May 2016

Sensible pricing meant improved attendances at the non-League finals

31 May ~ Well, how wrong can you be? In hindsight, my diatribe about hosting both the FA Vase and Trophy finals at Wembley on the same day looks needlessly miserable. In the event, a Finals Day attendance of 46,781 (around a third from Hereford) will see the experiment judged a success.

The crowd was 21,000 more than the combined Vase and Trophy figure last year. Attractive prices, with the double header ticket £5 cheaper than for last year's Trophy final, are an idea that might catch on in NW9. And “Kids for a Quid” showed that the FA, possibly stung by last year's low crowds, had made efforts to fix things

Not that all the fans watched all the football. Morpeth (and their supporters) left pretty quickly after the 4-1 win over their fancied opponents, while the defeated Hereford hordes vacated Wembley almost immediately – long homeward journeys, crushing disappointment or the promise of cheaper food and drink (beer was £5 a pint in the stadium) depriving the second game of a bigger crowd.

A rapid rise up the pyramid is Hereford's priority, with the Vase a mere staging post and Wembley defeat hopefully a fading memory a few years hence. Morpeth, in the determinedly parochial Northern League, no doubt prefer local dominance over stretched finances and national exposure; a set of priorities that at least keeps them solvent – more than can be said for some clubs at this level.

Back in the stadium, and thanks to the seating arrangements, there was no problem entering or exiting Wembley, though it might have been different had the first game gone to extra time and penalties. Irritatingly, there was no “pass out” system between finals, and four hours of captivity ensured the overpriced (and limited) food and drink stalls did a good trade, smuggled sandwiches notwithstanding.

One bonus was seeing the 45-year-old Chris Swailes, a veteran of four heart operations, become the oldest goalscorer in a Wembley final as he claimed Morpeth's equaliser. Thanks to the north-east's domination of the competition and circulation of squads, five of the Northumberland club's final XI had Wembley experience with neighbouring team, making Midland League champions Hereford's pre-match favourites tag look ill-informed at best.

At present, Hereford are a non-League club wrapped in a famous name; something that fooled the pre-match pundits. Morpeth rode their opponents’ early storm – Hereford started like a train, going a goal up inside two minutes and missing two more clear chances before Swailes replied – with cool heads and Wembley experience carrying the Northumbrians through.

The Trophy final was poor by comparison; the game an afterthought for the Lincolnshire section of Wembley after Grimsby's play-off win the week before. The sole highlight was the Halifax winner; a looping 20 yarder from Scott McManus, with the Mariners missing the few chances they created. Shaymen manager Jim Harvey's triumphal uppercut sliced the Wembley air at full time, but it was a last hurrah, as his contract wasn't renewed the following week. A narrow failure to keep Halifax up saw him replaced by Billy Heath – the man who led North Ferriby to Trophy success last year.

On this evidence, non-League finals day will be repeated next year, with the FA no doubt hoping for similar big hitters to take the field. And while my inner curmudgeon yearns for an end to the play-offs and a restoration of status to non-League's showpiece events, it is unlikely to happen. In the meantime, this new double-header has the makings of a decent institution. Paul Caulfield

“Klick It Out” aims to tackle discrimination on social media

icon racism30 May ~ Kick It Out have launched a campaign to raise awareness of football-related social media discrimination and how to report such incidents. “Klick It Out” will encourage fans to kick social media abuse out of football and promote equality and inclusion using the #KlickItOut hashtag. Online discrimination is a difficult area for Kick It Out as the incidents occurring on social media do not fall under any football regulation, meaning the organisation cannot use its normal route of reporting.

Kick It Out director Roisin Wood said: “We want this campaign to illustrate the level of discrimination that still occurs on social media that is a stain on football. At Kick It Out we don’t have the power to change laws but we hope our campaign shows how serious the problem is and the devastating impact it can have on people. This problem needs to be addressed now.”

You can read more about the campaign here.

Argyle have got over their slide in time for play-off final but face a Wimbledon team on the up

Plymouth fans

29 May ~ Monday will be a day of anniversaries for both teams at Wembley. On May 30, 2003, after a three-man panel appointed by the FA had allowed Wimbledon’s owners to move the club to Milton Keynes, the Wimbledon Independent Supporters' Association decided to create their own community-based "phoenix club” – and exactly 13 years later, AFC Wimbledon will be playing off for the right to compete in the same league as MK Dons next season.  Meanwhile, it’s 20 years since Plymouth Argyle beat Darlington 1-0 to win the Division Three play-off final.

