Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Carlos Tevez: Try walking a mile in these boots

Today marks the one-week anniversary of Carlos Tevez refusing to do his job and subsequently being suspended for at least a fortnight. The Argentine striker, named among the Manchester City substitutes for their Champions League trip to Bayern Munich, was asked to warm up by manager Roberto Mancini, but decided he'd rather not come off the bench. The incident made headlines around the world and not only will it feature prominently in the end-of-year sporting reviews, but will also prove to be a landmark case in the history of football, a sport which has seen 'player power' surge in recent years.

To be honest, I still can't get my head around Tevez's actions. Blessed with outrageous natural talent which has brought him almost immeasurable wealth and global recognition, he's not satisfied with his lot in life. Football is a profession so many youngsters dream about, and one which still inflames the passions of adults involved much further down the league structure. If someone could only provide Tevez with a slight sense of perspective, maybe his outlook could be different, I don't know.

For example, so many players and coaches I've spoken to in the non-league game find themselves constantly balancing work commitments with a football career which is, in black and white terms, a demanding hobby. Teachers, labourers, shopkeepers and postmen all give up their Saturdays and midweek evenings to train and play for relatively menial sums of money, because they love being involved in a game which provides such rich entertainment. It surprises me more players don't pull out of Tuesday night fixtures, given the travelling hours required even in the Ryman League and Kent League. But that's the high priority they place on their football. One manager I spoke to regularly works for the Kent Fire & Rescue Service and often I would interview him just as he was finishing a night shift. He was always happy to talk me through the events of the previous Saturday's game, and his commitment to the football club was absolute. Another Kent-based player has to fit football around his unsociable shifts as a policeman, but is similarly dedicated to making training sessions and travelling to games. Mr Tevez, if only you'd walk for a mile in the shoes of these gents, you'd get an inkling as to why the UK football public, not just the supporters of the two Manchester clubs, now hold you in such low regard.

In other news...

The European Court of Justice has ruled in favour of Portsmouth landlady Karen Murphy using a Greek decoder to screen Premier League games live in her pub, bypassing controls over match screening. Immediate reaction has seen Murphy congratulated for 'taking on the Premier League and Sky Sports' and winning, but I'm not sure the ruling is good news for lower league football clubs. If more pubs can now show live football at 3pm on a Saturday (albeit with foreign commentary), that's more people tempted away from supporting their local teams. Midweek clashes with televised Champions League fixtures already drag down attendances at non-league clubs and this will only hurt them more. Therefore, the sense that David has beaten Goliath in this latest courtroom wrangle may be some way off the mark. We haven't heard the last of this one.

And finally...

While driving to visit my brother in Broadstairs earlier this week, I passed a snow plough heading in the opposite direction. The temperature outside was pushing 25C.

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Kent's sleeping giant is stirring

Bring The Stones Home.

Four words which encapsulate the recent history of Maidstone United, who once flew the flag for Kent in the Football League. Many better men than I will detail the tale of a club effectively homeless since 1988, resigning from the League for financial reasons four years later, reforming almost at parks football level and gradually clambering back up the non-league pyramid. Broken promises, false dawns and an on-going 'buy a brick' scheme have charted the club's drawn-out attempts to return to Maidstone, but a shining light is now beaming at the end of the tunnel.

It is October, 2011. The present-day Stones are among the title hopefuls in Division One South of the Ryman League under the management of midfielder Jay Saunders, who narrowly failed to mastermind a miraculous escape from relegation in April after taking over from the hapless Andy Ford. A plot of land in Maidstone town centre, on James Whatman Way, is to house their new stadium, due to open in time for the start of next season. An open morning has been arranged for supporters and townsfolk to visit the site, view the plans for the ground and speak to club officials. As I walk in, onto what is still a very basic building site, a splash of colour greets me; fans in shirts of all shades of yellow, orange and gold, a walking encyclopaedia of this extraordinary club's twisting tale. Last season, average crowds of more than 300 made the 40-mile round-trip along the M20 to watch the Stones play their home games in Ashford. That in itself offers some indication of the supporters' stubborn determination to stick with the club 23 years after senior football left Maidstone. The general consensus among those running the open morning is that the club would regularly attract gates in excess of 1,000 at Whatman Way. Other than Gillingham, only Dartford break four figures with any regularity inside the county and they play two division above the Stones. Certainly, with a population of 75,000, Maidstone can comfortably support football at a much higher level. An estimated 500 people drop in to Whatman Way during the two hours; further encouragement for those at the club who have worked painstakingly to reach this point.

