Tag Archives: EPL

Baseball or Soccer: Which is More Afraid of the Numbers?

“They hate what they don’t understand.”—Sean “Diddy” Combs

I’ve never been good at math. Or at least that’s the attitude I’ve carried with me since 1st grade. In elementary school, my parents sent me to a tutoring center two times a week. I’d do endless sheets of arithmetic problems for an hour, and then go home and do more. My mental math was on point, but it always took me longer than the rest of the class to “get it.” I needed individual attention, but was often times too ashamed to ask for it. To this day, I still can’t do long division problems.

When you grow up with an affliction towards numbers, you get nervous whenever they’re presented in a decision-making situation. Adding up the change in your pocket at the deli counter isn’t easy. Simple accounting problems are stressful when they shouldn’t be. Deciding whether Mike Trout deserves to be MVP based on something called WAR, or choosing between Luis Suarez and Robin van Persie by comparing Chance Conversion rates equates to rocket science.

Although I’m never excited to do a math problem, I enjoy analyzing sports statistics. In 6th grade I started carrying a Baseball Prospectus in my backpack. I would pour over the annual additions of the mammoth book in my spare time—the book felt as close to the truth about baseball as any analysis could be. Full of advanced baseball statistics and player projections, it felt like the end all be all of the upcoming baseball season. Why even bother with watching games? Basebsall Prospectus already projected them. In my thirst for the truth about baseball, the “outsider’s” knowledge and perspective found in the Baseball Prospectus books felt indisputable, and it was all coming from guys who had never been on a scouting trip.

I believe there are plenty of sports fans and writers out there who take their “I’m bad at math” attitude and flip it into a dismissal of baseball’s sabermetrics, and soccer’s opta statistics. People are just afraid of the numbers.

Sabermetrics, which is a term derived from SABR (Society for American Baseball Research), have endured a decade-long battle for acceptance in baseball’s mainstream consciousness, starting with their grand introduction through Michael Lewis’ 2003 bestseller Moneyball. (Not forgetting the two decades of work Bill James did before Moneyball was even drafted though.) Over the years, more telling statistics rooted in sabermetrics such as On Base Percentage (OBP) and On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) made their way into box scores and programs. These statistics are easy for any fan to understand and calculate, but still give more insight into a player’s performance than just batting average and home runs. More complicated sabermetrics were left for Baseball Prospectus books and blogs.

The crossing over of sabermetrics into the sporting mainstream peaked with a movie adaptation of Moneyball, and finally hit SportsCenter through the debate over the 2012 American League MVP award.

The 2012 AL MVP came down to two candidates: Los Angeles Angels rookie outfielder Mike Trout, and Detroit Tigers third baseman Miguel Cabrera. Through no fault of their own, each player symbolically represented two different schools of thought in baseball—two schools which were infamously pitted against each other in Lewis’ Moneyball.

Trout or Cabrera: Who should’ve won MVP?

In one corner were “old school” baseball traditionalists. These writers and fans believed that Cabrera was the natural choice for MVP, because in 2012, he was the first player since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967 to lead the league in batting average, home runs, and RBIs. That made him the first Triple Crown winner in over four decades, and in old school circles, a deserving MVP. He was the best player on a playoff team (Trout’s Angels failed to make the playoffs, despite only winning one game less than Cabrera’s Tigers), and achieved a season of historical proportions.

Across the debate were the nerds. Baseball’s statistical revolution, popularized by Moneyball, had revealed a bevy of telling metrics to analyze players with. The statistic at the center of the argument for Trout was Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is a calculation for how many more wins a player contributed to his team than a “replacement level” player would’ve. According to FanGraphs, Trout posted a 10 WAR (the highest WAR by a center fielder since Willie Mays in 1964), meaning he was worth 10 more wins to the Angels than say, the Baltimore Orioles’ Mark Reynolds, who posted a WAR close to zero. Cabrera’s 6.9 WAR lagged behind both Trout and New York Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano, who’s 7.8 WAR was good for second. Much was made of Trout’s more complete impact compared to Cabrera. Trout stole 45 bases while Cabrera stole 4, and Trout’s fielding was regarded by observers and statisticians to be far superior to Cabrera’s. Cabrera may have been a better pure hitter in 2012, but Trout’s base running and fielding put him over the top.

Through a rounded statistical argument, it’s clear that Trout was a player overall player than Cabrera in 2012. But for many writers and fans, the debate started and ended with Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown win. The Triple Crown has been a distinction that’s become shrouded in mysticism and improbability. The likes of Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr.—the preeminent hitters of my generation—have all failed to win the Triple Crown. Although there’s no physical trophy for the Triple Crown, it’s an “award” based on three statistics that mean less in a world of sabermetrics, and it’s still guarded in tradition, nostalgia, and Cracker Jack boxes. Much of American baseball’s popularity and interest comes from its history, record books, and old-time lore. The Triple Crown is a part of that, and for it—for baseball’s past—to be defended as a significant part of today’s game, Cabrera had to win the MVP. He ended up garnering 22 of the 28 first-place votes from the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. Trout got the remaining six.

“Call me old-fashioned but, if you win the Triple Crown and lead your team to the playoffs, you’re probably going to get my MVP vote.” —USA Today writer Jorge L. Ortiz

Besides, who the hell knows how to calculate WAR anyway? FanGraphs gives a fairly simple explanation of the statistic and how it’s calculated, but still—anytime you wander into unfamiliar and potentially complicated territory populated by guys like Nate Silver (the statistician who perfectly predicted the 2012 Presidential Election state-by-state) you’re going to be intimidated and hesitant to accept something new and different.

When the traditional box score statistics of batting average, home runs, RBIs, runs, and stolen bases are being challenged, marginalized, and perhaps overtaken by something so superficially convoluted as WAR and a whole host of other advanced metrics, writers and fans who didn’t grow up with these new statistics are going be resistant to adaptation. They’re scared of the numbers because they don’t fully understand them, and as seedy old writers, they can’t be bothered to change. These are writers who are covering a sport that didn’t implement instant replay for umpires until 2008, despite the NFL using it since 1986, and the technology for it existing since the 1960s. The league and its media are the furthest thing from progressive. Yet the is future covered in data, which can be difficult to sort through if you’re not inclined to embrace something you don’t fully understand.

The same reluctance to fully embrace advance statistics in baseball is currently being played out in professional soccer. Up until a few years ago, there were exactly five ways to quantify a player’s performance on the pitch. Goalies were judged by their saves and clean sheets, defenders by their tackles and clean sheets, and midfielders and forwards by their goals and assists. With only so many goals, assists, and tackles happening per match, it was difficult to gauge a player’s value. How could a player like Real Madrid’s Xabi Alonso, who plays in a deep-lying midfield role and doesn’t make many tackles, goals, or assists, have his impact quantified? There was no statistic for controlling the tempo of the midfield.

In the past five years, that’s changed. Opta, a sports data company founded in 1996, has seen its visibility skyrocket as access to their information has become more public. They track every movement in a match to sort out dozens of different statistics for players. They have an iPhone app so fans can observe Opta’s data, a website so fans can dig deeper into the data, and a Twitter account so fans can see the most preeminent data from match-day.

Now, stats like saves, tackles, clean sheets, goals, and assists no longer make up the entire profile of a player or club—they’re just parts of a bigger, more contextualized picture. EPLIndex.com gives subscribers access to 11 different types of statistics with further statistics within those types. For example, the statistics under the “Attacking” category are much more than goals and assists. Assists are cute, but they’re the RBI of soccer—it’s a statistic that’s dependent upon another player. They’re not an independent reflection of an individual player’s performance. A good pass into the right area must be made for an assist to be possible, but that pass is still dependent on another player to finish the movement and score the goal, and for the passer to get the assist. Why bother with assists when Attacking statistics like Chances Created and Clear Cut Chances Created truly measure the creativity of a player? Those two metrics give credit to the attacker for creating the chance even if the player on the other end of the pass doesn’t convert for a goal.

