In English football there has always been a fascination with the individual. From the cult of the manager to the star player, the influence of one has often been viewed as greater than the collective.
It is why the job of England manager continues to be sold as among the biggest in world football; the idea that one man can turn around years of infrastructural complacency and negligence.
The Roy of the Rovers phenomenon that has gripped English football for over 50 years still dominates. It is why Manchester United ‘owe it’ to Wayne Rooney to fit him into the first eleven, why dropping Steven Gerrard in his final season at Liverpool became such a seismic issue.
All-action super-heroes and chest-thumping talismanic captains are what England specialise in. And yet, it is a country without a major honour in 50 years, who haven’t since defeated a major nation at the knockout stage of a tournament in normal time.
It is perhaps a sign of the times that Ant and Dec soundtracked the greatest moment of the English football team in the last 15 years. Ignoring the fact the lyrics are incorrect – Michael Owen did not score the fifth goal – ‘We’re on the Ball’ reflected the fresh optimism that had been injected into the national side at the start of the Sven-Goran Eriksson era.
It was England’s official song as they travelled half-way across the world to Japan and South Korea for the 2002 World Cup, a journey that had looked a remote fantasy when Kevin Keegan resigned in the Wembley toilets after a 1-0 defeat to the Germans in October 2000.
As Newcastle lurched from a long malaise to a full blown crisis with their 3-0 defeat at Leicester on Saturday, conversations started to turn towards the capabilities of manager John Carver. The loss was the club’s eighth in a row, and the 12th they’ve suffered in 17 games under the Geordie, who replaced Alan Pardew in January. So bleak is the situation that having not picked up a point since February 28, Newcastle have been sucked into a relegation scrap and their manager’s record is being likened to that of some of the very worst managers the Premier League has seen since 1992. Join TFN as we trawl through the archives and relive the sad tales of some of the league’s least well remembered characters…
Ricky Sbragia (Sunderland)
Poor old Ricky Sbragia could barely muster a smile during his time on Wearside. His furrowed brow was a weekly occurrence on Match of the Day, be it after a 4-1 win over Hull or a 3-0 defeat to Everton, that sorrowful stare into the reporter’s eye looked the same. It had all started so well for ol’ Ricky, beginning with a narrow 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford before smashing four goals past both West Brom and Hull in the lead up to Christmas. Coming after Roy Keane’s departure, hastened by a miserable 4-1 home loss to Gary Megson’s Bolton, he was the good cop the Black Cats dressing room needed.
But it wasn’t to last long as Sbragia managed to win only three more games after Christmas, ending the season by losing eight of the last 10. Finishing 16th with 36 points the Mackems avoided relegation by virtue of being marginally better than Alan Shearer’s Newcastle and Phil Brown’s Hull, who won only once from the start of December.
“The only friend I have in this dressing room is Granero… and I’m not even sure that I can trust him any more. You’ve left me all on my own. You’re the most treacherous squad I’ve had in my life. Nothing more than sons of bitches.”
Real Madrid changed Jose Mourinho. The bitter, twisted and paranoid Mourinho that has stalked the Stamford Bridge touchline since the turn of the year is not the one that departed Milan in 2010, a European champion for the second time and ready to be feted by the biggest club in world football.
Sure, Mourinho has never been a saint. At Porto and his first spell with Chelsea there was plenty of evidence of the dark, underhand tactics that so riled Graeme Souness on Wednesday night. But Madrid was a new experience for him, it challenged him in ways he had never come across before. The insubordination that he met at Real Madrid, the dressing room cliques that festered and chronically undermined his final season in the Spanish capital, have resonated with him more than anything he has ever encountered in his glittering managerial career.
Another chastening week for English football in the Champions League and Europa League. Much like many knock-out round evenings in the last five years, a lack of quality, adaptability and in-game intelligence, a naivety that has once again exposed the flaws of the best sides in the rough-and-tumble Barclay’s Premier League on the European stage. All the money, facilities and resources but barely a hint of nous between them; English teams obsess over qualifying for the continental competitions yet have little idea what to do when they get there.
Qualification for the Champions League is that pot of gold at the end of a 38-game-long rainbow; as equally exalted as silverware now is the opportunity to be knocked out by a side from a second-rate European league in the knock-out stage. Priorities may be skewed but when the financial reward for a top four finish is so grandiose it becomes, as Tim Sherwood would say, a no-brainer.
