Tuesday, 22 February 2011

When Eric (Cantona) met Trevor (Francis)

1992 was a great year for English football – Eric Cantona signed for Sheffield Wednesday.

Well, maybe not, but he might have done as it was the blue-and-white striped jersey of The Owls that he first wore in England.

At the turn of the year in the 1991/92 season, Trevor Francis' team were ten points off the pace in 5th place.  Having recently seen his team humiliated by League leaders and Yorkshire rivals Leeds United – managed by ex-Owls boss Howard Wilkinson - 6-1 at Hillsborough and facing a mini injury-crisis up front, manager Francis knew he had to take action.

At the same time, Cantona had just announced his decision to retire from football - a move made in a fit of pique after he received a two-month ban for throwing a ball at a referee and then calling each member of the disciplinary panel an ‘idiot’ (clearly football's philosopher-in-chief had a way with words from a young age). 

However, French national boss Michel Platini and technical director Gerard Houllier persuaded the 25-year-old to chance his arm in England instead. Graeme Souness, then at Liverpool, was the first to turn down the chance to sign l'enfant terrible, saying he thought he'd be too much of 'a problem' (seems Jamie Carragher was right about that 'fucking perch' after all).

And that's how Cantona ended up training with Hillsborough's cosmopolitan squad which boasted two whole foreigners already (although one of them was American John Harkes, so he doesn't really count, right?). Given Cantona's fiery temperament the tabloids lapped it up with headlines such as ‘Trev swoops for Mad Eric’ and ‘Eric Le Brat’.

This will never last.

He spent a week training with Wednesday and although the weather prevented him playing on grass he did feature in a six-a-side match against Baltimore Blast at the Sheffield Arena. Wednesday lost 8-3 and Francis, perhaps not convinced Cantona could hack it on a cold night at the Victoria Ground, asked the French international to stay on for another week's trial, an offer Cantona promptly refused.

Having passed up the opportunity to become Eric The Wed, Cantona re-emerged at Elland Road just a week later and the rest, as they say, is history, although Cantona's influence on Leeds United's title season is perhaps over-stated - they were already top when he joined and he scored only three goals in 15 games (from which they won 26 points).

Arguably, the greatest factor in Leeds' title success was Manchester United's spectacular collapse in the run-in, which saw Alex Ferguson's team take 21 points from their last 15 games - winning just three of their last 11 and falling off top spot in the process. Ironically, despite missing out on Cantona, Wednesday had the best run-in of the three teams, gaining 28 points from their last 15 games. (Maybe this post's entirely pointless...).

Of course, any 'What If...' discussion about Cantona has to take in a stop at Old Trafford, where the Frenchman really did have an impact. Before they signed him in December 1992, the club was lying in fifth having won just seven of their first 17 games, but they won 17 of 25 after his signing taking the title by 10 clear points, now that's impact.

Would he have spent less than a year at Hillsborough had he signed for Wednesday? It's an interesting question; Cantona left Leeds after Wilkinson made an approach for Manchester United's Denis Irwin and Ferguson turned the conversation on its head. Interestingly Ferguson's interest in Cantona was prompted by the fact he had several bids for Wednesday's David Hirst turned down, perhaps they would have rebuffed his advances for Cantona too.

Either way, had Cantona not signed for Manchester United, it seems unlikely they would have broken their title duck that season and perhaps Ferguson would be a footnote in Old Trafford history, not a managerial Colossus and The Owls wouldn't be languishing in League One.

Now doubt there'll be a few Sheffield United fans out there having a good old chuckle at their cross-city rivals, and why not? But let's not forget that in 1978 The Blades agreed to sign a young Argentinean but ultimately couldn't cobble together the cash. His name? Diego Maradona. Ouch...

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Why Arsenal are not Barcelona

In the world of punditry Arsenal are the English Barcelona - both teams play football 'the right way' and spurn big money signings, instead building their team on home-grown talent. But look a little closer and you find that's not the case. In fact, there are three clear differences between the way the two clubs have built their teams, which might explain why the current Barcelona side are widely regarded as one of the greatest teams ever and Arsenal aren't even the best team in London.

Barca develop their own youngsters, Arsenal don't
The biggest myth of all is that both teams produce home-grown players. It's true for Barcelona.  Their recent astonishing run of recent success (and to a certain extent Spain's) has been built on a crop of players who have graduated from the club's famous La Masia youth accademy.

