Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The differing joys of six

Two identical scorelines over the last four days in football - 6-0 - showed that two markedly different schools of thought in attaining success as a football club are still relevant, even if they're taking those ideas to the very extreme.

Manchester City's incomprehensibly rich new investors have raised the bar in foreign ownership. It wasn't too long ago that Roman Abrahmovich's relentlessly deep pockets, as they seemed, were scathingly criticised for 'buying' Chelsea's first league title for 50 years. Yet in the short years since that trophy landed at Stamford Bridge, foreign investment in top football clubs has become a common sight, and most recently reached an unprecedented era of bankrolling when the Abu Dhabi United Group agreed to formally buy Manchester City.

Middle Eastern money is a very real force in the modern world, least of all football, but the billions upon billions backing Manchester City now make previous target for money cynics Abrahmovich look a pauper. The club were able to simply wade into the protracted 'Robinho to Chelsea' saga, flex their new-found financial muscle and within 24 hours, Robinho was a Manchester City player. Chelsea were simply not prepared to be bullied over the £32m price-tag: for City it was merely a matter of making a higher offer. In the previous weeks, the club had without blinking forked out £19m for Brazilian Jo - a dubious decision at the time but the player does look genuinely to have the stuff to make it in the Premiership - and enough cash to buy back Shaun Wright-Phillips with minimum fuss. It capped a remarkable final day in the transfer window - and an expensive one for City.

It was short-lived owner Thaksin Shinawatra whose original funds cemented the signings of the then manager Sven Goran Eriksson - another Brazilian Elano, Martin Petrov and the exciting (but injury prone) Valerie Bojinov - and which saw City make a real attempt at challenging the established order in the Premier League. It faltered before any significant inroads could be made, but this season, with results like the 6-0 demolition of Portsmouth, the signs are there to suggest that the almost infinite bank balance at the disposal of City's owners, coupled with sensible long-term planning, low-key involvement from on high and the integration of existing players and youth players, could give City a very real possibility of disturbing the peace at the top of the table.

By contrast, Tuesday night saw another 6-0 demolition, Sheffield United taken apart by an Arsenal side superior in every single way. While the scoreline is surprising on its own, it's the fact that Arsenal's first XI consisted of mainly teenagers; the team's average age was 19. Arsene Wenger had put this team together from gifted - and mostly inexpensive - youngsters sourced from all over the world, with 17-year old Aaron Ramsey the notable exception following his £5m transfer from Cardiff City. Mexican Carlos Vela (19) stole the show with a breath-taking hat trick, while 16-year old Jack Wilshere scored his first goal for the club. Wenger is notorious for unearthing talent from outside of the UK: names like Song Billong, Merida, Vela and Denilson do not exactly suggest players learned in Joey Barton's football philosophy, while the steal of Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona at 16 might be the best transfer ever done. However, Wenger's side also consisted of equally adept teenagers from these isles; Wilshere, Ramsey, Gibbs, Randall and Lansbury all playing some part in the fixture.

The sheer brilliance in technique and ability, not to mention the physicality, of these young players, was testament to Wenger's own brilliance, and the legacy he is building at Arsenal. Though he's already been there 10 years, it might be that the Frenchman has only now started to put on show his plans for the club. He's been quoted as saying the current crop is the best group of players he's ever had to choose from, and it's remarkable to consider that he may have spent his time at Arsenal thus far plotting this, a wunderteam, never mind wunderkids. There is no other club in world football doing quite the same thing, and for fans everywhere as well as Gunners the possibilities are just mouthwatering.

That a team of teenagers can rip apart another fully professional club who, only one season ago, were in the same league as Arsenal, is a powerful commendation to the cause of developing a youth setup capable of schooling and producing young players that can, as a team in their mid to late teens, play football in a manner so glorious and so undeniably brilliant as to stylishly thrash opposition with ease.

