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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.

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The trial of Lampard and Gerrard

19 Dec

The nation umm-ed and ahh-ed on whether to draw the curtains on a centuries’ old union this summer. In the end, it was another antiquated and fractious relationship that was put out of its misery. While those north of the border daubed their ballot paper with a streak of yellow – dashing dreams of a McLiberia for another five hundred years – England finally put an end to its own tricky West Lothian question in the centre of the park.

As Steven Gerrard came on alongside Frank Lampard against Cost Rica in the World Cup, in what will now for certain be their final international game together, it occurred to me that it would be quite amusing if the two of them really “clicked”. The sight of Lamps and Stevie G gelling together would have been a pleasingly ironic denouement to a bleak tale.

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It isn’t difficult to imagine Lampard and Gerrard getting horribly mixed up when they greeted each other at England camps. One attempts a handshake, the other goes in for a hug. Both shotgun the same side of the bed. I’ve never seen the two of them attempt to lift a heavy sofa up a flight of stairs, but I suspect it wouldn’t end well.

This, of course, is old hat though. That Gerrard and Lampard couldn’t play together is common knowledge. What jabs in the ribs a bit is no-one has ever properly drawn up a charter for blame between the pair. Public opinion seems content to stain the legacy of both, apportioning equal volumes of tar and feathers to either Number 8 jersey. Were both really at fault? Or is one conviction unsafe? As Lampard now beats a gentle retreat to the gallows’ humour of the subs bench, with Gerrard surely soon to follow, the time has come for a full and final appraisal of the pair. Too Good embarks on a mission of mercy and seeks to exonerate one of these godforsaken millionaires.

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But before we do so, let’s lift up the bonnet and remind ourselves of the component parts of this uncomfortable portmanteau. Starting with Lampard first.

Arriving on the scene as a slightly chubby-faced teenager, Lampard made an awful lot from physical attributes that were by no means extraordinary. Not especially quick, and couldn’t beat a man for pace nor skill. Not a terrible passer, but nowhere near the wizardry of some at unlocking defences. In fact, in general play, it’s difficult to tell what Lampard actually does well, other than the rather nebulous concept of playing “effective football”.

Lampard’s silver bullet was having perhaps the most accurate shot 20 yards from goal we’ve ever seen. The boy from Essex wasted about as many shots from distance as he did cafeteria deserts during his formative years. It wasn’t just the howitzers from range, either. He would arrive late into the penalty area with the regularity of an Alpen eater. Goals were Lampard’s currency, and he was good for gobbling twenty plus of them a season.

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Gerrard, by contrast, could do it all. Roving midfielder, support striker, winger, full back, it didn’t matter. If Frank was Hot Shot Hamish, Stevie was definitely Roy of the Rovers. Watching Gerrard take a game by the scruff of the neck was like watching a chariot go full speed round a corner on two wheels. Daring and courageous, testing the limits of the possible. Such was Gerrard’s God given ability, if he had applied himself to being a centre-back from an early age, he could quite conceivably have ended up England’s best centre-back instead.

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And it’s Gerrard’s raw ability that forms the noose around the neck in this trial by narrowly read media. With Lampard – the less naturally talented of the two – room for manoeuvre was always comparatively scant. If Lampard wasn’t camped on the edge of the penalty area, one suspects there would have been little else in compensating factors. In truth, he had to be there to be effective.

Gerrard, though, a Rolls Royce who could play any position on the park – famously filling in at right-back towards the end of the Champions League final – surely he could have found a way to make it work?

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The 2013/14 season provided the smoking gun. Gerrard got caught elbow deep in the cookie jar when, under Brendan Rogers’ tutelage, he showed what a wonderful deep-lying playmaker he could be. Anchored in front of the back four, Gerrard was like a reverse Nile delta – the tributary to all angles of Liverpool’s attack, spraying a series of long diagonals that bore as deep into the soul of every Liverpool fan as they did the opposition half.

In many respects, it was Gerrard’s crowning glory; a true display of what a complete footballer he could be even at 33. Both a glorious swansong and, yet, contrastingly, a firm one across the chops for all those England managers who battled endlessly to find a way for he and Lampard to co-exist. As if to rub salt in the wounds, the cheeky blighter’s at it again this year. Taken as evidence, Gerrard clearly had it in his locker to square the England circle or, more specifically, the midfield diamond.

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It begs the question quite how Brendan Rogers was able to persuade where so many England managers had run aground. That delicate art of moving a hero fifteen yards back. How did he do it? What cajoling nuggets of wisdom, steeped in Brendan’s dulcet Northern Irish tones, were able to convince where Sven’s Swedish, Fabio’s Italian and Steve’s Dutch had all failed?

This is an important question. After all, no-one is in any danger of forgetting the ascendancy England were in during Lampard and Gerrard’s collective pomp. Especially in that 2004 sweet spot. Three of the four starting midfielders at this time were regular features in Ballon d’Or voting. The fourth was Paul Scholes. Up front we had wonder kids past and present and, at the back, we had to get by with title-winning regulars Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole and Gary Neville. Roy Hodgson would trade his entire back catalogue of astronaut jokes just to have half of that lot in the current side.

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Ultimately, football is a team game and the truth is Steven Gerrard never quite grasped this. Hubris man-marked him his entire career. There is something very jarring about watching Gerrard – the Liverpool captain – push team-mates away when he wants to celebrate a goal. I can’t think of another team captain that does this. He might have single-handedly dragged Liverpool over the line in Istanbul. He might have triumphed in the 2009 FA Cup Final through sheer force of will. But such anomalies are part of the vagaries, and wonder, of cup competitions. They can be won through the performances of an outstanding individual. The collective efforts required to secure a league title weed out these one man bands. August through May is an awfully long time to be Roy of the Rovers.

That Liverpool’s most talented footballer of a generation was never exactly imbued with the John Lewis collective spirit is perhaps one small factor as to why Anfield never saw a title lifted on Gerrard’s watch. It is certainly a more telling detail in why England never came close to a major final during his tenure. Getting a team of irregulars to perform as a cohesive unit isn’t especially easy when one of them thinks he’s a super hero. In terms of the game’s biggest honours, it now looks like history will remember Gerrard’s Champions League medal as a platinum-tinged wooden spoon. A top of the range bicycle one Christmas from an otherwise estranged father.

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Gerrard’s been in the dock before, but this time it isn’t for defending the honour of Phil Collins. This time he’s charged with foregoing the collective in favour of the individual. Shackled by conceit, and trapped by his own reflection, he stands accused of dousing a nation’s hopes in petrol and tossing them onto a bonfire of vanity. Steven George Gerrard, how do you plead?

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).

Lamps was unflustered.  This wasn’t the first time he’d been paired with a superficially attractive option.

Lamps was unflustered. This wasn’t the first time he’d been paired with a superficially attractive option.

Cheek by jowl: the evolution of Sam Allardyce

7 Nov

I’ve always thought Crufts was a funny one. For a while now, people have said that it was cruel: highlighting that entrants are artificially engineered to such a degree that some are in constant pain, due to unnatural body shapes. A valid grievance, I’m sure. But what no-one seems to think is strange is why we’re having a competition to see who has the most attractive dog in the first place. I simply cannot reconcile myself with how someone can look at a dog and think to himself “well this one isn’t anywhere near as good looking as that last dog”.

We worry ourselves sick about the level of violence in video games, yet we’re happy to televise this panel of “experts” – a troubling phrase in itself – give their tuppence on whether someone’s faithful pet is a bit of a looker. I’m fairly certain we’d take the piss if the North Koreans did this.

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By late 2013, the footballing public had begun to see a great deal of similarity between Sam Allardyce and Crufts. Both outdated institutions from the Midlands engaged in questionable practices. Big Sam’s droopy jowls weren’t the only thing that hinted at a very particular breeding programme going on at Allardyce’s clubs. You couldn’t help but notice how his stock of players always had very distinct specifications. Tall. Muscular. Uncompromising. Good in the air. It had been tolerated in the past, but now Big Sam’s ugly eugenics agenda was toying with the pristine DNA of West Ham United. It had to stop. Things had to change.

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And then, miraculously, change they did. They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but in an 89th minute Darwinian “Hail Mary”, Big Sam has evolved in a manner as surprising as if your Granddad had announced he’d taken up web design. At the time of writing, Allardyce is sitting pretty in fifth place with a team that, of all things, plays the West Ham way.

Additions in the final third of Enner Valencia and Diafra Sakho have provided some much needed fire-power, as well as bundles of excitement. The on-loan Alex Song adds a dab of Nou Camp polish to the East Enders’ midfield. Sam’s even managed to rejuvenate Stewart Downing from a mouse-hearted winger into a functioning central midfield playmaker. All in all, it’s fast, it’s on the deck and it’s, well, fun.

It took 24 seconds into Allardyce’s first ever interview as West Ham manager before he was asked how the “long ball” game would go down at the Boleyn Ground. After three years of trying to tempt Hammers’ fans and owners over to the dark side, the man himself has yielded to the pressure of playing attractive football. Most managers of teams in the lower half of the table spend their days battling the urge to play a little bit more agriculturally, trying to resist a mission creep of pragmatism from seeping into their tactics board. Allardyce, curiously, found himself in the opposite position. He’s being forced to play nice football.

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To understand Sam Allardyce, you have to look at the remarkable seesaw journey on which, to this day, he continues to oscillate. Written off as a dinosaur at Bolton, he proved to everyone that he was actually a managerial alchemist, guiding them to sixth place and Europe, only to look a lot like a dinosaur again in successive spells at Blackburn and Newcastle. Now, at West Ham, he has contrived to pull himself out of the tar pits once more. He’s a self-appointed master tactician who turned out to be an actual master tactician, in the process exposing his emotional fragility and torment at the world’s lack of validating approval. His underrated abilities might garner more recognition were it not for the fact that he continuously overrates himself every moment that things start looking up. In an interview with Henry Winter this week, he’s already started talking about the England job again.

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In Winter’s interview, Allardyce proffers an explanation for his genius:

There are two types of coaches. There’s coaches like me who weigh up the opposition and ask the team to adjust. Fergie was similar. Jose [Mourinho] is similar. Then there’s Arsène, who won’t adjust. There’s Brendan [Rodgers], who looks like he won’t adjust. There’s Manuel Pellegrini, who looks like he won’t adjust, even in the Champions League. He seems to favour what he’s got. City are quite open.

Their [Wenger/Rodgers/Pellegrini’s] philosophy is different to ours. Ours is more about who are we playing against. Their philosophy is more, “We always play this way”, and they won’t change, they carry doing on the same thing. That’s why you can beat them.

At a stroke, Sam has carved a line down the middle of the gaffer kingdom. Managers who adjust versus those who can’t, or won’t. The stubborn versus the wily. Sam has cast himself as King Improviser – one of the great ad libbers, along with Fergie and Mourinho. A supple and flexible managerial force somewhere between rope-a-dope and the A-Team.

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The self-eulogy continues with Allardyce crediting his father, a policeman, for passing down the strong disciplinarian approach that has been the key to his own success:

Discipline was everything. Get up for work on time, don’t be late, shave, don’t let anyone down … We lack a lot of discipline today. It’s society. As parents we’re all guilty of not disciplining our children enough. I was strong-ish with my children. I don’t think my son, who’s married now, is as strong [on discipline] as I used to be. That’s the way society has gone.

It’s a touching admission that, while Allardyce himself was a model father, he’s big enough to admit that his son may carry a few parental flaws. It must be tough for Grandpa Sam watching on as the soft sod let’s his grandson play tippy-tappy stuff in the garden, trying silly flicks instead of concentrating on the basics. Four generations of Allardyce might be the perfect allegory to help explain Broken Britain.

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But this grounding in discipline isn’t to say that Allardyce hasn’t also learned to “adjust” his moral compass from time to time, just as he has learned to adjust to opposition manager’s tactics. He let slip to Winter that his chairman at the Irish League team, Limerick, Father Joe Young, “called in a few favours” in order to pay player’s wages when times were scarce in the early ‘90s. “Divine intervention!” as Sam puts it, “[t]he collar has mighty powers over there”.

Now, some might construe ripping off the Catholic Church as a bit unseemly, but this was classic Allardyce. Identifying a weakness in others and turning it into a strength of your own. On the field of play, this might be getting at an inexperienced centre-half, or playing balls down the side of a full-back that lacks pace. In society, it was the gullibility of the spiritual that Sam could find the edge on. Questioning a congregations’ faith, while the collection tray hung heavy over them, was the ecclesiastical equivalent of firing a series of high balls into the opposition penalty area. Big Sam had been sent to test them where they were at their most vulnerable, their place of worship. Or the “mixer” as Sam liked to call it.

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Most managers are charged with a fairly simple mandate. Win more games than the last bloke. Sam, though, has an altogether different mission statement, one that is unique in world football. Sam is required to keep West Ham in the Premier League until such time as they take receipt of the Olympic stadium. The analysis being, seemingly, that Championship football would be an insult to the resident phantoms of Farah, Bolt and that lady who performed a 24-hour sit-in protest in the Judo. Sam is keenly aware that the legacy of the Games simply cannot be stained by late night analysis from Manish Bhasin and Steve Claridge. He needs to keep the Hammers prime-time. Presumably, once top-flight status is secured as the club steps over the new threshold, the board can then get Guardiola in to take over the reins.

This task of heritage preservation has been made easier due to the long term layoff of Andy Carroll. That, along with the declining powers of Kevin Nolan, has forced Allardyce to play a more expansive hand. So far, it’s working. West Ham are nice to watch. And they’re doing really well, too. The keys to the Olympic stadium will be handed over in the summer of 2016, the exact same point in time that Roy Hodgson’s England contract comes up for renewal. Allardici might still show the world there’s some life in the old dog yet.

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).

Phwoar.

Phwoar.

Renaissance man

15 Aug

Anyone who has been intimate with Ulrika Johnson knows that life can be a bit of a revolving door at times. Football is no different and, like ships in the night, as sure as one player arrives, another leaves. Sadly, for English viewers at least, Brazil 2014 was a chance to say something of a farewell to David Luiz, who has been brightening up our screens for the last four years but will join up with Paris Saint-Germain now the tournament is over. French football must be pretty excited to be taking receipt of someone who is not so much a footballer as he is a theoretical deconstruction of what it means to be “everything”.

Half a century after Total Football was pioneered, David Luiz has managed to squeeze the concept into ten less shirts than the Dutch required. Like a Swiss Army Knife or a ladyboy, Luiz contains everything you could possibly wish for. He’s Jaap Staam with a step over. A false nine in John Terry’s body. We’ve had ball-playing defenders before, for sure, but this is so much more. True genius doesn’t find a position; it creates one. David Luiz is the world’s first box-to-box centre back.

