Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Sympathy for the Devil

Daniel Levy is often derided as all that is wrong with Tottenham Hotspur. If we sell or buy someone it is his fault, we lose its his fault, our stadium isn't built its his fault and he never seems to get praise for any of the positive things he and ENIC have brought to the club. Well this is my attempt to readdress the balance ever so slightly. As you all aware of Levy's reputation you will know this isn't something he has paid me to do.

There are many things Levy gets wrong, corporate things; when his penchant for squeezing the last penny sells us short witnessed in the cases of Berbatov and Moutinho, the pricing of games, the toxic Stubhub deal and his conveyor belt of managers: except I would argue that our managerial problems have not been entirely his fault.

There have been 12 or 9 appointments (depending on whether caretaker managers are included) during ENIC's 13 year reign which is a large turnover, but instead of looking at that stat lets break it down to each individual case.

George Graham was in place when ENIC took over from Alan Sugar (I refuse to give him his prefix), when we were a dull, mid-table team. He was sacked allegedly for leaking sensitive financial information about the clubs ability to purchase new players. From a footballing and personal perspective the decision to terminate his contract was correct.

David Pleat took charge after Graham and again after Hoddle but that was only going to be in a caretaker position so I will not dwell on that temporary appointment.

Glenn Hoddle was sacked after a two year spell which led to Spurs having the worst points tally in the Premiership for 2003, only 22 points from 23 matches. There were also not so hushed rumours that Hoddle had long since lost the dressing room, aided by our old friend Tim Sherwood constantly swiping in the press following his sale. Levy's comments on Hoddle's dismissal was that it was due to an '...unacceptable lack of progress and any visual sign of improvement.' which is reason enough.

Jaques Santini was a bold move, moving from the French national side it could be argued that this was the sort of manager Spurs should be attracting and he was certainly sought after by many clubs. He quit after only five months supposedly for personal reasons but now widely believed to be because of his relationship with the Sporting Director, Frank Arnesen. Levy cannot take responsibility for Santini's resignation other than refusing to remove his highly respected Danish colleague. Martin Jol, his assistant, a man brought to the club by Arnesen took charge.

Many Spurs fans remember Jol's time fondly. He elevated Spurs from the mid-table mediocrity that had suffocated them for the last decade and pushed them into the European qualifications we take for granted now days. When we think of his dismissal all that we can remember is the callous and unprofessional way it was handled. Rumours of his sacking came just before our UEFA Cup game against Getafe and Jol himself learned only of his dismissal through a text from a friend at half time. The official axe was only wielded after the game. It was an awful botching of an execution, but in truth that only masks the fact he had only one win in ten matches that season, the worst start to a campaign for Spurs in the nineteen previous years. He was also starting to lose the dressing room amidst rumours of arguments with Dimitar Berbatov among others. Whilst those factors were undoubtedly responsible it must be acknowledged that Juande Ramos had long been courted as a replacement. Levy must take blame here for the handling of the situation although a leak in communications is always difficult to stop. However he had been disappointed with the form and the dressing room difficulties and had acted quickly.

Clive Allen took caretaker charge for a game so will become yet another stat in the managerial dagger used to harm Levy.

Juande Ramos arrived on the back of European and domestic cup success at Sevilla and much was expected. An ambitious Levy hoped that Ramos would break them into the top four and the lucrative Champions League, perhaps even an elusive trophy. The trophy did come, the Carling Cup win of 2009 which was followed by a poor finish to the season. Pre-season brought great expectation, especially the form of Darren Bent. Large money was spent on Modric, Gomes and less well on Bentley and Pavlyuchenko (although both appeared good purchases at the time) but competitive football proved less fruitful. Largely hindered by the last minute sale of Berbatov with Fraizer Campbell as replacement it was never going to be easy but four points adrift at the bottom of the league with just two points from eight games was always going to require action. So Ramos was removed as was the Sporting Director position of Damien Comolli, Arnesen's successor.

Harry Redknapp, for all of his faults, was the perfect manager to rectify the situation Spurs found themselves in. Levy cited this himself  'Harry's experience of the UK and international transfer market will be of critical importance.' We had great times under Harry, exciting, free-flowing football which brought with it top four finishes and the Champions League but his model was never sustainable in the long-term. Redknapp himself doesn't build for the long-term but he is a fantastic manager to deal with short-term problems. He thrives on a reputation for unearthing Lampard, Ferdinand, Defoe, Carrick and Joe Cole but they were products of a great academy and he has not had any significant record since. Under another fantastic academy at Southampton he gave Theo Walcott his debut, but with the performances he was giving in the academy that was inevitable. His time at Spurs, Portsmouth and QPR is littered with experienced pros 'doing a job.' Such reckless short-termism is never wise for a football club, as Portsmouth and Southampton found to their peril. He was backed by a large element of the Spurs fan-base, no mean feat, but his lack of tactical knowledge, the openness with his many friends in the media, his coverting of the England job and the damaging court case led to the only decision Levy could make. Even the staunchest of Redknapp fans, his son excluded, should be able to see why the decision was imperative for the future of the club.

Andre Villa-Boas may have come off the back of a failure at Chelsea but to be honest if he hadn't we would not have been able to attract him. After his amazing first season at Porto, there was still enough glitter remaining to excite and placate us. The sale of Modric was a hard pill to swallow, especially as Moutinho, Villa-Boas' replacement was never brought in. Levy's incessant haggling like a tourist in a Marakesh Market was largely at fault and for this he should be blamed. Villas-Boas' first season was very successful in terms of our record Premier League points total. Much of this was masked by the explosion of Gareth Bale, a player almost sold for a minimal amount by Redknapp years before. So many games domestically and abroad were rescued by Bale's excellence. His excellence was a strange one. As with his recent success in the Champions League Final I found he would often do absolutely nothing for large portions of the game and then suddenly destroy the opposition in a moment reminiscent of a child playing in a team three ages younger. With Bale's sale much has been made of the players brought in and I would stand by my original opinion that individually each of these signings are good signings and at a good price. Perhaps Baldini, or whoever is responsible, is guilty of buying too many similar players (the purchase of essentially four number 10s in Eriksen, Paulinho, Chadli and Lamela when essential positions like left back were unfilled is sinful) but each individually were good buys. These players, with the exception of Eriksen have not played to the best of the capabilities, mostly down to rotation and not playing to their strengths, resulted in poor confidence. I wanted to love Villas-Boas, I wanted a youthful, long-term manager with tactical acumen so badly but there were a number of problems that didn't look like they were going to be rectified. He struggled to learn from mistakes, his high-line with slow defenders, the tracking back of all attacking players except the lone, rather immobile forward, the indecisive possession for possession's sake passing, none of these problems were addressed and it felt like they never would be. For all our love for AVB let us remember the games were dull, almost every single one and surely someone who doesn't learn from their tactical mistakes time and time again cannot be described as tactically adept. The persona of AVB had us fooled.

