Letters from London: The Most Talked About Team in Britain

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LONDON – “Did you see the attendance,” a man calls to another table at the Sussex Arms, a pub in Westminster. As Gary Neville analyzes the round’s results for Sky Sports, the two tables have started their own weekend review, with the most talked about team in Britain stealing the group’s attentions from the Premier League.

“They’re in the fourth tier,” a middle-aged man tells a group of young men from Manchester. Of course, he’s talking about Glasgow Rangers. “Normally, second and third tier, you get a 200, 300 people. Rangers got 44,000.”

The number was actually larger. Rangers got 49,118 to their Saturday match at Ibrox against East Stirlingshire, the third-highest attended match in Britain (only Arsenal and Newcastle drew more). The weekend’s four other fourth division matches drew a combined 2,402 people, with Elgin City’s 631 the largest non-Rangers crowd.

With such an ardent fanbase, it’s easy to see why Britain remains fascinated with the Glaswegians. The team was a prominent part of Football Focus (BBC’s traditional match day lead in), with Mark Lawrenson and Peter Reid still expressing shock at the circumstances, even though the club’s application to rejoin Scotland’s Premier League was rejected at the beginning of July. Throughout the weekend, most of Britain’s review shows echoed Football Focus’s attentions, Rangers’ first home match since relegation clearly a story to be pushed.

Reid, 56, and Lawrenson, 55, are from a time when Rangers were a huge and significant club. As evidenced by their attendance, they remain huge, but embodying the wane Scottish soccer has experienced in recent years, Rangers are hardly significant. Last season, the club failed to play their way into both Champions and Europa League. In a season of turmoil (entering administration in February), Rangers failed to win any of Scotland’s three trophies for the first time since 2007. Combined with the pitfall in the Scottish league’s prestige, Rangers’ significance outside Scotland may have never bene lower.

All of which makes this weekend’s coverage curious. Among younger soccer fans, you see Rangers’ waning significance (just as one example, the man quoting Rangers’ attendance numbers at Sussex Arms appeared twice the age of his target audience), but on television, nearly every show treated Rangers as if it were a story fit to put on a pedestal just below the Premier League’s opening weekend.

And perhaps it was. After all, the club did draw just under 50,000 people to a fourth-tier Scottish league match. That, independent of Rangers’ financial problems, is huge news. But if Rangers F.C. wasn’t one of the teams involved, 50,000 fans at a Third Division match would have been treated as final segment curiosity, like Ron Burgundy’s waterskiing squirrel in Anchorman. Instead, it was a top of the show issue that drew panel analysis.

When we see coverage like this – disproportionate attention given to a story that was more attractive to a preceding generation of fans – it’s important to know how media works. The people who make the final call on the big stories are usually ones that come from Ried and Lawrenson’s generation. They’ve worked their entire careers to become managing editors and editors in chief, levels they’ve reached because they’ve been successful at their jobs. That success was garnered by their coverage of big stories, and while those editors (in Britain) were coming up, Rangers would have been a big story. Once you’re on top of the pile, you’ve developed habits, routines, instincts, all of which lead to Rangers continuing to get headline coverage even though the person who’ll eventually take your seat is already focusing on other, more relevant stories.

In the United States, we see this with the Kentucky Derby. Do you see today’s major media consumers (the 18-35 demographic) consumed with horse racing? Neither do I. Same goes for golf, tennis, and to a certain extent, baseball. The people who are coming into their money now (the people who advertisers want to cultivate) still love their football and basketball, but they also love Mixed Martial Arts and soccer. If your major sports network doesn’t cover those, in 10 years, it’s not going to be covering anything.

Rangers coverage is a product of that cycle. In media, people spend their entire careers working to get the big chair only to find a cold water irony once they recede into its leather: Their knowledge is already outdated. The first thing most successful people in sports media must do is change.

But old habits die hard, which is why the Kentucky Derby is still huge in the States, baseball is still insecurely touted as the national pastime, and Rangers F.C. got disproportionate media coverage in Britain this weekend.

Which, for three days, has made them the most talked about team in Britain.

Mexico captain Guardado suffers hamstring injury

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With the World Cup still half a year away, there’s plenty of time to heal from injuries and get the body right after tweaking things during the club season.

And yet, there will still be some concern among Mexico fans.

Team captain Andres Guardado suffered a hamstring tear, his club Real Betis confirmed on Monday, and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks. That’s nothing to write home about when it comes to preparing for the big tournament, but with Guardado 31 years old and struggling with injuries in recent years, Mexico fans will be keenly aware that hamstring injuries can return with a vengeance if not given the right time to heal.

Guardado has shown his age in recent times, not necessarily with his play on the field, which has been critical to his country, but with his fitness. Guardado has just four full 90 minute performances for Mexico dating back to October of 2016, missing time with ankle, leg, and now hamstring injuries in that span.

The 31-year-old has had a fine season so far for Real Betis, scoring one goal and assisting six while appearing in all 15 La Liga matches for the club thus far. The club sits 12th in the La Liga table with 18 points.

