Fernando who? With a certain £50 million Spaniard well and truly nullified on his Chelsea debut and a fourth consecutive win for Liverpool, things are finally on the up on Merseyside. On Monday Anfield veteran Jamie Carragher spearheaded calls for the apparent architect of the revival, the messianic Kenny Dalglish, to be given the managerial job full-time. At the moment his clean-up as caretaker seems to be unstoppably accelerating, but is he really the right man to orchestrate Liverpool’s return to the top four in the long run and perhaps in the future once again push for the Premier League title?
What’s fairly certain is that you won’t get an argument based on pure reason from a Liverpool fan. King Kenny rules the Kop and as far as they’re concerned current results are mere confirmation of his status as a divine saviour. Incidentally it was reassuring to hear Liverpool’s American owner champion the atmosphere of the Kop as something unrivalled and irreplaceable last week, as he announced he would reconsider the club’s plans for a new stadium in favour of an expansion of Anfield. One thing Dalglish’s rebirth as manager undoubtedly proves is the galvanising power of tradition and distant American owners would do well not to disregard the heritage that could still play a pivotal rule in luring the talent needed for Liverpool to get back to the heights they once scaled.
Carragher was wise on Monday not to tear into the methods and tactical nous of previous manager Roy Hodgson. In my opinion Hodgson remains a shrewd manager capable of great success, who was given an unfair hearing from the start at Anfield and not enough time to turn a dire inheritance around. Substantial blame for Liverpool’s failings this season must rest both with the players and disruptive behind the scenes shenanigans. But Carragher was also spot-on when he said Dalglish had got everyone “onside”. Will the problems come however, when unity and renewed hope cease to be enough?
Looking on as Dalglish took over there appeared to be some worrying signs. After a better performance against Manchester United in the FA Cup, which nevertheless lacked attacking punch, they succumbed to a loss against Blackpool. But then Blackpool almost outplayed and defeated United not long ago at home. It would definitely have been unfair to judge Dalglish so prematurely.
However then there was the captivating comings and goings in the transfer market on the final day of the deadline. Endless column inches have lambasted the out of control decadence and excess of football today, but ultimately there is no way back to the “good old days”. The best the fans and the public can hope for is that the big money filters through to the grass roots and puts something back.
Talking of the “good old days” though, I couldn’t help but think of the time Dalglish has spent out of football and then look at his key new signings to fill the hole left by the outgoing Torres. Despite the new dimension of crazy money, Dalglish appeared to be paying over the odds, unavoidably due to the rush, for a traditional target man in Andy Carroll. And Uruguayan Luis Suarez from Ajax seemed to be the tricky little goal-scorer to partner him. In the past Dalglish created and subsequently relied upon classic strike partnerships like Sutton and Shearer at Blackburn to propel his teams to success. Clubs no longer seem to have these attacking pairings. Has the age of the target man, of the little and large partnership, passed for a reason? Does it no longer work? Or would a new back to basics focus on team chemistry and complimentary traits work wonders for Liverpool?
Obviously until the unproven talents of Suarez and Carroll play together, the jury is still out. Undeniably both players have potential, but they were also overpriced. But then Liverpool simply had to gamble and replace the disaffected Torres because their season needs saving right now. They couldn’t wait till the summer and watch their prestige diminish still further. Ultimately there are more immediate concerns surrounding the possible appointment of Dalglish as permanent boss.
Mike Ashley tried it at Newcastle with Kevin Keegan. Times are hard so let’s bring in the one man the fans can’t possibly criticise me for, even when things go wrong. With a bit of luck his sheer presence will energise the players and gee up the fans. Are Liverpool simply experiencing the short-term Kenny Dalglish effect right now? When it disperses, does he have the vision and modern coaching ability to lead Liverpool into the future?
Despite the worries, overall the outlook is good. Alan Shearer is forever praising Dalglish’s “man management” abilities on Match of the Day and I’d have to agree, simply from the evidence, that he seems to have the difficult knack of motivation and inspiration nailed. Dalglish tried to insist no mention of Torres’ treachery was made in the dressing room prior to Sunday’s Stamford Bridge clash, but my word somehow he kicked some urgency into his players, instilled some fire and passion in their bellies. Chelsea rarely forced Reina into action.
More importantly perhaps, Dalglish got the game against Chelsea tactically perfect. Three central defenders, lead by a reborn Carragher, coped almost effortlessly with the hopelessly narrow attack of Chelsea. Dirk Kuyt was given the chance to play as a striker for a change, and relished the opportunity to apply his phenomenal work rate on his own down the middle, a constant nuisance to the Chelsea defence. If Dalglish can continue to raise the confidence of his squad, in tandem with the excellent coaching of number two Steve Clarke, Liverpool should end this season strongly and start the next with a far better platform for success.
