Archive | May, 2013

Asset strippers

24 May

The final day of the football season often gives way to mawkish sentiment.  Emotions get the better of grown men typically predisposed to clinical decision-making.  Such saccharine behaviour is not tolerated at Too Good towers. Only this lunchtime, the dinner lady was fired because the pineapple rings on the gammon were sliced too generously.  All good businesses need to be run on a budget.  Football teams are no different.

For similar reasons of thrift I used to spend this time of year pondering who Manchester City might be able to pinch from teams that had been relegated.  Inevitably, there will be players who feel that a season in the N-Power Championship is beneath them.  When times were hard at Maine Road, I would be like a vulture circling a dying corpse, trying to tempt these want-away prima donnas to the blue three-quarters of Manchester.

I would sit impatiently, as if at a funeral.  Not there to mourn the passing, but anxiously waiting to whisper in the ear of a Steed Malbranque or a Zoltan Gera. “Deepest sympathies to hear you’re off to the Championship, Mick.  Listen, any chance I can have a quick word with Julio Arca?”

Crisis spells opportunity. And there are no morals during the transfer window.  Like the Cleggs and the Camerons of this world, I was prepared to hop into bed with anyone if the price was right. Let’s do a grubby deal.  Now where’s Muzzy Izzet?

It works both ways, naturally.  I could sense mid-table mouths’ watering the year City went down with Georgi Kinkladze in our midst.  The queue for the magical Georgian was long and by no means orderly.  In the end, loyalty got the better of Kinky and he stuck around for another year before heading to Ajax.  A few years later, he was involved again in an even less successful relegation battle at Derby.  Alas, Kinkladze had had a few battles with the dinner table before arriving at Pride Park.  By the time Derby were consigned to the Championship, the only mouth watering was his own.

So what’s in this year’s bargain basement bin? Who will cost Championship pennies rather than Premiership pounds? You’ll get a better price for clothing scrunched together on the rails rather than beautifully presented on a mannequin.

If you’re looking for players to stave off the threat of relegation, look no further than the DW Stadium.  The Latics are so used to elaborate escapes they have a defender named Alcaraz.  I wouldn’t sign him though; Wigan’s principle deficiencies this year have been defensive.  Some of their more forward players, though, are well worth a punt.  Arouna Koné’s the obvious one.  A one-in-three goal scorer for a team down at the bottom is a fantastic return.  He will be keen to continue proving he can cut it in one of Europe’s top leagues after a disappointing spell at Sevilla.

I’ve also been extremely impressed with the performances of James McCarthy this season.  A 22, he can expect to have a long career at the top level ahead of him.  If you fancy a bit more of a gamble, how about Callum McManaman? McManaman provides genuine sparkle from the wing and proved, some might say unnecessarily, that he can do it against the very best with his Man of the Match performance in the FA Cup final.  Another 22 year old, McManaman has time (and a healthy sell-on value) on his side.

I would be amazed if Christopher Samba fancies another season with the swivel-eyed loons at Loftus Road.  However, with transfer fees already totalling £25m in aggregate over his career, signing Mount Christopher will likely require a hefty slice of your hard-earned/ill-gotten.  Adel Taraabt is unlikely to come cheap either but is surely too good to be showcasing his dribbling abilities outside of the top flight.  It remains to be seen whether Taraabt’s famed inability to track back will include finding a route back to the Premiership by the start of next season.

I’m struggling to think of any Reading players. Not to buy, you understand.  I’m actually struggling to think of any Reading players.  If ever there is evidence that a team has outperformed just in getting to the top division, it’s that nobody wants any of your players when you go back down.  Good news for the Nigel Adkins rebuilding effort.  There is an outside chance someone will make a tentative enquiry of Pavel Pogrebnyak, I suppose.  However, I am prepared to engage in a small wager with any reader that there will be no Reading players lacing up top-flight boots come August.

There is one obvious problem with dipping into the relegation well.  These players have a proven track record of dragging teams down a division.  For every Ashley Young you’ve rescued from the morass, there’s a Hermann Hreidarsson just dying to add your beloved team to his relegation collection.  If you celebrate mediocrity, the mediocre is surely what you will end up with.  And the final league table, like Shakira’s hips, don’t lie.  But keep looking.  Keep your eyes peeled.  For there be nuggets of gold in those troubled waters…

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Any idea who this is? It’s the Reading captain and he played every single league game for them last year.
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Principles or pragmatism? The Lady Macbeth guide to sacking Mancini

16 May

I’m beginning to think this blog is cursed.  In a week when Wigan exposed Manchester City’s fleshy behind at Wembley, one would have assumed that this was embarrassment enough for the chaps from East Manchester.  Not so.  The footballing gods demanded further sacrifice. 