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Polymaths are hard to come by but football has found its Copernicus. Will Smith might have rapped, acted and performed stand-up comedy. But could the Fresh Prince plausibly play on the right-wing at a pinch? Not if his Bel-Air mansion depended on it. David Luiz could play there. Hell, David Luiz would probably prefer to play there.

Thiago Silva is one of the stand-out defenders of his generation, and it is a testimony to how unflappable he is that he manages to stay calm while having literally no fucking clue where Luiz is at any given moment. A look of calm bemusement sits on Silva’s face as Luiz’s bouncing blonde curls go haring into the final third. He’ll be back in the next quarter of an hour or so. Silva is probably just relieved that Luiz is restraining himself to footballing activities, and not extending his duties to further include crowd stewarding, commentary and selling programmes outside the stadium.

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Heaven only knows what Mourinho made of Luiz. You can pretty well imagine Jose’s hang dog expression when he first turned up to training to find his centre-back wearing the number 10 bib and working on his finishing. Mourinho, famously, is a man not short of humour. But married to the laughter is the sort of cold-blooded pragmatism that would draw blushes from a late-forties divorcee. The fact that Mourinho drools over a personality-defunct Slavic cyborg, in Branislav Ivanovic, while simultaneously despairing of the free-wheeling Brazilian Banter Bus shows the depths of Jose’s inner conflict on the matter. In Mourinho’s eyes, Luiz is a neknomination guised as a centre-back; beautiful, appalling, (above all) risky.

It is rumoured that no-one at Stamford Bridge has told Mourinho that Nemanja Matic is actually in his second spell at Stamford Bridge, having been initially used as a makeweight in the David Luiz purchase. Matic is a futuristic Mourinho wet dream, where Dr Jose has spliced all the best characteristics of his favourite Chelsea players to form an über-footballer. While Mourinho probably does actually know deep down that Matic was discarded plus cash in order to obtain the services of Luiz, it is thought that explicitly addressing the subject might damage an important coping mechanism that Jose has constructed. Either way, the Chelsea backroom staff aren’t taking any chances.

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And Jose isn’t the only one with reservations, either.   John Terry almost certainly regards Luiz as the product of what might have happened if Tony Benn had gotten into power. Wistful glances are made in the direction of Ashley Cole’s air rifle every time Luiz leaves the Chelsea rearguard so wantonly understaffed.   Big John cut his teeth working with serious men like Marcel Desailly and Ricardo Carvalho. Handing him David Luiz as a playing partner was akin to giving Jeremy Paxman a Tamogatchi.

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Yet, despite all of this, Laurent Blanc, one of the finest defenders of the past twenty five years, has just parted with fifty million pounds to bring David Luiz to the Parc des Princes. Luiz is now, by some yardage, the most expensive defender in the history of football.

Many people surmise that Blanc must have been at the vin rouge when he made this decision. And, of course, we’re all entitled to our own opinion on the merits of the outlay. But the fact of the matter remains that, unless you played in the AC Milan back four during the early 90’s, chances are Laurent Blanc knows more about defending than you do. So what has Blanc seen?

Well, for all the opprobrious column inches aimed at Luiz, the Brazilian’s career has nevertheless been an impressive one thus far. One of Di Matteo’s Dreamers that stretched credibility in 2012, Luiz added a Europa League trophy to his collection the following year and was two games away from a World Cup winner’s medal before the Germans left his team bloodied and horizontal in Belo Horizonte. As trite as it now sounds, Luiz had had an excellent tournament up until that point. While much was made of Brazil’s ersatz forward line, their defence had been uncompromising; conceding a miserly four goals in the first five fixtures (two of which had gone the full 120 minutes). Luiz was one of Brazil’s star performers – not only solid defensively but also chipping in with two goals and making a number of trademark surges upfield. True to form, he had been one of Brazil’s best defenders, midfielders and attackers.

Even at 27, few would argue that there is still considerable untapped potential to be realised in Luiz. Is Blanc prospecting? Maybe the wily old Frenchman sees a rare mineral twinkling in the ore; a defender unmatched in talent who is but a concentration span away from greatness. And if anyone is going to flush out Luiz’s occasional defensive narcolepsy, Blanc is the man for the task.

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Even if it doesn’t work out, I’ll still have an unshakeable fondness for David Luiz. From Henry Ford’s Model T motor car to the division of labour in pin manufacturing, via Claude Makelele, the past 200 years has been a thunderous sprint towards specialisation. Railing against this, Luiz represents a one-man battle against homogeny. For that reason alone he should be celebrated. Refusing easy definition, Luiz takes to the stage knowing that anything is possible. When it goes well, he looks like Beckenbauer on acid. When it goes bad, well, when it goes bad it’s best not to ask; but suffice to say that seven-goal annihilations in World Cup semi-finals are not out of the question. However, like an adorable puppy that’s just wet the bed, it’s difficult not to like Luiz even when things aren’t going his way.

Luiz’s time in the UK has come and gone, at least for now. He’s off to Paris, so will presumably add haute cuisine, wine-making and running a competitively priced brothel to his already enormous repertoire. Bon voyage, David! Have a fabulous time on the continent and, I suspect in not alone in saying, please do come back soon.

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).

Limited by comparison.

Limited by comparison.

When titans collide

25 Jul

Brazil 2014 was barely a week old when it witnessed what will likely be remembered as the battle of the tournament. It wasn’t the Dutch demolition of the reigning Spanish champions. Nor was it Fabio Cannavaro’s struggle to work out who Martin O’Neill was. No sir, it was the goalless draw between Brazil and Mexico that had me gripped. Billed as the five-time world champions grappling with the undisputed CONCACAF kings, the fixture also served up the equally enticing prospect of Mark Lawrenson locking horns with the Brazilian striker Jô.

Comparing talents across different disciplines is always difficult. How can assessments be drawn between the asymmetric battlegrounds of Lawrenson’s gantry and Jô’s final third? It was as difficult to call as Jedward versus the Crazy Frog. Or a Keep Calm poster pitted against June Sarpong. Nevertheless, this was knockout football and a victor had to be found on a humid night in Forteleza.

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A baby is born with only three fears – loud noises, falling, and the prospect of Garth Crooks being asked an open-ended question. All others we develop over time. I was into my teens before I learned to fear Mark Lawrenson. Lawrenson the Player was a footballer of considerable distinction. During the late ’70s and ’80s, all manner of European Cups and League titles were hoisted above the Lancastrian’s bewhiskered top lip. Had the Sky money filtered into the game a decade earlier, we may have been spared Lawrenson the Pundit. Sadly, the purse from a glittering playing career still needed to be supplemented into his dotage.

Like the canopy of a Brazilian rainforest, Lawrenson the Pundit sits atop a game of football and smothers all that lies below. Disinterested quips and lazy jibes are his mots justes – he’ll moan for ninety minutes plus stoppages. If Lawrenson had been at the Sermon on the Mount, he would have railed against the altitude. He hates himself. He hates you. But, most of all, Lawrenson really hates football.

Football’s anti-hero was in the form of his life in leading up to the Brazil v Mexico clash. Years of pestling Premier League games into the mortar had prepared Lawrenson for the big one in Brazil. Only the night before, he had dryly asked his fellow pundits on MotD Extra if they thought Askhan Dejagger’s nickname was Mick. He was ready.

