Saturday, 26 December 2015

Europe: An Unexpected Journey

Modern football has many ills, none more so than the battle between development, financial power and the prioritisation of winning.

Wenger’s comment on the priority of fourth place in the Premier League has been carved into something of an in joke, but really it’s a fine commentary on the way football has gone since Sky got ‘in and around’ the beautiful game.

The money increased, and as such priorities changed. How many times have you seen a bottom-half side send out the reserves in a cup game? You can hardly blame them.

And so to Europe. The continent’s most prestigious competitions offer good money and prestigious prizes, so have naturally been able to spurn the threat of the Premier League’s cash trough. But between the Champions League and the Europa League, the importance of ‘winning’ has come into question.

This was perfectly illustrated through Arsenal fans’ relief at avoiding the Europa League – European football’s answer to a question nobody asked. The overall feeling was that fans would rather finish fourth (and miss out on European football altogether) than third, where a trophy beckons.

Obviously Arsenal have a Premier League crown to chase this season, but if anything this attitude simply reinforces the idea that no English club will ever complete a treble like Manchester United’s of 1999 ever again. With the winter schedule and the increasing prioritisation of competitions, it looks agonisingly unlikely.

‘Which tournament will Manchester City decide they want to win least?’ is a slogan that never sold any Sky Sports subscriptions, and never will.

Three of England’s finest teams currently find themselves in the Europa League however, and it might just turn out to be the most important competition for them in their recent histories.

Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham all find themselves in amongst the hustle and bustle of the last 32, and all three are also in what you might call a ‘transitional stage’, or ‘not in the title race’ to you and me. To them, the Europa League must not be 

First off, there’s your friend and mine the coefficient, which is looking miraculously healthy. With three English clubs in the last 16 of the Champions League, and three also in the last 32 of the Europa League, there’s colour in the cheeks of Colin Coefficient at present, and now is not an opportunity to be wasted.

England (UEFA club ranking)
Italy (UEFA club ranking)
Manchester City (14) v Dinamo Kiev (26)
Juventus (8) v Bayern Munich (2)
Chelsea (4) v PSG (7)
Roma (47) v Real Madrid (1)
Arsenal (9) v Barcelona (3)
Fiorentina (32)  v Tottenham (22)
Manchester United (20) v FC Midtjylland (136)
Lazio (28) v Galatasaray (31)
Liverpool (46) v FC Augsberg (94)
Napoli (16) v Villarreal (42)
Tottenham (22) v Fiorentina (32)

Italy probably couldn’t have hoped for a worse draw, while England’s is average. Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United should definitely go through, while Chelsea and Tottenham both have a good chance. Our Europa League trio currently all covet fourth place, so a good run of ‘winning’ would enhance their chances of Champions League football.

If you thought the battle for fourth place was contradictory to the idea of winning, then you’ll love the battle for the coefficient to actually retain the fourth Champions League spot; scintillating stuff.

But here is a chance to develop as well. All joking aside, these three sides are in a development stage. Tottenham’s young side navigated by the very able Mauricio Pochettino are something to be excited by for example. Here is a team that has plenty of experience in the competition, as well as the quality. They are cutting their teeth here, not only learning how to play against foreign opposition who will use different tactics, but also learning how to travel.

Manchester United and Liverpool would do well to respect the competition similarly. The best example: Atletico Madrid. Twice winners, in 2010 and 2012, went on to finish as runners-up in the Champions League in 2014 and won arguably the hardest league in the world in the same year.

Chelsea, Europa League winners in 2013, went on to win their first league title for 5 years in 2015 and reached the Champions League semi finals in 2014. Arsenal finished as UEFA Cup runners-up in 2000 in a precursor to one of the most successful 5-year spells in the club’s history.

Here is a proving ground then for three teams who are desperately trying to basically get better. But above all else, here is a chance to ‘win’. Remember that feeling? The respective trophy droughts of Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham will be three years, four years and eight years by the end of the current season, and if we really must rank the trophies available, surely the Europa League ranks higher than the FA Cup and League Cup?

