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March 2014

Week 33 – On your head (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

31 Mar 2014(Mon)


Arsenal versus Manchester City might have stolen the prime broadcast slot and most of the headlines, but the biggest game of the Premier League weekend was arguably West Bromwich Albion’s 3-3 thriller against Cardiff City – certainly in terms of the impact success or failure in the battle to avoid relegation will have on either club’s finances. Noise levels at The Hawthorns were certainly befitting of the occasion’s importance. Home fans were suitably spurred by the return of their beloved pre-game anthem, The Liquidator, a reggae instrumental track released in 1969 by the Harry J Allstars. Perhaps more familiar to the international television audience for its use at Stamford Bridge, West Midlands Police had banned the song for the past eight seasons as the Baggies faithful would use its tune to shout obscenities about fierce rivals Wolverhampton Wanderers.

Inevitably, they did so again on Saturday; the galvanising effect was immediate on the pitch too, as West Brom raced into a 2-0 lead through Morgan Amalfitano and Graham Dorrans inside just nine minutes. But even once the excitement surrounding the second goal died down, supporters on all sides of the ground remained on their feet in salute to one of the club’s greatest ever number nines – Jeff Astle, who passed away in 2002. After 3,000 travelling supporters to the previous weekend’s away game with Hull City had spent the ninth minute applauding their old hero, this marked a home debut for the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign.

Signed from his own local club, Notts County, in 1964 for £25,000, Astle netted 174 times in 361 appearances over ten seasons to rank as the fourth highest scorer in Albion history. A classic centre forward, he formed a devastating double threat with his roommate and best friend, the inside forward Tony Brown, who remained at The Hawthorns until 1981 and continues to hold the club’s all-time goal record with 279. During their career together, the Baggies reached four major finals in four years; Astle scoring in the first leg of their League Cup final win over West Ham United in 1966.

the greatest highlight came at Wembley in 1968 against Everton in the FA Cup final. Though more renowned for his heading, Astle hit a right-footed shot which was blocked by the opposing captain, Brian Labone, before rifling home the rebound with his weaker left for the game’s only goal three minutes into extra time. This sealed West Brom’s last major honour to date, and put the striker into a select group of players to have scored in every round of the competition in one season.

Astle was selected for England in the Home Championship against Wales a year later, but a debut goal was cruelly chalked off when his header was stopped on the line by a defender’s hand; he swept home the rebound only for the referee to point to the spot for the original infringement. A terrific 1969/70 season, in which Astle led the Division One scoring charts with 25 goals, then saw him book a place on the plane to Mexico as Alf Ramsey’s men sought to defend their Jules Rimet trophy at the 1970 World Cup. The Albion man missed the opening group game with Romania, but got his big chance five days later in
the legendary clash with Brazil – as a second-half replacement for Bobby Charlton shortly after Jairzinho had put the Seleção in front.

Within three minutes of the substitution, left-back Terry Cooper crossed the ball from deep. His opposite number, Everaldo, miskicked an attempted clearance horribly, and it dropped at the feet of Astle just by the penalty spot. With just a stranded Félix in goal to beat, however, this time the left foot let him down and the shot flew well wide. England lost, and although Astle was picked to start against Czechoslovakia, he again failed to score, was dropped for the quarter-final loss to West Germany, and never appeared for his country again.

The miss against Brazil became the self-deprecating punchline of a risqué joke as the good-humoured Astle toured his own roadshow post-retirement, which he combined with a window cleaning business under the slogan: “Jeff Astle never misses the corners”. This eye for a gag – and willingness to laugh at himself – made him the ideal ex-pro for a regular cameo spot on television. In the mid-1990s, he teamed up with stand-up comics David Baddiel and Frank Skinner – a West Brom fan who had idolised Astle as a child - on the classic football comedy programme, Fantasy Football League, which was ultimately responsible for the Euro ’96 anthem Three Lions.

