Sunday, 24 March 2013

How to feed the minnows

(NB: this isn’t strictly speaking a blog about Watford – but I’m also an England fan, and Ashley Young and Tom Cleverley were playing on Friday, so there is a connection to the Hornets. That’s my excuse, anyway.)

Watching England stick eight goals past San Marino on Friday night, it occurred to me that there is a simple way to deal with the issue of weaker teams playing the role of cannon fodder in World Cup and European Championships qualifying tournaments. Football pundits occasionally mention such things, but I’ve never seen a serious proposal spelled out, so here’s mine.

First, you identify the six weakest nations in European football: you’d probably select them according to their world ranking, but at a guess, we’re talking about San Marino, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Malta, the Faroe Islands and Andorra. Then, when the draw is made for the next qualifying tournament, you leave them out and put them in a group of their own. They play the same number of games as everyone else, but the difference is that the group winner doesn’t qualify for the tournament, but to take part in the main draw for the next qualifying tournament. Meanwhile, the country with the poorest record in the main qualifying groups is ‘relegated’ to the minnows’ group for the next set of qualifiers.

The main benefit for the minnows is that they get to play a series of games they have a realistic chance of winning. Rather than playing in a 4-5-1 formation, as San Marino did against England, they can set out to attack without having to be afraid of shipping a hatful of goals. And hopefully, the team that comes out on top can set about the next qualifying tournament with some of the same spirit, and not simply become whipping boys again.

As for the rest of Europe, such a pre-qualifying group removes the danger of important issues being decided by who tonked their group’s weakest team by the largest margin. It also makes games between teams at the bottom of the group more significant. Scotland, currently sitting bottom of Group A, have nothing but pride to play for in their remaining games, but imagine if they faced the prospect of relegation if they failed to pick up any further points – surely it would add a bit of spice to those last few games.

What about the down side? I assume the minnows would complain about the lost revenue from high-profile games against the likes of England, Germany and Spain. But they have such small national grounds that most of their opponents will fill the away seats anyway, and the prospect of seeing competitive games ought to ensure a good home crowd.

Of course, my plan wouldn’t yield instant results. Whoever won the pre-qualifying group for the 2016 European Championships would probably still struggle in the qualifying group for the 2018 World Cup. But if they managed to avoid going straight back down, they would gradually build in quality over time, just as, say, Stoke have in the Premiership over the past few years. I believe my plan would lead to a modest levelling up of standards in European international football within a decade or so, and far fewer supposedly competitive internationals ending 8-0. That might be a bad thing for England players looking to bump up their international goal tally, but I think most football fans would welcome it.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Half a world away

Late last year, I turned 50, and my friend Stuart gave me a special present: the programme from the closest Watford home game to the day I was born. It was a Division 3 (or ‘Division III’, as the programme has it) fixture against Bristol Rovers on Saturday December 8th, 1962, which we apparently lost 1-0 on the way to finishing 17th in the table.

Not a particularly remarkable game, or season, then. But to modern eyes, the programme itself is a strange artefact. For starters, there are hardly any articles. The 16 pages include an editorial (matily entitled ‘Welcome Back, Lads’), a spread with pen portraits of the opposition and Odd Spots (‘A Soccer Believe It Or Not’), and a page of Supporters’ Club Notes. As for photographs, the only one is the aerial shot of the ground on the cover. The rest is statistics, fixtures, team line-ups and, above all, advertisements. I count 41 ads in total, ranging from national brands (Double Diamond beer, Senior Service cigarettes) to resolutely local ones, some for businesses that I remember fondly from my youth; Peter Spivey’s sports shop, Kirby’s coaches, Thirteens bike shop.

I could spend hours listing the delights contained in this slim volume, but I’ll limit myself to five things I find particularly interesting:

1) The supporters’ club notes are worth an essay in themselves, but what comes across above all is the key role the club played in fundraising for the football club in those days – it’s financial support we’re talking about here. The page lists key contacts for services ranging from away travel to membership to the purchase of “a Club diary or golliwog favour”, complete with their full addresses, and warns against bothering the club’s sole administrative employee, the legendary Ron Rollitt: “Please do not write to the Football Club for any of the following items. It only causes delay, and Mr Rollitt has enough to contend to with his own work.”

2) The list of ball donors (when did that stop?) for the season to date includes, among various gentlemen, The Brian Fredericks Dance Orchestra, and, for the Football Combination game against Portsmouth, an anonymous ‘Pools winner’.

3) In the days before football was a megabucks profession, players often bought local businesses when they retired. Among the ads, I spotted the names of Watford legends Ken Nicholas, who had a sports equipment and shoe shop in Harwoods Road, and Arthur Grimsdell, proprietor of a newsagent’s in Vicarage Road.

4) The ‘Odd spots’ include the fact that Newcastle’s team against Portsmouth in October 1951 included internationals of five countries (England, Scotland, Ireland, Wales and Chile). Nowadays, in the Premiership at least, it would be more noteworthy if a club fielded internationals of fewer than that number of countries.

5) I know it’s childish to laugh at people’s names, but who could resist Bristol Rovers’ Esmond Million, “a goalkeeper of considerable merit and courage, who adopts complete command of his area”. As the programme lists the players’ vital statistics, I can also tell you that Mr Million weighed exactly 11st 8 1/2lb.