To Manuel Pellegrini & Willy Caballero – A Gamble That Really Paid Off

I’m not one for believing in fate, or for things being written in the stars. It’s as mythical as a club’s soul or United’s DNA. But as the whistle blew after 120 minutes of nerve-jangling action, I couldn’t say it to anyone around me but I was thinking it: wouldn’t it be typical if Willy Caballero ended up being City’s Wembley hero?

And so he was. A lot of apologies have flowed forth on social media and message boards since, following a week-long torrent of criticism and outright abuse at the prospect of Manchester City not fielding their strongest available side in a cup final. Now we all feel a bit stupid, kind of.

Well yes and no. Pellegrini’s comment that he would rather lose a trophy than his word should be taken in context of the words of a manager who had just won the match. I am not convinced he’d have said such a thing if City had lost, and if he had, I can just imagine the criticism that would fly his way. It would show he was a man of honour, but modern football sometimes demands honour is put to one side, the need for results and success all-consuming. Managers speak differently after matches according to their mood – a winning manager is much more likely to overlook the three penalties his team didn’t get that day than a losing manager who sees no fault in his own selections or players, but seeks to blame the referee instead.

But his word was gospel on this occasion, and he had promised Caballero the role. Pellegrini of course can see through guff and realise that the goalkeeper resembling a rabbit in headlights that we all witnessed against Chelsea is not an accurate portrayal of City’s back-up keeper, however many people go on Twitter saying he’s rubbish. He’s no worse than Mignolet for starters,  and Pellegrini was hardly throwing the match like the previous week by selecting him.  One of La Liga’s best keepers and all that, but it clearly hasn’t worked out over in England, though City fans are rarely happy with the reserve goalkeeper, somehow expecting a Peter Cech type figure to spend every week on the bench. It’s not easy playing an occasional game, and for Caballero, the future surely lies elsewhere – but he didn’t turn up at the Etihad off being rubbish at his trade.

And there’s part of the problem. Occasionally a club manages to get a really good keeper as a back up, as Chelsea have done quite successfully in recent years, but it’s not easy and it’s thus quite rare. Naturally a top class keeper will expect regular football, and even a very good one will. In fact, virtually all professional footballers will expect to play regularly, whatever their ability – it’s a short career and one you’d think they’d want to look back on as a memorable and exciting one.
So it’s no surprise that some managers use their number 2 keeper for cup matches, and Pellegrini is not alone in this regard. Joe Hart doesn’t really need a rest, but there is logic in letting Caballero take over for our Capital One Cup games and any FA Cup games against “lesser” teams. The problem is the dilemma it creates when a big game comes along. Do you keep to your word, or do you do what’s best for the fans and the team, by picking your strongest team?

I thought Pellegrini would wilt and pick Hart. After all, he’s on his way soon, as Caballero probably is, so a fall out or a back track would not have disastrous consequences for the squad. Even Caballero might have understood his reasoning, citing that form is a prerequisite for selection. But as we saw, this was not Pellegrini being stubborn as he is known to be, but being honourable, even if it ended up leavin him with egg on his face. Having brought Caballero from Malaga, I can well imagine he has a close bond with Caballero, and his word is therefore an absolute bond.
And have no doubt, this was a ballsy decision. Most of us would have washed our hands of the decision and picked our strongest eleven, leaving us immune from criticism after the match. But Pellegrini stuck to his guns, and now with hindsight we’re all glad he did. Caballero was superb, as any sane person with an iota of football knowledge knows he is capable of being, and having saved a penalty last weekend he continued the trend seven days later, doing something Hart doesn’t often do by not committing to the dive, thus turning the pressure onto the penalty taker.

And the biggest gamble of all, that waving of the white flag at Stamford Bridge, a decision that could have wrecked his legacy, paid off. Brave, stubborn, but in the end it turned out OK. A Capital One Cup trophy does not make this season a success, but it prevents it from being a disaster, providing a top four league spot is secured, and it is a trophy after all, another great day for the fans, and clearly meant a lot to the players too, who we hope will be galvanised now to push on further – for who knows what can still be achieved in this confusing season? As Aguero saluted his “grand willy”, I hope they are already looking to securing a repeat performance on Wednesday – with slightly sharper shooting hopefully thrown in for good measure.

