Friends with benefits

Evening Chronicle billboard

The club’s mouthpiece no longer – photo: Sam Judson

The relationship between football clubs and the media is a fragile one which, if tampered with too greatly, could lead to irreparable damage.

It used to be the case that clubs relied on the media to deliver information to fans. The local newspaper was the mouthpiece of a club – if a manager or players had something to say, their supporters would read about it in the local paper.

Why then, with the public perception of a club (ooh let’s say Newcastle United for example) already hovering just above the gutter, would said club ban the local media, further alienating fans?

The Time 4 Change group marched through the streets of Newcastle before last week’s promising draw against Liverpool, protesting against the running of the club.

But the powers that be at Newcastle, i.e. owner Mike Ashley, manager Alan Pardew, director of football Joe Kinnear, other senior club officials and the club’s press office, have objected to local paper The Chronicle’s reporting of the march and chosen to ban their reporters, along with those of fellow ncjMedia papers, from St James’ Park and all media facilities.

This news was broken to ncjMedia during the week, ahead of Sunday’s crucial Wear-Tyne derby, but the papers chose not to report it for fear of disrupting the club’s preparations ahead of such a vital game.

As it was the Magpies lost the game anyway, heaping pressure on Pardew, Kinnear and Ashley once again, and ncjMedia staff were prevented from asking questions of the manager at the post-match press conference.

The trend now is for clubs to keep their media in-house. Press departments boast of ‘exclusive’ interviews with board members or that week’s match winner, but it’s pretty easy to claim an exclusive when you control who people talk to.

The result is fans getting palmed off with stage-managed quotes, interviewees toeing the party line and supporters unable to get the full story on their club’s affairs.

St James' Park dug out

The scene for Newcastle’s next press conference? photo: eltpics

Newcastle fans would have been on the club’s back anyway after the Sunderland loss given results this season and the lack of summer investment, particularly in defensive reinforcements, so what help does a media ban do?

Now is the time to use the media to your advantage, get some positive stories out to the fans and buy some time until results hopefully start to turn around.

Instead the club have invited further negative coverage, given fans further ammo with which to criticise the current regime and shone another spotlight on themselves.

Cockney mafia out

There has long been fan unrest at Ashley’s ownership – photo: G Travels

Football clubs and the press are often awkward bed fellows, but when the relationship works, it works for both parties and everybody is happy. You just have to hope that in those good times you build up enough brownie points to get you through the rough patches.

Newcastle United may not have totally burned their bridges with the press just yet (don’t forget they took on the nationals last season when banning The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards), but surely they’re getting close? They have to reverse their ban, and quickly, if they want to keep sleepover privileges and prevent a permanent break-up.

Header photo – dom fellowes

I thought they were different

New depths: You can't take our history but today is another low point.

New depths: You can’t take our history but today is another low point. Photo: Waywardeffort

Football has officially gone mad.

Many will have told you this happened a long time ago but no-one ever takes anything seriously until it affects their own club, and now it has.

The Al Hasawi family sacked Nottingham Forest manager Sean O’Driscoll after a 4-2 home win over Leeds United left them a point off the Championship’s top six.

The decision makes a mockery of their family’s promises.

I had been pleasantly surprised by the Kuwaiti’s management of Forest since they bought the club in July.

They appointed Sean O’Driscoll, a manager who knew the club after a spell as Steve Cotterill’s number two last season, and had a good record in the Championship.

Funds were made available to assemble a very competitive Championship squad with no pressure statements of ‘we must get promoted this season’.

Instead we were assured they were in it or the long haul, wanted to build a sustainable club and in time return Forest to the promised land.

But all the gloss and good will built up with the fans started to fade in the past few weeks as the players were paid late, bills went unpaid and the club’s credit card was refused in Brighton.

A shiny new replay screen was installed for the game against Leeds, something the City Ground has been crying out for, but it was clearly just another attempt to curry favour.

For after the mightily impressive result against Neil Warnock’s men the owners decided to part company with O’Driscoll after all his good work.

The manager had a group of strangers just one point from the play-off spots with half a season left to gel them into a team.

His sacking is just as baffling as Gareth Southgate’s when Middlesbrough had just won 2-0 to sit a point from top in the Championship.

That was in 2009 and ‘Boro are still trying for promotion to the Premier League now.

Short-term plans very rarely work out and sacking a manager clearly respected by his player’s after just six months in the job is ludicrous in the extreme.