Seven of the starting XI which tore Real a new one in El Classico back in November graduated from the facility. Arsene Wenger is keen to re-enforce his reputation for having the same approach, especially in the face of, criticism. Earlier this season he defended his policy to the Guardian thus:

Asked if he believes his record is better than any other manager, Wenger said: "Of course. There is nobody else in the world. Take the list of the players who started here. Johan Djourou, where has he started? Here. [Philippe] Senderos, where has he started? [Gaël] Clichy, where has he started? [Kieran] Gibbs? Where has he started? [Cesc] Fábregas? Where has he started? [Alexandre] Song? Where has he started? [Abou] Diaby has basically never played before at the top level. Ashley Cole. If you go back, it is unbelievable the number of players who started at this club."
At best this was disingeneous of Wenger. Apart from Kieran Gibbs, all these players started their youth careers with other clubs before being plucked away by Wenger. Indeed Alex Song had played 32 games for Bastia in France's La Liga before he signed for Arsenal for about £1m. Likewise Abou Diaby played several times for Auxerre before he chose to chose to move to Arsenal instead of Chelsea for around £2m. Now, I have a lot of time for Wenger and his methods, but surely even he has to recognise these guys had had 'a start' elsewhere.

The £3.5m youth product

The same is true of the star youngsters Wenger signed in his early days at Arsenal. Patrick Viera played for Cannes and AC Milan before moving to Arsenal for £3.5m and Nichola Anelka was bought from Paris St Germain for £500,000. While Barcelona produce their own players from scratch, Arsenal import nearly-finished articles at a small cost and finish them off.

Barca splash the cash on stars, Arsenal don't
It's clear Wenger has an eye for a bargain, but as any fashionista will tell you, you shouldn't buy all your clothes from Primark - you need a few more pricey 'label' items to give your wardrobe real sparkle. This is something Barcelona clearly recognise. Unlike Arsenal, the Catalan club is not backwards in coming fowards with a big wedge of cash to supplement their youth products with the world's best available players.

Of the ten most expensive players of all time, Barcelona have bought two. In 2009 they bought Zlatan Ibrahimovic from Inter Milan for the princely sum of 60.7m (about 40m cash plus Samuel Eto'o who himself had cost about £24m a few years previously). Things didn't quite work out the Swede, so last summer Barca sent him packing to AC Milan and replaced him with Spain's World Cup hero David Villa for 40m.  They also prised Javier Mascherano away from Liverpool for the not inconsiderable fee of £22m.

By contrast, Arsenal don't have even one of the twenty most expensive English players and have never spent more than the £13.5m they splashed out on Andrei Arshavin in 2009. In part this is due to the financial constraints imposed on the club when they moved to The Emirates Stadium, but their most recent financial results suggest that burden has been lifted and any unwillingness to spend is now down to Wenger's evangelical belief in shopping for bargains (or his stubborness).

Barca maintain a balanced squad, Arse... oh, you get the idea
Way back in the mists of time, before he started talking to himself as he wandered aimlessly around Morrisons, Alan Hansen famously said, 'you don't win anything with kids'. Astonishingly he was right, although he probably didn't realise why. The Manchester United team he was talking about on the first day of the 1995 season contained four players aged 20 or younger but significantly also four aged 30 or older. Of the other three players, two were aged 24 and one 29. In short it was an almost perfect blend of youth and experience proving that indeed, you don't win anything with kids.

Again this is something Barcelona understand. Their current side is not based on a crop of youngsters which graduated together, but players who have broken in to the first team at different times and are different ages. Carles Puyol, who is 32 years old, played his first game for the club in 1999; Xavi Hernandez (aged 31) a year earlier. Andres Inisesta although only 26 made his debut in 2002. In short, the Barcelona team has a strong bond from one generation of winners to the next.

By contrast, the current Arsenal squad has lost the vital link with the last team of winners.  Only one player who has tasted League success with the club - Clichy, who was a bit-part player for The Invincibles in the 2003/04 season - is still around today. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were part of the FA Cup winning team in 2005 but beyond them, that's it. In fact Fabregas is the most experienced current Arsenal player with 205 appearances (while Puyol, Xavi and Iniesta all have more than that). 

Ironically, Wenger was the arch-exponent of what Barcelona have done when he first arrived at Arsenal. His initial success was built on marrying experienced winners, in particular The Gunners' notoriously parsimonious defence (the likes of Tony Adams, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, etc) all in their early thirties with keen, talented youngsters like Anelka and  Viera.

£10m worth of nothing

He also wasn't afraid to hand out bags of cash when needed. Thierry Henry cost £10m back in 1999 when £10m bought you more than Andy Carroll's legs. A year later Wenger spent £13m on Slylvian Wiltord and a year after that another £10m left Highbury for Francis 'Fox in the Box' Jeffers (remember him? No, I thought not.) This brought Arsenal two Doubles and when Adams et al retired the likes of Viera and Henry were the experinced men leading a new set of youngsters to a third title.

As Michael Jackson might say (if he were still alive and had any interest in football) maybe Wenger needs to have a word with the man in the mirror.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Is Peter Crouch actually any good?

Peter Crouch: Dancer, lover, occasional goal scorer.

The lanky streak of piss is an enigma wrapped inside a conundrum that looks like the bloke off the BT adverts after a spell on the rack, and that, I guess, is part of the problem - the way Crouch looks.

