Friday, 27 April 2012

A Love Letter To Football - "Jumpers For Goalposts"

1992 was something of a turning point for English Football.  Three years on from Hillsborough and two years on from Italia ’90, World In Motion and all that, there was the publication of Nick Hornby’s semi-autobiographical “Fever Pitch” and the spring saw the wholesale resignation of the First Division of the Football League, who were in the process of setting up the Premier League.  There was also the second season of the league format of the European “Champions” Cup (which came into play at the quarter final phase).  From the 1992/3 season though this was branded “The Champions League” – for many people their first experience of “Zadok the Priest” would have been as Rangers and Olimpique Marseilles walked on to the pitch on a wild November night at Ibrox.

Not everyone though thinks that the founding of the English Premier League and the re-marketing of the old European Cup was something to shout about.  Rob Smyth and Georgina Turner have penned a paean to the days when Football was a sport not tainted by money, and men were real men and not the faux gymnasts they seem to be today.  “Jumpers for Goalposts” sets out to find out why football is now a money juggernaught.  Oh and also has a not so sneaky go at football’s current sacred cow – the current Barcelona team.

The first target for the book is the super-annuated footballers themselves.  In among all of the anecdotes about footballers either wasting their money or enjoying nights out while pulling the “don’t you know who I am” trick, there is a loose point being made that the vast amounts of money somehow erodes the competitive edge that these “sportsmen” have.  However, if the vast amount of money doesn’t kill your “competitive edge”, the ensuing “celebrity lifestyle” will.  Interestingly though the few that have were the so called pioneers, David Beckham being the most famous (and coincidentally the best). Rather tellingly, the Manchester United sides that continued their trophy kleptomania from the 1990’s on to the 00’s were – Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo apart – absent from the gossip sheets, while all manner of stories appeared about other players – with even Chelsea players appearing at some stages.

With a book which is essentially a love letter to a by gone age of football, sooner or later the conduct of those players on the pitch comes up. Diving gets blasted (and it’s rightly pointed out that it has been part of the game here for years – Manchester City’s Francis Lee “was having problems staying upright back in the late Sixties”, while the former Rangers forward John McDonald’s nickname in the terraces was “Polaris”).  What is also heavily criticised in the book though is the petulant behaviour of players that has contaminated the game.  Or as it’s put in the book “It’s amusing that football is still regularly described as a man’s game when every other week the biggest talking points revolve around grown men behaving in a manner that would shame the most petulant of bairns”. 
Brian Deane scores the first ever goal in the FA Premier League V Manchester United, 15 August 1992

It’s not just the players though at the receiving end. The Portuguese coaches Carlos Queiroz and Jose Mourinio receive criticism for their negative styles.  Alex Ferguson’s slight defensiveness (nay, “Sextonian” phase) in the early 00’s are credited to Queiroz, while Mourinio is castigated because his sides have a needless negative streak – though little mention was made of the cynicism of his Porto side that lifted the UEFA Cup the season before “England” discovered him.  Rafa Benitez also gets stick for the overly defensive nature of his sides, stretching back to his trophy laden times at Valencia. Scottish footballing journalists of a certain vintage would at this point be lamenting the reach of the “Largs Mafia” – Largs being the home of the Scottish Football Association’s highly regarded coaching school that has seen one of it’s founding members become Technical Director of UEFA and seen several “students” become high profile managers & coaches around the rest of Britain and Europe (including several coaches already mentioned in this piece).  The “beef” these journalists had with the “Largs Mafia” was that they were taught to produce defensive and highly organised sides dependent on structure and not independent skill ie not the “Scottish” way.  Sound familiar.

Most of the ire though is reserved for non footballing people, the governing bodies and the competing commercial interest groups.  Governing bodies are castigated for not listening to the fans and for listening too much to commercial interest groups.  Commercial interest groups are castigated depending on which group they belong.  Broadcasters (principally BSkyB) are criticised for how Football is handled – the constant deviation from the “traditional” Saturday 3pm kick off, the constant dumbing down of how football is broadcast and the level of punditry and the hyping of the most ordinary football stories over other larger Sports stories (which leads the authors to claim that the yellow “Sky Sports News” ticker used for breaking sports stories is “Possibly the most evil thing on this planet”).

