Premier League Clubs Missed their Chance to Keep Christmas Eve Special

Arsenal

London – The almost total lack of regard in which broadcasters hold football fans is no secret, so it should have come as no surprise to learn Sky Sports is proposing to reschedule Arsenal’s home match against Liverpool for Christmas Eve in what the Football Supporters’ Federation has described as “a new low point in putting the interests of football broadcasters over those of match-going fans”. And yet somehow it did come as a surprise. Even by the notoriously cut-throat standards of TV networks scrambling for subscriptions, this seems unnecessarily grasping.

With an already hectic festive grind looming, footballers would almost certainly rather not play on Christmas Eve. Fans, some with other commitments and others faced with the return journey to and from London from Liverpool on what is a chaotic day for transport, would almost certainly rather not travel on Christmas Eve.

Matchday staff earning not much more than minimum wage for their shifts would almost certainly rather not work on Christmas Eve. On a day that vast swaths of the British population set aside for last-minute trolley dashes, family reunions, festive roistering and all the domestic disquiet that entails, we could almost certainly do without the added distraction of Premier League football on television. Couldn’t we?

Apparently not, despite the fact almost everyone involved apart from the broadcasting company that paid £11m for British TV rights for the match appears to agree it is a ridiculous idea. Even before a final decision has been made, both football clubs involved have complained, as have their supporters.

But while Sky Sports has not yet publicly acknowledged any of these gripes, early indications suggest it is likely to respond to this almost unanimous groundswell of disapproval by – yes, you’ve guessed it – scheduling a second Premier League match for the same day and transforming Christmas Eve into a Super Sleigh Bell Sunday featuring two games instead of the more traditional and generally accepted none.

A spokeswoman for Sky said she was not in a position to comment given the fixtures for December have not been selected but that an announcement will be made in the next fortnight. “Twice in recent years [2011 and 2016] Christmas Eve has fallen on a Saturday,” says the FSF. “In both those years the Premier League has not scheduled any fixtures for that day, presumably in recognition of the significance of the date. For broadcasters now to move fixtures to Christmas Eve, and on a Sunday at that, flies in the face of that policy.”

On Monday, it emerged the second match being mooted for rescheduling to Christmas Eve is West Ham v Newcastle, which would almost certainly occupy the 1.30pm TV slot and mean a round trip of 560 miles for traveling Geordies, who, unlike Father Christmas, do not have the luxury of airborne sleighs drawn by reindeer to speed them home.

Expect more entirely justified disquiet from a set of supporters whose location means they are already treated particularly contemptuously by TV schedulers.

The clubs, despite their predictable carping, can have no complaints as they are lying in a cash-strewn bed of their own making. When Sky and BT Sport paid a combined £5.136bn for the UK TV rights of the Premier League in the famously lucrative carve-up of February 2015, it was the former network that paid the lion’s share of the money, £4.176bn, to win the vast majority of the TV slots available. Two of those are on Sunday afternoons, with kick-offs at 1.30pm and 4pm, windows dictated at the time by clubs mindful of potential viewing audiences and hoping to rinse the maximum revenue possible out of the bidders.

Much to their delight the money duly arrived but in the ensuing contract negotiations the clubs either did not bother, did not want to, or perhaps just never thought to insist on clauses precluding Sky or BT Sport from rescheduling matches that would quite clearly inconvenience fans traveling long distances at great expense.

Evidently they also failed to reckon on Christmas Eve 2017 falling on a Sunday and the potential problems that might cause. Sky has two slots to play with on Christmas Eve Sunday. One can be moved to the previous Friday night, but this would still leave one Sunday slot vacant.

Should Sky decide to keep match-going fans and the FSF happy by not broadcasting Arsenal v Liverpool or any other match on Christmas Eve, it would to all intents and purposes be throwing away the £11m it paid for the right to do so. Even at a time of goodwill to all men, this course of action is one it would be understandably reluctant to take.

This could easily have been avoided. As equal shareholders in the Premier League, along with the 18 other clubs who comprised English football’s top flight at the time the deal with Sky and BT was struck, there was nothing to stop Arsenal, Liverpool or the other shareholders preempting such a scenario and colluding to ensure it never came to pass. They did not and, as usual, it is their fans who will suffer the most.

“Spirit Of Shankly have been made aware that Liverpool’s away fixture against Arsenal, scheduled for 23 December, is being considered for a move to Christmas Eve,” said a Liverpool’s supporters’ group, which pointed out the impact such a switch would have. “SOS are contacting relevant personnel to put forward our case that it is completely unacceptable to expect fans to travel for a match at this time. The suggestion of such a change again shows zero regard for supporters – much like the corresponding fixture where Euston station was closed over bank holiday weekend.”

The FSF has declared it will continue to work in conjunction with supporters’ groups to engage with the Premier League and broadcasters “to register our discontent and to seek full involvement and consultation with supporters in determining future scheduling”.

Good luck to them but history suggests their hopes of being paid anything other than lip service would constitute a Christmas miracle.

The Guardian Sport

Pep Guardiola’s Circular Dressing Room Offers One Way to Split Up Team Cliques

Pep

London- The butt of much public mockery when Sky’s cameras captured assorted well-heeled corporate clients peering through its walls of two‑way glass last Monday night, Manchester City’s Tunnel Club is the most amusing but not necessarily most interesting renovation to have been undertaken at the Etihad Stadium during the close season. Moving on from the well fed and watered supporters staring in slack-jawed wonder at the exhibits as they prepared for battle, the cameras also gave us a glimpse of an inner sanctum that, for the time being at least, remains closed to prying eyes on match days.

The stadium’s home dressing room is as opulent as you might expect for such a wealthy club, but it is its sheer roundness that is most striking. Returning for his early plunge in the state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool after being sent off on his home debut, Kyle Walker will no doubt have been struck by the rotational symmetry of his surroundings as he angrily flung his shin pads into one of the corners that aren’t there, before being enveloped in the life-affirming chi that feng shui experts tell us a 360-degree dwelling space provides.

Harmonising his players with their surroundings may not have been uppermost in Pep Guardiola’s mind when he signed off on the summer redesign of the home dressing room, but the decision to make it circular was a very conscious one. Much like the knights who convened around the famous table of Arthurian legend, all men who sit in Guardiola’s similarly shaped sanctuary enjoy equal status and the Spaniard is understood to have encouraged the design as a way of discouraging that most pernicious and malign of influences on team morale: the dressing room clique.

Far from exclusive to football and regularly held up as one of the root causes for the poor performances of sports teams who fail to live up to the sum of their parts, these exclusive close-knit groups within groups are the bane of managers whose desperation to eliminate them in the interests of team or squad harmony occasionally extends to actually fretting over meal-time seating arrangements for grown adults like a bride and groom meticulously plotting to minimise the potential for internecine strife at their wedding reception.

England’s football squad has long been renowned for its cliquishness and as the players gather for the first international break of the season, we can only speculate as to how damaging division among the ranks has been for morale in a national team that has consistently come up short since 1990. It would be naive to assume more inclusive England squads might have enjoyed greater success at international tournaments, or to imagine more successful teams – hello France, Germany and Spain – have not also been adversely affected by internal divides. For all that, the ease with which England habitually qualify for major tournaments compared with the horror show that invariably unfolds once the players have been confined to barracks for five or six weeks does little to dispel the notion that the more time they spend cloistered together, the less cohesive their performances tend to be.

In a newspaper column he wrote before England’s doomed Euro 2016 campaign, Rio Ferdinand mentioned the cliques which were immediately apparent upon his introduction to the England squad as a teenager. “You had [Alan] Shearer’s table and all his mates,” he said. “You had the Liverpool table and all the dregs like a couple of Arsenal and a couple of West Ham like me. Then there was the United table.”

