Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Game 2: Newcastle vs. Aston Villa

Game 2, 22nd August 2010
Newcastle United vs. Aston Villa

What had previously been promised has now been delivered. 6-0! With performances like this, Newcastle will surely end the year Champions of Europe!!

A truly emphatic victory yesterday for the men in black and white, especially as they were missing probable first-choice defenders – Sol Campbell the latest victim of the flab monster while Steven “I'm not a Doctor Who character” Taylor once again has shown all the resistance to injury of uncooked pasta. Unsurprisingly it was defensively the Toon looked most suspect as Villa initially were able to exploit the backs for pace; the inevitable calamity came with both central defenders and goalkeeper Steve Harper played tortoise to Ashley Young's hare and the subsequent concession of a lazy penalty. Fortunately, the spot-kick was taken by John Carew and the ball is still gaining velocity somewhere between Mars and Jupiter.

As the game wore on Newcastle's size and strength came to the fore against a lightweight Claret lineup unable to cope and the signs for the season are promising as they attack the division armed with chest-and-facial-hair sporting men's men and not skinny kids with horrible hair (sorry, that should read "and not skinny kids"). And Alan Smith who's some grotesque but likeable combination of the two.

Enterprise from the wide position s has long been a staple of success on Tyneside and yesterday was the same. Enrique, Gutierrez & Routledge all looked overmatched their last times out in the top flight, so it was quite surprising that it was from there that much of the thrust to their offense came. That they had a presence centrally at which to aim can't have hurt – Andy Carroll and his horrible hair delivering on four years of potential to present an immovable object (at least for Richard Dunne & Ciaran Clark) front and centre.

Given Chris Hughton's stated desire to move away from the 4-4-2 formation as immutable on Tyneside as track suits & chip butties to explore this year's “buzz” formation, the 4-2-3-1, I find myself asking if this is wisest given yesterday's win. Without getting carried away (obviously I'm not a 'Pies supporter) the lineup did as needed on the day and the relative safety and comfort afforded by the tried-and-true 4-4-2 could provide some refuge against sides not prone to disappearing at the slightest physical pressure like Aston Villa. The latest buzz-formation is fine but buttering bread is a simple task and as such, formations should be simple as well. Allowing Carroll to hold the ball up and involve his midfield mates, especially Kevin Nolan, is key and health, confidence & sanity willing he should provide the offensive fulcrum they can use to ensure safety.

The centre of midfield is the greatest question mark with back-row-of-the-bus boys Alan Smith and Joey Barton (complete with highly dubious moustache) vulnerable to the counter – the rumoured signing of Ivorian Cheik Tiote may provide the athleticism and mobility required mid-field. Also, given that he is – and let's be fair – a massive tool, anyone who thinks Joey Barton can stay out of trouble and injury belongs on the same short bus as Mike Ashley and Joe Kinnear.

A lesser stated reason for optimism is in their overall experience. This meant they weren't overawed playing at home in the top flight against a team playing in Europe. This team, if they believe it, has the bodies to avoid thumpings from even the very best and if that self-belief holds (and the win yesterday should have bought them a month full of confidence at worst) the club should ask enough questions of the mid table to survive and promise hope for future years.

All these positives can't hide the shadowy question marks over some aspects of the Magpies this season – they're only a Carroll injury, the inevitable Barton brain-fart and a likely Sol Campbell spontaneous combustion from Mars-rover type disaster – but signs point to them having enough about them to resist the slide back into the championship. An encouraging way to start the home campaign.

Newcastle United - Up and Down

(written 20th August)

The thing is, I don't even like Newcastle United. I don't like Newcastle as a city, I abhor the misguided fervour of their fans, I dislike their whole “Geordies against the World” attitude and their tedious search for their next messiah. They field a squad with Joey Barton for crying out loud. Mike Ashley as an owner is a mad genius at best while the whole Northern Rock sponsor-going-bankrupt fiasco was amusing if nothing else. Their tawdry rivalries with whoever they next choose to disdain are of supreme indifference to me and in pure footballing terms their team has served up boring, predictable sludge for the best part of the noughties. Even this squad can't seem to do the convincing “new, fresh look” demanded, content to serve up not one but three Roberto Baggio lookalikes. How can you admire a player who sports hair – let alone fists – like Andy Carroll?

