Long Shots: Unlucky FC Metz lose to Monaco (week one)

I’d like to pretend I spent months planning this ‘long shots’ project (explained here, if you’re catching up), but I didn’t. In fact, it occurred to me a few days before I wrote the intro post outlining the plan, and that means I’m learning on the fly. That will apply particularly to the French league, which is not something I spend any time on normally, to be honest.

It worked out well, then, that Metz got underway over the weekend against Monaco with none of my other four (as yet unchosen) sides having started their season.

I was surprised to see France is allowing reasonable (though much reduced) attendances, and the below highlights feature Metz fans socially distancing on terraces and seating as they watch their team.

FC Metz finished 15th last season, and actually won only three fewer games than Monaco before the league was called to a halt with about ten games to go. Monaco are, it’s fair to say, not the force they once were. The current Metz team has a heavy African influence, and of the 15 players who appeared on Sunday (yes, they’re still allowing five substitutes), 11 were of African origin, including 8 of the starters.

Aston Villa 2019/2020 – My Season Review

Wow, what a hairy one. It’s been a weird season all in, and I think every Villa fan knew from early on that if we stayed up, it would be a very close run thing. It was evident from the utter euphoria that accompanied that home win against Everton early in the season, which I watched through Now TV in a hotel room in Munich. The reaction showed we knew even then that wins would be hard to come by.

The end of the season has been at the opposite extreme to those ‘eyes from abroad’ early days for me: locked in our houses with the games played out in front of nobody at all, and, oddly, they’ve brought most of the year’s highs (and been a fantastic distraction), though I’d be lying if I pretended I didn’t think it was over with four or five games to go.

The season’s really had its moments, from the ‘ghost goal’ we conceded against Sheffield United (which I have a feeling Bournemouth fans might be talking about a while) and general VAR controversies, to the power and passion of Grealish and Douglas Luiz, and the defence finally coming together for those final few games that saw Villa edged to the narrowest of 17th places. Relegation could have gone the other way if West Ham had conjured a single late goal on the final day. What a rollercoaster.

A heads up before I start: this is a long one.

A good season, or a bad one?

This is a genuinely difficult question. I don’t think there’s much doubt that if Villa had conceded a late losing goal at West Ham on the final day, this would be classified as really quite a bad season, with relegation back to the Championship. That said, I think most Villa fans – and I certainly put myself in this category – would consider staying up, even marginally, a really quite good season. Beating the drop on the last day was totally euphoric, and a fantastic end to the year in a game we probably should have won.

Cynics will point to the money spent in the summer (which was substantial), though it has to be noted that a substantial chunk of that money was spent on players that were on loan last year, and took the team to only 5th in the Championship. Almost none of it, bizarrely, was spent on established premier league players. There have also been significant injury issues throughout the team.

In fact, it’s hard to argue the team this year was any stronger than last year’s all things considered: sure, the defence probably looked a little bit better on paper (though it performed poorly for most of the season), but we bought two relative flops up front and lost a far better striker in Tammy Abraham back to Chelsea, and even the goalkeeper position’s strengthening disappeared when Tom Heaton was injured for the second half of the season (round of applause for Pepe Reina’s cameo, though).

This was a team that was at best only just good enough for the Premier League, and that’s how it went, so by that measure it went well. We also got a cup final back in February and gave the money boys from Manchester City a real game in it, too. So all things considered, a pretty good season, but only because it went the way it did on the final day. I’d give it a 6/10. That said, there’s plenty to worry about, with next season just around the corner…

Groundhopping: Wexford FC (v UCD, at Ferrycarrig Park)

View from the bar at Ferrycarrig Park

Date: 21 February, 2020

Competition: League of Ireland First Division

Result: Wexford FC 1 (Conor English, ’90+1) – UCD 1 (Colm Whelan, ’15)

Tickets: €10 (adult), €2 (child).

Attendance: Perhaps 100, but the storm front can take some of the blame for that.

The game: One of those early-season contests that felt a little bit like the teams don’t quite know each other yet, played out in absolutely horrendous conditions in a spot that offers very little shelter. UCD are newly relegated from the League of Ireland Premier Division, but a much-changed team from last year, and might struggle to get back. They started stronger in a first half that was a real slog. As the game went on, Wexford looked the neater team and better able for the wind and sideways rain. After putting the visitors under pressure they eventually scored a real beauty of a last-minute goal that sent the locals home happy. Not a classic, but it certainly improved as it went on, and the last 15 or 20 minutes were really worth watching.

