Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Stoke 3-0 Cardiff

I paid my first visit to the Britannia Ground last night, and generally enjoyed the experience. I had last been to Stoke when they played at the Victoria Ground, and I saw Jimmy Greenhoff and his mates play against Clyde Best and his mates from West Ham in about 1976.

The evening was dominated in the main by my decision to play amber gambler with the fuel gauge. Nobody wants to stop for petrol on the way to the game, so I decided to carry on when the light flashed. I got stuck in a traffic jam, and I was running on fumes by the time I pulled into the fantastically convenient away fans car park, a Buchanan free-kick from the turnstiles.

The ground is another identikit affair that everyone is so desperate to have in Cardiff. It was OK, but they are ten-a-penny these days. It is suddenly fashionable for football people to wax lyrical about Ninian Park as an old skool ground, and it's not just Cardiff fans who are licking their lips at the idea of Schevchenko strutting around in front of a pulsating Grange End.

At Ninian Park, those in the Grandstand sit down to watch the game and rise to stretch their legs at half-time. Bizarrely, at away games the exact opposite is true. When we used to stand on terraces, at least the older fans could buy seats in the stand and watch the game in comfort. Unfortunately, now that everyone is lumped in together, it's a case of standing up whether you like it or not. It would be a good gesture wouldn't it, if people didn't stand until about five rows from the front so at least the kids and OAPs could see the game?

I get the impression that not many people at Ninian Park really believe that we can get promoted, which is a shame because I have yet to see a team that can outplay us.

On paper, a 3-0 defeat looks pretty comprehensive, but it wasn't like that. We strolled through the first half, with Stoke struggling to contain our quick passing game. We weren't on top form, but we still looked like winning the game with something to spare. And when Chopra somehow missed a free header on the edge of the six yard box, nobody worried too much because we were so much in control.

About five minutes into the second half, the whole momentum changed with a substitution. The Stoke fans were given a big lift when Fuller was brought on to play up front for the Potters. But you knew that if City could stay solid for ten minutes then the game would be ours.

The pitch reminded me of the Millennium Stadium. There was little depth to the Turf, and our players slipped five or six times during the first half. A change of studs at half time surely? But no, the unconvincing Roger Johnson slipped when in possession and let in Fuller to put Stoke in front.

The Stoke fans woke up and went full throat into their club song. So impressive was it, that Cardiff fans burst into spontaneous applause. I can only hope that it wasn't aimed sarcastically, as there is currently no better noise in football than Stoke's Delilah ringing round a stadium at full volume.

Another two shots in five minutes and we were 3-0 down. Game over, and a quick exit for me to find the nearest petrol station, thus missing the McPhail incident.

City currently have a lot of players who are not functioning at 100%. Chopra is low on confidence, Thompson is recovering from injury, Ledley needs a break, McPhail is off-colour, the full backs offer little attacking options, and Roger Johnson is a big problem.

But we all knew this would happen. We just need to stick around until we can be boosted by a few signings in January. I fully trust Dave Jones to bring in the right players, and there's no reason why we shouldn't feature in the play offs.

I was surprised to hear later that a supporters coach had lost a window after being attacked by some locals. The atmosphere around the game had been very relaxed, and well- policed, but it only takes one sociopathic twat to chuck a brick, so what can you do ?

I was interested to note how the demographic of Cardiff's away support has changed over the years. It's not exactly Norwich City's scarf-happy families, but there is little Burberry on show, (though this might be in protest at the factory closure in the Valleys). The average age last night seemed to be mid-thirties. With ticket prices at around £20, is the young traveller being priced out of the game as we rise through the Divisions?

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Stop giving tickets to women

Before I start this rant, I should point out that I am absolutely not a sexist. I was a full time house-husband before I was lured by the filthy lucre of Cardiff City, I have real respect for women, and I founded the Cardifff City Ladies FC Supporters Club.

But I have an issue with women going to games, or more specifically getting tickets for matches when they are scarce. I was reminded of this at the rugby international on Saturday. Women were everywhere, and in particular, they were up and down the aisles throughout the match, while the rest of us peered past their borrowed rugby shirts to try and see something of the game. Rugby has a far worse problem than football in this respect, but the issue is prevalent in both codes.

You see , what attracts the women to big matches is the atmosphere created by 60,000 drunken men. They heard the singing on the telly, believed the hype that was generated by the media, and fell for the line that it was an occasion not to be missed -at all costs. But unfortunately, and this is the crux of the matter, their very presence spoils the atmosphere that they seek.

I don't care what you say, women can't chant, and their attempt at the anthem is often embarrassing. It's not a cymanfa ganu, it's a bleeding football match.