Looming large over the proceedings, in every possible way, is Wimbledon’s 16-stone striker Adebayo Akinfenwa. Having scored the winning goal at Home Park in April, “the Beast” will be back in the media spotlight for the final, but at 34 years old he may make more of an impact as a second-half sub. Either way, he’ll do an excellent job of diverting attention away from Wimbledon’s leading scorer Lyle Taylor, who is both quick and powerful and has scored twice against Argyle this season himself.

Wimbledon won six of their last eight matches (including a 2-1 win at Home Park) to finish seventh, and went on to beat fourth-placed Accrington Stanley in extra time to get to Wembley. Which is generally accepted as the best way of doing it.

Derek Adams’ side, on the other hand, stumbled into the play-offs from the other direction. Impressive in the first half of the season, they failed too often when it came to the crunch. Important matches, high expectations and big crowds generally brought the worst out of them. Shipping three goals in the first half at home to a Dagenham & Redbridge side that had just been relegated was just about the last straw for any hope of automatic promotion.

So Monday’s excursion to Wembley has come as a bit of a surprise for most Argyle fans. Having started the year top of League Two, 12 points clear of fourth place, and then proceeded to bottle it, we weren’t really expecting to get anywhere in the play-offs. But a 5-0 win at home to Hartlepool on the last day of the season, and two goals each from youngsters Tyler Harvey and Louis Rooney did a lot to lift everyone’s spirits.

Against Portsmouth, in front of sell-out crowds at Fratton Park and Home Park, the Greens looked like their old selves again. With Graham Carey pulling the strings in midfield, Carl McHugh protecting the defence and two goals from the talismanic Jamille Matt, they appear to have finally nailed those big-match nerves. Which is just as well. Argyle have sold over 33,500 tickets for Monday, and Wimbledon around 20,000. All bets are off. Drew Savage

Photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photography: Plymouth Argyle fans celebrate a goal against Morecambe earlier this season

The Reds were bottom in November but are heading to Wembley for a second time

Barnsley

28 May ~ On the evening of November 28, 2015 Barnsley reached rock bottom. They were propping up League One, on a losing streak of eight games and with nowhere to go after sacking a bagful of managers when a miracle happened. Totally out of character, Oakwell's directors stuck with under-pressure coach Lee Johnson.

Six months on and the Reds have won a Wembley final (the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in front of 60,000) and squeezed into the play-offs with an emphatic final-day victory away to champions Wigan. And all this despite losing manager Johnson to Bristol City in February, leaving his Barnsley-born assistant Paul Heckingbottom in charge.  

So what price promotion in the play-off final? The pessimist in me says the run has to come to an end sometime and perhaps it's now as we face the final hurdle. The opposition from The Den have a reputation for robust play and they could unsettle this young Barnsley side, especially as they will be roared on by more fans, with Reds supporters facing a second expensive 380-mile round trip in seven weeks.

None of us would be surprised if Millwall won. But the optimist points to the fact that since Christmas the Reds have claimed more points than any other side in the top four divisions and our recent away form is eye catching (played 12, won nine). 

Winger Adam Hammill is the major offensive threat and our revival coincided with his arrival after a troubled spell at Huddersfield. Expect the Lions to clatter into him pretty early. Fortunately, Barnsley are not a one-man band. 

Excellent partnerships abound, including forward Sam Winnall (24 goals) and Conor Hourihane (11 goals and 21 assists) and a strong central defensive axis of Alfie Mawson and Marc Roberts. Add in a couple of loanees in Lloyd Isgrove (Southampton) and Ashley Fletcher (Manchester United) and the Reds have, at times, looked too good for this division.

Millwall also have attacking quality in the shape of Lee Gregory and Steve Morison (39 goals between them) and have a simpler gameplan. It's a tough call, but I'd make them slight favourites.

Whatever the outcome, there will be another 60,000-plus crowd at Wembley, and with a couple of League One clubs averaging nearly 20,000 this season, anyone who thinks B-sides would do anything for English football at this level, other than diminish it, needs to get a grip. Richard Darn

Photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: Oakwell, home to Barnsley

Underdogs Sheffield Wednesday have earned their shot in the play-off final

SheffWedKop

27 May ~ When Thierry Henry made it 3-3 at Highbury on May 9, 2000, completing Arsenal’s comeback from 3-1 down and relegating Sheffield Wednesday in the process, only the most pessimistic of Owls fan would have suggested that 16 years later they would still not have returned to the top flight.

Jump to August 2015 and only the most optimistic were saying that this was the season the long wait could end. Yet on Saturday the Owls make their first trip to Wembley since 1993, where they take on Hull City in the Championship play-off final.

During the Owls’ longest-ever period outside the top-flight they have been a model in how not to run a club – furious boardroom politics, protests, terrible transfer business and a huge turnover in managers. At the start of the season it seemed like history was repeating. 

