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September 2012

Week 6: The ‘national derby’? (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

25 Sep 2012(Tue)

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As a general rule, we always choose one of the Premier League matches broadcast live by JSports on Saturday nights for analysis on ‘Foot!’ the following Tuesday, in order to allow maximum time for preparing both the running order and the necessary video clips to fit our selected talking points. This week, however, it went without saying that we should make an exception. Liverpool versus Manchester United is simply impossible to ignore, even without the additional social commentaries that served to give Sunday lunchtime’s game a more prolonged build-up than normal. From the many messages I have kindly received from viewers on Twitter over the past seven days, it was quite clear that even 6,000 miles from Anfield, fans of English football were purely interested in the ‘national derby’.

Except – and I don’t mean to be pedantic here – it’s not actually called that. In fact, I’m pretty sure I had never once heard the expression ‘national derby’ before coming to Japan, which tempts me to believe that it is wasei-eigo. (Even here, its usage is as fluid as the J. League pecking order – what was recently a ‘national derby’ between successive Asian champions Urawa Reds and Gamba Osaka was reduced on Saturday to a meeting of relegation-battlers-turned-title-challengers and their direct opposites, albeit resulting in an astonishing 5-0 win for the latter.)

In Italy, of course, they have their Derby d’Italia between Juventus and Internazionale – the two most prolific Scudetto winners at the time the phrase was originally coined by the journalist Gianni Brera in 1967. This usage fits perfectly logically with the commonly-accepted explanation for the derivation of ‘derby’ – applied in English to denote all manner of major sporting events since the first half of the 19th century as an extension of The Derby, a prestigious flat horse race named after the 12th Earl of Derby. However, in the United Kingdom, the modern term is used to refer exclusively to rivalries of a local nature – be they in football, rugby, cricket, or Gaelic sports – making the idea of a ‘national derby’ sound somewhat oxymoronic.

Even then, this wouldn’t completely preclude the usage of ‘derby’ in reference to Liverpool and Manchester United, given that their respective grounds are spaced merely 30 miles apart. And indeed, one will occasionally see ‘Northwest Derby’ – sometimes capitalised, sometimes not – used to label a meeting of the two. However, a perusal of the few articles containing this particular turn of phrase to appear on Google News reveal that most stem from outside England; a casual choice of words for writers quite understandably assuming that this most significant of domestic fixtures should require this natural categorisation.

But the ‘Northwest Derby’ moniker, too, is an uncomfortable fit and does not enjoy common recognition. There are lots of other professional teams in northwest England, for a start, while the very cities of Liverpool and Manchester have their own traditional rivalry built upon strongly-rooted and, crucially, independent identities.

Economically, Manchester and its textile industry was a centre of the Industrial Revolution while Liverpool had a thriving seaport, whose fees were deemed excessive by Mancunian merchants and prompted the building of the Manchester Ship Canal to bypass the latter altogether (although this was not as much of a commercial success as legend may suggest). Culturally, the dichotomy has been reinforced over the last half-century through famous music scenes in both cities, from Joy Division to The Smiths and Oasis in Manchester and with The Beatles through to Frankie Goes to Hollywood and The Zutons on Merseyside. There is a sense that, contrary to single-city rivalries and other derby relationships, these two are not so much competing over the same territory as they are loath to be bundled together under a single label.

Of course, the real ‘perch’ that both clubs and their fans most covet is that of England’s finest – precise definitions vary at the convenience of the speaker – but it is only relatively recently that such competition has brought a souring of relations. In
a wonderful article in Saturday’s Independent, Ian Herbert reminds us that the Munich air disaster in 1958 was solemnly mourned on the Kop too, while legendary United manager Sir Matt Busby – a former Liverpool captain – frequently offered generous support to his counterpart at Anfield, Bill Shankly. Unthinkably now, You’ll Never Walk Alone was once a song enjoyed by supporters of both clubs, while United fans sang in praise of the beaten Liverpool players after their FA Cup final in 1977.

This mutual respect turned into mutual jealousy soon afterwards when Liverpool went on a run of unprecedented domestic and European success, while a title-starved United remained the more popular and were still seen as the more glamorous. The unsavoury transition was exacerbated by the hooliganism of the 1980s and by the insult-based tribalism that has ensued throughout the Premier League era; leant upon the anonymity of crowds, Twitter, and internet comment sections.

Yet, for the most part, Sunday’s encounter passed with little off-the-pitch incident, spoiled only by the chants and gestures of a minority from both ends after the final whistle. It is unfortunate that such actions will garner more headlines than, for example, the ‘silent majority’ of United fans who left the floral bouquet at the Hillsborough memorial.

