Sunday, 30 January 2011

Andy Hughes: An example of what fans want to see in a player

Fernando Torres is the latest in a line of players to hand in a transfer request so as to push forward a move away from his current club. As players' loyalties to clubs dwindle, Max Smithson looks back at Andy Hughes' Leeds United career and explains what he thinks it takes to win the fans hearts.

It’s 19th April 2008 and Leeds are 1-0 up away at Millwall with 11 minutes left. Substitute Andy Hughes then finishes off a lovely passing move from all of two yards out to clinch Leeds United’s promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking... or so it should have been. Had Leeds not been given a 15 point deduction at the start of that season, Hughes’ only goal for the club would have been one of the most talked about in Leeds’ history. Instead, it will only be revered by the 1,892 Leeds fans who made the trip to Millwall that day who can say that they witnessed the only goal and subsequent hilarious celebration of one of the most popular players to have worn the white shirt.

The reason for this article is that last week Hughes left Leeds for Scunthorpe United, much to the disappointment of all Leeds fans, not because he is especially talented, but because he embodied everything a fan wants a footballer to be. All too often these days we are seeing players becoming more and more out of touch with reality, and many fans are feeling alienated from the sport they love because of it. For us, footballers are living our dream. Turning out for the club we have supported all our lives every week and being paid handsomely for it. So many players seem to forget what a privileged position they are in and how much their work matters to the fans – just look at Rooney, Tevez and now Torres this season.

If these players who are becoming increasingly frustrating for fans took a leaf out of Andy Hughes’ book, football would be in a much better state. The efforts that Andy Hughes went to to make himself so widely loved by Leeds fans are not anything extraordinary but it these small gestures that fans appreciate so much, ensuring that they will always be behind you. The first of which is to always give 110%, right till the death. Hughes was always the first to admit that he was not the most gifted of players and did not have the same ability as others but to Leeds fans it did not matter because he always gave everything on the pitch. He wore his heart on his sleeve and never gave up. Fans love to see this sort of commitment because we would be doing the same if we were out there. We care so much about our teams, so it is great when we see a player playing as if he has as much passion as we do. It is this reason why it was so hard for us to watch England's abject performance at the World Cup. How could anyone appear to lack passion when playing in a World Cup for their country?

Secondly, a player must show his appreciation of the fans. This really does not take much effort but believe me, it counts for a lot. It only takes two minutes of a player’s time before his shower, but after you have travelled over 200 miles to Exeter to stand on an unsafe terrace in the pissing rain to watch your team lose 2-0 you feel the least the players can do is to come over to the away end and clap the fans a bit to thank you for your support. Hughes always did this, no matter what the result and he was always the last player left clapping. He was also looking to give something back to the fans and the community, attending fan events and being involved in LUDO (Leeds United Disabled Organisation) as well as other charity projects.
Finally, and probably the most important trait for fans in a player, is loyalty. Sadly, this is becoming an increasingly rare commodity in modern footballers. It is very unusual now that we see a player only playing for one club during his whole career but players such as Matt Le Tissier deserve huge credit to staying loyal to the club who gave them a career. It pains me to see youth players leave small teams for teams such as Chelsea despite not having made an appearance for the club which has spent many years developing them through the academy. They are convinced that this is the path to stardom but often they struggle to make an impression with so many quality players in front of them. Players are too quick to move for a better financial deal when the footballing aspect could be detrimental to their career.

The reason for Andy Hughes’ move to Scunthorpe is that they offered him an 18 month contract and with his contract at Leeds expiring at the end of the season, Hughes had to consider his long-term future. It is somewhat fitting that Hughes’ last appearance for Leeds (the draw with Arsenal at the Emirates) came almost exactly a year after the victory at Old Trafford, a match in which he had made Obertan look disticntly average. A great way to bring the curtain down on a Leeds career that will be fondly remembered for many years to come, showing that you do not have to be a special talent to win the hearts of the fans if you have the right attitude and commitment.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Myth of Market Value

It's January, just in case you were unaware, which of course means that we have the usual, steady flow of transfer action. Many managers choose to stay out of the bidding at this time of the year, most notably Ferguson and Wenger who rarely delve into their pockets mid-season through claims that 'there is no value in the market'.

The truth is surely that there is never any real value in the market. This because there is no set market price for players. Every transfer is based on a set of individual and changing circumstances. Having been slowly making my through the interesting book 'Pay as You Play: The true price of success in the Premier League era' by Paul Tomkins, Graeme Riley and Gary Fulcher, it is clear that there is a set criteria that will always determine the value of a transfer.
      1. Position, age and ability of the player
      2. The contract situation of the player
      3. The needs of the two clubs
      4. Respective financial situations of the two clubs involved – as Andrew Thomas recently wrote about.
      5. Now, with the new home-grown rules implemented, the player's nationality.

These are all relatively straight forward. A goalkeeper is usually where you get best value for money. Often they are the least expensive and will play the most. Strikers, on the other hand, will always cost more in the transfer market. Why? Simply because goals are the most valuable commodity of the game. You can't win anything without them. Thus you will always pay above the standard rate for a player who can score them.

Age is self-explanatory. The older the player the less value there is their purchase. A young player can be bought cheaper as he is yet to realise his full potential and then developed and sold on – such is Wenger's tactics. Players in their prime, usually their mid-20s, will cost the most as you are buying the finished article, so to speak.

Obviously the vital factor is the ability of the player. This is where valuations will vary between clubs and fans. How much do we rate a certain player. This valuation will also vary depending on whether a team is in particular need of a winger or striker etc. A team in dire need of a left-back will be more likely to pay more than may appear fair for a player to fill that hole. Another team may have a surplus supply of mid-fielders (ahem-Tottenham) and therefore one of them could be purchased at a knock-down price.

The fourth criteria I have outlined is what will always make some transfers appear misleading. The easiest examples to use are those involving Chelsea or Manchester City. Clubs like this - who have huge financial backing - will more often than not face the problem of inflated price tags. The teams who own the players they want know they can demand over the market value from such wealthy clubs. Poorer clubs, in contrast, are much easier to pinch players off as they are not in as strong a position to resist the economic gain from selling one of their players. Clubs entering administration of who have been relegated are thus predictably vulnerable.

The fifth and final factor is also straight-forward. The inevitable consequence of enforcing Premier League squads to contain a higher proportion of English players is that the value of them in the transfer market increases considerably.

With all this in mind, it becomes far easier to understand why some transfer deals that may, at first glance, have raised a few eye-brows are not quite so baffling. Darren Bent may have cost £24million, which is £1.5million more than Torres cost Liverpool (calculated by the Current Transfer Purchase Price in 'Pay as you Play'), but he does have a better goal-scoring record since his move to Sunderland. Bent averages a goal in ever 1.73 games over the past 18 months compared to Torres' 1.84.

When you add the factors that Bent in English, Sunderland did not particularly need the money from the deal and it was in January, when clubs are more reluctant to lose key players, the Bent transfer makes far more sense. Is he a better player than Torres? Almost certainly not. But he fits the bill. He is what Aston Villa needed and when assessing the criteria above it is easier to understand why he cost them so much.

Ian Holloway declared that Liverpool's valuation of Charlie Adam (£4.5million) was “disgraceful”. Again, however, the factors must be considered. Blackpool are a much smaller club and thus do not have the same strength in financial negotiations. He also doesn't have the added bonus of being home-grown. Then there will be the difference in opinion over just how good the player is. Holloway may think he is better than he is because he is so integral to the Blackpool team. Liverpool may see him as a different player, performing a different role – one that does not warrant the 'big bucks'.

Ultimately, comparing transfer will prove fruitless. There are so many variant factors that is becomes extremely difficult to provide a price tag to any player that is not merely a reflection of the status of said player within the context of the place the two respective clubs find themselves in.

Thoughts, comment and opinions please...

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Speaking Their Mind: Why footballers should be allowed to express their own opinions

Today I was alerted to the fact that Clarke Carlisle appeared on Question Time on Thursday night. Immediately this connected with an issue which is becoming increasingly prominent in football and is something that I have considered writing about for the last few weeks. With the recent Twitter outbursts and the subsequent consequences of them, I think we must assess the role of the footballer within the media, not simply about the use of 140 characters as other people have talked about, but the wider and more important issue of their right to speak their mind.

Today the Guardian began a new weekly column called 'The Secret Footballer'. This column features the news and views of an unnamed insider, someone playing the game now and reporting on its issues. The latest member of the Guardian's writing team clarifies why it is that his identity must remain a secret due to his contractual agreement:

The Player agrees that he will not knowingly do, write or say anything or omit to do anything which is likely to bring the club or the game of football into disrepute, cause the player or the club to be in breach of the rules or cause damage to the club or its officers or employees or any match official. Wherever circumstances permit the player shall give to the club reasonable notice of his intention to make any contributions to the public media in order to allow representations to be made to him on behalf of the Club if it so desires.”

Now, the first half of this is understandable. It stands to reason that a footballer, like anyone employed by a business or company, has to act within the rules of said employer. Thus, it seems only right that they are contractually obliged to not speak out in such a way that will comprise those who pay their wages. We must accept that.

There is, however, a fine line to be drawn on the matter of a football speaking their mind and the idea that a club must be forwarned if the player wishes to say anything publically seems unjust. We cannot and should not expect for footballers not to have opinions on all the same matters that we ourselves spend much of our time discussing. For a player to be criticised when offering an opinion on something, whether it be on Twitter or to the Press, seems intolerant and undemocratic. They may represent a club but they are also their own person and, shock horror, they have their own views on things. Playing footballer should not mean that you have to live in silence or, at least, in an uncontroversial state, until you are wheeled out to deliver the usual drivel in front of the cameras.

Glen Johnson recently had a controversial incident on Twitter. Having been criticised by Paul Merson on Soccer Saturday, Johnson replied by saying that he was not going to concern himself with the criticisms of an 'average' player who has suffered from addictions. This cannot be condoned insofar as he has launched an attack on a person's past private life having himself been criticised in a professional sense. That being said, I remain adamant that a player, like any other person, has the fundamental right to speak their mind as long, of course, it is conducted in the right manner.

Ryan Babel just a few days later put up a picture of Howard Webb skilfully photo-shopped to be shown wearing a Manchester United shirt (see above). He was fined by the FA. Is this fair? Thousands of people had commented on Webb having a poor refereeing performance at Old Trafford that day. Again, like Johnson, he may have voiced his opinion in the wrong way. Nevertheless, he is fully entitled to say if he feels aggrieved by something as Johnson has the right to reply to criticisms made by Merson.

The repercussions of both of these outbursts, in terms public reaction and FA action, were relatively harsh. I fear we may be setting a worrying precedent.

There are few things more frustrating than the pre-match press conference or the post-match interview. They are constructed like Frankenstein's monster using a collection of hideous clichés and standardised comments straight from 'The Footballers Guide to Dealing With The Press'. “At the end of the day... we played well today... it was a game of two halves... I am happy to have scored but the most important thing is that we got the three points.” Words that have become almost void of meaning.

There seem to be automatic responses to predictable questions. There may be truth behind the same old lines we hear but a fear of offering an opinion in front of the praying Press, who are hungry for the slightest bit of controversy, has rendered players mere puppets in a very boring show. The more that players were to speak their mind, the more use to it we would become and, in turn, the less of a shock it would be when a player did stray from the status quo. Let them speak their mind and then judge them on the merit of their point, do not criticise them for simply offering an opinion.

Clarke Carlisle; Burnley defender, Countdown Champion and Chairman of the PFA, appeared on Question Time last weekn and acquited himself, in my opinion, very well. His intelligence is well known and I am certainly not advocating that footballers featuring on Dimbleby's show becomes a regular occurrence. For me though, it highlights that footballers do, of course, have opinions on things outside of the game and the fact that just because they are under contract at a club ought not to mean that they are unable to express their opinions.