The most scandalous story though relates to the part where the sports sponsors are under the microphone. In 2008, UEFA requested that a branch of the Swedish burger chain MAX close or heavily disguise its outlet at the Boras Arena – a proposed venue for the 2009 European U21 Championships.  They offered a compromise, UEFA refused that.  MAX then put it to their customers vote, who voted overwhelmingly in favour of the branch staying open.  UEFA then de-listed Boras as a proposed venue, the decision obviously nothing to do with the sponsorship money UEFA receives from a certain large American burger chain.  To rub salt in the wound, the Swedish FA blamed MAX for having “cheated Boras residents out of this football festival”.  The antcs of the organising committee of the South Africa 2010 World Cup pale beside that (and they pulled some corporate bullying moves themselves).

The government also receives some criticism, for setting up the Football Task Force (which was fronted by the former Tory MP David Mellor).  While the description of the Task Force was accurate, any investigation (in particular, the reading of Tom Bower’s excellent “Broken Dreams”) will have put a different spin on the crippling ineffectualness of the Football Task Force.  In particular, the part played by two Downing Street staffers, Andy Burnham and James Purnell (both subsequently elected as MP’s in the 2001 Westminster Elections) in nobbling the effectiveness of the Football Task Force.  The tale of how Tony Bank’s idea of a Football Taskforce was completely nobbled by the vested interests of the FA and the Premier League would have been worthy of bringing up in this book.

The problem with the book though is that it does seem overly romantic in places, and kind of misses the point in a couple of other places.  Where it missed the point was with choosing Cesar Luis Menotti as the coach of a “Soul of Football XI” in the introduction.  He seemed to be picked partly because he looked cool (not a phrase you can use with his successor as Argentina coach and ideological opposite, Dr Carlos Bilardo) and partly because of the “thrilling, futuristic, high speed football” Argentina played while winning the World Cup in 1978.  The thing about Menotti though was that his sides were not futuristic but were revivalists – reviving the Argentinian style of passing attacking football (which according to “Inverting The Pyramid” was originally called La Nuestra) which existed before the brutal, cynical styles espoused by Racing and Estudiantes in the mid to late 1960’s.

The other part where you felt that the book missed the point was in it’s criticisms of sports journalists “indulging” in churnalism.  Churnalism I think was first coined in the book “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies and referred to a malaise affecting print journalism as a whole, and in particular the trend of “Showbiz” journalists to fill their columns with re-cycled PR Pieces.  In this respect Piers Morgan, Andy Coulson and Domonic Mohan are not the trailblazers that the English based press needed.  Yet this knack of fashioning stories from not very much has become a key skill for Sports writers, to the detriment of actually finding stories.  Too late for this book, but the way “Churnalism” has replaced actual journalism can be seen in the reporting of the crisis surrounding Rangers, with the Scottish press corps still prepared to print the thoughts of David Murray as gospel.
France, playing 4-2-3-1, V Spain (currently the best proponent of 4-2-3-1) in the Euro 2000 Quarter Final

Where it seems romantic for romantic’s sake is it’s criticism of the 4-2-3-1 formation.  If you were going to criticise a formation for not really having a place for flair players, then the one to pick on would be 3-5-2 – the one with 3 at the back and wing-backs instead of wingers and wide players (yet both England & Scotland enjoyed relative international success by adopting this formation – England reached semi-finals in Italia 90 and Euro 96, while Scotland got to Euro 96 and France 98 while using this formation).  Yet this book derides 4-2-3-1 as “insidious and deceitful… devious, a sneak and a phoney – not to be trusted”.  According to the book, it’s problem is that it is essentially a defensive formation, with four defenders and two defensive midfielders – making six defensive players in the team.  While it is true that it first emerged at the turn of the century, it could be argued that both the Manchester United teams from 1993-1997 and the early Wenger Arsenal sides morphed into this formation (Wenger’s double winning side of 98’ had a midfield of Petit and Viera with pushed on wingers Parlour and Overmars and Bergkamp dropping off behind his striking partner).  Its breakthrough tournament was Euro 2000, where it was employed by the French, Portuguese and Romanian national teams – all of which were not exactly defensive sides.  Euro 2000, in case you have forgotten, was the best football tournament since the 1970 World Cup.