Gloomy Trent End

A dark day: Forest have been in the doldrums and can’t help but shoot themselves in the foot. Photo: Torcello Trio

O’Driscoll may not have been the Kuwaiti’s first choice, proclaiming as they did to look for an ‘iconic’ name.

But he was doing his job well and the excuse of wanting a manager with Premier League experience is rubbish.

We are a Championship side, let us worry about the Premier League if and when we get there.

Paul Lambert, Nigel Adkins and Brendan Rodgers are just a few examples of managers without Premier League experience but all have won promotion in recent seasons.

For now all I can say is good luck to Sean O’Driscoll, wherever he may go next – one lucky club will be getting a very fine manager.

And why would any player now want to sign for Forest in January, with a brand new manager who knows nothing about the club?

Photos: Waywardeffort, Torcello Trio, rutty

A sporting smörgåsbord of a summer

Every year the football season ends, and every year the television and radio broadcasters roll out their trailers for the ‘summer of sport’, complete with soundtrack from Dodgy or Mungo Jerry.

You can forgive them for going a little overboard this year though, this year’s slightly different; in case you weren’t aware of it yet (although I’m not sure that’s possible), there’s the small matter of a summer Olympic Games in London to think about.

The games have become such a sporting behemoth that they have, and will, influence just about every other sporting event on the 2012 calendar.

London's Olympic Stadium

London’s Olympic stadium will be at the centre of the sporting world this summer. Photo: Phil Jones

With this in mind I’m going to add to the list of summer previews and give my take on the events in store for us in the next 3 months.

I won’t cover all the events, mainly because there are just too many to talk about, but I will give a brief overview of what I will be keeping an eye on, why it is worth your attention, and giving my prediction of how events might unfold (there’s no real insight involved in my predictions and any money lost from bets placed is not my responsibility).

Where to start then? Well we’re in the middle of the French Open tennis so that’s as good a place as any:

French Open Tennis (May 28 – June 10):

Why? – The potential for numerous pieces of history to be made. Rafael Nadal can set a record of seven titles in the Paris suburbs and join Bjorn Borg on 11 major titles. Novak Djokovic could become the eighth man to win the career grand slam, whilst simultaneously completing the ‘Djoko Slam’ of holding all four major trophies at once, and keeping alive his chances of completing the calendar Golden Slam. Federer could become only the third man to complete a second career grand slam were he to win, and Maria Sharapova could complete her first if the Russian gets her hands on the women’s title.

Who? – Nadal and Sharapova. I’d be stupid to bet against Nadal really. If Djokovic makes the final I’d still back Nadal, but he’d be less of a certainty to win. If he’s up against Federer though, then I can’t see the Swiss getting anywhere near the trophy. On the women’s side it just seems like everything has come together for Sharapova to triumph – the Williams sisters are both out, as is Francesca Schiavone and world number one Victoria Azarenka, Na Li hasn’t been too convincing either. I’d keep an eye out for Sam Stosur though.

UEFA European Championship Finals (June 8 – July 1):

Why? – It’s England in a football tournament, no matter how much we say we don’t expect anything, we can’t help but get caught up in the excitement. The Euros tend to provide more entertainment than the World Cup, less meaningless games and the football is generally of a higher quality. Any tournament with an Irish presence is better for it as well.

Who? – I’ll be very boring, play it safe, and say Netherlands v Spain in one semi, Germany v France in the other. That means the final could be a repeat of Euro 2008, but I’ve a sneaky feeling the Germans might just get their revenge and win their first tournament since Euro ’96.

Andy Murray at Queen's 2011

Andy Murray faces a potentially career defining summer in 2012. Photo: Carine06

Queen’s Club, Aegon Championships (11 – 17 June):

Why? – It marks the start of the British sporting summer, it means Wimbledon is just around the corner and there are few finer sights than watching a load of professional athletes slipping around at the back of a slick grass court.

Who? – If Murray’s fit then I’d take him to make it three titles in West London. He humiliated Roddick there last year and the American is worse now than he was then, suggesting that Murray’s only real competition will come from Big Willy himself, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

Olympics Athletics trials (22 – 24 June):

Why? – The cream of British athletic talent all fighting for their place at a home Olympics. There’ll be some surprises, athletes who come from relative obscurity to book their place in the Olympic village, and there’ll no doubt be the odd high profile one who misses out too.

