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November 2012

Week 15 – Trigger-happy (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

28 Nov 2012(Wed)

English-language version of my Premier League column for Goal.com Japan, this week featuring the managerial revolving door (revolver?) at Stamford Bridge.

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Last week’s comprehensive 3-0 defeat to a thoroughly impressive Juventus may have pushed the European champions, Chelsea, to the brink of an early Champions League exit, but it was not the cause for crisis in itself. What made it so, however, was the infamous proximity with which owner Roman Abramovich’s finger always hovers over the managerial trigger – coupled with the porous nature of intelligence at Stamford Bridge which allowed some journalists to report that Rafa Benítez had been sounded out even before the match in Turin took place.

Now a pundit with the British broadcaster ITV, former Chelsea and Republic of Ireland midfielder Andy Townsend spoke of a “bad vibe” at the team hotel in Italy on the day of the game – an atmosphere that felt “disjointed... uneasy and tense”. Manager Roberto di Matteo, so the tabloid reports go, was warned that afternoon by club executives that Abramovich would not take kindly to the potential absence of his £50 million plaything, Fernando Torres, from the starting XI. The Italian stuck to his guns, fielded Eden Hazard up front, and presided over a fourth defeat in as many weeks. Sure enough, he was given the bullet at 4am, just as soon as the team had returned from Gatwick Airport.

With him went any hope of some much-needed continuity at Stamford Bridge. Di Matteo may always have been just a temporary manager, whose unlikely successes in the FA and European Cups served only to frustrate Abramovich into waiting a little longer before finding the first excuse to sack him. But football is about more than just one or two results on the pitch. It is a sport of narratives, of human stories, and of identity. Constant, artificial change disturbs the supporter experience as it blurs the focus for loyalty; the absence of lasting theme or style diluting the memory for nostalgic recollection later.

The seventh man to take charge of the Chelsea first team since José Mourinho, Di Matteo was not just beloved of the supporters in SW6 because he was the bloody nice bloke who delivered their long-awaited first European Cup. As a player, he was part of the mid-1990s intake from an impossibly glamorous Serie A – alongside the likes of Ruud Gullit, Gianluca Vialli, and Gianfranco Zola – that suddenly revitalised the club after two decades in the doldrums. An enduringly successful lucky charm, the former Lazio midfielder scored in three victorious domestic cup finals and won the European Cup Winners’ Cup before injury curtailed his career at the age of 30. His path to managerial glory may have been unorthodox, but for many, his brief presence in the hot seat offered that invaluable link with what it was to be Chelsea.

But the ironic and most puzzling element about all this is that Abramovich knows that connection between football and human emotion. He famously fell in love with the sport at Old Trafford in April 2003 while watching Manchester United beat Real Madrid by the odd goal in seven. His dream, above all else, is to recreate that feeling with something that is simultaneously all-conquering and swashbuckling. The awkward expression he wore as a jubilant Di Matteo embraced him in Munich this May was telling: yes, Chelsea were finally champions of Europe, but it hadn’t quite been as the Russian had envisaged. Drama had come in the form of penalties and heroic, backs-to-the-wall defending. Not like the universally-adored brilliance of Barcelona.

It is an open secret – let’s face it, most things at Chelsea are – that Abramovich covets Josep Guardiola, currently on a year’s sabbatical in New York after everything that came with being in charge of Catalonia’s brightest symbol. If he can be persuaded to move to west London in summer 2013, then it will be a significant coup. But the appointment of Benítez as a short-term replacement for the short-term Di Matteo only makes the slightest sense if seen as a better long-term bet in case Guardiola says no; and even then, it is an idea full of flaws.

Their seemingly annual November slump notwithstanding, Chelsea had arguably been the most attractive and entertaining team in the Premier League this season, and despite their continental blues appeared odds-on to at least return to the domestic top three under Di Matteo. Benítez is a top-class manager, but his laudable successes at Liverpool largely came against strong, technical opposition in Europe – including several bitter and personal battles against Mourinho’s Chelsea. In the league, surely the main priority in his new post, the Spaniard’s pragmatic approach often led to vital points dropped against lesser, physically defensive opposition. Sunday’s match with Manchester City (this Tuesday’s featured game on Foot!) suggested that his playing style is unlikely to evolve in line with the owner’s fantasies, or to win over the unforgiving Stamford Bridge fans he famously once mocked for their little plastic flags.

