Archive | March, 2006

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Sven, England, And The English Game

Posted on 29 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

For the thirty-one years that divided England’s narrow loss to Brazil in the 1970 World Cup Finals and the 5-1 victory over Germany in Munich, there were three kinds of England international. The first kind were against minnows, nations with little football history or few players to call upon. England almost always won these matches handsomely. The second kind were against established football nations, perhaps without England’s deep well of talent, but well-coached and eager to show what they could do. These were usually close games, with little glory in victory for England and only ignominy in defeat. Finally, there were the games against serious opposition – the Italys, Germanys, Argentinas and Brazils. Regardless of performance, it was unusual for England to come away from these as winners.

These days, there are four types of opponent. The minnows, against whom England win narrowly after a demotivated struggle; the reasonable opponents, whom England will beat by two or more goals; the serious opponents, whom England now outplay; and Brazil, who beat us. This is change, at a deep level, change – against better opponents at least – for the better. It’s not been a matter of our having superior players these days – are the current crop really better than the Waddles, Gascoignes, Robsons, Beardsleys, Linekers, Shearers, Butchers, Walkers, Brookings, etc. of earlier years? There’s Rooney, of course, but then there’s also England’s manager to account for this improvement.

What kind of man is Sven Goran Eriksson? You’d be hard put to answer that question if all you had to rely upon was the British media, whose reply – “Foreign – ” says more about them that it does about the man himself. Fortunately, there have been a few writers willing to venture into the strange unknown worlds beyond parochialism and bigotry, and they all begin by discussing the calmness of Sven, his unflappability under pressure. Sven himself would explain this in terms of his upbringing, which taught him not to worry about those things beyond his control, an awareness he shares with Jose Mourinho. He’s very well-dressed – uncommon in Britain, and impressive to modern image-conscious footballers. He is by his own description “willing to fail”, meaning that he can fail at what he wants to do without he himself becoming “a failure”, another point of comparison with Mourinho. Sven has two loves in his life – an obsession with sport, and a deep attachment to Italy, a country he longed to perform in as a player and where he was happiest as a man and as a coach. The British find his calm difficult to comprehend without seeing it as some kind of facade – so, behind the facade, is a thrill-seeker, a ski-jumper in his youth, a romantic still chasing fortune and glory in football when other men with his money and achievements would have settled for the peace of the golf course. His temptestuous love-life – the very fact that he can pull – brings him closer to his players and further away from British journalists. He is an excellent communicator, and has an acute eye for detail – two more Mourinho attributes that Sven has,  and which are characteristic of great coaches. Overall, I get a picture of Sven as a very unBritish individual – he’s not one of our football men at all, this smart lover of women and fortune and glory, with his cool self-control – and he doesn’t need our good opinion, that’s for sure. But he has the good opinion of his squad, and it’s worth asking why.

On the whole, footballers need three things from their coach in order to thrive. Certainty – knowing what is expected, precisely and simply and when, nothing too complicated, expecially when it comes to tactics and team selection. Security – knowing they are valued and have a part to play, knowing that their coach rates them. Thirdly, they are looking for the chance to improve and win things, caps and trophies. Sven has gone some way in overcoming the difficulty of providing these things within the limited sphere of international football by running England as a little club, with a settled side, hard to get into, hard to get out of. The line-up against Germany in 2001 is essentially the same one as will, with luck, start the World Cup this summer (substitute Rooney for Heskey, Cole for Scholes, Robinson for Seaman and Lampard for Barmby and that’s it, in five years). Within the little club, Sven has set out to create what he calls a “winning mentality”. This is a long-term project.

There are three parts to this “winning mentality”, and the first is the simple desire to win. It goes without saying, really. Virtually all players have this, and quite a few non-players too – if you or I were handed an England shirt, we’d probably want to win and do our best to that end. The next stage, however, consists of the simple, straightforward belief that victory is at least possible. Euro 2004 was the first tournament England went into with the genuine belief that they were up to the task, since Mexico 1970, and they were right both times. Practically every member of Sven’s core England side know without question that they are able to cope with playing at the very highest level and know that they are probably good enough to make winning a decent prospect. Great players don’t always share this attitude – Tony Currie, the wonderful Sheffield United midfielder of the 1970s, frequently lost confidence in his own ability, whereas an Owen or a Gerrard will still bet on themselves after a dozen consecutive errors. The final stage is that of feeling comfortable as a winner, of being congruent with it, expecting it, experiencing no dissonance with it. This stage has caused winning English teams terrible trouble in recent years. Both the rugby and cricket teams have achieved on the grand scale, only to revert to their accustomed mediocrity once the achievement was safely behind them. Winning really takes it out of us, creating a kind of mental exhaustion that Australian cricketers wouldn’t begin to recognise. We don’t, as a nation, feel like winners, nor do we like accustomed winners very much. There aren’t that many of them in football per se – Sven talks of Roberto Mancini and Sinisa Mihajlovic within that category, and you might add Zidane and Ronaldinho to the list. I can’t think of anyone in the core England lineup, with the possible exception of John Terry, who might qualify. But for England to possess an entire side who are at least at the second level is a novelty in itself.

