Oh, What a Knight!

Not many held out hope for Aaron McNaughton reaching the status of international sports star. Least of all himself.

Raised just north of the border, where rugged South Armagh gives way to the fairer and flatter landscape of County Monaghan, like many other kids the length and breadth of this island, he devoted most of the free time he had to his local GAA club – the small, but proud, St. Mochua’s, Derrynoose. A dual club, more renowned locally for their craft with a sliotar rather than a size five, it was with ash in hand that Aaron first tasted sporting success.

“I played both Gaelic Football and Hurling for the club. I managed to make the Armagh Minor Hurling panel and that’s as good as it got for me,” explained the financial fraud expert, who now lives and works in Belfast. He was quick to elude to the fact he wasn’t blessed with the same prowess as his younger brother Colin, a former Armagh Minor Hurler of the Year. The club still awaits the return of the two lads to the blue jersey.

Oblivious at the time, it was a chance meeting in the Ulster University halls of residence at Jordanstown, just north of Belfast, that served as the catalyst for a major shift in direction.

Here, Aaron would run into Brian, an exchange student from the University of Vermont.

“Brian was an American guy over in Belfast for a year as part of his Conflict studies, and when we would come home after nights out, on went the T.V. and there’d be an NFL or a basketball game to watch,” recalls Aaron.

Those hazy nocturnal screenings, alongside a healthy rivalry that developed playing the PlayStation game Madden NFL saw the undergrad become increasingly enamoured with the sport.

“I enjoyed the scheming nature of it. How defensively a team would have to come up with plays to take down an offence, and how an offence would have to think outside the box to overcome a defence. I suppose it was the problem solving that appealed to me.”

All very impressive considering he was a half-cut nineteen year old learning the game from inside a poky, dorm cubicle.

There was no doubt about it, however. He’d been bitten.

“The following year, when I moved back into the city, I knew I had to find a team for myself.”

Chuckling, he adds, “I’m showing my age a bit here, but it was Bebo that was able to tell me that a team held practice on the green beside Queen’s PE Centre, which I happened to live just around the corner from. One evening, I walked over, hung about the perimeter while practice was going on, and eventually a coach came over to me and asked me was I interested in getting involved. And that was it. I was in.”

That team was, the soon-to-be defunct, Belfast Bulls.

“I guess it was just part and parcel of the way things were back then. Cash was tight, numbers were limited and at the end of my first season we ended up folding. I definitely wanted to continue playing, and a few of us on the team would have drank with a few of the Knights guys – and for better or worse, I’m still drinking with them today,” he smirks from behind his water bottle.

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The emergence of McNaughton as a leading light on the American Football scene in Ireland over the past ten years, parallels quite satisfyingly with the best times the IAFL has known.

Now boasting twenty teams across two divisions, each split into northern and southern conferences, American Football can be enjoyed deep in the southeast with the Wexford Eagles or as far as the Donegal Derry Vipers in the northwest.

“The sport has come a long way in what’s relatively a short space of time,” Aaron remarks. “Naturally, Sky Sports has helped that, with football being shown primetime on Sunday nights throughout the winter. But it would be remiss of any of us involved not to recognise the role that guys on the ground have played – a lot who laced up through those wilderness years.”

He’s not kidding. Take yourself of a Sunday to any of the venues hosting an IAFL match-up and you’ll see what he means. Sidelines littered with protective gear and tackle bags, professional emergency medical personnel on standby as decreed by the league, five neutral volunteers officiating at each game – Christ, the guardians of the game now issue fines for uniform infractions. All this, and available to the public free of charge.

“Sponsorship and goodwill have a lot to do with it,” admits Aaron, “and the league has no doubt benefitted greatly from benefactors over the last few seasons. But it still takes the clubs themselves to buy in, to prove they are financially viable for a season, to send their refs 50 or 60 miles away to officiate a game between two sides, to decide amongst themselves that, yes, we want to be competitive here. The whole thing has been pretty much like a fraternity.”

