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October 2013

Week 11 – Autobiography (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

28 Oct 2013(Mon)


We Brits do like a good autobiography. I say good – nobody purchasing anything written by a footballer is surely expectant of a literary classic, but they do at least tend to provide enjoyably light reading and a bit of gentle gossip. The memoirs of a popular footballing figure are a convenient present to purchase for the fan who will gratefully receive – hence these books all coming out a couple of months before Christmas – while journalists too appreciate the easily-sourced insight to feed our narrative for a couple of days or weeks. Essentially, everyone goes home happy.

Except, possibly, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s new tome, imaginatively titled My Autobiography. Never a fan of the media, as he devotes the entire 20th chapter to make clear, the erstwhile Manchester United manager refused any opportunity to ramp up publicity by serialising a few extracts in a daily newspaper as many others, most recently Harry Redknapp, have done before him. The content, which picks up the story from where the bestselling Managing My Life left off in 1999, was kept hush and thus all the more eagerly anticipated until last Tuesday morning, when selected members of the press were allowed to queue up – in the rain; how Ferguson must have enjoyed that – for their advance copies ahead of that day’s official launch and the public release on Thursday.

Maximum attention thus guaranteed, we then witnessed the storm of not only primary, but also secondary reaction to the book over the subsequent 36 hours. Those charged with speed-reading to generate the headlines for immediate public consumption naturally focused on the juicy bits – which, for an opinionated gentleman like Ferguson, generally meant the people he laid into.

Of Ruud van Nistelrooy, Ferguson wrote that “his behaviour became worse and worse” after non-selection for the 2006 League Cup final until the Dutchman finally got the move to Real Madrid he had tried to force through a year previously. David Beckham “thought he was bigger than Alex Ferguson”. As for the legendary, combative skipper Roy Keane, “The hardest part of Roy’s body is his tongue. He has the most savage tongue you can imagine”. Wayne Rooney, Rafael Benitez, and even Jordan Henderson were not spared, either.

Of course, a lot more people will read these headlines than actually buy the entire book, and this was particularly true on Tuesday and Wednesday, when those cited in such titbits were invited to offer a riposte before they could possibly have read the other 400-odd pages. It was perhaps appropriate that Keane should be first in line as a pundit for ITV at the Emirates Stadium, where talk quickly turned away from Arsenal versus Borussia Dortmund:

“I do remember having conversations with the manager when I was at the club about loyalty,” said Keane, “and in my opinion, I don’t think he knows the meaning of the word. It doesn’t bother me what he has to say about me, but to constantly criticise other players at the club who brought him a lot of success – I find very, very strange.

“I just don’t think the manager needs to do it. I’m not sure how many books he’s written now! But you have to draw the line eventually and say ‘listen, these players have been all top servants to Man United and a lot of these players helped the manager win lots of trophies’. So can you imagine if we never won a trophy, what he would have said?”

Second-day stories written; wider public opinion forged. But then, of course, Thursday comes along and those of us with any interest can pay our pounds to discover the wider context. Unsurprisingly, a closer read reveals that Ferguson does indeed balance his grievances with an explicit, less chatter-friendly appreciation of the qualities players like Beckham, Van Nistelrooy, and yes, even Keane – albeit more briefly and less unambiguously than in his 1999 volume – offered the Scot during his time at Old Trafford.

Given the context of his own departure from United, it is odd that Keane chose to chastise his former manager for making such internal criticisms public. The midfielder, then 34, manipulated his way onto the club’s television channel MUTV to unleash a withering volley of vitriol at teammates including Darren Fletcher, Rio Ferdinand, and Edwin van der Sar; before angrily confronting the squad with its contents after Ferguson had vetoed the interview from being aired. The descriptions in My Autobiography of incidents such as this, and the infamous boot kicked by the boss into Beckham’s face in 2003, are in fact fairly uncontroversial, and serve largely to clarify stories that were public knowledge in the first place.

But herein lies the disappointment with Ferguson’s latest – and, one assumes, final – memoirs. His ghostwriter, Paul Hayward of the Daily Telegraph, indeed does an excellent job of capturing Ferguson’s voice; so much so, that it often reads like a casual afternoon in his presence. As we all do when speaking anecdotally, the book will occasionally repeat a point made earlier or remember another to be elaborated upon later. However, the last page presents a bit of a shock – at least, it does if you’re reading on a Kindle and you haven’t seen it coming. What? Was that it? It feels a bit like we spent so long enjoying the small talk that the bottle of red was empty before we ever got round to the conversation we came for.

