Saturday, December 31, 2005

Of all the ways in which Alex Ferguson is descending into hubristic madness, surely the most hilarious is his conspiracy theorising. To be fair, you can see where this comes from: when he claims that everybody hates Manchester United, he is not wrong. It’s also clearly true that every other club takes special delight in beating his team, because they’ve been the dominant team in the Premiership since its inception and are therefore a big scalp. However, to suggest that another club would deliberately sabotage their own stadium in order to gain a slight advantage over United in the next match, as Ferguson has done this week, suggests that he has come to see the world entirely in terms of United and not-United.

Ferguson’s claim is that Bolton’s calling-off of their midweek fixture against Middlesborough, citing a failure of their undersoil heating, is suspect. He suggests that it was a deliberate gambit to give Bolton a better chance of beating Manchester United today. Much as Sam Allardyce was complaining about Christmas fixture congestion, that Middlesborough game has to be played sometime and, as he pointed out yesterday, in the coming months they will have their hands full with UEFA Cup games and Middlesborough are not currently in the best form. But Ferguson doesn’t see the disadvantages Bolton have caused themselves by delaying this game, he only sees the disadvantages caused to Manchester United.

This is fundamentally disrespectful. Just because Bolton have no chance of winning the league doesn’t mean that they are just here to give the big boys somebody to play against. They still have Champions League aspirations and they want every point they can get, whoever it’s against. A win against Manchester United is a big deal, not least for neighbours Bolton, but it gets you three points just like it does in any other game. There aren’t extra special points awarded to ‘hard-working teams who play with a lot of heart’ (copyright every football pundit ever) for making a mockery of silky-skilled milquetoasts (although you can argue that there should be). It’s not worth risking wins in other games just to have the satisfaction of beating a big club.

It’s very dull to hear managers complaining about fixture congestion anyway. They’ve been doing it for years, but whenever it’s suggested that the fixture list is cut back, the club chairmen complain because fewer fixtures mean less gate money – especially over Christmas, when everybody wants to take advantage of supporters having more time off to attend matches. But no manager is going to turn on their chairman, so who gets the stick instead? This year, Sven. The poor fella. He deserves to take England to a World Cup win, just for all the flack he’s taken for trying to make the team halfway competitive.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Paraguay, Trinidad and Tobago, Sweden. I am not a pessimist by nature: for example, I still believe Villa will finish in the top half this season. (We are, after all, officially better than Arsenal at the moment – we’ve played away matches against the same two teams as them on the last two Saturdays and come away with draws whilst Arsenal have lost. This doesn’t count for anything, but it should.) But somehow, supporting England brings out the pessimist in me.

It was with a heavy heart that I scanned the covers of the tabloids on Saturday morning and witnessed the headlines braying ‘NATIONAL JUBILATION AS ENGLAND HANDED PISS-EASY DRAW’ et cetera. (Interestingly, the Sun. Mirror and Star used images of England’s footballers to illustrate this point, whilst the Times and Telegraph went for a less immediately relevant shot of Heidi Klum in that oddly shapeless blue dress, holding the FIFA trophy.) I tend to follow the lead of managers and players on such matters: you’ll never hear Sven saying ‘Thank Christ we’ve drawn a right bunch of no-marks instead of Holland or somebody decent’ and you won’t hear me say it either.

Yes, I’m pleased we didn’t get Holland, or the Czechs, or Portugal, or the USA, and I’m delighted we didn’t get Australia because if they’d beaten England we’d never have heard the end of it. We’ve also done well to avoid all five African teams, as I think one of them will have a decent run but I have no idea which one (random guess: Ghana). But when I see supposedly ‘lesser’ teams lined up I tend to see potential humiliation, not an easy passage – especially given England’s remarkable consistency in starting World Cups awkwardly (1-1 vs Ireland, 1990; 1-0 vs Tunisia, 1998; 1-1 vs Sweden, 2002).

And if we’re not careful we could be up against the hosts in the second round, which NOBODY wants, and if we get through we’ll definitely play a Group C team in the quarter-final, which means Argentina or Holland or a team which has overcome massive odds to beat Argentina or Holland. Personally I think either Argentina or Holland will win the trophy. But then, if England meet Argentina, it’s a team we’ve beaten at our last two meetings, and contrary to everything I’ve just said, I do think that England are capable of winning seven matches at the World Cup. If everybody’s fit, and not too tired, and we get the formation working.