The question of competitiveness is still one that has truly yet to be answered by all it would seem. Since McNaughton’s own Knights last won the Shamrock Bowl in 2002, only three other sides have managed to have their name engraved on to the most coveted trophy in Irish American Football. It’s something that doesn’t cause the Armagh man too many sleepless nights.

“The quality of competition is definitely improving year on year. I think a few teams raised the bar and said, look, we don’t want to mess around with this anymore, namely the Dublin Rebels and our own rivals here in Belfast, the Trojans. Slowly but surely other teams up and down the country are catching up, making the changes that will bring them to the next level, ourselves included. It’s been real organic in its nature”

Although, he believes that an accelerant has been added to the fire of late.

“Recently, there has been a big drive to put in place a national side that can go and compete at European level. Club football is such a great outlet for many guys who pick it up because a lot are coming from a background where they haven’t had the skills or physique to excel in the traditional sports played at schools or in parishes. It’s great that they can have an opportunity to perform in front of friends and family, but pulling on that green jersey is something that I suppose everyone in this country dreams can happen one day – and that dream is certainly attainable with American Football.”

And, indeed, he is one of few men that can speak from experience – albeit things didn’t go quite the way he would have expected back in August 2016, when the inaugural outing for an Irish national side was cut short by an electrical storm in Waalwijk, Netherlands, at half-time.

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A decade on from joining what was then the Carrickfergus Knights, Aaron was a major supporter of the sides decision to move back to Belfast – a process that has been helped in no small part by Cooke RFC and the use of their Shawsbridge Sports Complex in the affluent south of the city.

“The support of Cooke and Instonians has been invaluable. They’ve made us feel welcome from day one, and their facilities are great. We aren’t getting changed or running plays on a muddy council field anymore, and we have somewhere for our supporters to have a drink or take a walk around during a game,” he coos with visible pride.

After all he’s achieved in the game, at 31, McNaughton has begun to begrudgingly accept the veteran tag. Having taken on a defensive co-ordinator role with the Knights, is it a case of him preparing to hang up the cleats in the near future?

“I suppose it’s like any sport, younger guys come in and you quickly realise that they do things faster, stronger, better than you can. Most of the plays I’m coming up with now, I’m near forced to come up with them without myself in mind.”

The physical demands are one thing – but time too has become an issue. After marrying long term partner Lorraine in 2016, the couple are expecting their first child this September, something which holds a position of prominence in Aaron’s mind.

“I’ve broken bones, had dislocations and concussions. We have two practices a week with a game most Sundays – other evenings I’m in the gym after work, it’s not something that can go on forever,” he explains, a hint of pain in his voice.

That being said, and no different to any other sportsman approaching the end of his playing days, he’s keeping an open mind as far as when that day will be.

“Last year, Dublin Rebels pipped us in the Shamrock Bowl. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but the runner-up medal went into my bag and I genuinely haven’t seen it since. Winning a Shamrock Bowl would be the icing of the cake, and who knows? Maybe that would be a good time to walk away – whilst I still can! But for now, I still feel good and I’m still enjoying it.”

And why not? There is no doubt about it – Aaron McNaughton’s American Football journey has taken him a long way from that poky cubicle in Jordanstown.

Evidently, he has more miles to travel.

*Catch Aaron and his teammates this coming Saturday, as they make the short trip to Deramore Park, to take on the Trojans in the Battle of Belfast. Tailgate party begins at 1pm, featuring drinks promotions, free wings and pizza courtesy of Nando’s and Pizza Co respectively, as well as the hosts lighting up their own BBQ.     

With thanks to Ian Humes Photography and Belfast Knights for images used

Hillsborough: Contextualising the Safe Standing debate

What do you associate with Saturday afternoons?

For some it may be the mowing of the lawn or maybe touching up the paintwork of a porch or a garden fence. Others may use the weekend to hit the high street, the supermarkets, or to get on the road for a short getaway. There are those who will stir at noon, groggily recounting tales of the night before, happy not to have missed lunch.

