Archive for the 'Football' Category


Porting ‘Premier Manager 64’

SDC12335Porting football management games to consoles can be tricky.

After all, it is a mammoth task to squeeze as many statistics and leagues as possible in one Sony PlayStation disc.

And, over the years, the genre has technologically progressed.

For example, Codemasters, the makers of ‘LMA Manager 2006’, launched a downloadable patch in early 2006 that updated squads and statistics in line with the latest transfer window. The aforementioned PlayStation 2 game was the first of its kind to offer this feature.

But imagine trying to fit the latest leagues, players and options in just one cartridge.

Gremlin Interactive attempted this in 1999, when they released ‘Premier Manager 64’ for the Nintendo 64, and they came mighty close to making it work.

Enter the PlayStation

SDC12413For starters, and perhaps most importantly, the gameplay is more than adequate.

While its Career mode, where you can manage one of ten Division Three teams, is not as addictive as Sports Interactive’s ‘Football Manager’ series, it is a game that merits repeated plays.

And taking an underdog to the Super League – essentially, the UEFA Champions League – is very rewarding.

The game’s difficulty level, however, is arbitrary, meaning that winning the Premier League with Charlton Athletic is just as likely as being involved in a relegation scrap with Tottenham Hotspur.

But the flaws of ‘Premier Manager 64’ are all too evident when it is compared to its PlayStation counterpart, ‘Premier Manager Ninety Nine’.

A number of the latter’s features – including profile pictures of footballers, two Italian leagues (Serie A and Serie B), and the ability to change the screen position – were excluded from the Nintendo 64 version.

The TV-style match highlights were kept, though, but many of its selling points were sacrificed. Replays, goal details (such as speed and distance) and name bars were all ditched and, unlike the PlayStation version, Barry Davies’ commentary lacked variation.

The highlights on both versions were graphically undeveloped by 1999’s standards, but the Nintendo 64 version looked a bit like a low-budget conversion.

To a certain extent, this is understandable. The capacity of the ‘Premier Manager 64’ cartridge is 128 Megabits – twice the size of the typical Nintendo 64 cartridge and equal to 16 Megabytes.

In contrast, a bog-standard PlayStation CD comfortably contains over 600 Megabytes. This meant that the Nintendo 64 was not suited to stand-alone features and options, such as pre-rendered music and film, hence why so many various presentational enhancements had to be scrapped from ‘Premier Manager 64’.

Konami’s ‘Mystical Ninja Starring Goemon’ was another example of this problem, as it needed a 16 Megabyte cartridge just to fit two short, but delightfully eccentric, songs (‘I Am Impact!‘ and the opening theme). This led to a £60 price tag and disappointing sales.

64-bit graphical enhancements

The Nintendo 64, however, was still a powerful machine, and capable of other pre-rendered elements that were not imaginable on the PlayStation and Sega Saturn.

And, thanks to its Reality Immersion system, it had the main components of a £10,000 Silicon Graphics machine.

According to N64 Magazine, this meant that – in games such as ‘Super Mario 64’ and ‘Pilotwings 64’ – it was possible to create massive 3D worlds “just by specifying a few polygon co-ordinates”.

Games could also be anti-aliased – which meant that jagged lines were minimised – while frame rates were maintained without resorting to fog.

The console’s other advantages, such as texture mapping and detailing, led to the critical acclaim of Major A’s ‘International Superstar Soccer 64’.

It was the Konami subsidiary’s first attempt at using motion capture and programming with polygons, and the game ran around 100 times faster than its Super NES counterparts.

Yasuo Okuda, who directed and co-programmed the game, told N64 Magazine that although the game could be converted to the PlayStation or Saturn, “we’d [Major A] have to delete quite a bit from it because of memory size restrictions”.

Katsuya Nagae, who was in charge of Konami Computer Entertainment Osaka’s research and development department, also added:

“The N64 is definitely the best machine to write a soccer game for, because it uses cartridges rather than CDs. Other machines have a limited memory to store information read from the CD, but the N64 can get information from the cart at any time. The PlayStation, on the other hand, has to load everything in and store it in its memory.” (April 1997, p.82-83.)

This meant that ‘International Superstar Soccer 64’ was able to master the Nintendo 64 in the same way as Nintendo’s two launch games – by using its 3D powers to produce real-time graphics.

But ‘Premier Manager 64’ was graphically basic, meaning that the concept of creating 3D worlds was irrelevant for such a statistically and text-heavy game.

