Archive | Managers

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Meeting Simon Clifford

Posted on 08 February 2011 by JamesHamilton

I don’t have heroes. Certainly, I don’t have footballing ones: any heroism that footballers have committed has been tangental to the actual game. Harry Gregg, yes. Bryan Robson, no. But for all that, there are people in football whose success I’ve an emotional commitment to. I haven’t often found myself around these people: it’s not something I’ve ever sought. When I am, it’s uncomfortably disembodying and disassociating. There’s a mix on these occasions, of plain old nerves and the urge to say, don’t waste your time with me, get on with it, it matters…

I last felt that way in late December, lunching with Simon Clifford in a restaurant’s private room beneath his offices in Leeds’ magnificent Victorian centre. It wasn’t an interview or anything like that – he’d offered me the chance to meet up and have a look around, and I was hardly going to turn down a chance to to see UK football’s best hope from the inside. And my nerves went, anyway, when it turned out that we’d both taken the same message from the same Rocky 6 clip.

Every time you meet someone “in football”, you come away with a stack of highly actionable stories that you could never possibly print. Clifford is a bibilophile, owner of one of the country’s most important collections of one of my favourite Victorian authors, and the stories were better than usual. I won’t pass them on. But I will pass on what else I learned.

I’ll also pass on what I learned from Clifford’s colleague Steve Nichol, now at Brazilian Soccer Schools and rated as one of the very best thinking coaches working in the UK today. One of the highlights of my day in Leeds was hearing Nichol analyse a recent Premiership match with the kind of succinctness and originality that only goes to confirm how little knowledge most of us who love the game actually have in Britain – and how much we need it. I tried to hide it from him, but I wasn’t keeping up, and felt ashamed.

In no order, then – here’s what I learned at BSS:

The future might be about to arrive

Aiden White, at Brazilian Soccer Schools from age 7 until age 18, has broken through into the Leeds United first team. Aberdeen have five BSS graduates under the age of 21 in their squad, and there are another 650 young people training up under BSS auspices in Aberdeen alone. This is happening across the country. A lot of us have wondered what would happen to the British game if real training was available to young people from the start. We might be about to find out. But:

BSS, Socatots and the Clifford philosophy are still developing

 

Clifford told me more than once that the existing setup of BSS and Socatots does not reflect the entirety of his thinking and that there are many more ideas awaiting execution than he and his team will have time for right now. There are further levels of attainment to be added at the top of the BSS scheme. Socatots, which is the great hope, starting young people off at the very beginning, hasn’t had time yet – it just hasn’t been around long enough – to generate its own cadre of graduates.

Local Socatots franchisees have signalled their belief – which I share – that appropriate training at that age level gives benefits far beyond football alone. Where football is concerned, the “new” ideology that we here more and more often now – that young people ought to be technically competent with the ball before moving on to game situations – has been baked into BSS and Socatots since the late nineties.

Player development

Some of what is still to come concerns fitness and focus. Steve Nichol posed the question – how do you prevent players stalling in their development after the age of 16? That is, how do you help them continue to grow once they are in the comparatively dead hands of Football League and Premiership clubs?

That’s not necessarily to criticize club academies, although the academies vary wildly in their quality, and are subject to the same coaching traditions that have held back British football in the past. But young players who make it into full contracts will do so on the back of a lot of hard work and sacrifice at an early age. The temptation to enjoy the immediate rewards is substantial and resisting it takes a level of maturity few people have at that stage in their lives.

Mental and physical discipline

Clifford and his team feel that the answers may come from boxing – a sport that calls on mental and physical discipline far beyond normal football training.

Football did originally associate itself with mental discipline. London social reformers like Quentin Hogg and Arnold Hills, saw football as a means of helping reintroduce the order to lives thrown into chaos by industrial change – mass demolition of working homes in the 1860s for Hogg, industrial depression, unrest and accidents for Hills.

But the problems posed by the modern game to young people are on another scale altogether: the human need for order and direction is obvious when survival is at stake. Less so when your choice is between extra skills training in cold weather or the chance to be the centre of female attention.

Boxing and the other martial arts put discipline and conditioning onto a different plane – presenting them as the key to adulthood and the only source of peer esteem. Importing these values into football won’t be easy, but it’s surely not impossible.

Because anyone who has spent time around good young players and decent coaches will know what I refer to as the atmosphere of “high seriousness” that they bring to their endeavours. It’s a cultural survival, a hangover from the pre-1960s Apollonian British culture that has vanished from academia, government and policing.

In football, that high seriousness has to share space with what George Best inadvertantly imported: fashion. Deep detachment: the universal application of satire and irony. The individual over the group – and groups, where they exist, are competitive, not cooperative. The priority given to sex – in direct contrast, here, to an older football tradition that evolved to deal with a world that had syphilis but no cure.

That high seriousness – friendly, but determined and implacable – was around me all day at the BSS offices. It made me realize – and think to myself out loud – they really are going to pull this off: they really are going to do this..

The place for thinkers in football

 

Mentors matter. Guidance matters. People, real or fictional, who guide and inspire.. and it was in that context that the Rocky 6 clip comes into play. Rocky’s message to his adult son – that to become what you must become, to have impact, you have to be ready for unlimited opposition, mental pain and physical discomfort – is a big Clifford/Nichol theme. How to find a way to exist for extended periods without outside approval or approbation.. It’s there in Raymond Blanc’s new autobiography, too, and in Ricky Gervais’ recollections: the worthwhile things lie on the wrong side of years of friendless, pitiless labour.

We’ve had League football in the UK now for 115 seasons, give or take a year or two. In that time, every single intelligent thinker who proposed that we transform the game’s skill and fitness levels has been spat out or destroyed. From Jimmy Hogan on and ever since, these people have had to make a way outside the League and FA systems. And these systems, so robust in maintaining stable competitions over an extraordinarily long time, are still digesting  the lessons of 1950 and 1953. No white smoke from Lancaster Gate yet. Not even bullet points.

Which means that any attempt to improve standards that seeks to do so via Leagues or Associations is doomed to failure. It has to be an outside job.

 

Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward’s experiences at Southampton show that, even at a club with a chairman who understands the issues at the right level and is open to progress, fear and ignorance win.

Nothing can move until professional footballers in Britain are equipped with skills, fitness and game sense beyond the levels achieved abroad. Anything else is beside the point. It won’t come from the clubs. It won’t come from the Associations.

It’s an outside job. And here’s the news from Leeds: the outsiders are working on it.

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Review: Revie – Revered and Reviled; the Authorised Biography by Richard Sutcliffe

Posted on 21 January 2011 by JamesHamilton

Revie and Clough debate Leeds on ITV in 1974

Say this for David Pearce’s novel The Damned Utd – it was the first really unembarrassed cultural treatment that the national game has ever had. Fever Pitch broke the ground. But Fever Pitch was gauche, blushing, unsure of its reception. It was essentially uncontroversial, and that is what has set The Damned Utd apart: the real hurt and confusion the novel caused, the bad memories it revived, the losses it refreshed. It may have helped cement Brian Clough in his full and proper place in the public life of the country, but The Damned Utd exhumed Don Revie and Revie’s Leeds along the way, and didn’t do the same for them at all.

Much of the drive for Richard Sutcliffe’s new biography of Don Revie comes from anger at The Damned Utd, and because the issues that the novel raised about Revie are the narrowly footballing ones, it’s these that Sutcliffe concerns himself with. Why isn’t Revie seen in the same kind of light as Busby, Shankly, or Clough? Do Leeds deserve to be remembered only for cynicism and winning at all costs? What’s the real story about Don Readies: the manager and his money? What really happened to Revie at England?

There is a wider significance to the life and work of Don Revie, which Sutcliffe leaves aside. The way Revie stands for Leeds, for instance, as the Chamberlains do for Birmingham. The sheer depth and breadth of change in the life of a man born in poverty in Middlesbrough, whose son went to Repton and Cambridge, who ended his career wealthy and honoured in the Middle East where his home is now a beloved shrine. The issue of what happened to leaders with backgrounds like Don, who before the 1973 Oil Crisis seemed set fair to rule Britain and take her into a better future.

What does it mean, too, that Don Revie was so young when he retired? He had just turned fifty when he resigned from the England job. More than half of all current Premiership managers are older, including Tony Pulis and Steve Bruce. It hardly seems possible, but Revie was largely photographed in black and white, which, unless you are a Beatle, makes you look older than you are.

All that had to be left aside. Football matches make football biographies different from those of politicians, artists and writers, because games turn careers and there are so many of them. There has to be at least one book that does the heavy digging of tracing an important career through, game by game, club by club, transfer by transfer. What we really lacked was a proper, basic, detailed reference biography of Don Revie, and this is what Sutcliffe has provided.

Revie’s Managerial Achievement

Sutcliffe wants to make the case that Revie’s achievements were equal to those of his rivals and contemporaries. Contemporaries they were, too: Shankly and Nicholson both retired in the year Revie left Leeds, Busby wasn’t long gone, and Clough was about to take himself out for three seasons.

In terms of sheer club achievement, there’s no doubt that Revie is at home with the very best. He was only at Leeds for thirteen years, and when he began, Leeds was a cricket and rugby league city. United were considered beneath not just Yorkshire Cricket Club and Leeds (Rugby League) but Hunslet and Bramley RFCs as well.

