Category Archives: Sport

How Northern Ireland reaches last 16

I was not a fan of a 24-team European Championship, because it makes qualification from the group phase both too complex and too fortuitous (as was the case with the 1986, 1990 and 1994 World Cups, played under the same format).

Nevertheless, I did work out that three points may well be enough to advance. I also reckoned they were likeliest to come against Ukraine, so I took it upon myself as a keen fan of football, languages and roads to, er, drive to the match and back…

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Good calls so far, but let us say the Northern Irish lose narrowly to world champions Germany… who else should we be supporting to sneak through to the last sixteen (thus proving we would have qualified for a sixteen-team tournament anyway)?

Basically, the GAWA army would need at least two third-placed teams to have a worse record than Northern Ireland (let’s assume Northern Ireland has three points and an even goal difference).

Group A looks hopeful. A draw between Romania and Albania would mean neither made it to three points. A narrow Albania win would also probably help, given its goal difference would remain inferior to Northern Ireland’s.

And a narrow Albania win it was – meaning Northern Ireland can afford to lose by up to three goals and still be ahead of the Albanians. One down, one to go!

Group B is less helpful. Wales and Slovakia both already have three points; Wales plays Russia and one or other of those teams, plus England, must end up with more than three. The only hope, really, is that Wales gets some sort of result (eliminating Russia) and that England thrashes Slovakia, weakening its goal difference.

Didn’t expect much from Group B, and got even less! Slovakia third with four points, meaning Northern Ireland need a draw to progress for sure. Interestingly, the likeliest opponent upon progressing would now be Wales!

If Romania doesn’t win and England does, it is possible Northern Ireland will already know that a certain margin of defeat will already suffice to progress.

So, the precise basis of this blog post has happened – thanks to Big Mike Shovel Hands Northern Ireland lost 1-0, and thankfully only 1-0!

Group D also carries some hope, with the Czechs and Turks playing each other. As with Romania-Albania, a draw would mean neither reached three points (so it is already the case, as it stands, that if both the Romania-Albania and Czech-Turkey games are drawn, Northern Ireland will progress). A win for Turkey would mean three points but, probably, an inferior goal difference to Northern Ireland (though the Turks will by this stage have the advantage of knowing the margin they need at least to have some chance of going through) – we now know Turkey would in fact have to win by four. A Czech win, however, would mean this group carried no more interest!

… and Turkey wins by two goals! Last 16 it is for bravest team and best fans in the tournament!

Group E was also hopeful. In this case, the bottom two teams are not playing each other. If neither Sweden nor the Republic of Ireland win, then neither reaches three points; if either does, it secures at least four points. A Swedish win would leave Belgium on three points, but possibly with a better goal difference (there were several reasons for Irish fans north of the border to curse Belgium’s big win yesterday).

We hoped it would not come down to Group F (although actually it concludes before Group E). Appearances were deceptive here, because there is a fair possibility that both Portugal and Austria will win thus taking three teams to beyond four points; even if this does not happen, the third-placed team will have at least three points, barring an unlikely Hungarian win over Portugal.

Who next? If Republic of Ireland and/or Sweden win and Portugal does not lose, it is Wales v Northern Ireland; otherwise, it is France v Northern Ireland.

Congratulations regardless to Michael O’Neill and his team.

Leicester won the League; Arsenal didn’t lose it

I have read some commentary expressing disappointment with Arsenal’s season despite the finishing position (not entirely unreasonable), and often suggesting Arsenal “should have won the League this [particular] season” (unreasonable – and disrespectful to Leicester).

This century, no team has won the League on fewer than 80 points. Arsenal has mustered this only once in ten seasons at the Emirates (83 in 2008, coming third). Since 2008, Arsenal managed 79 in 2014 (coming fourth) but has never otherwise managed more than 75, occasionally even dipping below 70. Arsenal is, in other words, a club which typically scores in the low to mid-70s, when the champion team is always on at least 80 (and often rather more than that).

Although Leicester’s 81 points is a relatively low total for the table topper, it is worth noting that 42 of those (more than half) came in the second half of the season – following in from a first half which was already astonishing. After a gutting injury time loss with 10 men at Arsenal on match day 26, Leicester went on a solid twelve-game unbeaten run to wrap up the championship. Such was Leicester’s performance, Arsenal would have had to win all ten of its last ten games, including trips to White Hart Lane and the Etihad, to win the title (something which has only ever been done once in the history of English football), and even then only on goal difference.

So, firstly, a lot of plaudits must go to Leicester, a genuinely very good team. This is far from a fluke. For nearly 50 games now back to March 2015, Leicester has been comfortably the most consistent team in the Premier League. Yes, the big teams have struggled during this time, but Leicester’s achievement is down to its own strengths, not just others’ weaknesses.

Secondly, Arsenal’s failings are nothing to do with the fact “only Leicester” ended up ahead. Since the Invincibles, with very very few exceptions, Arsenal has been a 68-75 point team – enough to qualify for the top four and the big bucks that flow into Stan Kroenke’s bank account as a result, but nothing like enough to win the League regardless of who did.

So leave Leicester out of it. The question is how does Arsenal go from typically winning 20 games a season to typically winning 25? A defender like Huth, a midfielder like Drinkwater, a striker like Mahrez, a manager like Ranieri and a team spirit like Leicester’s, perhaps…?!

FA Cup needs Champions’ League spot to survive

There was a lot of discussion about FA Cup replays last week, but frankly it missed the point. The competition’s problem is not structural; it is more fundamental than that.