We may deem their opinions to be wrong. Sometimes they may not voice them in a way we believe to acceptable. But could the same not be said about any other member of the public doesn't everyone? My views on this blog are sometimes criticised. That is the simple joy of differences I opinions. It is what we want to hear, it is what helps save us from the mundane. In the modern game I think that a player trying to expressive his views, whether it be about footballer or any things else, should be embraced and encouraged lest we continue the monotonous trend of predictably dull interviews. This is, after all, why we all share a love for characters like Ian Holloway, because they are both rare and refreshing.

After today's set of fixtures must of us will sit and Match of the Day and the repetitive set of post-match chat. I think it would be great to see a player come out and speak their mind, not in a way that would harm their club but in a way that would give us some actual insight into their thoughts and feelings about a particular incident or issue.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Time: Football's most precious resource

Earlier this month I wrote about football being a 'results business'. Now, as I struggle along with work, Sam Poplett has written this superb follow up on the all too short shelf-life of Premiership managers. You can read Sam's other works over at or you can follow him on Twitter...

It won’t have gone unnoticed to observers and fans but football is fast losing its greatest and most important resource of them all: time. Forget about how the influx of money and foreign players has rejuvenated the English game into one of the most watched on the planet and think about how those factors, amongst a great deal more besides, have contributed to the situation we currently experience in the Premier League.

It’s staggering to note that the average tenure for three-quarters of the 20 current Premier League managers is just a smidgeon over a year. Arsene Wenger, David Moyes, Mick McCarthy, Sir Alex Ferguson and Tony Pulis are the quarter not represented in that statistic, their average tenure stands at a much more impressive 11-and-a-half years. In fact, it’s even more incredible when you look beyond the averages towards the total years in charge; that aforementioned quarter have a total of 57.5 years in charge at their current clubs whilst the other 15 managers have a grand old total of just 17 years

Looking at the most recent previous managers of the three-quarter segment indicates an average incumbent of just a smidgeon under 2 years, so there is clearly evidence there that the problem of time, or a serious lack thereof, is prevalent and is becoming increasingly more so.

It is wrong, though, to point the finger at the influx of foreign owners into the English game; it is not a question of whether an owner is Russian, American or British but rather whether they are patient, understanding and willing to give their manager time. See Mike Ashley at Newcastle United as the perfect example; he’s British, he’s been a successful businessman and made many millions but he doesn’t have a clue about football. The sacking of Chris Hughton earlier this season was rightly condemned throughout the game, another example of how Ashley hasn’t the knowledge, or the patience, to run a football club.

In football terms, more often that not, time is rewarded with success. How does anybody expect a manager to come into a football club, adapt to the new surroundings, new players and new coaches and put his footballing philosophy into place in three or four months? How on earth can you hold somebody accountable for failure when you’ve only given them 14 weeks in the job? It’s an old football pearl of wisdom but Manchester United would shudder at the mere thought of what would have happened if Sir Alex Ferguson had been stopped, judged and harangued after six months of his United reign.

One must be understanding of the precarious nature of life near the bottom of the Premier League table. The threat of relegation and the subsequent exodus of star players and financial devastation will be in the forefront of the chairman’s mind every morning. But how often have quick-fix sackings and rash appointments worked for clubs in the long haul? Usually it is the panic and scare mongering in the boardroom that drives the hierarchy’s decision to let the axe fall, the accountant’s constant reminders of repayments and creditors are what tips chairmen over the edge.

Take Gerard Houllier at Aston Villa, a man four months into his job and already under immense pressure and scrutiny. He’s come in with his different methods and ways of working (some may say outdated but who are we to judge on that?) and people expect him to emulate his predecessor, Martin O’Neill, within weeks. He’s yet to even make a single transfer signing of his own (the free signing of Pires aside) but already there are people calling for his head.

Look at Carlo Ancelotti at Chelsea, a man who won the league and FA Cup double last season in his first campaign in English football. Clearly he is a top-class manager and yet, once the first signs of the brown stuff hitting the fan emerge, his head is next on the chopping block. Forget about the fact that the Chelsea board sold several key squad members in the summer without replacing them adequately, and against Ancelotti’s wishes. Forget about the fact Ray Wilkins, Ancelotti’s trusted right-hand man, was sacked so unceremoniously a couple of months into the season.

Football is such a results-based business that a lot of people actually do forget all about those factors and look just at what happens on the pitch; if you’re winning then you’re the best in the world, if you’re losing then you might as well start clearing your desk already. There’s no middle ground, there’s no understanding and there’s certainly no time allowed to regroup and put things right.

Gladly, it appears both Randy Lerner and Roman Abramovich, the respective owners of Villa and Chelsea, continue to back their managers. Lerner has apparently given the green light for Houllier to sign Sunderland’s Darren Bent for a reported £18m, a sign that he has absolute and unwavering support for his manager. It’s a most welcome sign. Even Abramovich, so often in the past a man not concerned with wielding the axe if results fall below par, seems to be showing some compassion in giving Ancelotti support and the time to turn things round.

However, for every Houllier there is a Hodgson, and for every Ancelotti there is a Grant. Roy Hodgson, of course, was dismissed from Liverpool after just half a season in the job, a ridiculous amount of time for anyone to make an impact. Avram Grant, the West Ham United manager, is a nailed-on certainty to follow Hodgson in the great Premier League sack race, also after just five months in the job. The saving grace for John Henry and the Gold-Sullivan-Brady troupe, the respective owners, is that neither Hodgson nor Grant were their appointments. And we all know how much owners like ‘their own man’ in the job. It’s fair enough; if you’re looking at investing a couple of hundred million pounds into a business you want to be sure it’s in safe hands. Likewise for transfer money, you can perhaps understand the Liverpool board’s unwillingness to let Hodgson spend more of their money after some of his dubious recent signings.