This table compares Revie’s achievements at Leeds with those of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Bill Nicholson over the same period. I’ve included the 1975 European Cup Final because although it post-dates Revie, it was Revie’s team in Paris that night, ably shepherded by Jimmy Armfield.

(Click the chart to enlarge)

No Harry Catterick, Bertie Mee, Brian Clough, Joe Mercer and Malcolm Allison here, but the table highlights just how competitive an arena Revie found himself in. Most observers agree that the period 1956-1973 was the absolute apogee of English club football, in achievement and in absolute depth of talent. Leeds’ total of seventeen significant football achievements is some way ahead of what Manchester United, Liverpool and Tottenham managed in the same time. Yet, before Revie, Leeds had had no top-level honours of any kind. Even Clough’s clubs had won top trophies before his arrival. Revie had had to build his club from scratch.

Dirty Leeds

The manner in which Revie succeeded is this biography’s second issue, and Sutcliffe deals with it carefully. Leeds weren’t a cynical team: they were a maturing team learning their trade. Revie was protective as they grew. The “Cantona” signing was that of Bobby Collins, who really was a hard case, but he put heart and belief into the talent around him. Other teams had similar players – Chelsea have Ron Harris, for instance. European opposition spat, hacked, rabbit-punched behind the referee’s back.

In his last two years at Leeds, Revie took the shackles off his side, and they played memorable football, the kind that would have flattered Anfield or Old Trafford. But by then, the mind of the public had already been made up.

When Revie went to England, he realized that the opposition players he had worried over and warned against in his pre-match dossiers – players he now had at his disposal – were not as good as he’d thought, and that his old team, Leeds, had been much better than he had ever realised. In Sutcliffe’s account, Revie came to regret not letting his team express themselves much earlier in their development. So much more might have been won. His caution had robbed his lads of the medals they’d deserved.

Don Readies

Sutcliffe treats Revie’s financial dealings in a similar way. Revie was either innocent or no worse than his feted rivals. Revie met Alan Ball on Saddleworth Moor in 1966 to bribe him, but Matt Busby left a suitcase of cash at the young Peter Lorimer’s house in the hope of buying his signature. Sutcliffe denies outright that Revie was ever involved in match-fixing: everyone wonders why he never sued. Perhaps he didn’t want the hassle..

Match-fixing aside, Revie’s relationship with money really does have to be seen in context. Then, as now, the real control of football and the real money in football lay with the club owners. Wealthy as players are now, they are still nowhere near the level at which they could think about buying a controlling stake in a Premiership club.

Revie had come from an impoverished, insecure background. In depressed Middlesbrough, Revie’s family were worse off than most. His father found work hard to come by. His mother died. As a consequence, in adult life he took care to balance job security with income maximization. For instance, as a player, he believed in changing clubs reasonably often, and looked out for signing on fees. But as Sutcliffe makes clear, professional care accompanied great personal generosity.

Revie at England

After England had beaten Czechoslovakia at Wembley in Revie’s first competitive start, he told his son something that would prove key not only to his management but that of all of his successors. “We haven’t got the players.” In particular, he meant that there were no English equivalents of Bremner or Giles, his key Leeds lieutenants, but he was right across the board: the post-War supply of talent -  nourished by fair rationing of food, playing on car-free streets, coached on proper pitches at new schools, made sensible by hardship -  was fast drying up.

But Revie had issues of his own in any case. A clever man – his son, as we’ve seen, became a Cambridge graduate given the chance – he had always been a deep football thinker. Not necessarily where you’d think – the “Revie Plan”, Sutcliffe establishes, was Manchester City colleague Johnny Williamson’s idea. But his tactical acumen and attention to detail, his novel training approaches and openness to novelty are well established. With England, however, his brain had too much time on its hands.

Revie overthought everything. In the weeks and months between internationals, his natural paranoia, superstition and caution overwhelmed his marvellous instincts for a player, a position, an on-field situation.

Nor did the techniques he used so effectively at Leeds translate to England. Sutcliffe thinks that players’ opposition to things like dossiers, carpet bowls and bingo have been exaggerated. But that didn’t mean that the Leeds family atmosphere could be rebuilt in Lancaster Gate, it didn’t mean that players could win Revie’s trust in quite the same way and it didn’t mean that the dossiers didn’t sometimes eat away at players’ confidence.

Sutcliffe makes clear that Revie was one of those who were gifted with extraordinary emotional intelligence – a man manager of the highest calibre. In the early 1960s, this had enabled him to pull Leeds together, and keep it together, by dint of the extraordinary work he put in to keep his side happy and the support staff involved. But at Leeds, he’d had everyone around him, all the time: at England, bureaucracy and the sheer lack of player contact proved more than he could compensate for.

It’s clear from Sutcliffe’s account that England were unfortunate not to qualify for the 1976 European Championship. An absurd draw against Portugal doomed England when they were by some margin the best team in a limited group. But qualification for Argentina 1978 was another thing altogether. Revie’s selection for the crucial match against Italy in Rome was so unexpected – so panicked and erratic, with players out of position and established performers excluded – that the Italians took it as a bluff at first. Then they took advantage.

It hadn’t helped that Revie’s attempts to get political with selection misfired. Sutcliffe sets out an intriguing version of events surrounding the 1975 Wembley match against World Champions West Germany. So convinced was Revie that England would be beaten handily, the story goes, that he picked the players he’d been urged by the press to pick, intending them to fail. Mavericks and playboys: Alan Hudson in particular believed that his call-up was to make sure that he’d play himself out of England contention for good.

In the event, the “new” defence of Gillard and Whitworth proved solid, Hudson ran riot, and England humiliated West Germany for ninety glorious minutes. Anyone not aware of what had prompted the selection of this particular team might consider that Revie had found a team to win a World Cup.

Revie’s disintegration was accelerated by FA machinations. Sir Harold Thompson, an enemy to Ramsey and to Brian Clough in turn, was at the heart of Revie’s troubles. It wasn’t just the secret negotiations with Bobby Robson behind Revie’s back or the comic snobbery (“Revie – when I come to know you better, I will call you Don”); it was the terrible punitive hounding of Revie once he’d left for the Middle East.

The worst one can say of Revie with regard to leaving England is that he sold the story to one paper – to Jeff Powell at the Mail, and he came to see it as a mistake in later years. But he had every right to leave, and every right to do the best for himself when he did so. If Sutcliffe’s account is true, then it isn’t Revie’s loyalty and patriotism that should be in question, but that of Thompson and his colleagues.

The story of Revie in the Middle East isn’t often told. It’s a happy one. He and his wife enjoyed their time there, and Revie was successful in kickstarting UAE football: his youngsters would take UAE from the bottom of the Arabic pile to qualification for the 1990 World Cup. He is still warmly remembered, and his house has been kept as it was when he lived there.

The rest is taken up with – taken away by – motor neurone disease.

This is the right biography for Revie, now, and it opens up the field for writers who will consider him, and what he achieved, in the life of the country as a whole. Because where does football stack up? Where do football men like Revie stand in importance to England and to the UK compared with, say, William Golding, Jennie Lee, Charles Mackintosh or Benjamin Britten? That’s for later. Richard Sutcliffe has given us both a rehabilitation for Revie and an essential reference work built around him. It’s the very least that Revie the man deserved.

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Martin O’Neill at West Ham

Posted on 15 January 2011 by JamesHamilton

UPDATE: I think the phrase is “overtaken by events”! I’ll leave this here as a period piece, but as things stand, O’Neill won’t ,after all, be going to West Ham. It’s unlikely that Grant will hang on regardless, but no subsequent appointment will hold half the interest of Martin O’Neill’s.

This is harsh on Avram Grant. As anyone who saw the Carling Cup semi-final first leg against Birmingham City knows, West Ham were beginning to find their feet once more.

But, sympathies aside, this is the most interesting managerial appointment of the season so far, in that, unlike Dalglish’s at Liverpool, it says unequivocal things about football figures who might still be felt to have a future.

O’Neill vs Dalglish

The two men are only a year apart in age. But there are reasons to believe that O’Neill has ten more years ahead of him than his Scottish counterpart. Dalglish has the obvious upper hand when it comes to medals – the huge Liverpool haul, and Blackburn. But of the two, O’Neill has the more crafted career. O’Neill built from the bottom, constructing a perfect managerial CV. He has proved himself at non-league level, in the blood and thunder of the Football League, at the tiller of a side who owed their Premiership status to his skills, and, most impressively of all, at what is in pressure terms one of the world’s biggest clubs: Celtic. Where his predecessor was…

Events at Aston Villa give one to think that O’Neill is still interested in success in his own career. Dalglish is now a one-club man: there will be no further essays in life beyond Anfield. He may well rescue Liverpool, but it will be for Liverpool’s sake and not his own. O’Neill possesses no such natural home, and employs no such nostalgia in his thinking.

In short, O’Neill doesn’t think his story is over. He’s not looking for a reprise or a return. At 58, he is still pursuing his career like a young man.

Control

Time and time again, the great British managers take over desperate, failing clubs and take them to unprecedented places. Stein at Hibs, however briefly. Shankly, at Second Division Liverpool. Busby, at a bombed-out Manchester United who had in any event spent the 20s and 30s watching their rivals at the great new stadium at Maine Road soak up the glory. Revie at Second Division Leeds. Clough at Second Division Derby County, and then again at Second Division Nottingham Forest.

This has been Martin O’Neill’s model, but adapted to modern financial constraints and conditions. Like all these men, he has taken a club unexpectedly to a European Final. Unlike the others, he has yet to win either a title, an FA Cup or a European trophy.