Yesterday saw the tie of the round: Premier League Champions and 2012 winners Chelsea played Premier League runners-up and 2011 winners Manchester City in a clash between the two most recent champions and two of the richest clubs in the world.

The game was a farce. City fielded a youthful team so second string that its shirt numbers added up to over 400. The youngsters were outplayed by a Chelsea first team out to retrieve its only hope of domestic honours this season. There was never the remotest chance of a replay, as the London side could even afford to miss a penalty and still win 5-1.

This has implications. For the competition, it renders it close to meaningless. For fans, it devalues matches played in the tournament. For sponsors and broadcasters, it surely makes them think again. Some teams are motivated; others are not; the trophy itself is stained. There was no “magic of the Cup” on display at Stamford Bridge yesterday.

This has nothing to do with replays.

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There is an obvious way around this. The FA Cup winners should qualify automatically for the group stages of the Champions’ League.

There is no reason this should not be allowed. The (English) FA selects its Champions’ League representatives and is free to do so in any means it wishes as long as it is on merit. Although League position is the most common means of deciding qualifying teams, it does not have to be – the Dutch FA has a playoff system, for example.

The specific reward needs to be not just a place in the Champions’ League playoff (as per fourth place currently), but directly into the group stages (as per top three). That way, even a team which was relatively confident of a top four challenge would have added reason to take the Cup seriously (currently fourth-placed City yesterday being an obvious example).

This would do no harm to the Premier League either – fourth place would still earn Champions’ League qualification of sorts if the Cup winner came from the top four, but it would no longer guarantee it, making the “medal places” the real objective as they should be. Most of all, however, it would restore the FA Cup to its rightful place as a prestigious competition more than worth winning.

With replays. Of course.

Unionists making NI less British, not more

I was on Nolan again last week at short notice to discuss the decision in the House of Commons in support of a specifically English anthem (implicitly) for English sports teams. This came in the same week as the first vote taken in the House under the new “English Votes for English Laws” measures. This followed on from an article in the Newsletter about how sport continues to divide in Northern Ireland and how Northern Ireland needs its own anthem like Scotland and Wales. (I note lots of charming and persuasive comments underneath…)

This was, in other words, a week when growing English self-consciousness was further demonstrated, and the push towards at least federalism was continued – driven by the English. This has long been predictable and people in Northern Ireland, with less than 3% of the population, are deluding themselves if they think they can (or should) stop it.

An inevitable consequence of this will be a continued surge in Northern Irishness. As Nationalists seek to make us more dependent on the British public purse, and thus more distinct from the Republic of Ireland, this will only continue. It is bizarre, however, that the people in Northern Ireland most dedicated to keeping Northern Ireland distinct from the rest of the UK are Unionist politicians.

Increasingly, it seems the only purpose of any Unionist politician is to stop anything happening. Reform same-sex marriage as in the rest of the UK? No thanks, we’ll define marriage differently from everywhere else. Align blood donation policy with the rest of the UK? Not us, let’s just openly discriminate. Sort out abortion regulations? No, let’s just pretend it’s not happening. Bring NI into line with other countries of the UK in having its own anthem for its own team? Ah no, bringing flag flying policy into line with British norms was already too much for us, er, British people… we will have the British anthem but stuff British social norms, eh?

It is already frankly bizarre that Scotland and Wales have their own anthems while Northern Ireland uniquely retains the same one as England. If England switches too? Northern Ireland will simply look ridiculous, clinging on to an anthem which it well knows represents only half its population.

I am British, and frankly I’m fed up with looking like a desperate hanger-on within the UK. It is time those who claim to be British took on the full responsibilities which come with that. Federalism (at least) is coming, and it is not just economically that we need to be prepared for it.

English club football honours – what are they?

One of the big advantages Association Football has over other versions of “football” with significant followings (notably rugby and gridiron, whose history and comparisons I wrote about here) is its beguiling simplicity. No “down-and-distance” rules, or “play-the-balls” infringements, or any other array of weird technicalities. The laws are straightforward; anyone can play anywhere; and the sport has a genuinely global reach (perhaps as a result) that none of the others remotely has (for all the pretension of super bowl “world champions” or rugby “World Cups”…)

Where Association Football gets complicated, however, is when it comes to working out what its various competitions are. North Americans rightly raise complete bemusement about working out what tournaments as bizarre as the “Europa League” or the “[Insert Sponsor Here/League] Cup” are – leaving quite aside the fact that Europe’s premier competition is neither for champions nor a league, and yet is referred to as the “Champions’ League”…

What is this all about?

As ever with anything originating in the British Isles, it is a good start to look at the history.

When associations, schools and clubs were finally getting their act together regarding the laws of the game (see aforementioned link), they also decided (albeit sporadically) that it would be a good idea somehow to determine the champion team. The obvious way was for the newly formed regulatory body, the Football Association (FA), to set up a knock-out (“straight elimination”) competition – two teams meet, one is eliminated and one advances, until you have two left in the “final”. The FA called this its “Challenge Cup”, referred to simply as the “FA Cup”, whose first Final was played in 1872.

As with rugby (again, see aforementioned link), there was a swift divide between the London-based “Football Association” (equivalent of the “Rugby Union”) and the needs of the more northern-based clubs in industrial areas. A knock-out competition was all very well for amateurs, but for professionals opting out of (typically industrial) careers whose clubs would pay them train and play full time, the risk that all that effort could be over after a single game was too much. What they required was a “Football League”, with a round-robin format meaning that you were not eliminated just for losing a single game, and thus that professionals would play for a whole season. Thus, they would play each other team in the League home and away, with the team with the best balance (initially determined by two points for a win, one for a draw, and goal average separating teams level) deemed the “champions”. Association Football, therefore, was lucky that the “Association” versus “League” division did not result in two different sports (as was the case with Rugby), but it did effectively result in two different champions – one for the originally amateur knock-out competition (the “Cup”), and one for the always professional round-robin competition (the “League”). Of course, (semi-)professional clubs were in fact already dominating the “Cup” by the time of the League’s first season in 1888-9.

