Monday, 24 December 2012

The relative merits of the frying pan and the fire

15 December 2012 - Bristol City 0 Derby County 2

Our season at present consists of a grim hokey-cokey with the relegation zone.  In, out, in, out, shake it all about.  “It” in this context being the strange, potent hope-and-despair punch that sits somewhere behind the cerebral cortex of every football fan.

The game that inspired me to write this was a dreadful one, but one which left us out of the relegation zone.  Most recently we’ve delivered a much improved performance but dropped to second-bottom.  With cause and effect apparently divorced it’s hard to have any real sense of what’s likely to happen next week, let alone next season.

What is easy during a game this dismal, though, is entertaining the thought that relegation might be a blessed relief.  We’ve had two seasons fighting relegation now.  Two seasons losing more than we win, home, away, wherever.  Two seasons basically not enjoying our major hobby and the fruit of a large proportion of our disposable income.  It’s been dispiriting and gruelling.  The thought is obvious – if we get relegated, we win more games, we have more fun.  OK, it would be depressing trading games against Middlesbrough and Wolves for games against Crawley and Leyton Orient, and OK the club would lose a lot of money.  But we’d enjoy going to the Gate again, wouldn’t we?  And we could do what Norwich and Southampton have – regroup, get promoted, and use the momentum to propel us up into the Premier League.  We all remember the momentum engendered by our last promotion, and how close that took us to the top tier.  Momentum, drive – that’s what’s been missing from the club recently.  How tempting to make the drop, shed some pounds, and come back a leaner, fitter, promotable outfit grinning from handing out indiscriminate thrashings to the chaff of the league’s bottom half.

As with anything in football, though, you can only imagine the sunlit uplands for so long before reality, that spiteful little voice in your head, starts to intrude.  “But would it be like that?” it asks.  “Would we start winning? What if we kept losing?  Look at Scunthorpe, two years relegated and in the bottom two down there!  Look at dear old Plymouth Argyle!  Remember playing them?  Remember losing to them, in the Championship, costing Johnson his job?  They’re four points above the League Two relegation zone!  This could be City.  This could be you.”

Like a confused Donald Duck torn between “good” and “evil” versions of myself on my shoulders, I don’t know which inner voice to believe.  So I asked a man who does know.  From bitter, horrible experience.

Guardian Sport’s John Ashdown is a devoted Blade (in that he supports Sheffield United; he’s not a member of some kind of urban gang).  He’s followed them in three divisions, most recently dropping from the Championship to League One, whence they came agonisingly close to a return last season.  And I do mean agonisingly: if you sat down to work out the worst possible way not to get promoted, being second for 45 games before seeing your local rivals pip you to the post on the final day of the season, followed by a penalty shoot-out elimination in the playoff final (in which your keeper misses the final penalty) would almost certainly do the job.

I asked John what was worse; being a poor Championship team or a decent League One outfit.  His initial responses tended towards the relegation-is-good argument.

“It was a case of being put out of our misery,” said John.  “As a club we needed relegation.  2009-10 had been pretty miserable, then 2010-11 was a mess.  There were all these short-term loanees... by February, the fans hated the team.  Relegation meant a chance to start afresh, win a few games, and see a better style of football.”

So strike one for the let’s-get-relegated bunch.  But John’s words about League One strike a cautionary note that relegation hawks would do well to bear in mind.

“Last season was a hideous late kick in the teeth – and a double kick, at that.  Failure to go up meant the breakup of a team that the fans had once more become connected with, and we knew it. We knew it as Simonsen spooned that penalty off towards Swiss Cottage.”

John’s clear that “relegation meant the breakup of a squad we hated”.   But he’s also clear that while the blood-letting of relegation was what Sheff U needed, failure to get out of League One was considerably worse.

“Players we hated leaving v players we loved leaving.  Inevitable for ages v short sharp shock.  One step back, two steps forward (in theory) v one step back.  There’s no real positives at all to be taken from another season in League One.”

This is the note of caution that ought to be struck.  Failing in the Championship is bad.  But to assume that the alternative is glory in League One is dangerous. Failing in League One – and, as is clear from John’s testimony, third place can count as failure (my God we’ve been there) – would be far worse.  Let’s all remember how bad we felt after the Brighton game at the Millennium Stadium.  How we felt trudging out of tiny my-garden-shed-is-bigger grounds with no points in the bag, adrift of the automatic spots and with a long winter journey home for eight long years last time.

