Why we should learn from the scoff as Sir Alex’s position is questioned

March 15th, 2009 by michael.wood

It was extremists of course and not something that we should give too much attention to but a tiny, tiny number of Manchester United fans believe that Sir Alex Ferguson should no longer be the manager at Old Trafford and are using the 4-1 defeat by Liverpool as proof of this.

They are not to be taken seriously of course and United will end the season with silverware that most clubs only dream of but nevertheless there is this tiny group who vocalise their point of view.

So far, so glorious democracy and freedom of speech however things become more troubling when those putting forward such curious points of view are echoed elsewhere.

Management Ferguson style is the long game and the gap between the Scot coming down from Aberdeen to becoming the legend of the dug out that he is now has been reported on elsewhere not only at Old Trafford but also in Scotland.

The accepted wisdom of the management of Sir Alex Ferguson is that time is the governing factor of success be it time to build, time to rebuild or time to augment the good into the great.

United’s European record before the treble is – in retrospect – cast as building for the glory of May 1999.

Yet throughout football managers are given the tiniest slither of the patience that Old Trafford gave Ferguson in those early years which he hardly even needs to draw on even after a home humiliation by one’s bitterest rivals. If anyone has enough in the bank to get over a 4-1 defeat it is Ferguson.

We should all scoff at those who say one defeat should force a re-evaluation of the manager at Old Trafford and perhaps we should all scoff when we hear similar at our own clubs.

After all Rafa Benitez has had his critics at Liverpool but he emerged victorious this week with eight goals against Real Madrid and The Red Devils while he rotate-a-manager at St James’ Park Newcastle sees them hover over the drop zone. Sticking with managers makes good sense in principal and in practice.

Perhaps we should all take the same policy of scoff when our managers position are questioned within a year or two or appointment. Perhaps we should act with the same incredulity as those hearing that the Knight of the Realm should no longer be at the helm at Old Trafford act.

We do not though. Up and down the land managers are sacked with a patience that would have sacked Ferguson at Pittodire or Old Trafford and it is taken as a part of the game, a thing of football, rather than an act of poor macro management by a club.

In football though we have a world where we are told we should not question what is handed down to us from the clubs we say we support but increasingly adopt an attitude of lords to our vassals.

It is in this atmosphere that with a straight face the manager of Chelsea can criticise another club for spending immorally not a year since the exit of £31m curio Andriy Shevchenko.

Football supporters should laugh at Guus Hiddink for his hypocrisy as they do at those who say that Ferguson should not be Manchester United manager and they should laugh too when they hear similar subjects to scoff at at their own clubs.

Does Rafa lose on Robbie after the dust settles at Liverpool?

February 6th, 2009 by michael.wood

The school of thought says: Rafael Benitez must have faith in the abilities of David N’gog – the Liverpool striker he is left with as cover after the departure of Robbie Keane – else he has made the management error of the century and blown The Red’s best chance of a title in years.

Keane returned to Tottenham Hotspur to a captain’s welcome – although one wonders if the fans will have something to say on that, we know how they treat players they see as Judases – and Rafa was left with a striking problem that seemed symptomatic of a wider discontent off the field at Anfield. It is turmoil – we are told – and Benitez has failed sign a replacement losing between £8m and £5m on the player who is now Spurs’s gain.

Spurs are back tracking in a bid to avoid relegation. There is an irony in that Keane, Jermaine Defoe et al benefited from the North Londoners actually sticking with a manager for once in Martin Jol and moved forward towards the top of the Premiership but their attempts to stay in the division revolve around changing as many things as possible and they will be ignoring the desperate laughter that comes from Southampton when they talk about Harry Redknapp and avoiding relegation, and the second attempt at a last laugh that comes from Portsmouth’s Fratton Park.

In Keane they have (re)signed a player who spent most of the last few months trying and failing to fill the not inconsiderable boots of Ferndando Torres and seemed only to justify the idea that while Keane was good he was never worth the £20m paid for him. Keane was not a player without his advocates while at Spurs – especially in the National media who are often accused of being infatuated with all things White Hart Lane – and one can only suppose that Benitez took a chance that those advocates were correct. It was graduation day for the Liverpool number seven but unlike the “load of rubbish” signed from Scunthrope or the guy who came down from Celtic with the usual questions marks over differences in the English and Scots game he did not make that step up and this cost Benitez some £5m/£8m.

Has it cost his title aspirations? That is doubtful. Keane has proved – in so much as we assume he would get no better at Liverpool – that he is no replacement for Torres and that should the Spaniard get injured or require resting then the Irishman is no more able to replace him than N’gog and the title is lost. The £5m/£8m then is more of a damage limitation exercise with Benitez having bet on Keane making the grade and lost, but he only lost the £5m/£8m and not the £20.3m, nor the £12m/£15m which Spurs have paid.

Thus we have context for Keane: That he is not good enough for a team that aspires to the top of the Premiership. If we know he is not worth £20.3m, do we think he is worth £15m? Rafa has lost £5m/£8m by buying high but he has – in Harry – found the sucker to take on what he has found out is not fit for purpose and at a price which minimises the deficit Liverpool suffer. To give that a context Liverpool are Manchester United buying Juan Sebastian Veron for £28.1m and Spurs are Chelsea allowing them to minimise the loss by paying £15m for someone who goes on to prove that he was not good enough in the first place.

Benitez and Liverpool are left with egg on their faces after a transfer gamble went wrong, but Harry Redknapp and Spurs are left with the meal that does not taste quite right.

Money in football seduces all including its critics

January 26th, 2009 by michael.wood

The transfer window remains open for a week and in that week it is expected that Manchester City will add to the parade of signing – a bloke called Nigel who they could have had for a tenth of the price and Craig Bellemy – as they prepare for next season’s assault on the Champions League places an ascension to which is already assumed in some quarters with the talk being of who from the top four – Arsenal it seems to be feared – will lose a foothold that would be taken by the men from Maine Road.

Certainly yesterday’s 1-1 draw between Liverpool and Everton is seen as something of a last rites but I would suggest that Manchester City could have limitless money and they will still not finish above either Merseyside club until they are able to put in place the kind of systems that both have behind the scenes.

There is a correlation between clubs that keep managers, the build slowly, that do the right thing and success and Liverpool’s attempts to win the league this season may end up the same as Manchester United’s attempt to win the last Football League title which was acquiesced to Leeds United but should Benitez’s side capitulate they may be – looking back with hindsight as we do on 1991/1992 – judged in the same way as the gradual improvement of Ferguson’s side. Few talk about how Old Trafford blew the League and those who do are shown to the trophy room as proof of the long game being played.

Everton – and the rise of Aston Villa as a footballing force and the decline of Chelsea under the merry-go-round system of management – show that lashing money at a team is not a path to success yet the fear amongst those who worry about money having overtaken football has it that the rise of Manchester City is assured because of this.

I’m not sure how signing Robinho and Kaka would have differ from signing Teves and Mascherano in trying to guarantee a top four finish. The two Argentines are proof that good footballers need to be in the right surroundings to make a difference and parachuting them into chaos and expecting the two alone to produce results is no solution. West Ham are nowhere as close to Everton to the hallowed ground of Champions League football, Aston Villa are a tauntingly similarly coloured speck on their horizons and while the talk is of expensive Brazilians Villa pick up Emile Heskey for £3.5m and trundle on towards their goals.

Chelsea – so often held up as the example of reckless spending – built a side slowly into a top quarter finisher under Claudio Ranieri which was taken on to become Premiership champions and many would argue that the wheels came off that wagon when Michael Ballack and Andriy Shevchenko signed and disparity in the dressing room began. A look at the Midlander’s dressing room and the balance therein suggests that Heskey has more chance of making a fist of things at his new club than Shevchenko did at Stamford Bridge.