Tim Sherwood, despite any protestations was never supposed to be permanent. A contract was worked out that suited both parties, Sherwood was able to raise his profile playing the hard done-by manager and Levy was able for the first time in his reign to work out a plan for what they wanted. We have often criticised Levy and the board for not having a coherent strategy for the club, we point to the constant lurching from one style of management to another but each of the decisions have been made as a reaction, to resolve a problem quickly. For the first time I believe Levy has stood back, written off the season and taken the time to look at what and indeed who Tottenham Hotspur are. Daniel's comments in the meeting with the Tottenham Hotspur Supporters' Trust  this month were telling, he explained how '...we needed a manager who believed in our football philosophy, where we would be entertained...ideally, we want someone who can bring the best out of experienced players and bring through youth too.' This was so encouraging to hearm that there was long-term plan to the Board's thinking.

Yes of course in 18 months time it is possible that we wil be re-hashing our comments and blogs as Alan Curbishley is poised to save us from relegation but let us have a little optimism...just for a while.

Pocchettino is exactly the tpe of manager Levy identified and exactly the time of manager we need. van Gaal wouldn't have given us the identity we need, he is perhaps too large a poersonality for that. Benitez is another example of a great short-term manager, De Boer is ambitious but his tiki-taka requires more pateince and a different set of players than we have. Pochettino will bring us a high tempo, high pressure attacking game whilst strenghtening our defence, bringing the best out of our exisiting players and utilising our fantastic academy. It may not get us to where we want to go but at least we are pointing in the right direction.

So lets cut Levy a little slack, just a little. Remember where we were when he found us and where we are now. The delay with the ground cannot be laid at his feet unless he owns Archway Sheet Metal and is holding out for a better deal. His squeezing of the pennies brought us Eriksen for only £11m, Van der Vaart for £8m, makes a profit on the poorest of players and has us in a strong financial position. The Board have also suggested the StubHub deal will be reviewed. Most importantly we have, at last, a plan.

So for once lets all get behind Levy, behind Pochettino, behind Vertonghen and Paulinho, hell even behind Danny Rose, because they are Spurs and they need us.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

The Myth of Hercules and the Mighty Ducks

I am sad to announce the F.A. Cup has died. Somewhere in the early 21st Century the once beloved national treasure passed away in its sleep. It leaves behind a younger brother the League Cup, who has gone by many a nom de plume and successful cousin the Champions League. A memorial to help remember how good it once was will be held annually. Donations can be made to the F.A. who are always willing to receive any good-will of this sort.

