Sunday, November 10, 2013

From the archives: Does Phil Jones Belong In Central Midfield?

When Roy Keane arrived at Old Trafford in the summer of 1993, it was as the most costly player in the Premier League. The then-21 year-old attempted to deal with the pressure and anticipation in the most obvious way – scoring goals. Things began promisingly as he netted twice on his home debut against Sheffield United. The following month he racked up another brace on his European debut with the club against Honved of Hungary. He wouldn’t score twice in a game for another two years.

The sense of energy and urgency was to be expected. At that stage of his career, Keane covered a lot of ground, enjoyed the edginess of launching into challenges and relished his occasional forays into the area. But therein lacked a defining role within the side. His central midfield partner, Paul Ince, was the self-appointed Guv’nor – the big talker, the flash Londoner, that quintessential warrior. It took Keane the bulk of two seasons to find out what he was. Two seasons of discipline. Of developing an understanding that less is more. Of embracing the idea that being positionally sound, of reading the game properly and digesting its patterns and nuances, would ensure his particular niche.

Keane’s on-field maturity came at the perfect time for a United side under-going a well-documented transition. Often over-looked in the much-discussed emergence of a stable of young stars-in-the-making is how fragile the team was. The 1996 Double winners had a central defensive duo whose combined age was 65. They struggled so badly with depth issues that Keane was deployed at centre-back on a number of occasions. But, just like the season before when Ferguson would alter things tactically and drop Keane to right-back, his performance levels never dropped. His attitude and desire ensured that at the very least he’d ‘put a shift in’.

Phil Jones is still just 20 years old, raw and unpolished. But the similarities are there. Jones has been used in three different positions this season and despite a lack of continuity, he’s rarely been badly exposed. In fact, his performances in the centre of defence (his supposedly default position) have been the biggest grounds for concern.

When pushed further forward, he’s quietly and efficiently gone about his role while his most explosive contributions have come in the most unfamiliar environment of right-back. Like Keane, youthful exuberance has led to Jones attempting too much in games – most notably selling himself by diving into tackles in dangerous areas and always attempting to play the ball. These aspects have shown up usually when Jones is part of the back four.

When pushed into midfield though, he’s looked composed and assured. His passing accuracy is a healthy 85% while his only Premier League goal this season came at Villa Park when playing in midfield – ghosting in behind Richard Dunne to neatly volley home from close-range. The following game, away in Basel, may have resulted in a 2-1 defeat but Jones once again impressed in central midfield – using his physicality to score again – a difficult downward header from a standing-still position.

Then, there are the runs. Those dazzling, powerful, uncompromising surges seen most prominently against Arsenal and Bolton. Purposeful, dangerous and a nod to the de rigeur resurgence of box-to-box midfielders, should United operate with a 3-man midfield more commonly, there will be plenty of opportunity for Jones to fine-tune his craft.

His midfield capabilities were also spotted by Fabio Capello who praised his decision-making when playing a pass. The Italian handed him midfield starts in the back-to-back friendlies against Spain and Sweden at Wembley in November and though Jones lasted less than an hour against Vincente del Bosque’s side, he did well considering the mentally-draining and mechanical nature of the game.
Against the Scandinavians, he was deployed in Scott Parker’s deep-lying role and almost grabbed England’s second goal, showing sharpness to seize upon a loose pass and then setting off on a charge to the Swedish area, rolling his shot just wide of the far post. After the game, Capello made an interesting point – suggesting that if Parker, for whatever reason, was forced to miss future England games, Jones could step in to replace him.

Though his country may have other plans for him, at club level Jones is currently a short-term solution to their right-back problems. For years United were blessed with full-backs who slotted in and stayed there for over a decade (Irwin/Neville). Though Evra should have two or three campaigns left in him (he turns 31 in mid-May), United have been attempting to introduce potential suitors to the position with 19 year-old Zeki Fryers hotly-tipped to command a starting berth in the next few seasons.

Worryingly for the club, Brazilian twins Rafael and Fabio, who had looked certain of cementing regular first-team football, have regressed. Between them, they’ve racked up just 6 league starts this season – injuries and a loss in form have contributed to their decline.

With Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes the first-choice midfield pairing for the title run-in, Jones will remain a full-back until season’s end. But, should United move in the summer transfer market and bring in a specialist right-back, it’s a sign that Ferguson also sees the long-term appeal of Jones as a midfielder. Given the right development and encouragement to feel out the role, he will flourish.

He’s not the new Roy Keane but he could be the new Phil Jones.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Damien Comolli on Agger, Özil and the transfer window

"Arsenal are better off spending 42m on Özil than other clubs spending 100m+ on six players who aren’t world-class"

As a former Director of Football with Tottenham and Liverpool, Damien Comolli is well-placed to discuss the summer transfer window and provide some analysis as to how various top-flight teams did. Speaking with him recently, we touched on the strategies deployed by the sides destined to challenge reigning champions Manchester United for the Premier League title.   

On ex-club Liverpool’s signings:

“I think they’ve done some good business. I think they made a big decision signing Simon Mignolet especially when Pepe Reina was still there. They probably looked at data and stats and thought that if they got Mignolet, even if Reina was to head out on loan and they’d have to pay part of his wages, they could be better off. I don’t think people talk enough about Mignolet – I think he’s a big, big signing for them.
What I find a little strange is the Mamadou Sakho deal. PSG said they got 19m + 3m in add-ons and he had only one year left on his contract. That’s a lot of money, especially as he wasn’t playing. Carlo Ancelotti didn’t play him and Laurent Blanc didn’t play him either. The other aspect is they’ve now bought a player who will compete with Daniel Agger. They don’t need cover at left-back either because they’ve signed Sissokho and they have Enrique so for me, it’s a strange signing. If they’re thinking about long-term, they’ll have to deal with a situation where Sakho won’t be happy. He left PSG because he wasn’t playing enough and he wants to play for France in the World Cup, provided we qualify. And if he doesn’t play, Liverpool will have an issue on their hands.” 

On Mamadou Sakho possibly being signed as a safety measure should Daniel Agger leave:

“Maybe. But I know how much Agger loves Liverpool. And he’s not the type to request a transfer so unless they push him out, I don’t think he’ll want to leave in the near future. That’s why the situation with Sakho might become an issue. For me, Daniel is the best left-footed central defender in the world so if you spend 19m euro on a player who’s got one year left on his contract and he has to compete with the best player in the world in that position, it’s going to be a challenge.” 

AUDIO Damien's account of what deadline-day is like for a club executive here - and the important role pizza has in a frenzied 24 hours!

On Arsenal’s capture of Mesut Özil:

“Even though they couldn’t do what they wanted in terms of a striker, they didn’t move from the fact that they would only spend money on a world-class player. And that’s why, in the end, they went for Özil. I think they’re better off spending 42m on Özil than other clubs spending 100m+ on six players who aren’t world-class. They’ve added incredible creativity, imagination and skills to an already very creative and skillful team. So it can only be very positive.”

On other Premier League teams reportedly turning down the chance to sign Özil:

“Very often, at the end of the transfer window, the clubs that lost out will say ‘We weren’t interested’ or ‘We couldn’t afford his wages’ or ‘We thought the price was too much’ but what’s being said internally is not being said externally. I don’t think Özil was shopped around because if Madrid didn’t get Bale, there was no way they would have allowed him to go. Once they got Bale, something had to give. Whether it was Benzema, di Maria, Özil – someone had to be a loser from a Madrid perspective.”