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Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1 Vegalta Sendai (Ben Mabley’s blackboard, Goal.com Japan)

19 Sep 2012(Wed)

My J. League tactics piece for Goal.com Japan looks at last Saturday’s battle of the top two.

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21. Sanfrecce Hiroshima 2-1 Vegalta Sendai (J1 matchday 25, 15 September 2012)

Crunch matches between two title contenders in the final third of the season carry a tension that rarely translates to 90 minutes of genuine drama on the pitch; at least, in terms of open, attractive football. But Hajime Moriyasu and Sanfrecce Hiroshima will care little, as they edged Vegalta Sendai 2-1 to move back on top with nine matches remaining.

Systematically, even though Sanfrecce lined up as usual in their almost-unique 3-4-2-1 system, the match began as a perfect stalemate. With Vegalta in a 4-4-2, the hosts had a spare man at the back to help deal with Shingo Akamine and Wilson, but the visitors could replicate this advantage by bringing their four-man defence in narrow to handle the three Hiroshima forwards. Midfield was a fairly straightforward four-on-four.

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Both sides deployed high lines, with Sendai’s advancing as far as the halfway line given the opportunity. On the occasions that they were forced backwards – often in scenarios as benign as throw-ins around halfway – the central midfielders dropped back to provide more than adequate support. Both sets of players worked hard to press within their own halves, including the forwards, but generally kept their shapes when the ball was in the opposition’s territory and possession.

The result was a lack of space and a lot of passive possession. Sanfrecce’s was the more fluid formation, but even then, only really in defence. When Vegalta attacked, the wing-backs Hironori Ishikawa and Kohei Shimizu would retreat to essentially create a back five. Occasionally, the latter would remain at left-back while Ryota Moriwaki advanced on the right flank and the defence shifted over as a temporary back four, with Toshihiro Aoyama providing extra cover if Moriwaki carried on further. But since most of this happened in Hiroshima’s own half, it had little immediate bearing on the contest.

In such situations, the key battles will usually come on the flanks. Set pieces aside, the most probable route for creating chances is to get behind the opposing full/wing-backs. Early in the first half, Hiroshima played cross-field balls to good effect, with Yojiro Takahashi the orchestrator to take advantage of Sendai’s narrow back four. But both he and Koji Morisaki were often too narrow themselves to pursue this line of attack, leaving the visitors in an advantageous position if they could find an opportunity for full-back and wide midfielder to double up on Ishikawa or Shimizu.

This slowly began to happen more and more at the end of the half, albeit still not in a manner that led to real incident. Indeed, the sense of stalemate was well summed up when Aoyama fired lazily over the crossbar after a rare mistake by Park Ju-Sung, and when Vegalta goalkeeper Takuto Hayashi wasted time at 0-0 in first half stoppage time.

Still, the slightly more promising end to the first period perhaps inspired Makoto Teguramori’s men to come out for the second with a greater sense of speed and energy, pressing well into opposing territory and getting the ball forward quickly from the outset. If it did, they were surely left longing for the old stalemate when Kazuyuki Morisaki’s deflected effort from almost 40 yards gave Sanfrecce a fortuitous lead less than three minutes after the restart. The hosts had found some space on the counter, but Sendai had enough players back by the time the ball reached Morisaki and will be disappointed to have left him so much room.

Hiroshima briefly remained on top thereafter, but the visitors soon rediscovered their rhythm; Wilson heading just wide from Ryang Yong-Gi’s in-swinging cross and, notably, a fast move through the centre producing a free-kick from which the North Korean international found the crossbar. Sendai were beginning to demonstrate the combination of patience and accuracy to pick out the right passes, and this led to the equaliser when Makoto Kakuda’s through ball bisected the thin gap between Shimizu and Hiroki Mizumoto. Yoshiaki Ota finally got in behind, and crossed for Akamine to head his tenth of the season.

At this point, Sendai were more in control than either side had appeared all match and appeared far the likelier to find a winner. However, Teguramori’s subsequent attempt to capitalise on their momentum had a disastrous side-effect.

Kunimitsu Sekiguchi came on for Wilson to play on the left of a narrower midfield, with Ryang moving to the centre in what was now a 4-2-3-1. The intention here was surely to promulgate Vegalta’s domination of possession through greater numbers in the centre. But this surrendered the slight advantage they had enjoyed in the crucial wide areas, and within two minutes, Sanfrecce had their winner.

Now one-on-one with Naoki Sugai, Shimizu had enough time to check back onto his right foot and cross from the left. Though it failed to find a man in the middle, Ishikawa was left completely unmarked on the opposite wing, and fired the ball back across the six-yard box via a slight touch from Hayashi for Takahashi to place it into the roof of the empty net.