Despite guiding Manchester City to their first league title since before Sheikh Mansour was born, Roberto Mancini was invited in for a “meeting without coffee” with the City top brass and politely asked to pack his things.  Three trophies in three years.  Two cup finals.  Champions League football secured every single season.  It wasn’t good enough.  The mind boggles as much as the heart despairs.

People forget, but bookmakers had Manchester City at a mere 5 to 1 (17%) to win the 2011/12 premier league.  The year before that we scraped 3rd place thanks to a final day Chelsea capitulation, in a season spent mostly battling it out with Spurs for 4thThe scarf-toting Italian won the league ahead of schedule and is now being punished for it.

My official Too Good-branded cotton pyjamas have been wringing with nervous sweat following three sleepless post-Mancini nights.  The Premiership top-table feels like it is at a critical juncture.   With United and Chelsea both chopping and changing their managers, this was a rare opportunity for City to capitalise on comparative stability.  Instead, we have sportingly levelled the playing field by giving Bob the boot, too.  Our owners displaying a hitherto unseen sense of fair play.  We’ve joined the uncertainty and it doesn’t feel very nice.

There are two ways of looking at the Mancini sacking.  There is the “principled approach” and then there’s the “pragmatic approach”.  The “principled approach” says we should have stuck with him.  There is simply no way he deserved to be sacked.  Without any hint of exaggeration, he gave Manchester City fans what, for many of them, will be the greatest singular moment of their lives.  No team wins the Premiership every year, and City had every reason to expect to be right up there again next May.  Especially so, given the recent departure down the road.

Then there is the “pragmatic approach”.  Principle’s uglier sister.  Brace yourself readers; the pragmatic approach is a far more sinister affair.  However, there is a time for the blunt edge of pragmatism.  For in nature there are neither rewards nor punishments, only consequences.

The “pragmatic approach” says that if Mourinho agrees to come, then it’s worth getting rid of Mancini.  Not a nice thing to do, granted, but sometimes you’ve got to make a pact with the devil.  Nobody wanted to get rid of Lee Sharpe.  But if you’ve got a Ryan Giggs waiting in (/on) the wing, then it doesn’t matter.  Pontius Pilate knew better than most that, while there was a time to keep your hands clean in the first place, there was also a time to give them a good post-backstabbing scrub.

Here’s the thing, though.  The pragmatic approach has to be worth it.  Pragmatism is an ugly bedfellow and one ought not to take it home from the night-club all too often.  As the saying goes, you can shear a sheep many times; you can skin it only once.  If City were going to skin Mancini, there had to be a damn good reason.

Mourinho provides reason enough for the moral compromise.  He is the outstanding manager of his generation.  I was flabbergasted when it became clear he was not Manchester United’s first choice to replace Ferguson.  Mourinho to United was the Doomsday scenario for me.  Another 26 trophy-laden years of misery.  Thankfully, the power men at Old Trafford came to the conclusion that the defining factor in Ferguson’s success was his Scottishness rather than his managerial brilliance. 

Those who tar Mourinho with the trouble-maker brush miss the bigger picture.  Jose might be fond of a little “creative tension” but his record is exceptional.  Two European Cups in his first decade of management.  League titles wherever he has gone.  Remember the nine year unbeaten home league record?  The time for compromising your principles is when you think a Mourinho-sized fish might fancy a nibble.

Except, of course, that it doesn’t look like the new City manager will be Mourinho.  It looks like it’s going to be Manuel Pellegrini.  Pellegrini is a fine manager and may, if hired, prove to be a success at City.  But then so was Mancini.  Why take the risk?  Why go through the upheaval?  Simply put, Pellegrini is not worth wielding the pragmatic sword for. 

The other great fear now is a backlash against the new manager.  The analogy is clear between City and Chelsea.  Chelsea fans cannot bring themselves to complain about Roman Abramovic, even though the mad oligarch goes through managers like I do portions of potato dauphinoise.  So Chelsea fans direct their ire towards the new coach instead.  Let’s hope Mancini’s successor is not subject to any similar misplaced anger.  

