“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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A Bridge too far?

June 12, 2009

Carlo AncelottiA few eyebrows will doubtless be raised by Chelsea‘s decision to appoint an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English just six months after sacking an exotic continental manager with a poor grasp of English. Accusations were certainly cast about Luiz Felipe Scolari‘s ability to control the dressing room given his alarming accurate impression of an overweight Andrew Sachs in Fawlty Towers. But will Carlo Ancelotti be able to do any better at Stamford Bridge?

Yes, Ancelotti has the European club football credentials that Scolari never had. But it is hard to escape the notion that he is Serie A‘s answer to Rafa Benítez – an extraordinary manager in Europe, woefully unable to reproduce that success at home. In eight years at AC Milan, Ancelotti won the Serie A crown just once. And that from a club with 17 league titles to their name. To be fair, over the same period he also reached three Champions League finals, winning two of them (with that one memorable defeat coming at the hands of Liverpool on that evening in Istanbul). Now there is nothing Chelsea fans, players and management desire more than victory in Europe – Didier Drogba‘s reaction to their last gasp defeat by Barcelona in this year’s semi-final says everything you need to know about that painfully empty shelf in Chelsea‘s trophy cabinet. However, Liverpool supporters will tell you about how frustrating it can be to be kings of Europe and paupers of the Premiership.

So if Ancelotti is to join José Mourinho and, now, Guus Hiddink in Chelsea‘s managerial good books, what are the three things he can do to get fans and players on side before the season starts from scratch in August?

Sign Carlos Tévez – Like the Argentineans, Chelsea fans have loved short, stocky, smiling assassins ever since Gianfranco Zola. As effective as Nicolas Anelka and, towards the latter end of last season, Drogba have been, neither is lovable. Tévez, on the other hand, has the perfect blend of work ethic and sublime skill. The £30 million fee would be well spent in these days where most football club’s transfer budgets wouldn’t buy Joey Barton‘s image rights.

Develop youth – Huddink came to Stamford Bridge with the promise of bringing fresh, local blood into the squad. Despite all his achievements at Chelsea, finding the next John Terry proved a challenge too many for the charismatic Dutchman. Jack Cork has demonstrated some promise at Watford last year, while Scott Sinclair is capable of moments of genius (or at least moments of blinding pace and a couple of good feet). But with millions invested in the youth set-up under Frank Arnesen, Ancelotti needs to start seeing results from the academy if he is to create a Chelsea for the future rather than another generation of aging footballers beginning to look past their prime.

Build a strong back room staff – There can be absolutely no doubt that Steve Clarke‘s departure for West Ham dealt a serious blow to Chelsea‘s title ambitions last year. Ray Wilkins is a sound coach, but the club are still in need of a defence specialist to get the most out of the likes of Alex, Branislav Ivanović and Michael Mancienne (who could be the long-term answer to Ancelotti’s search for talented youth). If rumours are to be believed, Paolo Maldini could be that man. Now there’s no greater emblem of modern football and everything Ancelotti built at AC Milan. But if the big Italian is looking for a fresh start, Marcel Desailly is available, speaks Italian, knows Ancelotti and has the bright blue of Chelsea running through his veins.

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Who are Hiddink’s youths?

February 21, 2009

kakuta_nana_lEarlier this week Guus Hiddink warned his senior players that he was more than happy to give their places to talent coming up through the Chelsea ranks. Which, in reality, means giving Michael Mancienne and Franco Di Santo a chance to start the odd game in Chelsea‘s remaining Premiership fixtures. But after four years of heavy investment in the club’s youth set-up spearheaded by Danish head talent scout Frank Arnesen, are Mancienne and Di Santo really all Chelsea have to show for their money?

The youth team have just been knocked out of the FA Youth Cup by Liverpool, so the early signs aren’t great. However, there are some real gems in among the mediocrity. The captain, Liam Bridcutt, is a midfielder with a look of grit and determination that will get fans of Dennis Wise drooling. Currently on loan at Watford, the 19-year-old has been brought in by former Chelsea coach Brendan Rodgers for the struggling Championship team’s relegation battle, a sign in and of itself of Rodgers belief in the youngster’s force of personality.

Then there’s Gaël Kakuta, a Frenchman who was voted Academy’s Scholar of the Year last year in his debut season with the club after joining from Lens. With a sharp left foot and eye for goal, he could well be the long term successor to Thierry Henry‘s Premiership legacy – if he stays fit, that is. Which currently isn’t looking all that likely after Kakuta broke a leg and ankle in training earlier this month. At 17, the striker is well ahead of the curve in terms of development and has all the time in the world to make a full recovery. However Hiddink doesn’t have that luxury.

It’s worth pointing out that other, more widely recognised names are still hanging in and around the periphery of the first team. Ben Sahar – currently on loan at Dutch Eredivisie side De Graafschap – seems much older than his 19-years with a handful of Chelsea run-outs and 13 caps for Israel already under his belt. Ryan Bertrand has just broken into Stuart Pearce‘s England Under-21s after amassing more than 40 games for Norwich City over two separate loan spells. With Wayne Bridge now out of the equation, the attacking left back may just find himself in the first team mix next season.

But I suspect he won’t, that Sahar will be sold to one of many suitors and that it will be two or three years before we begin to see the first glimmers of Kakuta’s promise in the Premiership. Why? Because yes, these are players are good, but they probably aren’t as good as – say – Everton‘s teenage stars Dan Gosling and Jack Rodwell. And perhaps more importantly, they aren’t as needed. Yes, Hiddink could probably pick Bridcutt in the heart of his midfield against Aston Villa this afternoon. Or he could  pick Germany captain and footballing superstar Michael Ballack. And as the old saying goes, nobody ever got sacked for picking Ballack.

Watch Kakuta in action: