Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football

The international break sees many Premier League fans taking the chance to watch some real football. A literary accompaniment to your grass roots game might come from Saturday, 3pm: 50 Eternal Delights of Modern Football by Daniel Gray. It’s a great read and what Gray gets over is that for all the crass commercialisation of modern football, there are still many pleasures that remain eternal.

His list of fifty football delights include the pleasures of seeing floodlights illuminating a ground in a strange town on a winter’s night, of talking to an old man about football and watching his eyes glaze over as he becomes young again remembering some icon of the 1950s, and of striking up a football conversation at some cousin’s ill-timed wedding.

Gray relishes the quirky side of football, seeing a ground from the train; how hitting the bar seems to bring so much promise to a performance; how crowds love to jeer a pass that goes straight out of play; stubby physiotherapists racing each other on to the pitch to treat their injured stars after a crunching block tackle; seeing a team bus on the motorway and listening to the results in the car. Gray muses about the characters that inhabit catering vans and watching disparate fans gather at a junction station where hope and dread mingle.

He particularly enjoys scorelines in brackets. If a side has scored 7 (seven) it elicits a strange sympathy for the humiliated opposition: “We enjoy the horror, but we also try to put ourselves in the shoes of the bracketed supporters. Are they pig-sick distraught or giddy at the gallows? Throwing scarves in service station bins or sinking delirious pints somewhere warm? Convinced of relegation, or starting to imagine a tight back-to-basics one-nil win next Saturday?”


Daniel Gray can wheel away in triumph, to use one of his favourite bits of footballese. Saturday, 3pm is a beautifully written book and a worthy addition to your pre-match routine.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Should we have a transfer window for managers?

The sacking of Aitor Karanka by Middlesbrough proves that with ten games to go, just about any club in Premier Lague trouble will now sack their boss in a desperate and the hope ofsome kind of 'new manager bounce'. Even Claudio Ranieri wasn't isolated from the tin-tack. Which just indicates what a dysfunctional industry football is. 

There's a case for having a transfer window (or sacking window?)  for managers. If gaffers could only be sacked in the summer or in January that would surely be better for the long-term future of the game, Under my system they would be allowed to resign at any time they wanted, but that would be a matter for the manager to judge. If the players and fans knew they were stuck with the same boss for the rest of the season then they would have to get behind the man or woman in the dugout.

SACKED IN THE MORNING 
In their book Why England Lose & Other Curious Football Phenomenon Explained (later re-published as Soccernomicsauthors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski look at the panic-driven nature of most managerial appointments. "The new manager is hired in a mad rush," they write. He is interviewed cursorily and is often under-qualified and appointed because he is available and has achieved good results in the recent past. Above all, "He is chosen not for his managerial skills but because his name, appearance and skills at public relations are expected to impress the club's fans, players and media."

YOU'RE NOT SPECIAL ANYMORE
Craig Shakespeare has certainly done well in his first three games as Leicester's manager. He's been appointed for the rest of the season, but it's fair to say the Leicester board have stumbled on a solution rather than having a considered process for Ranieri's succession. Middlesbrough have opted for a similar stop-gap solution, appointing assistant Steve Agnew as caretaker manager.

Sacking a manager late in the season fails just as often as it succeeds. Leicester and Boro have sacked the managers who won the Premier League (Ranieri) and promotion (Karanka) in the previous season, in favour of caretakers who are untried at both management and working the transfer market. There has to be a better way to run an industry. 

Monday, 13 March 2017

Niasse, Carroll and Schneiderlin prove there's still value to be had in the transfer window

Clubs desperate to improve had to be creative in the January transfer window. The weekend's standout performances suggest there is still value to be had in the market. Signing an on-loan out-of-favour striker was the route taken by Hull City, and it's paid off in the form of Oumar Niasse, who scored twice against Swansea and has hit four so far for the Tigers. 

Niasse wasn't even given a shirt number at the start of the season, despite being the then third most expensive signing in Everton's history at £13.5 million from Lokomotiv Moscow in January 2016. Niasse was only given 152 minutes of football by Roberto Martinez and new manager Ronald Koeman clearly didn't fancy him either. It's hard to imagine another industry where a £13.5 million investment would be written off so easily. That's been to Hull's benefit though, as the striker has also scored against Man United and Liverpool and looks both angry and grateful to be at a club where he is wanted.

OH CARROLL
Niasse scored twice against Swansea, who themselves have benefited from a couple of shrewd signings by new manager Paul Clement. Tom Carroll was a promising young English reserve who got the odd Europa League game at Spurs. But given first-team football, he's blossomed into a real attacking threat. He fits well into Swansea's passing style and has also been swinging in delicious crosses for Llorente to head home, such as the brace the Spanish striker scored against Burnley. At 24 Carroll hasn't played enough regular football and Swansea are benefiting from his hunger. Not a bad punt at £4.5 million. 