One thing you can be quite sure of – you won’t see any mass demonstrations outside the Etihad calling for the billionaire oil men to take their money elsewhere, whoever they choose.  We know which side our bread’s buttered on.  And there’s an awful lot of butter on that bread.  Like a good trophy wife, we’ll keep our mouths shut.  After all, rich husbands are in short supply.

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“A pleasure to have you on board, Mr Mourinho.”

Fergie

9 May

So that’s it, then.  Lord Voldemort finally hangs up his evil hood.  The original dark Knight is leaving Gotham City.  A helpline has presumably been set up for United fans terrified of a Fergie-free future.  Concerned well-wishers will be keeping a 24-hour vigil on Mike Phelan.  I couldn’t lace my own shoes when Alex Ferguson first took charge of Manchester United in 1986.  The DVD was still a decade away from mass production.  George Michael had yet to crash his first Range Rover in a ganja-fuelled haze.

I don’t like Alex Ferguson.  I think the English game is sourer as a result of him.  I disagree with the apologists who say you need a mean streak to make it to the top.  You don’t.  Pep Guardiola’s an absolute gentleman.  Roger Federer behaves impeccably.  When he’s not flogging pills to the stricken, Pele seems like a lovely bloke.  Unlike the sycophants of the national press, Stockhom Syndrome never took root in this football fan.

Pre-Ferguson, managers would never stoop to suggesting that another team wouldn’t try very hard just to stop Manchester United from winning a title (the comment which so riled Kevin Keegan and resulted in the “love it” outburst).  This wasn’t “mind games”, as it came to be lauded.  This was a lowering of the accepted level of courtesy that managers extended to other teams.  Keegan couldn’t believe that Ferguson would openly accuse other professionals of not doing their job properly.  It was anathema to him.  Yet we laughed at Keegan for his naiveté and praised Ferguson for his cunning.

A consummate list of Ferguson’s behavioural shortcomings would require a fleet of historians and a well of ink the size of the Mariana trench.  You know them all, anyway.  Whether it be accusing match officials of not being fit, pulling his loan players out of Preston when they fired his son, Darren, or breaching the obligation to give post-match interviews to the BBC for seven years.  It was the Scot that introduced the “tactic” of players deliberately mobbing refs after an incident, in the hope of persuading a decision.  A grim behaviour soon adopted by other managers and sadly now the norm.  Suffice to say that the current level of bitterness and sniping displayed by many Premiership managers can in large part be traced to Ferguson’s lack of respect for other clubs, for referees and for the FA.

This will form part of Fergie’s legacy.  I’ll not be so churlish as to suggest this will be our abiding memory of the Glaswegian.  But nor will I sweep it under the carpet.

Against this, you have a man who history is likely to regard as Britain’s greatest ever manager.  Bob Paisely has one more European Cup to his name (the only manager in history to win it three times – in a breath-taking nine years).  Paisley, though, took over the best team in the land by a country mile at the height of England’s dominance of European waters.  Bill Shankly paved the way for Paisley, but Shankly has only a solitary UEFA Cup in terms of continental honours.  And the title of “Greatest Ever” isn’t just a matter of domestic life and death.  It’s much more important than that.

In tandem, Shankley and Paisley would probably lay claim to dominion.  Solo, Brian Clough is the only real contender.  With Derby, Cloughie took an unfancied side from the Midlands to the very top of the English league.  He then repeated the exact same feat with Forest and threw in a European Cup to boot.  To top it off, Clough won the European Cup again the following year as an encore.  He achieved this managing teams that had nothing like the infrastructure that Manchester United have.  Yet he’s won as many European Cups as Sir Alex.  It’s a close one to call.

What probably tips things in Ferguson’s favour is the sheer number of domestic league titles to his name.  He’s won more than double his nearest rival (13 to 6).  Astonishing stuff.  If I’d known in 1992-93 that another 12 titles would follow the first over the next 20 years, I might have put my Panini sticker albums into storage and taken up cricket.

