All posts by Ross Fisher

Buying British And The Cost Of Loyalty

British talent has always been bought and sold at a huge premium but if the ever-churning tabloid rumour mills are anywhere close to the mark then this summer’s transfer window has already seen Manchester United and Liverpool go head to head for such targets three targets at vast cost. Sunderland’s Jordan Henderson has plumped for Merseyside while both Phil Jones of Blackburn and Aston Villa’s Ashley Young appear destined for Old Trafford. Throw in the fee spent on Andy Carroll and the increased price for native youth is even more obvious. But while headlines about Liverpool and United battling for players isn’t unusual the fact that two clubs in very different circumstances are both placing such emphasis on attracting British players indicates that there is something about them which makes them worth far more to managers than foreign imports.

In the last six months alone Andy Carroll, Jordan Henderson and Phil Jones have commanded a combined fee of around £72m. While we can never be entirely sure to what extent which clubs wanted which player the fact that young British talent seems to be in such high demand this summer indicates two things. Firstly that the new rules about “homegrown” players are having an impact on the transfer market but the second reason is to do with loyalty and the comparative stature of the Premier League in global terms.

In 2009 all Premier League clubs agreed to include a minimum of eight “homegrown” players in their 25 man squads or limit the number of players they would be allowed. According to the Premier League in order to qualify as “homegrown” a player must havebeen registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Welsh Football Association for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the season during which he turns 21).” Furthermore four players must have been trained at the club using the same criteria except the player must have spent that time at the club rather than at any club under the auspices of the FA or WFA. This requirement has increased the value of British players as signing foreign players at the tender age of 17 or 18 often involves leaving their home country and family a problem which the likes of Phil Jones or Wayne Rooney have not had to handle and allows players to focus on their development without distractions.

However the squad limitations and rules about “homegrown” players only account for a small part of why British youngsters command such fees. The real reason is loyalty and an increased insecurity about the attraction of the Premier League among managers. The fact that Barcelona and Real Madrid have unquestionably become the favoured destination for the majority of players has been made painfully clear to managers in the Premier League as they watched Cristiano Ronaldo, Javier Mascherano and Xabi Alonso depart for Spain in recent years. Arsenal’s desperate attempts to hold on to Cesc Fabregas look increasingly unlikely to succeed in the face of Catalonian pressure. Until 2006 Barcelona had only one Champions League to their name while Real Madrid went six years without managing to get past the first knockout stage in Europe. Other clubs could compete in terms of star names and chances for European glory. Yet in the past few years the duo have pulled away even from the rest of the elite and established themselves as the definitive culmination of a players career.   

Both Kenny Dalglish and Sir Alex Ferguson, having seen their stars depart for Spain, are keen to bring in players that see playing for Liverpool or Manchester United as the pinnacle of a career, that won’t be seduced by the promise of La Liga. The premium on British talent stems from the belief that native youngsters are more likely to remain in the Premier League than move abroad.

Furthermore there is a sound basis for the belief that British players won’t be looking for moves to Spain. There have been a number of Brits who’ve tried moving overseas but they very much remain the exception rather than the rule. For every Michael Owen there are dozens like Paul Scholes or Steven Gerrard. It is no coincidence that in a season which saw both Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez blossom at the top level that Real Madrid have been linked with Hernandez rather than Smalling. It is certainly true that Hernandez had the bigger impact but the pattern is well established. Madrid took Alonso rather than Gerrard, Ricardo Carvalho over John Terry and Ronaldo over Rooney. In each case it could be argued that Madrid were taking the better player or the player that they needed the most but overall there is an undeniable tendency for the Spanish clubs to take the foreign stars from England over the British ones.

What Ferguson and Dalglish hope they are buying is the long term service of players. As well as the vast potential sell-on value of talented youngsters there is the prospect of decades of loyal service from players that the two managers hope to be able to build teams around. In Henderson and Jones they seek to have the same longevity at a club that Rooney has achieved compared to Cesc Fabregas. While both have been at their clubs for similar amounts of time Fabregas has been constantly courted by Barcelona and Arsenal fans wknow that he will leave at a certain point. Rooney on the other hand had his wobble in October but it is feasible that he will stay at Old Trafford for years to come. The inflated transfer fees for young British players stems from this desire to be able to build teams around the youth prospects that are coming through without them being poached by the big two in Spain.

