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.