About Me

Football purist, realist and general sports fanatic. Interested in all aspects of the game, from all corners of the earth.

Friday, 29 November 2013

Kimmage's Endless Pursuit for Justice

Paul Kimmage looks toward his mantelpiece, home to six consecutive British Sports Interviewer of the Year awards, wondering how many more would have saved his job. No other industry in the world would consider such success obsolete, yet the world of journalism is different. When The Sunday Times relieved one of their prized assets of his duties in 2011 the former cyclist initially accepted the decision but as time progressed he considers himself an employee sacrificed due to his determined reporting.

Coolock reared Kimmage, a crusader against doping in sport, is particularly passionate about the sport that gave him such a journalistic platform. He believes the relationship between his former employers and the sport’s leading team Sky (both fall under Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. umbrella) stands as an impermeable barrier to the reporting at the paper which has exposed a number of cheats in the past.

At the beginning of the year Kimmage told Frankfurter Allgemeine “you look at how dominant their teams were: Postal for Armstrong, Sky for Wiggins. They had a core of four, five riders, who rode strongly for three weeks without one single weak day. Is that logical”?

The absence of the critical journalism surrounding Sky from The Sunday Times that helped dethrone Lance Armstrong over the past decade has resulted in the fracture of the Dubliners friendship with fellow reporter David Walsh, who still works at The Times. While the duo used holiday together with their families in the past and speak five times in a quiet week, there has been no communication in almost five months.

“There is a little bit more to it, the fact that I was shafted and he might have done more, but ultimately it’s about the stuff he’s written about Sky in the last few months”.

The two time winner of the William Hill Sports Book of the Year feels the fundamental difference between himself and Walsh is that the matter has always been more than writing for him, coming from a family with a strong cycling background. Walsh’s role in his life cannot be overstated. Kimmage owes his second career to his fellow Irishman; he first met him the day he first met his own wife, Anne. “He’s been an incredible mentor, anything I ever learned about the business I’ve learned from David”.

The regret is obvious in his voice, as to be expected for a man with enough close friends to count on one hand. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, whether I’m going to pick up the phone or he’s going to or whether the phone will ever be picked up”.

This isn’t an isolated instance in the 51 year old’s career however; his personal and professional lives have dove-tailed since he was a young road cyclist. He was born the same year his father, Christy, became the Irish national champion, and was destined to work within the sport. However after publishing Rough Ride, his account of life in the drug-fuelled peloton, his family who were deeply immersed within the cycling community found themselves ostracised.

His anger at the recently disposed president of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) Pat McQuaid is amplified by the close relationship the two once shared. Last year McQuaid filed a defamation case against his fellow Dubliner in response to allegations that the organisation aided a cover-up surrounding a failed drugs test from Lance Armstrong. “Hate is a strong word”, declares Kimmage, attempting to force himself to rise above such an emotion, “but I’ve known this guy since I was five years of age, my father managed him, I’ve known his family way back and when I see the efforts he made to destroy me knowing I was telling the truth, there’s no other way to describe it”.

In the last month, to the Rough Rider author’s reflief, new UCI President Brian Cookson informed him that all UCI legal action against him has been dropped as he attempts to cleanse the sport from corruption. While initially skeptical as a result of Cookson’s previous role in the UCI, the writer has been encouraged by his early work at the helm.

“Since he has taken over he’s been making changes, he got rid of (Philippe) Verbiest (UCI legal council), he brought in a security firm to secure laptops so that when an investigation takes place medical information on riders will be available and he’s talking with WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) and USADA (US Anti-Doping Agency)… he’s going to need time but he’s made a positive start”

Time is necessary as the culture within the sport is as bad as ever, as is the prevailing attitude of the majority of professional cyclists. Kimmage, currently ghost writing Brian O’Driscoll’s autobiography, is extremely critical of Ireland’s own Nicolas Roche for joining a team under the leadership of Bjarne Riis and Alberto Contador, two previous Tour de France winners with asterisks next to their name.

In an extract from his upcoming autobiography At Speed Mark Cavendish’s argues “we’re asked to comment on Armstrong and have our morals judged on the strength of what we say when a lot of us are too preoccupied to have an opinion”. Kimmage’s interprets these quotes as further proof that the attitude of current cyclists translates to “I care about cycling, but mostly I care about what I can earn from it, what it can do for me… and that’s not good enough”.

His suggestions for Brian Cookson are undoubtedly ambitious but he considers them necessary. He feels it’s essential to show the riders that talking about doping is positive. Putting himself in Cookson’s shoes, he begins assertively tapping the plate his coffee has been presented on. “For every media gathering in my first term I would insist each team stands up and declares ‘firstly we’re going to talk about doping. Is there anything you’re not happy with? Any member of staff you’re not happy with? Anything about our performances that are raising your suspicions?’ The message that this would send out is that it is good that this is so high on the agenda”.

After speaking for over sixty minutes about his admiration of the sport and how it can finally turn the corner under new leadership Paul speaks conclusively on the future of cycling. “I’m not convinced at all (cycling can be cured), it’s so deep-rooted now”. Potentially he regards the Tour de France as the most fantastic sporting event in the world, but his battle scars prevent him from seeing any hope upon the horizon.

The conflict that has shaped Paul Kimmage’s life the most is the one within him. The pain the sport has inflicted on him over the past 30 years has damaged his professional and personal life, yet he just can’t ignore it. “I don’t know why I keep fighting, when I went back in July I felt maybe it would come full-circle for me, (I could) move on with my life. But if I walked away, I’d have given up.”