And is it enough to simply say that the Golden Boot winner is the best striker? What if it takes that striker takes an inefficient number of shots to score? According to EPLIndex’s database on April 12th, Liverpool’s Luis Suarez leads the English Premier League with 22 goals this season. It took him a league-leading 130 shots to get there, putting his Chance Conversion rate at 17% and Shot Accuracy at 48%. Meanwhile, Manchester United’s Robin van Persie has scored 20 goals, but only on 94 shots for a Chance Conversion rate of 20% and Shot Accuracy of 54%. While the goal count implies that Luis Suarez is the better striker, a more in-depth look at the opta statistics shows that van Persie’s is a more efficient, clinical striker.

When I first read Moneyball, it wasn’t the characters, stories, business methods, or introduction of sabermetrics that grabbed my attention. It was the notion of objective vs. subjective thinking in situations where it was possible to think objectively. There’s no objective way to discuss how good a hip-hop album is—your ears either like it or they don’t. It’s personal taste. But when it comes to sports, observing a player isn’t enough when objective statistics exist.

Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen may not win plaudits for his aesthetic play. Critics say he’s too small to be useful defensively, and he doesn’t to pass the ball forward enough to contribute to the attack. During any one of his matches this past season, it’d be easy to say that he had a bad game, because he doesn’t make the unlocking passes or the grinding tackles. He doesn’t catch the eye. But his statistics show that he’s 3rd in the EPL in Minutes Per Possessions Won, while boasting a 90% Pass Accuracy with 30% of his passes going forward. The eye doesn’t tell the whole story.

Much of the aversion to opta statistics by soccer fans and writers is due to an incorrect notion of the phrase “Moneyball” and what it means. Real Moneyball is when players within a market find inefficiencies in that market and exploit them for gain. In the book Moneyball, the Oakland Athletics, led by General Manager Billy Beane, saw that college prospects and fringe players who had good OBPs weren’t being valued as highly, so they exploited those two areas (among many others) to field a winning ball club.

When Liverpool were taken over by Fenway Sports Group (FSG), they were labeled by the media as soccer’s new Moneyball club. After all, FSG also owns the Boston Red Sox, who had won two World Series titles during General Manager Theo Epstein’s tenure. Epstein, a Yale University graduate, was known in baseball circles as someone in tune with sabermetrics and the ideals of Moneyball. FSG were seen as the owners to bring a Moneyball philosophy to Liverpool.

Shortly after buying the club in fall 2010, FSG appointed Damien Comolli as their Director of Football Strategy. In 2011, he signed Andy Carroll, Luis Suarez, Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, and Stewart Downing for over £100 million in transfer fees. Except for Adam and Downing, all of Comolli’s signings were under 23 years old—such a tremendous outlay of cash for young players raised a few eyebrows, especially the respective £35 million and £20 million fees for Carroll and Henderson (Carroll’s was the largest figure ever paid for a British player).

Moneyball Man Damien Comolli

Comolli’s new class of signings intensified Liverpool’s Moneyball label. There were two strands of logic behind the signings that connected them to Moneyball, albeit incorrectly. The first was the signing of young players for high fees in the hope that over the long-term, the lower wages and high performance of the players as they entered their prime would justify the price tag. Comolli signed Carroll, Suarez, and Henderson to be at the club (hopefully) for the next decade, and over a period of time thanks to debt amortization, those transfer fees would be seen as appropriate. Comolli was paying the price for future performance. He was treating his signings like a stock, buying early for a big payout down the road.

The second idea was the implementation of opta statistics to determine ideal transfer targets. In previous years, Liverpool had struggled to create goal-scoring opportunities. The signings of Henderson, Adam, and Downing were supposed to rectify Liverpool’s offensive woes. All three midfielders were in the Top 12 of the EPL’s Chance Creators from the previous season, and were all viewed as excellent passers and crossers of the ball. Their crossing, combined with Carroll’s outstanding heading ability (46% of his goals were headers—the second highest proportion in the EPL that year), and Luis Suarez’s dual threat as a creator and goal scorer should’ve made for an attacking juggernaut.

Although Comolli was exploiting exactly zero inefficiencies in the transfer market (promising young players and creative midfielders are always in consistently high demand. I’m not sure they’ve ever been out of favor), it was seen as a Moneyball approach, because he used financial techniques and opta statistics to decide on his signings. Writer Joe Hall for the popular website Sabotage Times wrote an article in April 2012 titled “Damien Comolli: Here’s Why The Moneyball Philosophy Was Never Going To Work At Liverpool.” It’s perhaps the finest example of the misunderstanding of Moneyball. He speaks on the film more than the book, and writes, “Football, however, is a vastly different sport to baseball and the sport is still some distance away from fully embracing the “moneyball method…to what extent can this model, of recruiting and deploying players based solely on statistical data, be applied to football?” (At that point in the article, I lit myself on fire.)

Through a misinterpretation of Moneyball‘s ideals, Moneyball suddenly meant using statistics to build a team—a gross oversimplification to say the least. In the case of the Oakland A’s, an undervaluation of certain statistical categories was the market inefficiency they observed. Because of that, statistics and Moneyball were lumped together. In a Bizarro Baseball World, that inefficiency could be quality scouting in a market dominated by only statistical analysis, but the principles of Moneyball would be the same. They’d still be exploiting an undervalued area for their benefit. Comolli did no such thing.

The Moneyball headline was further perpetuated when none other than Billy Beane sang his praises for Comolli’s work at Liverpool. In an interview with The Daily Mirror, Beane spoke about his friendship with Comolli, and defended the signings of Carroll, Henderson, and Co. With Mr. Moneyball himself publicly siding with Comolli, Liverpool was forever stamped as the Moneyball Club—a team built on statistics and clever accounting.

Comolli was fired seven months after the Beane interview. The season following his £100 million spending spree, Liverpool continued to struggle in front of goal, and languished to an 8th place finish. Comolli was lambasted for spending so drunkenly and failing to improve the squad, and soccer fans the world over instantly become skeptical of opta statistics. As it turns out, Carroll, Henderson, Downing, Adam, and Suarez, despite all of their previous metrics pointing to a new team full of creativity and goal-scoring ability, didn’t fit together tactically. The Chances Created statistic is useful, but unless the players are put in proper position tactically, they won’t be able to create. The supposed Moneyball Club built on numbers was undressed by tactical naiveté. The eye actually told more of the story than Liverpool paid attention to.

“You want to make sure you are getting more value than you are paying.”—Billy Beane on Comolli’s signings for Liverpool

Those who were initially skeptical of Comolli’s methods were vindicated. Don’t leave a number cruncher to do a football man’s job. Those who had admired Comolli (myself included) were left without a good answer—only tactical excuses. As was the case in baseball, soccer is now struggling to bring credibility to their own statistical revolution, because of the one-off failure of Liverpool’s falsely identified Moneyball Experiment.

In actuality, every EPL club uses some form of opta statistics and advanced data tracking to assess themselves and their transfer targets. They all employ statisticians and data analysts, but those departments are less visible than the one Comolli ran at Liverpool. Last summer, defending EPL Champions Manchester City open sourced all of their opta data from the previous season. Liverpool weren’t the only club to use opta statistics to build their squad—the title-winners were too, along with the other 18 clubs. On Opta’s website, they list the 122 soccer and rugby clubs they work with, including Barcelona, Liverpool, Chelsea, Borussia Dortmund, the MLS, the Italian and Dutch soccer federations, and all of the United Kingdom leagues.