On Spurs’ spending spree:

“I’m convinced they have a better squad than last year, whether they have a better team than last year remains to be seen. In the last 2/3 years, they’ve lost their three most creative players in Van der Vaart, Bale and Modric. Have they replaced those three extremely creative players? Last season, I never felt that was the case. This season, I think Lamela and Eriksen will bring the creativity that Spurs had lost previously and those two were ‘must-have’ players for the club. But they’re young and we must wait to see how they will develop and adapt to the Premier League. All of the other players, as far as I’m concerned, are at the same level as those that Spurs have had before.”

On Manchester City’s transfer activity:

“Fernandinho is a player we’ve all been looking at and has always impressed, even before his injury. He broke his leg a couple of years ago and we were at the match watching him, when I was at Liverpool. He had an incredible game. He’s a very good player. For the first few games, he didn’t show 20% of what he can do so I’m sure there’s a lot more to come from him. Negredo is a top player who I really like. Jovetic is another top player with plenty of room for improvement. And Navas, for the first few games I think was their best player. They’ve got a very, very good manager and with Begiristain there, Pellegrini will be able to adapt quickly – he can help him settle into the club. I’m a big admirer of Pellegrini because all of his teams are very positive in their approach to the game, very attacking. People should remember that he qualified Malaga for the Champions League playing Jeremy Toulalan and Santi Cazorla in midfield. Toulalan is a very good defensive midfielder but playing Cazorla at midfield takes incredible bravery for a manager. I think they have the right setup with Begiristain and Soriano and the experience they both have from Barcelona.”

On Chelsea’s investments:

“Their big issue is up front. They didn't get the player they wanted and who could have made a massive difference so they went to plan B. But Eto’o will need a few months before getting back to where he was. Obviously, Mourinho wasn't comfortable with any of the other strikers but over the long term it could go against them. 
It also shows the football landscape has changed so much. When was the last time Chelsea didn't get the player they wanted? They didn't get Cavani or Rooney. 
Going forward, the competition for the few world-class players available every year will be ferocious.”

Monday, September 9, 2013

October 2012 Revisited...Ireland: Time To Move On

I wrote this eleven months ago. He really should've gone then.

'Trapattoni has been on thin ice since, not just the Euro 2012 tournament, but the qualification campaign that preceeded it'

There’s a moment in Hunter Davies’ seminal 1972 classic ‘The Glory Game’ when Spurs are in France for a UEFA Cup clash with Nantes. The game ends scoreless and the visitors troop off the pitch frustrated at full-time. They were better than this. A sullen Martin Chivers, who was well-marshalled, mutters to himself as he slumps to his seat in the dressing-room. He’s venting. He knows both he and his team didn’t perform. ‘A poor team’, a poor team’. Bill Nicholson mis-interprets what’s been said. The boss starts to tremble a little. He stares straight into the Big Fellow’s eyes. ‘You mean we had some poor players’. Chivers’ mood changes. ‘What do you mean?’ He was animated now. ‘What do you know about it? You never praise us when we do well. Never. You never do. What do you know about it? You weren’t out there. You didn’t have to do it. It’s easy to say we didn’t do well, bloody easy’.

Two weeks ago, Giovanni Trapattoni gave an interview to Italian national broadcaster RAI. Looking back on his managerial career, he gushed that he’d had ‘five beautiful girls’ in Milan, Inter, Juventus, Bayern and Benfica. When asked if Ireland was a beautiful girl, he replied, ‘She is nice. She needs small surgery, a retouch’. A delicious line, one he couldn’t resist. The playful smile. The twinkle in the eye. Everyone knew the situation. Everyone was in on the joke. Ireland was the joke.

The oft-used excuse does carry some weight. During Steve Staunton’s reign as Ireland boss – the lowest ebb in recent memory – the players were better. Even on that fateful night in Nicosia just over six years ago, the Irish back-four included one Champions League winner, one soon-to-be Champions League winner and the then club-captain of Manchester City. But, it’s worth pointing out that when the Trapattoni era began in Mainz with a World Cup qualifier against Georgia in September 2008, those three players also started. Two of those players remain critical members of the current squad. And as much as Trapattoni feels this Irish team are a limited group, he has had ample opportunity to refresh, to ‘retouch’. He’s ignored the numbers, the data, the forward-thinking. And through his stubborn resiliance, he’s lost a valuable buffer.   

Over the last three full seasons, Marc Wilson has started 84 Premier League games yet he’s still to make a competitive start for his country. Instead, Stephen Ward cemented a starting place in Trapattoni’s team in the same season that his Wolves side were relegated. He featured in a defence that leaked the second highest amount of goals in any Premier League season.

Against Germany, Darren O’Dea partnered John O’Shea in the centre of defence. The 25 year-old moved to Major League Soccer in August where he plays for the worst team in the league – Toronto FC. He’s featured in 10 games for them so far – losing 8. In fact, he’s still to win a game in TFC colours. In fact, outside of the victory in Kazakhstan, you have to go back to April to find the last time O’Dea featured in a competitive victory. Meanwhile, former England Under-18 captain Ciaran Clark, who has steadily impressed for Aston Villa in a multitude of different positions (under a multitude of different managers) was only sitting on the Irish bench last weekend because of Sean St. Ledger’s withdrawal. Otherwise, just like the trip to Kazakhstan, he would’ve been left out.

Plenty of other examples abound – Gibson, Coleman, Hoolahan, McClean, Pilkington. Ultimately however, just like the seeds of Mick McCarthy’s eventual exit were sewn in Saipan, Trapattoni has been on thin ice since, not just the Euro 2012 tournament, but the qualification campaign that preceeded it. Unconvincing against the minnows, embarrassed by the Russians, a sterile system being adhered to by disinterested and bored players, luck came in the form of a play-off meeting with Estonia. Suddenly, the growing discontent with the style of play, the approach to games, the lack of exciting and fresh faces was gone. As Euro 2012 got closer, the blind optimism, the giddiness took control. That optimism was washed away five minutes into the second half of the first group game. But according to Trap, ‘fear’ is what cost them in the end.

The fear has been perpetuated from the top down. Through the snide comments, the relentless focus on the players’ inability to do things right, Trapattoni’s belief that this group will never be good enough, the basic strategy/formation/tactics – it has all fed into the current malaise sweeping across the camp. Following Saturday’s humiliation, there was no apology from the Italian. There was a shrug of the shoulders, an acceptance of sorts. There was nothing to be ashamed about. Trap told reporters after the game, ‘Realistically, we were never going to compete with Germany for first place in the group’. He had prepared for a defeat and as a result, the players were already beaten when they stepped onto that pitch, whether they liked it or not.

In-game management decisions were lazy. Before his first goal, Marco Reus had already been roaming, cutting into central areas and popping up as a spare man. There was no subtle change, no message to the Irish midfield and centre-backs about the threat. No urgency, no energy. Slow, disinterested. Though it mattered little because, well, we were going to lose anyway, weren’t we? 

Upon the inspection of the damage, there wasn’t anything to worry about, according to Trap  – just a few scratches on the surface, nothing serious. There wasn’t even the faintest pang of anger or frustration. That came only when quizzed on whether he’ll still have a job by the end of the week. When his performance is brought into question, when he’s told he hasn’t been good enough, he snaps.