This situation arose effectively by accident, but it is arguably advantageous. Most North American and Australasian sports combine both, having a “League” initially followed by play-offs (a “Cup”) based on final position in that League. There is one champion – actually, in effect, the winner of the “Cup”. This system has the advantage that there is a single champion each year (the New England Patriots are the current American Football champions; the Kansas City Royals the current Baseball champions; and so on). However, it has the disadvantage that a team which starts poorly can be out of the race right from the beginning, with no alternative competition available for them to win; and it can also be the case that the best team overall does not become the “champion” (the most obvious example being the 2007 New England Patriots, who became the first team ever to win 16 out of 16 regular season “League” games only to lose for the only time all season right at the end of the “Cup” play-offs, thus ending the season empty handed).

Clearly, there is a potential benefit in allowing an “upset champion” to maintain interest, but that is the beauty of the system accidentally adopted by Association Football in Britain – it in fact allows both. This is, perhaps, why almost every other country adopted the same system (one top “League”, one main “Cup”). At the end of any given season, the winner of the “League” is unquestionably the “champion” team in that country; however, any team which starts poorly still has the chance of competing to win the “Cup” (which starts half way through the season in England) – a significant consolation particularly in the case of the original, which has the added glamour of being the world’s oldest competition in the world’s most popular sport.

The first complication, though an understandable one, arose in the 1950s when different countries began to wonder how their “champion” teams would get on against each other. It was decided that each country’s champion team should play off against the others in Europe to decide the “European Champion club team”; and, indeed, that each country’s cup winner should do likewise. Inevitably in the case of a sport whose season lasts over nine months, however, this “play-off” series had to take place the following season, meaning in effect that each country’s champion (league winner) qualified for the following season’s “European Champions’ Cup”, and the cup winner qualified for the following season’s “European Cup Winners’ Cup”. For a variety of reasons and to cause a significant further complication, there emerged an additional, third competition (known latterly as the “UEFA Cup”) which came to be for clubs which had placed well in their league but not won it (the exact number varied depending on the success and size of each country and its league). Initially, all these competitions were knock-out but played over two legs (each team at home once), with a one-off Final at a neutral venue determined in advance in the case of the “European Champions’ Cup” and the “European Cup Winners’ Cup”.

This makes sense, but there also emerged an array of further competitions, often promoted by sponsors to make further money. One that stuck in England was the “League Cup” – highly confusing, as it was a “Cup” competition run by the “Football League” (whereas the “FA Cup” is run by the “Football Association”). Numerous countries also adopted what is normally known as a “Super Cup”, a play off between the “league champion” and “cup winner” played the following season (in England, this is played at the beginning of the season and is now referred to as the “Community Shield”); there is also a European version of this, initially a play-off over two legs between the “European Champions’ Cup” winner and the “European Cup Winners’ Cup” winner. These games are all notably less prestigious, however, and the timing and even format of the various finals can change dramatically from year to year (as they have to fit in around the more established competitions).

Therefore, at national level, for all the attempts at additional competitions, it remains the case that the winner of the “league” is universally acclaimed as the “champion club” (regardless of other cups and subsequent follow-up competitions); additionally, the winner of the “European Champions’ Cup” (which came to be known simply as the “European Cup” given its status as the most prestigious European competition) was regarded as the “European champion club”. In each country, the “Cup” is clearly the second most prestigious domestic honour, though exactly how prestigious varies from country to country (and over time).

There has been a dramatic alteration in the European club competitions since the early 1990s. To add “interest” (er, money), the game’s governing body added a group phase to the “European Cup”. Initially this was only at the quarter-final stage (where teams were split into two round-robin groups of four, with the top two advancing to semi-finals which reverted for the most part to the usual two-leg format), then came to be used in two separate rounds, but it has settled for some time now at the last 32 stage only (thus eight groups of four with two advancing, and then knock-out over two legs as before from the last 16 onwards). The tournament also soon dropped the requirement for teams to be “Champions” (seeing the interest and, er, financial merit in “Real Madrid versus Juventus” or “Bayern Munich versus Manchester United” potentially taking place most seasons regardless of who had won last season’s league championships), now allowing up to the top four teams from the larger leagues to enter. In effect, the “European Champions’ Cup” merged with the “UEFA Cup” in modified format to form the “Champions’ League”, taking up more of each leading club’s time in international competition. For all that, there is no doubt the “Champions’ League” is now the predominant club competition in the global game.

This advance of the “Champions’ League” soon rendered the “European Cup Winners’ Cup” redundant, as many “cup winners” qualified for the so-called “Champions’ League” in any case. Thus, it was merged with the remnants of the “UEFA Cup” into an incredibly complex tournament, itself involving a group phase with 48 teams and additional teams added from those eliminated from the “Champions’ League”. This tournament is itself now known as the “Europa League”. No one is quite sure what the point of this competition is, aside from the Spanish club Sevilla, who seem to win it every year!