Now I'm not saying they can't go to any game. Obviously there are some games when ticket sales are slow, and they do help do boost the numbers. But generally men should be given priority unless the woman can prove regular attendance.

But it's not the women who are to blame for this recent phenomena - it's the men that give them the tickets. If there is a clearer example of the male species being penis-led, then I have yet to see it. More and more often, a man will take a girl to the game as part of a day out. Stop it - let them go shopping or something.

People often ask me how I am able to get tickets for all the big matches. Well, the answer is simple. I want to go much much more than you do, so I think about it earlier and I make more of an effort. I read a letter yesterday from a woman who had "been trying to get tickets for Wales v NZ for years". Well she can't have been trying very hard. Has she joined a rugby club? Has she stood outisde ticketline for 6 hours before tickets go on sale ? Has she set the phone to redial for 7 and a half hours trying to get through? No, she hasn't. Sport is more important to me than you will ever be able to comprehend. It's not like getting trying to get tickets for Michael Ball in Phantom of the Opera.

I couldn't believe it when I was given a seat next to a woman at the Wales v Russia play off. Here I was at the second biggest game of my life, and the woman next to me had brought a flask and sandwiches. It restricted the level of abuse I was able to aim at the Russian full back, and generally spoiled my night.

Now there are the women that phone 606 every Saturday, and they get on because they are women, but their lack of real commitment is evident in every call. Yes, they might appreciate the offside law, and they can talk about players like the best of them. But I have never met a woman programme collector, and I don't know a woman who ticks off the grounds that they visit. Is there a woman alive who tries to cure her insomnia by picking her best ever team of bearded footballers?

You see, women have more important things to do. Very admirable, and I'm glad they have a good sense of priorities. The best thing we can do as men, is let them get on with the important stuff, and stop buying them bloody tickets. That will solve the problem at a stroke because there is no way they will ever get off their arse to get their own.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Second Life

Second Life is a virtual online world where you create your own persona, and interact with others. There are over 2 million users, and it is the web's fastest growing phenomenon.

SL also allows you to design your own clothes, and after much messing about with Photoshop, I came up with this little number.

If you're on SL, and you want a Wales shirt like this, IM Fred Kenorland (geddit?).

Black day for Felin

It's been a horrible weekend so far. Last night we watched Cardiff lose in the Fic, probably the only pub in North Wales to show the football as well as the rugby. Meanwhile in the Gardd Fon, they watched the Americas Cup, or some such sailing event. Probably the only pub in Wales to show the sailing.

I woke up to a bitter wind and watched the Under 7's lose by the only goal at Bethel. It was the sort of weather where a child would take a ball on the thigh, burst into tears and cry on the touchline for the rest of the game.

Then it was on to Bontnewydd where a similar scoreline did for our Under 9's. I missed the Under 17's 4-1 defeat at Llangefni, and made my way to Llanrug, where the seniors were looking to keep up the pressure on Llanystumdwy at the top of the Caernarfon & District League.

It might have been the charity pie competition in the Fic last night, but I had a feeling from the start that we were going to have a difficult afternoon. In the background, Snowdon was white with the first fall of the year, and a smattering of sheep looked idly at the silly, frozen humans kicking a ball around in the field next door.

We were 3-0 down within 15 minutes. An own goal and two slips on the muddy surface practically gave the game to Llanrug. But even with that daunting scoreline I never felt that we were out of the game.

And we created plenty of chances throughout. Llanrug went down to 10 men, and Felin pulled one back. But a great goalkeeping display kept us out, and it's a clean sweep of defeats for The Millers.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The state of youth football

Since I became involved with youth football a couple of years ago, I have found it an uplifting, but often depressing experience. There are two main reasons for this.

Firstly, there are managers of very young teams who live vicariously through their young charges. I've seen teams of five year olds sticking rigidly to tactical formations imposed on them by their managers. I've heard half-time team talks that wouldn't be out of place at Stamford Bridge, and I've seen managers take advantage of helpfully flexible league rules to put out bigger and older teams against their opponents so that they regularly win by more than five goals.

Generally, the games are played in a great spirit and the FAW Football Leaders Award has created a generation of coaches who understand that their responsibilities lie in the development of young people as much as the production of a winning side. But there are some who refuse to accept this lily-livered liberalism, and like to win at all costs.

Even more soul-destroying is the lack of playing facilities for youth footballers, and sports participants in general. When a Government understand the disastrous social and economic future for a country where sport is sidelined, you would think that it would be desperate to provide playing fields and facilities to offset the coming obesity epidemic.