That said, the demands placed on the team when compared against their results from the last sixty years is what intrigues me most about Newcastle United as the season approaches. The fans and board have always prided themselves on their “big club” status while the results hardly reflect those that mark a club as “big” - the expectation that the club will win every game while scoring myriad goals has marred several winning seasons as failures. This expectation is what defines Newcastle United and given their inability – self-inflicted or not – to meet those expectations that definition becomes the dichotomy of failure.

The story intrigues me – the dichotomy is like the proverbial car crash, difficult to look away – a club insisting on revelling in former glories, still feeling they're part of the fabric of the Premier Division. A delusional view perhaps, but undoubtedly passionate. Being a regional centre with a solid football pedigree presents a compelling argument as to why they matter but in no way does that past success or full stadium prove that they're important.

Season 2010-11 for Newcastle United is a story unto itself. The expectation forms the backdrop with starker colours added with the ludicrous transfer fees spent during the 1990s and 2000s, the list of past-prime superstars who've gone Tyneside to die and ultimately the ignominy of relegation in 2009, the worst kind of humiliation as they sunk without a cry while Phil Brown's – Phil Brown! - Hull City, a truly awful team, survived. Then new – old – hope as those ageing vets took apart the Championship. This year, the club's playing staff is largely unchanged: James Perch has come in, Nicky Butt has gone out; and the makeup of the team is similar to the fallen team of 2008-09. Large changes have been promised since that day where Hull survived and the Newcastle faithful died a little but lofty wage bills have prevented major player sales and the club has essentially been treading water.

So where does this put the 2010-11 edition of Newcastle United FC? With a roster of players good enough to achieve safety given the relative weakness of this Premier League season and not weighed down as much as in the past with fan and board expectations of greatness previously the norm at St. James' Park. The squad as presently constituted is no better than a twelfth-placed team, but no worse than a sixteenth-best. Their size and strength in midfield and defence should overpower weaker back-halves like WBA & Blackpool.

The pieces are all in place for a highly intriguing season which made me think – how about following the season dispassionately? Obviously I can't follow the team – apparently you can't do that authentically unless you can trace your ancestry back four generations Tyneside – but the story is there. To maintain minimal interest in the quality of results but in the club in general.

Let's see how it goes.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Holger Osieck: Who?

The Socceroos have a new coach in German Holger Osieck. He comes with experience, having managed both internationally and at club level and armed with a remit to develop youth throughout the country to encourage growth in the sport and replenish the ageing top-line talent in the Socceroo lineup.

In Austtralia not much is known about him and it certainly seems at first glance a bit of a step down considering the names bandied about as potential Australia managers; names like Ruud Gullit, Dick Advocaat and Leo Beehakker recently several of the high-profile coaches linked in the past. But on closer inspection, Osieck's background is impressive in itself – spells as Fenerbahce and Bochum boss in Europe intermingled with spells in charge of Canada and most notably as the guy at Japan's Urawa Red Diamonds and as assistant to Franz Beckenbauer during Germany's 1990 World Cup triumph. That he took a – and let's be fair – footballing backwater like Canada to a major trophy (the 2000 CONCAAF Gold Cup) is a significant achievement in itself.

It certainly appears as if the FFA has made several statements with their selection. The criteria laid down by the board were straighforward enough: the new man had to have experience at rebuilding, come with Asian experience, while being supportive to any move by players to depart the fledgling A-League into larger and better football competitions, be they European, Asian or American. In itself, these criteria ruled out perhaps the more high-profile choices but this may well be for the best. The FFA has practically announced their priorities for the next half decade, which is youth, youth and the potential World Cup hosting role in 2022. With an Asian Cup campaign in the offing and a roster chock-full of thirtysomethings, one can be quite confident that a Frank Rijkaard-type isn't the best fit for the position in which Australia finds itself. After billionaire property-developer Frank Lowy bankrolled the Guus Hiddink era and the treading water that defined Pim Verbeek's reign, that the FFA has decided to firmly place down what they are looking for in a manager rather than trying to eke out one last major tournament from the careers of Cahill, Moore and Chipperfield is a major positive.