I always look forward to the World Cup anyway, I love the World Cup, it’s one of the highlights of my existence. I get slightly frustrated that the final round of group matches take place simultaneously, even though there are excellent reasons why this happens, because it makes it impossible to watch every single match of the tournament live. But I’m particularly looking forward to this one because any one of up to ten teams has a realistic chance of winning it. France and Brazil are still very good but arguably in decline. Argentina are probably better than they’ve been since 1986, but as demonstrated against England, they don’t always kill off games. Germany are rebuilding and will get a boost from being hosts – then there’s Holland, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the Czechs…

It’s a relatively level playing field, with a lot of unknown elements mixed in (such as, er, Trinidad and Tobago). In fact, I wish I had my wallchart already.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

A few seasons ago – and I mean football seasons, I haven’t just started talking like a character in a bad fantasy novel – Coventry City were relegated from the Premiership after failing to pull off their customary Houdini act. (This parallel is perhaps unfair to Houdini, as teams who escape relegation always condemn another to the same fate, and Houdini tended not to escape from boxes by locking somebody else in and running away.) There were many teary eyes in the football world that a team which had managed to stay in the top-flight for decades was dropping out. I had a degree of sympathy, but ultimately I was quite glad.

This was because Coventry were Aston Villa’s bogey team, the side we were generally better than on paper but never seemed able to beat. I’m convinced that this hoodoo was programmed into the 1997/8 edition of Championship Manager, as my Villa side on that game could never beat Coventry either, and when I got sacked and ended up managing Coventry, Villa were practically the only team I could beat.

Why do I mention this, several years after it was relevant to anybody? I’ve just realised that, finally, Villa are somebody else’s bogey team. We are Newcastle United’s bogey team. This weekend’s 1-1 draw marked the sixth time in a row that Newcastle have failed to beat Villa, including a draw at St James’ in 2003 at a time when Villa were losing home games to the likes of Middlesborough. So, er, much like this season then. Having said this, Villa will probably get thumped 5-0 by Newcastle in the return game, but this is probably all the more reason to celebrate being a bigger club’s bogey team for once.

It helps, of course, that Newcastle are frequently better on paper than on the pitch these days, not just against Villa but against many teams. The analysis on Match of the Day was almost entirely devoted to Newcastle’s defensive shortcomings, whilst Villa merited just this exchange at the end of the discussion:

LINEKER: And Villa played well.

which I am happy to accept, given the terms in which some of our more abject performances this year have been described.

Monday, November 28, 2005

It’s weird – I’m 26, so for pretty much all my life George Best has been a byword for has-been, piss-head, mid-life-crisis-man. Yes, I’d seen all the amazing goals, taking his boot off to play a pass et cetera – but it has literally only been in the past few days that I’ve realised how big a star he really was. The BBC’s early evening news bulletin was half devoted to the report and obituary. There are few people who merit that sort of coverage, and certainly no other footballers.

Whilst there’s obviously been an ‘outpouring of grief’ (copyright the death of Princess Diana) and the ‘celebration of his life’ we always get when a public figure goes, with Best there was a bit more to it. It wasn’t his whole life that we were celebrating, it was his first ten years or so as a professional, when he was inarguably one of the best players in the world, and this came with what was almost a sense of relief that his decline was finally over, that his family, friends and fans would no longer have to watch him damage himself – and take himself further and further away from the great man he was.

None of us would be so callous as to actually wish someone dead, not unless we want to get chucked down a well like that girl in ‘The Ring’. I always think it’s appalling when people say that it’s a good thing that the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain died young and never ‘sullied’ their own legacy. It’s the worst kind of selfishness. However, the fact that people project their desires onto celebrities (and, as we’ve been told repeatedly in the past few days, Best was the first celebrity footballer), and the fact that this becomes more difficult when somebody cuts a less impressive figure than they used to, helps explain why Best’s death has been such an event (for want of a better word).