The complication does not end there either, of course, because on top of that there is international competition. This too used to be straightforward – every two years European teams would play off in groups of (recently) six or seven teams to reach, alternately, the 32-team World Cup or the 16-team European Championship, themselves played in the summer of even-numbered years with an initial group phase followed by straight single-game knock-out. This is about to be complicated too by the addition of a “Nations’ League” which no one understands, but which at least cannot be won every year by Sevilla.

Over time, domestically, “league championships” have come to predominate over the “cups”. This is notably the case in Germany (whose champion was decided by a series of play-offs based on regional round-robin competitions until the 1960s, but which now has the powerful 18-team “Bundesliga” at the top of its league system) and England (where the “Football Association” took over the running of the top division in 1992, now branding it the “Premier League” with 20 teams). Across Europe, Leagues vary in exact size (though 18-20 teams is now typical) and format (all now have three points for a win but some go to goal difference in the event of equal points, others use head-to-head records or single-game play-offs; promotion/relegation from other tiers also varies).

In Europe, there is now established in the media a so-called “Big Five” of leagues, although on the field this designation is dubious. There are in fact a “Big Four” – Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A. Added to this list often is France’s Ligue Un, but in fact French teams have only ever lifted two European club trophies of any kind, and France’s league trails behind Portugal’s even in current rankings. Another challenger would be the Netherlands, whose clubs have not seriously competed for honours this century but are among the most successful historically (particularly comparative to national population).

Frustratingly, perhaps, different countries also rate less established competitions differently. Spaniards take all of them, including “Super Cups”, fairly seriously. The English do not rate “Super Cups” at all, and some cast serious doubt over the “Capital One [League] Cup” in which bigger clubs currently tend not to field their best available teams; the “FA Cup” has unquestionably also diminished in value (whatever the broadcasters like to claim) since the establishment of the big-money Premier League also run by the FA.

(For the record, the Spanish language uses the word “campeón“/”champion” to refer to winning teams both in the league and in the cup – there is in Spain a “campeón de la liga” and a “campeón de la copa“. Most other languages reserve the word “champion” specifically for the league, thus having a league champion, and then referring distinctly to a cup winner.)

Though diminished, “Cups” are still important everywhere. Unlike North American sports, most leagues are now totally dominated by a small range of clubs (in the most extreme case, only two Portuguese League titles have been won by anyone other than Benfica, Porto or Sporting); although in most cases clubs can emerge apparently from nowhere to challenge over a period of time (such as Bayer Leverkusen or latterly Wolfsburg in Germany, or Chelsea and Manchester City in England). This relative domination means that “Cup” competitions (with the greater element of chance implicit within them) can be the only realistic way for clubs to attain wins in established tournaments.

Certain clubs also historically come to be good at one or the other, at least over a period. Athletic Bilbao has won the Spanish Cup more often than the mighty Real Madrid, yet has not been crowned “league champions” anything like as often (and not since the early 1980s); Tottenham Hotspur is a “Cup” team (ranking third in England historically for “Cup wins” with eight, but nowhere in the list of “league champions” with two), but Liverpool is a “league” team (ranking second for “league championships” with eighteen but behind Tottenham for “Cups” with seven). “Cup” wins do tend to be more evenly spread about – there is a greater degree of chance, after all, but in some ways (or at least in some conditions) that makes for greater interest.

In conclusion, it is complex. The addition – for reasons good or bad – of competitions themselves (such as “League Cups” and “Super Cups”, which for the record I personally ignore as they have no historical basis), or of complexities to existing competitions (such as the emergence of the mighty “Champions’ League” and the utterly confusing “Europa League”) does bewilder even seasoned followers of the game.

However, the existence of a “league” and a “cup” is a tried and tested system which allows the determination of a definite “champion team” while also allowing for the odd surprise tournament victory (as “cup winner”). Whatever happens to international competitions and various other sponsored club tournaments, the standard staple of a “league” and a “cup” will surely stand the test of time!

Who’s going to win the Premier League?

As an Arsenal fan (and indeed club member), I had a harrowing Boxing Night as the then title favourites went to the South Coast and got demolished by a previously struggling Southampton side. Yet, somehow, no one was all that surprised. It has been that sort of season.

As it stands, surprise package Leicester City sits atop the Premier League, with Arsenal somehow still second and now favourites Manchester City third, followed by a group of teams from Tottenham Hotspur through Manchester United and even Liverpool still nominally in contention. Who knows, if champions Chelsea could still stick together a run of ten straight wins…?

So, who is going to win it?

Statistics

What we have to do, first of all, is throw most statistics out of the window. After 18 games, this century, 38 points would seldom be enough to lead the way. Even averaging that many again, Leicester City would emerge with 80 points – in practice enough to win the title only twice in the past decade. In 2012, Manchester United accumulated 89 and did not win; in 2008, Arsenal managed 83 and came third.

So, all this stuff about “You can’t win the Premier League with more than six defeats” or “You can’t come back from 14 points behind” is probably irrelevant this season. For whatever reason, it is a more even league this year (at least, until now), and that means certain positions near the top (such as qualification for Europe) may be accomplished with relatively low totals by the standards of recent years.

So, statistics tell us nothing immediate, although I will return to this…

History

The history of league football in England (and parts of Wales) can be usefully split into three eras.

In the 47 seasons before World War II (27 of which occurred before World War I), there was a period of “mini-dynasties”. Aston Villa accumulated five of its seven titles by the end of the 19th century (to be specific, in the space of seven seasons from 1894), the best run until the 1980s. Teams like Preston North End, Everton, Sheffield Wednesday and Liverpool managed back-to-back titles, but did not particularly build on them; others, like Newcastle United and Sunderland, accumulated three or more wins over a period. Towards the end of the period, Huddersfield Town and Arsenal managed three in succession, but then drifted away again so it remained fully competitive. Manchester City won the title in 1937 but was relegated the following season, despite scoring more goals in total than champions Arsenal.