But no. The lack of facilities in North Wales at least is shocking. Clubs often have a single field to serve all of their junior teams. Only last week, I was forced to play 15-a-side in one match, on a small pitch due to the tight schedule of games that morning. I readily agreed, because otherwise there would have been 7 young children sent home disappointed without having kicked a ball.

It isn't the fault of the clubs. Staffed by hard-working volunteers, they have to make the best of what they've got. But European friends of mine are dismayed by the level of political support that is offered compared to countries like Holland, where even a small village will run a dozen sides, using high quality facilities provided by public funds.

Cardiff has vast areas of land given over to public playing fields. Pontcanna, Llandaff Fields, Blackweir are all buzzing with activity on a weekend. In Gwynedd, we have a couple of fields at Treborth, but I think that's it. I realise that there is a massive disparity in population levels, but surely Caernarfon and Bangor needs an area of ten or twenty pitches for public hire?

The flip side of this is when a local community has the facilities but no team. I was at Rhosgadfan yesterday, and saddened to see a good pitch laid to waste at Mountain Rangers FC, which I understand is no longer in existence. I don't know the reasons for this, but it's a sad sight.

There are efforts being made, such as the recent FAW/EUFA initiative to provide 21 pitches around the country. But this is a drop in the ocean. I have seen with my own eyes the enormous social and health benefits to be gained from junior football, and it is shameful that matches are regularly postponed due to pressures on the playing surface, and that clubs have to travel away from their village to train in private facilities where they have to pay to play.

Football should be free for all. The Goverment would earn the money back via the relief to a creaking health service provided by healthier children. But until the public decides that it is worth playing a little extra tax to support sport in its communities, then I suppose we will have the facilities we deserve.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Bleaso to Bangor

It's always nice when a minor celebrity gets involved with your club. That's why Bangor High Street was buzzing this week with the news that the Citizens' new manager would be Steve Bleasdale, the star of Sky's Big Ron Manager programme.

For those of you who haven't seen the programme, Bleaso was the star, the patsy, the scapegoat. At the time he had been given the job of manager at Peterborough United, after working as a coach there. He was having trouble gaining respect for his new role, but results were good. Chairman Barry Fry was offered a chance to feature in a show by Sky, and he's not the type of bloke who turns down money and publicity.

Sky first took Ron Atkinson to Swindon Town, but their manager, Iffy Onuora was having none of it. Ron left with his tail between his legs, and they looked for another club. Bleasdale was in no position to argue when Fry took him to Posh.

Bleaso is a typical football-mad scouser. He wears his heart on his sleeve and expects his players to do likewise. But finesse is not his middle name. He rejected Ron's requests to play a passing game, and stuck stubbornly to a 3-4-3 long ball system, even when Posh were sinking fast, and his players wanted to go short. He lost the dressing room, and resigned in extraordinary circumstances when Fry insisted on picking the team an hour before kick-off.

You had to have some sympathy for Bleasdale, but it was also difficult to see that he could work in football again, after the panning he took on the show. But here he is at Bangor. They'll need periscopes on the Farrar Road End, and Davenport's pretty football will seem like nirvana.

Bleasdale also had a problem with refs during his tenure at London Road. We can only hope that he will be more magnanimous in defeat than his predecessor Clayton Blackmore, who blamed everything but himself and his players for their predicament. Blackmore himself has been released by Bleasdale, obviously keen to remove Clayton's influence from the club.

Whilst I was disappointed with Blackmore as a manager, for me he has been the best, most consistent player in the Welsh Premier since its foundation. While other players felt demeaned by playing in Wales, Blackmore's commitment was exceptional. Even if he did once miss a European tie due because he was playing golf.

My only concern with Bleasdale's appointment is that managers in this League tend to bring in players they know from their own area. Davenport recruited from the Cheshire leagues, with great success admittedly. Bleasdale will bring in players from Merseyside, and history has shown us that problems can arise when you look outside your locale for the core of your team. Previously Conwy, Caernarfon, and Cemaes Bay have all hit serious trouble after filling their side with Scouse mercenaries.

There has been a history of WP teams training away from their home town, and this can't be right. While Haverfordwest trained in Swansea, Bangor trained Eastwards along the North Wales coast, miles from their home City, but closer to Davenport's Cheshire set. While this might have good reasons pragmatically, it isn't a proud boast for the League. With Bleasdale in charge at Bangor, will they soon be training at Accrington Stanley ?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Wales 4-0 Liechtenstein

The FAW have come in for a lot of criticism recently, but it should be remembered that their low-price ticketing policy has been the most successful marketing experiment in European football. And their decision to take last night's friendly to the Racecourse was also an unqualified success.

