Sunday, 29 April 2012

Why James Lawton is no Shakespeare but is a stopped clock

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Well no, I’m going to compare you to the best summer of my life when the beer and girls were plentiful, the sun was endless and the music was endlessly sublime. And I’m going to pick your worst day for that comparison, the equivalent of a miserable wet Wednesday in Skegness when everywhere else in the country was bounteously sunny but you were under the only black cloud in the country. I have to be fair you know.

I have immense sympathy for sports writers who have to knock out an opinion column each day. Who have to try to find an angle on events that everyone else hasn’t covered eighteen times already. It can’t be easy, and will inevitably lead to plenty of crap going out between the odd gems. Such a piece is James Lawton’s linking of the Barcelona of Messi and Johann Cruyff’s 65th birthday this week, and his comparing of the man currently dubbed the finest player in the world with two who have received that accolade in the past.

It’s no bad thing to question majority opinion – indeed, as we’re often reminded, it’s part of why a free press is a good idea. And neither is it a bad thing to remind modern fans, to whom Cruyff and Maradona may be merely names their dad goes on about, that those old guys could play too.  But when it’s done in a haze of dubious assertions it’s quite difficult to take seriously. Let’s take it apart piece by piece…

‘It was the conviction, impossible to swerve by anyone seeing both players at the top of their games, that if Messi is equipped with a stunning array of gifts, there is not much doubt that Cruyff would have been a more persistent threat to the security of Roberto di Matteo's hastily reconstituted defence.’
Now I freely admit that I never saw Cruyff at the height of his powers. And the thing is Lawton couldn’t have seen much of him either – British TV didn’t exactly broadcast a plethora of Ajax games in those days and neither did anyone see much of the Dutch unless they played England or were at the World Cup. And a persistent threat? Well, leaving aside the crashing of a penalty against the woodwork he created a goal for Iniesta and crashed a shot against the post late on that would’ve put Barcelona back ahead against a side that had displayed little attacking intent. There’s also the intelligence displayed when, knowing he’d be hunted down by a pack of Chelsea defenders every time he touched the ball, he drew players away to try and create space for others or dropped deep to try and affect the game. But as his team ended up losing, let’s ignore an intelligent, hardworking display and say that Cruyff would’ve done better. He may well have, but equally he may well have ended up as frustrated as Messi. The game of ‘what if’ is impossible to resolve.

The difference is that while Messi weaves mesmerising spells at the heart of a gifted team drilled to play the game a certain, and generally ravishing, way, he has been much less awesome in changing its direction, and impetus, in the kind of impasse imposed by Chelsea on Tuesday night, and Real Madrid three days earlier.

Which ignores that he’d done exactly that on the stroke of halftime in setting up Iniesta’s goal (repeating the feat from the last seconds of the 2009 Champions League semi-final which won the tie) and had pretty much made Real his bitch with thirteen goals to his name against them. Oh and that he’s already Barcelona’s record goalscorer at 24 with an extraordinary goalscoring duel with Ronaldo unmatched in the modern era. Might too much be being read into one game?

'There is now talk of signs of weariness in the 24-year-old Argentine after the years of Barça plenty but there is another possibility ignored by the most fervent of his admirers. It is that while he owns the most beautiful talent, and that in certain circumstances he has proved unplayable, he may just lack a quality that was so often the signature of all his rivals at the top of the all-time list of great players.

This is – maybe, and of course time will tell soon enough – the ability to carry a team enduring a fall in both confidence and rhythm.
When Cruyff was Messi's age he was launching himself on a run of three straight European Cup wins with Ajax – and a World Cup campaign in 1974 which ended in a defeat in a Munich final that many still believe was due not to any shortfall in Dutch, and especially Cruyff, brilliance but an overweening desire to make fools of Franz Beckenbauer's West Germany.'

And when Messi was the age he is now… he already has two Champions League medals (having scored in both finals) and has just come off the back of being the key player in a hat trick of league triumphs. In terms of honours he’s over achieved. And neither is he done yet. Judging great players by the number of medals in their cabinet is, of course, facile - are the likes of Georges Weah and Best any less great for not having played at a World Cup due to playing for (in national terms) footballing minnows, much less ever having made it to a final? Of course not.

‘The elevation of Messi in recent years has been inevitable and in many ways deserved, at least to a point. If his impact with Argentina has been limited thus far, his performances with Barça have touched extraordinary levels. He has been both relentless and luminous, but then he has operated in a team which has been consistently shaped around his particular gifts of skill and timing.

His compatriot Diego Maradona led otherwise unexceptional Argentina and Napoli teams to, respectively, the World Cup and Serie A titles. Alfredo di Stefano was the very heartbeat of Real Madrid's first stranglehold on the European Cup – and at half-time in a friendly match at Old Trafford, the young Nobby Stiles witnessed the great man deliver a withering dressing-down to a new Real player. It was Ferenc Puskas.’
And here are two more facile comparisons. Maradona’s achievements with Napoli and Argentina are rightly lauded but on the flip side he was unable to handle the pressure at Barcelona. Messi does so with a grace and joie de vivre. Maradona was better suited to being the central genius of the team on the pitch with no challenge to his authority, Messi is suited to being the star player in a team built mainly of the finest players in their positions today. And as for di Stefano dressing Puskas down? That’s just a difference in personality. It’s no reflection of greatness, more a different way of doing things. How do we know Messi hasn’t said similar things to his teammates?

