Monday 15 February 2016

I Was a Teenage Man United Fan

This article first appeared in Issue 1 of Centre Circle Magazine. 

Living in a tiny village in central England isn’t the best place to be when it comes to choosing a football team. I’m from an area smack-bang in the middle of the Midlands: close to Leicester, close to Birmingham, close to Coventry. Yet I had no strong local influence for choosing my football team during my childhood.

Kids at my school were a microcosm for the wider phenomenon that is glory-hunting. Most were Man United fans, loved Liverpool, or knew Arsenal’s line-up off by heart. I’m pretty sure there was even a Leeds fan in the mix as well.

My dad supports Spurs despite living his whole life in the same Midlands village that I grew up in. As his father wasn’t that into football, the business of helping him decide on his football team fell to my dad’s grandad – a Spurs fan from Luton.

Dad tried his best to convince me and my brother that supporting Tottenham was the natural thing for us to do - there are pictures of us dressed in the home shirt circa ’95 which must have been a desperate last attempt to convince us they were a goer. It was around this time that I uttered the famous words that Dad is fond of bringing up whenever football allegiances are mentioned:

‘Dad… Do I have to be a Spurs fan?’

His dreams shattered, he could only answer with, ‘Of course not son. But just remember whoever you pick, you never change your football team.’

So along with most of the children between seven and eight in England at the time, I decided my footballing relationship would be with Manchester United, the best team in England. This sacred vow I had undertaken was to wed me to them, for better or worse (it was usually better), for the rest of my life. I thought I was ready for it.


I never went to see United. It didn’t really occur to me that if you were a fan you should want to. I had my replica kit, I watched them on telly, and I knew the names of the players; that was all I needed. I was gutted when they lost, and ecstatic when they won. I told myself I was a real fan.

My comfortable, little red world was about to be disrupted, however. In 2001, Dad, my brother and I took a trip to Highfield Road to see Coventry City play Arsenal. It was my first football match, and I was nine years old. I remember it being loud and cold. The pitch was unlike anything I had seen on TV: bright, crisp, and clear. Dennis Bergkamp scored a header. It was brilliant.

Over the next few years I went to see Coventry play a lot more. Cheap League Cup nights, first game of the season specials, and my uncle getting cheap tickets from work: it all conspired to get me down to Highfield Road, and later the Ricoh, to watch the Sky Blues.

I was enjoying supporting United – success followed success, and bragging rights were usually mine amongst my Liverpool and Arsenal supporting schoolmates. But my eyes began to wander when it came to checking the results at five p.m. If I hadn’t been watching Soccer Saturday or Final Score, I’d scroll past the Premier League scores on Ceefax and go straight to the Championship results. If United had lost, and Coventry had won, I’d feel great. If Coventry had lost, and United had won, I’d get that sinking feeling you get in your stomach after bad news. Surely that wasn’t meant to happen?

I was a United fan, but another team was contributing to my footballing happiness. A harmless flirtation was blossoming into something more solid, more real.

Dad’s words were playing on my mind during this time: ‘You never change your football team’.  So I continued going through the motions with United. It was a bond that had lost its spark, but I didn’t have the heart to end it. I carried on my illicit affair with Coventry. I bought their shirts, I went to watch them, and I always checked for their score first.

In August of 2010, my girlfriend at the time bought us tickets to go and see United at Old Trafford. I knew that this was make-or-break. United won 3-0 against a dismal West Ham side. It was fun, but it made up my mind. The first United match I saw live was my last as a ‘fan’.

I started university that September. Meeting and greeting all of these new people led to the inevitable question: ‘Who do you support?’

No prizes at this point for guessing which team I answered with.

Coventry dropped down into League One at the end of the 2011/2012 season. United just missed out on the Premier League title, finishing second. It was a bit of a contrast.

I was devastated when Coventry were relegated. It felt awful. However, I still knew I had done the right thing. Supporting a football team is a lot like a marriage – you go through your ups and downs, but you always want to try and make it work. Like supporting a football team, you don’t go into a marriage with anything less than good intentions. Sometimes though, you just weren’t right together in the first place. That’s what happened with my long-distance relationship with United. It took a team a lot closer to home to help me realise what being a fan was all about.

As for me and the Sky Blues, there are ups and downs (more downs than ups it has to be said), but I’m a hell of a lot happier as a local Coventry fan than I ever was as an absent United one.

If that isn’t an exception to change your football team, I don’t know what is.

Friday 7 August 2015

The Mysterious Case of Sisu and the Sustainable Business Model

Everyone's favourite Coventry City owners were back in the news recently when a number of fans complained about the club's recent push for fans to buy season tickets. Chief Executive Steve Waggott released a statement on Tuesday through the club website in which he urged supporters to buy a season ticket: "We'd still like to bolster our forward line and the wide areas, and season ticket sales are imperative to get these deals over the line." It seems that these are the words that prompted much of the criticism, as many fans felt held to ransom over the comment. The line has basically been construed as 'if you don't buy a season ticket, you won't get your signings'.

Now obviously, the club have to make money from ticket sales; as with most teams, tickets are the prime source of income, and season tickets are a guaranteed source of funding for the upcoming campaign - you pay your fee up front, the club gets a handy cash injection and you get to watch the games. According to the club, they are 15% under their target, and having sold around 5000 already, the target must be around 6000 season tickets. Taking into account an average home attendance of 11000 has been set by the club as a benchmark to comply with the Financial Fair Play regulations, if the 6000 season ticket target was reached, 5000 more fans would still need to turn up for each game. We'll discount away fans for the moment, as their numbers tend to fluctuate due to a number of factors: distance to travel, importance of game, price, etc.

If everything I have been saying seems fairly obvious so far, bear with me: I think I'm going somewhere with it.

Looking at our average attendances since dropping down into League One, at the end of our first season in the third tier in 2013, we averaged 10997 (all statistics courtesy of The second season was an anomaly but did nothing to help matters: as we toiled away at Sixfields Stadium in Northampton for a season we averaged a paltry 2348. For the year just gone the number stood at 9332. Considering we are about to enter our fourth season in League One, and only in our first season in the competition did we average anywhere close to 11000, this number does feel a little bit optimistic.

That said, you can never overlook the effect of a good season on attendances, and it seems like the average ticket target has been devised with this in mind. Should Mowbray and the boys get off to a flyer and avoid the desperate form and performances of last season, this should entice a few more fans to the gate. There is nothing like supporting a successful team after all. Before pre-season optimism was high for the coming campaign: we had an experienced manager in place, Reda Johnson had signed a new deal, Romain Vincelot had been bought (with money!) and our youngsters seemed ready and raring to show their mettle.

However, the weak showings from the team in pre-season probably haven't helped season ticket sales: at worst, you could say fans have become disillusioned with the team and the coming season from these few performances, but I think that does a disservice to our fans. The more likely reason is that many will probably want to see how the season starts to pan out and decide on their level of support from there; a season ticket takes a lot of commitment, and to watch a team that could perform as insipidly as Coventry did at points last season, and indeed at points in the last decade, a certain degree of masochism would be involved as well.

It is clear that the club has been injected with sums of money to keep it afloat during the Sisu tenure, or at least during the Financial Fair Play era. As the Coventry Telegraph pointed out recently, "The Football League rules do permit donations from owners of clubs, as long as there is no expected repayment to the donor. That means clubs can’t rely on large cash loans for their income. Injections of equity also count as turnover under the rules, which means a wealthy owner can fund the club in ways that are not permitted in other divisions." Although Waggott and the club have maintained that the club is and will be self-sufficient, it is hard to accept, naive to accept even, that it has been throughout the whole period of Sisu ownership. As mentioned before, it should be clear through this that Sisu have provided the club with money in times when there was not much to spare.

The problem is that it has always seemed to us fans that the amount we are afforded by our owners is the bare minimum to keep the club functioning. Unfortunately in modern football, success cannot be achieved through the bare minimum, especially for a club such as Coventry who have been stagnating for years. For clubs such as Southampton, Leicester, or even Leeds to a certain extent, a dramatic fall from the Premier League to the third tier was followed by a fairly quick promotion, meaning fans had less time to become jaded by the slow decline of the team and their position, unlike we at Coventry. This meant attendances for those teams stayed at a high level, meaning more money for investment that would not make too much of a hole in the owners' pockets.

