All posts by Harry Corton

Ground swapping- Dulwich Hamlet FC

Non-League outfit Dulwich Hamlet are the latest football club to see their home come under threat from property developers who own lucrative land around the capital.

A bitter row has ensued between them and Meadow Residential, with The Hamlet being excluded from their own home ground, Champion Hill.

Whilst the intense political debate roars on, non-league neighbours Tooting and Mitcham FC have stepped in to offer Dulwich use of their ground to play out this season’s remaining fixtures at their home eight miles away.

Harry Corton went down to the first game at their temporary new home to gauge the current mood around the club.

Click here to hear Harry’s report on the story that’s captured the attention of football fans everywhere.

 

VIDEO: Boxing club fitness regime boosts community well-being

With the National Health Service under constant strain due to the rising obesity rates and inactive lifestyles, combined with a ‘mental health epidemic’, a remedy for both can certainly be found in physical activity.

The power of sport has long been used in a variety of ways to keep people healthy and active, both physically and mentally.

Harry Corton visited the Caris Boxing Club in north London to see one such community project in action.

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More information about Caris Boxing Club can be found here.

How football is getting greener

Apart from the characteristically pristine pitches, there isn’t much to associate the Premier League with being green.

With giant stadiums hosting hundreds of thousands of people each month, football clubs have a tough task to combine satisfying fans with managing their impact on the planet.

But from banishing plastic drinking straws, to sourcing local beer, small changes to the way we enjoy the beautiful game are having huge positive implications for the local and global environment.

Take the floodlights at Wembley Stadium. To power them for one match, it uses the same amount of electricity as watching the game on 20,936 household televisions.

LED floodlights at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium

The FA, permanent owners of Wembley, is currently looking to join Arsenal, Chelsea and rugby union outfit Harlequins in switching its floodlights from halogen to LED.

It’s a “brilliant” move according to the Gunners’ deputy stadium manager at the Emirates, Michael Lloyd.

“You get about a 30 per cent energy reduction,” Lloyd tells me proudly as we survey the giant bulbs from the equally dazzling directors’ box.

“They’re a lot colder, bluer light than the traditional floodlights, so they don’t have that flickering you used to get with super slo-mo on tele. And you can do really cool light shows, which look brilliant.”

Vegan burgers

Perhaps clubs the size of Arsenal (whose stadium is 100% powered by renewable energy) are more reliant on their good publicity coming from what happens on the pitch.

But Forest Green Rovers has become well known for its environmentalism and is a good example of how activities off the pitch can generate more attention than performances on it would normally allow.

“When we broke into League Two, as much of the PR was around the fact that we were green as it was about the promotion,” says Rovers’ CEO Helen Taylor. “We’re doing what we can to prove you can be green and actually enjoy that within the fun environment of football.”

Forest Green Rovers are planning a new wooden-built carbon-neutral stadium

Last year the club announced plans to build a new green technology business park, including a world first, a wooden, low-carbon impact stadium.

Architectural firm Zaha Hadid was commissioned to draw up plans for the £100 million site, with permission expected to be granted by the local council in the coming months.

After winning promotion to the English Football League (EFL) for the first time last year, the Gloucester-based club, owned by green energy company Ecotricity, has struggled with the step-up in quality, facing a real threat of being the first team in history to be relegated from the EFL the season after entering it.

So is EFL survival a prerequisite for the new stadium development? “Not at all,” Taylor tells me earnestly. “We started the plans for it back in the National League. Obviously it would attract more fans, certainly away fans (if we’re in the EFL).

“It goes hand in hand with our vision to get into the Championship, and to be greenest football club there will have even more resonance than it has in this particular league.”

The club garnered national and international attention (and plaudits) when they took red meat off the menu a few years ago. They have since become the only football club to provide exclusively vegan food on-site, with no exceptions for players, visitors and fans.

“The away fans will come and take the mickey out of what we’re doing,” Taylor explains. “They’ll chant ‘where’s your burger van?’ and stuff like that, but it’s all in good jest, to be honest.”

The club has also pioneered the use of a robotic lawn-mower, known to fans as ‘mow-bot’. Powered by electricity (as opposed to petrol) it uses GPS to navigate the pitch and sends the groundsman a text if something is wrong.

Keeping quiet

2016 was the best year yet for football clubs improving their environmental outlook. Manchester City and Arsenal both announced partnerships with renewable energy suppliers, offering fans that switch to these greener suppliers  rewards, from club-branded household appliances to signed merchandise and VIP stadium tours.

Man City’s device allows consumers to store renewable energy at home

If you haven’t been aware of your team giving due diligence to environmental concerns, you shouldn’t be surprised. It’s not something they like to shout about.

This may seem strange in an industry where good publicity is valued almost as much as keeping clean sheets.

“We don’t actually talk an awful lot about what we do in terms of the environment,” Lloyd says frankly in Arsenal’s plush Emirates offices.

“That’s a conscious decision because we use so much energy and we fly to quite a lot of places, so we don’t want to open ourselves up to criticism.”

There was the story of the north Londoners famously flying to an away game at Norwich in 2015 which received huge criticism from fans and environmentalists.

“It was outrageous, there’s no getting away from it,” Lloyd concedes, “but there were genuine operational reasons why they did it and that is the case with all these things.”

“The Daily Mail for example would love it if we said ‘look at our floodlights they save x amount’ because they’d say ‘well you make so many million pounds from this and that’, so we’ve been really reserved in telling anybody what we do.”

Gunners’ food for homeless

Such is the hunger for negative headlines, it’s not uncommon for clubs to keep quiet about a range of charitable donations, in Arsenal’s case giving left-over food to those living on the breadline.

