Archive | September, 2013

The art of lion taming

30 Sep

The great Hungarian coach, Bela Guttman, once likened the job of football manager to that of a lion tamer.  “He dominates the animals, in whose cage he performs his show, as long as he deals with them with self-confidence and without fear.  But the moment he becomes unsure of his hypnotic energy, and the first hint of fear appears in his eyes, he is lost.”

Having taken ketchup and mayonnaise off the dining table at the Sunderland training ground, Paolo Di Canio did not reckon on the lions going straight to the CEO to bare their teeth.  All of a sudden, Di Canio found himself on the menu.

When they write the book on Di Canio’s 13-game Sunderland career, the rather short tome might well be entitled “Be careful what you wish for”.  I’m not sure if Sunderland gave any thought to what they were getting when they appointed the colourful Roman. 

Building on Guttman’s theme, I would argue that successful managers broadly come in two styles.  Either you want a lion tamer (Mourinho) or you want a surgeon (Wenger).  Now Di Canio might not be most people’s first choice for operating on a loved one’s vital organs, but you’d give him good odds on bringing lions under control.  The mad bugger would probably bite them back.

Sunderland must have known they were hiring an emotional chap.  This was a man who once sat down on the pitch and demanded for himself to be substituted after a succession of (legitimate) penalties appeals were turned down.  A guy who spontaneously decided to join in a half marathon when he saw one go by.

Di Canio did a great job at Swindon and he initially looked like he might do the trick at Sunderland too when he arrived, demolishing Newcastle 3-0 in his second game.  Few could stifle a smile when, adorned in an expensive Italian suit, he went sliding on his knees to celebrate the second goal that sunk the Toon.  There’s been little to celebrate since.  Did the Sunderland board think all this emotion would simply disappear during the bad times?

Watching Di Canio address the away fans last Saturday reminded me that managers used to enter into a much greater level of dialogue with fans. When Andrew (nee Andy) Cole was sold to rivals Manchester United for a British record £7million, Kevin Keegan personally addressed an angry mob of Newcastle fans remonstrating outside the stadium.  That takes a lot of courage.  At a fan’s forum in 1996, Harry Redknapp stared down a West Ham fan who opined that an 18 year old Frank Lampard (who was also present in the room at the time) wasn’t good enough to wear their claret and blue.  ‘Arry told the fan in no uncertain terms that young Frank will go “right to the very top”.  A bold statement to make of a chubby teenager still on the fringe of the first team.  It didn’t look quite so foolhardy last month in Ukraine when Lampard picked up his one hundredth England cap.

Now standing 20 yards away from your fans while muttering to yourself and pointing at your chin might sound like an odd way to communicate.  But Di Canio saw the need to have some sort of dialogue with the supporters who, in his mind, he was employed of serve.  They were angry and they deserved their moment to seek direct redress from the man in charge.  In his words, a chance for him to “absorb their insults”.

It didn’t matter to him that it looked strange.  It mattered that he believed it to be the decent thing to do.  I think the approach is an admirable one.  You want to flagellate me?  Fine, here’s a stick.

People have a tendency to put too much emphasis on things being weird. They’re frightened by oddities.  In the ensuing years, talking heads will remember Di Canio’s gesture as another golden moment of Football Madness.  Third rate comedians with regional accents will pretend to remember the incident and describe it with lurid glee.  People laughed at Phil Brown for conducting a half-time team talk on the pitch, forgetting that it had the desired effect.  Having shipped four goals in the first period against Manchester City, Hull kept the score even for the remainder of the game.  The facts didn’t stop Brown from being painted as the jester.  They won’t save Di Canio either.

Di Canio’s thought processes are not of the rational and calculated variety. He acts on feel and emotion.  To my mind, it is incredibly obvious that he was a creative player rather than a defensive player purely by the way he acts off the pitch.  His job as a footballer was to think when there was no time to think.  Just to use creativity and instinct to survive.  And he did it brilliantly.  

