Monday, 31 January 2011

Is Andy Carroll the new Emile Heskey?

Ok, when you’ve stopped laughing let me take you back to Filbert Street on Sunday December 17th 1995.

Leicester City fans were struggling to find some warmth ahead of their game with Norwich City. Days earlier the Foxes' boss Mark McGhee had walked out to join Wolverhampton Wanderers and as news began to filter through from the Euro 96 draw (England would kick off against Switzerland then play the Auld Enemy before facing a tricky tie against the Dutch) ex-Norwich boss Mike Walker, at the game for Anglia Television, was expected to be unveiled as Leicester's new manager.

Then news began to circulate that Norwich had turned up without their manager Martin O'Neill - a target for Leicester a year previously and the man who would ultimately replace McGhee.  The game (a 3-2 thriller) was also notable for contribution of the 17-year-old substitute who came off the bench to grab the winner for the home side. Emile Heskey had arrived.

Now he's a national figure of fun, it's easy to forget in what high regard he was held as a youngster.  In his defence, I should also point out he's the Premier League's all-time 15th highest goalscorer. With 109 goals he has one more than Wayne Rooney and, let's face it, seeing as neither of them could hit a cow's arse with a banjo at the moment that's probably how things will stay.

Emile, the goal is the box made of string at the end of the pitch

But I'm not here to defend Heskey; I'm here to freak out Newcastle and perhaps Liverpool fans by highlighting the similarities with Andy Carroll as the latter have tabled a club-record £30m deadline-day bid for the striker.

Both were home-grown lads who progressed from trainee to full-time pro at their local club and both made their debuts aged 17. Heskey is 6ft 2ins, Carroll and inch taller.  Hell, they were both even born in January (Carroll on January 6th; Heskey on January 11th).

To date Carroll has scored 14 goals in 41 Premiership games.  After 41 Premiership games, Heskey had scored 12, although he was often deployed on the right wing (and even occasionally at right back) in O'Neill's mend-and-make-do team. 

Incidentally, Heskey played more Premier League games much earlier in his career than Carroll, so by the time he was the age the Geordie is today he had made 120 Premier League appearances and scored 32 goals. He also had two League Cup winner's medals and a runner-up medal to boot.

Is that the way to mediocrity or success?

Both players were capped by England at Under-21 level before progressing to the full team. Heskey's first start came a month after his 22 birthday, while Carroll's first start came a month before his (although Heskey had several sub appearances before that) and both players won plaudits for their performances. Heskey terrorised Roberto Sensini so much the defender (who was a central part of Lazio's Scudetto-winning team that season) was substituted before halftime to make a tactical change.

Not only did the performance win Heskey the man of the match award, it also led to Gerard Houllier parting with £11m to make him Liverpool’s then-record signing two months later. 

The following season (2000/01) he scored 22 goals in 56 games and picked up FA, League and Uefa Cup winners medals as part of Liverpool’s historic treble-winning team. He even got on the score sheet as England trounced Germany 5-1 in Munich, but this was when the Golden Generation were shiny and new and not rusty and old.

This is not really relevant, but it makes good viewing

You could say it was all down hill from there, although that would be a little unfair to Birmingham, Wigan and Aston Villa.  Yet it's reasonable to argue that 2001 was when Heskey peaked.

So where does that leave us?  I don't know, I'm just making this up as I go along but I think it's got something to do with the danger of potential not being realised and young players - and strikers in particular - being overvalued in the transfer market, an issue I've discussed before.

Here are some other statistics to muddy the water. In his first 41 Premier League games Wayne Rooney scored seven goals. Maybe Carroll will turn out like him. Or maybe he'll turn out like Michael Owen, in his first 41 Premier League games he scored 23 goals. Now, whatever happened to that likely lad? Ask a Newcastle fan, they'll know.

Saturday, 29 January 2011

What makes a big club big?

