“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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Premiership cuts its nose off to spite its face

March 9, 2009

 
The days of the great British colonial empire may have faded into sepia, along with the fortunes of our national football, rugby and cricket teams. But there is still one realm where we continue to rule the waves – European club football. After last season’s Champions League final (effectively a showcase for the top two teams in the Premiership), this year’s last 16 once again features four English clubs in excellent positions to progress after their first round ties. But is the Premiership about to become the victim of its own success? As well as becoming the sport’s biggest importers of talent, the Premiership veraciously exports players and coaches to clubs in Europe at a breakneck pace. Of the four opponents waiting for Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Arsenal later this week, three are managed by former Premier League managers (Claudio Ranieri at Juventus, Juande Ramos at Real Madrid, and, of course, José Mourinho at Inter Milan). And all four of this week’s Champions League opponents are similarly studded with players who have plied their trade in the Premiership, know all about its top clubs and – most importantly of all – understand how to stop them. Here are my pick of the ex-Premiership stars who stand between our British boys and a prolonged jaunt on the continent.

Patrick Vieira, Inter Milan, formerly Arsenal
patrick-vieiraPatrick Vieira won three Premiership titles at Arsenal and captained the club to an unbeaten season in 2004, so he knows better than most how to shut Man United out of a game. Sir Alex Ferguson is a noted admirer of the Frenchman and tried to secure his services after Juventus’ relegation in 2006. Vieira has been in and out of the Inter team this season thanks to injury and his fractious relationship with Mourinho, but if he is thrown into action against Man United he still has the legs, lungs and drive to change the shape of a match.

Arjen Robben, Real Madrid, formerly Chelsea
arjen-robben1As a Chelsea fan, Arjen Robben represents all the hopes and dreams that came with the Roman Abramovich revolution. His pace, creativity and eye for goal led to a string of matches in Mourinho’s first season with club that were – to my mind – the epitome of everything I always wanted Chelsea to be. I even remember describing him as Gianfrano Zola‘s natural successor – that’s how good Robben was. Years of long-term injury have somewhat curtailed his development, but at the peak of his form I still believe he is the only player capable of challenging Cristiano Ronaldo‘s claim to be the best wide man in the game. Liverpool will doubtless be a little envious of his turn of pace and ability to create something out of nothing.

john-arne-riiseJohn Arne Riise, Roma, formerly Liverpool
You could ask any Premiership club fan about their memories of John Arne Riise, and virtually every one would have a story about one of his trademark left-footed, long-ranged and unstoppable goals. In all, he scored one in every nine starts for Liverpool – an extraordinary ratio for a left back. I always believed he was treated harshly at Liverpool, who rarely made the most of his precocious talents. Fortunately, fate has been a little kinder on the Norwegian at Roma, where he has marked his arrival on Serie A this season with a first goal for the club against league leaders Internazionale.

Olof Mellberg, Juventus, formerly Aston Villa
olof-mellbergUp until last weekend, ex-Liverpool hard man Mohamed Sissoko would have been a good shout as Juventus’ player to watch on Tuesday. But injury has put the Malian midfielder’s season on ice, so up steps Aston Villa‘s very own former iceman. The Swede has added some much needed bite to Juventus’ back line this season, which will come as no surprise to Villa fans who still lament the affable defender’s departure last season. Last season, under Mellberg’s stewardship, Aston Villa gained a credible home win against Chelsea and draw their away match 4-4. That’s last 16 cup-tie winning form.

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Zola’s West Ham project begins to bear fruit

March 1, 2009

Gianfranco Zola‘s West Ham moved up to seventh in the Premiership after disposing of Mark Hughes‘ expensively assembled Manchester City project at Upton Park this afternoon.

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The two clubs could hardly have been run more differently this season. Zola has built a team moulded in his image – at its best free flowing and beautiful, at its worst a little diminutive on the pitch. Hughes, on the other hand, has failed to stamp his personality on Manchester City with the same degree of success as at Blackburn Rovers or with Wales. Blackburn were a team that had a solid foundation built around big-hearted and just generally big players like Christopher Samba, Ryan Nelson and Roque Santa Cruz. On paper, Richard DunneMicah Richards and company looked to be made of the same stuff. Instead, they have proved to be more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man – seemingly huge but actually soft, vulnerable and all too easily defeated by a bit of total protonic reversal. Or, in Manchester City‘s case, Jack Collison.

Then there’s the small matter of money. West Ham are a club teetering on the brink of annihilation, while Manchester City have a virtually bottomless pit of dirhams for transfer fees and exorbitant wages. Hughes spent January splashing the cash, bringing in Wayne BridgeNigel de Jong and Craig Bellamy for a combined fee of over £40 million, while West Ham‘s biggest achievement in the transfer window was keeping hold of most of their star players (Bellamy excluded, of course).

Then finally – and crucially – there’s the difference on the pitch, underlined by West Ham‘s 1-0 win over Manchester City on Sunday. The Hammers were dominant throughout, with their one January signing Savio Nsereko instrumental in Collison’s goal and Scott Parker adding real bite to all the delicate touches being exchanged in midfield. Based on this performance, it should come as no surprise that Chelsea have been linked with an approach for Zola where just eight months ago they lost out on Hughes as their first choice to replace Avram Grant. At the moment West Ham and City are chalk and cheese. And I think Roman Abramovich might just have a taste for expensive Italian gorgonzola.