The two schools of thought, then: 1) buying the top of the range finished product to give instant results, or 2) developing your own top of the range product steadily to give long-term return on investment, are completely different in terms of time and money investment, planning and thinking. But, for the moment at least, two clubs in the English Premier League have provided evidence to suggest that both remain viable methods to bring results in every football club's endless search for success.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A cappella Walcott is a Capello masterstroke

When Alan Hansen ill-advisedly uttered the infamous line "You don't win anything with kids" over a decade ago, I doubt that he, let alone the many critics and commentators who jumped on that quote, would have imagined the longevity it would still have today. In terms of relevance, that soundbyte surpasses his glittering playing achievements for most, except maybe Liverpool fans. Yet last night's 1-4 win in Zagreb, the first defeat for the Croation national side on home soil, put Hansen's blithe write-off to the sword, and more seriously, presented the possibility that in Fabio Capello, England may just have found the first coach able to meet English expectations since that Gareth Southgate penalty in 1996.

Let's not for one minute start up the England uber alles brigade - despite resonating around Europe, the defeat of Croatia counts for nothing at the moment aside from a pretty looking table. The fickle nature of England fans, who booed the team's victory away in Andorra but jubilantly cheered the team's victory away in Croatia, should be firmly ignored in judging the chances of a current England team. (Incidentally, we shouldn't even have to play pointless matches against countries like Andorra, but that's another matter entirely). It is easy to see why Capello prefers playing away from home, away the Wembley spotlight and the hysterical media circus that so dominates around England internationals. 'England Expects' all right, but 'England Accepts' is not something supporters are well versed in. From the fans' verdict, the team is either world-beaters or no-hopers, when in fact the actual, far less extreme truth is somewhere in between, edging towards the former.

Last night's victory was more than just three points: it firstly exorcised the demons of England's last competitive match prior to the current campaign, the truly despondent 2-3 defeat by the very same Croatian team at Wembley. It sent out a message to the European nations: yes, England can still mix it with the big boys - Croatia, strange though it seems, have somehow become a 'big boy'. But the performance was the biggest result: the team, and the coaching staff, got it totally right.

After a wobbly opening 20 minutes, England played with determination, courage and wit. To a man, they were forceful in their tackling and closing down, inventive with their passing and movement, and confident with the ball. The first goal naturally helped, particularly with David James once again looking shaky, but once they were ahead the English players never looked back. In the hostile surroundings of Maksimir Stadium, the internationals earned their shirts, earned back the fans' respect, and earned their manager the credit he deserved for his part.

Leaving out Michael Owen was not a good choice, and his presence on the bench may have been a more welcoming sight than Defore or Jenas, but in his first-eleven selections, Capello can congratulate himself for a flawless line-up. Heskey, so often the butt of jokes (including many of mine), was a colossal threat all night, starring in the lone striker role with his strength, aerial prowess and his glorious contribution to Walcott's second goal. Such a figurehead allowed Rooney, Joe Cole and Walcott to roam in the space between midfield and attack, a ploy which is undoubtedly Joe Cole's best position and also brings out the best in Rooney. It did last night, with Rooney banishing critics with a fantastic performance full of technique, vision and crucially, the elusive international goal. Joe Cole, too, was having an enjoyable game until he was cynically elbowed and the resulting blood-spurt injury saw him substituted. Lampard, with Barry as anchor and with less pressure on him to join in with the front four, had his best game in an England shirt for some time, and looked something like his Chelsea self.

But it was, of course, Theo Walcott who rightly stole the show and the headlines with a wonderful hat-trick that oozed with confidence and international class quality. Wenger knew all along, when snapping up the 16-year old Walcott from Southampton in 2006, that a future star was waiting to emerge from the exciting raw talent, but perhaps this potential was delayed in Walcott's early career. Sven, despite the fond memories looking back now, will never live down that ponderous World Cup selection, and it is only this season with Arsenal that Walcott has begun to show that his ability is up to scratch at the highest level. Being a Southampton fan, I'm over the moon for the boy.

As much as it's Walcott's man of the match though, those reading between the lines must applaud Fabio Capello for sticking with the 19-year old. He was hot and cold against Andorra, but Capello is clearly one to put his faith in individuals with the ability to affect matches. As one of the three attacking players behind Heskey, it was Walcott who was the most disciplined, holding a wide right position, running at players and finding space at key moments, as well as showing a deft knack for top class finishing. Walcott is a player who makes things happen, and as tempting as it must have been for Capello to go for the steady, safe bet in David Beckham, he is a coach who will trust his judgement to bring about results. And what an emphatic endorsement of his judgement the result was.