Who ? – I’m going to go for James Dasaolu to make headlines for all the right reasons. I interviewed him last summer during another period of rehab from injury, even at that stage his only focus was getting fit for the Olympics in his home city of London. The second fastest Brit over 100m last year, he’s already bagged an A standard qualifying time this season – all he’s got to do now is finish in the top two in the trials for his dream to become a reality. I also reckon a certain Mr. Chambers will fail to qualify for the individual event, his form this season doesn’t look good and I think the emotional roller coaster he’s been on over the past few years may have finally taken its toll.

Wimbledon Championships (June 25 – July 8):

Why? – Because it’s Wimbledon. Centre court has played host to some of the greatest finals of all time in the past five years and as is the way with any major tournament in this era, there are records to be broken. Federer could finally equal Pete Sampras’ record seven titles, or (depending on how events unfold in Paris) Novak Djokovic could march on to the third piece of the Golden Slam, Nadal could potentially win his twelfth major title or (whisper it) Andy Murray could win his first/second major title (OK 2nd is a little ambitious).

It’s not just the men’s draw that entices though, Sharapova will most likely be the favourite on the women’s side but those Williams sisters always save their best for the grass of South West London. Petra Kvitova won’t give up her title without a fight and Victoria Azarenka will be determined to reassert her authority on the women’s game. Throw into that the unpredictability of the women’s game at present and you may as well pick the quarter finalists out of a hat.

Who? – I’m going to stick with my Roland-Garros predictions and go for Sharapova and Nadal. Djokovic just isn’t quite on the high that he was last year, and if he’s not right on the top of his game then I think Nadal has the edge over him – as shown by the two clay court finals they’ve contested thus far this spring. You can never completely write off Roger either but his recent record at Wimbledon (only QF’s in the past two years) is worse than Murray’s, so you’d have to give Murray more chance than the Swiss magician.

On the women’s side, Sharapova has been pretty consistent in 2012, generally only losing to Azarenka, and should she make the final in Paris she’ll be coming to London with the number one ranking, a more consistent serve than she’s had for a couple of years, and potentially the confidence that comes with just having won a major title.

Dwain Chambers doing interview.

Will Dwain Chambers have be forced to run at in Helsinki to confirm a place at the Olympics? Photo: maxzix74

European Athletics Championships (June 26 – July 1):

Why? – Taking place the week after the trials, it’s surely the final opportunity for British athletes to grab the third discretionary place on offer at the Olympics if they didn’t perform at the trials. There may well be a lack of big names as the already qualified athletes will take a week’s rest in preparation for the games, but the competition is sure to be intense with so much at stake for those who do make the trip to Helsinki.

Who? – Who knows? It all depends what happens in Birmingham the previous weekend, who will have guaranteed their place and who will still be desperate to impress the selectors?

Tour de France (30 June – 22 July):

Why? – A sporting highlight every year for me. I can understand why people may find it boring and I can understand why some may be disillusioned with the regularity with which drugs cheats are highlighted in cycling. But I’ve been watching it since I was young, when I didn’t know what EPO was and when channel 4 gave me coverage in bite sized chunks at 6:30pm every evening. I remember Tom Steels blinding past me in 1998 to sprint to another stage victory, and I remember sitting having dinner in Lausanne, watching Marco Pantani ride past on his way to winning a post Tour criterium. Much has changed in the world of professional cycling since those days but much is reassuringly the same, Gary Imlach’s hair and the voices of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are synonymous with the Tour de France, bringing an air of class to proceedings come those three weeks in July.

Who? – Without wishing to sound too myopically patriotic, Britain’s riders genuinely have the potential to make history at this year’s Tour. Bradley Wiggins has what will probably be his best chance ever to grab himself the yellow jersey in Paris, and Mark Cavendish doesn’t look to have much serious competition in defending his green jersey. Doubt comes in the form of Wiggins’ main rivals for yellow, whom we should know more about after this week’s Dauphiné, in which Brad is looking to defend his title from last year. There will also be doubt over Team Sky’s ability to support both Wiggins and Cavendish in their separate goals, the squad as a whole is looking good though and if any squad is capable of winning two jerseys, then I’d suggest Sky are the team to do it. With that in mind I’ll go for Wiggins in yellow, Cavendish in green and Cadel Evans and Pierre Rolland rounding off the podium places.