Choosing players who have that belief that winning is at possible – that it is doable – is one part of building the mentality across the squad. Sven sees such confidence as catching – which I think is arguable, frankly. He also sets great store by a harmonious squad – one in which conflict is kept to a minimum. He looks for a squad in which  everyone understands the goals of the group, and everyone subscribes to the goals of the group. Once again, the benefits of this are arguable. Pursuit of the harmonious squad has probably led to the exclusion of as good a player as Robbie Fowler, and in any case, there is little evidence that harmony outdoes discord at World Cups – in 1974, the final was contested by two camps absolutely ridden with internal dissent and failures of discipline. Some discord can provide that distraction from the matter at hand that relieves performance pressure from players, freeing them to produce their best game.

Sven, like most great coaches, is careful not to be too close to his squad. Like Robson before him, Sven has been accused of giving in to player power. It’s a good story. But the evidence of “player power” – the settled squad, Beckham’s retention as skipper – are products of the press’s imagination. We’ve dealt with the settled squad, and, in truth, even Sven’s hardest critics would be pressed to improve upon it. Beckham deserves lengthier consideration.

David Beckham wasn’t made captain by Sven – that was done by Peter Taylor, who, in his one game as caretaker manager, decided to blood young players and gave Beckham the armband both as a tribute to his recovery from France ’98 and because he was the most experienced young player of the day. Sven kept him on as captain, and has used Michael Owen as back-up on his occasional absences through injury and suspension. That in itself tells me that Sven doesn’t see the captain as a kind of inspirational mini-me representing him out on the field. Rather, the captain stands for the kind of atmosphere Sven wants around the team – calm, professional, good enough to succeed on merit, not having to win against the odds.

Beckham might just need the captaincy to get the best out of himself. Unlike a Scholes or a Barmby, Beckham seems to want the intense attention he receives, not because it raises the stakes for him especially, but – psychobabble alert – because he needs outside confirmation of his own significance in order to perform. He needs some form of sign that people know he is there, that he matters to what’s going on. The captaincy is reassuring for him in that respect. Beckham, like Eriksson, is a risktaker – going to Real Madrid to see if he could match the Zidanes and Figos, or, for instance, that halfway line kick against Wimbledon, or taking the last free kick against Greece, or his persisting with England penalty duty after repeated failure. But he is not the calm, control-aware kind of man that Erickson is, nor is Erickson a father figure to him. Rather, Beckham is the most team-orientated member of the squad, buying completely into the goals and ethos of the group Eriksson has built. If Eriksson’s intelligence is sometimes overrated, Beckham’s is always horrendously downplayed. As such, Beckham – and in the same respects, Owen – well repesents the cosmopolitan, sophisticated and accomplished team that is England today.

I’d describe Sven as having pursued an anti-England agenda, in that he’s had to eliminate from his squad as far as he can some of those very English characteristics that were holding England’s always talented players from achieving their due. Three words sum up what he stands against.

The first of these is Passion. Passion – the ranting, heart-on-sleeve, veins-on-forehead approach to football, is much loved in England. But it’s counterproductive. It doesn’t work. Why, if you wouldn’t expect shouting to get more from Bjorn Borg or Tiger Woods or Matthew Pinsent, do you think it might make all the difference in Darius Vassell, who at the end of the day is just an athlete playing a sport? Why look to Churchillian rhetoric, when the (successful) England rugby team actually chose quiet and concentration at half time, instead of shouting? A tight game is a hysterical situation enough on its own without the coach adding an extra layer on his own account. What a Clough worked towards was distracting his players from the occasion, not ramming it down their throats, because he knew – and Erickson knows – that raising the temperature is only going to increase performance anxiety and fear of failure. It’s not going to raise your or anyone else’s game. Passion is the resort of those who know that their skill isn’t up to the job, who know that they aren’t going to win, but are going to “do their best” (they probably won’t, because they’ll be too het up). Passion can blind a team to their true quality. In this season’s FA Cup, Luton Town built up a lead over Liverpool by playing cultured, passing football – but, shocked by this turn of events, they resorted to headless chicken “passionate” football and threw it all needlessly away, when calmness would have won the match.

The second of these words is “tricks”, the English word for an excellent level of ball skill. Only a certain level of skill is truly acceptable to the English, and anything beyond that is either supernatural or dishonest. Or the result of “natural rhythm”: it took Simon Clifford to go to Brazil and discover that the secret of their success wasn’t samba and beach football, but superb coaching and high standards. We still haven’t properly heard what he has to say – his treatment at Southampton was a disgrace. It’s OK for a British player to lose the ball through ineptitude, lack of technique or clumsiness – but if he dare lose possession because he was using his skills then he is to be condemned as a “show pony”. That’s not the same as saying that the Joe Coles don’t need to learn to work for the team, because they do. That’s something all players have to learn. And it’s not saying that fans don’t love their genius-level players – because the fans know better than the coaches in this regard.