Clement also made another shrewd signing, bagging left back Martin Olsson, a Swedish international, from Norwich City. Olsson had nine seasons of Premiership experience with Blackburn and Norwich, but seldom made the headlines. Swansea got him for around £4 million and he has added stability to the defence and scored against Burnley a fortnight ago. Not a bad price for a 28-year-old international left back.

GOOD MORGAN
One final case for a bargain signing, if you can call a £20m fee rising to  £24 million a bargain, was the performance of Morgan Schneiderlin in Everton's 3-0 win over West Brom. He was essential to Southampton and in 2012-13 made more interceptions in the Premier League than any other player. His old Saints manager Maurico Pochettino made strenuous efforts to sign him for Spurs, before he eventually joined Manchester United for £25 million in 2015. Yet United appeared drunk on midfielders, already having Carrick and signing Fellaini, Schweinsteiger and Pogba to compete with Schneiderlin. 

He got just 11 minutes playing time under Jose Mourinho this season, but is one of those metronome defensive midfielders like N'Golo Kante who help their whole team perform. Everton boss Koeman knew all about him from their season together at Southampton. The French midfielder scored his first goal against West Brom with a skilful jinked finish and was diligent all around the pitch, breaking up moves and instigating counter attacks and is set to be a key man at Goodison. 

There is still value to be had in the market and Hull, Swansea and Everton all appear to have improved their sides through judicious dealing in the notoriously difficult January transfer window. 

Friday, 10 March 2017

Above Head Height scores with tales of faded replica shirts and ten-yard piledrivers

For those of us who have spent much of our lives playing five-a-side while pretending to be our childhood heroes, there’s much to enjoy in Above Head Height, James Brown’s memoir of the not-so beautiful game.

The former Loaded and GQ editor neatly captures the world of smelly socks, bags behind goals, people who run like cartoon characters and middle-aged men in faded replica shirts scrambling over fences and up netting to retrieve lost balls. Brown realises that he’s spent 30-odd years playing five-a-side with men whom he knows very little about beyond their on-pitch personas. It’s a world of characters called Old Geoff, Big Ben, Little John, Sunderland Graham, Charlton Dave and Derby Dave’s brother Andy.

The book contains the odd celebrity anecdote but not too many, such as playing football with the Sex Pistols’ Steve Jones in California. There’s a personal story too — the game has certainly helped James following the excesses of the 1990s and he’s now given up alcohol and drugs, instead relying on a fix of tarmac, AstroTurf and wooden gym floors at his Spitalfields of glory.

A lot of this stuff seems familiar; the realisation of a middle-aged man that he’s now got an upturned wok stuffed down his jumper, the desperate attempts to play through injury and his pride at playing with his son. He’s also very good on the seemingly endless street games of childhood headers and volleys while growing up in Leeds and the unsung characters who organise games for decades, keeping payment records and tattered books of phone numbers while always trying to get the numbers even.

Above Head Height should appeal to anyone who's gone home on the tube in a football kit. It’s a book that celebrates the joy of socks and scores after a one-two off the boards. Click on the link for details. 

Monday, 6 March 2017

Body language and modern football: Sanchez and Arsenal no longer hand in glove

Perhaps football clubs should now employ body language experts as well as sports psychologists. Alexis Sanchez is rumoured to have had a training ground row with his Arsenal teammates, resulting in his demotion to the bench against Liverpool. The Chilean's apparent discontent was first identified during glove-gate at Bournemouth. Despite the Gunners recovering from a 0-3 deficit to draw 3-3, at the final whistle Sanchez was spotted throwing his gloves to the ground in the manner of a 'terrible twos' tantrum. 

Short of ripping up a snood in the noughties you couldn't hope for a better display of modern footballing stroppiness. The Sun reported that he was also seen 'waving his arms and shouting to himself' and stormed off down the tunnel looking a bit cross. The Guardian wrote that after being subbed at Swansea Sanchez was seen to "trudge off head down, and sit sulkily without acknowledging his manager." He then pulled a coat hood over his head and hid. And now he's been caught possibly sniggering behind his hand after being subbed in the 5-1 home humiliation by Bayern Munich.

These days footballers' body language is examined with the assiduity we used to apply to Hollywood divas. Every Diego Costa scowl or bib toss is analysed. In 2015 West Brom's Saido Berahino was accused of not smiling when he scored a hat-trick against Gateshead in the FA Cup. While West Ham's Dimitri Payet was also accused of not celebrating by some fans when West Ham equalised against Man United in a League Cup tie this season. 

OOH AAAAGH CANTONA
Call me old-fashioned, but couldn't we have a return to the more traditional body language of footballers? When Eric Cantona was upset by a red card you didn't have to analyse what he did with his collar — he simply kicked a Crystal Palace supporter in the head. West Ham's Paulo Di Canio made rotating signals with his arms suggesting that Harry Redknapp substitute him when he was denied a third penalty appeal against Bradford in 2000. Kevin  Keegan and Billy Bremner ostentatiously threw their shirts to the ground after being sent off in the 1974 Charity Shield. No mistaking how they felt there.