Yet there has to be some accountability. Everyone at Liverpool has commented on how Hodgson was never the right man for the job but someone at the club appointed him, someone headhunted him and decided he was the best available on the market. Similarly at West Ham, some bright spark thought it was a good idea to give Avram Grant the manager’s job! And, so often, these guarded executives never get hauled out and asked why. Until there’s greater responsibility and answerability of those who are in charge of recruitment, football clubs will always have someone to hide behind when things go awry.

Ask any manager in the game and it’s doubtless that most, if not all of them, would forsake £10m, £20m, even £30m in transfer money for a bit more of that most precious of resources in football: time. Sir Alex is fast approaching his 25th anniversary at United, undoubtedly he wouldn’t have achieved all that he has without the vast sums of money he’s had the luxury of spending over the years.

But he also wouldn’t have got past the first six months without the time and support he’s received from the board. It’s doubtful whether he’d have even lasted six months in today’s climate. Certainly the chances of us seeing another manager spend a quarter of a century at one club look very unlikely indeed.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 16 January 2011

My Premiership XI of the League's Biggest Villains

There is light at the end of the tunnel. The work is nearly complete and normal blogging should be resumed very soon. In the mean time, while watching part of the Sunderland vs Newcastle game today I gained inspiration for a possible post. Seeing Joey Barton triggered the idea of constructing another one of my Premiership XI's.

Having done the best and worst signings last month, I have now put together a team of Premiership villains. The players that are widely hated by fans at every other club other than their own. The ones that are booed in every away stadium they play in. The footballers we love to hate. So here is my team of the XI most hated players currently featuring in the Premiership, playing an unorthodox 4-3-3:

GK: Manuel Almunia (Arsenal)

DEF: Gary Neville (Manchester United) - captain
DEF: John Terry (Chelsea)
DEF: William Gallas (Tottenham)
DEF: Ashley Cole (Chelsea)

MID: El-Hadji Diouf (Blackburn Rovers)
MID: Joey Barton (Newcastle United)
MID: Nigel De Jong (Manchester City)

ST: Wayne Rooney (Manchester United)
ST: Didier Drogba (Chelsea)
ST: Emmanuel Adebayor (Manchester City)

So let's run through the team quickly. Almunia has been given the gloves because he is a player who neutrals seem to love see fail. He has a tendency to whine and make a fool of himself. As far as goalkeepers go, he is the only real pantomime villain we have and has continued in the proud tradition that Jens Lehmann left behind.

The defence was far more straight forward. Gary Neville may well be the most detested man in the Premiership. He is the face of the most strongly opposed team in the league and has never been shy of ruffling the feathers of opponents and their fans. He also an an uncanny knack for getting away with very bad challenges. In the centre of defence we have John Terry - the man who was stripped of the England captaincy for his adulterous behaviour with a team-mates ex-partner. Alongside him we have quite possibly the most temperamental players in the country William Gallas who is never shy of a good sulk and a moan. He has also moved to rival clubs twice in his career which does not help either. Completing the back-line, Ashley Cole – a well-documented money grabbing tit. Enough said.

In the midfield we have a fine selection of controversial players. On the right of the three we have the abuse-hurling, saliva-spitting, simulation expert himself, El-Hadji Diouf. In the centre of the park is De Jong. The Dutchman has split fans, some enjoy his physical approach to the game while many accuse him of being reckless and dangerous. On the left of the three is Joey Barton - a man who has had brawls with strangers, opponents and his own team-mates (although it seems those days are behind him).

Finally the three up top. Firstly we have Wayne Rooney. Rooney was exposed in September for having an affair. The saga that then followed involving his contract renegotaitions did little to help his cause. Add to this the fact that he also has had to carry a weighty majority of the blame for England's woeful World Cup due to his dismal performances. Alongside him is Didier Drogba. Drogba seems to embrace his villainous role. He has never shied from going to ground easily for such a strong man and rarely bites his tongue when it comes to letting the referee or other players know what he thinks. The last of the strike trio is Emmanuel Adebayor. His celebration when he scored for City against Arsenal did little to help his cause but his over-sized ego and under-sized work-rate had already earned him a reputation as one of the league 'baddies'.

So there it is. I think if this team did ever play together, there would be such rage that the heads of football fans across the country would probably implode. Other players who failed to make the cut include Bendtner, Nani, Balotelli and Lee Bowyer.

These teams always spark a bit of debate as inevitably our opinions and views of certain players vary so much. So let me know who you think did or did not deserve to make this team.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Thursday, 13 January 2011

NFL Preview: Elegant Patriots Play The Classless Jets

With the NFL now in its exciting post-season period, Gary Molloy is on hand to offer us his take on what promises to be an intriguing Playoff match between the Patriots and Jets...

Sunday sees the return of one of the biggest rivalries in the National Football League. The New York Jets travel to Foxbourgh, Massachusetts to face the number one seeds in the NFL the New England Patriots.

What a season it has been for the 14-2 New England Patriots. They started the season with very little hype around them, the fans still hurt about last years trimming at home in the playoffs at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens. It wasn't until a 28-14 defeat by the Jets in game 2 and the subsequent trade of Randy Moss that a formidable monster was unleashed. The Patriots went on to end the year 13-1 after this defeat by their arch rivals. Their offense looking absolutely menacing, quarterback Tom Brady had so many options to pick with a pass that it didn't matter if someone was residing on 'Revis Island.'  Whether it was Branch, Welker, Woodhead, Green-Ellis or rookie Gronkowski, Tom Brady always had multiple options on the football field which will keep the opposing defense guessing.

What pulled this whole season together for New England was their ingenious and undemonstrative coach Bill Belichick. Belichick's hunger for the game is truly inspiring, starting this year with numerous rookies, then trading their franchise wide receiver, one would be forgiven to think the Patriots were going through a transition period. Adversely the Patriots produced astonishing season which saw them finish as the best team in all of the NFL.