This is the sixtieth season post-War, and those sixty can usefully be split almost exactly in two. In the thirty seasons from 1947 until the rise of Liverpool as the dominant team from the mid-’70s, the league championship was entirely unpredictable. The best run was Wolverhampton Wanderers, who won three in six years (relatively tame by modern standards). We were, of course, tragically denied the talents of the ‘Busby Babes’ at Manchester United, who may have established some sort of dynasty from the 1950s, but other than that every year produced a surprise. Teams such as Chelsea and Ipswich Town (and, right at the end of the period, Nottingham Forest) came from nowhere to win their only football league championships; other established clubs, such as Everton in 1970 and particularly Arsenal in 1971, were still considered surprise champions in otherwise relatively barren spells. Clubs such as Burnley and Manchester City won just one title during this period; and Portsmouth won its only two back-to-back from 1949. What is most noticeable about the period is that even teams which were considered at the time to be “dominant” were in fact nothing like that in retrospect – the “dominant” Tottenham Hotspur side of the early ’60s won just one title; the “dominant” Leeds United team from the mid-’60s to mid-’70s won just two (whereas the supposedly not dominant Liverpool won three and Manchester United managed two plus a European Cup).

From the mid-’70s, however, the period of dynasties started – firstly Liverpool, then Manchester United. Purely by chance, the first eleven years of each dynasty mirrored each other absolutely – Liverpool won back-to-back in 1976 and 1977, again in 1979 and 1980, and then three-in-a-row from 1982-4 and then a single in 1986; Manchester United repeated this (1993 and 1994; 1996 and 1997; then from 1999-2001 and 2003). Liverpool took another couple of standalone titles at the end of its era (1988 and 1990), as did Manchester United (2011 and 2013), although Manchester United also added another three-in-a-row in between (2007-9). What is notable about both dynasties at the start is that there was no consistent challenger – Liverpool had Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa, Southampton and Watford all as runners-up or alternate champions in those first few years; Manchester United had Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, and Newcastle United. Then, in each case, a relatively consistent challenger emerged (to Liverpool, first Everton then Arsenal; to Manchester United first Arsenal then Chelsea).

The point of all this is that we seem to be exiting a “dynasty” but it is uncertain what will replace it. The assumption was that Chelsea and Manchester City would now battle for supremacy, but the former has disappeared towards the relegation zone and the latter is peculiarly inconsistent; nor, frankly, is either club really big enough to establish a true dynasty of its own (Liverpool and Manchester United were both already clubs of significant past success, standing and support base even before their dynasty periods).

However, not since 1978 has a club won its first title. So history is against Leicester City, which has in fact never won either a league championship or an FA Cup.

Form

Form tells us very little if we base it solely on this season. What about past seasons, however?

In 2015, Chelsea ran away with it; but in 2014 it was Liverpool who emerged from the pack with ten straight wins, only to be pipped by Manchester City who finished with five. In 2013, Manchester United won all but five of its games for the first three quarters of the season. In 2012, Manchester City won six in a row at the end. My own team Arsenal won 10 in a row in 1998 (and actually also 1971) and no fewer than 13 in a row at the end in 2002. Chelsea frequently won 17 or even 18 of 19 home games during its title wins under Jose Mourinho. This happens elsewhere too – in recent years two unlikely champions of Germany, Stuttgart and particularly Wolfsburg, have become so by going on long winning runs to emerge from the pack right at the end.

In other words, the title will likely be won by a team going on an apparently unlikely (but actually relatively common) run of straight wins. Of course, if (as in 2014) two teams do this, it will remain exciting. If (as is more usual) only one does, however, we could end up with a surprisingly straightforward title win for someone.

So which teams are best equipped to do this?

Here, the bookies probably have it right – Manchester City, followed by Arsenal. The former knows what it takes and has won recent championships; the latter too is prone towards good runs (such as eight wins and two draws from ten at the end in 2013) – just usually from a position where it is already out of the race!

But it does mean no one should be ruled out. If Juergen Klopp works out how to use “Gegenpressing” against long-ball teams, it could be Liverpool, although he would need to be quick before they fall out of range.

I do think it is unlikely to be Manchester United (who seem set up not to lose, rather than to win), or Tottenham Hotspur (whose squad is on the small side), but I rule nothing out. It could well be Chelsea, although that will likely suffice only for European qualification.

Conclusion

So, who will win? I have no idea. But, in the end, it could be a lot more straightforward than it appears now. And it won’t be decided today…

Men – they just don’t understand the offside rule…

Niall Quinn, the Sky co-commentator, was on the end of a Twitter storm when he questioned whether substitute Glenn Murray was offside when scoring the only goal for Bournemouth at Chelsea.

As one reporter noted, “literally thousands” tweeted that Niall Quinn was creating something out of nothing because clearly Chelsea defender Gary Cahill was on the line and thus several yards in front of Murray (thus playing him onside).

That’s the trouble with men – they just don’t understand the offside rule…!

The rule is quite simple – if you are in front of the ball and in the opposition half, you are offside unless you have two opponents in front of or level with you. It is not an offence to be offside, but an indirect free kick is awarded against you if you ‘seek to gain an advantage’ by so being (exactly when this applies depends on guidance given by the International Board, which can vary each new season).

