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Where The Owl Sleeps

For One Weekend Only, The FA Cup Really Matters

Stephen McGovern - Saturday, April 22, 2017

A tournament that rarely excites anymore is ready to host two giant clashes, writes Ste McGovern.

 


 

The FA Cup is an anachronism. It’s a symbol of glories past, of childhood memories, of a game played in a different time. It’s not the same as it once was, and never again will it be. Winning it used to be the pinnacle for many a British player. Now it’s hard to place what it even means in the modern game.

 

Not even Championship clubs bother putting out their first string teams anymore. Premier League sides, with squads presumably big enough to withstand the added load, who haven’t won a trophy in decades -- or, in some cases, ever -- can’t be arsed seeing out the third round. Denying a dancing Pards in 2016’s showpiece final wasn’t enough to save Louis Van Gaal’s bacon in the end.

 

It’s just a weird competition; we’re told of this magical tournament, of its special place in the game, and no one -- not the players, managers or fans -- could care less about the games. That’s not to say none of the above would like to win it. They do, but it’s often not worth the effort to get there unless you can wade your way through the thicket of lower division opposition without affecting your league position. And that’s where our four semi-finalists come in.

 

Ask Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur at the start of the season whether or not the FA Cup was a priority, and you could safely bet your house on them all answering ‘No’, assuming of course they’re being honest and not just paying hollow deference to a glorified tin pot.

 

Aside from City, they have all fielded much weakened teams on cup weekends up to this point. It is by chance as much as strength of depth that they have made it this far. And now that they have, they might as well go all out to try and bring it home. Notwithstanding that, the cup actually means something this time around.

 

 

While Chelsea and Spurs are still battling it out for the title, City and Arsenal are fighting for a spot in the top four. This is their last chance for a major trophy this season, one that could put a glossy sheen on a testing time for these clubs.

 

Pep Guardiola, perhaps not entirely privy to the tradition of treating cup ties in England as if they are reserve team games, has hardly taken his foot off the pedal in this competition even when it might have seemed better to do so. For all the talk of the Spaniard’s marriage to a philosophy, an ideology that takes precedence over winning, his true love is success. Many expected City to be on their way to a third Premier League by now, but it’s been a weird one for the Sky Blues. They play some of the nicest football in Europe, and their underlying statistics would have you thinking they should be higher up the table. They will settle for a cup for now, knowing they surely have bigger fish to fry in the future.

 

For Arsenal it goes without saying. Wenger has never felt more vulnerable at anytime during his reign in London, with the crowds baying for blood over the lack of tangible success. Not that it bothers his superiors, but there is pressure on him to deliver. The FA Cup is the easiest way to present some form of glory, as they gun for a third in four years. While they have actually regressed since those triumphs, another should offer a sweet release for the fans, if only temporary at least. And regaining their status as the most successful team in the competition from Man United is always a nice tribal bonus.

 

Continue reading below:

 

A few weeks ago the cup appeared to be a mere distraction from Chelsea's runaway form in the league. With no European football in their way they could just focus on maintaining momentum against the likes of Peterborough, Wolves and Brentford. In light of their defeat to United, however, doubts are starting to emerge. Are they as strong as everyone assumed? Will they hold on to win the league? A victory over their local rivals, the only ones who can wrest the title from them, would put pay to all of those questions.

 

This tie is amazing timing for both sides, but especially for Spurs. It’s a golden opportunity for the north Londoners to give them the fear, manifest that seed of doubt inside their cross city rivals. Victory might also banish the memories of last year’s late season collapse, not that it seems it’s been on the mind of the players ever since -- they have accrued the most points of any team in the league since the start of the 2015/16 season. Critically though, they have no silverware to show for it. The most important thing about this competition for Spurs is the winning mentality it can help instill.


Ideally Saturday's game would be a straight playoff for the league, but the knockout manner of the tie will give it an old school feel. Whatever happens, the FA Cup won’t just be an afterthought this weekend.

 

@thenoveltyact

The Championship: A Hotbed For Irish Talent

Stephen McGovern - Tuesday, March 28, 2017

A strong contingent of Irish internationals, both present and future, are impressing in the old first division, writes Ste McGovern.

