Monday, 28 May 2012

Magic Weekend could be so much more

A new record attendance may have been set in the Stobart Super League's sixth Magic Weekend but despite the high level of entertainment and drama, my overriding memory of the showpiece will be the thousands of empty seats inside Manchester City's Etihad Stadium. 
Every me and every blue: The Magic Weekend attendances are being over-estimated
There is no doubt about it, rugby league is growing in popularity year on year and the weekend's overall attendance of 63,716 was testament to that fact. The ever-increasing quality of the players and the free-flowing feel of the game is attracting larger crowds, but I believe it's time for the powers that be to realistically gauge the popularity of the sport for its own benefit.

Total attendances at the six Magic Weekends:
2007 South Wales: 58,831
2008 South Wales: 63,144
2009 Edinburgh: 59,749
2010 Edinburgh: 52,043
2011 Cardiff: 60,214
2012 Manchester: 63,716
Average Magic Weekend attendance: 59,616 

For several reasons, I have to say that the event had the feel of a pre-season football tournament. A sea of blue greeted the players as they filed out of the tunnel, the sun was blazing down on the pitch and the atmosphere was more befitting of Sunday's Soccer Aid on the other side of Manchester than one of the biggest events in the rugby league calender.

Super League Chief Executive, Nigel Wood, provided this summary of the weekend. 

“I think Magic Weekend 2012 encapsulated all that is great about Rugby League: superb athletes delivering skillful and exciting entertainment to enthusiastic crowds in a terrific stadium,” said Wood.

“We witnessed some wonderful action out on the pitch and the players deserve rich praise for the high standard of play in the glorious sunshine.

“I would also like to thank the fans who turned out in their tens of thousands to create a carnival atmosphere both inside and outside the Etihad Stadium."

I certainly can't disagree with anything Wood has to say but should there really be a 'carnival atmosphere' surrounding the likes of a heavyweight clash between Wigan Warriors and St Helens or a highly-charged derby between Hull Kingston Rovers and Hull FC?

Did football's Manchester derby four weeks earlier stimulate the same sort of atmosphere amongst the fans of City and United? No. Tension, excitement, love, hatred, joy and despair, spread evenly across a jam-packed crowd, characterised the Premier League's equivalent showpiece event. Rugby league doesn't have the capability to render those same emotions - I'm sure avid fans will have something to say about that - but the perception of the sport can be improved if events of this stature are played in stadiums whose capacity matches the number of people they attract.

The average Magic Weekend attendance stands at 59,616. Divide that by two and you have the average daily attendance, 29,808. Next season, instead of playing in front of a 48,000 capacity stadium which is less than two-thirds full, why not play in a 30,000 - 35,000 capacity stadium and create an atmosphere to be reckoned with? Sheffield Magic at Sheffield Eagles' Bramall Lane (32,609 capacity stadium) could be an option.  

Many will argue that resorting to a smaller ground would show a lack of ambition but the sport simply has to develop in accordance with the demand for it. If the demand does happen to exceed the allocation on any given occasion and the venue is packed to the rafters, there will be non-rugby league fans sat at home in front of their televisions wanting to be a part of it. First impressions are everything and I genuinely believe that these need to be worked on if rugby league is to continue to grow as quickly as it has done in recent years.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Southend United vs Crewe Alexandra (League Two play-off semi-final second leg): Match report

Crewe Alexandra booked their place in the League Two play-off final after a 2-2 draw away at Southend United secured them a 3-2 aggregate win in the semi-final.

Ajay Leitch-Smith and Max Clayton added to Adam Dugdale's first-leg winner to ensure a Wembley appearance for Steve Davis' men against either Torquay or Cheltenham.

Substitute Neil Harris and Chris Barker responded for Southend after the break, but despite their best efforts, the home side were unable to snatch the crucial goal to take the match to extra-time.

