Friday, April 29, 2011
Thursday, April 28, 2011
For a someone playing a crucial role for two of the most lauded clubs in recent history, Sergio Busquets is perhaps both the man who does the dirty work and the face of a popular dictatorship. In other words, Sergio Busquets may be the most hated man in Spain outside Catalunya, a player Spain forgives only when his stunts are used (from their perspective) for their team - another popular autocracy.
Barcelona - and Spain - rule world football. They are the two best teams in the world today and there is much overlap between them as many of the Spanish national team play their club football for Barca - including Busquets, Xavi, Iniesta, Carles Puyol and Bojan. In a league where spectators are forced to tacitly support one of the "Big Two" as well as their own preference, certain players who irritate when playing against your side become fast favourites.
Not so with Sergio Busquets. That's not to say he's not a wonderful footballer - he is almost everything you could want from a defensive-minded midfielder - but his big stage playacting (see here for one example) during yesterday's Champions' League SuperClasico may well have proved the final straw for many neutral observers. In Facebook terms, he will have gone from "Like" to *Dislike* for many neutral observers. Roundly condemned by Madridista fans and commentators alike, his - and other Barca players' - overexaggeration of several minor incidents irritated so much that a game which should have been a wonderful spectacle (and at times was, especially Lionel Messi's marvellous solo goal to seal the win) was overshadowed by the Dark Arts - diving and exaggerating contact to attract free kicks or cards.
Outside Barcelona - where too his actions should not be lauded - it's likely that his performance last night attracted Busquets no fans, and indeed the ire of several sections of press and supporters. UEFA make a habit of not wanting to set precedents and as such are unlikely to sanction him for his actions, especially when the game also prompted a brawl, a foul-mouthed Pep Guardiola presser, Jose Mourinho sent to "The Cage", an arguable red card for Pepe, further alleged diving incidents from Pedro and Dani Alves and finally, a war of words since the match leaving Barcelona investigating a formal complaint.
While many individuals involved with yesterday's encounter appear the worse for their actions and antics, it is Busquets who will almost undoubtedly come off amongst the worst. Firstly, he has priors for "simulation". Secondly, for a Spaniard it's impossible to get a larger stage than a Champions' League Semi-Final against Real Madrid - a match which nominally forces the entire of Spain to choose a side (in a World Cup final, the vast majority will be supporting Spain already).
Finally, these actions only reinforce his popular perception (at least by pundits on ESPN and the Guardian's Football pages) as a player who dabbles - and occasionally dives headlong into - the dark side of the force. Mourinho, though his postgame statements reek of paranoic mania, has a history of playing people offside with his comments and doesn't play such a crucial role in the Spanish national setup. Where Jose seems to have accepted his role is to be disliked by everyone other than fans of his current employers, Busquets must face Euro 2012 next year as one of the faces of a Spanish midfield. He may not be looked at in quite the same way again by the neutral.
Wednesday, April 27, 2011
The question must be asked whether it was again the much-feted Vancouver choke or just oustanding play by the Blackhawks that allowed their comeback. At this stage, no-one in the West of Canada cares much about anything else (it was stories 1,2 3 and 6 on the Vancouver news last night) as the Sedins-led squad has finally beaten their playoff nemesis, but is it fair simply to lay the blame on the Canucks being overwhelmed by the situation? Against an eighth-seeded Chicago, shorn of many of their Stanley Cup winning squad from a year ago?
The answer is that choking just isn't as simple as all that - it's a multifactorial occurrence, as for a favourite to lose to an underdog requires many different ducks to be in the right row. While it's easy to see one individual player become lost in the moment, for an entire team to choke depends on all the members of that squad - or a certain subsection, for example, the forwards - almost simultaneously losing their own collective consciousness.
Choking as a team isn't a favourite being outplayed. A team can be said to choke when they look at their lesser opponents (and there can't be any debate on who has the better team), and think "Hang on, we should be beating these guys", provoking a negative, rather than positive performance. Often a choke looks like a player/club trying not to make mistakes, rather than going out to win a match/series. Choking isn't just a one-seed being beaten by an eight-seed - it's when the favourite looks at their opposition and collectively soils themselves at the very concept of losing, by virtue of their opposition, the big picture or that they're already perceived as chokers.
Otherwise, San Antonio's probable series loss to Memphis in this year's NBA playoffs would be called just that, and it's not. In truth, Memphis have outplayed the Spurs after tanking their last couple of games during the regular season to make sure they met in the postseason. The simple fact is with a lineup featuring Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Antonio McDyess all playing big minutes, the club has the stones to come through in the clutch as all have proved themselves in the NBA Finals time and again. The Spurs are failing because they're being outplayed by a younger, hungrier and healthier team.
The suggestion - and I can't prove it - is that a team choking is much, much harder to do than is regularly attributed. The reason so many clubs are said to be chokers *cough* Vancouver, South Africa, New Zealand *cough* is because popular perception is that each of these clubs should be so good as to be untouchable in the playoffs. This is a flawed notion, because it completely disregards in most cases (cricket is perhaps the exception), the simple fact that it is the playoffs changes the game, perhaps to the benefit of a club (cf. the current Boston Celtics) and occasionally to the detriment (cf. the Canucks). Team choking - while it still does happen - depends on so many people "losing it" in synchrony, that it's become much more an issue of public perception than of a team's performance. Teams are said to be chokers because they bear the weight of public expectation.
The great, all-time chokes tend to come from solo sports: Greg Norman was famous for it, as was Slovak tennis player Miloslav Mecir, who was so overwhelmed by the moment on one occasion that he served underarm. In Rugby Union, any time the All Blacks fail to win the World Cup, it is deemed a choke. The same applies to South Africa and India during the cricket World Cup - although South Africa almost certainly performed the Team Choke when losing to Australia in the 1999 World Cup. These are unfair generalisations and dont't take into account the context in which each game - or tournament - was played.
While the Canucks mercifully move on to face Nashville, they may have shaken their "chokers" tag - at least for now. But hopefully, one of the overused terms in sports journalism is now starting to be applied more contextually.
The author of this post would like to put on the record that he is not a psychologist, and has only the most basic training in psychology, but thought the title was quite snappy, so stuck with it.
Tuesday, April 26, 2011
Monday, April 25, 2011
To the Madridista, last week's Copa del Rey win wasn't just tacit validation of Florentino Perez's updated Galacticos - version 2.0 - but also proof that this may well have been Jose Mourinho's Predator moment: the instant a challenging club doesn't just reason instinctively that the champ is vulnerable, but has sees and, crucially, believes they can exploit that weakness.
The expression was popularised in Australia in 2001, when the coach of the AFL's Brisbane Lions, Leigh Matthews, announced of a seemingly indomitable Essendon "If it bleeds, we can kill it". In doing so, he echoed Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic phrase from the 1987 Action extravaganza Predator and his comments were lapped up by thirsty national media outlets desperate for another angle on the brutal Bombers. Last week in the Copa, Los Merengues not only discovered for themselves that Barcelona were a team of humans but also, that they had themselves several advantages over the Catalans.