All of which is to further heap praise on the hair to Clough – Martin O’Neill – and suggest that if Manchester City were really keen to make a difference to the club then they would be looking not at getting the best players they could but the best manager. Someone who could turn a team of strugglers into someone who can compete with the best and from that level stake a claim for a place in the elite of English football. With 2-1 and 1-0 wins over Manchester United last season and a top half finish with a team that had finished four points off relegation the season before one might think that perhaps City had that manager in place in Sven-Goran Eriksson.

Not that this is a suggestion that money should be allowed to flow unfettered into football – controls are badly needed at all levels – but rather a statement that not only can money not buy one love but it also makes a pretty poor show of getting you a good football team when compared to finding the right man to lead your team and sticking with him as evidence on both the red and the blue halves of Manchester.

Certainly it would be harder to argue – Robinho and all – that Mark Hughes’s side is not further away from those lofty aims as they splash out more money in January than Eriksson’s was this time last year and that for missing out on the League in May 1992 someone other than Sir Alex should have been given the keys to the Old Trafford war chest.

Has Kaka chosen football over money?

January 22nd, 2009 by michael.wood

I read that Kaka – the much chased Manchester City AC Milan midfielder – has rejected the advances of Eastwood because he favours “football over money.”

It is a lyrical notion and one which the press has taken to heart in part of what is an increasingly ugly campaign to slap down Manchester’s blue club for deigning to rise above their station as perennial underachievers in the shadow of United. They may still be perennial underachievers but as the Red Devils look at a hole in their finance the Blues try patch holes in their team with seemingly limitless money. It may be crass, it may be gauche but it is also eclipsing.

However it is not happening and – we are told – Kaka who is owned by Jesus is staying to lead the life of a simple man in Milan. Well, perhaps not.

Kaka is hardly paid a small salary by Milan although figures of how much the Brazilian earns are hard to come by and warped by the exchange rate issues that heightened the proposed transfer fee in the first place. He is paid handsomely by Milan and is no one’s Peter Knowles but perhaps the maths of how much Kaka would and could earn at City are not as straightforward as one would think.

Milan played Portsmouth in this season’s UEFA Cup without ever having troubled the Champions League and while he is a good footballer no one seriously expects Kaka to be able to lift Manchester City into the top four this season. Assuming he could do next then his return to the top level of club football would come in autumn 2011 – hardly the stuff of merchandiser’s dreams.

Likewise his deals with Italian sportswear company Diadora are lucrative but depend on his high profile in relevant markets. Would they be as interested in a player who is playing Premier League football and no Champions League? What hit would have to take in image rights when other players are basked in glory and he is doing a good job at Eastlands? You do not see many people wearing Steven Ireland branded boots.

None of which is to say that Kaka has not knocked back Manchester City because he simply does not want to play for them but rather than the suggestion that he is some egalitarian Prince above the dirtiness of City’s money and away from the bad things in football is almost certainly in true. After all he continues to play for a club that were found guilty of charges much more serious than City’s being annoyingly rich.

Perhaps that is the secret of Kaka’s reluctance to leave Milan. He might not be the same without the Referees on his side.

Why can’t Spurs fans sing about Sol when other fans can sing about disasters?

January 20th, 2009 by michael.wood

Four men have been charged with singing what is a very offensive song about Sol Campbell after a unified decision by “people in football” that things had gone “too far”.

Harry Redknapp led the charge against Spurs fans – how ironic – and he was right to do so, His comments about not being able to understand the mentality of a Father who sings a racist, homophobic and generally nasty song in front of his son is echoed through out the land. Almost no one outside of a football ground will understand the reason why such chanting is necessary, as will a good few people inside it.

All of which is right and proper – although raises interesting questions – but why was the line drawn at Sol Campbell and Spurs?

As a Bradford City fan I have this season had to sit in a football ground listening to home fans singing mocking songs about the fire of 1985 on more than one occasion – in fact I can tell you having ill advisedly sat at Huddersfield Town with the collection of supporters who sit on the river bank side closest the away fans delight in it – so why is it that no one has been arrested, cautioned, questioned, accused of behaviour likely to cause affray or any of those other laws which – rightly or wrongly – are being used against the Campbell chanters?