That’s two opponents, not one! Of course, usually the goalkeeper is one of the two, but in this case the Chelsea goalkeeper was behind Murray (from the Bournemouth point of view). Thus, for Murray to be onside, he needed two Chelsea outfielders in front of or level with him. Cahill was one, but it is far from clear who the other was…

Meanwhile, it’s back to offside coaching camp for thousands of men…

Perils of über-British/Irishness

An SDLP Councillor has a proposal for a civic dinner to be hosted by Belfast City Council for both Irish soccer teams upon qualification for the European Championship. Leaving aside the practicalities of running a £30/head dinner for lots of footballers during the season, this proposal, though dressed up as “inclusive” and “equal”, is actually bizarre.

This is the problem we run into with these two words. In fact, every single player in France next summer who is from the Belfast area and/or played for a youth team in the Belfast area will be playing for Northern Ireland. Belfast has a direct role – through funding and facilitating clubs and general development – in the success of probably more than half the Northern Ireland team, but only the Northern Ireland team. It is usual and practical for civic receptions to focus in an “inclusive” way on the area of the Council’s influence, and such a civic reception has already been held.

Even leaving that aside, the simple fact is that qualification (top of the group) by a team representing an area of 1.8 million people is a considerably more noteworthy accomplishment than qualification (through the playoff) by a team representing 4.5 million plus a significant diaspora (and much of whose team, unlike Northern Ireland’s, is actually drawn from that diaspora). Comparable countries to the Republic of Ireland, such as Croatia and Albania, qualified too – whereas only one of Northern Ireland’s size or smaller did so. So, for Northern Ireland, merely qualifying is an accomplishment of similar standing to winning the tournament would be for Germany, reaching the semis would be for England, or reaching the knock-out stages would be for the Republic of Ireland. The accomplishments, therefore, are not “equal” – and the Belfast proposal in terms of the Republic of Ireland team is vastly more lavish than any likely to be bestowed upon it by any council within the FAI’s jurisdiction.

(To be clear, because believe it or not there are politicians out there who like to misrepresent things, there would be no harm in some sort of joint event, nor in being creative about such things – a joint homecoming reception for both teams after a day’s joint training at the new Windsor Park next autumn would be a great message and befitting of the support both teams have within the city. The session could even be ticketed with proceeds allocated to a local charity. No such strong message would be sent out by a lavish dinner at ratepayers’ expense.)

What is the point here? The point is that the wrong “inclusive” and “equal” comparison is being made. The comparison, at best, has to be with what other Irish City Councils are doing for the Republic of Ireland team. To do otherwise is to embark on an adventure in über-Irishness, where Northern Nationalists spend far more ratepayers’ money on celebrating Irish achievements than their compatriots in the Republic.

Über-Irishness and über-Britishness (putting flags everywhere, singing anthems inappropriately, moaning about how “Team GB” isn’t “Team UK” etc etc etc) are what define Northern Ireland. From across the border and across the Irish Sea they look on bewildered, knowing fine rightly there are better things to spend money on than lavish expressions of national identity. Perhaps it is time we worked that out too?

See you at the Homecoming Reception…

 

 

 

History of the different codes of Rugby/Gridiron Football

The Rugby World Cup saw a rise in discussion about the history of the game. Some of this discussion pre-dated 1863-1871, which, as I noted at the time, was somewhat odd as there was no meaningful “rugby” (as distinct from the broad codes of “football”) before that period.

Legend has it, of course, that “football” when it moved to become a field game (almost entirely the case by 1823) became split when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball at Rugby School and ran with it. Legend is exactly what that is, of course. In fact, there were varying codes of football until well into the Victorian Era. The basic aim of “football” was to manoeuvre the ball over the opponents’ goal line; typically between some posts. Quite how this was to be done, and what was permitted in so doing, varied from school to school and club to club. In 1863, an association of schools and clubs came together and set out one code which became “Association Football”; in 1871, another code was clearly agreed upon based on Rugby School’s code which became broadly known as “Rugby Football”. These were shortened, respectively, to “soccer” (from “Association”) and “rugger” (from “Rugby”). One obvious distinction was that the latter was more liberal about the permitting of handling, and (increasingly over time) of physical contact (most particularly, formalised “tackling”).

It should be noted that even “soccer” still has some vestiges which are clearly of common origin with rugby. Handling is still permitted, albeit to one player on the team within a certain zone; charging is still permitted, albeit now in very specific circumstances; the ball is still returned to play from the sideline via a throw, albeit a specific type designed to limit the distance which can be achieved from it. It also retains the distinction between a direct free kick (formerly known as a “penalty kick” even when outside what became the penalty area) and an indirect free kick (formerly simply the “free kick”), which in fact developed after the split from rugby but reflects common influences. “Offside” also has a common derivation, initially from disallowing any player to be in front of the ball, even though the exact rule is now quite different (having begun to diverge in many schools and clubs which came to allow a kicked pass to a player standing in front with certain restrictions even pre-1863).

Football in general soon developed a problem in the UK, in that the more professional classes saw sport as a purely leisure pursuit, whereas industrial workers felt they had a right to compensation. “Soccer” ended up with two separate competitions as a result – the Football Association-administered “Challenge Cup” (a knockout competition which professionals disliked as they could be out of the competition after just one match), and the Football League under different administration (disliked by amateurs as it required professional levels of training and fitness to compete over a full season of round-robin fixtures). “Rugger” had the same division but with much wider consequences: the “Rugby League” did not just become a separate competition in which players could be compensated, but ultimately a different code altogether.