For many, and most certainly for myself, Saturday afternoons will forever be synonymous with BBC One. As one o’clock struck, I’d already be primed. I’d have had fair warning – calling in from the garden every ten or fifteen minutes after lunch to ask Mum what time it was. Then the time came – that unmistakable drum beat, the carnival trumpeting – Grandstand had started.

Twenty nine years ago this weekend, Grandstand aired like it did every Saturday. I wasn’t watching. Well, not to my knowledge. Nine months old, I’d like to think if he was any sort of father, my Dad had me perched on knee waiting to herald Bob Wilson into the tiny living room of our split-level bungalow – but I can’t be sure.

It was one of the good ones. Day one of the World Snooker Championship from Sheffield. Live racing from Newbury. Christ, even the Formula 3 racing was being shown from Silverstone. And with BBC cameras at both Villa Park and Hillsborough to capture the action from the FA Cup semi-finals, it was set up to be a memorable edition.

Infamously, it certainly proved that.

And whilst over the subsequent twenty nine years, there has been many questions and answers, many lies and truths, much furious finger-pointing and uncountable tender embraces, the haunting images of a police strewn field, an empty Leppings Lane and rubbish blowing in the wind – pierced only by the choked up words of John Motson – has been enough to stun even the most hardened into complete silence. Whatever the circumstances, ninety six Liverpool fans were dead – and football was about to change forever.

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Tragedy. Catastrophe. Shame. Horror. The words are all there to describe how cataclysmic an event Hillsborough was. I think something I’ve struggled with, growing up as an avid football fan, is how something like that could ever have actually happened. Of course, myself and many fans like me, have grown up in the post-Hillsborough footballing age – the age of the Premier League, of jaw-dropping sporting arenas, of corporate hospitality. I wasn’t around for enough of the eighties to form my own opinion of it, or dare I say, be entitled to one now.

Like anything, Hillsborough happened in the context of it’s own time. Attending football matches in the seventies and the eighties was not an insouciant choice for one to make. The culture of hooliganism  was prevalent in the English game.

Yes, this is the point, where any one who has committed to writing a piece on Hillsborough inevitably tenses.

The results of the latest inquest are clear. Unequivocally, we all can and must believe that Hillsborough occurred not because of the mindless acts of hooligan football fans, but because of a nightmarish cacophony of ill equipped facilities and policing negligence. Of that, we can have no doubt. At the same time, one must not shy away from other truths. Almost four years previous to the events of April 15, 1989, Liverpool fans were involved in another harrowing footballing tragedy. Thirty-two Italian football fans were killed, along with four Belgians, two French and east Belfast man Patrick Radcliffe, when Liverpool fans breached a fence and stormed the opposing Juventus contingent at the 1985 European Cup Final in Heysel, Belgium. In the aftermath, fourteen of these “fans” were convicted of manslaughter and English teams were banned from European competition as a result, for a five year period – Liverpool Football Club, itself, banned for six years.

Simply a fact. It is impossible to not consider Heysel, when understanding the context of Hillsborough.

There have been those who have always managed to parallel the two given the Liverpool connection, and I’m not going to be drawn into the rhetoric that surrounds two regrettable sporting tragedies. Certainly not on this forum.

But whilst media, historically, have often focused on the sensationalised attribution of blame directed at football fans when these tragedies happen, the real context of stadium disasters such as Heysel and Hillsborough centers around the impropriety of not only the football stadia throughout the seventies and eighties in dealing with major sporting events, but also of the stewarding of such large scale occasions by authorities – both state and governing bodies.

Therein lay my confusion. How was Hillsborough allowed to take place, not just four years after Heysel, or indeed the awful stand fire at Valley Parade, Bradford which claimed fifty six lives, but a full eighteen years after sixty six Rangers fans were crushed to death on a stairwell at Ibrox Stadium, Glasgow? Perhaps most shockingly, how was it allowed to take place after the Spurs Wolves semi-final of 1981 at the same venue, where supporters of the London club spilled out onto the playing surface after crushing in the Leppings Lane end? Surely by 1989, those in charge of organising and policing football, had learned something in way of avoiding a repeat of such incidents?