Then of course there was Pele, of whom it was said that he never did anything that wasn't expressly for the benefit of the team.

That’s not even a judgment, it’s a closing time assertion stated as fact.
'Such men, if you believe all that you read, have been swept off the high road of football by the sheer virtuosity of Lionel Messi. Yet this week surely brought the need for a little more caution.

This did not require the downgrading of a superlative player, the one who remains the great hope of football in its purest expression. It was more a case of letting history run its course – and acknowledging one man who, for all his birthday candles, surely remains in the race.'
Jonathan Wilson, when commenting on Barcelona-Chelsea, quoted Juanma Lillo in saying that a common footballing error is to judge a process by the results. Chelsea achieved a quite wonderful triumph based on outstandingly disciplined defending… and plenty of fortune. Is Messi’s greatness questionable because he missed a penalty or that his late second leg shot struck the post, to go with two other efforts at Stamford Bridge which would’ve changed the complexion of the tie completely? No more so than if a volcano hadn’t erupted to force Barcelona to undertake a grueling coach journey or Bojan hadn’t had a goal wrongly disallowed in the 2010 semi-final. Lawton’s point, that one failure must give us pause for thought is false – every player in history has come off the pitch having disappointing games, or unable to inspire their team to victory. Cruyff, for instance, was never able to inspire Barcelona to European Cup triumph on the pitch. His process of using comparators, to measure one great player in the middle of a so far magnificent career against long completed careers, is deeply flawed, serving to attempt to diminish one player on the basis of one bad night against the rose tinted memory of other greats.  If these poor results (and a rewatch of the game concentrating on Messi’s performance would show it wasn’t a particularly bad night in any terms bar the result) are repeated then maybe Lawton’s theory may have some merit. On the basis of one single game decided by the finest of margins though, it is not. But sometimes flawed processes can produce the right result – call is stopped clock syndrome.  Lawton’s reminder that Messi has other players from the past who could rival his abilities is a fair one – it’s simply that everything leading up to it is so much space filling hot air.

But hey, what do I know? I’m not the reigning sportswriter of the year…

Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Aesthetic Delusion - Musings On Chelsea vs Barcelona

The headlines, rightly, told of a great night for Chelsea. The night the finest club side of the era came to Stamford Bridge and left with nothing, a well worked counter attack in first half injury time combining with an exemplary defensive display to give them a fighting chance going to the Camp Nou. The artisans brought the artists down to earth. And in doing so they proved how right and wrong Dani Alves was in his pre-match interviews.
Alves’ comments were wilfully misinterpreted by at least one commentator, the one currently masquerading as Sports Writer of the Year.  Commenting on the previous semi-final between the sides ,when Chelsea were undoubtedly a better side and Barcelona still not quite the footballing masterpiece they’ve become, Alves pointed out that Chelsea had lost because they kept belting the ball away and giving the ball back to a side that lives by possession of the ball. And eventually Barcelona had a chance and took it. James Lawton of The Independent chose to splutter about the Chelsea penalty appeals that night and how Alves was guilty of ‘not so much historical revisionism as outrageous provocation’.  Let’s leave aside the fallacy that a penalty is a certain goal and how any of the appeals being given wouldn’t have resulted in Barcelona and Chelsea playing out precisely the same events if any of the appeals were given and scored (yes Chelsea would likely have gone on to win, but that’s by no means a certainly) and instead point out that Alves did mention the appeals in his interview. It’s a telling difference between the attitude of the teams that his view was Barcelona couldn’t control the referee (although Jose Mourinho would undoubtedly disagree) and instead concentrated on the factors that were within their control. Lawton’s correct to point out that the decisions by Tom Henning Ovrebo that night were a major factor in the result, but his dismissal of Alves’ analysis is incorrect – in terms of game play Alves was absolutely right. After Abidal’s dismissal Chelsea were facing ten men and with a 1-0 lead chose to adhere to the tactic of repeatedly clearing their lines and giving Barcelona the ball. Alves’ point was that denying Barcelona the ball would likely have been a more effective tactic, presenting a challenge they might not have been used to and not been able to handle with Chelsea having an extra man to circulate the ball with. They abdicated control of the game and presented Barcelona with a lifeline – for all Chelsea fans can argue over those decisions Ovrebo didn’t gift Barcelona that last chance.