Test Series v South Africa (July 19 – 20 August):

Why? – The top two ranked test nations in the world going head to head. England desperate to hang on to top spot and Graeme Smith’s South African side desperate to wrestle it away from them. Eight of the world’s top twenty batsmen will be on show (four each), seven of the world’s top twenty bowlers (4-3 to England), the world’s best all-rounder, this series has it all.

Who? – Take your pick really. Dale Steyn is the best bowler in the world, Vernon Philander is chasing him for that moniker and James Anderson would like to have a say in the matter too. Andrew Strauss could become England’s most prolific century maker of all time, Kevin Pietersen always likes to put on a show against his former compatriots, Ian Bell loves batting in the English summer and Jacques Kallis is a match winner with bat or ball. Were it any other year this would be the most anticipated sporting contest of the summer.

Olympic Games (July 27 – August 12):

Why? – The biggest sporting occasion in history, in London. Do I really need to add anything more?

Who? – Too many to mention and that’s why I love the Olympics – wherever you look there are stars being born. The obvious star is a certain Jamaican sprinter, Yohan Blake will push Bolt all the way for the sprint double but I think Bolt will still win both and add the relay title to cement his place in sporting legend.

Elsewhere I think Jess Ennis might just falter, but I reckon Phillips Idowu, Mo Farah and Greg Rutherford could all have a golden summer.

In the hockey I think the GB women could go all the way to the final. They beat the world number 1s Argentina twice recently, however the Argentinians were missing their star player in Luciana Aymar, so I’ll hold fire on predicting a definite gold. The GB girls are more than capable of delivering it though. For the men I think the best they can do is fifth, since winning the European Championships in 2009 and a silver in the 2010 Champions trophy, they seem to have been on somewhat of a downwards spiral of results – I’ll go for a German victory over Australia in the final.

Laura Trott riding for GB

Will Laura Trott ride away with omnium gold? Photo: Rob Duin

We won’t be as all-conquering in the velodrome as we were in Beijing. I still think we’ll come away with five golds though; both pursuit teams, the women’s omnium and one each from Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton – not a bad return really!

On the road (providing safe passages through the Tour) I think it’ll be win or bust for Mark Cavendish, IF he makes it over Box Hill 9 times and is still on the front then the gold is his for the taking – if not then someone like Tom Boonen or Thor Hushovd is more than capable of riding away with gold. In the time trial I think Wiggins can get a medal, probably not gold but I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the podium.

For the women I’m not so au fait with the opposition, although in Nicole Cooke and Lizzie Armitstead we have two of the best road racers in the world, and Emma Pooley has previous in the time trial as well.

In the triathlon I’d be hugely shocked if there wasn’t a Brownlee on the top step of the rostrum. Don’t ask me to say which one but Jonny’s early season form and Alistair’s pedigree suggest that if they’re both fit they’ll be fighting between themselves for gold and silver. For the women then Helen Jenkins looks to be in top form so far this season, she’s not as far above the rest of the pack as her male teammates but anything less than a podium place would be a big shock.

I could keep going and going but my knowledge starts getting a bit patchy for other sports now, so I’ll let you make up your own minds as to who’ll take home the medals in the greco-roman wrestling.

Novak Djokovic at the French Open

Will Djokovic have had a record-breaking summer when he gets to New York? Photo: Carine06

US Open Tennis (Aug 27 – Sep 9):

Why? – For every reason I’ve mentioned previously. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer are a joy to behold, throw in Murray’s penchant for the hard courts and crowds of New York and we’ve got the recipe for another cracker on our hands. On the women’s side, Serena would dearly love to put last year’s meltdown in the final behind her, Sharapova could well be coming to New York with two major titles and an Olympic gold medal round her neck, and Azarenka could have bounced back on the hard courts she loves to be a favourite again.

Who? – We’re still three months away from the action kicking off at Flushing Meadows with an awful lot of tennis to be played in between so it’s too early to say really. All the usual suspects will be there, but I’d throw the names of Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin Del Potro, Agnieszka Radwanska and Caroline Wozniacki into the mix as well.

That’s me done for now, no doubt I’ll go into more detail for specific events as the summer progresses. I’d be interested to see how many of my predictions you agree with though, and if anyone fancies calculating how much I’d win if I put an accumulator on all my predictions then you can have a cut of the proceeds when they all come good!