The early stages of the first-half had an edgy feel about them and it wasn't until Leitch-Smith opened the scoring that the game sprung into life. With 24 minutes on the clock, the highly-rated striker latched onto Ashley Westwood's through ball, before cutting inside of his marker Sean Clohessy and driving his shot into the bottom right-hand corner.

Seven minutes later, Freddy Eastwood thought he had brought Southend back onto level terms but his goal was correctly ruled out for offside. Crewe stopper Steve Phillips could only parry Ryan Hall's bending effort and even though Eastwood was the first to react, the linesman swiftly raised his flag.

Byron Moore should have made it 2-0 to Crewe on the night in the 34th minute when Southend goalkeeper Cameron Belford scuffed a routine clearance. The midfielder had time to steady himself in the penalty area but he somehow blazed his shot high and wide under minimal pressure.

The ever-dangerous Leitch-Smith soon found himself through on goal once more when Lee Bell poked a ball over the Southend defence, but having chested it down, the 22-year-old failed in his bid to lift the ball over the oncoming goalkeeper.

Shortly after the restart, Moore attempted to make amends for his glaring miss by teeing himself up for a stinging volley which Belford was equal to.

Having failed to establish a foothold in the game, Southend were desperate for a sign of encouragement. In the 53rd minute, Michael Timlin provided the necessary tonic as his left-footed effort rattled Phillips' right-hand post.

Eastwood went just as close moments later but his attempt ricocheted off the inside of the other post and agonisingly flashed across the goal to safety.

An equaliser seemed inevitable and there were no surprises when it finally came. Phillips and his defence failed to deal with Barker's delivery from the right and the ball eventually fell to the feet of Harris who tapped into a gaping goal.

With confidence running high, Bilel Mohsni had a free-header to level the scores on aggregate but his effort went straight into the hands of a grateful Phillips.

Crewe's 17-year-old forward Clayton - on as a substitute for Leitch-Smith - promptly went up the other end and effectively ended the tie as a contest. Having got himself on the ball near Southend's by-line, the youngster slowly eased his way inside before sneakily placing a shot through the legs of defender Luke Prosser and past a helpless Belford at his near post.

Southend weren't going to go down without a fight and although Barker's late headed goal gave them a lifeline, they couldn't manage to fathom the all important leveller.

Team line-ups
Southend United: Belford, Clohessy, Gilbert (Hills 32), Mohsni, Prosser, Barker, Hall, Grant, Timlin, Benyon (Harris 54), Eastwood. Subs: Morris, Ferdinand, Hills, Martin, Harris.
Goals: Harris (64) and Barker (88).
Bookings: Grant (74).
Red cards: N/A 

Crewe Alexandra: Phillips, Tootle, Davis, Artell, Dugdale, Westwood, Bell, Mellor, Leitch-Smith (Clayton 75), Moore, Powell. Subs: Martin, Shelley, Martin, Bodin, Clayton.
Goals: Leitch-Smith (24) and Clayton (86).
Bookings: Leitch-Smith (36), Davis (63) and Powell (70).
Red cards: N/A

Referee: Darren Drysdale (England)

Monday, 14 May 2012

A reflection on the run-in: How the title was won and lost

Vincent Kompany holds the Barclays Premier League title aloft
Manchester City were crowned Barclays Premier League champions on Sunday after possibly the most dramatic end to a season ever witnessed in the history of English football. Within thirteen seconds of the final whistle blowing at the Stadium of Light, where Manchester United beat Sunderland 1-0, Sergio Aguero fired the ball into the back of Queens Park Rangers' net to grant City the title and turn the Etihad Stadium into absolute bedlam.

On Monday 12th March - the day after United capitalised on City's 1-0 defeat away at Swansea to beat West Brom 2-0 and go to the top of the table - I put my neck on the line and confidently predicted that United would go onto claim their 20th league title. To my disappointment, I was proved wrong. 