Wednesday’s new owner, the Thai tuna magnate Dejphon Chansiri, replaced the steady Stuart Gray with Carlos Carvalhal, an unknown Portuguese journeyman manager. Meanwhile sky-high ticket prices and a bizarre “football committee”, the members of which seemed to change weekly, did not inspire confidence. Yet the whole club have confounded expectations this season, coming together to embrace their position as the Championship’s “dark horses”.

Much like Chansiri is building on the foundations laid by his predecessor Milan Mandaric off the pitch, so Carvalhal is assembling a team around the spine put together by Gray, who himself developed what Gary Megson and Dave Jones achieved in League One under Mandaric. This season is the first real sign of successful continuity at Hillsborough for decades – in the past every incoming manager has had to rip apart the squad and start again.

Carvalhal’s team may not have beaten any club who made the play-offs in the regular season but they haven’t lost to them either and the play-off semi-final showed they are a match for anyone. The focus from that tie has been on Brighton’s injuries in the first leg and their magnificent attacking play in the first half of the second leg. But Wednesday withstood the latter, were comfortable in the second half and dominated the entire first leg amid a cauldron atmosphere under the lights at Hillsborough.

Often appearing ponderous in possession, Wednesday tend to burst into life and catch their opponents off guard, particularly in the second half. Their play can be exhilarating, driven by the explosive forward Fernando Forestieri, whose direct running and eagerness to win back the ball makes him a nightmare for defenders.

SheffWedScarf

Yet Wednesday’s defence has been as crucial to their success as the attack – as that second leg in Brighton showed – and they have quietly equalled the club’s clean sheets record of 17 for the second successive season. In Keiren Westwood the Owls already had one of the division’s best goalkeepers, while centre-back Tom Lees, ludicrously allowed to leave Leeds on a free two years ago, and his partner Glenn Loovens are commanding and well organised in front of the keeper. Czech international full-back Daniel Pudil has been more solid defensively than his counterpart on the right, Jack Hunt, but both signings have added attacking threat on the overlap.

Kieran Lee has developed in to the beating heart of Wednesday’s midfield since Jones signed him from Oldham in 2012, initially as a right-back. He offers energy in both attack and defence and is the perfect partner for the inspired Barry Bannan, whose workrate and passing range earned him a spot it the Championship team of the season.

Wednesday are not infallible – they finished sixth for a reason and are a work in progress – so Carvalhal has repeatedly stressed they are underdogs, which is true. Hull have the Premier League parachute payments, a manager with plenty of experience at this level in Steve Bruce and finished nine points ahead of the Owls.

Yet Hull were expected to get automatic promotion and their failure to do so, coupled with unrest between fans and owner Assem Allam, means their attitude towards the play-offs feels different to Wednesday’s. The disquiet and occasional apathy coming out of east Yorkshire ahead of the match could not be more different to the one displayed in Sheffield. The Owls feel together, excited and ready.

If Hull perform to their best, it’s unlikely Wednesday will have enough to beat them. But if the Tigers are even slightly off form Carvalhal’s team will be there, as they have been all season, to grasp their chance. No matter what happens at Wembley the Owls have had a campaign to be proud of and, with the current progress being made at the club, only the most hardened of pessimists would suggest Wednesday will have to wait 16 more years for another opportunity to return to the Premier League. Tom Hocking

Top photo by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: Outside the Kop at Hillsborough, home to Sheffield Wednesday
Second photo by Paul Thompson/WSC Photography: Sheffield Wednesday fans celebrate victory over Rotherham earlier this season

Lowland League Groundhop 11/03/2016 - Images by WSC Photography

In March members of GroundhopUK, a group of fans who attempt to visit as many football venues as possible, attended six matches over one weekend. Around 100 fans in two coaches from England participated in the 2016 Lowland League Groundhop and they were joined by other individuals from across the UK which helped boost crowds at the six featured matches.

Photos by Colin McPherson for WSC Photography
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Selected images available as prints

Champions Leicester made £93m while bottom club Aston Villa received £66.6m

Arsenal

25 May ~ Despite Leicester’s triumph, it was Arsenal who made the most money in the Premier League during the 2015-16 season. They earned £100,952,257 in total from the central Premier League funds, £4 million more than second-highest earners Manchester City. While Leicester obviously got the most “merit money” (based on league position), they were shown on TV just 15 times compared to Arsenal’s 27, meaning the Gunners earned £9m more than the champions in “facility fees”. At the bottom end Aston Villa earned the least – though that is still £66.6m – with Norwich City and Bournemouth just above them. Sporting Intelligence have a full breakdown of the figures here.

