Posts Tagged ‘football’

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Redknapp vs Levy

August 2, 2012

Last time I blogged it was about Harry Redknapp and whether Spurs would qualify for the Champions League. How time flies. As I write this, Spurs aren’t in the Champions League and Harry Redknapp is no longer the manager of Tottenham Hotpsur.

I’m still not sure how I feel. My last blogpost was all about Harry; about how he plays the media game, how he always looks out for number one, and always manages to shift the blame for his failures. You might think, judging by what I’d written, that I’d be happy Harry has gone. I’m not. I’m ambivalent at best. More than anything else, I feel disappointed. Disappointed because for all his faults, Redknapp was the best manager I’d seen at Spurs in a long, long time and disappointed because I think that had Redknapp and Levy both handled things differently, it could all have been avoided.

First of all, let’s take a look at some of the reasons Harry Redknapp is no longer Spurs manager. The obvious reason is that Spurs failed to qualify for the Champions League. In a normal Premier League season, finishing fourth would qualify a team for the Champions League. And at the beginning of last season, nearly every single Spurs fan would have settled for finishing fourth. But Spurs didn’t have a normal season. We spent most of the season in the top three, and for large parts of it looked like we could even challenge for the title (my apologies for using “we” for Spurs. It’s presumptuous and annoying but I do it anyway). And frustratingly, our fall out of the top three coincided with the long period of time in which Harry was blatantly touting himself for the England manager’s job – a position he clearly wanted (after leaving Spurs he admitted that had he been offered the job, he would have taken it). It became clear to all but the most blinkered pro-Redknapp fan that Harry had taken his eye of the ball. From the moment England manager Fabio Capello resigned, something wasn’t right at Spurs. In addition, it also became clear from April onwards that there was a slim but realistic possibility that Chelsea would win the Champions League and that fourth place would not be good enough. So, being charitable to Harry you could say that he took the team to fourth, which would normally qualify them for The Champions League. Being unkind, you could say that it was clear for some time that to guarantee Champions League football Spurs would have to finish third, and that Harry’s personal ambition badly hampered the team’s chances of achieving that goal. Would Levy have sacked Redknapp if the team had finished third? Judging by his quotes in the press, Harry thinks that he’d have been fired anyway, but I doubt it. It would have been Tottenham’s highest ever finish in the Premier League and Levy would have faced a revolt  from the fans. And I also believe that for all Levy’s faults, he only ever does what he believes is best for Tottenham Hotspur. If he’s wrong, he’s wrong with the best of intentions.

But I suspect that the schism between Redknapp and Levy wasn’t really about the Champions League or Redknapp’s fondness for making indefensible statements to the national press. It was based on the fundamental differences in their approaches to football, which is what I’d like to focus on. Let’s take a look at Daniel Levy.

Daniel Levy is an excellent businessman, who has very sensible and progressive views on how to run a football club. He likes to balance the books and make sure the club is well run and cost effective. The club is in rude financial health, has amazing new training facilities, great sponsorship deals and is exploring a new, larger stadium. Levy has a clear long-term vision for the club.

Now, if you were a progressive young chairman like Daniel Levy, and you were in charge of a top 10 Premiership club, here are some things you might do:

  • You would install a young, dynamic manager (preferably one with European experience, who speaks a few languages and is committed to pretty football, rather than a horrible old English manager who likes long-ball football and drinks the wrong wines). This manager would be part of a long-term plan and would be in charge for decades. He’d leave a legacy of success. Think of Arsene Wenger when he first arrived at Arsenal.
  • You’d get a Director of Football. Directors of Football aren’t very popular in England, but on the continent they’re ubiquitous. They allow the manager to get on with coaching, whilst the DoF can flip through his massive rolodex and unearth hidden talent from New Zealand to Romania. No more buying overpriced players from Everton or West Ham! Now the whole world is your oyster. The Director of Football is the magical svengali who magics players out of nowhere.
  • You would buy young players with a high resale value, meaning that if they did leave the club, you’d have made a healthy profit.
  • You’d make the occasional big money marquee signing to send a message out to the big clubs that you’re a serious contender, and to reassure the fans that you’re willing to put your money where your mouth is.
  • You’d build a new, bigger stadium to ensure that money coming into the club through gate receipts actually covered the money the club is spending on players. The club would not be dependent on an Abramovich-style sugar daddy – it would be self-sustaining.
  • You’d build new, state-of-the-art training facilities so that the players were always fit and ready.
  • You’d invest in an academy so that rather than always having to buy expensive players, you’d have a constant supply of talented, home-grown players, proud to wear the shirt.
  • You would make sure that the club had strength in depth – that as well as having a strong first-team, there was a big enough squad of quality players to ensure that the team was always competitive, no matter how games and injuries took their toll.