As our bus approached the ground, and the kids saw their first sight of the dark sky lit up by the phospherous glare of the floodlights, there was an audible gasp of awe from the youngsters on our coach. The level of excitement was maintained all night, and in this respect, it was one of the most rewarding games that I've attended.

The FAW should be aware of the missionary role that the National team has a duty to provide across the country. There was a real sense of community at the match last night, with buses full of fans from across the North who rarely, if ever get to experience the big match occasion as a community.

There was a buzz around the ground that I haven't experienced since the Belarus international at Ninian Park in the late nineties. A genuine uncynical enthusiasm pervaded, and the delight was obvious amongst the locals, helped a little by the patronising decision play half the Wrexham side.

The Family stand was full to overflowing, and even after the kick-off, large groups of children were being escorted around the pitch to find seats in other areas. The Kop was chanting and singing, a noise that is rarely heard at the Millennium Stadium. Each substitution was cheered like a goal.

On a personal note, things nearly went awry. The only negative aspect of the removal of fences from football grounds is the lack of space to hang your flags. But I was determined to display our new banner, and I began to scale the side walls of the Eric Roberts Stand. Unfortunately, as I reached to hook the string around an exposed girder, I lost my foothold on the greasy railings and was left hanging by my fingertips, like an 18 stone urang-utang. I somehow recovered the situation, but lost a few inches of skin a not a little dignity.

The Racecourse is a romantic venue, and sitting there last night took me back to 1985, and Mark Hughes' overhead kick against Spain . It was perfect. The rain drizzled down in front of the lights which cast the familiar four-way shadow around each player. A lush green turf, and red dragons fluttering on swarming terraces. It was old skool, and it's too late for me now, - but I can think of worse ways to spend your life than watching Wrexham at The Racecourse.

Don't forget that England have been playing internationals at Manchester recently - a stadium that is closer to North Wales than our Cardiff base. I'm not suggesting that we take qualifying matches away from the Millennium Stadium, but there is a hunger in the North for Welsh internationals that deserves to be fed. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Aizlewood's at it again

I've spoken before about John Aizlewood's bad attitude towards the Welsh. His long forgotten book is full of anti-Welsh comment, and now he's at it again. He seems to be getting more and more prominence in the Sunday times, and this is a detail from his television preview:

Football:Wales v Liechtenstein
Sky Sports 7:45pm
"Pointless friendly from Wrexham's dilapidated Racecourse Ground. Bryn Terfel lives up the road and it's either him or Charlotte Church in goal."

Good stuff John. Biting satire. Nearly every word contains an innacuracy.

  • It's not a pointless friendly to the thousands of Welsh children who will be able to watch their National side without a 10 hour journey.
  • The Racecourse has smartened up since you last went there in 1992.
  • Bryn Terfel lives about 2 hours away.
  • Charlotte Church doesn't play in goal. She's a holding midfielder.

Monday, November 13, 2006

League Apartheid?

Steve Evans of Wrexham has been selected to play for Wales tomorrow evening against Liechtenstein. For those of us familiar with his work, and with the paucity of options available to Toshack after "injuries" to Collins and Gabbidon, it is no great surprise.

But just 6 months ago, Evans' selection would have been unthinkable. He was after all playing for TNS, in the Welsh Premier. I'm not quite sure what remarkable transition has taken place since his move to The Racecourse, but Toshack is following a familiar pattern of Welsh managers snubbing the League of Wales players until they get signed by English League clubs. You'll notice that I didn't say "professional" clubs, because TNS have been professional for some time now. Nevertheless,a player is apparently not a real player until he plays in England.

Also in the squad is Owain Tudur Jones. If ever Wales needed a player to develop quickly and to stay free of injury, it is Owain Tudur. OT-J was born for international football, and his debut can't come soon enough. We desperately need a replacement for Robinson or Fletcher, and he could be the man to do it. Built like Steven Gerrard, he has an eye for goal, and strikes the ball venomously.

But Tudur-Jones was the subject of a similar apartheid a few years back when Bryan Flynn introduced him to the Under 21's side...But only after he had moved to Swansea. Literally weeks after he had arrived at The Liberty, when that club's influence on him was negligible. Peter Davenport raised this very issue at the time. How can a player not be good enough one week when he is playing for Bangor, but as soon as he signs for Swansea, then his face fits ?

I suppose that managers are wary since Bobby Gould's attention-seeking selection of Gary Lloyd when he was a Barry player. But looking back on it, was Gould so far away ? Was Gary Lloyd in his prime a worse player than Danny Collins, or Partridge? Both of whom have played left back for Wales in recent years?

