Thursday, 7 July 2011

The Sagas Must End

It has only been seven days. The transfer window has been open for seven days. Yet such is the soul-draining, spirit-crushing dearth of real news that it feels far, far longer. This isn’t simply a lack of interesting topics to be discussed but the relentless churning of stories about nothing. When well respected websites have “No developments in Fabregas saga” as a leading story it is hard not to feel that football fans collectively have reached something of a nadir. There is an insatiable demand for more transfer tattle. Bigger, better, stronger, quicker players. The fans insist on a continuous stream of “news” and the papers respond by filling page after page with grim mediocrity. Never in the history of football journalism has so much been written by so many about so little.

There are of course stories out there which need and deserve attention. It isn’t as though there haven’t been four major tournaments this summer (the Under 21’s championship, the Copa America, the Women’s World Cup and the Gold Cup) but for the most part these have been relegated to relative footnotes under the crushing weight of top four banalities. Transfer sagas have existed for years but increasingly it seems, in order to match the public’s need for gossip every transfer is becoming a saga. To name just a few this summer has seen Samir Nasri to Manchester United/Manchester City/Chelsea, Alexis Sanchez to damn near everyone and the wonderfully enthralling tale of where Neymar’s hairdresser will be relocating to along with his mohawked client. Two weeks ago the story that Sanchez had definitely signed for Barcelona broke late in the evening and there was a collective sigh of relief as at least one of the interminable zombie transfer stories had finally, mercifully had a bullet put through its irritating head. Of course it turned out that the Chilean had not signed yet and the zombie resurrected itself the very next day looking for more brains to turn into mental Swiss cheese.

Furthermore these one summer sagas are only the thin end of the wedge. As we all know by now, to be a proper saga the story must roll on for a minimum of two years as it the case with a proper vintage such as Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona which has replaced former favourite Cristiano Ronaldo to Madrid. It is one thing to report genuine developments such as a concrete offer or sale but earlier today the “news” that Dani Alves urged Fabregas to join him at Barcelona came through and was plugged as a top story by more than one major website. We know! We get it! Messi, Xavi, Alves, every man and his dog in Catalonia wants to see Fabregas return. It isn’t news anymore. It is stultifying dull.

However, even as I type this I can already the armies of keyboard warriors massing to scream J’accuse! at me for railing against the tidal wave of dross. “You’re just as guilty as the tabloids for writing articles about this! You’re buying into and prolonging the life of these rumours!” It must be said that this is true. Writing an article to complain about the rumours is just as bad as churning them out in the first place. But this is a call to arms, a rallying cry for football fans. Turn off Sky Sports. Shut down the computer. Ignore it all because it’s only going to be the exact same stuff tomorrow. It’ll still be here if we just all collectively walk away for the summer. Yes the Simpsons was probably right that TV radiation has left you withered and useless (and if any station was bound to do that it would certainly be Sky) so meaningful social interaction is probably beyond us. As we emerge, unshaved and blinking into the harsh light of the real world it will be scary not knowing how Charlie Adam’s medical is progressing or which Barcelona has most recently decided to try and tempt Fabregas to the Dark Side but we can weather the storm and exist without the 24/7 stream of bilge that is being thrown at us.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

What The Eck Were They Thinking?

After the failure of the Rafa Benitez regime at Inter Milan the Neazzuri turned to one Leonardo Nascimento de Araujo asking him to become the new manager. That’s Leonardo the former AC Milan legend. Indeed not just an Milan legend but a former manager of the Rossoneri. The move stunned many in England. Leonardo’s switch to Milan’s deadly rivals provoked much headshaking and a general consensus that such callous behaviour on the part of managers wasn’t something you’d find in the Premier League. You don’t just up sticks and accept the coin of your most hated rivals in good ole Blighty.

However, not only has the appointment of Alex McLeish by Aston Villa refuted the theory that such things wouldn’t happen in England* but it has also showed precisely what Aston Villa lack when compared to Inter Milan. Whereas Massimo Moratti knew exactly what he wanted from his new manager the Aston Villa board seem to have very little idea of what they wanted from their new man. Within the multitude of men linked with the Villa job the three which were given most attention were Mark Hughes, Roberto Martinez and Alex ‘Big Eck’ McLeish. To switch from Hughes to Martinez to McLeish shows an astonishing lack of thought about the style of play and direction of development that Villa hope for in moving forward.

While Martinez made his name at Swansea and then Wigan with an attractive, crowd-pleasing brand of football McLeish presided over football so dull and turgid he made Tony Pulis look like Marcelo Bielsa. Approaching one and then the other shows no sign of thought at boardroom level about how Villa recover from a fairly poor season under Gerard Houllier and attempt to challenge for the Champions League again. Having lost James Milner, their best player from last season, to Manchester City and the departures of Ashley Young and Stewart Downing also looking probable then it is obvious that this is a Villa side that requires long-term planning.

It is entirely plausible that after a long and very public search for a manager that Villa seized on McLeish just in order to end the embarrassment of being turned down by Martinez et al. Wanting to install a new man in order to give him the maximum time in the transfer market and establish relations with the players prior to the start of the season is fine. But the disregard for the fans clear feelings on the matter is utterly distasteful. It wasn’t as though McLeish was the only manager who was available. Indeed the reason that Hughes was not appointed was the Villa board’s concern about the way Sparky left his job at Fulham. Yet they seem to have no compunction about appointing a man who relegated his club twice in two and a half seasons and then resigned via e-mail. If the manner in which a coach leaves the club is no longer an issue then returning to Hughes would be the smart move. Yes it would involve a loss of face but the club would be getting a better and more acceptable manager in the eyes of fans. At Blackburn and Fulham Hughes showed an eye for a bargain in the market which McLeish’s rampant spending at Birmingham did not.

Even if we accept (which I do not) that McLeish was the best man for the job the feelings of the fans were made abundantly clear and should hold at least some sway in the board’s decision. It is all very well for Paul Hayward to claim that it is merely “lazy tribalism” which motivates their anger but tribalism is a key part of being a football fan. Derbies against the old enemy should be treasured as they add an edge to matches which cannot be found elsewhere. Had McLeish been the standout candidate and clearly the man to take Aston Villa to the next level then such a move could be understood as rationality prevailing over sectarianism. However this is hardly the case. As we’ve seen McLeish was at least the third choice for the Villa board and by a distance the most unpopular choice with fans.

So the sum total of the decision to bring in McLeish is that the fans are unhappy, the board has displayed little to no forethought about how the club intends to progress and McLeish himself knows that he was hardly the first choice. If there was a less encouraging sign of revival for Villa fans after a fairly unfortunate season it doesn’t spring to mind.

*Not to mention ‘Arry Redknapp going from Southampton to Portsmouth *Ahem*