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Cray Wanderers 1 Dartford 2

Seduced by the romance of the FA Cup, SF made his way to Hayes Lane to take in a north Kent derby between Ryman League Premier side Cray Wanderers and Dartford of the Blue Square South. During the early 1990s, Dartford used to groundshare with Cray Wanderers – the stadium they both used is now out of commission and Cray are using Bromley’s ground while they await planning permission for an ambitious new development in St Pauls Cray, their spiritual home. There are certainly worse places to find yourself playing than Hayes Lane; set in a semi-rural location next to woodland and what appears to be a small farm, Bromley’s home is charming and winningly eccentric. The bench seats that have been attached to one of the terraces are a particularly intriguing touch, and the terrace that extends the full length of the pitch (opposite the main stand) must be very atmospheric when the ground is full.

Cray are attracting crowds of around 200 while they are in exile, but their usual attendance was boosted considerably by the Dartford contingent who had made the short journey around the M25. There were about 350 Dartford supporters present, and 349 were decent individuals, hale and hearty; the 350th had brought a drum with him. If SF ever gets into power, anyone who has ever tried to drum at a football match will be given a custodial sentence of not less than five years, as there is nothing more naff, more small-time, more ridiculous, than good honest chants being punctuated by out-of-time, monotonous drumming.* The percussionist’s presence was perfectly pointless in any case, as even without his prompting, Dartford’s fans make a right royal racket. SF certainly knew they were there, although any effect they were having on their team wasn’t instantly obvious. Cray dominated the first fifteen minutes and asked a few searching questions of Young in the Dartford goal. A little more dynamism might have seen the hosts ahead early in the game; as it was, they faded slightly after their promising start and the game became more even.

Both sides launched the ball forward with a puzzling regularity, given the inability of their forward line to win a header against the taller, stronger defenders they faced. Charlie Sheringham, son of Teddy, was used as a kind of ersatz target man by Dartford, which was just daft as he didn’t win a thing. His frustration clearly showed as the half went on and culminated in a needlessly theatrical appeal for a free kick that was never there. Dartford certainly aren’t purveyors of the beautiful game – their style is very physical and so it seemed bizarre that every time Cray matched a strong challenge by a Dartford player with a similar move of their own, Dartford’s players and supporters rose as one man to demand a free kick (at the least), a booking (preferably), and a written assurance from a Cray player that such an outrage would never be repeated. Dartford’s defenders can be filed in the draw marked “lumbering”, and they struggled to contain Jack Clark and Tommy Whitnell on the relatively infrequent occasions when they received the ball to their feet. Sadly, Cray didn’t seem to notice this and kept on giving it some air.

The opening goal came just two minutes into the second half, and it was Clark who created it by beating several challenges before finding himself in front of goal. Sadly for Clark, he had somehow manoeuvred himself on to his right foot; a more one-footed footballer SF has never seen. Before he could transfer it back to his left side, a Dartford player gallumphed on to the scene and knocked the ball straight to the unmarked Whitnell who hammered home under Young’s body. 1-0, and a cup upset was well and truly on the cards. The game opened up considerably as Dartford went in search of an equaliser; they had several decent chances created by swinging high balls into an increasingly congested Cray penalty area. Cray fancied a bit of that for themselves and could have increased their lead with a little more fortune. The bounce of the ball went Dartford’s way on several occasions – SF mentions this because the Hayes Lane surface was regretabbly bobbly and the grass not quite the optimum length for association football. Eventually, Dartford drew level when a free kick taken by Hayes from the right touchline went straight through Walker’s punch and into the corner of the net. The Dartford faithful, having pinned Walker as a weak link early in the piece, greeted this goal by singing “It was inevitable” to the custodian, one of the great many former Maidstone United players on display during the afternoon. This abuse seemed to rile Walker, who was booked minutes later, seemingly for responding to the crowd in a somewhat negative manner.

Dartford withdrew Graham for Harris, who was sent to assist Sheringham in attack. The substitute went on to win the game and justify the rapturous reception he was given as he entered the field of play. A drive from the edge of the box took a slight deflection which added pace to the shot and Walker was again beaten. Cray clearly disputed the legality of the goal and one of their representatives was sent to the stands for letting rip at the linesman. SF must admit to being baffled by the protests as it seemed a decent goal, albeit a mite fortuitous. Equally, SF is still unsure as to how Cray failed to equalise, as the men in old gold/orange (delete as preferred) missed two glorious chances from inside the six yard box; the bounce beat them on both occasions and they will be left to ruminate on what could have been. A replay at Dartford’s Princes Park in front of 1000 or more could have been a handy moneyspinner for London’s oldest club, and they would have merited it, too. Cray in fact probably edged the game but Dartford had fortune on their side and so they find themselves in the fourth qualifying round, just one step away from a potential televised tie.