 

Preston's Irish quartet (Horgan, McGeady, Browne, Cunningham)

 

Receiving the ball five yards outside the box he completes a trademark stepover, but the defender doesn’t bite, making sure to hold his ground. The attacker steps inside, but still the defender follows. He pushes once more and now his marker has no choice but to commit, sliding in a desperate attempt to win the ball, allowing him to get a shot off. A second defender tries to close him down, while another three players stand between him and the goal, but it doesn’t matter. The ball leaves his right foot, launching into the air before dipping softly as it hits the netting beyond the goalkeeper.

 

Aiden McGeady gets a masive equaliser for Preston North End on the stroke of half-time against QPR, who took the lead just nine minutes previously through Kazenga Lua Lua. The goal, his fourth of the season, is representative of something of a renaissance for the Scottish-born winger, who in recent years has endured indifferent spells at Everton and Sheffield Wednesday. It’s also representative of how Preston have come to rely not just on him, but their Irish contingent too.

 

 

In the second half Daryl Horgan swings in a corner from the left which meets the head of Jordan Hugill. His header is saved but the rebound is knocked in, meaning the Galway man doesn’t get an official assist, but does contribute to an important win in their push for the playoffs. The northerners have lost just two of their last fifteen matches, a run that includes a 2-0 win over second-placed Brighton & Hove Albion, coincidentally Horgan’s first start in the Championship. His performances have earned him a regular place in the starting line-up, getting two goals and three assists along the way.

 

That day he played with compatriots Alan Browne and Greg Cunningham either side of him, although the latter usually plays at left-back if they are in a 4-4-2 formation rather than a back three. There could have been more Irishmen on the field too: Andy Boyle came with Horgan from Dundalk, but is only recently breaking into the team, while Eoin Doyle went out on loan recently. Both are expected to start against Iceland.

 

On the losing side that afternoon was Ryan Manning, who has bided his time for a chance, but once he got it for the R’s he made it count. The 20 year old joined when the club was still in the Premier League under Harry Redknapp, but wouldn’t make his first team debut until 31 December last year, almost two full years since putting pen to paper on his move from Galway United in January 2015.

 

He’s since started eleven games, coming off the bench just once, and scored his first, and thus far only, goal against local rivals Fulham in a 1-1 draw. Most notably, aside from that or his one assist, he has somehow gotten six yellow cards already, which is just over a card every second game. He possesses a raw tenacity that could be channelled into controlled aggression as he progresses in his career, and in time he could be an ideal fit for Ireland’s midfield.

 

 

While Manning and a host of other up-and-coming talents such as Richie Towell try and make the step up, established internationals like Shane Duffy and Daryl Murphy are looking ahead to a return to the Premier League with Brighton and Newcastle respectively. Wes Hoolahan, and Richard Keogh and Cyrus Christie are chasing an increasingly unlikely shot at the playoffs with Norwich City and Derby County, so another year in the Championship is on the cards for those two. Guys like Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick have spent plenty of time in it, earning themselves moves to Burnley in the promised land of star studded squads and mega money. It's up to the rest to follow in their path.

 

 

The recent injury crisis to several key players for the qualifier, and seeing how that affected the style of play against Wales, shows how imperative it is that these players are playing consistently at a level that isn’t far off the pace of international football. Not so long ago the second tier of the English game would not have been considered good enough to guarantee you a starting berth in the Ireland team. But playing for your country is no longer the zenith, the highest level you can play at. The gap between leagues such as these and the group stages of qualification is narrowing all the time. In this context it has become fertile land for Martin O’Neill as he continues the quest to qualify Ireland for consecutive tournaments for the first time since 1990.


With the exception of McGeady and Duffy, all of the current Championship players I mentioned came through the League of Ireland, so who’s to say where the true hotbed for Irish talent really lies?

 

@TheNoveltyAct

 

Is it Claudio Ranieri's fault that Leicester City been so bad this season?

Stephen McGovern - Saturday, February 25, 2017

Ranieri is gone, but there were some reasons beyond his control for Leicester's poor form, writes Ste McGovern.

