Monthly Archives: January 2011

A Fairytale of Transfer Deadline Day

Fairytale of Transfer Deadline Day

The head of the League Manager’s Association, Richard Bevan, recently said the transfer window system should be scrapped as “it doesn’t create stability, it doesn’t create a level playing field.” It’s a viewpoint which appears to be shared across the English Premier and Football Leagues and is backed up by simply observing the incredible circus that was the closing hours of yesterday’s January window. However for the fans, it can provide a second ‘start of the season’ feeling, when all mistakes can be erased with just one new record signing. It is a bank holiday in the middle of winter, which should be celebrated with feasts and the burning of ex-star shirts.

For Sky Sports News it is a combination of Black Friday and Christmas. For a day they become the centre of the football world in England, as their army of round-faced, pale men, hang around empty parking lots hoping to get a glimpse of a tinted-windowed sports car, which can be breathlessly reported as “something possibly happening”. Half the time they appear to have just arrived at some different empty parking lot, desperately trying to work out which one from the local dialect, while Jim White barks orders into their ear.

If they are lucky enough to be stationed at one of the clubs who “possibly does something”, a nation hangs off their every word as they stand, pantomime like (they’re behind you!), in front of a growing mob that cheers the slightest mention of their club and any player who may, or may not, turn up there.

There’s also the roaming armchair pundit who takes this day of days to finally summon the courage, visit his local ground and get his opinion on the latest happenings, on air:
“What do you think of the news that Tuncay is leaving?”
“Well, you know, I wish ‘im the best. What can you do?”
What indeed.

Bryan Swanson is back in the studio, giddily adding up the day’s net spend, as though it will all be emptied into an Olympic-sized pool for him to crawl through. In another corner, Tony Cascarino keeps coming back to the mantra “big men, up top”, perhaps channeling messages from The Other Side (or Wolverhampton). Next to him Iain Dowie appears frozen in an acute moment of self-awareness that he no longer manages football teams, just commentates on rumours that some of them might buy, or sell players.

Transfer deadline day is a celebration of the hype and speculation that is such an engrained part of modern-day English football. It truly is the end of the holiday season, after which fans can reflect on whether their club has been naughty or nice. A time to regain hope in a disappointing season, or wonder if they kept the receipt for Andy Reid. As unstable and damaging as it may be for the majority of clubs and managers, the transfer deadline day is one last extravagance purely for the fans. Tomorrow we resolve to go on a diet, until the next one.


Fear and Loathing in Sky Sports

I find the furore over Sky Sports’ (ex) misogynists-in-chief, Andy Gray and Richard Keys, utterly boring. I agree they should be disciplined, up to and including dismissal, as would be the case in any modern-day workplace. What is amazing to me is that it requires such an incredible amount of consideration and debate.

However, there are two striking aspects to the story which appear in contradiction to each other: the incredible influence both men held over football reporting in Britain and the contrasting weight of abhorrence towards them.

Perhaps I’m too removed from the situation, being on the other side of the Atlantic, but the way the story has been covered over the last five days is on the level of a national disaster. You could be forgiven for thinking it was David Cameron and Nick Clegg who had engaged in “lads’ mag banter”, given the uproar.

Watching and listening to football, it is understandable to occasionally pay attention to what the commentators say. In fact, now and again they come up with an indelible phrase to mark a great moment, or usually a goal. Andy Gray himself may end up being best remembered for his own outburst over a Steven Gerrard strike. Gray also got to play with a host of whiz-bang widgets, which elevated his contribution above “he’ll be disappointed with that”. He was a decent analyst, but how did he get to be more important than the football game he was watching?

As for Keys, I’m genuinely at a loss for what has been lost. He was a slick, inoffensive (on air, at least) segue merchant, of which there are approximately hundreds more who can seamlessly replace him. There are already betting lines on which smug-face will do just that. Sure, that first game without him may be a little awkward, but you’ll quickly get over that because you’re here to watch the football.

Yet as enduring and popular as they were in public, fronting the Sky Football behemoth, it appears they had few friends behind the scenes. The manner in which the incriminating audio and video clips have been released, suggests a conscious collecting and disseminating designed to topple the pair. Although, the person(s) in question only had to wait two months to collect enough damning evidence. Is it the case Keys and Gray only recently starting to make such comments, or that their dismissal of a female assistant referee was the final straw for a long-disgruntled colleague?

Equally, the media has been quick to pounce. It is head-spinning to imagine that less than a week ago neither man provoked more media controversy than debating 4-4-2. Now they are pariahs. In the days since, they haven’t done themselves any favours. Keys in particular, with his incredible ‘life imitating Alan Partridge, imitating life’ interview with TalkSport. Car crash radio, if ever a thing existed. It is another spectacular example of the British media joy in the unraveling of success.

So, farewell to two ‘relics of old-fashioned broadcasting’ and ‘hello, brave new frontier of 21st century football reporting’. Until the next ones drop a bollock of some kind. In between, let’s hope there’s a bit of football to watch.

The Ghost of Andrey Arshavin

Ghost at the Grove
There are those who say it is a marketing ploy. Something to tell the kids on those long North London nights. Others however, have provided disturbing recollections and vow never to return until the ground is free of its phantom. Is there an apparition in Ashburton Grove?

There is a growing library of stories of unusual happenings in the vicinity of the Arsenal Left Wing. Reports vary from feeling cold spots throughout the area, to others claiming to have seen size five orbs, seemingly moving on their own, but with no one on the end of them. One spine-chilling account recalls seeing a spectre with “a face like a banshee, twisted in pain, its tongue protruding at an unnatural angle. Oh, and it had a finger to its lips”.

One local historian upon hearing the tale, suggested that in life the phantom may have originally been from Russia, lured to England by stories of fame and riches. It was not uncommon for merchant ships traveling to Spain, Portugal or Britain, to contain opportunistic souls, hoping to find work as mercenaries. However, many became disillusioned with the reality of the daily grind abroad. Enthusiasm waned and ambitions stagnated, as work seemed no kinder, or more rewarding, away from home.

Intrigued by these accounts, I enlisted the help of a medium, to see if we could make contact with this particular lost soul. Walking along the Left Wing, it wasn’t long before my colleague began to report feeling disoriented, as if no matter which way he turned he could not find an outlet, or escape. This was particularly strong nearer the goal line. At this time we seemed to make contact with the wraith. The presence transmitted that it felt trapped in a kind of purgatory; unwilling to return home and admit defeat, but unable to fulfill it’s wish of resting in peace upon a Catalonian shore.

Towards the end of our visit with this tormented soul, we attempted to collect an electronic voice phenomenon (EVP), to see if we may aid its journey to the other side. As we listened back to the recording, straining against the hissing background noise, I could swear I heard a disembodied voice say: “Despondency is a sin”. Or it might have been: “a pig is always the last one, because it is a pig”. Spooky.

New York Cosmos and the Cult of Personality

Pele, Cantona and Beckham

On Wednesday Eric Cantona was announced as Director of Soccer for the New York Cosmos and joins a tradition of supposed missionaries for football in the US. Following in the footsteps of Pelé, Beckenbauer and, more recently, Beckham, Cantona brings charisma and a certain, well, I don’t know what, to the project he describes as “a mix between football and art”. Currently the Cosmos exist more in the artistic realm than football, having recently acquired two youth academies on either side of the country to begin producing talent. Their stated goal is to win the 20th MLS franchise, which could happen as early as 2013.

The Cosmos appear set on achieving that goal as publicly as possible, which comes as no surprise given their history of luring the best and brightest of the soccer world, during their ephemeral existence thirty years ago. However, the landscape of football in America is quite different now. Gone are the days of signing a semi-retired soccer demi-God for $4.5m. That’s nearly twice as much as the salary cap for your whole team today.

The MLS has learnt the lesson of the NASL, which shot to fame off the back of signing Pelé, but was bled dry and disbanded less than ten years after he first appeared. It was organized chaos – the league expanded and contracted on an annual basis, as chancers became owners hoping to tap into the next major US sport. Now in these austere times, expansion is closely monitored and does not come cheap. Teams need a stadium deal and say, some players, both of which currently elude the Cosmos.