One can only wonder what Guardiola made of it all as he watched footage of his compatriot and friend being unveiled last Thursday, accompanied only by the communications director with Abramovich, chairman Bruce Buck, and chief executive Ron Gourlay nowhere to be seen. Every new Chelsea manager is immediately undermined by the fact that players – some of whom have the owner’s ear – and fans alike know that one bad month spells curtains. There is every risk that the current apple of the oligarch’s eye will baulk at a culture obsessed with immediate gains and hardly conducive to the long-term dynasty building achieved at the Camp Nou. Without the same cantera and deep-rooted playing philosophy, there is no absolute guarantee that ‘Pep’ would succeed anyway.

Chelsea’s sustained trophy haul is testament to Abramovich’s investment in superior playing resources – even the hapless Avram Grant got them to a Champions League final. But the Russian’s lack of patience is the biggest obstacle preventing them from nurturing the beautiful, lovable, and attacking team he so craves.

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Week 14 – Old town, new town (English football column for Goal.com Japan)

20 Nov 2012(Tue)

My English football column for Goal.com Japan is designed to introduce English stories and perspectives to Japanese and other Asian audiences. This week’s article highlights the forthcoming FA Cup tie between Milton Keynes Dons and AFC Wimbledon.

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The heart-warming story of Spanish club Real Oviedo over the past two weeks has reassuringly confirmed the fact that, for all the pros and cons of money in the modern game, the vast majority of people believe most strongly in the importance of football clubs within their respective societies. Faced with the threat of immediate extinction unless they could raise €2 million, the club whose academy produced Premier League stars Santi Cazorla, Juan Mata, and Michu appealed to supporters not to donate, but to purchase shares at €10.75 a pop in order to help secure their future.

Thanks partly to the publicity work of Sid Lowe, a British expert on Spanish football who once studied in Oviedo, the campaign quickly spread worldwide. Fans of football in general, most of whom have surely never even visited Asturias, parted with their cash to preserve a mismanaged Segunda B club that has never quite recovered from dropping three divisions in as many seasons a decade ago. Globally, over 13,000 small shareholders have contributed around €1.93 million, inspiring billionaire philanthropist Carlos Slim to announce a further €2 million investment on Saturday.

It is amidst such a zeitgeist that the most significant example of community-orientated supporter ownership in English football must finally encounter its nemesis and polar opposite, in a match most involved with the club hoped would never have to happen. On 2 December, AFC Wimbledon will visit Milton Keynes Dons in one of the most high-profile FA Cup second round fixtures of all time – to be shown live on British terrestrial television.

On 28 May 2002, three days before the start of the World Cup, a three-man Football Association commission scandalously gave the green light for the owners of Wimbledon FC to transport their club 100km north to the 1960s new town of Milton Keynes. The Football League had previously vetoed the move by a unanimous 8-0 vote; while similar relocations may not be uncommon to the cold ‘franchises’ of North American sports – think Quebec Nordiques across the border to Denver, or even Nankai Hawks to Fukuoka – it was entirely without precedent in English football. This was supposed to be the true game of the people. For all the financial difficulties the 113-year-old club had faced, the business ambitions of music producer Pete Winkelman – a Milton Keynes local – should not have been entertained.

‘Franchise FC’, as they were dubbed, played one last full season in South London in front of crowds that occasionally dropped into three figures – unthinkable in the English second tier – before moving to Milton Keynes early in 2003/04 and finally changing their name to MK Dons the following summer. Shocked fans in SW19, meanwhile, instantly cut ties following the FA’s decision and instead announced their own plan, just two days later, to reform their own club as AFC Wimbledon. Playing trials were held on Wimbledon Common while Turkey beat South Korea in the third-place playoff in Daegu. With a squad, manager, and sponsor all quickly secured, the phoenix team took their place in the Combined Counties League Premier Division for the start of the 2002/03 campaign.