His teams are gallant, as well.  From a footballing point of view, Ferguson’s sides are always good to watch.  They’ve had some of the best strike partnerships (and, latterly, trios) I’ve seen.  Providing the service, Ferguson has always favoured fast, skilful, swashbuckling wing play.  Time and time again, Sharpe, Kanchelskis, Giggs, Ronaldo, Nani and Valencia would take to the flanks and stretch teams to a merciless breaking point.  And when things aren’t going their way, United’s spirit in adversity is probably unmatched in world football.  Too Good’s Honorary Life President once described Manchester United needing a goal in the last ten minutes of a game as the most exciting thing in football.  He likened it to Disney’s Fantasia, with all manner of inanimate objects coming to life and dancing to an enchanted tune.   Ferguson as Mickey Mouse, pulling the strings and orchestrating the fight back.

Part of this will likely now ebb away over time.  All teams are inextricably linked to the imposition of their manager’s will.  Only Fergie can manage the Fergie way.  United will have to find another Sorcerer’s Apprentice to bring the broomsticks to life.  God knows, I wouldn’t fancy it.  On matchdays, the new boss will take his seat in the dug-out and stare out at a stand named after his predecessor.  Ferguson is quite literally part of the Old Trafford fabric.

Sir Alex is correct when he suggests that the club is being left in great shape.  He has bequeathed United a winning blend of youth and experience.  In Rafael, Jones, Smalling, de Gea, Welbeck, Zaha, Cleverley and Powell, United have a crop of youngsters that could yet become every bit as good as the fledglings.  Provided they get the right tutelage.  Alas, for United fans, the one thing Ferguson can’t leave behind is himself.

The Drop

8 May

As a former Fugees vocalist found to her cost this week, only death and taxes are inevitable.  Nobody’s told Wigan this, though.  Roberto Martinez’s men have been cheating fate for years.  Three seasons running the master escapologists have smiled gaily into the jaws of the Championship.  Three times they lived to fight another day.  Is this the year that Wigan, like the miseducated Lauryn Hill, finally pay the piper?

A place in the relegation party remains up for grabs.  Three is the tragic number.  One more team will join the (not so) super-hoops of QPR and Reading in the Championship.  One more set of fans must brew the coffee extra-strong and brace themselves for 9 long months watching Manish Bhasin’s witching hour of Football League highlights.

Who will it be?  It’s a testimony to how tight it is that anyone up to Stoke in 11th could still drop.   The bottom half of the table is messier than a toddler after an ice-cream.  For the first time in a decade, a team could be relegated despite having reached the psychologically important 40 points barrier.  Too Good for the English Game asked Editor-in-Chief, Sonny Pike, for his scouting report on the teams a-teetering…

Newcastle.  It beggars belief that we are even discussing Newcastle.  Despite the mid-season loss of Demba Ba to Chelsea, Newcastle still have some of the most talented players in the Premiership.  How the hell are they down there?  Alan Pardew won’t be the first person to win Manager of the Year one season and be relegated the next (George Burley saw to that when his Ipswich team were found floating face down in the water in 2002), but it’s a rather ignominious list to join.  Surely a team that boasts the class of Hatem Ben Arfa, Fabricio Collocini, Yohann Cabaye and Papisse Cisse has enough to survive.

By contrast, Aston Villa and their tedious brand of football have been bothering and boring me in equal measure for years.  While most seasons I would be baying for their execution with all the fervour of a Daily Mail reader, I just can’t summon the anger this year.  Playing a team of sub-23 year olds has too much derring-do about it to wish them any ill-will.  Paul Lambert, himself a babe in arms in coaching terms, has also shown enough in his nascent managerial career to promise more.  It would be good to see his penniless Midlands project continue in the top-flight.

Heavy-spending Martin O’Neill has recently been at the helm of both Villa and fellow strugglers Sunderland.  Relegation for either won’t do his legacy a great deal of good.  The Black Cats play a not-yet-out-of-the woods Southampton at the weekend.  Then it’s on to White Hart Lane, against a Spurs side gunning for the Champions League.  Goal difference is Sunderland’s friend, though.  If Wigan pull off a fourth Houdini act, this buffer should still be enough for the Wearsiders to avoid playing games on a Friday night next year.

Wigan are huge sporting overachievers.  Their town has a top-flight football team and a Rugby League power-house.  Not bad for a populace half the size of Camden.  More so, given the yearly ritual for the Lancastrians to be fleeced of their best players.  Antonio Valencia.  Victor Moses.  Hugo Rodallega.  Mohammed Diame.  Charles N’Zogbia.  Lee Cattermole.  Wilson Palacios.  Every summer, teams with more of the folding stuff have rifled through the Latic’s squad like a box of Quality Street.  Eventually, you’re left with nothing but those odd-tasting green triangle ones.  Or, in Wigan’s case, Franco di Santo.  In theory, a solitary win on the final day against Villa could do it.  In reality, something at the Emirates is likely to be necessary.  Fingers crossed the Wiganers take it easy in the Cup Final so that they’re fresh…

Which leaves us with Norwich.  Norwich weren’t meant to play a part in this sorry tale.  But ever since Christmas, Delia’s lot have looked like they, too, have been at the sherry, dropping from 7th to 16th.  Failure to pick up points against West Brom puts the boozy pan-wielder’s boys in critical danger.  They play Manchester City on the final day, a team who have averaged 5 goals a game against the green and golds since their return to the Premiership.  I expect Wigan to get a result against Villa in Game 38 (who, by then, should be safe).  The Toon must also, surely, somehow beat a path to safety.  So when the bookmaker comes a-knocking, Too Good’s hard-earned/ill-gotten is going on the Canaries to fall down the mine-shaft.

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Norwich could do with a 12th man round about now.

Nice guys finish first

3 May

I was the victim of a crime last night.  I shouldn’t grumble too much; it’s well documented that misdemeanours even themselves out over the long-term.  After all, I was a beneficiary of the greatest pickpocket of all time last May

However, last night my Barclays Bike was stolen as I nipped into Tescos to buy some chicken breasts.  I’d left the bike leaning against the glass shop-front, unattended.  So, in fairness, I only really have myself to blame.  On a similar note, Luis Suarez would probably concede that he, too, only has himself to blame for missing out on the recently announced player of the year awards.  But that makes the voting no less of a robbery than the theft which left me in tatters and without transport on a sunny evening in the Aldgate area.

For reasons yet to become clear, the journalists at Too Good Towers did not receive their ballot papers in time to vote for this year’s Football Writers’ Player of the Year.  Despite this oversight, Too Good can exclusively report that a mere two of the 400 journalists who made the cut plumped for Luis Suarez.  These journalists, many of them earning above the minimum wage, ought to expect their editors to wield the tactical axe in the coming days.  For there has been a clear dereliction of journalistic duty.

Suarez has scored more goals (30) than Robin van Persie (29) and Gareth Bale (24) this year and he’s done so with a better goals-to-game average.  One might be tempted to assume that Bale, a (nominally) deeper lying player, has more assists than Suarez.  Not true.  Suarez has 5 to Bale’s 4.  To put that into perspective, this means that Suarez has managed to get Liverpool players to score goals on five separate occasions this season.  Still not impressed?  One of them was Jordan Henderson.

It’s not just the bare statistics either, which never tell the full story.  Suarez is probably the best penalty-box dribbler currently in the game.  He’s as good as Messi at it.  Time and time again this season we have seen Suarez wriggle through massed ranks of opposition defenders in the most lethal area of the pitch.  His ability to emerge from seemingly impossible positions rarely seen this side of a Where’s Wally? annual.  He’s the slipperiest eel in world football.

Robin van Persie plays for one of the best teams in Europe.  Gareth Bale plays for a team that should still end up in the Champions League.  At the risk of exciting the flared nostrils and righteous indignation of Liverpool fans, Luis Suarez plays for Liverpool.  An average side who, but for his goals, would be staring at a bottom-half finish this season.  Goals of a stunning quality, including a moment of pure genius that few players on earth can produce.

I’ll lift the veil of innocence now as we draw to a close.  I do know why people didn’t vote for Luis Suarez.  They didn’t vote for him because he’s a dickhead.  They didn’t vote for him because he says ignorant things and nibbles on centre-backs.  None of which is likely to make him a Knight of the Realm any time soon.  That said, previous winners of the two player of the year awards include human beings who have committed all manner of impropriety, moral and legal (including, sadly, incidents of both racism and assault).  It’s a nice idea to give the award to the most upstanding chap on the pitch, but that just isn’t the criteria.  If it was, Gareth Southgate would have won the Ballon d’Or.  The player of the year award is for recognising the season’s best player.  The best player in England this season, for all his faults, was Luis Suarez.

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 Gareth Bale

Lovely Gareth was quick to show there was no hard feelings between him and Luis.