I have not watched an FA Cup Final since Michael Owen’s late double secured victory against Arsenal in 2001. It was a strange new world, Wembley Stadium was being torn down and the trophy was moving to Wales. The excitement I had as a child watching Ian Rush knocking down the camera buried in the corner of the net in '86, Keith Houchen's diving header in '87 and Dave Besant palming John Aldridge's penalty away to make history in '88 has been lost. I remember the days fondly. A trip to WH Smiths for the programme aside we did not leave the house, watching for hours as the crowds poured up Wembley Way toward those regal towers. The BBC features beforehand, the player profiles, their road to Wembley and most importantly their FA Cup Final songs. When did those songs stop?
There are many reasons for the dissolving of this passion. Firstly let us not be naive nostalgia paints everything with kindness and excitement. Perhaps there are ten year olds that in a decade's time will fondly remember Ben Watson's 91st minute header for relegated Wigan over behemoths Manchester City and not the other 90 dull minutes that preceded it. 
Television coverage plays its part. Since it moved to Sky the terrestrial coverage has been poor and relies heavily on a captive audience. The change of kick off time to an evening match to secure another chunk of money was also a further chip away at the veneer of its beauty, as was the year Manchester United decided not to be in it. How can a cup be the greatest cup competition if a team, if the most successful team in English football, refuses to play in it? Another problems lies with the rising popularity of the Champions League in english football. Everything has become about qualifying for that elusive cash-cow. A season is a disaster or a success based on qualification even if the difference is only a point. 
The FA Cup fails to move me as an entity anymore, the odd game may excite in isolation but the magic the cup once had has gone. For me the F.A. Cup is dead.
Except, perhaps its not.
Perhaps the magic is hidden and we have to try harder to unearth it.
My father has a similar attitude to football as me. He would watch two dogs kick a ball about in a park and enjoy it. On a Saturday morning in my childhood we would look through the newspaper to see who was playing locally and off we would go to Stamford Bridge, Loftus Road, Elm Park (Reading), Manor Ground (Oxford United), Loakes/Adams Park (Wycombe Wanderers) or lower down into the conference and beyond to Aylesbury, Marlow or Flackwell Heath. This was back in a time when you could watch a team without a season ticket, or pre-booking, or paying more than the money in your pocket. The crowds and of course the grounds differed enormously but it didn't matter to us. The football was relative to the opposition and soon you would swear that the striker would be at a big club soon.
In 1994 one Saturday we went to watch Aylesbury United put Boreham Wood to the sword three goals to one in the 1st Qualifying Round of the F.A. Cup. As we sat in the clubhouse afterwards amongst the players, coaches and supporters my father had an idea: We would follow Aylesbury in the next round and whoever was the victor of that tie we would follow for the next until Wembley or until it became impossible to go any further.
The next round was easy as Aylesbury were at home again and beat Edgware Town two nil, next was an away trip to Baldock and an encounter with another of those young non-league players who we swore would be snapped up soon, but not even England and Sunderland's Kevin Phillips could stop the Mighty Ducks, as Aylesbury scored two without reply.
Another away trip followed to Moor Green in Birmingham. The cars parked by the side of the pitch and many of the supporters opted to stay within them through the torrential rain that blighted the one all draw. The drive home felt like the twenty five minute mark of an apocalypse film when Cruise/Willis/Smith and his family realise the world is ending, which was not the way we envisaged our quest beign curtailed. The replay was a more straight-forward three one win for the Ducks and they had qualified for the 1st Round Proper of the world's greatest club competition. 
The quest was becoming personal. The players were becoming familiar, Bob Dowie (brother of Ian, father of Natasha), centre back and coach would have been the most famous to outsiders but there was plenty of talented players to enjoy. My favourites being play-maker Steve Heard and the man that was born to be a hero, striker Cliff Hercules. The same heroes we watched on the pitch drank with the supporters afterwards, sharing their success as they watched the day's results come in on the TV screen. An old boy sat in the corner propping up the bar telling each player that came in  that he was his man of the match. I sat sipping my flat Dayla Cola not yet realising that the run couldn't last forever. 
The 1st Round brought something unique, an away tie at the only club in the competition that you had to travel to by boat. We caught the supporter's coach down to Portsmouth and took the ferry across the Solent to Newport F.C on the Isle of Wight.  A Hercules double and a rare Pluckrose goal were enough to secure a victory against our european cousins and the celebrating supporters and players drunk the returning ferry dry.
The 2nd Round was a trip to Kingstonian and the glamour of Sky Sports' cameras if only for irregular updates during the game. Ex-Chelsea player Mickey Droy had already seen his Kingstonian team scalp third tier Brighton in the 1st Round and a victory at home to lower league minnows was a formality. But they didn't count on the Mighty Ducks. A four one away victory secured their passage into the round of riches. It was also the birth of the Duck Walk. Hercules' goal against Newport had been celebrated by a mimicking of Jurgen Klinsmann's dive that was popular at Spurs. The 2nd round brought something new, something that represented my father and my F.A Cup run that year, something that brought Aylesbury into common consciousness, however briefly. Although the Duck Walk was an accident, the seven players had waddled along on their knees as the seven dwarves, the truth will never get in the way of a good narrative and soon it was in the national papers and on the TV. The premise was simple when Hercules scored he dropped to his knees and waddled along the pitch, arms bent as fingers hitched into imaginary braces... a look that could be mistaken very easily for wings. As Hercules waddled six of his teammates followed behind in unison. By the next day the country (or at least a few of them) were talking about the Mighty Ducks. The draw was made and Aylesbury were well rewarded with a home game against Queens Park Rangers. As much as I understand the massive financial implications of switching the game from the 4,000 capacity at Buckingham Road to the  18,000 capacity at Loftus Road, it still feels that this is the moment the lower league team ends any chance of an upset. Still non-league clubs have no time for romance and fantasy, they are living hand to mouth and an opportunity like this is incredibly rare.
The 3rd Round for me was the final for me in many ways. There was such a huge sense of occasion for the Aylesbury fans and even perhaps a slight, misguided slither of hope against a QPR side whose mind may well be elsewhere. The Mighty Ducks fought and played well but they were never going to match internationals like Les Ferdinand and Steve Hodge.The result was a flattering (to our biased eyes) four nil and the dream was over. The crowd sang 'Aylesbury, Aylesbury'  to the tune of 'New York, New York' as if they had won. The players slid toward the fans on the bellies lacking Klinsmann's elegance, performed their notorious Duck Walk  and celebrated with their fans, the men, women and children that they shared drinks and tales with each week. To an innocent bystander the scene was confusing as QPR trudged off as if they had lost. 
The fourth round barely bares describing, in one of the dullest games known QPR eked out a one nil win against West Ham due to an Andrew Impey goal. Even writing that brought back horrible flashbacks.
We waited excitedly for the the draw on the radio, not dissimilar to the excellent film Those Glory, Glory Days. Draw day had become an important part of the journey; offering up a glimpse of possible futures. The further on the competition was the more likely we were to catch big teams but the less likely to get tickets. The draw was, as my father had hoped, QPR at home to the winners of the replay between Millwall or more likely his team Chelsea. Could it be that he would follow his own team to victory in the F.A. Cup for the first time since 1970. As we know in life such perfect narratives are for other people. Millwall shocked Chelsea, as they had Arsenal previously and we were faced with QPR against Millwall. The ghost of the fourth round held its dull shadow tight over it successor.
I remember sitting at the game, wondering why Millwall fans had such a bad reputation. They were loud but certainly held none of the threat that many of the matches I watched in the eighties had. The game limped rather tamely to its goalless ending when a penalty was awarded to the home side in the stoppage time. Clive Wilson duly converted and a plastic chair flew past my ear from the stand above, followed by another. Finally I understood Millwall.
The next round I watched from my sofa. QPR had drawn Manchester United away, a trip to one of the biggest teams in the world at one of the best stadiums but unfortunately my sister is a Manchester United fan, from when they were rubbish (the last time) in the late eighties and the ticket was duly hers. I won't pretend that after standing in the monsoon rain at Moor Green or sitting through QPR-West Ham I wasn't incredibly disappointed not to be going to the first glamorous tie, but in hindsight and with the eyes of a father now I understand and agree with the decision. Sharpe and Irwin scored the only goals which very much pleased my sister who was/is in love with the former.
Four teams remained; Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton and Crystal Palace. Tottenham and Everton were drawn to play at Elland Road and our path led us to Villa Park and Crystal Palace. My father and I made many arduous trips around the M25 to Selhurst Park to attend league games in order to qualify for semi-final tickets. Alas tickets were scarce but we were able to source a single ticket for my father to continue his run. The match  was a two-all draw Iain Dowie opening the scoring with a trademark header- the narrative of our journey travelling from Bob in the 1st Round to his brother Iain Dowie in the Final was perfect. In the second half a stunning free kick from Irwin took the tie to extra time where an elegant lob over Schemichel from Chris Armstrong looked to have booked their place in the final until Pallister rose above Southgate and Eric Young with his ninja headband, to equalise and secure the replay.
We were both able to get tickets to the replay thanks in large to the terrible events that preceded the previous tie resulting in the death of a Crystal Palace fan. Most of their fans boycotted the replay and the attendance fell from the 38,000 of the first tie to under 18,000. The threat of violence surrounded the game and both Ferguson and the Palace boss Alan Smith took to the pitch pre-game to call for calm. 
Bruce's header cracked off the bar to give them the lead. and his partner Pallister made it two but the residing memory of the game was Roy Keane's stamp on Gareth Southagate's chest directly in front of our seats which resulted in a melee and a red card for both Keane and Palace's Darren Patterson. Hardly what the already incensed crowd needed. the game finished without any further action to note and Manchester United were to face Everton in the 1994/95 FA Cup Final.
We had resigned ourselves that a single ticket for the Final was going to rare enough and even that was providing frustratingly fruitless. My dad wrote to both clubs, the Daily Mail, who had followed the same path since the Aylesbury- Newport game and a number of other organisations. The Daily Mail wrote a column about our adventure but were unable to help with the elusive ticket to complete the journey. The Road to Wembley would mean nothing if it didn't lead there.  
Our guardian angels came in the form of Aylesbury Unted. Weaving one last stream of their FA Cup magic they produced that small rectangle of paper that would conclude the tale. 
The occasion of the day and indeed our journey was deflated by a bore of a game decided by a solitary Paul Rideout header on the counter attack for the underdogs Everton. A disappointing fizzle.
So there it was the 1st Round Qualifying to the Final and my father had made it. I can't speak for my father but for me, and perhaps because of my decreasing involvement, the journey died after Aylesbury heroically crashed out. The magic, the excitement of the F.A. Cup was not in Abide With Me or in the climbing of the thirty nine steps, but in the clubhouses, in the coach trips, in the pouring rain of Solihull. Football lives in the communal experience not in the corporately framed image we are fed. If we are feeling dissatisfied with modern football and the uncontrollable race toward a non-fan-centric game then all we have to do is step back a few leagues and we can find the game we once loved and that once loved us back. These clubs need us, our support and our money far more than the Premier League clubs who no longer have to rely on entertaining fans into their seats. In the darkness of corporate-led football and Greg Dyke's money making schemes. We need to protect our pyramid.