Even though its processing time – which was regarded, for example, as the main fault of ‘LMA Manager 2003’ on the PlayStation 2 – was much faster than many 128-bit console football management games, Gremlin’s mastery of the Nintendo 64 was always going to be lower than Major A’s capabilities.

16-bit depth

SDC12407But what remains puzzling is the fact that the Sega Mega Drive version of ‘Premier Manager’ – released in 1995, with only 32 Megabits – has more detailed options than the Nintendo 64 AND PlayStation versions.

In ‘Premier Manager 64’ and ‘Premier Manager Ninety Nine’, for example, players could only choose between three sponsors.

In the Mega Drive version, however, players could decorate their ground with a variety of, mainly Sega-themed, advertising hoardings.

Floodlights, scoreboards, covered areas, under soil heating, car parks and a supporters’ club could also be developed, as could the stadium’s capacity and safety rating.

The 32 and 64-bit versions, though, only had two options: improving stadium facilities and increasing its capacity.

The Mega Drive version also allowed players to buy players via a transfer auction – which made for a refreshing change – with options to develop a youth team, and appoint coaches and physios.

Overdrafts could be extended, details about referees were provided, and a fictional fax machine displayed the latest results and transfers.

But none of these features were available on the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation versions, while the original console version of ‘Premier Manager’ offered a wider range of tactical options.

It’s still enjoyable

SDC12627Although the limited number of features and options are frustrating, ‘Premier Manager 64’ remains one of the best football management games on a home console.

‘Premier Manager Ninety Nine’ on the PlayStation, for example, has a couple of minor bugs, and ‘Premier Manager’ on the Mega Drive has a learning curve that is too steep for novice gamers and thus lacks immediacy.

And, even in the 128-bit era, simplistic options were still a niggling issue. For example, Ben Richardson’s review of ‘LMA Manager 2006’ in Official UK PlayStation 2 Magazine included the following passage:

“Selecting tactics is pretty painless as well, although a main ‘summary’ page would have been a nice addition, as the constant switching between windows can cause confusion as you try to figure out what you’ve actually changed. Mid-match options are a little restrictive, too. You can assign only four tactics to trigger during a game, and you’re unable to use them together – for instance, like setting up Counter Attack and Wing Play at the same time, which makes complete sense to us.” (December 2005, p.108.)

‘Premier Manager 64’ has all the makings of a brilliant game: it is easy to play and navigate, while having enough challenge to ensure that it has an excellent lifespan.

Despite its noticeable problems, it’s still an enjoyable game. But it will leave the more cynical player feeling short changed.

If only Gremlin could have produced a console-based game that had the accessibility of ‘Premier Manager 64’ and the depth of earlier versions. It certainly would have made for a different conclusion.


Smash Hits, Tony Currie’s testimonial match and The Housemartins

For my sins, I support Sheffield Wednesday.

But even I can appreciate the brilliance of Smash Hits’ feature about Tony Currie’s testimonial match and The Housemartins (you can read it here, and here).

Tony Currie was once named as Sheffield United’s greatest cult hero but, rather amusingly, he was also described as “some bloke or other”.

Norman Cook, meanwhile, managed to top a visit to a Sheffield-based greasy spoon by meeting George Best AND the St John’s Ambulance crew.

And a feature really isn’t a feature until the words “8.23 Inter-City Saver” and “Dennis Waterman Showbiz XI” (featuring Blades fan Paul Heaton) are mentioned. Bless you, Smash Hits.


Record Mirror does football


I have recently acquired an issue of Record Mirror from 25 August 1984. Apart from confirming that 1.6 million homes in Europe had access to cable television, it was also a football-related special to tie in with the start of the 1984/85 season.

Within the first two pages, there were details of ‘Back On The Ball’, a single by Chelsea FC that celebrated their return to the first division, a list of the ten worst chants (including those by Birmingham City, Exeter City and Torquay United supporters), and a mini-review of ‘Football Manger’ (“I felt pretty pleased with myself when I got Swindon Town promotion [sic] on Level Five”) for the ZX and Spectrum 48K.

And the issue got even better. There was a Roy Of The Rovers-esque comic strip, featuring King’s Paul King and his magic boots, and a spoof review of the season, entitled “Everything But The Goal”.

The sporting highlight of the season was arguably in January when: “The BBC run a soap opera called ‘Palace’, wherein a wicked, bearded football commentator tries to take over an ailing second division club, have an affair with Gladys the tea lady and have breakfast on the freezing cold of his Ruislip patio every morning.”

