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Friday, 12 November 2010

Diddly Squad

"My squad is 'this' big. So FUCK OFF"

Magic Spongers doesn’t often identify with Premier League managers, but in Ian Holloway, we appear to have found a kindred spirit. Holloway has a particularly aesthetic football philosophy; we love to see football played the ‘right way’. Holloway has a thick regional accent; we are staunch Northerners. We both know, deep down, that we’re probably going to win more friends than matches. And most importantly, Holloway has been known to rail against the establishment like a bearded West Country Dixy Chick, and if there’s one thing we love, it’s a good rant (and we are more than a bit partial to the old Dixie Chicks too).

We sympathised whole heartedly with Holloway this week when he was essentially told by the Premier League how to pick his side. How dare he, like Mick McCarthy before him, use squad rotation, the league frothed. Ten changes equal a weakened side, cue doubting of Premier League integrity, they fumed. Moreover, the league made its sordid bed on this case with McCarthy, and it has to lie in it, having set itself a very dangerous precedent in idiotically imposing the £25k suspended fine on Wolves last season for the 10 changes made upon their visit to Old Trafford.

An inquiry is currently under way into Blackpool’s line-up at Villa Park – although what there is to inquire into we’re not sure; Holloway made 10 changes to his team, end of – but it seems hard for the Premier League to reach any conclusion other than fining him, especially when the alternative is to risk accusations of double standards and expose themselves for the morons we all know they are. Equally, it’s not as if they can revisit the ruling on McCarthy and waive the suspended fine without looking more ludicrous than they already do. However, if Holloway resigns over this, everyone will look like muppets and the Premier League will be a much poorer place for Blackpool’s loss.

The only evident difference in this case appears to be that Holloway has been shrewd enough not to go McCarthy’s route and claim he didn’t think he had a cat in hell’s chance of winning at Villa Park, but stood a much healthier chance in the following game. And while Wolves lost 3-0 to United last season, it took a last gasp James Collins header to sink Blackpool midweek – a card Holloway is sure to use. Which begs the question – what if Blackpool had won 5-0 and played them off the park? If the Premier League has an ounce of integrity itself, then it would have to honour its own stupid ruling and fine Holloway regardless.

Holloway, if he is to be believed, will quit if the league follow precedent. It’s a farcical situation that should never have arisen. A manager chooses his squad for the season. He, as far as I’m aware, is not asked to name his first choice XI. And to that end it is genuinely uplifting when you hear the Blackpool manager say: ‘I went there believing I could win. It's not the same scenario, I find it absolutely absurd. I've never been the manager of Wolves, Mick McCarthy's the manager of Wolves, and he said: 'I can't beat Manchester United.' More fool you Mick, because I believe I can. Maybe you don't believe in your team as much as I believe in mine.’

The Premier League should not be discriminating against clubs that use their squads to try to gain a competitive advantage (which, last time we checked, was the point of building a squad rather than just a first XI). It either has to issue restrictions on squads or to cede to managers altogether and it’s obvious which of these options is tenable. After all, there is no point in having a squad if you’re not going to use it.

There is an area of the game in this country in which squad rules do exist. Unsurprisingly, they are totally pointless, motivated by some overblown sense of integrity (read: commercial gain) and hinder those forced to abide by them. As of four years ago, Football League Trophy (currently the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy) regulations state that managers must pick at least six players that feature in either the game before or after their Trophy tie, or in the majority of their first team matches. The rule was brought in following a couple of seasons in which the competition was ‘undermined’ by lower league clubs fielding reserve or weakened sides.

From a business point of view, it’s clear that the Football League trophy sponsor, whoever it might be, doesn’t want to be associated with what could essentially have become a reserve tournament, with clubs ‘not taking it seriously’. But the other side of the coin is that this was a valuable competition to lower league clubs with no other options. By the nature of their size and finances, they are forced to take the logistics and implications of EVERY fixture seriously.

Not all lower league clubs can afford a reserve team and this can adversely affect their league performance, as players who are not necessarily first XI material gain little to no match practice over the course of a season. Admittedly, not many have the personnel to make wholesale changes to their starting XI anyway, but the trophy was a rare chance to look at squad players and younger players and give them a chance to break into the first team the next weekend. Improving competition for starting berths on a Saturday vindicates having a squad in the first place.

Squad sizes at this level mean that numerous clubs are unable to comply with the rules, and Bournemouth received a £1,500 fine – suspended for 12 months – after falling foul of it in the second round at Northampton last season. So not only does the rule penalise clubs with no reserve team setup and no other way of blooding young players other than in the league, it penalises them financially as well. Yet another brilliant idea from the game’s administrators. Well done chaps.

Besides, is it THAT bad, being associated with player development? We'd take it. The Magic Spongers Football League Trophy. Have some of that. If clubs have squads, they should be able to use them, unhindered, as they see fit. This is an absolute no-brainer. In the paraphrased words of Ollie, they are so wrong on this it is frightening.

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