In the media and in our own conversations, there’s been extreme deference to statistics in both baseball and soccer. Both are old games tied to the cultures and histories of the United States and Europe. Both have been analyzed using only a handful of statistics and subjective observation. Both are two decades too late in their current implementation of instant replay. Both are controlled by an old guard—soccer by FIFA’s fossils in Zurich, and baseball by the Writer’s Association’s nostalgic hacks.

Many of the fans of each sport grew up looking at the same statistics: goals and assists, home runs and RBIs. Progressive thinking and new ways to evaluate players were always going to be held back in two old timer’s games, but a breakthrough is inevitable. The 2012 AL MVP discussion brought attention to WAR and the logic behind it—soon enough, we’ll be seeing WAR on baseball cards and in programs. Although Comolli’s Liverpool failed, the negative perception it gave opta statistics can only last for so long, especially as successful clubs like Manchester City develop their public databases, and websites like EPLIndex and WhoScored? rise in viewership.

Nobody ever won an argument in a bar by opening up EPLIndex’s database and running through Joe Allen’s possession stats. It’s easier to yell “he’s crap” and move on. Listing the WAR and UZR of baseball players never decided a water cooler debate at work. Triple Crown numbers are more familiar. I prefer to let the WAR and opta discussion play out in the one place they actually matter: the field. It’s harder to fear the numbers when they mean wins and losses.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Anfield Is Just Different

Every sport has their cathedrals. Baseball, a game rooted in nostalgia and history, looks to the ancient grounds of Wrigley Field and Fenway Park. A spring playoff game at Madison Square Garden has a different type of buzz than other NBA arenas. In the NFL, Lambeau Field is a desirable destination even for the most neutral and indifferent of football fans, for all of the history, friendly fans, brats, and the Sunday afternoon throwback to good old Americana. These are all sporting Meccas on every fan’s bucket list—necessary pilgrimages to pay homage to our own homo ludens.

With the rising cost of tickets, transportation, and concessions, it’s now become customary to watch the game at home amongst friends. Television production has advanced rapidly the past decade, making sporting events watched from home a more informative and comfortable experience. NFL games are remarkably different without the little yellow line, and unbiased instant replay doesn’t exist at the stadium.

Still, I like to get out to MSG, Red Bull Arena, and Yankee Stadium at least once a year, and to MetLife Stadium whenever the Packers are in town just to say “I was there.” It feels strange that my ticket purchasing decisions hinge on whether or not my tweets, statuses, and photos from the game will get lots of likes and retweets, but that’s 2013 social media going to work. It’s not enough to tell your real life friends about it for social gratification—you need to push it to your network too.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be in attendance at a few classic match-ups. I’ve seen Yankee-Red Sox playoff games at Yankee Stadium, Red Sox games at Fenway Park, Packer games at Lambeau Field, Giants Stadium, and MetLife Stadium; Juventus and Red Bull games at Red Bull Arena, and a nice string of Knick games at MSG: I was there for the last two Knicks playoff victories the past decade (over the Raptors and Heat, respectively), the birth of Linsanity (25 points against the Nets), and the height of Linsanity (28 points and a 3-point shot over Dirk Nowitski and the then defending NBA Champion Mavericks).

As a sports fan, I’ve been spoiled. Totally and irreversibly spoiled. I can’t go to basketball games without comparing it to the excitement of beating the Heat in the playoffs at MSG. Football games at MetLife are cold and classless compared to Lambeau Field. Baseball games without “BOSTON SUCKS” and “Pedro, Who’s Your Daddy?” chants are boring. The lens through which I view every single live sporting event I now attend is skewed, usually for the worst, because of the incredible feats, scores, and crowds I’ve been a part of in the past.

Soccer, however, is the one sport that has yet to be tainted. Red Bull games are fun, and sitting in the supporters’ section while Thierry Henry continues to bless us with his once-in-generation technique is special, but it’s still just the MLS. Outside of the supporters’ section of Red Bull Arena, nobody really cares about the game on hand, which almost makes the diligent chanting, singing, and general noise making of the supporters’ section feel disingenuous. It all feels forced when you and the 400 other diehards around you are the only ones who constantly give a damn in a 25,000 seat arena. There’s nothing hallow-hearted about the raw emotion let go after a stunning goal, but everything else in-between feels like the work of a “try-hard.”

This past week, soccer has become totally tainted for me. I’ll never be able to sit at a Red Bull match again with the same attitude. Even going to an Arsenal match at the Emirates Stadium would put me to sleep. Actually, I’ll never be able to go to another sporting event—outside of maybe the Super Bowl, NBA Finals, or World Cup—without thinking back to that night at Anfield.

Last Thursday, Liverpool played Zenit St. Petersburg at their home stadium, Anfield, in a Europa League knock-out stage tie. The Europa League is far less prestigious than the celebrated Champions League, but that doesn’t make it less important to the clubs playing in the competition. In the international arms race to acquire the best talent amongst the Petrol-dollar fueled likes of Manchester City and Chelsea, and the appeal of Barcelona and Real Madrid, any European trophy is important for a club, especially for a struggling Liverpool side.

After being defeated 2-0 in Russia the previous week by Zenit, Liverpool needed to win by at least a 2 goal margin and to not concede an away goal to advance. A mighty, but not impossible task against the Russian Premier League Champions. Liverpool and their home fans would have to conquer the Russians physically and mentally. Physically, the players had to do their jobs. Mentally… well, that’s where us fans had to bring it.

Fans of Liverpool have an architectural advantage to their mental battle, because Anfield is unlike any other stadium in the world. It’s small for a soccer club of Liverpool’s size (Liverpool is the 4th most valuable soccer club in the England, and Anfield’s capacity is 45,276. Comparatively, the most valuable club in England, Manchester United, can squeeze 75,765 fans into Old Trafford), but that works to the fan’s advantage. The playing field itself is no more than 15 feet away from the first row of seats—there are no massive sidelines full of players, reporters, and cameramen like at NFL stadiums. Anfield, which opened in 1884, has no modern amenities—there’s no big screen video board, luxury boxes, or cup holders. It’s just hunks of timber, metal, and fans.

Because of Anfield’s minor league size, and the massive overhanging roofing above large swaths of the seating, sound gets trapped within the grounds. Decibels hang over the pitch instead of dispersing into the Merseyside air. The crowd has complete control of the atmosphere, which can either lead to doom or gloom for Liverpool.

Earlier that week, I was in the stands at Anfield for an English Premier Match against Swansea City. It was an important fixture for Liverpool, but a sunny Sunday afternoon against a non-rival was never going to generate much oomph from the crowd. Still, if a player messes up, the hissing from the Anfield faithful will begin. Around the 20th minute, Liverpool winger Stewart Downing had a golden opportunity to strike from distance. The ball was teed up for him to smash into the left upper 90 of the goal. Downing had all the time in the world for a clean strike. It should’ve been a basic training ground score for him. He followed through, but his shot ended up closer to the corner flag than the frame of the goal. Anfield responded with a 45,000 hisses and grumbles, which remained in the air for a full minute after the mis-kick. It sounded like a cicada farm. The hushed whispers, grumbles, and gossip murmured on.

Downing wouldn’t dare to take another shot until after Liverpool had already established a lead, and the crowd was on their side again. He had been scared off by his own fans. If the crowd is tense, the players are too. If they’re in full-voice and gunning for the players to score, then players will feel more comfortable.

Prior to the Zenit match, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers called on fans to be their 12th man. He spoke of the Luis Garcia “ghost goal” from 2005 as a moment that was influenced by Anfield’s roars: “I was here for the first one, the ‘ghost goal’ and for me, it wasn’t a goal — it was the sheer force of the crowd that got it.” He was a coach for Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea at the time, who were knocked out of the Champions League by Liverpool because of the ghost goal—a goal that was called even though Garcia’s shot never broke the plane of the goal line. It’s widely believed that it was given by referee Luboš Michel because he was pressured by the celebrations of the crowd. Mourinho himself has called it “a goal that came from the moon—from the Anfield stands.”