While it seems perverse to judge a player on his looks and not his ability, it's not an uncommon problem and one which is identified in Moneyball. The book details the visionary approach to player recruitment by the Oakland A's baseball team under general manager Billy Beane. In it we learn how Beane abandoned the traditional approach to scouting in favour of what was derisively called 'performance scouting' - that is using statistics to judge players.

White men can, oh forget it...

Up until then scouts had relied on instinct, or had favoured certain characteristics - so the 'Good Face' of a chiselled athlete would always be favoured over a 'skinny little guy', a 'fat catcher' or a 'short right-handed pitcher'. As Beane said, the scouts were allowing themselves to be "victimised by what we see".

In a sense that's what's happened to Crouch - he has become victimised by what we see. The Spurs striker simply doesn't conform to the pre-conceived ideas of what of a 'big man' up front should look like. Ironically, he's a little too tall for our tastes, or at least doesn't carry the 'right' weight to match his height.

Commentators and pundits say he's got 'a good touch for a big man', as if somehow the fact his brain's a few inches further from his feet than most people's means he's overcome some huge physical handicap. It's a remarkably odd turn of phrase as it is inconceivable that anyone could play more than 40 times for their country and sustain a career in one of the most competitive leagues in the world without some semblance of skill.

More than that, however, it overlooks his genuine ability.  While Wayne Rooney's deemed to be The World's Greatest Footballer again and well worth his £200,000 weekly salary because of his  'wonder strike' against Manchester City (as opposed to a nurse or a teacher who actually has a worthwhile job) we shouldn't forget Crouch has scored at least three equally spectacular overhead kicks.

The first was for Liverpool against Galatasaray in the Champions League in 2005. To prove it wasn't a one-off, he repeated the trick the following season against Bolton and then did it again for Portsmouth against Stoke in the Premier League a couple of years later. And if you still think he lacks technique check out his third in this 'perfect' hatrick against Arsenal in which he scored with both left and right feet and his head.

Unfortunately, Crouch suffers twice over as another common misconception about him is that despite his height he's not actually very good in the air. This myth was debunked by this post on the Zonal Marking blog which pointed out that in Premier League history (up to the end of last season) Crouch is the third most successful player in terms of the percentage of their goals that came from headers (48.2% in Crouch's case). So, while he may not be a fantastic header of the ball his height is a valuable weapon in his armoury.

But what does his goal-scoring record in general tell us? He's in part defined by the astonishing speed at which he's climbed up England's goal-scoring chart. Yet, despite being the country's joint 15th highest goalscorer (he has one more than Kevin Keegan and just four less than Wayne Rooney from 25 less appearances) there's always a suspicion that Crouch is a bit of a fraud on the international stage.

Of his 22 goals wearing the Three Lions, 12 have come in friendlies and all but three have come away from home. Of the 10 goals he's scored in competitive games only one has come against a team ranked in the World's top 10 at the time of the match - against Croatia at Wembley as the Wally with the Brolly looked forlornly on - and all but one of the rest have been scored against teams ranked 50th or worse which only adds to the impression that Crouch is a flat-track bully.

Good in the air, useless with his feet

Conversely at club level, Crouch does not score as often but has notched up some very important strikes. He has 60 Premier League goals to his name, placing him 53rd on the all-time list with a goals-per-game (GpG) ratio of 0.27 (for comparison Emile Heskey is 16th on the list with 109 goals and a similar ratio of 0.22 GpG, while Darren Bent's is 28th on the list with 84 goals and a ration 0.41 GpG).

But some of those goals have been vital.  Spurs might not be at the San Siro tonight had Crouch not grabbed the winner in the Champions League 'play-off' against Manchester City at the end of last season and early this season he grabbed a hatrick against Young Boys to take Spurs through to the tournament's group stage. Likewise, at Liverpool he played a vital role in their 2006 FA Cup success with the winner in the fifth round against Manchester United and two years later he grabbed a goal against Arsenal that maintained Liverpool's pursuit of a Champions League place.

Quite clearly Crouch is a good all-round player capable of finding the net with head and feet in near-equal measure,  he just doesn't do it consistently. But then perhaps Crouch himself is not the problem. Rather, it might be the case that he isn't used properly because of his physical attributes.

England, it seems, is still wedded to the need to have a 'big man' up front and once Heskey (another multi-faceted player pigeon-holed because of his build) stopped being the big man du jour it was Crouch's turn to be the recipient of punts from midfield or to be used as 'an impact sub' - all of which bypasses his undeniable technique.

While he is good in the air he is arguably better with his feet, but England's focus on direct play means Crouch rarely gets to play to his strengths. Maybe it's English football, not Crouch, that needs to get its head out of the clouds.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Athletics and football - the arranged marriage from hell?