“Normally it’s raw foods like sacks of potatoes, punnets of fruit and milk,” explains Lloyd. “We work with a food charity called Plan Zheros. They’ll come in the day after a match day and they’ll collect it to distribute. It goes to homeless shelters and families in sheltered accommodation.

“I think we’ve done around about 2,000 meals in a year so its not massive quantities, but it’s better than nothing, isn’t it?”

Lloyd, who’s worked for the club for 16 years and oversaw the move from Highbury, registers the surprise on my face at this significant statistic. I had never heard of this hugely commendable local charity drive, despite living locally myself.

“Some people would say that’s excellent, we should all be doing that. Others will say ‘well why have you got so much waste, what’s happening with all the rest of it?’ Well, we don’t really need to be having that argument, we’re doing the absolute best we can under the conditions we can work in.”

Good business sense

Back in north London, I get a look at the stadium’s very own Waste Management Centre, located in the underground car park. It feels a long way from the glitz and glamour of the Premier League.

The site the Emirates Stadium is built on, known as Ashburton Grove, used to be home to a recycling centre that dealt with all of Islington’s waste. Part of the deal when Arsenal moved here from Highbury across the road was the club had to build a new waste facility in the borough to replace the one they knocked down.

Moro de Mineira favela in Brazil where the pitch is lit by the players’ kinetic energy

It’s not just altruism that has made football greener and Lloyd is pragmatic about the issues at play.

“This isn’t just about saving the world,” he tells me. “This is about operational efficiency. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. There’s a good business case for being sustainable.

“That’s the way you sell it to senior management. You can talk about saving the planet as much as you like, but in the cold world of business it’s how much money you save and doing things properly and sustainably actually saves money.”

Clubs’ carbon footprints vary depending on their size and the amount of spectators they attract. Regardless of size, we should commend the efforts being made to minimise the impact sport has on the environment, and not just at elite levels.

One quirky example can be found in a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Pavegen, a UK-based company has constructed a 3G football pitch with a difference.

Under the surface are 200 special tiles that when stepped on by players, create kinetic energy to power the six surrounding LED floodlights.

At £600 per square metre, the tiles are expensive, but that money can be clawed back in a matter of years depending on usage. The technology has since been rolled out at Heathrow Airport and Harrods department store.

The universal popularity of football means it’s always going to impact on the natural environment. It is how we manage that impact that is important if we are to sustain our game for future generations.

The power of sport is often used to the betterment of the people who adore it, so it can also be used to the benefit of our planet, too.

Betting shop

Football’s addiction to betting sponsorship puts fans at risk

When Leicester City announced a new ‘official betting partner’ in August 2017, few would have begrudged the former Premier League Champions their deal.

This close and special relationship with Dafabet was, according to the club website, going to allow the club to “build its international profile” and “help engage Leicester’s huge worldwide fanbase.” Well, what was the purpose of Walkers Crisps, then?

Just a week later, the club took to the website once again: “Leicester City announces Ladbrokes as new official UK and Ireland betting partner for 2017/18.” Yes, that’s right. One club, one season, two separate gambling company sponsors.

Jason Puncheon advertises Crystal Palace’s betting partners

My discomfort at the close bond between football and betting, unfortunately, does not stop with Leicester City. It is the bombardment of ‘price boost’ adverts everywhere you look.

Gambling on the shirt

This season nine out of the 20 Premier League clubs have bookies’ names plastered across their famous jerseys in deals worth a combined £47.3 million. Gambling is also infiltrating the supposedly sanctimonious BBC.

Research conducted by University of London, Goldsmiths, showed that during one episode of Match Of The Day on April 15 2017, out of 85 minutes of total programme running time, gambling brands were visible to viewers (through shirt sponsors, pitch-side billboards or post-match interview backgrounds) for 33.5 minutes (39%).

The figures balloon when you look at broadcasts on commercial channels.

We assume that technology is making our lives better, but is it really? Many will argue that having the option to watch at least one elite level European match every day of the week is a good thing.

Whether all-consuming football makes you happy or not, the fact is it’s done so the clubs can generate as much exposure for their shirt sponsors who pay millions for the benefit.

How many of those in favour of midweek mediocre mid-table clashes such as Swansea versus Watford actually watch for the love of Troy Deeney’s insatiable goalscoring appetite? Maybe they’re just praying for a return on their hours spent researching Watford’s away record at the Liberty Stadium.

Getting hooked

FA rules ban replica shirts in child sizes that display products considered, “detrimental to the welfare, health or general well-being of young persons.” So what message are we sending out to our young people by making the beautiful game synonymous with gambling? If we, as adults, can’t enjoy football purely for what it is, how ever will we get our children to grow to love it?

Newcastle United players model their famous black and white jersey for the 2017-18 season

In the 2002-03 season, Fulham became the first English club to emblazon their shirts with a bookmaker’s name, the fairly innocuous Betfair. Since then it has snowballed and now logos include words like ‘fun’ and ‘man’, they’re target markets obvious.

It’s not to say there is anything wrong with an occasional flutter, but gone are those days when a well-gained insight gives way to a hunch. The constant reminders and promotions, on commercial TV and radio alike, encourage incessant wagering on an unnatural scale.

Martin Calladine, author and football blogger who also works in advertising, believes there are even darker motives at play: “I don’t think there is any doubt that the plan for bookmakers is to hook football fans in with betting on matches they attend or watch on TV and then move them onto more profitable forms of gambling, like FOBTs (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals).”

These FOBT machines in bookmakers allow punters to stake large amounts on casino games like roulette.

“It’s a classic marketing strategy,” Calladine explains, “for industries concerned that the truth about where their profits come from would be publicly unpalatable — you promote a product that feels homely and unobjectionable to protect your image.”