It was fitting when Walcott, wearing number 7, embraced David Beckham as the latter replaced the hat-trick hero for a cameo few minutes. It was almost as if something was passed between them, the torch from the old guard to the leading light of a new era of English football. Capello might not be the young upcoming coach that many would prefer to see in charge of this generation, but there can be no doubt now that, given time, he can be the coach to finally do justice to the nation's expectations.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Heart of blankness?

Last Monday (1 Sept.) Charlie Brooker wrote, somewhat dejectedly, of his 'crippling' internal blankness of soul - that is, a kind of indifference to life: hobbies, culture, his [enviable] job, essentially failing to take an interest in the day-to-day running of his own existence. Or rather, not so much 'failing to', but not being motivated enough to bother. While this sounds a totally depressing outlook, this was not a suicidal confession, nor a cry for attention, because as he quite rightly pointed out, that would require the presence of extreme emotion, and it is a lack of emotion, on any level or at either end of the scale, that seemed the fundamental basis of his terrible 'personal blankness'. A failure to engage with anything, and the lack of will to do something about it.

It is not, looking around, an uncommon predicament. Certainly I have felt sheer listlessness towards day-to-day life: turning up to work on time, mustering the right attitude to going out when it's cold, wet and you've not really got the money, putting the best effort into University work, that sort of thing. In the early years of the 9-5 grind, the transition from carefree party-attending socialite and part-time student to responsible, council-tax paying young adult tends to manifest itself into disillusioned yuppie living for the weekend. Even counting yourself as a yuppie - young, upcoming - requires a certain aptitude that, when faced with the hard work needed to achieve the status, often seems overly difficult. And what we are fed into our daily diet of living tends to appear disinteresting as well. Take television: the latest series of Strictly Come Brother Factor on Ice offers nothing: people perform to the cameras, audience pays money to vote, people pretend to care, someone wins, brief elation, no one cares. It passes the time, I guess.

Music, my deepest love, isn't quite the same, but it requires the strength to locate and enjoy good music to counter the ease of being fed the same commercial, MOR fodder through TV, radio, internet that somehow pleases people enough to pass the time for them. I'm one of the few people I know who will shell out £8-£12 on an artist's album rather than download it, even in full. I've bought 17 CD albums that have been released this year, and two further albums that haven't.

I digress, though; which is something that Brooker himself was wont to do during his downbeat ramblings. Apart from his trademark laconic self-deprecation, he pondered serial killing, mused at length on the 'glass of water' conundrum - half full, half empty? - and practically reviewed a (to me) totally unknown film for the opening third of the article in order to get underway. For a relatively short piece, which surely cannot be too taxing given his licence to meander so freely, and might point to why he feels no sense of achievement in his professional career, it certainly didn't pack much of a punch. Maybe he couldn't be bothered to try.

It amounted to a collection of thinly tied together jabs at himself, a biting cynicism at his own life. Having taken passing interest in Charlie Brooker's media bits and pieces from time to time, it seems that this makes up a large amount of his output: inward-looking criticism with a touch of humour that the reader can relate to. But that's easy, anyone can do that, and many people can do it a lot more succinctly, and with more wit. The article, in the end, read like the bored musings of a faux-depressive, lacking in direction. Of course, this was exactly the type of person Brooker claimed he was - it's just that since most people probably feel like that at more than one stage in their lives, and since it was written with about as much emotion and illumination as the black and white text it appeared in, Brooker's non-cry-for-help proved a pretty dull read.

It's obvious to me that Brooker's direction-less article was a little-needed insight into a no-doubt common anxiety many people will come across, since I seem to have been affected by the same condition - I read the article last Monday, but despite wanting to write a riposte, it's taken me more than a week to actually get round to doing it. I just couldn't be bothered.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Magpie Madness; Media mayhem

'What on earth is going on at St. James's Park?'

