Marcus Stead

Journalist Marcus Stead

Archive for November 2011

Football Ace Bothroyd Won’t Pay His Bill, Claims Garage Boss

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FORMER Cardiff City striker Jay Bothroyd risks being taken to court for failing to pay a car repair bill totalling little more than £1,000.

The 29-year-old, who this summer transferred to big-spending Premier League newcomers QPR, is believed to be earning a basic salary of £25,000 per week, with a £2,500 bonus for every game he plays along with a £250,000 windfall if the club survives relegation.

Despite this, the former England international has failed to pay a bill totalling £1,050.64 for repairs to his Mercedes and Range Rover.

The work was carried out in late 2010 by garage owner Dave Prance, who maintains vehicles belonging to most of the Cardiff City players and staff. However, after a lengthy exchange of text messages between him and Bothroyd, his patience is running out.

He said: “I have a very good relationship with the vast majority of the players and staff, and I’m astonished that someone who is on as much money as Jay would be dragging out something like this for so long.”

During the exchange of texts, Bothroyd made a series of excuses, including one on 20 May when he said he had to get out of Cardiff because he was ‘too p****d off’. Shortly after his departure from the Bluebirds, Bothroyd engaged in an angry exchange with a section of the club’s fans on Twitter.

Prance finally decided to take legal action after Bothroyd failed to respond to text messages sent on 22 August. He said: “I’m certainly not going to let this drop. I have been more that reasonable in giving him time to pay. He hasn’t indicated that he is unhappy with the work we carried out, but is just making excuse after excuse for not paying.

“My solicitor was away when I first decided to take action, but he’s written to Bothroyd directly in the last week or so. I hope he has the good sense to pay his bill in the very near future, otherwise I’ll have no option but to take him to a small claims court.”

A spokesman for QPR declined to comment.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2011 at 3:01 am

Posted in Business, Sport

Save The FA Cup!

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A popular subject of discussion on football phone-ins recently has been the question: Has the FA Cup lost its shine? I’m my view, it’s done a lot more than lose its shine- it’s now in real trouble, and time may be running out if it is to remain a serious and credible competition.

They used to say that town centres would empty on Cup Final day. The build up on TV would start while people were still having their breakfast. Those days are long gone.

However much we allow ourselves to believe Reading’s victory over Liverpool was a wonderful achievement, the fact remains there were thousands of empty seats at Anfield that night.

Last Tuesday, Cardiff City played their third-round replay against arch-rivals Bristol City in a Cardiff City Stadium that was three-quarters empty. That would’ve been unthinkable if it was a league game.

How many of us, if we’re honest, get slightly irritated when we discover that there’s an FA Cup weekend ahead? It’s become a frustrating disruption to the league programme for many.

If you’re a supporter of a big club, you have other priorities. If you support a smaller club in one of the lower divisions, it’s likely you’d swap a cup win for three points, especially if you’re challenging for promotion or fighting relegation.

I suspect ITV bought the rights because they were sold in the same package as England’s games, and I can’t help noticing that it took a very long time before anyone snapped up the rights that became available when Setanta went bust.

The FA Cup isn’t dead yet, but it needs reinventing, and must become more relevant for today’s market. All sporting events need to evolve, but many don’t notice they’re in trouble until it’s almost too late.

In cricket, the Twenty20 format has brought in millions of new fans all around the world, capturing the public’s imagination in a way nothing has done in the game for generations.

Darts has managed to re-invent itself after a period in the doldrums in the early 90s when it was all but banished from the TV screens. It’s now the second-most watched sport on Sky, and next month will see the opening night of the PDC Premier League played in front of 16,000 people at the O2 Arena.

The next few years will almost certainly see snooker brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century after years of neglect and bad management, and I’m expecting horseracing, particularly the flat, to be repackaged before too long.

Football, too, re-invented itself in the early 90s with the advent of the Premier League.

What all of these sports have in common is that they pushed themselves to the brink of oblivion before bouncing back.

Cricket was gaining a reputation as being stuffy and slow. Darts was a game played by overweight, chain-smoking, beer-swilling blokes. Snooker’s glory days had ended as the household names of the 1980s faded. Horseracing has struggled in recent years with vastly reduced coverage on non-subscription TV.

Before the Premier League, football went through a terrible decade in which hooliganism made many grounds no-go areas for families and young children, and at one point in the 1980s the BBC stopped regular transmissions of Match Of the Day on Saturday nights and replaced it with British basketball highlights.

In all of these examples, the sports in question didn’t realise they were in trouble until it was nearly too late. The FA Cup hasn’t reached that stage just yet, but it’s becoming less and less relevant by the year.