*Except goal celebration music. Anyone involved in this atrocity, from the PA men who play it to the execs who approve it, will be transported to Tristan da Cunha. They can listen to “I Feel Good” all the way there.

Quality of play: 2/5

Both sides were hampered by the surface, Cray more so than Dartford because they at least showed an interest in playing the ball along the ground. Dartford play a style of football that is functional but hardly joga bonito; Dave Bassett and Howard Wilkinson would heartily approve of it, however.

Matchday experience: 4/5

SF really liked Hayes Lane, an interesting venue in a fine setting. Being charged £1.50 for a bottle of warm Pepsi sold from an ice cream van was a bit galling, and the toilets are vaguely medieval, but such things pale into insignificance when one considers the bench seats and the long, old-fashioned terrace. There are also two bars, which is always handy.

Man of the match – Cray’s Jack Clark, an old-fashioned dribbler who had Dartford worried when the ball reached his feet.

Moment of the match – Clark’s run for the opening goal. Mesmeric.

Any other business – Cray’s PA man plays a slightly camp brand of hi-energy techno both before the match and at half-time, giving Hayes Lane the feel of Ibiza circa 2003. He also plays Status Quo’s “The Wanderer” as the teams take the field, which sounds completely incongruous. If somebody could make a hi-energy remix of this song, I’m sure it would make his year. SF might yet do it himself.

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Dulwich Hamlet 3 Merstham 1

Having visited Champion Hill stadium last week to see the tenants, Fisher, it seemed only fair to watch the landlords in action as well. Dulwich Hamlet currently sit at the top of the Ryman League Division One South, while their opponents, Merstham, are comfortably lodged in the middle of the table. The first half of the match was very even and Merstham coped well with the speed of Dulwich’s attacks; the Hamlet have developed a reputation as one of the best passing teams in the London conurbation, and some of their movement was impressive. However, the final ball was often lacking during the first period, and the opening goal came more as a result of Merstham switching off than any intricate movement on the part of the men in pink and blue. Bowen’s pass forward was completely ignored by Merstham’s backline, and the speedy Sanchez Ming ran through completely unchallenged. His finish was excellent, as he chose to chip the ball over Lidbury in the Merstham goal from fully twenty yards – a touch of class you don’t always see at non-league level. Lidbury had already made one good save from Dulwich’s Mu Maan, who also beat the offside trap, but he had no chance with Ming’s effort.

Merstham may have felt a little aggrieved to have gone in a goal behind, but they were given a chance to level just three minutes into the second half; Bowen handled the ball under pressure from half-time substitute Tucknott, and the linesman waved for a somewhat debatable penalty. At least half of the crowd seemed unaware that a penalty had been given until the prolific Roscoe D’Sane placed the ball on the spot; D’Sane added the latest goal of a career that has taken in Torquay, AFC Wimbledon, Aldershot Town and Accrington Stanley by sending Tedder the wrong way. Straight from the kick-off, Dulwich could and should have retaken the lead – a flowing move eventually led to Ming squaring the ball to Sol Patterson-Bohner, who hit the post from just outside the six yard box. Dulwich seemed invigorated by the Merstham goal and a five-minute period of total dominance followed; Patterson-Bohner missed his kick when clean through, and the garrulous Lidbury’s goal led something of a charmed life. Lidbury is of the old school of non-league keepers; slightly portly and willing to engage with the crowd if at all possible. Having shanked several of his goalkicks straight into touch, Lidbury was informed from the touchline that he “couldn’t hit a barn door”. The custodian replied that he would aim for the heckler next time.

In an attempt to shore up his team’s ailing backline, Merstham manager Martin made a substitution, withdrawing Graham and sending Robinson into the fray. The only problem with this was that he did it immediately before a corner; Maan proved that there is mileage in the old cliche yet by heading in unchallenged from Ming’s delivery. The scorer seemed delighted with the goal, and rightly so – Maan had an excellent game and was at the heart of most of Dulwich’s best moves. The home side had their tails up and went looking for a third goal to put the game to bed; this came just six minute after the second and there was a hint of controversy about it. Merstham felt that Ming handled the ball in controlling it, but the referee allowed the game to continue. Ming then found Maan, who in turn swivelled and sent a fine forty yard pass into the path of the league’s leading scorer, Frankie Sawyer. The Dulwich striker took a touch and hammered the ball under Lidbury into the bottom corner of the net, clinically proving why he is already closing in on double figures for the season.