I just think it's a shame that a player's club automatically rules them out when really it should have no influence on selection. It works the other way round too - Dana Collins thought that he was owed selection because his club, Sunderland, were playing in the English Premiership. And look where Collins has since taken the Black Cats. Should you still be a shoe-in Dana ?

I'm not being fundamentalist about this. The Welsh Premier has a pitiful reputation amongst the old pros, particularly those who played at a high level in the English pyramid. Ergo, anyone who plays in it, must also be pitiful.

But the football landscape is changing. Twenty years ago, before Sky, and before the influx of high quality Europeans, Scandinavians, and South Americans, a player like Marc Lloyd Williams, Gary Lloyd or (as much as I hate to say it), Lee Kendall, might well have had a long career as a professional in the English League. A cap or two would have followed. Off the top of my head, I can't think of many English League regulars of the seventies and eighties who weren't capped. It isn't so easy these days. Can you imagine Keith Pontin, Gordon Davies, Bryan Attley, Donato Nardiello, Paul Giles, or even my hero, Phil Dwyer being so successful in the current era ?

No, the sands of quality have shifted down. There are players in the Welsh Premiership who might have been regular internationals had by now, had they not been squeezed downwards by globalisation of the English system. Whilst understanding the manager's reluctance to select from within, the players and coaching teams at the top of the Welsh pyramid deserve a little more respect.

Felin travel in numbers

Y Felinheli is once again proving itself to be the centre of Welsh football. Three buses, holding 100 fans will be leaving the small village to watch Wales' friendly aganst Liechtenstein tomorrow night. Fair do's, that's 5% of the total population travelling to a meaningless friendly against a rubbish team, and a three hour round trip on a Tuesday night.

I have had a new flag made especially for the occasion, so look out for us in the Eric Roberts Stand.

There is also talk of a minibus travelling to Stoke to watch Cardiff City. And it's not even me who has organised it. The Fic is so busy these days, due to the legendary hospitality of Al Crown, that a new extension will double its size. The football club have cunningly lost four consecutive Cup matches in order to concentrate on the League. This is definitely the best place in Wales.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Sky Sports on the ball

I saw a trailer today for Sky Sports midweek football coverage.

"And live from the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff - Wales versus Liechtenstein."

That's bad news for me. I've booked two buses and 72 tickets for a game in Wrexham on the same evening.

Can't see the same mistake being made for an England international, can you ?

The Paul Parry mask

Cardiff City have been including players masks in their match programmes this season. As you can see, the Paul Parry mask is eerily accurate.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Pre Match Tension

This is getting ridiculous. For as long as I can remember, I've had this affliction where I am sick before big matches. In fact, the match doesn't even have to be that big. I am certainly sick before any Cardiff City away game, and before every Welsh international that isn't a friendly.

Famously, I once lost my false teeth when I was sick in a hedge on my way to Hereford for an unimportant Division 4 fixture.

But today's "big game" ? Cae Glyn v Y Felinheli. Under 7's.

I thought I was ill when I woke up. A slightly, tickly throat, and a bitter taste. Then the coughing started, shallow, light, unproductive. But it developed. A rasp,a throat-clearing rake, and there I was, perched over the pan, sweating, palms pressed against the cold tiles of the bathroom wall.

It was only when I developed the slight, almost imperceivable shiver that I could identify the cause. Pre-match tension. Absurd. I need to sort myself out.

I am the manager of the side. I need to display a calm confident manner which puts my young charges at ease. Please don't let me be sick on the pitch. It wouldn't look good.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Coventry City

I got thinking today about Coventry City. Somebody said that it just didn't feel right when they were relegated. I know what he meant, but it's difficult now to remember what purpose they served during their 145 year reign in the highest division.

Do you know , I can't remember a single Coventry game ? There was even one match that I went to at Highfield Road against Spurs, but I can't remember the result. I can't remember anything about the game at all actually.

Even Coventry players only became memorable when they went somewhere else. Think McAllister - Liverpool, Keane - Spurs, Strachan - Southampton.

they never pulled off any shocks, or had any exciting cup runs. Even the Spurs Cup final was only memorable for the team they played against.

At least they had a few "iconic" players I suppose like Steve "ogmonster" Ogrizovic. But that's a very small return on a century of top level football. Oh, and there was that goal from the flicked up free kick involving Willie Carlin and the boy Hunt. And the mercurial Dave Bennett. But that's it. A pointless club.

Coventry City - Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

Alan Smith to Ninian?

Well this puts a different complexion on things. If Cardiff City really can pull of a loan deal with Man United for Alan Smith, I might need to reconsider my Betfair gamble.