If all that sounds familiar, it’s because  – with the possible exception of the Director of Football – it’s essentially the blueprint that almost any young, ambitious chairman has when he takes over a football club. Whether it’s Newcastle, Aston Villa, Spurs, Chelsea or Liverpool, roughly the same promises are made. Even with clubs like Man City and Chelsea, who are plucked from relative mediocrity by billionaire owners, the same mantra is chanted: “Sure, we’ll invest heavily at first, but in a few years time the team will be packed with cheap, home-grown players”. Even disastrous chairmen who have led their clubs to the brink of bankruptcy (Hello Portsmouth! Hello West Ham!) start their tenures by repeating the same clichés about grass-roots investment, long-term financial stability, investment in local players and endless seasons of sunshine and happiness.

The blueprint above  is brilliant. It’s full of sensible, progressive ideas that should lead to long-term success. The problem is this: the blueprint rarely works. Or rather, it works in parts, but rarely leads to the kind of success that is promised. And when it comes to Spurs, Daniel Levy has done an excellent job in reinventing the club, lifting the team out of the mire of 90s mediocrity, and making them competitive again; but the long-term stability and glory he craves still eludes him.

Let’s take a look at the managers that Daniel Levy has employed. When Levy took over at Spurs in February 2001, his first act was to get rid of George Graham. Graham was not popular with Spurs fans, but we won the League Cup under him, which should not be overlooked. But Graham had a few things working against him: He was always an Arsenal man. And he was old-school. He was never the kind of shiny, new continental manager that Levy fancied. So in late 2001 Graham was booted out and replaced by Glenn Hoddle. Hoddle was a Spurs hero and just the kind of young, progressive coach that Levy liked. He’d even played abroad! And for a short while it worked, but by September 2003 Spurs were once again in the relegation zone and Hoddle was sacked. Levy appointed David Pleat as caretaker manager for the rest of the season and set out to find a new manager who could rebuild the club from scratch.

In June 2004 Levy made his move. He installed Frank Arnesen as Director of Football (a position that was unheard of in English football) and made former French national team manager Jacques Santini his new coach. Levy’s sexy new modern Spurs were ready to roll! Spurs had money and a new continental-style set-up. What could go wrong? Everything. Santini was a disaster and left the club after just a few months. Assistant coach Martin Jol was promoted to head coach (This is important to remember. I maintain that had Jol been hired specifically to be the head coach, he’d have had more clout with the board and wouldn’t have been treated so shabbily and the end of his reign). Still, despite Santini’s departure, Spurs still had Arnesen, right? Wrong.

In June 2005 Arnesen defected to moneybags Chelsea. Levy’s grand plan for long-term success had come unstuck in little over a year. Arnesen was replaced as Director of Football by young, bespectacled Frenchman Damien Comolli. Levy continued with his vision of a Director of Football. Jol would take charge of coaching the team and Comolli would sit above him, signing and selling the players; indeed, it’s hard not to see Comolli as the personal embodiment of Levy’s dream. An articulate, intelligent, bespectacled, business-savvy, pan-European man – shave Comolli’s hair off and you’ve basically got Daniel Levy. The Comolli/Jol combination was a limited success; there were successful runs in the UEFA Cup but Spurs narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on the last day of the 2005-2006 season and never quite recovered. In addition, there were clear tensions between Jol and Comolli, with the former clearly unhappy with some of the players Comolli signed (I’m thinking of Didier Zokora here). Spurs were supposed to challenge for the Champions League in the 2007-2008 season but started badly. In October 2007 Jol was sacked, undone by the Spurs board. Comolli kept his job. Many Spurs fans felt that the wrong man went.

