Monday, 9 September 2013

Mourinho – The Special One (Eye)

Jose Mourinho, the self-acclaimed ‘Special One’, is back in English football. Most of us will welcome him as he provides some much-needed spice, plus a serious challenge to the Manchester duopoly, in the post-Ferguson Premier League. His platinum-plated arrogance both rankles and amuses in equal measure.

His CV is pretty impressive with success in his native Portugal, Italy and of course in his previous incarnation at Stamford Bridge. He is in select company, having won The Champions League with two different clubs and domestic titles in four different countries. Real Madrid may be a slight blot but he did squeeze in a Copa del Rey in his first season and took away Barcelona’s grip on La Liga in his second. As failures go that is not a calamity.

So there is little doubt he is good at his job, ask Ibrahimovic, the Swedish behemoth fawns on his managerial powers, as revealed in his modestly, intriguingly entitled autobiography ‘I am Zlatan Ibrahimovic’ “That guy says whatever he wants. I like him. He’s the leader of his army.” He makes his teams difficult to beat and sometimes difficult to watch but Chelsea fans would, like most others, choose substance over style. Ask any Arsenal fan.

But there is the small matter of his whingeing, which materialised after Bayern Munich's recent squeaky, slightly fortuitous Super Cup win. Jose bleated about “this is my history with  Uefa for a long, long time” and how the devils incarnate have been cooking up trouble to undermine Mourinho. Poor old Jose has had to contend with this endless campaign to do him down. Well Uefa may not be everybody’s cup of tea or anybody’s favourite governing body for European football but not even Platini's henchmen would stoop that low.

No this is just another example of the persecution complex that most leading managers employ to rally their troops. It's us against the rest of the world, let's gather round and batten down the hatches. The enemy are everywhere, we are surrounded. Mourinho also employs the trait of all successful club managers, Ferguson & Wenger pre-2005, that of partial vision whereby one develops an incredible capacity to view things through one eye.

That single rather squint eye only sees selective moments from the game and also distorts anything outside that view. The result is that any loss is the fault of the officials, referees, assistant referees, technology, FA, UEFA - the usual suspects. You will never hear any admission of failure or culpability laid at the feet of the team or woe betide, the manager. This is an attitude akin to that of a playground 'it's not my fault, sir it was that horrible big boy Webb. He's a cheat.' Alright Jose, now be a good boy, sit back down at your desk and try not to throw those toys out of the pram again.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

The Ashes 2013 - England win The Crying Games

 It has not been an epic Ashes.  The drama of Trent Bridge  promised  a captivating, enthralling series to rival 2005 with the Aussies getting tantalisingly close to a thrilling turnaround victory, prompted by the extraordinary test debut innings of the smiling, beguiling teenager Ashton Agar. Even his name sounds like a film star’s nom de plume – he goes straight into the Gone with the Wind as deputy to C. Gable. If ever an Australian was going to win over the English public this good-looking, na├»ve charmer was the man. I have never been so disappointed to see an opposition player get out when he finally fell on his elegant sword, on 98. We also had the additional spicy ruckus caused by another fresh-faced youth, Stuart Broad. Broad’s inability to detect the ball being smashed off the centre of his bat straight to first slip via the keeper’s gloves, and Aleem Dar’s sudden blindness. This match had all the elements – controversy, charm, charisma, pulsating cut and thrust leading to a fitting denouement. The end of the final innings was as thrilling when the final pair added 65 and when Haddin was caught behind within touching distance of the target, it was all to be decided by everybody’s favourite referral system DRS.

An electrifying series was in the offing but it did not materialise as none of the subsequent games contained the same excitement or tension of that first match. Lord’s was embarrassingly easy for England as the Aussies showed the backbone of a worm in a pathetic first innings display, after Rogers was somehow felled by Swann’s very impressive impersonation of a Simon Kerrigan delivery, a looping full toss which was drifting high wide and not particularly handsome. The most amazing aspect of this was that Rogers did not review the decision as the Aussies had decided to only review those that were plumb LBWs as pioneered by Shane Watson. Such village cricket was then put into perspective by Root’s imperious 180, another young man who captured our admiration. Like Agar and unlike so many of his peers, Root smiles and clearly loves playing cricket at the highest level, which is a striking contrast to the standard sullen grumpiness that seems to be the norm.

Not sure how his angelic looks inspired the pantomime villain, David Warner to give him a clout in a club even before the Ashes had started but Warner’s return to the fold provided the boo-boys with plenty of material. Warner’s exile preceded the removal of Mickey Arthur, the slightly hapless South African coach of Australia. Surely, Arthur would have been better suited to leading England aka South Africa B. New coach Darren Lehmann or Boof as he is affectionately known (and will be forever after his broadside at our Stuart) decided to weigh into the Broad debate and implored the Australian crowds to send him home blubbing from the forthcoming return series starting in Brisbane in November. At least the authorities do not have to waste any expenditure on those on-field fireworks that are meant to ignite the atmosphere.