Barton ban

One man who knows all too well about football and gambling is Joey Barton. The much-travelled midfielder fell foul of FA rules banning players from betting on the sport and was banned for 18 months, effectively ending his career.

Joey Barton playing for Burnley and advertising another bookmakers

Barton, along with many others, was angered at the severity of the ban.

“I think if they found out everyone who had been betting and cracked down on it, you’d have half the league out,” declared Barton. “I think 50 per cent of the playing staff would be taken out because it’s culturally engrained.”

How hypocritical of the FA to, on one hand take sponsorship money from bookies like Ladbrokes, and then act surprised when it realises there is a negative culture existing.

A public backlash in 2017 led to the FA abandoning its partnership with Ladbrokes after just one year. It also reduced Barton’s ban by five months.

Clearly the FA was accepting some responsibility for the mess, but for the Premier League and Football League to follow suit would be unlikely considering the appetite for increasing annual revenues.

These days, it might seem a bizarre suggestion to look across the pond for wisdom. However, attitudes in the United States against gambling are so strong that, in 2015, the NFL banned players from attending a fantasy football event in Las Vegas merely because it was being held in an exhibition centre adjoining a casino.

Of course the US is a different beast because of different gambling laws throughout the states and nobody is calling for measures that draconian.

It may be wise however, for the football authorities to consider how the entanglement of football and betting will impact on the sport and its fans down the line.

Betting shop image by Kake via Flickr Creative Commons under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Placing the fans first at Lewes’ Dripping Pan

It’s shortly after 3.30pm on a glorious Saturday afternoon on the East Sussex South Downs. Under clear blue skies, Brighton & Hove Albion have just netted for the second time in their FA Cup 5th round tie against Coventry City.

But just five miles away, lowly 8th tier Lewes FC are leading as well in front of a respectable crowd of 591. This small Sussex town is steeped in history. It’s perhaps best known for hosting Britain’s largest annual 5th of November Bonfire Night as well as being home to Harvey’s Brewery, founded in 1790.

It’s also home to Lewes FC, nicknamed the Rooks. Founded in 1885, the club plays at the Dripping Pan ground and has come to represent everything that is great about non-league football.

Lewes has a genuine connection to its community and is giving local young talent a platform. Not to mention being an activist hub for social change and hosting large charity drives.

Fans, players and officials, home and away, are encouraged to donate to food banks

Equal pay

In 2017 Lewes became the first club (either professional or semi-pro) to pay equal wages to its mens’ and ladies first team players through the Equality FC campaign.

“The idea was driven by one or two of our directors who saw this as a real issue,” says chairman Stuart Fuller.

“We’re on a clear one club philosophy. We believe in shared resources, shared infrastructure.” That philosophy includes sharing everything from the same pitch to physios between both Rooks and Rookettes.

“Lewes is not a town or football club that will just sit back and accept unfairness and inequality. We’ve fought for a number of things over the years, whether that’s against Page 3 or betting in football. Or some of the crazy things the FA have done,” adds Fuller.

But up the road, the Seagulls’ rise up the football pyramid has not been good news for everybody and attendances at Lewes have dwindled.

“People forget that 10 years ago Brighton and Hove Albion were in the third tier of English football and playing at the Withdean Stadium, which holds 5,000 people,” Fuller points out.

“Today they’re in the Premier League, with a 30,000-seater stadium that is five minutes on the train from Lewes.”

West Ham fan to Dripping Pan

The Lewes head honcho is an amiable man even by the standards of non-league chairmen. His unpaid role begun in 2015 and has included all manner of jobs, from stretcher-bearer to kit-man. He combines this with a day job in the corporate world as a chief commercial officer.

Oddly, he had no connection to the club until being introduced by a friend in 2011 after becoming fed up with the Premier League.

Lewes are sponsored by the Equality FC campaign

“I’m a West Ham fan and I was one of the few to see the light with what was going on there, long before what’s happening now,” he explains.

“I just got really disenfranchised by the whole thing. I still wanted to watch my football so I went and saw a number of clubs. I didn’t even know where Lewes was, but I went to see it and absolutely loved it.”

The main gripe Fuller has about the Premier League is how it’s becoming less and less about the football and is now purely concerned with business. He argues that fans of Man United still gloat to their City rivals about being a bigger club based on finances alone, despite being inferior on the pitch.

“If you look at how that (revenue) is made up, less than a third of it is from match days. The rest is all about TV deals and commercial rights. That’s nothing to do with football.”

Fuller time

He offers a stark example of how the days of clubs belonging to fans are over: “Clubs could play in front of empty stadiums and they would still make millions!”

It’s a  valid point when you consider that out of the £581m Man United generated in 2017, approximately £474m came from commercial and broadcast deals. That’s why Fuller hasn’t been to a Premier League match since 2014.

Brighton’s AMEX Stadium opened in 2011

I’m intrigued by this outlook from someone with a professional background in business, but not entirely surprised. Fuller has written extensively about his love of the beautiful game in his memoir, The Football Tourist.

Football has taken him around the world. On his blog, The Ball is Round, he has kept a list of every match he’s attended since September 6 2006, when he watched England beat Macedonia 1-0 away in Skopje. He’s a football fanatic, pure and simple.

“I work in a commercial environment and I’m responsible for a company with a fair few million in revenue and I’m quite rightly looking at ways of making as much revenue as I possibly can,” he says frankly.

“But I don’t do it in a way where I’m disrespecting my clients.” That’s why Fuller feels that the instinct to put fans first is incompatible with the Premier League’s corporate-serving interests.

“What I’m trying to do in business is I’m trying to grow my clients with me and make them successful. That makes me successful. Football is just so alien to that,” he grumbles.