The conversational style partly reflects how quickly My Autobiography was put together; it is, after all, still only five months since Ferguson even retired. But was it really necessary to hurry? I was rather hoping for a deeper delve into his philosophy of management that went beyond the eight catchy points he explained to the Harvard Business School. The actual thinking behind the development of United’s playing style and how tactical intricacies evolved as greater responsibility was delegated to his coaches. How a manager identifies the changes to implement mid-match. Surely, if only David Moyes should be privy to such knowhow, then we could have waited a few years until Ferguson saw fit to divulge?

And, inevitably but frustratingly, the bigger issues of inconvenience to the upper echelons at Old Trafford are simply cast aside. Ferguson claims he “never understood [Roy Keane’s] obsession with the Rock of Gibraltar affair”, an argument over a racehorse that saw two Irish United shareholders sell out to the Glazer family. I dare say Keane is far from alone in wondering exactly how the current ownership situation arose; nor indeed how Ferguson married his proud socialist politics with support for an American regime built upon massive debt serviced by ticket price hikes that exclude the local and many.

In his introduction, Ferguson declares, “It was always my plan to assemble a story that people inside and outside the game would find interesting”. I did find it interesting, and I did find it enjoyable. But I didn’t learn anything that I couldn’t have waited until Christmas Day to find out; perhaps more suitably in the form of a feature-length interview on MUTV.

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Every Premier League game live with J SPORTS Football

25 Oct 2013(Fri)


It was with a fair amount of trepidation and uncertainty that I embarked upon the first of my two spells at Japanese universities in April 2001. I was only 18. I had been studying the language properly for just four months. I now had to spend a similar length of time living with a host family who I had never met before and who did not speak English.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I didn’t really care about any of that. I wanted to know how the hell I was going to watch any football.

My only internet access, such that it was in 2001, came up at the Kwansei Gakuin University campus. My limited Japanese, and the fact I could read barely 300 kanji, meant finding information on broadcasts or public showings was virtually unachievable. We were fortunate, in a sense, that Manchester United’s dominance that season meant that the Premier League title race had already been a formality before we left, but having to wait until we got to the library the following morning to find out the Champions League and UEFA Cup results was horribly painful on the nerves. A Liverpool-supporting friend, whose team won three trophies in 2000/01, tried unsuccessfully to go through until August without finding out a single result because his parents were recording the big games for him to watch when we all returned to the United Kingdom.

Sensing my discomfort, an accountant friend of my host father who I knew as ‘Tax-sensei’ told me not to worry – I could now count on him to be my ‘third Dad’. To my surprise and joy, he decided to sign up to the satellite channel showing Champions League matches for two months just so he could tape the semi-finals and final onto VHS and pass them onto me to watch. What an introduction to o-mo-te-na-shi that was. Quite seriously, I can think of nothing kinder that anyone could have possibly done for me at that moment in my life. Although I must admit I was secretly hoping he would give me a spare key so I could sneak into his living room at 3.30am and see the matches live.

A new love affair with Gamba Osaka satisfied my most primal urges when I returned to Japan in October 2003, this time for a year at Osaka University of Foreign Studies, but catching foreign football was still tricky living in an international students’ dormitory in Suita. An extortionate subscription to an official online service offered me less than ten minutes of grainy Premier League footage per week, and it wasn’t until May that I finally got to watch a live game – the FA Cup final – at a Japanese friend’s house.

With Euro 2004 on the horizon, and a habit of watching every single game at major international tournaments that stretched back to 1992, I needed to act. I went to the dormitory office to explain that I was researching a dissertation on Japanese football (which was true) and therefore needed to watch the European Championships as a comparison (which was false), so could we please have the necessary channel. I would even pay for it myself.
“A dissertation on football?” laughed the slightly scary lady. “What kind of crappy university lets you do that?!”
“Er, Oxford?” I replied, gusto somewhat quelled.
“Yeah, right. Go away.”

My stubbornness remained intact, however. The group stage match between Germany and Holland (kickoff 3:45am JST) was enjoyed over a few pints of Guinness at an Irish pub in Minami while simultaneously revising for a kanji test for which I had to get all the way back up north to Minoh for nine o’clock. A closer venue to the dorm was discovered for the knockout rounds in the form of a quiet internet café near Kansai University, though even that necessitated a 50-minute one-way walk long after the last train had stopped. I did get a few strange looks, too, for loudly swearing at David Beckham when he missed his penalty against Portugal.