As Cracks Appear Across The FIFA Universe

As his words flowed out like endless rain into a journalistic crowd people around the world watched with open mouths. This was supposed to be a press conference to put people’s minds at rest about the issue of corruption in FIFA yet Sepp Blatter sat there brazenly declaring that nothing was going to change his world. Words that he probably imagined as statesman-like wisdom and brilliant rebuttals came across as the slightly deranged responses of a man who’s forgotten exactly why he still needs to appease the uppity peasants in front of him. The 75-year-old FIFA President appeared simultaneously confused and affronted that he was being forced to explain himself to a pack of mangy journalists. His entire body language screamed a desire to be able to press a button which would strike up the imperial march while armed Stormtroopers would frog-march any filthy protesters out of the room. His whole posture seemed to ask “after all that I have done for football (not to mention humanity) surely I deserves the common courtesy of not being asked to answer all these questions?”

The problem for Uncle Sepp is that, aside from one or two rather obviously planted questions along the lines of “how can we thank you Oh Benevolent Leader for all you have done for us?” the questions he was being asked were ones that he was totally unable to answer. Investigative journalists like Matt Smith and David Conn from the Guardian or Tariq Panja from Bloomberg News scent blood and went for the throat. Right now a birds-eye view of the gaps in FIFA’s credibility would show a remarkable resemblance to the San Andreas Fault at the moment. In the past six months four members of the FIFA Executive Committee (ExCo) have been investigated and found guilty of corruption, meaning that a sixth of footballs most powerful body have been found guilty of serious misdemeanours. Before the accusations against Mohamed bin Hammam and Jack Warner saw them suspended both Issa Hayatou and Reynald Temarii were both caught engaging in unethical practises. According to Andrew Jennings there is evidence that a further six more (at least) would be found guilty by an independent investigation. 

It should be remembered that this is hardly the first scandal in FIFA during Sepp’s presidency. In 1998 there were lots of unanswered questions about the legitimacy of his election victory. In 2002 Farah Addo the former Somali FA President claimed to have been offered a bribe of around £10,000 to support Blatter. Following the 2006 World Cup in Germany Jack Warner was exposed as being involved in a seriously lucrative cash-for-tickets scandal. Before this year’s election (coronation?) a Swiss paper conducted a poll asking people whether they believed Blatter is corrupt. A staggering 86% of respondents replied that they were “100% sure” that he was. Only 3% believed he wasn’t and it is hardly beyond the realms of possibility that they would be the 3% of Switzerland that’s related to good ole Uncle Sepp.

Controversy in FIFA has become so commonplace over the past few decades that each one is now as surprising as a headline about tensions rising in the Middle East. This time however something is different. Whereas previously there has almost been a code of Omerta at the top levels in FIFA, this time Blatter and his co-conspirator Chuck Blazer have thrown some incredibly senior members of the ExCo to the wolves. Many people have seen the accusations against bin Hammam as a deeply unsubtle ploy to remove him from the Presidency race, leaving Blatter as the only runner. But the decision to suspend Jack Warner is far more surprising given how long Mr. Warner has been at FIFA. If there is anyone that knows where the bodies are buried it is “Honest Jack.” He promised a tsunami and so far has only delivered a warning shot with his e-mail about Jerome Valcke and Qatar’s attempts to buy the World Cup. Should he wish, Warner could make life far more uncomfortable for the other members of ExCo.

Of all the disgusting aspects of this scandal, the only one that is genuinely surprising is that Warner was implicated along with bin Hammam. While a suspension for bin Hammam has obvious advantages for Blatter, the accusations against Warner don’t have such a clear benefit. It has been alleged that that Chuck Blazer, the man who brought the charges against both, was working with Blatter in order to provide benefits for both. Blatter can suspend his only rival for the presidency and Blazer removes a very powerful figure in CONCACAF, strengthening his own position. Given that Blazer is the one who broke the allegations in the first place it is surprising that he has managed to avoid most of the media frenzy compared to his fellow officials. This becomes even more curious when one considers given how much he gains from the decision of the Ethics Committee. The suspension of Warner in particular leaves Blazer as one of footballs most powerful men in the Americas. The political battle lines in CONCACAF remain unclear after Warners suspension but Blazers coup would suggest a burgeoning American influence in football’s governing body.

In recent years America has transformed itself from a football minnow into a regular in the knock-out stages in the World Cup. A decade ago America had nowhere near the calibre of players such as Landon Donovan or Clint Dempsey to call on. The MLS has reinvented itself and the growing coverage of American football shows its increasing influence on the world game. While still a relatively under-appreciated and poorly supported sport in the USA, football is nevertheless beginning to impose itself on the American conscious in a way it has never managed before. This growing influence is creating new power structures on the continent, in particular pitting America against the Caribbean. The first act of the interim CONCACAF president Lisle Austin of Barbados attempted to out Blazer after the American’s exposed Warner.  