This brought him new popularity among a generation too young to have seen him play. Astle appeared at the end of each show to sing a karaoke song – off time and out of tune. He was also the butt of a joke
in a skit guest-starring Carlos Alberto Torres, who protested at the presenters’ mocking of on-field blunders by the Brazilian stars of 1970 with reference to that second half chance: “Look, I remember that World Cup very well. There was only one guy who truly deserved the title ‘shite’. Jeff Astle was shite!” Astle himself then appears, pointing out his performances as a vocalist and correcting the legendary right-back: “Oi! Not so much of the ‘was’…”

His death at the age of just 59, marked on Fantasy Football League by a minute’s silence in place of the end-of-show song, shocked the English game – not least because the coroner recorded a verdict of ‘death by industrial injury’. According to the highly respected neuro-pathologist Dr. Keith Robson, it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that Astle’s aerial prowess in an era of heavier, non-waterproof footballs had been the underlying cause of catastrophic, fatal brain damage. The player’s widow, Laraine, told the Mail on Sunday last month: “Every slice of Jeff’s brain had trauma in it. It resembled the brain of a boxer’s as a direct result of heading footballs.” Early-onset dementia meant that, towards the end of his life, Astle could no longer remember his footballing achievements or even the club he had played for.

The Football Association and Professional Footballers’ Association announced at the time that a ten-year study would be conducted into the relationship between heading and brain injury, but troublingly, 12 years have passed without any such research receiving a further mention. It has been suggested that the project was abandoned when the footballers selected as case study subjects failed to turn professional. But statistical research in academia, independent from football’s governing bodies, is confirming what many in the game have long suspected. For example, The Guardian reports that investigations at Turin University, looking at the medical records of 7,000 former players from 1970 to 2001, has shown the risk of motor neurone disease is six times higher than normal.

The Astle family never heard anything from the FA again until last week when, in light of media attention surrounding the ‘Justice for Jeff’ campaign, the chairman Greg Dyke wrote to them with a lengthy apology. In a season where doctors have already been shocked at the sight of players like Romelu Lukaku and Hugo Lloris being cleared to play immediately after suffering head injuries, the new FA regime needs to get serious, and quickly. Chris Bryant MP, the Shadow Minister for Welfare Reform, told the Daily Mail: “I spoke with a leading neuro-pathologist who works with the New York Jets this week and she’s amazed that Britain seems to be 15 years behind America on this… My fear is that some of the sports are just putting their head in the sand and there is a point when that just becomes criminal negligence… The truth is they don’t know what headers do to people.”

‘Justice for Jeff’ is not remotely about compensation; it is about awareness. One hopes that the love that football fans continue to hold for their old heroes will inspire appropriate action to make life safer for the Astles of today and tomorrow.

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Week 32 – Who’s really in charge? (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

24 Mar 2014(Mon)


There are three types of ‘football manager’. By this, I refer not to the personalities or managerial techniques of the individuals in question, but rather the job descriptions implied by the term. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be to say that there are three types of football club, distinguished by who is really in charge. The positioning of the big cheese, the man most responsible for long-term strategy, has a defining impact on the role and life expectancy of he who sits nominally behind the manager’s door.

The first paradigm is the nouveau riche, the clubs flung suddenly to the forefront regardless of historical status by the massive injection of financial capital. Here, the most important person is the owner (alternatively a representative thereof), whether an actual living person like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea and Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City, or a corporate person such as the Qatar Investment Authority for Paris Saint-Germain. This model is arguably the newest, carried to extreme orders of magnitude beyond the imagination of earlier entrepreneurs from Blackburn Rovers’ steel magnate Jack Walker to PSG’s prior experience with Canal+.

It also typically sits most uncomfortably with fans and observers, but despite this, is the easiest of the three to understand. Long-term success is the expected product of sustained, nine- or ten-figure investment. The manager is provided with world-class playing resources to deliver trophies immediately; if he fails, he is quickly expendable. Just ask Antoine Kombouaré, Mark Hughes, Roberto Mancini, Luiz Felipe Scolari, Carlo Ancelotti, André Villas-Boas, Roberto di Matteo, or even José Mourinho. Should Manuel Pellegrini fail to add to his Capital One Cup success this term, vultures will be hovering close by to monitor his early progress next.