Ultimately, the Europa League can be a drain on emotion and energy, but for Liverpool, Tottenham and Manchester United it represents significantly more than that this season.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Roll Up! For the Managerial Mystery Tour

For a while now, the Premier League’s pantomime status has been secured not only by players, but by managers as well. TV coverage increased and post-match interviews gave rise to the manager’s media voice, and what we were left with was another dimension of football celebrity.

And by such measures the Premier League is in rude health, with premium managers occupying various car-sponsored leather seats in dugouts across the country. Arsene Wenger has his ‘Invincibles’, Jose Mourinho has tasted success everywhere he’s been, Manuel Pellegrini showed his credentials with an immediate league title, and Louis van Gaal went unbeaten with Ajax in both the Eredivisie and the Champions League in a remarkable 1994/95 season.

Van Gaal, of Ajax fame.

The addition of Jurgen Klopp, one of the most sought after young innovators in football management, has only gone further to suggest that the Premier League is moving into a dominant position in the managerial transfer market. Moreover, two of the biggest and best are rumoured to be considering moves to the self-proclaimed ‘Best League In The World.’

Pep Guardiola is one. The highly intelligent former Barca no.4 is coming to the end of his contract with Bayern, and with a penchant for restlessness and a desire to learn about the various cultures of the world, Pep is closer than ever to moving to England. If he were to take a year out, as he did after quitting Catalonia, his return would synchronise with Wenger’s current contract expiring. Equally however, Manchester City are strongly linked.

Carlo Ancelotti is the other. The Italian, who is one of only two managers to have won the European Cup on three separate occasions (Bob Paisley for those wondering) has indicated a preference for the PL upon his next managerial adventure. Carlo is unlikely to arrive just yet, but would represent a prime opportunity for any top club.

So why is the Premier League such hot property?

Obviously there’s the money. Did you know that in 2013/14, relegated Cardiff of the Premier League earned more in TV money than Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich? And I’m talking SIGNIFICANTLY more; many millions.

Equally La Liga has its own problems where TV money is concerned. Until very recently it was left to individual teams to sort their own TV deals out, and unsurprisingly Barcelona and Real Madrid took a vast chunk of it. Reports suggest that while these two earned over £100m from such deals in 2013/14, the next best paid were Valencia (around £35 million) Atletico Madrid (closer to £30 million) and Sevilla (around £23 million).

You know the league's rich when the golden lions wear crowns

These figures make it easy to see why managerial attraction to the Premier League is strong, but the money serves to make the Premier League more than just a bank. Despite seeming almost clich├ęd, the Premier League is an upwardly mobile place to be with the TV money gap relatively small between the top and bottom clubs, which in turn leads to greater competition.

While Spain and Germany are famed for relatively dull league narratives, the Premier League is heavily laden with spectacle, with the current league table a perfect example: Leicester, 11 games in, occupy third place while Liverpool sit in tenth and Chelsea sixteenth. West Ham, under the watchful eye of Slaven Bilic, sit in sixth place and look well at home.

And perhaps above all else, the pantomime of the Premier League is enticing. You can think of Scudamore’s empire as a Hollywood film; it is fast, action packed, and with not a little controversy and conflict. The tactical innovation and talent might be greater in Germany or Spain, but if it’s worthy cinema you want you can jog on to Cannes.

So what does this mean for English football?

First and foremost, high profile management attracts high profile players, something that is no doubt exciting Liverpool’s following with Klopp’s Dortmund links. Pep immediately took Thiago Alcantara with him to Bayern for example, and van Gaal delighted Manchester United fans with the transfer of Memphis Depay. Wenger has long used his status to attract talents such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, and there is no doubt that the established figures of Ancelotti and Guardiola have pull in the market.

There would also be hope that these two could bring some tactical innovation to the party. While it is all we can do to revel in the chaos of the Premier League, the country’s best clubs are shadows of their former European selves. Pep and Carlo are two of Europe’s most successful tinkerers, and could represent a renaissance of tactical thought in England. Furthermore, with a gaggle of impressionable young up-and-comers such as Ronald Koeman, Roberto Martinez and Garry Monk, such presence could have a great impact on other managers in the league.