Throughout footballs history emerging powers have sought to exert their own influence on the future of the game. Initially the European powers were dominant with South America also wielding considerable influence. Then the African and Asian federations flexed their own muscle with tournaments being held in Japan and South Korea in 2002 and South Africa in 2010. Finally the US FA may be ready to play a bigger role in world football. Seventeen years after the 1994 World Cup was held in America to try and entice Americans towards football the current FIFA scandal may well see the first signs of a rise in American influence on the game. 

David Adelman

Manchester United: Great But Not Good Enough

There is something strange about the phrase “exquisitely painful”. They’re not two words which seem to belong together. However if there is an occasion that they do actually work together it’s being a Manchester United fan watching the 2011 Champions League final. Their defeat at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s side was horrible yet undeniably right. There are many criticisms that can be levelled at this Barcelona side but at its core this is a team built on devout aesthetic principles which, when put into practise, thoroughly dismantled United with breath-taking verve and swagger. The metronomic pum-pum-pum of their passing is intrinsically wonderful as well as instrumentally devastating. Like Roger Federer at his peak there is something almost uncanny about their imperturbable calm and use of space.

The ultimate measure of a club lies in conquering Europe, a fact Sir Alex Ferguson is acutely aware of. Theoretically the World Club Championship should count for more but the champions of Europe are always the real if not official champions of the world. Although they were always big names in European football until 1999 both Manchester United and Barcelona had only one European Cup to their name apiece. Despite the glorious names that had played for the two sides and the domestic titles that had been racked up there was still the looming shadow of their more successful rivals. Liverpool had four European crowns to their name when Manchester United lifted the treble while Real Madrid were lauding their seven triumphs over Barcelona. Since then all four sides have added further trophies to the cabinet but neither United nor Barcelona are even within striking distance of matching their rivals yet. There is a definite feeling that it is only in the last five years or so that the two clubs have begun to assume their rightful place in the European pantheon.

It should not be forgotten that this is a rather impressive Manchester United side as well. They have four league titles and three Champions League final appearances in the last five years. Yet over the past few seasons their talent has only served to highlight just how special this Barcelona side is. Guardiola’s side have won two games with an aggregate score of 5-1. There is little doubt that United have been their closest competitors for the title of best club in Europe but the gulf between the two clubs is quite astonishing.

Manchester United fans must now face up to a rather unpleasant fact. That their spell of domination in Europe (and three finals in four years is domination) for which they have waited so long is coinciding with one of the greatest teams of all time. Since 2008 the sides have met three times, once in the semi-finals and twice in the final itself. Ferguson’s men dumped the last embers of the Frank Rijkaard era out to go on and win the tournament. After that Barcelona installed Guardiola and they ascended to another level. The likes of Deco and Ronaldinho left to make room for players such as Iniesta, Messi and Busquets. While Ferguson sought to create a team to counter all the various threats that Europe could throw at his side Guardiola trimmed the fat losing any excess flab from the 2006 side.

It is the tragedy of this United side is that it will never be remembered as it should have been. Even more so than the Juventus side of 1996-98 or the Valencia team of 2000-01 this United side reeks of unfulfilled promise. Both of those two sides were beaten by different teams in back-to-back finals and Juventus’ three finals in three years remains the best record of any club since the Champions League began. Yet neither side was built with such painstaking effort as this current Manchester United side. Ferguson has spent decades trying to crack the conundrum of how to win in Europe and yet now after all these years, Barcelona have become virtually unplayable.

This is a Manchester United side that only a few weeks ago tore Chelsea to shreds at Old Trafford. They’re one of the most tactically flexible squads ever, blending youth and experience, class and graft. Yet Barcelona took the second best side in Europe and made them look foolish over 90 minutes for the second time in three years. There can be no talk of a fluke, no cries of “if so-and-so was available”. Just the unhappy knowledge that there is only so much one can do in the face of genius. During any normal period of football this United side could have racked up a number of Champions League titles. They are currently the second best football team on the planet and, had this team existed ten years ago they would almost certainly be the best team on the planet.

It is the great misfortune of Ferguson’s reign that his very best European era has coincided with Guardiola. There was something almost Salieri-esque about Ferguson last night as he watched Xavi, the footballing equivalent of Mozart orchestrate his destruction. For a man who has spent a quarter of a century learning to conquer Europe it must hurt more than we could possibly know but as the man himself said “In my time as manager this is the best team we’ve ever faced.” Perhaps when it comes to greatness it takes one to know one.