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Hindsight tells us that it was Hillsborough that proved to be the milestone when it came to the discussion around the safety of patrons attending football matches in Britain. The Taylor Report, published in January 1990, into the causes, recommended that the age-old “two-thirds one-third” ratios in respect of seating to standing area in stadiums to be done away, with a focus on moving towards stadiums catering for seated only accommodation within a reasonable timescale. Standing at football was to become a thing of the past, and as English football stood on the precipice of a new dawn in the summer of 1992, two of the more iconic terraces in the game were torn down and replaced by folding seats. Old Trafford said ta rah to the Stretford End, whilst Highbury bade cheerio to the North Bank, in time for the kick-off of the Premier League era.

Twenty nine years on from Hillsborough and the standing debate has yet to go away. Undoubtedly, standing in a stadium makes for a more engaging experience, Not many people chant their favourite songs or tell the referee he’s a w****r from a sitting position. Followers of the blog will know I was at Celtic Park a couple of weeks ago for the visit of Ross County. In an otherwise, drab and processional affair, my experience was enhanced by getting access to the approved railed seating area at half time, where fans are given the option of taking a seat or standing at a rail, each with their own determined space. I bounced and sang and engaged the whole of that second half, and those forty five minutes proved to be the best moments of my day that didn’t involve alcohol in my right hand. The concept works really well, and neither I, nor any of the fans around me could complain in any shape or form about restricted viewing or movement. Thoroughly well stewarded and befitting of the footballing experience in 2018 – even if we did manage to sneak into the area without actually having a valid ticket to be there!

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Unfortunately, Westminster hasn’t yet seen fit to reintroduce safe standing areas in Premier League grounds. Indeed, only last week, West Brom had their proposal to convert approximately 3,600 seats in their Smethwick End to rail seating, similar to that of Celtic, rejected by the government, despite the success of the initiative at Celtic Park and at many other stadiums throughout top-flight European football.

Danger inside and around football stadiums has not been confined to the past totally, however. We only have to look at the examples from the London Stadium earlier this season with West Ham fans encroaching on to the field of play, or the fact that Liverpool, themselves, were slapped with a UEFA fine, poignantly in this of all weeks, for the despicable scenes outside Anfield before the recent Champions League quarter final clash with Man City.

Nevertheless, the footballing world has come so far in the past twenty nine years and, in turn, has been able to understand and process the lessons that Hillsborough taught us, in a way that those governing the game back in 1989, did not, in light of stadium disasters. Indeed, a major football stadium disaster has not taken place in Europe since 1992, when a temporary stand collapsed at Bastia’s Stade Furiani before the start of a Coupe de France match against Marseille, killing eighteen.

Alas, my questions seem to be changing. I’ve begun to accept what happened on this day twenty nine years ago in the context of it’s time, realising that the direction of most things in this world, unfortunately, change more often as the consequence of a single, often devastating, event, rather than anticipating the signs history gives us. My confusion now? Why Hillsborough still holds such a grip over what happens in Premier League football stadiums, after almost three decades, and innumerable safety, technological and societal advances. As television and corporate hospitality intrudes increasingly nonchalantly into the modern football involvement, it would be nice for the week-in, week-out fan to grab back that little piece of kingdom for themselves.

Safe Standing Now!

Dedicated to all those who have went to a game, and haven’t come home.

 

 

BOREXIT

After 20 years, is it time, FINALLY, for Hoops to say goodbye to tedious SPL?

Easter Weekend has passed and with it, a sporting feast. Many of you will have taken in the GAA finals in Croke Park, have forked out a few quid on the Joshua v Parker fight on Sky Box Office or be wallowing in a pool of beaten dockets and hungover self-pity after Fairyhouse yesterday. A world of opportunity, in a weekend that aroused many sporting socialites up and down the island.