It was Alan Smith's sending off at Ninian Park in 2002 that saw the start of Leeds United's pleasing decline. They were top of the Premiership at the time, and after defeat to Cardiff, it was all downhill. That defeat was caused primarily by Smith's harsh red card.

But I think the outcome of this deal will give a good indication of City's likely immediate future. If they meet Smith's terms, then it says to me that they really do have the funds to strengthen the squad, which is essential if they are to maintain their promotion challenge.

If Smith turns down the move, then maybe the club will already have had its moment in the sun.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Hammam in the Guardian

This article comes from David Conn in the Guardian
Sam Hammam hoped to make a killing as Cardiff chairman, but club debt foiled his plan.

David Conn
November 8, 2006 12:28 AM
Sam Hammam loves emotional guff, so his departure from six crazy years as Cardiff City's owner had to be soaked in melodrama. Tears were shed, he told us, but a noble sacrifice made for the good of his Cardiff "family" - then exit stage right, home to London. Yet his curtain call must not obscure what went before: this was a huge personal defeat for Hammam. He made one of football's most rakish financial killings from Wimbledon, but with City drowning in debt Peter Ridsdale, now the chairman, forced Hammam out when the club is closer than ever to the payday of promotion to the Premiership and a stadium deal to die for.

In place of Hammam, hedge funds now hope to coin around £45m profit from the stadium, possible promotion and a stock market flotation, while Hammam can only watch from what he has left, two seats in the directors' box. This is not what he planned when he arrived as the saviour at a down-in-the-dumps City in August 2000, invoking the "Welsh nation" to rally the just-relegated club to the Premiership and beyond into Europe.

Hammam poured forth some Welsh nationalist blather about dragons and daffodils in a document, "Follow the Dream", but, in among it, he had a shrewd plan. He made around £36m from Wimbledon, first by selling the Plough Lane ground to Safeway for £8m, then the club itself to two Norwegian investors, Kjell Inge Rokke and Bjorn Gjelsten, who believed they could move it to Dublin and cash in by becoming an Irish Premier League "franchise".

But the Football Association of Ireland refused permission, the Norwegians eventually stopped funding the losses, Wimbledon sank into administration and then became a somewhat lesser franchise for Milton Keynes instead. The majority of fans, who formed AFC Wimbledon and began again from scratch, never forgave Hammam for, in particular, selling Plough Lane with no alternative in place.

In the Football League, though, Hammam was much in demand, a man with cash in a game whose boom has somehow mired the clubs deeper than ever in debt. He had his pick of clubs to buy but decided on Cardiff - because there he saw another national franchise, a potential Premiership club for Wales.

For all the rhetoric, however, Hammam stringently limited his financial commitment. He promised to put in about £3m: £1.5m to pay the debts, £1m to cover further losses and £500,000 for new players.

Cardiff were promoted in 2001, then splurged, paying £1m, a club record, for Graham Kavanagh from Stoke, then £1.7m for the striker Peter Thorne. Hammam inherited a fine youth side, including the striker Robert Earnshaw and the centre-half Danny Gabbidon, but it took until 2003, with more money spent, for City to reach the First Division via the play-offs.
By then the wage bill, £8.3m, exceeded the club's entire earnings. The debts, £1.5m when Hammam arrived, had ballooned to almost £23m. His plan for the Bluebirds turned out not to be a blueprint at all; Cardiff had risen by borrowing excessively.

Hammam was also taking money out; that year, City paid £300,000 to his company, Rudgwick, as a "management service charge". By May 2004, the date of the last published accounts - they are currently eight months late - Cardiff's debts had risen to £31m, including £21.8m owed to Citibank. The club had nevertheless paid Rudgwick a further £583,333.

The fans finally woke up from Hammam's dream in August 2004, when Earnshaw, by then a Wales international, was sold. The following month Hammam borrowed £24m in "loan notes", from sources he has always refused to identify, to pay off Citibank. The crisis came seven months later when Kavanagh was abruptly sold to Wigan to pay the previous month's wage bill. Gabbidon soon departed, staff were laid off and the Welsh dragon had to simper to the Professional Footballers' Association for a loan.

Ridsdale, Leeds United's chairman when they borrowed an ultimately catastrophic £82m, was recruited by Hammam last year specifically to replace the £24m loan notes with other finance. Desperately keen to restore his own reputation, Ridsdale understood the key was the new stadium development, proposed to replace the rundown Leckwith athletics ground. The local council, which owns both Leckwith and Ninian Park, is making an enormously generous contribution, donating around £40m of public money from selling both sites for the new stadium and surrounding retail. The football club is providing £4m from selling its lease on Ninian Park, will attract a £2.8m grant from the Football Stadium Improvement Fund, and be asked to put in only a further £9m.