It’s telling that the BBC’s online report of Best’s passing was initially accompanied by a recent photo, but this was soon replaced with an early 1970s shot. The middle-aged, alcoholic, model-chasing George Best will fade from the public consciousness, to be replaced by the George Best who made being a footballing genius look easy. I think this is why his death has attracted so much attention – those old desires are being projected on him once again. And bloody hell, there are a lot of them.

Monday, October 17, 2005

I’m a colossal coward. Last week I wanted to say that we should all calm down about England being a bit crap recently, that they always make it difficult for themselves in qualification but usually make it through. But I didn’t say that because I was afraid of looking stupid if Poland turned up and beat them 3-0. I could have just written a post saying all that stuff and backdated it but, although I’m a coward, I am at least an honest coward.

England are a hugely inconsistent team and have been for as long as I can remember. Last month I met a friend down the pub who’d been too busy to catch the England-Wales result and I told him that England had won, but played quite badly. He responded that the performance meant nothing as long as England won, because it had no bearing on how they’d play next time. Of course, in the next match England played just as poorly and lost to Northern Ireland but the point remains: nobody would have been surprised if England had romped to victory either. This is the team that can beat Germany 5-1 away and then make heavy weather of beating Albania, the team that gets a scrappy draw with Switzerland and two games later thrashes the Dutch 4-1.

In fact, the most consistent thing about England is their inconsistency, starting tournaments with rubbish performances which then have to be compensated for by stirring victories over more difficult opposition. Any attempt to deviate from the pattern of awkward opening games is brutally punished, such as when they had the temerity to actually try and beat France in Portugal last year. It’s practically a tradition, stretching all the way back to the dull 0-0 draw with Uruguay which opened the 1966 tournament (although I loathe to make facile parallels with England’s only previous World Cup win, which has been hung over the team with such monotonous regularity that it would be easier and less painful to simply club each England player over the head with the Jules Rimet trophy on the occasion of his first cap and get it over with).

Everybody is now fretting over whether this squad, which clearly has good potential, can do themselves justice in Germany next year. Performances in the qualifying stage mean nothing, however. Nor do performances in the friendlies running up to it, nor even the performance in the opening game. We won’t know what their potential really is until the group stage is over, because that’s England for you. But we’ll all fret about it anyway, because we enjoy fretting about the England team. It’s a national pastime in a way that no other aspect of football is, and why the current attempts to marginalise the international game will either fail or ruin it for everybody. Speaking of which, perhaps next week I’ll get around to doing my rant about Arsene Wenger.

Monday, October 10, 2005

It’s hard to imagine reaching the World Cup Finals with less jubilation than England managed on Saturday night, by (a) getting the required result with a wobbly performance, (b) having to wait for another team to lose a game on the other side of the continent and (c) qualifying via a method that involves the use of maths. By the time you’ve gone to BBCi Sport to make sure that the Czechs beat Armenia and Andorra in both matches, you’ve practically forgotten what you were planning to celebrate.

But, ignoring the fact that England could have coasted to qualification if they’d played to their potential in these last three games (I’m sure I’m not the only person who’d like to ignore that), the fine margin by which they’ve made it demonstrates how tough it is to qualify for the World Cup these days. There are several good sides who are seriously looking at missing out on the Finals. Greece, Denmark and Turkey are all in the same group and none have managed to top it, so all of them could be absent. Ireland have suffered a tough draw and the surprising form of Israel, who have been so good that France may have to win a play-off: similarly, Spain have left it to the last game. Although England have grabbed their automatic spot, the Czech Republic deserve to be in Germany too.

Yet think back to when the draw for this qualifying campaign was being made: FIFA was talking about the possibility of cutting the European allocation of berths for the World Cup. To be fair, this is in keeping with the organisation’s laudable policy of broadening the audience of football and making it a truly global game. World Cup participation promotes the sport heavily within the participating nation and brings money and prestige. If all parts of the world are not given a chance to participate in the World Cup at its highest level, then the game’s old powers will dominate forever and the emerging footballing nations will never get a chance to, well, emerge.

There are 32 places available in the finals, and 14 of them – that’s almost half, for those of you who had trouble working out the Czechs’ adjusted points total – go to Europe. Meanwhile, South America – home of many of the greatest footballers ever – is only guaranteed four spots. Is this not unfair?

