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2 Jan

Picking England’s Number 9 used to be a piece of cake. The nation wouldn’t give it a moment’s thought, and rightly so, not when there was the daunting task of who to shoehorn into that tricky left-midfield berth.

Gary Lineker got the nod for seemingly decades. Then Alan Shearer took over.  After that, Michael Owen, and then Wayne Rooney.  You could set your official England Supporters Club watch by the presence of these men. 

But who now, though? As if 2016 didn’t cast enough uncertainty into the world; the last thing we needed to start 2017 was a debate on who England’s main striker should be.  And yet here we are. 

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There are options, of course. Go back a couple of years, and who could have predicted Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy would be two of the main contenders?  Yet their infectious running and endless harrying have brought joy to a divided nation.  Neither is exactly Leo Messi, but the pair’s sheer level of industry is up there with two Christians in a national park who’ve been told there’s an image of Christ in one of the puddles.

Kane and Vardy are romantic options for leading the line. Players whose underdog background and style of play stir the loins. 

With Vardy, there’s something genuinely intoxicating about his straight-line velocity brand of football. You can sense the electricity as he tears towards the ball like a fiver-clutching vegetarian making a beeline for the victim economy.  It’s hard not to enjoy watching Jamie Vardy when he’s on song.  And he’s been on one helluva song. 

Vardy’s debut premier league season finished with a measly 5 goals. Difficult, then, not to smile when he scored on 29 August 2015 against Bournemouth and didn’t fail to score again in a league game until the Christmas lights were up.  Vardy’s off-field antics mean he’s unlikely to be given a UN ambassadorial role any time soon.  But if Bank Ki-moon ever needs an injection of pace up top, he knows where to look.

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While it might be a struggle to reconcile liking Jamie Vardy with your broader world view, Harry Kane is nothing short of a charm. Big trusting eyes and warm of interview.  Physically cherubic, with those lovely red cheeks, if in a slightly might-have-struggled-with-algebra kind of way.  A real Best Case Scenario for dating your daughter.

As with Vardy, Kane is already twenty-five past any level of expectation. Farmed out in his formative years to team after team further down the footballing pyramid, Kane developed a classic case of McEachran-itis; destined to appear in squad photos at the start of every season, only to vanish into the ether of Manish Bhasin’s witching hour highlight reel.  Leyton Orient.  Millwall.  It didn’t matter how shit the team was, so long as they were within touching distance of the M25 and on late.

But then, all of a sudden, as though a North London genie had appeared from a lamp, piping up with something unintelligible in faux Cockney-ese, in a tone suggesting that the genie probably thought he was more of a geezer than he actually was, Kane was granted his wish of a shot at the big time.

And by crikey he grasped it. Game after game, Kane dared the nation to say it was just a run of form. Teased us all with the prospect that he would be back being analysed by Steve Claridge and Leroy Rosenior in next to no time.  The disbelief continued right up until Kane finished runner-up in the scoring charts; this despite not even opening his account until November.  As an encore, Kane won the golden boot outright the following year.  The nation had found a bona fide centre-forward.

——–

Just as Kane was tickling everyone’s wholesome fancy, along came a striker who was even lovelier, even younger and even more of a throwback. Marcus Rashford is a dream within a dream.

A brace on his European debut, another brace on his league debut, the winner in his first Manchester derby and the youngest English player to score in his first senior international game. Not bad for a four month period in the midst of his A-levels. 

All being well, Rashford could conceivably become England’s Number 9 until 2030. Young strikers are rightly approached with caution, though. They burst onto the scene with all the lustre of a young Harrison Ford, only for many to drift off into the lower leagues or even, God forbid, Sunderland.  Sometimes you’ve got a genuine unicorn on your hands.  Sometimes all you’ve got is a horse with a dildo strapped to its head, and you’re left feeling thoroughly duped by the cheeky bugger.  Rashford looks likely to be the former, but it’s still early days.

——–

All these romantic options. Warms the cockles of your heart, doesn’t it?  Well not mine, mate.  The romantic option is what made Michael Jordan give up basketball and play baseball for two years.  Badly.  The romantic option is why Jeremy Corbyn is currently denying the UK government an effective opposition.  It’s the reason kitchens up and down the country are littered with bread-making machines.

The Swedish press summed up romance perfectly when 17 year-old Theo Walcott was taken to the 2006 World Cup. They likened Sven’s decision in picking Theo to being locked out of your house with only €1 and choosing to spend it on a lottery ticket.  It might work, but the better option would have been to buy a phone card.

Daniel Sturridge is England’s phone card. He’s the head not the heart.  He’s got something better than romance: pedigree.  Born into a footballing family and with clubs fighting over him as a teenager, there’s no rags to riches story with Sturridge because there never needed to be; he was always going to be really good.  This doesn’t make him the populist choice for headline-hunting journalists, but I would ask you to look beyond the loudest and most obvious, just as Sturridge himself does on the field of play.

People remember the colossal balls up against Iceland in the summer, forgetting that there was very nearly a colossal balls up in the group stages against Wales. England couldn’t seem to unlock the massed ranks of the Welsh defence for all the call centres in Swansea.  It took a moment of guile from Sturridge and – crucially – the willingness to take a chance, to do something different, that got England the crucial goal.  While Kane was busy hitting free-kicks the wrong side of the goal-line official and corners into neighbouring stadiums, Sturridge was one of the few that emerged from Euro 2016 with any credit.

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In short, Sturridge has the ability to peer over the horizon when Kane and Vardy can only see hills and ocean. And while you would happily back either of the latter two to run riot against many of the punch-bags in international football, when it comes down to it, when it really matters, my money would be on Sturridge to find a way through against one of the big beasts.

Sturridge’s career has been somewhat chequered to date. Partly due to a poor decision to go to Chelsea at an early age, but mostly because of injury problems.  His fragile nature should not count against him when considering options for England.  If he’s fit, he should play.  He can at least last the length of a major tournament; and certainly for the duration that England tend to remain in for.

You can follow Sonny Pike (@_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).

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Don’t let this slippery devil fool you.

 

 

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Drifting rock

2 Dec

It’s always struck me as odd that English banknotes are actually worthless. They’re not backed by anything; it’s only people’s belief they’re worth something that gives them any value. The stuff’s run on confidence and confidence alone.

This being so, we ought give our currency its best shot and put Liam Gallagher on the notes. If confidence, earned or otherwise, is the name of the game, let’s get a big-hitter in. The Queen’s never struck me as a particularly optimistic girl. No brash self-assuredness in her voice. Bit of a shit dresser, too, if we’re being honest. Liam, on the other hand, if he tells you something’s worth twenty quid, then it’s worth twenty quid.

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Better yet, let’s get Joe Hart on the notes. Joe’s super confident. And well he might be. You don’t want a bed-wetter between the sticks, do you? It’s a battle of the mind for goalkeepers, with disastrous consequences if they lose. Outfield players have the luxury of only competing against ten others. Not so, for goalkeepers. They have to contend with players, the fans, the press. Even a few of the cheekier ballboys probably like to enquire if the visiting custodian is feeling a touch nervous.

And as much as Hart is one of the best one-on-one shot-stoppers in the business, it’s Joe Hart’s unflinching belief in Joe Hart that sets him apart. Hart would stare down a Haka as soon as look at one. His giant head wouldn’t flinch for a moment, set on that ramrod-straight, drill sergeant neck of his.

——–

Most of us are timid self-questioning souls, who can barely get out of bed in the morning without wondering if we’re in the right job, the right relationship, or if we ring our parents enough. Hart doesn’t bother with any of that nonsense. England’s Number One knows damn well he hasn’t left the gas on. And he isn’t going to waste his days mentally tethered to Best Before dates or whether he needs to bring a coat out.

——–

Naturally, this drives his critics wild. Journalists, opposing fans, they love to hone in on a goalkeeper low on confidence. Put ’em in the spotlight and watch them wither. It’s a long road back for a keeper once a crisis of confidence forms.

Joe never lets these idiots in. He’s a walled city. And in that way, he always wins. Fingers taped and already barking instructions in the tunnel, we witness the unwilting aura of a man who can’t be gotten at. An unyielding structure who stands his full height, whether in the goalmouth or the media access area. Joe Hart is six feet five; he’s fairly confident of that.

——–

This is why Hart is vital to Manchester City. And it’s what Pep Guardiola seems to completely miss about him. Hart is the only player utterly convinced that City can win the Champions League. That they should win the Champions League. The lad who used to keep goal for Shrewsbury Town is the only one who can picture himself shaking hands with UEFA dignitaries, as he lifts the European Cup high above his flake-free head. The man whose transfer fee was fifty times less than Aguero’s, who rose from League 2. Hart knows he’s only got one life and he’s damned if he’s going to throw it away on the group stages.

——–

More, then, is the tragedy of the past few months. Hart has been banished to Turin; loaned out in the prime of his career. In his place, an ageing clown, whose party trick is to caress the ball into the path of oncoming strikers. Joe’s distribution was always an area for improvement. But only in the sense that once every game or so he would lamp the ball unpressured straight into the stands. Restarting with an opposition throw-in was much preferred to restarting from the centre circle, as has become a familiar sight with Claudio Bravo this season.

Prospects for a return are slim. Philosophers make stubborn leaders, and Guardiola is by no means an 80:20 operator; he’s pure doctrine. Hart finds himself marginalised by a gaffer with deep seated beliefs, who is also trying to establish his authority in a new setting; a dangerous combination. And so, without being given so much as a single league outing between the sticks, Hart has been deemed utterly dispensable.

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Anyone involved in football has found themselves lamenting a defeat that came from a lack of belief. A nagging sense that if the boys had just believed they would do the business, then they probably would have done. Louis van Gaal is fond of saying that the mental approach of players is football’s last great unexplored frontier. Hard, then, to quantify the hidden loss of casting Joe Hart to one side; a man with enough self-belief for the whole back five and probably a few holding midfielders to boot.

We’re still in the first flushes of the Guardiola regime, but this has been by far his biggest call to date. He will be judged not only on whether he was right, but as much by his willingness to admit the error if he’s proven to be wrong. Given the haste with which he cut Hart loose in the first place, it would be a bold move for Guardiola to bring him home again. The decision would certainly require a healthy dose of self-confidence. Thankfully, Pep doesn’t have far to look if he needs inspiration on that front.

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).

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“Stones … to Bravo … back to Stones”

 

Flesh and cloth

25 Jul

I’ve witnessed some painful sights in my time. Grown men beat-boxing. People who say “Brangelina”. And the slow, ticking realisation of a Leave voter, to name just a few. But none were more painful than the sight of Bolton’s Nicky Hunt walking off the field of play on August 16th, 2003.

The Wanderers were playing Manchester United, so Hunt might reasonably have expected a tough day at the office. Quite how tough came as a shock to all, as with 29 minutes to go, Alex Ferguson summoned his new signing from the bench – a pockmarked £12.2million teenager from Portugal. Having had previous for birthing fledgling talents into the English game, the claret-drenched Knight of the Realm seemed to be at it again.

It was as though the future had arrived. As with all depictions of the future, it had a terrible haircut. Cristiano Ronaldo danced past Hunt again and again with a brand of skill we simply hadn’t seen before. There were stepovers, yes. But not of the “are-these-ever-going-to-lead-anywhere” Denilson variety. These were sharper. More chopped. It didn’t matter how side-on Hunt made himself, he and Ronaldo were vessels in the night. Except that Ronnie was a speedboat. A dancing, spaghetti-haired comet trail was all that Hunt saw of the Madeira kid that day.

——

Ronaldo was everything the modern footballer should be. Fast. Muscular. Orange. The stage was his and his alone. It is said that each player averages a mere 53.4 seconds’ possession during a 90-minute game. That may be true in most cases, but Ronaldo wouldn’t consider it a day’s work unless he’s had a fully-fledged quarter of an hour on the ball.

Yet despite being head, shoulders and trapezoids above everyone else, Ronaldo was not adored by the common man. Vanity is a difficult trait to warm to. Roy of the Rovers, for instance, might not have inspired quite so many budding young footballers if he’d spent the first four or five pages of each magazine flexing endlessly in front of a mirror. But then, on the other hand, who cares? If niceness got you on in life, Gareth Southgate would have won the Balon d’Or.

Deep down Ronaldo knew exactly what the public wanted. And if that meant performing ball tricks in front of jeering Chelsea fans rather than doing a proper pre-game warm-up, so be it. These people had paid their money.

——

Meanwhile, unbeknown to the young Ronaldo, fate was busy manufacturing him a polarity. Across the English Channel, in a soon-to-be-forgotten place called mainland Europe, another talent was prospering. Except this one didn’t behave like a randy ski instructor with immense ball control. This one was short in the leg and scruffy in demeanour. Unassuming, almost to the point of shyness; if you had to blind guess what he did for a living, you’d have probably gone with roadie for a commercially unsuccessful indie band. Perhaps more jarringly, this other guy didn’t even seem to actively want to be on the cover of Men’s Health.

——-

Ronaldo and Lionel Messi were destined to be locked in an eternal grapple. Opposition teams just a phoney war backdrop, as the two defined themselves not by the eleven players they faced each week on the pitch, but by what the other was doing. It became the great duel of our time.

Adidas, Barcelona and every commentator in the world tried to characterise it as Good versus Evil, or humility against hubris. The spirit of the game versus a preening dickhead. But time has shown this narrative to be misplaced. For one thing, and it might sound trivial, but Ronnie actually pays his taxes. For another, despite all the sulking Ronaldo does on the pitch, he’s the first to turn up to major tournaments and he’s absolutely desperate to be the last to leave. Nobody wanted to win Euro 2016 more than he did. Messi, in contrast, has decided that, aged just 29, international football is no longer his thing. His legacy has become stained by evasive practices, both fiscal and footballing.

——

So forget “Good versus Evil”. The moniker is too simplistic, and probably just wrong anyway. The contextual layer that really separates the two is how much more earned Ronaldo’s brilliance is.

——

At first sight, the temptation is to view Messi as the underdog between the two. Diminutive stature, growth hormones as a child, too ugly to get a bird at school, etc. The Argentine might be praised as the one who overcame the greater battle. But like Leo Messi’s Dad and a self-assessment form, not everything’s quite adding up here.

The reality is that Messi is simply not of this earth; blessed with a supernatural talent beyond others’ contemplation. He has a balance that defies the frailty of man sprinting upright on two legs, and a dribble that cannot be reproduced. To watch Leo Messi is to admire a beautiful uber-human who has probably never broken a yolk and never known the trauma of sending a box of cocktail sticks flying. It’s an existence which no amount of training can replicate.

Ronaldo, on the other hand, is completely man-made. He is a miracle of achievement, rather than simply a miracle. God-given talent doesn’t get you four feet off the ground when a whipped cross comes into the penalty area. You get that way through Herculean conditioning. God-given talent doesn’t get you more tricks than any other player on the planet. You have to learn them the same way Michael Gove learnt politics. One deceitful turn after the next.

People praise Messi’s calm and condemn Ronaldo’s petulance. You’re damn right Ronaldo’s angry when something goes wrong. Do you have any idea how hard he’s practiced to get things right? The floor gets thumped and the skies cursed, because an awful lot went into the process.

——

It’s this distinction between the two that makes recent events so compelling. Ronaldo has finally got the piece of silverware that has long eluded Messi, an international tournament winner’s medal. The human has bested the immortal. Better yet, he did it a matter of days after Messi flounced off from the Argentine national team vowing never to return. Messi’s retirement has therefore made this win a defining factor. A factor which, unless Messi reverses his decision, will always distinguish the two.

Will this force Messi’s hand into returning, just to keep up with his sworn rival? If so, how much more painful will it be if he continues to fall short? It’s not like Messi can blame a lack of support staff; he plays for one of the big beasts of international football, for heaven’s sake. Ronaldo has just dragged a team of lunatics, nearly men and no-hopers to glory.

——

Domestically, at least, the battle between Ronaldo and Messi will continue to run. Chances are both will eventually retire with the world still torn on who was better. But this victory strikes me as one worth celebrating. This summer, the gods were humbled. Messi was humbled. This summer, a man armed with nothing more than a lifetime of practice got his nose in front of superman.

It was a triumph for Ronaldo, but in a very real way it was a triumph for all of us. Because there’s actually nothing that separates us from Ronaldo other than supreme dedication, extraordinary application and some unusually white teeth.

It’s hard to love Ronaldo, I know. So I won’t ask you to. But when your mind wanders to the pantheon of true greats, remember that almost all have an international trophy to their name. Garlanded Hall of Famers, such as Pele, Maradona, Beckenbauer, Charlton, Platini, Zidane, the Brazilian Ronaldo, Matthaus, Gullit and van Basten. They’ve all got one.

Now standing beside them – looking for all the world like a butler in the buff wearing a football shirt – is Ronaldo. He’s in the club, too. Lionel Messi, unless he fancies a rethink, now never will be. International failure looms over him like a suspended prison sentence. A feeling that one suspects he will be all too familiar with.

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).

Ronaldo

“Any chance of the shirt staying on today, Ron?”

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.

——-

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).

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

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.

—–

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.

—–

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).

—–

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.

—–

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.

—–

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.

—–

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.

—–

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.

—–

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.

—–

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.

Cleats of rage

4 Jan

Do you know what happens when a great white shark is taken into captivity? I’ll tell you exactly what happens. It dies.

It refuses to countenance life as a prisoner and voluntarily cashes in its chips, electing starvation as the honourable option. Oliver Twist might have begged for more, but you won’t catch a great white sacrificing himself on the altar of dignity. You can shove your gruel up your arse, mate. “I might leave in a body bag, but never in cuffs” was a line written by the rapper Eminem, but it could as easily have been penned by Jaws, or Bruce from Finding Nemo.

It’s a mindset. And a good one, at that. These toothy killers of the deep need to be on the edge. They need the bother; the hustle bustle. And if that means orphaning a few baby seals along the way, so be it. Life is a struggle, sure, but without the struggle, life is nothing at all.

——–

If you chucked Diego Costa some dead antelope meat, he wouldn’t touch the stuff. He’d rather go hungry. Costa is another who knows that dinner needs to be blissfully roaming around the plains until shortly before the bell rings and the table laid. It’s just not satisfying otherwise. Costa eats what he kills. No more, no less.

——–

This perpetual state of heightened aggression is not exactly buried deep within Costa’s layers. A glance at the tall Sergipano gives you a pretty good impression. The face that looks like sad marzipan. The stare that suggests he’s buried a thousand men and will bury a thousand more. Diego knows there’s only one person you can trust in life. And he knows you’ll get further with a kind word and a gun than just a kind word.

In order to survive in the footballing jungle, Costa needs to turn everything into a dust-up. Whether it’s two minutes in, five minutes in, or a mere 24 seconds, as was the case in November’s game against Dynamo Kiev. Aggro is his tin of spinach. A heated nose-to-nose exchange his form of battle readyment.

——–

Football has asked the question before whether this level of aggression helps or hinders. Much was made of Wayne Rooney’s anger in his earlier years. But the distinction between Rooney and Costa is crisp. Rooney’s anger was always borne out of frustration, and usually with himself at that. Costa’s vexations are targeted and purposeful. The crafty beggar knows exactly what he’s doing. He’s as leading as an invitation up for coffee.

Alan Shearer likes to tell us that Costa should just concentrate on scoring goals, but it isn’t as simple as that. He’ll only score them if he can get the synapses firing optimally. Costa is a good player, but on natural talent alone, not a great player. He has no one great virtue other than a hyper-evolved ability to get on a centre-back’s wick. Recognising this unique talent, Costa was left with a Faustian choice: play like an angel in Division 2, or play like the devil in the Premiership.

——–

Tantalised by the prospect of the upper echelons, Costa took the red pill and Mephistopheles rewarded. Having never previously gotten past ten league goals his entire career, Costa busted the net 27 times in 2013–14, adding a further eight in Europe. So stark was the transformation that Costa and Atlético almost antagonised their way to a shock European Cup win.

Costa’s ascendancy to one of the most feared strikers in Europe offered up a darkly important lesson. He’s teaching us where the new edge lies in 21st century sport. Tactics begets nutrition; nutrition begets sports science; sports science begets, well, this. An insight into what it really means to give everything for the cause. If we truly want to be winners, then perhaps it behooves us all to jam a thumb up the centre half’s’ backside and call his wife a slag, all in the name of being all we can be?

——–

Getting up the noses of defenders was going swimmingly for Diego. And so, like all the best entrepreneurs, he expanded his remit. He went global. Provoking individuals was no longer enough, though. In order to summon that extra ten per cent in the international sphere, Costa realised it would be necessary to disaffect an entire nation…

Native Brazilians had turned out for other countries before. But only ever out of a desire to play some kind of international football of any description. In the manner that an Englishman might stoop to playing for Scotland or one of the Irelands. One simply does not refuse the gold and green shirt, in the way that one simply does not refuse the papacy, or the chance to pull the trigger on June Sarpong.

This didn’t stop Costa turning his back on the Selecão, though (albeit, for maximum effect, not before he hadn’t already turned out for them twice). As a result of Costa’s grand deceit, Brazil were thrust headlong into hosting a World Cup with Fred and Jô leading the line. It was bizarrely improper, and Brazilians were understandably furious. Their form-hitting stunner had jilted them on the eve of the prom, with only a pair of double-baggers waiting in the wings.

——–

The trail of feisty destruction mattered little to Diego. His star just kept getting brighter. A dream transfer to Chelsea followed post-World Cup and the goals kept flowing, buoyed as they were by stamps, arguments and an insistence on taunting Seamus Coleman following an own goal.

The league title was effectively won by March, with Costa 20 goals to the good in a mere 26 games. The old hamstrings played up from time to time, but that hardly seemed to matter, as Costa had once again managed to persuade every defence in the land to chase him rather than the ball.

——–

Costa had broken the machine. He’d found the special sauce. While everyone else was being propelled around by the fairground ride, Costa was actually flying.

Alas, nobody cheats gravity forever, and Costa eventually flew too close to the sun.

The danger was always what would happen if people stopped rising to his antics. A nagging question mark hung latent in the air: if Diego can’t get the juices flowing by instigating personal tête-à-têtes, how will he summon his extra ten per cent?

Worst fears are now unfolding. It takes two people to fight over a jumper, and Costa is being repeatedly left holding both sleeves. His kryptonite has become too obvious, he can’t get a rise out of a centre-back for love nor money. There’s only so many times you can urinate in the three bears’ porridge before Daddy Bear turns around and says: “you know what, you can just have that bowl of porridge. You’ve clearly got mental problems.”

——–

The goals have dried up. Chelsea are awful. Damned by showing too much of his hand, Costa now needs to prove to the world that he has a bastard-free ninety minutes of a decent standard in him.

An ability to evolve has always been crucial. Alan Shearer’s career managed to survive two major knee and angle surgeries, each time revising his skill-set to remain prosperous. When Michael Jordan returned to basketball, aged 32, he developed the game’s most lethal fade-away jump-shot to combat his loss of explosiveness. Most recently, when the well of coherent policy ran dry, canny old Donald Trump fell back on rampant Islamophobia to keep the polls purring. The greats adapt, that’s why they’re great.

The brief is now for Costa to find a way back to the top table. He’s a hunter, but he hasn’t had many meals lately. Time to sharpen the teeth and work out how to start killing again.

 

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Have some bloody self-respect, man.

Have some bloody self-respect, man.

The quiet revolutionaries

25 Dec

Revolutions come in all shapes and sizes. For every firebrand trying to overthrow communism, another revolutionary is simply looking to move to online grocery shopping. Not all are garrulous affairs.

In fact, a revolution has taken place in English football that you probably didn’t even notice. Like Russian tanks sneaking into Crimea at the dead of night, Southampton and Swansea have very quietly changed the face of top-flight English football.

Perhaps it is more accurate to say they have completed a revolution. They represent the bookend of a transformation that began some twenty years previously, when a gangly gentleman from Alsace took the reins at Arsenal. Now, thanks to Southampton and Swansea, everyone plays the right way.

——–

For newly promoted sides, there used to be one way and one way only of surviving in the premier league: playing ugly. Whereas teams at the top end of the table would boldly lock horns in a battle of wits and beauty, a different lexicon takes hold at the bottom. You’re in a dogfight, down here, my friend. A scrap. A shitty and unpleasant scuffle with the other have-nots. During a given ninety minutes, the very last thing you would want was for a game of football to break out.

Anyone that tried something else seemingly failed. You could trace as far back as Swindon in ’94-95. Buoyed by Glen Hoddle’s stylish promotion-winning side, John Gorman took over the reins and continued to insist the ball be kept at ground level wherever possible. A hundred goals conceded later – still a premier league record – and Swindon were promptly returned to the second tier.

The thread was seamless: from Steve Coppell to Roberto Martinez, via Brian McDermott. Promoted teams led by young managers lacking the requisite cynicism, whose attractive football gained admirers but not points. The accepted wisdom was you needed an Allardyce, a Pulis or – God help you – a Mick McCarthy figure at the helm; a set of blood and thunder stabilisers on which to build a platform to safety.

Playing out from the back was the private healthcare of premier league football. A luxury you might partake in if you could afford, if you were Spurs perhaps, but by no means an option for everyone. Now Swansea and Southampton, the Attlee and Bevin of the English game, have made possession football available to all. Free at the point of care.

——–

It was Swansea that lit the touch paper. Watching them in the 2011 play-offs was something to behold. Football in the Championship typically resembles a teenage boy losing his virginity: lots of positive thrashing around – and by God some willing running – but technically very poor. You could obscure the faces and kits in a Championship game and still tell in under 20 seconds that this was by no means La Liga you had tuned into.

Then along came Swansea, glorious Swansea, and their balletic dismantling of Reading in the end of season shoot-out. It was breath-taking for its sheer incongruity, reminiscent of Princess Di that time she walked among the lepers. Split centre-backs, unhurried play, always an option behind and to the side. A young Ashley Williams looking like a Valleys Beckenbauer. If they had worn red and blue stripes and displayed a suffocatingly virtuous attitude, you would have sworn you were watching Barcelona.

Premier league survival was effortless. A League Cup followed. Managers came and went at the Liberty Stadium but the model stays the same. The greatest compliment I can pay Swansea is that their players never look as good once they leave. Similar to Brian Clough’s Forest teams of the late-80’s, the star-turns would leave for big money only for suitors to realise they had bought the player but, crucially, not the system behind the player.

——–

Buoyed by Swansea’s re-writing of the rulebook, Southampton took the baton and ran with it. Having dispensed with the Clive Woodward nonsense, Southampton went about remodelling themselves as the template for a modern, progressive club. Nigel Adkins and Mauricio Pochettino laid the groundwork, with a heavy emphasis on quick short passes, high pressing and a killer youth system. The club hot-footed it up the pyramid in style. In fact, both Saints and Swans are so pleasing on the eye that it’s hard to believe it was only five and eight years ago respectively that these teams were in the third tier. Alas, the New Way was tested to its fullest on the south coast when the inevitable player exodus began…

Southampton found themselves in a terrible mess in the summer of 2014, just as Ronald Koeman was taking over the reins. The previous season’s 8th place finish couldn’t stop the scramble for the exit when the bigger clubs came knocking. First Rickie Lambert tip-toed out the door. Then Luke Shaw. Then the captain, Adam Lallana. Then Dejan Lovren. Then Calum Chambers. It was a ransacking. Southampton were robbed of so much dignity they began to resemble a Danny Dyer movie. All the good work of the previous four years seemingly gone in a summer.

The point was made clear by Koeman himself when, in a charming art-house turn, he tweeted a picture of an empty training ground. Fitting, perhaps, that we have at the heart of this quiet revolution a man so gifted in tasteful symbolism.

There wasn’t a man, woman or fourth official alive who foresaw how well Koeman would cope. Fourth at Christmas, rising to third in the New Year, and a Manager of the Year award that only went begging when Mourinho flashed his ankles at the voting panel. The tantalising possibility as late as April that the Saints might be playing Champions League football almost made me want to forgive Koeman for the David Platt incident. And did I not like that David Platt incident. Sense quickly prevailed, but Koeman’s impact was there for all to see.

——–

Of course, we’ve had teams that play good football before. But now it’s a pre-requisite; whether you’re 1st or 20th, Arsenal or Stoke. “Get rid of it!” used to be the fraught instruction from the terraces. Fans now mock opposition players with cries of “HOOF!” when they’re panicked into clearing their lines. If proof were needed that the times are a-changing, look no further than Sam “Windows 10” Allardyce. Formerly an up-and-under merchant of the first order, Big Samuel now criticises Van Gaal’s Manchester United for their long-ball tactics. This is 2016, baby.

——–

It takes a boldness to play possession football. The easiest thing in the world is to smash it downfield, and doubly so when the chips are down. A get-out clause not helped by pundits’ gleeful obsession with highlighting errors when centre-backs try to play out from the back. Circle the defender all you like, Alan, but it would be nice if Match of the Day critically assessed the odd series of possession-ceding long clearances every once in a while too, because that’s basically the quid pro quo. Less compelling television, perhaps, but a useful aide memoir at the Euros this summer, when the English national team will likely find themselves under continual pressure against the big beasts.

——–

In the 1966 World Cup final, Bobby Charlton was closed down in an average of 8 seconds every time he had the ball. By 1998, with Zinedine Zidane, it was down to just two seconds. Football continues on an evolutionary march, with space the last frontier and possession its elixir. Southampton and Swansea are doing a fine job of surfing the tectonic plates and not letting the continent drift out of sight.

According to Xavi, Barcelona practice “rondos” (piggy in the middle) all day long at La Masia. Ball retention is pretty all they do, apparently (“rondos, rondos, rondos… every single day”), and it shows. Master that and the opposition are toothless. Let’s hope English teams continue to take note and try to keep pace. It won’t be much fun if we’re the ones left forever chasing in the middle.

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Joining the revolution couldn’t be easier. Simply attach this handy Mick McCarthy cut-out mask and apply for your nearest Director of Football position.

Anatomy of a winner

8 Jun

It was dark inside the laundry bag. Darker than a Nigel Pearson practical joke. Warm, too. But crouched inside was an ethos; a microcosm of what one man was all about. Finding a way.

This is my moment, Mourinho must have thought. This is my Sistine Chapel, he must have silently muttered to himself, as his face pressed tightly against a freshly laundered jock strap.

It was uncharted territory. Louis van Gaal might be capable of episodes of searing creative brilliance. But faced with a stadium ban, would van Gaal’s mind have turned to smuggling himself into the home team dressing room? For Mourinho, it was simply a question of telling the kit man to lift with his thighs. Nobody puts Jose in the corner. He was going to the game.

——-

Like Tony Blair, Mourinho is on a journey. But unlike Blair, Mourinho’s is not a journey that heals one troubled state after the next. Quite the opposite. The voyage of Mourinho is to somewhere few of us can bear to face. An expedition to the dark side of our souls. Because he knows that if he is able to look deeper within – at that which others are unable to stomach – he will understand us better than we even understand ourselves. Then we’re his and his alone.

Discovery is often framed as seeing what everybody else has seen, but thinking what nobody else has thought. Mourinho looked at Sacchi’s Dutch dynamos, Ferguson’s wing wizards and Wenger’s fast-flowing Frenchman, and saw what nobody else did. That none of this shit was really necessary. Football is a simple game, but nobody had realised quite how simple it was. All you really had to be was a complete bastard.