What’s changed is that the kind of club that can realistically consider those kinds of goals is no longer owned and managed in such a way as might give a man like Martin O’Neill  room to breathe.

The biggest clubs are now ownership nightmares. Randy Lerner is as good as the new breed come, and for O’Neill, it was not good enough. Even O’Neill needs time, and for new men at the top five or six clubs, there is no time anymore.

What makes West Ham more than just a re-run of the Leicester City saga, however, is the potential of their players.

Why West Ham? and Why Now?

It must be frustrating beyond measure. Being a West Ham fan, I mean. Cast an eye over the England squad. Rio. Carrick. Defoe. Joe Cole. Frank Lampard. Defoe, Cole and Carrick were part of the West Ham team that were relegated not long ago with 42 points, running out of road on the last day of the season after a thrilling tilt at safety led by Trevor Brooking.

Go back further. The television strike team of 1985 that so nearly went all the way. The 1980 FA Cup team: what was a side of Brooking, Devonshire, Allen, Pearson, Bond and Lampard senior doing in Division Two? Go back further: Hurst, Moore, Peters, Johnny Byrne.

There should have been more than three FA Cups and a Cup-Winner’s Cup, and West Ham could be forgiven for feeling that they exist to bring up great players properly whose dedication and discipline (for the most part) then flourishes elsewhere.

I thought it was all about to happen again. Noble, Sears, Collison, Tomkins, and the rest – especially the first two – were all emerging fast in what looked like another doomed team. Narrow relegation would, again, result in a fire sale. Once again, West Ham fans would find their remembered claret and blue hills turning up in Chelsea and Manchester United colours. Once again, the gratitude for a good career start would come in the form of words and fond memories, not as silverware at Upton Park.

O’Neill’s arrival changes all that immediately. “West Ham now” is all about the high quality of their young players: he’s going there for them. Just for once, West Ham’s youth policy has drawn someone in. Too often, it’s been the other way round.

O’Neill’s record with young players

You don’t have to go back to Emile Heskey – if Heskey is old enough yet to “go back to” at all. At Aston Villa, O’Neill was draw enough to get, and keep, some of the best young talent in the country. Since he left Villa Park, one question does for them all: whatever happened to Ashley Young, James Milner, Gaby Abonlahor, to the brave and honest Curtis Davies? Even after discounting form, injuries and (Milner) ill-advised transfers, there’s real loss of momentum here. Now that their mentor is back at another club, what will Marc Albrighton, Ciaron Clark and Nathan Delfounesco be thinking?

They’d be advised to consider the experiences of Steve Guppy, Muzzy Izzet, Steve Walsh and Neil Lennon, men who prospered by keeping ahold of nurse, or who, in Izzet’s case, would have wanted to if they could. O’Neill, like Clough, has a track record of having players flourish under him – and only under him.

If West Ham can find some money from somewhere, they might well find themselves the favoured destination of the half of the future England squad that they don’t already own…

O’Neill and the “Big Job”

The obvious question is, was he waiting for one of the big four to call? Liverpool could have done. Manchester United, often mentioned as a future home for O’Neill, now looks to be unavailable: barring the unexpected and accidents of trade, Ferguson will die in office. Chelsea see themselves in competition for coaches with Barcelona and Real Madrid: that’s not O’Neill’s world. Arsenal have had their O’Neill already and won’t have a vacancy for another: Wenger, like Ferguson, won’t move on now, seeing it as too late to start again elsewhere.

Control, stability and security matter to Martin O’Neill: it is inconceivable that he would be sacked except by the new billionaire owner of a top four club. There is also the question whether he wants to deal with the astonishing tidal forces that money exerts on Chelsea and Manchester United: these days, you need to be interested in money for your own sake and its own sake to survive mentally in the Champions League places. That’s not O’Neill either.

So his taking on West Ham might show that he no longer considers the so-called “big jobs” to be the desirable ones. Celtic was a real big job – it might be argued that he kept it that way himself by his own force of personality for longer than would otherwise have been the case. Both Rangers and Celtic now await a change in the financial weather and can’t move on until it comes. Furthermore, when O’Neill was at Celtic, it was a big job purely in footballing terms: what would the team achieve under him? would he emulate Stein, even in part? and of course he did, and showed the “pressures” of the job to be only an accurate measure of the talent of its holder. Celtic crushed good men before and after him – even a genuine hero like Tony Mowbray: O’Neill looked, sounded, and performed as if born to the role.

The Olympic Stadium

I don’t know if the issue of the Olympic Stadium figures with Martin O’Neill. There’s a considerable time factor involved: the Olympic Games are, in playing terms, a season and a half away, and conversion works probably stretch that time to four seasons altogether. And then there’s the neighbours to consider: Spurs.

That isn’t to say that the fate of the Olympic Stadium isn’t vital to both clubs. The stadium arms race of the Edwardian era is playing out again in our own time, and only clubs that can open capacity beyond 60,000 can hope to  compete at the very top level. Stratford can be a get out of jail free card for West Ham, and it’s close enough to call home. But Spurs have the money, the clout, Beckham on board and the next England manager.

If it came down to a straight battle between Redknapp and O’Neill, I know who I’d back. But it’s far from that. I really don’t know if this issue is on O’Neill’s mind at all. It would demand that he stay in post longer than he has been prone to, and it would create the mother of all distractions to the playing side of things (Wenger built the invincibles and Ashburton Gate at the same time, which speaks for itself, but he and O’Neill are very different men).

West Ham’s “Happy Time”?

Danny Dyer and everything of that kind aside, West Ham are a sunshine club, carrying a kind of indefinable good news around with them. It’s Malcolm Allison’s coffee shop school, talking tactics with young Moore and Byrne and pushing salt shakers around to prove a point. It’s the beautiful playing strip – not dissimilar to another one in Martin O’Neill’s past. It’s all those sunsoaked Wembley finals. It’s the deep family connections – the Lampards, the Allens. It’s the atmosphere of Upton Park under floodlights. It’s West Ham’s being in London, the greatest, most beautiful city in the world.

That, and the presence of an exciting set of young players: it all adds up to two things.

One, a club quite different from the ones O’Neill has managed before. It’s not Celtic’s sharks and icebergs. It’s not Aston Villa’s fear that the world was racing away without them. It’s not Leicester’s constant struggle for breath. And it’s certainly not Wycombe.

Two, O’Neill will finally be.. Martin O’Neill.

Because everyone has been waiting for him to be Brian Clough. This is unfair: Clough was Clough from the get-go. No one was hanging about in case Old Big ‘Ead might eventually morph into Harry Storer.

For some reason, for O’Neill to turn into Clough, he had to have the big job at the big club, in England. Or, indeed, get the England job, which would have made him just like Clough. (West Ham aren’t a leg up to that post, however: it’s Redknapp’s next, in sickness or in health).

No, now it’s Martin O’Neill’s career that he’s having. An end to comparisons. Not, perhaps, an end to questions about how he might have got on at Manchester United. But there are younger managers than O’Neill who will have that one hung around their neck before Ferguson is through, and one of them, you know in your heart, is Portuguese.

It’ll start, I imagine, with unfinished business: O’Neill will help West Ham finish the unlikely job of winning “his” trophy, the Football League Cup. His part in Villa’s losing final was only last year. Yet such a long time ago.

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The 14 Year Rule: Football Management and Career Length

Posted on 18 December 2010 by JamesHamilton

Sir Bobby Robson (Ipswich Town 1969-1982)

This weekend, Sir Alex Ferguson will surpass Sir Matt Busby’s record as the longest serving manager in Manchester United history. He’ll go on to serve his full quarter century next year, and eventually retire (or die in office) as the greatest manager of modern times.

However, Sir Alex did not have the opportunity to manage at the top level during British football management’s real golden age. He didn’t take over at Aberdeen until 1978, by which time the good years, for what they were worth, were all but over.

Consider this. Between 1967 and 1974, the following managers and management teams were active in the English and Scottish leagues, at the clubs which they are most famous for: Jock Stein at Celtic, Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Bill Nicholson at Spurs, Don Revie at Leeds, Clough and Taylor at Derby, Ron Greenwood at West Ham, and Bobby Robson at Ipswich.

What those men have in common are trophies, memorable football, the passionate love of the fans and – all being dead now – the status of latterday saints and guardian angels, safeguarding the souls of their clubs. They have something else in common too. Look at this:

Jock Stein Celtic 1965-1978: Tenure 13 years

Bill Shankly Liverpool 1959-1974: Tenure 15 years

Herbert Chapman Huddersfield/Arsenal 1921-1934 : Tenure 13 years

Harry Catterick Everton 1961-1973: Tenure 12 years

Bill Nicholson Spurs 1958-1974: Tenure 16 years

Don Revie Leeds 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years

Clough and Taylor Derby/Notts Forest 1967-1982: Tenure 15 years

Mercer/Allison/Book Manchester City 1965-1980: Tenure 15 years

Joe Harvey Newcastle United 1962-1975: Tenure 13 years

Ron Greenwood West Ham 1961-1974: Tenure 13 years

Sir Bobby Robson Ipswich 1969-1982: Tenure 13 years

There are obvious caveats – Clough’s post-Taylor years saw success and overperformance from Forest, and Robson’s management career had almost three decades yet to run when he left Ipswich for the worst job in the world. I’m not sure what I’ve said about Manchester City makes complete sense. Bertie Mee – a war hero who spent a decade at Arsenal – should receive honorable mention. So should Sir Alf Ramsey, England manager for 11 years and a manager for 25 years until leaving Panathinaikos in 1980.