Still, Jol was history and it was an opportunity for Levy to indulge in his proclivity for progressive, continental coaches. The club hired Juande Ramos from Seville. Ramos, working with a Director of Football, had worked wonders for Seville. Here was a manager firmly in the Levy mould. He ticked all the boxes. How could he fail? To be fair to Ramos, he did lead Spurs to the League Cup in the 2007-2008 season but the club’s start to the 2008-2009 was disastrous. Two points after eight games looked like relegation form. So Levy did something unexpected…

In October 2008 Levy got rid of Ramos. He also got rid of Comolli, scrapping the beloved Director of Football post. He installed Harry Redknapp as manager. Redknapp was given money to spend and told to rescue Spurs. He did so. On the final day of the 2008-2009 season, Spurs finished in eighth position, just missing out on Europe.

The next season, Redknapp did even better, with Spurs finishing fourth and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in their history. In the 2010-2011 season, Spurs defied all expectations, reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, beating Inter Milan and AC Milan along the way. Tottenham couldn’t quite match that form in the league, finishing fifth and missing out on another season in the Champions League. That brings us up to the 2011-2012 season, which is where we began, all those paragraphs ago.

So let’s take a look at how Harry worked during his time at Spurs, and how it contrasts with Levy’s philosophy. If Levy was always planning for the long-term, then Redknapp was always focused on the present. Redknapp was never interested in running a club; it was all about the first team.

Levy’s philosophy involved signing big names, but was really built on unearthing young gems and slowly developing them into first-team players. It was about ensuring success for the club at every level. In contrast, Redknapp appeared only really interested in players who were ready now, who could slot straight into the team. If that meant signing 32-year-old William Gallas or 40-year-old Brad Friedel, promising them huge wages and putting them straight into the team, so be it. Harry wasn’t worried about whether they’d still be around in a year or two, as long as they could do the job now.  (Redknapp’s history of signing older, experienced players on huge, long-term contracts had a very unhappy ending for his former club Portsmouth. On the verge of liquidation, the club is still paying astronomical wages to players Redknapp signed. He should not be wholly blamed for this – it was the Portsmouth owners who needed to ensure the bills could be paid). Redknapp’s philosophy, certainly when it came to buying players, was always short-term. He wasn’t particularly interested in nurturing young talent or unearthing undiscovered talent. (It’s no coincidence that Tottenham’s most valuable players over the 2011-2012 season were mostly signings Redknapp had nothing to do with: Bale and Modric predate Redknapp and Van der Vaart was a deal brokered by Levy and delivered to Redknapp. Redknapp can take credit for Scott Parker, I’ll give him that).

Harry cared about winning games. He didn’t appear very interested in the youth team or the reserves (very few reserve players ever broke through to the first team and made Premier League appearances). He wasn’t interested in financial prudence. He was interested in who could slot straight into the first team and make a difference. It was an enormously short-sighted, unsustainable model. The only was problem was, largely speaking, it worked.

Conventional wisdom tells us that football clubs should build slowly, plan for the future, have stable management and invest in youth. The “Levy way”. But let’s take a look at which teams finished the 2011-2012 season with silverware. Man City won the Premiership with a team rammed full of ready-made, experienced footballers, all on huge wages. Aside from Joe Hart, the promising youth players of yesteryear were discarded. Chelsea started the season the Levy way, by hiring a promising young manager in André Villas-Boas and planning for long-term success. Then, half-way through the season Abramovich got nervous, sacked Villas-Boas, promoted Roberto di Matteo and reverted back to type. They then won the Champions League and the FA Cup with a team full of old, experienced, highly paid superstars. Chelsea and Man City didn’t win by being sensible, sticking by their managers, investing in youth and having a long-term vision; they won by spending shitloads of money on big-name players, whose egos and salaries were bigger than the manager’s. Football is a funny old game.

Redknapp’s last season with Spurs was an odd one. As I’ve said, Spurs finished fourth, which would normally constitute a success. They also finished with a hugely unbalanced squad, consisting of just one recognised striker in Jermain Defoe. (Redknapp had signed Adebayor on a one-year loan at the start of the season, had sold Roman Pavlyuchenko and replaced him with Louis Saha, also on a short-term loan deal). In addition, Redknapp’s focus on the first team meant that the rest of the squad appeared alienated and frustrated by their lack of playing time.