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Gerard Houllier’s appointment as Aston Villa’s new manager on a three-year contract has highlighted the growing complexity and difficulty of selecting a Premier League manager. Choosing a new man to pick the team, train the players and generally steer the club in the right direction is clearly always going to be a big decision, but these days things are complicated further by numerous additional roles. Houllier for example has just left the French Football Federation from the mysterious role of “technical director” to the national team and due to Randy Lerner’s apparent liking of caretaker manager Kevin McDonald’s coaching style there was talk of Houllier taking a similar role at Villa at one time, with McDonald handling the coaching of first-team affairs. Villa fans, whatever their views on Houllier, ought to be counting themselves lucky that they have at least appointed a manager and not adopted an incomprehensible system, inspired by continental clubs, that has produced only failure when tried in the Premiership before.
Personally I think it’s a shame Villa didn’t appoint Alan Curbishley and give an obviously capable and talented English coach a chance with a decent sized club. Curbishley had a torrid time with the board room at West Ham and deserves a more stable environment in which to try and manage a top club. However it remains to be seen whether Villa’s moneymen are content, given the circumstances under which O’Neil left the club and the telling words in the club’s statement which suggest Houllier was a candidate willing to compromise about lack of funds: “Two of the key qualities in our search for the new manager were experience of managing in the Premier League and a strategy for building on the existing strengths in our current squad, and Gérard Houllier comfortably satisfies these criteria.” I certainly find it odd that Villa should turn to Houllier given his exile from the English game since his departure from Liverpool. Articles reporting the appointment emphasize Houllier’s glittering CV, but much of his experience is with French clubs a long time ago. Since Liverpool he has returned to his French comfort zone and can hardly said to have been successful in whatever it was he was asked to do as “technical director”, given the French’s disastrous World Cup. As manager Raymond Domenech got the barrage of blame but Houllier had a role and it was hardly part of a successful set up.
Indeed whenever I have seen them enacted systems involving a “technical director” or “director of football” do not seem to bring success. Certainly in the English game it would seem from the evidence that clubs who put their faith in a talented coach over a long period of time stay at the top of the game, such as Arsenal and Manchester United. When Chelsea tried a system involving “sporting directors” or something similar, “the special one” clashed with both Frank Arnesen and Avram Grant, with disagreements between Jose and Grant eventually leading to the Portuguese’s departure. Following this Chelsea entered a period of decline, allowing United to reclaim dominance and they have only recovered to wrest back control since trusting two excellent coaches in Guus Hiddink and Carlo Ancelotti to run things their own way. “Technical Directors” or their equivalent always appear to be the owner or chairman’s spy, breathing down the neck of the manager and meddling with his transfer budget to create conflict and a climate of paranoia at clubs that does not breed a the unified vision and team spirit necessary to win trophies. Equally though the system has not worked well at clubs at the opposite end of the league, those in need of new impetus to avoid relegation. Dennis Wise was handed a role at Newcastle United by hands-on owner Mike Ashley that did nothing to revert the Toon’s slide to the Championship, but grabbed plenty of dramatic headlines. Portsmouth too experimented during their topsy-turvy period of ownership and poor performances, to no avail.
Like many people at the moment I have succumbed to curiosity and bought Tony Blair’s memoir, A Journey. In the first chapter he touches on the opposition he met from the Civil Service for bringing special advisers into the affairs of state, but makes a convincing argument that modern governments need such expertise on hand immediately to deal effectively with situations. I imagine the fascination with “technical directors” stems from a similar realization that the modern game of football requires a variety of top level experts. However Blair’s memoir also makes it clear that he and he only was leader, he felt that individual burden and we’re all aware of the complications between him and Gordon Brown over who should be leader that eventually ended his time in office. Football clubs today still require a leader, someone who has the final say and whose vision should always be behind day to day decisions. “Directors of football” and other such roles may have their place, but particularly when the person appointed to such a role has a high profile they cease to be an adviser and ally to the manager but become an inspector and internal threat to his authority. Too often these positions are merely waiting rooms for the next manager, from which the “technical director” shall opportunistically spring as the pressure rises. Even if the person taking such an advisory position has no ambition to take over as manager, the culture of the game in this country has not changed sufficiently for the manager to be unconcerned by such an appointment. In an age where foreign managers and all the communication problems that come with them are commonplace, it is surely better to at least keep the management structures of a club simple and have the best man at the helm, supported by staff of his own choosing. This man should then be judged on the way he deals with the various pressures of the modern game and whether he gets results; not constantly assessed internally by an observer that adds unnecessary weight to the burden of management.
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Goals. Goals galore. What a feast of football the new Premier League season has already provided. We’ve had a bit of everything. From the ageing ginger maestro showing the new crop how it ought to be done to the youthful English goalkeepers beginning a battle for the national side’s number one jersey, to all three newly promoted teams notching one good win and one crushing loss. There’s been so much incident and entertainment to remind us that the new kits and faces of club football are so much more satisfying than the repeated disappointment and failure of England. However many papers were quick to latch onto the trio of 6-0 results this weekend and lead with the ominous headline “666”. The results themselves made it clear that immense gulfs in class still exist within our great league, in which teams like Blackpool cannot hope to compete with bigger clubs’ financial might. The headline prompted me to examine the true greatness of our league when such vast inequality exists and generally to think about the morality of the game in this country, especially in the light of the 2018 World Cup Bid gathering pace.
