Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Nasri move to the Dark Side leaves Arsenal in crisis. Crisis? What crisis?

How many times have you heard the following statements this summer? Arsenal are in crisis. They must buy players. Arsene Wenger must go. He has lost the plot. How many times have you heard them over the past six years?

These sentiments amongst pundits, journalists and fans will no doubt intensify in the wake of today's sale of yet another prized asset - midfielder Samir Nasri - to their big-spending rivals Manchester City.

But has Wenger lost the plot, or is he the one keeping his head whilst everyone around him is losing theirs? What is Arsenal's plot? What is Manchester City's?

In Wenger's case you can draw a straight line, slap a couple of post-its on it and write on them 'invest in youth development' and 'run a self-funding, competitive club' and leave it there. That is the story at Arsenal, beginning, middle and hopefully end. At City you might need more post-it notes, some gold stars and a couple of tubes of glitter. You might end up with a shinier picture, maybe even including a sickly-sparkley trophy or two, but you might also create an awful mess.

The Wenger mantra, which now infuriates even his own fans, has kept his team in the top four. It has kept them competitive in Europe and the domestic cups. In short, it has done everything it set out to, and it has done it within its own very strict principles.

Nasri has jumped ship 'to win things' and pick up sack loads of cash in the process. He may achieve the first of those objectives. No doubt with his signing on fee banked he has already achieved the latter. He may also join Emmanuel Adebayor in, at least teporarily, derailing a promising career by leaving Arsenal for the lustier pursuits of Manchester's new money.

He might not even get a game. How does Roberto Mancini fit him in with all of the other galacticos at his disposal? Surely his 'buy attacking talent' post-it was already fully encrusted with shiny gold stars. Isn't it time to add another post-it to City's latest spider-diagram and to write 'make these players I have bought in to a TEAM' on it?

Mancini's City might out-perform Wenger's Arsenal on the pitch this season. They certainly should, based on comparative spends and squads. There is, however, a tiny glimmer of hope that they might not. Either way, it is Wenger's philosophy which shows football its greater moral core.

A trophy for Arsenal this season would be vindication for this, and a great example to other aspirational clubs. Trophies for City would be further nails in the coffin of the soul of the game.
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Media seek flaw in Cook's near perfect innings

BBC Sport - Alastair Cook rejects criticism of his batting style

294 runs. 545 balls. Over 13 hours. These are figures which could perhaps belong to a slightly under par innings from a test match team. They do not. They belong to Alastair Cook, who batted throughout a team effort which saw England rack up 710-7 against the number one ranked team in test cricket. Cook's personal total beat that number one ranked team's by itself. It virtually guarantees the England will beat India, and take that number one crown from them. So what's the problem then?

Cook batted slowly. "Turgid," the article called it, citing Geoffrey Boycott of Test Match Special as the antagonist behind the remark. Of course. We are perhaps the only nation who can find such fault with such victory.

If our football team won the World Cup, winning each game either 1-0 or on penalties, after a turgid 0-0, you can imagine our own fans, hopefully tongue-on-cheek, chanting: 'Boring boring England.'

In cricket we revere the Kevin Pietersens and the Freddie Flintoffs. Alastair Cook is well on his way, at only 26, to being, without hyperbole, the greatest English batsman of all time. His stats are already up there. But he should play with more panache. Perhaps he should emulate the Kevin Pietersens rather than the (ironically) Geoff Boycotts of this world.

Or, perhaps we should get off his back and praise him for doing what we should have been crying out for someone to step up and do years ago: to play the way we have had to endure others playing against us. Mohammed Youssuf of Pakistan. Rahul Dravid of India. Now Alastair Cook of England. Batsmen with the mindset to bat and bat and bat. To make big hundreds. To make double hundreds. To make bowling attacks despair. To concentrate, for hours or days, on not getting out. Taking the runs as they are offered, never searching for them. Never offering your wicket for them.