I’m no legal expert so I’m not able to answer that question returning to Redknapp’s bafflement at the mindset of people who would engage in such chanting and adding my own belief that some self-policing in the form of right-minded fans booing the offenders would not go amiss. After all football fans seem capable of booing almost anything else.

It seems that the Campbell chanters are guilty of committing an offence at the wrong place and the wrong time and to be made an example of – they get no sympathy from me – but how much the lessons will be learnt by fans the length of the land, and what those questions are, is debatable.

Will the police be arresting Huddersfield Town supporters in the situation out lined above? Would they have moved in against the Bradford City fans who sang songs about cockle pickers at Morecambe last year? Will they arrest the guy behind me who shouted that Barry Conlon was a useless twat and should be substituted on Saturday?

What chanting is acceptable? David James believes that anything not racist or homophobic is allowed while others would suggest it is anything legal but the morality of grown men screaming swears until faces turn red at kids barely out of their teens troubles me greatly. I would suggest the people singing songs about the fire are worse than those swearing, being racist to or homophobic towards players but I’d say they were all under line of what should be acceptable.

I wonder about football when it has to look for law and browbeating debates on manners to decide whether or deliberate offence of these kinds are socially acceptable.

Those things that cannot be counted as Kaka talks to Manchester City

January 15th, 2009 by michael.wood

There is no measure of the things that could have been. It is not possible to say the result of D from the addition of A + B = C. There are things we know in football and things we speculate on and the two should not be confused.

We know Manchester City are making a £100m bid for Kaka and we know some people question it. For Manchester City’s sake one would hope that when the cheque is signed for the player another is made out to the business to cover the costs of £500,000 a week for four years and put in a locked account. It would be an horrific legacy to be left with should Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan – who is funding the Blues – opt out.

Why would he opt out though? This accusation of short-termed-ness was made towards Roman Abramovich when he arrived at Chelsea but the Russian is still making bank transfers at the end of each month to pay for the wages that outstrip the income. In the full remit of football experience at the higher levels one struggles to think of a chairman who has exited simply because he has become bored. Even Simon Jordan – probably the most high profile exitee – has his reasons for going.

So there is little reason to believe that Sheikh Mansour will leave City at all – let alone with debts just as Abromovich remains, just as Jack Walker remained at Blackburn Rovers. The players stay at the table even when the stakes get higher – What is going on at Eastlands is a rising of the stakes in football and while we should not doubt the spending power at Stamford Bridge we could compare the London club to those at Ewood Park in being out gunned in spending now.

What we cannot compare – what we will not know – is the effect such big numbers have on the potential investors. How the cost of living in the Premiership and outside it affects the business men and other would be chairmen when they come to look at buying clubs. Mike Ashley at Newcastle United arrived admitting that the club could never compete in a cash fight with their Premiership rivals and his decision to buy the St James Park club is hardly unquestioned. How many other Ashleys who could be investing are looking at the voracious appetite for money and deciding to stay away.

How often is that happening lower down the ladder? What would be the point of buying a Championship club, a League One or Two club, when you look at the cost of doing business at the top level and decide it is more suited to countries and corporations rather than football supporters with deep pockets.

Of course none of this matters. Manchester City’s deep pockets enable them to buy unsettled Brazilians and struggle with relegation while Liverpool spend not massive amounts and top the Premiership. If you want to progress your club at every level then run it well, build permanency in management and structure and progress will be made. Manchester City are less of a threat to the Premiership title this year than they were last under Sven Goran Errikson and still the same danger as they were when they employed Joe Royle or Kevin Keegan – none.

However trickle down economics rule in football and aside from perceived problems for would be investors there is a very real issue with inflation which football has no beginning in answering. Football’s finances are so out of the control of football’s authorities it is almost impossible to see them coming back in.

Manchester City, Shrewsbury Town, Gretna. No club is ever required to prove sustainability to their spending plans and in the latter case it is the community which ends up suffering as it loses an asset.