Clearly considering the game to be won, Hamlet manager Gavin Rose withdrew Maan and Patterson-Bohner, sending James and Kadi on in their stead. Duwlich lost a little momentum as a result but with so many fixtures to be played at this level, it was understandable (whingers at the Rugby World Cup, take note – three 80 minute games in two weeks is not a heavy schedule). Merstham crept forward and Folkes, the most impressive of their attackers, was unlucky that a mazy run came to nothing in the end. As seems customary for non-league referees, the decisions became increasingly bizarre as the game drew to a close. Merstham were awarded a number of soft free kicks, one of which was given against Ming for a clever turn which the referee clearly decided was unfair on his hapless full back. There was still time for James to be denied by the post after yet another fine through ball, but Dulwich’s aim was to close the game out and they did this comfortably enough despite the number of odd decisions given against them. The second half proved that Dulwich are well worth their place at the top of the table, and some of their passing would grace a higher level than the Ryman League South. Merstham were competent and well-drilled, but were ultimately beaten by the better team on the night.

SF Ratings

Quality of play: 3.75/5 – Some of the passing and finishing on display was excellent. Maan ran the second half and I think, had he not been substituted, Dulwich would have scored 4 or 5. The final half hour was a little disjointed as a result of Rose’s substitutions, and so the rating for this isn’t as high as it might have been.

Matchday experience: 4/5 – The only minor complaint about Champion Hill is that the floodlights could do with being a little stronger. The atmosphere was good and Dulwich seem to be a friendly, welcoming set of fans. The 241 in attendance saw a good game and Dulwich are certainly worthy of a bigger crowd.

Man of the Match: Mu Maan – he was involved in two of the three Dulwich goals, and also showed good vision and awareness in many of Dulwich’s best passages of play. The game suffered after his withdrawal. Sanchez Ming also played very well for Dulwich.

Moment of the Match: Ming’s goal was very well taken and also served to open the game up somewhat.

Any other business: There were an unfeasible number of fashionably dressed young men at Champion Hill. Dulwich run a strong youth academy and the chaps in question may be affiliated to that; some were also friends of Dulwich’s players. SF felt rather dowdy and has resolved to update his football-watching wardrobe. Merstham’s contingent were somewhat older and more traditionally dressed; the (presumably) homemade black and yellow hats sported by several were touchingly old-school. SF may mix these hats with some colourful jeans and basketball trainers, and become the darling of London Fashion Week 2012. Perhaps.

Fisher FC 0 Cray Valley (Paper Mills) 0

When I was but a callow youth, I saw Bromsgrove Rovers beat Fisher Athletic 7-0. It remains the most one-sided football match I have ever seen. Despite their differing fortunes on that day, the two clubs ended up in the same position by 2010; neither now exist, and new “phoenix” clubs have taken their place, albeit further down the football pyramid. Bromsgrove Sporting are a story for another day; this post will focus on Fisher FC, a club born out of the wreckage of Fisher Athletic, who folded due to catastrophically high levels of debt which the old club could not pay off. The new club are fully owned and run by a supporters trust, and the club claim to be the only example of this system in London; Brentford are no longer fully owned by Bees United, so Fisher’s claim seems reasonable.

Fisher FC play in the Kent League, three levels below that at which Fisher Athletic played before their demise in 2009. However, their website and social media set-up is better than that of many Blue Square Premier league teams, and is indicative of a level of professionalism and dedication which should stand the club in good stead. The club are active within the local community and one of their ambitions is to return to their native Bermondsey – their home matches are currently played at Dulwich Hamlet’s Champion Hill stadium, with the Surrey Docks stadium, Fisher’s spiritual home, currently in a state of disrepair. Not having a home ground and having to pay rent to Dulwich Hamlet does leave the club at a disadvantage, but at least Fisher are able to borrow players from their landlords, with whom they have a good relationship.