Things feel bad at Ashton Gate.  But clearly they could be worse, a lot worse.  Let’s not welcome relegation.  If it comes, let’s make the best of it; but in the meantime let’s do everything we can to stay in this division.

Two home games to come.  Let’s win them, City.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The forgotten attribute of the greats

11 November 2012 - Bristol City 0 Charlton Athletic 2

At one point during this dismal performance, unimpressive loanee left-back Matthew Briggs dashed over towards Charlton’s right-winger as the away side threatened to break.  Seconds before Briggs made contact, he very clearly remembered that he’d already been booked, and that a mistimed challenge would reduce City to ten men whilst already 1-0 down.  Unable to check his momentum, and not trusting himself to execute a perfect challenge, Briggs sailed on past his opponent.  This allowed Charlton a 2v3 break which fortunately they didn’t take advantage of.

I wasn’t annoyed by the lack of skill or technique at that moment – Briggs’ attempted ball down the wing which swung out of play under no pressure whatsoever had removed any illusions I had about his ability.  But it was the stupidity of it that got to me.  It was plain that the concepts “I have been booked” and “if that happens again I will be sent off” took a long time to come together in the young player’s mind.   For this reason, he chose the wrong course of action, and for this reason Charlton were able to create a goalscoring opportunity.

Briggs is 21, so will have been receiving formal training in football for 12 years or so.  Distribution, tackling ability – he’ll have been coached in those aspects for most of that time.  That they’re still so limited, or that he’s so little confidence in them, says to me that they aren’t going to get much better.  But it was his inability to think straight that let him down as much as anything, and I wonder when he was last coached in that.
One suspects he hasn’t, that his academic education has been on the back-burner since he was first taken on by a centre of excellence.  The parts of his brain that control athleticism will have been developed since then, the rest neglected by a British football coaching system that’s suspicious of intellect.

If he’d been brought through the ranks at Ajax, for instance, one suspects that he’d not only be a different player, but a different man.  Look at the players Ajax have brought through – van Basten, Rijkaard, Davids, Bergkamp, Seedorf, most of all Johan Cruyff.  What unites them?  Their technique, yes, their faith in it, absolutely – but also their intelligence, both footballing and otherwise.  (We’ll ignore Patrick Kluivert here.  No record is 100%)

Cruyff.  Greater than any British player there’s ever been.  Keep yer George Best – or at least come back when he’s installed his own system at two of the greatest clubs in Europe, and won the European Cup as a manager as well as a player.  The mind that did that is the mind that developed and finessed total football as a player, too.  You don’t score his most famous goal through technique only.  You do so by having the wit to imagine the angle.

This isn’t to say that what the pundits like to call “football intelligence” doesn’t exist – this fantastic interview with Wayne Rooney (by David Winner, whose book Brilliant Orange covers a lot of this ground far better than I’m capable of) is worth a read for the way it confounds a lot of prejudices about the intellectual ability of a player clearly not exposed to much book-learnin’.  One prejudice discussed in the article is held by Alan Shearer, to whom inevitably we must return.    It takes great mental ability, quite possibly the unique way of seeing the world possessed by geniuses, to play like Rooney.  But I do wonder whether he would be even more the player with the mental self-discipline to refrain the from needless kicks on opponents which have led to his absence from some pretty major England games in the past.  Given the coddled life he’s led, and the way that everything that’s seemed meaningful to him must have come pretty easily, too, it’s not difficult to understand why he’s so prone to frustration.  Being challenged academically by something he’s not inherently good at would surely have been good discipline for the younger Rooney and I’m convinced he’d be a better player if he’d been given that training, too.  He’d certainly have two more England caps and might have taken Jamie Carragher’s penalty against Portugal all those tournaments ago.