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Week 5: 15/4/89 (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

18 Sep 2012(Tue)

Originally penned for a Japanese audience, this week’s column reflects on one of the darkest hours not only for English football, but also for British law enforcement and the government as a whole.

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The Premier League can present itself to the world as a flagship of contemporary, global football; played out against the magnificent backdrop of sporting cathedrals that range from modernised yet historic venues such as Old Trafford and Anfield, to state-of-the-art new facilities like the Emirates Stadium and Eastlands. Would that it were ever thus. The events of the past seven days have provided a solemn reminder of the tragic events that preceded the late-20th century paradigm shift in the English game, made all the more harrowing by the belated admissions of corruption and prejudice that rose to the upper echelons of authority.

On 15 April 1989, 96 Liverpool supporters lost their lives in a horrific crush on the terraces of Leppings Lane, Hillsborough – a ground with no safety certificate but with 3m-tall fences encaging the stands and a history of warnings to government from fans frightened but fortunately unharmed by previous incidents of overcrowding – ahead of an FA Cup semi-final with Nottingham Forest. In his inquiry report, issued the following January, Lord Justice Taylor found that the main reason for the disaster was the failure of police control, and issued the recommendations that saw all major stadia in England and Scotland converted to all-seater arrangements by August 1994.

But for all his suspicions, the late Lord Chief Justice was not made privy to the full details of the scandal finally uncovered last week by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, an investigative body formed in 2009 after years of campaigning from the families of the dead. Granted carte blanche to trawl every relevant archive, the panel concluded that up to 41 of the victims could have been saved after their release from the initial crush had the emergency services acted more effectively. 116 witness statements that originally cast South Yorkshire Police in a poor light had been doctored; the police preferring to check the blood alcohol levels and criminal records of the deceased – many of them children – in an attempt to falsely divert blame. They, and the local MP Irvine Patnick, fed lies to the press which led to an infamous front-page article in The Sun chastising Liverpool fans under the headline ‘THE TRUTH’.

The socio-political backdrop to the Hillsborough disaster was complex to say the least, but football fans – and perhaps Liverpool fans in particular – were certainly an easy scapegoat. Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative prime minister from 1979 to 1990, oversaw the opening of deep social divisions with her confrontational approach to much-needed economic modernisation. She waged war against the labour unions, whose members were angered by job losses in nationalised industries and a shift towards indirect taxation that placed greater relative burden on the poor. In socialist Liverpool, the Toxteth riots of 1981 publicly pitted the black community and other disenfranchised residents against a police force who Thatcher had granted a 45% pay rise. In confidential documents released to the National Archive last year, then Chancellor of the Exchequer Geoffrey Howe petitioned that Liverpool, as a city, should be abandoned to ‘managed decline’.

With football still largely a working-class pastime and the terraces a focal point for emotional release, it was no coincidence that hooliganism was at its rifest throughout the 1980s; shaming the country never more so than at Heysel in 1985, when 39 Juventus supporters died after Liverpool fans had charged the Italians’ section. The British government were compelled to intervene, and Thatcher took issue with the football-going public as heavy-handedly as she had with the unions. But her theories of cause and effect were famously subverted when she demanded to know what the Football Association planned to do about ‘its’ hooligans. The FA secretary, Ted Croker, replied, “These people are society’s problems and we don’t want your hooligans in our sport, prime minister.”

The government failed to recognise the correlation between its own methods and the problems developing in society, of which football hooliganism was not merely an example but, more accurately, a symptom. The ‘them against us’ attitude that they exhibited meant that the summer of 1985 was spent considering how to quarantine football fans, rather than protect them in the wake of the shocking fire at Bradford City 18 days before Heysel that killed 56 visitors to a dangerously dilapidated Valley Parade stadium. Had the steel fences been in place there, the death toll would surely have reached four figures. But this was forgotten amid a political zeitgeist that was willing to blame the people and offered the perfect foundation for an appalling police cover-up four years later.

Football is now surely the purest embodiment of global culture, and the positive, unifying effects of national team success in particular on a population at large are commonly observed. As such, the lessons of Hillsborough are applicable worldwide and must never be forgotten – including, of course, the inescapably two-way relationship between the stands and wider society.

23 years too late, one prays that the families of those who never came home from South Yorkshire, and were wrongly blamed for their own demise, will now begin to find justice. English football and society have plenty of new problems, but Premier League supporters today can at least visit stadiums in the knowledge that they will be safe, comfortable, and well policed. It is every country’s duty to ensure that this is something every fan can take for granted.