While if Wimbledon's Vinnie Jones was feeling a little nervous he launched himself like an Inter City 125 at Liverpool's Steve McMahon in the 1988 FA Cup Final. If he was feeling a bit more playful he just grabbed Gazza by the testicles.

These days Match of the Day 2 is left analysing facial tics and glove-hurling. Don't mess around with gloves Alexis. If you feel upset with one of your team-mates go at it like team-mates Lee Bowyer and Keiron Dyer did during their infamous Newcastle bundle of 2005 — the sort of body language no-one could misinterpret.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Ibrahimovic: When genius and ego go hand in hand

Zlatan Ibrahimovic always knew he was going to score. There’s a hint of Cantona about the way the Swede has galvanised Man United and helped the club take home an undeserved League Cup. Like Eric, he looks around Old Trafford and thinks is the club big enough for me rather than vice versa. That outstretched arms celebration (the angel of the north-west?) declares never mind the gaffer, I am the Special One. This is a man who can state, in all seriousness, “I am a lion” and casually mentions his 32 trophies in the post-match interviews.

Zlatan might have an ego the size of the Shard (as does Ronaldo who even has his own CR9 crockery) but it is his self-belief that separates him from other players. In his book What Sport Tells Us About Life, former cricketer Ed Smith makes a convincing case that genius, arrogance and even madness are often bedfellows. He agues that Zinedine Zidane headbutted Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup Final partly because he was convinced that he would score the winning goal in his final game. Only when Buffon made a great save from Zidane’s header in the 104th minute, the French talisman short-circuited. Discovering his triumph was not inevitable, Zidane exploded when Materazzi gave him some verbal abuse and was sent off for that infamous butt.

THE LION KING
Mathew Syed writes in Bounce how many players and athletes turn to God, believing that Divine help will cause them to succeed. It might not make sense, but the elimination of doubt does seem to have a positive effect in sport. Brian Clough (like Zlatan a number nine) said when he was appointed at Hartlepool: “Age does not count. It’s what you know about football that matters. I know I am better than the 500 or so managers who have been sacked since the war. If they had known anything about the game they wouldn’t have lost their jobs."


Tony Cascarino revealed in his book Full Time how he was beset by doubts, choking when one-on-one with the keeper. You can’t imagine Ibrahimovic hesitating. He knows he will score because in his own mind he is the best. As he said after scoring that late header against Southampton at Wembley: “I look good. I know I look good. I feel fresh. I feel good. I feel like an animal… I came when people thought it was impossible for me to do what I am able to do. It feels good. I am enjoying it. The important thing is what I believed. What I predicted. That is exactly what I am doing.”

Friday, 24 February 2017

Ranieri also a victim of levelling up at the bottom

The brutal sacking of Claudio Ranieri might have made cold economic sense to Leicester's owners, but what price the loss of public affection? Last season many a neutral fan shed a tear at their story; they've now become the side most people want to see relegated. Ranieri was certainly let down by players like Mahrez, Vardy and Drinkwater who didn't match last season's standards and he made some indifferent signings.

But the club has also been the victim of a levelling out of standards among the bottom 14 clubs. Last season they overachieved by 20 per cent and profited from the terrible form of the top six. This season they have underachieved by 20 per cent. That can make a big difference when all the teams have huge sums of TV money to spend and there are no truly bad sides. Is there really that much difference between say Midlands rivals Stoke, West Brom and Leicester? Factor in injuries or loss of form to say Rondon and McAuley and Arnautovic and Shawcross and Albion or Stoke might be fourth from bottom. 


NO REALLY BAD TEAMS ANYMORE
The Premier League used to have whipping boys like Derby in 2007-08  (a record low of 11 points), Sunderland in 2005-06 (15 points) and Aston Villa last season (17 points). Yet it's hard to find a truly bad side now. There's been some terrible defending admittedly, from top and bottom sides, but Sunderland are improving under David Moyes and new bosses Clement and Silva have inspired mini-revivals at Swansea and Hull City and Big Sam will surely improve results at Palace. There are good players too; many a Premier League side would like to recruit Defoe, Sigurdsson, Maguire or Zaha. Perhaps the weakest sides on paper are Bournemouth and Burnley, but they both have inspirational young managers in Eddie Howe and Sean Dyche. Indeed, perhaps Leicester could learn from the example of Burnley. They went down with Dyche, but kept faith in his ability and saw him win promotion and then rise to mid-table in the Premier League. 

Leicester's owners have destroyed some of the romance of the game and should never have sacked Ranieri after what he achieved. But it's the levelling up of the bottom pack outside the top six that has caused the board to panic. The motto of my daughter's school is "always tighten your helmet strings after battle" and that is what Leicester have failed to do this season. In a levelled-out league any lowering in intensity can cause a slump towards the relegation zone and that has cost Claudio his job.