Cruyff, of course, has had his flare-ups too, but they’ve been borne more out of the intellectual arrogance of a man who knows he’s right, and has wanted to shape clubs his way and his way only.  When that leads to La Masia and the success of Barcelona it’s a triumph.  When it leads to fallings-out with figures like Sandro Rosell and Louis van Gaal, it’s perhaps less helpful.  Nevertheless, the demonstration is clear – Cruyff the intellectual is central to Cruyff the footballing God.  It’s not hard to see, either, why the brain that planned the new Barcelona could also conceptualise ‘Total Football’.  Compare this, or the adaptation of Xavi and Iniesta’s smart Spain to a striker-free formation to win the last European Championships, with Micah Richards being flummoxed at a change from 4-5-1 to 3-5-2.  No wonder Mancini, another dugout thinker, was frustrated with his player’s attitude.  But that comes with managing English players, and is probably why Arsene Wenger left the likes of Englishmen Bould, Dixon and Adams in place to do the heading and tackling, but gave Ajax old boy Dennis Bergkamp the most important role in his team – its brain.

Who hasn’t been impressed with the articulate, insightful punditry of Leonardo, Gianluca Vialli, or Clarence Seedorf (yep, Ajax again) during international tournaments, particularly compared with the self-satisfied complacency of the BBC crew in particular.  Our boys’ narrow horizons – passion is good, zonal marking is bad, foreigners invented diving – are thrown into sharp relief every couple of years by ex-players who can talk intelligently about the game in a language other than their own, and dress pretty damn sharply to boot.  It’s a regular demonstration, hidden in plain sight, of everything that we’re not doing and every reason why we should.

(Martin O’Neill isn’t British, but it would be stretching a point to call him a foreign ex-player.  But his famous digression during punditry into the life and times of screenwriter William Goldman, followed by his great unfinished line to an unimpressed Shearer, “perhaps if you spent more time watching films and less...”, encapsulates every bit of this cultural difference.  Why would Shearer want to talk about films?  Why would he want to go outside the world of football to make his point?  The touchline of the pitch is the touchline of his mind.)

Leonardo, Vialli, Seedorf, Bergkamp, Cruyff, O’Neill even, all have something else in common – they played a great deal of their career abroad.  British players seem terrified to do this and I think in part that’s because they aren’t intellectually equipped to do so.  Not in the sense that they’d struggle with the language, but because the conception of football is totally different to the one that they’ve been taught from a very early age is the only one possible.  The way to see the world.  Travel broadening the  mind is all very well and good, but you have to consider that to be inherently a good thing.

That’s why, whatever one thinks of Joey Barton’s somewhat tedious “cleverest boy in the bottom form” social media schtick, he gets a qualified round of applause for his decision to pursue his career in Ligue 1.  Qualified because we’ll never know how much the 12-game ban affected his decision, but still – chapeau to that man.  If he thinks his football – no, his general – education is unfinished at 31, and wants to pursue new things, we can only stand impressed at his decision.

I nearly started to sum up by saying “if only we had a few more people like Joey Barton”.  But I don’t want to say things I can’t take back.  Let’s just say it would be nice to have informed, articulate, worldly commentary on our game coming from English ex-players once in a while.  Because I do think that when the coaching system neglects the part of the brain in which there’s most room for expansion, the player and the person both suffer.  I think that enough great teams have been intellectual triumphs to demonstrate that it’s a genuinely important thing, not an optional extra.  I think speed of thought is trainable just as much as speed of foot is.  And I don’t think it’s a bolt-on.  I think it’s a club’s duty to their player, particularly because those that don’t win a big contract at 18 are going to find themselves in a position where they could do with a brain on their shoulders.

One thing, one thing only, gives me hope that something might happen in this direction. Last week, Roy Hodgson used the word “polyvalent” to describe Leon Osman.  He’s in charge of our best now, and in charge of the St George’s Park complex that will foster the next generation.  He reads long American novels.  He’s a polyglot.  He spent most of his career overseas.  He calls Everton midfielders “polyvalent”.  And he’s the boss.

Once more with feeling: thank God it wasn’t Redknapp.  Won’t somebody, please, think of the children.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Jones' addiction

27 October 2012: Bristol City 1 Hull City 2

When  your train to a game you’re expecting to lose is delayed, and the London Underground network that’s supposed to get you home following the game (which you did indeed lose) takes about three times as long as it should, you’ve a long time to wonder what the hell you’ve just done with your Saturday.  Too long, arguably.