All this is really encouraging for the grassroots supporter of Australian football and potentially a big win for the nation as a FIFA decision on the 2022 World Cup host looms. Hopefully the key performance indicators in Osieck's job for the next two years aren't results-based, but about having Australian talent in the most appropriate bigger leagues for that talent. Rather than finding Aussies in one of two locations – Britain or the A-League – Socceroo hopefuls have recently found more success and money in lesser-publicised leagues like the K-and-J Leagues in Asia, the highly-paid Emirati leagues in the Middle East and second-tier Euroleagues such as Turkey and Holland. The best example of this could come from any of Carl Valeri, Matthew Spiranovic or Joshua Kennedy: sitting on the bench at Inter, Nurnberg or Karlsruhe is no good for a player's club or international prospects, so a step sideways to Sassuolo. Suwon or Nagoya is a great step to secure regular, high-level first-team action. Growth in player pathways is the next big step in developing the nation as an Asian footballing power and the extent of that power will be measured as the 2011 Asian Cup warm-up campaign begins. Osieck's first matches in charge is against stiff opposition – Sweden, Poland and Paraguay – and will give the local football cognoscenti a chance to examine and hopefully embrace the players sliding into key roles within the team. A mass exodus of the old guard would be foolhardy and Osieck's first squad selections has confirmed he feels likewise, but with a gradual feeding in of youth and the start of a new regime, optimism and excitement should be the order of the day for the Green and Gold army.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Liverpool FC: Reputations big and small

Often you hear of players saying they want to play for a “big club”. What does a big club mean? Is it the nouveau riche of the Manchester City or Chelsea or does it mean the steeped-in-tradition past glories of a Liverpool, AC Milan or Newcastle?

Being a big club is contirbuted to by four factors – the rabidity of their fans (Big edge: Old-school big clubs – as support for teams is passed down from generation to generation the Big Clubs of yore tend to have larger or more territorially-bounded fanbase); money (Big edge: Nouveau riche); results (nearly a 50/50 split here but in England given the recent success of Manchester United you'd probably give it to The Old Guard, this though Chelsea and perhaps this season Man City ensure this is changing rapidly) and arrogance (draw). Given that old clubs will always have money, if not the resource-driven superpockets of Abramovich or Sheik Mohammed, as they built their stadia before the Premier League, it really makes this issue a bit of a wash. Now to the footballer, a desirable club is a club who can pay them more money – as Sol Campbell and Notts County so elegantly proved last year - but usually that involves the UEFA Champions League.

Liverpool have always been a big club but beside their Champions League success in 2004 they haven't had the results to back this up since Stevie G was in nappies. Their money situation is quite scary for the fans as their creditors make veiled threats of a takeover. That fan base, however, remains one of the most supportive and crazy bunches the world has known.

Due to the money situation, recruitment this offseason came down to free transfers – quality ones, it must be said – but let's not beat about the bush, Joe Cole was attracted to the wages on offer rather than the Spirit of Shankly. Had Tottenham forked out the 90,000 a week he requested then you'd think our Joe would have chosen London and Champions League matches in Milan over Liverpool and Europa League matches in Rabotnicki. Liverpool for the last 20 years has only hoped to win titles – falling into the same conundrum as Newcastle United, assuming a Top Four spot is their by divine right. The football world doesn't work like this any more and the English top flight is only now working that out. The game has changed and how well a club adapts to this is reflected in their final league position – and their status as big or smaller clubs.

Aston Villa FC: Can you fight off interest from bigger clubs long term?

This issue has come to a gead as today Martin O'Neill has resigned from Aston Villa. No reasons were given in his official statement but it is safe to assume that the limited funds made available for him to better his results over the past three years was foremost in his thinking when handing in his notice.

He's done particularly well during his tenure in Birmingham – beating Top Four clubs and threatening for Champions League positions much of the last couple of seasons. But in the end his demise has come as many predicted, over transfer budgets and support for his ambitions.

O'Neill is a shrewd evaluator of talent and has spent his available money wisely. That wisdom has then been hijacked by the larger clubs as one by one each of Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham have targeted his purchases to enhance their own squads. As talent exits, new talent must be brought in and over time this must get tiring.

Managers at the so-called “second level” clubs like Everton and Villa deep down must know they fight a losing battle. Consistently having to fight wears one down. Where in a manager's early years they can look upon this exodus of talent as an opportunity for refreshment and change, as time wears on it can and does string the boss more and more tautly. Where once was belief in his team's ability to cope now lies despair at the constant nature of these marauders. It's nearly a universal truth that as one tires, one gets tetchy. That tetchiness then reflects in how the next issue forced onto our plate is dealt with.

For Aston Villa, there's nothing wrong with holding out to get the correct price for a player, especially when the buyer is Manchester City and one of your chief competitors for Champions League football. But if that stance turns the player against you, it's a battle that has no victors. Play him and risk halfhearted performances and constant distracting speculation. Don't play them and watch results suffer.