If you are looking from a far, it seems like the New York Jets' season has gone how they would have wished so far. Finishing a solid 11-5 Wild Card team behind the best team in the NFL in the AFC East is nothing to be ashamed of. However, the Jets have dealt with a wide scope of embarrassing off-the-field and on-field issues this season. I can summarize the many incidents the organization has encountered this season with the following list: (please feel free to google each incident for a guaranteed laugh):

  • Hard Knocks (Ryan's loud mouth, his war of words with Tony Dungy)
  • Darrelle Revis contract holdout
  • Ines Sainz (Jets players heckled sexy media worker)
  • Star Wide Receiver Braylon Edwards DUI
  • Brett Favre's trial by the NFL for sending inappropriate photos of himself to a Jets co-worker (in 2008 while Favre was with the Jets)
  • Foot fetish videos emerge of coach Rex Ryan's and his wife
  • Sal Alosi & Tripgate (see below)

Last weekend the Jets produced a notable victory against Peyton Manning's (severally depleted) Indianapolis Colts. So then this week began the build-up for Sunday's match up. I foolishly thought the Jets (who are currently 9.5 point underdogs) might keep their heads down and not provoke Belichick's army. How wrong was I? The egotistical Rex Ryan has so far spent the whole week trash talking Belichick and the New England organization. My favourite Ryan quote: "This is about Bill Belichick versus Rex Ryan. There's no question, it's personal."

It could be argued that coach Ryan is trying to take some much needed attention off his team, particularly the under performing second season QB Mark Sanchez. Although a quick look at Ryan's history and I truly believe he considers it a personal match up, however against a three-time Superbowl winning coach it is a match up he is grossly under qualified to consider 'personal.' Finally, cornerback Antonio Cromartie's comments during the week for me summarize this Jets organization as the classless pretenders they are: "We really don't give a damn, to tell you the truth. ... [He's] an ass----. F--- him."

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Jimmy Hogan: A father of total tootball and pioneer of the modern game

The annual January crush is upon us. Work loads sore and deadlines loom for all students. Because of this I am struggling to find the time to write a new post today. Instead, for the team being, I thought I would put up a piece that I originally wrote for (a fantastic website that focuses on the fate of English players and managers who apply their trade abroad). Normal blogging should hopefully be resumed soon.

This is an article about Jimmy Hogan for's Hall of Fame series which features all the former great Englishmen to have enjoyed success away from our shores, such as Bobby Robson, Ray Wilkins, David Platt and Steve McManaman. A piece was written about each of the 21 Hall of Fame finalists, each by a different guest writer, and was then judged by a panel of former players and current writers. After all that, Jimmy Hogan emerged victorious. Don't know who he is? Have a read about one of the fathers of total football and a true pioneer of the modern game...

Fifty-seven years ago the revolution of European football began. On the 25th November 1953 Hungary travelled to Wembley to take on an England team that had never lost an International football match on home soil. On that fateful day the East-European team taught the creators of football a lesson in how the game was going to be played in the modern era. The mastermind behind that historical performance, Jimmy Hogan.

Hungary tore England’s tried-and-tested WM formation apart at the seams that day, winning the match 6-3. The Hungarian team displayed superior technique and tactics making Walter Winterbottom’s England team look disturbingly out-dated. Hogan, who sat in the crowd with the Aston Villa youngsters he was coaching at the time, watched his career’s work of teaching a new brand of total football come to fruition on that Wembley pitch.

Hogan was born in Nelson, Lancashire in 1882.  He enjoyed a playing career as a skilful inside forward at various English clubs between 1902 and 1913, but it was for his work as a coach that he has gained such notoriety within the football world.

His desire to turn to coaching came in 1910 after Bolton’s summer tour to Holland, after which he vowed to return and “teach them how to play.” Indeed, while still playing the game, Hogan worked  on the continent serving as manager of Holland and Austria Vienna before he then retired in 1913 to pursue his passion of becoming a full-time manager.

He found himself in Austria when World War I began. As an ‘enemy’ to the Austrians he was thrown in jail before being allowed to go to Hungary where we worked MTK Budapest. Hogan bought new levels of professionalism to the game. He combined higher levels of fitness with technical coaching and tactical nous to advance any team he worked with on to higher levels. While the English game was static with complacency, Hogan was fathering a new approach to the game, an approach that later became known as ‘total football’.

His brand of football that he created with great success at MTK, leading them to consecutive titles in 1917 and 1918, married attractive, free-flowing football with superior technique and meticulous tactical training. It was the start of a journey that would lead Hungary to that victory at Wembley in 1953 which shook the football world.

Hogan enjoyed sustained success in Hungary in the 1920s, as well as leading the Swiss national side to the final of the 1924 Olympics, the countries greatest football success in their history. In the 1930s he worked with the famous coach Hugo Meisl with whom he led the Austrian national side, known as the ‘Wunderteam’, to unprecedented success. The team had a dominant and destructive fourteen game unbeaten streak between 1931 and 1932. They won the 1932 Central European International Cup and were semi-finalists in 1934 World Cup, which they were favourites to win.

He returned to Britain at the end of the 1930s to go on to work with Aston Villa, Fulham and Celtic. He tragically never managed England due to his rather non-Anglo philosophy and the view of the FA that he was a “traitor” for applying his trade in Europe during the war.

Nevertheless, his emphasis on greater ball-control, attacking freedom, quick passing, better conditioning and creative flair changed the way the game was played. Those fortunate to work with him or play under him had nothing but praise for the man they recognised at the time to be a true legend of the sport.

Hogan is a pioneer of modern football in every sense of the word. He is quite possibly England’s most successful managerial export. The work he did across Europe as a coach and manager transformed the sport of football into the beautiful game we have today.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Some Thoughts on Manchester United vs Liverpool and the Bigger Issues it Raised

Today's FA Cup tie between Manchester United and Liverpool, like any football match, contained key turning points, namely, a controversial penalty decision and red card. Watching the match, you see such events unfold and can already predict the inevitable furore and debate that will follow.