But where Alves’ analysis falls down a little is his provocative theory that Chelsea’s approach that night was borne of fear. It wasn’t, it was simply that Chelsea in 2009 weren’t (and aren’t) a side built to dominate possession, particularly against a side like Barcelona. The part of Claude Makelele’s game that no-one talks about, his quietly effective passing and eternal availability to receive a pass from a colleague who might otherwise be in trouble has never been replicated, not by Mikel, Ramires, Essien or Meireles. And if there’s no regular short effective pass then the long ball for a striker to battle for becomes the uppermost option in any defender’s mind, particularly those playing in the physical hothouse of the English Premier League. That instinctive option is what players will fall back on in high stakes, high pressure situations such as a Champions League semi-final. Is that a result of fear? Well that’s a philosophical conundrum dependent on your point of view. And in Alves’ view, where his entire footballing upbringing has been based on a possession strategy through Brazilian origins and his subsequent career at Sevilla and Barcelona, it’s a perfectly valid view, indeed it’s probably the natural one for him to have.
Just as from a Chelsea and English point of view it makes sense to repudiate it. The possession game is the natural one for Barcelona, taken to a logical extreme since the measures Cruyff implemented when brought in as manager bore fruit. It’s not an approach which comes easily to British sides, as often made obvious by their ineffectiveness in European competition in its infancy and immediately after the Heysel ban. There are rare exceptions to the rule – the Liverpool of Paisley and Fagan, Wenger’s Arsenal,  Ferguson’s United after Beckham’s departure, which integrated Carlos Queiroz’s tactical nous with Paul Scholes’ passing ability to enable them to retain the ball (the signings of Juan Veron and Michael Carrick could be seen as an attempted move toward a more possession based game than the counterattacking one normally associated with Ferguson) and even Benitez’s Liverpool which was centred around the passing of Xabi Alonso. It’s arguably the relative lack of the midfielder with vision and the passing ability to execute it which has led to such high scoring games as seen in the first half of the Premier League season, and is even a reason behind the poor second half to Liverpool’s season, with Lucas’ injury robbing them of their one player with the ability to control the game.  Noticeably United’s league form and their defence improved once Scholes returned and, with his intelligent distribution, they were able to control games again. Controlling games seemingly remains an alien mindset to the British game, Benitez and Wenger often coming under fire for their perceived obsession with it.  But then isn’t that only sensible as if you’re controlling games you’re more likely to win them than if they descend into chaos?
Back to the narrative though, and with Makelele’s departure Chelsea lost the one player they had who was truly capable of controlling games. With him they’d have had little chance of matching Barcelona’s obsession with possession, without him no chance whatsoever. At that point any manager who’s ascended to the level of taking charge of a Champions League side would sensibly dismiss playing Barcelona at their own game as unworkable. Indeed, as can be seen from Barcelona’s eye opening possession statistics all managers have essentially dismissed attempting to take on Barcelona by matching their aesthetic. Instead, it makes far more sense to look at playing to strengths and looking at what’s worked to counter Barcelona in the past. This Barcelona’s most famous defeat came in the2010 Champions League semi-finals. Leaving aside the quite reasonable contentions of Eyjafjallajökull’s ash cloud meaning they had to travel almost a day by coach rather than hours by air and a wrongly disallowed late goal, as Alves’ words and Guardiola’s attitude would have us do, the root of the strategy used by Jose Mourinho’s Inter was to strangle the space for Barcelona’s passing in the final third of the pitch at the Camp Nou. It’s the only proven approach which makes sense against Barcelona, and Alves’ talk of fear can also be seen as an attempt to throw Chelsea off their potential course. But it’s also an approach which plays to a strength of this Chelsea squad, a defensive base which is still largely that built by Mourinho and which set the English league record for fewest goals conceded in a season. Disciplined defending comes naturally, even with Makelele’s departure, and the physicality of Didier Drogba poses problems for a side which may work hard but isn’t built around the deployment of strength as an attribute beyond what’s necessary. That’s the aim, and one common to Hiddink and Di Matteo’s teams three years apart. Di Matteo and his staff added wrinkles for the 2012 first leg, Mikel often venturing what, for him, was nosebleedingly high up the pitch (around halfway) to hassles Busquets. Cole and Ramires provided a pacey attacking threat down the Barcelona right flank to try and give Alves second thoughts, and when Messi tried to find space he was largely muffled by multiple defenders. If you were to reduce this to national stereotypes (a dangerous game given the multinational nature of Chelsea and key foreign players for Barcelona) the games amounted to English discipline against Spanish flair. In 2009, as Alves pointed out, English discipline deserted the Chelsea troops, in 2012 it did not and for one crucial moment it deserted Barcelona as they lost the ball and succumbed to the fast counter attack Fabregas had talked about in his pre-match interviews.  Chelsea did not lose either of the 2009 games to Barcelona, and with the win at Stamford Bridge it’s evident that their tactics were well suited all those games. That’s not fear, that’s pragmatism.
But then it’s hard to argue Barcelona got their tactics badly wrong either. They progressed to that 2009 final, achieving the desired result against an awkward opponent and the statistics on all but the scoreboard last night were the usual avalanche in their favour – 79% possession, 24 attempts on goal and the home side only registering one shot on target (none after halftime) to cherry pick three. That sort of statistical avalanche is the hallmark of their game week after week and given their results it’s hard to say that anything was wrong about their game bar profligacy. There was nothing to suggest that Guardiola should change his methods – Fabregas should certainly have scored one of his two chances, Alexis and Pedro beat Cech but not the woodwork. And the goal was through the area where Alves nominally protects but was upfield for. Chelsea exploited a minor weakness in the Barcelona system, but given the goals regularly provided by the attacking impetus of Alves it’s not something they’ll change – earlier in the season Madrid caught them for a quick opening goal after an underhit Valdes pass but Guardiola refused to change the way Barcelona played due to one incident. Believe the evidence of your eyes or the bare statistics but it’s evident who the better pure football team were last night. One of football’s great strengths though is that a performance of discipline such as Chelsea’s last night can at least see them matching the better team and securing a result. No matter your methods, buying the best or developing a supernatural youth system, a game isn’t decided simply by having better players on the pitch.
The thing is that for all the justified praise heaped on Chelsea they rode their luck – if Alexis or Pedro had caught the ball slightly more sweetly or if Fabregas hit his shot too well for Ashley Cole to clear off the line then the narrative would be  different; brave Chelsea can’t hang on to their advantage. Just as both side appeared to have their tactics right three years ago and fortune fell Barcelona’s way this night fortune favoured Chelsea. Because sometimes both teams in a match get their tactics right and the story is simply of how one player or another deals with a moment of pressure better –and individuals are one of those things it’s often difficult to control in football, no matter the instructions you give them.
All this goes to prove is where Alves made his cardinal error in his interview. He asserted that a policy of attack was superior to a defensive one and would always beat it. Barcelona’s football can verge on sublime at times; the art of the pass taken to its seemingly ultimate conclusion. And it can seem invincible without the favours of outrageous fortune as they hog the ball for long periods, their passing as hypnotic as a cobra before striking. But just as the cobra can come up against a mongoose so Barcelona can be beaten by the sort of tactics Chelsea displayed.  This is an indictment of one of football’s great fallacies; that a team based on attacking football is automatically superior to a defensive one on anything but aesthetic grounds. It’s why Chelsea’s achievement was more impressive – in an era when the press will almost automatically praise a team which incessantly attacks (thereby providing them with entertainment) so it will underestimate a team of an uglier style and, over a long term, damn them for that approach. Given the extent to which football has become part of the entertainment industry (and the Sky revolution of the 90s placed it firmly there) it’s become one of the orthodoxies of the game that teams need to entertain. Of course, as a sport, entertainment is actually a secondary consideration to a contest between two sides so it’s not true. If anything, entertainment is a by-product and that’s the fallacy that Alves’ words propagate, the aesthetic delusion. However good they were in footballing terms the great sides – Madrid of the 50s, Inter of the 60s, Bayern and Ajax of the 70s,Liverpool of the 70s and 80s, Milan of the 90s, Madrid’s Galacticos and up to Barcelona today found their own methods of effective defence. They were capable of not just dazzling sides but putting the work ethic in when faced with the likes of the modern Stoke on a wet Wednesday in February.
Will Chelsea’s bloody-mindedness win them through? It’s going to require another performance of iron discipline and concentration in Barcelona, and almost certainly another few moments where they ride their luck. But fortune already favours them in one important way – while Chelsea face Arsenal in an important but not season deciding game Barcelona face probably the most important game of their league season, the home Clasico in which anything but a win all but hands the league to Madrid. You’re unlikely to hear Jose moan about the scheduling which favours his side either, as you might have if his team had been the ones playing a Wednesday-Saturday-Tuesday schedule. But if Barcelona don’t win? Well perhaps Guardiola will be too much of a gentleman to mention it, and Mourinho, eager to perpetuate the Special One myth, certainly won’t, but once again the fortune of the cup draw will have played a role. And more than likely Mourinho’s team will have done the ugly things well. It’s undeniable that the philosophy of Barcelona is the more aesthetically pleasing but if they win, or Chelsea do to Barcelona what probably their finest team had done to them in the 2005 semi-final perhaps it’s time to start giving proper credit to the teams that win ugly.
Not that I’ll stop enjoying Barcelona more than Chelsea. But then that’s entertainment…

