RSCA and Matias Suarez

It is with a heavy heart and a soulful sigh that Anderlecht fans lament the departure of Matias Suarez – El Artista – from the club.  However, it was a decision that should have been made some time ago by those running Anderlecht.  As a fan, the heart can rule the head but, as a Chairman or Managing Director, the opposite should be the case.

El Artista
El Artista

As I write this, I cannot help feeling that Suarez’s departure is just the tip of the iceberg; that something is inherently wrong at the core of Anderlecht.  Whether that is a few players carrying too much influence in the dressing room, a problem with the coaching team or something else, I’m not quite sure.  The players no longer look like a cohesive unit.  Praet, Tielemans and even emerging players like Lukebakio are no longer playing with a smile on their faces and look burdened by something.  Something from which Suarez seems happy to leave.

Since Suarez’s first serious injury, which happened just before a proposed transfer to CSKA Moscow, has clearly left both mental and physical scars which have since blighted his performance, he has never recovered to be the daring, unpredictable and pacy forward he once was.  After his first recovery, a provisional 10 million euro transfer to the middle east was proposed and the club, in their short-sightedness, rejected the bid.  A second major injury followed and the player exiled himself for what seemed like forever in Argentina during his recovery.  When he was scheduled to return to the club, Suarez remained in Argentina.  Whether this was down to his mental state or his physical condition, I do not know, but the club fined him 2 weeks wages so clearly they saw no justifiable reason for delaying his return.

Club Season League Cup Europe Total
Apps Goals Assists Apps Goals Assists Apps Goals Assists Apps Goals Assists
Anderlecht 2008–09 11 1 1 2 1 0 2 0 0 15 2 1
2009–10 35 11 11 3 0 0 13 4 4 51 15 15
2010–11 34 8 6 1 0 0 12 2 1 47 10 7
2011–12 35 12 16 0 0 0 10 7 3 45 20 19
2012–13 11 3 0 0 0 0 0 0 0 11 3 0
2013–14 11 6 7 1 1 1 3 0 0 15 7 8
2014–15 13 4 2 0 0 0 3 0 0 16 4 2
2015–16 19 3 4 2 1 1 4 0 0 25 4 5
Belgium 169 48 47 9 3 2 47 13 8 225 65 56

This should have marked the end for Suarez.  The club could have maintained the moral high-ground, off-loaded a large salary for a player they couldn’t select, benefitting Suarez in that he could resume his career in his native Argentina, which seemed increasingly what he was trying to force.

However, back he came.  Again, the second rebirth showed a decay of fitness and confidence.  While the latent ability and talent is clearly still there, the physical means to carry out what he wants to do has deserted him.  He no longer has the pace to get away from central defenders which renders him ineffective.

There is a lot of affection for Suarez among the RSCA support based on his performances around 2011 and 2012 when he was awarded the Golden Boot.  This was deserved.  Was.  Unfortunately, these past glories are no longer attainable but that won’t prevent a supporter backlash for somebody who became an icon in the eyes of the faithful.

In a sense, there are parallels between the fate of Suarez and the club.  Glorious and in their pomp three or four years ago, there was a swagger and confidence about their performances.  Since then, a number of false dawns and barren spells of underachievement.  However, despite these parallels, Suarez is not the problem at Anderlecht.  Something else is.  If the smallest of pathogens go unchecked, they spread.  Something is spreading at Anderlecht and and isn’t unifying.  It is isolationist, destructive and is dissolving bonds.  It may be Hasi, Defour, Proto, Vanden Borre or Van Holsbeek or whoever.  It may be something else.

Suarez’s departure, while necessary, will thrust the club under the interrogation light of the fans and the media.  Expect measured statements declaring unity, togetherness and teamwork, while the performances on the pitch – the true language and measure of a team’s inner strength – continue to contradict these words.

 

Lille OSC

Lille OSC v ESTAC Troyes

23rd January 2016: Ligue 1

Most people will tell you that the best nights out are often spontaneous and serendipitous.  No build-up, no disappointment, no anti-climax, no expectations.  I had done very little research on Lille or Troyes other than to establish that Lille were struggling and Troyes were already as good as relegated having not won a game all season.  Given the proximity of Lille to Brussels, it seemed like a good way to spend a free Saturday night.   I left the stadium with a stupid half-grin on my face having witnessed a bizarre event, from the pre-match ritual to the game itself.  Bonkers!

Stade Pierre Mauroy
Stade Pierre Maury

Getting There

The stadium is only 85 minutes drive from my house and is well situated for access by car from the motorway.  Those taking public transport can take any number of high speed trains to Lille and there is a metro station at the stadium.  The tickets were 15€ each, plus 4€ for parking and 1.50€ for the ‘print-at-home’ ticket option.  The club website ticket portal is easy to use  (https://www.billetterie.losc.fr/fr) and offers you a view from the seat you select.  This is the benchmark in terms of how tickets should be sold online and the club deserve praise for offering this.

The parking was less than ten minutes walk from the stadium and was covered and had secure access.  It was very simple and efficient. When the stadium was being designed and built, somebody clearly thought about these kind of auxiliary services and their importance for the general fan experience.

View from just inside the Turnstiles
View from just inside the Turnstiles

Stade Pierre Mauroy

The outside of the stadium has the shell which makes it infinitely more interesting aesthetically.  The lighted shell covers what could otherwise be characterless, concrete and almost communist collection of cuboids.  The stadium entry is quite inviting and you don’t feel like a criminal on the way in.  Yes, there is security and yes, you are patted down before proceeding to the turnstiles.  However, this process often seems like you are entering and emerging from a cage.  There is an excellent openness about the place which puts you at ease.

There is a selection of bars and food stalls where you can buy hot drinks, food and beer and the prices are OK.  5€ for a pint of Kronenbourg plus a 2€ deposit for the plastic glass which makes a nice souvenir if you aren’t desperate for the refund.  The concourses offer plenty of toilets and space for milling around before taking your seat.  The views from the seats are universally fantastic.  We had the cheapest seats in the house but the views were more the satisfactory.

View from the cheap seats
View from the cheap seats
The seats are Lille-y grey
The seats are Lille-y grey
How many away fans? Un, deux, Troyes?
How many away fans? Un, deux, Troyes?

The pre-match goings on were …..very French.  The lady pre-match announcer, who was meant to be building up the atmosphere amongst the fans, sounded like she was trying to sell me Nutella-filled biscuits in the local supermarket.  It was all very convivial and tension-free.  When the Lille XI was being announced, she did the fairly universal thing of saying the player’s first name and letting the fans respond with the surname.  However, she then repeated the surname like a Primary School teacher correcting the class.  It had the air of a lethargic response given by a hungover congregation from the early morning mass.

The ‘Ultras’ behind the goal had the right idea but the execution wasn’t quite right.  The ‘lead singer/conductor’ of the choir had been furnished with a microphone.  We debated the necessity of the choreographed singing and I concluded that I quite like it but nobody should have a microphone.  This guy introduced almost every song with a lecture to his disciples.  It grew very tiresome.  The best of it was, all of the songs sounded the same.  Except, that is, the ‘Amazing Grace’ dirge that seems to be a club-sponsored corporately acceptable song.

The Choir
The Choir

The Match

My fellow analyst, Brad from Bury, commented that upon reading the free match programme (entitled ‘reservoir dogues’, a clever play on the club’s nickname), the game had nil-nil written all over it.  There were a lot of nice passages of play between the penalty boxes but the lack of decent final pass or finish suggested that this prognosis may turn out to be correct.

Sofiane Boufal for Lille looked like the only man on the pitch likely to make the breakthrough and, sure enough, he was fouled inside the box and subsequently converted the penalty.  There seemed to be a relieved cheer around the stadium once the lead had been secured.  Troyes had looked very unlikely to score and had a general impotence about their play.  They had a very high defensive line but weren’t pressing hard.  This meant Lille had several chances to double their lead but Tallo’s inability to convert chances or even hit the target ensured that Lille were only 1 up at half-time.

We decided to make the most of the facilities at half time and the toilet experience was correct and rapid.  It was surprisingly freezing in the concourse, given the comparative mildness inside the stadium with its roof closed.  So we decided to have an espresso and ‘the panini of the day’ which were both delicious.  The panini had some kind of generic meat that it would be better to characterise by dimensions as opposed to animal of origin: it was cuboidal and delicious.

The second half started much as the first half finished, with Lille dominating but not converting chances or even testing the goalie.  Again, Boufal was the only player looking dangerous on the pitch but he grew increasingly frustrated.  The match seemed to evolve inexorably towards Lille nicking a second goal and then seeing the game out.  They were however, profligate during their ascendancy and they paid for it.

Penalty to Lille
Penalty to Lille

Within ten minutes, Troyes had scored three of the best counter attacking goals you are likely to see anywhere and Lille were motionless and, to be honest, lacked any fight once Troyes equalised.  Troyes were clearly buoyed by Lille’s lack of response and looked like scoring every time they went up the pitch.  The home fans were ironically cheering when Troyes equalised and by the time Troyes had scored the third goal, half of the home fans were on their way home.

Their was an air of both disgust and resignation about the home fans, bearing in mind they were league champions less than five years ago.  The team are certainly not worthy of the fantastic stadium.  I don’t think though, that I have ever seen a home team’s fans turn on the team so vociferously as I witnessed here.  Sure, boo at the end if you are unhappy, but the reaction to the substitution of Tallo was just ridiculous.  He was poor and I’d imagine that, if he cares, his confidence will be destroyed after his treatment from his own fans.

It is worth noting the Lille were 1 up with 15 minutes to go and took off Balmont – he was knackered – for Amalfitano and that’s when the goal haemorrhage started.

The exit from the ground was smooth and I was back in the car within ten minutes, both delighted for Troyes that they had finally won and pleased to have visited such a fine stadium for so little money.  I also saw four goals, of which three were top quality.  Cabot’s first time volley would grace any stage.  The days of Hazard and Cabaye seem a million miles away for Lille and their fabulous stadium is housing a mediocre team.  I’d quite like to return here, maybe for a game against Lens, PSG, Marseille or a European game (if they ever get there).  The stadium is to be used during Euro 2016 and it is more than adequate: 52000 capacity with a nice feel, retractable roof and excellent transport links, the stadium does the ‘nicer than you might think’ city of Lille proud.

Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  ***
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ***
  • Hospitality: *****
  • Ease of access: ****
  • Things to do around the stadium: ***
  • Overall: ****
 

Summer Football

Why Scottish Football needs to Adopt Summer Football

Why did Celtic start doing ‘the huddle’ all those years ago?  For team spirit?  A motivational yet secretive talk? To wind up the crowd? While these are all plausible suggestions, the most likely reason is that they were absolutely freezing and they were having a cuddle to warm up.

Have you ever run out in sub-zero temperatures, hailstones and wind spanking off of your red-raw thighs watching your breath crystallize in front of your eyes?  Much of my early adolescence was spent in this way, playing both football and rugby in horrendous conditions.  I remember the waterlogged Mitre Mouldmaster ball; skidding its way across the surface of the puddles on the red blaes pitch and tattooing Braille onto the thigh of anyone who tried to control it.  Ahh, growing up playing football in Scotland.

Mouldmaster. Ayyah.
Mouldmaster. The dimpled cannonball.

Looking this reverie from a more rational and analytical standpoint, you might ask “why play football when the weather is at its worst and not play when it’s theoretically at its best”? Why indeed!   I intend  to outline the argument for summer football in countries such as Scotland by arguing against the most common rebuttals proposed by those in favour of the status quo.

Argument 1: The Weather in Summer is Just as Bad 

While this suggestion may curry favour at Asda checkouts or in the pub, the data simply doesn’t back it up.

Glasgow climate graph
Glasgow climate graph

It is generally agreed that it is more pleasant to play football when there is more sun and less rain.  The graph above, unsurprisingly, shows that this happens between April and October.  Sure, it can rain then too but it does rain less and the risk of frost or snow is negligible.

Argument 2: Attendances would fall due to holidays

The premise of this argument is that people only holiday during ‘Fair Fortnight’ and at no other point throughout the year.  I’d genuinely be interested to know how many people would miss a fixture played in freezing miserable conditions in January compared to the corresponding fixture in July.  People take holidays at all times of year now.

Argument 3: What about the Major International Tournaments?

What about them? In the unlikely event that many players in the Scottish leagues end up representing their country at the Euros or the World Cup then extend the season by a couple of weeks either side of it.  They manage in the USA, Russia and Norway.  It could be argued that the players will turn up for these tournaments in better shape anyway arriving halfway through the season instead of knackered at the end of it.

Even if there aren’t a lot of players representing their country, a mid-season break for the majority isn’t a bad idea.  Most successful countries have a mid-season break.  The UEFA club tournaments have a two month hiatus over the winter as well so players having a break at this time is not detrimental in any way.

Argument 4: What about the TV deal?