People will always be divided on such key incidents and with them larger discussions will usually arise concerning the state of the game and the problems that seem to haunt it. Berbatov dived. Didn't he? There was contact from the defender, albeit very minimal. No one would condone such blatant acts of 'simulation' and yet it can be argued that if a defender is going to be foolish enough to stick a leg out in the box then he should expect the worst. Nevertheless, it was not a penalty and it was an example of a footballer cheating the referee with ultimately decisive consequences.

Likewise, Gerrard's tackle on Michael Carrick, that left Liverpool down to ten men for an hour of the match at Old Trafford, will too split opinions. People say that we want to see strong challenges in the game, it is part of its attraction. Others would argue that he did, indeed, use unnecessary force and warrant his punishment. Gerrard left the ground and lunged in, in what was surely an honest attempt to win the ball and increase the urgency from his team. It was, ultimately a dangerous tackle which deserved the red card, in my eyes at least.

Liverpool fans will say that Howard Webb single-handedly cost them the match. Others would say that they beat themselves by making the mistakes that we see impact games week-in-week-out. These debates are, of course, the reason we love football. Such differences in opinions, interpretations and preferences towards the game of football is why it can and does dominate so much of our time.

Moving past that aside about the virtues of football chatter, let's look at the wider issue raised in the game today. Simulation. Berbatov's act of simulation, diving, cheating or whatever you may want to call it proved to be the decisive moment in the match. The Bulgarian has claimed that there was enough contact to force him to go to ground but the replays appear to clearly contradict that. The only way, in my opinion, that such incidents can be eradicated from the game is through severe repercussions.

If the FA or FIFA want to help remove this problem then a firmer stance must be taken. Fining Rivaldo a fraction of his weekly wage for rolling on the floor, clutching his face in the 2002 World Cup when a ball struck him on the shin (which in turn saw his Turkish opponent given a red card) is barely a deterrent. A slap on the wrist for Theo Walcott's dive yesterday, regardless of the fact he went on to apologise for it, is not an example that needs to be set. Stronger sanctions must be implemented, for example, a new fair play system that would prevent these acts of simulation from being so commonplace.

Such a system would have to involve cases being reviewed by a governing body after the match and then suitable punishments awarded. This may include suspensions for players, which would increase for repeat offenders, and reductions in prize money for clubs. Thus after today's match, Berbatov could be given a one match ban (or perhaps his first and final warning) and Manchester United could be fined 5% of their FA Cup prize money.

That hurriedly thought out system may never work but the fact remains, changes need to be made. There will more obvious cases of diving throughout the rest of the season, some will be met with a yellow card for the simulator, some with a foul being unjustly awarded and others with a simple gesture from the referee for the player to return to his feet. Either way, it is an issue that ought to be addressed so as to prevent it from detracting from the other aspects of the game that we want to talk about.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Friday, 7 January 2011

An Ode To England's Ashes Performance

So the result that we were all patiently waiting to be confirmed has been emphatically delivered with another victory by an innings, the third in the series. I have avoided commenting on the Ashes throughout the Winter due to the sheer quantity of material available and my own difficulties in being able to watch the action live. Yet it seems unfair not to write something about what has been a quite remarkable Ashes winning series from England, even if the post is not original in its analyse or content.

Before a ball had been bowled I had predicted a 3-1 series win for England. I certainly did not, however, envisage such a sublimely dominant tour for the visitors. Superlatives have been rightly thrown around as over-by-over England, whether it be with bat or ball, grinded their rivals into a slow and painful submission. Some may criticise the woeful Australian performance but let them worry about that. They contributed to their own downfall, no one would question that, but it ought not to detract from or diminish England's achievements over the past two two months.

There are so many positive facets to the England team and their performances that ought to be mentioned that it would be impossible for me to talk about them all and deliver any justice upon their excellence. Records have tumbled, outstanding stats will remain to be drooled over, careers have been made and ended and all the while England received the plaudits.

Each one of the batsmen, apart from Collingwood who I will go on to talk about, has contributed huge runs at one time or another in the series. Strauss has been steady and consistent at the top of the order. As a captain, along with his partner Andy Flower, he deserves a lot of credit for the series victory. It was the result of a long-term process that has transformed the team from the dark days in the West Indies two years ago. They have picked a team and backed it consistently. They have built confidence, corrected problems and created an extremely competitive, focused ethos that has been clear to see in Australia. Strauss has though, contrary to what I and many others believed the case would be before the series began, been overwhelming eclipsed with the bat by his opening partner Alastair Cook.

Cook has had a career-defining Ashes and deserves the award for 'Man of the Series'. After a superb start to his Test career many felt that the promising left-hander had been found out, his technical deficiencies exposed and exploited. Yet these flaws have been resoundingly corrected. I do not doubt that confidence has played the main role in this transformation. He looks like a player reborn compared to the one even in the warm-up matches back in November. Coupled with this he has addressed the problems of playing with a stiff front leg and allowing his head to fall out of line with the ball which had made him susceptible to both lbw decisions and edging fuller delivers when attempting the drive. He has remained resolute in his defensive play and capitalised on the wayward deliveries, of which there has been many. His patience and concentration have been a lesson to any player wanting to play as an opening batsmen in Test cricket. Cook has stuck to his strengths of playing square of the wicket off the back foot while correcting his weaknesses which has allowed him to drive pitched-up deliveries and this, in turn, has enabled him to torment the Aussies with devastating consequences. He has been simply phenomenal.

Trott and Pietersen meanwhile have both contributed scores, and big scores at that, at various points of the series. The South Africa-born duo have been steady performers in the middle order in very different ways though. Trott has played with unalterable composure and confidence. He, like Cook, has demonstrated all the mental characteristics required of a top class number three. He scores off the balls he feels comfortable to score off and is always completely assured of his own game. This appreciation of his own strengths and weaknesses allows for him to limit his own errors and maximise his talents. Pietersen, on the other hand, has played with the class and flair we all know him to be capable of. His double ton helped him to silence doubters and since then he has looked in fantastic form, even if he has failed to make the big scores.