Friday, 21 October 2011

Cantona by Philippe Auclair

If the deeds of footballers as related via their autobiography are all that survives of our civilisation, the future inhabitants of our planet might wonder why we chose such mediocre (though well toned) gods. Over the course of my footie watching lifetime, footballers of the top echelon have gradually ascended from mere heroes to gods. No longer are they perceived as mere mortals, men performing glorious deeds on a field of sporting combat, now, after a process of celebritisation, they're portrayed as distant deities with superhuman skills capable of acts beyond the ken of mere mortals. They're more remote than they used to be, even mediocre players earning in a week or two what might otherwise be considered a very good yearly wage. They live in mansions rendered remote from the public by the kind of security a spectacular wage can buy. Most of all, they're no longer someone we could become given the right training and opportunities (no, the best we mere mortals can hope for is Football League or, if you're spectacularly unlucky, you could wind up in Scottish or Welsh football).

Of course, it's easy to ascribe this entirely to the interlinked rise of the Premier League and Sky. The moving of football from a relatively rarity to a weekly event was underway before Sky bought the Premier League rights, but the current status quo, where football saturates TV schedules even outside major international tournaments, would be almost unimaginable twenty years ago. Thirty years back? Anyone told that live football would become common, with even foreign league matches routinely broadcast live, would have laughed in your face. There are other factors involved beyond the excellent timing of Sky and the Premier League - English clubs had returned to European competition after the Heysel ban, England's run to the semi-finals of Italia' 90 had made football cool again (along with one of the few genuinely credible football related songs, EnglandNewOrder's World In Motion) and, post-Hillsborough, grounds were being made safer, encouraging the more timid of the middle class fans who'd been scared off by tales of hooliganism to return to grounds. And make no mistake, there were middle class football fans back then, though perhaps not as many. It was simply that football wasn't a topic of conversation, wasn't the social glue it is now. The Premier League's great trick was in tapping into the support that saw going to an actual game as too expensive or too much trouble, making England's top league accessible to them week in week out without them having to leave their living room. And in that situation, tapping into a market previously beyond football, the game's popularity could only grow. Sky built the pedestals for the stars of their new show, most of the footballers happily scrambled on to them. Who wouldn't wanna be adored?