Don't worry about your heroes you will find more.
I told my father I was going to write about our journey and he said something that struck me as incredibly true. 'Experts will tell you that Keane was better than Steve Heard and Sir Les was better than Hercules but that's not how I remember it.'  

Thursday, 24 April 2014

The Neutral's Choice

On 26th May 1999 in a small flat above a shoe shop in the Shires a Crystal Palace fan, a Spurs fan and an Aston Villa fan huddled onto a tatty old sofa to watch a football game containing neither of their teams and we had all left our respective jobs early to race home for the match. For this generation robbed by the Heysel Tragedy this was our first experience of an English team in the final of Europe's top competition. None of us had any affinity with Manchester United and yet as the match progressed our support grew more passionate. I arrived late with Bayern Munich already a goal up and with Keane and Scholes suspended for the game the task looked impossible. We shouldn't have cared but we kept screaming them on. By the time Sheringham scored we were so riled that one of our party left the flat screaming, running around the car park returning just in time to see Solskjaer score the winner, to which he promptly turned around and ran back outside. We clapped and cheered their victory knowing that tomorrow we would not share in any of the victory or have any affection for the players and neither did we want to.

For many this moment would come again in Istanbul in 2005 when Liverpool came from three down to defeat AC Milan and claim an unlikely fifth European crown. I on the other hand was stuck in a technical rehearsal for the opening of my play and missed it in its entirety. We sulked through the rehearsal aware that we were missing this massive occasion. I turned on the television when I returned to see Liverpool celebrating in the semi-circle and couldn't believe the spectacle I had missed. 

The 2006 Arsenal- Barcelona final left me a little disinterested, as did the English domination of the final of 2009 and Chelsea's penalty victory of 2012. Why has this desire to see English teams win in Europe deserted me? Am I unable to wish other London clubs good fortune? Or has football developed in such a way during the last ten years that emotion can only be felt toward your own club?

I cannot understand supporters whose hate outweighs their love; Chelsea fans singing 'We hate Tottenham' and its anti-Semitic relatives throughout games not featuring Spurs are an example of this. I have heard Spurs fans claiming that they would rather lose a game if it was detrimental to Arsenal. I am sure this is consistent throughout the country between varying rivalries. When Arsenal scored their decisive penalty against Hull in the FA Cup semi-final my three year old son stormed out of the room in a huff. I later learned that an Arsenal fan in the park had teased him by singing 'We hate Tottenham' hours before. Although very disappointing it is perhaps the stroppy emotional reaction expected of a three year old. Why can't adults who behave in such a fashion realise how ridiculous their behaviour seems to others. When did hate become a barometer of how much you support your team? I've listened to many fan podcasts where in order to display their loyalty they proudly talk how they couldn't wear clothes the colour of their rivals or even have friends who support their teams. Seriously are you proud of that? Are you aware you are only punishing yourself? No one else cares that you are doing it. I've heard of fans who state that if their team isn't playing they aren't interested in watching football, that they find football boring without their team involved. Whilst strange I appreciate they have that prerogative. But if you truly love your team sing songs about them not your rivals, clap your players not boo them, if you love them show it.

I am unsure whether this plastic devotion is something new or just that my awareness of it has increased in the last decade but it appears evident that the word neutral has become dirty as a by-product. We are all neutrals, like it or not, that is the position we are in. You support your team and are neutral in every other respect. When two teams play I am sure somewhere in your brain a decision is being calculated as to who you would rather win. It doesn't affect your devotion for your team, it’s a natural process of the brain. I love Maltesers but if a shop only has a Twix and a Drifter I will make a decision on which I prefer (controversially Drifter) but it doesn't affect my love for Maltesers.