So, there we have it; West Ham get the Olympic Stadium and everybody’s happy apart from Tottenham who are considering legal action. Oh, and Leyton Orient who now have a Premier League team pitching up on their doorstep proposing to give away cheap tickets in a bid to fill the new venue.

Say what you like, but the whole affair demonstrates Britain's innovative and forward-thinking approach to stadium design. Actually, that last part's not true. Britain has had a chaotic, nay shambolic relationship with its sporting stadia over the last 130 years or so, best illustrated by the fact that between 1923, when the old Wembley hosted its first game, and 1991, when the Don Valley stadium opened in Sheffield, not one single new stadium was built in Britain.

Wembley - a famous old shithole

Of course, it was an horrific event in that same city two years earlier that was the catalyst for a huge stadium re-building and modernisation project across the country over the last 20 years.  If, like me, you watched football in the late Eighties you’ll now that back then stadia weren’t entertainment venues but squalid, Dickensian places where near-miss incidents on the scale of Hillsborough occurred many times over.

Indeed it would be wrong to think that the Hillsborough tragedy was a one-off event, tragically it was merely the last in a long line of fatal or near-fatal incidents at British stadia, of which the overwhelming majority were caused by crushing. Most infamously, in 1946 32 people died when crush barriers collapsed during a game at Bolton’s Burnden Park and in 1971 66 people died at Ibrox following a crush after a goal in an Old Firm game.

In 1981 at the FA cup semi-final between Spurs and Wolves at Hillsborough, late arrivals and a surge after a goal caused injuries to 38 fans.  Although no one died, this incident is particularly chilling – the same cause in the same part of the same stadia would lead to 96 deaths just eight years later. It seems no lessons were learned if, indeed, any were acknowledged at all.

In total over 300 people have died and 4,000 been injured at incidents at Britain’s football grounds and, apart from the Valley Parade fire, all have been terrace-related crushes. The overwhelming cause was, until the early Nineties, the complete abdication of responsibility by the game's administrators towards their customers. The only widespread 'modernisation' at football grounds in that time - the instillation of fencing, itself a key cause of the deaths at Hillsborough - was instead a measure designed to 'contain' the 'problem' of football fans. 

Of course, having waited the best part of 70 years for a new stadium, now we have so many we don’t know what to do with them as a new set of administrators cack-handedly muddle their way through a different set of problems.

Tottenham’s attitude to the Olympic Stadium has seemed astonishingly arrogant - they weren't interested in the stadium, just the land, as they proposed to knock it down (effectively burning £500m of public money after just 17 days of use) and starting again from scratch. Their answer to the annoying issue of a legacy for athletics was to fund the building of a new stadium over in Crystal Palace, which in turn might have scuppered Crystal Palace FC’s hope for a new ground.

This seems odd as there are many stadia around the world which accommodate both sports.  Munich’s Olympiastadion has a running track round it and yet managed to host both the 1974 World Cup final and the 1988 European Championship final, furthermore the track didn’t seem to diminish England fans’ enjoyment of their 5-1 win over Germany at the ground in 2001.  Likewise Rome’s Stadio Olimpico has hosted several international football finals despite – Shock! Horror! – also having a running track.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (capacity 100,000) hosts cricket, football, Australian football and both codes of Rugby and across the world innovative solutions have allowed for multi-sports stadia use. The Sapporo Dome in Japan hosts both football - on a retractable grass pitch - and baseball - on an artificial surface. The grass pitch is removed while baseball is being played and the stands reconfigure to change the shape of the ground.

And get this - the Rod Laver Arena, also in Melbourne and where the Australian Open final is held, has also hosted swimming and motor cross and has a removable stand to enable it to host concerts. Suggest that at a Wimbledon committee meeting and you're guaranteed to have a couple of heart-attack victims on your hands.

This insularity might be unique to Britain but it’s not unique to football.  Twickenham is an 82,000 capacity stadium – the fourth biggest in Europe – that is used exclusively for rugby.  In 2000 the RFU allowed a Rugby League game to be played there for the first time in 73 years but while Bon Jovi and Iron Maiden have had the pleasure of gracing its turf, not one football match has been taken place at the stadium.

Wouldn't it have been astonishingly forward-thinking if football and rugby had set aside their long-held, and frankly pathetic, differences to allow Twickenham to become the home for both English football and rugby? We could have pulled-down the rotting corpse of the old Wembley, saved ourselves £700m in the process and perhaps built the FA's long-planned National Football Centre instead.

Instead, while football happily co-exists with other sports in major stadiums around the world, we British, with our lack of vision and long-term planning, stand as a lone beacon against such foreign nonsense.

The seeds for the current problems were sown when Wembley was rebuilt (and let's not forget that went a year over schedule and £300m over-budget). It was supposed to be a national stadium able to accommodate football and athletics and form the basis of both Olympic and World Cup bids. However, that nice Mr Ken Bates - the man initially in charge - kicked that idea into touch making Wembley a football-only venue - no retractable seats in his grand scheme.