Bell has looked every inch the great technician that people have always said he was. He has been unfortunate to be stuck at sixth in the order but when called upon he has added valuable runs and has done so in elegant style. Prior too has chipped in with big runs while also having an almost faultless series with the gloves. While the tail, although it has rarely been needed to score runs with any great importance, has also shown itself capable of helping to exacerbate the misery of the lowly Australians.

The bowling has been perhaps even more impressive. While the Aussies have seldom looked like being able to claim twenty English wickets, the English attack has been menacing in nearly every innings. The English scores may have made the Australian pitches look flat and batsmen-friendly but the English bowlers have responded by teaching the hosts how to take wickets in their own backyard.

Anderson has answered any remaining questions over whether he could be dangerous in the conditions Down Under when the ball did not swing as much. He kept the ball at a good length and exploited anything the conditions or the wicket offered. When there has been nothing on offer he has remained disciplined and accurate.

He has been admirably supported by all the fast bowlers who have accompanied him, namely Finn, Tremlett and Bresnan. They too have understood the conditions and pitches and successfully got the most out of them. Moreover, they rarely gave the Aussies easy runs. They were relentlessly dangerous. As an all-round attack they could not have been much better and their bowling coach, the Australian David Saker, must take a large amount of credit for this.

Swann meanwhile, the man who many predicted would make the difference in the series, has not been called upon nearly as much as many assumed. When he has though, Swann was able to tie-up an end, providing valuable rest for the seamers. He did take wickets but he was simply not required often due to the stunning performances from the rest of the attack.

In the field England continued the level of excellence that has been characteristic of the side's emergence as a great team in all forms of the game. This is again a testament to the hard work and effort that the side puts in.

A quick word on Paul Collingwood. The ginger-top from Durham announced his retirement from Test cricket before Day four of the final Test as he believes now is the time for him to make way for new talent to emerge in the Test side. He may have struggled with the bat in the series but he has been an invaluable member of the team for the last five years. Let us not forget his gritty, match-saving innings at Cardiff that ultimately won England the last Ashes. Or the fact he averaged 57.33 in England's difficult tour of South Africa last year. He scores big runs at crucial times, can take wickets (or at least be an option in bowling rotation) and has for a long time been considered one of the finest fielders in the sport. Furthermore, he is also has excellent work ethic, leadership and mental toughness. He is a fantastic all-round player. His medium pace cutters and somewhat ugly batting style may never gain him the plaudits he deserves but his contribution to the team warrants due recognition.

So there you have it. In reality I could have done a post on each of the players in the team and still not done them justice. It may have been a long and unashamedly patriotic post but these moments are to be savoured by any follower of the England cricket team. They went to Down Under, crushed the Aussies and retained the Ashes in style. Now all that is left to do is enjoy it.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Talent Versus Luck: How fine is the line dividing the good from the great players?

Polly's Pause for Sport was recently awarded the honour of being named on the Guardian's list of 100 football blogs to follow in 2011 (this is not, by the way, meant to be an ego-inflating, own-back-patting introduction). I am well aware that there are very good blogs with very good writers around which did not make the list just because they were not spotted. With that in mind I wanted to look at an idea that has troubled for a little while now and see what people thought. This idea is the balance between talent and luck in football.

Over the past couple of years I have had an ongoing debate with a number of people about just what it takes to become a professional football. We as football fans often make the mistake of assuming that the best players always rise to the top while those of a lower pedigree remain with the smaller clubs or in the lower division. But is this always the case?

My argument has often been that some footballers, and some is the important word here, are where they are due to good fortune rather than their own talents. Moreover, if a player considered to be little more than average were to move to a much better team then they could suddenly look much improved. Before I begin though, I would like to make a two things clear. Firstly, as I have just stated, I am referring to a minority of players. I fully accept that great players or the majority of players applying the trade at the best clubs are simply far more talented footballers. Secondly, I accept, of course, that all professional footballers are very talented, I am not suggesting that some of these are actually bad players.

To clarify the point I am trying to make in this post I will use the example of Sergio Busquets as Spain and Barcelona's holding midfielder epitomises my views. Here is a player who is certainly talented. The question is though, is he anywhere near the same class as his team-mates of club and country?

Busquets performs a role and does it well. I would not try and deny that. Again to stress, nor is he a bad player. My point is that he, in my opinion, is replaceable. His job is made easy by the fact he is playing in one of the greatest teams of modern football who are unparalleled in their ability to keep the ball and also have an excellent defence. I cannot help but to feel that there are other midfielders in the world who could perform the same role just as well. Could other players, themselves not great, like Fabrice Muamba, Michael Carrick or Barry Ferguson not play a similar way with similar success in such a side as Busquets does?

To put it another way, if Busquets were to swap places with Muamba, for example, would he shine out as a world-class central midfielder playing with Bolton in the Premiership? If Busquets came through the Almeria youth system (assuming he emerged at the same quality as he did through the Barcelona youth system), would he ever rise to the top of world football as he has done? I have my doubts. I am aware that this is a controversial point. That is why I this debate has been ongoing for so long.

Likewise, a player like Darren Gibson is a well utilised member of the Manchester United squad. However, he too fails to inspire. He may well capture several Premiership Winner medals through his career if he was to stay at Old Trafford but if he were not so lucky it is not a long stretch of the imagination to think he could spend a career as nothing more than a decent player at a decent club.

Supposedly great players can sometimes move from a great club to a worse one and often be found out to not be as great as many once thought. A player like Xavi, Gerrard, Ronaldo or Messi would always stand out as a different class of player to the rest of players on the pitch, regardless of the level they were playing at. These kind of players are a whole different kettle of fish. It is the players who are part of great teams but themselves are not players who could be called remarkable in any way. Could Stephen Warnock from Aston Villa, to pluck a random name out of the air, be switched with Alvaro Arbeloa at Real Madrid and look anymore out of place? How much does the team make the player and how much are these players really superior to their fellow players?