Let’s start with the good. Paul Scholes being interviewed on Football Focus on Saturday after surprisingly stealing the limelight in the opening games of the season with commanding displays showed that it is possible to still be a modest professional and family man in this mega money era. The interviewer refused to let his awkwardness at being questioned drop, either trying to paint Scholes as a saint for shunning the media or a freak for not realistically acknowledging their existence. The chaps in the studio chuckled at Scholes’ schoolboy shyness and simultaneously gushed about his legendary passing ability and awareness. Lee Dixon dismissed Arsene Wenger’s gripes about late tackling, saying that Scholes had had to learn to put his foot in when playing in the middle alongside the likes of Roy Keane. It was generally agreed that Scholes was a great and United’s worrying overreliance on him this early in the campaign was glossed over.
Also largely good was Newcastle’s 6-0 thumping of Aston Villa, showcasing the return and rehab of former bright young things like Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton as well as the emergence of the next big thing in Andy Carroll if you believe the papers, all in front of a loyal, long suffering Geordie faithful at St.James’ that deserved a reward. Let’s not mention that Villa’s shambolic defence and an awful penalty miss enabled the victory, or the ridiculous hyperbole greeting Carroll’s hat-trick in the press. In The Times the match write-up lays the comparisons to Alan Shearer on thick, all the implications suggesting an England call-up and a solution to the long term question of who partners Wayne Rooney. The praise is present throughout the press, as are the criticisms of Carlton Cole, with writers shooting down notions that Liverpool were thinking of paying handsomely for his services a few weeks ago as a lucky escape for Roy Hodgson. The fickleness apparent here after one hat-trick performance against a defence that were laying goals on a plate and a couple of non-effectual performances in an essentially unchanged, poor West Ham side shows a negative of our game. Andy Carroll has gone from unproven Championship striker to England’s next number 9 overnight and Carlton Cole has crashed and burned in a similar period. Whereas the praise heaped on Scholes is backed by medals and many minutes of evidence on the pitch Carroll’s is premature hype. The yo-yo of fortunes in the press makes it easier to see why players like Scholes, content and detached from the media bubble, are a dying breed. When Carroll’s stock falls as Cole’s has done he might well become understandably disillusioned and unloved.
You could certainly not call the Blackpool players unloved. The amazing orange fans of the seasiders were still applauding their team at the final whistle after their demolition by Arsenal at the Emirates in cruise control. I saw Blackpool beat Yeovil Town in the League 1 Play-Off Final at Wembley a few seasons back and their support that day was an eclectic, enthusiastic mass of good natured colour then too. Their rise to the top flight from that moment has been nothing short of a fairytale. In a week in which FIFA inspectors examine the potential cons of England’s 2018 World Cup bid, we can only hope that supporters across the country were as loyal and well mannered as Blackpool ones. An article in The Independent points out the black marks left by the behaviour of fans of teams like Millwall in the past, as well as other weaknesses in our supposedly “unbeatable” bid according to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. We have sold out in this country, the article implies, so that we will be quite comfortable watching teams of foreigners play each other in the 2018 tournament. For a nation that boasts about being the home of football we have neglected the grass roots, our own national side and embraced excess and great waste of wealth. There is also a strong argument that whilst England might be the “easiest” place to host the tournament according to Sepp Blatter, another country would benefit more, invigorated by the investment. Another country not already saturated with football might use the tournament to develop more sustainably, with beautiful stadia and clubs as well as proper training and investment in their own youngsters.
Manchester City of course has come to symbolise all that waste and excess in football that was already lurking beneath the surface. On Monday night City’s gladiators finally clicked, delighting their giving emperor the sheikh who had made the trip to see what his drops of oily magic had achieved. Roberto Mancini spouted after that final whistle that it had been important to him to put on a show for the owner and yet he still only started with the one striker in Carlos Tevez. City’s embarrassment of riches meant a midfield packed with holding players in Barry, De Jong and Toure, forcing out exciting players like David Silva that ought to be gracing the field every week. On the plus side Adam Johnson and James Milner both sparkled, both with English blood coursing through their veins, even if it does seem tainted by their warm, greedy embrace of the millions instead of that English quality of loyalty shining through.
Despite the excess and the greed Man City’s win over Liverpool demonstrated that the fundamentals, the crowd, the goals, the colours of the game, remain what is important. The extravagance may both add and take something away from our beautiful game, but when it comes down to it the pure pleasure remains and that feeling, not the mounds of money, would make sure we hosted a fantastic World Cup.
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