This is, after all, test match cricket. And, yes, we do enjoy watching KP, but we do need a lynch-pin too. In Cook we have that, and long may it continue.
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Tuesday, 9 August 2011

UK cities were powder kegs, fueled with decades of anger

You're young, and you're unemployed. Maybe you should still be at school, but your school was a no-go zone. You don't know your dad and your mum is too disaffected or just too damn busy, perhaps with your little half-siblings, to give you her time. There is no schooling and no parenting in your life. Where do you turn for direction?

That's the sort of problem that many of the youths involved in this week's riots face. The gang culture supporting the riots is part and parcel of their solution. It follows logical process that these aimless kids would seek solidarity with others like them, and leadership from those a bit older and further down the same path.

This neither excuses nor fully explains the events of these past few nights, but it does set them in context. This is not violence as a reaction to Coalition cuts, it is a reaction to a generation of negligent social policy from a series of UK governments. These angry youths did not suddenly morph out of decent law-abiding folk this weekend, nor when the last Budget was announced. The anger has been accumulating for a generation. The social underclass of the unemployed, uneducated and unruly is not newborn, it is maturing in to adulthood.

Perhaps Labour's more generous benefits helped subdue the feelings of resentment for socio-economic plans which have left Britain without major independent industries, without jobs for its populus and without any sense of genuine national pride. Now, however, the children of that generation, raised with that resentment in their blood, are finding their voice.

You were a teenager when Margaret Thatcher was privatising our industries. You have lived your life without purpose or direction, unemployed, useless, with no self worth. Now you're forty, your boy is twenty, and as parents do you've passed on your disaffection like a family heirloom. In fact, you did it in the most effective manner possible, by fucking off and leaving him to grow up rudderless, amid a sea of malcontent.

That's how our underclass has been spawned. Maybe my focus on absent fathers is unfair. Perhaps the mothers are equally to blame. Perhaps none of them are entirely to blame for where they are (and what they are) - IT WOULDN'T HAPPEN ON SUCH A MASS SCALE IF IT WASN'T A SOCIETAL PROBLEM, SO LET'S STOP VILLIFYING INDIVIDUALS.

To dismiss these people as 'morons' or to say they are 'just out for what they can get' is to miss the point entirely. To say 'they should all be shot' is a wonderful contradiction for a nation which ostensibly abhors such 'iron fist' tactics on foreign soil. And yet these are the most common reactions from our better classes. Perhaps they should be asking why there are people like this on our doorstep.

Civil unrest does not grow without deep-lying roots. Whether a gang member (or non-gang member) was unjustly (or justly) killed by police is neither here nor there. This was a mere spark which ignited a gun-powder spill which has been pouring since the 80s, since the Tories' last spell in charge. It's no big surprise is it? The poorest getting angriest when the government represent the rich? Labour didn't fix it either though. If they had have, then this would not have set light so quickly after their rein. The fact is that, whichever way we turn, British politics has given us at least three decades now of catastrophic mismanagement. These riots are the ugly manifestation of that.
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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Fly me to the moon... Boro's brave new adventure

"If I had to pick one man to fly to the moon with, I'd pick Tony Mowbray."

So, legend has it, said Bruce Rioch, then Middlesbrough manager, of his centre-half and talismanic '86 era captain. Now, Mowbray is the manager embarking on his first full season in charge of his boyhood club, and the task he faces is one of lunar proportions.

The club has already crashed. Two years on from relegation and parachute-paymentless, Mowbray inherited a flaming wreckage. His most urgent task has been to douse the flames: the squad was over-burdened with high-earners, imbalanced and largely devoid of creativity and pace.

Addressing the squad's deficiencies has had to wait while the wage bill is trimmed. This summer has seen minimal incoming players and some inevitable losses.

The result of this disaster management was, after the sale of Leroy Lita, a return to what Mowbray calls "Ground Zero." The club once again has a stable platform from which to launch.

This launch will be fueled by genuine Boro spirit. The spirit of '86, which Mowbray embodies, if you like. The word 'our' has seeped in to club's communication strategy, from the website's tagline "It's in our blood," to the idea of "one of our own," which fits Mowbray and the core of young talent he commands.

There are still players from the Strachan era which Mowbray may have preferred to move out ahead of the likes of Lita and Andrew Taylor, but demand has dictated which players have gone. There is a challenge ahead in making use of the experienced, predominantly Scottish contingent of the squad and blending that with the young, homegrown talent. The signings of Marouane Zemmama, last season, and Marvin Emnes, on a longer contract, have at least equipped the team with some pace and flair. The retention of Matthew Bates and Rhys Williams is key.

The preparations have been made. Today we launch. The moon may seem a long way off, but at least the right man is at the helm.
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Wednesday, 29 June 2011

British sportsmen, and journalists, just don't get it

I have a tendency to become enraged when the British media, our media, come down so hard on our failing sports stars. I will argue until I'm blue in the face that one error does not make a bad goalkeeper, as the media has insisted in the past cases of Rob Green and Paul Robinson. I will vehemently rebuke suggestions that Andrew Strauss is not fit to captain the English cricket team because he has had a patchy run off form. I do not believe that Andy Murray is British when he wins but Scottish when he loses: I believe he should be measured on his consistency of performance. Whether you support him is up to you.

In the case of Alastair Cook, newly appointed One Day International captain of England I am going to argue precisely the opposite. Why on earth is he receiving glowing praise in today's papers? Why, for that matter, are the press so rambunctiously undulating with glee at yesterday's rain-affected victory over Sri Lanka.

I'm all for taking the positives from negative situations. For completeness though, it is only proper to address what went wrong when things, result-wise, have gone well.

There were some overly defensive field placings as England should have been maneuvering for the kill. There were one or two strange bowling changes and two bowlers in particular - Jade Dernbach and Stuart Broad - looked worryongly short of invention from a position which any fast bowler should have relished. Blowing away tails should be routine for a pace attack. Sri Lanka's 9th wicket partnership was worth 52 from just 34 balls, before the guile of Graeme Swann was required to dismiss both partners in this improbable stand, Lasith Malinga and Suraj Randiv.

This is what bothers me most: we should have rolled them over more easily, more quickly, more brutally. We should not have trundled over the line as we did. In the grand scheme of things it may seem pedantic to quibble over so moot a point. The game was dead. Why shouldn't we just trundle through? Why bare our teeth and savage the already mortally wounded foe?

Why? Because that is what winners do. That is what winning mentality is. That is why the Australian greats Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne were so deadly. They were merciless. The same could be said of the West Indian fast-bowling duo of Curtley Ambrose and Courtney Walsh which wreacked havoc through the 1990s. They were savages, lusty for blood and a little thing like match circumstances was not enough to quell that. Their purest joy was in simply taking wickets.

It is a trait of British sportsmen, I fear, that they feel they can turn their killer instincts on and off at will. Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and co might saunter through a friendly match knowing they will be subbed at half-time anyway. It's only a friendly, who cares? And then the World Cup arrives and all of a sudden England have forgotten how to shift through the gears and pick teams apart (assuming they ever knew). Why? Because they have learnt bad habits. They've purposefully practiced how to coast rather than how to motor on.

In cricket, England's bowlers know what to do when the going is good. Last night James Anderson disposed of Sri Lanka's top order in stormy, swing-friendly conditions, perfect for his style of bowling. In this year's World Cup he was bereft of such helpful conditions and was exposed as having no plan B. Dernbach and Broad bowled predominantly slower balls and bouncers respectively and Sri Lanka's tail wagged. It didn't matter in the game, but if England's bowlers can't better adapt to differing conditions they will never be a serious force in the limited-overs games. If they can't fully integrate a killer-instinct in to their mindsets they will, on occasion, struggle in all forms of the game.

The same principle applies to our football team and English tennis players gone by. If only Tim Henman had wanted to win every tournament as much as Wimbledon, he might have actually won Wimbledon. Of our boxers, Ricky Hatton might have been able to compete with the well-oiled machine of Floyd Mayweather Jr if only his winning habits had been fully integrated in to his psyche, rather than picked up for every fight, then put down in favour of pies and peas and pints.