Thank God times have changed. I still have major blank spots over the 2003/04 and 2005/06 (when I was job- and house-hunting in Osaka after graduation) Premier League seasons and, to be honest, I don’t think I could have coped with much more. I’m neither as young nor as resilient as I used to be. The job I am most fortunate to do now naturally dictates that I have to watch the Premier League, but this wouldn’t really be all that different were I still exclusively a translator or had I pursued any other career. I’m English. I love football. I have to watch the Premier League.

If we were lucky enough in Japan before with J Sports showing live matches that weren’t even on back home, then this season we are truly spoiled. All ten Premier League fixtures live, on demand, anytime, anywhere. At 3pm British time on Saturdays, when a domestic broadcasting blackout dictates that the only way to see live football in England is to actually go to a stadium, I have been watching three live games simultaneously on my television, computer, and tablet. The other Monday, I decided to enjoy the new luxury of official Premier League highlights over breakfast, only to realise midway that I had already seen eight of the matches anyway.

And the best bit, for me, will hopefully come in March when Gamba are back in J1. Now, when Saturday evening fixtures at Banpaku don’t leave me enough time to get back afterwards for a lunchtime Premier League kickoff I need to watch for work, no matter. I can simply use the J Sports Live+ app on my smartphone and catch the first half during my train journey home.

I must say, I never once thought I would feel this grateful to my employers for making it possible for me to work harder than ever before. Seriously, good job.

Watch every Premier League game live in Japan with J SPORTS Football by LIVESPORT.TV

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Week 10 – Back to a back three (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

21 Oct 2013(Mon)


There is a good reason that every single meeting between Newcastle United and Liverpool over the past five seasons – plus the majority of those over the preceding decade – has been rescheduled for live domestic television coverage. Though neither have yet been able to etch their names upon the new championship trophy, this is a fixture firmly established in Premier League legend.

Ask any English football fan my age or older about Newcastle versus Liverpool and our minds will immediately be transported back 17 and a half years – though we won’t quite believe it’s that long – to one crazy night at Anfield on 3 April 1996.

A Reds hero in his playing days, Kevin Keegan had turned the visitors into people’s favourites with a swashbuckling style of football built around the attacking talents of Les Ferdinand, David Ginola, and Peter Beardsley. Though the 12-point lead they momentarily enjoyed in January had been gradually whittled down by Manchester United and their ‘kids’, the Magpies remained in control of their own destiny – three points behind David Beckham and company but with two games in hand. Liverpool, however, had scored even more; a combined 42 goals in the league alone from the deadly forward line of Robbie Fowler and Stan Collymore would keep them up in third for the remainder of the campaign.

Sod defence. None of the other 18 Premier League teams had actually conceded fewer goals than either Liverpool or Newcastle at the start of play, though nobody would have thought so as both went at it hammer and tongs in front of a raucous Wednesday night crowd of 40,702. Collymore crossed for Fowler to head the hosts in front after just two minutes, but by the quarter-hour mark Ferdinand and Ginola had eked out a 2-1 lead at the other end. Another Fowler strike levelled things up early in the second half; Faustino Asprilla ended the celebrations almost instantly, only for Collymore to make it 3-3 ten minutes later. So the score somehow remained until the clock read 92, when John Barnes rolled the ball into space on the left-hand side of the Newcastle penalty area:

“Collymore closing in! Liverpool lead in stoppage time!”

From the Sky Sports commentary box, Martin Tyler’s words resonated through either extreme – exultation or exasperation, nought in the middle – for millions watching at home. Keegan, by now having ditched his curious choice of red sports jacket for the more conventional tracksuit, slumped over the advertising hoardings in despair. Manchester United, whose fans can surely never have cheered a Liverpool goal more earnestly, ultimately ran out champions by four points.

In retrospect, this was a high water mark for Roy Evans and Liverpool, too. Their ‘Spice Boys’ tag, mockingly bestowed to imply style over substance, was confirmed the following month when they rocked up at Wembley in cream Armani suits only to lose the FA Cup final to United. But, for a short while, they were perhaps English football’s best example of the thrilling possibilities a 3-5-2 system could offer against the old, familiar 4-4-2.