You can't fight off interest from clubs indefinitely, it just doesn't happen. If a player wants to go, generally they find a way to make it happen. The best you can do is ensure you get back appropriate funds and invest them wisely, only to watch managers disappear.

Everton FC: When will a big club poach David Moyes?

Under David Moyes and his limited budgets, Everton have maintained a solid record in the Premier League. Consistent in their contention for European places, Everton have regularly won against Big Four teams under his tutelage. He's been manager since 2004 – to give you an idea of how long that is, that was the Season of Arsenal's Invincibles – and though his results, purchases and reputation are nearly beyond reproach, he's not been heard of in reference to either Big Four jobs available during his Toffee reign.

Occasionally touted as the successor to Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, as much for his Scots blood and ability to throw the odd tanty as for his results, Moyes has worked well as manager of a second level club and has probably overachieved. That consideratiion for big jobs hasn't come straight away because those “big” jobs have only come up at Chelsea and Liverpool. Chelsea under Abramovich wants glamour, while the move to Liverpool from Everton is about as likely as Moyes' next job being the Prime Minister of Kenya.

In Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger were to call it a day, would he get consideration? Given his understated demeanour there may be fears he's too low-key for such a big job. Low key isn't necessarily bad, it's just a different modus operandi than you would expect at a United or and Arsenal. Other muttered concerns include him “finding his level” in that second level with Harry Redknapp and Martin O'Neill and whether he has the requisite European experience to succeed at a big club.

Of all the EPL managers, Moyes is probably the most deserving of that big break. But this doesn't mean he will automatically receive it – there's no waiting your turn in football. One bad season could spoil eight years of hard work and good results. One bad season could mean his next job is in the relegation spots, the Championship or, heaven forbid, the SPL. The example of David O'Leary still hits home hard: linked with Premier League jobs as recently as Portsmouth last year but now finds himself managing in the United Arab Emirates simply to stay in work.

Perhaps one day his talent will be recognised for what it is but the guess is here that he will be at Everton for a good few years yet.

Manchester United FC: The Promise of Youth

With the new season only days away the friendly season has given us a chance to take a peek how the new squads are shaping up for opening day. United, like many Premier clubs, haven't changed their squad much in the close season with the only additions being 22 year olds Chris Smalling and Javier Hernandez. Sir Alex Ferguson ponied up $16 million for the pair making them relatively cost-effective signings in this day of post-Man City transfer-fee apocalypse.

Also featuring heavily this preseason have been the Da Silva twins, Darron Gibson and Tom Cleverley from United's youth ranks, players who are pushing towards the first team. It's an exciting time, if somewhat fraught, for the United faithful as they see their club attempt remodelling through a batch of young devils (we'll call them the Imps) rather than through large transfer sums.

This is happening for multiple and well-publicised reasons. The first is the question over whether Ferguson's spending money is still there given the club's enormous debt levels. Secondly, the manager has persistently said he's waiting for re-established post-apocalyptic transfer value (if so, why has he not bid for Mesut Oezil yet?) and thirdly because he thinks there is talent enough to be had from their academy.

He may be right. He may not be – he's been wrong before, even if no-one told him for fear of a long, lingering death by hair-dryer. In all likelihood all three factors have combined to force Sir Alex down this youthful path. But one can definitely say that United will compete for the title again this season, if not definitely winning it simply because Arsenal, City and occasionally Chelsea wil drop enough points to keep the race interesting. If the high octane youth and slow-burning experience blend well, they may accelerate United's 19th top-flight title win. If those three factors mean Fergie gets more and more angry, then at least the season will still be entertaining.

West Bromwich Albion FC: The Yo-Yo Effect

The noughties have presented us with the ultimate expression of the Yo-Yo team – West Bromwich Albion. Their thrify ownership have decided against risking the big bucks (sorry, pounds) required to maintain their Premiership status, so they've invested money in their squad only when both cost-effective and absolutely needed, then pocketed their parachute payments. They may as well change their club motto to “Without Squander”.

They've won or finished second in their last two Championship seasons. The season before that brought elimination in the Promotion Playoffs. Their squad changes minimally from Top to Second Tier. They are, for their market and sponsors, if not their fans, a successful club. So why don't more teams follow this model and ensure their own relative certainty?