We heeded Rodgers’ call last Thursday. I sat in the famous Kop end of Anfield, and we were brewing a cauldron of resistance 20 minutes before kick-off.

Every time a Zenit player got on the ball, we hissed and booed until he was dispossessed. Whenever Liverpool were orchestrating a build-up play, relentless calls of “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK-ATTACK-ATTACK” rained down. It was relentless. The Liverpudlian sitting behind me literally didn’t stop shouting the entire match. In his scouse, he drunkenly yammered for all 90 minutes. “Come on Liverpool!” “Get in now lads!” “C’mon you Reds!” “That’s a penalty!” It didn’t stop. It was like he was single-handedly trying to will Liverpool in on goal.

Liverpool conceded the first goal of the match after defender Jamie Carragher had the ball stolen from him near his own goal by Zenit striker Hulk. This all happened, of course, while the Kop was singing “A Team Full of Carraghers”—an ode to Jamie Carragher himself. “Well that’s a bloody team full of Carraghers for ye,” quipped an elderly woman in front of me.

Liverpool, now needing to score 4 goals to advance, were basically left for dead. 100% of fan bases that I’ve been around would’ve sulked, sat on their fans, and waited out the rest of the match in bitter disappointment. These fans didn’t. We weren’t going to accept that. After Carragher’s blunder, a brief “Did that just happen?” moment was allowed for all, and the “Come on Red Men!” chants started again. We responded with more noise, more energy, and even louder singing after a calamitous death-blow. A dagger that wasn’t.

Frankly, that’s unheard of. Jet fans would’ve left immediately, Knick fans would’ve booed relentlessly, and every other American sports fan would’ve wallowed in self-deprecation and mumbled cursing.

After non-stop singing and chanting—it was like the Zenit goal never even happened—the magic of a European night at Anfield started to thicken the air. Liverpool got one back from a Luis Suarez free-kick. And then another from Joe Allen’s right foot at point-blank range. 2-1. And then this happened:

3-1 to Liverpool, all on the backbone of our voices.

Liverpool would search for a fourth goal for the remaining thirty minutes. They’d come up short. A gutting result for fans, but a courageous and near-magical one at that. There’s no way Liverpool come back and score three goals after conceding first without Anfield behind them. A reserved crowd will almost always lead to a tense match, and ultimately a disappointing final score. Never before have I witnessed a home crowd tangibly will their team to victory. If the atmosphere of that night is ever surpassed, it’ll be by fellow Liverpool fans during another Anfield night.

Sporting events back home will never be the same again, thanks to 45,276 fans from across the Atlantic on the fields of Anfield Road.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

NFL Fans Who Hate The EPL, In Fact, Do Exist In London

Two Sundays ago, I spent my first Super Bowl outside of the United States. It felt a bit sacrilegious to spend America’s Greatest Holiday in a country where they call NFL football “that elbow and rugby thing,” and refer to it as “armored egg chase.” Everywhere outside of the United States, and especially in England—the birthplace of association football—”football” is the beautiful game played exclusively with feet, not with hands and helmets.

For the first Super Bowl in four years, I didn’t have a vested interest in the game. I had no bets wagered, the Giants weren’t there to root against, my Packers weren’t there to root for, and the Drew Brees wasn’t there playing with all of post-Katrina New Orleans on his back. Still, with a considerate 11:30 PM kick-off time in London and no class until 2 PM the next day, I ventured out to the University of London’s bar for their Super Bowl party.

On the walk to the bar, I noticed that every single pub I passed (it was a half hour walk, and given that there’s at least one pub per block on London, I must’ve passed at least 3,000 pubs) was open and advertising “the Big Game.”

At UL’s bar, I expected a handful of Raven and 49er fans, a small sect of Americans wanting to watch the Super Bowl just to attain a sense of American normalcy in a foreign country, and nothing more. It was late. Kids had class the next morning. The half-time show would be on YouTube the following morning. It’s just the NFL. To my surprise, half of the bar was full of British NFL fans, all cloaked in NFL apparel, and NYU students were aplenty. Never underestimate the drawing power of a Ray Lewis speech and a Beyonce performance.

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British NFL fans are nothing new to me. At my first Packers game at the old Giants Stadium a few years ago, I met some British Packer fans in the parking lot. With the expansion of NFL broadcasts overseas over the past twenty years, they had watched Brett Favre’s Packer teams dominate the mid-90s, and had adopted the Pack as their own, despite not even knowing where Green Bay was on the map.

I get the Packer connection. It’s a historic franchise that has produced winning seasons for the past two decades. It’d be the American equivalent of picking Manchester United as your favorite team. When there’s no natural connection, you fall in love with the consistent winner.

What didn’t make sense was the group of British NFL fans wearing Donovan McNabb, Mark Sanchez, Roy Williams, Tom Brady, and Eli Manning jerseys in the heart of London. The jerseys could’ve been just a novelty. When I go to MLS games at Red Bull Arena, it’s common to see American fans wearing whatever soccer jersey they happen to own to the game. The Red Bulls could be playing the Houston Dynamo and you’d still see about 30 Lionel Messi jerseys around the stadium. To these fans, wearing any soccer apparel to says, “Hey, we’re here because we know something about the sport.” In actuality, they probably know very little about the MLS, and could probably name only five European soccer players, but they know Messi. It’s a shame that Mark Sanchez was the finest representative the NFL had to offer for one British NFL fan.

At the bar, the NFL Brits noticed my Liverpool jersey. Worse, they saw that Joe Allen, the much lamented midfielder, was the name printed on the back of it. I should’ve known to not wear that shirt in public. It was only a matter of time until the crows came out to give me a hard time.

Here’s how the conversation went down, edited for appropriateness (you can probably guess where the warm beer-fueled expletives came in):

“Ey mate, are you a real Liverpool fan or a joke?”

“What? Why?”

“Well you’re wearing your crap club on yer chest with the name of a midget Welshman on the back.”

“5 European Cups, and 18 Leagues, that’s what we call history. Anyway, you have a JETS jersey on. You’re a disgrace to my city, the NFL, sports fans who grew up with a pre-sensationalist SportsCenter, and TMZ.”

“What’s a ‘European Cup’?”

Pause.

I had just encountered a Londoner wearing a Mark Sanchez jersey who knew enough about Liverpool to insult me but not enough about international soccer to know about the European Club Championship… WHERE WAS I?

After further conversation and a round shared with his mates, I learned that these guys actually hated the English Premier League, and only had anecdotal knowledge of their national sport through their friend’s Twitter rampages. Mr. Sanchez has a friend who’s a Liverpool fan, so the “midget Welshman” name was fresh in his mind. They admired the physicality of American football as opposed to European soccer’s divers and whiners.

Going around the table, I got to know the background stories behind these NFL Brits. Mr. Sanchez started following the Jets after a visit to New York two years ago, at the peak of the Rex Ryan era. The lad wearing the Tom Brady jersey picked the Patriots because he’s a history student and thought the Patriots’ Minuteman logo from the 90s looked cool—ironic, considering, well, you know, these Minutemen blasted his ancestors back across the Atlantic en route to Independence. The Cowboys fan had read about Tony Romo dating Jessica Simpson in the tabloids (“She has great knockers,” according to my new friend), and started tuning in every Sunday night to Cowboy games.

They couldn’t afford to make it out to the NFL In London annual games at Wembley, but those games are “the third biggest day of the year” according to one NFL Brit. The two days above in his pecking order of grand occasions: the Super Bowl and Christmas.

These were all very random roads to fandom fueled by either whims or pop culture references, but all backed up by an exceptional knowledge of the game. These fans knew the difference between a 3-4 and 4-3 defense, wondered how Kaepnerick and the 49ers’ pistol offense would fair against a strong Ravens front 7, and lamented the fact that European sports didn’t have a hard salary cap like the NFL did. Any novel reader of the game could dissect a 4-3 defense, but these guys actually knew the difference between a “hard” and “soft” salary cap. They were practically Sport Management majors!

Eventually, I left their table to participate in matters concerning Beyonce, but these fans had genuinely impressed me. I’d be hard pressed to find well-versed soccer fans at a World Cup party back in the States.

Before leaving, I asked them whether they’d like an NFL team in London one day. A resounding “YES!” was blurted in my direction. Roger Goodell, I just found your first 6 season ticket holders for your future London franchise. Finding 85,994 more to fill Wembley every Sunday shouldn’t be so hard now.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The England Takeover Continued: Liverpool at Anfield Match Documentary

I finally made it to Anfield. Finally. After five years of loyalty to Liverpool FC, and over a year of planning, I finally made the trip to my Mecca. I realize, however, that millions of Liverpool fans aren’t as fortunate as I was to see a match at Anfield, so I wanted to put a video together to showcase my time in Merseyside. Thank you to everyone who let me interview them, and to the Reds for a terrific 5-0 win. YNWA.

Thank you to David Russell of Ireland for hooking me up with a ticket to the match.

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Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

The England Takeover: Arsenal-Liverpool Match Documentary

I’m finally in England. After supporting Liverpool FC and following the EPL for five years now, I’ve traveled to London to “study abroad.” Honestly, the moment I found out I could spend a semester in London and get academic credit for it, I made the trip my goal. Although I’m here to take classes that will enrich my understanding of British culture, above all, I’m here to go to football matches and follow my beloved Liverpool.

That began last Wednesday, as Liverpool traveled to the Emirates for a tough draw with Arsenal on a cold and windy London night. Liverpool were coming off of a disastrous performance against Oldham in an FA Cup draw, but with the proper back four and 4-3-3 shape installed once again, I reckoned that we’d see a better performance from the Reds. A draw was always on the cards, and that’s just how the match ended up. 2-2.

It was disappointing to see Liverpool throw away a 2-0 lead in the second half, but Arsenal deserved those goals, as they out-shot, out-possessed, and terrorized Liverpool with consistent pressing and lightening quick build-up play. I’ll take the point.

Just like I did with the Boston match over the summer, I put together a mini-documentary of this match. I interviewed fans around the ground, got some great shots of the pitch, and ate my first pie! Watch it below. I hope to attend 2-3 more Liverpool matches, so look out for me England! I’m here!

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Why the Summer of 2013 Is So Important For LFC

After the Liverpool loss to Manchester United on Sunday, I was in a bit of a mood. I didn’t want to get up from my bar stool. I didn’t want to eat. I didn’t want to do anything. I was upset. A loss always hurts, but when you lose to United, it’s much, much worse. As I watched Arsenal lose to City, I started to reflect on the last few months, and I couldn’t help but feel conflicted when evaluating where we are right now compared to where we were on 1 September 2012.

This was always going to be a rebuilding year for LFC. The majority of us accepted that after the massive Deadline Day fuck-up on 31 August, when Andy Carroll left and no new striker came in, leaving LFC very, very barren at the striker position for the next four months. Brendan Rodgers had been preaching for patience with him for months beforehand, but after Deadline Day, the certainty of a rough season was etched into stone.

What hurt was the fact that every Liverpool fan knew that they needed to add a striker in this window, and it was really the worst-kept secret in the Premiership that Brendan Rodgers didn’t wanna keep Andy Carroll, so two strikers would need to come in for the club to stand a chance. It didn’t really matter to me that LFC had signed Joe Allen, Fabio Borini, Oussama Assaidi, and Samed Yesil. It didn’t really matter that Nuri Sahin, a year removed from being Bundesliga Player of the Season in 2010-11, was coming in for a season on loan. As far as I was concerned, the club had just taken this season and flushed it down the drain.

Now, over four months have passed since the deadline day fuck-up. This season has been, for lack of a better term, a disappointment by Liverpool standards. As things stand right now, LFC is in 8th place, which is where they finished last season in spite of having a net spend of £20m during the summer. LFC have yet to beat a team in the top half of the table (however, it should be noted that Suarez’s Merseyside Derby winner wrongly disallowed at Goodison Park). LFC are out of the League Cup after losing to Swansea City at Anfield. They advanced to the knockout stages of the Europa League, but if Di Natale converts that last chance in Italy, they been knocked out in the group stage. To top it all off, LFC lost to Aston Villa 3-1 at home, a young side that has been getting demolished by clubs since our encounter with them.

Almost all signs on the pitch have pointed to this being a season of everlasting disappointment. And yet, I’m still optimistic. Why, you ask, would I still be optimistic about this club in spite of everything that has gone wrong? It’s because I believe that this squad is finally starting to come together as a unit, and we’re seeing improvement.

Suarez has had a tremendous campaign so far this season. He carried the load after Carroll had left and Borini went down. Keeping that in mind, Daniel Sturridge has come in from Chelsea for £12m. He’s looked solid in his first couple of appearances, scoring two goals. Borini has come back as well. Brendan Rodgers now have multiple attacking options up front to play with for the last half of the season. Imagine what’ll happen if Suarez can finally have a rest at some point this season!

In addition, the youth players that have come into the team are doing well, getting first team experience, and showing improvement. The likes of Andre Wisdom, Raheem Sterling, Jonjo Shelvey, and Suso have all stepped in and done well for LFC in the last four and a half months. All are under the age of 21, part of the LFC Academy, and have contributed for the first team during the season. Because of the fact that these players have gotten games this season, the club will benefit in the long-term. Yes, this LFC side does need experience, and from an outsider’s perspective, have put a very large emphasis on buying young players, but the fact that LFC is putting in a foundation for the future is something that should be admired and not derided by the fans.

To top it all off, the wage bill can still be thinned out, and when the last stage of wage bill slimming occurs, it will enable this club to make major moves in the transfer window and help us move forward. Before you all start on how John Henry, Tom Werner, and FSG are a bunch of cheap, useless piece-of-shit owners who don’t care about the club or its fans, I want you to keep an open mind when I lay out these facts:

  • In the last two seasons, Liverpool have averaged a net spend in transfer fees of £33,825,000. This season hasn’t even ended, and LFC can still increase that average.
  • Compare that to other clubs that aren’t in the Champions League: Tottenham have averaged a net profit of £13,500,000 in transfer dealings the last couple of seasons, Newcastle £5,000,000; etc. Nobody outside the Champions League Top Four comes close to LFC the last two seasons. The club’s current position suggest that it hasn’t been money well spent, but that’s not ownership’s fault.
  • The only Premier League clubs that have spent more than LFC in transfer fees the last couple of seasons are in the Champions League.

Yes, the wage bill slimming is a valid point when it comes to the finances of the club’s fees being offset by the big transfer fees. Yes, the bad buys under Dalglish and Comolli also have to be factored in. But the fact of the matter is that there’s no non-Champions League club in England that comes close to LFC’s spending on players in the last two seasons, and that still doesn’t include the new contracts handed out to Suarez, Agger, Skrtel, Suso, and Sterling, all done to keep the poachers further up the table from snatching the club’s brightest talent. LFC are not a selling club anymore, and they’re not afraid to be ambitious in the transfer market when the right targets are in line.

As far as the wage bill right now is concerned, things can still be improved. Joe Cole was sold to West Ham, offloading approximately £45,000 per week from the wage bill after his £3m pay-off. Sahin’s loan move was terminated on Friday, freeing up £60,000 per week for the next six months, which is reported to be exactly the wages that Daniel Sturridge is on.