“Interestingly enough, at the non-league level, that principle still exists. We’re trying to make our customers, our fans, have the best possible experience when they come to watch us.”

Beach hut bonanza

The million dollar question is how to do that without all the money washing around.

“More often than not we can’t control what goes on on the pitch. Yes we’ve got a good side, but we could have a poor referee or the weather could be shocking and it stops us playing the way we want to play. But off the field,” he adds, “on the terraces, we influence everything there and it’s about creating this fan experience.”

That philosophy in itself is nothing new, but a look at Lewes FC makes other teams around their level seem conformist. Sometimes, Fuller says, you need to input a bit of fun into how you do things.

All four beach huts occupied for a match

What started out as an April Fool’s joke was inadvertently well-received by the fans. Beach huts soon became a feature at their 132-year-old ground, The Dripping Pan.

With fridges to keep the booze cold and heaters to keep feet warm, not to mention wifi, Lewes FC’s take on hospitality has proved hugely popular. And of course, that means turning a tidy profit for the club too.

Fuller’s enthusiasm for football is plain, but it’s impossible to forget he is also a businessman and everything has it’s purpose.

“They (four beach huts) cost us initially about £1000 each to fit out. We charge £150 per game (£50 for Ladies fixtures) for them. They’re great, they work and they generate lots of revenue for us.”

Aiming for the League?

The quirks don’t stop there. The match posters and programmes feature some rather novel artwork created in-house by one of the club’s directors. It’s a minute detail but something that makes them distinguishable from the multitude of other teams based nearby.

After relegation to the Isthmian Division One South in 2016, and a poor start to the new season, some were unhappy with how things were going. “Some of the fans were saying ‘right we need to change the manager’,” Fuller recalls. He, however, disagreed.

“We were working to a three-year plan with our man. So we came out and said ‘look, we’ve had enough of sacking managers. We’re backing him’.”

The manager was former Brighton and Fulham winger Darren Freeman and he remains at the helm to this day. “Darren’s got us here with the core of the same team that we had three years ago. It’s just about the younger players being given an opportunity,” says Fuller.

Currently perched at the top of the table, there’s a quiet confidence that they will soon be reinstated to the Isthmian Premier League, the third-tier of so-called ‘non-league’.

Ambition

As for the third-tier women’s side the Rookettes, they’ve been going from strength to strength. An FA Cup run became the source of huge local excitement after they beat Huddersfield Town, and went on to reach the fifth round.

The Rookettes’ home tie against Everton drew a crowd of almost 1000 people. The wealth of positivity, however, wasn’t enough to stop Super League 1 side Everton running out 6-0 winners at the Dripping Pan.

A poster to advertise the fixture against Tooting & Mitcham FC

So what is the ultimate ambition for the club? They only have to look five miles south to see a shiny example of just how far football can take you in a relatively short period of time.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say we’re trying to emulate them (Brighton). I think it would be very difficult. Not impossible, but difficult to support League football. You would lose so much of what is special about the club and the ground.

“We would have to do huge amounts of work to bring that ground up to league standard. You wouldn’t be able to take drinks outside the bar, segregation, all those types of things. The ground really isn’t set up for that.”

But far from being stuck in the past, the club, and its patrons, are evidently progressive even by the standards of this liberal area.

Solar powered

A cluster of solar panels on the roof of the main stand, not only power offices in the day time but actually feed energy back into the National Grid, something totally unique for a football club in Britain.

An electronic sign behind the goal displays how much energy is being produced. The panels are owned not by the club, but by individual investors who receive a share of the feed-in tariff to the Grid.

“We’ve got plans to do further development work when the money is in place that will certainly bring parts of the ground into the 21st century, adds Fuller.

“But to me, Lewes is a non-league club and I want to see Lewes get to the highest level of non-league. I want to see us going up against Tranmere, Wrexham, people like that. But that’s three promotions away so we’d certainly have to do it over a course of time.”

But Lewes do have time on their side. Having the patience to let coaches impart their philosophy and placing the fans first allows them to plan for the long-term. Many other clubs could learn from the club’s sustainable strategy.

Review – ‘No Hunger in Paradise’ by Michael Calvin

Since signing for Everton in January 2016, Ademola Lookman has managed just one goal in 15 appearances for the Toffees. The 20 year-old is a way off convincing the Goodison faithful that the £9.5m they paid Charlton Athletic for his services was money well spent.

He is not the only one struggling to live up to a big price tag, but at least he made it though the academy system. Thousands of talented young players don’t.

Youth development is the subject of BT Sport documentary No Hunger in Paradise, based on the book of the same name by veteran sportswriter Michael Calvin.

The process of developing promising young footballers into elite players is a high-stakes business, both financially and emotionally, and with so much riding on it for those involved, the water can sometimes get muddied.

The film explores the wide range of issues you’d associate with the pursuit of turning boyhood dreams into the reality of fame and fortune achieved by a gilded few.

Pushy parents. Business-minded clubs ruthlessly pursuing their own interests, no matter what the damage this might inflict. Then you have the sharks that come in the form of agents and other third parties, looking to make big bucks.

With some of these themes very much linked and some relevant in isolation, every young players experience is different. It’s a minefield that Calvin explores in forensic detail.

Early success

After becoming the first nation to win three major tournaments at any men’s age group in one year, England’s best young players would seem set for bright futures in football.

However, it’s surely a telling statistic that before the U-21 European Championships, the Germany squad had collectively racked up 14,000 more minutes of Bundesliga action than their Three Lions counterparts had in the Premier League.

Calvin, who is well placed to analyse the issues having helped his own son traverse the cut-throat youth system, explores how the academies are failing to protect the futures of those young lads who don’t make the grade.

Once it becomes clear the individual is no longer worth their salt, they are cast off like “pieces of meat” – a fate that befell former West Ham United U-21 captain Kieran Bywater.

Bitterness

The midfielder was released in his final year of the academy after 10 years with the club, bringing to an end his childhood dream of playing for the Hammers first XI.

Calvin captures remarkably well the bitterness of this pill for the 19 year old to swallow, not only interviewing the player but also Bywater’s father, Simon, who offers more insight into the decision that left his son a “sobbing broken soul”.

‘Calvin uses journalistic vigour and a personable approach to get the right interviews and ascertain the uneasy truths’

There was no indication that Kieran was going to get released – if anything he was expecting a new contract. He was looking forward to starting his life in London and committing to the club long term,” Simon reflects.

What made the pair particularly angry was that Kieran’s release and subsequent mental breakdown was not initially followed up by support from any group that arguably had a duty of care, such as the club itself or the PFA.

“I was totally alone,” Kieran explains. “I didn’t get the messages from close friends that I thought I would. Obviously, there is a lot [of interest] around mental health at the moment and as someone that struggled with it after my release, I think its key that it becomes more a part of people’s careers.”

Kieran is now doing well at the University of Charleston in the USA, and, following graduation next year, will be eligible for the MLS draft.

“When I was going to clubs [after release from West Ham] I was going through all this emotionally,” he recounts. “I just wasn’t the same person going out there on the pitch. It deeply affected me and my game. It was hard for everyone to see.”

Dashed hopes

Some cases can end tragically, like that of former Tottenham Hotspur academy player, Josh Lyons.

He took his own life after being let go and at an inquest into his death the coroner questioned clubs’ duty of care saying: “It is very difficult to build up the hopes of a young man only then to have them dashed at a young age. I find there was an absence and lack of support in football.”

Clubs are looking to other fields of youth development to learn lessons

Whilst the specific theme in this film is about how young people can be exploited in the world of football, there are common issues present that are not exclusive to sport.

Calvin speaks to the principal of renowned performing arts academy the BRIT School in Croydon, about how football clubs are trying to learn lessons from non-sporting organisations about how best to nurture young talent.

By delving deeper into the subject matter, the findings of the research are more credible and insightful making the film an important work on sociology as much as merely a sporting documentary.

He uses journalistic vigour and a personable approach to get the right interviews and ascertain the uneasy truths.

Even Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger, a firm advocate of academies, has some reservations about certain practices.

Drawing on his 35 years of managerial experience, including 22 at Arsenal (in which time he’s seen the academy win three FA Youth Cups; only Chelsea have won it more), he joins England head coach Gareth Southgate in suggesting the clubs take boys on too young.

Home-grown

Chelsea’s principles are often criticised by fans of smaller clubs who accuse them hoovering up swathes of young talent. However, they are a organisation that has given to academy football the significance that football’s economics demand.

It seemingly begun with owner Roman Abramovich. “Developing home-grown players is a vitally important goal for Chelsea,” the Russian declared in 2007 whilst cutting the ribbon on their state-of-the-art Cobham Training Centre in Surrey.

One especially interesting part of the film is the look at how things are changing with regard to academy set-ups. In 2017, Championship side Brentford took the bold decision to close theirs, choosing to adopt a very different approach.

Phil Giles, co-director of football at the club, says it was more of a business decision.

“Rather than taking our resources, which are limited at a club this size, and try and spread them across the different age groups, we decided it would be better to focus more at the end of the spectrum where you can be more certain that the players you’re working with are going to have the opportunity to be professional footballers.”

While a “politically difficult” step to take, it matches up more closely to the philosophy of Wenger and Southgate; that 12 is too young an age to assess a player’s character and ability.

Giles states with honesty that clubs are keeping 80% of their players on when they realistically have no chance of making it as a pro, merely because the best players need others to train against.

Clearly, that is not a good model, either economically or morally, and goes some way to explaining the shock that registers when players, like Bywater, are presented with the truth – that they’re surplus to requirements.

Calvin points out that the young hopefuls are not only put under pressure by the clubs, but also by parents, and the film-maker faces the awkward questions this subject poses head on.

The Bywater’s are not the only father-son duo to feature. Glen Brunt tells of a similar story for his 16 year-old son Zak who having signed for seven different clubs since the age of five is now playing at eighth-tier side Matlock Town.

He is frank about how parents like him can be the biggest contributor to pressure on the youngsters. “Maybe they’ve not achieved what they wanted to in their lives and they’re trying to do it again through their kids,” he admits to Calvin.

‘Stockpiling’ talent

The film makes an important contribution to the debate about giving these kids too much too soon. Whether that be money, pressure or stardom, the results are too often negative.

As former Manchester City academy product and first team player Joey Barton attests in his interview with Calvin, who has good rapport with the ex-footballer having ghostwritten his autobiography, “the national team is suffering” as a result of the academy system.

The midfielder (right) says it’s the “stockpiling” approach of the big clubs that are to blame, too frightened to let youngsters move elsewhere just in case, against the odds, they come good.

However, Barton knows better than to lay the blame purely at the door of clubs. ” I don’t see players at the big clubs saying ‘I’m not playing (minutes) here, I want to go and play for Plymouth and get a load of League 2 games under my belt.’

“They’re scared to go down the divisions because if they don’t do well then they can’t act like superstars.”

That is, he says, stunting the players’ growth as they’re denied vital game time.

Barton, ever the riveting interviewee, gives a wonderful anecdote in which he describes a time at QPR trying to explain to the academy boys the harsh reality of becoming a professional footballer.

“Who’s going to come and take my shirt off me? You don’t come across as being nastier than me and I don’t see you outworking me so how you gonna take my shirt?”