That afternoon, an FA Cup tie against Bognor Regis Town provides a timely reminder of why the return home is so important. The game is being played 11 miles away in Sittingbourne, where the Stones are ground-sharing for one more season. Bourne Park has a certain charm about it although for Maidstone, it's the equivalent of a community church being allowed to use a secondary school gymnasium for their Sunday services and having to swap back the hymn books for crash mats before locking up. Still, the swarming car park suggests the tenants are once again going to outperform their landlords when it comes to pulling in the punters.

Played in temperatures normally reserved for pre-season friendlies, the tie starts sluggishly but suddenly comes to life when Terry Dodd pings home the opening goal for Bognor and then makes it 2-0 when experienced Maidstone goalkeeper Charlie Mitten inexplicably spills a trickling pass at the striker's feet, virtually on the goal line. Mitten's party piece is still to come, though, as he allows a 40-yard back-pass to roll under his boot and into the net midway through the second-half. The tie is dead, or so we believe. Late strikes from Tom Mills and Baff Addae - the previous FA Cup player of the round - set up a grandstand finale but Mitten, racing upfield for a stoppage-time corner, can't atone for his earlier blunders and Bognor are through. The fixture will be repeated on the final day of the league season and already it looks as though the Stones' final game at Bourne Park could prove hugely significant. Either way, the next time the club are handed a home tie in the FA Cup, the game will be played in Maidstone. Their homecoming will be big news for sport in Kent and the only shame is that I won't be there to see it happen.

In other news...

Having watched the Merseyside derby on Sky Sports earlier today, I was left wondering 'why are referees still immune from giving post-match interviews?' David Moyes will almost certainly be the latest manager hauled in front of the FA for his comments about Martin Atkinson's decision to send off Jack Rodwell, although Atkinson will not have to answer to the footballing public. Moyes was honest in his assessment, saying Atkinson was wrong to show the red card and should have been given a different game in the first place. The least referees should offer is an explanation of their key decisions, just as managers are obliged to do after every game. If Atkinson, or any of his Premier League officiating compatriots, are pulled up for wrong decisions this weekend, the sanction will be no stronger than a temporary demotion to take charge of a Championship game. Not good enough.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Help! I've joined the prawn sandwich brigade!

Another Tuesday evening, another drive along the A2, tracking the red British rail signs on the overhead green boards until it's time to leave the rush hour traffic behind and steer towards Ebbsfleet International Station. Of course, it's non-league football rather than high-speed rail service which has tempted me to embrace the industrial skyline of north Kent once again, retracing my steps to Stonebridge Road, a ground which has become something of second home for me ever since I walked through the turnstiles to cover my first Ebbsfleet United game.

Tonight is different, though. No laptop, no notebook, no smartphone, no Twitter. The same friendly faces greet me as I make my way into the ground, but I'm not headed to the press box - not immediately, anyway - rather, my name's on the guest list for the Fleet Lounge, where members rub shoulders with the match sponsors and injured first-team players. Even as Phil Moss hands me a free drinks voucher and ushers me towards a vat of chicken soup, I find myself scrutinising the team-sheets which have just arrived, scribing imaginary tweets about the apparently defensive side selected by Fleet manager Liam Daish, who has left Ricky Shakes, Scott Ginty and Lanre Azeez on the bench for a game against Bath City, the bottom side in Conference Premier. Soup and roll devoured, I'm off to voice my concerns in the more familiar surroundings of the press benches before the game gets under way.

With nothing but a programme resting on the desk in front of me, I'm able to give the game my undivided attention. My experience of the game lies somewhere between that of an exasperated home fan and studious journalist, with two sides low on confidence serving up fare less appetising than that which awaits me at half-time. Over more soup and a pre-ordered drink, the lounge guests are generally of the opinion that Calum Willock's headed goal won't be enough to see Ebbsfleet win at home for the first time this season, although the Champions League scores flashing up on the flatscreen TV seem to hold greater interest. The second-half's started but I'm still deep in coversation with former chairman Duncan Holt behind the terracing. I've well and truly crossed the line from press corps to prawn sandwich brigade.