October seems to be a sorry time for Irish football, certainly in recent years. In 2009, the team led Italy 2-1 at Croke Park in their penultimate World Cup qualifier. An 87th-minute header from Sean St. Ledger had seemingly given the team not just a famous victory but possible automatic qualification for South Africa. Three minutes later, Alberto Gilardino equalised and Ireland were in the play-offs. A furious Trapattoni bounded down the tunnel, screaming and swearing in his native language. Yet, according to Liam Lawrence, he never showed any anger in the dressing room. Afterwards, he spoke of players being nervous, not being experienced enough with winding down the clock. If it was a boxing match, he said, Italy would’ve won on points. 

So, there has always been a dis-connect. The World Cup qualification campaign was different however – there was a hunger, a passion. There were new faces. There was an iconic football man in charge whose approach made sense. He spoke of ‘poetry and novels’ (far cry from Stan) and the importance of knowing the difference between them. Trapattoni’s Irish team wasn’t interesed in aesthetics. They were interested in results. This was a new Ireland. Determined, professional, borderline boring. With the team’s best players at their peak, the strategy worked a treat and, in many ways, elimination in the play-offs was undeserved.   

There needed to be freshening up but some call-ups, particularly in light of what’s been happening recently, lacked any sort of method. Greg Cunningham had made three substitute appearances for Manchester City but was in the squad. Jonathan Walters meanwhile, hadn’t even received a call-up to the senior team before November 2010, despite impressing consistently for Ipswich over the previous three seasons.

Trapattoni has found it far too easy to blame the quality of the Irish players when his selection policy is a flawed one. If there is a lack of natural talent, surely players who are consistently proving their worth at club level need to be handed opportunities in an Irish jersey? James McClean hasn’t made a competitive start for his country, despite illuminating the Premier League last term and subsequently being voted Sunderland’s Young Player of the Year. He had been at the club for nine months. Robbie Brady, who has been handed a start against the Faroes, has played five competitive minutes for Manchester United. With Shane Long cutting a disconsolate figure on the bench, with Darron Gibson fed up and in self-imposed exile, with Ciaran Clark admitting he doesn’t know how to get back in contention, the atmosphere is toxic.

All of the players mentioned above need to feature prominently for Ireland. They are the future. They are also the present. Unfortunately, Trapattoni is the past.    

Spurs did ultimately do quite well come season’s end, of course, beating Wolves in the UEFA Cup final to become the first British team to win two European competitions. But even still, Nicholson was reluctant to indulge his players in hearty congratulations. ‘We still have problems. For such experienced players, a lot of them are not consistent. I can’t sit and watch them in comfort, not the way I’ve done with other teams I’ve had.’
Two years later, Nicholson stepped down as Spurs manager. He had difficulty in relating to the changes within the game. He had difficulty, perhaps, in having reached the peak many years before. He had difficulty, perhaps, in adapting to something new when he’d already achieved so much with a tried and tested method.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Nothing Special: Mourinho's Behaviour Boring, Lazy, Predictable

'Mourinho can never love a club more than he loves himself'.

Standing room only for his first press conference since The Return. And early on, he gave the throngs what they came for, a few morsels thrown to the masses. But with the following day's headlines quickly out of the way, it became clear that Mourinho 2.0 was short on sound-bytes. The pout replaced by the slouch. He looked tired, bored, beaten? The talk of 'love' seemed cheap, disingenuous. The body language, the mood hinted at a stale relationship, devoid of passion and energy. He was 'happy'. Ouch. It seemed the new/old partnership was in place, well, because it seemed logical. Ouch again. As a football Lothario, Mourinho's arrogance, brazenness, brashness and success made him the most desirable bed-fellow. His high-octane trysts at Chelsea and Inter were refreshing, his style outrageous, the adoration infectious. But in Madrid, a sobering conclusion early on. Mourinho can never love a club more than he loves himself.  

For Mourinho, it's been a frustrating realisation. It's why he's back at Stamford Bridge. It's why the pageantry at that press conference seemed tinged with melancholy. He eyed up a different girl at the party. She left with someone else. And a Lothario can never go home alone. The old flame made eyes from across the room. She loved him, needed him. Easy.

Mourinho's pride was dented when Manchester United didn't come calling. For a manager specialising in short-term stints, attempting to emulate an icon would be the stuff of fantasy. It would be a long-term project, no boardroom back-stabbing, back in a country where he's beloved. The energy. The freshness. The challenge. The biggest job. And he didn't get it. His CV counted for nothing more than a few customary conversations between the Old Trafford top-brass. Perhaps what hurt most of all was that Fergie wanted someone else. The old, wily dog played one final trick. Mourinho always the pretender, never the master.

Mourinho, of course, is unable to help himself. Last weekend, there was the finger-wagging at Paul Lambert. There was the post-game posturing and patronising, Lambert's in-game behavior reminiscent of a younger, sillier, immature Jose apparently. There were more lectures on Friday, pointedly, at his former stats-man, Andre Villas-Boas. Referring to Chelsea's poaching of Brazilian midfielder Willian from under the noses of Tottenham, Jose instructed the North Londoners as how best to conduct a player's medical. Funnily enough, no mention of Roman Abramovich's relationship with Anzhi Makhachkala owner Suleiman Kerimov at the press conference. 

In Madrid, Mourinho was held accountable for the gobby, impudent brat he was. Held accountable by his employers, he didn't like it. Held accountable by his players, he didn't like it. His legacy in Spain is that of a coach so thoroughly frustrated by his inability to beat another team, he resorted to mindless thuggery to make himself feel better. But in Mourinho's head, he broke Barcelona's dominance. At his Chelsea unveiling, he claimed to have 'hurt' Barca. Recounting Madrid's Cup wins and 'historic championship', Mourinho was over-reaching to an incomprehensible, almost pathetic, degree.  

Many were excited by Mourinho's return to Premier League management. But where once was a sharp, refreshing, unique personality there's now a stale, old-hat performer. Where once was the young, cheeky, runt-of-the-litter, there's now a grey, sombre, know-it-all. Reveling in this faux-role as a calmer, more mellow 'veteran', his dispensing of advice and opinion to all and sundry is tough to watch. 

His comments about how David Moyes should be held responsible for Wayne Rooney's unhappiness at Old Trafford were bitter, ill-informed and mis-guided. But it's box-office, so that's okay. The pre-match narrative is set. The fancy TV graphics are being readied as we speak. IN THE RED CORNER: DAVID MOYES! IN THE BLUE CORNER: JOSE MOURINHO! There are those who identify this type of bullish behaviour as Mourinho unselfishly moving the spotlight away from his players. But it's too much of a coincidence that he has jeopardised each of his managerial jobs by failing to control his mouth. His opinion matters most. He shouts the loudest. It's about him. The problem for Jose though is that he's been here before. We've seen the jaded act before. And we know how it ends. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Dortmund: A Club Reborn

'Klopp’s greatest achievement at the club has been to develop a relentless spirit, a common bond, a unity.'

They’ve learned the hard way, Dortmund.

16 years ago, they were crowned Europe’s best. 8 years later, they stared bankruptcy in the face. But since then, with a couple of diversions along the way, they’ve dominated domestically to such an extent that their bitter rivals Bayern have enticed some of the world’s most sought-after youngsters and seduced the world’s most sought-after manager to try and grapple control of German football again.

This year’s Champions League decider at Wembley - a showdown between two German sides - has sparked plenty of debate about the current state of football in the country. The Bundesliga is being trumpeted as the best league in Europe. It’s entertaining, it’s economical and it’s sustainable. But, for Dortmund and Germany, it wasn’t always this way.