Fundamentally, the objective of all Rugby-derived codes (including “football” in North America) came to be to advance the ball over the opponents’ goal line for a “try” for a score of the highest value, which is also followed by a further play offering extra points (typically, though in North America now not compulsorily, a kick). In each case, kicked goals (through the posts and over a crossbar) without the “try” remained a means of accruing points, but of comparatively decreasing value.

From the late Victorian Era, the rules adopted by the Rugby League came to diverge from those used by the amateur Rugby Union. Over time, League was considerably simplified: line-outs were removed; the points system was altered; the two flankers were lost, making the game 13-a-side; and, most fundamentally of all, the contest for possession after a tackle was abandoned.

Interestingly, and apparently coincidentally, football in North America followed a similar path to Rugby League – it became professional (albeit with a significant “college” variety in both the United States and Canada), and it also removed line-outs, altered the points system, reduced the number of players allowed on the field during play (to 12 in Canadian and 11 in American), and abandoned the contest for possession after a tackle. “Down-and-distance” rules were adopted, separately in Canada and the United States albeit under common influence, which also changed the field layout to a chequerboard, i.e. resembling a gridiron (as, after a tackle, the ball had to be played from the square in which the tackle had taken place). Thus, the name “Gridiron” came to be applied to football as played in North America – even after the gridiron layout was abandoned in favour of lateral lines every ten yards accompanied by longitudinal hash marks.

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The original “gridiron” field (Syracuse, NY, 1910) – courtesy Wiki

Thus, Rugby Union is distinguished from all other forms of the game deriving from the Rugby code by the contest for possession after the tackle (known as the “breakdown”). This feature of the game – involving releasing the ball and the creation of rucks or mauls – is perhaps its most distinctive aspect. Competition of possession is in fact the most outstanding distinction in general – such competition also defines scrums (usually awarded for minor infringements and also used for some re-starts), line-outs, and even in theory free kicks. (It is increasingly debatable, however, just how stable this aspect of the game is: the sheer complexity of the laws around it and the obvious potential for injury and concussion are leading to serious questions being raised about the very viability of the game – questions which are currently peripheral but which will no doubt become more mainstream. We may therefore reasonably predict that the laws of Rugby Union will move towards those of the other codes as the century progresses.)

Gridiron Football and effectively also Rugby League are all defined by a set piece after each tackle and “down-and-distance” rules (though the terminology varies). Rugby League allows six “tackles” to score; American Football allows four “downs” to advance ten yards (on a 100-yard grid); and Canadian Football allows three “downs” to advance ten yards (on a 110-yard grid).

Fundamental divisions between both codes of modern Rugby and both main codes of Gridiron are apparent in the attire the players wear (Rugby kits are similar to soccer, albeit with increasing padding; Gridiron uniforms include helmets and shoulder pads) and thus in the type of tackle allowed (Rugby requires arms to be used, and wrapped; Gridiron does not, although this liberal attitude to “hitting” is increasingly being debated on safety grounds, even with helmets and pads). However, perhaps the biggest distinction is that Gridiron’s post-tackle plays begin with a “line of scrimmage” (a deliberate change from Rugby’s grouped “scrummage”) and that it came to permit one forward pass from behind that line. Gridiron also only requires the ball to be moved across the opponents’ goal line for a “try” to be awarded, whereas Rugby requires the ball to be touched down (albeit with very slight differences in precisely how between Union and League): it is odd, therefore, that the term for this in Gridiron in common usage for the score itself has come to be “touchdown” (the “try”, formally at least, refers to the kick or throw for extra points afterwards), whereas Rugby retains the word “try” for the score alone.

American Football has moved further from the original Gridiron version than Canadian has: it reduced the size of the field; moved the posts to the back of the “end zone” (i.e. to the dead ball line from the goal line); and introduced greater restrictions on movement. Gridiron has also adopted a defensive score not available in Rugby: if a team takes the ball behind its own goal line and fails to move it back beyond it, it concedes a “safety” (worth two points to the other team) and also kicks away possession (otherwise, unlike in Rugby, the scoring team kicks off after any score). Canadian Football, uniquely, also has what is known as a “single”, scored by kicking the ball beyond the opponents’ goal line without it being successfully returned beyond it by the other team (one of the marked distinctions of Canadian Football from American is that kicks generally remain live, including missed field goals).

The original means of scoring in Rugby were the “try” (a goal kicked after advancing the ball over the goal line), the “dropped goal” (a goal from a drop kick in open play), the “goal from the mark” (a goal scored by a kick after a fair catch) and, in most varieties, the “field goal” (a goal scored by kicking the ball straight off the ground). The “penalty goal” was added to both Rugby codes as a direct kick following a major foul, but Gridiron did not adopt this. All codes quickly came to recognise that advancing the ball beyond the goal line alone (the “try” in Rugby and the “touchdown” in Gridiron) should have a value of its own, and above that of any other score (Union was the slowest to complete this latter). Effectively the “field goal” and “dropped goal” were merged in all varieties (and the “kick from the mark” either abolished or rendered impractical by adaptations to the precise shape of the ball).

Scoring is now:

  • Rugby Union: 5 for a try/touchdown plus 2 for a conversion goal; 3 for a penalty goal; 3 for a dropped goal;
  • Rugby League: 4 for a try/touchdown plus 2 for a conversion goal; 2 for a penalty goal; 1 for a dropped goal;
  • American Football: 6 for a try/touchdown plus 1 for a conversion goal or 2 for a conversion touchdown; 3 for a field goal; 2 for a safety;
  • Canadian Football: as American, plus 1 for a single.

