Empty seats and empty heads

The biggest non-story of the past week has to be Chelsea’s 13,000 empty seats for their Champions League group match against Anderlecht on Tuesday. It was reported as the greatest shock in footballing history, but in fact Chelsea have frequently struggled to fill Stamford Bridge.

Somewhat astonishingly, tickets for their quarter final match with Barcelona last season were widely available and being advertised outside the ground up until a week before the game. Similarly, there were several games at the end of last season where the Premiership leaders played in front of empty seats.

There are many reasons for this, and not just the general apathy of many Chelsea fans. Stamford Bridge is a phenomenally expensive place to go for a night out, and many fans are likely to pick and choose the games they can afford to watch, especially when they are televised. What looked like, and was, a home banker against Anderlecht is not a major draw, and those who stayed away can feel vindicated as the game itself was really rather dull.

However, Liverpool sold out Anfield for their qualifying games, and Manchester United managed 50,000 for their qualifying match against little-known Debrecen. Goodison Park was a sell out for the Villarreal tie, although this is not surprising given Everton’s lack of European football in recent years.

What is clear is that UEFA has continually expanded the Champions League to squeeze as much money out of it as possible. Before Everton took to the pitch, we were faced with the absurd possibility of having five teams from one nation competing in the ‘CHAMPIONS’ League. If I played for a team that has won their league from one of the lesser leagues, I would feel slightly aggrieved at this. After all, you may be in a rubbish league, but the clichÈ is right - you can only beat what is put in front of you.

The knock-on effect is that the Champions League has been devalued as a special European night. These now only occur in the big ties in the knock-out stages, thus rendering many group stage games no more appealing than a mid-table clash. It follows, then, that attendances are below what is expected.

The clubs should shoulder some of the blame. It seems appalling that European matches are not included as part of the season ticket price. Families on a budget therefore view European football as a luxury they cannot afford, rather than a foray of a young sapling reaching precariously toward the sky.

Middlesbrough managed just over 14,000 for the UEFA Cup tie, while Bolton’s first European experience was watched by a hardcore 19,723 fans who braved the cold weather.

Until European football gets the overhaul it needs, this situation will at least remain if not exacerbate. Leave the Champions League for the Champions, or at worst the runners-up as well, and inject a sense of prestige back into the tournament. This would mean many teams dropping into the UEFA Cup, which would automatically regain its prestige and steer it away from being what is essentially a European reserve league for a lot of teams.

On a different tangent, the other not-so-new story to rear its head this week was the tempestuousness of Wayne Rooney. The fact is, in all 151 professional matches he has ever played in, he has been booked 33 times and sent off twice. If you take 50 games as an average season, that is about a booking every three games, and one sending off every season and a half. Not as bad as is often made out really.

Admittedly, he needs to do some growing up. Roughly 11 bookings a season is too many, and will earn him more suspensions than Ferguson or Eriksson would like. But he is hardly the out of control maniac he has been described as this week. I don’t want to write ‘he is a fiery character’ (damn) because everyone already knows it – remember Steven Gerrard’s two-footed lunges of a few years back?

I have no doubt Rooney will grow out of it, but he will get sent off occasionally throughout his career because that’s just the type of player he is. You won’t see him presenting Match of the Day when his career is over.

Besides, Kim Milton Nielsen was clearly bullied as a child and went into football as part of a psychological rehabilitation program. He is the only referee who will volunteer his opinion on a decision he makes, clearly loving the limelight he creates for himself. It can be no coincidence that he has added Rooney to David Beckham in his list of players pedantically sent for a premature lonely soak.

Sarcastically clapping a referee shows a lack of respect and not a hot-headed temper. While there were signs of that last Wednesday for England, it was slightly more understandable given he was played out of position and severely frustrated by England’s lack of penetration.

These factors are no excuse, but are something that can be overcome with experience and age. He is the player that gives England the most hope of winning next summer’s World Cup, and as such his every action is over-hyped and exaggerated. If he steps out of line, he should be punished, and it should be left there. He shouldn’t be castigated by the British media who proclaim him to be a role model who should know better.

The fact is that his discipline has improved since he moved to United, but he is still prone to indiscretion. And when he oversteps the mark again, as he inevitably will, it will cue another band of sports psychologists who come out of a dark corner to discuss Rooney’s behaviour. Because that’s what some people call news.