Cray Valley (Paper Mills) are playing their first season in senior football, having previously competed in the Kent County league. The current incarnation of the club formed in 1981 and it is fair to say that this is the biggest season in their history to date. Cray Valley only finished third in the Kent County league last season, but clubs moving to other leagues, and poor facilities at the stadium of the Kent County league winners, meant they were able to fill a gap that had opened up in the Kent League. The club have had to sign as many as twenty new players to handle the step up, and it is possible that they are still gelling judging by the number of missed passes and the poor communication that was evident during this game. At one point a voice from the Cray Valley bench loudly asked “Can’t we pass it proper?”. The answer to this question was often in the negative.

Fisher FC are going through a major injury crisis and this has hit their attacking options the hardest. They lost Junior James, their lone striker, before half time (to a hamstring strain) and had to substitute two other players at the break. I can only presume that Carl Demetrius, the right back, was injured rather than withdrawn for tactical reasons, as he was comfortably the best player on the field during the first 45 minutes. Despite some impressive runs from Demetrius, Fisher huffed and puffed somewhat and created very little. Both sides struggled to string more than two passes together and the general standard of play was very low. Cray Valley shaded the first half and looked dangerous on the break, but never quite managed to get the final pass away. Jarrett-Elliott, Fisher’s centre half, nearly gifted the visitors a goal with a woeful mis-kick, but the chance was not taken and the two teams went in level.

The second half saw more chances spurned, with Fisher’s captain Jamie Turner particularly culpable. His delivery from free kicks and corners was dreadful and nearly every chance that Fisher made was wasted as a result. Cray Valley broke at will but always contrived to place their final pass straight to a Fisher player, even when that player was outnumbered three to one. Perhaps this was a kind of divine justice, however, as several Fisher attacks were stopped (by Fisher themselves, to their credit) due to “injuries” sustained by Cray Valley players. As soon as the ball was put out of play, the Cray Valley player made a miraculous recovery; I haven’t seen play-acting so blatant at non-league level in the past and it really was shameful. Hollidge, the right back, was a particular culprit; not only was he prone to exaggeration, but he also made several calculated and vicious fouls on Fisher’s left back, Tipple. The referee erred on the side of caution in dealing with some increasingly ragged defending but he could have just as easily dismissed at least one and possibly two miscreants from the visiting side.

Unusually for a non-league match, both goalkeepers were young and impressive; Fisher’s best chance of a goal came from the excellent distribution of their custodian, Firkins. Cray Valley’s Carthy was also blessed with good vision and he was able to show off a decent range of saves from the attempts Fisher did get on target. Both will play at a higher level if things go their way in the future, although possibly not with their present clubs. For all their excellent work off the field, Fisher were not particularly impressive on it, and it seems that they will need to identify a better crop of players than those they currently have if they are to make strides into the Isthmian League and beyond. Cray Valley will be happy to consolidate in their new league and they look well equipped to do just that. If they can cut out the amateur dramatics, then so much the better. They will have been the happier of the two sides at the final whistle although they may also be disappointed not to have worked Firkins more often.

SF Ratings

Quality of play: 1/5

Matchday experience: 3.5/5 Champion Hill stadium is neat and tidy and the view from the main stand is good. The facilities are also a credit to those who maintain them. £6 for the level of play on show here seems a little steep, but to be fair to Fisher, they need to pay their landlords.

Man of the Match: Either goalkeeper – Cray Valley’s Carthy just shades it, as he made more saves.

Moment of the match: Few and far between, I’m sad to say. The moment that summed up the match came three minutes from the end. The only free kick not taken by Turner was slammed into orbit by Jarrett-Elliott. Why Fisher allowed their least capable players on the night within yards of such a good opportunity is anyone’s guess.

Any other business: The Kent League is sponsored by Hurlimann, a lager that I have never heard of or seen for sale in this country. It turns out that it is Swiss and is brewed by Carlsberg. It wasn’t for sale in Champion Hill’s clubhouse, although the options they do have really are very good.