He did the same after the whistle last Saturday at the Hawthorns and was vilified.  Whether or not you think this type of behaviour is appropriate as a manager, rather than a player, is a perfectly reasonable question.  But if there is a single member of Sunderland’s board who did not expect something like this to happen with Paolo Di Canio in charge, then they ought to be fired for gross incompetence.  This was exactly the sort of thing that Di Canio does.  He knew the fans were angry and he saw two choices.  He saw sloping off to the changing room and ignoring them.  The cowardly option. Or he could address their anger.  The gutsy and, in his mind, correct option.  

Famously, Di Canio has a sense of fair play.  In the current instance, he was allowing the Sunderland faithful their right to fair comment.  Unfortunately, Ellis Short just thought “Christ, what’s Paolo doing now?” and promptly fired him.

Five games is not enough time for any manager.  Di Canio had achieved his initial brief which was to keep Sunderland in the premier league.  Having accomplished this, he ought to have then been given the time to mould the squad as he saw fit.  Not suffer the indignity of a sacking even before the dying embers of the summer sunshine have been snuffed out. 

One point from a possible fifteen doesn’t make for nice reading.  Although I suspect even the most optimistic Sunderland fan would struggle not to have foreseen at least one dismal patch this season.  After all, they sold their only two good players during the summer; one of them going on to score for West Brom in the fateful game that was to be Di Canio’s last.  An irony that ought not to be lost on the Sunderland board.

Di Canio or not, Sunderland are going to get gored this season.  He was right about the players – they’re not good enough.  Getting rid of the conductor won’t make the orchestra play any better.  Manish Bhasin is probably already reading up on the Black Cats for next year’s Championship highlights.  Sunderland are going down.  

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https://i1.wp.com/i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/05/20/article-1388957-0012022000000258-420_306x423.jpghttps://i2.wp.com/www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/multimedia/archive/00400/125075412__400410c.jpghttps://i0.wp.com/s3.thejournal.ie/media/2013/04/soccer-npower-football-league-one-swindon-town-v-coventry-city-county-ground-630x332.jpg

Sunderland executives were baffled as to where Di Canio’s spontaneous outbursts were coming from.

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Ashley Cole and Other Guilty Pleasures…

20 Sep

Everyone has a guilty pleasure in life.  Whether it be a crafty cigarette last thing at night, taking the wife for a spot of swinging or even, God forbid, watching rugby union once the curtains are drawn.  We all have a little something we seek elicit enjoyment from.  My guilty pleasure is Ashley Cole.

I’ll happily admit to regularly being out of touch with the sentiment of the nation.  The opprobrium that the general public reserves for Ashley Cole I do understand, though.  He’s not exactly a tour de force in public relations.  But watching children less than half his age shout expletives at him every single time he took a throw-in at Old Trafford the other week reminded me that I don’t actually mind the fella all that much.  I really don’t.

Discussion on England’s number one “No. 3” tends to surmise two things.  One, that he’s quite a dislikeable character; and two, that he’s a fantastic fullback.  I’m going to make the case that, one, he’s not really that dislikeable (at least, not within the somewhat forgiving context of being a professional footballer); and, two, that he is a fantastic footballer but not for the reasons most seem to think.  I suspect Cole’s number will soon be up for the national side[1], so now seems as good a time as any to take a look back over his career.  As a left-back myself, I’m going into bat for a fellow brother-in-arms.

Girls

Let’s get the non-footballing side out of the way first.  Cole’s epitaph is not going to refer to as him as an award-winning husband.  He’s a naughty lad and we ought not to try to defend him on this.  While wedded to the lovely Cheryl, Ashley was caught dancing the Underpants Charleston with more than one woman who was not his bride.  Of course, he’s not exactly the first professional footballer to have been caught with his trousers in absentia.  If Cole is to be judged by his peers, let’s at least be aware of whom his peers are…

The game is littered with sinful romancers but fans rarely seem to pass judgement[2].  Horny quadragenarian, Ryan Giggs, is the only thing that stands between Ed Miliband and the title of “Britain’s Worst Brother”.  Yet the randy Welsh swordsman is nothing short of revered throughout the footballing community.  John Terry seems to experience something of a Pavlovian reaction whenever he sees a team-mate’s girlfriend and Wayne Rooney will grab anyone so long as they’re at least ten years older than Giggsy.  Even Sir Becks once had a moment of weakness with the nanny.  The point being, if we are to pluck our heroes from the narrow spring that is faithful professional footballers, we’re going to have some rather slim pickings from which to choose. 