 

Claudio Ranieri "lost" the dressing room, but were the poor results all his fault?

 

Like a rolling tide, Ranieri could not stem the overwhelming flood that was the relegation battle currently enveloping Leicester City. Maybe that’s the best argument for why he simply had to go. This season has been downright awful and it looks like it’s been out of his control for some time now, like a man trying to row a boat without an oar.

 

Last season many surmised during the early days of their incredible run that he seemingly had no clue as to what was happening. He had the look of a man who was happy enough with how things were going but for the love of God don’t ask him how. There’s probably some element of truth to that, it would be hard for anyone to fathom it, but at the same time he was the guiding hand throughout it all. He was saying the right things in the media, rewarding his players at ample opportunities, making sure they had free time when necessary. None of these things are revolutionary, but they played a huge contributing factor to the amazing journey.

 

 

Ranieri’s tactics were key to their success; moving away from the back three that kept the Foxes up, relocating Vardy from the wing to a more effective central position, and giving Mahrez the freedom to play further up the pitch. Although they had an awful lot of luck, it wasn’t by accident. His gameplan simply worked to a tee.

 

How often does that happen? To strategise and plan is one thing, but for it to work is another. This season has been almost the complete of opposite of the one preceding it, such has been the horrendous form they have been on. Sometimes the universe just needs to restore balance. According to data analysis undertaken by Daniel Altman, when luck is taken out of the equation, Leicester should have finished fourth. Still an incredible achievement, but it shows how external factors can have an impact. Bobby Gardiner theorised that the same thing has happened this year, just in the opposite direction, and they should be sitting closer to mid-table.

 

 

After the close of the most remarkable Premier League season ever, Richard Whittall wrote a piece on what the club should do going forward, and his words seem startlingly prescient now. “Even if your star players stay, chances are they will age, they will slump, regress, pick up injuries. Or, as sometimes happens in football, things that worked last season may not work this season, for no discernible reason. You still need a succession plan for the team.”

 

That succession plan was somewhat scuppered when head scout Steve Walsh moved to Everton this summer. Mahrez and Vardy remained, but N’Golo Kante, the most important player to their gameplan, was sold to Chelsea. The Toffees then signed Idrissa Gueye, a player whose profile closely matches that of Kante. It is no coincidence that Everton signed him once Walsh was on board.

 

I’ve seen plenty of people say that the departure of one person can’t possibly explain such a downturn, but it is this writer’s opinion that it has had a bigger impact than we realise. Indeed, Whittall goes on to say “if LCFC’s title run is like this magic souffle that came out of nowhere, even the slightest change can bring it crashing down.” This hypothesis is examined further in a great piece by Gardiner for Paste Magazine, who writes “If Leicester wanted to play the same way they did when Kante was in the side, they would need to get someone in who could emulate his defensive duties,” a la Gueye.

 

Bobby’s dive into the data reveals that Leicester are failing to turn the ball over in the same areas that Kante was so effective in last season. “Frequent turnovers in the middle of the pitch are essential to Leicester’s attack as they focus on fast transitions.” That much has been evident in the performance of Mahrez and Vardy, who have scored just eight goals between them in 2016-17. The rate at which Leicester was scoring difficult chances last season was unsustainable, and that has been borne out with zero league goals this calendar year.

 

 

And yet, with so much seemingly out of his control in relation to the team’s form, it is Ranieri who takes the fall. The Times have reported that a meeting in Seville between the players and the chairman prompted upper management to make decisive action. With the players no longer behind the manager, they felt they could no longer stay loyal to the man who brought their greatest success. While the players think that the coach is at fault, it is their performances that have ultimately gotten them to this point. It is their job as much as it is Ranieri’s to make that relationship work, but instead of working at it they have chosen to oust the Italian.

 

 

As much as we might not like how it has gone down, we also realise that this is football. And Ranieri knew that too. He was more aware anyone that the performances weren’t good enough and he would eventually have to take the blame. However if anyone had earned the opportunity to die on their sword as they chose, it was him.