“I’m not sure I’ll go back next year” he ponders as I reach to switch off my recorder. Eight seconds later he hopes his new employers at the Irish Independent ask him, because he’ll definitely go.

Monday, 28 October 2013

The Special One V2

Jose Mourinho is either lying or he has been fooled by the milkman, because neither the man-child bear-hugging the Chelsea manager during his exuberant celebration after defeating Manchester City nor the red-haired youngster next to him share much of a resemblance to the Portuguese protagonist. Maybe one of these is Mourinho Jr., who’s to say Jose’s son isn’t a supporter of Leitrim GAA like the beaming young fan pictured behind the City bench on Sunday afternoon? However if we take the past into consideration we can cut through the superfluous excuse spewed out of Mourinho’s mouth with Occam’s Razor. The self-anointed Special One had zero interest in celebrating with his son after Fernando Torres capitalised on City’s defensive combustion at Stamford Bridge, his actions were provocative, premeditated and unprofessional; his intent was vintage Mourinho.

For a manager who merges football with the extravagancy of showbiz like no other Sunday was a nadir. Jose ran out of new ideas to shock the audience and reignite the feud with his predecessor at Real Madrid Manuel Pellegrini so he reverted to a stale trick, previously performed at the Bernabeu two seasons ago after a Kaka goal sealed a victory late on over Villareal. Mourinho danced in front of the Yellow Submarines’ bench, emphatically raising his arms at his son who was (supposedly) conveniently located behind their dugout. Repeating his once original antics yesterday was proof that Mourinho just doesn’t do effortless irritation as gloriously as he used to.

Mourinho’s managerial career began with a lie in Portugal. During a meeting with the Porto board in January 2002 the then 38 year old dazzled his future employers by narrating a detailed slide-show he had created highlighting the vision and philosophy he promised to bring to the provincial powerhouse were he given the keys at the club.

Under Mourinho the club would aspire to win the largest number of titles possible playing an attractive brand of football with a team containing as many home-grown players as possible. As time progressed it became clear the 28 slides were blatant plagiarism, cut from a longer presentation Louis VanGaal gave to the Barcelona board at the beginning of his time in Catalonia, yet the Porto board were unaware of this at the time and fortunately hired Mourinho on the spot.

Once he had got his leg up however, he was never going to stop. Love him or loathe him, the fifty year old is an insanely great manager, pairing exceptional tactical nous with an extraordinary ability to inspire his charges to bring him success.

Samuel Eto’o thanks God for delivering him to Mourinho at Inter Milan, while the Portuguese carefully caressed Zlatan Ibrahimovic with silk gloves, creating a symbiotic relationship between the pair where Zlatan would get the goals and “be prepared to die” for his boss, while Jose would get the glory. Mourinho is obsessed with two things; success and his image, how he is perceived. At Real Madrid he insisted on sitting in seat D10 on away journeys in the Champions League as Real attempted to finally win La Decima (10th European Cup). 

Rationally, any fan of any team would cherish Mourinho at their club as he comes with inevitable success. However sport isn’t the most rational sphere of human activity. Greece succeeding in Euro 2004, Liverpool fans thinking “I don’t speak to blacks” is a term of endearment, that Newcastle fan punching a horse; none of those things should happen (actually, maybe the last one should).

Ethically you could make a case for never wanting to see the man at the helm of your club. As Mourinho announced at his unveiling as Real Madrid manager he comes on his terms: “I arrive with all my qualities and my defects." His qualities have been mentioned already, his defects? Well, there’s a strong case to be made that the sole display of class during his career has been when he wished Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova well in his recovery from cancer. While a noble act, it’s not too idealistic to have taken this as a given.

Events like the previous eye-gouging incident with Vilanova and his contribution to the death-threats which led to Anders Frisk’s retirement have not only sabotaged Mourinho’s reputation but also his cv. Football-wise he tends to leave a trail of scorched earth behind him following his definite three-year stay at clubs, a trait unlikely to go unnoticed by clubs searching for a stable and successful marriage. After years of public courting Jose was ignored this summer when the one job he felt destined for became available.

Jose Mourinho’s first clash with Alex Ferguson at Chelsea in August 2004 resulted in a 1-0 victory but also a rather forced admission of inferiority: "I told Mr. Ferguson that United didn't deserve to leave Stamford Bridge with nothing." Jose Mourinho’s last clash with Alex Ferguson resulted in a 2-1 victory but also another rather forced admission of inferiority: “The best team lost”.

Bobby Charton and the powers that be at United didn’t take the bait. “He pontificates too much for my liking” claimed Charlton, as well as suggesting ‘Mr. Ferguson’ wasn’t as fond of his peer as had been suggested and stating a United manager would never act like the man publicly whoring himself to the red half of Manchester.

Wounded, he has returned to the Premier League under the guise of ‘The Happy One’ but make no mistake, this is Special One v2, inspired by rejection and fuelled with the bitterness of a teenage girl whose best friend pulled the county centre-back behind her back. There will be even more arrogance, every word will be loaded with political meaning and aimed at a particular target; every action will want to have been seen.

The Prodigal Son has returned having seemingly seen the light, his new aversion to diving and cynical fouls reinforced by his love for the Red Rose of England. "Some foreign players when they come to England still keep their culture and it's a disgrace you do that to a person”. Even time-wasting is treated with contempt: ”you pay your ticket and every time the game stops you have to wait about half a minute? That is a waste of money. That’s not funny. Not in England”.