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Once more into the Bridge, dear friends

February 10, 2009

scolari4_33796tLuiz Felipe Scolari‘s transformation from the amiable Brazilian who first greeted the English media in June to the humbled and humbugged coach who was sacked by Chelsea yesterday afternoon was perfectly epitomised by his reaction to Sunday’s 0-0 draw with Hull City. The man who had handled footballs harshest critics, the national papers, with such aplomb in the summer could no longer bear to face their hacks after the 15th and 16th points of the season were dropped at Stamford Bridge. Instead, Ray Wilkins was thrust in front of the cameras. If Scolari could no longer manage to charm the pants off the people who make the real decisions in the Premiership, the media, then he was no longer worth his £6 million a year.

So what are the criteria for Chelsea‘s next manager, and who can possibly live up to the job? The general consensus seems to be that the next coach has to deliver results both in the Premiership and – crucially, given the gap between Chelsea and Manchester United in the Premiership table – in Europe, which arguably presents Chelsea with their best chance of silverware this season. On those grounds, it seems that Roberto Mancini has been discounted for his failure to get Inter Milan to perform in the Champions League. But I actually disagree. I don’t think Roman Abramovich, Chelsea‘s billionaire backer, craves success or even trophies. Instead, he dreams of being popular and loved – not just by Chelsea supporters, but by fans of the beautiful game across the globe. That means aesthetically pleasing, “total football”. It means lots and lots of goals and attacking verve. But most of all, I think it means resuming the project Scolari started back in June – building a relationship of jovial back-and-forth, even co-dependence with Britain’s press. That means one man in particular is on Abramovich’s radar – while another holds the hearts of the supporters.

Guus Hiddink has been consistently linked with the Chelsea job since José Mourinho was shown the door in September 2007. From the land that invented “total football”, Hiddink has an impressive CV that spans six different clubs across three countries not to mention managing the national teams of his native Holland, South Korea, Australia and Russia. With South Korea and Australia, he grasped the imagination of millions by leading teams of little fancied underdogs to magical World Cup runs. What’s more, in his latest job with Russia, he has built strong links with the Russian Abramovich and cemented his reputation for combining flair with a solid foundation. But his only stint with a club the size of Chelsea, at Real Madrid in the 1990s, lasted less than one barren season. And the key players from his current side who he may have earmarked to join him at Stamford Bridge nine months ago, namely Roman Pavlyuchenko and Andrei Arshavin, have already made the trip across to London to join rivals Tottenham and Arsenal respectively.

Whoever Abramovich turns to, there is only one man the fans want to see in the job – and only one man who could deliver Chelsea‘s owner with the adoration he has been longing for. And he is also plying his trade on the other side of the Thames at a rival club. West Ham‘s charismatic manager and Chelsea‘s best ever player Gianfranco Zola is the only name in football that could guarantee Abramovich popularity. Popularity, but not results. Even die-hard Arsenal and Manchester United fans wouldn’t be able to stop a little smile sneaking out over the thought of Zola at the helm at Stamford Bridge, assisted by Steve Clarke and perhaps even Roberto Di Matteo. Though admittedly that smile would only get bigger if the untested trio failed to deliver results. It may not happen yet, but sooner or later Zola is the appointment Abramovich is going to have to make to secure his legacy at Chelsea as the club’s guardian angel and not just some crackpot dictator.

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In defence of Sparky

January 22, 2009

mark_hughes_498041aMark Hughes will be breathing a sigh of relief this evening. You see, the man who signs his pay cheque – Manchester City chief executive Garry Cook – believes he is nothing less than “competent”. High praise indeed for the manager who took Wales to the brink of a first major international tournament and revitalised former club Blackburn Rovers.

Just eight months ago Hughes was being chased by arguably the two richest clubs in world football, Manchester City (a formidable financial force even in the days of Shinawatra) and Chelsea. He now looks on the brink of falling victim to the curse of the equivalent of football’s “get-rich-quick-scheme”. Chelsea have been through four managers under Roman Abramovich, while nearby neighbours QPR have turned over the same number in just over a year since Flavio BriatoreBernie Ecclestone and Lakshmi Mittal become stakeholders. Would it be such a surprise if Man City were to swing the axe after the Kaka debacle and with the club hanging in Premiership mid-table limbo?

If Hughes is sacked, it has to be based on results and not his profile as a manager. After all, Hughes is not some young coach who has been picked from obscurity and thrust into the limelight. He has played at Manchester United, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Chelsea, winning a plethora of titles and twice being named PFA Player of the Year. Before arriving at Man City, he had turned round the fortunes of Welsh football and stamped his name and style on the game in Lancashire. He also has an unparalleled record of helping waning stars reignite that missing spark. Under Hughes, Craig Bellamy scored a goal every other game compared to a career average of just 0.34 goals per game, while Robinho‘s scoring average has doubled at Manchester City thanks to 11 goals in 16 games. Then there’s Benni McCarthy, Roque Santa Cruz and David Bentley, all of whom feature on the list of Blackburn‘s top 20 Premiership scorers of all time.

Hughes is staking his career, at least at the top eschalons of the game, on that ability to spot a bargain – and I suspect the purchases of Bellamy and Wayne Bridge will vindicate his transfer policy in time. Whether the Welshman will still be at the helm of Man City to see the fruits of his labour remains a very different question.

Hughes’ management career First 11

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