David Adelman

End Of Season Reports For Clubs

And just like that we’re done with another Premier League season. It seems only yesterday that Manchester United were dropping points at Everton, Spurs were thrashing Inter Milan and Sunderland were dreaming of Europe. Since a very hasty super-injunction has legally prevented any levels of actually insight or analysis in RPO we’ll just make do with a teacher’s review of each club:

Manchester United: A record nineteenth title to go with third Champions League final in four years is a fairly impressive achievement by any standards. Only concern would be terrible away form. Grade: A

Chelsea: Oh what could have been were it not for that staggeringly long poor spell in the middle of the year. Squad renewal is a must along with an improvement in European performance. Grade: B

Manchester City: A slightly shaky start with brand new squad but gelled nicely and will be very much in contention for the title next year. Also broke massive trophy duck. Grade: A-

Arsenal: Need more mental strength. Too many passengers in the side and the defensive frailty is beyond a joke. So close to being a title winning side and only have themselves to blame for trophy less season. Grade: C

Tottenham Hotspur: Hard to picture any club having more of a Jekyll and Hyde season. A wonderful first four months won plaudits all over Europe while a limp and frankly pathetic effort in the run-in cost them Champions League football. Grade: C+

Liverpool: The polar opposite of Spurs. The purchase of Suarez looks very, very astute. Could well regain their top four place next year if they start the season well. The feel good factor is back at Anfield. Grade: B-

Everton: At some point David Moyes is going to have a good start to a season and that year could see the Toffee’s in the Champions League. But once again an exceptionally poor start ruined a very fine finish to the season. Grade: C+

Fulham: Roy Hodgson left a good legacy but Mark Hughes has done a rather good job at Craven Cottage himself. A fully fit Zamora flanked by the likes of Dempsey et al combined with some good reinforcements could see them aim for a top six finish next year. Grade: A

Aston Villa: How the Villains have finished in the top half is a mystery given their performances. Bent and Downing aside very few in a Villa shirt did well this year. However a new manager and a new start should see them aiming for top seven at least. Grade: C-

Sunderland: They started the season very strongly but there are problems with Bruce’s squad. Given how much he has spent a higher finish should be expected. Still there is a solid core of players at the club and they’ve finished about where they were expected to. Grade: C

West Brom: Di Matteo started very well but once the wobble began the board made a wonderful call to replace the Italian with Hodgson. The aim was survival and the Baggies managed the best finish of all the promoted sides, a resounding success. The future looks good as well. Grade: A+

Newcastle: Along with West Brom they’ve done well this year. Survived comfortably and made a monster profit on Andy Carroll. Furthermore although Chris Hughton was very harshly sacked, Pardew has done reasonably well as his replacement. Grade: A-

Stoke: Pulis has done a lot of good work to make the Potters a Premier League staple. Yes they could be prettier but they’re in no danger of relegation whatsoever and managed a very strong FA Cup run. Not a bad season by all accounts. Could have finished a little higher perhaps. Grade: B+

Bolton: Bolton have been one of the best sides in the league this year and it’s a real shame they finished as low as they did. Even until a few months ago they looked good for a possible Europa League place. A late season collapse shouldn’t obscure the fact they played good football and have a stable basis on which to build. Grade: B

Blackburn: It was a massive blunder to sack Allardyce and the club became embroiled in a relegation battle they should never have been part of. Kean should be removed and a better manager introduced immediately. If Venky’s could avoid foot-in-mouth disease that would also help. Grade: D

Wigan: It’s heartening to see Roberto Martinez’s brand of football be rewarded. Furthermore it might just be that the players have clicked with the manager. The team showed great heart and next season might not be the nerve-shredding experience this one was. Grade: C+

Wolves: Difficult one to call this. On the one hand they only barely survived the drop but on the other they claimed some huge scalps including ending Manchester United’s 29 game unbeaten run and were dogged by terrible bad luck and injuries. Still lots of work needs doing by Big Mick. Grade: C

Birmingham: Negative and boring for most of the season. Huge hangover (Bubum-tush!) from Carling Cup and not a particularly big loss to the Premier League for the neutrals. McLeish should be replaced but the squad is there to come straight back up. Grade: D