Jose Mourinho can survive on lies, if anything lies are essential to his being. However the first sign of terminal decline is telling the same lie twice, and this red flag has been raised after just nine games of the season.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Spirits of the Invincible

Regardless of how well we cope with an unthinkable new dawn the spirits of our loved ones will continue to sneak into our perspective. Arsenal fans found it impossible to relate to almost a decade of footballing inadequacy, constantly buckling under any degree of pressure, annually forced into a dangerous state of repair with the sale of their most coveted gem. With every disastrous set-piece the famous back five of the George Graham Era sat to feast like Banquo’s ghost, every unimaginative attacking performance only heightened the desire to reminisce over The Invincibles. But now the circle appears to be rounding, with the ghosts of Arsene Wenger’s earlier teams having returned, channeled through the Frenchman himself.

For nine years and counting Arsenal’s seasons have resembled the Russian folk song Kalinika, fluctuating on an almost weekly basis from scintillating performances threatening to over-whelm every challenger to tepid, resoundingly vulnerable displays. However this season, following the club’s most recent nadir of a home defeat to Aston Villa, The Gunners have found the consistency they’ve lacked in recent years. Following eight games they sit top of the league and while it’s probably premature to consider them concrete title contenders, this side does appear to possess the variety needed in attack to sustain a challenge over the course of a demanding season.

The primary reason for Arsenal’s improvement has been the recent addition of the apparition of the Non Flying Dutchman. In Mesut Ozil Wenger’s side have acquired a genuinely world class talent and arguably the best player in England. Ozil is incapable of errors, every choice he has to make on the pitch echoes perfection. The direction of his running, the weight of passing; his vision, enthusiasm and ability to find a pocket of space in the final third of the pitch is unmatched in Europe. A premier ten like Ozil is, regardless of the lazy moniker, a vintage Arsenal player. Having watched Robin van Persie soar and inspire Manchester United to the Premiership title last season Arsene Wenger and Ivan Gazidas knew that when a player of the German’s seemingly effortless calibre becomes available you act first and think about where he will fit later. As Brian Phillips noted, the signing was Wenger waving his middle finger to the pragmatism that suggested he could only restore his legacy in North London by shifting his emphasis to those who pick the fruits rather than those who group them into an appetising bowl.

Ozil doesn’t act alone however. Wenger has gathered a collection of attacking playmakers, allowing him to vary his tactical options going forward. The Alsatian selected a team comprised purely of intelligent ball-players against Napoli in the absence of the threat brought by the frantic and frenzied Theo Walcott. For a manager often bizarrely criticized for his lack of tactical intuition Wenger deserves full credit for handing his players the offensive liberty they have started the campaign with. On Saturday against Norwich the alchemy of the attacking trident of Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Ozil (sprinkled with a pinch of the unrecognizable Aaron Ramsey of this year) was brewed in Wenger’s raunchiest dreams.

Naturally this results in a lack of clean sheets. However that just makes this team even more compelling. You score two and we’ll score three football is what we aspire to see when we sit down to watch sports.

Wenger has persevered with much over the past decade. Financially the club was handcuffed to the goalposts, forced to watch cherished friends frolic towards pastures new. Cesc Fabregas, van Persie, even ginger stepsons like Alex Song and Emmanuel Adebayor were lured away from The Emirates’ pristine surface by artificially greener grass elsewhere. If Samir Nasri is to be believed (I know, like handing Bernie Madoff a suitcase with forty thousand pounds in it and asking him to drive to the nearest Audi dealership to pick you up a sparkling A6, just hear me out) Wenger has been forced to sell assets at the orders of Stan Kroenke. "Wenger told me that, if Cesc left, I would stay, but Kroenke wanted the money”, Nasri claimed while looking idle in Manchester.

In the midst of his most challenging seasons yet fans wanted the stubborn Frenchman to open up, admit his errors and change his ways. Ramsey was a mid-table write-off, Olivier Giroud proof of the deficiencies in the club's once admired scouting system. Both players have been integral in the opening months of the current campaign. Giroud has enjoyed torturing opposition centre-halves on a weekly basis, holding the ball up with distinction and redirecting passes to teammates when he’s been bored. It is Ramsey however who is rewarding Wenger the most. After years of average displays and shifts out wide his form has been sensational, as well as boasting a goal-return similar to Cesc Fabregas's break-out campaign in 2007/08. The Welshman protects and passes the ball similarly to Arteta, however he also provides composure in front of goal nowadays and a thrust from the centre of the pitch.

Naturally at this early stage it’s too early to claim Arsenal are the finished article, particularly having been gifted the easiest opening fixtures the league has to offer (it can’t last forever, but maybe it can last until next week’s clash with Crystal Palace). However in a league where no team at the top appears to be considerably better than another, Arsenal can claim to have as good a chance as any of their competitors. Aside from the litter of creative midfielders the squad is light on bodies , with a huge onus on Giroud as the club’s single proven striker, while Mathieu Flamini’s absence restored the uncertainty in Arsenal’s defence after his enforced substitution at the weekend. However compared to recent seasons Arsenal are enjoying a Caribbean cruise rather than a Himalayan hike.