The ground: A very nice pitch with a chunk of space between it and the barriers, there’s a bar/ club house with a nice view over the action from the first floor in one corner. The main stand is on the far side from the entrance, and is one of those temporary-type things with only netting along the back. Decent in the summer, no doubt, but pretty horrible to sit in mid-storm. There’s a little press/ commentary box on the halfway line, and other than that it’s railings around the pitch the whole way. The bar is decent, though.

Interview: Zimbabwe Homeless World Cup team 2019

The Homeless World Cup has long been widely reported on in Ireland, and it’s a tournament that fills me with hope. It’s pretty obvious, of course, that most of the participants have gone through significant hardships in their lives, and the chance to represent their country probably means a great deal to them.

It got me thinking, though, for all it means to represent a country in the Homeless World Cup, it probably means that much more when you come from a place where the average person wouldn’t have much opportunity to travel, let alone people living on the street.

The next edition of the Homeless World Cup will take place in Cardiff in late July/ early August 2019, and Zimbabwe are one of the participants. They’re in the aftermath of the fall of Robert Mugabe, and the country is in turmoil. What would it take to bring a football team of disadvantaged people to another country against that backdrop? I asked head coach Joseph Kuseka:

Hi Joseph! Can you give me a short history of this team – how did they come together, and how are they funding their trip to Mexico?

The Zimbabwe Homeless World Cup team is coordinated by Young Achievement Sports for Development (YASD) – a community-based initiative that seeks to empower young people through mentoring, positive coaching and education to transform their lives. The Zimbabwe Homeless world
Cup team was formed in 2006 after many families in Zimbabwe faced the destruction of their homes following a government directive to demolish unregulated and unplanned settlements. An estimated 700,000 families were left homeless.

The founders of YASD are survivors of this cleanup exercise. The founders were young people who came up with a homegrown solution to address the challenges they were experiencing due to being homeless.

I understand you had a female manager, Pearl Gambiza, previously in charge of the team for the tournament in Mexico, still a relative rarity in the tournament. How was her tenure, and how have things been for you so far?

Pearl was the 2018 Manager for the team and was amazing in advocating and championing women’s inclusion and participation in sport. Through her initiatives, she created platforms to enable more women to be involved in YASD sporting initiatives. Her tenure saw her advocating for the 2019 team to have a quota for women and the 2019 team will feature 3 female players. Pearl should have been part of the 2019 team but could not renew her passport due to challenges in the country where the travel document is not available.

Guernsey Football: “Guernsey FC and the pathway it now affords young players in Guernsey serves as a realistic and viable aspiration”

As Guernsey prepare the 2019 Island Games, but resolutely opt against following the influx of near neighbours Jersey, Yorkshire and Ellan Vannin into CONIFA, I caught up with Guernsey football CEO Gary Roberts about the state of football on the island of Guernsey.

In the interview, he reflects on the success of Guernsey FC, established in 2011 and now playing in the eighth tier of English football despite the obvious travel difficulties presented by playing teams entirely from outside of the island. The team has provided a route to conventional football for people from the island, population 63,000, whose biggest football export to date is Southampton legend Matt Le Tissier.

We also talk about the Muratti Vase, an annual contest against Jersey, and about their history in the island games. Dig in…

I’ve talked to a lot of relatively small-entity football sides like yours in the course of the last few years, and Guernsey is one of only two I can think of where a single name really jumps out as representing you – Matt Le Tissier (Bruce Grobbelaar and Matabeleland is the other one, in case you were curious!). Does Matt have much of a footballing legacy on the island?

Matt is part of a well-known family, with another three brothers who have all played for Guernsey’s Senior Men’s Representative team. Indeed, the three brothers created history when all were selected to play in the Muratti Vase Final in one year, which was the first and only time in which three siblings played in the same Muratti match. Matt himself was recognised as being a stand out youth player but because he signed with Southampton did not play any senior football or ever play in a Senior Men’s Muratti.

Matt did play on one occasion for Guernsey Football Club (for whom his brother Mark is the Chairman) in the 2012/13 season when the club was faced with playing 23 games in 43 days.

I’m aware you’re running a non-league side in Guernsey at the moment that plays English teams in hte league on a regular basis. That must have been financially and logistically difficult, though I understand you’re getting great turnouts and playing some good stuff. Has it achieved everything you’d hoped for as a project?