 

@TheNoveltyAct

 

The alternative viewpoint: 

 

Sorry, but Danny Rose is not an Elite Left Back

Stephen McGovern - Wednesday, February 22, 2017

We put the data into the Comprehensive Left Back Spreadsheet of Happiness and Wonder and it's not bad news, Spurs fans, but it's not great either, writes Rob Palmer.

 

 

Hello, and welcome to the first edition of me taking things way too far.

 

As most of you are aware, there was an incident on the podcast last week. It was to do with how highly – or lowly – we as a trio rated Danny Rose.

 

We followed up that debate on this week’s episode, replete with hard-nosed research:

 

I had a couple of days off from the hideous reality that is working in retail so I decided to put my time into examining all the regular(ish) left backs in the league and compile some stats. Before anyone makes any assumptions, I genuinely didn’t do this to prove myself right. It wasn’t some weird exercise of statistical smugness. I decided to do it because people were so veracious with their support for Danny Rose that I wanted to see how wrong I was about saying he was “pretty average”.

 

See how wrong Rob was and read the spreadsheet here!

 

All the data comes with thanks from a combination of Squawka and WhoScored. Some of the stats are a bit pointless in my opinion, like shot accuracy, but I just decided to put in every little thing that may be perceived as relevant. If there’s anything that I’ve missed in the spreadsheet, please let me know and I’ll update it accordingly.

 

Danny Rose stats from 18 league appearances in 16/17 (Ste McGovern)

 

There are a couple of things that people may not be happy with: the two Chelsea players. Azpilicueta and Alonso’s numbers are taken from last season, the first 26 games of the previous season when they both played as full backs for Chelsea and Fiorentina respectively. I thought it would have been silly to include their stats from this season as Alonso has played predominantly as a wing back and Azpilicueta a wide centre back.

 

Top eight LBs for creating chances (Ste McGovern)

 

The conclusion that I draw from the data is that Rose is good, but that’s about it. He is far from elite, but he is only 26 and he has a fantastic coach in Pochettino to iron out those large defensive shortcomings. He may turn out to be elite, but saying he is right now is a bit silly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

@Not_Rob_Palmer

Maradona: The Napoli Years

Stephen McGovern - Saturday, February 04, 2017

We spoke to author and screenwriter John Ludden about his book, Once Upon A Time In Naples, which centers on Diego Maradona's time at Napoli, a story featuring drugs, the mafia and a bit of football. 

 

Final Third Talks: Maradona, The Napoli Years with John Ludden

 

In the eighties Napoli was a team with a fanatical support unrivaled in terms of passion and size in the south of Italy, but it had underachieved for far too long. They had won a solitary Serie B and two Coppa Italia trophies up to then, but never the Scudetto. For a club of their size, it was a point of shame for the team and its fans. 

 

On 5th July 1984, that would all change. Diego Armando Maradona arrived in Naples by helicopter, and for seven years all hell let loose in the Italian city. The Argentine would lead the Partenopei to their first league title, a joyous moment for the club, but behind the scenes a dark side was always lurking.

 

 

 

Maradona mixed openly with the city gangsters, Lo Camorra. He could do as he pleased whilst performing miracles on the pitch,
but it wouldn't last forever.

 

As detailed in the book's blurb, Once Upon a Time in Naples attempts to chronicle those unforgettable times under Mount Vesuvius’ shadow. When Diego left his mark on this Babylon by the sea. An alluring tale of wonderful football, glory, despair and betrayal. Of corruption, gangsters and ultimately, redemption.

 

You can find John's incredible book on Amazon.

How Liverpool Have Missed Sadio Mané

Adam Kelly - Friday, February 03, 2017

Liverpool were one of the most potent attacking teams of 2016, with Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho being two of their main threats up front. However, since Sadio Mané has been away on international duty, the Reds have suffered a sharp decline in form, and the Senegalese' absence has had a big impact on their style of play. We investigated how and why in our latest video. 

 

 

Produced by Adam Kelly; Words by Rob Palmer

Crushing Capitalism: Advancing The Cause

Stephen McGovern - Monday, January 30, 2017

It's crunch time in the season as Commissar Igor Collectivich's charges hone in on promotion and plan for the future of the movement, writes Rob Palmer. 