As money has proliferated in the Premier League so the Race for the Champions League™ has become ever increasingly hard-fought. This is where it has been heading since Jesper Gronkjaer sank Liverpool in 2003 and scored the biggest goal in the history of Chelsea Football Club. TV deals have increased manifold since, and with that prize money and the desperation to gatecrash the party.
Last month, James Ducker published an in-depth study on young footballers in The Times. The series, entitled ‘From superstars to scrapheap’, examined the emotional damage that can be caused to young players who are released, especially those who fail to earn a scholarship or professional contract. A rather bleak study conducted by the charity XPRO revealed that “96% of scholars signed by clubs in England and Wales at 16 will not play again from the age of 18 and of those who do earn professional contracts, only 2% will still be professionals past 21”. Furthermore, over half of 15-18 year olds who were released suffered from depression or anxiety, and were turning to alcohol or substance abuse.
While these figures may not be altogether surprising given the unpredictability of most careers in football, it is worrying that a support network doesn’t exist for these young men. One day they are the club’s latest prospects, the next they could be released and unemployed. The players know full well that football is a life choice that requires more hard work than most, but if and when that plan falls through, they are left with very few qualifications and sacrificed full time education in order to give it a shot.
One institution who are trying to combat this is South London’s ASPIRE Academy. The Academy, founded by Dulwich Hamlet manager Gavin Rose, began in 2002 and its mission statement is to provide a football and educational programme for 16 – 18 year old males, to pursue their dream of playing professional football whilst also furthering their education. Dulwich play in the Ryman Premier Division, the seventh tier of English football, but the academy setup is the envy of many professional clubs.
“I get stray cats recommended to come to me, anywhere from the age of 16 to 19. My side has an average age of 20, which is unheard of in semi-professional football. That’s the problem.”
Sean Rogers is a different breed of football coach. The Mold Alexandra manager has performed miracles on a shoestring budget, winning promotion to the Cymru Alliance – the second tier of Welsh football – after winning the Welsh National League in 2013-14 with a squad whose average age was 20.
His young side is now more than holding its own, sitting 11th in a 16 team league. Remarkable given his assertion in a recent interview with the Daily Post that “based on our budget we should finish bottom three based on expenditure”. Even more remarkable when you take into account that there is “an 88% likelihood that you will finish one place within where you are on the league’s budget list.”
Mold Alexandra play attacking, attractive football under their progressive young Liverpudlian coach, which makes their success even more astonishing when you consider the factors against them.
I was asked a question on a recent uMAXit podcast episode by Raj Bains which momentarily threw me a little bit. Written down the question reads:
“Can you see other teams growing to become a larger part of the conversation next season? Or is our title now just a competition between Sheikh and oligarch?”
This threw me in the sense that the answer was, pretty obviously, an unequivocal yes to the latter part. Which led me to wonder why, in 2015, has this only just become the case, where it’s very difficult to argue a case for the next Premier League champions to not be owned by a sheikh or an oligarch?
Why has it taken the best part of seven years for it to be the case that the two richest clubs in the league are unequivocally significantly better-equipped and now destined to carve up the next five league titles between themselves? It says as much about the sheer force of will of Sir Alex Ferguson to sustain Manchester United up until his retirement, and the freak of nature that was Liverpool’s 2013-14 season, as it does the failure of the two super-clubs to stamp down their muscle.
I look at Sam Allardyce’s return to form and the struggle of other Premier League managers to adapt…
“There are two types of coaches. There’s coaches like me who weigh up the opposition and ask the team to adjust. Fergie was similar. Jose is similar. Then there’s Arsène, who won’t adjust. There’s Brendan, who looks like he won’t adjust. There’s Manuel Pellegrini, who looks like he won’t adjust, even in the Champions League.
“Their philosophy is different to ours. Ours is more about who are we playing against. Their philosophy is more, ‘We always play this way’, and they won’t change, they carry doing on the same thing. That’s why you can beat them.”
Sam Allardyce, October 2014
Sam Allardyce is no stranger to talking up his own abilities; in a fairer world where ‘good football men’ are rewarded for their determination, passion and persistence he would be the man sending Cristiano Ronaldo out every week to break record after record in the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium.
With discontent growing at White Hart Lane, I wrote that Tottenham fans should take a step back from glorifying the club’s recent past…
January 22, 2012: Harry Redknapp’s third-placed Tottenham Hotspur are level with table-topping Manchester City at the Etihad. It’s 2-2; five points separate the two sides as the second half enters five minutes of season-shaping stoppage time.