The third phrase is “mind games”. It’s disreputable in the English game to recognise that there is a mental side to playing football. Not so in athletics, or golf, or tennis, or rowing, or rugby. Clough, Paisley and Shankly knew. But those were intelligent men, who knew that they did more than “kick one up the backside, put an arm around the other’s shoulder”. Although some part of the poor reputation psychology in football “enjoys” is down to the childish interchanges between Ferguson and Wenger, for instance,  there’s some of the same suspicion here that gets shown to skill.

If only proper mental preparation – of the kind Clough promised were he given the England job – be allied with our existing teamwork, and with excellent ball skills – England could succeed. No more “Do I not like thats”, no more where-do-we-fit-Hoddle-Waddle-Le Tissier-into-the-team. Remember the spectacle of the most skilled England players not being picked because the coach didn’t know what to do with such ability. It was a big issue only ten years ago. It’s been thirty years since Ramsey’s England played Brazil in 1970 and matched them with a sophisticated, mature, aware and exciting performance: now, once more, England are on a level with the very best in the world.

This is an England team that has learned to pace itself across a tournament. After leading Portugal, England suffered injuries, and fell behind – only to demonstrate the ability to change the pace and course of the game. Only a tight refereeing decision, and bad luck in the penalty shootout, prevented an English victory that would surely have been followed by victory in the tournament as a whole. That an England team shouldn’t play flat-out all the time may be anathema to watching journalists, but the same strategy won world cups for Italy, Argentina and France in previous tournaments. In 2002, England were reduced by injuries and sapping heat, but even more so by their own beliefs that they would never beat Brazil; that negativity may well be gone now if the performances against Argentina and Uruguay are anything to go by.

It was odd enough winning the Rugby World Cup – even wierder to carry off the Ashes. Something wrong here.. so it’s just as well that the coach who has brought English football to this point is leaving in the summer. To be replaced, perhaps, by someone more in the Churchillian mode.

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A Good Use For The Game

Posted on 22 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

In the Netherlands, a Muslim football team and a gay football team played each other to prove that after all, it is possible for us all to just get along. (Hat tip: Norm). The Muslims won 4-0:

The soccer tournament was organized as part of a conference on fighting discrimination against immigrants who come out as gay — particularly, against gay Muslims by other Muslims.

As well as gays playing against Muslims, a team of women played Latinos, with some players swapping sides to illustrate competing identities.

Long renowned for its tolerance and liberal attitudes on issues such as gay marriage and cannabis use, social tensions have risen in The Netherlands since the 2002 murder of openly gay anti-immigration populist Pim Fortuyn.

High-profile attacks on homosexuals in Amsterdam last year stoked a debate about homophobia blamed on the country’s growing immigrant community — particularly Muslims, who make up 6 percent of the Dutch population of around 16 million.

A survey published last week showed that about 40 percent of the gays polled believed that violence and aggression against them was on the rise, while about the same number said they were the victim of homophobic abuse last year, most of it verbal.

It can be done: England v. Germany is just a football match these days, the game sucking up all of the old hatreds and putting them somewhere where they can be got off the chest safely. (Although the Germans really don’t understand the English take on that – their great cultural enemies are the same Dutch mentioned above).

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Watching the Edwardians: Football Film and Football’s Infancy

Posted on 22 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

One of television’s highlights for me in 2004 was the BBC series “The Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon“. Mitchell and Kenyon were film makers in the early years of the twentieth century, and what looks to be their entire archive of footage has been rediscovered in amazingly good condition. It’s fasinating stuff. Imagine all of those old sepia pictures of relatives so long dead they are difficult to name, come to life on the screen in front of you. At first viewing, once the initial shock of the moving picture has worn off, what strikes you is how cheerful everyone looks compared with similar scenes on our streets today. Then, little by little, the poverty begins to push for your attention – and you notice the careworn faces, the torn clothing, the unhealthily thin figures, the smoke and dirt. But not all the films prompt thoughts about how far we’ve come – because Mitchell and Kenyon also took their cameras to football matches, and that’s interesting in an entirely different way. The Bfi DVD, Electric Edwardians: The Films of Mitchell and Kenyon, contains a few of the better football films in full – their archive contains dozens more. (If that whets your appetite, there’s footage from Olympic football matches and early Home Internationals on the DVD The History of Football, which is also warmly recommended).

Now it has to be said that the Mitchell and Kenyon films are not Match of the Day. For one thing, they are very short – film stock of the day was expensive, and the rolls lasted only minutes apiece. So we are given snippets of action, which largely fail to give any narrative, any sense of the course of the match. For another, film cameras were heavy and hard to manouvre. So most of the films are taken from only one viewpoint (modern football coverage uses ten or more viewpoints) and that at ground level, denying the viewer the kind of overview we’ve become used to from cameras perched high in the stands. I don’t suppose I have to add that there’s no commentary or other sound.

All of this makes it hard to find answers to the kind of question you’re likely to want to ask when watching Edwardian football. I’m assuming that most people are like me in that respect – when confronted with Sheffield United v Bury 1901, we’re not all that worried about it being a bore-draw; its very existence is enough. What I want to know is, what were the skill levels prevalent in the early years of the Football League? What were the tactics? How were the pitches, and the balls? Did the rules back then make big differences to the play? How fit were the players? What were the grounds like, who were the fans, and how did they behave?