A spare man to sweep up at the back; an extra man to ensure domination in the middle. Rob Jones and Jason McAteer overlapping past everyone to supply crosses from the wing-back position. Steve McManaman sparkled at the tip of the central midfield three ahead of Barnes and Jamie Redknapp; linking decisively with the forwards and deservedly earning the man of the match award against Newcastle for his direct involvement in two of their four goals.

3-5-2 briefly spread across Europe in the 1990s from Germany, arguably reaching its peak with Matthias Sammer at sweeper for continental success with the national team at Euro ’96 and Borussia Dortmund a year later. But its theoretical superiority over 4-4-2 was soon fatally subverted when those who had kept four at the back started playing with just one central striker. The Kashiwa Reysol manager (unless he has resigned again by the time you read this), Nelsinho Baptista, explains the problem most eloquently:

“Imagine Team A is playing 3-5-2 against Team B with a 4-5-1 that becomes 4-3-3. So Team A has to commit the wing-backs to deal with Team B’s wingers. That means Team A is using five men to deal with three forwards. In midfield Team A has three central midfielders against three, so the usual advantage of 3-5-2 against 4-4-2 is lost. Then at the front it is two forwards against four defenders, but the spare defenders are full-backs. One can push into midfield to create an extra man there, while still leaving three v two at the back. So Team B can dominate possession, and also has greater width.”

These were essentially the issues that Liverpool encountered in the first half at St. James’ Park on Saturday – discussed in this week’s Foot! TUESDAY – as their renewal of rivalries with Newcastle took on an extra dimension of nostalgia with Brendan Rodgers’s restoration of the old system from 1996. Victor Moses moved in from wide to play the McManaman role but was easily quelled by the home side’s numbers in midfield. Alan Pardew’s men – Nelsinho’s ‘Team B’ – may not quite have dominated, but their tactical edge was more than enough to overcome the deficit they faced in terms of pure talent.

Nevertheless, it is most interesting to see the tentative return of 3-5-2 to the Premier League. The system has resurfaced in Serie A over the past few years – in some cases as a defensive or reactive mechanism, others exploiting the idiosyncratic narrowness of many Italian opponents which renders the Nelsinho criticism irrelevant; or, in the case of Juventus, benefiting from the sheer work rate of players like Stephan Lichtsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah. At Liverpool, however, it appears more a matter of circumstance. A confused summer in the transfer market has left the Reds with six senior centre backs after neither Daniel Agger (to Barcelona) or Martin Škrtel (on loan to Napoli) departed as initially anticipated. Meanwhile, in the absence of Philippe Coutinho, Rodgers has taken the opportunity to try Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge as a two-up-top while maintaining a three-man central midfield.

Yet it is purely because of this particular forward pair that the experiment might just work. Both are renowned for their active lateral movement, moving way out to the flank in search of possession before bursting inside or playing the ball across to their partner. Although such endeavour was tellingly lacking against Newcastle – perhaps a result of their exertions in World Cup qualifying – this shape-shifting could be enough to redress the balance against a 4-5-1 or 4-3-3. It has certainly proved a significant attacking threat in the three matches that Liverpool have tested 3-5-2 thus far, leading directly to two goals against both Sunderland and Crystal Palace, plus the second equaliser (albeit after a tactical change with Newcastle down to ten) on Saturday.

The acid test for their future plans will come when Coutinho returns from injury. The Brazilian would seem a far more exciting fit for the McManaman role than Moses, but there is also the possibility for him to sit alongside the new SAS within a slightly reshaped, fluid line of three. This could work within either a 3-4-3 or the original Plan A, 4-3-3 – thus giving Liverpool a trio of formations to choose from or even mix and match mid-game. There is no guarantee that the back three will be successful, but the variety of options Rodgers will enjoy with Coutinho back in the eleven should make for fascinating watching over the coming weeks.

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Week 9 – Who we are and where we come from (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

14 Oct 2013(Mon)


It is with appropriate timing that the latest international week has coincided with an issue which brings into question the very definition of nationality.

The new flavour of the month at Manchester United, attacking midfielder Adnan Januzaj, was tentatively called into the Belgium squad last Monday as a replacement for the injured Vincent Kompany. However, the 18-year-old has rejected this opportunity, for the time being anyway, with manager Marc Wilmots explaining, “Manchester United told me that Januzaj has not made a decision to play for a national team yet, not for any country. We gave a clear signal [that we want him to play for Belgium] and now it’s up to him. I will respect his choice.”