His description of a squad divided was more or less confirmed by his fellow West Ham alumnus Dean Ashton, who seemed genuinely baffled by arrangements when he was called up by Steve McClaren in 2006. “I was warned beforehand that it [the squad] could be a bit cliquey – with the Liverpool boys sticking together, Manchester United, Chelsea and it very much was like that,” he recalled. “There was very much a feeling of when you first go into a classroom and no one really wants to talk to you. I mean, I was there for a few days, and there were some senior players that didn’t speak to me for the whole time I was there, which I just found totally bizarre.”

In an interview published in the Guardian last year, the former England rugby team psychologist Jeremy Snape cited Leicester City’s unlikely march to the Premier League title as the very antithesis of a team suffering from the adverse affects of a tribe being rent asunder by internal cliquishness. “The excitement of doing something special would have galvanised their individual differences, focused their minds on strategies and roles, and maintained their physical training until the very end of the season,” he said, before warning that future difficulties would lie in “maintaining that hunger and selflessness when so much in their lives will have changed”. Sure enough, shortly into the following season the cracks began to appear.

A thoughtful man and manager, Gareth Southgate will be aware of the need to abolish cliques in his squad while simultaneously treating his players like the grown men they are. In 2015 as head of the England youth team set-up, he was forced to deny allegations of racial divisions in the under-20 squad in the face of fairly incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. In photos published by several newspapers, either through accident or design the boys in question happened to be dining at a couple of round tables. All equal as squad members, the white players were seated together around one of them while their black team-mates occupied the other.

The Guardian Sport

Referees are Damned by their Errors, Ignorance of the Laws is No Defence

sport

The fact that the referee Martin Atkinson sounds even more like the comedian Bob Mortimer than he looks was not the most interesting revelation to emerge from Sky’s recent effort to show the human side of match officials on The Referees – Onside with Carragher and Neville.

Criticism from fans goes with the territory of whistle blowing but, asked how he feels about his staff being criticised by former peers-turned‑pundits such as Howard Webb, Mike Riley, the Professional Game Match Officials Limited managing director and former referee, explained to embedded reporters Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville that it is in fact the brickbats of players-turned-pundits that tend to disappoint as they are often hurled from a position of blissful ignorance.

“If you’re a former player, you’re not expected to know the rules of the game,” said Riley, whose blithe assertion went weirdly unchallenged by the two specimens of the breed seated before him, both of whom are renowned for their fastidious approach to punditry.

The same cannot be said for all sportsmen. The comical sight of Dylan Hartley and James Haskell, England internationals who had amassed 151 caps between them at that point, pleading with the French referee Romain Poite to explain the rules of the sport during a Six Nations match earlier this year will live long in the memory of all who saw it but it can reasonably be argued that even for those who play the game, rugby is a form of organised chaos governed by laws so byzantine only the most devoted anorak could be excused for not being familiar with them all. On the World Rugby Laws website, the complexities of that particular sport’s offside rule is explained in 23 often long‑winded and barely coherent clauses spread across 11 different subsections. By contrast, most young footballers are taught the finer points of their sport’s equivalent at the kitchen table in a 60-second tutorial involving assorted condiments.

Compared with those of rugby, golf or cricket, the laws of football are fairly straightforward and, while former players who are paid handsomely to analyse games could be forgiven for not being familiar with some of them, it is hardly unfair to suggest they should at least be on nodding terms with most of them. Match officials, on the other hand, have no excuse for not having an encyclopaedic knowledge of the justice they hand down, a state of affairs that rendered the performance of Keith Stroud in the Championship match between Newcastle United and Burton Albion last Wednesday all the more extraordinary.

In case you missed it: having awarded Newcastle a penalty, which was dispatched by Matt Ritchie, Stroud incurred the vengeful and raucous wrath of the home team’s players, backroom staff and most of the 48,814 crowd by disallowing the goal for encroachment. Instead of ordering the penalty be retaken, he further incensed most present by making the bizarre and completely incorrect decision to award Burton an indirect free-kick, prompting a lengthy break in play during which he consulted two of his fellow match officials.