With ten games remaining, I put together the following game-by-game prediction for both sides:

Manchester United
18 March Wolves (A) W
26 March Fulham (H) W

2 April Blackburn (A) D (Actual result: W)
8 April QPR (H) W

11 April Wigan (A) W (Actual result: L)
15 April Aston Villa (H) W

22 April Everton (H) W (Actual result: D)
30 April Manchester City (A) D (Actual result: L)
6 May Swansea (H) W

13 May Sunderland (A) D (Actual result: W)
Points tally ahead of the derby: 86 (Actual points tally: 83)
Final points tally: 91 (Actual points tally: 89)

Manchester City
21 March Chelsea (H) W
24 March Stoke (A) D

31 March Sunderland (H) W (Actual result: D)
8 April Arsenal (A) L
11 April West Brom (H) W

14 April Norwich (A) D (Actual result: W)
22 April Wolves (A) W

30 April Manchester United (H) D (Actual result: W)
6 May Newcastle (A) W
13 May QPR (H) W
Points tally ahead of the derby: 80 (Actual points tally: 80) 

Final points tally: 87 (Actual points tally: 89)

*Key: Correctly predicted results in bold

To put it simply, I slightly over-estimated United's capabilities and slightly under-estimated City's. Five of United's results and seven of City's results matched up to my prediction. As for the others, just how big an impact did they have on the title race?

United's surprise 1-0 defeat away at Wigan was somewhat compensated for by a hard-fought 2-0 victory away at Blackburn just over a week earlier. Roberto Martinez's men thoroughly deserved the three points on the night and even so, United left the DW Stadium safe in the knowledge that they had the cushion of a five-point lead at the summit.

The two results that ultimately cost the Red Devils were those against Everton and City. United were leading 4-2 against the Merseysiders with only ten minutes remaining when Patrice Evra struck the post. By the 85th minute, Nikica Jelavic and Steven Pienaar had both got their names on the scoresheet to level the match at 4-4 and United were unable to respond.

All of a sudden the Manchester derby had simply become a must-not-lose game for United. The seemingly unassailable eight-point lead had been cut down to three and their inferior goal difference meant that a defeat would see them drop below City into second place. Vincent Kompany was in no mood to let the champions leave Eastlands with the result they required and it was the Belgian's towering header which inspired City to a well-deserved 1-0 win. The result sparked genuine belief amongst the blue half of Manchester that they could end their 44-year wait for the title.

Although I correctly predicted that City would draw away at Stoke and lose away at Arsenal, a 3-3 draw at home to Sunderland, in between the two, appeared to be a damaging result beyond repair. As such, the 6-1 win away at Norwich and the manner in which it was achieved was massive. Carlos Tevez firmly re-announced himself in City colours with a devastating hat-trick and the hefty scoreline gave the Blues an eight goal advantage over United; the margin which would ultimately separate the two sides come the end of the season.

City's crucial derby victory was sandwiched by wins away at Wolves and Newcastle to set up the final day showdown. And what a showdown it was. Incredibly, QPR's Djibril Cisse and Jamie Mackie both scored after the break to cancel out Pablo Zabaleta's first-half opener while United led 1-0 at Sunderland through Rooney's 20th minute header. With the clock ticking, it seemed that United had somehow snatched the title from under their bitter rivals' noses. 

But in an incredible season of twists and turns there was inevitably set to be one more. Edin Dzeko headed home in the 92nd minute to give City a lifeline at 2-2. The final whistle blew at the Stadium of Light in the 94th minute leaving United to wait anxiously for the news from the Etihad. Thirteen seconds later, Aguero smashed the ball past Paddy Kenny to secure the title for City and finally bring them out of the shadows of their Manchester counterparts. An unbelievable end to an unbelievable season.

The 2011/12 Premier League campaign was officially voted as the best in its 20-year history. The drama which unfolded on Sunday afternoon is justification for that alone. There's no doubt that the best team over the course of the season came out on top, however, they will have to be even better next time round if they're to retain their trophy. City are the champions for now but United will have revenge on their minds.