We can count the losses with ease but have no way of tallying how many good people who could improve the game stand on the sidelines as the wheels of finance spin faster and faster.

Mickey Rourke has the real skills needed to be a Premiership manager

January 13th, 2009 by michael.wood

Chelsea’s Luiz Felipe Scolari finds his job under threat and already eyes scan and ears prick up on the lookout for a successor to the small one who watches those in the North West play what is referred to in the press as mind games.

Scolari’s opinion on Manchester United, Liverpool and the title race is almost unimportant – as is Arsene Wengers and Martin O’Neill – as these big too trade punches in the sparring. Sparring is the sort of word that Sky would use to describe this war of words that had broken out between Anfield and Old Trafford. They would use “War of words” too.

Perhaps though the rest of the country – those without a stake in corporate football – would describe the banter between Sir Alx and Rafa Benitez as boring. There is very little of interest in what seems to be a playground style spat the start of which is lost in history and the meaning of which is a moot point.

At the start of May the title will be decided and before then the two clubs will meet and while there is some interest in dynamics between the two managers and two camps the majority of the time the impression left is of a squabble between the over privilege. The two managers come off with all the grace and charm of Prince Harry and the whole divide between the two seems paper thin if viewed from any distance. From the distance of The Valley it must seem tiny indeed.

It could be different of course. One call between the two camps and an agreement to let the best team win in good grace could be struck but doing so would deny the Red Top types endless column inches repeating the undignified squabble. Those same Red Top types could also play a part in removing this squalid part of our game by preferring to report on matches played rather than the reactions to those games but that seems unlikely to occur.

So what we are left with is this pre-fight mudslinging which would be better suited to the pantomime of Hulk Hogan and the WWF rather than top flight British football which is rendered undignified but these men and their supposed mind games. Grown men acting upset, offended, mortified with each other and vowing victory.

So when Chelsea do start looking for a new manager perhaps they should stop the pretence and try hire someone who has the proper training to do that job – Mickey Rourke maybe?

The revolution in pricing needs to be permanent

January 7th, 2009 by michael.wood

Bradford City draw bigger crowds than English clubs in the UEFA Cup.

There is not great secret or mystery to this. The Bantams following a pricing policy that puts the cost of going to a game more akin to a trip to the cinema than a night at a West End show and reap rewards of 12,000 plus supporters dwarfing the rest of League Two’s support.

This is met in some parts by derision – terms like “dirt cheap” are used – but represents something more impressive than bargain basement way to put bums on seats. It is a revolution in pricing that positions football as once again affordable to all.

Rumour that the FA are to cut the price of watching the national team by 25% as a response to the credit crunch is welcomed in the same way but hard to see having the same effect. Demand to watch the national side is always high and hefty prices maximises the revenues on that. A cut in the cost of watching England is more about ensuring that the next time Gerrard et al play it is not to a one quarter empty Wembley.

Likewise the likes of Blackburn Rovers, Manchester City and Wigan Athletic offer reductions to sections of the support to cover up the acres of empty space that have become common in around half of the Premiership grounds but they do so on a temporary basis. Kids are given reduced entry but do clubs really expect your average 15 year old paying £5 to be able to find an extra £20 the year after to carry on watching his team?

Likewise what does the club have for the man earning a decent wage today put out of work tomorrow? Does he feel the loving embrace of his community or does he look at the budget for next year and seeing rising fuel and heating costs and strike off “football” in favour of paying the bills?

What does that say about football as a community? Do we really want our clubs to be a friend until one is in need?

Football needs the sort of revolution in pricing that is seen at Bradford City and matched elsewhere to be permanent and significant.

For ten years or more football has practised social exclusion. With financial difficulties for all a reality it needs the shift back from maximisation of supporter bases to social responsibility for a community asset.