Jonathan Pearce had the honour of being Lawrenson’s wet nurse for the game. Bracing himself for a long evening, Pearce was already wincing ten minutes in when Lawro opined that Raphael Marquez bursting out of defence “… just goes to show that you don’t need tattoos to be a great footballer”. By the time he had also taken umbrage with the referee not using his 10-yard spray for a free-kick (“Where’s his spray? Has it run out?”), Lawrenson was in his element, gleefully urinating all over the fixture, safe in the knowledge that no-one, nobody, was stealing a living more than he…..

Enter Jô to the fray.

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Manchester City fans have been here before. Few could forget the night Jô put Omonia Nicosia to the sword while wearing the light blue of Manchester. Ultimately, two tap-ins against a Cypriot outfit did not prove enough to warrant the £19 million outlay. Though the league goal that Jô added to his tally was appreciated, the consensus was that the club’s record spend had been unwisely invested. By the time City had won their first title in living memory, Jô was back in the Brazilian leagues, not doing what he doesn’t do best.

But somehow, like a freak storm, Jô had returned. Not just to top level football either, but the World Cup no less. The grandest stage of them all. All of a sudden, the hopes of 200 million Brazilians lay upon Jô’s unconvincing shoulders. As promotions above competency levels go, this was positively Moyes-esque.

The Daily Mirror’s Pride of Britain awards would be my first port of call for inspiration that no obstacle is too big to overcome. Watching Jô turn out for the Seleção at a World Cup comes a close second. Jô had stared into the football abyss and decided he wasn’t going to take no for an answer. He had lived to see 3-D printing, Netflix and Joey Barton appear on Question Time. Nike were right, nothing was impossible.

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As a 68th minute replacement for the beyond lethargic Fred, Jô had the world’s easiest narrative to live up to. Fred’s heat map for the game could have fitted onto a bar mat (“Warm up, you’re coming off!” – that man Lawrenson had his own views on Fred’s contribution to the game). All Jô had to do was run around a bit, not do anything terrible, and the commentators would fall over themselves to claim that the substitution had “energised” Brazil. Alas, Jô had previous for clattering into low bars of expectation and showed no signs of being troubled by this one.

With a sense of showmanship, Jô’s first touch was a textbook false dawn. He laid off a forward pass and darted into the penalty with searing intent. Lawrenson and Pearce were practically salivating at how easy he was making their job for them (“Brazil just look so much more mobile, Jonathan”). Naturally, it was a trap. Jô’s second contribution was to bring a ball under control in a dangerous position 12 yards from goal and inexplicably shepherd it to the safety of the corner flag. While Big Phil tugged uncomfortably on his branded polo shirt, a third opportunity quickly followed. Clean through on goal, Jô shanked the ball so hard into the ground that it somehow managed to start a ground level and bounce upwards.

From there on out the delivery was consistent. With a glint in his eye and a radar like a SatNav strapped to a Daddy Long Legs, Jô proceeded to show the world that Marouane Fellaini has a long way to go if he wants to be known as the benchmark for owning an afro and being utterly fucking useless. It was hard to believe stuff, but then Jô always was. Disappointment comes in all shapes and sizes. This one used to wear a snood in mid-September.

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Part of Jô’s beauty is that he is terrible in such an ordinary way. There is no harbinger of hope to attach to his gangly frame. Jozy Altodire has a physical presence that might just about convince you into believing he could manhandle a back four into submission. Watching Andy Carroll tear through the night skies in search of a high ball conjures at least the faint promise of reward. With Jô, nothing even looks likely to happen. He carries the wide-eyed futility of a boy King being asked to lead a troubled state.

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In the battle of ineptitude, it was as though Jô had grabbed the referee’s Snow in a Can and marched Lawrenson back the full ten yards. Ultimately, it was Jô’s effortlessness that proved to be the difference. Deep down, Lawrenson does actually know what he’s doing. There’s a rather sinister awareness that accompanies Lawrenson’s inanities. He knows that he’s serving you up a shit sandwich and he’s doing it deliberately. Out of spite, really. With Jô, it’s an altogether more natural phenomenon. He’s not doing it to hurt anyone. If he could do any better, he undoubtedly would. He just can’t. He’s naturally terrible.

It won’t last forever, though. It never does. History is a wheel and, somewhere on the dusty streets of Rio, Jô’s replacement is already honing his skills; primed and ready to showcase his talents to the world in four years’ time. So, too, does Lawrenson’s heir apparent wait in the wings. Groomed, media-trained and patiently biding his time, the “sixth Beetle” of the Class of ’92 will be called to the main-stage for Russia 2018. Few successors will have viewers pining for the Lawrenson “glory days”, but it’s just about possible that Robert William Savage might.

 

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Jo

Jô during a pre-season tour of the Middle East.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pard as Nails

17 Mar

I’m going to let you in on a terrible secret.  It’s about Rolf Harris – the popular children’s entertainer and host of Rolf’s Cartoon Club.  Rolf has been living a lie, it would seem.  A dark truth has been concealed under his wobble board for years.  You know those cartoons that he used to draw so quickly using a felt marker pen?  Well, apparently – and I’m almost afraid to say this – Rolf was actually just drawing over faint pencil lines that had been pre-drawn on the paper.

Shocking, isn’t it?  It’s difficult to conceive of a greater abuse of trust.  And with children, as well.  Suffice to say, he’s taken a real tumble in my estimation. Can you tell what is yet?  No, but I suspect you can, Rolf, you bloody charlatan.

I can’t listen to Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport anymore without my blood boiling.  Just thinking about the man fills me with rage – something I expect Alan Pardew will have every sympathy with.  Pardew has his own issues with anger, you see.  In his eyes, the world is chock-full of duplicitous Australian performers, all queuing up to wrong either him or his team.  Whether it’s rival managers, match officials or opposition players, Pardew vents at them all like a Doberman in a cheap suit, barking through the railings.  The reality, though, is he’s only ever really battling against one thing and one thing only.  Himself.

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Rage can gatecrash any number of circumstances.  You might be driving a car, drinking in a pub, or watching your football team field Martin Demichelis.  All of a sudden, the red mist descends, and, before you know it, you’re gunning down your girlfriend through the bathroom door.

In the court of public opinion, Pardew no longer has a leg on which to stand.  It’s happened too many times now.  Shoving linesmen, squaring up to managers and, most recently, in a coup de grâce of fury, head-butting the opposition.  Pardew’s veil of composure is as easy to pierce as damp kitchen towel. 

Lord knows what else pushes the poor man’s buttons.  You can imagine Pardew gripping the edges of the dining table, battling back the anger when the lovely Mrs Pardew serves up peas at the evening meal.  How many *times* has Pards told the missus he doesn’t like peas?  The nerve of the woman was quite something.  The only “afters” dished out at this meal table will be the slide tackle Alan executes on his wife under the table.

She’ll cop an earful at the very least, you can count on that.  Like Manuel Pellegrini did when he had the brass neck to intervene on a conversation between Pardew and a fourth official.  The Chilean might only be eight years older than Pardew, but that didn’t stop the Begbie of the Touchline telling Pellegrini to “shut your noise, you f**king old c*nt”.  He’ll know not to mess in future.

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Mind you, who wouldn’t display a certain irascibility in Pardew’s position?  The man has spent three long years working for Mike Ashley, for heaven’s sake.  And the sportswear tycoon is hell bent on cashing in on any profit, no matter how damaging the sales are to the sinews of the Newcastle squad.  Andy Carroll, Demba Ba, Jose Enrique, Yohan Cabaye – Ashley really doesn’t have much concern for the going concern.  And, for the manager, that’s got to be a concern.  When the Amex comes calling, Pardew’s players start walking.