The second is the hybrid model, or the ‘continental’ model as we like to refer to it in England – partly in deference to its modernity, and partly to imply due scepticism for anything devised offshore from our islands by one of those flashy Euro types. Here, it is the technical director who calls the shots – ideally overseeing transfer policy and devising a long-term playing strategy which filters down from first team to youth academy. In such a setup, the manager should enjoy a little more job security, though if he does leave – be it down to poor results or a new challenge – the technical director can appoint an appropriate successor without veering from the underlying vision.

I say ‘should’, for rarely has this paradigm been implemented properly or with full conviction in the Premier League. Almost always, this has been because the technical director joins the club second and is thrust upon the undermined, incumbent manager – thus recklessly subverting the whole principle of having the former appoint a gaffer he can work with. The farcical situation at Newcastle United with Dennis Wise in the boardroom led to the resignation of Kevin Keegan, who had managed the former Chelsea captain with England just eight years previously. Harry Redknapp was such an overshadowing presence as director of football at Portsmouth that he actually usurped Graham Rix as manager. But the true master of this field is Avram Grant – such a supportive director was the Israeli at both Chelsea and Pompey that he replaced Mourinho and Paul Hart in the respective dugouts within about two months apiece.

Tottenham Hotspur were at least a little more intelligent in doing things the wrong way around, recruiting Franco Baldini from Roma in part due to the recommendation of then-manager André Villas-Boas. But while AVB reportedly hoped the Gareth Bale cash would be spent on João Moutinho, Hulk, and David Villa, Baldini instead went four better and signed seven entirely different players; it looked like decent business until the Portuguese was sacked in December with none of the new faces having really yet fit in. Tim Sherwood exposed a lack of the unified philosophy supposedly implied by this type of management structure by immediately introducing a different style of play upon his promotion from the academy. Latest gossip is that Spurs want Louis van Gaal, but the Dutchman will refuse to answer to Baldini or any other technical director.

Greater success has come through slight overlaps in the Venn diagram. Swansea City have not installed a director of football, but a vision for the club at boardroom level saw them smoothly through four managerial changes from Kenny Jackett to Michael Laudrup with a visibly consistent development in playing philosophy throughout. At Liverpool, nobody has been brought in as director of football since Damien Comolli’s ill-fated stint between 2010 and 2012, but instead there is now a four-man ‘transfer committee’ of which manager Brendan Rodgers is part. The new setup was responsible for the coups of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge. However, given the bodged attempts at re-jigging the defensive resources last summer, the former Swansea boss could be forgiven for craving greater autonomy.

For this would take him, and Liverpool, into our third and final paradigm. This is the model most conservative, yet even as it slips out of fashion, it remains undoubtedly the most familiar to British football and still probably the most coveted by senior managers (see Redknapp in the face of QPR’s ownership or, potentially, Van Gaal at Tottenham). It is the style adhered to by Arsenal and Manchester United, and it offers the manager the greatest job security of all. Put simply, not only does this manager oversee the first team, but it is he who exercises supreme control over the club’s entire long-term agenda – essentially encompassing every football-related aspect from recruitment to diet, technology to pitch conditioning. As Sir Alex Ferguson put it: “The most important person in the club is the manager. And that must always be sacrosanct.”

Of course, there will be delegation along the way. But even then, Arsène Wenger is no stranger to the label ‘dictator’, and ultimately, the manager is all powerful. In this model, it is a bigger, more encompassing job than in either of our previous two templates; highest up the echelons of relative command. It is this very job description that allowed Ferguson to remain in charge for 1,500 matches; Wenger for 1,000 and counting. Simultaneously, only this definition of a manager could have afforded the Frenchman almost nine years to further his speciality – as some have cruelly put it – in failure. Only in this paradigm is David Moyes still given the opportunity to lay out his future plans at the end of Manchester United’s worst ever Premier League season for the directors to decide if they remain on board.