For reasons best known to themselves, they appeared to do little or nothing to convince the referee he was about to make an embarrassing and potentially career-defining blunder. And make no mistake, with one or two notable exceptions, it is by their errors that football referees tend to be defined no matter how competent they are.

As the camera cut or panned from one referee or referee’s assistant to another on Carragher’s and Neville’s documentary, it was each individual’s errors that leapt immediately to mind, rather than the decent performances – the ones that tend to go unnoticed – for which they would rather to be remembered. Anthony Taylor? That Sam Vokes handball in Burnley’s match against Swansea at the Liberty Stadium. Stuart Attwell? Reading’s “ghost” goal at Watford all those years ago. Mike Dean? Five rescinded red cards this season. Indeed, the notable exception among all those featured seemed to be the female referee’s assistant Sian Massey-Ellis. The 31-year-old will have to mess up spectacularly before her career is defined by anything other than the sexist jibes of a pair of former employees of the TV network on whose documentary she was appearing.

But back to Stroud. Just as the notion that the official from Dorset could have become a member of English football’s refereeing elite without actually knowing something so basic as what to do after penalising a player for encroachment at a spot-kick is too weird to even contemplate, we are also left to assume he suffered some sort of brain-freeze which quickly spread to those tasked with helping him to avoid such meltdowns.

In Carragher’s and Neville’s film we got to read the merciless self-criticism penned by Taylor in his report on that Liberty Stadium horror show, but one feels Stroud’s explanation for his tomfoolery in the white heat of the St James’ Park cauldron would make far more riveting reading.

While entertaining, one suspects Carragher’s and Neville’s occasionally banter-rific documentary about referees is unlikely to alter the views of any one-eyed, tinfoil hat-wearing conspiracy theorists who think each and every match official is biased against their team. Stroud’s inexplicable gaffe was even more entertaining and even less likely to change closed minds.

The Guardian Sport

Rogues’ Gallery: English Football’s Worst Owners, from Becchetti to Bates

Sport

Francesco Becchetti, Leyton Orient 2014-

In just two and a half seasons as owner, the waste-management magnate has taken Leyton Orient from the verge of the Championship to the brink of relegation from the Football League and possibly even extinction. Since buying the club from Barry Hearn for £4m, the Italian has overseen nine managerial changes and faced repeated claims of interference in team affairs. In December 2015, he earned himself a six-match ban for kicking Orient’s then assistant manager, Andy Hessenthaler, following a win over Portsmouth. Last week, Orient survived a winding-up order at the high court and Becchetti was given until 12 June to either sell the club or pay off its debts. Waltham Forest council are among the creditors, for providing health and safety advice, as is the company that provides match-day stewards and the official club photographer. If Becchetti fails to either pay or sell up, Orient – bottom of League Two and seven points off the last safe spot – risk going into liquidation and out of existence.

Sisu Capital, Coventry City 2007-

In December 2007, Coventry – at the time in the Championship – were saved from administration and a points deduction after being taken over by the hedge fund Sisu Capital. “This takeover can only benefit Coventry City Football Club,” said Iain Dowie, the club’s then manager, echoing a mood of local optimism that would prove horribly misguided. After a decade in the hands of Sisu, the 1987 FA Cup winners – who were in the top flight from 1967 to 2001 – face almost certain relegation to League Two, have no stadium agreement at the Ricoh Arena beyond next season, risk seeing their training ground being sold off for housing and are also contemplating the potential loss of their youth academy in June. On the appointment of Mark Robins as their fourth manager of the season earlier this month, supporters’ group the Sky Blue Trust wished him luck. “Sadly, luck is a commodity we think he’ll need,” came the pointed caveat. City are bottom of League One, 14 points from safety.