One of easiest ways to wind up a Newcastle fan is to tell them their club isn’t big.  Sure they have a huge fan base – that’s undeniable, but their trophy cabinet hasn’t seen much action in a while, so they can’t really call themselves a big club, right?
They’re part of a group of clubs which sit just outside the ‘Big Four’ and for various reasons, haven’t seen much meaningful success in a few years and so, like bald men fighting over a comb, their fans have to content themselves by taking cheap digs at each other on radio phone-ins.

Yet even what constitutes a ‘Big Four’ team is open to debate these days.  Liverpool handed in their membership card last season and don’t look like renewing it anytime soon and even Champions Chelsea might find themselves on the outside come May. And, let's not forget, before Richard Keys and Andy Gray and their chums at Sky invented football, there was a Big Five that didn't include Chelsea.  Essentially the Big Club argument centres on whether history and silverware trumps attendance and revenue.

Here’s an easy one: Big Clubs win lots of stuff. Well, not quite. What's clear is it's actually very hard to win trophies, it always has been and success tends to coagulate around the same teams.

Take the League for example; only three teams (you guessed it - Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal) have won the title more than ten times.  The next most successful clubs are Everton (nine) and Aston Villa (seven).  Chelsea - a Big Club, no? - have won the title four times.  That's two less than Sunderland and the same as Newcastle and Sheffield Wednesday.

The list of FA and League Cup winners tells pretty much the same tale, but if you crunch the numbers you find some interesting facts - Aston Villa are clearly the fourth 'biggest' English team in terms of domestic success (19 trophies) behind Manchester United (33), Liverpool (32) and Arsenal (25). In fact, throw in their European Cup from 1982 (a trophy two of the 'Big Four' - Chelsea and Arsenal - have so far failed to win) and in this category they're in an elite group.

Not as big as you think, JT

Chelsea can add six FA Cup wins to their four League titles - exactly the same as Newcastle on both counts and they both have a European trophy to their name. No doubt the phone-in know-it-alls will point out that Newcastle haven’t won anything since 1969 (when they picked up the Fairs Cup, the precursor to the Uefa Cup) and you have to go even further to 1955 for a domestic success.

Yet since then, to name a few, Leicester, Middlesbrough and Swindon have all won trophies.  So have Oxford, who now play in League Two, and Luton who don't even ply their trade in the League any more. Are they really bigger than Newcastle?

Fan base and infrastructure
Now we're talking: bums on seats; Big Clubs attract big crowds, right? The answer to this question seems to be an emphatic yes. Match day earnings are a vital revenue stream for the modern-day club, which is why Spurs and West Ham are fighting like drunks at closing time for the Olympic Stadium.

If there's one thing that Newcastle have got right it's extending St James' Park.  This means the club is regularly near the top of the attendance league - they were second behind Manchester United until Arsenal opened the Emirates Stadium in 2008.  Even when they got relegated in 2009 they had the third highest average attendance (48,750 - which was still short of capacity) and made it into the top 20 of the 2010 Deloitte Money League with the tenth highest match-day revenue (£29m) - despite also being the only club on the list not to feature in European competition that season.

By contrast in the same season Everton finished fifth and lost in the FA Cup final, but could only attract an average of 35,710 punters and didn't make the money list.  The club lacks a modern stadium, having had several planning applications turned down.  This in turn makes them an unattractive proposition to potential buyers, which in turn seriously curtails David Moyes' ability to move the club onto the next level - the top four and Champions League riches.

The same problem also impedes their city rivals Liverpool. A huge club with a proud history and a strong bond between the club and its supporters. Yet their progress has also been thwarted by the fact they have not been able to bring their stadium plans to fruition.