Januzaj was born and raised in Brussels to Kosovan-Albanian parents, thereby qualifying him immediately to represent Belgium, Albania, and – reportedly, though his mother’s ethnic background – Turkey. He could also play for Kosovo, should the Balkan state gain sufficient international recognition as an independent republic to be welcomed into FIFA; or even Serbia, a theoretical notion only possible because of its continued claim over the 92% ethnically-Albanian southern territory. It is thought that he has been encouraged by his family to choose Albania if Kosovo is not an option, but Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad have reported that the Red Devil may well become a Rode Duivel after all if assured by Wilmots that he is clearly in the reckoning for Brazil 2014 – for which Belgium have now qualified, and will likely be seeded, following Friday’s 2-1 win in Croatia.

The teenager is not the first with such a richly diverse upbringing, but his situation – or, at least, his story – has been further complicated with the revelation from United manager David Moyes, shortly after Januzaj scored twice on his first Premier League start away to Sunderland, that the FA in England had also been in touch regarding his availability. This was confirmed on BBC’s Match of the Day by national team manager Roy Hodgson, who said, “It has to be seriously debated before we start renationalising players but there’s no doubt he’s a real talent and we have our eyes on him. There’s a lot still to be discussed.”

Januzaj for England? The idea is surely even more fanciful than his donning the colours of Serbia, and only slightly less controversial. Two and a half years may have elapsed since he joined United from Anderlecht, but the five-year waiting period for residential qualification as demanded by FIFA can only commence on a player’s 18th birthday, which would render Januzaj ineligible until February 2018. Even if he was prepared to sacrifice everything else for the chance of singing God Save the Queen at the World Cup in Russia, the FA would still have to negotiate their way around a gentleman’s agreement with Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, which dictates that a player obtaining a British passport must still have “engaged in a minimum of five years’ education under the age of 18 within the territory of the relevant association”.

And yet the debates, both serious and sensationalist, have begun and gathered pace. A week on from his naughty schoolboy routine with that picture of that cigarette, Arsenal midfielder Jack Wilshere offered his twopenn’orth with the headline-friendly: “For me, if you are English, you are English, and you play for England. The only people who should play for England are English people. If you’ve lived in England for five years, for me, it doesn’t make you English. You shouldn’t play.” Can open; worms everywhere.

His remarks drew an emotional response on Twitter from Kevin Pietersen, the South African-born cricket star who moved to his mother’s native England at the age of 19 and has represented the latter’s national side with great success since completing a four-year qualifying period for residency in 2005. The Surrey batsman asked Wilshere, “Interested to know how you define foreigner...? Would that include me, [Andrew] Strauss, [Jonathan] Trott, [Matt] Prior (all England cricketers born in South Africa), Justin Rose (English golfer born in South Africa), [Chris] Froome (Kenyan-born British cyclist), Mo Farah (Somali-born British 5,000m and 10,000m Olympic champion)?”

Wilshere initially seemed to stand his ground before clarifying, “To be clear, never said ‘born in England’ – I said English people should play for England. Great respect for people like KP, Mo Farah and Wilf Zaha – they make the country proud. My view on football – going to a new country when ur an adult, & because u can get a passport u play 4 that national team – I disagree.”

A positive (if complicated) generational shift towards multiculturalism means far-right groups such as the English Defence League and the British National Party are viewed with disgust by the overwhelming majority of Brits. National identity thus becomes a minefield through which we are compelled to choose our words carefully, and ‘England for the English’-style sentiments a source of considerable discomfort.

Yet the progressive stance towards integration is only relevant here to a point. The internationalisation of club football in Europe over the past two decades has, in terms of both quality and public attention, left the national teams trailing in the wake of competitions like the Champions and Premier Leagues. This, in itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. But whatever one’s political view, surely few would disagree that if football associations were allowed carte blanche to selectively naturalise players with only tenuous connections – at best – to their territories, then there would be little point of having each country represented by a national team separate to its clubs in the first place. In this sense, Wilshere may have dug himself into a hole somewhat, but his basic argument was one of logic.

So, where do we draw the line? Unfortunately, I’m not sure we can – at least objectively or prescriptively. In my opinion, nationality is a matter of identity and thus personal emotion: you are what you feel. There is no universally set range of ages, durations, or circumstances in which absolutely anybody would automatically switch heartfelt allegiance upon moving to a different country. It is, therefore, entirely subjective and impossible to regulate.