The bitter irony is that somewhere between Levy’s long-term planning and Harry’s understanding of what makes a good first-team squad, a good balance was achieved. Last season was the closest I’ve seen to Spurs actually winning the league. (From the very first game of the season I was thrilled to see Brad Friedel in goal – of all Redknapp’s signings, Friedel was my favourite. For the first time in years, we had a goalkeeper I totally trusted. He was a short-term solution, but he was marvellous).

Redknapp simplified Levy’s grandiose visions and delivered a winning team, and Levy kept Redknapp’s financial excesses in check and made sure the squad consisted of more than a load of pensioners. For four years, Spurs had a combination of chairman and manager that actually worked, which is why I feel so disappointed that Harry has left.

It also explains why I’m undecided about the appointment of André Villas-Boas. He ticks all the Levy boxes. He’s young, continental, progressive and has a long-term vision for the club. He’s everything that Harry isn’t. I want him to succeed. But in Hoddle, Santini and Ramos, I can’t help but think I’ve seen it all before.

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Don’t cry for me, Argentina

July 6, 2010

The last couple of days I’ve been “getting in touch” with my Argentine roots. On Friday evening I went to an nice event/talk about Argentine comics and then on Saturday I went to a bar where 200-300 Argentines watched the national team getting trounced 4-0 by Germany in the World Cup quarter-finals. That was fairly disastrous. Still, I got to practise my Spanish and pretend I knew the chants everyone else was singing.

My dad is from Argentina. Born in Buenos Aires, he lived in London between 1969 and 1989, when he moved back to the city of his childhood. He visits Europe when he can.

I was born in London, England. I am English. Growing up, we didn’t speak Spanish at home, except for a couple of words. I remember feeling very English throughout my childhood, even if my name is Gregorio and my father is Juan Carlos. Nowadays I speak pretty fluent Spanish, but that’s thanks to years at university and recent trips to Argentina. My Spanish accent is still a mess of English, Argentine and Castillian Spanish (and American, according to one person).

When we were little kids it was too expensive (and probably too painful for my father) to visit Buenos Aires. I made my first trip there with my parents and sisters, when I was about 12 and from then on I visisted there every 2-3 years to visit my father and see family. There was a period between 1993 and 2000 when I avoided going. I’m not quite sure why. I’ll ask a shrink.

I call myself half-Argentine, but the reality is that I don’t know Argentina, I only know Buenos Aires and of that, mainly the barrio around my father’s place and microcentro. When I am in Buenos Aires I am there to see my father, not be a tourist. There are friends who spend 2 months doing the whole of South America who have seen more of Argentina than I have in my countless visits. They know Cordoba and Mendoza and Iguacu and Bariloche. I know the Linea A subway line. As a teenager my Buenos Aires was wandering the streets of Corrientes and Callao in my leather jacket, smoking cheap cigarettes and hunting through the book and magazine stores for comics and pornography. I loved it.

When I was young, Argentina was an impossibly distant, exotic place. There were few Argentines in London. There was no internet, so contact with my father was limited to occasional letters and phone calls. No-one went on holiday to Argentina. And I liked it like that. Buenos Aires was my playground. It was my Narnia. My secret world.

Now things have changed. I know countless friends who have visited Buenos Aires. It’s a staple part of the middle-class-traveller-seeing-the-world route. I know English people who have fallen in love in Buenos Aires and stayed here. And since the economic crisis of 2001, there are an increasing number of Argentines in London (as evidenced in the bar for the World Cup match). The barriers between England and Argentina have crumbled. I should be happy, but I’m not. It’s like the gates of Narnia have been flung open, and what was once my secret refuge (my secret identity) is now just another place in the world. The world is getting smaller.

Sometimes I’ll be chatting to a stranger and I’ll mention that my dad is Argentine and they’ll say: “Oh, I’ve been to Buenos Aires. It’s amazing, isn’t it?” and I’ll nod and agree, but part of me – a selfish part of me, admittedly – resents them walking through the streets that were once mine alone.