Again, to put this into perspective in the 2008/09 season Liverpool came second and reached the Champions League quarter finals but, their match day revenue (£42.5m) was less than half of Manchester United's (£108.8m) and was just £13.5m more than Newcastle's

Clearly, and perhaps a little depressingly, this all seems to lead to money. There is some debate as to whether the amount a club spends on wages or transfers is a better predictor of success but either way it's clear that while past glory is undeniably important, the true barometer of a big club is current success and that is to a large extent determined by the ability to spend.

Leeds were able to win the title in 1992 just two seasons after gaining promotion, while the Premier League's first season saw Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn and QPR in the top five. It would be a dream come true for fans of those clubs to see a repeat, yet even Villa with considerable recent investment haven't managed to break into the top five since 1993.

I'm surprised this is in colour

It is also significant that the two most consistently successful Premier League teams - Manchester United and Arsenal - have been the most stable and well-managed on and off the pitch. Liverpool are where they are because of a tortuous ownership struggle over recent years and Chelsea's success has come despite - not because of - the way they are run off the pitch. (Even Manchester United may find themselves unable to compete at the same with their spending power curtailed by massive interest repayments.)

There are several teams that could reasonably lay claim to being a big club, or at least have the potential to be; the traditional Big Four - Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea - plus Tottenham, Aston Villa, Everton, Newcastle, Manchester City, Sunderland and Leeds all fit bill.

They have history and, crucially, a large fan base yet it’s a damning indictment that despite the advantages they have over 'smaller' clubs, four of them (Newcastle, Sunderland, Leeds and Manchester City) have been relegated since the start of the Premiership and another two (Everton and Aston Villa) have beaten the drop by just one place.

With their stadium in place and their ability to generate revenue, perhaps Newcastle fans are right to be annoyed when people tell them they aren't a Big Club.  Now, if they could just start acting like one...

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Gray's prejudice is a symptom of an uneducated game

When the news broke that Andy Gray had been sacked over the Sky sexism storm, it was hard not to smile. The queue of people lining up to defend Scot was very short, consisting of just one person – his former Aston Villa boss Ron Atkinson.  Atkinson is no stranger to controversy himself, having been sacked by ITV after being recorded off air saying of Marcel Desailly “that’s what’s known in some schools as a fucking lazy, thick nigger”. 

Interesting. And, you, Ron, are what’s known in some schools as a dickhead, but let’s not squabble, eh?

What makes the comments of Gray and his co-presenter Richard Keys about lineswoman Sian Massey all the more depressing is that they ignore the fact she will have been subject to strict criteria before being allowed to run the line  - a laudable attempt by the referee's association to professionalise officiating not apparent in the English game itself where calls for managers to gain qualifications before they take up a job are routinely ignored.

Instead, former players think they can walk off the golf course or out of the TV studio and into a top job, before predictably falling on their faces. I mention no names. (Alan Shearer.)

A pair of tits

While anti-intellectualism may be a stain that runs deep through the game in England, look at the two most successful managers at work in England today.  Arsene Wenger gained his first coaching qualification aged 24 (and has a degree in economics to boot) while Sir Alex Ferguson gained his at 25.  Sir Alex freely admits he takes annual refresher courses.  But why does he bother? No one could teach him anything, right..?

Uefa research shows coaching is the 'golden thread' leading to success in the game. Germany has 34,970 coaches holding Uefa's A, B or Pro badges (the game's top qualifications); Italy 29,420; Spain 23,995 and France 17,588. England has just 2,769. It goes with out saying (but I'll say it anyway) England have not appeared in a major tournament final since 1966, in which time those four other nations have all won both the World Cup and European Championship at least once. 

While the other major European football nations all have long-established centres of excellence (Coverciano in Italy and Clairefontaine in France to name just two) the FA's St George's Park project, upon which work was started in 2001, is still not complete. These places are football universities where the brightest minds aren't just taught about the game but are asked to question the way it's played and develop new ideas.

By contrast, English tactics are stuck in black and white. The nation is wedded to 4-4-2 and the players are not tactically flexible enough to change to a different system.  In fact throughout football's history some of England's brightest coaching minds have had their success abroad, in part because their ideas were not welcome in their homeland.

Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham were the founding fathers of the Dutch school of Total Football, which in turn influenced Barcelona upon which the success of the current World Champions, Spain is built.

When the Hungarians handed England their arses at Wembley in 1953 the Mighty Magyars credited their success to Jimmy Hogan an English coach who had been shunned by the FA some 35 years before. 

Them From Abroad 6 John Bull 3

But woe betide the modern footballer actually think about things when there are fights to be had, pints to be drunk and Wags to be shagged. England international Graeme Le Saux wrote eloquently in his auto-biography of how slurs about his sexuality almost forced him to quit the game. His major crime? 

"For much of my career, reading The Guardian was used as one of the most powerful symbols of how I was supposed to be weirdly different. Pathetic, really. It gave substance to the gossip that I was homosexual: Guardian reader equals gay boy."

Quite right. You couldn't say that of a Telegraph reader. Of course, the abuse wasn't just restricted to the dressing room, but also poured down from the terraces throughout his career. Yet this is all hardly surprising.  Football is not distinct from society, but merely a part of it and the British - the English in particular - have a deep distrust of foreign ideas.

The country is on the edge of the European Union literally and metaphorically.  The Metric Martyrs battle heroically against the dictatorial imposition of a logical, sensible measurement system that's been used on mainland Europe for oooh.... over two hundred years and let's not even start talking about the Euro.

Learning a foreign language is no longer compulsory in English secondary schools, which might partly explain why less than one in six pupils achieved the new English Baccalaureate. Yet that in itself highlights the problem - why not just buy into the established and superior International Baccalaureate.  Oh, hang on, it's run by foreigners, that's why...

While Gray, Keys, and Atkinson may have been extreme cases they are symptomatic of an ethos within football and wider British society that shuns learning and new ideas and allows deep-rooted prejudices to fester.
It is significantly, that the influx of foreign managers and players to the game over the last twenty years with their funny ideas that looking after your body, enhancing ball skills and thinking about tactics might actually make you a better player has clearly made a difference.

Like it or not, the winds of change are blowing through the game and that's no bad thing.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

So why did Darren Bent quit Sunderland?

These modern footballers, eh?  All they can see is pound signs.  Money, money, money - that’s all they think about. Loyalty, pah! If you want loyalty, buy a dog.  They won’t kiss the badge before buggering off to chase someone else’s stick.  Or something.

Anyhow, it’s easy to dismiss Darren Bent’s £24m transfer from Sunderland to Aston Villa as yet another in the long list of selfish Big Time Charlies only looking after for themselves. That’s certainly the way Sunderland boss Steve Bruce sees it (and let’s face it, he knows a thing or two about looking after number one).

But dig a little deeper and you'll find a couple of other, more personal, reasons why ‘Benty’ might have wanted shot of the North East.

Darren 'Big time' Benty

The striker's an obsessive tweeter, something through which he's courted a lot of controversyPerhaps some of that criticism's been justified, but how’s this for a tweet (sent in November 2009)?  “So we get beaten by Wigan and my mum gets racially abused by a Sunderland fan.” 

Yeah!  That’s loyalty for ya! A master class in how to make your new striker feel welcome just three months after they signed for the club.

For some reason Bent - no doubt once again thinking only of himself and not the reasonable need of Sunderland fans to vent their frustrations following defeat – wasn’t happy, calling it an ‘absolute disgrace’. 

(For the record, the offender - John Davison, 26, of Chester-Le-Street - received a three-year ban from football grounds after admitting using threatening words or behaviour in a racially aggravated manner.)

Fast forward to this week.  Bruce, while speaking of his shock at Bent's move, said: "I have to say; in the last few weeks we've all been scratching our heads saying 'is there something wrong with Benty? He doesn't look himself.'"

Well here's possible cause - in November last year Bent’s car was damaged by Newcastle ‘fans’ while parked in the city's centre as he, his friend and his friend's girlfriend were inside.

Now, it seems in Newcastle they don't discriminate when it comes to vandalising football players' cars - just ask Andy Carroll - but still, Bent lived in the city and it must have been an unsettling experience.  Although perhaps it hadn't registered with the club's management.


Either way ask yourself this -  what would you do if your mum was insulted by a fan of the club you played for and you'd been attacked by rival fans in the city where you lived, then some one offered you a pay rise to move to a new club in a different city?

Yeah, I'd ask for a transfer too.

Monday, 24 January 2011

What now for Martin O'Neill?

This time last week Martin O’Neill was the new West Ham manager.  Well almost. As it turns out, he declined The Hammers’ offer, to replace Avram Grant forcing the West Ham-fisted board of directors to publicly declare their support for their beleaguered boss. As I’ve already discussed O’Neill might not have been the right man for the Upton Park hotseat, yet the whole affair begged the question: What next for O’Neill?

At 58 he is by no means on the managerial scrap heap - (Alex Ferguson is 69, Harry Redknapp is 63, and Fabio Capello is 64) but an extended period out of the game right now would do him no favours.  So one is left wondering, at which club would he be best placed to re-start his managerial career?

Ironically, some might say it would be with a team like Aston Villa the club he walked out on five days before the start of this season.  If that job became available today and O’Neill had not worked there, it would be a match made in heaven.  O’Neill would be the ideal candidate to help the big-city club recapture its past glories.

Have I made a mistake, here?

And after four years with The Villans, he will know at first hand how hard it is and how much investment and patience is required to break into the top four, which will leave some questioning why he left in the first place.

That decision will be cast in an even harsher light by the club smashing its transfer record to secure the services of Darren Bent.  Let’s not forget that O’Neill walked out on Villa Park because he felt he didn’t have enough money to spend.

While many might argue that by not backing O’Neill, Randy Learner only has himself to blame for Villa’s current predicament and that the Bent signing is a panic response, you also can’t help wondering if the money was there all along but just wasn’t quite enough for O’Neill.  His resignation has echoes of that of his spiritual father Brian Clough from Derby County in 1973.

Whatsmore, Harry Redknapp’s success getting Tottenham into the Champions League at the second time of asking and their bold and gung-ho progress in the competition this season provides stark contrast with O’Neill’s time at Villa.

In four seasons he achieved three consecutive sixth-place finishes on a net outlay on players of about £80m, an annual wage bill of some £71m which, in the 2008/09 season was some £10m higher than Spurs' despite a significantly smaller revenue (£84.2m to £113m).

It’s hard to argue O’Neill had no backing and perhaps instead he had simply taken the club as far as he was able.

He could reasonably point to the Villains’ problems this season as evidence that he must have been doing something right, but whereas he was a strong contender for the Manchester United job just a few short years ago he is unlikely to top Old Trafford’s shortlist today, if he were to make it at all (and anyway Sir Alex has no plans for retirement in the foreseeable).

Other avenues have also been blocked off.  O’Neill made his interest in the Liverpool hot seat clear around the time of Roy Hodgson’s departure but the door at Anfield seems to have been closed as he doesn’t fit the Fenway Sports group’s long-term vision.

Arsene Wenger recently signed a contract keeping him at the Emirates until June 2014; Roman Abramovich has no history of appointing British managers.  And Roberto Mancini and Harry Redknapp seem safe at Manchester City and Tottenham respectively.

Even clubs like Everton, Sunderland and Newcastle are not in the market for a manager at the moment (although you never know with the soap opera that is St James’ Park). 

Given his current predicament, perhaps it’s worth a brief reappraisal of his managerial career.  O’Neill really hit the big time at Leicester where, after a shaky start (just three wins in 16 games) he gained promotion before achieving four consecutive top-10 Premier League finishes and – most notably – two League Cup triumphs.

