The Grey Neutral: Emma Hayes – who will really change the game and hire a serial winner?

ONE DAY a football club is going to make history by appointing a woman to manage a men’s team. When that day comes, the sport will change forever, the impact will be more seismic than any 91,000 crowd at the Camp Nou. Why? Because football will move from being a man’s pastime played by women to simply being “The Game”. That woman may well be Emma Hayes, currently presiding over Chelsea’s Women and arguably the most successful football manager in Britain at the moment. She deserves huge respect for her achievements, but what will be the next career move for Emma Hayes? It could be a stint abroad, managing one of the blue riband women’s clubs such as Barcelona, Lyon or Wolfsburg, or maybe it will be a rival such as Manchester City or United.

But what of shifting into the men’s game? Hayes has many positive attributes. Her man management skills are, apparently, excellent. Her no-nonsense personality would also shield her from some of the nonsense that goes on in football, and her tactical nouse is without question. She’s a highly intelligent individual, something that’s often lacking in football. Aside from looking the other way in a dressing room full of primadonnas, there is no reason why Hayes should not be given a chance – if she wants it, of course.

Hayes’ Chelsea completed the double at Wembley, beating Manchester City 3-2 after extra time a day after the men’s team lost their third successive FA Cup final. A week earlier, they clinched the WSL title. Hayes has won six titles and four FA Cups. What’s more, she’s spent a decade in charge – when did a Chelsea manager ever manage that? The answer is Billy Birrell (1939-1952), but given the second world war restricted his role, nobody is ever going to beat David Calderhead who sat in the Stamford Bridge hot seat from 1907 to 1933.

Even goal machines age

THE BUNDESLIGA is over for another season and guess who has won the title? Bayern Munich for the 10th season in a row. Germany was supposed to be the perfect model for a football structure, clubs partially owned by fans, sensible financing, big crowds, plenty of goals and unanimous hatred of any club that doesn’t comply to 50+1. Bayern’s domination is somewhat boring and cannot possibly be healthy for German football.

Germany’s clubs do not seem as competitive at the highest level these days. Bayern, of course, have enough money to remain an elite organisation, but they tumbled out to Villareal in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Now we hear that their star striker, Robert Lewandowski, may want to leave Munich. He will be 34 by the time the 2022-23 season gets underway. Who will be in the market for him? Cost aside, is the gamble worth it as a 34 year-old can be more prone to injury and will take longer to recover. Lewandowski is an exceptional striker, but only a club with a short-term outlook would sign him, surely? Call me cynical, but in all probability, he will stay at Bayern on improved terms, unless Barca and PSG take a punt.

When you’re 26, you should be the finished product

THE SIGHT of Ruben Loftus-Cheek leaving the field after being substituted by manager Thomas Tuchel was a little sad. The 26 year-old had only been on the field 14 minutes after coming on for Christian Pulisic in the 106th minute of the FA Cup final. Notwithstanding it’s pretty humiliating to be subbed as a sub, you have to wonder how long Loftus-Cheek will stay at Chelsea, where he has never established himself? At 26, he is what he is, so if Chelsea don’t fancy him, then let him go. His five-year contract expires in 2024, so Chelsea can command a fee, but from his perspective, he probably needs to move. This is a player with eight England caps, by the way.

Why we should be glad that Stockport are back

THE ROMANTICS among us undoubtedly raised a smile or two when news of Stockport County’s promotion back to the Football League came through. Their 2-0 victory over Halifax finally beat-off Wrexham’s challenge and after 11 years, they are back. The mere mention of “the Hatters” is a reminder that industrialised football began in the north of England and Scotland and clubs like Stockport, Rochdale, Bury and Oldham represented the heart of the game. It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s because you only have to go back 20 years to find that the club reached the semi-final of the Football League Cup. And in 2002, they were in the Championship, so what went wrong? In 2015, the club set out to win back their Football League place by 2020. They’re two years overdue, but nobody will complain. Stockport itself is a town of 136,000 people and although the catchment area is broader, it is an area that includes lots of clubs, not least United and City. The town featured in many paintings by L.S. Lowry, so It’s easy to wallow in a bit of cloth cap nostalgia about the place, but it’s a different, more challenging and uncertain world today than when good-to-honest working class folk occupied the terraces of Edgeley Park and were not as easily distracted by events in Manchester. Welcome back Stockport County!

