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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.

 

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).

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.

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).

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.

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).

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?

————

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.

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.

 

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).

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.