All that said, there is something enticing about the return of the Cosmos. While some MLS teams are eagerly renaming and rebranding away from their history (Sporting Kansas City), there is a genuine style and panache to the Cosmos legacy on the field, as well as the excitement created off it. The next step for the Cosmos may not be signing Lionel Messi just yet, but the ambition to create a modern-day Cosmos galácticos could truly invigorate football in America. Hopefully, this time they won’t destroy the league in doing so.

The Specialist : Avram Grant

Speculation is rife over the future of Avram Grant at West Ham. If you believe all you read on your favourite football gossip site, Grant has been deftly dodging his chairmen’s ultimatum over the last four weeks. After last night’s 2-1 win against Birmingham in the Carling Cup semi-final, he once again heard the satisfying ‘click’ of an empty chamber; his roulette pistol returned to its case until Saturday.

Last night’s victory also left Grant just one game away from reaching his fourth major cup final in as many years, with three different teams. An impressive achievement and who knows, he may even win one. So if, or when, that bullet does arrive, it should only relieve Grant of his league duties and allow him to fully concentrate on being a cup-only manager. To adapt a term from American Football, Grant could be the first Special Cup Teams Coach.

Sure, bring in an Allardyce if securing Premier League status is desired. No doubt a string of soulless 1-0, route one encounters await, with Matthew Upson deployed as a lone striker. But Grant should be retained as inspirer-in-chief. Before each cup-tie he can regale players with tales of near-glory. Of winning a semi-final in extra time, with a team already relegated, destined to be dismantled and sold off. Or of being just one slipped, standing foot away from achieving a European glory, which had eluded the so-called Special One.

Grant instills a collective belief for cup games which does not translate to the long haul of a league season. Most managers sacrifice a cup run for stability and safety in the league. Grant’s genius is fleeting, yet focused. He offers an escape from the drudgery of his league failings, by giving romance in the cup. By retaining this cup specialist, Hammers fans could progress in both.

Trying to Reach the Nadir

I have been thinking about what it means to fail. Specifically, what does it mean for your football team to fail? What is a big enough failure to register?

Over the last few weeks Roy Hodgson has suffered the ignominy of having his own fans plea he take a job elsewhere (chants of ‘Hodgson for England’). Has seen the team he manages reach historic levels of ineptitude in its modern history (lowest point total at end of a calendar year for 57 years). Two recent games (against Wolves and Blackburn) seem to have sealed his fate and most fans/ media/ sentient beings expect him to be fired soon. But, has he been bad enough, yet?

As a fan, I want to see the team play exciting, attractive football, receive hyperbolic accolades and be bestowed with trophies. Maybe even an acknowledgment from a United manager that the 5-0 drubbing we just gave them was richly deserved. Perhaps not this season, then.

Unless we really hit relegation form, we’ll probably finish within a place or two of where we are now (12th). This would be a historic low for Liverpool, as we’ve never finished below 8th since returning to the top flight in 1962. But, in reality finishing 12th in England’s top division is pretty decent, right? It’s exactly where Roy left Fulham last season and they seemed fairly happy with that, so why aren’t we?

Consider Manchester City. In the last twelve years they have been as low as the third tier, before rising, phoenix-like, to the summit of the English game and could soon win their first title in over 40 years. What an achievement! What a journey to have traveled as a supporter!

As much as I wish for the current malaise to end, it still only feels like a blip. An embarrassing, annoying blip, but one nonetheless. It’s unlikely we will be relegated. We’re not in danger of going out of business; the team will still be here next year. Some clubs cannot say the same for certain. My only fear is that we haven’t gone low enough to truly see a revolution (we were relegated before we received Shankly). We want inspirational leadership, not ship-steadying anymore.

So, let’s celebrate our mediocrity! Raise your glass to tactical buffoonery! Naïve defending? Prost! If we are to take anything from our slump, it is that we will rise again at some point and it will feel that much more rewarding for having been here.