Arsene Wenger has made mistakes in the last few years and like any romantic he will continue to do so. He knows each one and how he could have rectified them too, he’s just too stubborn to admit it. However the best thing Arsenal fans can do is to persevere with Wenger for as long as he pleases, because the longer his epoch goes on and on, the odds on his ghost looming over North London in the future get smaller and smaller. You don't know what you've got until it's gone.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Los Bastardos

Don’t pull any punches; they wouldn’t want it any other way. This Atletico Madrid team are bastards. Cynical, feral, rabid, but more importantly, proud bastards. It’s always been this way. The team of the people; living in the absence of the social pretension of their cross city rivals Real. While Los Blancos basked in their own importance on the night of their centenary by inviting King Juan Carlos and his family to an opulent banquet, Atleti celebrated theirs with a live performance from The Rolling Stones and a giant paella. Ballroom dancing, champagne and Placido Domingo versus sex, drugs and rock and roll. It will always be this way.

The fiscal strength of Los Colchoneros, or the mattress-makers, pales in comparison to La Liga’s two superpowers. Despite having the third highest wage budget in Spain the figure (120 million euro) has remained stagnant for the past five seasons, while the squad has leaked players of the calibre of Falcao, Kun Aguero and David De Gea annually for the best part of a decade. It seems totally irrational for the Kings of Catalonia and Castilla to be quaking in fear; dreading the snarling characters over their shoulders, yet at this current time, there isn’t a more coherent or competitive team in Spain than Diego Simeone’s men.

One can be forgiven for the sense of déjà vu surrounding the Argentine manager today; Simeone was part of the last Atletico side to capture La Liga back in 1996, covering every blade of grass like St. Bridget’s cloak and relentlessly kicking each occupant into submission. Quite often it is impossible to imagine such characters acclimatising to life in the dugout once their dreams on the pitch die out. A safe assumption would have been to assume El Cholo’s managerial career would mirror his fellow central midfield enforcer Roy Keane’s, with the comet’s tail rapidly vanishing after a couple of brief, volatile stints of desperate clubs.

Yet what Simeone has done is nothing short of magnificent. With each transfer window the squad has increased in depth despite the loss of integral members. He may bark around his technical area with manic aggression like a man possessed but his obsession with success is vigorous; last week when Arda Turan capped off a neatly worked set-piece his team celebrated as if they had guaranteed qualification to the second round of the Champions League, but it gave validity to Simeone’s argument that intense application on the training ground results in points on the board.

Defensively his team creates a solid, compact shell surrounding the penalty area, extracting any space in their own half with a bullish tenacity, with the central midfielders led by captain Gabi pressing at just the right time and driving the opposition back in fear of their lives. The back five can claim to be the most secure in Europe not only in terms of squad selection but also defensive certainty. Each player has benefited as a result of Atleti’s aggressive system. The left-back Felipe Luis, as valuable a weapon in attack as he is in defence, represents a serious challenge to his cross-city rival Marcelo for Brazil’s number three jersey during next Summer’s World Cup campaign on home soil.

The squad’s sole world-class performer is Thibaut Courtois, insanely loaned out from Chelsea in a situation as baffling as Romelu Lukaku’s expulsion to Everton for the remainder of the season. Very few goalkeepers are genuine match-winners but the young Belgium international is capable of mind-numbing saves on the rare occasions when his usually impregnable defence is defeated. When Atleti need him most he will always produce. Without him the team’s fortunes would be so different; his heroics at the death during last year’s Copa Del Rey final at the Bernabeu marked a significant alteration in his club’s mentality. This club could go to the biggest stadiums in the world and cause absolute mayhem; only from now on they would have the medals to prove it.

However nobody personifies the side more than Falcao’s successor, the chief bastard Diego Costa. Costa would relish the opportunity to enter a lion’s cage dressed as an antelope. It’s quite an achievement to out-bastard the combined bastardness of Real Madrid’s Pepe and Sergio Ramos in a two-on-one bastard handicap match; Costa does this without breaking a sweat.

However while last season he was merely seen as a pantomime villain he is finally proving his worth to a squad as ambitious as Simeone’s Atleti. Prior to the weekend Costa had scored as many goals as Lionel Messi with a third of the opportunities. At the weekend he added to that tally with two in the victory over Celta Vigo, the second highlighting his brute strength and paradoxical calmness in a one-on-one situation. He’s developed a subtlety in his play; for a player so easily targeted by the opposition and their fan’s his ability to delicately drift unnoticed into advanced positions is superb.

The 24 year old suffers the second most fouls in Spain but gives as good as he gets, committing more fouls than all but four of La Liga's players this season. Against Celta at the fortress of the Calderon he was the team’s chief creator, setting free the usually reliable and now Robin-to-his-Batman David Villa on a number of occasions. However it’s his partnership with the supremely gifted (and wonderfully named Jorge Resurrección) Koke which has proved to be Los Rojiblancos’ most fruitful offensive weapon, with 11 of his last 17 goals being assisted by the 21 year old Spaniard. It’s a combination which has the potential to blossom on both the club scene and internationally, with Costa eligible to play for La Roja via residency in the country of his birth in a year’s time. Ever the protagonist, he would relish the chance to star as the anti-hero in a country baying for his own blood.

The biggest threat to Atleti’s potential challenge is, in comparison to Barcelona and Real Madrid, will they have the squad depth to draw on in March and April when the final chapters of the season are being written. Despite signings like Toby Alderweireld and Joshua Guilavogui, not to mention home-grown prospects like Oliver Torres (make no mistake, this boy is sublime, quite obviously Spanish in style and will shine on the biggest of sporting occasions in a few years), the resources available at a provincial powerhouse like Atletico are incomparable to European super-clubs like Real and Barca. Clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Napoli have struggled to juggle domestic competition with the Champions League in recent years; one tends to give way to the other.