While Real did not dominate the game, neither did Barca. Given Mourinho's success last year in negating the Catalans with Champions' League winners Inter Milan and his setup for their 5-0 thrashing at the Camp Nou earlier this season, Los Merengues were hardly likely to try and beat Barca at their own game. Both enjoyed periods of dominance in the archetypal "Game of Two Halves" and perhaps the greatest obvious difference between the two was up front, where a misfiring David Villa was overshadowed by flashes of brilliance from Real pair Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo.
And it's not just that Villa is still to score in eleven matches where Barcelona should be concerned. Their bench had no further attacking substitutes, with only recent signing Ibrahim Afellay and youngster Thiago Alcantara able to reinforce the offence. That pair sat alongside defence stalwarts Puyol, Maxwell, Valdes and Milito. In contrast, Real Madrid could have brought on any of Emanuel Adebayor, Kaka, Karim Benzema or Gonzalo Higuain. As irresistable as Barcelona has been for nigh-on three years, there are definite cracks in their pristine veneer. If any manager is capable of revealing them so apparently, it would surely be Jose Mourinho.
That's not to say that all is lost for the Catalans. Rather than opting for one of his central defenders, Pep Guardiola opted to use midfielder Javier Mascherano at centre-back who was often overwhelmed in the air by both Cristiano Ronaldo and Adebayor; the latter so impressive during his cameo appearance that it must make both Roberto Mancini and his dutiful Man City fans feel thoroughly used. Also worth considering is that neither the inspirational Puyol, sprite-like Bojan nor the inadjectivable Jeffren played for Barcelona. With their style of football and the players at their disposal (and there's good reason to think that in Iniesta, Xavi and Messi they boast three of the top four players in the world - if not the best three) their game is hardly likely to drop over the next few years. Xavi is the oldest of that trio at the grand old age of 31.
Now having played their nemeses three times this season, Mourinho's men sport a record of 1-1-1 against the men from Catalonia. With each increasing match, their results have improved: a 5-0 thrashing away in La Liga during November, a draw in the first of four consecutive Clasicos last week again in La Liga, and now a win in the Cup, albeit in added time. It could be that with those most vital matches approaching - their Champions' League Semi-Final - Mourinho's men have fostered enough self-belief to unseat the club many rush to call Best Ever.
With the third of four Clasicos due on Wednesday, Mourinho's match preparation should include playing his men a worn-out VHS copy of Predator. They believe it now - Barcelona can be beaten. Whether Barcelona fall into the same traps, depends on if they learn faster than a superintelligent, totally camouflaged alien killing machine. The bet here is they will - meaning another fantastic match on Wednesday.
Friday, April 22, 2011
The relegation battle this term in the Premiership has become increasingly intense. With Manchester United seemly stumbling towards the title as Arsenal and Manchester City reel off-course, the bottom of the table proves now to be the more intriguing sub-competition; a race no club or fan wants to win.
As we examined last week which Championship clubs from may take their place among English football's elite, the scrap for who replaces them in the second tier is in full flight. Seemingly European candidates two months ago, Sunderland are dropping like an action-movie elevator, while Blackpool's astonishing start to the season came undone at about exactly the same time as Charlie Adam's Liverpool move was rejected. On the other hand, Wolves have proved the most plucky of all the teams in the relegation zone yet still prop up the table, hit hard by injury to target-man Kevin Doyle.
What confuses this situation more than in years past is that there are no "certainties" for the drop. Last year Portsmouth failed to break twenty points (thanks among other things to a nine-point deduction for going into administration) and in 2008, Derby County broke Sunderland's record from 2006 for the fewest points in a season. There's no such luck for clubs hovering outside the zone this year - this season there are no easybeats. The entire bottom half of the Premiership table sits within one "six-pointer" of the drop zone.
When comparing this season to the previous six, there really is no precedent to the tightness in the relegation battle we see this year. In every other year, with the exception of 2009, there has been one club cut adrift at the bottom of the league. In 2009, that club was West Bromwich Albion, who rallied mildly at the tail-end of the season to finish with the same points tally as nineteenth-placed Middlesbrough.
Another trend over recent years has been that the tighter the relegation battle has become, the more impact Goal Difference has on which clubs survive. In 2007 and 2008, eight clubs each year finished the season within six points of relegation - or one crucial win against a fellow straggler. Excepting Derby County in 2008 (who finished the season with 11 points and an all time goal difference record of -69), it's easy to see that the average Goal Difference of relegation-threatened clubs decreases as the number of clubs "in trouble" increases. We've defined "threatened" as a club within six points of the drop zone.
Clubs within 6 points of relegation zone
Average Goal Difference of threatened clubs
2010-11 (5 or 6 games remain)
-36.67 (incl. Derby County)
-18.71 (excl. Derby Cty)
Derby County can be excluded because they are a statistical outlier - their season-long goal difference a whole 60% worse than any club's during the past seven years. Since they lost almost every game (season record 1-8-29) we can assume everyone took points off them. This assumption may not necessarily be correct, but statistically speaking, it is safe.
As you can see, the tighter a relegation battle gets, the tighter clubs tend to become - with the possible exception of Ian Holloway's Blackpool. If more club become involved in a relegation battle, it leads to lower average goal differences across those threatened teams. This season has produced another statistical anomaly which is interesting (but not very interesting) - Mark Hughes' Fulham are the only "threatened" club in seven years to boast a positive goal difference (+1).
Therefore, we can say safely with approximately 85% of the season complete, the 2010-11 goal differences figures are (on average) probably going to be the lowest of the past seven years. Extrapolated, these mean figures could be as low as -15.9 over the course of the entire season. If we use Goal Difference as a marker of how intense a relegation battle is, then this relegation battle is (statistically) about 20% more intense than the previous most intense one in 2008, involving Birmingham, Reading, Fulham and Bolton.
Thursday, April 21, 2011
Appointed in an autocratic fashion by his father, my newborn son’s favourite toy is his ‘Bradman’ teddy bear. The bear is of standard teddy bear appearance except for the addition of a school tie promoting academic excellence and the green cap promoting cricketing excellence. These two fields of excellence are what the Bradman foundation continues to promote (through means other than just teddy bear sales) now over ten years post Sir Donald’s passing.
It isn’t any paternal desire for my son to achieve academic or cricketing success (though they unashamedly exist) that I write this piece. It is the realisation that he has been born into a generation that will relate to the monumental figure of Bradman so much differently than those preceding him. He is the first generation in 100 years not to have lived during Bradman’s lifetime.
Bradman passed away just as I was entering University. My childhood had a vision of Bradman as being more than just the greatest batsman but really a deified entity. Despite Bradman being the greatest batsman of all time he was considered more even than a national icon that had raised spirits during the Great Depression and Second World War and a servant of the game long after his playing days ceased. Such positive reflection of the Don was only increased by stage managed puffy journalistic pieces such as Ray Martin’s late 1990s interview with the Don.