I presume my personal waning of support through the aforementioned campaigns is due to the nature of the teams playing and perhaps a saturation of a previously rare occasion. Fulham and Middlesbrough are teams I have no affiliation with but greatly enjoyed their runs in Europe and I am aware that many neutrals enjoyed Spurs run in the Champions League. These triumphs are unexpected yet deserved so as neutrals we warm to the narrative. That is what football is, when we break it down to its bare bones. It’s an unpredictable spoiler-free story and the story of the underdog is far more attractive than that of the oil tycoon who conquers all in his way. Who wants to watch the latter as a piece of narrative? Where is the drama? The most exciting football is never the obvious, its always the surprise or the well-deserved. It is entertainment at its most primal form.

This year we are faced with a question. For the first time in many years we are contemplating the last three games of the season with three possible champions. Unless you are a Liverpool, Chelsea or Manchester City supporter there is a choice- who would you prefer to win the Premier League? Glen Johnson recently stated that the neutrals would want to see Liverpool win it. Was he right?

Let us break down the narrative, for this is I believe what helps us make our decision. This decision is of course flavoured with personal preference, local rivalries, favourite players, associations with the place but in basic terms the narratives are as follows:

Manchester City have bought success but it could be argued that unlike other clubs in similar positions they have grafted to deserve some of that fortune. The supporters stayed loyal and in great numbers as the club nosedived into the third tier and it was hard to begrudge them that first FA Cup and Championship, but that narrative has changed since it was obtained. They appear to have worked to a plan and have not yet fallen foul of the glory supporters that blight successful teams. The team have many great players but are often suffocated by inconsistency. The British players are peripheral and too many prospective talents have been lost to this machine; Sturridge, Richards, Johnson, Sinclair, Rodwell, only Milner and Hart play with any frequency and there is no trust at all in the once solid Lescott.

Chelsea are still struggling to shake off the stench of Roman's money. They, perhaps fairly, have shouldered the blame for the inflation of the game into this juggernaut that no longer needs its fan's bottoms on its seats. They have often been without a plan; managers and players discarded at the slightest impulsive whimper only for them to achieve success elsewhere. They have a strong but aging English spine with Lampard, Terry and the lately unwanted Cole but the latter two are indicative of the image the club projects to the world. They are abrasive and arrogant, a perfect match for their current manager. That aside they are starting to build a very impressive team, the purchase of Matic, although systematic of their failings, was an exceptional piece of business from Mourinho. It was their problem position and now resolved this young team will only improve next year, if they are given that time.

Liverpool have suffered a long agonising fall from grace. For a team who dominated England and Europe through the 70s and 80s to wait twenty four years for a championship is unthinkable. Under Benitez they challenged and the European Cup was a beautiful distraction but ultimately they watched in vain as their fierce rivals Manchester United overtook their record league titles. Now they have returned as contenders. From seventh last year their British coach has developed and improved many of his squad, each one a marked improvement on last season, even the already outstanding Suarez. The team is made up of British players; Johnson, Flanagan, Henderson, Allen, Gerrard, Sterling and Sturridge and plays with such fluid movement and excitement that it is easy to overlook the often comedic defending. There is also the timing of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough Tragedy which increases the emotional impact of this title push enormously. Finally there is the loyalty of Stevie Gerrard. Granted there were a few days in his seventeen year professional career in which he pondered the idea of trying to further his career but his loyalty has never been in question. He has for many years been too good for that team and finally as his career is on its final leg he finally has a team around him capable of rewarding his loyalty.

I am sure Everton and Manchester United supporters will disagree but for the remaining neutrals amongst us the narrative of Liverpool is a feel-good Jerry Maguire type film, where we stumble toward the sickly sweet ending but wouldn't want it any other way.

Next year though is a different matter.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Gravity vs Bouncebackability

gravity 1. The force that attracts a body towards the centre of the earth, or towards any other physical body having mass. (Sir Isaac Newton, 1655)

bouncebackability 1. The capacity to recover quickly after a setback. (Iain Dowie, 2004)

The sun is setting on the battlefield and after a tight relegation battle the dead are now being separated from the wounded. Some supporters will be surprised by their fate and some relieved that the poison has finally taken hold but nobody will be relishing the summer ahead, World Cup or not. Will they bounce straight back or will they be one of the few teams who fall through the leagues like Wolves or worse, Portsmouth? The advantage from the plump parachute payments should be more than sufficient to ensure their swift return but in the last ten years only six teams relegated from the Premier League have returned the following year, only seven within two. So what chance do the three likely relegated teams have of returning to the Premier League?

Fulham are in trouble and this has been obvious from the start of the season. Their tactical set-up was far too naive for a manager as astute and experienced as Martin Jol, it reeked of a man already looking for an exit. A front four of luxury players Kasami, Taarabt, Ruiz and Berbatov protected by the aging Sidwell and Parker who tenacious and committed as they both are will never be able to sustain that support for ninety minutes. That front four were supplemented by the also aging Duff, the ineffective Bent, the inexperienced but promising Kacaniklic and Dejagh. It appeared that Jol’s squad was composed of either aging workers or glamorous mannequins. When games have gone well it appears inspired but that has been rare this season and that front four have nothing to offer the team when they come under pressure.

I feel a slight sympathy for the owner, the fantastically moustachioed, Shahid Khan. From a distance this constant firing of managers (and employment of former managers as consultants) seems like the meddling hands of one of those bad chairmen that our parents warned us all about, but each decision in isolation was probably correct and possibly could have paid off. The sacking of Jol, the appointment of one of the most sought-after coaches, Rene Meulensteen as manager, the employment of Curbishley and Wilkins to aid him, the sacking of Meulensteen and his experienced cohorts and finally the appointment of Felix Magath, a man renowned in the Bundesliga for his survival instincts: each decision was logical but not one of them have paid off. They acted in the January transfer window bringing in Kvist, Holtby and Mitroglou, which looked like it might address some of the problems, but they have hardly played, the latter embarrassing so. Mitroglou has played for Greece sandwiched inbetween periods where Magath has deemed him unfit to play for Fulham, strange treatment for your record signing. 

For me they are going down and by the smile on Magath’s Penfold-like face he won’t be joining them. So which players will join him? Bent will go back to Aston Villa which will please everyone except his parent club, Kvist & Holtby will return too and I would presume Mitroglou to leave at a disappointing loss. Stekelenberg and Kasami are too good to fall out of the top flight and will find admirers. There are a number of senior players; Riise, Parker, Sidwell, Duff and Karagounis that will decide to either drop down or retire, so what are Fulham left with? Their wage bill is sizeable comparative to the quality within it but the players rising from the academy could be imperative to their return; Moussa Dembele, Dan Burn and Patrick Roberts have all had some experience in the Premier League this season to develop their potential. If Fulham can balance the impressive talent produced or developed by their academy with an experienced spine and they invest their parachute payments wisely I think they will return if not next season then the one after once they have rebuilt. Khan, as badly as he has looked this year, appears to want the best for the club and I believe he will be patient with the new manager and the timescale for their return to the table with the golden knives and forks. Who do they need? Like most relegated clubs Fulham need a manager who not only understands the division but has ambition and perspiration enough to want to reach higher.  Someone like Malky Mackay would be a good choice for me and I think he would cherish a club where he has the opportunity to build something with a sense of longevity. Aside from this season Fulham have been a stable club and the trip to the second tier may well be what they need to rid themselves of the lack of balance that has caused their downfall.

Sunderland are a mess. I am sure Paolo Di Canio will bear much of the blame for the aftershock of his short but disastrous reign and Gus Poyet certainly has lost the golden paint from his halo, but the feet where most of the blame should lay are those of Roberto Di Fanti. In his only full window as Director of Football he bought in thirteen signings, of whom only Borini, Mannone, Sung-Yeung, Altidore  and Dossena had Premier League experience, none with any degree of success and of the new boys only Giaccherini had any pedigree. What message is being sent out to the existing players when thirteen new players are being brought in? That they aren’t good enough. Of those new signings only Mannone, Sung-Yeung, Borini and Giaccherini have shown flashes of talent this season. A further five signings were made during the January window, how much of an involvement Di Fanti had is unclear as he was relieved of his duty during the window but they certainly feel more like Poyet signings, four Spanish speakers and one from the Championship.

It has been an incredibly frustrating year for the Black Cats’ supporters with victories over Newcastle (twice), Southampton, Chelsea, Everton, Manchester United, Manchester City and a League Cup Final trip to Wembley where they outplayed the latter and yet they languish at the bottom with such a lack of confidence that no one is mentioning their two games in hand. Look at the reaction to their fine for fielding of an ineligible player Ji Dong-Won, not once but five times. Why aren’t the clubs around them petitioning for a points deduction? If this was happening at the top of the league you can be sure Mourinho and his rivals would have much to say on the matter. It appears that the clubs around them aren’t fearful of their survival.

So where do they stand for next season? Poyet’s position depends on himself and how difficult he views the year ahead of him. His days of being linked to every Premier League vacancy or near-vacancy will come to an end now and perhaps the drop in division, to one that he knows well, could help to rebuild his reputation and maybe any confidence he has lost too. Hopefully they will be able to move on much of the debris that has landed at their club over the last two windows, although unfortunately Borini & Sung Yeung will return to their parent clubs with glee and Giaccherini will find a club more suited to his quality, more than likely back in Serie A. Some of the better players Johnson, Fletcher and Gardner should find other Premier League clubs even if they are only the ones passing Sunderland on the way up. If they can keep hold of Brown, Bridcutt, Colback, Larsson, Cattermole, Mannone and Wickham they could have a good chance of returning but there is so much rebuilding to be done. It is going to be another big, painful summer for the Black Cats, they need to remove many and bring in a few more-suited to the job in hand, hopefully new Sporting Director, Lee Congerton will prove more adept to the role than his predecessor. Poyet’s decision will tell us much about him and I hope he stays to clear the mess that this club has become. This is not the first time that Sunderland have gone down with a team of high wages & little quality or identity but it is a necessary pain to rejuvenate and the chairman Ellis Short needs to ensure the rebuild of his team is done slowly and with consideration.

This should have been a season of celebration for Cardiff and although their fans didn’t expect to survive it they at least expected to enjoy it. Alas their first season in the top flight since 1962 has lived under the shadow of their owner Vincent Tan and the soap opera he has orchestrated. After last year’s abolition of the Bluebird and their blue shirts the dejected supporters must have believed their punishment from this Faustian pact had already been paid but unfortunately they are only paying off the interest. Malky Mackay was sufficiently backed in the summer transfer window Cornelius, Caulker and Medel were bought for a combined total of £25million but like a spoilt child money was the only love he received. His trusted Director of Football, Iain Moody, was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by a twenty three year old friend of Tan’s son, who had spent the summer on work experience painting the stadium wall. (Even now less than six months later I still had to check that I hadn’t dreamed that.) If this was part of Tan’s plan to destabilise Mackay and turn the support away from him, it didn’t work. The fans sung their manager’s name, holding aloft anti-Tan banners and it wasn’t as if the results were bad enough to use as an excuse.  After a number of open threats Mackay was sacked in December with an average of 0.9 points per game and was replaced with the baby-faced assassin Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a man whose name was rumoured as many times as Poyet’s whenever a manager’s position became vulnerable. Solskjaer had resisted the sirens of the Premier League for years, waiting for the right appointment and more specifically he had added- the right owner.

Andreas Cornelius, held up by Tan as the downfall of Mackay and Moody’s reign was sold in the January window for what Cardiff claim was in excess of a £8.5million loss. The promising Zaha and Fabio were brought in from Manchester United, Kenwyne Jones in a swap deal with the recently arrived Odemwingie and three Norwegians. The transfers, aside from Mats Moller Daehli, have made no positive impact; in fact Fabio seems to be on a mission to single-handedly sink them. They will go down this year, not because of Malkay, whose record is still better than Solskjaer’s 0.62 points per game, not even because of Solskjaer who although he still seems unaware of his first choice line-up or formation is at least willing to try and resolve it. The team will go down because the players, coaching staff and even the fans don’t want to be part of Tan’s project. He has no idea of the embarrassment he forces upon them, or perhaps he doesn’t care. Any victory Tan will proclaim as down to his approach, which will only fuel his fire further.