Gary Crowley, unfortunately, was also on hand to pen an article about his love of football. Describing Roy Of The Rovers and Billy’s Boots as “trashy football story magazines” suggests that he couldn’t even hit the post, though.

However, and thankfully, there was also Pat Nevin, Record Mirror’s guest singles reviewer.

And I can assure you that a footballer who cares about music formatting is worth their weight in gold. It looks like that he wasn’t much of a Marc Almond fan, though.

Also, in a later interview, he admits that the first record he bought was ‘The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway’ by Genesis.

Former Norwich City striker Mick Channon, a man who likes “everything from Adge Cutler to the B52s” was put under the spotlight, and said: “There’s no need to buy records now, is there? Whether you like it or not, there’s home taping, everybody’s doing that.”

There was also a short feature about football chic, while pop stars were given the chance to chat about football. Hibernian fan John Robertson, from The Questions, and Sheffield Wednesday supporter, Martyn Ware, from Heaven 17, were interviewed.

But the star of the issue was Baz from the Farmer Boys, who tipped Port Vale for promotion “because I don’t know where they come from”.

And last, but not least, there was pop’s memory man, Alan Jones. Rather than his weekly Chartfile, a very rare Soccerfile appeared in this issue.

Jones published numerous football-cum-music facts; such as Don Revie’s daughter, Kim, releasing a single in 1982, and Nottingham Forest’s ‘We’ve Got The Whole World In Our Hands’ reaching the Top 10 in the Netherlands and Belgium.

He also announced that George Benson was football’s favourite pop star – by a landside. Who said that footballers lack good taste, eh?


Has ‘The Football League Show’ improved?

I don’t like to use the word infamous lightly, but it is a word that I would use to describe BBC One’s ‘The Football League Show’.

The programme was launched in 2009 – after the BBC obtained the rights to show live Championship matches and highlights from the Football League – and the remit was very much focused on offering something new.

Unlike ITV’s Football League highlights package, which included ‘Football League Extra’ and ‘The Championship’, it was presented in a studio rather than an empty ground.

It certainly wasn’t seen as a low-key affair; the package was a big thing for the BBC and the programme’s producer, IGM Sports Media.

The early days

Even the opening titles were different. Again, unlike ITV’s offerings, there weren’t any shots of crests and managers in 2009. There were fans wearing their replica shirt over a Hi-Viz jacket, and doing cartwheels outside a train station. It was meant to be real football for real fans.

The opening minutes of the very first edition were bold, too. Take, for example, presenter Manish Bhasin’s introduction on 8 August 2009.

He proclaimed:

“Yes, good evening and a warm welcome to the brand new ‘Football League Show’ as we aim to bring you every goal across all three divisions. By the way, there’s only 95 just to squeeze in tonight. Over the next 40 weeks, we’d also love to hear from you. Have you got the right manager in charge? Have you got the right players in the team, perhaps? What about your result this afternoon? Here’s Lizzie Greenwood-Hughes as to how you can get in touch.”

And the second edition was no better, with Bhasin saying:

“The best opening day attendance figures for nearly 50 years show exactly what the Football League means to its fans. And, if that first week threw up some extraordinary results, then let me tell you, today was no less dramatic.”

The attitude taken by the programme – and Bhasin – was overzealous and condensing. They felt that the Football League was exciting; so exciting that it should be alike forcing half a dozen chicken balti pies down your throat at once.

Other elements of the programme were just as preachy. Steve Claridge was recruited to act as the programme’s pundit. During the first edition, Bhasin described him as “a man who knows the Football League inside out”.

But, at best, he has been unbearable to watch during its tenure. Clichés were often, and incoherently, bandied around with a swagger of arrogance. For a show that is broadcasting beyond midnight on a Saturday, it was the wrong tone.

There was also an ‘interactivity’ element, where Greenwood-Hughes read out texts and e-mails from viewers.

As a troubled indictor of this segment’s quality, the first five messages were about Newcastle United: four of them stated that Alan Shearer should become their manager, and one was about Tim Krul being stung by a wasp. A further two messages, during the first edition, supported Shearer.

Greenwood-Hughes also patronisingly said “well done” to a Peterborough United fan, who thought that their defeat at Derby County was a “starting block for a good season”.

During the first series, there was a slight obsession with Newcastle; on most occasions, their matches were shown first.

Within just a few minutes of the first edition, Bhasin said:

“Well, you [Claridge] mentioned the big teams, no doubt the big talking point of the Championship is Newcastle. Who’ll buy them? Who’ll be their manager? And can they bounce back at the first time of asking? Well, we got some sort of pointer to that last question, at least, when they travelled to West Brom, a game you might have seen a little earlier on BBC One.”