AFC Wimbledon 4 Cheltenham Town 1

Having attended university in both towns involved in this fixture, I thought I’d take it in – my own club weren’t playing and it was a good opportunity to see how AFC Wimbledon are shaping up in league football. Having seen twice as many Cheltenham fixtures as AFC, I decided to stand in the away section; this was my first mistake. The vagaries of travel down the Kingston Road on match day meant that I arrived much later than intended and by the time I passed through the turnstiles (for a very reasonable sum of £9 – I’m a student, albeit a mature one) the small section of covered terrace allocated to Cheltenham was full. This ought not to be a problem in September, but the dismal weather we have been having intervened just five minutes before kick off, leaving me soaked to the skin. The umbrellas went up all around me and I’d be very surprised if many people in my section of terracing could see even half of the end that Cheltenham were attacking. AFC really ought to realise that they are a new attraction in the league and that, coupled with their proximity to London, means that they will be a popular away day for many people. For all but the smallest of clubs, therefore, they really ought to allocate the entire John Smiths Terrace (which is very shallow) to away supporters. Cheltenham brought nearly 300 supporters with them and these were crammed in to a space that could only comfortably hold perhaps half of that number. If you go to a football match, you would hope to be able to see it…

Cheltenham dominated the first fifteen minutes, and looked the more likely scorers. They launched something of an aerial bombardment and utilised not one but two targetmen, with both Spencer and Goulding being fairly sizeable units. Several decent chances to shoot were spurned, and Cheltenham could perhaps have supported their two forwards a little better – knock downs were missed and AFC were first to most loose balls. The game evened out a little after that early period of West Country dominance but it came as something of a surprise when AFC scored. Wellard was left completely unmarked and headed in a routine cross from 8 yards out. Soon after that goal, AFC went two up. Most of their play was targeted towards Jolley on the right, but it was a cross from Minshull on the left that did the damage, as Steve Elliott went down like a felled tree to needlessly turn the ball into his own net. Elliott had a wretched game, and his partner at centre half, Alan Bennett, was little better. It gives me no pleasure to point this out, but at least a third of the Cheltenham line-up look to be over an ideal fighting weight, and Elliott is one of the larger professionals I’ve seen. Cheltenham visibly tired as the half went on and AFC went in two up at half time through a combination of superior fitness and good fortune.

Having spent the first half consulting their library of hooligan reminiscences, AFC’s stewards had clearly discovered that there are no Cheltenham-specific tomes – a team nicknamed the Robins can muster only a limited amount of menace. This meant that the line of police and stewards that had taken up a portion of the John Smiths Terrace moved aside and allowed some of those who had been soaked during the first half to take advantage of the cover. Kudos to them for taking this sensible decision. Unfortunately for the now sheltered travelling fans, their team never really got going in the second half and the match was pretty much over as a contest by the 66th minute, when Midson expertly volleyed in a cross from the right hand side sent in by Yussuff. Cheltenham’s defenders had clearly forgotten to mark the striker, who was left all alone at the back post. In order to remedy his team’s defensive troubles, Cheltenham’s manager Mark Yates substituted his left winger, Mohammed. But of course…

Mohammed left the field to some thoroughly undeserved ironic cheers – it seems a section of Cheltenham’s support have decided upon their target for the season. Mohammed had, apparently, not dropped back to support his full back enough. His mistake for presuming his job as an attacker was to have the odd attack here and there, obviously. To her credit, a lone female supporter loudly and roundly condemned those who had given their own player the bird. Soon after this, Cheltenham substituted one of their target men, Goulding, and brought on an identical player in Duffy. They clearly had a game plan and they were going to stick to it no matter what. Lowe, the right back, was also withdrawn for Jombati. This change did at least mean that Cheltenham had a defender who was fit enough to cross the halfway line without needing a moment to get his breath back. Sadly, Jombati played as if he was wearing carpet slippers and wasted a number of good crossing opportunities.

AFC chugged on, making some decent chances and loading the box well. Butland ( a future England international – you read it here first) made a series of good saves and it was from the most impressive of these that AFC’s fourth goal was scored. The rebound from a Banksesque stop fell to the unmarked Yussuff and he capped an impressive performance with a good finish into the far corner. There was still time for an 89th minute consolation, scored by Duffy, nodding in a long ball forward – AFC’s goalkeeper Brown will have every reason to be disappointed not to have kept a clean sheet, however. Soon after this solitary moment of cheer for the visiting fans, the final whistle went and the queue for the 131 bus back up the Kingston Road could form in earnest. AFC had claimed their biggest victory in league football thus far, and Cheltenham were left to ponder the poor play that lead to all four goals. AFC will probably play better and lose – Cheltenham will hope they don’t play so badly again.

SF ratings:

Quality of play: 2/5

Matchday experience 3/5 – AFC’s employees are friendly and welcoming, and they remedied a clear problem at half time. I’m sure that the problem with the allocation of only half of a small stand lies at a higher level. They can’t do anything about TfL, either – they need to lay on more buses on matchdays. Those that did come were rammed to the gunwales.