So what will next year bring? It depends on how big an explosion Tan creates. There are players who will be in demand; Mutch, Taylor, Noone, Wittingham, Caulker, Daehli and Medel will receive offers but Medel is the only definite to move on. If Cardiff can keep the bulk of these players and Solskjaer, whilst keeping Tan distracted on one of his other businesses there is the possibility that they could return, but we know as we read this that none of it will happen. Tan will interfere, sack Solskjaer and the better players will scuttle away as fast as they can. Unfortunately the supporters aren’t so lucky, all they can do is wait until Tan, like all petulant children, gets bored and finds a new toy.

The five teams (Birmingham achieved it twice) that have returned immediately to the Premier League in the last ten years mostly had the same plan; reduce the wage bill of the Mark Vidukas, Kieron Dyers and Matt Upsons (twice) of the world and hold on to the talented youngsters & those who are ambitious and hardworking enough to make the return. The Championship is a difficult league, a marathon where a winning streak of a few games is enough to elevate you several positions. The money will be helpful but as many clubs have found does not bring success on its own. This is the perfect opportunity for these three clubs to streamline their playing staff, cut the wages of those who do not understand what it means to wear their shirt and to promote those players deemed too inexperienced for this year’s Premier League campaign. Most importantly they must show unity, everyone pulling in the same direction. A slight exception would be 2009/10’s Newcastle United managed under Chris Hughton at the height of Mike Ashley’s poorly advised antics but that success was due to the players performing to spite him; a different form of unity that  perhaps Cardiff can hope to emulate. Each of these teams, no matter how badly they have appeared this season, have a chance to return. Relegation need not be a negative, as Epictetus the Greek philosopher once said ‘It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.’ I wish them all the best. 

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Red!!! The Colour of Victory

              “This is red Mr Bluebird. All my life I have been in love with its colour,                             its brilliance, its divine eminence and I welcome any enterprise that                                     will increase my stock.” 
              The red laser beam crept further up the table toward what Bluebird                                     held dearest but he was determined not to yield to this bully. 
              “Do you expect me to love you?” He called out desperately,                                                 summoning up his last ounce of bravery.                                                                       
              “Oh no Mr Bluebird.” Tan replied calmly whilst his hands, wrapped                                   in tight black leather, manically wrestled each other in excitement.                                       “I expect you to win.”

And so began the transformation of Cardiff City, speaking in the only language owners believe fans can understand- victory. Vincent Tan promised success when he joined the club and all he needed was a change of colour, because red, as everyone knows, is the colour of victory. It was the words of a madman, a change of colour could not halt the systematic play-off failure that had blighted their previous three years. The problem was it worked. The year they changed to red Cardiff were promoted to the Premier League as Champions. Was there any truth in what he had done? Had the colour change made a difference?

Red has long been associated in China and many other countries in the far east as bringing good luck and joy. These countries hold a great amount of faith in superstition and they could find no finer bed-fellows than football fans. From lucky underpants, to meeting in the same pub beforehand, to sitting in the same seat, victory will be determined by whether the one fan in forty thousand has remembered to wear the red socks they wore when they last won the Cup. Players' rituals are even worse; which boot they put on first, what they have eaten for lunch, which hand they touch the club's crest with in the tunnel, all have great sway on their confidence for the game. So could there be any truth that the colour of the shirt can determine the outcome of a football game or more importantly the outcome of a league?

I have looked at the winners and runners up over the last ten years in the Premier League, Championship, League One, League Two, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie, to try and establish if there is any pattern that would suggest a dominance of any one colour over another. The results were interesting.

There were a few decisions I made, that I will disclose in the interest of a fair test. For any team that played in stripes I have used the predominant colour (for example Juventus- black, Inter Milan- blue), the only exception was Barcelona for whom I split their results between blue and red, so as not to sway the result. I awarded each winner two points and each runner-up a single point.  The result was an astounding victory for Tan and Team Red with over 42%, next was Blue with 32%, White with 12%, Yellow with 4%, Green with 4%, Black with 3% and Claret and Orange both with only 1% each. The results are so emphatic that you wonder what chairman in their right mind would keep their teams playing in any colour other than red or blue, surely its damn right irresponsible.

Except statistics, as always can be deceiving. The problem lies mostly in the Eredivisie where in the last ten years every single winner or runner up in the competition has worn red. Thirty eight percent of the teams wear red which might account for the high success rate but thirty three percent of them wear yellow who achieved no points during that time.

So what logical reasons could there be for red being so successful a colour? Red, along with blue is one of the most popular colours for clubs, which in turn increases their prospects of winning which is of course a factor. Perhaps more tellingly many of the points were won by a small number of teams dominant in their country over large periods of time rather than a variety; Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Barcelona, AC Milan, Ajax, PSV and Bayern Munich, could it be a coincidence that these winning teams all wear red? If it is not the colour that provides these successful teams then what is it?

Rational thinking dictates that we should discount the idea of luck, but there is something we encounter daily, call it our gut feeling, our instinct, something we trust within ourselves that ignores fact, that just... feels... right. We use this instinct to make some of our biggest decisions in life and footballers are certainly no different. We are constantly told how a player is unable to score, or miss, due to their confidence, a confidence grown not just on performance but on how lucky they feel.

Red is drummed into us from childhood as a dominant colour; it insinuates danger, passion, power and anger, not to mention success. It is something to be feared and respected. Is it really inconceivable that when these incredibly superstitious players see red shirts ahead of them or bearing down on them that it makes a difference to their instinct within the three seconds they have to make a decision? It is surprising given the high level of superstition in the game and the players' necessary reliance on instinct that sports psychiatry is not as highly valued as a director of football. In truth very few clubs have them. Liverpool are a club that do and Dr Steve Peters, who will soon be joining Roy Hodgson in Rio, has worked wonders this year with Liverpool. It is certainly not a coincidence that many players who struggled in previous seasons, Henderson, and Sturridge in particular, are this year setting the league alight. Dr Peters' previous roles include working with Ronnie O'Sullivan and the British Olympic Cycling team and there is one obvious link between those two entities-success. This approach is proven in other sports, will Liverpool's success and just as importantly, improvement, encourage other clubs to follow this seldom trod path?