What once seemed like a household item in Premier League trophy
cabinets now seems out of reach for PL clubs.

Further to this, the FA would do well to learn from these two should they hop aboard the ferry to Dover. With the combined knowledge of a great pool of managers they might actually be able to enhance England’s prospects in future tournaments, and if the FA played their cards right, even attract someone like Pep or Carlo to the national team job one day.

So is it all sweetness and roses? Not quite. Clubs looking further afield for high-profile managers are destroying the chances of those plying their trade lower in the league or even further down the divisions. It is, for example, very difficult to imagine that despite his success at Swansea, a club like Manchester City would ever offer Garry Monk a chance. That’s just the way football has gone though, with the same argument having long been made in defence of the lower-league player.

This league is a product, and there’s no point in kidding ourselves otherwise. Amidst the fun of the Premier League fair, the managerial carousel goes round, and it’s as much as we can do to buy some candy floss and enjoy the bright lights.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Eat my goal: The 'good' striker

A striker’s worth is apparently obvious to all. Their currency is goals, and unfortunately/fortunately for him or her, this is almost without rebuttal.

Consider Mesut Ozil. His season has by anyone’s measure been a success, in large part due to our penchant for consulting the hard numbers. Mesut has clocked up 10 assists – as well as a goal, the striker’s meat and drink – and as such has earned the country’s blessing as a top midfielder. However, somewhat more transiently he also boasts a phenomenal stat: Squawka say Ozil has created 54 chances for teammates, a stunning average of just under 5 chances a game.

Further to this, when Ozil isn’t creating hard data he is recognised as the oil of Arsenal’s machine, and in the opinion of his fans he has transcended the rudimentary nature of numbers. His is almost becoming a philosophical position. ‘If you love football, you love Ozil’ said Wenger. You are dared to judge Ozil by mortal reasoning.

No such luck for the striker.

Their fortunes are judged only in the cruel light of day, with both fine goal and cruel miss experienced just yards from the reaction of the fan. Isn’t that unfair, that a midfielder can hide between the lines, where the striker’s business is concluded in front of thousands of people every time? That’s the price of glory, a binary position, their experience on the pitch one of huge extremes; 89 minutes of chance after chance are irrelevant if you eventually persuade the ball over the line.

So let’s consider the finest of the 'modern' era.

Thierry Henry supplied them. His league career at Arsenal yielded well above the accepted average of one in two, scoring 174 goals in 254 games and although he was celebrated for the style of his goals, beauty had no influence on value. Ruud van Nistelrooy – Thierry’s Dutch contemporary - equally hit his targets, with 95 league goals in 150 games, and startlingly, 38 European goals in 47 games.

In modern times, Sergio Aguero is the most consistently excellent at providing goals, gols or GOLASSOs, with 84 in 128 league games. But there is a sub-group.

In MATCH ‘s 2005 annual, there is a feature on Luis Figo. In it, Real Madrid’s sporting director of the time Jorge Valdano, said ‘We are so used to Figo playing brilliantly that we think he is playing badly when he is just playing normally’.

It’s an important quote to consider when you look at what you might refer to as the ‘second tier’ of strikers. Not being Sergio Aguero cannot mean you are a bad striker, and there is a growing group of ‘good’ strikers in the current Premier League who basically are doing what they are being paid for.

Olivier Giroud
Romelu Lukaku
Graziano Pelle
15/16 league goals
Goals per game (PL)
0.43 (WBA & Everton)
6ft 4
6ft 3
6ft 4
Transfer fee (latest)
International record
40 apps 12 goals
40 apps 11 goals
8 apps 4 goals

A study of this sub-group reveals remarkable results. Olivier Giroud and Romelu Lukaku (considering only his time at West Brom and Everton) both have a goals-per-game record of 0.43 in the Premier League, while Graziano Pelle comes in only slightly lower at 0.36. Michael Owen scored at 0.46, Wayne Rooney 0.45, Ronaldo at 0.43 and Robbie Fowler at 0.43 also. Giroud and Pelle have six league goals this season, while Lukaku has seven.