What have I missed?:

Three golf majors, England vs. Australia ODI series, a summer of Formula 1, a summer of Moto GP, Royal Ascot, Eastbourne tennis, domestic T20, Paralympics, Vuelta a España, World T20.

Enjoy your summer.

The Grass Is Always Greener

Teams will beg, borrow and steal (ok, maybe not steal) to get out of the nPower Championship and into the Barclays Premier League. But for the lucky few that do make it each May, is all the effort really worth it?

Arsenal's Emirates Stadium

Away days at stadia such as the Emirates are a reward for promotion to the Premier League. Photo: Junnn

Swansea and Norwich are proving this season that it is possible to come straight up from the Championship and enjoy moderate success at the first attempt. Teams such as Stoke, Fulham and Bolton have also demonstrated the ability to earn promotion and gradually build their clubs into established Premier League sides.

What of the teams that emerge into the bright lights of the Premier League only to be dazzled and fade back into the Championship at the first attempt though? Do the supporters of these clubs really enjoy watching their side lose week after week without any hope of progressing up the table? Or would they rather have a happier life winning games in the Championship?

Many clubs work to a plan that a single season in the Premier League, then relegation and the parachute payments that come with it, will leave them in a stronger position to bounce straight back up and stay there. The Championship is littered with ex-Premier League teams though, scrapping it out in the dog-fight for promotion that is the English second tier. Supporters of Reading, Middlesbrough, Derby, Hull, Burnley and Portsmouth have all seen their clubs in the top tier in recent seasons but subsequently fail to navigate a route back there. The Championship is notoriously difficult to plan as escape route from, but many argue it provides more competition than the Premier League.

Gates at Carrow Road

Norwich City have been the success story of the Premier League season thus far. Photo: pittaya

Norwich managed successive promotions in 2010 and 2011, Southampton look likely to repeat the trick this year and Leicester made the Championship playoffs in 2010 following promotion the previous season. The Championship offers a chance of success for newly promoted sides that the Premier League just can’t. Gone are the days of Nottingham Forest and Ipswich, promoted teams who went on to finish 3rd and 5th respectively in their first season in the Premier League. Norwich’s ventures into the top ten this season have been rightly lauded because it is now such a rare feat for a side to adapt so quickly to life with England’s footballing elite.

Were you to ask supporters of the Premier League’s basement sides whether they’d prefer to be winning games in the Championship or fighting for their lives in the top tier then I’d suggest many would opt for the former. It works both ways though, all supporters of Cardiff or Forest, the Championship’s nearly men of recent seasons, would most likely would bite your hand off for a chance in the big league.

So it seems a case of the grass always being greener. Supporters don’t always appreciate how lucky they are to be in the Premier League, as those of Championship sides would happily trade places with them for a way out of the Championship and their moment in the spotlight.

Fan Fever

Recent events in the Premier League have called into question the degree to which supporters should follow their club without regard for circumstances and understanding of a situation. Whilst listening to ex-cricketer Geoffrey Boycott discuss his love of Manchester United on radio 5Live I was struck that he took umbrage with being called a fan, preferring to be referred to as a supporter. He noted that a supporter, by nature, simply supports whereas a fan is, by nature, a fanatic. While some may disregard the subtle difference between the two terms, it is an important one. A supporter is simply someone who supports, but a fanatic is defined by ‘excessive enthusiasm and often intense uncritical devotion’.

Wolves Supporters Celebrate Together

Wolves Supporters Celebrate Promotion Together. Photo: TGIGreeny

The personal abuse Steve Kean has been subjected to by Blackburn Rovers ‘supporters’ this season has little to do with his team’s performances on the pitch. All supporters have a right to voice their opinion on their team’s performance, its management and how the club is run. Some people seem to confuse this with an excuse to shout obscenities and personal abuse though, these are not the actions of a supporter.

Luis Suarez

Luis Suarez argued that the language he used is not perceived to be racist in his native Uruguay. Photo: jikatu

Patrice Evra returned to Anfield recently for the first time since the incident which led to Liverpool striker Luis Suarez receiving an eight game ban. The booing he received from all corners of Anfield could be expected from a passionate Liverpool crowd and accepted against their fiercest rivals were it not for the fact that Evra was singled out. None of the other Manchester United players were subjected to the booing received by their captain, suggesting that Liverpool fans were condemning him for having been a victim of racist abuse which led to their striker being punished. This booing was again, not an act of support but of uncritical devotion that portrayed the Liverpool crowd to be condoning the racist actions of their player.