All this leads to my main point and a subject that has been debated back and forth since Sisu took control of the club: how can Sisu be making any money from this? And for how long will they want to keep control of a club that has been a drain on their resources from day one, and will surely not prosper unless a certain degree of investment is introduced? If the plan was (as many suspected) to gain control of the Ricoh to make the club a more attractive proposition to potential buyers and make a profit on their acquisition, then that ship seems to have sailed. If the plan is now (I can think of no other option) to restore the club to a respectable position within the league system while being as sustainable as possible to increase interest amongst potential buyers, then again, I feel that ship may have gone the way of the first.

As mentioned earlier in relation to Southampton et al, the fact that these clubs bounced back so easily compared to us meant more money through more bums on seats. The hard truth of the matter is, that until Coventry fans have something to be excited about, our level of support is just not going to be what the club needs at this point in time. Imagine yourself in a relationship with a partner who constantly lets you down, promises to change, but keeps on in the same old cycle of disappointment and hurt. Your support of them would waver too, wouldn't it? That's not to say we won't get our hopes up when the time calls for it: just look at the 31000 who came to the Johnstone's Paint Trophy semi-final (who then were subsequently let down again).

What is needed, but what probably won't happen, is for Sisu to invest. Not just in anyone, but to use the experience of the manager and the eyes of the scouts to bring in some players who would really get people excited. Yes, it might be more of an outlay than they expected in the first place, but in fairness, so has their whole tenure as club custodians. It's all very well harping on about sustainability but if you can't even entice the fans who are part of your business model into the stadium in the first place then you should probably just give up on your job of coming up with business models.

Maybe I'm wrong, and maybe this season Mowbray will guide us to the playoffs or beyond with an exciting brand of football, all on a shoestring, ticket-sale led budget. Trust me, I would be glad to be wrong in that scenario. Over the moon, even. For some reason though, I just can't see it happening. What I can see is another season in which we see a lopsided squad under-performing and crying out for some financial backing.

At least we're consistent in that regard, I guess.

Sunday 2 August 2015

Time for Thomas to stand up and be counted

A lot can happen in a year. Just ask footballers. Angel Di Maria started last season as a World Cup star and the record British signing. Now it looks like he'll be off to Paris Saint Germain after failing to live up to his own hype at Manchester United. Harry Kane began as Tottenham's first choice striker amid raised eyebrows after a few indifferent seasons and kept himself there, scoring enough goals and impressing the right people to earn himself an England call-up and talk of a move to a footballing superpower.

For Conor Thomas, one of our more successful academy graduates, his year has been more Di Maria than Kane. As many will fondly remember, his role in the first half of that Jekyll and Hyde 2013-14 season helped to provide a platform that enabled the front-four of Moussa, Baker, Clarke, and Wilson to score more goals than we're ever likely to see from a Coventry team. Thomas and John Fleck, a partnership forged by necessity rather than choice that for a while ended up feeling rather serendipitous, were the perfect foils for each other in a central-midfield pairing that, when on form, was one of the more effective double-acts we've seen at Coventry in recent years. Thomas' tireless running and simple recycling of the ball was a lovely counterweight to Fleck's measured passes and intelligent touch. The cart-horse and the show-pony, each very different yet equally important in their own right.

Although the form of both dipped after Christmas - it could be argued the loss of Leon Clarke was a factor in this, as his ability to receive the ball into feet from midfield and hold it up was a key role in the system which no incoming striker could really replicate - the hope was that at only 20 years old Thomas would continue to improve and that the blip in form was a natural result of a young player struggling to match the consistency of a seasoned professional. Thomas played 49 matches in that topsy-turvy campaign, an incredible amount for such a young man and a figure which underlined his importance to the team during that time. The 2014-15 season would be an important step for the young midfielder, a chance for him to display he could be for one, the midfielder we have needed but have so rarely enjoyed, and secondly, the player that he has threatened to become but hasn't quite metamorphosed into: one that grabs a game by the balls and exerts his influence on it, rather than letting the match pass him by.

For a number of reasons, we were to see less of Thomas last term than in 2013-14. He made only 19 appearances last season, as former boss Steven Pressley seemed to prefer Jim O'Brien as the high-energy presence in the middle of the park to partner John Fleck. Even Adam Barton, who had failed to impress Pressley but found some success with current boss Tony Mowbray halfway through the season, ended up making more appearances than Thomas. The former-mainstay missed chunks of the season due to injuries and poor form and failed to build momentum within the first-team. He finished the season playing with the under-21s.