For better or for worse, the clubs who follow the classic British model are left with a responsibility to trust in their manager. But all the more, given the breadth of his responsibility, the greater chunk of the club and its overall strategy he therefore represents, it is a far harder decision to remove him.

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Week 30 – Black and white (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

10 Mar 2014(Mon)


However much Tottenham Hotspur manager Tim Sherwood may have lamented the players’ “capitulation” away to Chelsea – while making little comment on his own culpability in the 0-4 scoreline – the fact is that our focus match on this week’s Foot! TUESDAY was effectively ended as a contest on the hour mark. Even if Sandro hadn’t lost his footing to allow in Demba Ba; or if Jan Vertonghen, Hugo Lloris, and Kyle Walker hadn’t contrived to present the Senegalese striker with a quickfire second; or if Sherwood had actually devised a Plan B to restore their slight first half superiority after the interval; there was simply no way back for the visitors once Younès Kaboul saw red for felling Samuel Eto’o and Eden Hazard dispatched the resulting penalty kick.

The immediate feeling was that the sending off was harsh. Contact had been slight, although not necessarily insignificant enough to call the awarding of the foul into question. A quick turnover had allowed Eto’o the moment he needed to get goal side for Hazard’s cross, which meant the unfortunate Kaboul could only bundle into the back of him. In commentary, the former Spurs striker Clive Allen tried to reason that the Cameroonian would have needed to take a touch before he could have shot, but it was difficult to articulate the sense of injustice – the disappointment at a match ended by Tottenham’s hopeless task with ten – in a manner that could have held up in court. Whether or not he may have wished it so, the only question requiring the judgement of referee Michael Oliver was if Eto’o had been denied an obvious goalscoring opportunity. Context, discretion, and common sense do not come into it.

This situation is largely the end product of a cyclical clamour for clarification. Over the last 25 years, during which television and internet have overseen a revolution in football coverage, the trend has been to clamp down upon infringements which may cause injury or unfairly influence the result of matches with harsher punishment. This, in itself, is undeniably a good thing. But repeated interrogation of controversial incidents – in part by the media, in part by the ‘wronged’ players and clubs – has intensified demand for consistency, which in turn requires unambiguous, black-and-white definitions. The result is a whopping 77-page appendage to the 48-page ‘Laws of the Game’, designed to offer precise ‘Interpretation of the Laws of the Game and Guidelines for Referees’. Law 12 – Fouls and Misconduct – itself only spans four pages but warrants a further 14 to clear things up in the latter document.

Achieving mastery of each nuance in the annually-revised Laws, their interpretations, and guidelines is a challenging task for all match officials – and one routinely neglected by players, coaches, and journalists. But no matter how extensive the textual legislation may be, it could patently never encompass every single scenario that might conceivably unfold on the pitch, while its very existence presents a further, fundamental problem. It forgets that referees are human.

Take, for instance, the case of West Bromwich Albion’s Ben Foster, who was two or three paces outside his 18-yard area when he handled the ball late in the first half against Manchester United on Saturday. The England man was clearly at fault, but through clumsiness rather than cheating – indeed, it was one of two or three occasions during that game on which he misjudged the flight of the ball entirely. Yet given the proximity of Robin van Persie, there could be no uncertainty that when Foster kicked the air, United would have had an obvious goalscoring opportunity had the ball been allowed to continue on its path beyond the goalkeeper’s hand.

Despite the speed of the play, it seems unlikely that referee Jon Moss and his assistant would have missed the incident. But because of all this clarification we have deemed so necessary, the officials were left with two polar opposites for choices – ‘see’ the offence and show a red card, thereby killing the match in question and dealing the Baggies’ survival hopes a further blow with a suspension for their goalkeeper, or ‘not see’ any offence whatsoever. Given the Draconian severity of the former alternative in the context of such a minor error on Foster’s part – it was hardly a handball akin to Luis Suárez against Ghana – the latter outcome felt closer on the scale of things to fair justice, even if the decision itself was not correct.

