“Bobby Robson became the heart that English football wore on its sleeve”

August 1, 2009

47d4fd8b1eae95c2d20d167ad1e20398_immagine_det“Bobby Robson became the heart that English football wore on its sleeve.” The words are a touching epitaph from the beginning of David Lacey’s tribute to Sir Bobby Robson in this morning’s Guardian, after the footballing great passed away yesterday. But they only do him partial justice. Best known in England for successful spells as a player then manager at Fulham, West Bromich Albion, Ipswitch Town and Newcastle – and for his eight years at the helm of the English national team – his feats overseas often go undocumented, or at best overlooked.

Robson is arguably England’s most successful ever manager abroad. Two stints at PSV Eindhoven, four years in Portugal with Sporting Lisbon and FC Porto and his highest profile position in club management at Barcelona are more than enough for most glittering careers – let alone crammed in between a World Cup semi-final in 1990 and a return to the club he supported as a boy in 1999.

Perhaps the best mark of his success during those nine years (four national titles, three domestic cups and the European Cup Winners’ Cup aside) are the number of careers Robson helped launch in that time. He bought and then brought the best out of Ronaldo at Barcelona, inspiring the Brazilian to score 47 goals in 49 games and to declare the Englishman “one of the greatest [trainers] in the world“. He worked with Luís Figo in Portugal and in Spain, tamed the famously tempestuous Romário in Holland and brought calm to the twilight of Hristo Stoichkov‘s career.

Yet far greater than all of these achievements, he helped three of modern football’s leading figures prepare for life in the game’s back rooms. First, Frank Arnesen, one of the key players in Roman Abramovich‘s Chelsea revolution, started his post-playing days as Robson’s assistant at Eindhoven before becoming the clubs general manager. His next big find was a young Portuguese translator who become assistant manager at Porto and then Barcelona under Robson – José Mourinho. Finally, Robson can lay some claim to being one of the first of football’s impresarios to identify Josep Guardiola‘s talent for motivating and lifting his team. Between those three, Robson’s mentees have won two Champions League titles, six league crowns across Spain, England, Portugal and Italy, and countless cups in all four countries.

All of these great men have been quick to pay tribute to the unique Robson, who may have been the greatest of them all.

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Football in the recession

June 21, 2009

hammer_to_piggy_bankAny regular followers of this blog will know that updates have been few and far between since May. As the football season has reached its dramatic climax and the transfer window has reopened, the world of work has come under an enormous and ever increasing amount of pressure from the recession. My day job is looking after the marketing for a company called FreshMinds, and our recruitment arm has been at the coal face of the heavy hit job market. So there’s been plenty in the office to keep me busy.

Why then, you might ask, is the transfer market still so robust? While there are announcements of mass redundancies, record levels of unemployment and fewer opportunities for 20-something graduates, the likes Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo and even Gareth Barry can expect enormous pay rises and staggering signing on fees for their respective transfers to Real Madrid and Manchester City. “Vulgar” – that’s how England and Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton has described Ronaldo’s £80 million transfer fee. And in the context of the wider economy, that’s exactly how the summer silly season feels.

Of course, there are good reasons for this almost counter-cyclical reaction to the recession in football. Firstly, the financial clout of clubs like Manchester City, Chelsea and now even Sunderland is funded through the personal wealth of just one individual. Yes, Roman Abramovich has seen his fortune hit to the tune of more than three billion pounds. But he still has an estimated £7.7 billion – or enough to buy 96 Cristiano Ronaldos or 642 Gareth Barrys. Now Real Madrid is a different kettle of fish, because the Spanish club is built around a membership model with the president (the closest equivalent to an owner) elected by the fans. So the cash for Kaká and Ronaldo has not come from Florentino Pérez‘s back pocket. Indeed, the source of their new found wealth isn’t entirely clear. However, it’s probably safe to assume that it’s derived from a mix of leveraged debt, government backing and Pérez’s promise of an epic volume of shirt sales.

We are also very lucky in this country to have fans who value the sport so highly that they are willing to sacrifice a great deal else in order to support their teams in the Premiership, Championship and league. Even in the midst of the deepest recession since the Second World War, preliminary sales of season tickets have remained pretty healthy, while the top Premier League teams can expect sell outs at the vast majority of their games. As a result, these clubs are able to generate a huge regular income to entice new players and pay the existing ones. What’s more, they are also able to attract wealthy backers (queue Abramovich, the Glazer family and Ellis Short) as going financial concerns.

Admittedly, there are signs that the good times are coming to an end. Setanta‘s failure to pay the Premier League for television rights is an indication that the appetite to watch football is no longer enough to sustain a business. Then there’s the plights of Southampton, Leeds United and notably Luton. Leeds are an interesting example, not least because they suffered their darkest days during the height of the boom – perhaps a better example of financial mismanagement than a victim of the credit crunch. Newcastle take note. But for every Man City or Real Madrid out there, it is worth bearing in mind there’s probably also a clutch of smaller football clubs on the edge. With less of their games on show after the near collapse of Setanta, and fewer opportunities for young British footballers, the true impact of the recession is likely to be felt much more in the grass roots of the game than at football’s top table.

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Javier Aguirre the man for Portsmouth?

February 18, 2009

aguirre_spain_soccer_do811David James has come out twice this week to voice his support for Sven-Göran Eriksson‘s candidature to be the new Portsmouth manager. James appears to be preoccupied with the idea of a former England manager taking the hot seat at the south coast club. But other than his status in a group of alumni that includes Glenn Hoddle and Steve McLaren (neither of whom, I note, have earned a vote of support from the former Liverpool goalkeeper), does Eriksson’s CV really match up to the job?

The Swede’s success has come almost exclusively at clubs with extravagant budgets, in particular at a Lazio backed by millionaire investor Sergio Cragnotti, who plunged some £274 million into the team to buy players like Pavel Nedvěd and Christian Vieri. At Manchester City, he spent a small fortune on a cluster of players including Elano, Valeri Bojinov, Benjani Mwaruwari and Gelson Fernandes – none of whom were able to acclimatise to the Premier League quickly enough or gel well enough to keep Eriksson in his job.

So rather than turn to a former England don, perhaps Portsmouth should be looking to one of Sven’s predecessors in his incumbent position at Mexico. Javier Aguirre led the Central American side to victories over Croatia and Ecuador as well as a creditible draw with Italy in the 2002 World Cup before a heartbreaking loss to rivals USA in the second round. But it is his subsequent achievements in club management that really stand out. On a shoe string budget Aquirre led unfashionable Spanish team Osasuna to a Champions League spot ahead of Juande RamosSevilla in 2006, before taking them to the UEFA Cup semi-finals a year later (ironically losing out to Sevilla).

A more recent but less successful spell with Atlético Madrid still secured the La Liga side a top four and Champions League place for the first time in 12 years. Yet despite setting a new record for goals scored at home, the Mexican has found himself deemed surplus to requirements at the Vicente Calderón. Atlético‘s loss could prove Portsmouth’s gain – even before losing his job, Aguirre announced his ‘dream’ to manage in the Premiership to ESPN programme, Futbol Picante. He may not be the flashy big name that David James has been dreaming of, but Aquirre could bring back to Portsmouth precisely what they have been missing since Harry Redknapp‘s defection to Tottenham – a voice of experience. Not of managing England, perhaps, but of taking little fancied football clubs to new heights.

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