And then there was Mark Clemmit, a man who was equally enthusiastic talking about Torquay’s “postcard image” or about “Cardiff City’s swanky, new, £15 million stadium”.

That’s perfectly fine, but there was no light and shade to his presentation – the joviality felt like a façade, at the very least.

He presented two items: a feature about a team in the Football League – particularly if they had changed stadiums or managers – and ‘Potted History’, a collection of ‘wacky’ facts about another team.

These two segments rarely lasted more than a few minutes, but listening to Clemmit often felt like being forced to down a couple of pints after vomiting on the balti pies.

However, the amount of actual football shown was proportionally low. Over 22 minutes of the 75-minute time slot was spent on Championship football, and just under half of that was used for two games: Newcastle United v West Bromwich Albion and Derby County v Peterborough United.

Over 11 minutes was dedicated to League 1 highlights, while nearly nine minutes was used for League 2 football.

The format factory

In a way, you could say that ‘The Football League Show’ was an experiment during its earliest editions. Before 2009, there were two other similar experiments that flopped: ITV’s ‘The Premiership’ and the launch of Channel 5.

The former, which started in 2001, had a number of new features including a teatime screening, Townsend’s Tactics Truck and Terry Venables’ ProZone analysis. All three of those items were scrapped within a matter of weeks.

Channel 5’s launch in 1997 was also troubled. Its flagship programme, ‘Family Affairs’, wasn’t originally a soap about a community, it was pitched as a soap about just one family.

Its early schedules were also “stripped”, a tactic that was normally reserved for digital television. In fact, it often felt like a satellite channel.

Furthermore, two of its main sport presenters were Dominik Diamond, best known for presenting Channel 4’s ‘GamesMaster’, and Gail McKenna, a former Page Three model and future ‘How 2’ presenter.

The channel quickly obtained broadcasting rights for the Poland versus England international, but it was transmitted from a London sports café with stars from ‘Family Affairs’ and ‘Gladiators’. Claridge was also given his own role, in the form of providing betting news and analysis.

Channel 5’s reputation for its sports coverage never recovered from this moment – even if they managed to take an interest in the UEFA Intertoto Cup, Eredivisie and Primeira Liga.

The problem with these two examples, and ‘The Football League Show’, is there was an eagerness to please that went too far. They tried to add too many new gimmicks at once, while failing to get the basics right.

A slow improvement

But changes have been made to ‘The Football League Show’. The show is now pre-recorded, which led to the interactive element and Greenwood-Hughes being dropped in 2011.

Clemmit remained, despite the quiet axing of his ‘Potted History’ segment, although the insufferable enthusiasm remains.

Claridge’s role has also been reduced, being partially replaced by Leroy Rosenior. His gentle tone is suited to the programme’s late transmission time, and he also comes across as intelligent and well informed on occasions.

Bhasin’s interest in the Football League seems more genuine in 2013 than in 2009, and the programme’s overzealous attitude has been toned down.

For example, Bhasin introduced an edition, on 23 February 2013, by saying:

“Good evening, and we’ve become increasingly used to managerial chopping and changing in the nPower Football League. But this week, though, it seems to have stepped up a gear. Out went Paolo Di Canio and Dean Holdsworth, while in came Paul Ince, Simon Grayson and Andy Scott. Not to mention Alan Knill, now covering for Martin Ling over at Torquay. And they’ve all, of course, got to hit the ground running with points becoming more precious by the week. A warm welcome tonight to Steve, as we reflect on a busy day across all three divisions.”

This change in tone is seen in the new titles sequence, which was introduced in 2012. The focus is on the past – with images of Brian Clough and Glenn Hoddle – to remind viewers that football existed before 1992.

It isn’t ideal, but it is a sight more preferable than a John Westwood-esque figure dancing around in a circle.

Also, in 2013, ‘The Football League Show’ is now broadcasting more football than in 2009.

For example, on 23 February 2013, nearly 28 minutes were dedicated to Championship matches and nearly 15 minutes were spent on League 1. Furthermore, there was over ten minutes of League 2 football.

By comparing the editions on 8 August 2009 and 23 February 2013, the amount of actual highlights being broadcasted has increased by 20.32%. It must also be mentioned that both shows were 75-minutes long. (NB: this chart provides a more detailed comparison.)

The programme’s quality has slowly improved to an acceptable level and, for the most part, it is now perfectly watchable.

The future?