And it’s hard to forget when watching that at the time the films were made, the game was new. The League was all of twelve years old; the FA Cup was in its 38th year. Football in the UK was not, as it is now, heavy with history and tradition. A lot else behind the scenes was new, too – the miles of Victorian terracing that still dominate our cities today were 20-30 years old then, like Milton Keynes is now. The car had been invented 4-5 years previously, the railways were half a century old or less (like motorways now). The telephone was 30, the record player 20. Radio didn’t exist as we know it today, although the principles were understood. The football grounds in the films are usually either the same ones as are used today, or have only recently been abandoned for new stadia – in the films, they are brand spanking new. The fans aren’t going to football because it’s working class tradition, or because their parents took them as children, or because some drama like 1990’s World Cup semi-final turned them on to the game. They are the ones who made it all a tradition – they are the first fans.

Training methods of the era are laughed at now – books on the football of the period love to pick on things like West Bromwich Albion’s “training walks”. All I would say is, on the evidence of the Mitchell and Kenyon films, the players of the day were plenty fit enough. But it’s not the willowy, Coe-Ovett fitness of a Thierry Henry or a Ronaldinho. It’s Rooney they remind you of, stocky and heavily muscled. None of the players look particularly tall. And they can run – the snatches of play we are left with are quick, competitive and physical. It looks as if it might be fun to watch in a lower-division derby kind of way.

Skill levels are harder to fathom. (The footage in the History of Football is better for this). There are some fine, subtle touches on the ball, and skill on the ground, but plenty of ball in the air, too, in that familiar middle-of-the-pitch-mixer fashion too familiar from poor quality games today. Some kind of tactical structure can be detected – it’s not just everyone chasing after the ball. We know from various biographies of the players and coaches of the day two significant things: that ball skill for its own sake wasn’t especially valued, something that pushed coaches who did value it into jobs with teams in e.g. Austria and Germany, and that certain skills now familiar, like the body swerve, had only just been thought of. And it’s possible to hazard a guess that the game was just too new for the traditional source of skilful players – children playing football in the street – to have really gotten underway, so wasn’t feeding through into e.g. the David Jacks, Dixie Deans and Alex James’s of the interwar era. But there’s little you can say purely on the basis of the Mitchell and Kenyon films. Until 1924, the offside law required more defenders behind the ball than it does today, and it’s thought by some that this called for more skill and cunning in unlocking defences – and certainly, newspaper reports of matches in the season 1924-5 complain that the new, lighter offside law was handing the advantage to long-ball tactics and “lumping it up to the big man”. The more things change, the more they stay the same, but you can’t really tell from the films.

The pitches themselves look rough. This isn’t just because it’s football. If you look at photographs of cricket squares of the period, or the greens of golf courses in the Harry Vardon period, you’ll see little evidence of sort of quality we take for granted in such things today. Weeds, bare patches, unevenness is the rule, not the exception. And it does seem to make a difference – the ball bobbles unpredictably on the ground, the bounce is uneven, and the pitch markings are often obscured by mud. Traditionally, the English favoured a dribbling game, the Scots a passing one; by the time Mitchell and Kenyon were active, the Scottish model was winning through, but I can imagine it having being difficult to pass the ball accurately at times.

The grounds themselves look familiar – with less cover for the fans, and almost universal standing terraces, but not otherwise very different. Some of the fencing protecting the pitch is surprisingly fan-hostile – three-pronged metal affairs of the kind they use around warehouses today feature, for example. Not that there weren’t reasons for having it there: –

“a section of the supporters varied the proceedings by engaging in a free fight.. (M)atters were assuming serious proportions among the crowd and policemen blew their whistles noisily. Then was seen the spectacle of a football match in progress and three stalwart constables racing across the ground. The unruly folks who had leaped the barriers scuttled. But one less active than the rest was captured and he went back over the palings in a very sudden if undignified manner, the constable acting as assistant, while the crowd cheered..” (Aston Villa v Notts County, October 1900, from the Birmingham Daily Mail).

Various modern-sounding forms of crowd trouble were a feature of the early game – although things were quieter in the Edwardian decade than in the 1880s and 1890s, and they were to become quieter still after the Great War.

The crowds themselves in the films are overwhelmingly male, but not universally working class. Well-dressed clerks and businessmen mix with men who have obviously just arrived from pit or factory. Practically everybody smokes, hanging what must have been great blue clouds over the stands. Because there is no camera trained on the crowd when a goal is scored – and the films rarely capture a goal in any case – there’s no evidence for what happens on the terraces in terms of celebration, crowds heaving back and forth and so on. Because the films are in black and white, it’s hard to tell if anyone is wearing their club’s colours – it wouldn’t be a club shirt, then, of course, and in any case this was a period in which club colours were yet to be fixed in stone by tradition. The Mitchell and Kenyon film of Manchester United playing away at Burnley shows them in the first season of red and white kit – the year before, they were known as “Newton Heath” and played in green and gold (colours revived for an away strip in the Cantona-Hughes era).