In an era when people are being encouraged to confront and tackle mental health issues, Calvin’s documentary shines a timely spotlight on an issue that is often overlooked.

It’s not only in the interest of the sport, but also society at large to ensure the right measures are in place to produce footballers that are well-rounded people as well as good players, and that academies are held accountable for what happens to their prospects that don’t make the cut.

No Hunger in Paradise was broadcast on BT Sport 1 and can now be viewed online

cricket ball

The Elephant Sport Ashes Podcast – Down and Out, Down Under

In this edition of the Elephant Sport Pod, Down and Out, Down Under, I’m joined by three other keen amateur cricketers as we recap where the 2017-18 Ashes series went so wrong for the tourists and so right for Australia.

From captaincy and selection issues, to stand-out performances with the bat and ball and heroics in the field, we discuss it all.

So join me, Harry Corton, in the studio with Eddie Ikin, Harvey Jones and Ed Krarup for Elephant Sports’ very own Ashes inquest.

Feature image courtesy of Luke Hayfield via Flickr Creative Commons.

Can fresh impetus be added to UK hoop dreams?

It’s sometimes said in the world of American sports ‘If you don’t think you’re a winner, you don’t belong here,’ and it doesn’t just apply to coaches motivating their players in locker rooms.

For 40 years, basketball in the UK has failed to get its act together, due to a noxious cocktail of factors, but chiefly poor governance and a funding system that never gives it a chance.

So how optimistic should fans be now that a new firm, Premier League Basketball (PLB), have set up camp in London with the aim of launching a brand-new league to rival the British Basketball League (BBL).

Parsons oversaw the Clippers’ billion dollar sale

Richard Parsons, former interim chairman of NBA franchise the LA Clippers, will invest £1.6m to launch the start-up as an eight-team summer league in 2019 with outfits in Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield and  Glasgow, as well as the capital.

A good place to start to underline the sport’s failings in recent years is the BBL.

The 12-team competition, established in 1986, has long since seen it’s heyday of the mid 90s when the ’95-96 season opener between London Leopards and Manchester Giants attracted a crowd of over 14,000.

Nowadays, most league games average no more than a few hundred.

Exodus

Amaechi is a consultant for PLB

“There is nothing the BBL does well, except survive,” says one of the UK’s most recognisable faces in the game, former NBA player John Amaechi.

“It’s the cockroach of sports – it’s almost dead because of a nuclear holocaust, but yet it still survives.”

The poorly-managed administration forces many of the best talents to move to higher-quality continental leagues of the likes of Spain and Greece, or for the best one or two players further afield to the USA to ply their trade and have any hope of developing into truly elite players.

This exodus compounds the low standard of competition here, and the vicious cycle continues. This is one of the main things that the PLB claims it will address.

Brits abroad

“It’s not that the quality of British basketball is not good, it’s just a lot of the great players are playing abroad,” says Wanshu Yu, senior associate of marketing at PLB. “Part of our focus is to bring the very talented British players back to this country.

“Other than bringing British players back, we just want to create a very diverse and high level game so we will have Europeans and Americans – basically we welcome all players of all countries to come join.”

However, the evidence that British players are not cutting the mustard is stark. When the Boston Celtics meet the Philadelphia 76ers later this month in London for the regular-season NBA game, out of five Europeans to make either teams’ roster, not one is British.

The reality is British basketball, up to now, has been a tough sell for the brightest prospects. Low wages and the absence of an effective players union does not bode well.

“You should get paid enough to live,” Amaechi asserts. “I’ve had two different BBL players living in my house before because at the end of the season they get kicked out of the team accommodation.”

Amaechi in NBA action for Orlando in 2001

Amaechi, who these days works with FTSE 100 companies to maximise efficiency and output, speaks with the passion and knowledge you’d expect of someone who’s scaled the heights of professional sport.

The 47 year old former Cleveland Cavaliers, Orlando Magic and Utah Jazz forward has taken on a consultancy role with PLB despite distancing himself from British basketball’s authorities in the past.

Referring to his correspondence with PLB UK chief executive Ron Scott, Amaechi appears hopeful the new competition can finally put things right. “I told him that I will support any entity that comes into this country and meets my criteria.”

Living wage

He went on to outline those conditions: “Paying the living wage to every player. It’s a career and not a job. Not an organisation that requires the funnelling of public money through their system to pay players (like BBL)”, he reasons.

“As long as they stay clear of that, I will support something that is an aspirational target for young people in this country.”

The funding figure mooted is a drop in the ocean to start a new sports league, but the PLB marketers remain positive. “That £1.6m completes our seed funding which means we’re in the middle of our formal financing, and that figure is just to allow us to maintain ourselves until such time we meet out funding goal,” says Yu.

Look at any pro sports competition in the world and its not hard to see that money is at the heart of its longevity. One-off kick-starter payments are important, but so is a steady stream of income, and needs media coverage.

Coverage

BT Sport shows up to seven NBA games a week

“We’re in conversation with different broadcasters,” Yu tells me. “We believe basketball in the UK deserves more coverage. We think the change in season [winter to summer] will definitely give basketball more exposure – not only will the venues be more available but we also have more choice regarding broadcasting.”

It’s been reported that BT Sport are interested in showing two games per week from the new league to fill a large void left by the off-season absence of football and rugby.

A deal with the broadcast giants could prove decisive in having the financial clout to attract star players.

If anybody is willing to negotiate on behalf of players welfare it’s the English former NBA player. “Ron [Scott] consulted me on the minimum wage in his league”, says the performance coach.

“We disagreed but then they went with what I thought it should be, which is higher than the living wage because I feel  players should be rewarded for being pro athletes.”

Player welfare

Player contracts are something PLB is giving a lot of thought. “One of the special things about us is we have a single-entity business model which means from the beginning the league will build and own all the teams,” explains their marketing chief.