Winning is not a part-time sojourn in sport. It is a lifetime of practice and labour. Should Great British sportsmen and women ever yearn to reach the greatest of sporting heights, they must learn that greatness is hard-earned with sacrifice, persistence and, above all, practice.
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Sunday, 12 June 2011

Wally For Hire (Brolly optional)

Former England manager Steve McClaren is looking for a new job and wants to return to the Premier League. Would you want him at your club?

I imagine a resounding cry of 'no, thank you!' in response. McClaren is 'The Wally with the Brolly.' He is a figure of public ridicule. Appointing him manager would be like re-appointing Gordon Brown as Prime Minister: unthinkable.

But, on the other hand, McClaren has a CV which any current Premier League manager would look at and take note. First headline - he has managed England. True, when itemising his experience with England, he does need to use the old CV-writing adage of turning negatives in to positives. For example, he has learnt that a manager should never try to be one of the lads and, under no circumstances, should he ever, EVER, use an umbrella. Still, who else in the Premier League can match this credential?

Second headline - he has managed in the Champions League. Again this might need some dressing up, but it is a box ticked nevertheless.

He has managed in three countries, including a remarkable title-winning spell at the unfashionable Dutch club, Twente.

He has taken a middle of the road English team in to Europe, twice consecutively, and steered them to a Uefa Cup final.

He learnt his trade (in part) from the great Sir Alex Ferguson, who would endorse the fact that McClaren is an absolutely top-class coach.

So, remind me again why no-one would want him? Ah, yes. Because of his troublesome England rein, in which he was lambasted by media and fans alike. His failed England rein for which he, and not the players nor the fans nor the weight of expectation, is solely responsible. Yes, that's why. Even the perspective of seeing the revered Fabio Capello also fail as England manager, in alarmingly similar fashion, does not get McClaren of the hook.

How many fans who turn their noses up at McClaren also turned their noses up at the appointment of Roy Hodgson at Fulham? They were proven wrong. After his abortive Liverpool misadventure, he is now proving himself all over again at West Brom. From the current bunch of Premier League managers, Hodgson is McClaren's nearest rival in terms of experience, having managed Inter Milan and Switzerland in his long career. He has not managed England though, which is what makes McClaren unique.

Aston Villa have a vacancy and they could probably do worse than appoint the Wally with the Brolly.

I should point out here that, as a supporter of Middlesbrough and England, I am not a great fan of McClaren. His rein at Boro (not Gareth Southgate's immediately after it) is responsible for the club's current position - floundering in the Championship, financially wrecked and in desperate need of rebuilding from bottom to top.

However, it is possible that he has learnt from both his negative and his positive experiences. This, after all, is the point of experience, and why it is such a commodity in football, and in life.

If he has, then he should be in a position to go to a club like Villa or even back to the England job when Capello stands down. If he hasn't, then he truly is a wally.
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Saturday, 11 June 2011

I have a dream

Last night I had a dream. I dreamt that the Big Six English clubs severed themselves from the Premier League to join a Global Elite League formed, for pure commercial gain, by the monstrous Overlord of Fifa, Joseph S. Blatter. I dreamt that they took their stars with them, English and foreign alike, complete with their big wages and commercial value. They left the Premier League and England bereft of top-class talent, and the true English fans mourned as if their game had been lost: sold forever to the great God capitalism.

Fabio Capello had gone to manage the new 'national' team, the Global Elite All-Stars, whose place at the next World Cup Blatter had already assured. Sir Alex Ferguson, 'Arry Redknapp, Arsene Wenger, Roberto Mancini, Kenny Dalgliesh and the top seven bookies' favourites for the Chelsea job had all been snapped up by Blatter's new hybrid super league. Other countries, of course, all did the same thing. There were no star managers left.

I thought it was a nightmare.

The FA held a crisis meeting to discuss disbanding the national side and postponing the new Premier League season. But, like Manchester United in the wake of the Munich air disaster, a sense of purpose arose. English Football should go on, dismembered shell of its former self though it is.