Anyone interested in seeing these films for themselves would be best advised to start with the BBC video, Lost World of Mitchell and Kenyon. This gives you the genuine pleasure of listening to a really well-informed Sheffield United supporter’s comments as he’s shown Sheffield v Bury; in addition to knowing his history (he recognises several 1901 players and puts them into context) he’s plainly a warm and decent human being. Electric Edwardians shows the films in full, but the commentary – by Dr Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive – is from the point of view of a professional film historian and is just a lot less immediate. Football On Trial by Murphy, Williams and Dunning, contains a fascinating chapter on pre-1914 football violence. The History of Football contains lots of excellent early footage – the early Olympic Games matches, the early Home Internationals, and the first World Cups (1930, in Uruguay, is particularly worth watching). This last is a great launching point for thoughts about England’s changing standing in the world game, and I hope to write about that at greater length at some point.

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The England Managerial Race: Sam Allardyce

Posted on 19 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

I make no bones about being depressed at the prospect of the next England manager. We have enjoyed five years of Sven Goran Erickson, during which the expectations we hang around the national team have risen spectacularly. Under him, we went into the 2004 European Championships pretty much expecting to win, and, Brazil aside, we’re doing the same for the 2006 World Cup (we were right then, and we’re right now). Although there’ve been criticisms of Sven – no loyalty, and his teams can’t get interested in matches against minnow sides – the facts are that we have always had enough playing talent over the years to compete with the best in the world, and now we’re actually doing so. And because I can’t see an English – even a British – coach to match Erickson at the moment, I think that all this is going to come to an abrupt end once the tournament in Germany is over.

Best of a bad bunch is Sam Allardyce. Allardyce is without any shadow of a doubt a great club manager, and were I him I’d be looking for one of the “big” club management roles now. There’s a more interesting than usual analysis of the Allardyce effect from the Guardian’s Jamie Jackson here:

It is five seasons since he dragged Bolton into the Premiership, and during that time the perception of Allardyce as the stereotypical English manager has shifted. ‘People respect Arsene Wenger and Jose Mourinho as foreign innovators who have brought new ideas,’ says a senior source at the FA. ‘Sam Allardyce has quietly been doing the same things for a long time. He’s not quite the classic throwing-cups-of-tea, old-school English manager you might think.’

Allardyce was one of the first managers to use ProZone, the computer system that tracks every physical detail of a player during a match. He is wired up to an earpiece during games and has consulted the expertise of Humphrey Walters, the business guru Sir Clive Woodward credits as being a big influence in England’s 2003 rugby union World Cup victory. The Bolton squad are offered massages, t’ai chi, yoga and Pilates. Some, though, wonder whether his approach is gimmicky and question why he has such a large backroom staff (17 at the last count).

‘There is a feeling at the club that it is all about him,’ says one first-team player. ‘He can treat players harshly and some of the top players feel he cannot add anything to their game. That is maybe why he needs so many people around him.’ The players are aware that many pundits question Bolton’s basic style – famously described by radio commentator Alan Green as ‘ugly football’. ‘In Europe we might struggle,’ the player adds, ‘because we can be attacked down the wings and in the final phase of a match.’

I view Sam’s large backroom staff favourably: it’s the sign of a man who knows where his own limits lie, and who knows how to overcome his own limits by building an effective team. Of the current candidates therefore, it’s no surprise that he’s the one with the superb record in reigniting the interest of top-name stars, to say nothing of integrating them into a proper team. Sven has treated England as a club, with a relatively fixed squad, and the result is a side familiar with itself and with its own culture. Sam’s done this at Bolton – it’s the context into which you have to place his loyalty to the likes of Kevin Davies. It may be he can do the same with England.

The “gimmicky” charge is a red herring. None of the top managers around at present are quite the geniuses they are sometimes flagged up as. Most of the “innovations” that have come into the game in England since 1990 are in the realm of the obvious – don’t get drunk, eat properly, don’t train stupidly. The rest are in the realm of the strange – popular sports injury specialist from Germany, Hans Muller-Wolfhart, would be treated very differently by the British press were he American.

Fans, though, seem to like Allardyce. He might be behind Martin O’Neill and Curbishley in the betting for the England job, but for many he is the popular choice. ‘Big Sam’ struck a chord with supporters when, a little more than two years ago, he remarked during a spat with Arsene Wenger that if his name was ‘Allardici’ his status would be the equal of that enjoyed by foreign coaches.

It’s been said. In truth, part of the status enjoyed by foreign coaches has come precisely because they aren’t English – because there’s been a widespread feeling for years, only beginning to fade now, that the English game has been, in Pete Davies’ phrase, “All Played Out”. It’s no use asking Sam to play the part of smooth, urbane operators such as Venables, Erickson or Wenger, for all that he’s probably the most intelligent of the group.

Instead, Sam could look to South America, where another hyperactive, gumchewing, thickset retro-manager has enjoyed considerable success. Luiz Filipe Scolari, World Cup Winner, European Championship Finalist and general old-fashioned manager is widely considered, although not by me, to have outfoxed Erickson twice. He’s been mentioned in the context of the England job. If Sam is serious about the step up to Lancaster Gate, he’d do well to play on this, because if he can’t be the English Sven, he could very well pass off as the English Scolari. But he needs to do it soon.