Additionally, Giroud and Pelle both stand at 6 foot 4 inches, while Lukaku is 6 ft 3. They are all strong in the air, but eternally cursed also with phrases such as ‘not a bad touch for a big man!’ They boast power, and have all demonstrated skill, from aerial acrobatics to groundwork.

Their international records make for interesting reading also. Giroud has 40 apps and 12 goals, Lukaku 40 apps to 11 goals, and Pelle eight apps to four goals (a decent if slightly unproven record which sort of makes up for his slightly lower PL goals per game average). None have scored heavily. Respectable, but consider Neymar’s Brazil scrapbook: 67 apps, 46 goals. He is 23.

Their circumstances, and expectations, are somewhat different. Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud has long plied his trade in the shadow of Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie, three of the greatest strikers the league has seen. Pelle at Southampton is in a somewhat comfier position, challenging for European football, but under no great pressure otherwise. Lukaku’s hefty price tag and youth mean he is in the greatest position of the three to break into the top tier of goalscorer, but at Everton he is under no pressure to win the league.

Ambitions may change around them, and when those questions are asked they will have to consider their positions, but in their glorious trade of supply and demand they are rarely out of stock. In a soap-opera league these men do their jobs and do them well, and that's why the 'good' striker is OK by me.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Puttin' on the Reus - Fantasy Football #1

The season so far has been a bit of a rescue and recovery mission in all honesty.  

This was Game Week 1.

It's like a who's who of terrible current fantasy football players.

Tactical Turmoil

I began the season in two minds. Was I to go with tried and tested characters? The Usual Suspects? There was nothing false about how limp some of these players' performances were. (eh? EH?!)

I did OK with a few. Wilson was an inspired choice for a while, even daring to bag a hat-trick while on my bench. Gomis scored four weeks in a row, but my two main gambles did not pay off.

For £30 million quid I expected Benteke to be the first name on the team sheet, and he duly was, but he has yet  to convince and I took the opportunity to sell him as soon as he had a dalliance with injury. Oxlade-Chamberlain was to be my 'I saw it first!' gamble. I don't know how others feel about players of teams they support but I thought I had a bit of an inside run with Ox, having followed his progress closely. I thought this would be the season his end product improved but alas, not yet.

Actually three of my 'safe' picks were the worst. I couldn't see much reason to presume Chelsea would fall apart, but Fabregas, Ivanovic and Courtois all basically took the piss. I LOST points on Courtois. I've had good times with Chelsea 'keepers before, captaining Cech on a double gameweek once, but not this time.

The Recovery

I gave the team a chance in GW2, but captaining Benteke for 18 points was about all the return I got, so I began chasing points to get the momentum going. Kompany, Yaya and Mahrez all came in for Ivanovic, Fabregas and Ox in a shameless show of point chasing, but it yielded results.

The next stage of the recovery was nominative. 'Willian Defoe' was way too obscure. I don't know what I was thinking. 'Puttin' on the Reus' was clearly the way forward, and so it has proved to be.

Part 3 Was All About The Wild Card. 

I had considered playing my wildcard directly before a double game week, but chose against it for two reasons. 1) I didn't want to end up with a load of players I wasn't all that keen on just because they had two games in one week, and 2) I think playing your wildcard after the summer window has closed is pretty wise as it gives you a nice long time to benefit from how you play it. It's worked so far for me.

Mcauley, Cech, Zouma, De Bruyne, Mane and Vardy all came in and mostly they have proved their worth. De Bruyne, Vardy and Mane have added points immediately, and with Mcauley and Cech my defensive strategy is stronger. Arsenal get a good amount of clean sheets and I'm going doubles on West Brom, putting all my eggs in Tony Pulis's big basket of clean sheets, where hopefully they won't break. 

Also, I knew Alexis would come good. Captaining him on his hat-trick at Leicester was extra sweet as I had been very close to taking it off him on the Saturday morning, but also because a lot of people had lost faith in him. He got me 40 points, my second best haul ever on one player if my memory serves me correctly.