But other than that, isn’t it striking how similar in length are the careers of British football management’s golden age greats? Although there are variations, 14 years seems to be a benchmark figure. Why?

Natural Wastage: the job of football manager is famously ageing, and it might just be that 14 years is as long as most people can take. Chapman died at the end of his, and Jock Stein – victim of a serious car crash – was felt to be not the man he had been.

Footballing Followers: 14 years is also a good benchmark length for a playing career. The great managers acquire followers: John McGovern went with Clough wherever the manager led him. Revie left Leeds believing that his team were becoming old and that the Elland Road club could not afford the players to rebuild. Do the followers retire after 14 years? Is the effort to replace the familiar faces all too much?

Vanishing playing talent: it’s striking how many of these men chose 1974 in which to bow out. By that year, the wartime children, the greatest cohort of footballers in British history, were beginning to fade away.  Derby’s first championship year was the most competitive in history, and, not coincidentally, the year in which most of that cohort were at their peak. Never again would so many clubs be realistic contenders. Did managers see a less talented future coming, as Sir Trevor Brooking does now?

The 1973 Oil Crisis: a better point of comparison for 2008-2011 than 1929, and an event that sideswiped so much of British life that we are still only beginning to realize just how extensive the damage was. What influence could it have had on British football management? Certainly, in financial terms, clubs would never be so secure again.

Pop Culture in Football: The big cultural change amongst players – think of it as the transformation from Jack Charlton into George Best – happened in the early seventies, famously bewildering Alf Ramsey. That, and the abolition of the maximum wage and retain-and-transfer, undoubtedly made team-building more difficult. Has a similar change come to pass more recently, with Bosman and the vast financial power now wielded by players? Do these cultural changes also occur every 14 years or so, making generation-straddling careers that much more difficult?

Clubs used to give managers enough time: It’s true that managerial tenure used to be longer than it is now, but football clubs have always been run by trigger-happy idiots. So I don’t buy this one.

Really, though, none of these explanations feel remotely satisfactory, which tells me that one of two things must be true. Either I’ve too small a sample of managers here for such generalizations to be made – or there are indeed factors that work towards creating a 14 year career length for great managers, but I’m missing them completely. What do you think?

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The 1929 FA Cup Final – with sound

Posted on 07 August 2010 by JamesHamilton

Bolton 2 Portsmouth 0 Wembley 1929

In 1929, pioneering firm British Talking Pictures Ltd went to Wembley and made a – talking picture!  of the FA Cup Final. It was what Mitchell and Kenyon would have done, but by 1929 new tech chose other, newer vehicles. Considering its subject, this film is astonishingly early.

You can watch, and listen, to the 11 minutes we have left at British Pathe’s site here. Isn’t it about time they allowed embedding?

British Talking Pictures

British Talking Pictures was a substantial enterprise – the UK arm of the General Talking Pictures Company with two studios in operation on the old Wembley Exhibition site and a third under construction. Its relationship with German company Tobis gave the firm access to the Tri-Ergon system of sound film recording, in which an extra strip is added to 35mm film: it’s likely that this is the system in use here. The firm’s system and studios were cutting edge and a source of considerable interest to the rest of the industry, as the abstracts below demonstrate:

Click to Enlarge

In October, a devastating fire would destroy both of British Talking Pictures’ existing studios, causing an estimated £100,000 damage – in 1929 prices. But the company survived and thrived, and by the mid-1930s was a leading supplier of sound equipment to cinemas across Britain.

£800 (1930 prices) buys you all this!

The Wembley Ritual

The recording itself is one of the very first made of an English sporting crowd. BBC Radio commentary was already up and running by this stage, and supporters can be heard on surviving recordings of these games. But this is the earliest uninterrupted recording that I am aware of, and certainly the earliest recording of the whole Wembley FA Cup ritual.

And the ritual is all there, complete, in what is only Wembley’s seventh final. There is organized singing before the game, a Royal presence (the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VIII) and a brass band. But there is more to it: the proceedings end with God Save The King after the Cup has been presented. Note that the Bolton captain neither kisses nor raises the Cup when it is given to him: instead, he is chaired (somewhat awkwardly) around the stadium by Bolton officials and teammates.

Much of the FA Cup ritual is revealed, here, to be war remembrance. Pack Up Your Troubles is sung with enthusiasm, as match programmes are waved. For Abide With Me , the band is hushed, and the conductor, all in white, turns and leads the crowd. It’s a slow, graceful, moving rendition. The Bolton team had been together for a decade, and this was their hat-trick of winning Wembley Finals. They’d almost all fought, in 1914-1918, as perhaps most men in the crowd would have done. Captain Jimmy Seddon had suffered trench foot. The Wembley Ritual is one of remembrance. In 1929, it was remembrance – and remembering: the recollections of real memories, of real absent friends.

The Match Programme

The programme was a fine affair, graced by the thoughts of the Jonathan Wilson of his day, Charles Buchan, architect of the WM formation played by both sides:

1929 FA Cup Final Programme

The Daily News had been C.P. Scott’s paper before the Manchester Guardian. As for Buchan, he was no pioneer as a player-turned-journalist: one of Everton’s founding players, Frank Brettell, made more money from writing than from playing. But Buchan went on to found the first sustained intelligent football magazine for boys, one which has become a Christmas favourite and a focal point for 1950s nostalgia. All that was a long way away in 1929.

Playing Style

Herbert Chapman, writing at about this time, claimed that playing standards had fallen. What we see here is a mixed bag. There are some lovely touches, some excellent passes short and long, some great tackles, and even some decent keeping. The careers of both sets of players straddled the 1925 offside law change – the goalscoring records of George Camsell and Dixie Dean are 24 and 18 months old as we watch – and some of the long-ball crudities that the change encouraged can be seen too. More obvious here than in film of later years is the emphasis on the dribble – an attacker taking the ball as far as he could before encountering a tackle, almost rugby style. This is an older echo altogether, of the football of the 1860s and 1870s, and that old man accompanying the Prince of Wales as the players are introduced would have seen it for what it was. Because he was Sir Charles Clegg..

Sir Charles Clegg

Clegg is 78 here, which is old enough to have known Lord Kinnaird for almost all of his life and to have played against him in the first ever official international match at Kennington in 1872. Not that that was any kind of triumph for the Yorkshireman, who’d hardly had a kick all game. In 1926, Clegg related his bad memories of the first international match to the great sports journalist J.A.H. Catton:

Some members of the England eleven were awful snobs, and not much troubled about a “man fra’ Sheffield”.

In 1923, Clegg had succeeded Kinnaird as FA President, and in this capacity the Prince of Wales was given over into his care for the day. What the incorruptible, teetotal old man made of his charge is unrecorded.

Clegg was one of the great romantics at heart. Behind the flinty, no-prisoners facade was the soul of a young man who’d been driven out of his first love, athletics, by the corruption brought on by gambling. He’d fought the arrival of professionalism before tacking to the wind alongside Kinnaird and Marindin, and later fought both the infant Player’s Union and the breakaway Amateur Football Association. Clegg it was who led the 1905 investigation into corruption at Manchester City, from which dates the first great period of their Old Trafford rivals.

Clegg was a tragic figure too, and not just because he lived to see the sport he had played for love become big business that used players for profit before spitting them out like spent cartridges before they were thirty. Not just because the Football Pools would become a feature of everyday life under his watch. That small, determined figure you see next to the Prince of Wales was in mourning. He had had two sons with his wife Mary. He’d been luckier than Kinnaird, who’d lost two sons to the War. But first William Clegg died, in 1927, and then, in the year of this Final, the other son, Colin. His wife would die in 1933 and he’d see out his last four years of life alone.

The Managers

On the other side of London, Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal were about to begin their astonishing dominance of the English game, something which would continue right up to the renewal of war in 1939. Chapman was the dominant managerial figure – the Bradman of his trade – until Busby, but the Bolton and Portsmouth managers were figures in their own right.

Victorious Bolton boss Charles Foweraker was a one club man. He’d started out manning a turnstile at the brand new Burnden Park in 1895, and was there to see John Cameron score in the FA Cup Final replay of 1901. 1901 had been the first Final Pathe had filmed.  The initial tie at Crystal Palace had attracted 114,000 spectators, a record  and a turnout that flirted with catastrophe. Catastrophe came shortly afterwards. But not in South London: it came in Glasgow,at Ibrox, and The Scotsman published the relieved, self-exculpating letters of Crystal Palace’s manager on successive days, a page or two from the accumulating lists of Glasgow’s dead. In 1914, Palace packed 120,000 in. That was enough: and after the Great War, the Final spent a couple of years in the safety of Stamford Bridge whilst Wembley was made ready.

Foweraker had seen this great Bolton side win three Wembley finals in the stadium’s first seven years. For Jack Tinn, Portsmouth manager, and for Portsmouth themselves, it was all just beginning. Pompey had only been in the Football League for seven years, and were at the end of their second year of struggling in the First Division, Tinn’s first years in charge. Earlier in the season, they’d seen Leicester City put ten past them for no reply. But they’d survived, and would continue to do so. After one more losing Final, Tinn would lead a team to the Cup in 1939, and the trophy itself would spend the war under his bed. He retired in 1947, and a Portsmouth team most observers credit him with building would take back-to-back League titles in 1949 and 1950. Tinn would carry Portsmouth from the Great Crash to the Cold War, and leave them in an age of jet planes and nuclear brinksmanship.