This is where Scottish Football could carve out a niche.  During the ‘odd years’, having Scottish Football on TV during the summer would have it competing with tennis, cricket and golf instead of the English Premier League, La Liga and Bundesliga.  Football fans would have some competitive football to watch instead of impotent friendlies and endless transfer rumours.  Surely this would boost ratings and, subsequently, income?  If Motherwell v St Johnstone was on at the same time as an EPL game or a Bundesliga game then I wouldn’t watch it.  If it was on at the same time as the cricket or Wimbledon then I would.

Argument 5: It’s not ‘Traditional’

Clinging to the past is part of what is preventing Scottish Football evolve into a fit-for-purpose product for the 21st century.  Scotland haven’t qualified for a major tournament this century, haven’t produced a world-class player for a long time (Wales have produced at least two in the past 20 years in Giggs and Bale) and the clubs regularly fall at the first hurdle in Europe.  No, it wasn’t always like that, but it is now.

Summer football is exactly the kind of bold and common-sense step that Scottish clubs need to dare to take.  It’s the equivalent of telling an obese person to eat less and move more.  It might not be what they’ve always done but it’s what they need to do.  Even if they don’t like vegetables!

Serving up another league reconstruction will have no significant effect.  The equivalent of our previous obese person cutting out the McDonald’s and replacing it with Burger King.  However, I expect that the clubs will lack the courage to go with this and they will be too ‘Wimpy’ to risk what they know.

 

Celtic v Partick Thistle

Celtic v Partick Thistle

Scottish Premiership: 2nd January 2016

‘Their footballing strategy and business model are drearily complacent and unambitious: remain, marginally, the best team in Scotland and make a profit in the transfer market’

‘After visiting all of these packed grounds across Europe, this’ll be a bit of a disappointment for you’ was the pre-match warning from my brother-in-law.  There seems to be little optimism regarding Celtic at the moment.  Without a genuine domestic rival and with sufficient resources to cherry-pick domestic opponents’ best players, you would expect them to be battering opposition in the way that PSG or Bayern are in their respective countries.

However, Celtic hadn’t won a home game in over 2 months before Saturday and were lucky to do so on this occasion.  Their footballing strategy and business model remain drearily complacent and unambitious: remain, marginally, the best team in Scotland and make a profit in the transfer market.  Victories are paradoxically accompanied by frustration and, on this occasion, almost disappointment.

Getting there

I was back in Scotland for Christmas and New Year visiting family. Some of them are Celtic season-ticket holders and they kindly invited me to the match.  You can buy tickets at http://www.celticfc.net/tickets and I would recommend the print-at-home option to avoid the queues at the ticket office.

Thanks to the M74 extension and the Commonwealth Games infrastructure investment, getting to Celtic Park is easier than ever. We parked in Bridgeton near some high flats where, surprisingly, no-one offered to ‘watch our car’ – apparently there is a matchday turf-war over parking-attendant rights in this area and we had found no-man’s land.  Those taking public transport can take the train from Central Station to Bridgeton, which only takes about 5 minutes, and then walk along London Road.  It is a bit of a hike in the freezing rain though.

Those looking for a pre-match/post-match beer could do worse than going to the Merchant City which juxtaposes authenticity, ridiculous hipster beards and the ‘hairdresser night out’ crowd very well. There are plenty of ‘Celtic pubs’ around the Saltmarket/Barrowlands area for those not too worried about the diversity of the wine list.  For those from further afield, there is plenty to see and do around Glasgow even if it isn’t as instantly picturesque as Edinburgh.  You’ll discover a vibrant and energized city.

Celtic Park

Since Fergus McCann took over and provided the club with some financial stability in the 1990s, Celtic Park has been (arguably) the best football stadium in Scotland.  Fans are far closer to the pitch than at Hampden and it is far more vertically-imposing than Ibrox. The area surrounding the stadium has undergone regeneration in several respects although the velodrome opposite the stadium still appears out of place despite its potential ‘legacy value’.

The walkway at the front (Celtic Way) has been installed with some nice lighting and a spindly statue of a malnourished Billy McNeill. This is the 4th statue to be found at the London Road side of Celtic Park, alongside Brother Walfrid (Celtic Founder) looking thoughtful, Jock Stein looking glorious with the European Cup and Jimmy Johnstone looking as though he is squatting to take a shit in the woods.

jinky

We noticed some artwork which looked like state-sponsored graffiti and was about as edgy as a sphere, with inclusivity the overt message.  Celtic have made a lot of effort with respect to sectarianism and community education and while their attempts may induce mixed results, they are trying.

The parking at the stadium has improved as has the general access. There isn’t much of interest around the stadium bar the club shop and a couple of Salmonella wagons.  The Kerrydale suite is a bar that can be accessed by fans.  Being Scotland, this is a good place to get a pre-match beer as, once inside the stadium, beer cannot be bought.  I have mentioned the confused logic of this in another article (http://www.eurofootballstadium.com/alcoholinfootball-83).

Celtic Park’s capacity is 60832 and 46000 turned up for this match. Have you ever heard 46000 people sigh or grumble?  It isn’t as loud as you might expect.  Once inside the turnstiles, there is a reasonable selection of snacks and drinks, although this varies from stand to stand.  My seat was in the older main stand, so no Domino’s pizza in there.

You’ll  get change from £4 for a pie and bovril, which is not exploitative.  There still a few pillars in parts of the stadium but, in general, most seats offer an excellent view. 12483814_10156513482055226_395836247_n

12483788_10156513482090226_883745149_n

The pre-match atmosphere isn’t what it used to be here.  Even for a league match in January against Partick Thistle, there would have been more noise in years gone by.  Is this a result of an aging crowd or the mediocre football on offer?  I’d say a bit of both.  The Green Brigade (Celtic ‘Ultras’) were noisy for the whole game but there were maybe about 150 of them.  Without commenting on any of the non-footballing actions or ideas of the group, they were noisy and vocal and Celtic need more fans like that to get behind the team and make Celtic Park an intimidating cauldron for visiting teams.  A lot of fans seemed like they were there out of habit and community responsibility as opposed to cheering on the team.

Celtic could address this issue by subsiding tickets for under 25s. They are about to trial ‘safe-standing’ in a corner of the stadium next year.  Once that is shown to be successful, they should make the lower tier of the Jock Stein stand all rail seating as one little pocket of noise isn’t enough in a stadium this size.  The other way they could address it, of course, is to offer a better product on the pitch.

The Match

In years gone by, the teams of O’Neill, Strachan and even Lennon would have battered this Partick Thistle team.  The visitors deserve credit as they were disciplined and held their shape well, without ever having any real threat or genuine display of talent.  They did, however, restrict Celtic and forced Craig Gordon into a few saves.

Celtic set out with a fairly defensive looking team given that they were at home.  The midfield five of Bitton, Johansen, Rogic, MacGregor and Commons were pedestrian.  They started with Ciftci up front as top scorer Leigh Griffiths had missed a few games due to injury.

There was no real discernible pattern of play or clear style.  The build-up was hesitant, laboured and slow.  This made it easy for Thistle to defend.  High balls were fired out to Commons and MacGregor who had virtually no chance of winning them.  The only way I could see Celtic scoring was from a set piece or a mistake. Thistle pressed onto Bitton when he picked up the ball from the defenders leaving him to ship it to Efe Ambrose whose passing is as predictable as a roulette wheel.  This played out until half time.

Celtic’s manager Ronny Deila is under pressure despite Celtic leading the league and I now understood why.  In the second half, Griffiths and Forrest came off the bench and showed some urgency and willingness to have a go.  It wasn’t until Bitton was sent off after 67 minutes that Celtic looked threatening.  Partick Thistle pressed more for a winner but, having brought on the static caravan that is Pogba up front, they lost their mobility.

When Griffiths did find the breakthrough in the 90th minute, it was via a wildly deflected shot.  It probably extended Deila’s reign at Celtic, although on this showing, I don’t give him long.  Leaving the ground, one local reveler summed up the feelings of the fans by shouting ‘Get tae fuck Deila by the way!’

Celtic will probably sleepwalk their way to another title but it’s hardly the much lauded ‘Celtic Way’.  Their fans have become drowsy on the medicine of uninspiring hard-fought domestic victories accompanied by European embarrassment.  They deserve better entertainment, given the chasm that exists between Celtic and the rest of the league in terms of resources. It’s as though the death of Rangers has caused Celtic to lose their edge.

 That’s no disrespect to other clubs but high ticket prices, a poor TV deal and limited imagination has left other premiership clubs bin-raking for players.  Celtic are currently raking through the bargain buckets in Lidl trying to turn more lead into gold.  It feels like Scottish Football is dying a slow death and needs a shot in the arm. Summer football might help, cheaper tickets might help but no doubt the league will turn to league reconstruction as the go to Panacea.

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Stadium Ratings

  • Quality of match:  **
  • Stadium character: ****
  • Stadium atmosphere:  ***
  • Hospitality: ***
  • Ease of access: ***
  • Things to do around the stadium: ***
  • Overall: ***