From the perspective of today, with rich owners and huge TV and commercial income allowing the league to be gilded by some of the finest players in the world, the lack of glamour of twenty years ago is a reminder of reality rather than SkySports rewritten history. The reigning champions were the functional Arsenal side of George Graham, Graeme Souness was busy replacing the artists of an aging Liverpool side with expensive artisans and the side who'd take the title in 1991-92 was an unmemorable Leeds side, livened by the spark of Strachan and sublime passing of Gary McAllister but largely dependent on long balls and the head of Lee Chapman. It was a brutal world in which the likes of Vinnie Jones prospered in midfield and the sheer physical presence of the likes of Mick Harford and Dion Dublin made them prized strikers. An insular, almost agrarian environment where foreigners, particularly the skillful players, were largely distrusted - the likes of Jan Molby were glaring exceptions to the rule. This was the point at which the eccentric career trajectory of Eric Cantona collided with English football and the seeds of English football becoming entertainment as much as sport were sown. Cantona, with seemingly more charisma than the rest of the league put together, provided the glamour that SkySports had desperately tried to inject with desperate measures such as the SkyStrikers cheerleaders.

Philippe Auclair's biography is far from a simple study of Cantona's time in the English game - it's only around halfway through the book that the account of his time in England begins. Neither is it a comprehensive biography which covers his post-football exploits including his acting and beach football (and, lately, management) careers. Instead it concentrates solely on Cantona as a footballer,and his activities relating to that career. It ends with his retirement in 1997, only briefly seeking even to contextualise what legacy he may have left in football or what legacy football left to Cantona. This is the cliche of 'football being my life' being exploited to shape the story, with retirement attempts referred to as 'suicide' and 'death'. That might sound overly dramatic, but it isn't, it's a conceit which allows Auclair to fully bring home the drama and intensity of his subject. This is an exploration of how Cantona's style of play and his career in the game were an extension of his personality; as concerned with character as it is with narrative. At one point Auclair makes the point that the tendency of football biographies to hermetically seal themselves from the real world is preposterous, that the actions of footballers are nothing without the context being given of what they mean to the fans. Not only does Auclair put events in the context of clubs and fans, he's always at pains to see the even wider context, both in terms of football and society. For normal footballers who often appear oblivious to wider events, it may not matter, but in a biography of Cantona, a man often defined as much by what he was reacting against as what he was in himself, it's a stroke of brilliance. It immediately negates the tendency of football writers to view events in isolation, the sort of writing which leads to a complete lack of understanding as to why things happen. Auclair's approach allows the reader to delve behind the headlines of Cantona as a nomadic troublemaker and instead seeks to explain his reasons for moving on in each instance. Whilst it's clear his sympathies lie more with Cantona than those he kicks against, he's not judgemental, allowing the reader to judge actions for themselves. It's a proper journalistic approach that echews the tendency of footballing biographies to either sensationalise events or justify them. Each stage of Cantona's career leads to understanding of why events happened, why he failed to fit in at so many clubs. After this you'll understand (if not necessarily agree with) his actions, from his departure from Auxerre, through to the Selhurst Park incident and his eventual retirement. It's a book length illustration of a character, a portrait in the truest sense. Even for a Liverpool fan, with the painful story of the rise of United to the top of the English game (where the story told here ends) it's compelling. Fittingly, for Cantona, it's a very different type of biography for a very different type of footballer.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Football Is Really Fantastic - The Blizzard Issue One (ed Jonathan Wilson)

Football Is Really Fantastic - The Blizzard Issue One (ed Jonathan Wilson)
Football writing in the UK has a bad name. It's always traditionally been looked down on by their counterparts in features sections and in the newsroom, perhaps partly due to the hurried nature of having to compile match reports and the interviewees not necessarily being the smartest or most fascinating people. Even in the Premier League era, when football's become fashionable and a wealth of intelligent blogs about the game ranging through nostalgia, tactics and football's finances have exploded online, it can't quite shake off the stigma. Even FourFourTwo's stuck with the need to make money by having its main features on the biggest stars of the day and needing to sell advertising space.

Which is where The Blizzard comes in. It's a simple idea this. There's a wealth of great football writers out there, so why not gather as many of them as possible in one place, untainted by the need to pander maximising hits, or to fans who simply want to read the latest club approved platitudes from players. I first became aware of it through Paul Tomkins' tweeting of his potential involvement in the project. Tomkins has achieved a certain level of fame amongst Liverpool fans with his in depth reviews of the first few seasons of the club under Rafa Benitez, which included in depth tactical analysis and application of stats to analyse different facets of the game. He has his fair share of critics, but I've always enjoyed his writing which tends to be thoroughly researched and backed up with as many facts as possible. It was soon followed by other writers I follow on Twitter mentioning their involvement, the higher end of football journalists such as Sid Lowe, the blogger Swiss Ramble and especially editor Jonathan Wilson. Wilson, again, would command respect if he'd never written anything but Inverting the Pyramid, a book which manages to breathe life into the potentially deathly dry subject of prevalent footballing tactics.