 

Crushing Capitalism: A Football Manager Story, by Rob Palmer

 

Comrades, we enter the final third of the season, and you can feel the tension around SPAL. We currently lie second in the table desperately needing to win Serie C1 and get some income into the club. I have to make sure that I keep my players sharp and committed to the cause, or we will have done nothing but bring the communist way to a small selection of people from Ferrara; good, but not good enough.

 

As we said in the last instalment, January and February have gone well. Four wins from seven and now we were looking to overturn that one point deficit to Arezzo. We have already played both fellow challengers – Prato and Teramo – with a win and a draw respectively. We wouldn’t play the leaders until the start of June in one of the last games of the season, so we would have to endeavour to win every game until then.

 

 

Something ugly has crept into SPAL. Indiscipline. We seem to be getting suspensions every other game. Comrade Castagnetti and Comrade Silvestri have been the main culprits; but Comrades Rigon, Boccafoglia, Gasparetto and Ceccaroni have also picked up their fair share. This is unacceptable moving forward. Castagnetti and Rigon have become key players for the resistance this season. While we have good depth, the quality is something that worries me, especially if we get promoted and want to challenge for the Serie B title. While these may be lofty ambitions, I am confident that the superior way that we play, and indeed live, is enough to let us impose ourselves on the league.

 

In truth, March was a big month for our cause. As we excelled, the others declined. This is perhaps systematic of the bourgeoisie elite, where laziness and complacency come to the forefront when the going gets tough. Pathetic, really. Our system of high discipline and intolerance of individualism is far superior and clearly gets results.

 

 


 

Arezzo lost three games and drew one in March, whereas we were unbeaten – winning three and drawing one – and led the table from new pretenders Teramo by 7 points. April and June were nothing but formalities, we kept up our consistent pace, while the others dropped points right and centre – I would use the correct terminology – “left, right and centre” – but the left doesn’t drop points.

 

SPAL were crowned champions at the end of April after a 1-1 against our main challengers for most of the season, Arezzo. They were now languishing in fourth, which again underlines the faults with the capitalist system. Excess creates entitlement which creates complacency. I believe this result and the differing fortunes in the close of the season really underlines what we are trying to do here at SPAL and our fans could see that too.

 


 

I was delighted to be offered a new contract by Chairman Ma and I graciously accepted the deal to move forward with our plan of spreading communism across Italy. SPAL was also given €150,000 for winning Serie C1, a sizeably disgusting chunk of capital; but it is only a drop in the ocean compared to the club’s current financial plight.

 


 

The only thing left on the agenda was the small matter of the Italian Serie C Super Cup. A bizarre mini-league between the three winners of the three regional Serie C’s. Oh Italy, never change. Comrades, this tournament was a disaster for us. We lost to both regional champions 2-1. This leaves me in a worrisome spot for the upcoming season against stronger opposition. We might be exposed, and destroyed by the bourgeoisie elite. I must up my game as a coach and as a motivator to endear these young men even more to the Red Revolution.

 

Looking forward, some of the things we will endeavour to do over the summer is an audit of the squad. We will remove any bad influences so our young players are not polluted by any opposing ideologies. This will also serve a purpose to help with the running of the club as it will bring some much-needed capital in to stave off the evil gaze of the bank. We will also look to strike up an alliance with another club. The Palermo deal has served us well with Comrade Bentivegna becoming a key player in our league win. We will also endeavour to resign Comrade Zigoni as a 25 goal a season striker is invaluable and he is a big fan of the movement we are trying to create here.

 

There are positives, too. Our quest to ensure that most attacks come down the left wing is alive and well with the majority of our goals coming from that area of the pitch. There is also a case to be made that our militaristic training methods and our focus on physical conditioning have made us a successful outfit given that most of our goals are scored in the last 15 minutes of games. Comrades, it’s happening.