And whilst this was perhaps the trophy that Pellegrini should not have taken seriously and blooded kid after kid, it has still given the fans two wonderful occasions to saviour. The best moments don’t have to be graded by the importance of the trophy. That winning penalty, the celebrations, the feeling as the cup was lifted, the euphoria too of the semi-final 2nd leg – those feelings will never dim, it’s part of being a football fan, and it was a long wait to experience them. Six out of seven victories at Wembley too for me is a fine record, long may it continue. And yesterday gave us a new story too, and there’s little better than seeing a player so often maligned get his moment in the sun and at least temporarily prove his doubters wrong. Yesterday was much-needed, the Liverpool history clique can crawl back into the woodwork for at least a few more days, and the team delivered when it was really needed again. So I raise a glass to you Willy Caballero – you used to be shite, but now you’re alright.

Was Manuel Pellegrini Right To Sacrifice The FA Cup?

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Disrespecting the cup. The cup killers. Pell hell. You’re “kidding”. The day the FA Cup was mortally wounded. Not my words of course.
Shed a tear for modern football, as City have done it again and “killed” the beautiful game. You have to wonder what we’ve got lined up next. If we’re not booing the Champions League anthem, a ditty protected by the lord himself, we’re fielding weakened teams, ramping up wages (and ticket prices), only filling our stadium to 98% capacity and wasting the careers of youngsters and English footballers in general. Next up: bidding £200m for Neymar.

But of course we all know City didn’t “kill” this competition, a competition in which they’ve reached the final twice in five years. No, others have already done a good job of doing it before. That’s why the weekend press was full of discussion about how to revive this noble trophy, yet come Sunday it seemed everything was OK again until Manuel Pellegrini chose his young team. Strange that.

The truth is that those in power have crippled the FA Cup by constantly messing around with it and pandering to money and broadcasters as ever. From changing the kick off time (it should be 3pm on a Saturday – always), to allowing league programmes on the same day as the final, to moving it from the end of the season, to spreading quarter finals over four days, to having Friday night and Monday night games, to moving the draw time and having it in the middle of the One Show with a full array of gurning full kit wankers on hand to grin into the camera when their team was pulled out of the hat, to failing to help teams with a crowded fixture list who then inevitably will field weakened teams, unlike other FAs, who actually help their teams be successful,  to having semi-finals at Wembley to pay off the gold-plated ivory tower, thus completely demeaning the occasion of the final. By pressuring a team to pull out to play in a poxy tournament across the globe in order to impress FIFA, to letting the competition be run by TV companies meaning that Manchester United appear on TV 50 times on a row despite having not won the competition in that eleven year period. Now there’s talk of scrapping replays and midweek games. Clueless, utterly clueless, and a world away from my childhood, when sitting in front of the TV to watch the FA Cup final was a huge event, whoever was playing (it was never my team, after all). Now the world has changed, tribalism means I may not watch the final at all and TV coverage has saturated the market, but it’s no excuse for damaging the oldest cup competition of them all.

Not that the FA Cup is dead. It is not all about Arsenal or Manchester City. 736 teams competed this season, starting on 15th August, some wonderful stories and journeys emerge every time, and revenue from a “glamour” tie can keep clubs in business. It’s not just about the latter stages and viewing figures.

But what of Mr. Pellegrini? Well, not being able to simply play the game on the Saturday seems ridiculous, but would Pellegrini have played a stronger team a day earlier? I’m not sure. This seems to me like a classic case of misdirection from Pellegrini. He was probably sacrificing the FA Cup whenever the tie was played. Pellegrini could have had a full side available and still lost at Chelsea, and then had to have got past Everton and then two more games to win the cup. I’m not saying he did this, but by playing such a youthful, inexperienced side, he had his excuse to lose. We all know that the Champions League is the more important prize for our owners, and whilst it isn’t for me, it’s kinda tough because owners who have invested so heavily in our team have the right to prioritise, as without them we wouldn’t have such dilemmas anyway.
You may say we can’t win the Champions League, so what’s the point, but we must try, and we must progress in it, and if you think we never had a chance, I also presume you’d have been happy with Pellegrini throwing the group stages by playing kids? Right?

Alan Shearer and Graeme Le Saux can sit there on behalf of their paymasters bemoaning City’s team because it has ruined their big event, but their complete ignorance of circumstances offers nothing to the debate. Barcelona players might want to play every match, but then Barcelona don’t have seven players out injured, don’t have a separate cup final coming up, and also don’t play two games a week right through the winter, having the good sense like pretty much every other country to afford their players a winter break to recharge for the run-in.

Of course managers have been sending out weakened teams for years, especially those teams for whom not being relegated is the sole aim. Arsenal and Hull fielded weakened teams the day before City, and Liverpool have escaped any significant criticism for exiting the FA Cup after fielding weakened teams in two successive rounds, but that’s hardly a surprise as they are not City, and their manager is the wonderful Jürgen Klopp, not the dour Manuel Pellegrini.

Like it or not, clubs will always prioritise – they have to sometimes, with up to 60 games in a season, and saying that players should just play really doesn’t show a good understanding of how athletes perform and the importance of rest, recuperation and fitness, especially when looking to avoid injury and perform at their peak. With a five hour flight to a country in a totally different time zone, the three day gap for City’s squad is not the same as a team playing two games in the same period domestically, or even having to go to somewhere like Paris. As the outspoken fitness coach Raymond Verheijen made quite clear on Twitter – “as two rest days is PROVEN to be insufficient and Champions League is priority over FA Cup, how can one blame Pellegrini for not taking risk of unfit players?”
Indeed. He added that coaches will not prioritise competitions if governing bodies help their clubs. The Italian FA do this, but our FA have shown no inclination of helping clubs – I guess the feeling will be that with more wealth and better players, they just have to get on with it. But when other FAs help their teams, it puts English teams in Europe at a disadvantage, and prioritising then weakens domestic competitions too. After all, on average, teams have a 40% less chance of winning after only 2 rest days against an opponent with 3 or more rest days, and I’m sure Pellegrini is well aware of such statistics in a game now dominated by analysis.

Playing on the Saturday would have allowed both Chelsea and City three days’ rest after and before their respective Champions League games, but it was the police that scuppered this.  The total crowd at Chelsea and Fulham would be less than one game at Old Trafford, but policing two separate games separated by two tube stations is a rather different proposition to policing one game, or City and United on opposite sides of a city. Still, the day is long, it could have been done.

Pellegrini could have avoided this situation though if he had bedded in the odd youth player over the past two and a half years. There have been plenty of opportunities – Capital One Cup matches, substitutions when comfortably winning matches, and more. But he hasn’t so now he throws them all in at once in something of a fit of pique and rather hangs them out to dry. Having said that, the players will hopefully have gained something from the Chelsea match, and won’t be scarred by losing heavily to such an accomplished side, but the result was inevitable, even at half-time perhaps, and we really didn’t learn much about our youth players. Chelsea could have scored ten, our young players were outclassed, but this tells us little, as they could become world beaters in the future, they never stood much of a chance over 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge, especially when the senior players alongside them underperformed yet again. But with greater integration previously, the young players would have been better prepared for this match and the strain they’d have taken off the senior team would have probably also meant fewer injuries.

The key to this entire debate though was the injury list. City could hardly afford to take any more injuries to key players and thus effectively throw away their chances in three cup competitions in a week. In some ways, whilst this has been painted as a move designed to protect City’s Champions League chances, the cup final on the horizon may have played an even bigger part in Pellegrini’s thought process, as it is City’s best chance of silverware, even if it is the smallest trophy of them all, and the Champions League is two-legged after all, so a defeat can be rectified. A Sunday tie gave Pellegrini his escape clause, a reason to protect the remaining fit players for Wednesday and beyond.

Whatever the reasons, sacrificing the FA Cup was a gamble, and we’ll only know in a week whether it was worth it or not. Lose the next two cup games, and Manuel Pellegrini will look rather foolish, as the date of his departure crawls towards us, his team limping from one game to another. Let’s hope that the sacrifice he made this weekend and the vitriol he received as a result was all worth it.

Enough Is Enough – Ticket Prices Need To Fall & Fall Now

Unless you’ve been asleep for a few days you will probably be aware by now that on Saturday, a section of the Liverpool fans walked out of their game versus Sunderland in the 77th minute as a form of protest at new ticket prices being brought in for their new stand next season, a significant rise on before. It is thought that up to 10,000 made for the exits, prompting a rather catastrophic team collapse. The two incidents may or may not be linked.
Like many football directors, Ian Ayre has since proceeded to handle the whole affair terribly. Poor excuses that fool no one, a seismic failure to understand the issues at hand, a cancelled Q & A session (worse than never having one in the first place), and the price increases have also had the side-effect of hitting many disabled supporters, many of whom cannot just relocate, for obvious reasons.