If the FA Cup is to survive as an important competition, it needs to reinvent itself, as these other events have done. There are a few ways of doing this: Firstly, introduce seeding for the third and fourth rounds. Big clubs playing the minnows is something we all love about the FA Cup, and doing this would ensure we get far more of these games. The small clubs would love it as it would greatly increase their chances of drawing a Premier League team.

One credible counter-argument to this is that the TV companies would hate the possibility of not having all-Premier League ties in these rounds. But surely the Man Utd v Leeds and Liverpool v Reading matches were the highlights of this year’s third round? Besides, come round five, the chances of there being more all-Premier League clashes greatly increases, so they’d have no real cause for complaints.

Secondly, and here’s where it gets really interesting, give the team that wins the FA Cup the fourth Champions League place. This would immediately stop big clubs from fielding reserve sides in the Cup. They wouldn’t dare risk missing out on Champions League qualification and the enormous implications it has for their clubs in terms of status and financial remuneration.

Yes, I know this would inevitably cause the number of giant-killings to reduce further, but surely fans of smaller clubs would love to see a full strength Arsenal or Chelsea playing at their tiny ground?

I’m not sure what UEFA would have to say about this and I expect a few chairmen would be up in arms about it, but these two steps would restore the FA Cup to its former glory within a year.

Make no mistake: these are dark days for the FA Cup, and it needs to act now it is to salvage its reputation as a major, first-rate competition.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2011 at 2:53 am

Posted in Opinion, Sport

The Slow Death Of International Football

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There cannot be many people left who would disagree when I say that international football is now well and truly in the doldrums. I honestly can’t remember the last time I sat through an international match and genuinely enjoyed it. Last year’s World Cup was, for the most part, a miserable tournament full of utterly forgettable games. Actually, the same could be said about each of the last three World Cups, with a small number of exceptions. What was your highlight of, say, the 2002 tournament in Japan and South Korea? No, I can’t think of one either.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why this has happened. Yes, FIFA must accept its share of the blame for making teams play with a ball that you’d be embarrassed to give to an eight-year-old child for his birthday, and for insisting that stadiums are built to meet certain criteria that make creating a decent atmosphere nye on impossible.

Some of the blame must lie with the attitude of the players themselves. In years gone by, youngsters aspired to become professional footballers because they loved playing football, had a passion for the game, and aspired to represent their club and country on the biggest stages.

Many of today’s young footballers have other reasons for wanting to make it at the highest level. They don’t so much love football: instead they love the wage packet and lifestyle that comes with it. Despite the platitudes we still hear about it being a ‘great honour’ to play for your country, does anyone really believe players treat it as the great honour it was in years gone by?

The clubs, working in a free market environment, should also surely take some responsibility for this. If you give a lad in his late teens or early twenties £100,000 a week, what do you think is going to happen? He’ll more than likely buy numerous flash cars, live in a huge house, and surround himself with sycophants. In no time at all, he’ll develop an inflated sense of his own self-importance, and believe all the hype that surrounds him. Not even the wealthiest person reading this can begin to imagine how different the world they live in is from the one the rest of us belong to.

Here in Wales, we’re long used to leading players pulling out of the international squad, only for them to turn out for their clubs a matter of days later. In this respect, I have some sympathy with the clubs. If you were a chairman or manager paying your star player an inflated salary, how would you feel if he risked getting himself injured playing in a meaningless international friendly a matter of days before, say, a Champions League quarter-final? The timing of the international calendar is, frankly, absurd.

Even on paper, the matches themselves look boring most of the time. I, for one, find it highly frustrating when the Premier League and Champions League schedule is halted for a week to make way for meaningless international friendlies. But it’s not just friendlies that are the problem. Even before the draws are made for the qualifying groups for World Cups or European Championships, we are forced to accept the inevitability that there will be a fair number of matches against countries we’ve barely heard of, cannot point to on a map, and have little or no footballing heritage or prowess.

From a commercial perspective, there is no incentive whatsoever for Premier League clubs to bring through home-grown stars. These are multi-million pound businesses. They do not owe the English or Welsh FAs a favour. It’s inevitable that the pool of players available to managers of the home nations will remain small, and may well get smaller still.

So what hope is there for the future of the English national team? Well, not much really. The beginning of the end of the Fabio Capello era is underway, and fans of English football are understandably frustrated with the way things have turned out. But even on that wave of optimism when he took over in 2008, there were signs, from this side of the Severn Bridge at least, that big problems were around the corner.

The similarities between Capello and the then-Wales manager John Toshack may not be especially obvious, but look more closely, and it becomes clear the two men have quite a bit in common. Both have achieved success with some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Indeed, at Toshack’s first spell at Real Madrid, of the 32 home games he was in charge, he won 28, drew four, and lost none. They still sacked him.

The other thing they have in common is that they have both had serious fallings out with some of football’s biggest players. In his managerial career at club level, Capello had major fallings out with Paolo Di Canio, Alessandro Del Piero, Ronaldo, Antonio Cassano, and, of course, David Beckham.