The answer is that no, it isn’t unfair at all. Around 50 European countries entered qualifying for the 2006 World Cup. That means that well under a third of them get through to the finals. Meanwhile, the South American zone of qualifying comprises just ten teams: four of them get through, and the fifth gets a play-off with the winner of the Oceania Zone (this is always Australia). This means that, in practice, half the teams in South America usually go to the finals. And, to be honest, whilst Brazil are the best team in the world and Argentina are never far off, who else is there? The once-great Uruguay (double World Cup winners) have been mediocre for ages. They’ve missed out on an automatic place this time – the other two spots have gone to Ecuador and Paraguay. There are more than enough places in the South American zone to allow all the worthy teams to qualify.

One area which can make a good case for more places is Africa: four of its five qualifiers will be playing in the World Cup for the first time. This means that Nigeria, Senegal and Cameroon – who have all impressed in previous tournaments – are staying at home next summer. That’s pretty harsh, and possibly needs to be looked at. The fact that Africa has produced some of the world’s best players in recent years (Drogba, Essien) but its national teams have struggled to make an impact at the World Cup suggests that lack of experience is a factor, and this will only be righted by ensuring that the promising teams get to go.

But there are emerging sides in Europe too. Look at Ukraine, who’ve never got to the finals before but have walked through a group which includes the European champions and the third-placed team from the previous World Cup. There are also resurgent teams like Poland, who were one of the world’s great teams in the 1930s but got interrupted by Hitler before they could have a decent shot at a World Cup. Every time one of these teams comes through to qualify, they nudge out a good team who qualified last time. I’m not making a case for Europe to be given more qualifying spots – indeed, it’s good that the qualifying is so fiercely competitive, making the build-up to a World Cup that much more interesting – but I don’t see how you can cut them back much further.

Of course, the more places Europe has, the more chance England have of getting through, so I’ve a vested interest in saying this. But, frankly, if they really are one of about five teams who have a chance to win the World Cup as Eriksson claims, they shouldn’t need any of this best-second-placed-team bollocks anyway. They should be one of the few teams who don’t have to sweat over qualification. Yet somehow we always do. Funny, that.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Ah, the romance of the League Cup. Third-tier clubs preparing for money-spinning Tuesday-night trips to Charlton Athletic. Eager youngsters waiting up for the highlights programme at 11:50 (assuming there is a highlights programme). Arsenal coming in at the third round, fielding a team of French 16-year-olds, none of whom wears a squad number lower than 40, and immediately crashing out to the resounding silence of nobody giving a toss, least of all Arsene Wenger.

All right, so nobody has ever described the League Cup as romantic. Ever. For some reason the FA Cup is the only English football tournament to be designated as romantic. (Come to think of it, you rarely hear of ‘the romance of the UEFA Cup’ either.) And it often feels as though the axe, if not hanging directly over the League Cup, has had strings attached to it should it be necessary to hang it over the League Cup at short notice.

I’m very strongly in favour of keeping it, which is partly because I’m a 26-year-old Aston Villa fan and it’s the only thing I can remember us ever having won. (Twice. And if we hadn’t won it in 1994, Man Utd would be the only team to have won the English domestic treble and would still be going on about it to this day, so be grateful.) But in an environment where some clubs expect to win something every year, it seems foolhardy to do away with a piece of silverware.

The problem is that the League Cup seems almost ‘not to count’ as far as the big boys are concerned. A few years ago, when it was the only prize Man Utd managed to score that season, it might as well have been a giant copper plaque with the words ‘ALSO-RANS’ ornately engraved into it. The only value of the League Cup is as part of a set. Having it on its own is like owning a statuette of George Harrison when you actually wanted all four Beatles, and not really being sure where to put it.

Quite how this happened, or how it can be reversed, I’m not entirely sure, but blaming commercial television and the Champions League has served me well so far so I don’t see any reason to change my tune now. It’s notable that the League Cup final is now the only top-flight tournament final that isn’t broadcast on free-to-air television. The match is not, therefore, the talking point that it should be: this is partly ITV’s fault for making a hash of its bold new age of digital football coverage.

However, I feel that the Champions League is the more significant factor. (The generally detrimental effect of the Champions League on football is a subject I’ll probably return to with punishing regularity this season, and expand on my views in a later column. Just remember: it’s not a league and more than half the teams in it aren’t champions.) With the first few months of the season now packed with European fixtures thanks to the introduction of a group stage to the European Cup, Man Utd and Arsenal have become irritable with the extra fixtures.