But these two cup successes saw final wins over a Middlesbrough side set to be relegated from the Premier League and Division One Tranmere.  They also occurred at a time when the ‘Big Four’ clubs (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool) saw little if any value in the competition.  Of the 16 finalists during that period, only two were from the Big Four.  By contrast, since 2005 eight of 12 finalists have come from the Big Four as well as five of the six winners - the other being Spurs who might reasonable claim to be a Big Four club now.

As good as it gets?

The Irishman is also fondly remembered in, at least half, of Glasgow where he revived Celtic, picked up seven trophies in five seasons, won the treble in his first, smashed Rangers’ dominance and reached the Uefa Cup final.

Not bad going, but some perspective: since 2003 Rangers, Middlesbrough and Fulham have all reached the final of Europe’s second football competition.  This means O’Neill is on a par with Walter Smith and the much-derided Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson.

O’Neill’s predecessor at Celtic was John Barnes whose tenure is remembered as a complete disaster, but his one season was marred and defined by the horror leg-break of Henrik Larsson.  In the 13 games prior to the Larsson’s injury Celtic won 12 and lost one scoring 42 goals.  In the 16 following the injury, Celtic won just seven scoring 33.

In O’Neill’s first season – when the treble was won – Larsson scored and astonishing 53 goals.  Perhaps, in another universe the Swede didn’t get injured and I’d be writing about Barnes being Celtic’s saviour.  Or perhaps not. 

Equally, O’Neill’s domestic record is arguably no better than that of his successor Gordon Strachan, who gained six trophies in four seasons, including three consecutive titles – a feat achieved by only two other Celtic managers – notably neither being O’Neill.  And the ‘dour’ Scot also steered Celtic to the last 16 of the Champions League twice, another feat beyond O’Neill.  It’s also worth pointing out O’Neill had a considerably larger budget - Celtic were weighed down with debts of £30m when he left, yet were largely debt-free at the end of Strachan’s reign.

O’Neill’s an Northern Irish Catholic, whose father told him he should ‘walk across broken glass’ if he got the chance to play for Celtic, which goes someway to explaining why his achievements are held in such high regard by the Hoops fans but in reality he didn't do much better than a bloke who struggled with Middlesbrough in the Championship.

O'Neill's an entertaining bloke with a likeably eccentric manner who gives ‘good copy’ – perfect for the tabloid hacks, which also might explain why he gets an easy ride over the style of play his teams use compared to others, such as Sam AllardyceBut, in the cold light of day, there’s a nagging sense his achievements have been overstated.

Perhaps O’Neill will never quite get a crack at a truly big job and will instead being condemned to the touchlines of middle-sized clubs.  But then perhaps that’s his rightful place.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

What price Andy Carroll?

If you’d had to put money on which North East club would sell their leading scorer this transfer window it probably wouldn’t have been Sunderland.

Andy Carroll’s departure from Newcastle always seemed more likely with several clubs eyeing up the striker like a wannabe WAG in the Bigg Market.  Yet, Newcastle are adamant they won’t sell.

But every player has their price and no one knows this better than Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn, who has learnt from the club’s bitter experience. He tells the tale of how former chairman Bob Murray knocked back a then-record breaking £16m bid for Quinn’s Sunderland strike partner of the time Kevin Phillips (ironically from Aston Villa) for fear of upsetting the fans. The Black Cats thus didn’t have the cash to improve the squad and were relegated a couple of seasons later and Phillips was moved on – for just £3m.

Quinn said: "Bob Murray thought he was doing the right thing by the football club and the fans but I know the right thing to do is as soon as there is a whiff of £16m, get another one in for £8m. Then you have the best of both worlds."