By November 2005, the club’s financial situation was perilous. A Munich-based analyst Peter-Thilo Hasler warned that “you cannot make a business plan based on the best-case scenario". This was the root cause of Dortmund’s predicament - basing future earnings on past successes and gambling millions on inflated wages and ‘expected’ Champions League qualification. An old cautionary tale perhaps but this was different. This wasn’t just any club. Giddy on excitement, drunk on possibilities, a high-profile European side embarrassed itself with its lack of basic business acumen and brought a powerhouse to its knees.

In the summer of 2001, Marcio Amoroso was signed for a German record 25m euro. He had an instant impact. The club won its sixth league title with the Brazilian finishing the campaign as joint-top scorer. But less than three years later, Amoroso would have his contract cancelled due to increasingly volatile behaviour. Dortmund involved themselves in other short-sighted transfers, dropping 6 million for Victor Ikpeba, a similar amount for Fredi Bobic, even more for Sunday Oliseh. Within a couple of years, all three would be moved on. Within a couple of years, the club was a mess. A third-placed league finish in 2003 meant a Champions League qualifier the following season. They lost on penalties to Club Brugge. It got worse. The supposed tranquility and safety of the UEFA Cup spectacularly backfired with a 6-2 aggregate defeat to Sochaux in the second round. The second leg was in Dortmund. They were humiliated 4-0. This was not in the script.  

Dortmund’s plight got so bad so quickly that Bayern loaned them 2 million euro to pay staff for a number of months. They sold their stadium to a real estate fund and leased it back. By early 2005, share prices were at an all-time low. Dortmund couldn’t afford to pay their rent anymore. Having so desperately desired the deep end of the pool for so long, they were now drowning in it. By March, desperate for cash to secure a license to compete in the league the following season and avoid administration, the club was thrown a lifeline. Its landlords, Molsiris, agreed to Dortmund’s proposal of a buy-back of the Westfalenstadion. A deal was arranged which saw the club get a crucial net cash-flow of 9 million euro. Molsiris allowed Dortmund use a 52 million security deposit to buy back 42.8% of the stadium. Rent was reduced from a crippling 1.3 million euro per month to 300,000 euro through 2006. After the five-hour meeting with investors, club president Reinhard Rauball said 'I hope I never have to endure another day like this.'  He had only been in the role for a number of months, replacing the long-serving Gerd Niebaum. He and Managing Director, Michael Meier, were seen as the architects of Dortmund’s downfall, the focus of fans’ frustrations and fury. By the end of the season, both had been banished from the club for good.

The club’s problems had deeply worried German football authorities. After all, even hardcore Dortmund fans had surrendered to the likelihood of the club going bust. But financial problems were threatening a number of teams, not just one. In 2002, Kirch Media, who owned German football’s biggest TV contract, went bankrupt. Bayern’s Karl Heinz Rummenigge questioned the future of the country’s second division and  “about a third of the clubs in the first". 60 per cent of all players in the Bundesliga were foreign and commanding big salaries. By 2005, the 36 Bundesliga teams had a combined debt of 698 million euro. One financial expert was deeply pessimistic about the future, ‘The situation is very tense and very critical. It's five minutes to 12 for the Bundesliga," said Angelika Amend. Schalke were struggling, though their risk of carrying a heavy wage bill paid off as they racked up numerous Champions League qualifications and unearthed a string of quality underage players later sold for decent money. Hamburg also battled bravely against heavy debt – their clever transfer policy keeping them consistent. For Kaiserslautern, the 1998 Bundesliga champions, years of off-field problems finally resulted in their relegation in 2006.

Dortmund meanwhile acted fast to rebuild the club. By December 2005, the Westfalenstadion had been re-christened Signal Iduna Park, ironically enough through a sponsorship deal with a German insurance company. The transaction netted the club about 20 million euro. Salaries were slashed by, reportedly, as much as 30 million euro when compared to late-90s figures. Between 2004 and 2005, Dortmund spent next to nothing on transfers. High-earners like Amoroso, Frings, Lehmann and Heinrich were sold. Youth was given a chance, essentially by default. Roman Weidenfeller was brought in on a free from Kaiserslautern, sixteen year-old Nuri Sahin was promoted to the senior side, making an historic debut against Wolfsburg in the opening game of the 05/06 campaign. The average age of the Dortmund starting XI that day was 25. CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke said, ‘The young players are our future and so won't be sold’. This wasn’t quite true. Watzke was intent on operating a business, not an unsustainable fantasy like his predecessors. At 25 years old, Tomas Rosicky was sold to Arsenal for 10 million in the summer of 2006. At the same time, 22 year-old David Odonkor was moved on to Betis in Spain for 6.5 million. Watzke knew a good deal when he saw it. Those young players were hot commodities. It was his job to get the club back on a relatively even keel financially. Performances on the pitch came second to performances in the boardroom.

Jurgen Klopp’s eventual arrival as manager led to much of the deadwood being swept away. The summer of 2008 saw 17 players leave the club, only three of them on loan deals. Klopp made shrewd additions to the squad, focusing on young, cheap players. 19 year-old centre-back Neven Subotic was signed from Klopp’s former club Mainz for 4.0 million. 22 year-old defender Felipe Santana was brought in from Brazil for less than 2 million. 20 year-old Marcel Schmelzer was promoted from the youth team. Tamas Hajnal came from Karlsruhe for next to nothing. Over 2 million was spent on Mohamed Zidan from Hamburg. Sahin was back after a highly successful loan spell with Feyenoord. After years struggling to find an on-field identity owing to the off-field pressures and blinkered transfer strategy, Dortmund had a solid spine to work with. And when there was an urge to ‘splash out’ on a player (Mats Hummels moving permanently from Bayern in 2009 for 4.2m, Lucas Barrios signed for the same amount), funds were raised from player sales (Petric, Valdez, Frei). The success of Klopp’s bargain-bin strategy in the transfer market has been commonly highlghted by Shinji Kagawa’s arrival from the J-League for 350,000. But between 2009 and 2010, Sven Bender, Kevin Grosskreutz, Lucasz Piszczek and Mario Goetze all arrived in Dortmund’s senior side for a combined total of 1.5 million.

Dortmund’s strategy used to be based on a simple economic ideal: spending more money on players means better results. But football has too many variables for economics to work flawlessly every time. Klopp’s greatest achievement at the club has been to develop a relentless spirit, a common bond, a unity. The goalkeeper, Roman Weidenfeller, has been with the club ten and a half years - from the relegation and administration scraps through successive league titles to a Champions League final.  Captain Sebastian Kehl has been there even longer. Grosskreutz and Reus used to cheer on the team from the Yellow Wall when they were part of the club’s academy. Hummels, Schmelzer, Bender, Subotic, Blaszczykowski and Piszczek have all signed new contracts this season. When Reus explained his decision to re-join the club who let him go as a youth, he said,’ I just felt this is the best-supported team with players who work well together under a great coach. Players don't come and go as often as they do at Bayern. It's the same with the manager. I felt there would be more stability and consistency here. It was the best place for me, and I was coming home’. There’s a comfort to Dortmund now. They are a club once again.

On Saturday, Bayern’s starting XI will comprise of seven signings and four products of their youth system (it would be five if Toni Kroos was fit). The seven signings cost the club 140 million euro. Dortmund’s starting XI, by way of contrast, cost them 41 million. Four players cost them nothing at all. Bayern will always have the luxury to splash out on desirable objects of affection like Martinez or Goetze. They will always pay the biggest wages and offer the best incentives. It’s a unique existence. Years ago, Dortmund attempted to live in the same world. Now, they’re just happy to still be living.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

To Sir, With Love

'It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end’

Following Manchester United’s treble-winning campaign in 1999, cameras were allowed unprecedented access to the club the following season. ‘Manchester United: Beyond the Promised Land’ is a largely forgettable documentary, the access-all-areas schtick providing little in the way of memorable moments. There is, however, one notable exception.