So was Vincent Tan right to change Cardiff from blue to red? As a football fan I am pleading with myself to say no. I like tradition, I don't like teams changing their colours, badges or names. Even after this investigation I still think he wasn't right, blue and red both seem to have high levels of success. Where Tan was right was in being open to the very thing that we intellectually dismiss, the idea that changing the way the team was viewed, by others and by themselves, could change the way the team performed. Manchester United of the last two seasons are a superb case in point. The team is practically the same but the results differ wildly. The difference is confidence. Ferguson's United oozed arrogance, they believed that the goals would come all the way up to the ninety sixth minute whistle and just as importantly so did the opposition. Moyes' United are low on confidence, they visualise the negative response in tomorrow's newspapers, expect their team-mates and themselves to make fatal mistakes. The opposition sense this fear and away teams no longer go to Old Trafford to defend. David Moyes’ recent comments about being the underdog at home to Liverpool is a great example of this point. If teams employed someone solely to create an environment in which the players believed they could achieve great things, that they should not fear the opposition but be feared, they would pay back their salary tenfold.

Why have these teams been successful? It is because they believe they will be successful which breeds further success, and if they believe it then so will their opponents.

So is red the colour of victory? The answer is yes, but only if we believe it is.

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

The Last Taboo- Confessions of an Adulterer

It starts with a confession. It always has to when I meet someone new, as if I can see the day the truth will rise up and bury me. I understand that, its the price I have to pay for changing my  football team.

I know it would be easier for most to bear if I had left my wife and children rather than my football team. People just don't do the latter, not real fans, its the last taboo of football (especially now we realise that colour, gender and sexuality doesn't affect your ability to kick a leather ball.)
So let me start at the start.
My granddad was a Tottenham fan, not a season ticket holder and in truth more of a cricket man. My father at the rebellious age of eight or so moved his allegiance, which is okay, he was a child, making his own choice, even if that choice was Chelsea. He fled into the arms of Osgood, Tambling and Chopper Harris and has stayed there ever since. 
He became a father and so I was taken on many an occasion in the mid-eighties to the Bridge to see Dixon, Nevin and Spackman and I enjoyed it, I did, even the poor games and there were many of those.. But life changes.
It was 1986 and I was already in love by that devastating day at Wembley the following year, with the club initially but eternally so with Chris Waddle. Yes Hoddle played like a God, Clive Allen couldn't stop scoring and Gary Mabbutt was, well he was Gary Mabbutt but Waddle was beyond God and was capable of producing miracles far exceeding his. Even when Gazza joined nothing could knock Waddle off his pedestal. Perhaps I loved him too much, and I can say that in possession of pictures of a mulleted child who bears an undeniable resemblance to myself. He was one of two childhood heroes, the other Luke Skywalker also left this father on the dark side. But when Waddle left in 1989 so did my heart. It travelled to Marseille with him but such a long-distance relationship was always doomed. England increasingly took over as my football outlet. I can't even remember a particular day when a decision was made to leave Spurs, I just drifted out of club football.

My father and a fifteen year old me decided early one Saturday morning in August 1994 that we would go and watch one of our local teams Aylesbury United play in the first round preliminaries of the FA Cup. The aim was to follow the trail through the backwaters of football, the grounds with parking at the side of the pitch and ferry trips to the Isle of Wight until we reached the twin towers of Wembley. The true romance of the FA Cup which is where I fell in love again. My father and I travelled to a league match at Selhurst Park to get tickets for Crystal Palace vs Manchester United in the semi final and it was watching the Eagles that I found my teenage football self.
At university in Yorkshire I would travel to Palace's away games at Bramall Lane, Hillsborough and Oakwell throwing myself into the animated away support. There were rare ups but mostly it was adversity, which perhaps is what I craved from my football at that time.
But times change and in 2010 for the second time in six years Crystal Palace were in administration and on the verge of  total collapse. My personal life had altered dramatically now, we had bought a house, weeks before the market fell away and had two small children to provide for. With this, combined with a fourteen hour work and commute, football should have been my outlet, my escape, but it wasn't, it only brought more grief. The football itself was restricted to two minutes of Championship highlights a week and an occasional paragraph in the paper. The opportunity to go to games had been extinguished.
I needed to be selfish with my outlet. I wanted to be excited about a transfer window, about the build-up to a match, about watching the game itself. I found myself watching Spurs again behind Palace's back. What  misery was I bestowing on my son and daughter, to teach them that football was only about struggle, they needed to know the beauty, to see the Waddles, Hoddles and Gazzas not worrying whether you are going to be able to stop your best player moving to sit on the bench for Stoke.
On the 1st June 2010 Crystal Palace had their day in court. This was to be the day that the club were liquidated. Friends asked what I was going to do and I told them that i wasn't sure, that it was too raw, but I was, I had decided I was going to return to Spurs. It was like a loved one passing away after a long illness, it was incredibly sad but it would have been naiive not to have thought about life in their wake.
Later that day the announcement was made that the club had been saved by its supporters. My brother, also a Palace fan, texted me emotionally with the news. I should have been elated but I wasn't. I knew then, if I couldn't be happy with this news then I would never be happy there again and  like with any relationship that cannot be rescued it was time to move on.
We don't expect to have the same partner from the playground until we die so why is there such a stigma against changing teams? Does it not make sense that a team can be the perfect fit for you at some stages of your life and a complete mismatch at others? Much like our relationships with lovers, friends, bands, brands; we develop and evolve as we grow and therefore our tastes change.
Football has become something to look forward to for me, through the various TV and streaming options I can if I want watch every game. When the time comes for us to win a cup or even perhaps the league I will of course celebrate and those that have supported Spurs all their life need not fear, it will not tarnish any of their joy. Did long-suffering City supporters feel empty at Aguero's last minute winner with all their new found fans? I doubt it. As with anything in life, work, love or football the more you invest the more you will receive. A fan who watches every match invests more than an occasional fan who checks the results and therefore their reward will be greater, 
Football fans should not be afraid of those who use the game as an outlet for their life, or those who change every season for the latest champions, or for those for whom it exists only on FIFA or Match Attax cards. In the words of the late Lou Reed 'You're going to reap just what you sow.' Football has a large heart and there is room enough for everyone.