Even a slight difference in the rules can, interestingly, lead to a very different game. For example, as in Rugby, the ball may be advanced in Gridiron by passing the ball sideways or backwards to a free player at any time (specifically, in Gridiron, prior to contact), but because possession is at a premium this is much rarer. Dropped goals are allowed in Gridiron, including for conversion kicks, but, because the ball is sharper at the ends, they are now almost never attempted.

Gridiron is, of course, also marked out from any other version of football by its strict timing and its rolling substitutions. In terms of timing, Gridiron is based around a game clock for timing, with strict rules. In terms of players, Gridiron teams came to have three distinct “platoons”, for “defense”, “offense” and “special teams”. Rugby is moving that way in both cases, but is markedly different. It now has basic game clock timing, but in practice the final “play” can last several minutes; and it has long had a clear distinction between “forwards” and “backs” as separate groups (albeit all on the field at once). Union now allows 7-8 substitutions and in limited circumstances replaced players may return to the game.

Despite these marked differences, there are a number of areas where all the games retain vestiges of when they were once one. All are about advancing an oval ball over the goal line for maximum value, or kicking between the posts and above the crossbar as an alternative means of scoring (by moving in this direction, scoring has also increased in all codes over the years); all involve tackling by physical contact; all allow forward kicks and side/back passes (although Gridiron now allows one forward pass to restricted receivers from a particular zone); all have a particular default use of the 20-25 yard line (for restarts in certain circumstances); none rewards “knock-ons”; and all exhibit “offside” (albeit in different ways).

The culture of the different codes means they will probably all remain distinct: Canadian Football and, outside Australia, Rugby League remain very much minority versions, but they have a clear geographical home which is unlikely to shift. The big differences will probably come around the common concern to all codes of concussion and later mental health of players, with Rugby Union the code most likely to be directly affected in terms of gameplay. Union’s distinctiveness from all other codes, marked by its constant competition for possession, will probably decline over the coming decades as safety concerns grow. It will be interesting to see exactly how this comes to be addressed!

Please rugby, don’t turn into football!

I follow (association) football before rugby union, but I am sure I am not the only football fan who has been enthralled by the Rugby World Cup. For me, most refreshing of all is the different culture of the game most obviously demonstrated by the respect shown for referees.

To see a burly Boer tell a man a full foot shorter than him “Sorry Sir” is an aspect of the game which should never be lost. It plays to an honesty and a camaraderie between all participants which has long, unfortunately, been lost to football at the highest level.

Yet there is a real risk that rugby, as it becomes more professional and more exposed to media scrutiny, will lose this culture (and consequent honesty and camaraderie) which make it so refreshing. That risk was evident yesterday.

In a wholly unexpected and frankly incomprehensible turn of events, Scotland, who had almost been eliminated in the previous game by tiny Samoa, found itself involved in an epic match against Australia, previously the tournament’s stand-out team. An intercept gave Scotland a try and conversion and a two-point lead with just seven minutes to play. A miraculous victory, and a long-awaited triumph for Northern Hemisphere over Southern Hemisphere, seemed nigh.

Yet the Scots contrived to lose a line-out near their own 22-metre line two minutes from time, and in the melee the ball bounced forward (from a Scottish point of view) into an offside Scottish hand, meaning a penalty to Australia.

There was some discussion about whose hand it had come off, with a suggestion that an Australian would merely have meant a scrum. Actually, as is so often the case with football, this merely served to show that the presenter and pundits did not know the laws of the game. Whose hand it came off was, in fact, redundant.

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However, all the talk after the game was about the referee’s conduct. In football, this would be normal; but in rugby it did not strike me as loyal to the culture of the game. To use words like “disgusting” and to headline articles with stories about how a (widely respected) referee should now no longer officiate at international level is just not the way rugby works even if a mistake has been made (and also objectively ludicrous in this case, given the referee did not make a mistake). To re-emphasise: uninformed punditry from past players (but not past referees) is par for the course for football, but is not traditionally part of rugby. I fail to see how it is a good thing for rugby to follow football in this regard!

It was cruel. The Irish know only too well how it feels to seem set to steal a World Cup quarter final unexpectedly against Australia with a late try, only to have it seized away again with a last-gasp score (as happened in 1991). However, the rugby thing to do would be to focus on what an outstanding match it was, what a fine and unexpected effort the underdogs put up, and how well the Australians did to keep cool under pressure. If further discussion about crucial mistakes were really required, the obvious starting point was the decision to throw a line-out long so late in the game, which was always a risk particularly in the wet. Even if there is a dispute about the late penalty award (and, to emphasise, the farce in all this is that there really is not), the point to make is that the Australians were in strong position to kick three points anyway.

Let us be clear, paedophilia is “disgusting”; toddlers having shotguns is “disgusting”; a referee recognising he may not be popular and walking off the field quickly is perhaps “poor etiquette”, but we need to have some proportion – it is not “disgusting”.

We all say things in the emotional aftermath of a game, but rugby has a wonderful culture of respect, honesty and camaraderie. This culture should be maintained and promoted, not allowed to wither as the sport turns into football. It would do no harm to note what an astonishingly difficult game rugby is to referee – with more regulations covering the breakdown alone than there are for the entire game of association football! It would also do no harm to note that the referee had it right (just as he did when sending Wales’ Sam Warburton off in the last World Cup’s semi).

So I think it would be wise for some of those who got a little emotional to apologise to Mr Joubert; and for the commentary and punditry to focus on the wonderful entertainment and fine play this World Cup is providing, without an unhealthy focus on referees who are only doing their best (which is usually very good and always considerably better than the pundits expressing “disgust”) in extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

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