The Crowd

But surely, the point of this 1929 sound film is the crowd at Wembley: the 100,000. For a supposedly flat-capped sport, there is an almighty preponderance of trilbies on view on what is obviously a cold day. Was Wembley a trip too far for Bolton men? But ten years later, Mass Observation would visit Burnden Park and find the trilbies there, too:

Burnden Park c.1939

Despite the presence of Portsmouth, there is no chanting to be heard. The Pompey “Chimes” are Victorian – the words were printed in the official club handbook for the 1900-1901 season. Some writers think that the “Chimes” were a thing reserved for late in the game, at least to begin with, and as Bolton’s goals came on eighty and ninety minutes respectively, that might explain the chant’s absence. But what we can hear is a classic crowd “roar”, that undulates with play, and we can hear rattles. Thousands upon thousands of rattles – not vuvuzela-intrusive, but a pervasive rippling sound underlying the roar that one might easily mistake for applause.

It is clear from the crowd’s reaction and behaviour that the players are idols already – superstars, kings whose hems must be touched. As both sets of players make their way up the Wembley steps – up the fresh, sharp concrete of the Wembley steps in the shadow of the clean, white Wembley towers – they are patted, pulled, hands reach for them and their shirts are tugged. There is a need, an intimacy, in all this contact, one which mirrors somehow the almost shocking skipping, hugging celebration of both Bolton goals. (Shocking at least to those who think affectionate celebrations are a modern phenomenon, but they appear in Edwardian footage too.)

The crowd marks a good pass, or a fine tackle, with that astonishing roar – loud and low-pitched. But when the goals come, the note is higher, diluted, thinned-out by surprise and pleasure. And whether it marks good play or a score, the note is never aggressive - these are still George Orwell’s orderly English crowds, not the passionate fans of today with their talk of Scummers or Bindippers or Plastics..

Between Wars

Just knowing that this is 1929 is enough to make one want to send in helicopters, to winch the players and crowd to safety, away from the Crash, Great Depression, Manchuria, Munich and the rest. But this is the point about life: it’s not a lift you can step out from, when the floor you want arrives.. and within ten years England had lost two kings, and the fragile peace besides. But, as we’ve noted, Jack Tinn was still there, at Portsmouth, in 1939, and sound film of Cup Finals, astonishing in 1929, was an absolute commonplace when he and his side came back and made it third time lucky.

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Low Expectations in the International Arena

Posted on 25 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Craig Levein

Interesting words from Craig Levein in the Scotsman:

He says he watched his first match at the helm like a scientist analysing matter through a microscope and he was baffled by what he saw. The lack of self-belief in the players was “strange”. He had expected players who are big performers at club level to walk out at Hampden, in front of their own fans, their heads held high, their chests puffed out. Instead, they seemed timid, shrinking within themselves and the shirts which had appeared to fit perfectly in the dressing room minutes earlier.

This echoes what Fabio Capello said in similar circumstances when taking England over two years ago. “Fatigue” seems to have overtaken “confidence” as the “expert” diagnosis on England, for the time being: it’ll be interesting to see how the Scottish dialogue shapes up as Levein gets through his first round of games.

In Levein’s mind things are that positive. The cynicism which seems to grow in the Scottish psyche as prevalently as the heather on the hills is kept at bay. He feels there is a change in the national mood. Instead of just moaning about what is wrong, he thinks there are a growing number of people keen to get together and actually do something constructive.

There has been a change in that direction, and it’s been good to see. And Scotland only thinks that it’s more cynical and defeatist than other countries.

Only in the job seven months and with a solitary game under his belt, he has not had enough time to gauge which players amongst the current first-team contenders get the biggest buzz from representing their country but he will. And if there are two people vying for the same position, then he would be inclined to give the nod to the one who values the cap the most.

“But the fact is, there shouldn’t be a situation like that. It should be the case that every player wants to play for Scotland and, you know, I think of people like Davie Narey, who probably went along to 80 Scotland gatherings and hardly played any games but he saw it as representing his country and he knew it was an honour and he would never have dreamed of saying ‘sod that’. And he was a top, top player.

Given that the pay gap between footballers in Scotland and Scots on average earnings is less than that between Premier League players and the English general public, Levein is saying something here that’s more interesting than a repeat of that old English control-freak canard about overpaid primadonnas. This is about low expectations.

At club level, it’s far more easy for a player to conceptualize some kind of success and to believe in it. That’s partly from necessity. The club pays the wages. But it’s also from experience: only clubs that are really trapped in a relegation spiral won’t win or draw some games along the line.

At international level, with so many fewer games, so much less continuity, and a different kind of “home advantage”, history, you might think, hangs much heavier on the players. Scotland go into qualifying tournaments leaden with previous all-so-nears. And a great deal else besides. England arrive at tournaments with an “experienced” team whose experience consists of fickle support, evisceration by the media at the first hint of failure, long years of their privacy being constantly and hideously violated, and the knowledge that anything short of a semi-final will leave them regarded as traitors to the nation.

Scottish fans – insofar as I’ve seen – don’t share the English view that high wages “should and therefore do” discount all questions of pressure, confidence, mental energy, tiredness and what happens to you after you’ve been subjected to the Premiership circus for ten or more of your more emotionally-vulnerable years. Only the Rangers-Celtic divide generates anything like the acutely personal and constant hatred that is directed at a large chunk of the England squad for a great deal of the time.

But at least England do have some unquestionably fine performances to draw upon – it’s been some time since Scotland enjoyed a comfortable victory over opponents at their own level to compare with England’s home and away wins against Croatia. Fighting rearguard wins over France, as experience has shown, are hugely cheering, good to look back on, and useless as measures of progress or builders of momentum.

Scotland have to find that momentum: no one wants to wait twenty years for the McLeish report to work whatever magic it has to offer. The mix of profound realism in Scotland about the quality of the players available, combined with Levein’s morale-boosting energy and excitement, makes this a good moment to start.

Long-term, though, it will take more than Levein to cure the ills. He talks openly about the amatuerishness of certain aspects of the SFA and having come from a club background he claims there are faults there as well. But he believes there is now a willingness to look into the mirror held up to them all by the Henry McLeish report and work together to improve the game.

And why not Scotland, after all? There’s nothing inevitable about decline and poor performance. But shifting low expectations is hard, harder even than an experienced, successful manager like Fabio Capello once thought. But Capello’s travails are an opportunity for Levein. Capello solved England’s self-inflicted qualification woes: now he is determined to repeat the trick and do the same at tournament level. If Levein can do likewise – that will be the standard he’ll have matched. It’s a target worth the shooting.

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Agincourt and England 2010

Posted on 18 July 2010 by JamesHamilton

Paul Carpenter (Carpsio) takes the “passion and commitment” line of England criticism in an interesting direction with an informed comparison of Agincourt to that 4-1 defeat to Germany:

In all these cases (Agincourt, Waterloo, Dunkirk, The Battle of Britain, Rorke’s Drift), we are assured that it was English ‘spirit’ that was critical to our victory against the odds (or more commonly British, but that’s splitting hairs). All battles are framed thus in the national mind: outnumbered and outgunned by foreign forces and perfidy, our innate spunk and refusal to concede defeat see us through.

It’s a good place to start. Most of the popular reaction to England’s 2006 and 2010 World Cups has been to deride the team for spineslessness and lack of courage. The spunk and refusal to concede defeat that are, we must assume, typical of the fans, were not, we are told, seen in the behaviour of the “overpaid privileged primadonnnas” – and you can put your own choice of words between those inverted commas.

We see this unspoken story in our sports. Recall us to Beckham’s game against Greece in 2002 or “Botham’s Ashes” in 1981. In the iconography of the game, Terry Butcher’s heroics against Sweden in 1989 gave us the defining image of English sport: a man covered in blood yet unyielding in his defiance, a performance which single handedly gave us the result we needed (i.e. a draw with the footballing giants of Sweden when viewed more prosaically).

Yes, and some of us will be able to remember the 1980 Winter Olympics and a programme on the BBC called “Come on Cousins” in which this principle was extended to figure skating…

Typically, we have learned entirely the wrong set of lessons from these games. These events were exceptions - not rules.  The Beckham who charged around the pitch, tackling anything that moved might have stirred the blood – but ultimately delivered nothing. It was Beckham the dead-ball specialist who ultimately won the game by doing something he’d practised until it was a personal art form. There is no greater lesson to be taken from Beckham’s game against Greece other than clichés about “heroism”.

It’s worth noting at this point that Beckham himself used to be seen as the epitome of the weak-willed unEnglish pampered ego who, along with Sven, was keeping all of those English lions from making the nation proud. This, despite having kept going through being burnt in effigy, having abusive chants about his wife recited by English crowds, being dropped by McClaren and Capello..

The popular reaction to the World Cup in general, and the Germany match in particular, has been to accuse the team of spineless cowardice and letting the country down, of not trying, of not showing passion. Carpenter disagrees, provides a succinct alternative analysis, and caps it off quite brilliantly:

So we end up at Bloemfontaine, where Gerrard’s desire to win the game himself by himself through English virtues like willpower and passion and grit meant that he consistently drifted from his position on the left in the game plan that Capello had set for him. Terry likewise pushed ever higher up the pitch, trying to will the team to victory while Johnson uselessly attempted to conjure blood and thunder via clumsy challenges (no doubt “letting the Germans know he was there”).