But what the Liverpool fans did is not the first of its kind, though any publicity it creates can only be a good thing. The only way that owners can be held to account is a collective effort from fans. Manchester City fans (and others) have been boycotting ticket prices for years – this is not a new phenomenon. City fans do it by simply not turning up anymore – by “jacking in” everything they used to love. No fanfare, no banners, they just drift away and find better ways to spend their hard-earned money. Enough is enough, and booing a Champions League anthem is not sufficient to guarantee attendance. Success is costly, and many just can’t take the strain. I stopped attending away games a good few years ago, as have friends who rarely missed a game home or away in the old days. Maybe we got older and have other responsibilities in life now, the excitement of going to matches as a child and teenager no longer there, the thrill of a packed terrace gone forever.
Maybe. Maybe modern ticket prices mean it’s an old man’s (or woman’s) game now anyway. Either way, some have had enough, some don’t feel it necessary to attend anymore. Modern football has killed their enthusiasm. Drifting away though provides no headlines, provides no articles, and everyone turns a blind eye. Or not.
Because what has been the response from swathes of rival fans?
To mock.
To count empty seats and deride those who had been priced out of the beautiful game. Even City’s “official betting partner” Paddy Power revel in City not selling out on their social media platforms. When City offered 2-for-1 Champions League tickets, the club was widely ridiculed for having to give tickets away to fill the stadium. We’d reached a point where Manchester United fans were mocking a rival club for not forcing fans to purchase tickets and for selling them for a third or a quarter of what they had to pay themselves (if they’d actually been in the Champions League at the time). We had, and continue to have Arsenal fans baying on Twitter at their rival’s attendances whilst being royally ripped off week in, week out and doing nothing about it. So wouldn’t it be nice if fans grouped together not to mock, but to deal with the issue at hand?

I’ve come to accept that modern football at the top level entails corporate areas at grounds, and will not lose sleep over a small section of the ground being exorbitantly priced, if there’s a demand for that, as long as there are affordable seats for those that want them elsewhere. It’s when there isn’t that the problems begin. The creeping corporate areas at the Etihad have pushed some out of their seats into new areas, which is hardly ideal, but at least there are affordable seats elsewhere. This season I relocated to the new 3rd tier of the south stand, where season tickets are available from as little as £299. Mine is £380, less than what it was four years ago. It’s a bargain. The club have made excellent progress on many ticketing issues, but still put their foot in it occasionally, seemingly out of touch with modern life and the modern working man/woman. Thus this week, ticket prices for the Dynamo Kiev tie were announced, around the £30-£40 price range. Ignoring the fact that tickets for the 1st leg are an astonishing £4.50 (things work differently there), the price is all wrong, even if it looks competitive compared to rivals’ prices. City are at Wembley in a few weeks – 30,000+ will be forking out up to £100 for tickets, plus travel, accommodation, the odd pint of mild and more. Then there’s the FA Cup match at Chelsea for some. Then there’s the possibility of further cup matches should we progress further in the two remaining competitions. By the time that’s all over it will soon be time to renew for next season. If your team is quite successful, it never seems to end, and the club don’t waste any time taking the money out either. For all of us, there’s food, there’s merchandise, there’s travel, all the extras. It’s incessant.
Dynamo Kiev will provide tough opposition, but they are not a glamour team, by any stretch of the imagination. The tie at the Etihad will not sell out. That is obvious to all City fans, so presumably is obvious to those who decide the prices at the club. So why was it priced this way?

And I’d even have some tiny little inkling of why owners do this if I really thought it gave them an advantage in the “market” or on the pitch, but it really doesn’t. Liverpool’s price increases would cover little more than one more failed footballer bought from Utrecht and loaned out to Rotherham after failing to impress. It would cover the cost of Eliaquim Mangala’s big toe (right or left foot, take your pick). It’s irrelevant, a tiny, worthless pebble placed in the revenue stream, as ticket revenue becomes less and less important to clubs as TV deals break through the stratosphere. The earnings from Hong Kong’s Premier League TV rights alone is enough to cover huge prices reductions across the board at City. From Hong Kong alone. Why do owners continue to create PR disaster after PR disaster for such little gain? After all, I can’t fall out of love with football, I can’t go and support another club – I am committed to this until the day I die. Following a sports team is not like any other financial transaction, so the argument that if you don’t like it then stop going just doesn’t wash. It’s not acceptable for fans to be priced out of a sport awash with money.