Here lies one of the most important differences between club and international management. At club level, if a manager takes a dislike to a certain player due to a clash of personalities, he can put him on the transfer list, and bring in players who share a similar mind-set to his own. At international level, managers are constrained by whoever is eligible to play for their country, and they have to take what they’re given. With the influx of great and not-so-great foreign players into the Premier League, it’s not always that easy to replace one English player with another.

What do we know about Fabio Capello the person, and his life away from football? We know he is a devout, serious-minded Roman Catholic. We know he is closely aligned with conservative politics in Italy. And we know that he spends much of his spare time listening to classical music.

In other words, his world is a million miles apart from the £100,000-a-week bubble many of his players live in. Capello may well find aspects of his leading players’ private lives highly distasteful, but what can he do about it?

It’s true that when he took over as England manager he laid down the law on a few matters: he would always address players by their surname, and they would address him as ‘Boss’. He expected players to be on time, and when they were in training camp, they would always eat together. That’s fair enough (if a little too authoritarian for some people’s tastes), but he can’t very well tell them how to conduct themselves outside international periods.

To be fair to Capello, it’s hard to know how to overcome this obstacle. When Sir Alex Ferguson took over from Ron Atkinson as Manchester United manager in 1986, he laid down the law on day one. Whereas Big Ron had banned drinking two days before a game, Sir Alex made it clear players were not to drink at all when the team was in training. There was a heavy drinking culture at Old Trafford at the time, and Sir Alex rightly realised he needed to be firm about this, at least to begin with. He also made it clear that the players would have to change their ways, because he certainly wasn’t going to change his.

That’s all very well and good at club level, even today. The players know that if they fall foul of the standards their manager sets (as some did at Old Trafford back in ’86), they will be shown the door, and their big-money, celebrity lifestyles will be at risk. But what if an international manager tells them something they don’t like? They can always take a half-hearted approach to playing for their country, or ‘retire from international football’ when they’ve got years left in them at club level. It’s difficult to think of a way around this problem. Here in Wales, we went through a very similar thing under Toshack a few years ago.

International football can only ever succeed if all its various feeding components are pulling in the same direction: FIFA, UEFA, the FA, the Premier League, the clubs, the manager and the players. As it stands, commercial realities mean they are all pursuing their own agendas. There’s no obvious way to stop the rot, but unless radical change occurs soon, international football will continue its long walk into the sunset.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2011 at 2:50 am

Posted in Opinion, Sport

It’s Time To Say, “Arise, Sir Jimmy Hill”

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The summer of 2000 was one of the most important periods of my life. This was the time when I was sitting my GCSE exams, an experience I’m glad to say I’ll never have to go through again.

I can remember the day of my first exam very well. Nearly 200 of us entered the school hall, and had been allocated a very old, wobbly wooden desk each, that had surely out-lived our sixteen years. I went to take my place, which would be my second home in the gruelling few weeks that lay ahead.

No sooner had I sat down than I noticed a piece of graffiti on the top of the desk that read in huge capital letters, “JIMMY HILL IS MY HERO”. I tried very hard not to laugh out loud – this wasn’t the time or the place, but it’s fair to say I came pretty close to being disqualified from my exams before they had even started. Just think, my life could’ve taken a completely different course if one of the invigilators had looked at me during that moment.
Yet it occurred to me that those words could have been inscribed several decades earlier. Certainly, the desk dated back to the 1960s (it had an inkwell), but it was a testimony to just how long the great man had been involved with the game.

Of course, Mr Hill is a national figure of fun, and the graffiti was undoubtedly intended as sarcasm, but if you take the time to look beyond the huge chin and daft bow ties, you find a man who has made an extraordinary contribution to the game in so many different capacities.

His playing career saw him make more than 300 appearances for Fulham, the most memorable of which saw him score five goals against Doncaster Rovers, but his achievements as a player pale in comparison to everything he has accomplished off the field that helped change the game for the better in so many ways.

In 1957, he became the chairman of the Professional Footballers Association, and campaigned for the abolition of the £20-per-week maximum wage. He headed an excellent campaign that was ultimately successful. It’s easy to scoff at the excesses of the Premier League, but if this campaign had failed all those decades ago, there would surely have been an exodus of talent away from the English league to just about anywhere. The consequences for the national game would have been devastating.

Even if he had faded from the public eye at this stage, the modern game would still owe him a huge debt of gratitude, but this was to be only the beginning of his contribution to matters off-the-pitch.

His spell as manager of Coventry City between 1961 and 1967 saw the team promoted from the third tier to the top flight, but that only tells part of the story. Once again, he was way ahead of his time. With the support of the club chairman, Derrick Robbins, he insisted that two sides of the Highfield Road stadium were completely rebuilt. He was also responsible for the first proper match day programme, and arranged for pre-match entertainment.