Ben Mabley is the Premier League analyst for the JSports programme ‘Foot!’ – every Tuesday at 10pm on JSports 3.

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Week 4: Vi er vide (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

11 Sep 2012(Tue)

With the Premier League pausing for the World Cup qualifiers, this Tuesday’s episode of Foot! on JSports will take a look at some of the less fancied teams making strong starts to the 2012/13 campaign so far. Among those to be featured will be Swansea City, and their famous new manager Michael Laudrup...

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Every year, once or twice, I have the pleasure of going for a few drinks with my old university tutor when he and his family are visiting Japan. Ours is an international pairing – I am British, he is Danish – brought together originally in the study of Japanese linguistics and since through a shared love of Trappist ales and Flemish Tripels; a result of separate connections with Belgium. The beers typically flow at a healthy rate and, as such, memories the following morning can be somewhat hazy, but we are each reassured that the conversation will always have converged at its inevitable destination: Danish Dynamite, and Michael Laudrup.

Denmark may have walked off the beach to achieve a shocking victory at Euro ’92 but, in the hearts of Danish people and of football connoisseurs worldwide, it is unequivocally the national team of the mid-1980s that lives on most fondly. This was an irresistibly endearing mix of style and substance, comedy and tragedy. The spirits of the roligans – a smiling alternative to the hooligans that populated other countries’ terraces at the time – were spurred by the impossibly cool Preben Elkjær, who famously scored a solo goal with his sock against Juventus en route to the 1984/85 scudetto with Verona. Søren Lerby ran the midfield; Frank Arnesen laid on the chances.

But nobody denied that the real icon was Laudrup. Two years after a painful defeat to Spain on penalties in the semi-final of Euro ’84, where Elkjær uncharacteristically skied the crucial spot kick, it was the dazzling dribble and finish by Laudrup, a week shy of his 22nd birthday, in a 6-1 mauling of Uruguay that symbolised Denmark’s explosive quality on the global stage of Mexico ’86. A 2-0 win over eventual finalists West Germany secured a 100% record in the group. Sadly, the story would end in the second round; a 1-0 lead over old foes Spain melting into 5-1 defeat after Jesper Olsen’s infamously awful backpass allowed Emilio Butragueño in to equalise on half time.

Laudrup’s star would continue to shine on the European club stage, initially at Juventus but more emphatically on either side of the clasico divide in Spain. His passes for Hristo Stoichkov helped Barcelona’s original ‘Dream Team’ to four straight titles; then, after falling out of favour with manager Johan Cruyff, he laid on an astonishing 23 of Pichichi winner Iván Zamorano’s 28 goals to extend his personal run of La Liga medals to five in the colours of Real Madrid.

Ever since his playing retirement after France ’98, Laudrup’s ‘destiny’ has been obvious. Janus Køster-Rasmussen, a Danish television/radio journalist and a colleague of mine at The Blizzard, recently told me, “
Michael Laudrup is still pretty much a football deity around here. He is the best player we ever had; nobody questions that. And there is absolutely no doubt that he will end up Denmark manager one day.”

Denmark’s reputation in international football comes despite a population similar in size to Hyogo Prefecture, and it is understandable that there should be such conviction in the ultimate dream: for their greatest ever hero to return as manager and fashion another great side in the beautiful old mould. The trouble is that, save for a last eight appearance in the UEFA Cup and Copa del Rey final with Getafe, Laudrup’s coaching record to date has largely flattered to deceive. Køster-Rasmussen says, “
There is also broad consensus that he still has to prove himself as a manager. No-one is impressed with his stints at Brøndby and Getafe (both halfway good), Mallorca (not very good) and Spartak Moscow (a disaster).”

A constant theme throughout Laudrup’s career has been clashes with his bosses, usually when conditions or resources do not meet the uncompromisingly high standards of a man recently described by Swansea City vice-captain Alan Tate as “still the best in training”. Most famously, differences with coach Richard Møller Nielsen saw Michael Laudrup miss the Euro ’92 triumph while younger brother Brian starred in his stead. A late-career stint at Vissel Kobe was cut short in part due to what Laudrup saw as an unprofessional conservatism about how the club was run. Departures from managerial posts at Getafe and Mallorca were respectively put down to clashes with the president and director of football.

As such, a sensational start to life in the Premier League gives rise to hope that the Laudrup destiny may finally be on track.

Swansea is a smaller club than the 48-year-old is used to, but a 20% supporter ownership and much-respected chairman Huw Jenkins are delighted to offer him the autonomy he desires. On the playing side, Laudrup’s philosophy of attractive football is a natural continuation of the foundations already laid by Roberto Martínez and Brendan Rodgers. His contacts and considerable clout saw off talk of ‘second season syndrome’ and the departures of Rodgers and Joe Allen with the notable coups of Michu and Pablo Hernández.