On Saturday morning, at Belfast docks, ten or fifteen coaches lined up to board the seven – thirty crossing to Stranraer. There was a similar cargo on board at half four – all on a route of sporting pilgrimage to Glasgow. Bleary eyed and bottle of suds in hand, many make the weekly trip across the Irish Sea from these shores. And whilst the craic is great and the beer is sweet, one has to question the logic of anyone travelling to watch the dross that is the Scottish Premier League, at £100 a head.

A few facts.

Celtic hold the record in the UK for most consecutive competitive games without defeat. Their 69 game unbeaten run, came to an end the week before Christmas.

Dundee beat already crowned champions Celtic in the final game at Celtic Park in the 2000/01 season. Celtic were not beaten again at home until almost three years later when Aberdeen beat them in a mid-April league clash. Perfect symmetry in that Celtic were, again, already champions.

In 2017, Celtic clinched their sixth title in a row in record quick time, with eight games still to be played, doing so with the most points ever amassed in a Scottish top flight season.

From the turn of the millennium, Celtic have collected twenty six trophies from the fifty two domestic competitions they have entered. Half.

Out of the remaining twenty six available, Rangers can account for seventeen. Between them, that’s just shy of 83% of SPL, Scottish Cups and Scottish League Cups over the past 18 years. What’s more, by the end of this current season, Celtic will have won the league again – and there’s a highly likelihood another Scottish Cup will head to Glasgow too with the two meeting each other in the semi final on Sunday week.

Are you bored yet?

I certainly was on Saturday. For after the pints and the songs and the cards, came the realisation of having to watch an hour and a half of a mind-numbingly one-sided football match, on a drizzly afternoon in East Glasgow. Celtic ran out 3-0 winners against Ross County, who, to their credit, managed two efforts on goal during the game. There has been worse.

The Scottish papers make a song and dance over people who don’t know Scottish football slating the quality – and I’ll be the first to say I’m no expert when it comes to football north of Hadrian’s wall. But I know what £35 buys me at a game in Manchester, and I know what the people who walked into Celtic Park got for their £35 on Saturday.

If anything – it’s the real fans that are the losers.

Gone are the days of Souness, Gazza, Larsson and Sutton. Big names for big games. The greatest rivalry in football. Christ, dare I suggest, that the clampdown by authorities on the things that made Scottish football bearable to watch throughout much of the eighties and nineties has played a part too.

The fact of the matter is this, the most memorable and entertaining thing I’ve seen in Scottish Football this past while was Rod Stewart off his face making the Scottish Cup Draw last January. And entertaining it was.

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And to coin Sir Roderick, surely it’s time his dear old Celtic went “Sailing”.

The monotony of the will-they-won’t-they Premier League flirtation still lingers. But perhaps more realistic for Celtic and their fans, has been rekindled talk of an Atlantic Football League. In the past, Dutch giants Ajax and PSV have mooted such an alliance, along with big hitters in Scandinavia, Belgium, the Portuguese and the Greeks. Each time the suggestion has been mooted – UEFA are quick to mute it.

With teams from outside the big four European leagues only managing to win the Champions League on three occasions since it’s inception over a quarter of a century ago, surely it’s time for a new brand. Even the Europa League has become easy prey for Spanish, English, Italian and German teams, who fall short in capturing the big prize.

The question must be asked – how long will UEFA starve these clubs of the revenues, atmospheres and competitiveness that such a league would generate? Things do not look encouraging, going on previous.

One thing is certain, that whilst the boats will still leave Belfast on a Saturday morning, I for one will not be on them. I doth my hat to the hearty souls that will, and pray that one of these days you get a competition that you deserve. Maybe then, we can all have a glimpse again of Paradise.

 

What next for Ulster duo?

Can Stuart Olding and Paddy Jackson get their careers back on track, in wake of not guilty verdict?

In June 2016, not many people in Belfast had it as good as Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding. Highly successful, young, professional athletes, plying their trade in their home city, popular both on and off the rugby field.

Whilst everyone in the province and on the island will have their own opinion about what went on in that house in Oakleigh Park that night, the bottom line is…no winners were ever going to come from this. Like any trial, we can only hope that when all is said and done, the lay men and women sitting to one side in the court room get the thing right.