This is, frankly, pretty goddamned rich when those clubs are the ones with the depth of squad to cope with a packed fixture list. It’s also yet another example of big clubs failing to look out for the little guys – one of the reasons why the League Cup exists at all is to give lower-division clubs their own lucrative ties. The FA, clearly afraid that if the big clubs drop out of the tournament altogether then it’ll go the way of the Zenith Data Systems Cup, has already tried to assist by stripping the early rounds of their second legs and allowing teams involved in Europe to sit out until round three. (This year Newcastle have been given a bye too, presumably to rest their weary legs after their gruelling second-round exit from the Intertoto Cup.)

Still, if the likes of Chelsea and Liverpool take the League Cup as seriously as they did last year then it could still be a good tournament. And a number of Premiership sides were caught napping this week by lower-division teams and were obviously not chuffed to have been embarrassed, which is a good sign: as anybody who saw Man City’s risible penalty shoot-out performance on can confirm, the League Cup may not be romantic but it can be comedy.

Monday, August 15, 2005

During the close season (how long was it this year? Sixteen days? Something like that) I’d almost managed to forget about Mark Lawrenson entirely. He’d drifted out of my consciousness and my world was very marginally better for it. His return to the punditry fray now means more of my waking hours are taken up wondering precisely who, if anybody, finds their enjoyment of televised football enhanced by his presence. This annoys me, as I have better things to do with my time: I’ve just bought Tony Hawk’s Underground 2.

Good football pundits fall into two categories: strong personalities and sharp analysis. An example of the former would be Ian Wright, whilst the latter might be represented by Gordon Strachan. There are even those who can straddle both categories like a punditry colossus, like Martin O’Neill (let’s hope he can find time to do a few shifts at the Beeb during his current sabbatical).

In personality terms, Lawrenson is a thin grey spectre of light misery. He’s unremittingly uncharitable: I’ve never really forgiven him for writing off Villa’s 1998/9 title challenge quite so easily (I never really believed we’d stick it out either, but it was as if he didn’t even consider it possible). This is hardly a contrast to Alan ‘you’ll never win anything with kids’ Hansen, who is more than dour enough for both of them and much more astute (it remains a joy to watch him pull apart a poor defensive performance).

Lawrenson is also rarely willing to acknowledge the possibility of a surprise result and his effectiveness as a pundit is seriously undermined by this apparent lack of imagination. His weekly ‘Premiership Predictions’ on BBCi rarely contain any notable insight, and his recent projection of what the table will look like next May stated that the three promoted clubs will go back down.

On past form this is highly unlikely, as only once in the history of the Premiership have all three promoted clubs gone down. But Lawrenson’s is still the safest, most facile prediction, because there’s a good chance he’ll get two out of three. Any bloke down the pub can do that. The difficult bit is working out which of the three might keep their heads above water, and that’s what we look to a professional pundit to do.

He’s been doing this for years. Remember when he backed Bolton for the drop and agreed to shave off his moustache if they made it? He submitted to this with ill grace at the time, apparently unwilling to lose his signature look (which was akin to an ageing desk sergeant in a provincial police station who has been passed over for promotion more than a couple of times). That the moustache hasn’t come back (presumably everybody told him he looked better without it) and Bolton are still up there are testament to his powers of judgement.

One shouldn’t really complain when ITV fills its pundit seats with the bland likes of Andy Townsend. But the rest of the BBC’s line-up is so strong – Gary Lineker’s soft touch, Wright’s cheerleading, Garth Crooks’ bold obtuseness – that there seems little call for somebody else to state the obvious in a bored, impatient voice. You might as well bring back Bob Wilson... Oh. You have.

Monday, August 08, 2005

When I moved house last month I dragged my old Sega MegaDrive out of storage and played some old classics, including Electronic Arts’ Fifa ’96. When I wasn’t lifting heavy objects into place around the house, I whiled away some time winning the World Cup with England (a classic tournament – who can forget Teddy Sheringham’s five goals against Brazil in the semi-final?) and the Premiership with Liverpool (I’d have used Villa, but the stats are based on 1994/5 when the club almost got relegated so it’s a bit of an uphill task).