Many a journalist has been treated with contempt at trying to reveal anything remotely negative. Jim Maxwell tried to publish some of Bradman’s letters scathingly describing other players and was beaten back legally. It was even well known that Bradman’s takeover of the disgraced Harry Hodgetts’ brokerage, while not considered illegal, at least ‘smelt bad’, yet this wasn’t something spoken about for fear of his embarrassment. No-one could ever challenged Bradman’s on-field supremacy, and seemingly this further extended to off the field.
It did not taken long for the errors and clashes Bradman had, kept under wraps during his lifetime, to become more well known post his passing. Light was even shone on his strained relationship with his son. Nothing in any of these ‘headlines’ that should be considered particularly abnormal, however because of Bradman’s protected status during his lifetime they are viewed with shock and horror now when revealed. Primarily the difficulties he had with individuals such as Bill O’Reilly and Jack Fingleton are of greatest interest, occurring within the dressing room. But it is small minded to think that in teams of 11 individuals there won’t be personality clashes.
Ironically Bradman posthumously has ‘fallen’ back to being just admired as the great batsman. Because we tried to make him more than a human, the more we found out, the more we realise just how human he was. Such a lesson should be easily learned, with Bradman so far in advance of others, not to idolise sporting performers beyond prowess on the field. All this in mind my son’s generation are free to see Bradman more accurately in history. Not as superhuman, nor a major figure of influence, just as the greatest batsman in the history of cricket by a long way, and one who brought much pleasure to many. A great legacy by itself.
Wednesday, April 20, 2011
Neil Lennon is as an abrasive manager as he was a player. Perhaps his three most obvious qualities are his forthrightness, his Northern Irish heritage and his love for the green and white hoops of Glasgow Celtic Football Club. With the latter goes a certain antipathy - antagonism, even - for local Old Firm rival, Rangers. But when bombs are sent via post to his home, all perspective has been lost and football becomes a pawn in a much larger game.
Lennon, who as a player asked and gave no quarter, is in his first full season managing his alma mater and finds himself successfully beginning to move the club on from Tony Mowbray's disastrous reign. He hasn't taken any backward steps - neither have supporters from the green half of Glasgow - but has found himself under literal fire in ways his immediate predecessors seem to have (mostly) avoided. Also targeted in this most recent campaign were two high-profile Celtic supporters.
Lennon and his family have moved from their property and are living secretly under twenty-four hour guard. For football to come to this doesn't make a mockery of the sport - when violence, or intended violence begins, the game becomes a canvas for much larger social issues and casts a sad light on the religious divide between opposing sectarian factions in Glasgow. Traditionally, but this is far from a hard and fast rule, Celtic are known as a "catholic" club and Rangers a "protestant" one.
For decades the Old Firm derby has been amongst the most hotly contested rivalries in Europe, both on the field and between supporters. But when a man's life is endangered simply because of his status as manager and his inflammatory remarks about football, then any sense of perspective has been thrown from the nearest window. Has Lennon actively harmed anyone with words or deeds? Or has his legal representative, QC Paul McBride? Each may speak their mind and express their views as is their right. But words should never be the catalyst for actions such as this.
It has been said that sport is for everyone. It can be all-inclusive and has the ability to bring together opposing sides and even heal emotional wounds. Perhaps the most famous example of this is the Christmas Truce football match between Allied and German forces during World War One. If the English and Germans could put aside their differences in such a climate, how can a game be taken so seriously as parcel bombs, bum-stabbings and other acts of violence? It seems some people just use sport and the tribalism bred by it to be extremely crappy to one another.
One February 2006 episode of the British television series Life on Mars said it best, an episode revolving around 1970's football violence between blue and red halves of Manchester. After an organised brawl, Detective Sam Tyler chases the instigator into a corner and explains the consequences football sectarianism so clearly you can't miss his foreknowledge of the Hillsborough and Heysel disasters.
If you wish harm to a man, in cold blood, because his football - and perhaps religious - sensibilities differ from yours, then you don't deserve the enjoyment and escape of sport. Football is wonderful, but it's never that important.
Sunday, April 17, 2011
As the Sacramento Kings prepare to exit stage left and re-enter existence as the Anaheim Royals, it's worth examining their twenty-six year stint in California's capital and how this latest move reflects the very existence of the franchise.
The Kings' existence since their last title sixty years ago has been a hurtsome one. Since the NBA instituted the salary cap, even their sprinkling of great players has dried up: from the early days of Jack Twyman and Maurice Stokes, through their great two point guards Oscar Robertson and Nate Archibald and finally their modern-era stars Mitch Richmond and successor Chris Webber. Just as Anaheim looks likely to replace Sacramento in a chain leading from Rochester through Cincinnati, Kansas City and Omaha, the likes of the Big O and Jerry Lucas look upon Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins as their Royal descendents. Anaheim, Orange County even, looks to be the next NBA destination for pro basketball's most vagabond team.
No team has moved more often - or farther - than the Royals/Kings. Their 5000km journey has encompassed several cities but no titles and the closest the franchise has come was 2002, where they were eliminated in the Conference Finals by the Lakers. The story of the Royals/Kings has been a nomadic tale and the nomads rarely claim the prize. They've been everything from unfashionable - like the 40-42 1981 club who were led by Scott Wedman to the Conference Finals against Moses Malone's Rockets - to the glitzy, when Rick Adelman led the West's glamour team of Webber, Peja Stojakovic, Mike Bibby Doug Christie and Vlade Divac.
It's been a long road for the Kings, but hardly a lonesome one. Their number six jersey is retired in honour of their sixth man, the fans of California's capital. Cowbell Kingdom will grieve the loss of the city's only major league franchise, who they've nursed through the early days of Otis Thorpe, Eddie Johnson, Reggie Theus and Mike Woodson. The fans remained staunchly supportive of their adopted team through the bad times of Ricky Berry's suicide, Bobby Hurley's horrible car accident and even more recently where headlines weren't made by off-court mishaps but by Paul Westphal's nonsensical coaching and the immaturity of the face of the franchise, Evans and Cousins. They've been responsible for two sellout streaks - one of 497 straight games (over twelve years) and another of 354. It's not their fault - and probably not that of the owners, the Maloof brothers - that they're looking at the lucrative Honda Centre in Anaheim: the all-important corporate entertainment structures simply don't bear comparison.
Whether the move will be a commercial success is still debatable. Although Anaheim has the strongest combination of arena-plus-drawing region, twenty-two of thirty NBA franchises lost money last year and suggestions clubs will relocate are rife. Over the past ten years, the Vancouver, Charlotte and Seattle franchises have moved cities while rumours persist over whether the Hornets, Pacers, Hawks, Kings and even Bobcats will remain in their current homes. Neither the Grizzlies nor Hornets have reaped major financial benefits since relocating which must surely play heavily on the Maloof brothers' collective intelligence.
While the NBA is in great shape on the court, the business minds behind it appear to be struggling more than at any time since the drug-crazed days of the 1980s or even the Bad Old Times during the ABA wars. No matter how appealing the product is now, it would pay to remember that during Michael Jordan's initial fourteen years in the league, only the Kings moved locations. Even that happened after his rookie year. The twenty-year Golden Age of Pro Basketball - from the first rumblings of the Magic/Bird rivalry in 1979 to Jordan's retirement in 1998 - saw only two teams move digs. In the ten years before there were six relocations and in the thirteen years since a further four, plus the Nets' impending move to Brooklyn for the 2012 season.