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English football: a realistic review

June 29, 2010

With England now out of the World Cup, I can breathe a sigh of relief and blog about football.

The shocking thing about England wasn’t their humiliation against Germany; it wasn’t even the poor performances. It was the deluded expectation that we would win it. I consider myself a fairly measured, cautious kind of fellow, so I wasn’t expecting too much, but the press (and massive corporate sponsors) get people worked up with their “THIS IS OUR YEAR” bullshit.

Let me be clear: England don’t have a terrible team. We have an ok team. We did better than Italy. We did better than France. And games turn on tiny things – we were woeful against Germany but had Lampard’s goal been given, who knows what might have been. That’s not to gloss over the fact that we were crap, merely to point our the possibilities that always exist in a game as frantic as football.

There’s a kind of collective hysteria in England about our football team. Every four years the usual suspects (Hansen, Shearer, Venables, Redknapp) trot out the same lines about how we’ve got world-class players and how there’s 5 or 6 teams who could win the World Cup and how England are one of them. And this hysteria totally and utterly contradicts the overwhelming body of evidence that shows that England aren’t very good at international football.

Let’s take a look at how England have historically done in World Cups:

Our first World Cup was in 1950. We got knocked out in the first round. In 1954 we got to the quarter-finals. In 1958 we got knocked out in the first round. In 1962 we got to the quarter-finals. In 1966, playing at home, we won the World Cup! Hooray! In 1970 we made it to the quarter-finals. In 1974 and 1978 we didn’t qualify for the World Cup. In 1982 we made it to the 2nd round. In 1986 we made it to the quarter-finals. In 1990 we made it to the semi-finals. In 1994 we didn’t qualify. In 1998 we made it to the last 16. In 2002 and 2006 we made it to the quarter-finals and in 2010 we made it to the last 16.

Show those statistics to a neutral (I don’t know. Someone from India or Belize) and they’d think: “Oh, so England have an ok team. They consistently qualify for the World Cup and then they mostly make it out of the group stages, but they rarely get to the latter stages of the competiton.”

And they would be right. In the 44 years since we won the World Cup, we’ve managed to get to one semi-final. Other teams to have made at least one semi-final appearance since 1966 include those footballing titans South Korea, Turkey, Croatia, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belgium and Poland.  In other words, plenty of other teams have matched England’s acheivements.

In contrast, if you look at teams like Italy, France, Brazil, Germany and Argentina, these teams have, over the last 30 years, fairly regularly gotten to the latter stages of the World Cup. Since England won the trophy in 1966, Brazil have won it 3 times. Germany, Argentina and Italy have all won it twice.

In domestic terms, England are probably about the same as a team like Aston Villa in the FA Cup. We can expect to beat a few of the lower teams and on our day, none of the big teams will relish playing against us, but very few people would put money on us actually winning the competition. But with Aston Villa, I’d imagine that the fans are more realistic about their chances: they probably don’t believe they’ve got the best team in the competition, or that they are likely to win. They know that the likes of Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal and others all have better squads and a better track record. So they do their best but don’t get massive delusions of grandeur.

None of this is to say that England are shit; we’re not. We’re quite a good team – in the top 20 or so teams in the world. But that’s it. Of course we have some very good players, but so do most teams. The difference being that most foreign players aren’t as incredibly overhyped as the England superstars. Is Wayne Rooney a good player? Yes, he is. But aside from a good showing at Euro 2004, he has done nothing for England on a big stage. Compare him to someone like Germany’s Miroslave Klose, who hardly gets a mention as a “world-class” player, but consistently scores hatfuls of goals in World Cups and European championships. The idiot pundits on the BBC were saying that only one or two of the German players would get into the England side. Yes. The German team who got to the final of the last European championship, the semi-final of the last World Cup and the final of the World Cup before it – they’re not as good as the plucky English players who failed to even qualify for the last European championship. It’s an astonishing level of delusion.