One simple reason is overconfidence. If a club accomplish promotion from the Championship they are entitled to feel strong, as if they can take on the world. Generally, that's rather an inexperienced point of view, as much false bravado as anything. The Premiership is a major step up from the Championship as proved by the number of teams who go straight back down. Managerial or board overconfidence is the worst kind: the mentality of “All we need is one or two class signings” causes overreach and financial burdens a club in the Championship can't maintain. To bring in class signings, that player usually requires more money or more security than he already has, security that a relegation-threatened club is ill-placed to afford. If the worst happens and they drop, the club is stuck with a heavy contract – we call that “Doing a Hull” - or with a malcontent.

The second factor for WBA is that the players have been there before. Most have competed in both leagues know what is required in order to survive, even if they're incapable of meeting those requirements. Relegation is an obvious kick in the teeth but each goes into the following season aware that their club has the ability to bounce straight back up again. This knowledge provides a certain confidence that the demoted don't always have.

This common sense attitude seems commendable, but only a few squads have progressed from it. It provides stability for sure, but locks the clubs into a purgatory where their unable to succeed at the highest level yet perfectly able to fail should circumstances conspire one level down. But really, if you're making money – and the parachute payments are generous indeed – why would you risk that by overspending and in three years find yourself mid-table Championship? At a smaller club, success is no sure thing no matter what the investment. In football, there are no sure things unless they involve John Terry and an underwear model.

Newcastle United FC: Fluke year 2009 or 2010?

After years of flirting with European competition, the 2009 incarnation of Newcastle United did as their roster had promised for a year or two and fell without murmur into the Championship. They'd No question it was a stinker of a year: banshee-d by injuries, Joe Kinnear's entrance, two management Messiahs in Keegan and Shearer failed to get the job, Joe Kinnear's 37 F-bombs in two minutes, Michael Owen still drawing six-figure weekly wages, Joe Kinnear's exit and Denis Wise's antics as “Director of football and alleged Cockney mafiosa”.

When examined in-depth, United deserved to be relegated. In building a “Championship Manager” squad, they ignored the first rule of common sense: in the real world, a good reputation and high transfer fee doesn't always mean a guarantee of Premier League quality. The list of big names – and big money – is impressive but must be sickening in the extreme to the Toon army: ultimately every single one of Owen, Alan Smith, Nicky Butt, Joey Barton, Kieron Dyer, Obafemi Martins and Fabricio Coloccini all flopped on Tyneside. The results were humiliating as a succession of bosses failed to get players with some experience of success to buy-in to the team plan. That there were four separate team plans behind Keegan, Hughton, Kinnear, Hughton again and Shearer made that buy-in nearly impossible to achieve.

Last year amid constant speculation that they would nose-dive into League One a la Leeds United, Newcastle United banded together behind promoted assistant Chris Hughton to clinch promotion easily and reclaim their divinely-decreed level of football. They did this with unfussy football as the departures of finesse-type Martins & Owen; a capital “f” Fighting Spirit formed the team's backbone more than Harper, Taylor, Nolan & Carroll. As Hughton infused self-belief and direction, the fight got stronger until they proved to be not only the biggest team in the second tier, but the best.

So which season was the fluke? The squad barely changed between the two years as NUFC were unable to trim their titanic wage bill much before last term. The same squad played exceptionally against Scunthorpe or Blackpool where in 2009 they'd performed dismally against Hull & Stoke. Success in 2010 rests on the expectation of the fans and board. Should those expectations become (cf. our Blackburn preview) too lofty it becomes automatically injurious. The day of “because they're a big club they need a top-10 finish” is past and if the current squad hears this they are likely to look quizzically at the fans and throw their arms up in disbelief. With their ageing catalogue of fallen angels this is no better than a 12-14th placed squad and the likelihood is that they know it. The first aim should be staying up and should Hughton encourage play as in the Championship last term it is achievable.

The fluke wasn't in Newcastle going down in 2009; the fluke was in them staying in the second-tier only one year. Rather than chalking it down to random factors or bad luck, Hughton chose to see it as a warning about the dangers of complacency and overreaching. He did an astonishing job with the players on hand in getting them focused on only one thing – redemption. Not redemption in the eyes of the fans but redemption in their own eyes: there should be no doubt at all in the players' minds that relegated Newcastle United of 2009 was a better squad than survivor Hull. There should be little doubt they were a better squad than 12th placed Stoke City. If Hughton gets the players to understand that they still need to prove their own quality to themselves, then Newcastle can survive and even thrive (like Stoke City or Bolton) in the Premier League. Survival in this manner mighn't please the Toon Army, but survival at the top level is preferable to threatening vaguely from lower leagues. Just ask Leeds United.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Blackburn FC: Newcastle v2.0 - Small club in Big Pants