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The FA Cup, the BBC, and the Romance of the Underdog

Posted on 18 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

I saw my first FA Cup Final in 1976. I was seven years old, and only caught it by accident, tuning in while looking for something else. The match was already long into its second half, and I’d missed all of the game’s goals. Being British, I found myself cheering on the losing team, and, because it was the first football of any kind I’d seen, that losing team became MY team, and so they’ve stayed to this day. So my team came to me by accident too, and had I seen my first final only a year earlier, my team would have been Fulham.

The FA Cup Final became a family affair after that. We’d get together – my aunt, my parents and my sister – and watch the game over crisps and ice cream soda (I imagine my stepfather drank beer, but I don’t remember). 1977 was pure celebration, as the last year’s losers came back to claim the trophy at last: in 1978, we were all cheering for Ipswich, and 1979 was all tantrum and heartbreak. In later years, we got behind QPR, Manchester City, and, rewarded at last, Coventry City.

So I’m no stranger to shouting for the underdog. But just lately, I’ve been wondering why.

Since the BBC started showing highlights from all FA Cup games in those late-night marathon editions of Match of the Day, we’ve all got to know a lot more about the smaller clubs in our national game. Some, like Yeading, are very small indeed. Others, like Blackpool, have merely fallen on hard times. They all have their own stories and their own dramas, and these can come as a welcome relief from our over-familiarity with repetitive Premiership story-lines. But I can’t be the only one who is beginning to feel that the way these stories are put across is beginning to drag in a big way.

The Beeb has a fixed idea of what the FA Cup – especially in the early rounds – means. It means the little dog against the big dog. It’s true – of course it’s true – but in the last two years this plot line has been heavily overcooked. It is dragged out in every single instance of a game between two teams from different levels of the football ladder. When the Premiership teams enter the competition in the Third Round, that can be up to twenty games in which we are, in the Beeb’s script, on the edge of our seats waiting for a shock. I can’t keep it up, and find myself longing for the Premiership side to hand out a beating.

What’s more, in just about every single case, the underdog is presented in the same way. It is always a club “at the centre of its community”. That “community” will have “cup fever” and because there aren’t enough tickets to go round, will be seeking out funny/dangerous places in trees, on top of neighbouring buildings, hanging from lamp posts etc. in order to witness the game. The players themselves will be the true salt of the earth – much will be made of the “ordinariness” of their day jobs (and if they are full-time players, the gap will be filled with stories of how they were foolishly rejected by this or that top club and now have the chance to prove to said club how wrong they were). They will be builders, postmen, lumberjacks… white (usually) working class men, usually despised by the BBC as racist redneck provincials driving dangerously in white vans, who for ninety minutes will be presented as the true face of the good old English nation. The manager will either be young and upcoming, given a golden opportunity for a shot at the big time (which never comes) or he’ll have been at the club since 1945 and will be a “local character”, a typical English eccentric of the kind the BBC usually mocks and can hardly bear not to here. Any kind of link to the sort of football history that the Beeb presumes that the viewer will know about will be grossly over-emphasised. This last reached its disgusting apogee this season in the match between Nigel Clough’s Burton Albion and Manchester United, during which Brian Clough’s ghost was kept on constant, mawkish duty.

And then there’s that Beeb obsession with the question of haves and have-nots. It starts with some tortured statistics about how the entire team cost less than one week of the opposing goalkeeper’s wages. It ends with the merest hint at something sinister about the way the wealthier club made its money… about the way the top players made it there… against all of which the poorer team in all its yeoman honesty and traditional values is supposedly to be contrasted.

It’s all getting a bit wearing. For a start, none of it bears much relation to reality. The gap in quality between non-league, non-Premiership teams and the elite has closed, the games are usually close and whilst shocks are still relatively rare they lack the thunderbolt quality of Wrexham-Arsenal or Yeovil-Sunderland of yore. It’s been many, many years since any club – let alone any small club – has been the focus of their town (and let’s just drop that word “community”, with all its false implications).

And it’s so repetitious and formulaic. I’m really not sure that Ferguson, Wenger et al lose any sleep whatsoever over an interesting Third Round draw – and I’m certain they don’t see games as “potential banana-skins.”

If the BBC could take the time, and clear their heads of their fairytale approach to the FA Cup, there are fresh and genuine stories to every game. Take Yeading. It’s a very young club – only forty years old, and it’s in a “new” part of the south east of England, with no previous history of football (Hayes in Middlesex). The story of Yeading is part of an as-yet untold story about post-War working class Britain. What about the aforesaid Burton Albion? The Beeb assures us that this is an age when the haves take everything from the have-nots, yet Burton is a club to demonstrate that competent management can build a successful, viable club away from traditional football hotbeds – they have a new ground, the Pirelli stadium, that couldn’t be less like the Beeb’s romantic idea of what a non-league club should possess (a potato field next to a pub, essentially). Nigel Clough isn’t their first competent manager – they have also benefitted from Peter Taylor, who has managed England, and Neil Warnock, who looks likely to return Sheffield United to the top ranks this year.