Part of the hysteria stems from the mistaken assumption that playing well in the Premier League (or the Spanish La Liga or Serie A) is a guarantee of international success. In commercial terms, the Premier League is a massive success, but everyone involved has started to believe their own hype. The media bias towards the Premier League  and the Champions League has become unstoppable. The commentators on many games seem to be unaware that football exists beyond Europe – that players from Chile, Algeria, Japan, Korea, Mexico and Paraguay can trap and control a football despite never having played in The Champions League. It was pitiful watching an Algerian team of anonymous journeymen with better technical skills than the English players. Just because Glen Johnson earns 50 grand a week, it doesn’t make him a world-class player.

I suppose that’s really what sickens me: the money and the hype. The Nike adverts, the Umbro adverts, the beer adverts, the patriotic crap in the tabloids. It’s the blind assumption that because we’ve thrown billions of pounds at a group of overhyped players, they are world-beaters. Being the best paid team in the world doesn’t make you the best team in the world. Don’t believe the hype.

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This advert annoys me

March 28, 2010

Most television adverts are annoying. Some are annoying because they are painfully unfunny, or misleading or offer a lifestyle that is clearly only unobtainable through credit fraud or a job in the city. This particular advert is annoying because it confuses me. Every time I watch it I think: “Why? Why did they choose that scenario?”

The advert is for Ford Commercial vehicles and it follows in a long line of Ford Commercial vehicles in which a scene unfolds and as it does, the protagonists and supporting characters are beseiged by large CGI labels explaining how Ford Commercial vehicles contributed to their life. In this case the advert depicts the final moments of a football match, with a vital goal securing glory for one of the teams. Rather than staging their own football match, the makers of the advert decided to use an archive match. As something of a footballing purist, it’s the choice of goal that annoys me.

Now, if I were making an advert that depicted a dramatic goal, I would choose a) two teams that the British public were familiar with b) a blockbuster goal that would be incredibly memorable and c) a scenario where the goal actually mattered.

Instead, we get the following:

  • Two unknown teams (I think they are playing in the Greek league. I suspect one of the teams is Panathaniakos)
  • A really terrible goal. The ball is chipped in to the striker. He doesn’t hit the ball very well and the goalkeeper saves it, pushing it out to his left. Another striker follows up the shot and hits it goalwards.  Except the goalkeeper reaches it, but fumbles the save and both ball and goalkeeper end up in the back of the net. It’s a really shit goal. The manager on the touchline is craning and even he can’t tell at first whether it’s a goal or not
  • Still, even if the goal is rubbish, perhaps it’s an important goal. Maybe the score was 0-0 and this goal makes all the difference. But no. The commentator excitedly yelps: “It’s 3-1! And that’s the goal that seals it!” so it wasn’t even an important goal. The goalscoring team were already winning anyway

Every time I watch the advert, those thoughts pass through my head. It annoys me.

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Carling Cup final, book, etc

March 1, 2009

I spent the afternoon in the pub, watching Spurs lose on penalties to lucky, lucky, greedy Man Utd in the Carling Cup final. It was a strange game – I thought we played well, but felt that our defeat was inevitable. I should feel gutted but I don’t – I suppose the main aim for the season is that we stay up and everything else is secondary. We never win against Man Utd, so I wasn’t expecting much. I wrote off this season a long time ago.

It was quite bizarre in the pub. I met my mates Sam and Jon there, but my mum also tagged along, as I know she  enjoys her football. She had to leave before extra-time and so I texted her the result. We also bumped into Martin, a bloke who me and Sam went to university with in Leeds many years ago. It turns out he now lives in Wood Green. It was one of those odd occasions where various social spheres all collide, but no-one gets hurt. A jolly time was had by all, if you remove the football from the equation.

Yesterday, in a second-hand bookshop in East Finchley, I found a copy of my book. It cheered me up, briefly. I often forget that I’ve written a book. Come April it will be 3 years since I wrote the damned thing, and I can’t say I have any particular urge to write another one. I assumed that once I’d written a book, fame and fortune would instantly beckon, but that hasn’t been the case. I should really pull my finger out and write something else, but my creative well is dry.

Anyway, here’s a good interview with Alan Moore.

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Maradona

November 4, 2008

Maradona has been confirmed as the new Argentina coach. Oh dear. It’s a bit like the FA announcing that Gazza is to be the new England boss. It will end in tears. He’s not a manager, he’s a circus.