This left the 2005 World Athletics Championship without a venue until Picketts Lock was chosen as the site for a new, dedicated athletics stadium, but just two years later that was deemed too expensive and, to much embarrassment, Britain had to pull out as hosts of the event. And, of course, it meant that when London did win the right to host the 2012 Olympics a whole new stadium had to be built with . . . you guessed it, an athletics track.

Pickets cock up

The Wembley fiasco - and the way athletics was bullied out of the equation - meant the Olympic board almost went out of their way to devise a plan that meant the stadium couldn't be occupied by a football club after the Games, the initial plan being to maintain the athletics track and drop capacity to 25,000. The alternative, argued for by then-Sports Minister Richard Caborne, was for the athletics track to be covered by retractable seats allowing for dual post-Games use.

However, when it became clear that in reality a football club needed to be involved post-2012 to make the stadium economically viable, West Ham and Spurs became involved but by then there was no compromise option (which retractable seats would have allowed).  Either the track stayed or it went (hence Spurs' desire to rebuild from scratch and move the track to a dedicated arena in Crystal Palace) and so there's a sense we're left with a mish-mash plan that doesn't really suit anyone's needs.

Frankly all this makes us look a little bit silly, but is only to be expected in a country where sub-committees and vested interests rule supreme. If Ken Bates hadn't dumped athletics from Wembley then perhaps the Olympic board would have been more accommodating to football. Perhaps they could have used technology to create an innovative dual-purpose stadium and a genuine local legacy by putting Leyton Orient at the heart of their plans.

But no, petty politics has allowed the Premier League to win out again.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Success? It's a vision thing

As Carlo Ancelotti and Kenny Dalglish made increasingly large bids for Fernando Torres and Andy Carroll on transfer deadline day, they gave the impression of drunk punters clinging to the side of a roulette table desperately trying to make one last bet to recoup their losses before the bouncers threw them out.

At the bar there were two other chaps having a good old chuckle at the spectacle, perhaps over a bottle of decent claret, with their wallets firmly in their pockets.  They, of course, were Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger.

More than ever this season the notion of the 'Big Four' seems to be fracturing and the two clubs most likely to fall out of that elite group are Chelsea and Liverpool.  Both these teams have had success in the last decade or so, but this has come in spite of, not because of, the way they have been run with both having lacked the cohesive, long-term strategy that, by contrast, defines Manchester United and the Arsenal.

Just look at the clubs at the most basic level - since Wenger joined The Gunners in 1996, United and Arsenal have had one manager each while Liverpool have had five (including one caretaker) and Chelsea have had 10 (including two caretakers). No Blues boss has managed more than three full seasons in that period - not hard to see why none of them has had the time to implement a long-term strategy.

John, I'm special but I'm not that special

Jose Mourinho brought great and instant success to Chelsea, but he is a different kind of manager to Wenger and Ferguson.  As Alastair Campbell might say, the Portuguese doesn't do legacy, he is more about 'project' management - taking charge at a club and reinvigorating it in the short term before moving on to the next challenge. Either way, take the Special One out of Chelsea's recent history and you have to question whether they would have won the title at all let alone the Double last year.

While Liverpool managers have fared slightly better than their Chelsea counterparts, significantly this period saw the end to the legendary Boot Room dynasty at Anfield, where Roy Evans - not to be confused with Pat Butcher's late husband - was the last manager to emerge from 'within' Anfield.

The Boot Room was established by Bill Shankly and allowed him to fully impose his ethos on the club while harnessing the abilities of his coaches.  So strong was this unified vision that when Shankly retired Bob Paisley stepped into his job and the club's run of success continued seamlessly. The Boot Room also produced managers Joe Fagan and Evans (and caretaker boss Ronnie Moran) while having a huge influence over Dalglish in his first stint as manager, in fact the Scot has already said he wants to re-introduce the Boot Room mentality since he took hold of the reins for a second time at Anfield.

Not only have Ferguson and Wenger had the luxury of time, they've also had the stability brought by support from the owners of their respective clubs, giving them the confidence and freedom to implement their strategies. Conversely even the most successful recent managers at Chelsea and Liverpool have had to cope with off-the-pitch disruption.

Mourinho was undermined by the appointment of Avram Grant as Director of Football and left the club by 'mutual consent' just two months later. More recently Ancelotti, fresh from winning the double, saw his trusted assistant Ray Wilkins sacked behind his back, the team, which had won 13 of its first 17 games this season, then went on to win just two of the 11 following Wilkins' sacking.  Nice work, Mr Abramovich

At Anfield, Rafa Benitez's tenure started brightly winning the Champions League and FA Cup in his first two seasons, but it was increasingly marred by the off-the-pitch rivalry between co-owners Tom Hicks and George Gillette which led to inertia in several areas and saw the club finish seventh in Benitez's final season.