Short-sightedly, the International Football Association Board rejected a plea from UEFA earlier this month to reconsider the ‘triple jeopardy’ rule through which a single foul can be punished with a penalty, a red card, and a subsequent ban. The Scottish FA chief executive Stewart Regan, one of four British representatives who comprise the Board alongside a quartet from FIFA, explained, “We don’t want to flip back to where we were before where some goalkeepers knew that if they could not be sent off, they would simply take out the attacker.”

But here again is that obsession with black-and-white clarity. Surely there is no need for a ruling that all fouls of a certain prescribed subset must be punished identically? Why should we either have to send off every single goalkeeper, or not any goalkeeper, in Regan’s example? In the interpretations appendix for Law 12, there is a distinction between ‘careless’, meaning that “the player has shown a lack of attention or consideration when making a challenge or that he acted without precaution”; and ‘reckless’, where “the player has acted with complete disregard to the danger to, or consequences for, his opponent”. This is used to determine whether or not to show a yellow card elsewhere on the pitch, but why not allow a similar distinction to decide between yellow and red for offences that deny a goalscoring opportunity?

The key point is that there will always be shades of grey, but by such insistence upon black or white, referees have been denied the humane discretion to respond accordingly to context. Had Oliver and Moss been allowed to exercise their own reading of the game, and whistle but show yellow or even no card at all to Kaboul and Foster respectively, the matches may have continued to a more satisfying conclusion. Our fixation with consistency has just produced more extreme inconsistency, and as such, it is time to make “in the opinion of the referee” the key sentence of every Law and guideline once again.

* Kaboul's red card was rescinded after this piece was written.

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Week 29 – Take it as it is (2013-14 Premier League column for Goal Japan)

3 Mar 2014(Mon)


However outstanding the quality of their football may be, it is bound to take a long time before clubs as sugar-daddied as the newly-crowned Capital One Cup winners Manchester City enjoy anything more than a complicated relationship with the neutral supporter. But perhaps the greatest joy of this Premier League season, even beyond the unusual closeness of the title race itself, has been the flowering of four sides in the top half built upon the combination of intelligent long-term management – both on and off the pitch – and highly attractive football. No nouveau riche; simply new thrills, and enough of them to restore one’s faith in the English game.

The December meeting of two of this quartet, Arsenal versus Everton at the Emirates, remains the highlight match of the season to date for its sheer all-round quality over 90 minutes. But for about an hour at St. Mary’s on Saturday evening, the other two ran it close. Liverpool managed to assert control over the opening quarter-hour despite misfiring with the final pass; finally leading in slightly fortuitous fashion through Luis Suárez, but demonstrating such a repeated threat to the opposing high line that one could have foreseen a similar shellacking as endured at Anfield by both Gunners and Toffees. However, Southampton regained the initiative in magnificent fashion not through any particular change, but conversely a sustained conviction in their own style of play which overcame the initial wobbles to lay siege upon the visitors’ third.

It was frustrating for Mauricio Pochettino that, despite a 25-minute spell of enrapturing domination, his players should go no closer than an Adam Lallana shot which struck the foot of Simon Mignolet’s right-hand post. Yet it was typical of Liverpool to quickly seize upon space between the lines afforded by the Argentine’s half-time tactical adjustment and double their advantage via Raheem Sterling some 70 seconds after the teenager’s introduction. Three goals mustered from five shots on target was testament to the incredible potency of the Reds’ attacking players; a rare clean sheet for the defence surely a confidence boost ahead of ten games to chase the trophy.

The end result, 3-0, appeared one-sided. But the match reaffirmed the ability of both Liverpool and Southampton to lift fans and neutrals alike from their seats, and of particular excitement to the English observer is the local core around which such excellent football has been cultivated.