But there are still doubts of whether the programme requires a punditry element, particularly when Claridge is at the helm.

A back-to-basics format is recommended, where just the goals are shown, à la ITV’s ‘Football League Extra’.

If its length remains at 75 minutes, then more action can be shown – particularly as its coverage of League 2 feels rushed – but the producers would be wise to reduce the running time by 15 minutes or even half an hour.

It may look like a step backwards, but it would get the most out of a format that is difficult to produce with such short lead times.

‘The Football League Show’ may have its critics, and there is still room for improvement, but it has changed since 2009. And it is all the better for it.


Revisiting 90 Minutes’ Nightmare League

scan0003During the 1990s, 90 Minutes ran an annual Nightmare League.

Think of it as an alternative to Fantasy Football.

Readers of the defunct magazine – instead of choosing the best players in the Premier League – picked who they thought were the worst players, and competed in regional and occupational leagues.

Premier League footballers were ranked on various statistics.

For example, they would be awarded three points for every goal that they scored and four points for every clean sheet kept by a defender or goalkeeper.

However, if they scored an own goal or received a red card, they would be deducted five points. Meanwhile, yellow cards would be rewarded with minus three points.

Also, whenever a defender or goalkeeper conceded a goal, they would score a single minus point.

And, for every time a midfielder or striker played a minimum of 45 minutes without scoring, they would be deducted one point.

Therefore, the worst players would attain a significant minus score at the end of the season and the readers, who had the lowest marks, would win their regional or occupational league.

And, while the magazine published a “worst players of ’95/96” list, they never picked a Nightmare League XI.

This was surprising, considering that they published “The Chaos Theory XI”, “Hoddle’s First 11 – the players that could figure in the new England manager’s plans” and the “Nightmare Team of the tournament [from Euro 96]” during the summer of 1996.

However, after scouring through old editions of 90 Minutes, here are their worst players from the 1995/1996 Premier League season.

GK: Keith Branagan

Club: Bolton Wanderers
Nightmare League points total: minus 40

Surprisingly, goalkeepers were a rarity in the Nightmare League.

For instance, only three other goalkeepers scored less than minus ten points: Sheffield Wednesday’s Kevin Pressman with minus 22 points, Leeds United’s John Lukic with minus 15 points and Nottingham Forest’s Mark Crossley with minus 11 points.

But, after conceding 59 goals in 31 games, Keith Branagan was easily the worst goalkeeper in this league and joint 20th worst player overall.

LB: Alan Kimble

Club: Wimbledon
Nightmare League points total: minus 43

Although Wimbledon finished 14th in the 1995/1996 Premier League, they had defensive problems following Warren Barton’s move to Newcastle United.

The Dons conceded 70 league goals and only Bolton Wanderers had an inferior defensive record.

Therefore, it should not surprise you that Alan Kimble is in this XI – after scoring minus 43 points and grabbing a joint 14th placed spot overall.

His form was so bad, Kimble’s only realistic contender was Sheffield Wednesday’s right-footed left back Ian Nolan with minus 37 points.

CB: Jimmy Phillips

Club: Bolton Wanderers
Nightmare League points total: minus 58

The Nightmare League was full of centre backs and the worst of them was Jimmy Phillips.

The second-worst player in this league was one of just six players to score minus 50 points or less.

No one can argue about the fact that he was one of the main reasons why Bolton struggled so much in their first Premier League campaign.

CB: Paul Williams

Club: Coventry City
Nightmare League points total: minus 49

Paul Williams’ first season in the Premier League, after his move from Derby County, won’t be remembered for the right reasons, and the Sky Blues conceded 60 league goals during the 1995/1996 season.

Bolton’s Chris Fairclough was only two points ahead and, if he had played more than 24 games, Wimbledon’s Alan Reeves could have nicked this spot after scoring minus 42 points.

Queens Park Rangers’ Steve Yates, meanwhile, also came close with minus 46 points.

RB: Kenny Cunningham

Club: Wimbledon
Nightmare League points total: minus 78

Kenny Cunningham may have gained some plaudits over the years but, according to the Nightmare League, he was the worst player by far, after being minus 20 points behind Jimmy Phillips.

Interestingly, two other right backs were in the top six worst players: QPR’s David Bardsley and Sheffield Wednesday’s Peter Atherton, who both scored minus 50 points.

LM: Alan Thompson

Club: Bolton Wanderers
Nightmare League points total: minus 39

Alan Thompson may have played for England in 2004, but he was this league’s worst left-footed winger. This was after being placed 23rd in the league with minus 39 points.