So when they offered a test issue as a PDF the decision to sample it was a no brainer. And it hooked me from the first article, Uli Hesse's study of the German club St Pauli. Whilst we all think there's something special about our own clubs (hell, we Liverpool fans will continually let everyone else know exactly what's so special about our club) this articulated precisely the reasons for the passion of the fans, why the story of the club was so compelling. Sold, subject to the first signs of encroaching technological Luddism of my preference for a print version.

Unfortunately the original publication of Issue One coincided with the twin embuggerances of a shortage of cash and the brief biannual sabbatical I take from football to keep me sane. It's largely down to my preference not to get sucked into the riot of speculation, planted stories and wishful thinking that tends to make up the fervid transfer speculation that fills summertime sports sections. I was much quicker when a limited reprint run was announced, snapping up a copy immediately.

Wilson's stated aim of high quality football writing was reflected in the perfect bound book with a pleasingly textured cover which dropped through my letterbox. It's a reassuringly hefty 196 pages long, a mere eight of which are dedicated to advertising and five of those are for the magazine itself plus related merchandise. It comes in eleven sections, each prefaced by an apt cartoon and a tantalising quote from an article in the section. Simply out of interest I initially chose not to work my way through the book but picked out the article which initally caught my eye, Rob Smyth's look at Manchester United's 2-3 defeat to Real Madrid in the Champions League Quarter Finals. It simply caught my eyes as it contained one of my favourite football moments, Fernando Redondo's backheel past Henning Berg which led to a simple tap-in for Raul. I recall the men in our office talking of nothing else the next day. And it's a terrific piece which puts the match back into context, reminding that United were the overwhelming favourites and Madrid millions of miles (and Euros) from the Galactico force they'd become over the next few years. It shows how what was initially perceived as a good result for United, a 0-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in which they had good chances to win, was actually nothing of the sort. Instead it donated self confidence back to Madrid, making them believe that they could compete with Ferguson's 'we're gonna score one more than you' European champions. And it explains concisely how an insane tactical gamble by Del Bosque paid off thanks to Casillas, McManaman, Roberto Carlos, Raul's finishing and probably the performance of Redondo's career. Smyth finishes by explaining why it's such an important match in European history, and particularly in terms of United's style. And, as with Smyth's day job at the Guardian, he brings across just how thrilling that second leg match was. It's a stunning piece of writing which proves the value of a long term perspective over the hastily compiled match reports of the day and quietly explains just why the match is *even better* than you thought.

I sucked the marrow from the bones of the rest of the book over the next week. I returned to the conventional style of back to front, including a re-read of Smyth's article. Wonderfully the book largely avoids the default Anglocentric viewpoint of much British footballing journalism, covering Israel, Spain, Argentina, Sweden and India amongst others. If part of the remit is to be expansive in terms of coverage, it's admirably fulfilled. By the next World Cup they may even have done enough to render a certain BBC pundit's shrugging lack of knowledge of the likes of Algeria even more redundant than it already seemed to be. Certainly the likes of Wilson would be able to articulately explain what to look for in games without dumbing down in the way the inarticulate ex-pros who tend to comprise British pundits can't.

The real highlights of the book for me were the interviews. Anthony Clavane's David Peace's interview as part of the Leeds section is wonderfully unafraid to be literate, quite unlike anything in mainstream football writing. But it's the other two interviews which are real highlights of the book. One is with a figure familiar to Premier League fans, the other more obscure but equally as interesting. David Winner's interview with Bergkamp has the breathtakingly simple premise of letting a genius with the ball explain simply the how and why of his decisions on the pitch. What's striking is how even now Bergkamp displays a razor sharp mind and memory for detail. It's remarkable for how Bergkamp makes his most revered moments of skill sound so simple, things that almost anyone could do if they had the vision to do them. And then you remember the speed at which he did these things. Essentially it's an extended reminder that the most crucial attribute for a footballer is speed and clarity of thought and, peripherally, an indictment of British football and coaching. The other interview is from the Guardian's Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, who's in-depth knowledge of his subject renders the notion that the only clubs that matter in Spain are Barca and white half of Madrid an absolute farce. His subject is Juanma Lillo, the youngest ever coach in La Liga and ostensibly an itinerant coach. More pertinently, he's the big hidden influence on the Barcelona side currently making a good case for being the best side ever, inventing their 4-2-3-1 formation and being cited by Pep Guardiola as a big influence along with Cruyff. It's captivating stuff which manages to capture the complexities of one of football's more innovative and unusual minds, covering such matters on the sicknes of society and why it's bad when it comes to constructing a football team, why there's no such thing as attack and defence, and why in football the match should matter more than the result (inadvertently, or perhaps advertantly, providing a fine critique of Jose Mourinho's methods though he's never named). It fully justifies Lowe's build up of an innovative coach and thinker who loves a dialectic debate and owns over 10,000 volumes including complete runs of the world's foremost football magazines. As with any interview, the interviewer's role shouldn't be underestimated and Lowe's intelligent and informed enough to ask questions that provoke Lillo into clarifications of thought and further insights into his philosophy. It's not only educational, it's thought provoking and makes you wish that we had football coaches in this country that were even half as articulate. Instead we have the likes of Sam Allardyce regarded as an innovative thinker (which, for the UK, he actually seems to be to some degree). Lowe doesn't fail to note the irony of Lillo currently being unemployed partly thanks to the pupil becoming the master, Guardiola's side beating his Almeira 8-0. I ended hoping that Lillo would find employment again soon, in the hope his sides would be as fascinating as the man and his philosophy.