And this new TV deal on the horizon is huge, beyond rational explanation, making a £10 ticket rise the equivalent of charging a man who has just bought 8 diamond rings 5p for a carrier bag. And with each TV deal, the working man forlornly hopes that the extra revenue will be passed onto the fan, and every time, with a few exceptions, it goes instead to those who already have more money than they can spend. Ticket prices have risen by about 1000% since the start of the Premier League in 1992, a tad ahead of normal inflation rates. This new deal may approach £6bn, but the truth is with foreign TV deals, highlights packages and all the other add-ons, it’s really nearer to £9bn. You often hear talk of modern footballers being disconnected from the fans, but you can hardly blame them for living in a bubble. We’re targeting the wrong people really – it’s the ones that run the game, right up to Scudamore, Taylor and their peers that are disconnected, and have created the situation we find ourselves in today.

City and others have made steps on ticket prices. United and Arsenal will freeze their prices next season – United have for a good few years now, though Arsenal still managed to infuriate fans by lumping a surcharge on their Barcelona tickets. Staggering. The fact is that whilst freezes are a start, there is little excuse anymore for clubs not only to freeze prices, but to drastically reduce prices across the board. Will any club have the cojones to break from the pack and do this?

And the thing is, City’s decision makers know all this, they know the economics of tickets sales as much as any of us. They reduced prices for FA Cup games and it sold out even when we were playing lower league teams. The atmosphere was better, the team responded, we got to Wembley twice (four times in truth). The place was rocking against Everton in the Capital One Cup, and we won again. A full house means increased takings at the bars and food stalls, so the income is probably just as much even when prices are reduced. It’s simple logic, it’s common sense, and we can all see it.

And there are two separate issues with ticket prices – home fans and away fans. For too long, away fans have been treated as the unwanted neighbours at matches, placed in the worst parts of the ground, with the worst facilities and some of the most exorbitant ticket prices. The truth is that away fans are the lifeblood of the modern game, as without them it barely seems worth bothering anymore. Atmospheres at modern stadia are bad enough in this country (in many, but not all grounds) without hitting the travelling fan and thus removing even more atmosphere. The call for price caps on away tickets is needed and a small step in the right direction, and it was soul-sapping to see my team and many of the other “big teams” are against the proposals for a £30 price cap. How utterly depressing. They just don’t get it do they? Income from away fans is such a tiny percentage of a club’s revenue (well under 1% for most teams), then it’s hard to fathom why a team would oppose such a move apart from spite. At least the teams in favour are looking to set up their own reciprocal scheme anyway.
I went to the odd early “Twenty’s Plenty” meeting, which wanted an even lower cap on away ticket prices, as the name suggests. There were lots of good ideas, but it felt futile to me, due to the powerful machines we as fans are up against, including market forces and supply and demand. Their cause and passion was admirable though, MPs have been involved, and the campaign will not stop until goals have been reached.

So how do we protest against modern ticket prices? Not attending does work. It’s why Manchester City have had very competitive prices in cup games, but it has not spilled over sufficiently into league games, where most seats are pre-bought in the summer. That’s the long game though, and it depends on owners caring whether seats are filled or realising that a full house brings in different revenue streams and fans for life. Visible protests like the one at Anfield are powerful. Already there is talk of Liverpool’s owners revisiting their plans, there are talks of further protests and journalists are writing about the issue en masse. Even Alan Shearer is discussing it on Match of the Day. There appears to be momentum, so it needs to be maintained, and we all need to join in if we feel strongly on the topic.

The game has changed – we all need accept that. No more terracing, no paying on the gate, no wooden stands, crumbling stadia, everything sanitised and safe, at the top level at least. No Football Pink, social clubs, goal updates on Piccadilly 1152, no relying on newspapers to know what happened. Now it is a sport of big business, of branding, of money, money, money. More and more money, piled upon more and more money, and the bubble is always seemingly about to burst, but it never does. But the irony is that the money that has swamped the game could just be the thing that saves it. If club owners could utilise their full brain power for just one moment, they would realise that they don’t need ticket sales anymore. They don’t need to squeeze every penny out of the match-going fan. The game is global, the appeal too, the revenue comes from all corners of the earth, from Albanian TV to Indian merch buyers to noodle partners in Peru. A rise in ticket prices makes little difference to a club’s chance of success, it is an extra corner in a match or one re-taken penalty in a season. It is less than that, because if the game was given back to the working classes, if the game became affordable to all, whoever you supported, the owners would benefit as much as the fans would. So if we can all see this, then why can’t they?
We need to keep telling them until it sinks in. Fans are the lifeblood of any sport, and one day we will have had enough – and all the TV deals in all of the world can’t make up for that. Only when fans are no longer taken for granted, their unconditional support no longer guaranteed, will progress be made. Thankfully it seems a groundswell has begun, and changes could be afoot. English football needs this to happen.