Hammam, however, failed to complete so sweet a deal because he could not satisfy the council that the club could meet its financial commitments. The council was satisfied nothing was improper about the source of the £24m, but insisted on knowing to whom the money was owed. Beyond a Swiss bank which was the point of contact, Hammam would never tell.
That impasse was broken last week with Hammam's resignation from the board. Cardiff, it is understood, were paying the Inland Revenue an overdue £1.6m bill in instalments, and latterly the stadium developer, PMG, had provided £3m in sponsorship. PMG is understood to have been unwilling to pay a final £1m without a change in the club's structure to secure the stadium deal. Without that money the club would struggle to pay the Revenue, and probably fall into administration. Hammam appears to have had little choice but agree the deal, or he could have lost everything and the loan note holders taken a very deep cut.

Keith Harris, the former Football League chairman turned serial club dealmaker, is lining up hedge funds to put £9m in for new shares, amounting to 90% of the club. The note holders will be paid a further £9m from the naming rights on the new stadium, reducing their debt to £6m, and the club will be able to borrow again to finance its share of the stadium deal. Hammam is not being paid for his shares - his 83% share in the club will be diluted to around 8%.

Ridsdale has promised the stadium deal will now be signed quickly, and once the club occupies its new home, it will make more money whether it stays in the Championship or lands the Premiership jackpot. The plan, openly stated - but still optimistic - is to float and attract a valuation of, say, £60m, which would make the hedge funds' stake worth £54m from a £9m investment. Cardiff city council, whose leader meets Harris today, may yet insist on some payback for the huge public investment which is enabling such "super profits" to be contemplated.

Since Ridsdale's initial positive, conciliatory statement and Hammam's tearful adieu, neither has spoken publicly, but one fact nevertheless shines through. For Sam Hammam, footballing Midas of the 1990s, the Welsh dream is over.

Numbers game

Price Hammam is reported to have paid Ron Noades to purchase the Wimbledon club in 1981

Years Wimbledon played in the top flight between 1986-2000

Amount made by Hammam when he sold Plough Lane to Safeway in 1994

Made by Hammam when he sold his shares in Wimbledon in two tranches in 1997 and 2000

Invested by Hammam in Cardiff City in 2000

Paid by Cardiff City for 'management services' to Hammam's company, Rudgwick

Debts Hammam left behind in Cardiff, as at the 2004 accounts

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Ten ways to improve football

These days, after every disputed yellow card, or sending off, an indignant manager sends in an appeal form in the hope of getting his players off the hook. Sometimes this works, and a suitably chastened referee might apologise and carries on his work with a telling off.

Why not return the favour and allow referees to award yellow cards for offences that they might have missed? I would especially like to see this happen for "simulation" offences. Introduce an automatic 3 match suspension for anyone who dives.

When did obstruction become legal? Currently known as "shepherding the ball out", it actually involves obstructing the opposition player from reaching the ball. I questioned a referee on this recently and he told me that the defensive player is deemed to be in control of, and therefore protecting the ball, rather than committing an offence of obstruction. Well let's change it then. Make it so that you have to touch the ball to be in control of it. That would stop the "shepherding" altogether, as it would result in a corner, not the goal kick which currently rewards negative play.

This would be great wouldn't it ? It works in rugby. Just about the only way to understand what is going on at the breakdown is to listen to the ref (and even he isn't sure sometimes). In football it would let us know what is really going on. Mystifying yellow cards become understandable, and the behaviour of the players opened up for all to see. What's not to like ? If you're worried about the kids, then just put it in as a red button option with parental control.

Force any professional commentator to undertake a referees badge. I'm fed up of hearing some fifty year old scouser moaning about an onside centre forward "interfering with play". They usually say "if he's not interfering with play he shouldn't be on the pitch". Bollocks. It's gone lads. Get over it. The law has changed. Learn it.

Allow customers to pre-order their half time refreshments, just as they do in the theatre. You pay upfront before kick-off and when the half-time whistle goes, you turn up to collect your freshly pulled pint and a steaming mug of Bovril.

It's about time we had some of those geezers who wander around the ground selling beer and hot dogs. Just about the only worthwhile contribution that America has made to spectator sport.

Let us take flagpoles in again. They were never very good weapons anyway. Let's see flag waving masses back at the games. And let us hang our flags over the balconies. You know it adds to the occasion.

Solve pre-match queues in the pubs by introducing the Argos ticketing system. You take a ticket. When it's your turn, you can saunter leisurely up to the bar and place your order. No more mauling towards the bar in amongst 7ft giants, desperately trying to catch the eye of a barman who is desperately trying not to see you. Divine.