However, this does not come as a surprise because, after scoring Bolton’s first league goal of the season against Wimbledon on 19 August 1995, he failed to score in his other 25 appearances.

And, as competition for this position was so scarce, Thompson’s closest rival was Newcastle’s David Ginola with minus 31 points.

CM: Garry Flitcroft

Club: Manchester City
Nightmare League points total: minus 54

Another relegated club means the inclusion of another footballer in the Nightmare League.

This time it’s Garry Flitcroft, the worst midfielder and third-worst player in this league.

90 Minutes couldn’t even spell his name correctly in the final listings.

CM: Barry Horne

Club: Everton
Nightmare League points total: minus 47

This was actually a tie, as two other central midfielders had accrued the same amount of points.

But, as Barry Horne had played less Premier League football in the 1995/1996 season than Coventry City’s Kevin Richardson and Middlesbrough’s Jamie Pollock, Everton’s lowest ranked player gets the final central midfield spot.

Horne was the joint eight-worst player in this league – but the aforementioned trio faced tough competition from Chelsea’s Dennis Wise (minus 45 points), Everton’s Joe Parkinson (minus 43 points), Aston Villa’s Andy Townsend (minus 42 points) and Manchester United’s Nicky Butt (minus 41 points).

RM: Steve Lomas

Club: Manchester City
Nightmare League points total: minus 50

There was a real lack of right-sided midfielders in this league; therefore, Steve Lomas is the midfielder that best fits this slot.

Lomas was the joint fourth-worst player in this league and, along with Flitcroft, Manchester City had the two lowest ranked midfielders.

The only right-footed winger that came close was Coventry’s Paul Telfer, who was placed 24th and scored minus 39 points.

FW: Mark Hughes

Club: Chelsea
Nightmare League points total: minus 40

With the potential to score lots of goals, it was difficult to score lowly in the Nightmare League. Even Forest’s Andrea Silenzi scored minus six points.

However, due to his 11 yellow cards and one red card, Mark Hughes is the second-worst striker in this league.

During a difficult first season at Chelsea, the Welsh forward only scored eight league goals in 30 games and, if he hadn’t scored four goals in his final four games of the season, a joint 20th placed finish could have been beyond him.

FW: Trevor Sinclair

Club: Queens Park Rangers
Nightmare League points total: minus 43

Some people could suggest that Southampton’s Matthew Le Tissier should be in this XI, after scoring minus 38 points.

But, during the 1995/1996 season, he often played in midfield, as Gordon Watson and Neil Shipperley were Dave Merrington’s preferred strike partners in a 4-4-2 formation.

What’s even more surprising, though, is that Trevor Sinclair bags this final spot after a joint 14th placed finish.

Although he has played on both sides of the wing, Sinclair was regularly utilised as a striker during the 1995/1996 season.

90 Minutes, meanwhile, claimed in July 1996 that “he insists on playing down the middle of the park”, making it more likely that some saw him as a forward in the mid-1990s.

Despite being named in five consecutive England squads, during the build up to Euro 96, Sinclair only scored two league goals and failed to score in his final 26 games of the season.

The only real pretenders to the strikers’ throne were Bolton’s John McGinlay and Wimbledon’s Dean Holdsworth, who both scored minus 20 points.


Curbing homophobia in Norwegian football

Like many countries, it has been difficult to curb homophobia in Norwegian football. There have been some groundbreaking initiatives since the turn of the millennium but, despite these earnest steps, there has been a lack of progress and awareness regarding the problems facing gay footballers.

Thomas Berling’s retirement in 2000, after coming out, is a stark reminder of this.

However, a new project by the Football Association of Norway – which is also known as the NFF – could bring a positive legacy to the game.

Berling’s retirement

Berling was seen as a talented prospect in Norwegian football during the late 1990s and had a bright future ahead of him.

He started his career at Mosjøen IL and Nardo FK, while his fine form for the under-19 national side secured a move to FK Lyn in 1999.

Although his professional career was taking off, Berling found it difficult to cope with his homosexuality in football.

For instance, he admitted to Dagbladet magazine in 2009 that he used various strategies during his youth career to prevent other players from getting suspicious about his sexuality.

These strategies ranged from being homophobic to having various girlfriends and using them as an alibi.

A year after joining FK Lyn, he came out to his manager Vidar Davidsen – albeit privately, although Berling started to discuss his homosexuality publicly in April 2001 – when he was aged 21 years. Berling told Dagbladet that, during this conversation, there were concerns about what would happen if he fell in love with another player at the club.