At one stage, the squad and management take part in a harmless table quiz. Sir Alex Ferguson sits alongside members of his backroom staff. ‘Which name is given to the tracks on which tanks and bulldozers run?’ There’s a brief pause. Ferguson answers in that thick brogue, ‘Caterpillars’. ‘Correct’. There’s a collective sigh from the players. The next question is for Roy Keane’s team. ‘Who composed ‘Rhapsody In Blue’?’ Keane shouts out at the quizmaster, knowing what’s about to happen. ‘John, were you asked to change the questions about two minutes ago?’ There’s some awkward sniggering. Keane continues, ‘You were asked to change the questions’. He swears under his breath. His team is pushed for an answer. Keane bellows, ‘What’s the question, man?’ ‘John’ duly repeats it. Time is running out. They go with Tchaikovsky. ‘Wrong’. The question is passed along. Teddy Sheringham offers a guess. ‘Schubert?’ ‘Wrong.’ Ferguson answers. ‘Gershwin’. ‘Correct’. Another sigh from the players. ‘Which sailor was captain of a ship called The Black Pig’?’ Ferguson answers again. ‘Captain Pugwash’. ‘Correct’. Ferguson’s team wins. He likes winning. He’s good at it.

In March 2009, Alastair Campbell interviewed Ferguson for The New Statesman. They chatted about a book Campbell had sent to Ferguson the previous summer, Team Of Rivals, about how Abraham Lincoln appointed a cabinet featuring three of his biggest critics, united them and won the Civil War. Ferguson was mesmerised – ‘What was fascinating was how he held together all these big personalities…to make sure they stayed roughly on the same track. I can learn about the art of team building and team management from all sorts of places. It’s all about managing people and relationships, in the end’. And therein lies his greatest success.

Firstly, he surrounded himself with the right people. He told the BBC earlier this year, ’When you go right down to youth level, there are members of my staff that have been with me for twenty years or more. That creates a loyalty from both sides, from me to them and from them to me. There’s a value in loyalty and consistency’. Secondly, he’s relied on fundamental principles to remain at the top and has never strayed far from them. In conversation with Campbell, he outlined ‘control, managing change and observation’ as the most important qualities required for leadership. Even at 71, Ferguson was a constant presence at training sessions. On a training pitch, players are in their natural habitat. If something is awry, however small, it will crop up there. And for Ferguson, he specialised in spotting things others failed to see, best illustrated by his selling of Ince, Hughes and Kanchelskis in the summer of 1995 and his promoting of raw, unproven youngsters who’d become the spine of the side for the next decade. When Ferguson erred, he carried it with him for a long time. In the case of Jaap Stam being sold to Lazio in 2001, Ferguson still considers it his greatest mistake. 

Like any leader, Ferguson’s career will be defined by the biggest decisions he made. Very rarely did he choose incorrectly. He seemed to flourish most under-pressure, when so many pretenders tend to crack. Many point to the FA Cup success in 1990 as the turning point in his United career. And it certainly was an important milestone. The following season, they lifted the European Cup Winner’s Cup, defeating Barcelona in the final. But in 1992, when the club had looked set to win their first championship since 1967, they lost three of their final four games and Leeds pipped them. The hangover lasted well into the following campaign. After 15 games, they sat slumped in 10th and couldn’t score goals. Two weeks later, Eric Cantona was signed.  From his 21 league appearances, United lost once. They had finally won the league. Ferguson had taken a risk by signing the ill-disciplined, volatile Frenchman. Cantona had repaid his manager’s belief and through everything Cantona involved himself with over his remaining years at the club, Ferguson always stood by him. Players can be replaced. But Ferguson could see that Cantona was much more than that. Ferguson said Cantona was a ‘catalyst’ for that mid-90s side. Perhaps he was Ferguson’s too.

His working-class background has ensured a lifelong admiration and appreciation for hard-graft and determination. He also holds a deep fascination for education. Every Manchester United side he has built features a mixture of raw, developing youngsters, imposing athletes who enjoy a battle and quick-witted, smart ball-players. His desire to produce a steady line of young players came as a result of Manchester City’s successful underage setup in the 1980s. Ferguson would often be an interested spectator at City’s youth matches and quickly went about setting up United’s School of Excellence shortly after arriving at Old Trafford. The success of returning the club to its post-war roots – as an academy for the country’s finest players - must surely rank as one of his greatest achievements.  

Ten years ago, a period of instability began under Ferguson’s watch. He faced the most severe challenge to his leadership since those dark days of the early 90s. Arsenal and Chelsea dominated domestically. United disappointed in Europe. Ferguson’s off-field problems quickly became on-field issues as Magnier and McManus questioned his management and his morals. More damningly, they questioned his future. In many ways, Ferguson had lost sight of his principles. A team in transition, badly in need of direction was allowed go through the motions. His observations were not as sharp as they had been.  He’d grown sloppy. He wielded the axe and went back to basics. He built another side – arguably his most successful ever. In his mid-sixties, his sheer competitiveness made him more relevant than he had been twenty years earlier. In the pantheon of great British managers, Paisley was 64 when he retired, Shankly was 60, so too was Busby. Clough retired at 58, Bill Nicholson at just 55. Different eras, certainly but in many ways, Ferguson has followed the path of his mentor, Jock Stein - the game proving so consuming, so addictive, so difficult to walk away from, regardless of the advancing years and inevitable health problems. Perhaps, Ferguson’s decision to retire had much to do with the haunting, lingering memory of Stein’s death in 1985 – Ferguson sitting alongside him in the Ninian Park dugout when he suffered a heart attack. Perhaps, at 71, he is smart enough to know that he’s pushed himself hard, maybe harder than he’s ever done, over the last six years particularly. 

His replacement is someone Ferguson has admired for quite some time. In 2009, when asked to name the best managers in the Premier League, he answered ‘Arsene Wenger, David Moyes and Martin O’Neill’. In 1998, Moyes (then at Preston) sat down with Ferguson who was looking for a new assistant. Moyes didn’t get the job but by 2002, he was in charge of a Premier League club of his own. Showing similar leadership traits as Ferguson, Moyes has spent a decade spectacularly overachieving at Everton. David Weir, now a coach at the club, recently told Simon Kuper in a Financial Times article that ‘he (Moyes) is always looking for a little half a per cent to make you better.’

There will be doubters, of course. Those who feel Moyes lacks the big-game experience, the big-money transfer history and the personality to carry off such a demanding job. But, 15 years ago, Ferguson saw something in Moyes that he liked. Perhaps he saw a will to win. Perhaps he saw the obsessiveness. Perhaps he saw a reflection of himself.  

Friday, March 22, 2013

Sweden v Ireland. Stockholm, 1949

The last time Ireland were in Stockholm for a World Cup qualifier was over sixty years ago.

The team that took to the field that day featured iconic names like Jackie Carey and Con Martin.

But, there's just one survivor.

I delved deeper into a period of Irish football that nearly resulted in the country's very first World Cup appearance.

Originally broadcast on RTE 2FM's Game On, 21/3/2013.
A firm handshake to Stephen Finn, Mark O'Sullivan, Philip O'Connor and Gary Spain.
Special thanks to Stefan Lyssarides at Sveriges Radio.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Reality Bytes For The Future Of Fixing Matches

'Instead of zero tolerance there is, well, tolerance. Both Hungary and Bulgaria were found guilty of racial abuse in January. Their punishment? To play their next home World Cup qualifiers behind closed doors.'

