April 2016

30 April ~ Relegation-threatened Norwich could do with a repeat of their trip to Highbury on the opening day of the 1992-93 season when they visit Arsenal today. Things did not start well for the Canaries that day, however, when Steve Bould put the home side ahead with a glancing header on 28 minutes. It got worse ten minutes later when Kevin Campbell was afforded time in the box to turn and drill the ball low past Bryan Gunn.

Perhaps it was kicking towards a facade of cardboard supporters at Highbury that was putting Norwich off, because they turned things around in the second half. Substitute Mark Robins’ diving header started the comeback and three minutes later David Phillips capitalised on David Seaman’s misjudgement to draw the away team level. Six minutes from the end Ruel Fox ran clear to put Norwich ahead before, barely a minute later, Tony Adams slipped and Robins delightfully chipped Seaman.

It was a sign of things to come for Norwich that season, as they led the table virtually the whole time until December, when they were overtaken by both Aston Villa and eventual champions Manchester United. Still, that third place remains their highest-ever finish. Arsenal, meanwhile, finished tenth – though they did win the two cups that season, beating Sheffield Wednesday in both the League Cup and FA Cup finals.

Foxes can secure Premier League at Old Trafford but many of their fans would miss out

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29 April ~ Jamie Vardy, serving an additional one match ban, will hate watching from the sidelines this Sunday as his team-mates bid to seal the greatest moment in Leicester City’s history. Yet, with a win at Manchester United securing their first-ever English title, thousands of ticketless Leicester fans would give their right arm just to be inside Old Trafford. 

At this time of any season suspensions and injuries create emotive storylines around players forced to miss cup finals, league clinchers and relegation deciders. But for fans who regularly attend their club’s matches, being forced to watch historic moments on the telly creates that same empty, side-lined feeling.

Nick Hornby didn’t have a ticket for Arsenal’s famous trip to Anfield on May 26, 1989. He watched them clinch their first League title in a generation live on ITV. In Fever Pitch he concludes: “After twenty-one years [supporting Arsenal] I no longer felt… that if I hadn’t been to the games I had no right to partake in the celebrations.” But he bought a new team shirt at Highbury that morning – “just because I felt I had to do something”.

Vardy’s 22 league goals are central to Leicester’s stunning 2015-16. Yet players of title-winning calibre want to be on the pitch, competing, when the League is officially secured. And most punters also want to be making their direct contribution – creating a winning atmosphere. Yes, the noise at the King Power stadium has been fantastic for months now. But when the title is clinched no one wants to be pointlessly emoting at a TV, radio or laptop.

This may be fandom’s equivalent of “first world problems”. Most Leicester fans simply hope their club retain their lead for the last three games of the Premier League season and would happily receive the news by telegram. But everyone imagines experiencing it more dramatically. And some Leicester season ticket holders will have already been through the most selfish of mental calculations: if we can draw on Sunday, then Spurs win on Monday, and we beat Everton at home… I’ll be there when we clinch the title. 

Television has enabled every club’s entire support to share in their biggest modern triumphs. But in expanding the audience it has, often deliberately, diluted the worth of match attendance. A case in point is Martin Tyler’s frankly bland commentary on the 2012 Sergio Agüero goal which ensured Manchester City’s first English title in 44 years. Sky Sports would have you believe fans present at the Etihad that day missed the truly memorable aspect of securing the Premier League with the last kick of the season – a surname shouted down a microphone. 

The only media angles on attending big games are arguments over cup final allocations, or “whacky” individuals missing weddings and cancelling holidays. However, the truly epic turmoil often occurs within the conscience of individual fans. 

Jimmy Greaves, stern faced and suited at Wembley in 1966 as the England bench celebrates winning a World Cup he was dropped from; Roy Keane inspiring Manchester United’s comeback in the 1999 Champions League semi-final despite a booking ruling him out the final; players are always forgiven for experiencing that cognitive dissonance which pits collective glory against personal involvement.

So, despite most of Britain cheering on Leicester from the sofa this Sunday, we should forgive any of their fans who might prefer them to hang off for another week. Alex Anderson

Photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photography: Outside Leicester City's King Power Stadium

Europa League semi-final comes after emotion week with Hillsborough inquests

icon uefacup28 April ~ At the end of an historic and highly emotional week at Liverpool, it’s back to the small business of football. Victory in the first leg of tonight’s Europa League semi-final against Villarreal would be a welcome corollary to the results of the Hillsborough inquests, though Jürgen Klopp has been careful in his pre-match assessment of his team’s chances.