Look away from White Hart Lane, the sights are too ugly

November 1st, 2008 by michael.wood

Harry Redknapp has been installed at Tottenham Hotspur for a week now and this evening he sees his Spurs team face Liverpool with the North London side buoyant following a 4-4 draw at Arsenal. The Reds have the best start to a Premiership season ever which is the sort of position which chairman Daniel Levy wants to catapult his side into.

Redknapp’s appointment has raised mostly applause anywhere except the South coast where they seem to have tired of their club becoming his to toy with. Harry wants to leave because of a Director of Football, Harry joins Southampton, Harry comes back. The soap opera drama of Fratton Park always centres around Harry and now he has walked away saying he wants to go to a bigger club they seem to have got bored of his machinations.

So they should. It is not two months since Harry was speaking with the voice of Portsmouth to condemn the supporters who racial, homophobic and fairly horrible abuse at Sol Campbell. At the time Harry said of Spurs fans “How do you do that in front of your kids? What kind of a nutter must you be? What kind of human being must you be when you take your little kids to football and shout filth? It can’t be right”.

Are we to think that Harry has changed his mind? Was Harry wrong about the fans who he now needs to back his revolution at The Lane? Only a fool would say he was.

However Harry is not dishonest. Far from it his approach to the the game with one of the straightest bat around. He shows a disinterest – if not a contempt – for the opinion of supporters.

As Hitchcock said of actors supporters to Redknapp are cattle and what they think and what they say is either objectionable in the case of the Spurs fans or ignorable. Spurs area big club – he says – but virtue of the size of the support but those supporters are to pay up and shut up and allow him total control of “their” club.

None of which is a criticism of Harry Redknapp, of Daniel Levy, of Portsmouth or of Spurs just that in this footballing world where we as supporters increasingly believe that the game is being run for the benefit of drifting TV viewers and big companies looking for brand alignment Redknapp’s hypocrisy and his attitude to the fans who watch his clubs that reduces them to serfs is typical of the relationship that supporters now have with those who they support.

It is the demand not for support but for fealty. That relationship is an ugly one.

Somewhere Dion Dublin is sneaking…

October 19th, 2008 by michael.wood

What goes around comes around – or so it is said – and so when Sylvan Ebanks-Blake snuck back onto the field to give Wolves a 2-1 win over Coventry City the brain clattered back to the moment Dion Dublin nicked the ball off Shay Given to give Cov a win over Newcastle United back when the Sky Blues were in the Premiership.

Given is recorded in the goalkeeper blunder hall of fame for this unfairly. He was victim not really of a misunderstanding of the rules – Law 12.6 says a player is booked for entering or re-entering the field of play without the referee’s permission and both Ebanks-Blake and Dublin have been allowed do just that to score goals.

In practical terms the officials have to allow a player who leaves the field to wander back on lest they be distracted from the job in hand of ensuring the game is fair yet when a player abuses this understanding to score a goal a caution is very much the order of the day and should the Referee decide on leniency then he must disallow the goal at least. Anything other is a perversion of the rules.

Mick McCarthy’s comments on the goal are misleading when he says

“Sylvan actually ran off the pitch and you’re not offside if you fall off. You’re not seeking to gain an advantage by staying off the pitch, if that’s the rule then he’s not offside.”

Coventry boss Chris Coleman was baffled saying

“The referee says the momentum takes Ebanks-Blake off the pitch, so when he re-enters he is not offside. If he is offside then he is offside – end of story. He comes on behind our defender and nods the ball in the back of the net. If he comes back onto the pitch then he has surely got to come back on in an onside position.”

The offence committed is on re-entering the field which is where – according to the Laws of the game – the game should have been stopped and an indirect free kick given to Coventry City. The surprising and troubling thing is the man in black making this mistake and then telling the managers a simply wrong interpretation of the rules was one of England’s top officials Steve Bennett.

What hope has football got lower down the leagues if either the Referees at the top do not know the laws of game or – when they make mistakes are not strong enough of character to apologise to all and issue a clarification which could teach other officials how to react to situations.

Had someone done that when Dion Dublin went a sneaking the Midlands derby would not have had the unfair result it did.