Blackpool: Huge effort, positive attitude and great football for much of the season. A real loss for the league. However they still have the worst squad of the relegated teams and could struggle to win promotion again although it would be nice. Good grade given how many were betting on them being the worst team ever in the top flight. Grade: B+

West Ham: Limp. Uninspired. Tepid. Their capitulations are habitual and embarrassing. The final day loss to Sunderland summed up their season. Scott Parker aside very few come out of this campaign with credit. Grade: F

Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And This Silly Season

 Every year the summer transfer market extravaganza promises so much yet tends to deliver so little. Even though increasingly sensational sums change hands each year after the dust has settled the top order tends to remain virtually unchanged. The transfer saga’s that get played out in the media get longer and even more boring year on year and very rarely does one transfer window have a serious transformative effect on the top clubs. However this year could see some genuinely fascinating developments among the contenders for Champions League football.

  Currently there are six teams who are realistically fighting for the four Champions League places. However the chances of Manchester United and Chelsea dropping out of the top four next season is extremely unlikely so the focus shifts to the balance of power between the remaining four which could be radically altered over the summer. After so many years of having a fixed and frankly dull top four, having genuine competition for places is all rather exciting for the average armchair fan.

  Last summer the primary focus for many of the big English clubs was to hold on to their stars rather than try and strengthen. Both Arsenal and Liverpool were desperately fighting off unwanted attention for Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres respectively. This year looks to be different for both clubs. Barcelona’s interest in Fabregas is said to have cooled after the Catalan club realised their squad has all the depth of a beauty pageant contestant except in midfield and are reputedly looking at other targets before returning for Fabregas. Real Madrid have already added Borussia Dortmund’s Nuri Sahin to an already bloated midfield and so it would be hard to make a case that they should need Fabregas either. Meanwhile for Liverpool, the revival continues apace under Kenny Dalglish with the added bonus that Torres’ replacements Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez won’t be targeted by other big clubs given how recently they have arrived.

  For both clubs the focus this summer doesn’t need to be on keeping core players but rather on building on squads that are very close to where they need to be. For Arsenal only minimal investment should be required to push on and produce a side to go the distance against United and Chelsea. The one flaw in the argument about Wenger’s wonderfully frugal approach is that he shouldn’t need to spend much more than he has done to guarantee the title. Sebastian Squillaci is evidently not good enough at this level. A willingness to pay small amounts more for a better central defender would have paid serious dividends. Nemanja Vidic (£7m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m) proves that for a minimal increase in budget, Wenger could sign proven quality rather than like likes of Squillaci. As for Liverpool, their form in the second half of the season has been so staggeringly good that, will a few astute purchases, they should feel confident of taking back the fourth Champions League spot from Manchester City.  The core of a very good attacking side is in place. Lucas Leiva and Raul Meireles have both flourish this season in midfield while youngsters like Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly look to be the first tangible benefits of the Benitez reforms to the youth system. Add in two decent wide players and some defensive cover and Liverpool could be a very dangerous side indeed.

  Of course the billionaire elephant in the room is Manchester City and how much they want to spend now that they can offer European football. Realistically no other club can compete if the Blues decide to enter the market. However when Edin Dzeko was added to the team Roberto Mancini suggested that he was now fully satisfied with the squad available and this summer may only see one or two finishing touches counter-balanced by a number of departures to thin out the squad. Although every player and his dog have been linked with a move to Eastlands as the tabs put several good performances together with pots of cash and come to the staggering conclusion that transfer swoop stories always sell, the chances are that City are more likely round out rather than revolutionise their side. Having had a season to gel, Mancini looks set to mount a serious title bid next season even if the Blues manage to ship out the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Jo and possibly even Carlos Tevez.

  Finally Spurs. Boy oh boy have they packed it all in this season. Dizzying highs and worrying lows within 6 months. Of all the clubs fighting for Champions League football next season Spurs are the most likely to lose key players in the form of Modric or Bale as the big clubs circle around a wounded animal. Yet Levy has always been a very hard negotiator and will almost certainly extract top dollar for any players that do leave. Despite his emphatic rejection of the title, ‘Arry Redknapp is certainly a good wheeler-dealer. With a budget of £20 topped up by any funds from sales there is no reason that Spurs couldn’t remount a serious bid for Europe. Even though the difference between Arsenal and Spurs is 11 points at the moment, given where Spurs have dropped points in the second half of the season (Blackpool, West Ham, Wigan etc), coupled with the fact they won’t be distracted by Europe means that the difference could certainly be narrowed somewhat if not closed next season.