Everything is quicker these days. And everyone wants to be the quickest. We don’t have time to digest convoluted things like statements, paragraphs, chapters. We’re looking for the gist. The headline. The byte.

If it fits within 140 characters, perfect. But just one tweet, please. Anymore and we’ve lost interest, to be honest. It’s our own fault. We have kids and mortgages and our salaries have been cut. We’re in negative equity. We’ve just done sixty hours this week with no overtime being paid. We’ve got to call around to the in-laws and are literally racing out the door right now. We’ve got about thirty seconds. Maybe forty. Hang on. The youngest has fallen over and cut her chin. We’ve literally got about 20 seconds now. So whatever you’ve got to tell us, tell us right now. Seriously.

Okay. There’s been match-fixing. Lots of it. So much of it that there’s been an investigation. Some Champions League games were fixed, one that was played in England, we think. World Cup qualifiers too. And it threatens the very fabric of the game.


Well, not really. That’s the gist.

Wow. That sounds serious. Really serious. Champions League, World Cup. What have the football authorities said about this?

Well, eh, we’re going to write to them and let them know that they should heed the, eh, warning. But did you not hear me? Match-fixing! In the Champions League!

Yes! So what games?

We can’t tell you. But they were big ones. We think.

According to Europol, the deep-rooted character of football is stained by these recent developments. Professionals have cheated for money. They’ve dirtied the once-clear, pure waters of the beautiful game. But it’s just another byte. Just another gist. It did its duty. It filled some space for a few minutes, got people talking for a while. The headlines were made. ‘Match-fixing: Fabric of the game is threatened’. The tweet heard around the world.

Is match-fixing a huge problem for football? Of course. At a very basic level, once there’s a genuine belief that it’s happening somewhere, the doubt creeps in. Your club. Your favourite player. Your favourite manager.

But even still, what happens after that?

When Calciopoli broke, it brought down some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Kind of. A year after the scandal was first uncovered, AC Milan, who were originally banned from competing in the 2007 Champions League because of their involvement with influencing referees, were crowned European winners in Athens.

Fiorentina, who were docked 15 points as punishment, finished the 2006/07 season in 6th and were playing in the Europa League just a few months later. Even Juventus, seen by their own as having been treated so appallingly, were back in the top-flight within a year. Another year later, they were back in the Champions League.

Two years ago, Sepp Blatter pounded his chest and proclaimed FIFA were introducing a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to match-fixing.

The big plan was to detect suspicious betting patterns early but there was a problem.

Where smaller bets were placed in a multitude of different betting shops, FIFA’s software system couldn’t join the dots. According to a recent Spiegel report, an ex-UEFA employee who had inside knowledge of how the system worked said it was ‘essentially blind’ if the bets weren’t excessive and didn’t stand out.

In other words, football’s governing body had provided the byte, the headline, the gist. They did their part. Just not very well.

In January, Sepp Blatter pounded his chest and proclaimed football should have a zero tolerance approach to racism. He’s come a long way since telling CNN in November 2011 that there was no racism and that players should remember it’s all just a game.

Where once a handshake was enough to build a bridge, deduction of points and relegation should be the norm. But instead of zero tolerance there is, well, tolerance. Both Hungary and Bulgaria were found guilty of racial abuse earlier this year. Their punishment? To play their next home World Cup qualifiers behind closed doors.

Match-fixing will continue, as it always has. It will creep up on those lower-ranked players, managers, officials and administrators. It will make criminals vast sums of money and leave the weak and desperate take the fall, if there is any.

At times, it will permeate the upper echelons of the game and for a brief moment or two, there will be a flurry of activity as the story breaks. But as always, change will only come from those willing to change.

The wrong-doers will only be caught if those chasing them are interested.

And right now, football’s leaders aren’t interested.

They’re just looking for the gist.
The headline.
The byte.  

Thursday, March 7, 2013

It's Up To Rooney To Prove Ferguson Wrong

'The harsh reality of the last few years is that Rooney has been overshadowed by others when, particularly in the aftermath of Ronaldo's departure, the stage was his if he wanted it.'

Back in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson received an Honorary Doctorate in Business Administration from Manchester Metropolitan University. He gave some advice to his fellow graduates. 'Failure is not a problem. How you deal with it is a problem. If you don't deal with it, you'll fail again. Adversity has always driven Manchester United on. We don't like losing. And therefore, that character we've got in the dressing room has to come to the surface in moments where we've lost a game.'

Wayne Rooney didn't just lose a game on Tuesday night. He lost his place. And the general consensus seems to be that his manager has lost faith. It's not the first time, of course. Rooney's refusal to sign a new contract in 2010, the subsequent public damning of what he perceived as United's lack of ambition and his engaging in such heavy-petting with Manchester City was followed by a remarkable turnaround within days. An apology to Ferguson, his team-mates and the supporters quickly followed, as did a new contract. In an interview with the BBC last September, a sheepish Rooney admitted it had been the biggest mistake of his career. When recounting the story, his relief that both Ferguson and David Gill accepted his apology and agreed to re-open negotiations was palpable. He was in their debt and he worked hard to make amends. Ultimately, Rooney's 2010/2011 season will be remembered not for the contract dispute but for his astounding overhead-kick winner against Manchester City.

In recent years, Rooney has attempted to carry the United team. In 2010, his league goals single-handedly earned the club 20 points. They finished second. In 2012, his league goals single-handedly earned the club 16 points. They finished second. In 2009, Cristiano Ronaldo's goals earned United 15 points. They finished first. The year before, Ronaldo's goals earned them 23 points. They finished first. The year before that, he earned them 17 points. They finished first. Even in 2011, when United should've suffered through Rooney's loss of form and his off-field behaviour, the goal-scoring of Dimitar Berbatov and Javier Hernandez contributed 30 points. This season, should United claim another title, it will be Robin van Persie, not Rooney, who'll be identified as the catalyst, the inspiration. Rooney has been a critically important player for United, just not the most important. The harsh reality of the last few years is that Rooney has been overshadowed by others when, particularly in the aftermath of Ronaldo's departure, the stage was his if he wanted it.

Speaking with the Harvard Business School in 2011, Ferguson described dealing with high-profile players, 'I tell them that hard work is a talent too. They need to work harder than anyone else. And if they can no longer bring the discipline that we ask for, they are out.'  Has Ferguson seen Rooney lose an edge? Has Rooney's desire to keep working waned? Has he looked upon the arrival of another new face as a curse rather than a challenge? His goal-scoring last term improved considerably - between March and April he racked up 12 goals in 11 games. If things had worked out differently, his strike on the final day of the season against Sunderland wouldn't have merely been a game-winner but a league-winner. And there were important goals too. Braces against Chelsea and Liverpool, a hat-trick against Arsenal, a winner in a nervy clash with Fulham, another double in the Cup win over City. His 27 league goals was his best tally yet. But, van Persie's arrival meant Rooney was pushed deeper again. Pride dented? Certainly.