The closing line of a Sky Sports News presenter as they went to a break just before 7:30pm tonight. It's the question anyone with half an eye on football will be asking as well. Forget Manchester City hijacking Chelsea's bid and subsequent pinching (for the meagre price of £32m) of Brazilian 'galactico' forward Robinho from Real Madrid less than 24 hours ago. Ignore Manchester United's bully boy acquisition of Dimitar Berbatov for a fee of similar weight.

It emerged, around 2pm today, that something very strange was developing on in the North East. After Saturday's result - a humbling 3-0 defeat at Arsenal, in which convicted criminal Joey Barton was roundly supported by Kevin Keegan against condemnation by pretty much everyone in football (for being a prick, mainly) - and confusion over who has actually been signing and selling players for Newcastle, 'King' Kevin Keegan and Mike Ashley have been in discussions most of today and yesterday. About what these discussion were was not clear, hence the BBC report earlier today touting that the pair were in talks over transfer policy. However, as interest grew and speculation mounted, BBC's point of view - and Sky Sports News's, according to forums online today - moved to suggest that Keegan's future as Newcastle manager was in doubt. It seemed suddenly that issues arising from the past two days' meetings were more than problematic; enough for a manager to walk out less than a year into a job at a club he loves and at which he is beloved and held in the highest of esteem by fans.

Suddenly, the media frenzy peaked, and 'sources confirming' stories saw BBC, Sky and numerous other news outlets reporting, as fact, that Kevin Keegan had left Newcastle. Eyebrows, if they had been raised, positively receded beyond hairlines. What could possibly force Keegan into such a position that he had no choice but to leave? Could Mike Ashley - laddish chairman of Newcastle pictured downing a pint during Newcastle's defeat at the Emirates - really be stupid and strong-minded enough to force his will onto a man whose dismissal would turn Geordie fans against him to a man?

Indeed, the long-suffering Geordies - who have put up with nine managers in just over a decade, and declare themselves a top four club every time they're asked, despite not having finished anywhere near for at least three seasons - gathered immediately outside the ground to protest at this news. Ashley, if he was aware of this, would surely have realised through the haze that it wouldn't only be Keegan gone if the fans turned against him. The football world scratched their heads in bemusement: why had Kevin Keegan been sacked?

Yet the obituaries had barely been inked - although BBC ran (and still are running) 'Keegan's coaching career in photos' - and the fans' pitchforks raised in anger than Newcastle finally produced a statement: Keegan had not, in actual fact, been sacked. That was around two hours ago; little has changed, except BBC rewriting its story to say Keegan's future was unclear.

And it still is; KK might not have been sacked, but that does that mean he hasn't walked? Who is making decisions at Newcastle? Why was Milner sold? Who sanctioned the signings of Ignacio Gonzalez and Xisco? Has Dennis Wise's position got anything to do with it? Questions that need answering for Kevin Keegan, never mind the fans and media.

But what concerns [me] most at this point in time, though, is the media's handling of it. Keegan was purported to have told those around him he was leaving, or had been sacked. That is information, from unofficial sources. It is not a press conference or statement. Phrases like 'sources close to' and 'we understand' are not enough to base factual journalism on.

However, it is the nature of today's media, where news is instant and global, reaction is real-time, and fans are angry mobs, that neccesitates this need for knowledge - although not neccessarily facts, which seem of secondary importance. Audiences don't just consume, they participate in the news, indeed constitute a substantial amount of detail in internet reporting with citizen journalism, blogging, eye-witness texts and videos. They expect in return a news supply which conforms to a similar time-frame. But facts aren't quite like that: just look at the Foster story where, it has now transpired a week after taking place, father and husband Christopher Foster murdered his family, before setting fire to his million-pound mansion and committing suicide.

It's true that the sporting arena is one of extraordinary passion, under a constant spotlight, with football dominating all year round. It requires an equal in its reporting. But it seems that following yesterday evening's incredible events, a one-off day of madness in football news, in a race to confirm and 'break' a sensational story today in that same sport, the truth may have got left behind.