Chelsea followers’ recent treatment of the Ferdinand brothers has also crossed the line beyond support. The sending of a bullet in the post to younger brother Anton, and subsequent booing of elder brother Rio in Sunday’s encounter at Stamford Bridge displayed a lack of critical thought towards their club that epitomises the actions of a fanatic. Chelsea defender John Terry is charged with racially abusing Anton Ferdinand following a complaint to the police by a member of the public, not Ferdinand himself. The criminal prosecution service clearly saw enough in the evidence to charge Terry, so why should the Ferdinand brothers be subjected to abuse when they have done nothing wrong?

Following a football team elicits emotions from sublime joy to gut-wrenching disappointment, supporters embrace this and support their team through thick and thin. However, people shouldn’t be so myopic and unwavering in support of their club that they lack the ability to criticise the actions of their club or player if they are in the wrong.

So shout, cheer, jeer and applaud as much as you want, but never cross the line from supporter to fanatic.

Photos: Wolves supporters – TGIGreeny, Suarez – jikatu

Hypocritical Wenger?

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger spoke recently of his dislike for the current loan regulations that prevent a loanee playing against their parent club. He said: “Personally, I would not ban players on loan from playing against their own clubs. What I would like to see in the Premier League is that you are not allowed to loan players over the age of 21”.

Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger wants changes to the current loan rules. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald

Wenger’s comments reiterated a point he made in November, that Manchester City are effectively paying Emmanuel Adebayor to score for Tottenham against City’s rivals, but that he is not allowed to do the same against City. Wenger perceives this to be unfair, an exploitation of the loan system that was introduced to aid the development of young players not getting a chance at their own club.

City’s riches mean they have a surplus of talented players, and with no need to rapidly remove them from their wage bill they can be loaned out to rival sides. In doing so these players can attract interest from other clubs for a permanent deal and potentially help City in the process. Some would argue that this is just a benefit of having wealthy owners and that while it is permitted by the regulations then teams and managers shouldn’t be criticised for doing so.

Thierry Henry warms up for New York Red Bulls

Henry (34 yrs) is currently on loan at Arsenal from New York Red Bulls. Photo: checkbrazil

Wenger is known for his footballing ideologies though and the concept of the über rich owner flaunting their wealth and control over other sides clearly doesn’t sit right with the Frenchman. So whilst he is happy to let his young players go out on loan he would rather not see older professionals loaned between clubs. Were it not for the fact that Arsenal currently have two players in their 30s on loan, Thierry Henry and Yossi Benayoun, then it would be easier to sympathise with Wenger’s views. He has taken these players on loan to supplement his squad that is lacking depth and experience, arguably due to his mis-management.

The current regulations also prevent any possible allegations of corruption. Were Adebayor allowed to play against City then questions would be raised as to where the player’s true allegiances lay. Should he miss an easy chance to score against his parent club there would inevitably be suspicions of foul play and the integrity of the player would be called into question. So whilst loans are allowed it seems the safest option to prevent a loanee lining up against their parent club.

The loan system in its current form is beneficial to all clubs, however it does appear to favour the richer ones. I agree with Wenger that over 21 players shouldn’t be loaned, and I suspect more football traditionalists would concur with the Arsenal manager’s views were he not being somewhat of a hypocrite in saying so. If teams were forced to name their 25 man squad at the end of each transfer window, with no loanees over 21, it may force managers to reconsider their transfer policy and produce a more sustainable financial future for their club.

Photos: Wenger – Ronnie Macdonald, Henry – checkbrazil

It’s Coming Home?

The presence of football in the Olympic games angers many and confuses many others. The competition is not perceived by the British audience as being particularly important to the professional footballer of today, especially one of British origin, and is outweighed in prestige by, among other competitions, the FIFA World Cup. There are claims that its place in the Olympics should be taken away and given to another sport for which Olympic gold would be the ultimate goal. My personal view would tend to agree with those claims and I would much rather see squash as an Olympic sport than football.

Wembley Stadium lit up at night

Wembley Stadium will host both finals of the football at the London Olympics. Photo: Martin Pettitt

However football has a long history in the Olympics, there has been a football event in all but two of the summer Olympics since the modern games began in 1896 and it has featured in every summer Olympiad since Berlin in 1936. The modern British view of irrelevance may have more to do with the fact that Great Britain & N. Ireland haven’t entered a side into an Olympic football qualifying tournament since Munich 1972. It seems a simplistic view but the fact that we haven’t had a home interest in Olympic football for forty years will naturally lead to less importance being placed on the competition. Were more people aware that Britain are still the joint most successful team in Olympic football history (3 golds, tied with Hungary), then perhaps there’d be more clamour to reassert our authority?