Keep in mind that there are still moves that can be made to thin the wage bill. Carragher may retire at season’s end, and his £50,000 per week wages could go off the wage bill. Doni’s contract also expires at the end of this season, and he reportedly makes €4 million per season in wages. Coates is reportedly being allowed to leave by Brendan Rodgers, and Danny Wilson, who has gone missing since being signed from Rangers in the summer 0f 2010, is probably going to leave pretty soon as well. Dani Pacheco is also reportedly being allowed to leave. Downing could leave if LFC get a bid of £8million for him, which will also offload £80,000 per week (or probably £60,000 cause LFC have to give him a pay-off). Last but not least, West Ham are obligated to buy Andy Carroll for £17 million if they stay up, which seems very likely right now. Whether or not they try to decrease the fee is a different matter, but bottom line is that he probably will not return.

All of these moves would free up funds for Liverpool FC to use next summer, some moves more than others. With all of this in mind, should these moves occur and Rodgers is given the usual £30,000,000-plus to spend next season, the club will be a lot more flexible with who it can buy than it was in the last few seasons. This is rather exceptional when you consider the fact that LFC is a club currently in its third year without Champions League football, going on a fourth (but hey, there’s got a shot at that, right? No? Okay then).

If Rodgers uses the funds that he is given wisely, injecting the necessary experience into the squad that would go in conjunction with the young core he currently has in place, LFC can make a serious push at 4th place next season. But he needs to improve the squad next summer, and he has to start getting results on the pitch. If he doesn’t use the money wisely and signs the wrong players, then Liverpool FC is going to be resigned to mid-table mediocrity for the next five years.

As much as I love Suarez and truly believe that he loves Liverpool, he is a ticking time-bomb, much like Torres was. He will probably leave after next season if improvement isn’t clearly visible. While we’ll get a huge sum for him as a result of that transfer, his presence is something that LFC won’t be able to replace. There are more who can and will leave after next season as well. Pepe Reina could also leave if things don’t improve, and if he doesn’t, he’ll still be going on 32 years old at the end of next season.

All of the aforementioned moves are based around the fact that Liverpool FC, a club that prides itself on and sells itself to players and fans around the world as being one of the biggest and most successful clubs in Europe, has been out of Europe’s top competition for the last three seasons, going on four. If LFC fail to make the Champions League in 2013-14, it will mean half a decade out of the Champions League. It doesn’t matter how big a club you are, how many trophies you’ve won or how big a stadium you aspire to have: if you’re out of the Champions League for five seasons, it is something that very, very few clubs can successfully recover from.

That is why the summer of 2013 is so important. LFC need to build this squad up and start showing improvement when it comes to results in the Premier League. If LFC fail to do that next season, when the wage bill will be at a very low point and the club will be incredibly flexible with how much it can spend on players, they’ll will be set back irreparably as a result. Liverpool FC is not in as terrible a shape right now as some fans will lead you to believe. But results have to start coming next season, or LFC is gonna feel the consequences of it for years to come.

Follow Greg Visone on Twitter @njny

English Premier League Preview: This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race

In a decade, we’ll look back on last season in English football and think, “Right there: that’s when it all went mad.” The madness was spawned by Manchester City, who spent nearly £1 billion in four years to grab the English Premier League title—their first since 1968. Chelsea ended up claiming their first Champions League trophy in the Abramovic Era, despite fielding arguably their worst, albeit it most expensive team, in recent memory. The Blues and the Baby Blues won the biggest trophies in club football last year, all through the might of the all-powerful pound. The astute managing of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United wasn’t enough, and the stingy, yet measured Wengernomics of Arsenal couldn’t mount a serious challenge. Cash ruled everything.

The till hasn’t been emptied either. Chelsea have gone out and spent £80 million this summer, the crown jewel being Belgian attacking ace Eden Hazard. Manchester City only bought one player before splurging only £30 million on five players on Deadline Day. After all of their spending in previous years, nobody—except the always unsatisfied Roberto Mancini—is exactly mourning over City’s slightly tighter belt. United, despite the £340 million in debts laid upon them by the Glazer family, have written checks to secure Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie. (It seems like they can live off of that £80 million Ronaldo fee forever.) Out of all of the clubs in the EPL, those three have the only realistic shots at winning the title, simply because they’ve outspent the rest of the pack.

The next tier of EPL clubs are now left trying to catch up. Arsenal had their best two players poached this summer, Tottenham lost star midfielders Luka Modric and Rafel Van der Vaart, and Liverpool remain unable to attract a big-name signing from across the continent. These clubs have, however, made an effort to reload. Arsenal brought in strikers Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud to fill the scoring void left by RVP. Tottenham secured a permanent move for 17 goal hitman Emmanuel Adebayor, hulking midfielder Moussa Dembele, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, attacking midfielder Gylfi Sigurðsson, and American striker Clint Dempsey. Liverpool ousted four borderline Starting XI players and replaced them with three surefire starters in Joe Allen, Fabio Borini and Nuri Sahin, and the first quick, tricky wing threat the club has had since Yossi Benayoun in Oussama Assaidi. (The ghost of Ryan Babel still haunts the Anfield wings too.)

Looks like an arms race to me.

Arsenal, Tottenham, and Liverpool all know that they can’t compete with City, United and Chelsea. They can’t compete financially, because they’re short of pounds, and they lack the pull to sign the best talent from around Europe. There’s a reason why Hazard chose only between City and Chelsea. There’s a reason why RVP wanted out of Arsenal, and chose between only United and City. A decade ago, Arsenal and Liverpool might have been in the thick for Hazard, and RVP surely wouldn’t have traded shades of red. Players know the ambitions and possibilites of clubs just as much as management does, and the gap between the new “Big Three” of City, United, and Chelsea—the only three teams while realistic title aspirations—and everyone else is massive. Not only spending wise, but in terms of squad depth too. Sergio Aguero, City’s leading scorer last season, is out for a few weeks, but they have £70 million worth of striker options in Edin Dzeko, Mario Balotelli, and Carlos Tevez to provide cover. Wayne Rooney is out for a month now for United, but no biggie—they’ve got RVP.

The gap in talent and spending has been properly reflected in the league table. In 2011-2012, Arsenal finished third behind behind the two Manchester clubs (both finished tied at 89 points), and they were still 19 points off the pace. It was the largest gap between the 1st and 2nd highest points totals since 2005, when Chelsea won the league 12 points clear of everyone.

That’s why this summer, clubs are trying to load up just to fight another season. Without Champions League football, you’re doomed to the scraps of the transfer market, and have no possibility of making the leap to catch the Big Three. Liverpool have agreed to pay nearly £5 million in total fees just to have Sahin on loan from Real Madrid this year, because they know that they need to stock up on all the guns they can get their hands on before they run out of shots to take. Tottenham decided find a manageable, but high figure between within budget limitations to come close to Adebayor’s previous £175,000 per week salary to complete his transfer from City. They’ve even taken former Liverpool targets Sigurðsson and Dempsey away from Anfield by spending a little more, seemingly just to keep them away from the competition. The Big Three is loading up for a fight at the top, and the rest are just battening down the hatches to fight out the storm and survive.

For those other clubs, that golden sky at the end of the storm are UEFA’s Financial Fair Play (FPP) restrictions. These clubs know that they’re just living year to year until FPP starts wielding a commanding influence over spending. UEFA will enforce FPP starting in 2013-2014, meaning teams that compete in UEFA competitions (Champions League and the Europa League) must break even on their balance sheet, or face consequences. Even in that 2013 year though, a deviation of £35 million will still be allowed.