If one team can buck that trend however it’s Simeone’s. This club likes to have its cake and eat it.

Monday, 23 September 2013

Paolo Di Can'tio

It was a managerial style destined to produce as many casualties as the final scene of King Lear. A man going about his business like Denzel Washington in the final hour of Man on Fire with the crazed intent of a teenage psychopath finally getting his hands on Grand Theft Auto at a friend’s house after his own parents dared to say no. And yet the whole farce was as predictable as an Italian political scandal.

Paolo Di Canio’s appointment at the Stadium of Light at the tail-end of last season stands alone at the top of the podium for “Genuinely Horrific Managerial Appointments” in the Premier League’s life-time. Watching the situation in the North-East for the past six months has been like watching You’ve Been Framed for ten years and persisting with it, fully aware that Grandad will fall off his chair and plant his face into the birthday cake. The fact there seems to be a universal approval of Ellis Short’s decision to rid his team of its head-coach after a mere 12 league games highlights just how disastrous the Italian’s reign has been.

Di Canio may have topped his coaching class at home in Italy but whatever skills he might possibly possess in a tactical sense will never transmit to his players as a result of his immature, egotistical personality. The precursors were there; the two large elephants in the room waving and making advances at the Sunderland board prior to their final decision to charge Di Canio with the responsibility of keeping The Mackems’ head above water in a season where half a dozen teams could have staked a claim as worthy relegation-fodder. Not only was the Italian temperamental on the pitch with a chequered past of controversy but also a somewhat successful, yet ultimately tumultuous debut in the dugout in charge of Swindon Town; “management by hand grenade” in the words of chief executive Nick Watkins.

There was the public row with a goalkeeper following a premature substitution after twenty minutes, constant ultimatums towards the board, the youth team coach forced to take time off work due to high stress levels under Di Canio, and any time in between involved falling-out with his new signings whose agent’s fees added up to 46% of League Two’s total figures.

Yet Short expected the egos of Premiership footballers and that of a cocksure ex-pro to gel in matrimony. The writing was on the wall in the first week, the club’s vice-chairman and son of a Jewish immigrant David Miliband resigned from his post as a result of the new man’s political history and possibly due to the Fascist edition of the Bayeux Tapestry tattooed onto the former West Ham striker’s back. Even amidst protests from the Durham Miners’ Association the manager refused to deny or denounce his position at the high-right side of the political compass.

The Sunderland faithful will always have their 3-0 victory over an abysmal Newcastle side in Di Canio’s second game in charge but in truth it merely papered over the cracks. Dismal teams like Aston Villa and West Brom were capable of making Sunderland appear embarrassingly toothless in attack and as helpless as the runt of the pack in defence.

30 million pounds was spent during the summer to bring in a total of 14 new players while other leading figures like Simon Mignolet and Danny Rose were either sold or handed back to their parent club. Di Canio was never expected to mould his new squad together in the first month of the season however his methods never would have. Criticising your own players tends to be a recipe for disaster, there’s a reason Arsene Wenger and Alex Ferguson tend to over-achieve with the squads at their disposal. In order to criticise players even in private you must first earn their respect. Di Canio completely neglected this. Conor Wickham was “the playboy model”, the foreign signings criticised for a lack of English, while he ridiculed the idea that he apologised to John O’Shea after describing the captain’s sending-off in the limp loss to Crystal Palace as "absolutely poor and unacceptable". Di Canio was the self-righteous GAA supporter frowning upon soccer stars due to the money they earn, completely ignorant to the fact that they, as human being can be rubbed the wrong, and indeed the right way.

In his defence he likened his approach to that of Ferguson, pointing to the fourth rule in the Scot’s recent blueprint for successful management, “never, ever cede control”. However point five negated Di Canio’s argument. “No one likes to be criticised. Most respond to encouragement. For any human being there is nothing better than hearing 'Well done'”. Ferguson was the master of motivating his players through a mixture of private criticism and public backing. Andy Cole tells a story of being absolutely berated in the dressing room by his manager only to be on the receiving end of friendly jokes for the rest of the week leading up to the next match. Such warmth gave his players an extra 20% in Cole’s opinion.

Last season Stephane Sessegnon was beginning to show signs of discontent around the squad, a decline running parallel with Sunderland’s slide southwards in the league table. While Martin O’Neill’s tactical approach had gone stale, his vigorous ability to spark motivation into his men still lingered over the squad. After a comforting conversation with his manager the Benin international regained his status as the team’s figurehead and sole creative outlet. This was something Di Canio could never and will never be able to replicate. Once the sacking was announced last night West Brom’s Gareth McAuley and Norwich’s Anthony Pilkington began tweeting of celebrations in the Sunderland squad, clearly aware of the discontent in the dressing room. One young recruit, El Hadji Ba was blunt in his reaction. “LOL”.

Sessegnon was one of the lucky ones who got away from the former Lazio leader’s talons. Fortunately he was shipped off to West Brom where, inspired by having his reputation slurred in the Italian’s press conference, he aptly delivered the last rights to Il Duce’s managerial career. A little motivation can go a long way.

Monday, 9 September 2013

Lack of Support leads to lack of Sporting Credibility.

It was the most Irish of statements, brandished bullshit devoid of balls and honesty, delivered in front of an audience who ultimately contribute towards Liam Sheedy’s pay cheque on this the most glorious of Sunday afternoons. “If you're following by the rules it could be a red card”, akin to a politician of the early noughties defending a brown envelope because on the night the champagne ended up tasting that bit sweeter. The RTE panel comprising of three GAA men ignore the conclusive evidence that Shane O’Neill should have seen red after striking Clare full-forward Darach Honan with tremendous insolence, again proving that despite the vast changes brought about by transforming from a rural, traditional country to a modern state, the self-regarded cultural organisation like no other worldwide remains “a mirror in which the Irish nation can always see its true face” as the sociologist Liam Ryan suggested. The coverage of the incident by the analysts can only be defined as negligent; brushing off what could have been the decisive moment on All Ireland Final day; however considering the hurling summer that has passed this seems rather fitting. The reason for Brian Gavin’s error in booking both players involved in the Cork square traces back to the middle of July.

Hurling is the most exhilarating sport in the world, rarely allowing the amazed spectator a second to catch their breath. The skill level of modern athletes in the sport is nothing short of amazing; from Tony Kelly swaying his hips and slipping through a swarm of Limerickmidfielders before bisecting the posts from 65 meters out or Joe Canning popping passes blind behind his back to a teammate; these feats would translate to awe-inspired individuals across the world had they access to the sport. However the physical requirements of hurlers in modern times is perhaps even more astonishing, with thirty finely-tuned machines masquerading as amateurs taking to the gargantuan (145x88 meters) stage of Croke Park in August each year. 22 of the 30 starters yesterday were 25 or under, emphasising its status as an energetic, young man’s game. With the details mentioned most acknowledge that perfection will never be found in the refereeing of a match, particularly considering hurling’s allowance for a high level of physical contact.

The most the GAA can do is offer its referees assistance and backing as most sane sporting organisations do, informing them of areas they believe require improvement in the interest of player safety and attempting to alter the referees interpretations towards decision making. This is something they did at the turn of the new year, instructing the men in the middle to punish striking to the head and groin area with more severity than recent years. James McGrath of Westmeath received these guidelines and appropriately took action in the Munster Final by sending of Rebel Patrick Horgan for striking Paudie O’Brien prior to half-time, a decision which had a massive bearing on Limerick’s deserved provincial success that day.

Yet despite receiving backing from former referees, the head of the National Refereeing Committee’s head Pat McEnaney and indeed the rulebook (5.2 To strike or to attempt to strike an opponent with a hurley, with minimal force. Penalty: Minimum 4 weeks suspension inclusive of the next Game even if that game falls outside the suspension time period) McGrath was undermined by those above him. Cork’s appeal over the decision was successful; McGrath was pilloried by those above him and the sport lost credibility due to those responsible for its welfare.

One of last years All Ireland referees wasn’t enough however, there was time to belittle Barry Kelly (James McGrath took charge of the replay) following Kilkenny’s quarter final defeat at the hands of the aforementioned Pat Horgan at the beginning of August. On the back of a cringe-worthy media campaign which was as vomit inducing as Irishness can be, justice for Henry was plucked at the expense of yet another elite-level man in black. Nobody argues that there is a room for criticism in the refereeing of the sport, defeated manager Brian Cody seemed to find a balance in his post-match comments that day. Yet continually ceding ground to popular opinion at the expense of an adequate level of governance is detrimental to any sport.

Decisions for the masses without an adequate legal foundation contradict fairness, one value included in the ethos of gaelic games. Brian Gavin was petrified of being hung out to dry by his bosses yesterday having seen the Horgan and Shefflin incidents play out in public so instead played his hand safe, keeping controversy at an arm’s length instead of confidently backing his judgement like McGrath and Kelly before him.

By coining an early red card ‘anti-sport’ and suggesting it unjustly ruins an occasion like yesterday’s we may as well tear up the rulebook and let a primal brawl commence with the last man standing leading his team to victory. Sending off Cork’s number three yesterday may have poured all his effort over the past twelve months down the drain but by offering him our sympathy in our decision making we’re negating Clare’s right to a level playing field. Clare may or may not have run away with victory had Cork been reduced to 14 men but they deserved the opportunity to find out, regardless of it pissing all over the spectacle. Shane O’Neill ruined the final in the first fifteen minutes yesterday only to have the fortune of the GAA’s summer antics save him in return for some of sport’s credibility.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Europe's Finest, The Bavarian Fool

For professionals at the most expensive, historically rich football clubs, a degree of self-doubt can easily be forgiven given they are expected to perform superhuman miracles twice a week in front of millions of critics. Thomas Muller however couldn’t be more comfortable on the pitch, his fears fall far away from the Allianz Arena or Westfalenstadion. "Whenever I go somewhere and a little child asks me to show some tricks, I have to say: 'I don't know any!',” Muller told Frankfurter Allgemeinen Zeitungen last year with his trademark smile beaming from ear to ear. “I'm not a player who is enjoyable to watch for 90 minutes. I am more of a team player”. Footballers are experts of spouting out words devoid of meaning or truth; they live in a world where only master politicians prosper. Yet Muller’s words transform clichés from literary straight bats to laconic analysis.

The aloof twenty-three year old from the south of Bavaria exudes a modesty alien to his superclub, the European champions Bayern Munich. The German international constantly refers to his ambition to merely stand as an efficient member of his team. After winning the Golden Boot at the World Cup in South Africa Muller attested his success to pure fortune, almost annoyingly announcing “I basically got lucky, I hit form at just the right time”.

Each of his five goals were celebrated with his trademark Inzaghi-esque, joie de vivre exuberance refuting the idea of the stereotypical steel-eyed German. Muller would personify the cult hero; the modern day squad player who, were his services not required, would be bouncing with the fans every Saturday but frankly he is far superior than the likes of Dirk Kuyt and Kevin Grosskreutz.