In other words, by applying the single-entity model, all players will be contracted to the PLB centrally rather than to individual clubs, as is the case in Major League Soccer (MLS).

“This allows us to do a better quality control so you have a consistent level of basketball and entertainment experience,” Yu goes on. It also means that they can implement salary caps.

This piece of contractual law has caused controversy in the MLS before when a group of players filed a lawsuit arguing that the ‘single-entity’ policy was artificially suppressing wages because they were unable to negotiate potentially better deals with other sides in the league. The court ruled in favour of the MLS.

Grime

PLB’s mission statement is to provide “high-quality, competitive basketball events in major UK venues, broadcast live in prime time with fresh, fast-paced, interactive entertainment experiences.”

“Britain has a slightly different taste to the US so the organ music or American style rapping might not be so welcome,” Yu suggests.

“The hottest thing right here now is grime. So what we want to do is incorporate the British culture in our entertainment offering to create an experience that is homegrown, organic and set to British peoples taste.”

However, those are the trimmings – it remains to be seen whether British basketball can be steered towards the mainstream after decades of languishing as a  minority sport.

UK Sport statistics show that hoops is the second-most popular team sport among 14-16 year olds in this country. But can PLB turn that interest to a viable sporting league, particularly now that the NBA casts such a long shadow with its social media activities and overseas broadcast deals?

Tom Simpson book sees off rivals to win William Hill prize

“That amount of money will change my life – I’ll probably pay off some of the mortgage. But I’ll buy a new bike, for sure.”

Christmas came early for Andy McGrath this year when he was announced as the winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year competition.

McGrath, editor of cycling magazine Rouleur, received a £29,000 cheque as well as £1,000 free bet with the competition sponsors after his book Tom Simpson: Bird On The Wire saw off the six other contenders on this year’s shortlist.

Given the current renaissance in quality sports publications, this was no mean feat – especially as the life of Simpson, the fabled British cyclist who died under the influence of drugs during the 1967 Tour de France, has been well documented in several other biographies.

But McGrath’s richly illustrated book captured the imagination of the judging panel, which included the host of the awards ceremony at Bafta’s plush Piccadilly HQ, BBC presenter John Inverdale.

Shocked

If Inverdale was hoping to keep the author guessing by introducing his tome as a  “coffee table book” at the lunchtime event, it clearly it worked.

Andy McGrath
Andy McGrath

“I am shocked,” McGrath told me. “This is my first book so just being long-listed was fantastic, shortlisted was a dream and now this…wow!”

Simpson died on the Tour’s notorious Mont Ventoux climb when he suffered a heart attack near the summit. An autopsy revealed the 29 year old had amphetamines and alcohol in his system which, combined with heat exhaustion, dehydration and his physical exertions led to his cardiac arrest.

McGrath said: “I was aware that people’s first thought of Tom Simpson was ‘that guy who died in ’67 Tour de France with drugs coursing through his veins’. I sought to contextualise the doping because it was widespread in the 60s and there’s reason’s for that.”

It was a reference to the the books extensive pictorial content that justified Inverdale’s “coffee table” reference.

“The standout thing about the book is the pictures you’ve managed to access which are amazing. It’s the 1960s, you expect the Beatles to appear in every one. How did you conduct your research?” the judge enquired.

“We managed to get in touch with one of his old club mates as a teenager in the ’50s,” replied McGrath. “And he had about a dozen photos that hadn’t been published of Tom Simpson as a bright-eyed adolescent. They really bring the book to life.”

Insight

Chick Farr
Chick Farr

Perhaps the most leftfield entry in the 2017 William Hill running was Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology, an extraordinary insight into the nostalgia entwined with football clubs and their home grounds.

Through the excavation of the now overgrown former home of Bradford Park Avenue FC, the book retells the tales of the old terraces – and some of them are quite remarkable.

As co-author Neville Gabie recalled chatting with one local lady, Susan Farr, his team of archaeologists proceeded to dig up the ground beneath one of the goalmouths.

“Her dad, Chick Farr (pictured), was probably the most important goalkeeper to play for their club, and apparently quite a character,” explains Gabie.

“One game the elastic in his shorts snapped, falling right to his ankles so the trainer runs on with a safety pin to pin them up. After than fans would bring spare safety pins and throw them onto the pitch.”

“As she was telling me this story, one of the guys from the dig came over and said ‘I dug this up about 15 mins ago right by the goalmouth. We put it in Susan’s hands and she burst into tears.”

Gabie’s passion to find links between places, time and people works superbly when applied to football. “You suddenly realise, just how emotive all these little incidental things are.”

Poignant

Another entry involved arguably even more emotion to produce.

Centaur, co-written by former jockey Declan Murphy and author Ami Rao, is powerful and poignant in its portrayal of Murphy’s against-all-odds recovery from a fall in 1994 that left his skull fractured in 12 places and two blood clots on his brain.

“I had no interest in telling my story. It was mine. I was challenged by adversity and I overcame it, and I was leaving it there,” Murphy told me candidly.

“I’d been asked to do a book on three different occasions and I turned it down every time.

“That’s why I say only a woman could have written this book.

“There was a patience and a sensitivity needed to see me through those stages. It became therapeutic for me.”

For Rao, the female writer in question who confessed she “knew nothing about horse racing at all”, it was a debut book.

“I was interested in the mindset of sports people,” she said. “That obsessive drive to win at any cost.

“This was my first time dealing with someone that’s been through something to the extent he has. It took a lot out of me.”

“What I love about this book is the universality of it. It just happens to be about a man who rides horses but it’s really about an attitude to life, hope and survival.”