A deep malaise has surrounded the national team ever since the supposed Golden Generation failed to probe beyond three consecutive quarter-finals under Sven-Göran Eriksson and died an inglorious death in the Euro 2008 qualifiers with Steve McClaren. A couple of big wins over Croatia proved a false dawn as Fabio Capello lost faith in the tactical intelligence of Premier League winners denied the comfort blanket provided by foreign clubmates. The Italian’s emergency replacement, Roy Hodgson, did a good job in the circumstances at Euro 2012, albeit a tedious and defensive one. The sense that England are stuck in limbo between eras persists, and expectations had never been so low even before they were drawn alongside Italy and Uruguay for this summer’s World Cup.

Yet England need not necessary remain so rigid, so inferior. Liverpool have supplied five players to the squad that will face Denmark this Wednesday – the most, jointly with Manchester United, for any individual club. The Saints, meanwhile, count a record four. Though Hodgson is noted more for his emphasis on organisational drills, preparation time is at a premium in international football, and options are suddenly abound to revolutionise the Three Lions’ attacking play through direct importation.

Take, for example, the Liverpool sides that terrorised Everton and Arsenal in successive weeks a month ago. As is commonly the case with Hodgson’s England in bigger matches, the Reds fielded a relatively deep defensive line and registered significantly less than 50% of the overall possession. Yet the energetic pressing of their front five around halfway allowed Steven Gerrard to serve effectively as a midfield sweeper, collecting loose balls at the breakdown and rolling them quickly to Jordan Henderson or Philippe Coutinho, who would pierce the highly-drawn opposition defence at a single stroke with precise longitudinal passes to the onrushing Suárez, Sterling, or Daniel Sturridge.

Four of the half dozen players mentioned above are English and could be deployed identically in a 4-3-3, with little need for further tactical instruction, at Wembley. Obviously, England do not have a Suárez, but Wayne Rooney is our closest equivalent and could thrive if given the responsibility of fulfilling a similar role. Either Jack Wilshere or Southampton’s Lallana could compensate for Coutinho’s passing and technical ability in the midfield three. The injured Theo Walcott might have been an ideal upgrade for Sterling, who is raw so can fade from matches, but the likes of Jay Rodriguez or Andros Townsend can always deputise if necessary. Frank Lampard and Michael Carrick provide experienced alternatives for the Gerrard position, even if Hodgson should not need all three in Brazil.

As discussed previously on Foot! TUESDAY, Liverpool’s midfield arrangement can break down in matches where the onus is placed upon them to control possession, when there are fewer opportunities to counter from turnovers and Gerrard’s defensive shortcomings are exposed. In such cases, England could err more towards the Pochettino style and perhaps adopt a fluid 4-2-3-1 to press much higher up the pitch. Here, the tireless positional rotation – both with and without the ball – of Southampton’s front four could be replicated by any combination of Rooney, Sturridge, Sterling, Lallana, Rodriguez, and Rickie Lambert. Each offers sufficient versatility of position to ensure an exciting variety of options for the national team.

Though there is a clear difference between the two approaches, and the starting positions upon which they are based, there is also a lot the Reds and Saints have in common. The 4 P’s that Brendan Rodgers has emphasised since his Swansea City days – possession, penetration, pressure, patience – can broadly be applied to Pochettino’s Southampton as well. For Hodgson and England, perhaps most important of all is the dexterity which the two sets of players share in terms of adapting to tactical changes (Liverpool played a 4-4-2 diamond on Saturday).

It may be alien for the 66-year-old to contemplate a line quite as high as José Fonte and Dejan Lovren were on Saturday, but at times a compromise will need to be found in order to break down weaker, deeper-sitting opponents. Phil Jagielka is certainly no stranger to passing out from the back at Everton, while Leighton Baines and Luke Shaw are ideal weapons on the overlap from left-back. The key to keeping the higher, 4-2-3-1 system together would be to ensure enough solidity at the base of midfield – in superb form this season at Goodison Park, a recall for Gareth Barry should supplement an area in which England have been lacking.

Things aren’t all bad in English football. Liverpool and Southampton – plus not forgetting Everton and Arsenal – have shown us so much. With few England managers ever having been under less pressure, it is time for Hodgson to get adventurous.

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