Money

Then there’s the suggestion that Cole’s greedy; premised on the now infamous quote from his autobiography that he “nearly swerved off the road” when he was informed of Arsenal’s offer of £55k/week during salary negotiations.  It is a testimony to Ashley’s gripping prose and well-crafted writing style that this quote has become so well known, since the book itself sold a meagre 4,000 copies. 

While we can all reach pragmatic conclusions on the merits of a millionaire publicly complaining about his weekly wages, Cole was at least expressing an honestly held view that is unlikely to be unique (if, indeed, a view more often kept private).  So at what point does it become vulgar to complain about money? 

If you earn the average UK wage that already puts you in the top 1% of earners worldwide.  I suspect this wouldn’t stop many of us from aiming a few metaphorical “teacups” at a few figurative “walls” if our paymasters offered us a salary that was barely half of our expected earnings based on the industry standard.  Certainly, the staff writers at Too Good would have my head on a stick if they weren’t rewarded handsomely for their journalistic prowess.  Prince or pauper, people want to feel fairly compensated.

Football

So let’s turn to the important bit.  Cole’s playing abilities.  We can certainly all agree on one thing.  He is an excellent (a consistently excellent) footballer.  One of England’s finest.  I’m not sure it’s always fully appreciated why, though. 

He’s not a complete left-back.  And he certainly isn’t a wing-back.  In fact, he isn’t really fantastic at going forward at all.  He isn’t a goal threat[3] or, for that matter, a man with a great many assists to his name.  Despite being a striker in his youth, Cole just doesn’t have the attacking instinct that for years some people seemed to suggest he had (probably explaining why he never did get that “confirmed kill” when taking aim at the summer intern).  His forays in opposition territory certainly aren’t up there with some of the great attacking full-backs of the past 20 years (Cafu, Lahm, Alves, Carlos, Maicon).  The role of full-back has been redefined in recent years but Cole’s actually quite traditional in his employment.

Where he does deserve enormous credit is his defensive capabilities.  Cole’s level of anticipation in dispossessing strikers is unsurpassed.  He’s world class at double-bluffing a winger into taking a particular path and then pouncing on the ball.  Again and again he will fake interceptions only to retreat to where he has tricked the attacking player into going.  The preconceptions in his movement are almost as disingenuous as some of the compliments people hand out on Facebook photos.

He’s also a great last gasp defender.  Cole might not have notched many times in his career (bedposts notwithstanding) but you can count a great many goal-line clearances to his name.  He has a parkland animal’s ability to sense danger and scurry things into a safe position.  Balanced and never caught on the wrong foot, Cole is able to move with great haste but never in great panic.  If an expensive champagne flute was carelessly glanced off a table edge, the smart money would be on Cole being the one to catch it.

He’s blessed with great health too.  Only once managing less than 30 games in a domestic season over a fourteen year career.  Last year, aged 32, Cole played his most ever – a colossal 51 games in 6 different domestic and European competitions.  It is a testament to Cole’s longevity that he has clocked up over 600 professional games and is still going strong.  He’s a bit like Bruce Forsyth.  Timeless.  Not to everyone’s taste.  But you know what you’re getting and you can’t fault his commitment.

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Cole may never quite have been the best left-back in the world.  But England have had one of the best defenders going for the past decade.  We should celebrate that.  His views on the Football Association don’t make for polite reading, but he’s there at every training camp and every England game putting in consistently fine performances.  Unlike some of the fool’s gold in the golden generation, Cole always plays well on the big occasions.  He’s the one defender who consistently frustrated the greatest player these shores have ever seen, Cristiano Ronaldo.

So well done, Ashley.  Over a hundred England caps.  A European Cup.  A UEFA Cup.  One wounded intern.  Three league titles and more FA Cups than you can shake a stick at.  Here’s to a career that’s been rosier than your ex-wife’s posterior.  The Full-Back’s Union salutes you!