At the start of pre-season it was encouraging to hear from Tony Mowbray in an interview with the Coventry Telegraph that Thomas had been impressing in training and was putting forward a case for a return to the first-team. Mowbray remarked that, "In pre-season this year he’s giving me, not a headache, but something to think about because he’s looked powerful, strong and fast. With total respect to him, he’s showing me more than I saw at the end of last season so he’s come back really hungry to force his way into the team which is a real bonus for us."

Yet for all this positivity from the manager, pre-season has seen Thomas play less than one half of football against Nuneaton Town; he started the second-half but came off after a clash of heads which left him concussed in the 78th minute. Mowbray had said he expected Thomas to be out for at least a week but the young midfielder hasn't made any further appearances in the lacklustre pre-season matches, which may well hamper him when it comes to the season proper. The lack of depth in the City squad has been exposed by the recent friendlies, and all over the pitch (except, possibly, in defence) we look short of quality. There was a time during that dreamland of the first-half of the 2013-14 season where we would look at Thomas and think that the midfield would be in safe-hands if he was on the pitch. Now with Fleck, Romain Vincelot, and O'Brien ahead of him in the pecking order, he will need to take his chances and prove he is worthy of a place in this team. We shouldn't write him off yet of course, but this will be a telling season and determine whether the the local lad has a future at this club.

After last year's disappointing season, I would love Thomas to force his way into Mowbray's thinking for the year. New signing Vincelot seems to have the nod from the manager on starting with John Fleck in that all-action, central-midfield hard-man role, but Thomas is no fool; as a professional footballer he will know any loss of form or injury for the new man will mean an opportunity to force his way into the team. Thomas has always seemed like a player and personality who will always work hard, and his natural fitness levels are impressive. Concerns remain about his passing ability and propensity to earn silly bookings, usually after a particularly heavy first touch has forced him into a rash challenge (the 2013-14 away match against Crewe remains in the mind - his touch, passing, and tackling were all over the place that day and I actually doubt whether he made a single effective contribution to the game) but at 21 years old, he has plenty of time to mature into a more effective, clever, and dominating player. Maturity tends to have a calming effect on central midfielders, and if it means his body will start to look on the same wavelength as his brain during crucial moments, he will be all the more useful for it. Whether he can add that sangfroid to his game before Tony Mowbray loses faith in him remains to be seen.

As an academy graduate and local boy, of course most fans will want to see Thomas improve and fulfill that early promise which nearly materialised in a move to Liverpool as a teenager. For his footballing career, and our team, I desperately hope at the end of this year we are again remarking on how, in football, a lot can happen in a year: and how Conor Thomas' year has looked less like Di Maria's, and more like Kane's.

Saturday 21 February 2015

And the Smell Gets Stronger...

If you can smell fire, brimstone, and burning souls, you're not alone. The annual Coventry City relegation bonanza just became real: we're in the bottom four. The trapdoor to the underworld of League Two is looking perilously shaky beneath us, and we look like we don't have the strength to pull us clear of the danger. 

It has been a strange season. For me, I've been watching from afar, catching up on most results in the very early morning, with the bad news coming all at once via match report bylines: 'Coventry throw away two goal lead', 'Sky Blues crash to loss after three goals in twenty minutes'. The list goes on, and I'm sure we've all read too many of them to linger. 

Each press release and soundbite from the dressing room sounds as if everything is all hunky-dory; 'the team is ready to pull together', 'we just need to see out games properly'. Again, the list goes on, a veritable children's spin-and-talk toy of bullshit. Spin once and hear the cow 'moo', kids. Spin again and hear the manager say 'fantastic performance'.

Which brings us on to the man in the hotseat. Oh, Steven, what has become of ye? Each Telegraph match-preview I see reveals a picture of you deteriorating before my very eyes. Each week a little older, each game a little jowlier, each defeat a lot greyer. The aging picture, just as Wilde described it. You say you've dealt with every challenge that has been thrown at you, which we can't deny. You've never once hinted you'll walk away from the job, which we appreciate. But bravery and nobility will only get you so far in life. You're bleeding from the holes in your apres-match stories, while your faithful charges are running headless on the battlefield.

Our team is an ancient, rusting vehicle at the moment. We fix the brakes, the tire goes flat. We change the tire, and the cambelt goes. Replace the cambelt and the suspension fails. Repair the suspension... You get the drift. Defence is solid, we have no creativity. We find some creativity, we can't score. We score, the defence falls apart. No wonder the mechanic wears the look of bewilderment on his face after each run.