From a sporting context, the not guilty verdict throws up its own questions. Not just about the futures of both Jackson and Olding, but how the IRFU and Ulster Rugby will handle the fall out from this unprecedented case, as respective organisations.

Attention is drawn to the 25-year-old centre, who between injury and his implication in the events of what happened off the Ravenhill Road on that summer’s night, has played very little rugby in the last three and a half years. Whilst no doubt a player of high promise when making his international debut in 2013, and crossing the whitewash a year later for his first international try, the former BRA man sees himself back at square one career wise, and one wonders whether a move abroad to reinvent himself would prove the road best traveled.

Jackson on the other hand has a somewhat different set of circumstances to negotiate. A lynchpin of the Ulster side, and a seasoned international with Ireland by the time allegations came to light last Summer, Jackson must surely be itching to hit the play button, in time for next Autumn’s World Cup in Japan. Undoubtedly, a fit Jackson would have played a role in Ireland’s Six Nation Grand Slam success, in competition with Joey Carberry to play understudy to star man Jonny Sexton. The out-half must be praying that normal service resumes itself as quickly as possible.

Pertinent too, to mention the sporting backdrop that the legal proceeds played itself out in front of. Ulster have struggled terribly this season, and in the past few months have missed out on qualification for the knockout stages of the European Champions Cup and are in serious danger of not making the play-offs in the Pro14. Off the field, problems have been exacerbated with the resignation of director of rugby Les Kiss, head coach Jono Gibbes confirming he will follow suit at the end of the season, and with former stars Stephen Ferris and Paddy Wallace, amongst others, vocal in their calls for the province’s chief executive Shane Logan to stand down.

In a joint statement released after the verdict, the IRFU and Ulster Rugby confirmed they will hold their own review, with both players remaining suspended until the results of a specially appointed Review Committee have been found.

The only thing that is certain – both Jackson and Olding’s careers as professional sportspeople have been, and will continue to be, defined by what has happened, with many suggesting that the “not guilty” verdict will not be enough to save their careers on these shores.

A Cock and Balls

Sheepish Smudge Fronts Up After Camera-On’s Caught Playing with his Balls

In the throws of early teendom, I spent many a relaxing post-dinner Sunday, feet up, fire on, watching my Mum slave round the kitchen as I took in a United game on PremPlus. Invariably, this utopia was pierced by the high pitched shrieking of the under duress Motherbear, frustrated not only by the lack of aid she received in the wake of feeding a household of lazy, obnoxious and (at 3pm on a Sunday) gassy men, but by the frustration of never being able to know the comforting nirvana of cradling your own testicles.

“Would you ever stop tampering with your balls, you dirty bastard of a child?!?!”

I could tell you I grew out of it. But every male reader knows the real truth. Some men just never grow up…

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Had I been exposed to the sadness in Cameron Bancroft’s eyes at an early age, I don’t think I’d I’ve ever had the courage to put my hands south of my bellybutton.

It’s not been a good day for Australian Cricket to say the least. A bumbling Bancroft and, what you could only refer to as, “that arrogant arsehat” Steve Smith faced up to the media in Cape Town earlier in the most cringe saturated presser of this millennium.

During play earlier, as Australia struggled to contain an exuberant South African second innings, Bancroft was caught out (smoothly inserted pun) in a big way. Television footage, being beamed live around the world, as well as on the big screen inside the Newlands Stadium, clearly showed the Aussie batsman tampering with the ball in the outfield. Cue the boos in the crowd and the groans of “AWWW Mate..” from the Australian press box.

Ball tampering, for the unwashed, is a major no-no in the cricket world. On a moral par with playing a minor in an u-14 game and hoping no one will notice, ball tampering is when the bowling team illegally alters the condition of the ball in an attempt to garner more swing when it’s delivered. This is achieved by polishing one side of the ball, and trying to scuff the other side of it. So that goes some way to explaining all that mysterious crotch rubbing that goes on. A justifiable cloud of doubt still hangs over Shane Warne a.k.a. Top Shagger, for fans of my previous posts.