In my own case, I have lived in Japan for nigh on a decade and feel deep affection towards this country, yet I cannot imagine myself ever identifying myself as Japanese rather than English even if I stay until I draw my pension. As such, I would not be comfortable accepting a call-up for Japan – not that there is a single sport in which I might receive one – ahead of someone else who wanted to play and actually did consider themselves Japanese. However, Japan has already been represented with distinction by footballers of overseas birth such as Ruy Ramos and Alex Santos. If such players genuinely feel Japanese then, in my view, there is no problem whatsoever. The same principle applies to Diego Costa of Brazil and Spain, as well as the various Qatar and Bahrain internationals of African or South American birth.

The final scenario I would like to present is a hypothetical doomsday. Suppose a superstar (but uncapped) footballer from, say, Estonia approaches the European Commission to petition his right to play for France, a country with which he has no obvious connection. He feels that his earning potential would be significantly enhanced if he appeared at the World Cup, and that by restricting his international eligibility to one nation with little chance of ever qualifying, the FIFA regulations effectively discriminate against him because of his nationality. Free movement of workers within European Union law has already seen the old ‘three foreigners’ rule abolished; if our imaginary Estonian friend put together the right legal case, could that be curtains for international football as we know it?

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Week 8 – Kick and rush (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

7 Oct 2013(Mon)


Recent years have seen both Norwich City and Southampton achieve the quite considerable feat of successive promotions from League One up to the Championship and then straight into the untold riches of the Premier League. A decade before the latter’s creation, Wimbledon FC and their ‘Crazy Gang’ entered English footballing legend by finishing top of the old Fourth Division in 1982/83 to kickstart a run of three promotions in four seasons; ultimately lining up against the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool – who they would beat in the 1988 FA Cup final – as fellow members of the First Division from 1986/87. This equalled the record set five years earlier by Swansea City, who would sadly fall all the way down again just as quickly, for the fastest rise from bottom flight to top in what is now 55 years since the Football League added its fourth nationwide tier.

But in May 1992, immediately before the renumbering of the divisions and the injection of Sky television money, one team came to within just two matches of managing what nobody had ever done before, have since, or – in all likelihood – will ever again. Under the management of John Beck, Cambridge United were on the brink of eclipsing Wimbledon; in terms of both the speed of their ascent and, perhaps fittingly, the extremeness of character through which they had achieved it. Fourth tier to first, three promotions in three years, was in their grasp.

Beck was known as a stylish midfielder throughout his playing career, which ended abruptly at Cambridge when injury forced his retirement, aged 34, early in the 1989/90 season. He was kept on at the club as assistant manager, before suddenly being elevated to the hot seat in January 1990 with the U’s 14th in the Fourth Division. Years ahead of most of his peers, Beck was fascinated by statistical analysis, leading him to about-turn upon his on-the-pitch reputation and follow a theory promoted by the analyst Charles Reep, the FA director of coaching Charles Hughes, and the soon-to-be England manager Graham Taylor. Ultra direct, long ball football.

Viewed now, the analyses published independently by the two Charleses are, at best, endearingly old-fashioned and, at worst, both logically and mathematically fallacious – as deconstructed by Jonathan Wilson in his book, Inverting the Pyramid. In the 1950s, Reep had deduced that more goals were scored via fewer than three passes; Hughes elaborated to identify Positions of Maximum Opportunity (POMO) and basically deduced that balls crossed into the box from wide – after the original long ball – would win matches. Kick and rush was hereby codified.

But there was no question that, when employed to its extreme by Beck’s Cambridge, it could be incredibly effective. Steve Claridge was signed from Aldershot to complete a physically imposing forward line alongside John Taylor and Dion Dublin, a converted centre-back released by Norwich. Lee Philpott was a slow, unremarkable winger nevertheless capable of high, fast, and accurate crosses that were perfect for this ideal. Coupled with a smattering of long throw-ins and Philpott corners, the new United got as far as the last eight of the FA Cup in 1990, narrowly losing 1-0 at home to First Division Crystal Palace. Their final nine league games were crammed into 25 days, but Cambridge won seven of them to sneak into the playoffs, where they beat Chesterfield to reach the Third Division.