So relegation looms large, and everyone looks powerless to stop it. The manager, the players, the owners, the fans. What numbers of long-suffering Sky Blues will League Two performances draw? Even lower than low? Is it possible to drop into minus-fans? 

Silver linings? We've had to find a lot of those over the years. Can we hope that this poor form will force Sisu to relinquish their death-grip and allow us to stagger away to find a caring, nurturing hand to guide us back to health? Maybe. Should the drop to League Two occur, their record would make dismal reading: no trophies, no top-six finishes, and two relegations. But of course that's not what they care about. I forget who muttered a classic line once: 'I wouldn't care if we drew every game, as long as we won the league.' Sisu wouldn't care how many games we lost, as long as they made a profit. 

We will soldier on, moaning and raging, fighting and shouting against the decay, for we are Coventry fans. It's all we know how to do. And one day, when true success cocks it's beautiful head at us and beckons us near, and we feel the sweet embrace of winning again, we will appreciate it that much more. God knows we have gone to hell and back in search of it.

Saturday 12 July 2014

Brazilian State Championships: hope for the future?

The fourth round of beers was called for. As it tends to do in Brazil, talk inevitably filtered back to football. The past two days had seen lashings of rain pour down in Rio, as if the statue of Christ himself was weeping over the city, distraught at the humiliation of the country's 7-1 mauling by Germany.

In the small corner lanchonette where we drank however, the mood was less maudlin. Our friend Weberson, a carioca whom we had met through acquaintances in Sao Paulo, was our guide for the evening and we were to head into the party district, Lapa, for a Friday night of Brazilian partying.

We asked Weberson whether he thought Brazil would beat Holland in the next day's third/fourth place playoff. 'Honestly man, I don't care. I just don't want another humiliation like Germany. If we win, I'm happy, if we lose by one or two, I'm okay. Just not another seven!'

A little tongue-in-cheek perhaps, but the answer was revealing. The overriding sense in Brazil was that this game doesn't really matter. In fact, if anything, it just gave Brazil, the most successful nation in international football, a further chance for humiliation in a tournament wherein they have just suffered their most brutal chastening. But how did it come to this? How did a nation with such a rich tradition of producing aesthetic, successful footballers end up leaving its fans in fear of humiliation?

Brazil aren't in a crisis yet. They reached the semi-final of a World Cup. A semi-final of a tournament they were expected to win (a prediction that looked painfully optimistic in reflection), but they reached it nonetheless, which is more than most teams can say. Yet they are close to a precipice: the squad is talented, of course, but true world-class players are proving difficult to find and becoming harder to produce within their country. Think a samba-flavoured, yellow-tinged England, with more success. Only Neymar and Thiago Silva out of the current generation can truly be named among the best in the world in their position, a strange idea when you cast your mind back to team after team which oozed class in the 20th century and into the beginning of this one. 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2002... 2014. Something isn't quite right.

Like England, it can be argued that the reason for this lies in the national league system. The Brazilian league system is a confusing one: from May to December, the Campeonato Brasileiro takes place, the nation's flagship competition. From January to March (or even April in some cases) most teams play in nationwide State Championships. These competitions arose in the early part of the 20th century: travel between other states and cities was difficult due to the vast distances involved so the regional championships thrived instead. As time has gone on however, these championships have not been phased out but instead kept and played in conjunction with the national league system, meaning players have at most two months away from playing, if that. This can mean that players can play upwards of 60 or 70 games each season, leading to burnout and increased susceptibility to injuries. On a minor note, as the championships showcase local teams against each other, Serie A teams will pit their wits against Serie D teams, and sometimes even non-league teams, exposing a dearth of match quality.

I asked Weberson what he thought about the State Championships and whether they held any value. 'For me, no. They are bad for the big teams. The players get no rest.' And for the small teams? 'Better maybe, but still they are long for them too.'

My friend put it to him that they could be used as a youth or reserve competition for the bigger teams, enabling big clubs to give their youngsters a chance to play and the lower-division teams warm up games for their own season. 'Maybe, yeah. There should be something done about them for sure, but I don't know what.'

