Archive | April, 2006

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Scolari Pulls Out

Posted on 28 April 2006 by JamesHamilton

As of 2030hrs this evening, it looks very much as though the winner of the England management race has taken a look at his prize and handed it back. In his statement, Scolari gave prominence to the presence of 20 journalists outside his home. The intrusion and press interest that go with the job took him by surprise, and are a part of English culture that he wants nothing of. Two things spring to mind.

Scolari’s ability to put up with the press has been one of his main selling points on the part of that section of the press that thought he was a good idea. Unlike his fragile predecessors, the no-nonsense, ego-disrespecting Scolari would just brush it all aside, ignoring the press when it suited him to do so. Well, that all turns out to be projection. The real Scolari, understandably, hates the pressure.

Secondly, this is all very unfortunate. For my thesis on England coaching, I mean. The recent Sports Matters programme on Sky One about the number one job focussed almost exclusively on the nature of the manager’s relationship with the press. I thought then that this was self-importance on the media’s part. I can’t say that this time. They are right at the centre of the story, and it’s a media story more than a purely sporting one.

Scolari’s withdrawal leaves a terrible mess in its wake. Now, the next coach will be British, probably English, and whoever it is will know that they weren’t first choice and don’t enjoy the FA’s unabashed support. That insecurity will run right through their tenure. You’d need a crystal ball to see where it’ll all end up, but it’s not the best way to start, is it?
The best option isn’t obvious. They could wait until Boro bring back the UEFA Cup, giving themselves the chance to appoint McClaren by acclamation. They could give Sam Allardyce the job on the grounds that he actually wants it – and, crucially, has a crystal-clear idea of his own coaching limitations; Allardyce is a man who will bring in whatever expertise he himself lacks. They could even cut the knot by giving Alan Curbishley the new challenge he so obviously desires.

At least it’s an end to all the talk about how brave, his-own-man Scolari would drop Beckham/Owen/Lampard/Gerrard/other according to form. (I doubt he’d have done anything of the kind, and all we’re seeing in this kind of coverage is yet more projection). The players deserve better than that, in the run-up to the World Cup, especially Beckham, who is currently playing the football of his life only to be told repeatedly that he’s past it.

Every cloud.

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Scolari For England?

Posted on 26 April 2006 by JamesHamilton

If these stories are true, then the decision is made and we’re only waiting for the candidate to sign on the dotted line:

The development represents a remarkable shift in the FA’s thinking over the past few weeks, with the Portugal manager’s candidacy only gaining genuine credibility among the selection panel with the belated co-option of David Dein as its fourth member. It is understood that the group, comprising Dein, Barwick, the international committee chairman Noel White and the Premier League’s FA board representative Dave Richards, remains divided over who should be approached.

However, that did not prevent the panel reaching sufficiently broad consensus to proceed with an informal offer to Scolari and he will be recommended to next Thursday’s full FA board meeting as the man who should become Sven-Goran Eriksson’s successor. Though some members of the panel would prefer an English coach, they saw the evidence of Scolari’s managerial record as compelling.

And in that, I think they are wrong.

There has been a big forgetting about just how ordinary Brazil were in the 2002 World Cup – it was that ordinariness that was one of the drivers of England’s optimism despite the absence from the squad of Neville and Gerrard, the injuries to Beckham and Owen, and our lack of a left-sided midfielder. That the men in sunshine yellow came through was purely psychological on our part – our England team, very capable of winning, believed that they could not and acted accordingly, a belief helped along by the mind-sapping heat, a factor Erickson forsaw in his book “On Football”.

In Portugal, Scolari had the home team to manage, and furthermore had the home team’s “Golden Generation” of players. England showed in that quarter-final that they were capable of pacing themselves as a team – that, if necessary, as it became necessary, they could raise the tempo and take control of the match. I am one of those who sees Scolari’s famed substitutions not as Mourinho-style tactical switches, but as panicked decisions blessed by outrageous fortune. If you don’t think that England’s luck deserted them that afternoon, then consider the injury to Rooney, the disallowed goal, the mad penalty spot from which Beckham missed, and think again.

And, finally, think on this – how would Sven be viewed in England today if, instead of losing to Portugal in one of England’s typical epic defeats, we’d gone down to Greece in the Final?

For all of that, if Scolari accepts, two good things remain true. The bigots and little-Englanders will have lost. And three potentially-good coaches, McClaren, Curbishley and Allardyce, will have more time to acquire the top posts in club football that their talents deserve. I think there’s a real chance that we are about to see the first great era of English football coaching, and that Sven’s departure has just come a little early. Think how few there have been of the very best quality – Ramsey, of course, Clough, Revie perhaps, Robson, Mercer and Paisley at club level certainly – in the last forty years. All of the others – at Liverpool, at Manchester United, at Arsenal, have been Scots: Busby, Shankly, Dalglish (?), Graham, Ferguson; lately, Wenger.

