Archive | February, 2016

Diablo Rojo

25 Feb

Gary Neville is an overachiever. By any metric. If you rank third among even your own siblings in terms of sporting ability, then you’ve exceeded expectation if you peak any higher than the SPL. Yet Neville became one of the most decorated English footballers in history.

Some men are born great. Some men have greatness thrust upon them. And sometimes greatness accrues almost glacially; the sum aggregate of all the grain-by-grain victories. Neville achieved greatness the same way Andy Dufresne achieved liberation from Shawshank Prison. One spoonful of grit at a time.

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Outperformance was the norm for Eric Harrison’s love-child and a lot of it was down to exceptional decision-making. No matter how feisty the encounter, Neville could be relied on to make the right call in the heat of the battle. He knew when to overlap the right-midfielder and when to clear his lines. When to kick lumps out of Antonio Reyes (always) and when to wind up Patrick Vieira (in a tunnel, near to a mad Irishman).

It’s this fearsome level-headedness that made Neville’s snap decision to take over at Valencia all the more strange. Did at no point a voice in his head say, “you can’t speak the language, Gary, and you know nothing about La Liga”? Rushing into a six-month contract and starting language lessons on the job was brazen and amateurish. Everything Neville wasn’t as a player.

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It’s fair to say the risk hasn’t paid off. Armed only with Phil Neville, Neville arrived in south-east Spain and promptly embarked on a 9-game winless league run. Sandwiched in the middle was a 7-nil cup hammering against Barcelona. A hiding which prompted club legend Santiago Canizares to demand that Neville “apologise and resign” (presumably in whichever order he liked). It was Los Che’s worst defeat in 23 years and didn’t sit well with the mounting possibility that a club who had appeared in two Champions League finals this century might even be relegated.

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This has led to Neville being cast in Spain as a sort of Anglicised “Manuel” from Fawlty Towers figure. Desperate to please but really not following the plot at all. You feel he’s moments away from a door being closed in his face, or hit by a frying pan, all the while exclaiming “Que? … Que?” in that loveable Bury brogue. A prank call from Russell Brand can’t be far away.

How did it go so wrong for Los Neviller? Notwithstanding the uncharacteristically poor decision-making in taking the job in the first place, his lack of aptitude has still been jarring. Neville has always been a dab-hand at exceeding expectation, but this hasn’t so much been a reversion to the mean as it has a sky-dive past it.

The continued and heavy branding of Neville and his Manchester United peer group can’t have helped. When you play for a team that hasn’t won a league game for an entire winter, there’s only so many tales about the Class of ’92 you’re likely to be able to stomach. The Valencia players probably mouth along with Neville as he ends yet another stirring half-time team talk with “… but the one thing we had in common was that all six of us never knew when we were beaten”.

Being ordinary humans who had never participated in their own real life dream sequence, Neville’s charges probably couldn’t empathise with the new gaffer. Did these boys own their own chain of hotels or design the north-west’s first 100% eco-home? No. Some of them probably hadn’t even been to the old Cliff training ground, where Scholesy once got locked in the tumble dryer.

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When Neville left Sky Sports, he was promised that the studio door would always be left open. But at what point does he fail so badly that he undermines his credibility to return to even that? How hard does he have to pile into the iceberg before only the haunting spectre of Question of Sport team captaincy remains? It’s a chilling thought.

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He may yet turn it around. But, for now at least, Neville is steeped in the mediocrity he had always so magnificently avoided. After 25 years of getting way more miles to the gallon than the brochure promised, he’s finally underwhelmed us. “No shame in that”, as his old boss used to say.

There’s collateral damage, of course. After the cock-ups of Moyes and Neville, the next Brit likely to get a stab at managing in La Liga is probably now Jack Grealish. And there will be a few smirks when Neville inevitably does tip-toe back into the Sky Sports studio. Jamie Carragher’s levels of sympathy, for one, are likely to be pitched about as evenly as Carragher himself is.

But this ought to be water off a duck’s back for Red Nev. You can be philosophical about these things when you’ve won everything there is to win in the game. A dismal six months at Valencia will define Neville about as much as a brief stint managing Preston North End defined Bobby Charlton. In short, he’ll live. Plus, if he ever does fancy another crack at management, help is close at hand. Sister Tracey is already Head Coach of England in her sport. Perhaps Gary and Phil can take notes.

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Neville2

Having Phil already on the ground gave Gary the inside track on what managers wore in Spain.

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Confidence’s demise

6 Feb

Louis van Gaal once dropped his trousers in front of the entire Bayern Munich team to show them that he “had the balls”.

As leadership techniques go, it’s not one you’re likely to see cropping up on Ted Talks. Yet, in a funny kind of way, I can’t think of a more appropriate manner for a top-level manager to behave. Footballers thrive on simple instructions from a respected source, right? Well picture a Champions League winner proving to you that he has the balls by quite literally showing you his balls. In terms of player-friendly simplicity, it’s positively Redknapp-esque.

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With one loosening of the belt buckle, van Gaal painted a thousand words. Crucial, you would think, in the time-condensed setting of a fifteen minute mid-match sermon. Body language experts spend their lives striving for methods to communicate quickly and concisely; having the gaffer’s unsheltered tackle at eye level might be the Holy Grail.

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This was by no means the first time that van Gaal had exposed himself as a rather brash character. There had been plenty of other more figurative unveilings.

“Congratulations on signing the best coach in the world” was how he greeted Amsterdam on taking up his first ever managerial position at Ajax. Installed as the Dutch national coach in 2000, van Gaal was careful to explain to the media that the contract runs through 2006, “so I can win the World Cup not once but twice.” And in his Bundesliga-winning celebratory speech at Munich, van Gaal began by offering all the women in the audience “a big kiss from the coach of the champions” (presumably with trousers re-buckled by this point).

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It’s easy to see what attracted Ed Woodward to van Gaal after the Moyes debacle. As Woodward winched a quivering, terrified Moyes out from behind the sofa to have him shot, the revolving machinations of Woodward’s mind were clear. The next man needed a bit more arrogance. A touch more of the bare-naked swagger that befits managing one of the grand old Dames of English football. Steady Eddie needed someone with big balls, and who wasn’t afraid to show them.

Van Gaal fit the mould to a tee. Here was the curtain-tearing, megalomaniac ying to Moyes’ timid and reserved yang. There wasn’t a disputed arm-rest this side of the Rhine that van Gaal hadn’t tried to claim as his.  The voice sings loud in his head. I am superman. No caveats, no qualifiers. Don’t ask me to explain things, because you wouldn’t understand. You are permitted to touch the hem of my cape. Now move your bloody arm.

It’s rare to see this level of unwavering confidence in a man of such advanced years. But then few of us have won the European Cup with Winston Bogarde and a bunch of teenagers. So, you know, have a mince pie and a glass of wine and pipe down.

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Having taken the road-show from Holland to Spain to Germany and back to Holland, van Gaal arrived on English shores as the second new dawn in the post-Fergie era. At 62 and unchastened by the years, it was never likely that van Gaal would change tack. Full-bodied assertiveness had made Luis Figo and Rivaldo Ballon d’Or winners on Louis’ watch. There was every reason to suspect he could squeeze a performance or two out of Ashley Young.

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Yet it’s here where destiny somewhat snagged her nail. As Al Gore once said, it’s not what you don’t know, it’s what you think you know that just ain’t so. Take me, for instance, I’m a terrible swimmer. But I’ll tell you this much: I will never drown. Absolutely guarantee you that. Do you know who drowns? Strong swimmers. Foolhardy idiots who think to themselves, yeh I can probably swim 2,000 metres to that rock. It’s them that never come home.

Unchecked, strengths can become the biggest weaknesses of all. Van Gaal’s brashness – his unshakeable belief that he’s a genius and that you’re irritating – became a self-scuttling device. We’re in the opening scenes of what is now inevitably the death rattle. It could take days, it could take weeks, but make no mistake, Louis is taking on water.

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Van Gaal hadn’t likened on how things work on this sceptic isle. He seemed hell-bent on beginning press conferences at a heightened state of rattiness and building from there. For a while, our journalists tolerated this upstart, as a lion might tolerate a particularly yappy springbok. Perhaps they admired his chutzpah.

But this is the British press we’re talking here about here. These boys chase princesses through tunnels and hack dead girls’ phones for a living. Van Gaal was in a shark tank and, seemingly unaware of his surroundings, couldn’t stop poking the sharks in the bollocks with a big stick.

Demanding the assembled media apologise to him before Christmas got the pen-wagglers’ hackles up. Ceaseless interjections that questions were “stupid” or “disrespectful” only further fanned the flames. By the time he pointed at Neil Custis in January and said “You too, Fat man”, you could almost hear reporters filing down their arrows. Van Gaal was a dead man.

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The cocksure Dutchman had gotten away with this kind of behaviour in the past. You can give it the big one in Spain and it won’t matter because everyone’s in bed by two in the afternoon. You can be a forthright prick about things in Holland and it’s no big issue. People will just say “wow, this guy’s really highly strung”, as they crack on with being the tallest and best looking nation in Europe. Not so in England, mate. Not with our journos. Some of these boys are barely over 5’8″. And their wives are no oil paintings. Piss them off and they stay pissed off.

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It looked like it would be death by a thousand press conferences, but in the end only half a dozen or so more were needed. And the only man in the whole press room who didn’t seem to see it coming was Louis, as he found himself hoisted by his own gobby petard.

They stripped him bare. Even media new-boy Paul Scholes couldn’t help sticking the oar in at every opportunity. “Boring” this, “overly defensive” that. I’ll bet van Gaal wishes he’d hidden his inhaler.

Van Gaal very quickly found that power is an illusion. It resides only where men believe it to. Once the illusion’s gone, you’re no longer a General. You’re just a man wearing a silly hat. And then very quickly someone will take that hat off you.

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The hunt starts for United’s fifth manager in three years. For what it’s worth, I still think Woodward was on the right lines when he opted for van Gaal. He just needs to find another erratic genius who’s a bit more savvy with the media. That bit more charming with the quotes and the throwaway lines, but still with a glittering CV to back it up. A special one, perhaps, who, like Fergie himself, hails from a country at the arse-end of Western Europe.

Manchester United set themselves back half a decade when Bobby “scruples” Charlton refused to give his papal blessing to the signing of Mourinho the first time around. Take the high road again and United may find themselves in the wilderness for good deal longer to come. Few would argue that Mourinho’s good character has improved since his previous application failed on such grounds, but United’s need is now even greater than before. Over to Mr Charlton again, then. What price your morals, Sir Bobby?

You can follow Sonny (@_SonnyPike) on Twitter or subscribe to Too Good for the English Game by clicking the “Follow” button on the right-hand side of this page (this button is mysteriously unavailable on the mobile version of the website).

Lunchbox2

If anyone questioned his authority, van Gaal wouldn’t hesitate to show them his lunchbox.