Talking of pyrotechnics, Old Trafford lived up to Manchester’s reputation for moisture and was literally a damp squib.  Australia cursed their misfortune as the only real rain that had fallen in the previous few months in a surprisingly hot, dry English summer, made it to the North West for the last day to rescue England as they teetered on the brink at 27-3, chasing an implausible 300 odd after saving the follow-on, courtesy of another Australian failure with DRS when not reviewing a Pietersen LBW which was nailed on and of course KP then struck an important match-saving century. Just as England were gasping for air the heavens opened and did not relent until it was too late for Clarke and he shook hands with Captain Cook and the Ashes were going nowhere.

Durham was hosting its first ever Ashes Test Match and did everyone proud with a gripping match, the second best of the series. Australia were in command until Ian Bell continued a rather handy knack of notching a century whilst all around him were losing their heads, and wickets. Australia still had a sniff and had set off with good intent, only to be blown away by baby-faced assassin, Lehmann’s favourite guy, S. Broad. Poised on 168-2 with just over a hundred required Stuart produced the best bowling spell of the series, blowing away the Aussie batsmen as if they were matchstick men, ending with a  devastating spell of 6-20, it was enough to make a grown man cry, Darren kindly take note.

So on to the Oval, that arena which has seemingly been purpose-built to host the most dramatic of climaxes to the really big series. With the aid of some imaginative captaincy, which overcame a few weather delays (as Kennington did a passable impression of Manchester) and some laboriously painful batting by England, which suggested that timeless tests had been re-introduced by the ICC without anyone knowing. The last day’s menu was ‘carrot au dangle’ courtesy of Masterchef Clarke served on a feather bed of a pitch for England’s Cook. This delicious meal was coming to the boil nicely, helped by some KP sauce and a slice of Trott-er when the inevitable happened. It was time for the Idiotic Cretinous Clowns aka the ICC to intervene. Four overs were left, 21 runs required in the dwindling light on a bright summer’s evening in South London as the rules and regulations struck. Hopeless umpires now became helpless umpires as the light meter readings determined the game to be cut short, strangled just as the juiciest of ends was in sight.

Even mild-mannered and overall good egg, Jonathan Agnew, BBC’s cricket correspondent, was apoplectic with rage over this ridiculous ending to the series, ‘an absolute shambles’ was his bitter conclusion. So when Aggers starts doing his impression of a hybrid of Warner and Lehmann at their most venomous, you know that everything in the world is not right. For a game that has to encourage people to spend prodigious amounts of money to watch the lamest of finishes we are at home to Incompetent Crass Clots. To cap it off, there was the after-show party where the England players gathered near the square under the cover of darkness, no need for light meters now and ‘relieved themselves’ which proved to be utterly shocking to the shy, sensitive Aussies such as seasoned cricket writer, Malcolm Conn. The meekness of the apology from ECB matched some of the most mealy-mouthed utterances of recent years. For all you shy, retiring Ockers out there look away now as this whole escapade was surely taking the piss. So bring on Brisbane in November for more tears at bedtime.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Platini's flight of fancy

"C'est une superbe idee, Michel" Platini has attracted endless accolades for his brilliantly inventive plan to split the responsibility for hosting the Euro Championship in 2020 to a range of cities across a handful of countries. Nobody can accuse UEFA's President of lacking imagination. Courage, mon brave.

But why stop there? Let's go one step further and let's get really radical. I think we should go the whole hog and have each half in a different venue. Imagine the fun to be had when you not only announce  how many added minutes there are going to be at the end of the first half but also where the second half is going to be played.

Watch the teams race off at the whistle to check their travel arrangements and their Air Miles account.
It may be hammering it down in the first 45 minutes in Riga only to be switched to glorious sunshine on the Algarve. The acid test for any team is surely being able to win the game in two different countries.

What about the fans, you may ask. Well, they could be down and out in both Paris and London within the space of a match. Also what a way to boost the ailing European economy. This plan is multi-dimensional and just gets better and better.

An Orwellian dream or a Platini nightmare?  

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Freedman's Flight of Fancy

Risking accusations of being naive and old-fashioned, I was dazed and a little dismayed to see Dougie Freedman leave Palace for Bolton. The whole episode leaves me slightly shell-shocked and posing lots of uncomfortable questions such as is there any loyalty left in football?

As a player Dougie was one of our best of the last few decades and he was showing promise as a thoughtful, yet inexperienced manager. Freedman had been quoted only a week ago talking of his need to finish the task he had undertaken at Selhurst and not being someone who left things halfway through. He also had made a big thing about convincing the young stars such as Wilfred Zaha to stay to ensure a proper grounding before moving on to a bigger club. What price Zaha now?