Man of the Match – Yussuff (AFC Wimbledon) – he only played half of the game, but showed quality that was lacking elsewhere on the field.

Moment of the match – Midson’s goal for 3-0 was well taken.

Any other business: Three Huddersfield Town fans had opted to take in this fixture rather than their own side’s match at MK Dons. They received a generous round of applause. The announcement that Crawley were losing 1-0 at half time also unified both sets of fans in joy.

Carson Yeung and Birmingham City

The news that Carson Yeung has had his financial assets frozen is the latest in a series of events that have left Birmingham City’s largest individual shareholder unable to fulfil his promise to find the club. Yeung, who was arrested on charges of money laundering in Hong Kong, may face a lengthy prison sentence if found guilty. That would mean that his shares in Birmingham International Holdings Limited (BIHL), the company that owns Birmingham City, would be taken from him and Yeung would no longer have control over the club. The question of who would control the 2011 Carling Cup winners has yet to be definitively answered. BIHL are looking for new investment in order to resolve questions on what the club’s acting chairman, Peter Pannu describes as “matters of concern” to HSBC, the club’s bankers. Unless that is forthcoming, it seems that the club will have to sell their more valuable players in order to raise capital for the ailing holding company.

Yeung has held a controlling interest in Birmingham City for under two years, a period of time that has seen the club win its first major trophy for over 40 years, but has also seen the club relegated from the Premier League. It seems that much of BIHL’s financial plan was based upon the club retaining its Premier League status, and relegation itself was devastating for BIHL’s share price. Yeung’s arrest has further compounded the problems that BIHL face. Yeung and BIHL’s other shareholders funded a number of expensive signings  but the club’s former manager, Alex McLeish, was unable to keep the club in the Premier League despite the Carling Cup success. There does not appear to have been a plan in place to successfully manage relegation and this lack of foresight is staggering. Given the money made available to McLeish, BIHL could have reasonably expected him to be able to retain Premier League status, but the lack of contingency plan seems shortsighted and reprehensible.

This has been a turbulent summer for Birmingham’s supporters; the failure to retain Premier League status was followed by Alex McLeish’s defection to cross-city rivals, Aston Villa, even before Yeung’s arrest. Villa have paid an undisclosed sum (believed to be in the region of £3 million) for McLeish’s services; this in itself is a remarkable decision given the enmity between supporters of the two clubs. There were protests held against the appointment of McLeish, which were in part driven by dislike for Birmingham City but were also driven by the fact that McLeish was at the heart of Birmingham’s relegation. His team selection in league football was often obtuse; Keith Fahey and Lee Bowyer, both central midfielders, were deployed on the left side ahead of Chilean international winger Jean Beausejour. Nikola Zigic, a striker with an excellent record in Spanish domestic footballer and at international level, was barely deployed until December. At one point McLeish preferred to select Garry O’Connor, a forward who was released by both Birmingham and Barnsley during the 2010/11 season due to form and fitness issues, ahead of Zigic.

Aliaksander Hleb was loaned from Barcelona on a reported £70,000 per week wage, but rarely deployed. David Bentley was also loaned from Tottenham Hotspur but was a substitute for much of his time at St Andrew’s. McLeish’s failure to select a team capable of scoring goals consistently, coupled with his failure to identify a goalscoring forward who could improve the team, mean that he can only be identified as the main culprit in Birmingham City’s relegation. Yeung did support the club financially throughout the 2010/11 season, but the collapse of BIHL’s shortsighted business plan, plus his current legal problems, mean that Birmingham City are now in real financial difficulties. It will come as no comfort to their supporters that they are simply the latest club to suffer as a result of mismanagement; Leeds United’s unsustainable spending led the financial meltdown and a period in League One. Portsmouth similarly suffered relegation when their financial backer found himself unable to fund the club any further. Players such as Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe had been signed on contracts that were simply unsustainable. Another club currently in financial difficulty, Plymouth Argyle, based most of their business plan on Home Park becoming a host stadium for the 2018 World Cup. The failure of England’s bid also meant that the club’s finances went into meltdown.