Elsewhere there's fine variety of article. There are a host of lesser known but fascinating stories, ranging from lesser known stories such as that of the first Israeli football team, through the jawdropping tale of Alexandre Villaplane, France's first World Cup captain who pretty much defines the term 'psychopathic bastard' and puts the tabloid howls about the misbehaviour of Premier League footballers in context, Jock Stein's short spell at Leeds, London's Romanian Sunday league teams through to the story of Vassilis Hatzipanagis, possibly the greatest footballer you've never heard of and certainly the finest never to be capped. There's editor Wilson himself, explaining how Victorio Spinetto injected a certain ruthlessness into the Argentine football mentality. There's a report on the almost unreported over here African Nations Championship and the story of the Danish triumph in Euro 92, amusing and amazing in equal measure in light of the preparations teams make for matches these days. And there are some fascinating think pieces from Simon Kuper and Kieron O'Connor on the possibility of the Premier League boom being nowhere near bursting and the financial legacy of the 2010 World Cup respectively.

This might all make it sound a high minded, serious endeavour, but the cover of a dog balancing a ball on its nose should tell you otherwise. I admit to writing up match reports from my football computer games as a youngster, but McIntosh takes it to a level of art with The Ballad of Bobby Manager, an account of his Football Manager game as West Ham. There's a comic brilliance in his portrayal of West Ham's owners and chief executive Karren Brady, the latter's portrayal as a Bond-esque villain in particular promises some wonderful future comedy. I can only applaud McIntosh for living the dream and getting paid to write about playing Football manager all day. If they ever want the tale of how I beat Chelsea in the Champions League Final with two goals in injury time of extra time, or the tale of Fredy Guarin's swerving 40 yard thunderbolt away at Birmingham earning a Liverpool team reduced to ten men for over 80 minutes a crucial win to edge the title race, or even my turning of Fabien Brandy into a 50 goal a season monster at Crewe, then I'm always available. We'll gloss over the joint Football Manager game where my mate Phil was unbeaten for 36 games before my Liverpool team whupped his lot 5-0 at Anfield to ruin his unbeaten season though.

The only slight disappointment is probably the final article, a series of pen portraits of Scottish players from before the Second World War. The flaw's not necessarily with the article itself, which is as educational about forgotten heroes as anything else in the collection (though by nature, not as in depth as some). It's something of a lightweight article to finish on though, like finishing on a comma rather than a full stop.

The Blizzard may well be catering to a niche market, one that takes its love of football beyond simply watching their team and demands more intelligent coverage. But that's something you can do with modern technology and economic models - catering from a niche is easier to do than it's ever been. I'll freely admit though, that I'm part of the niche it caters to and intend to subscribe come payday. It's intelligent, passionate and funny about a subject that shouldn't really matter in the grand scheme of things, but somehow matters above everything to so many. And it's well worth the investment of your time and money.

(cross posted from book and telly blog)

Monday, 24 May 2010

Triesman (It's Just A Story)

My dad once wrote a letter to Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail - Powell's blinkered burblings ended with what he no doubt saw as a telling phrase 'the accountants are killing football'. Being an accountant my dad took exception to this and handwrote a neat three page letter telling Powell exactly where he was wrong. Given columnists live to provoke and regard letters of complaint as badges of honour, I'm sure Powell was delighted at that. But it was the first sign of my dad's disillusion with a paper he'd bought for years. Eventually Paul Dacre's Thatcherite cocktail of hysteria, heavy bias and sensationalism wore him down and he switched to The Times, a paper which might have moved downmarket from the height of its broadsheet reputation, but at least didn't act like a tabloid wanting with all it's black heart to be a broadsheet.

Me? As someone who suffered the Mail as a newspaper growing up I avoid it like the plague. It's rare I'll venture forth to the sanctimonious right wingery of the Daily Mail website - I know by now they're expert in pushing buttons and pontificating righteously. But someone linked to Patrick Collins of the Mail on Sunday castigating Lord Triesman for his indiscretion in being entrapped and making ill advised comments, a story published by the Mail on Sunday after two other newspapers had rejected it.

Let's put this in context first, unlike the Mail. Melissa Jacobs, 29 years Triesman's junior, wormed her way into his affections until she recorded a juicy conversation he thought was private. Said conversation obviously contained the allegations he made regarding the Russians and the Spanish, and several other comments. And she hawked them round until she found someone willing to publish, as I've already said she was turned down at least twice. That paper, obviously was The Mail on Sunday which went with it in the 'news' section - news section in Sunday tabloids generally being reserved for scandals.