The original Wimbledon FC were famous for their rapid ascent, taking just nine seasons to reach the First Division after election to the Football League in 1977 following 88 years in the amateur ranks. Dubbed the ‘Crazy Gang’ for their practical jokes, long ball football, and uncompromising physicality, a team featuring the likes of Vinny Jones and Dennis Wise won the FA Cup in 1988 before being forced to vacate their Plough Lane home – deemed unviable for redevelopment to meet the new all-seater requirements – and groundshare with Crystal Palace from 1991/92. Their spirit has been faithfully carried on by AFC Wimbledon, whose incredible rise began with average home attendances of 3,003 in the ninth tier and led them ‘back’ to the Football League in 2011 following five promotions in nine years.

For all the refusal of AFC Wimbledon, which proudly remains the property of its local supporters, to acknowledge their existence, it was always inevitable that they would come face to face with MK Dons, currently of League One, at some point. It nearly happened at the same stage of the FA Cup two seasons ago, only for Milton Keynes to lose their first round replay on penalties. But fans are torn as to how to approach the meeting. Many are determined to boycott Stadium MK, as supporters of some other clubs did through solidarity in the early years after the franchise switch. Sentiment goes beyond any mere grudge match; as one fan told The Sun, “It’s like having your home burgled, then being invited to the thief’s house to watch your TV.”

Daniel Taylor of The Observer echoed the feeling of most neutrals when he declared that he would reject his journalistic objectivity and make a point of supporting AFC Wimbledon. Yet there is a danger that the Milton Keynes conflict could come to define the club or overshadow its superb achievements over the past decade. One section of fans wants to travel to the game en masse and decisively outshout the home following in a show of defiance. Quite how the factional division will affect the environment at The Fans’ Stadium in future is open to question. There has also been renewed bickering with Winkelman, who has finally admitted regret as to the way he formed his MK club, over the continued use of ‘Dons’ – Wimbledon’s traditional nickname.

AFC Wimbledon chief executive Erik Samuelson, who in 2010 said “I hate [the idea of the FA Cup meeting], I don’t want it to happen at all”, has confirmed that nobody from the club will be shaking Winkelman’s hand as they will not accept hospitality in the MK Dons boardroom. As for the supporters, however, he insists attendance is purely “a matter of personal choice”. It is a saga likely to dominate the sports pages for the coming fortnight.

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Week 13 – Decay and renaissance in the second city (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

13 Nov 2012(Tue)

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During one of my brain’s rare ventures away from football this past Saturday, I stumbled across an article in The Economist that headlined Birmingham as “Second city, second class”. Alongside a picture of the neoclassical Curzon Street railway station, a striking Roman-columned structure opened for business in 1838 but essentially left derelict after falling into disuse in the 20th century, came the damning tagline: “Britain’s largest city outside London is falling behind. It is a case study in the effects of over-centralisation and poor management”.

The writer goes on to introduce the city’s latter history of misfortune – the Birmingham Blitz from the Luftwaffe in 1940-43, an ill-conceived period of urban rebuilding, and late-20th century deindustrialisation – as well as the mixed success of its attempts to reinvent itself. But the raw numbers make for bleak reading:

“Despite an efflorescence of striking architecture, both old and modern, Britain’s second-biggest city is not doing well. Some 14% of the population is unemployed, the highest level in any big city in the country. In the inner-city wards of Aston and Washwood Heath, the figure is higher than 30%. Two-fifths of Birmingham’s population live in areas classified as in the 10% most deprived parts of England.”

While the photograph of the abandoned station was intended as a metaphor for the decline of Birmingham as a city, the entire piece could well serve as a metaphor for that of its most important football team, Aston Villa.