The Kings have remained - like Rick Barry - a team of basketball gypsies. Which is, ultimately, fitting. Gypsies are either loved or loathed, the element of society which provides entertainment to the more established portions; a part of our culture who sometimes have come to terms with their nomadic existence and are happy and sometimes not. The Kings/Royals are the NBA's gypsies, moving anew to pastures fresh. They'll be welcome in Anaheim, surely, but will they come to terms with their ancestry there and thrive? For the hope of those basketball fans hoping to snag a relocated team in Vancouver, Cincinnati, Kansas City and most obviously here in Seattle, our prospects depend on the latest station of these pro sports vagabonds.
Friday, April 15, 2011
Which do you think is better?
The Best Quotes from Ian Holloway
The Best Quotes from Gordon Strachan
While it's derby season, what could be the best game this weekend won't be the Spanish Superclasico in La Liga or the Manchester Derby in the FA Cup. It could well be the ugly stepsister FA Cup Semi-Final between two of the EPL's more unfashionable teams, Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City.
Both teams started in the Premiership strictly playing Route One football: defend, long passes to a burly centre-forward and goals scrambled from inside the box or set pieces. Both have survived, for years now, played what amounts to "The Beautiful Game for uggos". Both clubs are still somewhat prone to the long ball - Bolton centre-forward Kevin Davies has an astonishing 200 more "flick-ons" than any other player in the league - but each of their current managers came to terms with being seen among the division's thugs and set about modifying their games.
For Bolton, that came the instant Owen Coyle walked in the door after being pinched from nor'west rivals Burnley. He'd led the Clarets to promotion and had them sitting mid-table in the Premiership when he departed to take over his alma mater Bolton. He brought with him his chief tactical asset - an ability to instill respect in his players for a passing game. Where former boss Gary Megson eschewed the use of creative types like Stuart Holden, Coyle has embraced them; his biggest coup so far has been to lure Martin Petrov to the Reebok at the expiration of his Man City contract.
With Petrov and Matty Taylor on the left, Lee Chung-Yong on the right and the regrettably injured Holden between them, the new face of Wanderer football has become apparent. Their supply has even managing to excite Swedish forward Johan Elmander into his best year on English shores after being a bust as a ₤12 million signing from Toulouse three years ago. It's no coincidence Bolton occupy the EPL's seventh place and harbour hopes of Europe next year.
Neither is it random that Stoke City in twelfth position. In perhaps the best coaching job in England that no-one talks about, Tony Pulis has taken a side of Championship stalwarts and Premiership rejects from relegation certainties into a club which can challenge the best. The Welshman initially bred an uncompromising unit and then has proceeded to add elements of flair once Top Flight safety was assured. It's fitting that these flair players too, should be cast-offs: Matthew Etherington was little-used at West Ham, Jon Walters toiled at the Championship's Ipswich Town and Jermaine Pennant has cashed paycheques from nine different clubs.
Despite Pulis' best efforts, that creativity hasn't blossomed magically as Coyle's men have at Bolton and the Potters remain a team heavily reliant on set-pieces, particularly the patriot-missile-like throws of Rory Delap. This is unsurprising: rather than add flair pieces to a staid unit, it often produces more goals to scrap one tactical method and employ a more fluid style of play as has been proved by Liverpool since Kenny Dalglish usurped Roy Hodgson. Unless you're Ian Holloway, the old adage applies: once a defensive coach, always a defensive coach.
For either club, any newfound creativity or offensive spark hasn't come at the expense of their toughness or defence. It could well be a clash of the immovable object against the other immovable object, which brings back memories of the mid-00's in Australian football. During the early part of last decade, the AFL suffered from "flooding", where most - if not all - players were positioned behind the ball. This made for low-scoring games and unsettled spectators because the game wasn't free-flowing. What it did make for, however, was a spectacular contest: with very little space or time in which players could operate, skills were at a premium and with the intensity ratcheted up it begat eminently watchable, if not high-scoring, matches.
Expect the same at Wembley when Stoke and Bolton meet - a match high on intensity but low on magic, no matter how much the respective gaffers try tacitly to encourage such feats. An element of high skill in the box (or just outside) from any of Fuller, Etherington or Petrov could be enough to take the biscuits this weekend, which makes this match as interesting as any across Europe this week.
Thursday, April 14, 2011
Part 4 of our continuing series: An Australian on Ice Hockey.
Part 1: You make excuses for the Habs
Part 5: The Psychology of Choking
When it comes to sporting rivalries, the Canadiens/Bruins East coast hockey rivalry is amongst the most intense, challenging perhaps only the Spanish Clasico and Glasgow's Old Firm derby. Understandable too: both are "Original Six" franchises - one of the six teams who sustained the foundling NHL from 1943-1967 when the league first expanded. Both have had amongst the game's most iconic players - from the Bruins' Bobby Orr (inexplicably selected by insert redneck adjective here Don Cherry as the best hockey player ever - I'm not debating he's good, just that Gretzky was better) to the Habs' Maurice Richard.
Both teams are ranked first and fourth on the all-time list of Stanley Cup champions and both haven't won the big shamu since the early nineties. This matchup sees Montreal, one of the world's best-looking cities (seriously guys, if you're single, MTL's the place to be), playing a seven-game series against the ugliest city - and we're not talking landscapes here - on the
face arse of the planet, Boston, only six hundred kilometres away. Both teams feature supporters who struggle to pronounce lots of common English words. To quote Doctor Evil - "we're not so different, you and I".
And they've got recent history too. When Zdeno Chara put Max Pacioretty into the turnbuckle at the Bell Centre in March, any recent thawing of relations went out the window. The hit - resulting in a fractured C4 vertebra for the Hab youngster - reverberated not just around the Bell Centre boards but the NHL, prompting calls for new concussion protocols and to protect the head. It was announced Chara would be investigated by the Montreal Police department, but thte SPVM is yet to draw any conclusions. In the midst of a controversial year, the Habs won the season-series 4-2 but lost the Division to their rivals.
What's amusing (and mildly surprising) is that similarities between the cities don't just end with their hometowns. Both clubs rely on their Vezina trophy-nominated goaltenders (Carey Price and Tim Thomas) and both clubs have a fleet of busy skaters, rather than sublimely-skilled ones: Montreal will pit Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Thomas Plekanec against a (probably slightly better) Bruin forward core of Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Patrice Bergeron. Both sides have strength in depth, rather than in superstars. The Bruins' don't counterpunch like the Habs, but that's a result of yet more injuries to Hab defencemen. While not a vintage year for either squad, this could be each team's most successful playoff run for nearly two decades. In the words of the Highlander - there can be only one.