Interestingly, Manchester United's worst run in the Premier League (between 2003/04 and 2005/06) came when Ferguson fell into dispute with JP Magnier over his share of stud fees for 'the ultimate horse' Rock of Gibraltar. As the row rumbled on though the courts, billionaire Magnier and his associates relentlessly upped their stake in the club until they effectively ruled the roost at Old Trafford and became Ferguson's bosses. Even the great managers, it seems, need to feel secure.

Manchester United and Arsenal's recent success has also, like that of most successful clubs, been built on the foundations of youth. Any club needs to insulate itself from the loss of key players, whether that is through sale or injury and a strong youth-development policy is a highly cost-effective way of doing this while also helping to strengthen the ethos and vision of a club on and off the pitch.

By contrast the Liverpool and Chelsea youth production lines seem to have ground to a halt.  Not since John Terry in 1998 has a Chelsea youth player managed to stake a long-term place in the first team and it's a similar length of time since the last products of Liverpool's youth team (Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard) broke through the ranks. This makes 'refreshing' the team - replacing older players with younger ones without losing experience or disrupting a winning pattern - that much harder.

The problem has been exacerbated by a chaotic approach to player recruitment at both clubs. Prior to the eye-wateringly costly signing of Torres, only Nicholas Anelka had really supplemented the signings made by Mourinho at Chelsea and the club is regularly accused of having a squad which is too old.  The spine of the team - Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba, Terry and Anelka - are all 30 or over and all are showing signs of fatigue particularly after the summer's World Cup. The huge punt on Torres increasingly seems like a desperate move by a club trying to compensate for the lack of that all-important long-term strategy.

Likewise at Anfield, Gerard Houillier - the first post-Boot Room boss - spent highly before being sacked.  His replacement, Benitez, the spent significant sums to impose his vision on the club, although he was often at loggerheads with former chief executive Rick Parry, blaming him for failing to sign key transfer targets. Then Roy Hodgson was able to bring in players before being sacked after less than half a season. Again, this lack of a clearly-defined strategic vision has meant the club has just had to pay over the odds to refresh its forward line (although as Liverpool's owner John W Henry has pointed out, this was all effectively funded with Chelsea's money).

The elephant in the blog is, of course, Arsenal's lack of silverware over the last five seasons - something which is becoming an increasingly large stick with which to beat Wenger. Yet The Gunners had a very specific set of targets in the last few years - spend less on players while funding the move to a new stadium and continuing to qualify for the Champions League.  Boxes ticked on all counts - nice one, Arsene. In fact Arsenal have recently recorded a record profit which should see them well placed to challenge for honours in the future (if the Frenchman can remember his PIN number, that is).

It's hard to know what to say about Chelsea. The day the club spunked £50m all over Anfield it also announced a loss of £70m. How this quite tallies with the stated aim of making the club self-financing in line with Uefa's financial fair play policy, which is looming large on the horizon, is anyone's guess. Abramovich can keep throwing money at a problem, but when he's down to his last couple of yachts even he will surely realise it's not a viable, long-term solution.

We've lost how much?!

At Old Trafford, the Glazier family's leveraged buy-out of Manchester United four years ago means the club recently posted an arse-clenching record loss of £84m. The sums are enough to make your brain leak out of your nose and it's a testament to the stability and momentum that Ferguson has built at Old Trafford over the last quarter of a century that the club is still competing at the highest end of the Premier League.  But how long can that last with interest payments alone running in the region of £42m a year?

Which leaves us with Liverpool. The club is now debt-free following last year's sale to the Fenway Sports Group. They maybe another bunch of Yanks, but they know a thing or two about turning clubs around. In 2002 they bought the Boston Red Sox and two years later ended the club's 86-year wait for the World Series (and then won it again two seasons later for good measure). 

Perhaps that punt on Carroll wasn't so desperate after all.  If Dalglish can recapture the spirit of the Boot Room and build a happy marriage with the FSG's Moneyball mentality, then perhaps Liverpool can knock United back off that fucking perch everyone keeps going on about.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The good, the bad and Mike Ashley

That Mike Ashley's a bastard. What the hell does he think he's doing selling local hero Andy Carroll for a grossly inflated transfer fee far in excess of the player's true value, eh?

The fact that Ashley managed to extract a record-breaking £35m for a striker who has a 72-minute-long England career and who has 'proven' himself with 14 goals in 41 Premier League games shows he knows how to drive a hard bargain (or simply that Liverpool were just desperate). Either way, Newcastle fans will see the deal as further evidence that Ashley is only interested in 'The Money'.

Now, let me be honest, I certainly wouldn't be signing up for a course on how to run a football club taught by Mr Ashley, but I do think some of the criticism he's received from the Toon Army has been a little bit unfair.