The Bavarian’s rise to a deserved place amongst the world’s best has been rapid; Muller’s Golden Boot polished off what was his first full season as an established figure in the Bayern Munich team. Like a handful of the world’s premium footballers (Andreas Iniesta and Xavi included) his career began to blossom under Louis van Gaal once the Dutchman arrived in 2009, and his achievements since ensure he fails to look out of place amongst his contemporaries. While Muller had failed to impress opposition scouts as a Bayern youth Van Gaal was the last of a series of coaches to value the home-grown talent’s mental strength and positional awareness, insisting that “under me, Müller will always play” in the face of criticism over his team selection.

With hindsight it appears preposterous that there appeared to be valid reasons for discarding Muller from the Bayern squad. Throughout our lives our eyes continue to deceive us. Muller has been undervalued due to the visual biases mentioned in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball. When he plays alongside the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Arjen Robben and even centre-back Mats Hummels for the national side Muller appears erratic, almost out of place, akin to Roger Federer gracing Wimbledon’s Centre Court only to unveil a grotesque, yet surprisingly efficient double-handed forehand.

His slight, 6’ 1’’ frame gives the impression of a giraffe trying to escape from the zoo through one of the zookeeper’s fire exits when on the pitch. Yet despite his unorthodox, Bambi on ice style of play Bayern’s number 25 is blessed with wonderful sight, while his ambition to constantly harass opponents close to the opposition goal pushes him forward as an ideal candidate to play in one of the three positions behind the striker when Pep Guardiola brings his leftist football (“we play leftist football, everyone does everything”) to FC Bayern next season.

Muller’s appreciation of space is perhaps unmatched in European football, with each of the 13 arduous kilometres he runs a game racked up as he hunts for an extra metre or two of freedom where he can display his stunning ability to pick a pass. Muller finds solace by referring to himself as a Raumdeuter, or space investigator, as if he has to prove his worth in order to justify his presence in the world’s best team.

Even in the build-up to Bayern’s first goal in the Champions League final Muller’s curiosity as to why the space on the edge of the Dortmund box was unoccupied proved vital, with Neven Subotic lured towards Das Raumdeuter at the precise moment Franck Ribery slipped a delicate ball through to Robben, giving Mario Mandzukic space to wriggle in the area.

Earlier this season an in-form Muller netted a baffling individual goal away to Hamburg which highlighted his genius. After skipping beyond René Adler it appeared as if Muller would finally suffocate in the absence of his most cherished commodity. Yet, confronted by the byline, Bayern’s winger defied logic to fool the Hamburg keeper, producing an unimaginable goal from the narrowest of angles and which sealed a victory for the eventual champions. It was the perfect example of Arsene Wenger’s theory of a world-class player. “Football at the highest level confronts players with an infinity of possibilities, from which they must choose one within a fraction of a second. A great player… will always find the only solution, which, watching from the touchline, you often didn’t know existed”.

Thierry Henry regularly performed acts of supreme quality at such an exhilarating pace, leading spectators to regard him as a visceral masterpiece, almost ignoring the unique intelligence he obtained through years of practice. Ronaldinho in his pomp, the master street artist, deceived his audience, blurring their perceptions with a sleeve full of unfathomable tricks reducing princes to paupers on the biggest of stages. Muller’s incoherence results in a lack of admiration regardless of his capability to pick out a pass and perfectly perform the act or passively bury an opportunity, regardless of the magnitude of the game.

And that’s the special thing about Muller. Like his namesake and idol Gerd, he contributes when it truly matters. Muller was at the centre of Bayern’s victories over Juventus and Barcelona in the later stages of the Champions League this season. Like many of the club formerly known as FC Hollywood’s stars he fails to receive a suitable amount of recognition due to people tarring Bayern as a purely rigid, ruthless machine. It’s no coincidence that the jester was absent from Germany’s most recent tournament defeats against Italy last summer (Muller was fatally dropped in favour of his club mate Toni Kroos) and Spain in 2010 (due to suspension).

Integrally for Die Mannschaft, the Bayern core which forms the foundations of the national team now firmly believes they can claim major honours on the international stage ahead of the World Cup in Brazil next summer. After two recent Champions League defeats to match the traumatic international defeats the German team should arrive in South America with no doubts that they can shed the ‘always the Bridesmaids tag’ and turn Germany from the Borussia Dortmund (wonderful football worthy of praise but lacking the final stamp of approval) of international football to the Bayern Munich (win or nothing). Undoubtedly, should Germany succeed Muller will accidentally be at the heart of their attacking play.

Following the 2012/13 season Muller is a worthy candidate for the Ballon D’Or at the end of the year after contributing to Bayern’s historic treble-winning season. Were he to succeed and stumble onto the Zurich stage it would be fitting if Muller’s rigout fails to stretch beyond his favourite jeans and t-shirt combination creating an awkward atmosphere, with the mood further deepened after Bayern's upgraded Gervinho drops his prize onto Sepp Blatter’s metatarsal while attempting to shake his hand like a Shakespearean fool. As Isaac Asimov argued in his Guide to Shakespeare, 'that, of course, is the great secret of the successful fool – that he is no fool at all.'

Thursday, 25 April 2013

England's Brightest Light Fading

In England supreme footballing talents are supposedly born rather than manufactured. This unfair definition has been attached to the nation’s potential saviours for decades, most notably the effervescent Paul Gascoigne and more recently Wayne Rooney, suggesting that their fortunes have been predetermined rather than the consequence of an innate desire to succeed.