To reverse the way we look at it, could players who may not be thought of as anything special move to bigger clubs and look a lot better? The better teams keep the ball more, create more chances and are, of course, more dominant. As such a player who is struggling to make a name for themselves at a small club could secure a move to a big club and look like a better play than they are.

The underlying point here is that there is an element of luck that can override talent when it comes to making a career as a professional footballer. Busquets can emerge through the Barcelona youth ranks and be embedded in a superb team and make a career winning titles. Yet could he not be replaced with Lucas at Liverpool or Mikel at Chelsea? Busquets is not at Barcelona because he is the best in that position. Nor is he fantastically talented. He is there because he has talent and was fortunate to be put in a great team that allows him to perform his role far easier than it would at any other club where he might look far more average.

Many, indeed most, players will rise through the ranks if they are good enough. Some now are promoted ahead of their talent while others around them are left shackled to poorer teams, unable to shine.

I am sure this will split opinion so I would very much like to hear what people think about the debate. Who playing in great teams around the world is replaceable? Who could play in these great teams and not look out of place?

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Football is a Results Business: Why managers losing their jobs is an understandable part of the modern game

The celebrations are over, the hangovers have just about faded away, 2011 is up and running. And with the new year comes the inevitable resolutions for self-improvement. They are often unrealistic targets and are usually abandoned before we enter February. With that in mind, I thought it would be apt to look at the life of Premiership managers who live their lives attempting to meet the high targets set for them and who, like our new year resolutions, are often abandoned as swiftly as they came.

At this time of the season everyday is filled with mounting pressures and increased speculation for Premiership managers. In a season when two managers, Hughton and Allardyce, have already been released by their respective clubs in baffling circumstances it seems as though the next casualty is not far away. With half the season completed and the transfer window reopened the question must be asked, when is the right time for changing managers?

Obviously, each case must be judged on its own unique merits. In my opinion though, and I said it following the Hughton sacking, patience will usually prove more beneficial than knee-jerk reactions. The old cliché may say that it is a results business and ultimately that is true. What chairmen must remember, however, is that managers need time. Every manager comes with their own football philosophy, style of play and certain types of players they like to utilise. It takes time for these managerial preferences to be implemented. If they are allowed the time then the results can often follow.

With all that being said, we cannot and should not be surprised when a manager is given the proverbial and unceremonious boot out the door. Football is a business. It is therefore no surprise that it is run that way. Targets are made and faith is placed in certain individuals, namely the manager, to hit those targets. When clubs fall below expectations or the faith is lost in the manager then a change is to be expected.

The problem is often that a board sets their targets too high or do not give a manager a suitable amount of time to try and reach their assigned targets. Nevertheless, there is no room for sentiment in football. There are people who do harder jobs for much less money who live their lives by the same rules. If you do not perform as expected or desired then you can expect to lose your job and they don't usually receive the kind of pay-off that many managers are handed as they pack their bags.

Incidents like those at Newcastle and Blackburn this season were, of course, all together different. Both managers had their clubs over-performing and yet still lost their jobs, hence the widespread indignation at the decisions by friends and foes of the respective clubs alike. These are cases when the owners of a club clearly did not have the faith, rightly or wrongly, in the manager to take the club in the direction they wanted. Alternatively, there may have been a breakdown in relations between manager and board and we are all too aware that a manager will never win such a conflict. Of course they wont, they are not the ones who own the clubs.

For all those who follow football it is impossible to separate our own passions from the game. That is why we usually do not like to see managers sacked. A love for the game, attachment to certain clubs or feelings about particular managers or individuals can cloud the unavoidable fact that football is also a money-making machine. Premiership survival or European qualification is a matter of well-documented, massive financial gain for the owners. They do what they believe is best to help them achieve their targets.

Roy Hodgson may be a nice man who has done great things in the past, but he has proven himself unable to help Liverpool to progress. In fact, they have got worse this season. Blame can be directed at Rafa Benitez but Roy Hodgson has a squad that ought to be much higher than ninth. Liverpool have been unconvincing even when they have won and have given little reason to inspire hope. Thus it is no surprise that his future at Anfield looks so bleak, even with a 2-1 win over Bolton. Other managers like Gerard Houllier, Mark Hughes and Avram Grant are also yet to convince at their new clubs. They may be 'good football men' but that means nothing when your team is at the wrong end of the table.

As hard as it is for many of us to accept, myself included, football is run in a cold and heartless way by many clubs. It is a question of making the club successful to make money. Giving managers long tenures at a club or playing attractive football is very much secondary. Admirable performances, like Villa's at Stamford Bridge today when they should have taken the full three points, count for nothing come the end of the season. The notions of hope and trust we as fans may place in a manager's ability does not mean that he ought to be given another six months. When a board loses the faith they once had in a manager then they will quickly look elsewhere. If a business loses money week-in-week-out then changes will be made, that much is obvious.

Let me reiterate, this does not make it right. Nor is it always beneficial to replace a failing manager. If allowed time to bring in the right players and implement their own style of play at a club then Houllier and Hodgson may yet prove to be very successful for their respective clubs. For the record, I would like to see Houllier and Hodgson given to the end of the season rather than judging them too soon. As I have touched upon before though, It is part of the modern game, and although many of us strongly dislike the way football clubs are run, it is simply the way it is.

Twenty games have been played and now boardrooms across the country will be debating whether changing the man at the top could help them make a surge in the second half of the season to try elevate their league position. Owners may have friends out of work who are looking for a job, they may think that their club should be doing better than it realistically ought to be doing or they may think that the man in charge is not right for the job and then react accordingly. That is the way businesses are run and that is the way many football clubs are run.

We may sympathise, we may not think it is right but it is, unfortunately, just part of the modern game. There may be rare examples of smaller clubs who have a much stronger sense of loyalty to managers but in the Premiership if you fail to deliver then expect the repercussions to be swift and damning.

Thoughts, comments and opinions please...

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