguese team in history to acheive this feat) and completed a phenomenal quadruple. Yet the London club seem to have backed out of this plan less than a year into Villas-Boas’ contract. Which begs the question – why employ him if he isn’t going to be given time to rebuild the team around his own tactics and style?

The odds have been stacked against the Portuguese since day one. Chelsea have been without direction and clarity for several years, and there is no greater evidence of this than the signing of Fernando Torres. Another Abramovich decision (despite the approval of then-manager Carlo Ancelotti) – Torres joined Chelsea for £50m despite more than a year riddled with injury and poor form for club and country. If ever there was striker to build a team around, it is Fernando Torres. Quick and agile, he is an instinctive finisher who thrives on high tempo attacking play and dissecting through balls. Instead, Chelsea left him up front whilst Ancelotti played slow, methodical possession football. Torres spent his first six months at Chelsea being dropped in and out of the team as a lone striker, then alongside Drogba, then out wide in a trident attack. His confidence already down from a year of injuries, he became a shadow of his former self.
Underperformers like Anelka and Alex left, and the club invested in Gary Cahill as a long-term replacement for the ailing John Terry. However, the senior players were not happy with Villas-Boas and private issues soon became public. The young players Villas-Boas had brought in would take time to develop, and he needed time to work with these players and raise them to play ‘the AVB way’. The club needed to trust in his tactis, his methods, and his vision.
Young players like Lukaku and Courtois are ready-made replacements for Drogba and Cech respectively, whilst de Bruyne is showing signs of being the winger Chelsea have missed since Arjen Robben left for Madrid. Aging players like Lampard, Terry, Lampard and Drogba are past their prime and yet continue to dominate the club, still basking in their Mourinho-built ‘Legend’ status. What Villas-Boas needed was the club’s full support when senior players openly criticised his team selection and tactics. Instead, all he got was a telling silence.

In a time when the club needed to support their talented, charismatic young manager in building a new-look team for the decade ahead, Abramovich has again hit the panic button. With Guus Hiddink recently lured to Anzhi Makhachkala, Chelsea haven’t got a replacement in mind. Di Matteo has been put in charge until the season’s conclusion but will not command much more respect than the outgoing manager. Mourinho is certain to return to England in the summer, and will be the leading contender for the permanent job in the eyes of many Chelsea fans. His relationship with the Russian owner may well be the decisive factor in whether or not he makes a sensational return.

Villas-Boas will surely not be short of options when he is ready for a return to managerial action. With Harry Redknapp ready to take the England hotseat for the European Championships in June, Villas-Boas might not be selling his London home just yet.

And so Andre Villas-Boas becomes just another chapter in the Chelsea story. Abramovich has tried, tested and rejected the experienced Ancelotti, his personal friend Avram Grant, the enigmatic Luis Felipe Scolari, and now the wonderkid Villas-Boas. Only time will tell if the story is to take the biggest twist of all and lead back to the Special One – Mourinho.