It is probably fair to say that Villa’s genuine glory years came before their now-impoverished home of Aston was incorporated into the county borough of Birmingham in 1911. (This timescale had given way to their nearest rivals’ controversial adoption of the title Birmingham Football Club (now Birmingham City) six years earlier; resulting in the curious status quo whereby the smaller of the two clubs has the larger place name, and vice versa.) Founder members of the Football League in 1888, Villa won six of their seven championships to date between 1893/94 and 1909/10, while the sixth of their seven FA Cup successes came in 1920.

As with the city, the second half of last century delivered yo-yoing fortunes. Post-war decline led to a two-year stint in the third tier in 1970-72, before a fabulous – but brief – renaissance saw the Villains crowned as champions of England then Europe a decade later. After relegation in 1987 then top flight title challenges in 1990 and 1993, the club has generally been able to enjoy some much-needed stability throughout the Premier League era – saving face with their London and Manchester rivals by at least remaining in the mix for Champions or Europa League places.

But then, with nation and city alike in the throes of recession, Villa were plunged into turmoil by the resignation of manager Martin O’Neill – who had secured European football for three straight seasons – on the eve of the 2010/11 campaign. Talk was that the Ulsterman had experienced his own ‘financial crisis’ when owner Randy Lerner realised that only being a billionaire in US dollars no longer meant all that much in a sport of sheikhs and oligarchs, so cut funding for transfers. Either way, what followed resembled the panicked short-termism of Birmingham’s post-war town planners and the backwards incompetence The Economist suggests has dogged the city since Lehman.

Gérard Houllier arrived from three years in the managerial wilderness for a single season characterised by questionable signings like Jean Makoun and 37-year-old Robert Pirès, flirtation with relegation, and a sad recurrence of Houllier’s heart problems that led to his withdrawal in April. His successor, Alex McLeish, had previously been popular with Villa fans purely because his boring brand of football had taken rivals Birmingham City down to the Championship; it shocked everyone when he was appointed in Aston and surprised no-one when he almost repeated the trick in finishing 16th.

However, like the Big City Plan which promises to finally rejuvenate Birmingham city centre with development worth a potential £10 billion plus 50,000 new jobs over the next two decades, there are now sustainable signs of hope at Villa Park. Paul Lambert, a Champions League winner with Borussia Dortmund in 1997, has been brought in after three fabulously successful seasons at Norwich City. Tasked with revamping the side, the Scot possesses a keen eye for young talent and has firmly placed his faith in the excellent Villa academy (a rare criticism of O’Neill was that he did not) plus a number of other gems recruited from outside. The new team on show for Saturday’s meeting with Manchester United – this Tuesday’s featured game on Foot! – had an average age of 24 and included five players who made their debuts this year.

Early season results have been difficult, and with Manchester City and Arsenal to follow, November may well be the cruellest month. But fans have plenty of reasons for optimism – not least the fluency and understanding with which the lineup’s various mini combinations have grown into Lambert’s 4-2-3-1. Ron Vlaar marshals the back four in imposing fashion. Barry Bannan and Ashley Westwood combine defensive work rate with confident passing in midfield. Gabriel Agbonlahor and Stephen Ireland appear to have finally found their niches in a fluid three with Andreas Weimann. The physicality and lateral movement of Christian Benteke make him the ideal lone forward; not least since October’s World Cup qualifiers with Belgium have reawakened his goalscoring abilities.

Earlier this year, construction was approved for the new High Speed 2 railway – which will terminate at a restored Curzon Street in Birmingham. For Villa, too, the key is to keep faith with the future.

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Week 12 – Worth in the cup (Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

7 Nov 2012(Wed)

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Between the mayhem and controversy of last weekend, and the resumption of Premier League proceedings this with an ultimately one-sided victory for Manchester United over Arsenal (this week’s featured game on Foot! Tuesday), the League Cup action in both England and Japan came as a welcome source of light relief. In the case of the Capital One Cup, it is an increasingly rare opportunity for fans to actually relax and enjoy the football – the usual sense of tribalistic hostility, life-or-death necessity, and other such negativity removed or at least heavily diluted for the space of one midweek.