Justifiably wary of a side who’ve won all six of their Europa League ties at El Madrigal this season, and who’ve also beaten both Madrid clubs there in La Liga, Klopp praised Villarreal’s “highest level of football. They are unbelievably strong with really good balance.”

The Liverpool boss is right to approach with caution. Barring a catastrophe of epic proportions, Villarreal (currently fourth in the Spanish league, four points clear of Celta Vigo with just three games to go) will play in the Champions League next term. They’re also more or less back to full strength, following the return from injury of defenders Jaume Costa and Mateo Musacchio.

While Spurs flop Roberto Soldado has struggled in recent weeks, Congolese striker Cédric Bakambu remains their biggest threat with nine goals in 11 games in the competition. A further incentive for Villarreal is the prospect of reaching their first-ever European final, having already failed at the semi-final stage three times, most recently in this competition in 2011.

Liverpool’s squad, on the other hand, has been getting alarmingly thinner by the week. The disturbing situation with Mamadou Sakho, who has opted not to contest his failed drugs test and may well be staring at a ban of up to two years, means that the Merseysiders are now without another key figure in the wake of injuries to Divock Origi, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson. Klopp has been boosted by Christian Benteke’s recovery from knee ligament damage, though his form this season suggests that he’s unlikely to fill the void left by the swiftly improving Origi.

All of this offers a measured counterpoint to the tide of optimism that followed the quarter-final triumph over Borussia Dortmund. If Liverpool are dumped out of the Europa League at this stage, it will be viewed as another failure in a thoroughly disjointed season. On the other hand, if they do succeed in making it through to the final in Basel, it can be seen a statement of intent from Klopp for next season.

For now though, he would do well to note the comments of his opposing coach, Marcelino, who is intent on making history at Villarreal. “If we manage to enjoy the match and do the things we know how to do,” he says of the Liverpool game, “I think they’re going to suffer a lot at our ground.” Rob Hughes

Atlético Madrid host Bayern Munich in the Champions League semi-final

icon afcwimbmkd27 April ~ Even for the coaches involved it has been difficult to avoid talking about Wednesday’s Champions League semi-final first leg as a personal battle between Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid and Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.

Both former midfielders have brought their playing styles into their coaching philosophies – with Simeone’s Atlético a tough, uncompromising side, while Guardiola’s Barcelona and now Bayern teams have been more aesthetically pleasing if less physically and mentally strong.

They clashed ten times as players in La Liga, with Guardiola winning more games, but Simeone’s Atlético coming out on top in their biggest meeting – the 1996 Copa del Rey final. They have since met only once as coaches, a 2-1 Barça win late in the 2012-13 La Liga season when Guardiola was about to leave the Nou Camp and Simeone had just arrived at Atlético.

Since then, the Argentinian has built Atlético into a powerful machine who now regularly compete at the top level, winning Europa League, Copa del Rey and La Liga titles, but falling just short in the 2014 Champions League final against Real Madrid.

After his year’s sabbatical Guardiola took over at Bayern, where he has generally swept all before him in the Bundesliga, but fallen in the Champions League last four first to Real Madrid and then to his former club Barcelona.

The Catalan told the pre-game news conference that he accepted the idea that he will not have been a success in Germany if he leaves for Manchester City this summer without winning the Champions League beforehand. “Three semis in three years is not something that every team does,” Guardiola said. “I have read in Munich that without winning the Champions League, the work would not be complete. I must accept that.”

Simeone has also faced questions as to whether his side’s super-organised style of play is capable of bringing the very biggest club trophy to Atlético for the first time ever. Speaking on Tuesday, he did not play down the idea that the Bayern tie would be a clash of styles. “They have very many attacking options they can use,” he said. “We will try and take the game to a place which suits us more. In battles, the side with most soldiers does not win, but those who uses their soldiers better.” Dermot Corrigan

"Employing classic guerrilla tactics Guevara's team rushes on, scores a goal and then rushes off again."

351 ScenesBy Dave Robinson from WSC 351

Inquest jury decide that 96 people unlawfully killed and not caused by fan behaviour

A look through the WSC archives at how the disaster has been covered

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26 April ~ The jury at the Hillsborough disaster inquests have returned a verdict that the 96 people who died were unlawfully killed and no supporter behaviour caused or contributed to the disaster. After more than two years of the inquests, the longest case heard by a jury in British legal history, the fallout from the verdicts will be wide-ranging and take a long time to become completely clear. You can find up-to-date news reports from the Guardian here and Liverpool Echo here. It is the culmination of years of a long campaign for justice by the families of the 96 supporters who died on April 15, 1989.