For sure, PR is not his forte.  He doesn't do interviews so it's very hard for the fans to understand what (if any) plans he has and while the 'it's-my-company-so-I'll-run-it-the-way-I-want-to-fuck-you-very-much' approach to business might have brought him success previously, it's a little different in the world of football where your customers have a huge emotional attachment to the product.

That said, he has never sunk to the level of the club's previous chairman, Freddie Shepherd who was infamously caught by the Fake Sheikh in 1998, along with deputy chairman Douglas Hall, calling North East women 'dogs' and mocking fans for buying £50 replica shirts which cost just £5 to make. All this in a brothel, by the way. The pair were forced to resign and while they were back in control within a year they never quite managed to wash away the bitter taste the whole sordid affair left.

Come back, Freddie, all is forgiven

If anything, it's Ashley's chaotic approach to recruitment that has really undermined his relationship with the fans.  After sacking Sam Allardyce - a move, let's not forget, the Geordie faithful were calling for - and failing to persuade Harry Redknapp to move north, Ashley instead picked up the phone and called The Messiah. 

While Kevin Keegan was talking cryptically about 'settling unfinished business'  the decision left fans in the rest of the country (a) laughing and (b) asking when - and not if -  the new boss would walk away (which he duly did after just eight months in September 2008).  His departure was no doubt hastened by the decision to appoint the delightful Dennis Wise as director of football, but none-the-less it seemed like a resignation waiting to happen.

Following Keegan, Ashley smashed it through Chris Hughton as a caretaker, Joe 'Fucking' Kinnear (a heart attack waiting to happen), Hughton as caretaker again and Gary Lineker's golfing buddy Alan Shearer before finally giving the job to Hughton full time.

Yet, just as Hughton seemed to be getting used to life as a Premier League manager he was sacked and replaced by Alan Pardew.  Some thought it was akin to shooting Bambi, or at least one of Bambi's relatives seeing as Bambi had already been shot.

But this final decision is an example of how Ashley can't win with the fans. Hughton was removed in December 2010 after gaining 19 points from 16 Premiership games. His team had won five, drawn four and lost seven, scoring 24 and conceding 25. By contrast, after his first 16 games at Newcastle, Allardyce had gained 22 points, wining six, drawing four and losing six. His team had scored 23 and conceded 26.

Remarkably similar records, but that wasn't enough spare Allardyce the wrath of St James' Park, where it seems losing doesn't matter as long as you lose in style, although as anyone who's witnessed a pub fight will tell you, there's nothing stylish about having your teeth knocked out in front of your girlfriend.

Furthermore, between February 2006 and January 2008 Newcastle sacked three managers (Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder and Allardyce) all appointed by Shepherd at a total cost in payouts of £8.9m. Is Ashley's recruitment record really much worse? It's a moot point.

Oh, make up your bloody minds up

All of this - the piss-poor communication and the chaotic personnel decisions - has clouded the one area where Ashley really can be compared favourably with the previous regime: Money.

The common misconception in Newcastle is that Ashley is more interested in profit than the club (there is even a Facebook group to this effect) but such was the state of the club's finances left by the previous regime, it's debatable whether there would be a club in Newcastle at all without him.

Chris Mort, the man Ashley initially appointed as chairman, wasted no time in pointing out that had the previous board not sold the club, or at least refinanced their loans Newcastle could have 'folded like a pack of cards'. Leeds United anyone?

When Ashley took control of Newcastle the club had just made a £30m loss, was £70m in debt and still had £27m still owing on transfers.

Furthermore, the club's accounts released in June 2008 reveal the full extent of the Hall and Shepherd families' earnings from their time connected with Newcastle. The Hall family amassed £95,748,570 while the Shepherds, profited to the tune of £50,099,604 with the majority of this cash coming from dividend payments, share sales and salaries.  

But there were other payments.  For example, in 2007 the club paid £343,458 to rent warehouse space and houses from a company owned by Freddie Shepherd's brother Bruce and in the same year paid £81,883 to a sports consultancy company run by Freddie Shepherd's son. Both deals Shepherd argued as being of good value to the club.

And I'm sure they were, but let me say this again, just so we're all very clear.  From their time at the club the Hall and Shepherd families profited to the combined tune of £145,848,174.  Nice work if you can get it.

In another echo of Leeds United (remember Peter Risdale 'living the dream' before it shattered into a financial nightmare?) Shepherd has defended himself, saying: "In our time the club played 110 games in Europe, reached Wembley and played in the Champions League. We built a new ground and a new training centre."

All of which is true, but at what cost? He might not have wanted to sell, but when he did not only was the club hugely in debt, but it had had all its revenue streams squeezed dry. Money from a Northern Rock sponsorship deal was paid up front in a lump sum instead of annually and was used to pay Michael Owen's transfer fee, likewise borrowings were made against money from a deal with adidas before it had been paid.