No disrespect to Bolton but one wonders exactly what he is going to achieve by this move apart from a more lucrative contract (for which he cannot be blamed). The reason quoted for this move was that Palace could not match the ambition of Bolton, is this really the case? Surely most half-decent Championship clubs have ambition to reach the Premiership and although Bolton have only just come down after a dozen years at the top table (and have the considerable financial cushion of parachute payments), are they really more ambitious or just a tad more desperate?

When the dust finally settles, maybe there will be a logical explanation and at present the only one that makes any sense is that there was a fundamental disagreement between Dougie and the board over future direction, but why has that only just materialised?

I look forward to some answers eventually but who knows will there be more questions in the meantime?

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Qualified success in Donetsk

So England have not only qualified for the Quarter-finals, but have done so as Group Winners. Cue mass celebration and a surge of optimism. Well not quite, after the composed passivity of the first match, we had the frenzied victory over the Swedish, but the Ukraine game saw England falling back to some bad old ways. The familiar pattern of conceding possession regularly, not exercising any control and always seeming to be on the verge of something going wrong, returned with a vengeance.

Ukraine dominated the first half and aside from the 'ghost goal' really deserved at least a draw. But the biggest problem is that Ukraine are a limited team, especially with Shevchenko on the sidelines and to be dominated in this way by a second rate side is worrying. They created a raft of chances which they spurned through a combination of naivety and lack of ability. Even after taking the lead, at no stage did England look comfortable and this does not augur well for the latter stages of the tournament.

The victory was more to do with team spirit, hanging on in there at times with some last ditch defending, than any grand design. So as the momentum grows behind England's campaign (this impetus will undoubtedly reach fever pitch in the run-up to the Quarter-Final with Italy), my heart sinks and I fear the worst. When facing a team of experience and stature such as Italy, England will be exposed as limited and overrated.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Fancied French fail to flatten functional England

We have been here many times before, watching England being outmanoeuvred by a technically more adept team. However, this time it felt slightly different in that the concession of territory seemed more of a deliberate ploy, encouraging the French to come on to our two solid banks of four who coped pretty well with any threat posed. This was more by tactical design rather than a failure of technique.

In the end, most of the danger mustered by France came from shots outside the penalty area, including Nasri's neatly-executed equaliser and a couple of well-struck attempts by Benzema. Despite his trickery Ribery rarely broke through the shackles of a solid and disciplined defence. England were not cut to ribbons as they were during the friendly at Wembley back in November 2010 and there was a modicum of control and even some calmness on the ball, which distinguished this performance from many in previous tournaments against superior opposition.

Whilst Welbeck did not muster an effort on goal, his overall play was impressive as he held the ball up and distributed it with an accuracy that looked a little strange coming from an English centre forward. Young and Oxlade-Chamberlain scampered to reasonable effect but never quite broke through, whilst Parker was as resolute as ever in tandem with the slightly more adventurous Gerrard.

Unlike so many previous occasions England didn't treat the ball as though it was an unexploded bomb, to be disposed of as quickly as possible. Whilst possession was squandered now and again, at least it looked like England were prepared to hold on to the ball in anticipation of a better option and rotate possession rather than get rid of it regardless. 

Hodgson's achievement, in such a short space of time, is to have instilled in the players a belief that they can stick to a pattern of play where the ball is no longer their enemy, but it is yet to be seen if he can convince them it should be their friend, to be cherished and nurtured. This change in attitude will inevitably take a lot longer to materialise, but at least there are signs of progress.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Match Officials or glorified ball boys?

Holland's failure to convert any of their numerous chances against Denmark proved to be their undoing and has left the much-fancied Dutch facing an early elimination from Euro 2012. They have nobody to blame but themselves for their profligacy and poor conversion rate, from 29 shots to muster only six on target is pitiful and to draw a blank when dominating a match so completely does note bode well for their chances of progressing into quarter-finals.

There was however a single mitigating factor which one has to feel some sympathy for the blighted boys in orange. The lack of any decisive action by any of the extra officials who take up their position behind the goal line is baffling. There were two penalty shouts for handball against the Danes in either half but there was not a peep out of any of the additional officials whose primary role is to help the referee with incidents in and around the penalty area.

Indeed that is their only task yet I am struggling to think of a single decision made by one of the fourth/ fifth officials in last night's match,  or actually any match in which they have been involved. Referees never seem to consult with them even if an incident is "on their patch" and one has to question exactly what they are doing there. So without any clear intervention in decision-making maybe their role is to act as top grade ball boys with one of the best views in the stadium and not a care in the world. With goal-line technology not too far away, there will be even less justification for them, but I am sure that in their infinite wisdom UEFA and FIFA will be upholding the right to have them installed for all major tournaments.