Sadly, the Germans even knew that this would happen. Coach Joachim Löw:

“We knew that Gerrard and Lampard always support the forwards and that the midfield would be open, there would be spaces. Our objective was to use Miroslav Klose to draw out John Terry, to force him to come out of the defence. We knew that the fullbacks would be very much to the side and this would create the spaces between the English defenders that would help us penetrate their defence”

Far from being our killer app, those English virtues of ‘commitment’ and ‘desire’ are our achilles heel.

Read the rest.

I watched the entire Germany game again this afternoon, and once again failed to recognize any of the popular criticisms that have been levelled at the team. I agree with George Szirtes’ analysis – this was a game in which Upson, Terry and Barry played unusually poorly. That’s true. I also find myself amongst that tiny number of people who see the disallowing of Lampard’s goal as a turning point: England troubled Germany deeply at times, and although Germany were the better side, it wasn’t 4-1 better, or even 4-2.

What did for England was the speed of attack Germany’s youngsters could provide. Muller and Ozil were just faster than the men assigned to stop them, and Klose not far behind on the day. That use of speed is worth reflecting on: both McClaren and Capello felt that speed out wide was the future for England – as it has proved to be for Germany.

Some fans felt so too, in 2006, although that had more to do with a reflexive desire to punish Beckham for not being a shouting neckless skinhead than anything else. It’s precisely the failure of England’s fast young wide players that has marked both the Englands of McClaren and Capello.

Injury has had much to do with it. Aaron Lennon spent most of 2010 “coming back from..” one worrying setback after another. Walcott, the younger of the two, didn’t play a full match until December, but was nonetheless a surprising omission from the World Cup 23.

Both Lennon and Walcott are very young men with developing still to do. Lennon’s 23, and Walcott 21. I want to be fair to them. For comparison, Germany’s Mueller is 20, and Ozil 21. Neither of these men is as yet a club player of the stature of Lennon or Walcott, and it might yet prove that their 2010 will be a version of Michael Owen’s 1998: a footballing demonstration of a kind that we would never really see in the same way again. It wasn’t that Owen who scored the bulk of his 40 international goals.

At least the Lennon and Walcott stories aren’t about lack of first team opportunities. Both have had exactly the careers you’d have wanted for them – barring the injuries, of course.

But if England’s fast players really are key – and the success of Mueller and Ozil suggest as much – then what Lennon and Walcott serve to underline is that there really was something about the real Golden Generation – the United kids plus Owen, Fowler, Campbell and the Cole brothers – that set them apart from the usual products of the English system. The excitement about that group was not completely delusional, and neither was the desire to find them proper European management.

Lennon’s injury struggles this year make it unfair, as I’ve said, to set him up against his predecessor on England’s right.  Lennon at his best is fast – really fast – a Finney on skates. A player who can get you on your feet in a second. So is Walcott.

But just look at David Beckham, aged 23..

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England v Algeria: Not Fear, But F*** Off

Posted on 19 June 2010 by JamesHamilton

Four years ago, the press wanted an English manager who understood English players and the English culture. They got one. It didn’t work.  Then they wanted the players’ backsides (so arrogant! so wealthy! so.. what that bloke just said!) given a kicking. A disciplinarian – all Capello will now be remembered as – was duly imported, at great expense.

It seemed to “work” for a while. And the sadistic wing of English football journalism thrilled to tales of enforced mealtimes, restricted conjugality and millionaires scrambling for the approval of “Mr Capello.” All that’s forgotten now.

Truth to tell, the press were already tiring of Capello, and the tide had turned against him before the match against the USA. Such was the atmosphere amongst the splendid gentlemen of our broadsheets and redtops that only a series of Croatia-like results could have kept them at bay. I think this difficult start to the World Cup, combined with British reporters’ bleating, churlish desire for more “access” to the manager (and they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them) has most likely ended his tenure.

I have no sympathy with press turnabouts, nor with “fans” who complain about the money they’ve spent to go to South Africa. The latter at least still have the money to spend – they are English, not Icelandic, Greek or Irish or Spanish – and they are, after all, still on holiday. But there is something happening here, with England, and if I’m right, it’s something we’ve not seen with the international team for a decade. I think the players are on psychological strike.

There are three separate but interlinked components to this.

The first is the very discipline and distance that brought England to South Africa in such good style. For Capello, the players-as-pawns strategy is a given. It’s what he’s always done. The principal advantage to the players is its simplicity: as a player,you are to focus on getting your game right, you are responsible for that, and, by and large, your shirt depends on it. During qualifying, English players always had something to play for: it was quite clear what they had to achieve. But I suspect that, unlike the manager, the players saw all this work and discipline as something with a natural end-point. The prize on offer to them was qualification and a recovery of pride after the McClaren debacle, then, that achieved, a place in the squad. And, with a place in the squad achieved, the proper work could begin. The real business of the World Cup would get underway with a squad secure in the knowledge that they had won their coach’s esteem and trust.

It didn’t work that way. The squad arrived in South Africa to find nothing had changed between themselves and their coach. In a sense, the prize wasn’t the World Cup, not at first: what they wanted was the trust of Fabio Capello. But it wasn’t granted them, nor will it be, that trust: the players understand this at an intuitive level. Despite qualifying so well, what they felt was meant to be punishment for the sins of the McClaren era grinds on, with no sign of an end.

The second is best summed up as “Robert Green.” My heart sank when I heard that he’d been dropped. Dropped, indeed, after a week of what amounted to psychological torture from the management team, made worse by gruesome press coverage. Reflect on the patient years Green has spent, never complaining, in working his way up to the no. 1 spot, reflect on the moral courage with which he faced up to what happened last week, reflect on the betrayal of one of the genuinely good guys of an England squad not overloaded with them. (Do all top managers have a goalkeeping blind spot? Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger do, and so it would seem does Capello). I suspect that, to the England squad, Green isn’t a pawn or a keeper needing to prove himself all over again at this climax of his career, but a mate and a colleague, and one who is being ripped apart in public to no purpose, abandoned and humiliated. It could be them next. After Green, what safety and solidarity can there be for this England squad?

The third point relates to the press. When it comes to the hacks, Capello is not Mourinho, or Ferguson, or Wenger, or Clough: he does not seem to see the need to shield his players from the worst of the criticism. The sudden, press-driven intimacy of a World Cup, with every player the subject of remorseless speculation and destabilising criticism, changes the nature of what Capello calls “the group.” It’s no longer something you fight to get into: it’s where you are, inescapably, wagons circled. The dropped – Green, Milner – can’t escape back to their clubs. The underperforming – Rooney – find themselves trapped in the searchlights, ripped by offensive fire. This morning, had Mourinho taken the job, the Special One would be in the most almightly contrived battle with FIFA or the FA, and those searchlights, that fire, would be his and his alone. I say this with reluctance, but I think Capello is using the players as human shields for himself, and David James’ interview, in which England’s fair-minded, intelligent and articulate veteran could scarcely keep the note of contempt out of his voice, shows the result.

All of a sudden, England’s an unhappy camp, and last night’s body language said it as loudly as did the performance. As had some of the comments made by players in the run-up: Terry and Gerrard have lapsed back into McClaren-era declarations that the team can play better than this, into promises that the team know what they have to do, into flat predictions that the next game will put it all right. That tells me that something has fractured: that the trust and belief are gone.

It’s as if only by downing tools as a team, without actually sacrificing the game altogether, could the England squad communicate the depth of their unhappiness to the manager. That’s how I read Rooney’s parting comments:

“Nice to see your own fans booing you. If that’s what loyal support is … for fuck’s sake.”

There’s been no loyal support, not since arriving, not from the fans, from whom it is no longer expected, and not from the manager. Rooney’s come in for criticism for this, but he’s absolutely right. The time for punishment for the past has been over since the squad was announced. Yet it’s gone on regardless, and fan narcissism doesn’t help.

Cast your minds back to the qualification games for the 2000 European Championships. Glenn Hoddle had made an excellent start as England manager. A side built around Adams, Ince and Shearer had come home early from the World Cup, but on the back of the best all-round set of performances since 1970.  The young Manchester United midfield were bedding in, Michael Owen had arrived, and the future looked bright. But, a couple of lacklustre games into Euro 200o qualifying, Hoddle rowed with Alan Shearer, saying “Tell me why you are producing performances like this.”

Shearer replied: “Have you ever thought the problem might be you?”

It’s not pressure. It’s not nerves. It’s not fear. It’s a message to Capello, and it reads f*** off.

Postscript:

All of the above is speculative to a large degree, and were England to go in at half-time 2-0 up over Slovakia, my guess is that a great deal will be forgiven and forgotten. What I mean is: we’ll know by then.

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Brazilian Physical Preparation – World Cups and More

Posted on 16 March 2010 by JamesHamilton

Tim Vickery is as always worth reading in full on Brazil’s preparations for South Africa 2010, but I wanted to draw your attention to the three crucial paragraphs. Because this is what Simon Clifford and Sir Clive Woodward have been saying for years, and this is what the English in particular have been slow to grasp (I’m hearing good things about Hibs’ new facilities, although I’m not sure that even those, or the new indoor centres in Glasgow which are equally encouraging, go anywhere near as far as the South Americans):

Shortly after the World Cup I interviewed Paulo Paixao, then as now in charge of Brazil’s physical preparation. He was understandably proud of the contribution he had made to his country’s victory. But with great nobility, he was desperate to stress that the merits were collective. “Brazil has a number of physical trainers who could have been in my place,” he said. “Nowadays , in terms of methodology of work, Europe is way behind Brazil, but the culture of physical preparation we have developed doesn’t get the credit it deserves. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because we’re judged in socio-economic terms, looked down upon because we’re a South American country.”