When I got over the embarrassment of finding the "custom" team made up entirely of members of Britpop bands (it’s deleted now, and I will never tell ANYBODY what it was called), I was surprised by just how much it felt like another world, competing in the Premiership of ten years ago. After an abysmal start to the season I steadily climbed the table, and who did I find at the top? Queens Park Rangers, beating off a challenge from Nottingham Forest.

There’s something particularly galling when you lose a game after conceding a goal from a player you’d entirely forgotten about. How can you concede defeat to Andy Sinton? I won in the end, thanks to some smart work by an ageing Ian Rush and John Barnes (although, because the game was too primitive to handle two players from the same team looking at all different, Barnes was white-skinned and had a full head of hair, which was disquieting).

Anyway, this prompted me to look down the league and see how many teams in the Premiership of FIFA ’96 won’t be competing in the Premiership this year. The total was eleven: bear in mind that the top-flight was 22 teams then and you realise that half the division have dropped out since then. More, if you count sides like West Ham and Blackburn who’ve gone out and come back. Yet every season, when the promoted teams are tipped for immediate relegation, we hear complaints of the widening gulf between the Premiership and the Championship and how this is a terrible thing for smaller clubs.

If I was going to be completely self-interested about this, I’d hope that situation remained the same indefinitely, with the promoted clubs going straight back down again, because I support a Premiership club and I don’t want them to be relegated. But I’m not, I like to see a success story more than anybody, and regardless I don’t think it’s the case. Look back across Premiership history and you’ll find that it’s rare for all three newcomers to be relegated: usually, it’s only one or two of the promoted clubs, which is what you’d expect really. In fact, in 2001/2 all three stayed up. Over time, this has changed the face of the Premiership massively.

The system of promotion and relegation is harsh, but it’s what makes the league exciting. Who would really give a toss about who won League Two if there wasn’t the prize of moving up in the footballing world? It’s a great feeling when your club goes up but the cruel reality is that it means someone has to go down, otherwise we’d end up with a vast top division called the Lovelyfluffyship and Alex Ferguson would have reasonable grounds to complain about fixture congestion for a change.

The problem, as it usually is in football these days, is money: the disparity between what you can earn in the Premiership and the Championship has become much wider (which, let’s be honest, was the whole point of forming the Premiership in the first place, so a few people could make a lot of money). But clubs are starting to deal with this now. Southampton were ill-prepared and have had to flog many of their best assets, but Palace have held onto Andy Johnson and Norwich look, if anything, stronger than when they went up in 2004. The challenge of getting to the Premiership is now twofold: first you have to get there, then you have to make it stick. You fall back down, you try again – West Brom have made it work.

Yes, it’s hard to establish yourself in the long term, but it’s been done. Birmingham, Charlton and Fulham are fixtures in the top division and Bolton have hit Europe. The struggle just makes the achievements more impressive and, therefore, more exciting when they come. This actually reflects why we love football and Americans don’t ‘get’ football: because goals are so hard to come by, they’re more exciting when they arrive. It thrives on tension and sustained effort rather than constant movement.

Oh, and my tips for relegation this year? Portsmouth, West Brom and Wigan.

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

So Darius Vassell’s gone to Man City for £2,000,000. Fair enough, he’s just had a bad season, he’s only got a year left on his contract, probably a good time for him to leave. Conveniently, £2,000,000 adds neatly onto Aston Villa’s already-tabled £5,000,000 bid for Milan Baros to make up the £7,000,000 Liverpool are asking for.

It was when I realised this that I had a horrifying flashback. Just as ’Nam veterans relive their buddies dying face down in the mud, I suddenly recalled a succession of limp performances from Stan Collymore. The association is undeniable: decent striker, underperforming in the Premiership with Liverpool, sold on to Villa for £7,000,000. The Horror.

Collymore was a club record signing at the time, and began a trend at Villa for bringing in big-money signings who totally disappoint. Alpay and Bosko Balaban come to mind, not that I particularly want them to. Angel had a reasonable 2003/4 but went back to his previous semi-effective self afterwards. (Again a connection with Baros suggests itself, as the two players have much the same haircut.) On the flipside, most of the club’s successful signings since the late 1990s have been done on the cheap: Merson, Dublin, McCann, Sorensen, Solano.