It could be that - good-looking women apart - the cities are rivals not just because of their clashes during the 1970s and before, but because each city was the jewel in their country's crown until recent times. There are a lot of similarities between both cities: a working-class city dotted with pockets of "old money"; a history of sporting success; decreasing global importance and the fans' appreciation for hard work and spunk. Boston and Montreal will continue to fight it out on the ice.
And, as fans, we love it.
Wednesday, April 13, 2011
by columnist Ben Roberts
The current day Essex hero, Alastair Cook, returned home from his stellar 700 plus run Ashes tour to a heroes welcome. The Essex County Cricket Club has a long history of producing England representatives of the highest order. As well, Essex have also been a side described as providing entertaining and attractive cricket, but unfortunately lacking the depth of player resources in a smaller county.
With player resources, weather patterns and perhaps the moon and stars aligned, Essex have been able to produce historically noted performances. In 1948 they were the only county to dismiss the touring 'Invincible' Australians in under a day. Of course this was after they had totalled 721 runs!
The 1950s typified the Essex story. After finishing last in the 1950 season, Trevor Bailey and Barry Knight formed a bowling partnership that was as good as any in the country. Essex competed with all comers thanks to Bailey and Knight, but come the time of injury or national call up of these two the team was caught short of class players and could not sustain momentum.
Bailey was a fine all-rounder for Essex scoring over 20,000 runs and taking over 1,500 wickets. The 'Barnacle' was also a regular thorn in the side of England's opponents. Bailey was and still is an astute observer and student of the game, his play being thoughtful and his post playing career as a journalist and radio commentator likewise. Knight was a fast-bowler and attacking batsman who later emigrated to Sydney and set up one of the earlier indoor cricket coaching schools. The school, combined with Knight's wisdom, were to have a profound effect on future Australian captain Allan Border.
Border went on to be a high profile recruit during Essex's glory period in the mid 1980s. In the midst of a tumultuous and unsuccessful time in Australian cricket, Border, still relatively new to the position of Australian captain, took the opportunity to play with Essex during the southern hemisphere winter. Border was later to comment in his autobiography of the positive effect that this stint had on his career and captaincy.
The glorious 14 seasons from 1979 until 1992 yielded Essex the only County Championships in their history. They were led by Graham Gooch and Keith Fletcher, both now occupying 1st and 2nd positions in the list of all time run scorers for the county. In all, from 14 seasons Essex claimed six championships and also were able to provide the English team with a number of representatives, in some instances up to four at one time.
Sussex are the oldest county cricket club of them all. Despite the significance of their heritage, history is not favourable in terms of success for them. Pre-1890 Sussex was only declared “Champion County” once, and this was a shared title; and it took 113 years after the formation of the County Championship for Sussex to finally collected their first.
The county did not waste much time in collecting their 2nd and 3rd championships. They came at a speed in comparison to their first, in the 2006 and 2007 seasons. The winning of these three championships plus some limited over trophies dictated Sussex as the leading team of the decade. The decades conclusion was not without drama as post 2007's success, Sussex were relegated to and then won Division 2, to be promoted again, all in the space of three seasons.
Former Zimbabwe test cricketer and long time Western Australia representative Murray Goodwin played throughout the decade for Sussex. He made the highest ever score (335 not out) in Sussex history during the 2003 season in helping the county to the inaugural championship. His score remained a record until he beat it in 2009 with 344 not out.
County Championship regulars Michael Bevan and Michael Di Venuto both spent time at Sussex. Victorian and Australian player Tony Dodemaide played three seasons with the county from 1989 until 1991. In the 1990 limited overs cup competition Dodemaide helped Sussex dismiss the Irish national team for 72, his figures were 6 for 9 from 11 overs. Having captained Australian teams on tours to England in 1880 and 1882, Billy Murdoch was considered to be enough of a gentleman to be invited to captain Sussex. Murdoch took up this offer and later went on to represent England.
In the early history of the county championship Fred Tate followed by his son Maurice Tate were the counties leading bowlers. Fred collected 1,306 wickets for Sussex during his career and Maurice remains the leading wicket taker for the county by almost 400 wickets finished with a tally of 2,211. Where Fred was an exponent of off-spin, Maurice became a fast bowler. Maurice also had a highly regarded test match career, his 39 test matches yielding 155 wickets, and his lower order batting valuable for county and country as well.
Sussex also produced another great in Ted Dexter. Though later maligned for his stint as chairman of selectors, he was a great all-rounder for the county. The 1970-71 Ashes series brought to fame, at least in Australian eyes, the volatile and dangerous Jon Snow. The sometime poet in addition to his cricketing career was a player for Sussex for 18 seasons during the 1960s and 1970s.
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
Monday, April 11, 2011
Although not a foregone conclusion, Manchester United seem to be waddling away with the Premiership - needing to not only stumble, but actually fall over to drop top spot - so perhaps it's worth taking a look at the possible shape of the Premiership next year by examining England's second tier, the Championship.
One level removed from the big bucks there's a fantastic promotion race. Only a month ago, league-leading Queens Park Rangers seemed assured of automatic promotion but now their chances depend almost solely on an FA disciplinary hearing set for May 3rd. The Londoners, led by the abrasive Neil Warnock and bankrolled by Formula One's Bernie Ecclestone and Flavio Briatore, sat a dozen points clear on top behind a miserly defence and the silkiness of Moroccan midfielder Adel Taarabt. Now, with their lead cut to nine, they face investigation into their acquisition of Argentine midfielder Alejandro Faurlin as sources suggest he was not signed from a club side, but from a third party.
Since the Carlos Tevez saga of 2006-07 which saw Sheffield United (managed by Warnock) relegated, the FA instituted rules about the purchase of players whose rights aren't owned by club sides. If it's found the Rs have acted in breach of league regulations they could face fines or even be stripped of points. Since this is the first alleged breach since the Tevez affair, no-one knows what form any potential punishment may take. Probably in order to beef up speculation and anticipation, the Football League has scheduled the hearing for three days before the last round of matches.
The peloton chasing is full of the usual suspects and clubs seeking redemption. Norwich City occupy second position and are chasing successive promotions under Paul Lambert, the brightest of bright young things in English football management. They play an exciting style based around the talents of make-good striker Grant Holt, who has found a home after being rejected by several lower-league clubs. Playoff constants Cardiff City lie directly behind them one point adrift of the Canaries' automatic promotion slot. Their nemesis - whoever they play in the Promotion Playoffs - could well be rivals Swansea City, equal on points and goal difference and reaping the benefit of a Chelsea connection: club-record signing Scott Sinclair and loanee Fabio Borini both arrived at the club through manager Brendan Rogers' contacts. Reading sit a further three points back.
A very even season in the Premiership - one in which any of twelve clubs could go down and all three promoted sides could survive - is mirrored in the second division as all three sides promoted from League One last year could make the Promotion Playoffs: Leeds United have 64 points and Millwall 60 after arriving from the third tier with Norwich City. As the Premiership becomes more even thanks to squad limits and the Global Financial Crisis, the Championship seems to be benefiting as clubs are able sign better quality players at cutdown prices simply because they don't have a squad position at their original teams, which can only serve to benefit English football.