The detailed – and, at the time, novel – approach to nutrition, warm-downs, and ice baths that complemented Beck’s data-based tactics helped Cambridge through another busy season in 1990/91, when they thrashed high-flying Sheffield Wednesday 4-0 to reach another FA Cup quarter-final, losing 2-1 at league champions-elect Arsenal. Stamina told over the final two months, during which they had to complete 19 Third Division fixtures, and victory against Swansea on the last day gave them the title over Southend United, who had been promoted with them a year before.

Back in the Second Division, it was mooted that Beck would have to adopt a more sophisticated style reminiscent of himself as a player in order for Cambridge to compete. Instead, if anything the dial was turned up. The grass at Abbey Stadium was grown longer near the corners to catch the long balls – cash bonuses were awarded for the longest – so the home side could be in prime position to send in their trademark crosses and set pieces. The team trained on the pitch during the week to leave the midfield cut up and uneven; thus a problem for visiting teams, like Glenn Hoddle’s Swindon Town, who might actually like to pass the ball. Beck’s ‘Dracula’ label – bestowed ungenerously on a man said to ‘suck the blood out of football’ – was underlined by a penchant for gamesmanship, as opponents were given heavy warm-up balls soaked in water and sauna-like dressing rooms heated as far as the radiators would allow.

It so nearly worked. On 9 November 1991, Cambridge visited nearby Ipswich Town – a club known for England’s two great managerial knights, Sir Alf Ramsey and Sir Bobby Robson, as well as UEFA Cup glory ten years previously and, notably, attractive football. The U’s were outclassed, but they didn’t care. One corner, one long ball, and a 2-1 victory took them top of the Second Division. The Norway manager Egil Olsen, a quickly up-and-coming proponent of long ball football, can only have been impressed; in a curious side note, Portman Road was bedecked with advertising hoardings in Norwegian as the match was broadcast live on the other side of the North Sea.

But this was as good as it would get. The better sides in this division soon worked out how to quell United’s tactics, yet Beck stubbornly refused to change. The return meeting with Ipswich on 21 March 1992 was marred when Claridge was substituted after just 20 minutes for cutting inside and beating his marker rather than playing to the flanks; the striker punched his manager in the dressing room at half time. Cambridge were still second at that point, but won just two of their last ten league games to slip out of the automatic promotion places with a fortnight remaining. In the playoff semi-final, they were destroyed 5-0 by Leicester City – who, ironically, had tried to hire Beck themselves before the start of the campaign.

It has been downhill ever since for Cambridge. Having bizarrely sacked their manager in October 1992 after a slow start to the following season, the side were relegated. They were back in the fourth tier by 1995, and fell out of the Football League altogether ten years later. The U’s clearly missed Dublin, who joined Manchester United for £1 million after that playoff heartbreak and forged an excellent career with Coventry City, Aston Villa, and England. Claridge, too, enjoyed an Indian summer at Leicester; his goals sealing promotion to the Premier League in 1996 and League Cup glory the following year. Olsen’s Norway, incidentally, put their Cambridge-inspired tactics to good use in knocking Taylor’s England out of the 1994 World Cup qualifiers.

As for Beck? Perhaps most strangely of all, it was revealed by The Observer this Sunday that one of the men most closely associated with England’s outdated, route-one past is now working at the St. George’s Park national football centre, where he trains the next generation of coaches towards their Level 2 and UEFA ‘B’ licences. One should, of course, be wary of stigmatising anyone based on the views they held two decades ago. But it is, at least, a bemusing thought to imagine old ‘Dracula’ Beck in the mix at the state-of-the-art facility that is supposed to protect England’s future.

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Week 7 – Portuguese men at war (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal.com Japan)

1 Oct 2013(Tue)


José Mourinho remains the man most adept at provoking a Premier League narrative of which, as a natural result, he will always play a, if not the central role. In the pre-game build-up to Chelsea’s meeting with André Villas-Boas’s Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday lunchtime, he was asked, “Two big London rivals, two Portuguese rivals; do you see this as two title rivals?” Instead of answering the actual question, the 50-year-old instead pulled a face of bemused disgust and took issue with the interviewer’s television-friendly but innocuous choice of lead cliché:

“I don’t think it’s two Portuguese rivals. I have no rivals – no Portuguese rivals and no foreign rivals. I have just managers that are leading other teams and I have to play against these teams.”