The full shortlist:

  1. The Greatest Comeback: From Genocide to Football Glory by David Bolchover (Biteback Publishing)
  2. Ali: A Life by Jonathan Eig (Simon & Schuster)
  3. Quiet Genius: Bob Paisley, British Football’s Greatest Manager by Ian Herbert (Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury)
  4. Swell: A Waterbiography by Jenny Landreth (Bloomsbury Sport, Bloomsbury)
  5. Tom Simpson: Bird on the Wire by Andy McGrath (Rapha Editions)
  6. Centaur by Declan Murphy and Ami Rao (Doubleday, Transworld)
  7. Breaking Ground: Art, Archaeology and Mythology edited by Neville Gabie, Alan Ward and Jason Wood (Axis Projects)

Wembley’s hospitality fare leaves an empty feeling

If anything is worth rising at 8am on a cold Sunday morning in November, sacrificing the sanctity of tea and biscuits in bed with the morning papers, it’s Premier League football.

I’m off to the far-from-biggest London derby – but a derby all the same – Spurs v Crystal Palace. And it’s not just the entertainment on the field that has pulled me wearily away from my duvet.

Regardless of age, sex, colour or creed, the sense of occasion on match day, even as a neutral with no particular vested interest in the outcome, is unique. It’s compounded by the array of food, drink and entertainment on offer at football grounds nowadays which caters for even the most disinterested fan.

It’s not new to cite evidence of football’s gentrification, but clubs are increasingly embracing the lucrative lure of the hospitality industry.

Wembley – along with all other newly-built concrete bowl stadia – was designed with the more discerning ‘FAN’ (ie, ‘customer’) in mind.

Princely sum

Whether you like it or not, clubs need to maximise their multi-million pound investments in new stadia by offering a variety of options to cater for their demographically diverse fan base.

The Tunnel Club at Manchester City

New features such as the Tunnel Club at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium allow fans to get as close to the behind-the-scenes action as possible by installing glass along the tunnel, allowing them to watch from the dinner table as players exchange pre-match pleasantries, for the princely sum of £7,500 per season.

The Three Lions Club at Wembley, where I am spending a couple of hours before the midday kick off, is – at £129 – admittedly not the finest hospitality ‘experience’ the national stadium has to offer.

On arrival, my hopes of enjoying a fresh cup of coffee whilst taking in the great landscape views of Greater London were instantly quashed.

With no hot drink facilities in my lounge, I was instructed to try the ordinary Club Wembley refreshments kiosk. At last – a cup (disposable) of joe (£2.80).

Atmosphere

The Three Lions Lounge

Perhaps leading up to a 4.30pm kick-off, guests would have welcomed a rip-roaring band belting out renditions of Tom Petty and The Killers to create some atmosphere as pints were sipped and chins wagged.

But with doors opening and tunes ringing out from 9.30am – a full two-and-half hours before kick-off – guests would surely have far preferred the sound of their own actual thoughts, or hearing their companions, over the piercing speakers.

Maybe my restlessness could be attributed to not having eaten (more likely the slight hangover).

I went to the hot counter where I duly exchanged my complimentary ‘one food voucher’ for a thick-cut bacon roll, served with two hash browns and a small pot of ketchup. This was decent. Tender, succulent bacon and sufficiently oily hash browns.

Service was generally good and helpful. As a neutral, awkward questions did arise like when one hostess asked “Would you like a Tottenham poppy?”I replied “No thanks, I’ve already got a poppy,” gesturing to my coat collar. The cockerel-emblazoned flower wouldn’t go down well at dinner later with my Arsenal-supporting family.

The match

At 11.30am, I took my seat to watch the players finishing their warm-ups. It was a great seat, almost level with the halfway line and in the second tier with a great perspective over the pitch.

Best seats in the house

Looking at the team sheet, the big news was that Michel Vorm, meant to be coming in for the injured Hugo Lloris, had been withdrawn. Third-string keeper Paulo Gazzaniga, whom Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino brought in last summer, made his debut.

At a football match in early November, you expect to smell fresh cut grass with an undercurrent of hot dog meat and onions. At Wembley, it’s the opposite.

At least this seemed metaphorically true in my head – such is the culture of the stadium mired in corporatisation.

Pochettino spoke before the match of the importance of “keeping their feet on the grass” after Spurs’ incredible win against European champions, Real Madrid, on Wednesday.

Palace fans predictably made for a good atmosphere throughout the afternoon, banging drums and waving flags, but they were ultimately not repaid with a goal from their team.

Chances

The highlight of the first half was a fingertip save by Gazzaniga – from the same town in Argentina as Pochettino it turns out – denying Palace captain Scott Dann’s header towards the back post.

The keepers’ acrobatics were spectacular in what was otherwise a half of football so drab that retreating back to the Three Lions lounge at half-time for a bottle of Carlsberg and a couple more numbers from the unidentified cover band seemed great fun.

The second half proved slightly more exciting from the start with Eagles’ striker Wilfried Zaha finally beating Gazzaniga but failing to hit the open goal, right in front of the travelling supporters.

In the 64th minute, Spurs, missing playmaker Dele Alli to injury, did eventually get the breakthrough with an inch-perfect strike from outside the box by Heung Min Son into the bottom left corner.

Just minutes before, one fan next to me spoke of his surprise at the goalless score line. “If its still 0-0 at 60 mins and the odds are decent I’m whacking £500 on us to win”, he said nudging me with his elbow as if it was a cert.

I suppose you need something to up the ante of such a dry affair. Sure enough, said punter erupted upon Son’s superb effort bulging the net.

I left in the 80th minute to beat the crowds, with not a slightest concern of missing any drama. Trudging back down Wembley Way I reflected on a mediocre day at Wembley. Maybe I should have stayed in bed after all.