The first game of the new era was the New Charity Shield, held between the New Champions of England (based on League standings prior to the split) Everton and the New FA Cup winners (runners up before the split) Stoke City. Pleasingly, although the Wembley crowd were tentative at first, the game was enjoyable. It was hardly a classic, but it was highly competitive blood and thunder stuff. Stoke City won 3-2 to win their first ever Charity Shield.

The League season started with Everton the favourites to retain their artificially acquired title. Within a few games though, the table was different to anyone's predictions. Everton were 8th. Stoke were top and, along with Fulham, Aston Villa and Bolton were setting the pace in the New Top Four. There was no Champions League to qualify for now, of course, so the New Top Four was a pretty abstract concept with no meaningful financial reward. Nevertheless, the teams up there seemed to be enjoying the lofty heights, expressing themselves through free-flowing attacks and meaty tackling. It was, as one commentator exclaimed, "the greatest Sunday-league football of all time."

The first meaningful international fixture, a qualifier away in Bulgaria, loomed darkly on the horizon though. How could an England side without Lampard, Gerrard and Rooney hope to succeed? How could we possibly replace Terry and Ferdinand and Hart and Cole. Even the Johnsons of this world, Adam and Glen, were no longer available. The squad had been annihilated by the split. And who would replace Capello, with all the great star tacticians gone?

Stuart Pearce, as Under-21 manager, had not been commandeered by the Global Elite League. He agreed to step up in the interim, with advice and assistance from the suddenly rather fashionable Stoke manager, Tony Pulis. Pulis brought some of his club players along with him, and some of his tactics too.

The New England team set up in a 4-4-2 formation with two wingers - Jermaine Pennant and Matthew Etherington - and this immediately seemed to cause the Bulgarian's problems. The natural width on either flank stretched the game. The natural crossers on either side provided service to the New Big Lad up front, Fulham's Bobby Zamora. The first goal came from a cross, nodded down by Zamora and banged in by the attacking central midfielder, Newcastle's Kevin Nolan. The second came when Nolan's midfield partner and club team-mate Joey Barton broke up a Bulgaria attack and pumped an intelligent ball up to Zamora's chest. Holding his man off, Zamora was able to lay the ball down to his strike partner, Villa's Darren Bent, who provided a cool finish from inside the box.

Surprisingly two down, the shell-shocked Bulgaria side (who had not lost many, if any, players to the Elite League) started to fight back. Barton's industry in front of the back four helped to snuff out Bulgaria's attacks and, when they did get through, Birmingham's Roger Johnson and Stoke's Ryan Shawcross performed heroically. With authentic passion, physical stature and national pride, they battled to keep the Bulgarians at bay and, together with the full-backs Ryan Taylor (Newcastle) and Leighton Baines (Everton), they formed a pretty solid unit. David Stockdale, the Fulham goalkeeper, made a couple of good saves and, generally, commanded his area well. Mentally, he seemed pretty well-balanced and comfortable with the task in hand.

With Bulgaria forced to chase the game and starting to tire, Pearce's super-sub DJ Campbell (Blackpool) managed to beat an offside trap and bang the ball joyfully in to the roof of the net. 3-0. A resounding win for the New England, against all odds. Whether it was spirit or fluke, something made this team of misfits and cast-offs perform above themselves and win the tricky away tie. Pearce himself was staggered, reflecting that the team had achieved something "miraculous."

The Premier League season went on, and became highly competitive as Everton, Newcastle and Sunderland improved during the season and, for one reason or another, Fulham and Bolton tailed off. In the final weekend's fixtures, there were four teams still in contention for the title, and nine still in danger of relegation. Mid-table obscurity had become a narrower channel than anyone could remember.

New England comfortably qualified for the European Championships and, in a massive upset, went on to win the tournament. Bobby Zamora scored the winning goal in the final, his only goal of the tournament. Eight-goal Darren Bent dedicated his Golden Boot to the New Big Man's tireless, selfless hold-up play.

This was not a nightmare. It was a beautiful dream of an unrealistic short-term future and, perhaps, a simplistic prophecy of a New Bright Future to come.