Is Greyer Than Grey Ok?

Only a few weeks on from the Olympics and it turns out that British sport is starting to resemble an over aged cheese. What was seen as the premium product is starting to go just a little bit whiffy. The smell is faint though – a slight discomforting odour which occasionally pervades through. That’s because fundamentally no one has actually done anything wrong. Indeed further to that, the channels with which those (non) offences have come to light are often as suspect as the supposed misdeed.   Those channels both have significant motive for causing the trouble or the discussion that has followed.

On the one side, a national (almost tabloid) newspaper has the significant incentive of selling more papers (and therefore advertising space) by creating the most sensational story possible. And on the other, the Fancy Bears as they refer to themselves, are seemingly intent on showing the world that the concentration on Russian State involvement in doping is just the tip of the iceberg. Unfortunately, these motives don’t  make the allegations incorrect.  

The first, that of the ex-England football manager Sam Allardyce, is probably the clearest. Even he admits to a major miscalculation in meeting the agents / journalists to advise on how to ‘bend’ transfer rules and in regard to the comments that he made against the royal family and Roy Hodgson. There are many though who say that he would have been innocent if not for the media ‘plotting’ to bring him down. Anyone who has read my posts before will know I am generally hugely against stings by the media but I have to say that this has highlighted ‘good and bad stings’. This was not a matter of sexual indiscretion or lifestyle choice for which I believe there is very rarely any legitimate public interest. It was a matter of clearly breaking the rules. As the England manager – the very pinnacle of representing British sport, it was imperative that Allerdyce played the ethical line. He didn’t and was rightly sacked. His moaning about entrapment is purely self-pity. It is arguable that the might not have gone looking for it. He certainly didn’t run from it. The flip side of course is (aside from the comments) he didn’t actually break any rules…he seems to have advised on how to, and the inference is that he may have accepted payment had it gone further but nothing actually happened.

 
 
That Peak Form Look
Image ©  Surrey Council
 

The second incident leaves a really bad taste in the mouth even though there is in theory no evidence of wrongdoing. For me,  Sir Bradley Wiggins is the poster boy for the changed face of (British) cycling. Arm in arm with Brailsford, he represents the clear line that British Cycling and later SKY have taken in terms of their no drugs, no needles policy. And yet, the much exalted policy of marginal gains is starting to leave a grey area around how close up to the line those marginal gains were pushed.

The response from Brailsford to the Wiggins TUEs along the lines of ‘we have not done anything that we didn’t have the right to do’ hardly provides comfort that rules were followed rather than bent. I don’t know anyone whose asthma is bad enough to need an injection of such a strong drug (although I don’t doubt they exist). I doubt that that same person would record themselves in their autobiography as being in peak condition at that point though. I doubt they would categorically say in the same book that there is a no needles policy within the team if they required such a medication (shades of Armstrong there perhaps) and I doubt that they would only have a need for such an aggressive intervention before key races. Having said that I don’t know any elite athletes either.

When contrasted to Callum Skinner’s excellent reaction to the TUEs exposure, the reactions of Wiggins and Brailsford feel like stuttering, floundering defences of potential guilt which of course adds to that slight uneasiness…   It seems clear that no rules have been broken. But Sky and British Cycling have presented a proactive image of being whiter than white. And that’s clearly not quite the case – more greyer than grey perhaps.

We want British sport, any sport, to be watchable, we want it to be a competition played on a level playing field. Unfortunately Wiggins own concept of generating that “level playing field” is probably not what the public thought (hoped) that they were watching.   What both these examples show is that what the vast majority of the public wants to think is happening – transparency in sport, clarity that what they see is real, confirmation that there is a level playing field both in and out of the arena – is not there.

Britain it seems is actually no better than any of the other competing nations which casts doubt on the missiles thrown at FIFA as well as the condemnation of Russia. Many, would sacrifice some of the ‘success’ that the GBR team has enjoyed for the confidence that we can properly hold that moral high ground.

Why Karl Robinson Should Move On

Karl Robinson is seen by many pundits as one of the most successful, talented, up and coming managers in the Football League. Every time a role comes up, his name is linked to the job. Whether he ever gets to the offer stage, or whether he pulls out at offer stage is unclear. The fact is that he has remained ‘loyal’ to the MK Dons for three and a half years now and has given the Dons a degree of managerial stability that had been sorely lacking with the big name recruitment strategy previously practised. 

“Key to the club’s success is 
the retention of Robinson”
(Image © Dudek1337 2014)

Whether he has been successful is a subjective point. He guided the Dons to the playoffs in his first two seasons and had an impressive cup run in the last season. There are those that point to Robinson’s lack of success in moving the MK Dons into the Championship as evidence that he is not as successful as his media rating suggests but I think this misses the real detail. 