People mock Joe Kinnear but Pardew seems to have gotten worse since he left.  While Kinnear wasn’t the king of the transfer market that some might have hoped for, perhaps there were other, more subtle, qualities he was bringing to the table.  Was Kinnear an unlikely camomile, providing soothing tones at the interface between board and gaffer?  The calming ying to Angry Alan’s fiery yang?  It was a skillfully kept secret if so.

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In management, using your head typically involves adopting a pressing game or switching to three at the back.  For Pardew, it’s an altogether more literal gambit.  Nevertheless, the stadium ban seems a touch harsh.  Surely manacling Pardew to the subs bench would have sufficed.  Or a perspex wall could have been erected around the Toon dugout.  Human Rights law seems to stop us from doing almost anything these days, but I wonder if match officials couldn’t administer Pardew with a small electric shock every time he leaves the technical area.  For all we know, a few cautious volts dispersed throughout the nervous system is all the corrective conditioning that’s required. 

Something needs to change, though, that’s for sure.  Pardew’s a lucky boy and he ought to be counting his tetchy blessings that he’s still in a job.  The head-butt was a golden opportunity for Mike Ashley to rip up Pardew’s rather generous 8-year contract without having to pay a penny.  And Mr Sports Direct sure likes a bargain. 

In the end, having Ashley as a boss might actually be the thing that saved him.  Ashley, after all, is a man who willingly employed Dennis Wise – unchecked violence clearly isn’t a major concern of his.  And while Pardew kicks his heels during a record seven game ban, who will be taking his place on the touchline?  John Carver.  Not exactly a shrinking violet himself.  Somehow, you get the impression the fun’s not quite over at St Wonga Park.

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

Pardew simply couldn’t believe the throw-in hadn’t gone Newcastle’s way.

Pardew simply couldn’t believe the throw-in hadn’t gone Newcastle’s way.

Cast off your shackles, Mr Hodgson

4 Mar

The French call it “l’eau”, the Italians call it “aqua”, the Germans “wasser”, and the English call it “water”, which of course is what the stuff actually is.  But it doesn’t stop there with foreigners – they’ve got different names for all kinds of things.  Even their national teams go by a variety of monikers.  The Brazilians will be rooting for the “Seleção” this summer.  The Germans will be getting behind the “Nationalmannschaft”, the Dutch the “Oranje”.  And, with England the only home nation left in the competition, British people will be joining together to cheer on the “Three Lions” in Brazil.

Whatever you’re national tipple, everyone, by default, has a team.  And everyone looks forward to the treat of a major summer tournament.  It’s a bit of a shame, then, that domestic clubs seem so hell-bent on ruining the international game.

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A troubling evolution has occurred over the last ten years.  International football has become tolerated.  Once heralded, it is now endured.  The domestic game has, by self-appointment, assumed a sanctioning role – prepared to brook the occasional national team fixture, seemingly as a gesture of hospitality.  As Neville “Oxlade” Chamberlain found to his cost, these sorts of “well-meaning” concessions rarely come to much good.  The reality is that high-ranking domestic managers continue to whittle away international coaches’ authority with player withdrawals, complaints about injuries suffered, threats of compensation and sideswipes over international fixture scheduling.

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Arsene Wenger neatly summed up the rather poor attitude domestic participants have to the international game.  He likened international managers to joy-riding car thieves.  “[It] is like taking the car from his garage without even asking permission.  They will then use the car for 10 days and abandon it in a field without any petrol left in the tank.  We then have to recover it, but it is broken down.  Then a month later they will come to take your car again and, for good measure, you’re expected to be nice about it.”

This is all very well.  Except, of course, the car in question isn’t fulfilling a lifelong dream.  The car won’t get to swap shirts with Neymar at the end of the joyride.  Nor will it be presented with an embroidered cap that will instantly becoming one of its most treasured possessions.  I’ll defend Arsene Wenger to the hilt against all manner of criticism and airborne pizza toppings, but he demonstrated the exact sort of attitude we need to overcome here.

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It’s an issue of mentality as much as anything.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said that “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent”.  While a lovely sentiment in principle, the former First Lady clearly never had to deal with Jose Mourinho.  Consider The Strikerless One’s spat with the French national set-up…

Taking great caution with hyperbole, Mourinho once described Raymond Domenech as treating Claude Makelele “like a slave” for calling him up to play for France against Chelsea’s wishes (not against Makelele’s wishes, you understand – he was willing to play).  Poor old Domenech.  It must be a battle not to let self-doubt creep in when your behavior is being likened to the worst atrocity in history.  And all for the crime of wanting a bit of extra protection in front of the back four.

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Last season, it was alleged that Rio Ferdinand was threatened with not having his Manchester United contract renewed if he declared himself eligible to play for England again.  If true, it is a tragedy that this sort of pressure is brought to bear on players (even if, in Ferdinand’s case, he might now be lamenting a gilt-edged opportunity to have extricated himself from the Old Trafford sinking ship).  The covalent bonds of a national team simply cannot forge if there are such persistent countervailing domestic forces. 

The England squad is currently convening for their friendly against Denmark tomorrow evening.  Ask yourself, how likely is it that at least one premier league manager will bemoan either the timing of the fixture or an injury arising as a result of it?  As if fixture congestion and injuries are anything other than an inevitability of the game.

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International football must be allowed to regain its standing.  In search of a solution, I went down to Basement Floor 2 of Too Good Towers to see if our legal team had any thoughts on the matter.  By golly, there were some sun-deprived faces down there.  They’re an odious bunch, too, but the work they did in getting that restraining order lifted that Gareth Barry took out on me was nothing short of remarkable.  So I was all ears to their proposals.  After several hours of listening to them complain about getting paid too little, they came up with the idea of a Charter.

They suggested that the FA should request all 92 league clubs to enter into a binding resolution, whereby each club agrees that the English national team is to be given preeminence.  Each club gives the modest pledge not to interfere with England squad selection or publicly complain about the injuries and fixture congestion that arise from international matches (including friendlies and England youth team fixtures).  If all the clubs sign up to the Charter, nobody is prejudiced in doing so.  If any particular club feels unable to put pen to paper, their players are disbarred from selection for the national side. 

Having agreed to abide by the terms of the Charter, any manager or club official who contravenes it will receive a fine, with such fines compounded for repeat offenders.  The rationale for the proposal is clear – domestic clubs are allowed to profit to great extent through the provision of national leagues to play in by football associations.  The least they can do in return is not to actively frustrate the endeavours of the national team. 

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The relationship between the domestic and international game in football is unique.  Both thrive in terms of popularity to an extent that cannot be said of any other sport.  Like other special relationships, though, it’s recently gone a bit sour. 

The domestic game has turned into a bully, and denial of this reality isn’t going to help matters.  There’s no use in the international game covering up the bruises and telling itself that “the domestic game loves me really”.  This tactic didn’t work with Chris Brown and it sure as hell isn’t going to work with Jose Mourinho.  Enough is enough.  It’s time for the international game to reassert itself.

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

Drastic measures were required to rehabilitate Mr Mourinho.
Drastic measures were required to rehabilitate Mr Mourinho.