It seems fair to suggest that Birmingham City will not be the last to suffer from financial mismanagement and poor planning. While many supporters of Aston Villa are currently enjoying a laugh at the expense of their rivals, they may not be laughing for too much longer. The club’s owner, Randy Lerner, has run up a reported debt of over £100 million during his tenure at Villa Park and there is no sign that the club will be able to achieve the kind of commercial and on-field success that would offset this. Indeed, Villa have just sold their two most consistent performers, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing, to higher-ranked clubs with greater financial muscle. Bolton Wanderers also have very high levels of debt, as do Fulham, Newcastle United, Sunderland, and Wigan. Chelsea and Manchester City’s billionaire owners are keeping them afloat but should they pull out, the overspending at both clubs could prove catastrophic for their financial future. The amount of money that many clubs have spent to be competitive in England’s top division is simply unsustainable and it seems fair to predict that should any club with high levels of debt fail to maintain their Premier League status, they will follow Birmingham City into serious financial trouble.

Any calls for Premier League clubs to live within their means will be met with derision from many supporters (notably, those who have only begun to follow football in the Sky era) who demand instant success and are not interested in balance sheets. To their credit, a majority of Birmingham City supporters appear to be aware that another rich (or purportedly rich) owner will not resolve long-term problems related to sensible financial planning. Protests against the board of BIHL have been discussed but thus far these have been confined to a small minority of fans. Perhaps this is because Birmingham City fans have had a long history of watching their team struggle at a level below that which their strong and dedicated support deserves. Should any owner of a Premier League club leave due to financial or legal problems, it is reasonable to suspect that the club would suffer as Birmingham City currently are. Those clubs with small fanbases, or with only a relatively recent history of success, seem particularly vulnerable, but those who have overspent but not been successful as a result also appear to be at risk.

Many Premier League clubs are operating on the edge of a precipice; the wrong decisions on players or management could send them tumbling into financial ruin. It is to be hoped that Birmingham City’s problems can be overcome but they should stand as a lesson to other clubs; planning for the future should not involve overspending and concocting business plans that can only be actioned in one specific scenario. There will be three Premier League teams relegated next season; time will tell if their finances survive the drop in revenue and the necessary player sales that result. Some clubs appear to be better placed to do this than others; those who have not budgeted for relegation will surely suffer as a result, just as Birmingham City unfortunately are.

South Sudan

One of the first things that the world’s newest state, South Sudan, did after achieving independence was to stage a football match which would allow their footballers to showcase their talents. More importantly, however, the match acted as proof that South Sudan really is a state, replete with individual, independent institutions. Newly formed states need visible representation; having a police force, a judiciary, a health service, and a parliament is one thing, but people cannot gather outside a police station and feel united through their support for the officers that work there.  Public institutions simply do not unite people in the same way that a football team can.

As Hobsbawm once stated, “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people’ than in virtually any other form. This point has not been lost on South Sudan’s newly appointed sports minister, Makuac Teny. He has stated his belief that “what is important is football’s contribution to the new state. We are bringing together so many tribes, 64 in total. We want to show them that there is a nation, and to integrate as a new nation”. Teny’s hope is that football can bring disparate groups of people together under the national banner. This strategy has met with some success in other new nations, but these have typically been those that already had some sense of dominant national identity before the new state was inaugurated; Croatia and Slovenia’s politicians have used the successes of their national teams to point out the power of their nation when it is united. Croatia’s sense of national identity was already very strong before it became an independent state; it certainly did not consist of 64 different tribal identities.

Teny also said that the match served to “cement the national foundation and the anthem” in the minds of his countrymen. It is telling that football was chosen as the vehicle for doing this, after the initial independence day celebrations. As the team’s coach, Malesh Soro, said, “football is a medium to bring people together”. The next task facing South Sudan is to gain international recognition; the authorities need to apply to CAF and to FIFA in order to achieve this. Facing other nations in international tournaments would act as further proof of the existence of South Sudan; it would also engender nationalistic feeling in that people would be able to support a tangible representation of their state. Kuper has argued that “the way to build a nation in the TV age is through sport, because sport provides the most-watched programs”; moving beyond being a politically defined state to becoming a culturally united nation will be very difficult, and football can provide one medium for this to be achieved. If the 64 tribes of South Sudan all have different customs and ideals, they can at least be united in one cultural arena, and this is useful to everyone who wishes the state to grow and flourish.

South Sudan lost their first fixture 3-1, being defeated by the Kenyan League side, Tusker. This was scarcely the point of the fixture, however. The state now has one united cultural entity, which it hopes will foster further co-operative initiatives. If disparate groups of people can find a common forum in which to come together with the same aims and goals, this can only help South Sudan. Football could be that forum.