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Ashley was careful to caveat his marital vows.


[1] And I don’t think it will be Leighton Baines taking his place, either.  Luke Shaw looks to be the real deal.  Brazil 2014 will probably come a touch too early for Shaw (and Roy’s boys are doing their level best to balls-up qualification in any case…), but Too Good can easily see him as starting left-back for the European Championship qualifiers thereafter.  

[2] My favourite story of footballing adultery comes from north of the border in a wee town called Glasgow.  Andy Goram’s wife found out about his womanising when she discovered a lady’s footprints on the inside ceiling of the family car.  Such hatchback horseplay certainly didn’t deter Rangers fans from voting Goram as Rangers’ greatest ever goalkeeper, though. 

[3] Cole’s never scored a goal for England in his mightily impressive 100+ cap haul.  In fact, he’s only ever scored 17 career goals.  Barely a goal a season.

Big Sam’s Big Sword of Damocles

13 Sep

When a 3 year old learns to use the grown-ups’ toilet for the first time, everyone cheers the clever little fella.  Similarly, the first time people saw the 6ft 4 inch Andy Carroll bring a size 5 football under control, misguided souls marvelled at a man of that size performing basic ball skills. “If he can do that, it’s well worth sticking him in the national team and firing forty-yard balls up to him”, a nation dreamed.  However, like the pre-schooler’s lavatorial prowess, the goodwill was soon exhausted.

Centuries from now, Andy Carroll will form part of a cautionary tale.  A parable warning of mankind’s boundless scope for lunacy.  Children will hoot like owls as their parents laughingly recount the story of how Liverpool fluffed £35m on a malcoordinated centaur.  The most expensive British footballer ever (at the time) managing just six league goals in two disastrous years at Anfield.

Watching Andy Carroll is like watching a 16 year old boy trying to unhook a brassiere. You’re willing him on despite (or possibly because of…) how cumbersome he is. He might get the hang of it one day but nobody is prepared to bet on it.  Kenny Dalglish exposed a horribly dated view of how football should be played when he purchased this two metre man-child and an orthodox winger (Stewart Downing) instructed to send high balls in to him.

It would be cold-hearted man who didn’t feel at least of pang of sympathy for Carroll at Liverpool as he vainly attempted to justify his astonishing price-tag.  He looked like a summer intern who had mistakenly wandered into an executive committee and been made to answer complex questions on the company’s debt to equity ratio.  But sympathy turned to sheer bemusement when Sam Allardyce announced he was prepared to waft £15m up the swanny to have Carroll gallop aimlessly around Upton Park instead.  Carroll has now broken the transfer record at two separate premier league clubs.  It just seems cruel for him to be fettered with another huge fee.  At what point does the poor sod have to beg to be let go for a nominal sum purely for the sake of his sanity?

It’s not even as though he is a robust athlete, in the Dirk Kuyt mold.  One that will give you 38 games a season of solid service.  He seems to spend most of the year racking up further fees on the treatment table.  If Carroll was a horse, his owner would have had more than a few furtive glances in the direction of the shotgun cabinet by now.

There is, though, in football, this curious inability to lower your previous transfer fee by any great amount.  Even when a player proves beyond all thresholds of doubt that they’re not worth such riches.  One might call it the Heskey Paradox.

Try as he might, big Emile couldn’t get his transfer value below £5m for love nor money.  No matter how many barn doors he circumnavigated from close quarters, clubs just couldn’t wait to shell out on the misfiring Midlander.  It was only aged 31 and with no sell-on value that Aston Villa, Heskey’s fifth and final premier league club, finally settled for paying less than the psychologically important £5m barrier.  Heskey must have wept with relief when the deal went through.

It’s almost as though a previous high transfer fee, even without it ever being justified, still carries some weight of its own.  “But he must be worth £15m, he was once worth £35m!” chairmen seemingly cry.  The dead hand of the former transfer fee lingers. It would be fascinating to see what kind of fee Fernando Torres would command on the open market now, three years after his very considerable ability seems to have deserted him.  You simply can’t sell a £50m signing for £10m.