These changes may sound small by the standards of today, but he understood that this was a period when cinema, theatre and other forms of entertainment were becoming increasingly affordable for ordinary people, and football had to work harder to maintain the fans’ loyalty.
When he left the club in 1967, he moved to a role that would see him make yet more revolutionary changes to the way we watch football.

He took a job as Head of Sport at London Weekend Television, where he helped develop the legendary World of Sport, and persuaded Brian Moore to make the switch to television for the launch of The Big Match. Until this point, football on TV had always been rather earnest, worthy and slightly po-faced. The double act of Jimmy and Brian Moore changed all that, adding a touch of razzmatazz and fun to proceedings.

The challenge ITV faces when covering major international tournaments is much the same now as it was at the 1970 World Cup. The main challenge was, and is, to give the viewer a reason to put up with the adverts and choose their coverage over that of the commercial-free BBC. On this front, Jimmy worked his magic once again, when he assembled the first panel of analysts, carefully chosen because of their willingness to speak their minds and not hold back.

For a month in the summer of 1970, ITV viewers were treated to late-night football highlights in the company of “The Midnight Cowboys” consisting of Malcolm Allison, Bob McNab, Pat Crerand, Derek Dougan and several others, who provided entertaining and forthright analysis of the day’s action. It’s hard to imagine a set-up like this existing now, in an era when broadcasters are keen to stay on the right side of the governing bodies, and the pundits themselves don’t want to upset their friends in the game. This remains the only time ITV have beaten the BBC in the ratings at a major summer tournament.

Jimmy jumped ship to the BBC a few years later, and became the face of Match of the Day. Those of us who weren’t around at the time have recently been given the chance to enjoy those programmes on ESPN Classic. I don’t normally appreciate being lectured at in a schoolmasterly fashion, but his precise, sharp and to-the-point analysis of the matches they covered was refreshingly blunt.

He combined his broadcasting commitments with several directorships, which started with his return to Coventry City in 1975. In the last game of the 1976/77 season, he is said to have made Coventry City vs Bristol City kick off ten minutes late, thereby allowing them to know how their relegation rivals Sunderland were doing at Everton. Sunderland eventually lost the game 2-0. Both teams knew all they had to do to stay up was pass the ball around, and the final ten minutes descended into farce, with nobody making any effort at all to try and score.

Many Sunderland fans still haven’t forgiven him for this, as was evident when he attended their match against Fulham at Craven Cottage just last year, and needed a police escort to ensure his safety.

But was this really such a crime? Maybe there really was serious crowd congestion outside Highfield Road. If we want to make the final day of the season truly fair, maybe all TV, radio and telecommunication signals inside every football ground should be blocked, to stop teams playing for draws if they know an important fixture at another ground is heading for an extremely one-sided result.

Of course, that could never happen, but you know what I’m getting at.

In 1981 came more proof that he was an innovator, a man well ahead of his time. He turned Highfield Road into an all-seater stadium, on the grounds of safety and fan comfort. However, there was a backlash from the supporters, and after Millwall fans ripped out much of the seating, he reluctantly backed down and re-introduced terracing. Hull City fans hoping for a repeat of that precedent shouldn’t hold their breath. Jimmy was once again way ahead of everybody else, and after a pretty miserable decade for football, all-seater stadia became the norm.

Later that decade, he saved his beloved Fulham from extinction, before having the wisdom to sell up when someone with serious financial clout could lead them back to the top flight for the first time in three decades.

By the late 1980s, the television viewer demanded a more slick presentation style, and Des Lynam was installed as presenter of Match of the Day. Jimmy was moved to the role of analyst, where he formed a highly entertaining and much under-rated double act with Terry Venables. It appeared as though they couldn’t stand each other, but away from the cameras, nothing could have been further from the truth. The viewers loved it.

In his most recent role as presenter of the Sunday Supplement on Sky Sports, he often talked about how it would be a good idea to get more former players to become referees. This argument holds a lot of merit, and is likely to gain huge amounts of support from players and managers in the years ahead.

Yes, some people think he preaches too much, and he’s always been prone to the odd daft comment. But the real Jimmy Hill is an innovator, a maverick, and a rebel who repeatedly stood up to the men in blazers. Everyone in football, whether a player, manager, media personality and even ordinary fans owe him a huge debt of gratitude.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Robson are both worthy recipients of their knighthoods, and it’s now time to add Sir Jimmy to that list.
Let us show him our appreciation for everything he has done for the game while he is with us to enjoy it. Football, and even the nation as a whole, would be in a far better state if there were more people around like him.

Written by Marcus Stead

November 5, 2011 at 2:44 am

Posted in Opinion, Sport