Despite the outward lucrative image the club does not have money to spend on the team.  MK Dons is firmly focussed on being profitable (a laudable aim in the current spend now climate) and is currently contracted to make improvements to the ground and the surrounding environment as part of the original planning terms. It therefore has to operate as a ’selling club’ nurturing youngsters and scouting little known players before moving them on at profit. Sam Baldock and Sean Williams are good examples of this.  Other players have left to cut wage costs – Sean O’Hanlon and Gary MacKenzie for instance.  

This creates a situation in which to all intents and purposes, Robinson’s hands are tied. He is not in the position to sign new players, he is rarely in the position to reinvest transfer money raised into new talent. So he needs to utilise the pretty impressive youth set up (on the understanding that once a player becomes proven he will be sold) and be active in the loan market. The loan market of course creates significant problems for a club in terms of stability.  The club built its game around Patrick Bamford for instance in the first half of the season but Chelsea’s (understandable) decision to move him up a level means Robinson now has to start again. 

My view is that Robinson has proved himself at this level. He has proved he can deliver results in a cash strapped environment whilst playing the style of football that would not look out of place at a much higher level. He has also proven he has an eye for players and clearly has some great managerial relationships with other clubs. He is perhaps found wanting when teams adapt to his sides passing styles (although having watched Forest get completely shut out by Preston at the weekend he is not alone.) He is young though and has many years of learning ahead of him. How many of us, so early in our careers had had so much interest in us?

The MK Dons have a strategy for ridding itself of debt and of meeting its contractual ‘planning’ commitments by 2015. At that point, the club can start to keep and attract players, invest in a longer term squad and move forward. With that in mind, although promotion would be nice, it is probably not the clubs main aim at the moment. In fact, realistically whilst it would provide a short term injection of cash, it is likely that the club would come straight back down as it cannot compete financially at that level. The aim therefore is more likely to ensure that their league one position is consolidated until 2015 and that where possible they start to create the sort of stability amongst players and staff that creates long term success. Key to this is the retention of Karl Robinson and his managerial support team.

But…Robinson should accept his next realistic offer. That could easily be from Blackpool – the team where he already has a man on the inside in the form of Gary Mackenzie, and a team which, having been managed by Paul Ince would in theory be similar in styling to the team he inherited from Ince in 2010. If not there, then there will be plenty of others.

The decision to go will be his. As outlined above, the club would be mad to push him out. From his point of view he has proved himself at this level. He has proved he can operate in this type of environment. He has proved his loyalty to the club in staying with them over the past few seasons when he has had other offers.  In a new environment he can move forward to the next level now. To stay at MK Dons would mean waiting for two years to do that. How many of us in our own careers would pass up the chance of progressing to the next level now in favour of waiting for two years. I’m guessing only those of us that are not especially ambitious. And Robinson is. It’s in his make up. That’s why he will succeed. 

What Price an Away Shirt?

As MK Dons confirm that their season ticket promotion topped out at around 4800, it strikes me as a great result for the club but a poor one for their customers. For those not close to the Dons, the club announced with a great fanfare that if they sold 5000 season tickets before 5pm on 1st August, they would reward each purchaser with a free away shirt. 

Now, I’m sure that the figure of 5000 was always an ambitious one – it makes sense with a promotion like this to set a stretching target. What seemed odd to me was the lack of information coming out of the club as the figure got closer and closer. As was well documented on Twitter over the past couple of weeks, it has become very difficult to get firm numbers out of the club. If MKDons were keen to hit the promotional target one would expect regular updates over the past couple of weeks to encourage a late push for tickets. Yet is was down to a small group of fans in the Twitter community to try and create that last push.
Once the club reached the 4750 / 4800 figure (which one would imagine would be their internal target) the promotion aim seems to have changed. It was massively in their interests not to hit the 5000 ticket figure at which point they have an exposure of 5000 shirts which even at cost price probably equated to about £100k. (roughly 50% of RRP). Indeed the announcement that came out yesterday that season ticket holders would be eligible to buy an away shirt at half price plays even more into their court. Like most half price marketing promotions, this will encourage the increased sale of away shirts (which they probably wouldn’t have previously sold). Even at half price, the club are likely to be making a small profit from each sale or are at least increasing footfall into the club shop. 
Of course there is the view that good news financially for the club is good news for the supporters. Increased season ticket sales & £100k saved on free shirts might be £100k to spend on the salary of a loaned player. Extra away shirt revenue from the half price promotion together with increased sponsor exposure from additional away short sales also boosts the coffers. I can’t help thinking though that this has been acheived at the expense of the supporters through a promotion which had very little chance of ever delivering. 
Maybe I’m just being cynical. It would be interesting to know what the season ticket total was last season to understand how high the bar was originally set and to understand why it was so difficult to get any information from the club as the target got ever closer.