Joking aside, this is a huge embarrassment for Australia, a team who have in the past been very quick to point the finger of blame at rival teams – not least Australian coach Darren Lehmann, who only this week whinged about the abuse his players were getting from the home crowd, using words like “disgraceful”, “gone to far” and my personal favourite “they have got to be better than that”. Oh Darren, hindsight is a wonderful thing old boy.

The clamour has begun in earnest, calling for skipper Smith to step down, after he admitted that team leadership had concocted the plan to rough up the ball over the break in play for lunch. But, in true Smith style, he refuted the suggestion that he would resign as captain, remorsefully blurting out that he needed to “control of the ship”, whilst the rest of us in unison internally chanted the immortal lines – The Ship is a Tanker, Steven is a…Cheat!

Call me crazy, but I cannot see this ending well for Smith, so shortly after masterminding an Ashes drubbing of England in the Winter. Captain Smith, your plank awaits.

Football’s Invisible Man

Stockpiled : The Matej Delač Story

The third weekend in February, back in 2009, proved a significant one in Premier League goalkeeping history. After nearly four months, fourteen games, and a mind boggling 1,334 minutes, Roque Santa Cruz skipped around a faltering Ferdinand and one useless PIG and rolled the ball into the empty Old Trafford net. It was the first goal United had conceded in the Premier League since Samir Nasri had put them to the sword in early November at the Emirates. Trust Kuszczak to ruin all of van der Sar’s good work. Pole in Goal for any of you wondering.

United went on to win the game 2-1, Ronaldo securing another home win en route to three in a row.

Ahhhh, halcyon days indeed.

Twenty four hours later, another significant goalkeeping milestone was taking place for a sixteen year old boy in a small Croatian town, close to the Slovenian border. Matej Delač had a dream debut. Inter Zaprešić won the game 1-0, beating NK Zagreb, their near neighbours from the capital. The hero was their young goalkeeper, saving a penalty in the dying throws of the encounter to ensure victory. He would play fifteen games for Inter before the end of that season. It wasn’t long before Europe’s bigger clubs sat up and took notice.

That summer, Benfica looked in pole position to secure the signature of the young shot stopper, but after negotiations broke down, Chelsea would swoop. Delač penned a five year deal with the Blues, but would stay in Croatia to continue his development whilst Frank Arnesen kept his eye on the talent from afar. After a final season with Inter, Chelsea sent Delač on a well trodden path. Days after his eighteenth birthday, he was farmed out to Vitesse, Chelsea’s feeder team in the Netherlands and de facto kindergarten for a ream of Chelsea youngsters over the last decade.

And so it began. The first of ten loan moves in seven years. The starlet at sixteen who had dreams of Premier League football and the higher echelons of the European game has amassed a grand total of zero appearances for the team he put to pen to paper with, coming on nine years ago this September – oh and again in July 2014 and just one more time, two years later.

Delač did see some European football, alright. Although he didn’t get a single minute as an eighteen year old in the Eredivisie, he would go on to see action in the Czech Republic, in Portugal, back to his boyhood club for half a season as 2012-13 wound down in Croatia, before hot footing it to Serbia, Bosnia, France and Belgium over the past four and a half years.

Somewhere, in the midst of all this chaos,  he hilariously became Chelsea’s longest serving player – when John Terry left for Aston Villa this past summer. And so, at still a youthful twenty five years of age, Matej finds himself back at Cobham. Not able to play for the first team due to work permit issues, that have played a part in the stunting of his Chelsea career, yes, he has announced that he will call time on his career in London (Ha!) at the end of this season.

This extraordinary situation must be the most pertinent example of a strategy deployed by the club over the past decade. The media have given it a chillingly crass title – ‘stockpiling’.

So how does it work?

Chelsea’s vast scouting system identify a talented youngster – the younger the better – both in the UK, but more often abroad, and secure his signature, welcoming them into the bosom of the club’s illustrious academy.  This is usually achieved at a relatively nominal fee. From there, they will compete with the swathes of young men around them, most of them in the first instance to achieve a loan move away. Some will be sold on relatively early, some will sign contact extensions. Seemingly none will ever stand a realistic chance of breaking into the first team. None have yet. You see the trick is to sell them on at the height of their value. And this occurs again and again and again.