Britain’s Got Carragher

24 Feb

Consistency can be both a blessing and a burden.  Take, for instance, the classic game show Family Fortunes hosted by Les Dennis.  Each week, when a wildly unlikely answer was blurted out by an excitable guest, Dennis would turn to the camera and snort: “If that’s one of the answers … I’ll give you the money meself!”  (Les was of sufficient means to make such a promise sound believable, as well as simply patronising).  The crowd would go wild every time Dennis delivered the line.  It was funny last week.  It was funny this week.  And, as sure as Neil Morrissey was knocking the back clean out of Les’ missus during filming hours, it would be funny the next week.

Except, of course, eventually it stopped being funny.  Eventually, like Morrissey himself, the audience began to tire of the repetition.  “Naomi Campbell” was never going to be one of the answers for “A bird with a long neck” and Les was never going to have to put his hand in his pocket.  The very consistency of the punchline that had been so soothing for so long eventually began to grate.

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Jamie Carragher is similarly both enriched and encumbered by the double-edged sword of consistency.  Except, with Carragher, it isn’t dogged reliance on a hackneyed early evening punchline that operates as both the feather in his cap and the thorn in his side.  It’s the consistency of his haste.

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It’s easy to forget that James Lee Duncan Carragher actually played a number of positions before eventually settling into his career-defining centre-back role.  The boy from Bootle was nearly 26 by the time he found a permanent home in the middle of the back four.  There are a number of styles of centre-back play and it was easy to pick out which style Carragher was.  Defending the “Carragher Way” was break-neck, seat-of-the-pants stuff.  Danger was never far away and Carragher was always on hand to play the hero.  He was the Scouse Indiana Jones; last ditch tackles in the penalty area while being chased by an improbably large boulder.  It was hair-raising stuff and it looked fantastic on the extended highlights.

The natural contrast in style might be Rio Ferdinand.  Ferdinand is almost never on Match of the Day because nothing much ever happens in his part of the pitch.  Watching Ferdinand defend is like watching a film where the bomb is deactivated several hours before its scheduled detonation.  It’s just not very good television.

Carragher, on the other hand, could regularly be seen scrabbling at the wires with seconds to go before half the city was blown away.  Cut the red wire, or cut the green wire?  If Rio Ferdinand gave the impression of someone locked in a game of chess on the pitch, Carragher looked more like he was on Noel’s House Party playing Grab A Grand.  Each blocked shot and frantic clearance providing another clip for the ex-professionals in the studio to extol Carragher’s virtues.  “What Liverpool’s rivals wouldn’t give to have a last line of defence like Carragher”, they would wonder.

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Carragher has almost certainly never heard of the Superior Pilot Syndrome.  A superior pilot uses his superior judgment to avoid situations that would require the use of his superior skills.  Whereas players like Ferdinand, Ricardo Carvalho and Vincent Kompany use vision and pre-emptive strategies to snuff out threats at source, it is entirely possible that Carragher views foresight as a kind of gamesmanship.  Not out and out cheating perhaps, but certainly not something we want to see in the English game.  Plus it’s harder to rally the crowd with a careful interception forty yards from goal.

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But haste isn’t just a style of play for Carragher.  It’s an ethos.  A way of life, even.  Carragher’s single biggest fear might be failing to strike while the iron is hot.  A fan throws a coin at you during a game?  Hurl the coin back into the crowd with force.  A radio show host calls you a “bottler” for contemplating international retirement at the tender age of 29?  Ring the guy up and have it out with him on air. 

When it transpired that his then teammate Rigobert Song had been expressing a certain mirthy surprise at Carragher receiving an international call-up, there was only one manner in which Carragher felt able to respond.  Instantly.  Carragher did his best to cripple Song in the ensuing training session and, having achieved this aim, cheerfully remarked “You’re not f***ing laughing now are you, you soft twat?” 

Carragher’s characteristic speed of thought and decisive response provided concern for us all.  The entire nation had expressed a certain mirthy surprise at Carragher’s call-up.  Would he engage all 53 million of us in a small-sided training game and clatter the lot of us?  Where would he get all the bibs?  Perhaps he would outsource the hit to his mates, as he had bragged about doing in a tale of retribution against Lucas Neill in his autobiography (Neill had broken Carragher’s leg during an ugly encounter in 2003). 

Carragher “boys” were apparently ready and willing to “hunt Neill down”.  Indeed, they very nearly exacted a bloody revenge on behalf of their man in that well know gladiatorial arena, the Trafford Centre, were it not for a merciful Carragher calling off his troops at the last moment.  Pretending to be a bit of a Merseyside mafiosa figure probably seemed like a good idea at the time of writing his book.  However, again, you have to wonder if Don Carragher had thought very far ahead in making such proclamations when a potentially lucrative career in television was waiting just around the corner once his playing days were over…

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Punditry was supposed to be a new chapter in Carragher’s life.  Being a player was just the opening act – an “amuse-bouche” that would be bettered by studio analysis, coaching, management.  Director of Football, even?  Nothing was impossible.

What’s more, the microphone would provide the world with an opportunity to see a more considered and thoughtful side to Jamie’s personality.  Parachuted straight into the prime slot on Sky Sports, too. It was all teed up for him.  If they thought Gary Neville was good, wait until they got a bit of 23 Carra-gold.  He’d be Andy Gray without the sexism.

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Carragher sat down in his chair on Day 1 like he was king of the playground.  There was a sense of unearned entitlement in his posture that screamed “I’m the man here, now.  And if you think I’m not having the last word in at least three out of every five conversations, you’ve got another thing coming”.

Alas, in the studio, as on the pitch before it, Carragher still retained the demeanour of a fireman rushing off to the wrong fire.

Despite having exchanged boots for brogues, Carragher would still flail his arms around and gesticulate excitedly, as though participating in an enthusiastic game of Pictionary.  Nobody doubted the man’s exuberance, but it was all very apparently off the cuff.  One of his earliest oratorical gambits was to dismiss Papisse Cisse’s religious beliefs live on air as “all that crap over the summer”.  Words you have to assume he hadn’t crafted carefully in advance.  Later into the season he claimed he expected Manchester City to pick up 30 points from the next six games. By the time he had broken out a wildly confused analogy comparing diving to how you would react to being punched in front of your wife, it was like Jamie was back on the field of play once more, last ditch tackling the ball into his own net.

Maybe Carragher didn’t realise that Neville the Pundit had actually been doing what Neville the Player had also been doing for an entire career.  Research.  Planning.  The sort of hard miles that gets you 85 England caps and eight league titles.  If it looked easy, it was because Neville was still putting in all the same effort and endeavour that he had used to compensate for his fairly limited footballing ability.  Except now he was the one with the talent.  Neville had a natural flair for talking about football.  Couple this with the work ethic and diligence that had helped him keep up with Giggs, Scholes and Beckham on the field of play, and it made for excellent punditry off it. 

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Jamie Carragher is still a relatively young man.  He can take comfort from the fact that the wisdom accrued from advancing years often begets patience.  This is just as well, as a career in management inevitably beckons for the whole-hearted Liverpudlian.  And a spell in the technical area is going to be a sobering experience for Jamie unless he acquires a little forbearance.  He must learn to think before he speaks, or it’ll be death by a thousand cuts from dressing room bust-ups, touchline bans and lost mind games.