After seven points and ten goals scored (four by Michu) in their opening three matches, Swansea fans will be joined by about five and a half million Danes in hoping for more of the same.

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Week 3: Slammed shut (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

5 Sep 2012(Wed)

Below is an English-language version of my weekly Premier League column for Goal.com Japan, in association with the broadcaster JSports and their programme ‘Foot!’.

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It was left to the ever-opinionated Neville brothers to summarise most succinctly the emotions that most of us experience as the deadline for transfer registrations draws closer.

Resorting, appropriately, to Twitter – that most succinct of mediums – Everton captain Phil was palpably relieved at the luxury of distant observation when he said, “I love watching all the transfers come thru – there must be a lot of players tonight still wondering we’re (sic) their futures lie”. A postscript shortly afterwards added, “IMO window should be closed day before season starts”.

Elder brother Gary, meanwhile, has discovered in retirement and subsequent television punditry work an ever greater freedom for acerbic comment; perhaps mixed in with a touch of Schadenfreude towards rivals that had not been as quick to complete their shopping as his old mates at Manchester United. Neville senior’s view: “What the transfer deadline gives you is a clear indication of which are the badly run football clubs!”

31 August is routinely referred to as a ‘drama’ but it is at least as much a comedy; a ridiculous microcosm of the summer’s storylines condensed for humorous effect into 24 frenzied hours. We glue ourselves to the internet, some refreshing the screen in desperate hope that their side’s dodgy start to the season can be forgotten with one big acquisition; others praying that their hero won’t be the one tempted away. Balls being kicked on pitches are now a mere subplot; the BBC website reflecting the zeitgeist in their live updates of the European Super Cup by reminding us, “Forget actual football, I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s all about the transfers tonight”.

The clock ticks away until its chimes signal the climax – fittingly, but painfully, the most breathless moment of all. Indeed, it is not so much a moment as it is a void; a suffocating lull where the usual rules of space-time no longer apply. The transfer window may have ‘slammed shut’ – for it is never sufficient merely to close – but we remain starved of oxygen as we still await confirmed reports about Javi García and João Moutinho.

The latter deal, of course, never did quite happen; the Sunday Telegraph reporting that Tottenham Hotspur missed an extended 1am deadline by a matter of minutes. Fans who subsequently witnessed the disappointing 1-1 home draw with Norwich City (oh yes, there was some more actual football, and this match will be featured in Tuesday’s episode of Foot! on JSports) would bemoan the stubborn negotiating technique favoured by chairman Daniel Levy. Yes, he may have pushed the price up to £33 million for a Luka Modrić/Real Madrid deal we had all known about since June, but four days thereafter proved insufficient to clear a path through all of those parties with a stake in Moutinho’s career progression.

André Villas-Boas was at pains to point out that Spurs had pulled off a notable coup in signing Clint Dempsey – whom everyone had assumed, from when he burnt his Fulham bridges two months ago right up until about 8pm on Friday, was headed for Liverpool. Evidently, the Anfield club neither expected a) to have to meet the asking price or b) to get gazumped by an alternative suitor. But with Andy Carroll and Charlie Adam having departed before this apparent oversight, the squad retained its thin, inexperienced appearance for Sunday’s home defeat to Arsenal.

Never fear; Michael Owen is still available, as he has been eagerly informing every television station, newspaper, and Twitter follower who’ll listen ever since departing Manchester United in May. Half in jest, I polled my Liverpool-supporting friends and colleagues on Saturday to ask if they would accept him back. Their overwhelming reaction: to recoil in disgust, before coming to the realisation through gritted teeth that their disgraced former hero actually suits their emergency needs perfectly. With Owen out of contract and thus still eligible to join a club, cold logic dictates that it could yet happen.

So what to make of all of this? Well, managers tend to say – publicly, anyway – that they dislike the disruption. Chairmen are divided between those forced to pay £35 million for a Carroll and those happy to cash the cheques. Players are given hours to make decisions on uprooting their families, only to discover that their moves are dependent on others’ like houses in a property chain.

Personally, I am tempted to agree with Phil Neville that the business should be concluded in pre-season, ideally before a single, Europe-wide deadline to prevent the risk of delaying tactics. But whatever your view, the transfer window certainly provides plenty of excitement, fuelling debate from the pitchside to the pub. And, whisper it, but several managers are actually quite glad of the second chance to shuffle if the season hasn’t quite started to plan.

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