Berling decided to retire from professional football within a week, after seeing the extent of homophobia in the dressing room throughout his career.

For instance, he claimed that the word “gay” was used as an insult, rather than a word, in Norwegian football.

The lower leagues

It does appear, though, that it is possible to be a gay footballer in the lower leagues of Norwegian football.

Berling, for example, made a brief comeback in 2001 when he became the captain of Drøbak/Frogn IL, after he was approached by another homosexual footballer.

Furthermore, Anders Dale also came out in 2000, while he was a FK Vidar player, and has since carried on playing professional football.

There was also a positive response when gay magazine Blikk sponsored lower league outfit Grüner IL in 2001.

Generally, though, it is still a major issue in Norwegian football.

Big problems remain

A striking statement was found in a survey, ‘Med idretten mot homofob’, which said there were approximately 20,000 homosexuals actively playing football in Norway and around a fifth of them had attempted suicide at least once.

In addition, an investigation in 2005 by Adresseavisens found that a sixth of footballers in Norway felt uncomfortable changing in the dressing room with a homosexual footballer.

There has also been little press coverage, regarding this issue, in Norway.

Adressa journalist Terje Eidsvåg, for instance, claimed that Norwegian reports about Swedish defender Anton Hysén’s sexuality were rare, even though the two countries have similar cultures and situations surrounding homosexuality in football.

Former Sevilla goalkeeper Frode Olsen, meanwhile, was accused of defending homophobia in 2008, while working as a pundit on television.

Compared to other sports like handball, which has faced similar problems in the past, homophobia in football is covered far less proactively in Norway.

Television channel TV2, for instance, produced a documentary series called ‘Raballder’ in 2006, which was about a gay handball team based in Oslo.

Commentary by important figures

Major figures in Norwegian football have commented on these problems, though.

Karen Espelund – the former general secretary of the NFF – claimed that little had been done to reduce discrimination, other than stating in their rules that no one should be excluded on the basis of their sexual orientation.

Meanwhile, Nils Johan Semb, the former manager of the Norwegian national team, feels that the majority of homophobic abuse comes from supporters and players are more aware of the negative effects of such language.

Others, however, see it differently.

Viking FK’s president Ole Rugland and Aalesund FK’s chairman Arne Aambakk have stated that homosexuality is not an issue at their clubs.

Youth players at Lillestrøm SK, meanwhile, have said that they respect the honesty of their homosexual coach, Lars Bache.

It is clear that this is not a simple issue to resolve and Egil Østenstad has highlighted its complexity.

The former Southampton striker, who has publicly called for players to be sent off if they make homophobic remarks, told Dagbladet it is hard to know whether gay footballers are being bullied because he feels that homosexuality is invisible.

A turning point?

If there is a turning point, though, it has come from a recent initiative, which was focused on attitudes towards homosexuality.

In 2010, the Akershus Football Association, alongside the NFF, implemented a pilot project within 14 Komerike municipals – which gave them the power to ban homophobic footballers for up to six matches.

The project has since received local prizes in Akershus and, to gain further knowledge on the issue, the NFF has commissioned a study about the perception of homosexuality in football.

It will analyse the various challenges facing gay footballers, as well as looking at the changes that can be made so LGBT persons can see the sport as a support resource. The NFF are also hoping that the study will lead to further research on the issue, so they can take action against homophobia.

The study, which will be based on in-depth interviews, is expected to be published in mid-April 2012 and could be the breakthrough project that finally brings this issue into the mainstream.

This is a big step forward and there remains enough hope to suggest that 2012 could be the year when this issue changes for the better.


Sheffield Wednesday’s Intertoto Cup adventure

As the phrase goes, hindsight is a funny thing.

Some Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers fans may feel that the 2011/2012 season is one of the worst they have seen.

Within the next decade, though, they may have changed their minds.

Just look at Sheffield Wednesday: the club was involved in a relegation battle during the 1995/1996 season, which would have disappointed many fans.

But they were competing in the Premier League.

They had signed Marc Degryse from R.S.C. Anderlecht. And, best of all, they played in the UEFA Intertoto Cup.

The build up

Sheffield Wednesday were one of three English teams who competed in 1995’s Intertoto Cup – the others being Wimbledon and Tottenham Hotspur – and, according to 90 Minutes journalists Kevin Palmer and Andy Strickland, the Owls were “[t]he only British team to take the Intertoto Cup seriously [that] summer”.

Judging from the build up, though, that statement could have been very different.