However in truth such majestic abilities are only attained with arduous amounts of dedication. The psychologist Anders Ericsson’s theory of ‘the 10,000-hour rule’ states that a genuinely world class talent only arises after at least 10,000 hours practice in any specific field, whether it be concert violinists, chess players or sports stars.

Wayne Rooney most certainly reached this milestone earlier than most. Growing up in Croxteth, an under-developed neighbourhood in Liverpool, he knew nothing but football as a child, testing his own abilities by utilising urban monuments like stop-signs as targets and passing cars as five-man walls. Wayne’s background in street football reads more like the childhood of a great South American 10, a pristine presence in the dreary, impoverished suburban landscape of his home-town.

The first time he drew astonishment from the Everton faithful he was a ten-year old mascot, casually lobbing one of the best goalkeepers in the land, Neville Southall, repeatedly during a warm-up. While the retort from the Welshman, who made 578 appearances for the Goodison outfit, may have seemed cruel, it was worn as a badge of honour by the “flash git” 28 years the keeper’s junior.

One might have expected the matured Rooney to have been cherished by all around him and coveted by others abroad. However it is impossible not to assess the Manchester United striker’s career in recent years and not wonder where has his ability to sparkle and dazzle the world disappeared?

Rooney is truly unique in the sense that not only does he possess the cerebral brilliance to decide games of significant magnitude but also phenomenal physical attributes allowing him to forcefully drag trophies to the north-west. He covers an almost excessive amount of ground for an attacking player, essential in modern ‘leftist’ football where forwards must defend, while his broad frame and impermeable stamina level allow him to brush off powerful defenders with ease for the ninety minutes.

Rooney, often derided as a blunt, unintelligent Neanderthal figure approaches the game in a way which makes a mockery of his public persona. Not only does he study the art of scoring goals and calculating spatial patterns on the pitch, but the Liverpudlian considers the avant-garde sporting technique of visualisation as an integral component of his success. "Part of my preparation is I go and ask the kit man what colour we're wearing -- if it's red top, white shorts, white socks or black socks” before the Premiership champion’s number 10 visualises himself in various match situations while lying in bed before he rests. “You're trying to put yourself in that moment and trying to prepare yourself”; Rooney’s goal-scoring success is testament to his mental preparation.

However despite collecting his fifth league title this week it has been an ultimately disappointing and almost embarrassing season for Rooney, who has been reduced to a tactical pawn in key games, or worse a substitute like against Real Madrid on the biggest night of the year at Old Trafford. For a footballer once applauded by the likes of David Beckham and Michael Owen at his first international training session for slaloming beyond two defenders before toying with David James, this is borderline criminal.

Yet on paper it seems illogical as to why a club of this stature would part with a marketable footballer of immense talent during what should be considered his peak years as a professional.

Perhaps United have serious doubts over whether Rooney can regain his place as one of the best forwards in the world. He has been involved in first team squads for Premiership teams since the age of sixteen at Everton and as an integral part of Alex Ferguson’s squad often plays close to fifty high intensity matches a season. Burn-out is increasing common in early-starters at the elite level across Europe in modern times, the recent struggles of Fernando Torres stand out as arguably the most comparable case study on the problem.

Rooney himself certainly hasn’t helped his own situation. The coaching staff at Carrington have grown disillusioned with his biennial pre-season return overweight from international tournaments.

But the biggest error Rooney, so often well advised by his agents and PR bosses, has made was publically denouncing the ambition of the club under Alex Ferguson in the autumn of 2010. While it initially appeared as if the player was the winner in the saga, earning an enhanced lucrative contract, the dogmatic Scot has never forgotten the betrayal.

Ever the pragmatist, Ferguson only cares for his own club. Two years ago he was willing to cede power to his sole premium level attacker, fully aware that his team couldn’t compete to win honours in Europe without Rooney. However with the inclusion of Robin van Persie last summer, Rooney is now a dispensable figure at the club. 

With the 27 year old desperate to stay in Manchester, he’s having to alter his game and prove himself in a deeper midfield role during what could prove to be the eleventh hour of his United career. While some always believed Rooney possessed the tenacity and energy to play in the heart of a great United team initial signs suggest he’s not the answer to Ferguson’s midfield issues.

Over the years Rooney has transformed into a complete striker, capable of finishing chances with either leg or distorting his neck muscles to direct crosses towards the goal regardless of the quality of the delivery. Should he stay at Old Trafford he will in all likelihood become the leading scorer of England’s most decorated club as well as The Three Lions. Dropping Rooney deep and away from the scene of his spectacular bicycle kick against Manchester City devalues his capabilities and undoubtedly lessens his contribution to the team. Against West Ham last week Rooney only had one solitary touch of the ball in the opposition box.

Whether we see Rooney score goals like his flawless volley against Newcastle or the sublime chip lofted over David James in the Portsmouth net appears increasingly unlikely as time progresses towards the summer and if we do it may well be in different colours.

The market for Rooney could ensure he remains in England beyond the Summer. However, while a risk, shipping him away against his wishes would ensure Ferguson’s glass of red would be even more enjoyable than usual after October 2010. Gravely, the most talented individual England has produced in twenty years broke the golden rule in belittling Alex Ferguson. “If anyone steps out of my control, that's them dead”. He may have outfoxed the master politician on one occasion, but Rooney still lacks the judgement of his boss when it comes to picking his battles.