And, in England’s case at least, what a feast there was to appreciate. Most of the fourth round headlines were captured by the truly bonkers scorelines involving some of the top flight’s major protagonists – Chelsea taking good-spirited revenge for their league defeat with a 5-4 extra time victory over Manchester United, while Arsenal also conceded five but somehow managed to win 7-5 (7-5!) at Reading despite having trailed 4-0. But there were plenty of stories elsewhere too, not least League Two’s Bradford City winning away to Wigan Athletic on penalties. Swansea City enjoyed a well-deserved 3-1 win in their first meeting with former boss Brendan Rodgers since his switch to Liverpool, and are in with a decent shout of winning the tournament outright.

The Football League Cup has come a long way since 1994, when the advent of the Premier League and a newly-expanded Champions League had suddenly relegated the rather odd, three-handled trophy to a distant fourth on the list of clubs’ and media priorities. That September, Alex Ferguson provoked outrage among supporters of lowly Port Vale and even a complaint from the local Member of Parliament in the House of Commons for resting his stars in favour of several unheard-of teenagers – Paul Scholes (who scored twice), David Beckham, Gary Neville, Nicky Butt, et al – in their second round match at Vale Park.

But while this golden generation was clearly a one-off, a similar selection policy had become the default for most top flight clubs by the end of the decade. A sense of apathy spread from the dugouts to the stands as managers prioritised Premier League survival – or even, more depressingly, the increased prize money earned by finishing 10th rather than 11th – over the romance of a cup run and possible Wembley final. Sponsorship from the Worthington Brewery during the competition’s wilderness years inspired the unfortunate nickname, ‘Worthless Cup’.

However, partly by accident and partly by design, the League Cup has been steadily rejuvenated over the past few years purely because it doesn’t mean as much as the other competitions. The chances presented to young talents, and to smaller clubs, are now seen as more of a good thing. Cheaper tickets are more widely available to fans, especially children, usually trapped outside by ‘market prices’. Despite it being a knockout tournament, the perversely reduced need to win is what makes for a refreshingly laid-back atmosphere in comparison to the fiercely competitive and money-driven Premier and Champions Leagues.

The omnipresent possibility of an upset is an obvious attraction. For neutral observers jaded by the predictability and exclusivity of the top table, the Capital One Cup quarter-final line-up – including a resumption of the rivalry between Leeds United and Chelsea, originally set in stone by the 1970 FA Cup final – appears positively nostalgic. Criticised at the time, the Football League’s decision to shift the final back to February from 2000 has also been a massive boost as it ensures that the big rounds attract attention when there is relatively little else going on – in stark contrast to the perilously overshadowed FA Cup.

Admittedly, there remains a sense that the big clubs only start trying once their reserves happen to qualify for the last four, but the final can still play a significant supporting role in influencing future fortunes. Almost 12 years after his appearance had apparently undermined the competition, Manchester United’s victory in 2006 was later described by Gary Neville as “the springboard to the most dominant period in the club’s history” because it “taught young players like Wayne Rooney, for whom it was his first trophy, what it was like to win”. A similar philosophy was adopted by Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea, winners in 2005 and 2007, while defeats in the latter final and in 2011 for Arsenal quickly unravelled their entire seasons.

There is plenty that the Japanese equivalent, the Yamazaki Nabisco Cup, could learn from this reinvention. While Kashima Antlers deserve warm congratulations for their victory over Shimizu S-Pulse on Saturday, it was difficult to escape the overwhelming impression that the tournament itself is a bit of a non-event and had gotten in the way of an exciting J. League run-in. Supporter disinterest is evident from small crowds right through to the last eight; rather symbolically, television coverage extended to show Kashima players posing with the sponsors, but not a few seconds further for the actual lifting of the trophy.

To thoroughly dismantle and reassemble the Nabisco Cup would require an entire column, but above all, it is patently ridiculous that a ‘League’ Cup already lacking a raison d’être should bar 22 of its 40 members from competing. Relevance can only be restored once the J2 clubs are invited back; it should be a straight knockout and, if attendances are a worry, we could even incorporate Coupe de France rules and guarantee home ties for J2 teams when drawn against J1 opposition.

The English League Cup is slowly finding its place again; Japan’s must take heed and discover its.

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