 


 

Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4 // Part 5

 

 

@Not_Rob_Palmer

Crushing Capitalism: Transfer Industrial Complex

Stephen McGovern - Friday, January 27, 2017

It's time to energise and strategise once more for Igor Collectivich as the transfer window and the midway point of the season have arrived, Rob Palmer.

 

 

Comrades, before I shared my wealth of experience and tactical nous the January transfer window was about to open. It is a filthy showcase of excess we at SPAL would prefer not to take part in. However, given the club's financial state we may have to sell some players to keep this dream alive.

 

I met with esteemed chairman Ma to discuss our strategy for January, we both decided that other than the disgraced Gentile, that no one would be sold. It was a risky tactic, but both of us believed that ensuring promotion with this strong squad would result in accumulating more capitalist misery tokens, thus saving the club.

 

To add some fresh, red blood to the squad I decided to promote some youth players now that we could register players for the first team again. From the U20’s side we welcomed Comrade Matteo Ambrosini, a left back with a good Marxist head on his shoulders and immense talent in his boots. We also welcomed a central midfield pairing of Joshua Smith, a Dutchman who somehow made his way to SPAL via Bologna, and Daniele Falco; a hungry young Italian who just wanted to play football. In the beginning, he had little time for my lectures on Communism. That soon changed as he began to see the injustices happening at this club. He eventually began to see that his football career was in jeopardy because of the deplorable actions of the metropolitan elite.

 

 

SPAL also gained a right back by the name of Alessio Rigon from the U18’s. At 16 he would be by far the youngest member of the first team. However, I wanted to underline the importance of youth development here at SPAL. If you read the Manifesto, if you train hard, if you show discipline and dedication to this Red Revolution, you will get played.

 

Comrades, I have spoken about the boring things for much too long. Back to the football.

 

I have decided that for January that I would rotate my strikers. Comrade Zigoni has led the resistance well so far this season, but he is a young man. I feel that a break will benefit him long term. Veteran, and lifelong closet Communist, Luigi Grassi would take his place.

 

At 31 he and I would often talk about how much we admired Cristiano Lucarelli as younger men. We spoke at length about his famous double fisted celebration, pledging allegiance to the Communist cause. Now, the pair of us agreed that we were fighting a battle to convince the dressing room as well as Italy that communism was the way forward; because it’s so early in the timeline I get the impression that most of our comrades are more interested in spreading Nutella on their biscotti than spreading Communism. Regardless of their words of loyalty, they would have to prove their dedication through actions. Grassi agreed.

 

 

I digress, Grassi would lead the resistance at SPAL for the second half of January and all of February; this proved to be a magnificent decision. Grassi netted four vital goals and three assists in seven games. The first of those was in a 3-1 defeat to Ancona. The game was already gone at 3-0 down, a day that I thought was poor for the Marxist dream, but it was, in fact, our finest hour. Comrade Grassi popped up in the 83rd minute and fired home a powerful drive from the edge of the box. His celebration was to emulate Lucarelli with the double first pump, I approved of this greatly and applauded just so.

 

However, what I did not expect was to turn around and see the whole bench – and I’m talking players, kitmen, coaches – all standing to attention fists raised. “We are with you Commissar Collectivich” shouted young Finotto. I was touched by this gesture, perhaps Grassi had put them up to it after our chat, either way, it endeared me even more to this group of footballers. I really started to believe they were here for the Communist philosophy as well as the football.

 

January and February proved to be a decent couple of months for SPAL. Four wins from seven games meant that we are still in second place in the table, but the gap had been slashed from four points to one. Comrades Ambrosini and Rignon have been revelations at full-back since their promotions from the youth teams and Gentile had been removed from the club. Falco and Smith have proven to be adequate covering players in the midfield and the club has a new togetherness and commitment to the Communist Cause.

 

Until next time, Comrades.

 

Part 1 // Part 2 // Part 3 // Part 4

 

@Not_Rob_Palmer

Guns, Fascism and the Scudetto: Lazio in the 1970s

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, January 26, 2017

In the crazy world of Calcio, the Biancocelesti team of the seventies stand out from the crowd, writes Conor Kelly.