The club was established following Guernsey’s success in the FA Inter-League (formerly Systems) Cup and subsequent participation in the UEFA Regions Cup as the English FA representative. This led to the GFA identifying a need to identify another playing opportunity for the island’s most talented players, and the concept of establishing a club to participate in the English football league pyramid was formed.

After eight seasons playing in this pyramid, those involved, and the GFA, would likely be of the same opinion that the project has, and continues, to provide the desired playing opportunities. The existence of Guernsey FC and the pathway it now affords young players in Guernsey serves as a realistic and viable aspiration.

Andy Wilson and the Longshots: on football, music and Euro2016

andywilsonLast month, I put together an article for Bandcamp on the Euros and music, which was a whole lot of fun, and is due to run in another week or so. For that article, I interviewed ten different acts from all around Europe on their take on football, the story behind their songs and a few other things about France 2016. One particular interview stood out, so rather than take just the best few lines from it and leave things at that, I thought I’d throw it up here. Here’s Andy Wilson and the Longshots talking about Ireland and ‘Summer of ’16’

Tell me a little bit about ‘Summer of ’16’

I wrote the song immediately after we qualified. We qualified on the Monday night after the Paris attacks, so I suppose emotions were running high. By Tuesday night, I had most of it written and finished it within the week. I had loads more verses, for example the topical easter verse‘ In the easter of ’16, we rebelled against the queen, well actually it was a king, but that doesn’t rhyme with green’. But I managed to shape it into what it is now. It comes from my love of the songs that were around in the early 90s. Liam Harrison’s give it a lash Jack. Joxer goes to Stuttgart by Christy Moore. It’s not the same now, the game has changed, Ireland has changed. There hasn’t been a decent one for a while. ill Thraps were good in 2012 with ‘We All Get Nil Together’. Shows how optimistic we were then. There’s a slightly stronger sense of optimism this year. I thought I’d at least have a go. I was laughing out loud while writing it.

I sat on it for months though, wondering what to do with it. Almost forgot about it really. I sang it for a friend, Chris, before Christmas, who absolutely loved it and kept asking me when I was gonna record it. By March he was really starting to get on my case. He gave me a ticket to the opening Cork City game of the season and we went as neutrals (he’s from Wexford, me a UCD fan from Dublin). After the game, we’d had a few pints and there was the opportunity to play a song in the pub (the beer garden in Turner’s cross, where I very rarely have a pint). After 4 or 5 pints I find it difficult to not seize such an opportunity. It steadies me! So I told Chris I’d play it, got up, and did it. The reaction was fairly shocking. Everyone loved it.

I’d watched the draw in my local, Coughlan’s, where I’d watched us qualify and where we made the video. It’s more of a rugby pub than a soccer pub, so there wasn’t a huge interest in the draw. As i sat at the bar I felt like the only one who cared, until in came Ray and Geraldine Barron, husband and wife, professional musicians and very nice people. While we sat at the bar watching a difficult draw transpire, I lightened the mood by reciting the verses I could remember from my song and it helped us settle the nerves. I’d done a little recording with Ray before and really enjoyed working with him, so, months after sharing those nervous moments in Coughlan’s, filled with confidence that the song was worth putting down, I called Ray and asked if he’d help me out.

The World Cup Preview

The draw is made, the media have named the traditional ‘group of death’ (unlucky for some – I’m looking at you, Portugal) and the locals have had their first World Cup themed party. Football fans are already looking past the Winter Olympics, the end of the Premier League season and the possibility that by the time the World Cup comes around they could be two thirds of the way to having a baby (busy tonight? Yes, it really is that far off…), and getting hyped about an event that might – just might – be more popular than the Olympics. Brush off your national shirt, practice your skills and get ready to join the world in cheering whoever plays France, possible the least popular qualifier in history this time round. Here’s the lowdown and you very own ‘don’t hold us to this’ tips.

The Location: You just can’t argue with South Africa as a venue. 2010 will be the first World Cup to be held on the African continent, and just seeing the parties as the group stage draw was made was enough to convince most that it’s about time. They should, fingers crossed, have all the venues ready (unlike Angola for the up and coming African Cup Of Nations), and plenty of political commentators are already talking of how hosting such a mammoth sporting event could bring together a long-fractured country. Sadly, the home team are only a fraction above dire, and short of a dramatic improvement over the next six months, will probably be going home after the group stages. Should star players Steven Pienaar and Benni McCarthy somehow carry the home side through to the second round, we can expect the country to go insane. A repeat of the performance of unfancied hosts South Korea and Japan back in 2002, though, is at best improbable. Some of the other African sides are far more talented, and can also expect some frenzied local support: keep a particularly close eye on The Ivory Coast, Ghana and Cameroon. Of course, plenty of games will be played at ‘half way up a mountain’ height, which could turn things around completely.