So how has Mike Cashley, the money grabbing git, dealt with all of this? Er, well, so far he's ploughed £286m of his own money into the club firstly to buy it and secondly in the form of loans to pay off debts. While these loans can be recalled at a moment's notice, they have been crucial in keeping the club afloat.  Since the end of 2009 alone he has lent the club £25.5m just to see it safely through a season in the Championship.

So when chairman Derek Llambias says the £35m Carroll fee wil be reinvested in players and that Ashley has "never taken a single penny out" of the club, he's got a point.

The problem is that under Freddie Shepherd Newcastle fans have been used to dining on a rich diet of high transfer fees spent on marquee signings with equally high salaries. They'd do well to remember that it's Mike Ashley who's footing the bill.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Goals on Film: Escape to Victory

Some people say there's no such thing as a good football film.  But those people clearly haven't spent a Bank Holiday afternoon watching Escape to Victory - it's the perfect mix of any self-respecting England fan's two most important things: football and The War.

Coming over like the bastard love child of The Great Escape and Mean Machine, it stars Michael Caine as John Colby a West Ham and England player whose career has been interrupted by the war. Colby has been whiling away his time organising football leagues for his fellow PoWs before he's recognised by Major Karl Von Steiner, a nice Nazi (this is fiction, remember) who suggests a friendly between the prisoners and some German soldiers.

The Nazi high command quickly sniffs a propaganda opportunity and the game is turned into a fully-fledged international (say what you want about them, but the Nazis knew a thing or two about marketing). Not for the last time, sport is hijacked by politics.

In many ways the film is a microcosm of football itself.  We see the game as a lingua franca that can bring all nationalities together as well as temporarily uniting enemies.  However, when it comes to class it's a different matter. Colby tells Von Steiner "I don't want a team packed full of officers. I want a decent team - the lads."  Yeah, football's a working class game, so the toffs can bugger off, right? Not quite - just like at the FA, it's the posh knobs and their numerous committee heads, with whom Colby is in almost perpetual confrontation, who call the shots.

The Golden Generation

Thus Colby is placed in charge of a squad of the best Allied footballers shipped in from PoW camps across occupied Europe and some truly great names were cast to play the Allied team, from Pele and Bobby Moore to Ossie Ardiles. And Sylvester Stallone.

The German team, on the other hand, is managed by that bloke who used to be in Brush Strokes and The Vicar of Dibley.

Incidentally, as PoW camps go this must be the Hilton.  There's clearly no shortage of rations as Colby has a gut on him like a Sunday parks footballer and the weights section of the gym must be pretty good too.  Stallone's character Hatch is buff to the max, something we can't fail to miss as he takes his shirt off at every possible opportunity.

After a bit of boring stuff about the French Resistance, politics and plans for the players to escape through a tunnel under their dressing room during half time of the match, which lead to the useless Hatch having to play in goal, it's on to the game.

The teams are helpfully colour-coded (the Allies in white and the Germans in black) to make sure there's absolutely no confusion as to who are The Goodies and who are The Baddies. Er, that's black for the baddies, OK?

The referee is a neutral Swiss, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has the same attitude to wartime neutrality as the country's banks. The Nazi's are awarded dubious decision after dubious decision while their own fouls go unpunished and Colby's team find themselves 4-0 down before pulling a goal back just before the break.

With their way to freedom opening up in front of them in the form of a tunnel into the Parisian sewers, Russell Osman utters the immortal line: "Hang on a minute, lads. We can win this!" Now, you know you're in trouble when it's the American that's making sense and Hatch, not unreasonably, points out they have absolutely no chance of winning and escape is clearly their best option.

However, Pele's character, Fernandez, implores him to stay, saying: "If you leave now you lose more than a game." I've no idea what he meant either, but if Carlsberg did team talks this would be one of them. Not only does the team spurn the chance to escape, but incredibly they pull the match level.

It's an England fan's wet dream come true as passion and spirit trumps tactical superiority (OK, I know it's an Allied team, but they're wearing white so we all know it's England really). Just like in the Premier League the skill is provided by the non-English players and it falls to Fernandez, to score the equaliser with a stunning overhead kick so balletic that even Von Steiner is moved to applaud (remember he's the good Nazi, who can appreciate that sort of stuff).

But with seconds remaining the ref awards a penalty to Germany (despite much protestation,  video replays do in fact show for once he got it right and that Rey (Ardiles) clearly took the man, not the ball).

So, ultimately the fate of the Allies lies in the hands of a Yank and, just like the real war, despite being useless for most of proceedings he saves the day at the end and steals the glory.  With that, the partisan French crowd floods the pitch and the players are spirited away to safety anyway.

Really, the film should be called Escape To A Score Draw, but who cares?  Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Kaiser Wilhelm, YOUR BOYS SURE TOOK ONE HELL OF A BEATING!