Of course, the Beeb has no intention of changing its script. But it would be nice…

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Jose Mourinho – The Mind of the Chelsea Manager

Posted on 17 March 2006 by JamesHamilton

What follows is a thinkpiece I created for IMGTV in relation to their August 2005 programme, “Being Jose Mourinho”.

An attempt to answer three questions: what sort of man is JM? what sort of man does what he does? and how does he do it?

Football is a game full of men who are motivated by the pain of failure: they hate losing, they fear losing, and they mark defeat with some of the most emphatic body language to be seen anywhere. For men such as this, victory is as much a relief as it is a triumph – note how similar the scenes at MUFC’s FA Cup win in Cardiff in 2004 were to West Brom’s relegation survival game in 2005. Both in their own way showed the euphoria of escape. Roy Keane has commented far more often on shortcomings and failure than on success. Gudjohnsen commented before the Champions’ League semi-final with Liverpool that he “didn’t want to feel like that again”; he was referring to defeat in the same fixture to Monaco twelve months ago.

JM is the opposite of this. He moves towards the things that challenge and please him. He comments that he could have stayed at Porto and been a hero for the rest of his days; instead, he takes a job in what looked at the time like a managerial snakepit, Chelsea. He has turned it into something far more attractive and stable, but that was his doing, and it’s his willingness to do that that is interesting. Erickson is of the same mould, but not Wenger. Ferguson once was, but no more.

The psychologically significant characteristic of JM in this regard is his attitude to failure and mistakes. He seems to regard himself – his specific person – separately from what he does and accomplishes. If he makes a serious error, he does not interpret it as a comment upon himself or upon his ability. He cannot be damaged at the level of his own identity by error. Neither does he take error and setback as predictions. Learning situations, perhaps, but not a means to tell the future. At the end of Chelsea’s (unsuccessful) Champions’ League semi-final, it’s notable how quickly he turned the attention of his press conference to the future.

In relation to this, JM is curious – he is a noted learner. That small elite of international coaches are all characterised by the depth of their study of the game; only JM and Steve McClaren actually took time off from their careers to learn more, and only JM has encapsulated his findings in the famous “black book” way. Unlike other coaches, JM takes the widest possible view of learning in relation to football – “what does he know of football that only football knows”; he is alleged to have acquaintance with literature and philosophy in additiion to fitness, tactics and coaching. Whilst this is the source of his confidence and certainty – he knows that none of the competition can match his knowledge across the board – he takes no kind of pride in knowing more than others – he still sees learning more as more important than resting on his laurels.

Another facet of his moving towards what he wants and enjoys is his energy. Energy has to do with physical fitness, to be sure, and JM is fit. But it is as much to do with psychological energy. JM is not sapped by self-recrimination or self-doubt because of his attitude to error and failure, as above. He is able to remain interested in trying again, in moving forward, in seeking out new approaches and new experiences.

Likewise, he is willing to take risks. He has put himself in a position to take informed risks – see learning – and he knows he is not going to suffer unduly psychologically if they don’t come off. So dramatic gestures such as the triple substitution in the FA Cup against Newcastle are open to him where lesser managers would have neither the knowledge nor the attitude to attempt anything so bold. (It’ll be interesting to go over the pattern of his substitutions across the course of the season). Going to Chelsea was a risk; his various, deliberate run-ins with authority have been risks.

This moving-towards meme is also visible in his attitude towards his players. It’s very much the British way to take too much out of a player in terms of what they CAN do, and then to hammer them repeatedly over what they can’t do (Hoddle’s relationship with Beckham is a superb example of this). JM seems to concentrate on improving what is already there – as exemplified by the success of mediocrities such as Carvalho. What JM has done to transform Joe Cole seems different but it isn’t: he hasn’t attempted to add anything to Cole’s range of skills, just make them team-friendly. Cole is not the only Chelsea player who has had his in-team performance transformed, but he’s the obvious focus for media opinion given the frustration of Erickson et al with him.

JM operates with an internal frame of reference. That is, JM is genuinely his own judge as to his performance, his next action, his relationships; the opinion of other people is feedback and input, but never decisive. For all his recent denials, this is where I would put his “special one” comment: he knows his ability, and that knowledge is not open to adjustment by the opinions of other people.

The advantages of this to a football manager are many: how many managers end up selecting their team in line with their press coverage? JM seems to regard his relations with the press lightly, seeking only to shield his players from its pressure. If it’s JM being pilloried by the press, or by UEFA, then it’s not his players, and he is unlikely to be psychologically hurt by whatever is said about him, all the less for having provoked such comment deliberately.

JM is what is called a mismatcher – a noticer of differences. This is another vital part of the makeup of the small elite group of managers. Attention to detail, which is one facet of noticing differences, is one of the two important means of motivating players, of being a leader (the other component is the communication of certainty). In JM’s case, he watches a game of football in a different way from most managers, indeed, most people. In talking of a game of football as consisting of 3d movement, JM notices multiple patterns where his competitors notice only one. In one Portuguese game, he substitutes his centre forward, who had just scored, because he had noticed a pattern in play that everyone else had missed completely, that he felt was better exploited by a different kind of player. (It will be interesting to compare JM’s decisions with the automated Championship Manager ones).