Blackburn have been amongst the Premier League's most successful clubs. That they've actually won a title automatically places them in that category; their place in history assured in the third year PLE (Premier League Era) behind the genius of Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. They've also been consistently challengers for European competitions through virtue of their final league position; due to this success Blackburn have risen from “small” to “medium” to “big” and now back to “medium” Club status. When you look closely there are a number of “bigger” clubs outside the Premiership: Leeds of course, Nottm Forest and even the Sheffield boys, United and Wednesday. As financing in football becomes all-consuming, when a squad past its prime has a bad run the risk of relegation looms exceedingly large – and suddenly whatever club status they hold, be it big or small, doesn't really fly anymore.

Newcastle are the perfect example of this conundrum. They've spent ludicrous dollars on transfers for high-profile players. They've carried themselves with the pomp and brashness of a big club. Yet the results simply haven't added up and two seasons ago they found themselves with their tails between their legs in the Championship. The Toon haven't won anything since 1950-something and as such they are not a big club – they're a mid-sized club with a large supporter base.

It can be argued that a big club is made of four things: fan following, results, money and swagger. You can probably even squeeze into medium club status with two of the four. Newcastle for several years have had that swagger and following, if not the results. Blackburn haven't had the following and much less so the money. They have a poor-ish following, results that're middle-of-the-pack at best and money less than average. As for swagger, well, they represent Blackburn – there's no swagger in rural Lancashire, just honesty.

They have one of the four things which indicate a big club. They have barely one of the indicators for a medium-sized club. They are a small club, with a small market, a small but loyal fan base and a small budget. Blackburn are fighting that horrible struggle where the heart and reputation says they belong in the Premiership but the other indicators – especially regularly drawing only 20,000 – screams “Championship”. The methods need to change in order to draw more and if this risks relegation, then so be it: the future looks brighter when there's more money or more people filling the stands.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Fulham FC: The Good, The Bad and the Ego

Roy Hodgson is now an honorary Scouser. Mark Hughes is returned from the living Dead. The King is dead, long live the King.

Hughes returns to football management after six months in the near-wilderness. Apart from being linked with jobs as far apart as Turkey, the Cote d'Ivoire and West Ham, his choice of taking over a Fulham squad coming off probably the most successful year in its history is in itself laudable and curious. Even following a long Europa League campaign where the Cottagers were defeated in the final by a (probably) superior Atletico Madrid, Fulham remains a smallish club with ambitions and finances far-removed from Hughes' last position.

Perhaps he has decided his best move is overachieving with a small- or mid-market club but doesn this put Hughes in a quandary? He's come from unlimited resources, and apparently has rebuffed interest from several interested parties simply because he was once the manager of a “big club” and wanted a job in keeping with his results and reputation. He's had money and therefore had no interest in slumming it at his next role which is sort of admirable, but if it's your club being rebuffed it can leave a sour taste in the mouth. It's now no secret, Mark Hughes has an ego, for better or worse.

I say for better. Surely at a Fulham FC coming from some moderate success yet needing some squad renewal, ego is a good thing? If as has been intimated Hughes is so sure of himself then his first task is to ensure some of that rubs off onto his charges. A manager with a well-developed sense of ego tends to engender one of three moods in his squad: inspiration, alienation or a weird bastard child of the both. Hughes is well known to be quite soft-spoken, at least softly-spoken enough so as not to be abrasive, but if his methods and results differ too greatly from those of Hodgson (another mild-mannered gaffer) he risks the senior players upping and leaving.

The fine line that Hughes must tread is that of empowering his playesr while getting them to buy into his methods. If you told me that this could be done by either an egomaniac or a serf, I'd pick the Kevin Pietersen clone any time: as success breeds success, if done correctly self-belief breeds self-belief. Hodgson mastered this excellently; Hughes has both the wherewithal and the ability to instil this into his squad as witnessed by his tenure at Blackburn. In that small market he squeezed the best out of potential topliners Roque Santa Cruz and Morten Gamst Pedersen, as well as from players previously viewed as plodders like Jason Roberts. He has form for getting the most from his charges, and that in itself is a big tick for a smaller-market manager. Given the limited funding, the other thing a smaller market manager must do this without alienating his roster. If he can get all the players looking in one direction he will have success because he followed the formula: buy in + empowerment + discipline (which comes from the respect gained by empowering the players) = results.