But, just when United needed van Persie the most, he failed to deliver. He's scored once in his last eight games. He needs help. The question is, will Rooney have the attitude, the desire, the work ethic to step up? Or, sidetracked by the current rumour-mill and his manager's dissatisfaction, will he seek the solace of his other team? Agent Paul Stretford was identified by Ferguson as having played a major role in Rooney's 2010 mutiny, referring to him as "not the most popular man in the world – certainly at our club". Ironically though, having engineered such a lucrative deal for his client at the time, Stretford may have inadvertently cost Rooney in the long-run. Manchester City is no longer in a position to offer what they put forward two and a half years ago. Paris St-Germain has been touted as a possible destination and given their unlimited funds, heavy English-influence (Carlo Ancelotti, Paul Clement, Claude Makelele, Alex), their newly-acquired international profile and relative closeness to home, it may not represent as much of a difficult transition anymore. But, with Ancelotti doing an excellent job balancing such a delicate collection of egos, would Rooney even command a regular starting place? The cut and thrust of Premier League football, the easy camaraderie at training, the routine of it all would be difficult to leave behind. Starting somewhere new, different, strange at 28 - when a player should be reaching their peak, seems a monumental challenge. With a World Cup around the corner and a general acceptance that he's failed to deliver on the international stage since 2004, Rooney will need stability and focus. But, is that what he wants?  
So, the next few months are critical for Wayne Rooney. Come the summertime, he'll have two years left on his current deal. If he's willing to follow Ferguson's advice in how best to handle adversity, he'll be rewarded. He'll continue to be an important player for the club, perhaps, finally, the most important. His manager has laid down a challenge. It's up to Rooney whether or not he wants to take it on.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Fergie's Lost Weekend Started Here

'The night belonged to Ronaldo, though the glittering array of talent around him (notably Zidane) made the most of United's imbalance and subsequent positional problems.'

23rd April 2003 - the beginning of a tumultuous era at Old Trafford. What followed included a trophy drought, boardroom battles, in-fighting and, whisper it, a common acceptance that Sir Alex Ferguson should be replaced.

The game itself contained so many sub-plots. There was Beckham, then-England captain, inexplicably on the bench - rumours swirling of a summer move to the Bernabeu. Juan Sebastian Veron was selected to start after seven weeks out with injury - signed so extravagantly almost two years earlier, still stubbornly backed by a manager reluctant to admit an error of judgement. There was a fragility to the United squad, highlighted by the calibre of the opposition - Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo having won 6 FIFA World Player of the Year awards between them at that stage. The home bench featured 36-year old Laurent Blanc, the much-maligned Diego Forlan, two utility players in Phil Neville and Quinton Fortune plus the inexperienced Darren Fletcher. Finally, the selection of Steve McManaman in the Madrid midfield showed that their boss Vincente Del Bosque was (a) mischievous and (b) as adept at mind-games as his counterpart. 

The night belonged to Ronaldo, though the glittering array of talent around him (notably Zidane) made the most of United's imbalance and subsequent positional problems. His first goal came from United gambling on a counter-attack and losing possession. The second saw one pass from Zidane take out three flat-footed United players. The third was simply an inspired strike. 

For Fergie and United, the game was a water-shed. Despite claiming a 16th league title a few weeks later, Ferguson desperately had craved another European success - the signing of Veron was an attempt to add a calm, creative ball-player as a third central midfielder, having been so badly caught out tactically away to Anderlecht and PSV in 2000. Ruud Van Nistelrooy had been identified as a striker who could easily lead the line and excel with support from deep - a move away from the rigidness of attacking partnerships. But despite the brilliance of the Dutchman (with 10 goals in 11 tournament starts), United's defensive frailties cost them in the first leg of their semi-final with Bayer Leverkusen in 2002. Ferguson acted swiftly and broke the British record to sign Rio Ferdinand. But, with Wes Brown, Mikael Silvestre and John O'Shea playing in an assortment of defensive positions, United's defence never quite looked secure. Over two legs against Madrid, the deficiencies had come under the microscope. Now, it would be four years before the club would get as far in the Champions League again. The bulk of the squad would be moved on quickly. Barthez, Blanc, Veron, Beckham, Butt, Keane, Forlan, Phil Neville and Fortune all made their exits over the next three seasons. But most worryingly of all, Ferguson was about to enter his 'lost weekend' that lasted until 2006.

He had already made costly mistakes with his squad. The decision to replace Jaap Stam with Blanc had badly misfired. Bringing in Veron was well-intentioned but misguided - his role within the side never properly defined, his presence proving unsettling for others. The deterioration and eventual disintegration of his relationship with Beckham was alarming and unusual - Fergie seemingly allowing other factors motivate his decision to marginalise a player still doing it on the pitch. The heavy presence of model-pro Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as an antithesis to the Beckham 'celebrity circus' surely swayed his decision-making even further. The 1999 side had been ripped apart - Schmeichel, Irwin, Berg, Johnsen, Blomqvist, Cole, Yorke, Sheringham were all gone by the summer of 2002. Big money had been spent on a handful of players but the squad was still desperately short on numbers. The team needed a new goalkeeper, again. Ferguson, so impressed with the recent emergence of American shot-stoppers, signed Tim Howard from Major League Soccer. His first season would end with an FA Cup winner's medal but question marks remained. By the end of his second term, he'd lost his place to Roy Carroll, a back-up keeper signed from Wigan three years earlier. Only with the 2005 purchase of Edwin van der Sar did Ferguson finally land a consistent performer, a born winner, well able to deal with the inevitable, glaring spotlight.

Howard, infamously, had a part to play in United being dumped out of the Champions League by Porto in 2004 but so did Ferguson. With Keane suspended, Eric Djemba-Djemba was handed a start. With another makeshift back-four and Nicky Butt making what would be his final Champions League appearance, United were ill-prepared for the well-drilled, street-smart Portuguese outfit. Ferguson whinged about their antics, about an incorrect offside. Benni McCarthy, scorer of two goals in the first leg, said afterwards, 'United should try and respect their opponents a bit more'. Ouch.   

The Champions League exit, the third-place league finish, the invincible Arsenal side under Wenger were all enough to give Ferguson plenty of restless nights. But what pushed him closest to the edge wasn't football-related at all. His biggest distraction were the legal proceedings he had begun in the Dublin High Court against John Magnier over ownership rights to the race-horse 'Rock Of Gibraltar'. At the time however, Magnier's company Cubic Expressions, owned over 25% of Manchester United. Magnier, a deeply private person, was secretly seething at Ferguson dragging their dealings into the public domain. In January 2004, Magnier and his business partner JP McManus sent letters to then-chairman Roy Gardner and CEO David Gill questioning Ferguson's transfer dealings and probing the amount of commission received by his then-agent son Jason from 13 different deals. Later that same year, a BBC3 documentary, 'Fergie And Son', delved deeper into the story (the same programme that resulted in Fergie Snr refusing to speak with the BBC until 2011). The letters also questioned why Ferdinand was still being paid his weekly wage of £70,000 despite serving an 8-month suspension for missing a drugs test. They questioned Ferguson's morals. They questioned his values. The most important question of all, perhaps most significantly, was left off the list. Though everyone with the ability to read between the lines knew what it was. Manchester United's biggest shareholders were questioning Sir Alex Ferguson's position as manager. 

Ferguson was floored but was backed by hardcore supporters. Some formed United4Action and threatened to protest at that year's Gold Cup against what they viewed as Magnier and McManus's attempts to de-stabilise the club. A desperate Ferguson pleaded with fans not to go through with it. They honoured the request and a compromise was finally reached between Ferguson and Magnier later in the year.