——-

Nobody’s questioning the results. In ten full seasons of club management, Mourinho has only failed to win the domestic title on two occasions. He’s a colossus; on track to be remembered as the greatest manager ever. But while the 9-year unbeaten home league record was breath-taking, it also served as an empirical study into how many yellow cards are required to defend a one-goal lead.

Add to that a referee hounded into retirement, players ordered to time-waste to clear suspensions and – perhaps most tellingly of all – an arrest for refusing to quarantine his pet dog, and you have the image of a man who takes single-minded pragmatism to new levels. The Mourinho Show is very much one in the eye for purists as well as, on occasion, opposition staff.

——-

But the man understands a simple truth. Better than anyone that has gone before him in the gaffer kingdom. He knows that scoring goals simply isn’t the problem. You’ll always score. Whether you like it or not, really. You can be as awful as QPR this season and still snaffle 42 of the buggers. Like Jack Wilshere ending up in an e-Cigarette commercial, it’s a matter of when, rather than if.

It’s stopping them that counts. Not as your main focus. As your sole focus. It’s about always setting your team up as the underdog. Even against Burnley. Never chase the first goal, never over-commit. You’re bound to score, anyway, so why worry?

More than anything, it’s about bringing Jon Obi Mikel off the bench to sit behind your two other holding midfielders. Mikel is grist to Mourinho’s dark satanic mill and a napalm bomb on the beautiful game. The tall Nigerian was Africa’s hottest prospect when he arrived at Stamford Bridge in 2006. A physically gifted attacking midfielder with an eye for goal. Mourinho reduced him to a role only ever deployed at a point at which football, as a concept, was no longer required. It’s difficult to know how Mikel feels about his downward spiral from toast of a continent to becoming his manager’s go-to plughole, called upon to stem any flow from proceedings. Deep down I suspect he’s sad.

——-

Except, of course, that he isn’t sad. Mikel loves Mourinho. They all do. Mourinho’s ability to get players and fans alike to buy into his bleak-but-effective system reminds me a lot of another evil genius: pint-swilling demagogue, Nigel Farage.

Farage, you see, also knows something better than anyone that has gone before him. He knows that only one Labour Party leader has won a general election in the last forty years. The lesson? Stop appealing to people’s best intentions and start appealing to their real ones. There’s an inner fucker in all of us; you just have to find it. Listen to the visceral self-interest that silently screams from every voter’s beating heart. There’s nobody in the booth with you making you justify your decision, so why bother to try? The shy Chelsea fan knows this. Players, too, know they will be handsomely rewarded if they carry out Mourinho’s despotic bidding.

——-

To his credit, Mourinho is at least honest. There’s no pretending he isn’t a rotter, and that’s refreshing. Arsene Wenger bangs on about financial fair play, and well he might, given his 7-year tenure managing in a tax haven in the late 80’s. For all his loveable granddad routine, Roy Hodgson chose to play football in apartheid South Africa. Now I’m not saying Mourinho doesn’t drown new-born kittens in his spare time – he almost certainly does – but you get the impression that he’d happily pose for a photo as he holds one of the little cuties under.

——-

Ultimately, the world’s full of bastards. It seems harsh to single Jose out. His footballing philosophy remains a concern, though. There occasionally comes a point in a sport when someone becomes not only too effective, but also in a way that rubs against the spirit of the game. Something of the contest diminishes because, whatever happens, you know Jonny Wilkinson is just going to kick for goal at every opportunity, marginalising the importance of scoring tries. Or the entire focus becomes centred on Calum Giles slamming in short corners. Noughts & Crosses was fun until you worked out that the middle square was all that mattered. Then it became a procession.

If even the top football teams start doggedly defending their 18-yard box, above all else, the game risks becoming a Cold War of inaction. Mourinho’s entitled not to care; why should he? But the rest of us might want to.

——-

Can anything be done? Two options seem open to us, as far as I see it.

The first is fairly obvious. We march on Stamford Bridge, round Mourinho up, and pull his toenails clean off. Engage in a line of conversation hinting that if he plays Ramires, Matic and Mikel all at the same time again, his knee-caps will be next. I won’t lie: this is the riskier option. Especially with Roman knocking around. But it sends out a message.

As for the second option, well, what did Neville “Oxlade” Chamberlain do in ’36? That’s right, we can appease Mourinho. Stand back while he wins league title after league title, crunching inevitable results out of grimly certain probabilities. Lie down and let him trample us, while a swooning Henry Winter bats his eyelids from behind the press-room door. What the hell, he’s good value in interviews, right?

It might sound tempting. But remember this, you cowardly little worms. Appeasement wasn’t exactly a roaring success the first time around. A right old hoo-ha followed. So think on before you elect to cower behind the sofa.

——-

Winter is coming, my friends. Financial Fair Play is about to be relaxed and Mourinho’s settling in to create his dynasty. With increased funds, he will bring in even more protection to sit in front of his back four. And then, soon enough, Claude Makelele’s children will be fully grown.

The witheringly effective tactics will take root in others. Teams will have no choice but to mimic Jose’s 11-man rain dance in the defensive third. And it will have happened on your watch.

First they came for the Socialists. But you didn’t do anything, did you, because you weren’t a Socialist? Well, Jose’s coming for you now and the game you love. I suggest you stand a post, sir. I suggest you fight tooth and nail to protect that which you hold dear. Defend as though your very lives depend upon it because, when all said and done, that’s exactly what Mourinho would do.

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Keep moving the ball around, lads.  It’ll come.”

“Keep moving the ball around, lads. It’ll come.”

The Last Boy Scout

23 Feb

Will Smith recently let slip the secret to his success:

The only thing I see that is distinctly different about me is I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked, period. You might have more talent than me. You might be smarter than me. You might be sexier than me. You might be all of those things. But if we get on the treadmill together, one of two things will happen: either you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.

I couldn’t agree more with the Fresh Prince. Nobody ever got anywhere without a little stoney-nosed perseverance. Whether it’s voice recognition helplines, triple clasp bra straps or novels over 300 pages. Endeavour is why we grit our teeth and plough on in the face of all manner of adversity.