It’s well known that the reason why we’re suddenly seeing so many English players with a high technical level of skill, why the gap between the lower leagues and the top is closing, why the current England team would waltz around the 75-98 teams, is because Howard Wilkinson pulled our national coaching set-up together. We’ve closed the gap on France, Spain, Germany and the rest. Less thought about is what happens when you improve the training for coaches. But we’ve done that as well. And it’s about to feed through.

Sven’s departure’s come too soon. But, for England football management, the great days may be just around the corner. Watch this space.

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Euston Manifesto

Posted on 13 April 2006 by JamesHamilton

Today, 13Apr06, we — bloggers, academics, campaigners, writers, scientists, journalists, citizens — launch the Euston Manifesto. With this document we hope to publicly assert our progressive, democratic, egalitarian, internationalist principles in the face of recent attacks upon them from the Right and, to our dismay, the Left.

Many of us are of the Left, but we come from across the range of political positions. We are not founding a political party. There were differences amongst us over Western military intervention in Iraq. Our declaration is not definitive, final, or perfect; it is, we hope, the beginning of a renewed debate, grounded in a common set of progressive values. You can read and sign the document at our Website where donations towards our costs are also welcome.

Comments are closed on this announcement alone because that is all this post is: an announcement. We simply want to launch this movement in a co-ordinated way and make sure there is time for people to understand exactly what we stand for before criticising it. We welcome discussion of the Euston Manifesto across blogs, in the media, and in the public world and intend that the Euston Manifesto Group, the organisation founded upon the manifesto’s principles, will promote such debate by organising meetings, sponsoring seminars, and publishing ideas.

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Middlesbrough 4 Basle 1

Posted on 07 April 2006 by JamesHamilton

..watched from behind the sofa by yours truly, who kept flicking channels to keep the tension at bay.

I can’t remember a better demonstration of the difference between belief and “passion”, although the commentators, who’d go on to miss the final whistle, were throwing the second word around freely enough. And why not, on a night like that – but there is a difference.

Boro set about Basle absolutely from the off, and what I read in that was a belief in a large number of Boro players that they were the better team on the pitch, and a belief that Basle knew it. Boro, knowing that they were able – indeed, perhaps likely – to win the game if not the tie, went straight into football that was for all its speed and flow, controlled and deliberate. A team without that belief would have begun at a run, too, but would have abandoned the tactical pattern early on in favour of e.g. frantic long balls, foul play, attempts at winning penalties (all night, Boro were reluctant to go down in the area, or protest too much when they did, a sign that they knew they could win legitimately). Boro didn’t need to work themselves up into a mad frenzy – they knew they had the plan, the skill, and the time – in spades, because they carried on knowing when it became clear that four goals, and not three, were the target.
It was a calm victory. The commentators were quite right about Maccarone’s winning goal – in those circumstances, you’d expect the ball to be blasted over the bar. He knew he was capable of scoring, and willing to miss if that was what came from doing the right thing, namely aiming the ball in carefully at the near post. It’s worth noticing that he was in the position to do so – he was calm enough in the moment to be seeing the game a step or two ahead, and wasn’t just crowding the box; he knew there might be a save, and where the ball would come to from that save.

So, calm, controlled, tactical football, played by men who believed that what they were doing was within their capacity, by men who were able to contemplate not succeeding so could try the difficult things that win games like that. Not patternless, dogfight football with the no-brain “passion” of a team that thinks it’s going to lose but wants to look like it’s trying.

I didn’t see the first leg after the opening twenty minutes, and from those got the strong impression that Boro were by far the better team and knew exactly what they were doing. So the result, when it came through, was a real shock, and last night showed that it wasn’t just me. Clearly, Boro still felt they had the beating of Basle – McClaren spoke of the last twenty minutes, in which his team’s far superior fitness would tell.

All of this begs the question as to why Boro are at the wrong end of the table.

“Bigtime Charlies”. One reason players leaving Manchester United tend not to thrive is that the targets they’re presented with at their new clubs just aren’t the same somehow. Demotion, in effect; fans might not like it, but it’s hard to take the same interest in things once it’s happened. And a player, looking for a new club and in search of games, might not realise that it’s happening. Some of Boro’s most experienced players are, in effect, frustrated big-club players, who, had things worked out slightly differently, might be at Barcelona, or Milan, or Bayern – and able to earn the rewards of their talent instead of saving the relatively untalented from the rewards of theirs.