Let’s look at some notable examples.

2096On the final day of the January transfer window in 2012, the Kings Road outfit signed Patrick Bamford, an 18 year old striker showing plenty of promise at Nottingham Forest. After six loan moves in five years, Bamford’s career had seemed to stagnate, he hadn’t been able to register one league goal at any of his final three foster clubs, Palace, Norwich and Burnley. It was time to cash in. Bamford was sold to Middlesbrough just shy of celebrating his fifth anniversary at Chelsea for a £4.5 million profit. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.

Christian Atsu signed for Chelsea on September 1st, 2013 and was immediately shipped off to Vitesse. Four years and five loans later, Newcastle eventually exercised a right-to-buy option on Atsu landing Chelsea a cool £3 million profit on their Ghanaian acquisition. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.

Eden Hazard has been a shining light for Chelsea since his move from Lille in the summer of 2012. Less is known about his younger brother Thorgan who Chelsea brought along for the ride. Having appeared in a Chelsea shirt only the once, in an under 21 game against Man City, twenty four days after he signed, he was immediately sent back to Belgium, where he would spend two seasons with Zulte Waragem, who wouldThorgan-Hazard ensure his continued development. He returned for pre-season training at the start of July 2014 but no sooner had he laced up his boots before he was off again – this time to Borussia Mönchengladbach in Germany, where he would spend one season on loan before signing permanently in February 2015. Chelsea earned £6 million off that transfer – a £5.5 million profit. He made zero Chelsea appearances in the Premier League.

There are countless others to choose from – Bertrand Traoré, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Aké, Dominic Solanke – all sold for significant fees without really been given a fair crack at the whip.

They have ballsed up at times too. They sold Kevin de Bruyne to Wolfsburg for a £10m profit in 2014, only two years after acquiring him from Genk as a 20 year old. De Bruyne must, now, surely be worth ten times the £18 million they received for him. They sold Mohammed Salah, of course, to Roma, for a profit of only £1 million after a frustrating season and a half which saw him loaned to Fiorentina, before signing permanently for I Giallorossi. Salah and De Bruyne are currently both at the head of the betting for Premier League Player of the Year for the 2017-18 season, having returned to England with Man City and Liverpool respectively. Chelsea have also had to eat humble pie on other occasions – notably in the buying, selling and re-purchase of Nemanja Matić, and again in their prolonged pursuit of another former player in Romelu Lukaku.

They currently have twenty eight senior players out on loan to other clubs, including the likes of Marco van Ginkel, plucked from feeder club Vitesse at twenty and already a Dutch international, he has a grand total of two Chelsea appearances to his name, the last coming in 2013. Others include Tomáš Kalas, the Czech international defender who has been under contract since 2010, Lucas Piazon, the former Brazilian youth international who has been under contract since 2012, and Danilo Pantić, a Serbian youth player they scooped up in 2015 at the tender age of eighteen, who has already had three season long loans under his belt.

No-one can deny the feasibility of ‘stockpiling’ as a business model. Chelsea Football Club have secured tens of millions of pounds worth of profit, using third parties to develop their Chelsea branded players, before sending them on their way permanently and pocketing what is usually a healthy gain. But what is a fantastic business model amounts to nothing short of exploitation in the sense of footballing welfare. These young men, many not even adults when they smile through adolescent teeth as they sign their contracts, are catapulted all over Europe before their arse barely hits the ground at Heathrow. Some have managed to come out the other side unscathed. But how many careers have suffered like that of Matej Delač – how many players have been left asking “What If?”.

I wish Matej Delač all the best in his future endeavours, and hope that he can reignite the spark that Chelsea extinguished almost nine years ago. What are the chances he is afforded a token testimonial as way of thanks for his service?

Football trafficking is alive and well and the culprits can be found in London, SW3.