Guardado will be fine with plenty of time to spare, but if not fully healed properly, there’s always the risk that muscle injuries can flare back up, and Mexico fans will hope that their captain’s club gives him plenty of rest to recover.

Mark Hughes wants Stoke City to “suck it up”

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Mark Hughes is under fire at Stoke City with the Potters firmly entrenched in the relegation battle, and with that he’s charging his players, staff, and himself to gut the rest of the season out.

With Stoke heading to Turf Moor to take on Burnley, they sit just three points above the drop. The players were faced with jeers from angry fans at the train station following this past weekend’s 5-1 disaster against Tottenham. The fiery Hughes is hoping to use this jarring moment to jolt his squad.

[ PREVIEW: Tuesday’s Premier League action ]

“That is still resonating. It’s good we have a game because it is still fresh in their ears probably, and they can use it as a motivating factor,” said Hughes during his pre-match press conference.

“You either suck it up and do ­something about it or you go under, and we can’t accept players like that. I don’t feel we have players like that.”

With managers nowadays often reaching into the excuses barrel as they hope to save their own skins, Hughes refuses to do just that, instead placing the decision firmly on the players shoulders, telling them they are the only ones who can save the club.

“Maybe some hadn’t ­confronted that before – but sometimes you need a reality check, and understand how our results and ­performances affect people,” Hughes said. “When people criticize you, you have to grow a thick skin in this industry. If you don’t, you’re in the wrong place.”

Louis van Gaal calls Mourinho’s United “far more boring”

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Louis Van Gaal has picked just the right time to pipe up.

The former Manchester United manager, who took flak while in charge for his side being hideous to watch, has now taken shots of his own at his successor Jose Mourinho, kicking Manchester United while they’re down after a 2-1 derby defeat at home.

The Dutchman told Fox Sports Netherlands, “If you ask me how did I do at United, I will say it was my best year ever, given the circumstances I was working under. We played football that was quite alright. But it’s not football that is appreciated in England. And yet, right now, looking at United, I have to conclude Mourinho is not being criticized while it’s far more boring football.”

[ PREVIEW: Premier League Tuesday matches, including Chelsea vs. Huddersfield ]

Van Gaal was blasted consistently for playing a boring style, especially in front of the home crowd, and now Mourinho is being criticized for the same concept. Mourinho was denounced for similar reasons while in charge of Chelsea, but with the club winning multiple titles under his leadership, the noise was always less while the team was winning. With Manchester United still unable to crack the top 4, Mourinho is feeling the heat.

“What United produce now is defensive football,” van Gaal said. “I always played attacking football. The proof is that the opposition were always parking the bus. They don’t do that now because Jose Mourinho plays so defensive.”

To van Gaal’s point, Manchester United is seventh in the Premier League in possession, holding 51% possession this season. They were out-possessed by Manchester City 65-35 at Old Trafford over the weekend. Meanwhile, van Gaal’s last full season with Manchester United, the 2015/16 season, saw the Red Devils hold 54%, which ranked third in the Premier League, just a percentage point behind leaders Arsenal. However, van Gaal’s United ranked 15th in the Premier League in total shots, while Mourinho’s United this season ranks sixth at this point.

Van Gaal made sure to point out he prefers their cross-town rivals.

“I would rather watch City play than United. You need quality in a squad and it’s clear City have a better squad.”

Conte blames fatigue for dip in Chelsea form

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Antonio Conte has figured out what is plaguing his Chelsea side as they sit 14 points back of Premier League leaders Manchester City.

“I think when you play every three days, it is impossible to have a training session and to work on the physical aspects,” Conte said in his pre-match press conference as the Blues get set to play Huddersfield Town on Tuesday. “It’s impossible. It’s impossible because you have to prepare with the players for a game every three days.”

Chelsea has yet to find itself eliminated from a single competition, drawn against Barcelona in the Champions League while navigating fixtures across all four competitions.

And yet, this is nothing new for Conte. The Blues boss is more than familiar with fixture congestion, having taken charge of Juventus and regularly competing at a high level on multiple fronts. In 2012/13, he won the Serie A title, won the Supercoppa Italia, and reached the quarterfinals of the Champions League.

However, this is new for Conte at Chelsea. Last season, the Blues did not take part in a European competition thanks to their disastrous season the previous year. While they reached the FA Cup final, they were knocked out of the EFL Cup in the 4th round.

“We have to try to do our best,” Conte said. “For sure, some players can be tired, that’s normal because some players are playing from this summer and our tours in China and Singapore. It’s normal. But I repeat we have to find the best solution. We have to find more rotations. I’m doing this, we will try and do our best with hunger and desire. We will fight.”

As an example, Conte said Alvaro Morata will miss the match on Tuesday against Huddersfield Town due to fatigue, with the Spaniard battling a slight back injury. “Morata is out. He is a bit tired and he has a problem in his back.