Photos by Simon Gill/WSC Photography: Outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium

Only Napoli and Roma could come close to the eventual Double winners

23 May ~ Though we did not know it at the time, the Serie A title race was actually decided on October 28. Juventus had just lost for the fourth time in ten games, a tame 1-0 away defeat to Sassuolo, and sat in 13th place with 12 points, 11 points off the top. The senior players, led by Gianluigi Buffon, decided that enough was enough.

They explained to the new arrivals what playing for Juventus was all about. Harsh words were spoken, but the results were startling – 26 wins and 79 points out of 84 from the remaining 28 games and a final margin of nine points over second-place Napoli. And the explosion of young Argentinian striker Paulo Dybala, whose 23 goals meant that Carlos Tevez was forgotten.

No other Italian club could have effected this transformation, and if they received any favours from referees they were few and far between and had minimal impact on the outcome of the season. Once they had sorted out their teething problems, they were simply too good for their rivals. Their squad with, for instance, four top-class strikers, was able to cope with injuries and loss of form without any apparent reduction in the team’s efficiency. They have the knack of not buying useless players, and they would never tolerate a maverick such as Mario Balotelli. Rotten apples are shifted out at the earliest opportunity.

Only Napoli (who finished with a point more than Leicester) and Roma came anywhere near to matching them. But Napoli relied too much on the same players, who eventually tired. Gonzalo Higuaín, though, had a phenomenal season. His 36 goals in 35 games set a Serie A record, beating the 35 in 37 games of Milan’s Gunnar Nordahl 66 years ago. And, in his first season at a top club at the age of 57, coach Maurizio Sarri acquitted himself very well.

Third-place Roma paid for delaying the sacking of Rudi García. Once Luciano Spalletti arrived half way through the season, they were transformed, losing only once in 19 games and picking up 46 points. In the end, though, both Napoli and Roma can look back and say that they had a golden opportunity to end Juventus’s domination of Serie A and they blew it.

The Milan giants again disappointed. Inter limped home in fourth place and qualified for the unloved Europa League after starting with five wins. But even then it was clear that the quality of their play was not that of champions. Milan are out of Europe for a third successive season after losing the Coppa Italia final to Juventus and finishing seventh behind tiny Sassuolo, who take the final Europa League spot. Where they go from here is anybody’s guess.

Fiorentina took the other Europa League place but, after an excellent first half of the season, they faded badly and coach Paulo Sousa’s methods were questioned. As everybody expected complete newcomers Carpi and Frosinone went down, though Carpi finished on 38 points, only one behind Udinese and Palermo. However, they did not help themselves by breaking up the team that won Serie B so well last season, and it was only when many of those players returned that results improved dramatically, though just too late in the end.

Nobody expected Verona to prop up the table almost from start to finish but when you do not win until round 23 avoiding the drop becomes almost impossible. Their fate may have been sealed when Luca Toni suffered a long-term injury in September. Only eight points separated Empoli in tenth place and Carpi in 18th, which suggests that more or less half the teams in Serie A were united in their mediocrity and many of them were much closer to risking relegation than their final points tally might suggest. The overall standard of the league again left a lot to be desired.

Coming up are Cagliari, after just one season in Serie B, newcomers Crotone and the winners of a six-team play-off which might have to be delayed to allow definitive decisions on some points deductions to be reached. And a final point. Bookmakers here can happily quote odds of 5000-1 against about half the teams in Serie A winning the title because it will never be allowed to happen. Richard Mason

Gateshead

Gateshead 1 Cambridge United 1, 17/09/2011, Gateshead International Stadium, Conference Premier

Visiting goalkeeper Danny Naisbitt taking a goal kick at the Gateshead International Stadium, the athletics stadium which is also the home ground of Gateshead FC, as the club play host to Cambridge United in a Conference Premier fixture. The match ended in a 1-1 draw, watched by a crowd of 904. The point meant Gateshead went to the top of the division, one below the Football League in England.

Photo by Colin McPherson for WSC Photography
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Selected images available as prints

Blogger Steven Chicken studied perceptions of grounds around England

Stoke

22 May ~ In interviews you regularly hear managers and players describing grounds as “a tough place to go”, leading blogger Steven Chicken to try to find out which stadiums had the hardest reputation in the country, and whether they deserved it. He found that 56.5 per cent of League grounds had been called a tough place to go in the 2015-16 season, with Stoke City having by far the biggest reputation for it despite being average at home this season. Crystal Palace, meanwhile, had the third-worst home record in the Premier League but were tied with Everton as the second-toughest place to go in 2015-16. Nobody described Villa Park as a tough place to go. You can read the full results and see tables here.

Photo by Colin McPherson/WSC Photography: The Boothen End at Stoke City, apparently not a tough place to go after all

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