Chelsea FC: Did Chelsea change football?

The short answer is yes, they did. Next preview please. The money brought in by Roman Abramovich when he purchased Chelsea indubitably changed the way football was financed moreso than the manner in which it was played. Now, as before, the better team generally will win on the day – through better players, tactics, preparation or execution; occasionally the second-best side wins more through good luck than any particular skill, toughness or nous.

That Abramovich himself funded the club is more the changing factor. Deep pockets are nothing new, it's just in the past those pockets were lined through sponsorship, winning and full-to-bursting stadiums. Manchester United has the single largest home stadium in Britain in Old Trafford and are able to fill that stadium months in advance right to capacity. They've done so since the 1970s or even before and Liverpool were consistently the welathiest clubs by virtue of their fans, stadia and sponsorship deals. Those things deepened a club's pockets, not so much a benefactor in the style of our Roman.

Abramovich's legacy to football as a whole was to personally follow the Real Madrid model: a club hocks itself into enormous levels of debt to fund player transfers and enormous wages. Rather than owing other creditors, Abramovich forked out himself and the majority of the club's debts now were to him and were subsequently cancelled. (NB. I don't think cancellation was the original idea). He's essentially personally funded a crusade to fill Chelsea's trophy case and then cancelled the debt in a bizarre parody of the “Make Poverty History” campaign.

By spending money on both Claudio Ranieri's and Jose Mourinho's squads, Abramovich has taken Chelsea to the top of British football, and nearly to the summit of European competition. One man had never before brought about such a sharp rise in a club's fortunes and so one can say he's changes the world game. I guess because he's changed the world game he has in some manner changed the world, though whether it's for the greater good is questionable in the extreme. That he's begat a bunch of followers who have stated similar aims (Sacha Gaydamak and most notably the Manchester City consortium) is another indicator he's been successful in his spending with the side effect of transfer prices accelerating beyond all control over the last five years and that there now is a stark divide between the “haves” and the “have-nots”. The “haves” spend money freely in a tight economy, where the “have-nots” focus on developing youth systems and top-up signings. In essence, it's simply a more bipolar example of the past paradigm, the difference being there are only two “haves” (Chelsea and Man City) with even former big spenders Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal are being conspicuous with their cash.

Congratulations Roman Abramovich. Single-handedly you've changed the world.

Stoke City FC: Still getting away with it

Stoke City play a real “man's man” brand of football. Always have under Tony Pulis. They belt the ball up the field, tackle hard – unfortunately at the expense of players like Aaron Ramsey – and as such players who've been earmarked as lower level players only seem to thrive at the Potteries. Success in staying up has derived from their constant focus on doing what they do well. Good thing too, as many would say that they only do one thing well. But does a one-note song provide enough to survive long-term in the Premier League?

The motto's clear the past two years: not many goals are scored, hard and physical defending and occasional sausage rolls from set pieces or good-old-fashioned-effort from their alleged class players like Ricardo Fuller and James Beattie (before he was allegedly headbutted by a naked Pulis). They tried to augment that style and offer a little more variety with last season's acquisition of Tuncay but he didn't mesh well and provided more questions than answers. This year's rumoured big buy Carlton Cole is again more tuba than flute and makes one ask if Pulis has abandoned variety to continue in Stoke's unsubtle ways.

Really, Stoke can continue down their onerous ways until it stops working. As always there will be adaptations, but it's the manager's job to balance playing to his team's strengths with diminishing the opposition's and with that in mind the players on hand means this year Stoke City are likely to display the same tactics. The paucity of talent in the EPL this year suggests the Potters should make a good fist of staying up. The risk they run by playing the same tactics without alteration is you become predictable. Predictability is fine as long as you remain good at what you do – to predictably deny goalscoring opportunities is a benefit, but if a team predictably denies goalscoring opportunities for 75 of 90 minutes then that's not so hot.

It's like when a young country guy is “on the pull”. Now, hear me out. If he has an angle that works, it's likely he's going to stay with that angle. A little tweak here and there but very few substantial changes. But as he moves to the city and tries that angle on more and more sophisticated & intelligent girls and is rebuffed, it's becomes like throwing copious amounts of crap at a wall and seeing some sticks.