The tournament may also have less relevance in the rest of Europe due to it clashing with the more prestigious UEFA European Football Championships and the start of many domestic leagues. The suggestion that few, if any, European countries send a full strength side to the Olympic football tournament is backed up when looking at past results; the past four men’s Olympic competitions have been won by African and South American nations, whereas the last four FIFA world cups have seen three European victories.

Union flag flying.

Will the football teams at London 2012 fly the flag for a united Britain? Photo: Mrs TeePot

Just because Britain has largely ignored football at the Olympics for the past forty years doesn’t mean that we should continue to do so though. This summer sees the biggest sporting event the world has ever seen taking place right on our doorstep, won’t it be somewhat of an embarrassment if we don’t have a representative team of our national sport in a home Olympics?

Players from the home nations of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales should be free to combine and form a united GB&NI team for the Olympics. Indeed the countries respective football associations have been given assurances by the FIFA Executive Committee that competing as a united team in the Olympics would “not affect the existing individual status of the four British football associations”. So why then, do the associations of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales still seem so against the idea?

Unfortunately it’s not just the respective associations that are opposed. A joint statement issued in 2006 by the fan associations of all four home nations noted their opposition to a combined Team GB at London 2012. They also cited a worry that participation could jeopardise their individual status. This view was reiterated by the Welsh fan association in 2011, and ticket sales for the football tournament at London 2012 don’t exactly suggest the public are desperate to get hold of them.

The associations themselves have admitted that they have no legal grounds to prevent any selected players representing Britain in the Olympics though. So should, as seems highly likely, Welsh stars such as Gareth Bale and Aaron Ramsey get picked by Stuart Pearce for London 2012 then it would be a personal decision as to whether they play or not. I think it’s fantastic that both players in question have publicly stated their desire to represent Britain and I hope that any other non-English player selected will also defy their association and play.

Whilst I have admitted that I wouldn’t be too upset to see football disappear from the Olympics I think that whilst it is still a part of the games we should compete in and make use of the tournament. Not only would it provide a lift to dispirited fans of international football to see young, passionate and proud footballers excelling on the Olympic stage but it would be a great experience for the players too. Imagine the confidence boost it would give to an English player left out of the Euro2012 squad or a Scottish player yet to experience life at a big tournament.

The event itself acts as an unofficial under-23 world cup so we should take it seriously, if a player is a late developer and hasn’t gone through the ranks of age-group international football then the Olympic tournament is a perfect place for them to shine. The same theory can be applied to a player cast aside from the international scene after U21 level but still shows potential.

Aaron Ramsey in action for Arsenal.

Arsenal starlet and Welsh captain Aaron Ramsey is likely to be named in Stuart Pearce's squad. Photo: Ronnie Macdonald.

I’m a firm believer that experience of tournament football and playing at a big event, be that an age-group international tournament or the Olympic games, can only help our nations’ footballers when it comes to a European Championships or a World Cup. So why do we stop our best young players going to the international tournaments and pass up the opportunity to gain such experience at the Olympics, the most high-profile sporting event on the planet? A gold medal for Argentina at the 2008 Beijing games certainly doesn’t seem to have done Lionel Messi any harm!

If we look towards the future of football at the Olympics then I see little to suggest that it will be removed from the games. The women’s competition is contested between full strength sides with no age restrictions and as such is regarded as more important in the women’s game. The advantage for the women is that their World Cup and European Championships take place in odd-numbered years, leaving national coaches with a full quota of players to pick from without risking burnout.

The strength of the women’s competition means that the men are very unlikely to have their chance of a medal taken from them. I could never imagine FIFA or the IOC allowing a situation in which one of the most played sports in the world is accused of discrimination because there was no male competition in the Olympics.

Football is coming home this summer whether we like it or not, so we may as well show the world that Great Britain and Northern Ireland are still proud to play the game that we gave them, as one united team.

Photos: Wembley Stadium – Martin Pettitt, Union flag – Mrs TeePot, Aaron Ramsey – Ronnie Macdonald