In May 1995, Sheffield Wednesday rejected the opportunity to join the competition and, earlier that month, Tottenham Hotspur and Wimbledon had also rebuffed UEFA’s offer.

In early June, though, all three sides agreed to play in the competition, which prevented UEFA from banning English clubs that would be participating in European competitions during the 1996/1997 season.

Sheffield Wednesday’s group was tough, though, as the Owls’ opponents Group One included Danish side Aarhus GF and Fußball-Bundesliga outfit Karlsruher SC.

A tough start

The preparations for the first match, against FC Basle at the St. Jakob Stadium on 24 June, were less than ideal.

For instance, Clive Baker was in temporary charge and many experienced players were still on their pre-season break.

The likes of Graham Hyde and Lee Briscoe started the match, but Baker was forced to rely on five guest loanees: Cardiff City’s John Pearson, Bradford City goalkeeper Ian Bowling, David German of Halifax Town, and Rotherham United duo Andy Williams and Tony Brien.

Pearson made a lively return to the club by creating chances, but a second-half strike by Alexandre Rey gave the experienced Swiss side a 1-0 victory.

With just one qualification place available, the club could not afford to lose another game.

A new manager

By the time they were due to play their next game, against Górnik Zabrze at Rotherham United’s Millmoor Stadium on 8 July, the Owls were in better shape.

David Pleat was ready for his first game as Sheffield Wednesday’s manager and several first-team players – including Chris Woods, Ian Nolan, Des Walker, Andy Sinton, Peter Atherton, Chris Waddle and Mark Bright – started the match, after returning for pre-season training just 24 hours before the match.

Star striker David Hirst, though, was completing a three-match European ban for his dismissal against 1.FC Kaiserslautern in 1992.

The Owls scored first when Julian Watts’ attack troubled defender Maciej Krzętowski, which led to an own goal, but Marek Szemoński soon equalised.

And, just before the half time break, some strong build-up play between Waddle, Hyde and Nolan found Bright’s head to give Sheffield Wednesday a 2-1 lead.

Bright nearly scored another goal in the second half, but his shot came back off the post and Waddle fired in the rebound.

Woods, however, made a howler after losing his balance and he fell over the line, while the ball was still in his hands, to give the visitors a consolation goal.

An early exit

Ahead of the group’s biggest match, against group leaders Karlsruher SC at the Wildparkstadion on 15 July, Sheffield Wednesday needed to avoid defeat in order to stay in the competition.

Danny Bergara, the club’s head coach, was in charge and the home side took an early lead when Slaven Bilić scored with a cracking 30-yard strike.

The Owls got a deserved equaliser and ended Karlsruher SC’s 100% record when Bright scored another header from close range after some excellent work by Waddle.

Millmoor hosted the final match, against Aarhus GF on 22 July, and both sides had to hope that results went their way, if they were to ensure qualification for the knockout stages.

New signing Mark Pembridge – and the club’s new crest and home kit – made their débuts and the Welshman made an immediate impact by setting up Bright’s third goal of the competition after 11 minutes.

Nocko Jokovic soon equalised but Bright scored again, during the opening period of the second half, after he was set-up by Sheridan.

Sheffield Wednesday’s best goal of the tournament was left until last, though.

Dan Petrescu dribbled past two defenders and the goalkeeper, and thus allowing an easy tap-in for the Romanian full back.

However, the match ended on a sour note.

Bright was sent-off for retaliating to Henrik Mortensen’s challenge and the Owls exited the tournament after Karlsruher SC hammered Górnik Zabrze 6-1.

The aftermath

Although Sheffield Wednesday did not progress to the next round, they were moral winners in comparison to Tottenham Hotspur and Wimbledon.

The two London sides were banned from European competitions for one season after fielding under-strength sides throughout the Intertoto Cup.

The Premier League quickly vetoed the punishment and UEFA scrapped the ban in January 1996, but it became the legacy of the Intertoto Cup.

Although clubs like Bradford City and West Ham United fielded strong sides in future tournaments, it was never a priority in English football.

Tottenham Hotspur and Wimbledon got what they deserved, though, as both sides finished second-from-bottom in their groups.

Furthermore, Spurs lost three of their four matches and the Crazy Gang failed to win a single match.

On the other hand, Sheffield Wednesday won two matches and finished second in Group One with seven points.

And, if they had beaten Karlsruher SC and gained a point against FC Basle, they would have qualified for the knockout stages.

The Owls can look back at their Intertoto Cup campaign with pride, that’s for sure.

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