In the meantime, Allardyce has turned to a free agent, Mladen Petric, as an option up front in Carroll’s absence (he’s injured again).  Petric didn’t cost the Hammers a penny, despite being a Croatian international with 45 caps and 13 goals to his name.  You wouldn’t bet against him scoring more goals for West Ham than Carroll, though, would you?

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Try as he might, Dalglish was unable to top spending £35m on Andy Carroll as his biggest misjudgment.

Transfer Window

10 Sep

The transfer window has once again, in the excitable vernacular of Sky Sports News presenters, “slammed shut”.  The sticking plaster of new signings is no longer available.  Managers will now have to rely on old fashioned constructs such as tactics, training and motivation.  Credit cards back in wallets, gents.  Cones out on the practice pitches.

But which teams had a good window?  And who got a bit spend happy in the hot weather?  Too Good give its two cents on the best and the worst of the business conducted in football’s summer marketplace…

It is one of the game’s great curiosities that everything gets done at the very last moment in the transfer window.  Whether this is due to the relative infancy of a restrictive window[1], brinksmanship, teams getting caught in a chain of purchases, or a combination of all three, you would struggle to find another setting where hundreds of millions of pounds are spent in a less orderly fashion. Investments that will make or break a season (careers, even) are thrashed out via the charmingly obsolete method of facsimile while the available hours and minutes ebb away.  Too Good knows little about the fast food industry, but we would be more than a touch surprised if, minutes before shop opening hours, McDonalds’ franchisees were still frantically scrambling around for beef patties.

It was therefore pleasing to see Manchester City do their business early and effectively this summer.  Whether you agree with their signings or not[2], City’s ability to get the job done long before the September 2nd bun-fight was most gratifying.  Less than a decade ago, “Manchester City” and “businesslike” would show up together about as often as the phrases “John Prescott” and “twerking”.  More and more, though, the club seem to approach things in a timely and professional manner.

By contrast, it is a testimony to Scottish thrift that the first new manager of Manchester United in over quarter of a century couldn’t seem to liberate his wallet from his trouser pocket until the very last day of the window.  Even then, like many of his compatriots, Moyes must have been at the malt when he finally managed to prise open the purse strings.

Rare are the days I look to Robbie Fowler for thoughts and inspiration on the beautiful game.  However, like a broken watch, the former Scouse marksman was bang on for a brief moment when he said that “Marouane Fellaini is a good player … just not a Manchester United player”.  I couldn’t agree more.  There’s something unseemly about the league’s showpiece team signing a player who is best known for “causing a lot of problems” for opposition teams and generally being “a bit of a handful”.  These are not the deft words of precision football that are synonymous with Manchester United.  These are mid-table words. Words that aren’t necessarily bad in the right context, but Moyes needs to recognise that a change in mindset is in order.  Managing Manchester United is only the same as managing Everton in the way that an evening under the bed sheets with Jessica Alba is the same as one with Kerry Katona.  On one level, they’re identical.  But, on a fundamentally more important level, they really aren’t.  You’re shopping in Waitrose now Moyesy; buy the best eggs available.

Arsenal have put all of their eggs in one rather delightful, if a touch pricey, basket.  Mesuit Ozil will provide lashings of guile and vision in the middle of the Emirates’ park.  It must have killed Arsene Wenger to sanction a cheque of that size.  But Ozil is no Francis Jeffers or Antonio Reyes.  This is a German international at the peak of his career.   Wenger is a border-town boy, only falling within the French boundaries by the width of one of his spindly fingers. With Ozil joining fellow international team-mates Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski, all of a sudden Arsene’s beloved Gunners have a distinctly Teutonic feel.  And Germans have a habit of winning football matches.

Too Good would like to have heard another bleep of Wenger’s barcode-scanner that ensured Olivier Giroud stayed in a tracksuit and on the bench for the forthcoming season.  Maybe Yaya Sanogo will do this.  Sanogo is a raw 20 year old without a full season to his name.  But with an eye-opening 10 goals in 13 league appearances for Auxerre last year, Too Good is pinning its rosette for “Potential Find of the Summer” on the lanky French youngster.  This year might still be a little early for Sanogo.  However, if there is one place you would want to learn your craft when you’re a young French footballer with buckets of potential, it’s ensconced in the warm bosom of Monsieur Wenger.  All in all, good job, Arsene. 