For a moment, Mourinho was a greyer version of the schoolboy, so repetitively parodied in a thousand big and small screen comedies, who tries and fails to hide the identity of his adolescent crush by vehemently denying any interest whatsoever at the slightest, incidental mention of her name. It is an act the mischievous Special One inevitably plays well, and though even he appeared tired of the constant AVB questioning come the post-match press conference, his subtextual line has been consistent. Having slyly overlooked the Spurs manager in favour of his loyal fitness man, Rui Faria, when asked on Portuguese television earlier this year to name a closest challenger from among his coaching compatriots, Mourinho last Friday sought to draw a public contrast over the matters that might be kept private. In his words, he was “not a kid [here] to discuss relationships with the media”.

The latter line was, of course, a reference to the manner in which Villas-Boas has – if not actively, then certainly quite willingly – revealed details of the breakdown in relations between the two former colleagues. The younger of the pair was elevated from his job with the youth teams at Porto when Mourinho returned in 2002 and asked him to serve as scout in charge of opponent observation, where he would compile meticulous dossiers on other teams and their star players. His input quickly became crucial to the attention to detail which brought near-constant silverware in their home country, in Europe, and in England during their original stints at Stamford Bridge. Villas-Boas again followed Mourinho to Internazionale – where it has been suggested that the idea to field Samuel Eto’o out wide was that of the former, not the latter – before ambition and newly-obtained coaching qualifications led to a seemingly peaceful parting of ways in 2009.

Quoted in The Guardian, Villas-Boas explains: “We had a great personal and professional relationship before, that we don’t have now... I don’t lose any sleep [over it]. Our break-up point was because I was full of ambition to give him something extra [at Inter] and I wanted further involvement for the job I was doing at the time, which was scouting and match preparation. I felt I could give him much more so my initial idea was to keep working with him. But he didn’t feel the need for somebody near to him or in another position as an assistant and, because of that, it was decided it was time to continue our careers [apart].”

Why did things sour so quickly thereafter, to the point that Villas-Boas claimed last year not even to know Mourinho’s telephone number anymore? The overriding impression is that, contrary to what the elder Portuguese may declare on television, quick success as a manager suddenly did make Villas-Boas a rival in every sense – a threat to Mourinho’s immediate and future fortunes; perhaps even to his legacy. This overlaps in the Venn diagram with a genuine prickliness Mourinho betrays at the inference from Villas-Boas, whether intended as a slight or not, that he too served his apprenticeship under the great Sir Bobby Robson – thus making Mourinho not master, merely sempai.

“Why?” spluttered Mourinho when asked about the Robson connection on Friday. “Where has he worked with André?” In fact, a 17-year-old Villas-Boas greatly impressed the late former England manager when the two coincidentally lived in the same apartment block in 1994, after Robson took charge of Porto with Mourinho as (initially) his interpreter. The teenager posted his own tactical analyses through the letterbox of his new neighbour each week, eventually earning him an invitation to work as a trainee with the youth teams and support from Robson to further his coaching education at Lilleshall and Ipswich Town in England.

It is perhaps understandable that Mourinho, whose own apprenticeship and close relationship with Robson blossomed under the increasing responsibility of assistant manager posts at Porto then Barcelona, should seek to emphasise an alternative interpretation. Before the start of this season, he said, “Anyone who works for me finds my office is not locked... So with him [Villas-Boas], with Steve [Clarke], with Brendan [Rodgers], I’m happy when they decide to go and they become successful... When they fly, and fly well, I’m happy.” The implication was clear: these are the apprentices of master Mourinho.

But to return to the original question as intended by that television interviewer, the real reason these Portuguese men at war are so interesting is that their conflict backdrops what may well be a real title rivalry this term.

On Saturday, their first ever meeting on opposing benches – this week’s featured game on Foot TUESDAY! – produced a score draw both on the pitch and in terms of one-upmanship. In the first half, it was AVB’s Tottenham who looked brighter and full of fresh, new ideas; Chelsea more familiar and predictable. But in the second, Mourinho revealed that experienced hand which has turned the course of so many matches in the past – introducing Juan Mata for the ineffective John Obi Mikel while dropping Ramires back to help quell Christian Eriksen and provide the midfield platform upon which the visitors’ attacking players could dominate. The post-match managerial handshakes were cordial but hardly conciliatory; more a mutual acknowledgement that, in the other, each will have a strong and worthy adversary to overcome.

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