He had visited Juninho at Middlesbrough and couldn’t believe the amount of players who were injured. “They don’t seem to mind,” he said. “If one player gets injured they go out and buy another.

“Without carrying out tests you can’t draw up a work programme, and in Europe they hardly seem to do any. In Brazil all the big clubs have physiology labs. From the start players are dealt with in a laboratory situation. The young player goes through a battery of tests to find out what he needs to fulfil his athletic potential. What we do is focus on the specifics that a player requires, be it muscular re-enforcement, stamina or aerobic work, or addressing muscular imbalance. You don’t see this kind of work carried out in Europe”

All of this is eight years ago, Vickery says – and in the meantime, Paulo Paixao and a colleague have done work in Europe. Some of this sounds very Arsenal-like, but given Arsenal’s run of injuries – consistently very long even when you take x-rated tackles out of the equation – it isn’t working for them. Or perhaps Colney is mere mood music, or advanced for its time but no longer so current.

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Brian Clough: who he really was, and what he really achieved

Posted on 06 February 2010 by JamesHamilton

We’ve done it, at last, haven’t we: taken the silent and unanimous decision that Brian Clough matters. He’s made the step up: Brian Clough’s cultural now, gone from the close, sweaty barracks of football because he stands for England like Elgar and Dickens.

The news about Clough isn’t in the tabloids anymore.  It’s  strictly broadsheet, review and monthly: it’s been to the London Film Festival and must by now be under Granta’s walls, in strength. All that whilst never being out of place: all that, whilst never abandoning Derby, all that without losing the common touch. Clough, more than Ramsey, or Revie, more even than Shankly, his only possible rival, is a cornerstone and comment upon the zeitgeist, and post War Britain is impossible without him.

You can see his shape and hear his voice in all of it: it’s there in the memories of wet bus queues and Tony Blackburn and Green Shield stamps and Sportsnight and the whine of the milkman’s electric float.  Clough’s is one of that medley of reassuring provincial voices that dominated Wilson and Heath’s Britain, a Britain that felt so safe but left with a suitcase thirty years ago: he’s there in the head with Jim Callaghan, Eric Morecombe, Jimmy Savile and Noddy Holder. All gone, at least as we knew them then, all towed off in the back of the last Sealink Ferry or municipal dustcart.

Clough, like the others, started out with hack-written biographies and My Lifes. They’re all down in the Bodleian somewhere, still, browning in a stack with a host of others with the same huge type and bad binding and three sets of photos, one in colour. Books about sporting immortals don’t have long lives. The best a given copy can hope for is to be bought, by accident, by a badly-funded public library, where it can lurk at the back unnoticed long after its St Ives-printed brothers have been pulped or landfilled.

Ten years ago, something happened to books about Clough.  Or maybe it was something they did, something Clough himself would never have dreamed of: they betrayed their origins. They jumped genre. They became “proper books”, a transformation achieved dangerously close to the disputed border between snobbery and defensible taste and identification. A Clough book would henceforth be a proper autobiography, then a proper biography, then a novel, and then there was a Clough film – which, to show it was keeping up with developments, would feature real actors, and have football in it yet succeed.

Now come the memoirs, and the best of these is BAFTA-winning writer and film-maker Don Shaw’s Clough’s War. Clough’s War, as the title suggests, is Shaw’s first-hand account of the player rebellion at Derby whose ultimate failure brought the great post-1964 rush of English football to an end. After 1973, English club success in Europe covered cracks. It might not have had to. That it did was because Clough was an end, not a beginning; he was the last and greatest product of the only string of good English managers the game has ever produced. That string appeared just as the traditional but resilient business practices that built the game in the late Victorian and Edwardian period were being eased out. Eased out too slowly, too late for Clough: Shaw’s account of a world talent being forced to manouvre amongst petty provincial businessmen, whose sole concern was their local standing amongst their peers, is enough to set your trigger finger twitching back and forth.

Shaw deliberately leaves his picture of Clough incomplete: there are areas of the man into which he can’t see, and he says so. Shaw is a typical Clough friend: outside football but passionate about it, intellectually strong but of ordinary background, possessed of a powerful instinct for, and respect regarding, friendship and loyalty. And, of course, skilled with words. Philip Whitehead, film producer and Labour MP, was another of these Clough acolytes. Had the momentum of the 1960s and early 1970s continued, England would have ended up under the rule of this kind of clever, ordinary northerners and midlanders. 1973 did for that in all sorts of ways: Callaghan gets the blame, for dodging the autumn 1978 election and precipitating Thatcher, but the damage was done in the oil crisis. And, just as much,  in the community halls, pubs and discreetly parked football managers’ cars of Derby.

Part of Shaw’s Clough comes across well in this 1979 interview (9 mins):

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqAZsoF-ghw]

Here, confronted with the young John Motson, Clough displays some of the attributes Shaw notices, describes and frets over:

Fearlessness: “Clough felt invulnerable” says Shaw, “because he knew that the world held him in awe. That is why he could launch his slanderous attacks and suffer no consequences.. Lesser mortals, doing the same, might have expected a smack in the face. Not Clough. He knew that the pedestal on which he stood was high enough to be out of the range of brickbats.”

Self-belief: “I never think of Clough as suffering from megalomania,” says Shaw, “but its dividing line from self-aggrandisement is very close. His reference to Generals Wingate, on the British side, and Patton, on the American, was significant in that their insistence on self-belief, allied to their strong feeling of destiny, was central to their military philosophy, as it was to his approach to football management. His courage was unquestionable. His statement, ‘If I’d been a Spitfire pilot I’d have taken on a squadron of Messerschitts,’ could easily be dismissed as ‘Old Big ‘ead’ bragging. But to have been in his presence when he spoke those words was not to induce intense scepticism, but to accept it, such was the matter-of-fact way in which he made the claim.”

Psychological Aggression: Clough is waiting for Motson to provide him with something with which to disagree, whereupon he will present the disagreement as the product of moral and intellectual failing by Motson and the broadcasters. But Clough doesn’t wait for opportunities to put Motson off balance: putting Motson off balance is the core plot of the interview. In a player, likewise, Shaw says, “Clough searched for character traits and patterns of behaviour, which, once grasped, gave him a power over the player intended to induce fear initially, out of which would come obedience and respect.”

What doesn’t show in the interview are other traits that Clough would bring in to play to help his team. Humour – which he and Peter Taylor would bring deliberately to the table at specific times to reduce tension and pressure on the players – was a big part of the Clough persona, at least until 1982 and the end of the Clough-Taylor partnership. Simplicity: Clough’s advice to his players rarely reached any greater complexity, Shaw points out, than you’d find on a school playing field. Simple things can be remembered in pressure situations, and we saw the principle in reverse during the first McClaren international against Croatia.

Group bonding, brought to a height in the close Derby team, was essential to Clough. During the Ian Storey-Moore debacle, in which Clough essentially kidnapped Moore in order to hijack Moore’s move to Manchester United, he left Moore alone for a chat with each of the first team players in turn. They were quizzed for their views afterwards – “If a guy isn’t liked by the squad, then he’s out”. Moore passed his inspection, so Clough told him, late that evening, “We’re down in the lounge. Come down and have a cocoa with your wonderful mates.”

Nottingham Forest, Shaw thinks, was different: in the end, everything boiled down to fear. At any rate, his relationship with his Derby team represented the height of his career and his life, never to return.

There are sides to these Clough traits which Shaw doesn’t mention but which round out the Clough picture somewhat.

Gaslighting: “Gaslighting” is a technique to put a person off balance. You attribute a thought or feeling to your victim which you cannot know that they have and that they probably do not have. If they deny the thought or feeling, you rubbish their denial. If you are in any sort of authority or close relationship with your victim, this is extremely unsettling for them. The victim starts to distrust themselves, to question the message they are getting from their emotional responses. It slows them down, weakens them. Motson comes in for it constantly, and Clough uses the technique in almost every lengthy interview including the famous Revie conversation of 1974. The point about gaslighting is not just to point out that Clough employed the technique, but to reflect upon what that says about Clough.

Compartmentalizing: Clough didn’t make friends of his players – although he fostered friendship between them. Nor did he make friends on his various boards, or, indeed, Taylor aside, in football generally. This trait is an enabler of other traits: you can’t treat John Motson – or Sam Longson – or a player – as Clough did, and care about their opinion.

Grandiosity: It’s not just in Clough’s words (“..but I’m in the top one.”) but in his manner. Again, with Motson, he interviews like a captured Nazi general who can’t quite believe it isn’t 1940 anymore. Grandiosity needs to be defined in contrast to a sense of superiority: it has an element of defensiveness, of camouflage to it. Reading between Clough’s lines, I sense a frustration at only having football to perform in, a sense of being overpowered for his milieu but of being shut out from the stages that suited his size. Call it an air of frustrated self-importance.