Perhaps the cure is to teach Carragher self-restraint as you would a four year old.  Put a sweet in front of him and tell him, if he can leave it alone for five minutes, he can have the whole bag.  Or challenge him to go second in the analysis for every question of an entire episode of Monday Night Football.  One way or another, he needs to learn to stop barging down doors instead of using the bloody handle.  Carragher’s career is moving ever more towards situations where thought is required before action.  If he can’t make the necessary changes in mindset, he’s very quickly going to find out that those who fail to prepare must, inevitably, prepare to fail.

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

Neville refused to be overawed by his new challenger.

Neville refused to be overawed by his new rival.

Wide of the mark

6 Feb

The Ministry of Defence recently announced that £5,800 of Viagra has gone missing from their supplies.  Quite why the army is using Viagra remains a mystery.  Suffice to say, if I was an Afghan insurgent, I’d be nervous.  There’s fighting dirty, and then there’s a passionate brand of “chemical warfare” that goes way beyond the pale.

Potency is critical, though; in all walks of life.  Whether you’re bearing down on goal or staring into the eyes of a terrified farmer with a hand rifle, you can’t be afraid to be the one that pulls the trigger first.  He who isn’t decisive risks his own mortality or, worse still, three points dropped.

Understanding this truism makes one type of footballer all the more curious.  For one genus of player is the very definition self-mollifying impotence.  The sort of unfortunate creation that, like the atomic bomb or Sally Bercow, we wish we could un-invent.  I speak, of course, of the Non-Scoring Striker.

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The closest equivalent to the Non-Scoring Striker in zoological terms might be the mule.  An evolutionary dead-end.  Or, for those of faith, one of God’s mistakes.  Either way, one thing is certain: while content to live out its own existence, the Non-Scoring Striker will not spawn any progeny.  No child in the land tells his father he’s going to be the next Cameron Jerome.

For clarity, I have nothing but love for this unexpected creature.  Sport, famously, is about the taking part.  The Non-Scoring Striker has just as much right to be out there as any other type of footballer.  But it is nevertheless the case that, like candy floss and women called Gretchen, there’s just no explaining their existence.  What is the point of the Non-Scoring Striker?  If Jamie Mackie falls in the woods, would it affect the scoreline?  One suspects not.  Does David N’Gog matter?  I couldn’t swear to you, hand on heart, that any result in the history of football would be any different if Mr and Mrs Altidore hadn’t engaged in one particular knee-trembler during the Spring of ’89.

Yet the game is awash with them.  Kevin Davies.  Carlton Cole.  Jon Walters. Victor Anichebe.  Alan Smith.  Luke Moore.  Anyone with the surname Ameobi.  These are players who couldn’t sort out their feet in front of goal any sooner than they could sort out the Middle East.  Each one of them a millionaire.

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There’s no doubting who was the doyenne of the floundering front-men.  That would be Emile Ivanhoe Heskey.  Truly, Heskey was the magnum opus of misaligned marksmen.  A man who reached exalted status among the Non-Scoring Striker fraternity by amassing 62 full international caps.  Just the one cap less than Alan Shearer.  Nobody couldn’t put the ball in the back of the net quite like Heskey couldn’t.

Heskey was a curate’s egg of hold-up play, knock-downs and fifty-fifty challenges.  Crucially, though, never any end product.  Ever.  It was like playing an enthusiastic Catholic girl up top.  An “everything but” scenario that was lively but, ultimately, gave rise to frustration and a nagging feeling that everyone was wasting their time.

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The barn-door is always open for new members at the Non-Scoring Strikers’ Convention.  Danny Welbeck recently had a narrow escape from this most regrettable of clubs.  A measly two goals in forty games last year playing up front for the runaway champions was ominous stuff.  Welbz was about to be branded with the cruellest of hot pokers.  One can only imagine the sheer terror the poor lad must have felt; mentally tethered to a “cow’s arse” while the death laser slowly moved up towards his misfiring “banjo”.  The nation breathed a collective sigh of relief when young Danny rediscovered what the French would call his raison d’être.  Nine priceless goals this season have saved his soul and with it, undoubtedly, his sanity.

The strange thing in Welbeck’s instance is he only needs to peer across the training ground for a perfect case study on how the job is supposed to be done.  Javier Hernandez has the instincts of a born killer.  A man who, the very moment his team gains possession of the football, charges unthinkingly into the opponent’s penalty area.  No “ifs”.  No “buts”.  Like Ryan Giggs when he pays a visit to his brother’s house, there’s only one thing on his mind.  Get in there and do the bloody business.  Welbeck really ought to have been taking notes.

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So what happened to these godforsaken souls?  Did something get wrongly emphasised at a critical stage of their development?  Too much of a weighting placed on the team, perhaps, rather than the score-sheet? And is there a cure for NSS?

If I had my way, I would sit all of these Non-Scoring Strikers down and show them a tape of every single one of Filippo Inzaghi’s 219 senior goals.  Alex Ferguson once described Inzaghi as being “born offside”.  I find it strange that, of all people, Ferguson – a man who hand-picked some of the best strikers of the last 25 years – could so badly misunderstand Inzaghi.  Did he not grasp that, after getting caught offside for the sixth time, on the seventh time around Inzaghi would spring the trap with such precision and beauty that he would find himself in absolutely acres of space and a one-on-one with the keeper (something of not inconsiderable assistance for a gentleman with no discernible pace)?  Could he not see that Inzaghi had a level of conviction in front of goal that would see him gladly locked up for the sins of scoring a brace away at Livorno?

A few years ago now, Super Pippo scored perhaps the most beautiful goal I have ever seen.  He had received the ball deep into the penalty area and was immediately confronted by two defenders in close proximity.  With little time to react and no momentum in his favour, Inzaghi flicked the ball against the thigh of one of the defenders, and then jumped between the two of them (there was about a yard gap) into an area he roughly predicted the ball may ricochet into.  Having gotten suitably close to the ball with his two-footed leap, he was just about able to then attach his shin to the ball coming up on the half volley in order to propel it goal-wards.  As you might imagine, such an attempt on goal did not carry a great deal of force.  However, the effort was just about sufficient to beat a thoroughly foxed goalkeeper and, magnificently, crossed the goal-line without even having enough pace to go on to touch the net.

There are a number of ways one could try to describe the single-minded brilliance and the level of desire required to score a goal like that.  However, it might just be simpler to conclude that it was not one you would anticipate Jeremie Aliadiere scoring any time soon.

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

A challenging proposition.

A challenging proposition.


Room for improvement?

30 Jan

Some people love a good cry, don’t they?  There was a young fan on television a few years back, bawling his eyes out because Spurs had been knocked out of the Carling Cup third round.  I remember thinking to myself, if the third round of the League Cup is enough to set him off, the lad was going to be in a world of trouble when he’s old enough to understand the concept of affordable housing.

The whimpering young Tottenham-ite is not alone, though.  Many of us seemingly need to let it all out on a weekly basis.  Whether it be on a Saturday evening, watching Simon Cowell and his band of vocal moderators dash another young person’s hope of becoming a singer.  Or blubbing along to “The Biggest Loser”, a show in which the tears flow by the gallon when an out-of-work Texan truck driver briefly dips below the 300 pound mark.

Football could be doing a lot more to make people cry.  Clearly, some folks aren’t able to have fun unless they’re getting their money’s worth from a hanky at the same time.  So let’s give them something to well up over. 

Thankfully, our emotive brothers from across the pond are way ahead of us on this one.  The Doodle Dandies have long since introduced an award into their sporting spheres that is guaranteed to have us all bawling like a mum at a wedding.  The Most Improved Player award.