What he stumbled across was a formula that had been discovered by the best managers along time before.  Brian Clough's late friend and assistant Peter Taylor wrote a virtual how to manual on the transfer market. Among the rules outlined in With Clough by Taylor Taylor says "It's as important in football as in the stock market to sell at the right time." The dynamic duo were always trying to identify the point at which a player's value had peaked and then moving them on before any deterioration was noticed by potential buyers.

Batman and Robin

Quinn's sell high, buy low philosophy has also formed the basis for the success for several clubs on the continent, most notably Lyon and Porto. They also view the transfer market more like the stock exchange, keenly tracking the value of players and selling them the moment someone offers more than they themselves consider the player to be worth.

The approach has served both clubs well. Lyon won Le Championnat seven seasons straight between 2002 and 2008, despite never having won it prior to that, and last season reached the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time.

Porto also dominate at home while punching above their weight in Europe (winning the Uefa Cup and Champions League in 2003 and 2004 respectively).  Those triumphs might also have had something to do with their exceptional coach, one José Mourinho, but even now the Special One is long departed the club consistently reaches the latter stages of Europe's premier club competition while generating profits year-on-year despite not having the kind of TV revenue available to those teams on even the lowest rung of the England's Premier League ladder.

Back in the chilly North East of England, Newcastle boss Alan Pardew has made his position on Carroll very clear: “Spurs can bid whatever they like.  He’s not for sale.  I am going to say it one last time, Andy’s not for sale.”

Really? Not at any price?

Harry Redknapp (who isn’t a fucking wheeler dealer- right?) reckons you'd be 'talking £30m to £40m' to sign Newcastle’s number nine. That's quite a hefty sum, especially when you bear in mind Darren Bent has just cost Villa £18m (rising to £24m with add-ons). 

Honestly, Mr Capello, they paid £18 million...

Bent may not be a fashionable player, but he's a consistent Premier League goal scorer.  In fact, as Opta Joe pointed out only Didier Drogba and Wayne Rooney have scored more top-flight goals than Bent since August 2005 (82 a piece to Bent's 81) and only Drogba and Carlos Tevez have scored more than Bent since August 2009 (37 each to Bent's 32). Conversely, Carroll has 14 Premier League goals in 41 appearances.

It’s not surprising that in England two of the best traders on the transfer market stock exchange are the two most successful and longest serving bosses currently in the Premier League.  Both Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger have a keen eye for knowing when to sell – identifying the point at which they can extract maximum value before a player’s price falls.

Often those players are in their late 20s – that is to say arguably still at their peak – but most have gone on to be pale imitations of the players they were at Old Trafford or the Emirates.

Wenger has pursued a ruthlessly pragmatic policy when dealing with even the most iconic Arsenal players.  Both Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry (the club's all-time leading scorer) were sold before they passed 30, both turned a profit for the club and both had injury-marred post-Arsenal careers.  The same is true of Marc Overmars (£18m profit) who retired from the game just four years after leaving Arsenal as well as Emmanuel Petit, Robert Pires and Edu.

Ferguson is the same.  He was quick to dispatch David Beckham to the Bernabau when Real Madrid came calling with a cheque for £25m.  Goldenballs was aged just 28 and was England captain at the time.  It's not hard to imagine the reaction of the Toon Army if Newcastle sold a player in similar circumstances.  They'd be queuing up to throw their shirts into the Tyne and there'd probably be a run on pitchforks.

However, United (that’s Manchester) haven’t done badly without Becks, managing to win three League titles and something called the Champions League since he left. In a perfect example of selling high and buying low, the sixth Spice Girl was immediately replaced in Manchester United's number seven shirt by Ronaldho who was bought for just half the fee received for the England skipper.

The Portuguese was aged just 18 and went on to become World player of the year before moving to Real Madrid six seasons later for a world record fee of £80m. A tidy piece of business.

And so back to Andy Carroll. While he's not in his late 20s yet, the flip side is that his perceived value is based on his potential.  But the problem with potential is it doesn't always come to fruition, just ask Francis Jeffers (a rare Wenger error), Stan Collymore or a host of others.