————

Endeavour is why Jamie Milner plays for the Premier League champions. Often ahead of Jesus Navas – a World Cup and European Championship winner, no less. Most paths to the top are muddled and obscure, with various developmental leaps and the odd fortunate break paving the way. Jamie’s story is a much simpler one. He is where he is because he’s the poster boy for giving 210%. A Boy Scout marathon runner. In a league full of incredibly fit athletes, Milner is the patron saint of the extra mile.

————

Milner’s career resembles the weak batch of industrial glue that went on to become the Post-it Note. Every passage of play evolves into an inadvertent success. That heavy first touch turns into a possession-winning tackle. Chasing down his own over-hit pass becomes a makeshift through ball. You might have more talent than Jamie. You might be smarter than Jamie. Hell, you might even be sexier than him. But when you’re both going after a loose ball near the corner flag, one of two things will happen: either you don’t come away with the ball, or Jamie dies. It’s really that simple.

————

It’s a wonderful attitude to have. Give me the hungry man, keen to prove his muster, any day of the week. Life isn’t an ice cream; if you accidentally lick the top off and it falls on the floor, you can’t simply ask for another one. You just have to get down on all fours and battle the neighbour’s dog for the best bits of what’s salvageable. I really feel this is a lesson Jesus Navas has yet to learn.

Milner wouldn’t even need asking. He’d be straight down there on his knees, hunting down the scraps – just like he does on the field of play. There are 99 reasons why Navas should be a better footballer than Jamie Milner, and there’s only one why he isn’t. That treadmill.

————

Milner might look more Neanderthal than right-sided midfielder, with those impossibly widthy forearms and jawbone three sizes up from his skull. But there’s more to the Humbersider than being a perennial contender for “Footballer who looks most like he wipes his arse with moss”. He has a heart that’s also three sizes up from the rest of him, and a desire that can only be measured using interplanetary equipment.

When Manchester City ran out of anything resembling a striker in early November, they held trials to see who could play up top. Despite being one of City’s least skilful outfield players, there was only one winner. Pellegrini turned Milner into his big number nine and City promptly embarked on a 14-game unbeaten run.

————

Football the Milner Way isn’t without its own unique pressures. The only direction can be down for the man banging on the glass ceiling of talent with both fists. A ceiling that’s never going to be breached unless and until Milner significantly reduces the number of times he dribbles directly out of play. What must this do to a chap’s psyche? All that’s left is nervous contemplation of those more talented further down the order. Fretful glances at the Abdel Taraabts of this world, operating at 60% of their potential, who could shoot past Jamie at any moment. There are, after all, inherent limitations to Milner’s game.

For instance, it is impossible to tell which team has the ball when Milner goes on a run. Milner in possession is football’s dark matter. We’re fairly confident it exists, but even the cleverest minds can’t definitively prove it.   It must be hell for those totting up possession statistics. They presumably just split the difference as a succession of heavy touch – tackle – heavy touch – tackle sees Milner propel the ball in gauntlet-like fashion towards the opponent’s byline. Never in control, never out of control, Milner doesn’t so much beat a man as he does engage him in a series of hostile encounters. Meeker footballers are also available.

But it’s this desire, coupled with lungs the size of hot water bottles, that gives Jamie his fighting chance; his toe-hold at the top table. Each week Milner solves the footballing riddle with the blunt tenacity of an angry man trying to kick down a small tree. It can never be a beautiful process. But it is a process. One that put Bayern Munich to the sword in their own back yard in 2013.

————

This season Milner has raged against his own mediocrity. In a team full of polished diamonds, it is Milner who has carried the fight. With the forward line arranged head-to-metatarsal on the physio table, and Yaya brooding over half-forgotten grievances, Milner has stood up and been counted. In a side better known for its balletic dismantling of opponents, Milner has thrashed, cajoled and bullied teams into submission.

There’s something noble in Milner’s toil. Almost knowingly sacrificial. His very luminescence in a team of superstars will undoubtedly lead to the conclusion that reinforcements are necessary. Duly leaving him with more competition than ever before. The reality is that Milner shouldn’t be good enough for a starting place in the Manchester City Project. And yet, somehow, he is.

By definition, Milner is the last man on the team-sheet. Never a solution in himself, simply a question put to others. He’s the Gaffer’s Gambit in five or six different positions; Option B in a probing managerial game of “Would You Rather?”. In a very real sense, he is every footballer’s acid test. Because, if all else fails, Milner will do a job. If needs be, he’ll do it in your position.

————

Such wedded commitment to scorching every blade of grass is admirable. What worries me is whether it has become a handicap to Milner’s creative development. Whether skill and guile have become bartered properties in return for an unnerving omnipresence on the heat map. In a game invariably won and lost through the brilliance of thought, fans go home happy because Milner gives them 110% of his legs and lungs. If he would give them perhaps just 80%, we might find we have the English Iniesta on our hands.

As it is, we’ve got the Rino Gattuso of wide midfield, block-tackling his way into dangerous areas. He just keeps on rushing around. Either, like Bruce Forsyth’s career, he point blank refuses to slow down. Or, like the bus in Speed, he simply can’t.

————

This ethos has consciously moulded the Milner we see before us. There are known knowns with Milner, nothing else. Never departing from the playbook, Milner sings from the script of pre-remembered drills from Thursday’s training. His career a dogged perfection of all that can be seen, without ever paying regard to the outer reaches of what ability he might actually possess.

The obvious comparison is Dimitar Berbatov. It’s tempting to look at how hard Berbatov works, versus how hard Milner works, and draw conclusions that don’t flatter the Bulgarian. However, contrast that with how hard Berbatov’s brain must be working, against how hard Milner’s brain is working, and you have a different story. Milner’s dedication to the visible is commendable, but it is Berbatov who is training himself to see beyond the horizon. So who’s really working the hardest?

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Whether Milner can change – whether he should change – perhaps misses the point. There’s an even bigger battle at stake. Absent the short-term rehypothecation of Frank Lampard, Milner is the only English outfield player that gets a game for the reigning Premier League champions. Barry’s gone, Lescott’s gone, Micah Richards is in Florence and Scott Sinclair may or may not exist. Milner’s in bat for l’Angleterre. The last man standing for the Grand Old Party of world football. Every time he’s tossed a substitute’s bib, a little more of the empire dies.

After Jamie, only Joe Hart remains. And I’m deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the only Englishman who plays for the champs is the one that’s allowed to use his hands. It’s demeaning.