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There’s an obvious pitfall that the Most Improved Player award ought to try to avoid.  It needs to swerve becoming a back-handed compliment along the lines of “I see you’re not quite as rubbish as you used to be”.  At my first Sunday League club, there was always a prize at the end-of-season gala called “The Clubman Award”.  With damning inevitably, this award bore an annual route into the feckless hands of whoever had been the most unused substitute that year.  The keen-spirited sap who, on the rare occasions of being called into service, was often required to do so sporting the indignity of the wrong coloured shorts; or a “closely-approximating” civilian t-shirt.  Sadly, the nearest this pocket Pele usually got to the action was being roped into running one of the lines.

There was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what the Clubman Award amounted to.  It was a crushing blow for any parent daring to dream they might be fostering the next Gary Lineker.  It was a plaque-based tribute to lousy genetics; insisting on pride of place on the mantelpiece.

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Care must be taken not to let the MIP be seen as the low-hanging fruit of the awards ceremony.  Like the Clubman Award before it, it mustn’t become some sort of homage to mediocrity.  And, of course, it needn’t be.  Arguably, for instance, Gareth Bale could have been a two-time MIP winner based on the monumental leaps he made to his game in 2010/2011 and then again in 2012/13. 

But the winner doesn’t have to be a world-beater, either.  That’s the beauty of it.  Last season also saw the culmination of a journey for Rickie Lambert that went from stuffing beetroot to stuffing Scotsmen.  He was another strong candidate for the 2012/13 award.

Properly calibrated, the award should operate independently of a player’s ability and look only to the improvements made.  The aim being to perform a standardised test of actual improvement over and above expected improvement (thus normalising the gains one would assume a younger player will achieve from season to season, without unnecessarily discounting them from the award).  In theory, then, the award is just as likely to be won by the best or the worst footballer in the league, and everyone in between.  With that in mind, let’s have a look at who is in the running for the 2013/14 MIP.

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Jordan Henderson has to be a contender.  Henderson could be forgiven for wondering how much of a Liverpool career he was actually going to have in the summer.  The ground beneath him was beginning to splinter, and few would have been surprised if Brendan Rogers packed Henderson into the same crate marked “For shipping” as those other gurning parochial oddities who failed to light up the centre of the Anfield park, Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing. 

Six months on and he’s almost undroppable.  He still gallops around the pitch like a zebra who’s just taken a well-meaning syringe to the buttocks from the park ranger.  But he’s now complementing his very considerable lungs with a generous dollop of panache.  His passing has come on a treat and some of his final balls into (usually) Luis Suarez have been first class.  Six premier league assists for the ever-present Merseyside Mackem demonstrates how his technical side has progressed.  If Henderson continues with the good work and wins the Most Improved Player accolade, then perhaps author and former Manchester United manager, Alex Ferguson, can present him with the award.

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Aaron Ramsey must be another MIP hopeful.  If people really do want tears weaving their way down cheeks like a mazy Chris Waddle dribble, then Aaron’s your man.  There wouldn’t be a dry eye in the house if Ramsey won the award.  Many players wouldn’t have recovered at all from the sort of injury Ramsey cruelly suffered at the Britannia Stadium in 2010 and yet look at the season he’s having.

He’s managed an incredible goal every other game from midfield and has been committing defender after defender with wonderful flair on the ball.  Jack Wilshere has almost become an after-thought at the Emirates; forced out to the graveyard slot of left-midfield in order to accommodate the brilliance of Ramsey and Özil in the middle.  But, on their own, Ramsay’s performances don’t tell the full story…

Before the start of this season, Ramsey’s career looked destined to be played out in the shadow of an imaginary career that he would have had but for that Ryan Shawcross tackle.  He was his own nearly man.  It was grimacing to watch as the haunting spectre of an entire career never to be fulfilled was laid out in front of him.  And yet, now, going in to February, Ramsey is probably only the width of one Uruguayan’s brilliance away from the main Player of the Year award.  It’s fantastic to see.  Here’s to a dream turnaround continuing and I hope he puts four past Stoke in March.

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While we’re at the Emirates, what about Mathieu Flamini?  A man who, in August, was effectively valued at zero when Arsene Wenger went down to the footballing equivalent of Battersea Dog’s Home and saw a familiar face drooling through the protective wire.  No prominent league position could have been maintained without the snarling Gallic warrior poet doing the lion’s share of the nasty stuff that Arsenal have lacked in recent years.  If the Gunners look sturdier this year, it is noteworthy that his addition, free of charge, is the only change in the defensive half of Arsenal’s pitch.

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When Phil Bardsley was photographed last May lying down in a casino covered in £50 notes, Paolo Di Canio was not in the least bit amused. He declared that Bardsley would never play for Sunderland again.   For a manager who went on to sign 14 unproven players in the summer, fell out with all of them, and then had a “heated discussion” with 5,000 travelling Sunderland fans in front of live TV cameras, you might be forgiven for thinking that Di Canio would have had sympathy for man who likes a bit of a gamble.  But it wasn’t so.  The right-back was out on his ear.  Some way short of assuming the role of peace-maker, Bardsely took to social media to poke fun at Sunderland’s opening day loss.  Having been unable to find a new club over the summer – further hindered by breaking his foot during pre-season – it would be fair to say that Bardsley’s career was not in the ascendancy.

Bardsley is what you might affectionately call the unreconstituted type.  His game is based on those classic British qualities of grit, determination and an ability to put the willies up foreign wingers.  Helpfully, he has the physical characteristics to play this role to a tee.  Such is his heavy brow and Neanderthal features, you wouldn’t be surprised if, at some point in his life, Bardsley had lost a family member to a swooping pterodactyl.  And having outlasted the woolly mammoth, the dodo and the fragmentation of Pangaea, Bardsley wasn’t about to let an emotional Roman with a questionable temperament consign him to extinction.

Bardsley was straight back into the team on Gus Poyet’s arrival and has been indispensable ever since.  With a solitary point to their name, Sunderland were dead and buried when Di Canio exited.  Bardsley’s uncompromising defending has helped them into a position where they now have a fighting chance of survival.  What’s more, this “traditional” full-back has been doing it at both ends of the pitch.  A derby win against the Toon was followed up with a victory over Manchester City, with Bardsley scoring the only goal of the game.  In the League Cup Semi-Final, First Leg against Manchester United (his alma mater), Bardsely forced Ryan Giggs into an own goal that had the Black Cats dreaming of Wembley.  As an encore, Super Phil then scored the critical goal in the Second Leg.  Sunderland now look forward to a first cup final appearance in 22 years. 

Despite being written off as prehistoric, Bardsley has shown a Darwinian ability to adapt that is key to any premiership footballer’s survival.  Strong MIP material in anyone’s book.

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Sport is one of mankind’s most noble pursuits.  It manifests a desire of people to improve; whether it be against the clock or against others.  Which is why, for me, the Olympic motto cuts far more powerfully than any medal ceremony.  Faster, Higher, Stronger.  Despite sounding unerringly like a Viagra advert, these words remind us that the only real failure is not making betterment itself your aim. 

Most sportsmen and women will, by the nature of things, never be the best at their sport.  However, there is a lot to be said for recognising those who have made the greatest strides towards reaching that pinnacle, whatever their start position.  Expect to therefore see a “Most Improved of the English Game” trinket being handed out at the Too Good awards ceremony in May.

Hankies at the ready.

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

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A man who knew a thing or two about improvement.

A man who knew a thing or two about improvement.