Of course, if the club is ever going to become competitive again then this trend of poor judgement has to come to an end, and it’s only going to come to an end when the club signs a big-money player who can actually play. Although I actually think Baros is a good player, and I’m at a loss to explain his indifferent Liverpool form, I’m sceptical of any suggestion that he might recover his form at Villa, because I can’t think of a single player in recent years who’s actually gained in value whilst he’s been at the club (except Vassell, and since Villa was his first club that doesn’t really count).

The worst thing about this is that Doug Ellis, who needs no encouragement to hide his wallet at the best of times, has been further discouraged from making funds available for new players. Hence the club ends up buying moderately expensive middle-ranking players who play no better than the cheap options. In fact, until now David O’Leary has been able to do nothing other than bring in cheap options and the club has done quite well under him.

Well, this season’s transfer kitty is rumoured to be £20,000,000, which is roughly equivalent to Chelsea’s annual budget for taking prospective players out for a meal. Spend wisely, David.

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Even allowing for the fact that it’s close season, and there’s a dearth of actual football matches for the papers to cover, it’s a wee bit disturbing that the first two stories I read in yesterday’s sports section were about Joey Barton being sent home for brawling and Arsene Wenger getting impatient with the Dutch authorities for not dealing with Robin van Persie’s rape charges.

I’m not going to comment on Van Persie’s case other than that it’s depressing to hear yet another accusation of sexual assault against a footballer. I don’t know what Van Persie’s version of events is but the players’ usual defence in such cases is that the women involved are being opportunistic. Even if this (not entirely convincing) suggestion is true, it doesn’t absolve players of the responsibility to conduct themselves with care. I’m sure that when you’re young and disproportionately rich it’s easy to believe that you can do anything you like, but it’s essential to learn that this isn’t the case.

In Barton’s case, ‘brawling’ seems too soft a word. It suggests a healthy bit of manly rough-and-tumble. This particular altercation with a set of Everton fans apparently involved Barton biting Richard Dunne’s hand when he tried to separate his team-mate from the mob. Now, I recall doing this once or twice at school, because I wasn’t very physically adept. Back then it was labelled ‘fighting like a girl’.

I’m not sure what you label it when a 22-year-old man does it, but certainly this, and his antics at City’s Christmas party when he stubbed a lighted cigar into the eye of a youth team player, read like the everyday activities of the Joe Pesci character from Casino. City are considering transfer-listing Barton, perhaps fearing that he’ll stab Sun Jihai with a fountain pen or head down to London to ‘whack’ Shaun Wright-Phillips for disrespecting the club. The visceral nature of Barton’s poor conduct almost makes you nostalgic for the days of Eric Cantona, who at least did these things with a degree of showmanship.

Because players are assets, all too often clubs are terrified to let go of them because of conduct issues, but there does come a point where, however, talented a player is, he’s more trouble than he’s worth. It’s also quite depressing, as a fan, when your team includes a player you hate. Birmingham City complained bitterly about the ‘small minority’ of fans who effectively blocked the transfer of Lee Bowyer: I’d like to shake every member of this ‘small minority’ by the hand. They’re an example to us all.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

So, according to the papers Nicolas Anelka is keen on a move to Newcastle United. Who better to help the club to shake off its image as a home for surly, uncooperative prima donnas?

Anelka did some good work at Manchester City but a fractious team like Newcastle shouldn’t be considering buying him. Graeme Souness continually complains about rifts in his dressing-room (although as Souness continually complains about everything, you could be forgiven for failing to notice this). In accordance with this he’s been getting shot of Bellamys and Kluiverts – anybody who fancies themselves a bit too much.

But the squad has also lost quiet, worthy players like Aaron Hughes (as an Aston Villa fan, I’m not complaining about that one), and been boosted with fancy-dan midfielders like Emre. Apparently they’re also looking at Mark Viduka, who memorably worked so hard at perfecting his trademark baffled and forlorn expression during Leeds’ relegation season.

Of course, the club’s incoherent transfer policy is no surprise given that Freddy Shepherd is in charge. Shepherd has always aimed to give the impression that he is a man of the people: assuming, of course, that those people are very rich. Lest we forget, this is the man who said, ‘When we have got 52,000 fans at each home game, the last thing we are worried about is clubs in the third division.’ (That comment was made late last year at a discussion entitled ‘Football Is Not A Plaything For The Very Wealthy’. I don’t feel a comment is even necessary.)