The other jibe is that 4-2-3-1 was used by the Netherland’s, Spain and Germany – the first two sides reaching the last World cup final, a game described as “Anti Football” by Cruyff.  Yet these three sides are late adopters to this system.  Spain switched to it in the semi final of the last European Championships thanks to an injury to David Villa.  Both Germany and the Netherlands also switched to this system four years ago – Germany started Euro 2008 as a 4-4-2 team but switched in the knock out stages while the Netherlands started Euro 2008 with 4-2-3-1.  Interestingly both Germany and Spain have shown signs of evolving this system, with Germany switching to 4-2-1-3 when attacking during the last World Cup.  4-4-2 might be the “bloke next door who will look you in the eye and drink you under the table” – but already looks like a relic from a past age.  This is not to say that 4-4-2 might not come again – after all Italian sides have started playing 3-4-1-2 again this season.  Its place as the formation of choice has gone though, usurped by a formation that has room for wingers and playmakers.  Ironic given “Jumpers…” criticism of the collective over the individual.

While it is easy to be irritated by these criticisms, the book does make some valuable points about the future of the game.  Most of the best points come at the books conclusion, where the point is made that nothing would scare the football authorities more than an empty piggy bank. While this is true, getting the authorities to do something before we are all too skint to go to the game will be a hard trick to pull off.  In spite of being an open love letter to a more innocent past, “Jumpers For Goalposts” does chronicle the crossroads that football is fast approaching, and the choices that it faces if it is to avoid the fate of other sports that have become less relivant, like for example Boxing.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Light Touch Football Governence

Four years ago a Scottish Institution came close to going down the tubes thanks to the actions of businessmen who failed to act with “due diligence”.  Today a separate landmark on the Scottish landscape is also in danger of going down the tubes due to another failure to adhere to “due diligence”.  Of the cascade of stories reverberating about the fall of Rangers, there are a few things that caught the eye.
Firstly, anyone else think it was strange for David Murray to hold a press conference saying that he was "duped" over the sale of Rangers?  Sure the Scottish media did their lap-dog shtick all over again and printed most of everything that he said with the sense that this was the truth, well sort of.  Prehaps Murray should, instead of protesting too much, answer why he allegedly insisted (according to Blue Knight Paul Murray) on selling to someone willing to take on the contingent liability for the ongoing tax investigations, and who exactly took the decision to use Employee Benefit Trusts in the fashion that they were used?

Though the conduct of Murray and Whyte has been less than satisfactory, the conduct of the SFA and the SPL has not, how shall we say, inspired confidence in their ability to regulate the Scottish game.  The SFA ruled that Whyte was not a fit and proper person to run Rangers.  This pronouncement smacked of shutting the door once the horse had bolted.  Like Murray, the SFA did not do their homework on a guy who has been at the centre of several businesses collapsing.  Yet the SFA’s pronouncements raise a couple of questions.  Firstly, given that their verdict came after Rangers entered administration and a good 9 months after the first stories emerged about Whyte, why have they pronounced upon Whyte now?  Secondly, when and how did the SFA draw up their fit and proper person’s test and what criteria do they use to define a fit and proper person?  However, at least the SFA have made a judgement call on who is a fit and proper person, to date the English FA have not made any negative judgements on any owner (I think they were close to a decision on Thaksin Shinawatra, before he sold Manchester City to the Abu Dhabi Group Investment and Development Limited).

On the other hand, the SPL have only now launched proposals (as if the fates of Dundee and Gretna were not incentives enough to look at the financial regulation of football clubs) looking at reforming the playing punishments for sides who fall into administration and sides who re-form into new-co’s.  That the proposed punishments still smack of compromise is probably down to how similar financial transgressions are handled abroad – with sides instantly demoted.  There is already a school of though that points deductions would critically undermine the credibility of the SPL – yet it is possible that relegation (to the first division at least) would be a boost to Scottish Football, providing exposure and a financial boost to the First Division, and provide Rangers with a season to consolidate any financial foundations it would need to put down.

What has happened to Rangers over the past couple of months has not shown anyone involved with Scottish Football in a good light.  After the failures to act over what happened at Dundee and Gretna, the crisis surrounding Rangers looks to be too big to ignore.  Unfortunately the facts are still unclear, and conclusions are being taken far too early.  In the meantime we await the truth.