Rather than buying a youthful striker with bags of potential, Chelsea instead chose to get rid of one.  Romelu Lukaku was farmed out to Everton for 12 months and four-time African Player of the Year, Samuel Eto’o (now nearly 33), has been asked to do Lukaku’s job instead.  Chelsea’s quota of out-and-out centre forwards therefore remains at a paltry three (Eto’o, Torres and Ba).  One old, one crocked and one that was never good enough in the first place.  If this doesn’t concern Jose Mourinho, it really should do.  Eto’o is the only member of the triumvirate that can be relied upon.  Even then, whether Eto’o’s undoubted ability is still there despite his advancing years is a question to be answered.

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I’ve been on enough dates in my time to recognise the look of someone who doesn’t really want to be somewhere.  All the best restaurants and sharpest chat-up lines aren’t enough when the object of your affection just doesn’t have their heart in it.  Tottenham Hotspur saw Gareth Bale staring into the middle distance and rightly got down to the business of demanding the biggest fee possible to compensate for their jilting.  £86 million is a phenomenal figure and Daniel Levy is to be praised to the hilt for squeezing Real Madrid like a sponge. Madrid’s adolescent attitude to money is exactly how I would behave if I was implicitly backed by the Spanish government and, as a result, Spurs have been granted a fantastic war-chest.  Sensibly, they took a calculated gamble on the sale of Bale and brought in a wealth of talented reinforcements based on the expected proceeds.  It is now up to Andre Villa-Boas to mold his new team and heave them that all-important one step further up the premier league ladder.

A wise footballing prophet decreed in May of this year that James McCarthy and Aroune Kone would be shrewd buys, available at affordable prices.  Someone agreed and, as chance would have it, that someone was the very person who managed the pair of them last season.  Everton now have more than a hint of Wigan about them.  Let’s hope it was the good bit. 

The Toffees may benefit from something of a managerial portmanteau this season.  On the one hand, they should still have the defensive resilience drilled into them from years of management under David Moyes.  Now coupled to this, the incoming Roberto Martinez will seek to overlay the attractive passing style that has become his trademark.  It will be interesting to see if these two schools of football connect or collide.

A lot of anticipation this summer surrounded the premier league’s increased purchasing power (due to the improved TV deal) and how it would manifest itself.  This was to be the transfer window where the premier league flexed its muscle and gave the other European Leagues a good look at their big shiny cheque books.  In the end, the dominance at the cashier’s desk was most keenly observed not at the high table of the premier league elite, but at the clubs at the lower end of the division.  Southampton, Sunderland and Norwich all signed key players from larger teams abroad.  Pablo Osvaldo (Italian international from Roma, £14.6million), Emanuele Giaccherini (Italian international from Juventus, £6.5m) and Ricky van Wolfswinkel (Holland international from Sporting Lisbon, £10 million) each gladly dug out their passports and left bigger fish for the lure of the pound and the premiership.  A seismic shift, if perhaps not the glamorous one some fans expected to see.  Great news, though, for England when the inaugural Platini Plate gets off the ground.

It remains to be a farce that the transfer window does not close until after the season starts.  Clubs cannot be expected to begin a campaign while an all-out fire sale is being conducted on their most valuable assets.  The window should shut before the first ball is kicked and avoid this unseemly game of musical chairs three games into the season.  In any case, shut it now most certainly has.  Time to take the plastic off the new purchases and see if they were worth the outlay. Game on.

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Clubs ready themselves for the final twenty four hours of the transfer window.


[1] FIFA made the transfer window compulsory in European leagues at the start of the 2002–03 season (as a result of negotiations with the European Commission).

[2] My own view is that Navas will prove to be a great signing and the other big three (Jovetic, Negredo and Fernandinho) will prove to be good-ish signings.