The Oyston family, Blackpool 1988-

A swashbuckling Premier League side as recently as 2010-11, it seems scarcely credible that Blackpool currently find themselves in League Two. Karl Oyston is the third chairman from his family, who have been owners since 1988, and could scarcely be more unpopular with the Blackpool Supporters’ Trust, whose long list of grievances include his “lack of a strategic plan”, his “lack of ambition to invest in infrastructure or to grow the club”, his “inability to attract or retain good personnel” and his “loaning football club monies out to other Oyston businesses”. The Oystons have not helped endear themselves to Blackpool fans by showing almost total indifference to their protests and either suing or threatening to sue several for libel. Two years ago, supporters around the UK raised the £20,000 needed by the retired pensioner and Blackpool fan Frank Knight, who agreed to pay the sum to avoid going to court over allegations he made about the Oystons on Facebook.
Douglas Craig, York City 1990-2002

The only one of 92 Football League chairmen to refuse to sign up to the Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football charter, Douglas Craig enjoyed considerable early popularity as York City owner as the club won promotion to the third tier of English football and knocked Manchester United out of the 1995-96 League Cup. No fan of on-field frippery, the former Tory councillor was heard ordering Ginner Hall to “cut out the fancy stuff!” after the left-back nutmegged Ryan Giggs at Old Trafford. In 1999, Craig and his fellow directors incurred the wrath of Minstermen fans by transferring ownership of York’s much-loved city-centre home, Bootham Crescent, to a holding company in which he owned a large stake for £165,000, before trying to force the club to buy back their own ground for £4.5m or face extinction. Craig was also instrumental in the FA process that enabled Wimbledon’s owners to relocate their club to Milton Keynes. Within a couple of years of his exit, York were in the Conference and despite escaping once are facing relegation from the National League.

Ken Richardson, Doncaster Rovers 1992-1998

In 1999, Ken Richardson was sentenced to four years in prison for conspiracy to commit arson for his part in a plot to burn down Doncaster Rovers’ then ground, Belle Vue. He had hoped to claim on the insurance and force a move to a new stadium that the local council had previously vetoed. His trial heard that in 1995, the chairman had paid a former SAS soldier, Alan Kristiansen, to start the fire. Kristiansen and two accomplices caused £100,000 of damage to the main stand, only to be caught after Kristiansen’s mobile phone was found at the scene. Between the arson attack and his conviction, Richardson oversaw Doncaster’s relegation to the Conference: in 1997‑98 they lost 34 out of 46 matches and went down with a goal difference of -93. At one point they were managed by Mark Weaver, whose previous relevant experience was running the club lottery at Stockport. Rovers’ story since has been somewhat happier: now at the Keepmoat, they have had five seasons in the Championship and despite a slump in recent years they should be promoted from League Two this May.

The Venky family, Blackburn Rovers 2010-

Since purchasing Blackburn Rovers in 2010 for £23m, the Venky family has transformed the club from Premier League staples for more than a decade to Championship strugglers currently flirting with relegation to League One. Upon buying Rovers from the Jack Walker Trust, the Indian poultry magnates took on debts estimated at between £10m and £20m, a figure that had escalated to £104m by last May. Their revolving door managerial appointment policy began with the dismissal of Sam Allardyce in 2010 and the current manager, Tony Mowbray, is their seventh in seven years. Among his predecessors, Henning Berg lasted 57 days while the Norwegian’s successor, Michael Appleton, was in place for the comparatively long haul of 67. Attendances at Ewood Park continue to dwindle as loyal fans tear their hair out at the sight of their best players constantly being sold without being adequately replaced. Meanwhile only silence emanates from the Rovers boardroom.

Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, Liverpool 2007-2010

In the proud history of Liverpool Football Club, the brief tenure of the American businessmen Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr from 2007 to 2010 is a period most fans are happy to consign to the dustbin. It seems unthinkable that such a massive club could have been brought to the brink of administration, but that’s exactly what the American duo managed before a London high court ruling severed their ties with Anfield. Having bought Liverpool with loans, they eventually saddled the club with so much debt that interest payments amounted to around £100,000 per day. They also presented grand plans for a 60,000-seat stadium in Stanley Park that would never be built. Within a year of taking over at Anfield, the working relationship between Hicks and Gillett had broken down and they were eventually sent packing by a high court judge, who labelled them “untrustworthy” before they walked away empty-handed to lick their wounds as control passed to their Bostonian compatriots, Fenway Sports Group.
Alexandre Gaydamak, Ali al-Faraj, Balram Chainrai and Vladimir Antonov, Portsmouth 2006-2013