Let's deal with Triesman first. As far as I can see he's committed no crime greater than being a fool for a younger woman. It happens, he's not the first and he won't be the last. What he said, even if a joke, was daft and, let's be honest, not particularly funny. It's a businessman cracking a joke about finance - it's not funny to outsiders. It's also, as the Mail signally fails to point out, the kind of distrust of foreigners they specialise in and encourage. But thousands of us probably commit similar indiscretions in conversations daily, Triesman's crime was to cross an ambitious woman looking to get her name in the papers and makes some cash.

Ah yes, Melissa Jacobs. The Mail's ridiculously flattering about her, emphasising her 'flowing flame red hair', 'ivory skin' and 'slim physique'. And it never questions one of her claims, but instead reprints damning extracts regarding the alleged affair on her blog. Call me cynical if you want, but exactly what made her decide that said conversation was so worthy of being aired in a major British newspaper where it'd obviously sell. Having never met Ms Jacobs, I have no idea on her morals, but doesn't her conduct rather suggest a) she'd shag anyone and anything to get to the top and get rich and b) she's really not trustworthy? Fair enough if that's the way she wants to live her life and make her money, unlike the Mail I refuse to judge her harshly without knowing details, but in whose interest is it for the story to be leaked? Answer - Ms Jacobs, for publicity and bank balance. Let's face it, if the right people were friends with the Mail on Sunday editor, she'd be dismissed to a certain Kanye West and Jamie Foxx tune.

And so to the last party in this sordid triptych. The Mail on Sunday, the sort of paper that, if it were anthropomorphised, would be the ill informed yet highly opinionated gobshite you'd cross the road to avoid. I've no objection to the existence of the Mail, clearly it serves a market that's not me and serves it very well and I choose to ignore its often borderline BNP ranting. Unless it's on occasions where it's inexcusably inflammatory and ill-informed. Even the Mail publishing the Triesman story might have passed me by but for a quick Googling of the story on the day it broke directing me to the story and Collins' piece on it.

Firstly, the story itself. The Mail's quite entitled to publish what it wishes, the story's been confirmed as the truth. It's simply the absolute lack of foresight that amazes me. Certainly a major story such as this will garner a few extra sales and extra hits for the Mail website. For a few days. And then it'll calm down and things will go back to normal levels. But the Mail's been rather guilty of exceptionally short term thinking here. Firstly, a story such as this clearly damages the 2018 World Cup bid of which Triesman was chair. Guilt by football association. Despite Triesman's quick and honourable resignation, the bid's obviously somewhat tainted. So, in the event that England's most serious bid for the World Cup since the 1960s fails, would the Mail sell itself as the paper that undermined the possibility of the World Cup coming to England before most of those with any interest in seeing it come here are old and grey? Might be popular with a certain section of the Mail's target audience that it's managed to keep a lot of damned dirty foreigners out, but it's rather doubtful whether they've weighed up the long term benefits to the British economy of a World Cup being hosted here, or even the potential sales boost they themselves might have from a whole month of one of the two most prestigious sporting events. Essentially, the Mail here is the kid who told tales at school, no matter how trivial they might be and is worthy of exactly the same respect and trust.

But that's not what got me. As I say, it's the Mail's choice, and if it wants to sabotage the World Cup bid then no problem, I'm sure they can deal with the consequences. It's Collins' somewhat sanctimonious response to it that annoyed me more. 'Loose tongued'? I'm not entirely certain he's the one with the loose tongue - sorry, loose tape recorder. Do we all need to say absolutely nothing in private conversations with people we've had a long term relationship with and think we can trust now? Triesman was certainly guilty of bad judgement in where he placed his trust, and foolish in what he said, but Collins avoids mentioning how the information was acquired not does he question the legitimacy of placing a private conversation in the public domain. Now he's an old Fleet Street hack, so he may not see that question through being in the system for so long, or regard it as legitimate journalism, but the article essentially absolves Jacobs or the Mail on Sunday for any blame in harming the World Cup bid by omission. Perhaps no more than you'd expect as he's writing in the same paper, but it's a little rich to wail, gnash teeth and rend your clothes when your employer's played such a significant role surely? Unless, of course, it's all a supremely subtle dig at his own paper that I'm missing. But given his past form, I deeply doubt it.

Anyway, the upshot is that I actually left a comment on the Mail website, along with several others. And, unusually for the internet, it was relatively mild and well reasoned. Shocked me to check that my comment, along with a couple of others had all received large amounts of thumbs up, and we were all of the same mind. It's little things like that which make you think there is some hope for humanity and that even users of the Mail website do have some sense after all.

All of this does leave a question mark over the 2018 bid - we won't know how much damage has been done, if any, for quite a while yet. But if England loses out to the Russian bid, would the Mail sell itself as the paper which lost a World Cup? Or if the bid's successful will it adopt the standard jingoistic position and forget it ever said anything? Let's see, on past form which way would it jump? Pissing in then, at the first hint of success, pissing out?

And in case you're wondering, yes, I did start with this one because I was dying to use that pun.