 

Lazio

 

L’Americana hotel on the outskirts of Rome is a picture of tranquility, an ideal get away from the hustle and bustle of the eternal city. That wasn’t always the case though, especially in the early 1970s. One evening possessed a particularly sinister edge. As the sun dissipated, darkness descended but noise continued to envelope the surrounding area.

 

A few yards away from the tall, glass construction, a gang of AS Roma fans were waving scarves in the air and chanting loudly enough to disturb any air of peacefulness. The decibel levels continued to rise and rise, until a loud bang disrupted them. It was the sound of a gunshot.

 

The gathering swiftly ducked for cover as bullets flew in their direction. What had started as mischievousness on their part was developing into a truly dangerous situation.

 

You see, L’Americana was no ordinary hotel. The night before every home match, it housed the Lazio squad. On this precise occasion, the Derby D’Capitale was due to take place the next day and Roma’s congregation of ultras had decided to antagonise their rivals by preventing them from sleeping. The response was a scattering of bullets fired in their general vicinity — by Lazio’s players.

 

 

When a footballer joins a new club, there is usually much talk of him connecting with the club’s history and becoming entwined in its culture. Regularly, you hear legendary figures express the importance of their club to the current incumbents, encouraging them to embrace its traditions. Bayern Munich’s stars don Lederhosen and attend Oktoberfest in true Bavarian style. Every year, Liverpool players commemorate the 96 supporters who died in Hillsborough, even though some of them weren’t even alive at the time. The Basque country’s Athletic Club only sign players from that region.

 

Touching on a similar theme, the Lazio squad of the early 1970’s perfectly embodied their club and its’ founding principles. Allegedly the favoured team of Benito Mussolini, Lazio have a long association with fascism and right-wing politics. Supporters often still deliver the one armed salute during games and many have ultra nationalistic tattoos adorning their bodies.

 

That particular incarnation of I Biancocelesti contained open and self-declared fascists. Described by John Foot as “gun-toting parachute enthusiasts” in his seminal book Calcio, the majority of the squad were armed and dangerous. On one away trip, a pilot refused to take off until they left their weapons behind. Goalkeeper Felice Pulici later stated that “we all carried guns, in holsters”. To quell boredom, they used to shoot at birds and lampposts from their hotel rooms, and right-back Sergio Petrelli even blasted out a light above his bed because he was too lazy to turn it off.

 

Tomasso Maestrelli, manager of Lazio for their Scudetto success in 1974

 

Lazio’s violence wasn’t exclusively carried out with artillery. Frequently, they fought opposing teams on and off the pitch - once brawling with Arsenal’s squad outside a Rome restaurant in the aftermath of a UEFA Cup game. They also fought amongst themselves; the Lazio dressing room divided in two because of the level of disdain between between certain players (they actually changed in two separate rooms).

 

Coach Tomasso Maestrelli almost always managed to set aside differences and get them playing as a unit. Formally a player at Roma, Maestrelli took charge of the old enemy in 1971. In his first campaign, Lazio surprisingly finished third in the table, just three points behind champions Juventus. They were unbeaten at the Olimpico and conceded a miserly total of 16 goals in 30 matches.

 

Maestrelli admired Rinus Michels’ ‘total football’ and set about implementing an Italian version, based on constant movement and dynamic play. Individuals still despised each other, so for Lazio to come so close to the championship was a testament to Maestrelli’s coaching ability. Even better was to come the following season. Charged by the goals of Giorgio Chinaglia, Lazio made another tilt at the title.

 

Chinaglia was arguably the dominant figure in Serie A during the early 70s. Growing up in Wales, the son of a steel factory worker, he was one of the team’s most vocal fascists - although some claim that his political leanings veered very much towards the centre and he only proclaimed himself one to wind people up (his favourite hobby).

 

Unwaveringly quotable, Chinaglia was fond of touting his own ability. "I am a finisher,” he said in an interview in 1978. “That means when I finish with the ball, it is in the back of the net.”

 

In his defence, he largely backed it up. No time was that more evident than in the 1973/74 campaign. Chinaglia notched 24 goals and won the Capocannoniere for the league’s top scorer. Maestrelli’s team was settled and he only used 18 players all season.