Since that day in 1989 WSC has covered many different aspects of the disaster, from the effects it had on Liverpool and football in general, to personal recollections of the day, via the various aspects of media coverage, legal proceedings and policing of supporters. A lot of our coverage – from the issue in immediate aftermath, the tenth and 20th anniversaries and November 2012, when the Hillsborough Independent Panel’s report was released to the public – is now free to access via our complete online archive.

The post-Hillsborough editorial, from May 1989, said: “There is very little common sense applied to football. In no other area of life is the victim treated with as much disrespect as the perpetrator, nor the majority held to be guilty of the crimes perpetrated by a minority. But, ultimately, what happens to us doesn't matter. It is our own fault for being football fans. That is why MPs always ignored pleas from supporters' organisations seeking to prevent the sort of disaster that has become a reality. Whatever they may say, few politicians gave any indication that they cared about football fans before Hillsborough happened. Suddenly everyone knows the answer. A fortnight ago, they didn't even hear the question.”

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In that same issue John Duncan picked apart the mainstream media coverage of the disaster. He suggested that “all they [the media] succeed in doing is vulgarising the tragedy that they decry. Worse still, they set the agenda for what happens beyond the disaster itself, leaving others to sort out the mess of ideas and crackpot notions they spew out and leave behind.” Tom Bucke, meanwhile, presented his account of the day: “An entrance is packed with people. Groups of supporters are wandering around, confused 'Is this the entrance to the West Stand?' There doesn’t appear to be any clear indication of what part of the stadium these turnstiles serve.”

Ten years later, in May 1999, John Williams assessed the issues that arose from that day. “If the disaster itself was avoidable and tragic, the treatment of the families later by the police was little short of inhumane and repellent,” he wrote before going on: “Personal and professional damage limitation – the attempted cover up – soon swung into action.” 

In that same issue Roger Titford examined how football had changed over the decade since Hillsborough. “It's OK to talk football now. Gates are up over 20 per cent and hooliganism has been driven back. But in its place, or indeed alongside it, there is emerging a spiteful, name-calling culture, fuelled by the radio call-in, the club fanzine and the Internet noticeboards. Every club has to have another it calls ‘scum’.” Next to this, Sheffield Wednesday fan Graham Lightfoot bemoaned his club’s response to the tragedy: “Of course no Wednesdayite ever had to go through the anguish suffered by so many Liverpool fans because of that day but there is still an uneasy feeling of guilt by association.”

Another ten years on and John Williams looked at how the disaster had come to shape the identity of Liverpool FC: “No Liverpool match anywhere takes place without the ritual distribution of yellow “Justice” stickers and without copious references – in fanzines, flags, websites, on the club crest – to the missing 96. They have become embedded into the very identity of the club and its new generation of supporters.”

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By November 2012 the Hillsborough Independent Panel had returned their report into the tragedy, and Rob Hughes debated whether they would now get the justice they deserved: “We need accountability for the 96, we’ve got to demand that these verdicts are overturned.” 

At the same time Roger Titford looked at the arguments around safe standing, while Tom Hocking pointed out how the disaster had affected Sheffield Wednesday fans attending Hillsborough regularly: “Sheffield Wednesday supporters have always been able to point to their stadium as a symbol of what the club can achieve,” he wrote, before going on: “They deserve to know who was responsible for the hosting of matches for a decade without a safety certificate.” Ian Preece was a Nottingham Forest supporter at the other end of the ground on the day, looking on as the disaster unfolded. “Within minutes, seconds, the Forest fans realise that something is not quite right – no one is actually fighting; a few blokes seem to be walking around, dazed.”

Photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photography: The Hillsborough disaster memorial, outside Hillsborough stadium in Sheffield

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Matlock Town (blue) taking on Eastwood Town at Causeway Lane, Matlock in a 2010 FA Cup third qualifying round tie, set among the hills of the Peak District. The visitors from Nottingham, who were one division higher than Matlock, won 3-0 to move to within one round of the FA Cup first round proper. The match was watched by 655 spectators.

Photo by Colin McPherson for WSC Photography
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Battling with Newcastle for survival only heightens the emotional stakes

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24 April ~ For a brief period in the late 1990s there was a Sunderland fanzine called It’s The Hope I Can’t Stand. That sentiment is probably familiar to the supporters of virtually every football club, anywhere in the world. But there’s nothing like the sharp end of a relegation battle that makes fragile and foolish optimism so excruciating.

