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Saturday, Sept. 24, 2005

PREMIER REPORT

Despite popularity of Premier League, fans have complaints


LONDON -- Appropriately enough for the country that pioneered football hooliganism during the 1970s and 1980s, English supporters are revolting, though, this time in a more positive way.

Christopher Davies

Six weeks into the season we have seen a spate of "crisis" and "boring" headlines with fans making their feelings known about ticket prices and constant changes to kickoff times.

The quality of football dished up, from champion Chelsea downward, has been criticized with the number of goals scored in the Premiership down so much from previous seasons.

Entertainment is coming a poor second to pragmatism in the minds of too many managers and, to top it all off, Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho said he will not do any more press conferences apart from those in the Champions League which are mandatory, because he feels he has been "turned over" once too often.

Apart from that, everything in the Premiership garden is rosy.

Last Saturday only four of the 10 Premiership fixtures kicked off at the traditional 3 p.m. Saturday slot.

Middlesbrough has only one Saturday afternoon kickoff between the start of the season and January.

Arsenal played Newcastle at 1.30 p.m. on a Sunday, meaning any visiting fans driving south to Highbury would have had to be on the road by around 6 a.m.

Arsenal supporters at Middlesbrough two weeks ago for the 5:15 p.m. kickoff would have been fortunate to be home by 1:00 a.m.

Another problem is that supporters can buy a cheap rail ticket in advance only to subsequently discover the date or kickoff time has been altered.

Of course, football needs the Sky shilling and the paymasters call the tune, but after accepting the inconveniences and escalating prices (Chelsea's cheapest ticket is £45) the people the sport constantly says are the most important in the game -- the fans -- are making their voice heard.

Professor Derek Fraser, chairman of the Independent Football Commission -- the game's watchdog -- said: "From what fans are saying to us, there are fewer complaints about ticket prices and more about the timing of games. That appears to be the biggest bone of contention.

"Moving away from a Saturday afternoon kickoff can cause problems to fans and this is something that has increased with the current TV deal."

The worry is that the next generation of supporters are being priced out and Professor Fraser admitted clubs should be thinking about this.

He added: "I'm not going to condemn football for being over-priced but clubs need to look closely at affordability and getting the right balance for different sorts of supporters.

"We have suggested that clubs think about the longer term as well as the short term, and if there are not appropriate prices for youngsters they are not developing the next level of the market."

Football charges roughly the same as a top West End theater does for the best seats or a leading pop star for a concert, though, if you went to see The Producers or Rod Stewart entertainment would be virtually guaranteed and those concerned eager to ensure this is the case.

Goals are down in the early stages of 2005-06 from 2.57 last season to 2.00.

European champion Liverpool has scored just one goal and has featured in three goalless draws so far.

Manchester United has managed six in five matches.

Chelsea's 12 in six (and none conceded) is almost a goal feast, with the champion grinding on relentlessly toward another title.

Yet Mourinho feels no duty to play exciting football, only to keep a clean sheet and score at least one goal -- the word "obligation" to entertain was not, he said, in his vocabulary.

If a team of minimal resources played Chelsea's way and maintained a position near the top of the Premiership they would be showered with praise. But when around £300 million of Roman Abramovich's money has been invested in the squad the pulse should be raised on a regular level.

Even Chelsea fans are becoming fed up with soulless victories. One suggestion is that Mourinho, who is from Portugal, still has a small country mentality -- winning the Champions League with FC Porto was a stunning achievement, but Chelsea plays like its manager's former team, which was put together for loose change by comparison.

Claudio Ranieri was shown the door in 2004 because, as the club's chief executive Peter Kenyon said at the time: "It's about Chelsea becoming a winning team but winning with style . . . not a case of winning with more draws or conceding fewer goals than others. Fans want the romance, the fifth goal from 30 meters."

Chelsea fans are still waiting for a fifth goal in a game under Mourinho, though, in Ranieri's last season the Blues scored five goals on three occasions.

A penny for Ranieri's thoughts on this matter would be money well spent.

If the legacy of Abramovich's riches turns out to be a machine that is technically almost perfect yet more beast than beauty, we will not look back on the Unromantic Roman Empire favorably.

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, too often a lone voice of sanity in the mad world of football, still insists on putting skill before strength because "when somebody spends £50 or £60 a head on a ticket it is not because he wants to be bored."

Wenger added: "We have a responsibility to win games and the difficulty is combining this with good football. That doesn't mean at the start the target is 'we want to be boring.' The target for every manager and for Mourinho as well is to try to entertain people."

Here here.

JOSE MOURINHO announced a few days ago, as mentioned earlier, that he would not attend any more press conferences apart from those at Champions League games where it is obligatory to talk to the media.

Mourinho has had his run-ins with the press before, mainly because he was criticized for his treatment of Swedish referee Anders Frisk, who retired after alleged death threats from Chelsea fans in the wake of comments by the manager.

In a Time Out interview earlier this week, Mourinho was asked about managing England and said: "It's true part of me feels like an Englishman now. If I stay here until the end of my contract, for the next five years, I will feel even more English. With six years of loving London and England I will have something of England and its people in my heart.

"So I could do it in a professional way and also with my heart. But I still think it's a job for an English person."

Mourinho, who went on to make positive statements about Sven-Goran Eriksson, the current England head coach, was unhappy that newspapers ran "Jose in England job hint" type headlines.

Make up your own mind if you think he has a case or whether, as some do, the Portuguese was looking for an excuse to only speak to Chelsea TV and attend Champions League press conferences.

Christopher Davies covers Arsenal and the Republic of Ireland for the London Daily Telegraph.


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