  It may be that next season sees the current top four pull away and firmly re-establish a new order in the Premier League. It could be that, even with Manchester City’s billions there will be multiple changes at the top for a few seasons before the second tier of teams learn to cope with European commitments as well as domestic dominance. This summer transfer window could be very dull or filled with astonishing deals and brilliant bargains. In essence it doesn’t matter but for the first time there is real competition at the top of the Premier League and all the contenders have a summer in which to strengthen. This season was slated as being very sub-par. Next season could blow that theory right out of the water.

How The West Brom Was Won

  In many ways football has come to parallel to show business. Fans pay huge sums to see stars perform in giant cathedrals of entertainment. Rivalries emerge and are devoured through the tabloids by the public before disappearing. The media snatches up every scrap of gossip about whose transferring where and who’s dating who and peddles it in the most sensationalist manner possible. And as Homer Simpson’s brief showbiz career with the “Be Sharps” taught us the immutable law of showbiz is that what goes up, must come down.1 In the football world nobody embodies this principle better than West Brom. Since 2001 the Boing, Boing Baggies have bounced between the Premier League and the Championship six times.

  Except this time it’s different. This time they’re going to avoid the drop. In fact they’re staying up very comfortably indeed. And it was only six months ago that their manager was being derided as the most clueless man in the league. Roy Hodgson has totally turned around West Brom’s fortunes since taking charge having lost only once against Chelsea and racking up 16 points from 9 games. After the debacle at Liverpool, the discourse was that Hodgson was a man promoted beyond his abilities. This is once more being exposed as nonsense.

  Even under Roberto Di Matteo the cycle of promotion and relegation that forever shadows West Brom appeared set to repeat itself as the club rocketed to 4th in the table after 9 games and then proceeded to slump into another relegation battle. West Brom’s recent history has placed them very awkwardly as too good for the Championship but not good enough for the Premier League. Admittedly their plight has not been helped by the defensive calamities that the likes of Tony Mowbray presided over in previous seasons. Even Di Matteo, for all his obvious talent as a manager failed to get the Baggies defending in a reasonable manner.

  It seems harsh to criticise Di Matteo after he took West Brom into the top flight and guided the teams superb start to the season. Moreover, the Italian left a much better squad than the one he inherited. The likes of Peter Odemwinge were brought in during Di Matteo’s tenure while players like Graham Dorrans showed definite improvement under the guidance of the former Chelsea man. Yet the difference between the end of Di Matteo’s regime and the start of Hodgson’s is remarkable to say the least. After beating Fulham, the Baggies lost eleven of their next fifteen games. As sad as it is to see a manager of the calibre of Di Matteo fired, the decision has proved to be inspired.

  In 2007 Hodgson was brought in to save Fulham from relegation. Although his impact wasn’t initially felt Fulham managed a magnificent end of season and avoided the drop by the skin of their teeth. With West Brom the turnaround has been far quicker and more impressive. A defeat against Chelsea aside, West Brom have been excellent so far under Hodgson, culminating in a victory over city rivals Aston Villa. While Fulham barely stayed in the top flight when Hodgson took over, West Brom will not only remain in the Premier League but will end the season in the sort of form which, if extrapolated out over 38 games, would see them challenging for Europa League places.

  It is pointless to continue to argue that Hodgson should have carried on as Liverpool boss. His being replaced by Dalglish and subsequent instalment at West Brom is one of the few instances in football that has benefited all parties concerned. The fans of both clubs are happier, both teams are playing better football and Hodgson certainly seems happier. Yet the narrative during his time at Liverpool was that Hodgson was a man promoted past his ability, that he was incapable of managing a side of that size. This is patently untrue. In much the same way that Rafa Benitez spared Leonardo the inevitable and unenviable task of following Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan, so Hodgson spared Dalglish the difficulties of having to be the immediate successor of Benitez, inheriting the mess that Liverpool were in at that stage with ownership struggles, an unhappy star striker and a gloomy atmosphere around Anfield.

  Hodgson may not be the most charismatic of managers but has the skills and tactical nous to take control at a major club provided he is not beset by critical problems from the outset. Again, this is not to suggest that Hodgson should have been retained as Liverpool manager as that would evidently have been the wrong decision. Rather the issue is whether his time at Fulham was the aberration rather than his time at Anfield.