Seeing others only in his own terms: Shaw’s account is one of Clough utilising Shaw’s loyalty, admiration and friendship as political pawns to play in his battle with the Derby board. The board, and the club, exist only as an opportunity for his self-expression. In the Motson interview, he sees the League Championship purely as an exercise in brilliant management, and the quality of the players is a secondary issue. This is the context, I believe, for the various set-piece Clough generosity stories. People for whom human relationships are all manouvre and negotiation, who lack some of the old-shoe moment-by-moment comfortable getting along with their peers, go in for the memorable, exaggerated gesture that the rest of us wouldn’t think of, or if we had, would be too bashful to attempt. Set-piece generosities backlight an otherwise selfish person’s interactions – we assume that they mean well, or that they are “really” generous and the more common selfishness is only an occasional blip of the sort everyone is prone to.

Football success carries enormous social, communal value, and, consequently, it brings with it tremendous forgiveness. The English, like everyone else, enjoy having someone coming from among them who can deliver something worth as much as football trophies. They enjoy having someone as different from most of them as Clough coming from their own stock – even someone differentiated by the sheer quantities of ego, selfishness and bullying as Clough could muster. At a distance, it’s easy to hang onto such personalities other values that the English hold dear – honesty, integrity, etc., and, having hanged hung them, easy to celebrate them: this kind of thing was projected onto the young Henry VIII just as it was onto Clough.

Shaw thinks that Clough’s “management style” and personality could only have thrived at the 1970s Nottingham Forest because only there, and nowhere else before and certainly since, would he be given complete control. I’d put forward a similar argument. Clough displayed many of the traits that apply to the collection of behaviours together known as narcissistic personality disorder. You might share with me my concerns about personality disorders – the way they yoke together what are, after all, behaviours that are part and parcel of human nature, and the arbitrary nature of the yokes themselves. But you’ll also share with me the knowledge of what being on the receiving end of those behaviours is like. Clough, being the man he was, could have succeeded outside football. Both business and politics reward men with just Clough’s traits. But only in football are such men celebrated.

Clough is unusual in football, though, for the sheer range of reasons for celebration and remembrance. His teams played glorious football – both Derby and Forest are still wonderful to watch, even now. His players reached career heights they’d not have seen but for him: perhaps Stuart Pearce was the last of a line that began with John McGovern. He won two league titles, two European Cups, and a host of lesser trophies. He made a football establishment we knew to be inadequate look inadequate, and our gratitude for that has lasted three decades undimmed. He was a great Englishman at a leaderless time, and when Muhammed Ali recognized him, the Champ recognized us all by proxy. I’ve shaken Ali’s hand: I feel I’ve also shaken Clough’s.

He achieved something else, too: something less obvious, less visible to the naked eye, but interesting nonetheless. He did everything with tools left over from another age. To understand this, consider the history of English football management.

Organized football got underway in the 1850s and 1860s. Most sides of the period, playing in the nascent FA Cup, were managerless teams of friends or teams put together at universities or military institutions. The team captain was also the team convenor, the man who knew everyone, could contact everyone, could bring everyone (or nearly everyone, in amateur days) together for matches. Personal acquaintance with the team was the key to playing for the team.

Teams of this type were to all intents and purposes unstaffed. There was no trainer, no doctor, no physio, no kitman. What changed this was the game’s own development. Early international teams – take, for instance, Quintin Hogg’s unofficial Scottish side of 1870-1, made up entirely of London-based Scots – were like club sides, comprised of friends and acquaintances. As the number of clubs increased, and with it the number of serious players, acquaintance became increasingly second hand, and a player would be picked for England or Scotland on the strength of reputation and word of mouth, not always personal knowledge.

As the number of teams based in the north of England multiplied, this became more complicated. A Blackburn Olympic might play southern teams twice in a season, perhaps three times, and only in the FA Cup. Knowledge of Olympic players amongst the men picking the England or Scotland teams was limited.

But with the northern teams charging for entry to their matches, the likes of Olympic, or Preston, found themselves needing to produce elevens of the sort of quality that might attract a crowd. That sort of eleven wouldn’t be made up of people the captain had heard of, but of people a crowd would come to hear of and talk about, or that a newspaper might celebrate. Very quickly, the logic of the situation demanded that a northern club have on its staff someone who had knowledge of players from a wide area, and the ability and desire to expand that knowledge faster than his colleagues at rival clubs. And, with entry fees being charged, and then, wages being paid, some business skill might come in useful. Thus the secretary-manager was born.

Within twenty years, the secretary-manager was a standard, accepted figure at every major football club in the Football League, the Southern League, and the other professional leagues. John Cameron, writing in 1905, described the manager’s duties as

  • the acquisition of a decent first XI
  • keeping the club’s accounts up to date
  • managing the fixture list
  • administering the stadium (maintenance etc)

By this stage, and no doubt as a result of the time constraints upon the manager, a second accepted figure had emerged: the trainer. Cameron describes the trainer as

regarded as the father of his side. Attending to the players’ smallest wants, dressing their injuries, rubbing them down, hardening their muscles, and freely giving advice in a thousand matters, the occupation of a trainer is a busy one.

Only by his efforts and shrewd judgement the appearance on the field of a popular player sometimes depends. Mistakes result in crippled players, and cause vexation of the spirit to the club’s officials.

In the space of barely thirty years, clubs went from being loose associations of mates to being joint stock companies with full-time staff. But very few full-time staff: it’s interesting to contemplate a club with a squad of twenty, plus manager, trainer and turnstile staff, weekly being confronted with crowds of twenty, thirty and forty thousand people. Such disparities had been seen only at the quiet branch stations serving the likes of Epsom, and then only once or twice a year. An Everton or a Tottenham were now handling them every fortnight, and without a railway company as backup.

Something stalled in British football when play halted in 1915. Crowds would continue to grow in the 1920s and 1930s, but the only signficant change in the way clubs were run would be tactical, Chapman amending the traditional 2-3-5 in 1925 to cope with the altered offside law. Manchester United went through the 1950s with four core administrative staff. Around the great league clubs of the north, industry and its management was transformed, by the arrival of the modern assembly line, by the arrival of efficient road transport, and by the impact of successive education acts. Football management stayed the same.

So, when Clough arrived at Hartlepools, Peter Taylor had to begin by masquerading as “trainer”, despite having even less relevant knowledge than his sponge-wielding peers. And, at Derby, his appointment was the cause of the first of Clough’s many conflicts with Sam Longson.

During the great years of his management career, in other words, Clough was, to all intents and purposes, a secretary-manager (Derby appointing “secretary” Webb only after a financial scandal caused by Clough’s indifference to the demands of accounting).  Clough was in an Edwardian role. So were his English counterparts. But his European rivals were not.

Clough’s attitude towards team and tactics were Edwardian too.  John Cameron, in 1905, might have been speaking for Clough in 1973:

Every manager is aware that if a professional team is to show successful results there must exist a genuine spirit of good fellowship among the players. The little jealousies that sometimes occur between different members of a team are unfortunate in the extreme, and should on all occasions be firmly repressed by those in authority.

Cameron never discusses tactics, and we know from other Edwardian writers that the basic 2-3-5 was considered to be the optimum formation, arrived at organically through experience and experimentation. Don Shaw describes just such an attitude in Clough:

Clough disregarded ‘tactics’ which, he said, were ‘the best thing to talk about if you want to ruin a team’s rhythm.’ Blackboard analysts were condemned as counter-productive. ‘Tactics aren’t for me,’ he declared. ‘They’re things teams dream up because they’re scared they might lose.’

Here Clough is channelling R.S. McColl, the Edwardian footballer and founder of the newsagent chain, who wrote:

Too rigid a system of play, in which all the moves are known, will not do. There must be flexibility; endless variety and versatility; constant surprises for the other side. System must be inspired by art and innate genius for and love of the game.

“We pissed all over Benfica,” said Clough after putting McColl’s advice into practice in the European Cup. “You don’t teach genius,” he said on another occasion. “You watch it.”

Clough’s Hartlepools and Derby were built around the Edwardian idea of the primacy of the first XI, not on the later squad concept first properly seen in England in Paisley’s Liverpool side of 1976-8. The essentials were a good goalkeeper (e.g. Colin Boulton), a good centre-half (e.g. Roy McFarland), a good link man (e.g. John McGovern), a good winger (e.g. Alan Hinton) and a good centre-forward (e.g. John O’Hare). The rest would follow.

Clough’s achievement, then, was to take the Edwardian-style football club to the very highest level of play and achievement that the structure offered. At a time when the frozen administrative set-up of British football was so obviously eating into British football’s future, and making clubs like Derby look like museum pieces put next to Benfica or Juventus with their tactical sophistication and modern stadia and evolved youth policies, Clough made it all work, one last time.

Like Cameron, like Chapman, Clough was a narcissist fuelled by his self-perceived superiority over the men he worked amongst. It took that unusual, splintered, often unpleasant and unnegotiable personality to pull success from such an unlikely hat as the Edwardian-style football club. Men like that can and do succeed elsewhere, in politics and business. But only in football are they truly celebrated.

Because England never came for him, there is a sense of something missing from Clough’s success. And the success he did have, vast as it was, helped to sustain the illusion that there was nothing wrong with British football, that all we had to do to catch up with Holland, with Brazil, with Germany, was find another Clough, another man who could crank the same rusting handle as hard as he had been able.

But we haven’t found another Clough. He was the last. Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away. Perhaps his greatest tribute is the sheer scale of the silence he’s left behind him.

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