At present, Shepherd seems to be under the impression that he is running Real Madrid. He’s certainly adopted Real’s transfer policy of throwing money at big-name players and leaving his hapless manager to somehow piece them together. The difference is that, although Real are having problems at the moment, they do possess a number of players whom many would rate as the world’s best, whilst Newcastle possess a number of players who rate themselves as the world’s best.

Also, Real’s idea of a disastrous season is finishing second, a few points behind Barcelona, and failing to win the Champions League. It’s not quite on a par with finishing 14th in the Premiership. And Real did enjoy success before the bubble burst. The last thing Newcastle won was Football League Division One during the inaugural year of the Premiership. Before that, the last thing they won was the Fairs Cup. The fact that it was even called the Fairs Cup should give you an idea how long ago that was (1969, if you’re interested).

Yet players are still on their way to Newcastle: Scott Parker chose them over Everton, who finished a full ten places above Newcastle and can offer European football next season. By contrast, Newcastle are hoping to grab UEFA Cup action through the Intertoto Cup, a tournament so great it has not one, not two, but THREE finals. (The Intertoto must be the least dignified tournament in world football: clubs barely even like to admit that they’re entering. Villa actually won a UEFA spot through it a few years back, and I didn’t find out they were in the thing until the day of the final.) Also, because a few other big European clubs under-achieved last season, winning the Intertoto may require Newcastle to beat Lazio and Deportivo.

Add to this the evident behind-the-scenes problems at the club, including a manager whose depends upon his own replacement (Shearer) for support, and the question remains: what could possibly be drawing players to Newcastle? Maybe it’s the slimming effect of those vertical black and white stripes, or the region’s currently-vibrant music scene. Or perhaps – just perhaps – it’s the cash. It could just be the large amounts of cash. It does seem as though Newcastle have clinched a lot of fiercely-fought transfer deals mainly because they could meet players’ wage demands. Granted, they’re a Big Club and players always say they like to play for Big Clubs. But then, Nottingham Forest are/were a Big Club too, and I don’t think you’ll see many international stars flocking there for a few years.

The latest piece of transfer gossip is that Newcastle will only part with Jermaine Jenas in a part-exchange deal for Sol Campbell. Arsenal are apparently quite receptive to this. I wonder whether Sol is.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Watching Jose Mourinho at a press conference earlier this week, I was put in mind of John Bender, the delinquent from The Breakfast Club. If you’ve seen the film (and you should have done), I’m particularly thinking of the scene where the principal gives Bender a detention every time he answers back. When, having been issued with eight consecutive detentions, he’s asked, ‘Do you want another?’ his response is a defiant, surly ‘Yes.’ And you know why? Because he doesn't let The Man intimidate him. Hell no.

This is how Mourinho is starting to look. This week he suggested Arsenal get preferential treatment from the FA and implied that this is the result of conflicts of interest within the organisation. The FA promptly announced that it was considering fining him. Again. Mourinho may seem to have unnecessarily blundered into yet another conflict with the game’s governing body, but he undeniably does it with class. Other managers would accidentally let that sort of comment slip when a one-to-one interview over a couple of drinks got a bit too relaxed. Mourinho organises a press conference for such purposes.

The FA already hates Mourinho. He not only seems to accept this, he appears to find it funny. And it is funny. I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the FA deeply annoying ever since I was a young lad watching Graham Kelly making such a hash of the FA Cup draw. (Remember how he used to stare impassively into the camera for several seconds after saying ‘The ties will be played the weekend of…’?) I was alarmed, but sadly not surprised, to read Tom Bower’s Guardian article regarding the organisation’s litany of problems.

On the other hand, I see Mourinho as a great man whom we should all look up to, so I know whose side I’m on when Jose throws down. However, behind the FA’s bluster and threats, you wonder if they aren’t a just little bit grateful that Mourinho has come along at this moment in time, thereby providing them with a nice easy target on which to exercise their authority.

Next week: Jose asks whether Barry Manilow is aware that David Dein has been raiding his wardrobe.