Liverpool owner John Henry and Arsene Wenger have already expressed doubts over the effectiveness of FPP. Given the overall popularity of the sport and the still growing business of it all (no league or country has had the kind of new stadium boom that spearheaded the MLB, NBA and NFL to the top. Also, nobody has figured out how to maximize television and internet profits yet either, which is scary. There’s still billions to be made out there.), Henry’s states before that “clubs seem to be ignoring UEFA’s rules, which may be porous enough to enable clubs to say that the trend of huge losses is positive and therefore be exempt from any meaningful sanctions.” Wenger added that clubs aren’t doing enough now to cut wage bills in time for 2013: “I cannot see it when the wage bill is bigger than the turnover. Frankly, that cannot happen in one year.” Basically, clubs will continue to give FPP the finger until UEFA decides to grow some balls and take real action.

But only clubs that participate in UEFA’s competitions would be subject to FPP—it wouldn’t stop another Man City from being born. Any billionaire can still take a mid-table side, pump hundreds of millions into the squad, and turn them into a juggernaut. While FPP has the potential to curb spending for the current big clubs, it does nothing to account for any future giants.

So outside of the Big Three and Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham, and for now, Newcastle, what chance do the other 13 clubs have in the EPL? They have no hope of even nabbing a Europa League spot, and for the clubs that are good enough to not be in relegation danger, the only real joys come out of the occasional upset win. Given the upgrades some teams have made this year, however, those upsets might be plentiful. Sunderland have spent nearly £30 million on Louis Saha, Steven Fletcher, and Adam Johnson: two proven EPL strikers and a City misfit who can be one of the best wingers in the league on his day. Swansea City have flipped the Joe Allen and Brendan Rodgers fees into Michu, Ki Sung-Yueng, Kyle Bartley, and Chico. After two weeks, they’ve led the league in scoring. Everton have also had an early ray of hope, with former £15 million signing Marouane Fellaini scoring two goals, including one in a win over United.

With three legitimate title contenders and a whole host of teams that can grab points against them on any given day, this title race and Champions League race should be the tightest in years. Who’s going to deliver the kill shot this year? Well whoever spends the most money, of course.

I might have been a Fall Out Boy fan in my middle school years.

My table prediction:
1) Manchester City
2) Manchester United
3) Chelsea
4) Arsenal
5) Liverpool
6) Newcastle
7) Tottenham
8) Everton
9) Swansea City
10) Sunderland
11) West Bromwich Albion
12) Fulham
13) Aston Villa
14) Stoke City
15) Queens Park Rangers
16) West Ham United
17) Southampton
18) Wigan Athletic
19) Reading
20) Norwich City

Table projections based on TPI values simulated 10,000 times. (The value of teams based on transfer fees as of August 17th were used as input in a predictive model. Data using fees from 8/17-8/31 isn’t available yet.) As you can see in the far right column, there’s no clear cut 3rd or 4th place team. It’s that tight between teams going for the title and teams going for 4th. Via Zach Slaton for Forbes.

Click to enlarge.

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

EPL Recap Week 1: “It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint!”

With the opening weekend of the English Premier League season behind us, it’s worth noting that the League Table is going to look very different in May compared to how it looks now. Yes, some teams got some very good results, while others faltered or disappointed. But it’s worth noting that this is a marathon of a competition, and even if you win big in your opening match, you could still play like shit in your next 37 matches and get relegated. The tortoise always wins over the hare.

There are two perfect quotes in my opinion to describe the Premier League. Both of them come from Brian Clough, who won the Football League with Derby County and Nottingham Forest back in the 1970s. When Clough was being interviewed by the BBC’s John Motson, he was asked what Nottingham Forest’s priorities were for the upcoming season, given that they were defending the European Cup and seen as favorites in contention for the Football League, FA Cup, and League Cup. Clough responded in a rather bold and hilarious manner:

“The Football League, always has been and always will be (our top priority). I would gladly go out of the European Cup, the Football League Cup, and the FA Cup, which we’re not even in yet. I would gladly go out of all of them tomorrow if you could guarantee me winning the Football League.”

John Motson quickly asked why Clough felt so strongly about the Football League being his top priority. Clough responded in a rather harsh manner yet again, but he did so with a lot of insight, making it clear how tough it really is to win a League Championship:

“Because that (the Football League) is the one that you have to have every single aspect of football management about you to win it. You’ve got to have endurance, you’ve got to have talent, you’ve got to be a little bit daft, you’ve got to have strength, psychology, you name it, and of course, you’ve got to have very good players, but it’s a real endurance battle over nine or ten months.”

That’s what makes this competition so special in my opinion. You could have the talent to win against the best teams in the league on your day, but over the course of nine or ten months, all of your results will be averaged out by the strength of your overall playing squad and how you’ve done throughout the season. To win the football league is an accomplishment that isn’t taken lightly. It’s always deserved by the winners. You can’t call it a fluke. Maybe injuries play a part, but it’s the responsibility of the team to keep playing and to ensure that the injuries don’t effect the results too much.

Every week, I’ll be writing a quick recap of the weekend’s games, highlighting the “good,” “bad,” and “ugly” action. We’ve labeled this “Title Contending,” “Mid-Table,” and “Relegation.” Now when teams or players are mentioned under these specifications, it doesn’t mean that they’re title contending or relegation sides, it just means that for that week, their performance was worthy of such a distinction. Although the entire league is a marathon, I’ll be highlighting the, um, jogs that happen every week that ultimately make up the race.

TITLE CONTENDING: Newcastle’s 2-1 win over Spurs sends Premier League the message: “We’re Here to Stay”

Last season, Newcastle floated around the Top Four in spite of making very few high-profile moves a year after selling Andy Carroll for £35m to Liverpool. Many thought they would fade away eventually, and while they didn’t finish Top Four, they stayed around & endured. They’re in a position to push forward from there and maybe make a run into the Top Four. Alas, they were being forgotten by a lot of pundits, with the likes of Spurs and Chelsea being picked to finish above them. With the likes of Demba Ba (16 goals last season) and Papiss Demba Cisse (13 goals in 13 starts last season), this strike force can carry Newscastle far. This huge win against Spurs at home does indeed send the message to the rest of the Premier League’s big dogs that Newcastle is here to stay, and St. James’ Park is a scary place to play.

MID-TABLE: Manchester United struggle at Goodison Park as Everton pulls off a 1-0 stunner on MNF

After losing the Premier League in the final seconds last season against city rivals Manchester City, Manchester United came out with guns blazing in the transfer market, looking to reclaim the top spot in the league and the city. United brought in Shinji Kagawa and Robin van Persie in the off-season, but it was Everton who started their Premier League campaign with a bang on Monday Night. The Blues dominated the majority of the night, with Marouane Fellaini scoring from a corner in the 57th minute to send Goodison Park into a rapturous roar. It was a deserved victory for Everton, with Robin van Persie’s Manchester United debut being a less-than-stellar performance off the bench.

RELEGATION: Norwich City and QPR each lose 5-0

On Friday, the mood around Fulham FC was one of nervous disposition given Martin Jol’s not-so-shocking admission that Clint Dempsey would not play for Fulham in their season opener against Norwich City and had requested a transfer to Liverpool. Fulham, minus Dempsey, went on to smash Norwich City in their opening match of the season, winning 5-0 at Craven Cottage, as Duff, Petric, Kacaniklic and Sidwell scored the goals in a nightmare debut for Norwich City manager Chris Hughton.

While Chris Hughton’s Norwich City debut was much less than desirable, Michael Laudrup’s Swansea City debut could only be described as a dream start, as his boys went on to crush QPR 5-0 at Loftus Road. If that sounds familiar to you, you’re probably thinking of QPR’s Premier League opener last season, when they lost 4-0 at home to Bolton Wanderers. QPR had the last laugh, however, as they stayed up on the last day of the season, while Bolton were relegated thanks to numerous injury problems and other issues. It’s just a simple yet ever-so-true reminder of the fact that the league is not won and lost in the first week of the season.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny

Liverpool In For American Striker Clint Dempsey?

It hasn’t been officially announced yet, but every indication (websites are accidentally leaking links to purchase his jersey, NESN.com accidentally ran a story on the signing; etc) is telling us that he’s signed. Liverpool is probably waiting to unveil Dempsey in conjunction with the start of their US Tour this weekend. A shrewd piece of marketing there. Having his shirts available at the Liverpool-Roma game in Boston will be a big merchandising move for the American striker, and Liverpool. I’ll be at that game, and if Dempsey shirts aren’t available, then I’m gonna flip a shit.

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Your thoughts on the signing?

Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49

Why the John Terry Racism Episode is FAr from over…

Over the weekend, Chelsea Defender John Terry walked out of Westminster magistrates court a free man after chief magistrate Howard Riddle found him not guilty of a “racially aggravated public order offence.” In other words, the judge said that he could not conclusively prove that when JT said the words “fucking black cunt” to Queens Park Rangers Defender Anton Ferdinand, that he was not repeating them back to him sarcastically in response to Anton thinking he heard the words.

In the aftermath of the verdict yesterday, I watched Sky Sports News for quite a while. After the first hour, the way they reported the story made it seem as though the case was over and that John Terry was an innocent man. People on my Twitter timeline, the majority of which are Liverpool fans, thought that the case was over and that John Terry, despite the video evidence, was gonna get away with yet another heinous act.

I’m writing this piece to tell you this: Contrary to popular belief, the John Terry-Anton Ferdinand racism case is not over. The fat lady isn’t singing yet. Quite frankly, she hasn’t even started warming up.

I wasn’t bothered by the not guilty verdict. Having followed the trial, I fully expected him to be found not guilty, because there was no sufficient proof beyond a reasonable doubt that John Terry wasn’t telling the truth as far as his testimony was concerned. Besides, if he was found guilty, the punishment would’ve been in the area of a £2.5k fine—peanuts for a man making £150,000-a-week in wages. Regardless of the verdict, one thing was certain in my mind: John Terry would be charged by The FA after the criminal trial ended. There, he would have to fight against the dreaded legal burden known as “balance of probabilities,” (a burden of proof that’s much, much, much less than a “reasonable doubt,” as Luis Suarez can attest to) and face much greater punishments in the region of a six-match ban and a five-figure fine.

In the first hour of their coverage of the verdict, Sky Sports News interviewed a former FA executive and Anton Ferdinand’s lawyer. Both of them said that the matter was far from over and that the FA now would launch their own investigation to try to figure out what had happened, much like they did in the Luis Suarez-Patrice Evra case. The FA even released a statement on their website, where they stated that their own investigation was now underway. For some reason, SSN didn’t show those two interviews again for the rest of the day, nor did they mention the FA statement. Instead, it was back to singing the praises of Brave John Terry, the wrongly defamed former England Captain who can do no wrong.

The former FA Executive and Anton Ferdinand’s lawyer are correct: this matter is far from over. The FA will launch an investigation and, should they simply look at the court evidence, or even the televised footage of the game, will find that there is enough substance to Anton Ferdinand’s statement to charge John Terry with misconduct, having violated Rule E3.

Rule E3, under the sub-heading “General Behavior”, holds the following language in its first point:

“A participant shall at all times act in the best interests of the game and shall not act in any manner which is improper or brings the game into disrepute or use any one, or a combination of, violent conduct, serious foul play, threatening, abusive, indecent or insulting words or behaviour.”

As you could see in the TV coverage, John Terry did indeed say “fucking black cunt” to Anton Ferdinand. He used those indecent words. Regardless of whether or not he meant what he said, he did say them. That alone merits an FA Charge for the former England Captain.

The sub-heading’s next point specifically covers the use of racial abuse:

In the event of any breach of Rule E 3(1) including a reference to any one or more of a person’s ethnic origin, colour, race, nationality, faith, gender, sexual orientation or disability (an “aggravating factor”), a Regulatory Commission shall consider the imposition of an increased sanction, taking into account the following entry points:

For a first offence, a sanction that is double that which the Regulatory Commission would have applied had the aggravating factor not been present.

For a second offence, a sanction that is treble that which the Regulatory Commission would have applied had the aggravating factor not been present.

Any further such offence(s) shall give rise to consideration of a permanent suspension.

As mentioned above, John Terry did indeed say to Anton Ferdinand “fucking black cunt”. That is a reference to Anton Ferdinand’s race. Regardless of whether not there was intent, John Terry’s actions violated rule E3. He has admitted to saying those words in court. As a result, he should be expecting an FA charge.

In spite of this, however, I’ve received quite a few replies from people on Twitter saying that if the FA charged John Terry, they would be undermining the English Judicial System. I don’t believe this to be true, because of the lowered burden of proof The FA would require for a conviction to be handed out, they would be able to charge Terry and prosecute him under their own jurisdiction in a court independent of the English Justice System.

If you don’t understand that, I’ll give you an example: OJ Simpson, Hall of Fame half-back for the Buffalo Bills of the NFL, was infamously charged with the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman. In the criminal trial, OJ Simpson was found not guilty of the murder, thus escaping criminal punishment. OJ, however, was found to be liable for damages in the civil trial. The jury in the civil trial only needed to determine that there was a preponderance of evidence on either side to reach a verdict. That civil trial did not undermine the American Justice system because it took place in a separate court and required a much lower burden of proof to find OJ guilty.

If charged by The FA, the burden of proof John Terry would have to fight against is “balance of probabilities,” a ridiculously low standard which makes it so that if one side is found to be more credible than the other, even by a marginal amount, the court will find in their favor. That was the burden of proof that Suarez had to face when Evra accused him. He was found guilty under “balance of probabilities,” forever branded a racist, in spite of the fact that The FA and Patrice Evra have said that they don’t believe Suarez to be a racist.

I personally believe that the burden of proof in that sort of case is far too low, because it can irreparably harm the reputation of someone with what would be considered a lack of evidence in a criminal court. That being said, Suarez did admit to referring to the color of Patrice Evra’s skin. It is because he admitted to referring to the color of Evra’s skin that he was found guilty of misconduct, thus violating rule E3. The FA acted within their guidelines and ruled as they saw fit. By those guidelines, they got it right.

I no longer argue the Suarez ruling. I’ve accepted it and, while I still have problems with how it was handled, I’ve have moved past it. The one thing I would like, however, is consistency from The FA in the application of their rules. Now is the time to hold John Terry to the same standards and charge him with misconduct, as he has clearly violated the same rules as Suarez. They would not be undermining the English Justice system because they would be holding him to a lower burden of proof than the criminal court.

To top it all off, if they do not charge John Terry for directing the words “fucking black cunt” at a player on the field at one of their own top-flight matches, an act which was caught on camera and broadcast live around the world, they can no longer act as the moral compass of the football world when it comes to racism and bigotry, something which they have taken great pride in over the last decade. Remember the BBC Panorama special about racism and antisemitism at Polish and Ukrainian football matches occurring regularly? If Terry doesn’t get charged, the country would have no right to show that and act as though they’re on a higher moral pedestal than the rest of the world.

If Terry isn’t charged, it allows Liverpool fans such as myself and Justin to scream of a double standard as Luis Suarez, a Uruguayan international with a black grandfather, has been found guilty of violating rule E3; yet John Terry, an England international who has slept with his teammate’s girlfriend, verbally abused Americans at a pub in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, and been stripped of the England Captaincy TWICE, has been allowed to walk free. What does that say to the rest of the world, as well as black players in the game today? It certainly doesn’t come as positive that’s for sure.

To quote Will Smith, “I ain’t heard no fat lady!” I hope you haven’t heard one either.

Follow Greg on Twitter @njny