  While guiding Fulham away from the relegation zone, bringing in a core of top level players like Brede Hangeland and Bobby Zamora and taking them to the Europa League final could be regarded as a fluke, the fact that Hodgson is in the process of doing the exact same with West Brom cannot be ascribed to mere good fortune. Hodgson is evidently very capable at this level. Hodgson’s time at Liverpool was a perfect storm of problems, some of his own making, others external factors he had no control over. He left the club with all the hard work he had done over the years in tatters. His ability to affect an immediate upswing in West Brom’s fortunes should put to rest. After he left Fulham, Hodgson was being talked about as the next England manager. Six months at Liverpool should not obscure the talent he could bring to the table next time the FA are looking for a manager.

1Aside from Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tom Jones etc


Pressure and the culture at Arsenal

“Nowhere to run to baby, nowhere to hide” – Martha Reeves and the Vandellas

 When in the asphyxiating grip of pressure many sportspeople have succumbed and fallen by the wayside. Earlier this month we saw the very public meltdown of Rory McIlroy on the final day of the Masters. Any number of English penalty takers have crumbled and missed at the vital moment over the years.  When millions are watching on television from all corners of the globe there is nowhere to hide. The Vandellas weren’t singing about the effects of pressure but they describe it perfectly and it would be harder to come up with eight words to better sum up Arsenal’s season.

  So many times this year Arsene Wenger’s side have managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. At some point it must be acknowledged that it isn’t an aberration but a chronic problem running through the squad. Squandering comfortable leads against Spurs and Newcastle have cost Arsenal crucial points and the lack of nous to see out the game against Liverpool encapsulated the problem in a microcosm. The repeated failures turn a worm of doubt into a torment of mental self-flagellation.

  There are many reasons why Arsenal have stuttered at points this season, some arbitrary, others endemic but two key factors must be addressed in the aftermath of this campaign. Firstly the culture of excuses at the Emirates must be eliminated. Secondly, a culture of winning should be introduced by any means necessary.

  When it comes to excuses Sir Alex Ferguson has done his fair share of ranting against perceived injustices over the years. Even now he’s serving a five game touchline ban for calling into question the fairness of referees. Yet within the Manchester United dressing room there are no such excuses. The referee may have awarded an unfair penalty or disallowed a legitimate goal. Ferguson has no problem making sure that the media knows how he feels but within the United camp, there is nowhere to hide because there can be no excuses for losing. There can never be an excuse. Looking back to the Confederations Cup in 2009, there is a reason that the USA was able to beat Spain but not Brazil. Spain were European champions and felt there was nothing to prove. Brazil will always have something to prove. There is a shared philosophy between Brazil and Manchester United, articulated by Mark Hughes; “We never lose, we just sometimes run out of time.”

  There is a giant question mark hanging over the Arsenal dressing room as to whether the same culture persists. Cesc Fabregas has said that the Arsenal dressing room is a peaceful place and that all the players get on well with each other. On the surface this seems like a positive but when backs are to the wall, sometimes leaders need to deliver a hairdryer. In order to win at the highest level, losing needs to be a total anathema. A calm dressing room is only acceptable when the team is winning, otherwise leaders are deserting their duty and providing excuses for underperformers.

  Secondly, Arsenal need to reintroduce a culture of winning to the dressing room. The cliché about Arsenal lacking mental strength has been trotted out with depressing frequency this season as the media seeks to impose a simple narrative on Arsenal’s season but there is an element of truth to the accusation. Each time that Arsenal fail to close out a game, the self-doubt gets stronger and harder to overcome. Furthermore, Wenger’s body language speaks far louder than his claims about his teams maturity and belief. Each time that the Arsenal players look to the sidelines when things are going against them they see their manager hunched over, visibly stressed. Wenger allows himself to show his frustration in a way that most other managers don’t. Ferguson’s reaction to adversity is to scream at referees and chew harder on his gum. Jose Mourinho is the diametric opposite, chewing the scenery as he throws himself into one overly-dramatic gesture after another. But whereas Mourinho is obviously hamming his part for all it’s worth, with Wenger, the emotions are all too real.  

  When Manchester City signed Patrick Vieira last season, many guffawed at the move saying the midfielder was past his prime and a deadweight on the wage bill. While this is probably true, with Vieira, as with Tevez, Yaya Toure and others came a culture of winning. Manchester City have a number of players who’ve been there and got the medals to show for it. Mancini didn’t sign the former Arsenal midfielder for his playing ability as much as his ability to influence the dressing room. When you walk down the tunnel knowing that you absolutely have to win this game or the entire season will be deemed unsuccessful, that you’ll have to watch hated rivals lift the trophy in front of you, having someone alongside who has seen it all before and come through is of incalculable value.