The wildcard gave me the chance to make some better calculated purchases. There are certain players that I think you have to buy even if everyone else has them (Mahrez for example), but players like De Bruyne and Mane I noticed weren't being backed by many managers. Mane had chalked up two assists against United and registered his first goal of the season in the League Cup, so I took the chance there, and De Bruyne was just obviously a man with end product, but strangely is only now beginning to get the backing. 

I'm going into GW10 with the best line-up I've had so far in my opinion. Captaining Sanchez v Watford away just feels like the kind of game he'd love. Cosy stadium, under the lights, 154 goals in his last 3 games for club and country. It feels right.

What a man what a man what a man what a man.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Being a Modern Day Football Fan

If transfer silly season has taught us anything, and for the most part it hasn’t, it’s that football fans are the currency of media more than ever.

It is in the interest of news websites to get views. That is the long and short of it, and the best way to get that is through sensationalism. 

French and a striker? It's a lifetime of Arsenal transfer
links for you Mr Benzema!

Every football fan wants to believe their club has a chance of signing a top player, so the media will latch onto tenuous information to create a sensational rumour. Of course, deep down in our hearts we know that about 1% of transfer rumours have any credibility, but if someone is suggesting Benzema to Arsenal is on, I am sad enough to want to believe that information. Once I’ve clicked, the credibility of the article is almost irrelevant.

Pedro to Chelsea is a fine example.

A lack of game time will surely make you a prime
candidate for transfer speculation. Add to that a team's
rumoured need for a player of that position, and you've
got yourself a transfer rumour!

Once it had been established that Pedro might not be happy with his playing time at Camp Nou, and that Manchester United were open to bringing an attacker in, it served media interests to attract United fans with stories of Pedro and Woodward enjoying a romantic meal before the Spaniard agreed to come to Old Trafford and bring back the glory days. Or something similar.

‘Surely a winger will make United title challengers!’

I’m sure United fans, who are by no means the first to get carried away by such talk, thought it was on.

When it turned out United had not signed Pedro, the media turned pretty nasty. ‘Foolish United, missing out on Pedro! Woodward’s let another one slip through his fingers!’

I am no stranger to this as an Arsenal fan. The number of players I’ve been told Wenger has let slip through his fingers, knowing full well that either A) He was never in for them, or B) He decided he didn’t really want them, is a great many.

Of course, the media has built this story up for a week now based on very little, so there is an anger there that United have shown them up.

Ultimately, this doesn’t damage United so much as it damages their fans.

They are the ones on Twitter, desperately searching, like all fans, for possible transfers. They are the ones who will feel the sting of the memes, the derision. The new brand of media outlet is the worst for this, where vines and memes poke fun at any team depending on the prevailing wind.

Certainly it helps to be able to laugh at one’s own fortunes, but football ‘fandoms’ are filled with those who, media outlets know only too well, take their club very seriously. The constancy of these vines and memes, a stream of football consciousness, serves to stir fan rivalries, and while supporters argue armed only with bare statistics, the designers of this madness watch as the likes and shares pour in. 

It’s pretty irresponsible, but it is the perfect representation of the internet age.

The fan-blog is therefore the saviour of the modern supporter. Like taking refuge from dismal weather, these fan-penned websites offer the warming embrace of honest and surprisingly self-aware assessment.

Fans are the harshest critics of their own team, but the criticism comes from a good place. On these blogs the team’s interests are the sole currency, rather than the ire of fans. Of course this isn’t the case for all fan blogs, but many I have come across seem to have admirable sentiments.

I have been reading Nick Hornby’s ‘Fever Pitch’, and above all, what struck me was the hopelessness of it all. Supporters go through so much disappointment and joy in equal measure it is hard not to feel sympathy for them. I don’t consider myself a hardcore supporter by any stretch. An hour after a disappointing result I have usually simmered down, and equally I can put a win into perspective.

But for some football means a great deal more, and to me it seems greatly unfair to emotionally manipulate a group of people made vulnerable by an unbowed belief that things might get better.  