What’s Carroll really worth to the club and when's the right time to sell him?  That's the £40million question for Pardew and co but if they're going to find the right answer they have see the light like Quinn - not only does every player have a price, every player should have a price.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Is O'Neill really right for West Ham?

By the time you read this Martin O’Neill might have replaced Avram Grant as the manager at West Ham.  Or he might not.  Not for the first time the dismissal of a Premier League boss has been conducted with all the sensitivity of a lumberjack performing brain surgery with a chain saw.

The accepted view is that the Irishman will bring much-needed passion and desire to the club, invigorating them and saving them from the drop.
Boring: Avram Grant

Sky Sports news even created a montage to that effect – contrasting Grant’s dour reaction to West Ham’s second goal against Birmingham in the Carling Cup semi-final with a clip of O’Neill pogo-ing around the technical area like Zebedee on speed.  But is this really how things will turn out?  Is Martin O’Neill really what West Ham need right now?

It’s certainly true that anyone employing O’Neill will get enthusiasm in spades, but what they won’t get is a manager used to a relegation battle.

In their book The 90-Minute Manager, David Bolchover and Chris Brady discuss the need for clubs appointing new managers to get the right ‘strategic fit’.  Too often, they argue, managers have been appointed ‘to achieve a specific set of goals purely on the basis of their attainment of utterly different goals and have subsequently failed’.

A manager might have a great reputation, but be wrong for a new club’s needs at any given time and in that sense O’Neill would appear to be a gamble.  Not once has he stepped in to save a team from the drop or been sucked into a genuine relegation battle with one of his own teams.

Exciting: Martin O'Neill

What’s more, O’Neill’s teams tend to start much better than they finish.  In his eight seasons managing in the Premier League to-date the last five (four at Villa and his last season at Leicester City) have seen better returns for his sides from the first 15 than the last 15 games.  One other saw an equal return and of the other two - which saw a better return from the last fifteen games - one was by only one point.

In those eight seasons, O’Neill’s teams gained on average 20.375 points in their last 15 games – West Ham currently have 20 points with 15 games left so a similar return would place West Ham on 40 or 41 points this season – squeaky bum time for sure.

Significantly this pattern was repeated in all five seasons he spent at Celtic, despite the inherent dominance of that club over all but one other team in Scotland.

Clearly, O’Neill could lead the Hammers to safety and write his name into the history books of yet another club, but it seems he gets greater returns from a squad fresh from the summer break than one feeling the effects of half a tough season.  Furthermore, those results came at clubs where he had had the chance to buy in his own players, and impose his vision over a period of time – O’Neill’s managerial career is built on the stability gained from application over a period of time - a luxury he will not have should he join West Ham.

This is reinforced by the fact that his first season at Villa – where he took over just two weeks before the first game and had little time to work with the players – saw his least productive start to a season at the club. 

A further note of caution - the last time O’Neill took over a team mid-season – at Leicester in December 1995 – he had a wretched start.  When he arrived, the team sat in third just two points off top spot, but after his first 16 games in charge they had slumped to ninth and out of the playoffs having gained just three wins and 16 points in that time.  That 16th game was a home defeat to Sheffield United that left fans so disgruntled many were calling for O’Neill’s head and several hundred even tried to storm the dressing room.  Now that game’s merely a footnote in O’Neill’s career but it’s one well worth remembering.

Finally, Hammers fans are used to seeing football played the ‘West Ham way’ – a passing game played with attacking flair. West Ham managers who do not adhere to this style, such as Lou Macari and Alan Curbishley, came in for criticism from parts of the crowd.

There is the perception in some quarters that he is a thinly-disguised long-ball tactitician – a thinking man’s Sam Allardyce – would this brand of football be well received in the long-term? 

O’Neill is well known for taking his time when considering job offers.  Perhaps it is the Upton Park board that should reconsider it’s choice this time round.