But off-field battles were complemented by continued on-field troubles. The arrival of Mourinho at Stamford Bridge and the speed with which his newly-assembled side gelled stumped Ferguson. The unlimited cash, the brazenness, the brashness and most annoyingly of all, the results to back it all up. United offered little in response - the signing of Wayne Rooney offered plenty but injuries to Van Nistelrooy and Saha plus the relative ineffectiveness of Alan Smith saw him carry a heavy burden in his first campaign. Come March 2005, United were out of the title race again, out of Europe again (this time to AC Milan). They were flat-lining. The season petered out with a limp 3-1 home defeat to the title-winners Chelsea (which came complete with a humiliating guard of honour before kick-off) and an FA Cup final defeat to Arsenal. David Gill spoke of Ferguson, once the most untouchable man in European football, as 'sackable'. Blasphemy, surely? The man himself pondered if he had the energy to continue. The club's profits had more-than halved. Fergie was doing more bad than good.

In May 2005, John Magnier and JP McManus netted about an £80 million profit as they sold their share of the club to Malcolm Glazer. Shortly after, Glazer had full control. In July, the family pledged to stand by Ferguson and revealed there would be significant funds available to strengthen the squad. But the internal problems persisted. Keane was sacked by the club, his criticisms of younger players and of Ferguson's management seen as a bridge too far. Two and a half weeks later, United suffered the humiliation of being knocked out at the Champions League group stage. By the end of the campaign, Van Nistelrooy had gone too, sold to Madrid after Ferguson grew tired of what he perceived as a major drop in attitude, especially showcased in a 1-0 Cup defeat to Liverpool at Anfield. The season ended with another three goals shipped to Chelsea who eased to a second successive championship. In between, Ferguson incurred the wrath of the hardcore supporters when he described Glazer as being 'excellent for the club'. An editorial in the influential fanzine United We Stand said the comments smacked of "a struggling employee attempting to ingratiate himself with his new bosses. They are sickening, inflammatory but, above all, sad. Yes, Ferguson would be a fool to criticise the Glazers and hope to hang on to his increasingly tenuous position, but did he need to say anything?" Struggling, tenuous. The crown had slipped. The once loyal subjects were openly discussing anointing a new king. 

But Fergie's lost weekend was over. He went back to basics but also borrowed from unusual sources. Nemanja Vidic was the powerful, commanding, physical centre-back not seen at Old Trafford since Stam. Patrice Evra was a converted attacker who could provide pace, skill and determination on the left-flank - in much the same way Ashley Cole did at both Arsenal and Chelsea. With Cristiano Ronaldo now less of a p ock-marked, flashy kid and more of an explosive, consistent revelation, Rooney also shone with extra responsibility. There was a solidity to the United side - in comparison to the softness witnessed so often in the years previous. The swagger was back, superbly demonstrated in the 7-1 demolition of Roma at Old Trafford in their Champions League quarter-final second leg. Though there was eventual defeat to a magnificent Milan in the semis, Ferguson knew a major foundation had been laid. Wrestling the league from Chelsea and seeing off a younger, aggressive, progressive rival manager proved many things - his critics were wrong to right him off. He never backed down from a challenge. He had the energy, will and desire to continue. He hadn't been faced with such relentless debate and argument about his credentials for a long time but he'd survived his toughest ever period at Old Trafford. He prepared himself for arguably his most successful.  

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wenger Deserves To Leave Arsenal On His Terms Only

'Where once Wenger's greatest foe and most vociferous opponent was Sir Alex Ferguson, now it's his once-loyal and once-passionate supporters.'

Arsenal Fan 1: What about the last home game last season?
Arsenal Fan 2: What about it?
Arsenal Fan 1: They were rubbish. They were fucking rubbish.
Arsenal Fan 2: They weren't that bad.
Arsenal Fan 1: They were fucking rubbish last year. And they were fucking rubbish the year before. And I don't care if they are top of the League, they'll be fucking rubbish this year, too. And next year. And the year after that. I'm not joking.
Arsenal Fan 2: I don't know why you come, Frank. Honest I don't.
Arsenal Fan 1: Well, you live in hope, don't you? 

                                                                                                                     Fever Pitch, 1997.

There will be a statue eventually. And when it's unveiled, people will talk only of the good times, out of respect. A bit like a funeral. In times of sombre reflection, no one wants to venture down the path of criticism, of finger-pointing, of asking those probing questions, of pointing out the faults. It feels bad. Disrespectful. Wrong. And it feels wrong chastising Arsene Wenger. It feels wrong discussing his demise. It feels wrong to call for his head. He's done too much for Arsenal and deserves better.

Or does he? The numbers are alarming, certainly. An eighth season without a trophy. But what would a trophy achieve? Would an FA Cup success this season have been applauded? Not really. The stat would simply be altered. 'Just one trophy in eight seasons', 'No league title in nine years', etc. The narrative never changes, only the details do. The Blackburn defeat was largely irrelevant. The Cup is not a priority for Arsenal or for any top Premier League team. It's a bonus. Will winning a Cup competition attract high-profile players? Will it lead to substantial financial reward? So, it should be treated like any other loss. It's disappointing, it's never nice to lose but let's move on. But it's been used to illustrate a fragility at Arsenal, a deep-rooted unhappiness and frustration. Recent history suggests tonight's clash at the Emirates will restore some faith, for the moment.

At this juncture last season, Arsenal had 46 points and were in joint-fourth place in the league, trailing Spurs by seven. They'd finish the campaign ahead of their local rivals,  qualifying automatically for the Champions League group-stage. Right now they're on 44 points and in fifth, trailing Spurs by four. Premature to write them and Wenger off? Perhaps. 

Much was made of how Arsenal would struggle without Robin van Persie. They have missed his ruthlessness, his ability to carve something from nothing, his leadership. But they haven't missed his goals. 53 scored by this stage last term, 50 right now. The Dutchman single-handedly won the club 27 points owing to goals he scored last season. This time, it's been a collective effort. Walcott, Giroud and Cazorla lead in terms of 'important goals' but Podolski, Arteta, and even Koscielny have contributed match-winning strikes. It's not as eye-catching, it's not as explosive but it's working. 

The most important objective for Arsenal is to push themselves to the limit of their capabilities, be they financial or otherwise. From a football perspective, they haven't challenged for a title since 2008 and, on average, have finished 15 points behind the eventual winners in subsequent seasons. But if they can't compete for first and second, consistent Champions League qualification is the next best thing. And Wenger, a man so desperate to claim a European Cup, would not accept failure to do so. Yesterday, hearing him talk of his team's 'fantastic opportunity' to win this season's tournament, leads one to believe Wenger seriously fancies Arsenal to win a first ever Champions League before another championship. But gone are the days when a domestic also-ran claimed Europe's top trophy, last season aside. 

Harsh, perhaps. But it's the biggest problem facing this Arsenal side - mediocrity becoming acceptable as the norm. Their start to last term a reminder of what can happen when a club rests on its laurels, Wenger forced into a humiliating emergency sweep of the transfer market to plug the gaps. But, the turnaround was superb, assisted by an unbeatable February and March in the league. He did turn it around. He did get there in the end. But, if there is a managerial change, expectations are lowered. The new man will need time. A delicate process. Suddenly, the traditional Champions League qualification isn't there anymore. The club is in transition. The club is in free-fall.   

But, loyalty doesn't follow in the modern game. And where once Wenger's greatest foe and most vociferous opponent was Sir Alex Ferguson, now it's his once-loyal and once-passionate supporters. It's difficult to come back from that place - the constant struggle to prove yourself correct to those you've never had to. But Wenger deserves the right to back himself in situations like this. He deserves as much time as he needs. He deserves a statue.