Come on. Enough already. If it's a local tragedy, fair enough. But no more minute silences for the unfortunate demise of an Egyptian Prime Minister. Ostentatious grief has been in vogue since Diana, but it's time to give it a rest.

They make your eyes go funny and attract your attention away from the game. It's not fair. We pay to watch the football, you tossers.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

I like rugby

In total contrariety to a lot of Welsh football fans, I also like rugby. As a general reaction to rugby's political aggression in Wales, and its perceived dominance of our sportpages and airways, some of the most committed football supporters actively despise the game.

I have been in pubs where otherwise patriotic men have been urging the Welsh national rugby team to defeat. It is a particularly unedifying and spiteful action in my eyes, but many have good reason for this antipathy.

The Welsh male is born into a macho, bravura culture, particular in the industrial areas of South Wales. In the early twentieth century, rugby was one of the few areas of life where Welsh men could take some minor form of revenge against their English paymasters, and the sport took a hold on the public conscience which it has never relinquished. Whereas the sport in the rest of the UK was the playground of the well-bred, Welsh rugby was a socialist free for all. It was the game of the people, and despite all its official failings, there are systems in place to make sure that rugby maintains its spurious claim as the country's national sport.

If you go to the wrong school in Wales, you will never see a football, let alone play an organised match. Many schools operate a rugby-only policy, and foster a resentment in football afficianados that will remain for life. Even in schools where football is offered, it is seen as the poor relation to rugby. I well remember in my own school, which counts Toshack and Ledley as alumni, that only the rugby results were read out in assembly, and the rugby stars were feted by the headmaster.

Moving on to adult life, the young football fan will be shocked to find the Western Mail devoting pages and pages to Nantyglo v Brynamman, while the Welsh Premier league is ignored and the Welsh football team is paid lip service.

It has long been a sore point that BBC Wales appoints its heads of sport from the legions of retired Welsh international rugby players. Tactically, the BBC knows that it needs to keep the WRU on side, as the rugby contracts are crucial to its strategy. Ironically, one of Welsh football's biggest supporters in recent years has been Arthur Emyr, who introduced the FAW Premier Cup and increased the football output of the BBC, some say to his personal cost. Arthur is still seen regularly at Ninian Park.

Notwithstanding all of this political and social turmoil, I like rugby. I like watching the players sacrifice themselves physically in the cause of victory. And before Neil Back, Matt Dawson and that arsehole Louis Deacon, I used to like their attitude. And perhaps, most importantly, opposition rugby fans positively welcome their visitors. I have heard all the arguments in this respect, about the number of arrests on international day, but when it comes down to it, I have never had a crowd of rugby fans waiting to attack me at the end of the game.

Unfortunately, I don't have a club team. I grew up in Gilfach Goch, one of the thousands of small Welsh mining villages where rugby dominates the sporting landscape. Football has failed in Gilfach Goch due to the smothering success of the rugby team. The rugby club is a focal point of the village, and as a result, it has achieved success and status way beyond its population. In North Wales, it is the other way round. Young rugby players need to travel to one of the major towns to find a club. So I look out for Gilfach's results, but I haven't watched them play in years.

The devastating regionalisation of Welsh rugby has taken away the Celtic Warriors, my only connection with top flight competition. I now watch and support all the Welsh regions on television, but it is an empty support since the WRU wiped out top class rugby in the valleys for commercial reasons. And since they blocked promotion for North Wales sides, they have effectively sectioned off the top tier of the amateur game, now reserved for South Wales only. How can this be a National sport ?

So I now concentrate fully on the Welsh national side. You can say what you like, but an international is a great day out. And I watch every Wales home game. When the Autumn internationals were announced I bought a couple of season tickets and made arrangements to travel down to Cardiff four weekends in a row.

Which is why I was disappointed to see that Cardiff City have arranged two fixtures in direct competition with the rugby. We are playing Burnley and QPR at the very time that Wales will play The Pacific Isles and Canada.

Some football fans will be delighted that the club is taking on the rugby establishment, but some of us have a difficult decision to make. It can only be to City's detriment that a few thousand floaters will be watching the rugby at home, or at the Millennium Stadium. If the kickoffs were staggered, then I for one, would choose to go to both matches. As it stands, I have my season ticket, and I will be at the rugby.

The loyalists argument will be that Cardiff comes above everything else. I sympathise wholeheartedly with that stance. But in these days of high attendances, the casual visitor is just as crucial to fill the ground as the committed diehard. If you want a new stadium these are the people who will fill it. But the club has decided against accommodating the rugby, and many potential attendees will be avoiding Ninian Park for those two fixtures at least.