The idea of using the championships as a way to blood youngsters is a practice that has always been engaged with in Brazil, but making them exclusively a youth or reserve competition for bigger sides is an interesting idea. Regular competitive football would be a massive boost for the development of the players, and in time, the national team may be able to reap the rewards. The problem may arise when the older generation complain that the historical integrity of the competitions would be compromised, as they have done in the past when talk of jettisoning the competitions altogether has been mentioned, yet surely as time goes on younger fans will not feel as strongly about the issue.

Obviously, changing the format of the State Championships is not the only solution to Brazil's current problems, nor is it a surefire way to improve the fortunes of the national team. Clubs selling their brightest young talents abroad for large sums of money hasn't helped, and has definitely impacted on the progression of several players in recent years. Yet, the competitions remain an untapped source of potential, a way to improve the quality of young players that is already in place, and right in the eyeline of the football federation.

Brazil stands at a crossroads in regards to its football. The inquest into the sport in the country will be made, as it always is when a favourite nation turns in an underwhelming performance at an international tournament. Whether they will turn their attentions to the State Championships to aid them in their quest for improvement or abolish them instead is a question that remains to be answered. Maybe they will ignore them altogether. That would be a huge shame, as they could do a great deal to aid the country in getting back on track to producing the wonderful, exciting footballers of old. As Weberson said, something must be done about them. We just don't know what.

Monday 16 June 2014

The game away from the game

While most of the world watched Ecuador vs Switzerland and continued their imbibing of World Cup action, the fourth day of the tournament coincided with a relaxed afternoon in Brazil. Many shops and restaurants were closed as the country entered a dozy state of Sunday bliss before the weekly buzz began again on Monday.

Sao Paulo, where my friend Adam and I are for the next week whilst out in Brazil for the Cup, was no different. We resolved to find something to do and jumped on the Metro in search of something to relieve the sleepy atmosphere that had engulfed our hostel. The first few days of staying in Sao Paulo had been a whir of Metro lines and bus terminals, all efficient as a Swiss clock despite what the media would have you believe. We picked our stop - Jardin Ayrton Senna - purely for the promise of seeing a memorial to one of Brazil's favourite sons.

Upon arrival however, nothing indicated that we were in an area which contained such a treasure. Our surroundings were as quiet as the hostel we left, and much more rural and isolated. We followed the map and found the park. Still nothing.

A trip wasted. The R$3 Metro fare didn't bother us - an expense that cost less than £1 - but more the fact we had chased an idea only to find nothing at the end.

The feeling lasted until we heard shouts coming from the park. A football match was taking place. The pitch was a rich terracotta canvas of dirt, with four irregular quadrilaterals of grass in each corner. That raised a wry laugh: the Brazilians obviously don't like wing-play as much as the English. We stayed to watch for 20 minutes, surprised to find that the overall standard was akin to a decent standard Sunday league game. There were shanked passes, nervous clearances, and overly speculative long balls. The only difference was probably a marginally better first touch on their part.

Just before half-time, the two strikers from the blue team combined beautifully to score. A ball over the top of the midfield was chested over an onrushing defender by the number 9, into the path of his more nimble partner, number 10. The receiver raced past the last defender and curled a perfectly weighted shot past the goalkeeper and into the top corner of the threadbare net.

The whistle went and we left to continue our journey around the park. More shouts and cheers led us to investigate behind a clutch of trees, where we found a group of 25 or so children playing futsal in a cage; their ages ranging from six to 16. To begin with it looked as if the younger children were not allowed to play; they sat quietly by the side of the pitch, eyes feverishly following the ball over the concrete, feet mimicking the movements of the older ones.

But two goals from one team later and they were the next team to enter the fray and grace the cage. Skilful despite their younger years, what they lacked in strength they made up for with boundless energy. Having made the score 1-1 against the run of play to great celebrations, they were sent back to the sidelines after the star player from the older team darted through them from the back, his feet outfoxing their developing motor skills, before finishing into the bottom corner. They were gone, but not without showing promise: high-fives and claps on the shoulder were their reward for doing well.

The standard of skill from all in the cage was mesmerising: even the two heftier boys and the only girl on show were dazzling. Rabonas, pannas, elasticos rolling as effortlessly from their feet as they do from the tongue.

We left, smiling and uplifted. It was clear we had seen a glimpse of the beating heart of Brazilian football. While much of the country had shut down for the day, the football carried on, far away from the multi-billion pound Fifa extravaganza in the centre of the city. 11-a-side games, fame and stardom may be the aim for these Neymars-in-potentia, but for that Sunday, there was only the cage, and the glory that lay within it.