Sunday, 9 August 2015

Arsenal 0-2 West Ham - Vlog Reaction

Something I'd like to make clear is that I am not all for new signings. I'm very much of the mind that team unity is the most important thing in a squad, and I would LOVE to see Wenger win the league or even the Champions League with what he has. Results like this will do little to reinforce my opinion, but remember Madrid and Barcelona lose games with Messi and Ronaldo. Now is the time to sit tight and wait for Arsenal's response next week against Crystal Palace, who have started the season in fine fettle. Would Benzema or someone like Samper in centre mid give us a better chance at the title? Who knows. The only thing I would say is that a big signing could rejuvenate some of the guys out there. We'll see what Wenger does in the next few weeks, but for now I refuse to be pessimistic about the forthcoming season based on one game. BRING ON THE WALL.

Friday, 7 August 2015

Premier League returns as it does every year

The powers that be said ‘let there be football on August the eighth.’

And there was football, and it was good.

Ever wonder if Fergie has a fantasy team?
I bet he gets the best out of them if he does.

The 2015-16 season is tantalisingly close. Optimism abounds, transfer speculation takes a back seat, and we all remember that the reason we follow football is, well, for the matches.

The fantasy football campaign has become an integral part of the pre-season build up as well. Will your hilariously named team, assembled off the back of weeks of pre-season analysis and transfers, soar like an eagle or flop like a seal?

There’s been more build up than an extension on your parents’ semi-detached home, so let’s get to the crux of the matter – 5 questions that everyone wants answered this season.

Mourinho, waiting for a decent title challenger to emerge..

Who can challenge Chelsea?

Chelsea’s league victory left little to the imagination, and gave us the unparalleled drama of who might finish second.

This year however, there are many looking to challenge for the throne.

Arsene Wenger rides on a chariot of continuity, pulled along by a raft of diminutive midfielders. The addition of Petr Cech will offer a level of professionalism which will spread through the team, and with Oxlade-Chamberlain and Ozil tipped to shine after full pre-seasons, Arsenal have arguably their best chance in years to challenge for the lion-bedecked trophy.

Louis van Gaal meanwhile means business. Robin van Persie, Falcao and a number of others have been shown the door at United, Rooney looks set for the striker’s role, and Memphis Depay will be expected to produce the magic as LVG looks to build on a solid first season at the Theatre of Dreams. With the £750 million Adidas deal kicking in, United might well make one more marquee addition as well.

Manchester UnAdidas

Finally, Manuel Pellegrini appears to have been written off this year. The signings of Delph and more prominently Sterling are full of promise, but the spine of the team looks less robust than two years ago. Joe Hart, Vincent Kompany and Yaya Toure will have to get back to their best if they are to challenge.

Can the new boys make their mark?

Bournemouth, Norwich and Watford will dine at domestic football’s top table this year; but will the food prove too rich for their taste buds?

It'll be a pleasure to have Norwich's Holiday Inn back in the PL
- only 2 adults per room on matchdays I hear

Bournemouth will look to star players Matt Ritchie and Callum Wilson this season, with Wilson providing speed and goals in abundance last year. The Cherries have been heavily invested in, but they’ll need tactical nous to survive the cash-rich Premier League.

Norwich have three recent seasons of PL experience, and have afforded themselves the chance to make right their latest relegation. Can Nathan Redmond make the difference for the Canaries?

Finally it’s Watford. Having not quite made it with Gianfranco Zola, the Hornets will look to their strike force to prove itself this year. Troy Deeney and Matej Vydra, it’s time to step up.

Who can break into the top six?

In recent years the Premier League has taken on a different look, with a top six forming of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham. A peloton has formed behind the leaders however, consisting of Southampton, Swansea and Stoke. Should Everton perform like they can, the Toffees will join that group as well. Do any of these teams have the ability to make the step up, or is the Europa League just The Man’s way of maintaining the status quo?

GOAL! AND ANOTHER! Who will grab the golden boot?

'Lynn, I'm not signing Christian Benteke. I will talk over you.'

The top two strikers in the Premier League are Sergio Aguero and Diego Costa, but can anyone challenge them for the golden boot this year?

Wayne Rooney might be your best bet. With RvP and Falcao leaving, Rooney is undoubtedly United’s main attacking option. Turning 30 this year, the former Everton player will be focused on securing his place in van Gaal’s plans.