The History: We all know the background of the World Cup: the traditional Brazilian tricks (and all those wins), Zinedine Zidane’s head butt against Italy in the final in 2006, England’s rivalry with Argentina dating back to that famous Diego Maradona handball and South Korea’s stunning run to the semis in 2002, when the streets of Seoul ran red. It’s the more bizarre history that really intrigues, though. Ukraine qualified for the first time in 2006, for example, and were motivated by a manager who promised to withdraw the team’s celibacy rules if they made the semi final. The team obviously worked that one out: the quicker way to get back to their other halves turned out to be getting knocked out early. In the case of Columbia, things became far more than just a game, when defender Andres Escobar was murdered in his home country, having scored an own goal in the 1994 final. The first ever African team to qualify were Zaire, who were humiliated over three games by a total of 15 goals to 0, and went home utterly penniless, while in a 2001 qualifying game Australia beat even that, winning 31-0 against American Samoa, an average of more than a goal every three minutes. Cuba, El Salvador and our own South Korea have also been on the receiving end of complete thrashings. In 2006 there were even add-your-own team colors voodoo dolls on sale to ensure the right result. Then, of course, there’s a whole host of FIFA conspiracy theories…

The Qualification: There’s nothing like a few shocks to keep things interesting, and the appearances of North Korea, New Zealand and Algeria in particular have livened things up, though we can probably expect all three to crash out in the first round. Algeria got to the tournament by beating arch rivals Egypt in a one off game in neutral Sudan, where their were attacked viciously before the match, but still managed to win. Their qualification was far from the most controversial, though, with France’s Thierry Henry denying Ireland a penalty shoot out in their play off with a blatant handball, and forever landing himself the nickname ‘Le Cheat’. Costa Rica also had the (bad) luck of the Irish, losing to a Uruguay play off goal that should have been disallowed for offside. Some favorites didn’t make it, such as Russia, Croatia and World Cup mainstays Saudi Arabia, while the likes of Holland, England and Spain blitzed their way through qualification in clinically impressive style. The controversial Diego Maradona’s Argentina made it, but only just, and are far less fancied than normal.

The Tournament: Favorites Spain are the current European Champions, shaking off their long-standing ‘big tournament flops’ label, while Brazil, Italy, Holland and England make up the remainder of the five fancied squads. African football is on the up, though, and many are expecting one of the African sides to reach the final few games of the tournament for the first time. While the Asian and North American/ Caribbean sides are largely expected to flop, the World Cup is notoriously unpredictable, especially in the early changes. Plenty of pundits, in fact, are pointing to the mighty Brazil as a possible early casualty, with Ivory Coast and Portugal – both formidable teams – drawn against them. For most of the favorites, though, the groups will be a formality, and the knock out games will be the big test. Especially the dreaded extra time and penalties. With odds ranging from 7/2 (Spain) to 3000/1 (North Korea and New Zealand), it’s a very open game, as Greece proved winning the European Championship as rank outsiders back in 2004.

The Dream Match Ups:

South Korea vs. North Korea. The qualifying matches between the two have been watching-paint-dry levels of dull at best, but at the world cup… shame the chances of it happening are at best negligible.

England vs. Argentina. Is there a better game in any World Cup than this? Cue tense drama for 90 minutes, followed by years and years of mocking and bitterness, plus comments about Maradona and the Falklands War. There’s a good chance it will happen late in the tournament.

New Zealand vs. Australia. One of the most unlikely match ups, as the kiwis in particular are expected to crash out without doing too much damage in the first round. If they do make it through to play each other, though, expect sparks to fly.

Our Tips: Portugal to go out in the first round after losing out in the ‘group of death’ to Brazil and African stars Ivory Coast. Argentina to crash and burn far earlier than normal. France to make the second round, despite the scorn, then crash and burn too. North Korea to lose every game by at least 3 goals. England to impress, but lose on penalties (it’s inevitable, right?). USA to defend well, but struggle to score, and lose out to Slovenia on goal difference. An African side to reach at least the quarterfinals. South Korea to bother Argentina, but still go out in the group. Spain to beat Brazil in the final.

As published in Eloquence Magazine (South Korea), January 2010.