Saturday 31 May 2014

Potential Christie MLS move begs serious agent questions

The news that Coventry City full-back Cyrus Christie may be on the move to a Major League Soccer (MLS) team in North America has raised a few eyebrows, not least amongst the Sky Blue fans and the team manager, Steven Pressley.

When the news broke a couple of weeks ago that the States could be a potential destination for the Coventry Academy graduate, it seemed a tad far-fetched and a perfect example of the rumours that can arise during the 'silly-season' of the summer transfer window. But with the names of three clubs that are supposedly interested in Christie being revealed in the Coventry Telegraph yesterday - Toronto FC, DC United, and New York Red Bulls - it seems that this is one bit of hearsay that may have its beginnings in truth rather than guesswork.

Everyone connected with Coventry and Christie was well aware as far back as September that this would be the defender's last year at the club, barring a quite sensational change of heart. Out of contract this summer, and in the form of his life up until Christmas, it was widely accepted that Christie would be off to ply his trade in pastures new come the start of the 2014/2015 season. But from slightly over-hyped speculation that Spurs were monitoring him, to Huddersfield and Bolton emerging as interested parties in the early part of the year, this fairly solid link between the player and the MLS is a slightly bizarre twist in an otherwise familiar and well-trodden path for Coventry.

The club's financial situation means that we can rarely, if ever, be in a position where we can keep players who hit form or who have the potential to thrive at a higher level. We expect every player who impresses and gains column inches in the national press to be prised from our tired and weary fingers, often for less than we expected, and sometimes for free. The result is that we are always either replacing from within our own academy, an institution which is thankfully turning out some very adept youngsters, or taking a chance on out-of-contract journeymen.

Yet, the most problematic aspect of  the Christie conundrum is not to do with the player himself, or the club, but rather an element of football which is oft criticised: the agent. It seems that Christie's agent has been the orchestrator of a standoff where neither party looks, for the moment at least, to come out of this any better off.

It is not a massive stretch of the imagination to conclude that Christie's agent probably advised him that running down his contract was the best course of action for his career. With no transfer fee to be paid and only the small matter of compensation to be awarded to Coventry for investing so much in his footballing education, the idea must have been that higher-placed clubs would be clambering over themselves to sign him. So far this has not happened, and the only words we hear through the footballing grapevine are the whispers that he may be off to try his luck in the United States.

Christie is a young man, and a talented footballer as well. He has put in a decent amount of service with the club, and not many fans would begrudge him the chance to go and further his career elsewhere. As it happens though, the MLS doesn't really represent a forward move for a young footballer trying to further his career; if anything, it's a sideways/backwards one. Sure, the individual quality may be higher than League One thanks to your Thierry Henrys and your Robbie Keanes lighting up the place in the twilight of their careers, but as a place to enhance your reputation, it just does not cut the mustard.

The thought still remains that if Christie was to have signed a new contract this year, like mercurial teammate Callum Wilson, he would not be in this position. If no bids came in from outside parties, he would still be able to ply his trade with his boyhood club at a respectable level, whereas if interest was high, the club would have been able to recoup a substantial fee for him and the defender could make the step-up that he desires.

Alas, as with so many young, talented players these days it seems the murmurings of his agent and promises of grandeur have forced him into a corner where the MLS is the most promising option that remains to him, at least from the outside looking in. However, at the time of writing, the transfer window is still a month away from opening, and speculation is sure to increase with regards to where Christie will be playing next season.

The hope is that this gutsy play by his agent won't prove to be a mistake. It would be a tremendous shame should the club and Christie come out of this worse off. For Coventry, that would mean losing a prodigious academy talent for significantly less compensation than they were expecting if he moved to the MLS, whereas for Christie, it would be moving to a league and country where the chances for career betterment would be severely limited.

Manager Steven Pressley probably put it best in his interview with the Coventry Telegraph: "I think his current agent has got a number of things he needs to answer to. Over the course of the last year I think Cyrus has been badly advised and if he’s faced with this type of scenario then I feel its been down to bad advice, I really do." 

As mentioned before it is still early days, but if this scenario ends with Christie in America, then Pressley is right: his agent has a lot to answer for.