 

As the Scudetto race reached the crunch period, one of the decisive moments came in a home game against Verona. 2-1 behind at half-time, Lazio’s players arrived back into the dressing room and a furious Chinaglia was about to lose it with his teammates. Maestrelli’s team talk simply consisted of four words: “back on the field”. The players stormed straight back out and took their positions. The crowd were whipped into a frenzy and the Olimpico was a cacophony of noise. Verona got blown away and Lazio won 4-2.

 

Lazio maintained their consistency from the previous season and matched their points total. This time, their rivals fell away and a first ever title was secured. It was an improbable success, as Foot describes, “a masterpiece” constructed by Maestrelli. He unified a group of individuals who couldn’t stand the sight of each-other.

 

Unsurprisingly, that harmony wouldn’t last. The following year, Lazio remained a competitive team, finishing fourth in the table - a credible title defence. They were unable to take their place in the European Cup though; they received a one year ban for initiating a brawl with Ipswich Town players in the dressing room after a UEFA Cup match.

 

The totem of that team Chinaglia, despised by rival fans as much as he was revered by Lazio’s, grew unsettled. He threatened to leave at various points, but eventually upped sticks and joined Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Bobby Moore at the New York Cosmos in 1976. Key midfielder Mario Frustalupi was sold to Cesena and they began to disintegrate.

 

 

In January 1977, their midfielder Luciano Re Cecconi, dubbed the ‘blonde angel’, went to a jewellery store alongside teammate Piero Ghedin and another friend. Cecconi decided it would be a good time for a practical joke. He whipped out his gun and shouted “stop, this is a robbery.” The shopkeeper, who had been the victim of an armed raid only months before, took out a firearm of his own and shot Cecconi in the chest. When slumping to the floor, Cecconi shouted “it was a joke, it was a joke.” He died later that day.

 

As for Maestrelli, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1975 while still the club’s manager. He passed away a little over a year later, which devastated all concerned. Lazio spiralled into the doldrums and it was over a decade before they possessed a good side again. They would have to wait until 2000 to win their second championship. Italy’s most notorious team had crashed as quickly as they ascended.

 

@ConorPacKelly

 

 

The Future of Serie A and Experiencing Calcio Live

Stephen McGovern - Thursday, January 26, 2017

As #MonthOfCalcio draws to a close, we bring you one more bonus podcast on Italian football, featuring Concalcio.  

 


 

The recent past of football in Italy has been rough. Match fixing scandals, major teams going out of business, a lack of star players and a largely uncompetitive Scudetto race for several years. But what does the future hold? That’s what the two Rob’s, Ste and Conor sat down to discuss on the third and final Calcio pod of January.

 

 

While there are still things to be negative about, such as corruption and the lack of privately owned stadia, there’s enough to keep us optimistic about Serie A going forward. There is plenty of entertaining football being played in the league right now, where there is a swathe of young talent getting an opportunity. The guys also debate whether or not the impending reintroduction of the fourth Champions League place is a good thing or not for the league.

 

 

Conor Clancy might be our resident League of Ireland head, but you might know better as Concalcio, the editor of the website Forza Italian Football. As a follower of Italian football for many years, there was no one better placed to tell us of the experience of seeing live games in the Mediterranean country. He busts some myths on fan culture and the ultras scene there, and describes the state of some of the stadiums he went to there. One such experience is detailed in an excerpt of Drew Farmer’s book, Soccer Travels, when Conor and other writers went to see AC Milan vs Udinese. The San Siro is not all it’s cracked up to be apparently.

 

 

Conor filled us in on why he chose Atalanta as his Italian team to support and what it’s like to follow one of the less fancied sides in Serie A.


We hope you’ve enjoyed our bonus #MonthOfCalcio podcasts throughout January. If you think we should do it again, perhaps on a different country or even continent, then let us know through our Twitter , Facebook or Instagram pages.


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The Final Third was created originally as a vehicle for three Dublin lads to express their opinions on European football and rebel against the bland, clichéd and stale way it was covered by mainstream publications and organisations.

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