So late in the season and with no evidence on which to decide on any potential punishment for QPR, let's hedge our bets and suggest that should they not receive a significant points sanction, they and Norwich will qualify for automatic promotion, leaving a battle between Welsh arch-rivals for the final promotion spot. Should Rangers lose over six points in sanctions, however, all bets are off. Cardiff have experience in these situations - and thus a huge amount of baggage . Past results favour the in-form and exuberant clubs like Blackpool, Burnley, Watford and Hull, suggesting Swansea City may have the edge over their Celtic rivals.
Saturday, April 9, 2011
It’s time to revisit these predictions and wrap up the 2011 Cricket World Cup…
As you’ll see, the beauty about sport – cricket, in particular, as the game that God would play – is the very essence of its unpredictability. Sport constantly captivates by the thrill of the “unknown”.
1. THE LEADING WICKET TAKER
Logic applied in predicting the top run getter was applied to the top wicket taker: Deep run in the tournament and easier oppositions in the preliminary stages. The fact that the tournament was held in the sub-continent also goaded me in to thinking that it would be a spinner that ends as the highest wicket taker. All that seemed to work out. Except it was the wrong spinner. I picked Muralitharan but eventually, it was Shahid Afridi. (Zaheer Khan tied him at the top with two wickets in the finals but in terms of average and strike rate, Afridi beats out Khan).
Well, who’da thunk it? After nearly fifteen years on the international map, Shahid Afridi has arrived as a spinner of quality. I was surprised by both his ability to restrict runs (21 at a little under 13) and to tweak the ball – he’s shown little inclination to do either until the last two years. As for Zaheer Khan, he’s Dale Steyn’s only challenger for “World’s Best Paceman” and thoroughly deserves this accolade. Although aided by subcontinental pitches to which they’re both well accustomed, they are worthy winners. Glad I picked Khan to be up there amongst the best, but slightly surprised Lasith Malinga didn’t carry on his form after taking a shedload of wickets against Kenya.
Malinga was the obvious choice in this category for me. After missing the first couple of games a hat-trick and 6 for against Kenya set the tone for what was to come for Malinga. Whilst Afridi was the frontrunner for much of the tournament, it was Zaheer Khan who came up on the rails for a photo finish for the leading wicket taker. But Malinga must have sent a shiver down many Indian spines having removed both Sachin and Sehwag as they teetered on 31-2. Had Sri Lanka won he certainly would have got the headlines but the bowler of the tournament has to be Zaheer Khan (21 wickets at 18.76). Afridi has superior stats (21 wickets at 12.85) but Khan delivered every time India were in trouble.
As was expected, a top order batsman would end up being the highest run getter of the tournament. It was also posited that one of the teams that makes a deep run in the tournament would eventually have the chance to end up as the top run man. I predicted that it will be Sachin Tendulkar but I was not too far off. He fell short by 18 runs (the number of runs he actually scored in the finals) from becoming the joint high scorer along with Tillekaratne Dilshan.
The Sri Lankans were dominant here, with Dilshan and Sangakkara leading the way. Pat on the back for all three of us for selecting one of the top-15 runscorers. Looking through that list, congratulations go to the Netherlands’ Ryan ten Doeschate who finished 13th after playing only six matches, with two centuries. Only his mediocre supporting cast kept him off the All-Tournament Team. In the future, look for him to make a healthy living following T20 competitions around the world – it appears he’s Andrew Symonds with a brain.
Hashim Amla did not have a bad tournament by a “normal” batsman’s standards but his 306 runs (1 century and 2 fifties) at 43.71 is not a patch on his form from the turn of 2010 to the start of the World Cup where he scored 1300 runs at an average of 72 and recorded 6 centuries. Had South Africa progressed further he could have been up there with the likes of Sachin and Dilshan.
THE SURPRISE PACKAGE
This is where my prognostication skills fell flat on its face. I had seen enough of this lad, Ahmed Shehzad, during Pakistan’s tour of New Zealand and was influenced by how easily he handled the NZ bowlers. He performed so badly that he was dropped from the XI and was replaced by none other than Mr. Butterfinger, Kamran Akmal to open Pakistan’s batting. As far as bad predictions go, this is absolutely the worst, or best… depending on how you look at it.
The award must surely go to New Zealand and their fairytale run to their World Cup Spiritual Home, the Semi-Finals. No-one picked them to make it that far boasting a side looking more suited to District Seconds. In a fit of jingoistic patriotism, I picked Australia’s four-pronged pace attack, exposed the instant the Skippies debarked in Chennai to discover low, slow turning pitches. Slow pitches in India? No!! Fiends! Gary Kirsten 3, Andrew Hilditch 0 (as usual).
Brett Lee and Australia were chosen as the surprise package but they didn’t want to face a red-hot India so early in the quarter finals. Australia never seemed to gain momentum in the tournament and their performance in the group stages against Pakistan seemed to signal their fate. Ironically this was the game in which Brett Lee excelled most claiming 4 for 28. Lee was probably the brightest spark in the tournament for Australia with 13 wickets at an average of 18. The biggest surprise of the tournament was the incredible bowling from a previously reluctant Shahid Afridi.
MOST VALUABLE PLAYER
Considering it was held in India and the final was to be held in Mumbai, which is the backyard of you-know-who, the romantic in me envisioned a scenario/script that even Hollywood would have been proud of. I thought this would have the ideal platform for Sachin Tendulkar to say sayonara to the 50-overs game with the trophies in his hand. But it ended up being Yuvraj. However, all the India players have repeated ad infinitum that they wanted to win this one “For Sachin”. So, Yuvraj won his MVP trophy “For Sachin” as well, which makes my pick a correct one. Correct?
Yuvraj Singh? That’s as much of a surprise as Shahid Afridi learning how to bowl, Brett Lee being regarded as “Australia’s accurate one” or Shane Watson playing without dyed hair. Up until now, Yuvraj may have been the second- or third-most talented cricketer in the world from the neck down; now he has a World Cup winner’s medal and, consequently, an infinitely more interesting/varied sex life. I selected Sangakkara – not a bad pick – and would have nearly died laughing had you told me Yuvraj was going to own this World Cup.
MVP for the tournament was Yuvraj who claimed 15 wickets at 25 and scored 362 valuable runs at an average of 86. That makes him the 6th highest wicket taker and the 8th highest runscorer not to even mention his finishing skills epitomised in the magical 57 off 65 to ease past Australia in the quarter final. Few all rounders in world cricket would have been capable to have such a dramatic impact on the tournament with both bat and ball. I went for Amla. How wrong could I be yet again?
2011 CRICKET WORLD CUP DREAM TEAM
My pre-tournament 12 went like this: Sachin Tendulkar, Shane Watson, Jacques Kallis, Kumar Sangakkara, Cameron White, Angelo Mathews, Yusuf Pathan, Shahid Afridi, Muralitharan, Lasith Malinga, Zaheer Khan and Dale Steyn. Looking at the “World Cup XI” selected by Cricinfo, I seem to have picked at least 7 of the 12 right. Two of my picks – Pathan and White – hardly did anything of note, and Kallis’ world cup ended before he got in to stride and Mathews’ ended at the most inopportune time for Sri Lanka. All in all, a very respectable performance from me, wouldn’t you say?
