Friday, January 28, 2011

A glimpse of the future, courtesy of Kevin Muscat's horror tackle

In the initial rehearsals for the A-League Melbourne derby at the Docklands Stadium six days ago, everything was thrown akimbo by an ad-libbing Victory captain Kevin Muscat. The script read "Muscat tackles Zahra in his usual fashion", leaving all else to interpretation. On the night, Kevin Muscat read it in his own GBH-inducing style, while Melbourne Heart youngster Adrian Zahra played fall guy. Referee Chris Beath refrained from any further riffing and went by what was down on the page and finally yesterday the A-League went in a completely different but predictable direction.

The possible end of Kevin Muscat's playing career has been predictably overshadowed by the predictability of his manner of departure - a temper tantrum and a new career-best "Worst Ever Tackle". His 80th-minute challenge on Zahra, who has had season-ending knee surgery as a result, made Nigel de Jong's World Cup Final flykick of Xabi Alonso look like a walk-on massage offered by the most petite of Asian women. Regrettably for the A-League's most eloquent and approachable front-man it's not the only time he's lost control of his emotions; Kevin Muscat sports a file the size of the fight in the dog. He returned to Australia allegedly "The Most Hated man in Britain" after swinging his battleaxe pins into the likes of Craig Bellamy, Christophe Dugarry and Charlton Athletic player Matty Holmes. The last case resulted in a leg broken in four places from 1998 incident and Holmes successfully suing Muscat for damages.

Though he's had a solid career at home, in the UK and representing Australia, any sentence used to describe him must include the words "temperamental", "destructive" and "reckless". The largest consequence for Muscat now, aged 37 could be for his future in the sport. Since his return to the toddler A-League in 2005 he has often acted as a type of de facto league spokesman, a respected angry-grandfather figure and leader for the youth that the A-League was set up to develop. He could also distribute to that youth all he'd learned during a twenty-year pro career encompassing the old, strife-strewn, partisan NSL, England's Championship and Premiership and the SPL. When in 2006 Graeme Arnold was forced to choose a squad for an Asian Cup Qualifier solely comprised of A-League talent, there was no question who was to captain the side: Muscat, who led the team to a 2-0 victory away in Kuwait in the last of his fifty-one Socceroo caps. The public loved Muscy, especially in Melbourne and he parlayed this newfound acceptance into positions in punditry and journalism. It even seemed to mellow - slightly - the firebrand as, when he found himself in confrontation with Adelaide United gaffer John Kosmina it was the older Kosmina who was the aggressor and suspendee while the Victory skipper did nothing but smile at his rival's loss of control. Kevin Muscat, it was traditionally accepted, would succeed Ernie Merrick as the next manager of the Victory, providing just the right mix of insight, passion and tactical skills to interest new fans and sate the established masses.

As time wore on the Muscat public image, so flawed but polished, began to burnish as the form that made him famous in England became an issue for A-League supporters. The guy who disputed every anti-Melbourne or anti-Muscat refereeing decision with overwhelming disbelief that they could deign to make such calls against him; the man who instigated and began to brandish his battleaxe boots with more relish than in the league's earliest days. Perhaps as his waning legspeed vanished he was forced into inappropriate positions from which tackle but still felt he had to; maybe the Victory midfield wasn't providing the same cover for the centre-halves. Whatever the reasons though, over his six A-League years Muscat has retreated from the controlled challenges of his early return and again taken up hands with his demons - or more correctly demon, singular, which is overintensity. Not only was this most recent incident reprehensible, but his reaction more telling: a risible, laughable tirade at the referee for daring to show him a straight red. It was Muscat's second red card in succession.

Though deservedly and obviously penitent in public it's now time where Kevin Muscat must ask if he is really suited to a career in football after his playing days end. The talk of him being Crown Prince to the Victory's management has receded into white noise and given his inability or unwillingness to control a temper as short as the supporting cast of "Snow White" he should begin to query if he has the ability to do as all good managers and set a balanced tone for his team. It's the company head who defines a that's organisation's strategies and market tactics as well as, most importantly, its culture. In football management, the same principles apply and the manager dictates a playing group's mentality. The best example of this may be Jose Mourinho, who at all of his four managerial stops has convinced his players that they are a small group up against all the world can hurl at them. The question for Muscat is whether a man with obvious on-field self-control issues really enforce ideals in others that require even a modicum of discipline? If he remains ignorant of this quandary, perhaps we need look no further for an answer to Muscat's managerial suitability. And if he isn't asking himself these questions he can rest safely knowing both the Victory's owners, the A-League, the FFA and television executives all over Australia are.

Roy Keane, though patently much more talented, was a similar style of player. A "hard man" who seemed to love the title and sharing with Muscat both the ability to lead those around him, the knack of teaching and the same penchant for both on-field self-destruction twinn'd with career-ruining tackles. But his career in management has been spotty - early success with Sunderland, followed by a quick exit and a recent unfulfilling spell at Championship Ipswich. A notorious one for confrontation there were times during his Wearside reign where players admitted they were afraid of him and his fuse of questionable length. It's quite possible that if he remains unable to rein in his explosiveness, then Muscat may suffer the same fallibilities, no matter how talented a teacher and leader he is. The future of Kevin Muscat in the A-League both as a player and as a coach or commentator remains murky and very much under his control. It's not too late for Muscy to repair some of the damage done to his credentials but soon it will be.

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