Not evolving your tactics forces a team to remain at 100% concentration levels for every single minute of every single match. Execution is key: if for any one reason you don't execute your gameplan well – injuries, dips in player concentration, squad discontent or plain and simple brain-farts – your opposition takes control of the game. Stoke runs this risk for the season coming, especially without that “little bit of magic” signing Pulis hopes for. They'll be hard to beat, but unlikely to thrive unless something breaks the monotony.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Blackpool FC: The Fate of Holloway

On reading the Guardian online's season preview for Blackpool FC (, the perils of being a successful small club became startlingly apparent. Blackpool's conundrum replicates that of Burnley last year: a small club advancing to the top flight via a low playoff position by playing an enterprising brand of football is a no-win situation.

The major problem is one of finance. Manager Ian Holloway has obviously gotten the best out of his squad in order to achieve promotion, especially considering there's (relatively speaking) minimal talent and money available. After a year out of football he decided to embrace a passing game rather than rely on defensive tactics with great success, yet he finds himself ten days from the start of the season with two major injuries (to key midfielder Keith Southern and striker Billy Clarke) and only 18 fit players, including three goalkeepers. The money hasn't been there to remodel the squad – nor has it been there to pay the players owed promotion bonuses – and this dumps the club into a sizable ditch. Should the Tangerines stink it up this year, the man universally known as “Olly” is on a hiding to nothing and will most probably get the sack. But should they win early there's the possibility of him “doing a Coyle”, where his head's turned by a larger club with a more secure future. Given his experiences with Plymouth Argyle that looks unlikely but Football Owners are businessmen and judge their employees by their own standards.

Before the Playoff Final said Olly said he was chasing promotion “To give some of my boys the (pay) raises they deserve”. Already it seems the money isn't there to back that up and the fall guy won't be Chairman Karl Oyston or Latvian owner Valeri Belokon, it will be the manager. According to the Guardian, their turnover last year was only seven million pounds, the second-lowest of all clubs in England's second tier; Belokon personally funded the signing of marquee player Charlie Adam.

Sure, they'll score goals. When you play as flowingly as the Blackpool of last year, there will be some rewards and given the ease with which they were able to pull apart (admittedly Championship) defences last term, they'll probably snatch the odd win. Add the state of their ground – small and roughshod – and the Seasiders may grab occasional Ws as opposition teams struggle to cope; but with the talent on hand, Olly's men look doomed for a sub-30 (sub-20?) point season and ultimately relegation.

Following promotion the rewards come immediately for the manager but they don't last for the long term. Blackpool FC sits awaiting the inevitable losses and will do the only thing viable for them financially: unable to blame the squad, they will blame the manager. When that's a man such as Ian Holloway, it's a damn shame.

The new preview

Previews are so passe, aren't they? Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker and end up reading them for nearly every sport – it's always interesting to see who's moved during the offseason; how simply by grouping together a bunch of names allows you to make sweeping judgements about a club and its fortunes. But every single site/blog/podcast/TV show runs these things always, always they say the same things: This club needs to score more; this club needs to close things down more often and readily; this manager is in trouble if the results don't come.

On reading a few profiles, it seems to me thatfor each club there's one little issue in the background, small burrs under everyone's saddle that the world has awareness of, yet doesn't want to talk about. I'm not really talking about transfers or debts, I'm talking about the little birdy that someone mentions once and it's not followed up, unstated by club, media and (maybe) fan.

So here we go, the Balanced Sports topics for discussion are below. As you can see there's no timeline, they'll get done a piece at a time and hopefully all done before kickoff in a little over a week. Nor is there any particular order, just what we feel is interesting on any given day.

Arsenal TBA
Aston Villa Can you fight off interest from clubs long-term?
Birmingham Second season syndrome.
Blackburn Newcastle v2.0 - the small club with delusions of grandeur.
Blackpool The Fate of Holloway.
Bolton TBA
Chelsea Did Chelsea change football?
Everton When will a big club poach David Moyes?
Fulham Managerial ego, the goods & bads.
Liverpool Is reputation enough to maintain quality?
Man City The Amount City Suck.
Man Utd The promise of youth?
Newcastle Which season was the fluke – 09 or 10?
Stoke How long will they get away with it?
Sunderland The spawn of Ferguson.
Tottenham 'Arry's missus and the Redknapp legal issues.
West Bromwich Albion Why do so few teams Yo-Yo?
West Ham Patriot missiles on alert.
Wigan Rugby country.
Wolves Fourth place doesn't get the bronze.