Full-time brings meatballs and spaghetti, as I leave the reporters to glean Daish's post-match musings. The home side have won 3-0 and the manager's got reasons to be cheerful. Ebbsfleet captain Paul Lorraine arrives in the lounge wearing a beaming smile to collect his bubbly after being voted man of the match by tonight's sponsors. Photos taken, autographs signed, the defender stops for a quick word with us before heading out into the darkness. It's great to see the skipper back after his injury lay-off, but I can't help feeling Michael West was unlucky to miss out on the award. Come to think of it, I can't fathom how the midfielder's been overlooked, given the thrusting runs which troubled Bath all night, bringing him one goal and a further assist. Still, who am I to question my fellow soup-slurpers?

Monday, 26 September 2011

The day Martin Hayes and I lost our jobs

We always knew it would come to an end sooner or later. Neither my time with the Kent on Sunday sports desk or Martin Hayes' tenure as Dover Athletic manager seemed destined to be long-term marriages, but what chance both of us embracing the world of unemployment on the same autumnal morning?

The warning signs were there in each case, although an element of shock always seems to come as standard with these sort of things. In my case, a batch of New Year redundancies was not enough to satisfy the number-crunchers and a second editorial cost-cutting cull left me clearing my desk once the final deadlines had passed last week. For Hayes, questions over his ability to lead Dover into Conference Premier had rumbled on for months and Saturday's 1-1 draw with Havant & Waterlooville proved the last straw. That the final nail in Hayes' coffin should be an unsatisfactory result in front of the ├╝ber-demanding Crabble faithful was apt, given that the former Arsenal winger picked up only 20 points from a possible 81 at home during his time with the club.

Things hardly went according to the script from the start. Dover chose Ian Hendon to replace Andy Hessenthaler as their manager in May 2010, but Hendon was off to Gillingham as Hessenthaler's assistant just 18 days later, without taking charge of a single game. When Hayes was unveiled, Dover chairman Jim Parmenter insisted he had been on a 'shortlist of two', but the fact remained the Whites had missed out on their number-one target.

Such a turbulent pre-season left Hayes playing catch-up when the Conference South season got under way. Fine form on the road was undermined by anxiety at Crabble, as the Whites reached Christmas with only two home league wins to their name. A run to the FA Cup third round was always likely to buy Hayes more time with the Dover fans, although regular visits to the online fans' forum revealed that for many, his face simply did not fit, irrespective of results.

From a reporter's perspective, Hayes was as good as any other Kent manager. Rarely difficult to contact, always willing to analyse success and tackle criticism with equal vigour, he was a thoroughly pleasant interviewee, but the fact remained he simply was not picking up enough results to drag the club into the play-offs. A 4-0 defeat at Dartford extinguished the flickering hopes of a late jump into the top-five and turned up the heat on Hayes, who had been offered a new contract back in March.

Key players moved on in the summer. Jon Wallis, hugely popular with the Dover fans, left to join Dartford, while Ross Flitney and Matt Fish rejected contract offers before joining Gillingham. Priestfield was also the destination for Adam Birchall, the subject of a very different transfer tale, although Dover's over-reliance on the prolific striker last season begged the question of how exactly the goal-scoring void could be filled. To his credit, Hayes assembled a squad unrivalled in the division during a hectic close-season. Dover's ambition was a big draw for the likes of Ed Harris, Michael Corcoran, Billy Bricknell and George Purcell and back-to-back 4-0 wins to open the campaign suggested Hayes' summer business had been hugely astute.

The next nine games, though, were to prove Hayes' last nine in the Crabble hotseat. They yielded just one win, seven goals and nine points and while abusive anti-Hayes chants left Parmenter unimpressed, dwindling home gates prompted a reaction. Only 735 turned up for the visit of Havant, just over half the 1,385 inside Princes Park to watch Wallis and Dartford beat Tonbridge Angels. The chairman's pre-match programme notes read: "If adjustments are required they will be made, but only if and when the board decide it is necessary."

That 'adjustment' was quick in arriving. This week, for both Hayes and I, suddenly takes on a different complexion. Meanwhile, Dover are looking for their fourth manager in 16 months. Ah well, it was fun while it lasted. Good luck, Martin.