Roy Keane’s autobiography constantly calls attention to the importance of attention to detail for players. It’s more than just diet, or making sure that training facilities are adequate. It’s the difference between treating all players in the same way, and knowing how to manage each player in relation to their own individual personality. It’s the search for new ways in which to give players the opportunity to improve, more, than their competitors. The eagerness of players to join Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea is as much that they are sure to become better players and perhaps internationals, as it is for the money.

JM as a mismatcher is a man in search of new experience and variety, and he will bring these things to his players also. Players comment about all of the small elite group of managers that training is more various, more interesting, with them than with the mass of bosses. JM has had an extremely good idea of how he wants training to be at his club for a long time; variety, at Chelsea, has come as much by building a new training ground (where Ranieri and Vialli failed, notably) as by ringing the changes in an already various routine.

JM’s status as a mismatcher – a noticer of differences – has given him one advantage that seems unique among even the elite group of managers. He sees his communication and relationship with the Chelsea owner and board as equally important as those he has with his players. I know of no similar example anywhere. By taking intense care of his relations with the board, he maximises his decision making capability, and minimises his complications. So, he writes a report (daily or weekly; I forget) for Abramovich, explaining what he does and why. Equally, he keeps the lower echelons of the club involved.

In understanding JM, it’s important to compare how he becomes acquainted with other people’s ability as compared with other managers. As with all of the elite group, he needs to see a player himself to be convinced of their worth or otherwise. In terms of skill and ability, he needs perhaps a couple of training sessions – no more. In terms of character – none of the elite group will work with bad-attitude players, whatever their level of skill – JM seems to need a maximum of two weeks to know if he wants to work with a player or not. One of the key differences between JM and the non-elite coaches is that the latter group can take up to two years to decide whether or not a face fits. They lack workable criteria to make that kind of decision in the optimum time frame. JM’s criteria are relatively fixed, but he is still willing to make a mistake (he seems open to have Crespo back at Chelsea, for instance) as we have discussed above. Many “average” managers will buy on the strength of scouts’ opinions alone; if a player’s face doesn’t fit, they won’t communicate this, leaving that player in the dark and taking that much energy out of the team unit.

JM is motivated by what is possible, not by what is necessary. This is a common trait amongst the elite group of managers – none of whom have any need to do football as opposed to anything else. But JM has used the freedom this basic trait allows more liberally than most. Taking time out of his career to focus on creating his coaching “black book” would have been looked on as suicidal by all of his contemporaries, who would have urged him to take a job, any job – and indeed, not to have left his old job without having a new one lined up. Only Wenger’s trip to Japan is comparable among the managers currently in the English game. Likewise, he was remarkably unwilling to be intimidated by the pursuit of a quadruple for much of the season – he didn’t feel compelled to write off the possibility or to play it down – it excited him, and he saw it as doable. Again, his adventurous substitutions come in here. As does his failure to rest his principle players in the run-in to the title, where many managers would have been tempted to win the title more slowly by grinding out results with bit-part players, JM (who doesn’t have bit-part players) went for it. Wenger and Bryan Robson are two other managers who successfully ignore “necessity” and achieve playing football their way, having seen the possibility and opted for it.

JM operates what is called a “proximity strategy” at Chelsea. Namely, he works in a group of people, but he is in charge. Whilst his relationship with his players is notably warmer and closer than that of either Ferguson or Wenger, to the point where one wonders if he is committing the ultimate managerial sin of befriending his players, in my opinion the fact remains that he has made them “his” players by one means or another. They owe their position to him, and feel that emotionally. Either he inherited them from Ranieri and made them his own by keeping them (Gudjohnsen, Terry, Lampard) or he brought them with him from Porto (e.g. Carvalho) or he bought them (Drogba).

JM motivates his players by: providing them with certainty and attention to detail, by fostering a them-against-us attitude (in the pure Ferguson style), by building on their strengths, not hammering on their weaknesses, and by making them his overt choices. Unsurprisingly, his players report that he makes them feel like “big men”. He is a communicator and explainer, not an autocrat, and tells the players why he wants a particular approach taken, a specific tactic adopted. The certainty he gives them has two sources. His own certainty, first of all, is based upon his preparation and intelligence, and his awareness of both of these. He is better suited to the job than most managers, he has prepared vastly better, and he knows it. Secondly, because his training methods are more effective than other managers’, his players realise quickly that he is indeed able to improve them as players and as a team, thus to take them to the fulfilment of their ambitions. If they go along with JM, they will achieve what they want to achieve. The them-against-us attitude, of course, comes from generating anti-Chelsea press and then telling the team that no one wants them to win, that everyone hates them. This tactic is being applied to a group that he has already chosen for its group dynamic in the first place, so it is doubly effective (it wouldn’t have any effect on a disparate group of players who don’t get on with each other). JM has explicit team and training reasons for his belief in a 24-man squad; one reason must surely be that 24 men can continue as a viable unit where the 33-34 of MUFC cannot; 24 men can all expect to take some significant part in events, unless their name is Scott Parker. But JM’s slashing of the Chelsea squad means that those left are the survivors: “chosen men” in the military parlance.

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