With five games remaining, Sunderland sit in the bottom three and take on Arsenal at home today. They face dropping into the Championship after failing to reach 40 points for a fourth successive season, or may win another chance to rebuild with yet another huge increase in Premier League TV money next year. Sunderland’s survival would relegate Newcastle, and vice versa. Having our fierce local rivals equally embroiled at the bottom makes the emotional stakes much, much higher.

With Aston Villa succumbing to the drop last week, the remaining relegation places will be filled by two of Norwich, Newcastle or Sunderland. Black Cats fans witnessed one of those bright flickers of hope last week, with a 3-0 win at Carrow Road. That was soon dulled as Newcastle caught up the points with a win over Swansea and a deserved point against Manchester City on Tuesday.
 
Newcastle’s comeback draw at Anfield made sure that Sunderland have to win to keep a clear points gap. And Norwich don’t play until next week. So now is a vital time for the Black Cats to get three points and increase pressure on the other two teams.   

But victories have been Sunderland’s problem this season. While performances have been much improved since January, wins have remained rare. In a recent run of four consecutive draws in April and March, important points have quietly slipped away. Against West Brom, the team just couldn’t find a winner. In the derby at St James' Park, Sunderland sat back, invited pressure and conceded a late equaliser. Before that, at Southampton, we couldn’t see out the last 30 seconds of the match and gave away a sickening leveller, and drew with Crystal Palace with a late goal of our own after losing a lead.

Today, we play an Arsenal side fresh from a convincing win over West Brom on Thursday. On paper this seems like another simple game for the Gunners but Sunderland deservedly beat Manchester United and narrowly lost to Manchester City at the Stadium of Light in February. In our last home game we didn’t disgrace ourselves in a 2-0 defeat to league leaders Leicester. Any match at this stage of the season is very difficult to predict — which only encourages that fond sense of hope.
 
Sunderland still have Stoke, Chelsea, Everton and Watford yet to play. As many connected with the club keep repeating, Sunderland’s fate still lies in our own hands. That’s true, but we’ve had it in our own hands all season and haven’t done much with it. Yet in just a handful of games, possibly less, everything will be decided, and we can start to deal with the fallout. The Championship begins again 15 weeks from now, and the Premier League restarts seven days after that. Once this season has finished we’ll start hoping all over again. Roll on August, I suppose. Ed Upright

Photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photography: Outside Sunderland’s Stadium of Light

23 April This evening will be the third time Everton and Manchester United have met in an FA Cup semi-final, with the Toffees having won both previous matches. While the last encounter is relatively fresh in the memory, a 0-0 draw in 2009 which Everton won on penalties, the first was exactly 50 years ago today.

Neither team was having acgreat season going into the game, with reigning League champions United down in seventh and Harry Catterick’s Everton, champions in 1963, in ninth. United were without George Best for the clash in front of 60,000 at Burnden Park but were nevertheless favourites. However, Everton – like so far in this season’s Cup run – had not conceded a goal in the competition, including two replays against Manchester City in the sixth round. Again their defence stood firm, and Colin Harvey struck in the second half with a low shot to seal the win – the first time a team had reached the FA Cup final without conceding a goal since Bury in 1903.

In the final itself Sheffield Wednesday did finally breach Everton’s back line and were 2-0 up before Catterick’s team rallied against his former club to win 3-2. It was the Toffees’ first Cup win since 1933. Manchester United ended the season in fourth but were League champions again the following season.

Interview with Nick Miller on The Set Pieces

icon monday22 April ~ David Squires started out doing football illustrations for Swindon Town fanzines in the 1990s, mostly for his friends’ amusement. However, since he launched his Sunshine Room site he has built up a following which led to his regular, popular cartoons in the Guardian. David was also the illustrator whose work accompanied Taylor Parkes’ review of Lovejoy On Football in WSC 250, which you can see on our digital archive here.

The Set Pieces have interviewed David about his career, where he explains how he works and where the ideas for his illustrations come from: “I start with [a] loose script, and then as I’m working through, drawing it panel-by-panel, a better idea or image will come to me. So for example in the Villa piece, I wanted to do something about Villa dropping down to the Football League and never being able to escape again, and the idea about the twins from The Shining came into my head. It was only as I was drawing them that I thought it would be better if Steve Evans was one of the twins.” You can read the full interview with David here.

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