Injuries. Last night, Boro had a plan, knew it could work, and knew they had the players to bring it off. It’s not often that they’ve had the chance this year, and McClaren’s relatively restrained response to victory showed that he’d had this team, and this pattern, in his mind all season.

The Boroness of Boro. It took Sven Goran Eriksson as long as it’s taken McClaren to get his Lazio players to realise that the club they were at were capable of winning things – to see that they weren’t ruled out just because they were wearing a shirt not known for success. Being at Boro and being comfortable with the idea of winning might not go together yet. The players – even the experienced ones – lack medals, so are still on the trophyless side of the wall. Jose Mourinho faced the same problem at Chelsea and solved it both by having won things himself, and by telling his players, simply, that this was going to be their year and that noone could stop them – and, because he’s a mightily plausible man, they believed him (it helped that they were so frustrated at having been robbed of victory a year before by their coach). McClaren hasn’t won anything yet; this could be his year. A Boro with a European trophy will be a different team next season.

And I, for one, don’t see anyone stopping them now.

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Fulham 1 Portsmouth 3

Posted on 06 April 2006 by JamesHamilton

At Craven Cottage last Saturday for the visit of Harry Redknapp’s relegation-threatened Portsmouth.

These days, just about every football ground has some kind of memorial to its glorious dead, from the Munich plaque at Old Trafford to the Shankly Gates and Billy Bremner’s statue. Is it just me, or is football carrying just a bit too much heritage right now? Fulham are gearing up to join in with some kind of tribute to Johnny Haynes, and they were inviting all-comers to sign a colossal white shirt in his honour. In Haynes’ era, Fulham was still a firmly working-class area, and there were hints that this was no longer so – PA announcements of fans’ birthdays etc. always referred to people coming from what sounded like a widespread home counties diaspora, Gerrards Cross, Carshalton, Haynes, Croydon. Former players, announced at half time as presenters of raffle prizes and the like, were carefully put into context – it wasn’t assumed that you just knew who they were.

The ground has a definite “heritage” air to it – obviously from the Cottage itself, but also from the Edwardian turnstiles that your overweight writer could scarcely fit through, and from the Stevenage Road stand of similar vintage. But the place as a whole was spacious, friendly and well-run – a real pleasure just to wander around before taking to your bucket seat for the game itself.

Fulham’s fans were outshouted by the visitors, and their team was comprehensively outplayed. Apart from his first-minute error to concede the opening goal, Wayne Bridge was far and away the best player in a white shirt, used as playmaker as well as defender and wide midfield. His touch and control, and his positioning, were all of the highest class, and I imagine he was well aware of Sven’s presence in the Riverside Stand. Steed Malbranque took an interest in the game, and Zat Knight improved as the afternoon went on, but otherwise Fulham were shockingly poor. Out of ideas, out of energy, short on skill – especially the latter. My third and final favourable Fulham mention goes deservedly to reserve keeper Tony Warner, whose professional warmup put his listless ball-punting colleagues to shame. He didn’t make it onto the pitch otherwise, but he gets my Fulham man of the match award.

Best for Portsmouth was, I suppose, Lomana LuaLua, but the touch, skill and courage were outweighed for me by his constant niggling gamesmanship and “attitude”. So I’m going for Sean Davis, the former Fulham man, booed every time he went near the ball, decried as “Judas” (Judas? Pat Reid, more like.) but always quick and careful with his possession.

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Talking About Sven

Posted on 06 April 2006 by JamesHamilton

In the end, I spent two hours being interviewed to camera by the team from Mentorn TV for their forthcoming drama-documentary “The Real Sven.” Although some of the questions referred to the points I’d raised in my earlier interview, there were new ones that were to do with the Sven outside football – his love life, his financial dealings and so on. I’m not especially exercised by his pay packet, or by his choice of wives and girlfriends – there are things like that, at whatever scale, on every street. So I was in the position of trying to find things to say.

That’s when you start to say things for the sake of having to open your mouth and allow sounds to come out. You can just feel the bullshit forming up behind your teeth, ready to make a break.

Part of my confusion came from Beckham’s admission the previous day that he was suffering from OCD. This totally upset the profile of the man I’d drawn up for the programme, and blew my ideas about his relationship with Sven sky high. So everything I say on the subject, should it make it onto the screen, is off the cuff.

I get the impression that the production team doesn’t like Sven. I do, and I regret his being forced out of the job for all that he’s said himself that he’s happier in club football with its day to day involvement. I don’t think there’s an English candidate who will be as good as Sven has been, although Sam Allardyce could prove me wrong – neither do I think that any of the foreign alternatives promise as much, pace Martin O’Neill.

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