Thursday, 27 June 2019

It's Different For Girls

I made a prediction to my sons soon after they went to high school in the 1990s: that women's football would become a big spectator sport. They don't remember pooh poohing this suggestion, though I'm sure they did. I couldn't see any reason why women's football should not develop to have a good balance of skill and athleticism. Sure, not as explosively quick as the best men, but no reason why the spectacle couldn't be compelling.

What I didn't know was that it already had been a big spectator sport: before 1921 when the FA banned women playing in officially organised football. The reason? Unladylike....

During the first world war, women working in munitions factories started football teams. And people went to watch in significant numbers as the Football League suspended all fixtures at the end of the 1914/15 season. The popularity continued after the war. On Boxing Day 1920 a crowd of 53,000 watched St Helens Ladies play Dick Kerr Ladies of Preston at Goodison Park. Was the real reason the FA banned the ladies that it was getting too popular?

Women's football has some way to go to equal the gates of 1920 other than for occasional matches. So I've watched some of the FIFA womens' world cup to gauge their progress. Some games have not impressed me but others have. I watched quite a bit of England's last 16 match with Cameroon with interest. I was impressed by all three of England's goals but also by the team's ability, fostered under manager Phil Neville, to play a passing and possession game. Their stated aim of passing opponents into submission worried me - spectators can die of boredom too, after all. But England don't play like that. Yes they try to keep the ball as all good teams should. But they also look to play it forward positively whenever they can. By positively I don't mean lumping it forward or just hitting the target woman - though I did that often enough playing at centre back when there wasn't any other option (sure, it wasn't a woman at centre forward but you know what I mean). The secret to giving players options for passes is of course movement - it's easy to criticise players for just hitting it upfield or indeed for passing sideways too often but if there aren't options you can't manufacture many great forward passes. I thought England were good at creating those options, though Cameroon did give them the space.

And I was also impressed at how they kept their focus while the Cameroon team were allowed to get away with some of the poorest behaviour I've seen on a football pitch anywhere, at any time, though I didn't see the start of the second half when England apparently did look rattled.

But the other thing that strikes me is that folk often say it would be better if women ran the world: it would be gentler and more harmonious. But I don't see much evidence for this in the worlds of business, politics (Myanmar, for example) or sport. Some folk say that's because you have lone women, like Thatcher, trying to outdo the men, and that it would be different if women really ran things. But the Cameroon team have given the lie to that as well, showing that an all-female group can behave worse than men on the pitch, spitting, elbowing and dissenting from decisions almost to the point of going on strike and then disgracefully saying they were the victims of racism.

Talking of an all-female group I was not particularly impressed with the referee either, other than for her patience. Though on reflection, at this stage of development of the women's game, perhaps she dealt with the situations she was presented in the most appropriate way at the time. If it had been a men's world cup match the referee could have expected to be sanctioned and never get near reffing a world cup match in the future. But what was Qin Lang supposed to do when Cameroon refused to kick off for a few minutes while disputing England's second goal?  Not unreasonably she was concerned that the Cameroon team might walk off. As an ex-referee myself (ok, only the Oxford Boys' League) I think she had two options besides the path she took. She could have given a quick warning followed by a yellow card to the woman causing the most trouble in the Cameroonian huddle. But my preferred option would have been to call over the Cameroonian captain and instruct her to get the kick off taken or she would be booked and then, a minute later, sent off. I must admit I only thought of this latter approach the next day and, in practice, either action would probably have escalated the situation into a walk out.

It may well be that the referee took the right approach in being tolerant and patient, though my big problem with that was it wasn't fair on England. Hopefully all the negative publicity will make women's teams around the world realise that such a behaviour won't help their cause of establishing women's football as a big time sport. Meanwhile FIFA will surely take action against Cameroon for failing to control their players and the women's game can move forward.

I'm not sure I will watch a lot of women's football in the future. A bit like I don't watch as much womens' tennis as men's, or women's athletics. For a start I'm a man. And if you want to see the quickest/highest/fastest exponents of most sports that will be male competitors, though I accept that some prefer the arguably greater subtlety of women's tennis to the men's power dominated game. But I hear some of you say that all that squealing and grunting isn't exactly subtle. One might say "not ladylike...."

And don't get me started on the sporadic lobbying for equal pay in football. Tennis is not an example, as the big competitions are held with men v men and women v women (plus some mixed doubles) on the same days to cleverly avoid any issues with the tv and gate money being attributable by gender. After all we all know what the result of that would be. Holding the men's and women's football world cups in parallel is thankfully impracticable, so forget trying to blur that one, equal pay advocaters. But the outcome of the equal pay case brought by the USA women's soccer team could be interesting as they probably get similar or maybe even larger audiences than their men's team does, so fair play if that is the case. Other than such isolated examples the simple fact is that, currently, more men are interested in sport than women, so the men's sports generate greater revenues. That may slowly balance out a bit over time.

I still think that women's football will grow to be a big spectator sport. And maybe the near meltdown by the Cameroon team will draw more attention to the sport; any publicity being good publicity if it makes people take a look.

But it will always be a bit different for girls.... (as Joe Jackson sang in his song turning around traditional male-female mores).

Still, I think I will watch some of England's quarter-final against Norway tonight. Come on you Lionesses!

Friday, 14 June 2019

Broken Stones 2

John Stones got caught out again by playing too much football as the last man between the opposing team and his goalkeeper as England disappointingly lost a winnable semi-final for the second time in a year in last week's Nation's League match.

I have been a huge fan of Stones. He moved to Everton from Barnsley when David Moyes could not get any of his transfer targets in January 2013. Moyes told his team on deadline day that the deals he wanted weren't going to happen but Everton chairman Bill Kenwright would let him spend a million or two on promise. His question was "who should we buy". The answer was 18 year old Stones. Apparently Moyes hadn't seen Stones play but trusted his backroom team. He made his Everton debut in August 2013 and by the following May he had played for England. By then I had predicted that once Stones got into the England team he would be a fixture in it for a decade, for much of it as captain.

After a good start these predictions are not turning out well. Everton fans saw for themselves that Stones has skill and confidence in abundance. But they also saw that he has overconfidence and an apparent reluctance to learn from experience. On one occasion he drove the Goodison faithful to distraction with a series of three turns, one of them the Cruyff version, under pressure from an opponent in his own penalty area. The first turn brought gasps, the second shouts of concern and the third howls of anguish and derision. Stones got away with it that time but what those fans know and Stones won't learn is that all too often you don't.

When Stones moved to Manchester City for around £50M in 2016 I thought that Pep Guardiola would help him get the right balance between playing the ball out and taking too much risk. Again that has proved incorrect. What these guys don't seem to appreciate - and sorry for repeating myself here - is that because football is a low scoring game the balance between risk and reward means that while of course playing composed football will bring rewards, taking too much risk is not likely to give a positive return overall. Yes you can get away with it playing inferior opponents: I remember Man City being commended by a journalist for playing out from the back and getting an equaliser against Bristol City some time ago. Quite, Bristol City. In the first half. In a League Cup tie. I pointed out at the time that this approach could cost Guardiola's team in a crucial match against better opposition, say a Champions League final.

Will Stones learn? I wouldn't bet on it. Will Southgate? Maybe. He gave Joe Gomez a game in Stones's place against Switzerland. Whether this constitutes being dropped depends on what Southgate said to Stones.

I would have said why did you take the risk of fannying about in extra time of a big match when the risk of conceding a goal and with it the game is always going to be higher than the chance of setting up a winning goal by doing so? The fact that Stones got disorientated and fell showed that at least part of his brain knew he was taking a big risk and his brain and body miscommunicated as a result. I'm not suggesting he should have whacked the ball into row Z - he had an easy pass back to his keeper the way he was facing. Having drawn Holland up the field Pickford had a better chance of starting the decisive move than Stones.

When Rio Ferdinand arrived at Manchester United with a reputation as a ball-playing centre-back he automatically reined in his risk taking. It wasn't anything Ziralex said to him (though it might have been concern about being on the end of the hair dryer treatment). Ferdinand assessed the benefit of risk and reward when playing in a good team for himself. Some people can learn by experience others need to be told. I am generally in the latter category and it seems Stones is too, incapable of the self awareness Ferdinand had. And it seems he's not going to get told by either of his current managers. So he probaby won't improve.

The promise shown by the teenage John Stones has not been fulfilled to the maximum extent possible despite, or maybe because of, playing for the manager recognised as probably currently the world's best in club football. I've lost faith in Stones. So, possibly, has Pep Guardiola, preferring the superannuated Vincent Kompany to him through much of the last season.

Gareth Southgate had faith and moved away from his policy of picking players who are playing regularly for their club team. David Walsh, writing in the Sunday Times last week was more sympathetic to both Stones and Southgate, saying that the England manager had little choice as the alternative, Joe Gomez, had also hardly played for his club side lately having just recovered from injury. But hang on - there was a third centre half in the party, Michael Keane. Keane was a fixture in Everton's side and was a key part of their strong run in, with no goals conceded in their games against Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool. Keane has played seven times for England, the last as recently as March, when he scored against Montenegro. Keane isn't a silky smooth footballer like Stones but he can pass and, rather importantly for a centre-back, he can defend. And he is used to playing with England's regular goalkeeper, Everton's Jordan Pickford. Sorry, David, you're plain wrong; Southgate had a choice a made the wrong one.

Everton sold Stones for about twice the price they paid for Keane. I wouldn't swap them myself at the moment if the valuation was the other way around.

P.S. Broken Stones 2 because Broken Stones was my post of 16 June 2016 about Paul Weller, that being the title of his song inspired by Marvin Gaye and which does achieve a Marvin Gaye like feel. Fortunately the Marvin Gaye Estate didn't sue Weller, or at least not yet. I still find it incredible that the estate's case against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over the alleged similarity of their song Blurred Lines to Gaye's Got To Give It Up was sustained at appeal in March 2018 by a two to one majority verdict*.

The dissenting judge said the decision let the Gayes “accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style,” and expanded the potential for further copyright litigation. She said the songs differed in harmony, melody and rhythm and the verdict "strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere".  The only common factor was the party feel of the two songs. Party feel wasn't exactly novel when Gaye did it: I'm sure Trini Lopez's If I Had a Hammer 15 years earlier in 1962 couldn't have been the first such song. But wait, Gaye's song also influenced Michael Jackson's Shake Your Body and Don't Stop Til You Get Enough. Jackson adapted Gaye's chant of "let's dance, let's shout, gettin' funky what it's all about" to "let's dance, let's shout, shake your body down to the ground" on the former, which sounds pretty similar to me. But Jackson's estate could presumably hire better lawyers than Thicke and probably Gaye's estate too.....

All popular music is derivative, with generally a modest amount of something novel or different in any song, a bit like most PhD theses. The case sets a troubling precedent which could stifle the creative process of building on what's been done before.