Vying for promotion from League Two, fan-owned Portsmouth have come a long way since two administrations and three relegations prompted by a litany of awful owners sent them hurtling from the Premier League to the bottom tier. Reckless spending on massive player contracts and a reluctance to pay tax did for Pompey, leaving them in administration and on the brink of liquidation in 2010 having won the FA Cup under Harry Redknapp two years previously. As a Championship club they went into administration again in 2012, suffering a 10-point deduction as HM Revenue and Customs chased them for £1.6m in unpaid taxes. From Alexandre Gaydamak to Sulaiman al-Fahim to Ali al-Faraj to Balram Chainrai to Vladimir Antonov, Portsmouth fans were forced to endure a roll-call of feckless owners before finally taking up the cudgels themselves. Once a Mickey Mouse club, now a former Disney chief executive is interested in them.

Ken Bates, Chelsea 1982-2003

Following spells at Oldham and Wigan Athletic, Ken Bates owned Chelsea for 21 years before selling the heavily indebted Blues to Roman Abramovich, after they reached the Champions League on the last day of the season. A controversial and outspoken character, Bates alienated fans of the club he had bought for £1 in a number of innovative ways while simultaneously transforming Chelsea from a struggling second-tier side into an established top-flight club. The installation of an electric perimeter fence to deter hooligans around the pitch at Stamford Bridge was a particular highlight, although Bates was forced to take it down again when his wheeze was rejected by the Football Association. He was also sued for libel by one supporter after describing one fans’ group as “parasites” and prompted fury by describing his former vice-chairman Matthew Harding as “evil” a year after his untimely death in a helicopter crash. In 2005 he pitched up at Leeds, where the bickering continued, much of it with his former club and the Russian oligarch who had bought it.

Peter Ridsdale, Leeds United 1997-2003

In his role as chairman of Leeds United, Peter Ridsdale was initially a success, funding a team that reached the 2001 Champions League semi-finals, but his ludicrous overspending prompted the financially banjaxed club’s slide out of the Premier League, through the Championship and into League One. When Ridsdale resigned in March 2003, Leeds were valued at £12m with debts of £79m and details emerged of the often eye-watering sums that had been squandered on compensation payments to sacked managers, exorbitant player wages, private jet hire, a fleet of 70 company cars and tropical fish for Ridsdale’s office. “Fifteen months after I left, Leeds got relegated and suddenly it’s Peter Ridsdale’s fault,” said Ridsdale, who has since been disqualified as a company director but continues to work in football. “It is a myth that we overspent.” Seth Johnson, who is believed to have earned £37,000 per week over four years in which he made 53 appearances, could be excused a wry smile.

The Guardian Sport

Love it or Hate it, the January Transfer Window Provides Unique Excitement

Sport

And so it begins … again. A rolling, meandering soap opera that never really stops started in earnest on Sunday as the new year heralded the opening of the January transfer window. An often tedious month-long orgy of will-they won’t-they drama, whisper and counter-whisper, unhappy Arsenal fans and sightings of Robert Snodgrass, it slowly builds to a climactic all-singing, all-dancing Sky Sports show-stopper hosted by an enthusiastic Scotsman who wears a yellow tie.

We have been here before, many times. Fourteen, to be precise. Made compulsory by Fifa for the 2002-03 season, the January transfer window is one of two registration periods in which Premier League clubs are permitted to buy players they may or may not have been linked with by assorted TV and radio shows, newspaper gossip columns, football websites and social media accounts run by teenage schoolboys from football hotbeds such as Ludlow and Stow-on-the-Wold. Originally introduced as part of a compromise with the European Commission in order to preserve contractual stability for footballers and clubs while simultaneously allowing movement of the former at certain times of the year, the January window has since eclipsed the League Cup to become the third biggest competition in English football.

The inaugural window was “won” by Birmingham City, who signed the World Cup and European Championship-winning striker Christophe Dugarry on loan from Bordeaux and ensured their Premier League survival with the help of four goals from the Frenchman in their final five matches of that season. And two years ago Crystal Palace came up trumps by paying just £6.8m to Manchester United to re-sign Wilfried Zaha, a fine, if occasionally gravitationally challenged, winger who recently made headlines after becoming embroiled in a disagreement with a man dressed as a giant hornet.

When first mooted by Fifa in the early 1990s, the idea of introducing transfer windows received almost unanimous backing from English football’s overlords, who – rather naively, it turned out – hoped they might help reduce the often disruptive influence of nefarious agents around football clubs. In May 2002, however, the Premier League and Football League joined forces to fight against the imposition of domestic transfer windows due to the financial implications they might have in the wake of that year’s ITV Digital fiasco. “We have charged the FA with responsibility to use the position and influence they have on Fifa committees and as a national association, to mount a full-blooded lobbying campaign to get these rules changed,” thundered a Premier League spokesman at the time, before what is perhaps the only recorded historical example of his august employers failing to get their own way.

As well as Dugarry, the first January window marked the arrival of cult hero Yakubu Aiyegbeni in England following his move from Maccabi Haifa to Portsmouth. The departure of Jonathan Woodgate from Leeds to Newcastle also made headlines, as did Robbie Fowler’s move from Leeds United to Manchester City. In total, Premier League clubs spent £35m between them in that particular window, coincidentally the same amount Liverpool would pay Newcastle for Andy Carroll in January 2011 and £95m less than the clubs of the top flight spent this time last year. Twelve months ago, some wildly excitable soothsayers predicted that Premier League clubs would spend more than £1bn in January, but they eventually coughed up a comparative pittance of £130m.

Despite the frenzied excitement it prompts among football fans, the January window is not without its critics. Arsène Wenger and Harry Redknapp are among them, the former known for his extreme frugality, while the latter has long been a reluctant poster-boy and punchline for the often ill-advised wheeler-dealing and horse-trading for which this time of year is increasingly renowned.

Famous for his out-of-the-car-window appraisals of assorted “triffic” targets on Sky Sports News, Redknapp was more enthusiastic than most when it came to January panic buys during his time as a manager, but claimed – in the face of all evidence to the contrary – not to enjoy the mayhem of the mid-season livestock mart. Three years ago, he likened that year’s January window to “gang warfare”, saying “every agent seems to be trying to screw each other” in the scramble for money. A few days later, Harry was involved in one of the great deadline day farces. Having driven down to London from the Midlands in what his then manager Steve Clarke described as “an act of total lunacy”, a forlorn and frustrated Peter Odemwingie was left sitting and seething outside Loftus Road in his parked car as West Brom and Redknapp’s QPR failed to agree terms on his transfer.

Despite the suspicions of some Arsenal fans who may not be aware of its existence, Wenger has long been critical of the January window, stating it is “unfair”, because championship rivals from the same league can move players between them in a premeditated bid to undermine his team. As conspiracy theories go it’s a mite tinpot and tenuous, but there can be no doubt the current system is far from perfect. With teams scrapping around the foot of the table, the January window breeds no end of panic and desperation while allowing big clubs to unsettle the better players at struggling sides before poaching them. Long may it continue; after 14 years we wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Guardian Sport

A Sunderland Escapology Act this Season Will Be Little Short of a Miracle

Sunderland v Shrewsbury Town - EFL Cup Second Round

It is over 43 years since an overjoyed Bob Stokoe raced, arms outstretched, across the Wembley sward to celebrate one of the great FA Cup upsets. Second Division Sunderland had just slain the mighty Leeds team featuring Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and John Giles to win the 1973 final and their manager, looking faintly ridiculous in a brown raincoat, red tracksuit bottoms and trademark trilby, was rushing to embrace his goalkeeper Jim Montgomery. The “Stokoe run” has since been cast in bronze and erected on a concourse outside the Stadium of Light as a reminder of happier times. Given his pose, those unfamiliar with its context could be forgiven for thinking the club’s former manager is fleeing in terror from the apocalyptically awful performances of the players who now call the ground behind his statue home.

Defeat at the hands of Arsenal on Saturday mean Sunderland have broken one-time sultans of slapstick Manchester City’s record for the worst start in Premier League history after 10 matches. They remain on course to break Derby County’s unwanted record of the lowest tally of points amassed in a season. If anything, they are well ahead of schedule: in 2007-08, Derby were relegated with 11 but at least managed to conjure up a victory in their first six matches, a feat Sunderland have failed to achieve in any of the past four seasons. They have gone 10 without a win in the current campaign and even a club renowned for its implausible last-ditch feats of escapology will do well to emulate the 17th place with which they secured their Premier League status last season.

While much of the blame for Sunderland’s latest glacier-quick burst from the blocks has been laid at the door of their seventh manager in the past five years, it seems unfair to blame David Moyes for many of the shortcomings of a club that gives every indication of being dysfunctional from the boardroom down. Their handling of last year’s child-sex case involving Adam Johnson, now serving a six-year jail sentence, was little short of disgraceful and cost the club’s chief executive Margaret Byrne her job. Despite showing little or no aptitude for her role, she had been earning an astonishing salary of more than £450,000 per year. Byrne’s almost complete disregard for the young, Sunderland-supporting victim of Johnson’s crimes marked an unprecedented low for a club that has always prided itself on its links to a community whose tolerance for the myriad on and off-field shortcomings of their club often borders on the heroic.

Now enjoying – or perhaps enduring – a 10th consecutive season in the Premier League, their longest top-flight spell since their first relegation in 1958, Sunderland have contrived to let all the financial benefits that ought to have come with being Premier League staples at such a lucrative time bypass them completely. Under the stewardship of their owner, the billionaire financier Ellis Short, they lost £25m in 2014-15. According to the football finance blogger Swiss Ramble, this was the third largest deficit of only six top-flight clubs who pulled off the spectacularly impressive feat of losing tens of millions of pounds at a time when the Premier League is drowning under a constant deluge from the TV money-hose.

Much of this deficit can be put down to hideously bad investment in players, with poor performances and the high turnover of managers meaning each incumbent has been saddled with barely adequate hand-me-downs they don’t want, prompting them to buy even more inadequate duds of their own. “Something seems to happen to players when they move to the Stadium of Light,” wrote the Secret Footballer, formerly of this parish, last March. A couple of years previously he had incurred the wrath of many Sunderland fans when criticizing a squad drinking culture which many claimed did not exist. He recalled a time in Marbella when he had seen one unnamed Sunderland player ordering a Nebuchadnezzar of champagne for £75,000. The player in question was Connor Wickham, now of Crystal Palace, although other reports of the striker’s extravagant poolside purchase suggested his 15 liter bottle of Armand de Brignac cost only £17,500, still more than two thirds of the average annual salary earned by residents of the city whose team he represented.

On the pitch, Moyes’s apparent determination to disprove Albert Einstein’s adage about the definition of insanity continues to damage his increasingly poor reputation as a manager. In the face of all available evidence to the contrary, Moyes insists his team is improving and their elusive first win is just around the corner if they “keep doing what they are doing”. There are no shortage of poor sides in the Premier League and Sunderland have long been among them but they have now reached a point where finding three worse ones will be little short of a miracle. Going down might serve them well, as neighbors Newcastle are showing relegation can be a mercy.

In more important news for citizens of Sunderland, the future of the Nissan factory has been confirmed following controversial government “support and assurances”. This week, Moyes and his players are due to visit the car manufacturing plant and the manager joked some of them might soon be looking for jobs there. They are unlikely to get them – while Nissan have announced plans to build two new models on Wearside, collapsible clown cars are not expected to roll off their assembly line any time soon.

(The Guardian)