  Of course Wenger’s team can win the Premier League without this but why make it any harder by removing that experience from the dressing room. Wenger only needs to make one or two additions to the squad this summer but bringing in players who’ve won titles and have proved capable under pressure benefits the entire squad. Wenger might be right that titles can be won without spending grotesque amounts but doing without experience either is doubly difficult.

 It should be stressed that Arsenal are hardly a long way from the title. Wenger has built an attractive side designed around excellent technique and pace. The frustration for fans this season stems from seeing the team make the same mistakes over and over again. Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Wenger is so close to another Premier League crown but certain errors keep cropping up time after time and need to be addressed.



Spain As Champions Of America? Bad Idea

  Following the tragic earthquake and subsequent tsunami that devastated Japan the Japanese national team withdrew from the Copa America. The Japanese side had already been drawn against Argentina, Bolivia and Columbia in the group stages but their departure left a gap which, it was revealed, the reigning world champions Spain have been asked to fill. The news was broken by the Spanish football federation (RFEF) chief Angel Maria Villar who further commented that the RFEF were considering the option. Villar also stated that, as President, he is in favour of Spain going. And as President he usually gets what he wants. But while the withdrawal of the Japanese team is totally understandable given the terrible circumstances, the idea of Spain attending is a terrible one.

  From the point of view of the Copa America it would be a mixed blessing. On the one hand the participation of the world champions and their tiki-taka tyranny would boost the profile of the tournament, especially in Europe enticing some big juicy television audiences. But the inclusion of Xavi et al would mean that Group A, already murderously hard becomes more savagely difficult than solving a Rubik’s cube blindfolded. Progression to the quarter-finals goes to the top two sides and the two best third places teams. Columbia and Bolivia, who would originally have stood a very good chance of progressing against Japan, would most likely be vying for a possible third place qualification only to face the likes of Brazil or Uruguay. The only fair replacement for Japan would be a team of similar stature. Inviting South Korea or Australia following their performances in the Asian Cup would be reasonable. Furthermore, the pride of South America will hardly be enhanced if a European nation come down and sweep all opposition aside. After all it’s supposed to be the American championships so why an outside nation needs to be invited is mystifying to begin with. Should that nation thrash all other comers, the humiliation would be that much worse. So from the host’s point of view there are ups and downs to having the world champions attend.

  However from the point of view of the Spanish national team attending the Copa America would be disastrous. Since winning Euro 2008 the Spanish side has been playing non-stop football for nearly three years. Given the fact that the majority of the side comes from Barcelona, aside from when they are actually in possession, they never get a rest. Pep Guardiola and his boys won everything they could get their grubby mitts on in 2009 and almost did the same in 2010. The likes of Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos (aka anyone who doesn’t play for FC Wonderful) also have intensely packed schedules. Due to the fact they just don’t seem to lose since 2008 the Spanish have played every game of every tournament aside from the final of the Confederations Cup when the USA knocked them out in the semi-finals. That is one missed game in three years. The very best thing for these players would be a summer without having to play any football. Chelsea must be desperate for Fernando Torres to have a good few months of rest to try and recover his form and fitness. Fundamentally footballers are some of the most expensive pieces of meat on the planet. The clubs pay ludicrous amounts for said meat and have every right to want it in the best possible condition.

  However, the RFEF is hardly an institution with a reputation for competence as any regular reader of Sid Lowe or La Liga Loca can testify. It’s the organisation which insisted that players going on strike would be totally illegal and then within a few months, threw their support behind the clubs going on strike due to needing more money to pay back a whopping €700m they owe to the government that the RFEF allowed them to rack up. It’s the governing body which refuses to schedule fixtures more than a week in advance presumably or no other reason that sheer sociopathic bloody-mindedness. It seems impossible to believe that allowing Xavi et al to go to Argentina in July is anything other than an attempt to line the pockets of RFEF officials and given them a nice excuse for a holiday in Buenos Aires.

  The argument that footballers are the oppressed masses yearning to be free from the yoke of their bourgeois masters is hardly going to carry much weight but it’s always better to see the rock stars that make the music getting paid in order to buy more hookers and blow rather the suits that grow fat off their labour. Even leaving aside the amateurish Marxist ramblings, the RFEF would be shooting itself in the foot to try and keep working its stars this hard. If Spain want to retain their title as European champions in 2012, the best thing the RFEF can do is to give their players a summer of uninterrupted rest. As disturbing as it is to imagine Vincente del Bosque squatting down to lay an egg, the phrase about not killing the Golden Goose exists for a reason.