Like Dave, I selected six of the Dream Team correctly. Like Subash, I was seduced into selecting Yusuf Pathan and Cameron White only to be repaid with tournaments which should preclude their national selection ever again. They really were that bad. In retrospect, it was also poor form to exclude Murali for Daniel Vettori.
Pre tournament Dream Team…
1. Virender Sehwag, 2. Hashim Amla, 3. Kumar Sangakarra (w) (c), 4. Sachin Tendulkar, 5. Jacques Kallis, 6. Shane Watson, 7. Yusuf Pathan, 8. Zaheer Khan, 9. Dale Steyn, 10. Lasith Malinga, 11. Muttiah Muralitharan
Post Tournament Dream Team…
1. Dilshan, 2. Sachin, 3. Sangakkara, 4. Trott, 5. AB De Villiers, 6. Yuvraj Singh, 7. Shahid Afridi, 8. Zaheer Khan, 9. Dale Steyn, 10. Lasith Malinga, 11. Muttiah Muralitharan
The fact that there are only 6 out of the 11 predictions in my team of the tournament suggests some woeful predictions. Pathan looked like being the X factor prior to the tournament but hardly got a look in. That’s testament to the wealth of young exciting crop of players India has at their disposal. Jonathan Trott was Mr consistency yet again but with no batting partner at the other end, times are tough. The 3 additional names of Dilshan, Yuvraj and Afridi were just immense. Had De Villiers not been run out in the quarter final, then things could have been much different for South Africa. But their record of never winning a knock out game in the World Cup remains in tact.
THE “ACE” IN THE HOLE
This is one category that I absolutely nailed. It was a “straight out of left field” pick for me but turned out to be spot on. I had picked Yuvraj Singh, not because I think I’m a genius (only a little), but more out of hope for Team India. If India were to win, the lower middle order had to produce crucial runs as well as provide options in the bowling department. Yuvraj won 4 man-of-the-match awards, scoring excess of 300 runs and taking 13 wickets, most of them partnership breaking wickets and earned the “Man of the Tournament” award in the process.
Didn’t really excel here as I chose Johan Botha, who was fair, but not outstanding for South Africa. I was quite pleased that Tim Southee did well (18 wickets at 17.33) – his stock has moved from “Evolutionary Chris Martin” into “Evolutionary Danny Morrison”, the difference being Morrison was able to carry the attack by himself, while Martin’s famous more for his silky skills with the bat (yes, I’m being sarcastic).
Ajantha Mendis couldn’t have been further from the Ace in the Hole in this tournament. That honour goes to Yuvraj Singh for his unlikely fireworks. But Mendis was one of the best bowlers in the tournament with 7 wickets at an average of 19. He was by far and away the most economical bowler in the entire tournament going at 3.14 runs per over. India (who had “figured him out”) would have been as delighted as Mendis was devastated that Sri Lanka made widespread changes for the final and left him out.
2011 CRICKET WORLD CUP WINNERS
India was my pick. I even got the final match up right. I was expecting more from South Africa but they taught us all a lesson in wrapping one’s hands firmly around one’s throat. My picks for semifinals were India, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa. It happened to be that Australia faced India and South Africa, the mighty cricketing nation of New Zealand. On paper, India had the best batting lineup of the top 5 nations and perhaps the weakest bowling and fielding side. However, they kicked it up so many notches in the knockout stages that, as an Indian fan, it was a sight to behold.
Sri Lanka and India played off in the final, as was expected. I had expected India to choke at some stage, crumbling like paneer under the expectations of a billion-plus people on their shoulders, and were too reliant on Zaheer Khan. As he took 21-for the tournament, turns out that wasn’t a flawed plan, but a master-stroke. Gary Kirsten 3, Tipsters 0.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-choke. The World Cup winner was going to be between the two chokers – India and South Africa – for me. I believed each side had the best teams on paper and I still believe that. But South Africa lived up to their label whilst India were by far and away the best team in the tournament. South Africa’s elimination to the hands of New Zealand was destined to be the most one sided quarter final but Jacob Oram had other ideas claiming 4 for 39 as a comfortable chase became misery yet again.
Friday, April 8, 2011
Thursday, April 7, 2011
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Having just moved to Seattle, being somewhat of an NBA history-phile and having just joined the public library, I was intrigued to come across Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories. The work is a collection of anecdotes by Slick Watts, who during the seventies was the most popular athlete in the state of Washington. They even made him Grand Marshal of of the Sea King. Twice. Not sure what that means, but he's pretty chuffed about it. It's a short, ninety-minute long read about Bad Old Times of the NBA - the 1970s - where public perception of the league was that it was populated by overpaid, oversexed and overcoked players.
Perhaps the best thing about Watts' story is that it isn't overdone in any way, an admirable trait considering sporting autobiographies are invariably either overplay the grittiness or are too self-congratulatory. In this work - one of a series of Player X's Team Y Stories - he includes several references to his on-court play, yet just as much to team dynamics, his relationship with his coaches and how he became so iconic.
The first player ever to rock the baldie and headband, the writing style matches the way Watts' played - a series of short anecdotes, herky-jerky and with really only the bare facts laid out on paper. He doesn't delve too deep into any one particular issue or relive too many moments on court, just seems to shell out featherweight anecdotes like he's finding shooters in the corners; like Slick's play it's inconsistent and has several holes and lacks depth of context. This is an autobiography, so tunnel vision is forgiveable, but not when it leaves the reader asking if there's a bigger picture that we're not seeing.
He devotes an entire chapter to his first NBA coach, Bill Russell. He's honest about the Celtic great, suggesting him a poor coach with an alpha-dog mentality. This attitude meant he was unable to cope with popular players, often benching them simply for being popular enough to overshadow the great Russell. His words "I had a love/hate relationship with Russ. Most players had a hate/hate relationship with him" are particularly telling and fits in with what I've read previously about Russ: confirming once and for all his place as sport's greatest ever a***hole (and that's against some pretty stiff competition - I've met Dean Jones).
Describing his time in Seattle and with Russell - who coached Watts for four seasons - takes up a fair amount of his meagre word count. During his tenure with the organisation, he played with ABA expats Jim McDaniels, John Brisker and Spencer Haywood as well as some Seattle greats like "Downtown" Freddie Brown and Jack Sikma. Unfortunately you get very little detail about any of these guys, few character pieces and are left only with the feeling that some probably should have had to work in order to stick as Watts did rather than being guaranteed their money.
What's more interesting is his description of how and why he became such a marketing boon to the organisation Simply, Slick Watts is a friendly, outgoing guy who reflects well on first, second and forty-fifth meetings. He doesn't come out and say so in the book, but it's easy to infer that he just likes people and enjoys being around others. The average NBA player in the 1970s had to make three personal appearances per year. In 1977, Slick Watts made over three hundred and was simply unable to say no to anyone who asked him for help - it was an attitude like that which earned him Two Sea King Grand Marshal gongs.