So I urge you all to get behind Milner. Savour every ricochet and cheer the moments when he keeps the ball in play. In short, hold fast that which is (quite) good. Because Milner represents the book-end of a crumbling dynasty. He’s the flickering embers of the dying superpower that invented and codified the game. And while you might think saving English football is something of a lost cause, fear not, Jamie’s well-versed in chasing after them.

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).

Available in all good clothes stores.

Available in all good clothes stores.

18 years on the throne

28 Dec

A good friend sent me the following text during office hours the other day:

After years of striving I’ve finally reached the level of seniority where I can pick up my Blackberry mid-meeting, say “apologies, but I really must take this”, then slope off to the stalls for a dump. It’s a great feeling.

There was more than a little pride in my chum’s honest words. Here was a man who, like all of us, had done his shift on the bottom rung. He’d battled his way through the mire and could now proudly announce that he was operating at those two special words. Mid-level.

Such behaviour is all part of a growing workplace self-importance that accrues as one’s career progresses. Whether it’s an arm confidently slung over the back of your chair. A foot casually resting on top of the waste paper bin during conversation. Or even some unnecessarily loud humming just to let people know that you’re there. Seniority lends itself to greater ownership of the stage.

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Imagine, then, what it must be like to be Arsene Wenger, and you’ve been operating at the top of your game for twenty years. There probably isn’t even an air of pretence when Wenger senses a pending movement. Barely a moment’s hesitation as the great man punctuates another annual general meeting with a familiar stride to the door. No way was Wenger going to sit through “Any Other Business” when he could be taking care of his own.

And why not? Wenger ought to bow to no-one for what he has achieved in English football. The Premier League’s first modern manager. Arriving on these shores an unknown, he immediately and comprehensively outgeneralled his peers by using such trickeries as diet and ball-playing foreigners. Arsene’s Arsenal would blister through teams with hitherto unseen amounts of movement, precision and a good deal more passes than Charles Hughes would have deemed permissible.

Success came quick and was plentiful. The doubles, the Indomitables, the European finals. Wenger’s band of wily Frenchmen and Ray Parlour went toe-to-toe with Manchester United in the preeminent rivalry of recent times.

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And then it stopped. Suddenly, one fateful day in 2005, the sun went dark and the birds fell out of the sky. Football, quite literally, went post-apocalyptic. All that mattered was oil, and who owned it. And Arsenal didn’t have any of the stuff.

The superstars fled to more profitable springs. The silverware dried up. Murmurings of discontent started to ring around the terraces of a trophyless Ashburton Grove – a gleaming new stadium built to house a successful team, precisely at a time when Arsenal had stopped winning anything.

This was no laughing matter for Wenger. All of a sudden, the porcelain began to feel a little chillier on his hamstrings. The paper less comforting. The man from Alsace wasn’t strolling out of board meetings with the same relaxed and confident lavatorial intent anymore. Faced with his own mortality, the great man began to wonder if he shouldn’t perhaps wait for a break in proceedings, even when his sphincter was telling him it was time to shine.

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For nine long years, Arsenal’s challenge for silverware kept hitting the side netting. Discontent grew until, ridiculously, the whole legacy appeared to hinge on one game against Hull in the cup final last May. Wengerites breathed an almighty sigh of relief when the two-goal deficit that day was reversed. Detractors still pointed to the estranged premier league crown and protruded their bottom lip.

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Like the hunch on a taller woman, Wenger’s failure to land the title in recent years is unfortunate but understandable. Wenger’s tutelage has come to be something of a training bra for young professional footballers. A reassuring set of managerial stabilisers until a player is fully-formed. At which point, Wenger is summarily dispensed with in favour of the more glamorous undergarment options of Barcelona, Chelsea, Manchester United or, the latest in high class lingerie, Manchester City.

Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Ashley Cole, Matthieu Flamini, Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor all tossed Wenger into the bin on maturity. Even Gael Clichy – a man who looks and plays like Ashley Cole minus a chromosome – even he decided he was too big for the Gunners. At times over the last decade, Wenger has looked more like a medic performing emergency surgery than a football manager trying to build a team.

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Fate has been cruel to Arsene. The murky presence of sheikhs and oligarchs has meant he has had to deal with a greater imbalance of power than ever existed.   But we’re in danger of letting economic realities obscure very real achievement.

Wenger has never finished outside of the top four in his 18 seasons in charge at Arsenal. Here is a list of teams that have failed to match this feat over the same period:

Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Borussia Dortmund, Paris St. Germain, Lyon, Chelsea, Liverpool, and, most recently (fetch the party poppers…), Manchester United.

Quite a lot, right?

In fact, in the five major European leagues, no-one apart from Bayern Munich has achieved such consistency.

That’s not just quite impressive. That’s a sustained level of performance up there with Sting and Trudy. Wenger’s outlasted an entire generation of Labour government. His brand of fast flowing pass-and-move football bridging the gap between Major and Cameron. Until the Scots lost their bottle in the 89th minute, Wenger very nearly outlived the entire Union.

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3rd, 1st, 2nd, 2nd, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 4th.

You don’t stop being a genius just because your 1st and 2nd place finishes become 3rd and 4th place finishes. Not when such decline coincides with two teams becoming so incredibly rich that they render all hope of genuine competition futile. Any other conclusion is odd and wrong.

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If the nation is critical of Wenger, it is because he is a manager eminently more open to reason than his peers. Mourinho doesn’t care what you think. He might treat you to a response laced with charm – if the mood allows – but he won’t answer a question that he doesn’t like. Make the wrong enquiry of Alex Ferguson and you risked a 3-month ban from the Old Trafford press room.

Wenger, though, sees his life’s work as a scientific study. He feels intellectually obliged to defend his stance when brought under scrutiny. You might struggle to get Arsene to see an incident on the pitch, but he’s one of the few coaches who will engage with a well-reasoned cross-examination off it.

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Arsene never lost it. Magic is real, but only if you believe in it. On a budget that, until recently, was not much greater than Sunderland’s, the French sorcerer has been turning water into wine for years.

Tottenham are shorn of Gareth Bale and they flounder. Liverpool lose Luis Suarez and they look like a team that’s lost its car keys. The Arsenal squad gets rifled through like a lady’s underwear drawer every single summer and those top four places just keep on coming.

I’m prepared to bet all the money in Too Good’s petty cash drawer that the next time Arsenal finish outside of the top four is the first year that Arsene Wenger isn’t at the helm. You want to know why? Because Arsene knows. He knew then. And he knows now.

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).

Genius at work.

Genius at work.