Where the heart still beats strong

IT’S EASY to forget the roots of professional football are to be found in the north of England rather than the south. And with so much emphasis on the big clubs in England, such as Chelsea and Manchester City, many of those that once formed the lifeblood of the game have been sidelined.

Students of football are more than aware of the cultural contribution made by the north in the evolution of the game, and the fact that it gave us not only the Liverpools and Manchesters but also the Stockports, Bradfords and Rochdales.

I ventured north a few times at the back end of 2017, firstly to Stockport County to see them play Southport in the FA Trophy. The mere thought of Stockport was a reminder of how clubs were once a natural part of the neighbourhood and sanctuaries where working men could unwind on their way home from the mill or factory.

Arguably, that model that has almost become extinct, with in-town grounds being replaced by cookie-cutter stadiums and the Lowryesque client base that trudged to the match, all tweed headgear, Bovril and rattles, has almost disappeared.

It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s but in 2002, they were in the Championship. Financial problems, constantly changing management and declining crowds, which have remained remarkably loyal, paint a gloomy picture of the club, but there is a strong heart beating within Stockport’s Edgeley Park.

“The scarf my father wore”, a slogan emblazoned along the back of the big stand behind the goal, on a giant blue and white scarf, tells you people really care. True, they’ve seen better days, but they do have a plan. Edgeley Park is a 10 minute walk from Stockport railway station, a stroll that takes you past red-brick industrial revolution-era buildings – the Bluebell Hotel, for example, and past rows of terraced houses that were once the homes of mill workers and hat-makers from the town.

They provide the sort of approach typical of inner-city football grounds until the concept of out-of-town was invented. At Stockport there’s what looks like a disused factory or workshop outside the stadium which probably made overalls or similar industrial clothing in its heyday. While this is evocative of a different time, you wonder how long it will be until the area is developed – isn’t that the script these days?

Poor old Bradford Park Avenue, in their original guise, lost their home back in the 1970s, and the reformed club now plays out at Horsfall stadium. People get very misty-eyed about PA, but when the club was voted out of the Football League in 1970, they were averaging just 3,000 for their home games. The club had lurched from crisis to crisis and after losing their league place, they lasted just four years before going under completely.

I recently travelled to Bradford to catch up with an old pal, Paul, a proud Yorkshireman who has long championed his home town and in recent years has been attracted to the non-league game. We were meant to attend a game at Horsfall but snow and ice got the better of that. Nevertheless, we drove over to see the last remnants of Park Avenue’s old ground.

Paul helped on the recent archeological dig at the site, which formed the basis of a fascinating book, Breaking Ground, one of the most unusual and, dare I say, aesthetic, books on football I’ve come across.  The death of a club and the dereliction of a ground represent some of the saddest moments in the game – any place where thousands of people once gathered creates a slightly eerie location. This book captures the ghostly remains of the old stadium, from the trees now growing where people once stood to the crumbling section of the terracing. It’s difficult not to be moved. This book helps to firmly place the game as part of the history of the city of Bradford and football as a symbol of the nation’s social fabric. It’s a simple but compelling tale – football studs, goalpost castings, hooks, coins, some memorabilia and plenty of anecdotes.

It also demonstrates how football has always been a way to unite people, with some meeting for the first time at the club and ending up married or friends for life.

The story of Bradford Park Avenue is somehow symbolic of my own friendship with “Paul from Bradford” as he has always been known in our house. We met as Chelsea fans in the early 1980s and although we’re seen each other only spasmodically down the decades a more loyal mate you could not wish to have. To me, that’s the real value of football, be it at the highest level or the more down home non-league code. It can be a force for real community and for meeting folk!

This article appeared in The Non-League Paper on Sunday January 21, 2018

Stockport County: X factor in the FA Trophy

IN  1977-78, Stockport County versus Southport could easily have been game number 40 on a Littlewoods Pools coupon – as a Football League Division Four fixture. The 1977-78 season was the last time the two clubs met in the league, for at the end of that campaign, Southport were voted out and replaced by Wigan Athletic. Stockport were relegated in 2011 and suffered a second drop in 2013. Both clubs are now in the National League North.

The mere thought of Stockport is a reminder that industrialised football began in the north of England and Scotland and clubs like Stockport, along with Rochdale, Bury, Oldham and others, represented the heart of “real football”, clubs that were part of the community and places where the working man could unwind went on his way home from the mill, the factory or the mine.

Arguably, they belong to a model that has almost become extinct, with in-town grounds being replaced by cookie-cutter stadiums and the old client base that trudged to the match, all flat caps, Bovril and rattles, has been transformed. It hangs on in certain places, but the environment that gave us clubs like Stockport has changed, and it won’t be coming back.

It would be harsh and a little patronising to say that clubs like Stockport were left behind as football reinvented itself in the 1990s because you only have to go back 20 years to find that the club reached the semi-final of the Football League Cup. And in 2002, they were in the Championship, so what went wrong?

Financial problems, constantly changing management, on and off the field and declining crowds, which have remained remarkably loyal during this turbulent period, paint a gloomy picture of the recent history of a club that has always struggled in the shadow of the Manchester giants just up the road. But there is a strong heart beating in Stockport’s Edgeley Park ground.

“The scarf my father wore”, a slogan emblazoned along the back of the big stand behind the goal, on a giant blue and white scarf, tells you that people really care about their club. True, they’ve seen better days, but they do have a plan. They’re currently part-time, but they hope to change that in the near future. Two years ago, the club’s directors issued a document that outlined their hopes for Stockport County, including the aspiration to return to the Football League by 2020.

It’s a tall order, although Stockport are one of the best supported non-league clubs around, averaging more than 3,000 per game. The National League North is an interesting competition, with a lot of clubs with Football League links or ancestry seemingly biding their time, including Bradford Park Avenue, Boston United, Southport, York City, Kidderminster Harriers and Darlington. Then there’s FC United and Salford City to make it more competitive, not to mention Blyth Spartans. Stockport stand out as a sizeable fish in that pond.

Stockport itself is a town of 136,000 people and although the catchment area is broader, it is an area that includes lots of clubs, not least United and City. It is a town that featured in many paintings by L.S. Lowry. It’s easy to wallow in a bit of cloth cap nostalgia about the place, but it’s a different, more challenging and uncertain world today than when good-to-honest working class folk occupied the terraces of Edgeley Park and were not as easily distracted by events at Old Trafford and Maine Road.

Stockport County were founded in 1883 with the wonderful name of Heaton Norris Rovers and first joined the Football League in 1900. They dropped out in 1904, spending one year in the Midland League before returning in 1905. Their opening game of 1905-06 was against league new-boys Chelsea, who played the first ever game of their history at Stockport, with the County winning 1-0.

Edgeley Park opened in 1903 and remains one of the best appointed grounds in the country. It’s a 10 minute walk – at best – from the railway station, a stroll that takes you past red-brick industrial revolution-era buildings – the Bluebell Hotel, for example, and past rows of terraced houses that were undoubtedly the homes of mill workers and hat-makers from the town. They provide the sort of approach that was typical of inner-city football grounds until the concept of out-of-town was invented. At Stockport there’s what looks like a disused factory or workshop outside the stadium which probably made overalls or similar industrial clothing in its heyday. While this is evocative of a different time, you wonder how long it will be until the area is developed – isn’t that the script these days?

I got into discussion with two Stockport fans who sell used replica shirts, in some places, they’d be called “vintage” and attract a premium. “We don’t expect many people today, perhaps 1,200 as it’s the Trophy,” said one of the blue-shirted loyalists. Lo and behold, the crowd was as low as that. Pity, as the game wasn’t bad at all.

Stockport took the lead after 11 minutes, Jason Oswell setting up Bohan Dixon to score from close range. But Southport were behind for just three minutes as Andy White netted from 12 yards. Southport looked the better side for long periods and went ahead on 68 minutes when Brad Jackson crossed for the impressive Jason Gilchrist (making his debut after signing from FC United) to score. It looked ominous for the home side at this point, but four minutes from time, substitute Darren Stephenson (Daz to his friends) grabbed the equaliser, meeting Gary Stopforth’s low cross to send the FA Trophy tie to a replay.

It had not been a disappointing day, although the weather was cold, very damp and a stern reminder that winter was coming. Stockport are a club with no airs and graces – some former league outfits would consider themselves too good for the level they’re playing, but I found none of that at Edgeley Park. And a tenner to get in at step two? Good value. I walked away from this club wishing them only good things in the future.

Oh yes, 2-2 on the pools coupon would definitely be a firm X.