After Russell was replaced by Bob Hopkins and then Lenny Wilkens, the book takes a sharp turn as Wilkens decided that Watts didn't fit his mould, subsequently trading him to New Orleans. Watts details Wilkens saying "There isn't room in town for the both of us", supporting his argument that Wilkens has never been a good coach of "stars". Unfortunately here's where poetic licence comes in - Watts was a good player, but never even approached great with major fundamental flaws like defense and shooting - and while it's true Wilkens got the best out of rosters without superduperstar talent and history says that after the trade in 1977-78, the Sonics went to the NBA Finals and won the Championship the following year.
You can tell even though he's honest, happy and forthright, he still hasn't fully come to terms with being traded to basketball purgatory from a city he practically owned. Bitter isn't the right word at all - he's still the happy, go-lucky Slick - but the reader's left thinking that perhaps it just was the right mix of player, team, city and personality which would be impossible to recreate anywhere else. Given Watts has moved back to Seattle and teaches physical education to primary school kids, the affinity he has for the city is obvious and pleasing to read. After his Seattle departure the book falls away as quickly as Slick's NBA career did. He was King of Seattle in 1977; out of the league by 1980.
Entertaining, especially for basketball history buffs, but ultimately Slick Watts' Seattle SuperSonic Stories is a lightweight piece suited for an easy Sunday afternoon's reading. As usual, the best tales are about ABA expats (in this case Jim McDaniels and John Brisker). The final, definitive lesson to take from Slick's first entry into authordom: Bill Russell was, and probably always will be, a tool of the first water.
After firing the most successful manager in A-League history, Ernie Merrick, the Melbourne Victory are in need of a new manager to strategize their Asian Champions' League cause and begin the inevitable rebuilding. The biggest name linked with the job is Roy Keane, late of Sunderland and Ipswich Town.
Local candidates are few: the A-League tends to opt either for recycled coaches or big-name import signings, so unless Melbourne opt to employ a retread, likely their arch-nemesis John Kosmina, their next boss is likely to come from overseas. The list of retread managers reads as long as Kevin Muscat's rap-sheet: Branko Culina (famous mostly for being Jason's dad), Miron Bleiberg, Kosmina and Graeme Arnold. Furthermore, both current and former Roar bosses (Ange Postecoglu and Frank Farina) are made up of old tin cans to resemble old NSL managers.
This points to an obvious leadership vacuum in the top tier of Australian domestic football. Within the past five years, only Aurelio Vidmar has successfully transitioned from player to top-flight coach. A few of the former Adelaide boss's compatriots - Muscat and our former centre-back Tonys (Vidmar and Popovic) most notably - have dabbled in management, becoming the next generation as they were members of the Golden Generation. The absence of young managerial talent means the league relies on imports.
So-called glamour team Sydney FC has opted most often for imports: first Pierre Littbarski, then England hero Terry Butcher. After Butcher, they went the recycled route with Culina and Kosmina before searching overseas for current coach Czech Vitezslav Lavicka, who brought the A-League Championship back to Sydney in 2010.
After a torrid campaign which will see the retirement of Muscat and Merrick losing his "walks on water" status, the Victory appear close to signing Roy Keane to lead them for season 2011-12. It would be a relative coup, given the stature of the club and the massive reputation Keane brings with him and as such would provide a massive publicity boost for the nascent competition. Apparently - unsurprisingly - Keane's reported $1 million per year wage demands are proving a stumbling block but he hasn't dismissed a move which could revitalise his management career, currently stalled after walking out on Sunderland and departing Ipswich Town.
It certainly seems like a good match - a high-profile coach needing to rebuild his reputation, willing to do so out of the spotlight in Australia for a couple of years and bringing a blend of toughness and experience no-one in Australia can match. After he departs, the Victory could then hand the reins over to manager-in-waiting Muscat. It's also a big gamble by both coach and club.
An intense - perhaps even bordering on sociopathic - character, Keane has two great strengths - his experience and reputation. His experience should allow him to gleam both tactically and as a teacher without spending large sums of money. During his initial stint in management, he transformed Sunderland, languishing at the bottom of the Championship, into runaway competition winners within six months without any expense. The Mackems then established themselves in the Premiership with a number of adept signings. His reputation should help attract better calibre players to the club and league: youngsters will flock to learn from him, older stars looking for one last pay cheque will see him legitimise the six-year old league.
He'll also be inspired to coach, given he's running out of managerial chances. It's not his last chance to be sure, but his stock has fallen enormously since touted as a possible Fergie replacement at United. If he is half the teacher and tactician he was as a field-general, he will be a success in Melbourne, and will be able to take a middling job in club management back in Europe within three years. Melbourne would land on their feet, as this would allow Muscat a chance to complete his coaching badges and cut his teeth in the front office before being thrown to the wolves.
There are plenty of downsides, too. The intensity that Keane is famous for worked against him on Wearside as players tired of his abrasive nature. He reportedly took steps to curb that side of his nature when in charge of Ipswich, but questions must be asked as to his ability to control both his temper and body language. The same passion which would demand exacting skill, tactical obedience and professionalism could also be used to intimidate players out of performing - in Australia, the most successful coaches tend to be those who follow the "Softly, Softly" approach.
Though apparently a more restrained character than during his time at United, it's almost never been a failing of the brain which has curtailed his career, but of his temper. If he had the stones to publicly question the standard of United trainees (current Red Devil stalwarts Darren Fletcher and John O'Shea the subject of his ire), he is likely to be supremely disappointed in Australia's youth, obviously of a standard far below any Carrington washout. It's becoming clear that what makes Roy Keane such a formidable competitor is also his greatest downfall.
Add to these factors his curious penchant for signing washouts - El Hadji Diouf, anyone? - which made his transfer record in England break-even at best. In Australia, transfer budgets are a fraction of what they are overseas, suggesting Keane will have to reinvent himself as a teacher, a boss who focuses on coaching and man-management rather than squad refreshment. This could be a real positive for the club and indeed for Keane himself. Like it or not, European bosses are graded on two factors - their deftness in the transfer market and their ability to get the most from their charges. If he can firmly prove his credentials as a man-manager, his stock will rise again.
Victory CEO Gary Cole must balance Roy's pros and cons very carefully before committing to the Irishman. As much as Keane is running out of legitimate management chances, it's not like he needs this to work - should the team fail with him in charge, he can discredit the A-League as a "bush-league" and walk away. For a man with his reputation, there will always be more chances, but as his magical 06-07 with Sunderland fades into the background, they are likely to be in locations more and more remote. Take for example Tony Adams, currently rippin' it up in Azerbaijan. The A-League would be happy with one season, the Victory with two.
Ultimately, should Keane and the Victory come to an arrangement which sees him lead the club, it must be taken with a grain of salt. Roy Keane is in this for one reason - the finance and time to overhaul his coaching image - and that's OK. That's no different to any other coaches. But his reputation comes at such a heavy financial cost that it must be labelled a gamble. Questions remain as to whether the A-League's financial climate is suited to such an expensive roll of the dice.