Elsewhere, Christian Benteke will look to add to three impressive seasons of Premier League football. The Belgian will have the likes of Firmino, Coutinho and Adam Lallana behind him, and with his price tag and Daniel Sturridge’s lack of fitness, might this be the chance for him to elevate himself to world class status?

Finally: Harry Kane. His was the fairytale story of last season, scoring 21 goals and increasing his fantasy football price considerably. The question is whether it was all a dream, or if the young Englishman will continue to stick the ball in various onion bags across the country.

Will the Premier League experience success in Europe?

England’s UEFA coefficient is under threat!

The Allianz Arena, one of many stadia you won't be able
to watch on terrestrial TV this season.

Relax, it’s not quite that bad, but England’s cushy fourth Champions League qualifying spot may be given to someone else if clubs from these shores fail to perform in the Champions League and Europa League this season.

After last 16 CL exits for Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City, as well as our poor showing in the Europa League, Italy have moved into a good position to take that fourth qualifying spot over the next couple of years.

Not that it matters, only about five people will be able to watch it this season anyway... LASAGNE.

Enjoy the season!

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Getting to Know... Huw Ware, Darts Referee

Huw Ware is a BDO Darts Referee who has refereed on the biggest stages, including darts' prestigious Lakeside tournament. I spoke to Huw about his love of darts, the difficulties of refereeing, and the state of the game.

Huw Ware, professional darts referee.

What first drew you to darts? 

I was first drawn to darts when I walked into my front room in the summer of 2005 and darts just happened to be on the TV. I tuned in for the evening session that evening and the game I watched (Phil Taylor V Dennis Priestley) was an absolute classic. Looking back on it, it had everything that makes darts great for me and I’ve just been hooked ever since. 

What are the top three things about darts? 

Drama, pressure, unpredictability.  

How did you get into darts refereeing? 

I used to play County Youth darts and we had a friendly match against the Senior squad. The referee didn’t turn up so I volunteered and ended up doing most of the day. The Seniors liked what they heard and invited me to start refereeing for them. In 2011 I was asked to do the World Masters in Hull, then a few months later it was onto the World Championship and I’ve been a permanent fixture ever since.  

How does someone train to be a darts referee? 

I think darts in general is a fantastic way to help with mental arithmetic. It should really be emphasised in schools! I think a lot of the scores I know now are purely from memory, but there are some shots that’ll catch you out and it’s a matter of recalculating as quickly as possible. I guess I trained on-the-job always, even at the World Masters my actual training was to get up on stage and do it. 

Darts requires good arithmetic ability.

What are your best and worst moments as a darts referee? 

I think my best moments have been when a game has just been fantastic, but my personal highlight was refereeing the 2014 Lakeside World Final between Stephen Bunting and Alan Norris. My worst moments are any mistakes I’ve made (And I’ve made a few trust me!). 

What's the most difficult thing about darts refereeing? 

Certainly at the big tournaments it’s the pressure. Pressure does funny things to the brain so you have to concentrate 100% all the time and sometimes that’s not easy.  

What can darts improve on? 

I think there’s always room for improvement in any sport. I guess as long as darts can keep improving its television coverage, its attendance levels and prize money for the players then that can only be a good thing. Long may it continue! 

Big crowds and TV interest are crucial to the success of any sport.

What are the darts players like on the circuit? 

The players are great. I get on well with all of them and a lot of them are my friends. The great thing about darts is that there is a great ambiance between most of the players (most of the time!) and win or lose they’re more often than not approachable. 

Who do you think are the main contenders for the 2015 BetVictor World Matchplay in Blackpool later this month? 

There are far too many to mention! Phil Taylor has to be tipped because he hasn’t lost in the tournament since 2007, so he’s the man to beat! But then how can you argue against Michael Van Gerwen, Gary Anderson, Adrian Lewis... I’ve started a list now, that’s not good!! The depth in standard is truly extraordinary right now. In fact all 32 players in the tournament could argue that, on their day, they would win it, and I wouldn’t argue with them!