And there comes a point where you stop asking yourself “why?” rhetorically, and start meaning it as a genuine interrogative.  “Why?”  Why have I actually done this?  OK, it’s good to see Ross and Karen, and catch up, and we discovered a new Shepherd Neame autumn beer.  But I could do that any time I wanted to go back to Bristol for pure fun.  And OK, there’s all the stuff about getting lows so you appreciate highs – but I reckon I’ve enough lows banked now, thanks, and when I’m as certain as I was before this one how it’d turn out I’m throwing good afternoons after bad.

So as one reason after another goes by you wonder whether this is in fact a psychological thing.  You start to wonder whether you’re actually addicted.  Whether you’re not stopping because you can’t.  Because your brain won’t let you.

So I decided to test whether this is in fact the case.  I found two good definitions of “addiction”, here and here.  They are:

the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma.”


compulsive need for and use of a habit-forming substance (as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) characterized by tolerance and by well-defined physiological symptoms upon withdrawal; broadly : persistent compulsive use of a substance known by the user to be harmful”

The key factors, then, are: being enslaved; habit or practice; something habit-forming; severe trauma on cessation; developing tolerance; physiological symptoms on withdrawal; and something known by the user to be harmful.

How many out of 7 has football got?

      1.       Enslaved

I probably do feel a bit enslaved sometimes, toiling across the country, handing over money when I could be spending it on other things.  But I don’t go to every single game, not even every one I really could.  And I do enjoy a lot of the day when I go, I like the company, the chance to show off my football knowledge a bit, and taking the support of City out I do enjoy watching games of football.  Honest.  Do I can’t call myself “enslaved” in good conscience.

      2.       Habit / practice

The 12.00 out of Temple Meads.  Football Weekly on the train.  A bacon sandwich at the other end.  The bus, £1 return (good value).  The seats at the back.  A Mars bar and a bottle of Coke at the offy.  Dolman, Block H, Row M, Seat 5.  Defeat in a mediocre game of football.  The 6.00 back to London.  A gnawing sense of existential angst.

      3.       Something habit-forming

Slightly circular part of the definition, this – so one can only be addicted to something that one can be addicted to?  Chicken and egg, too – did football form the habit in me or am I the sort of person who likes habits?

I don’t normally have an addictive personality (no really) and football’s clearly fomented a habit, so yes, I say it is habit-forming.

      4.       Severe trauma

I’m told that I’m very difficult to have in the house when football’s not on, and I do like a World Cup to break up my summer.  I will confess to a sense of emptiness, but that’s probably more to do with the breaking of the habit than anything genuinely vital being missing – it’s particularly so when we end a season strongly, so I’m also missing that endorphin burst of a goal.  This is probably the one to which a positive answer would lead to well-founded questions about my mental state.  Fortunately, then, it’s a no.

      5.       Tolerance

I remember crying with Gazza in 1990 when Chris Waddle kicked the ball into the Turin night.  In comparison, the comforting sense of inevitability that took hold of me when Hull opened the scoring on Saturday was a warm, familiar blanket of gloom.  “Tolerant”?  I’d say “conditioned” like Alex in Clockwork Orange, but the principle’s very much the same.

      6.       Physiological symptoms on withdrawal

I don’t get the shakes – in fact, my heart rate’s probably more stable.  I don’t have difficulty sleeping – in fact I probably sleep better.  I don’t put on weight – I eat better at weekends so I suspect I lose it.
But just because these aren’t the typical symptoms, they’re still clear changes between my during-season and close-season physiognomy, right?  I think this is a yes.

      7.       Something I know to be harmful

I wonder about this quite a lot.  The stress, the complete lack of control over my own emotions, the blood pressure, the mood swings... it can’t be adding years to my life, can it?  And yeah, when you feel good you feel like you can live forever – but the same’s almost certainly true of heroin, and it’s really, really not accurate.

So that’s quite a high addiction level for football.  Not 100%, fortunately, so I don’t feel that on the back of this unscientific analysis I have to check in that the priory.  But football does give you the mindnumbing highs that you keep trying to recapture. It does give you the burnt-out feeling inside that you need another hit to move on from.  And it does get its fingers in your brain.

As I type this, I’m seeing Twitter go mad for Arsenal beating Reading 7-5.  And all I can think is... are there highlights?  Shall I put on Sky Sports News?  How can I see this?

It’s not sensible.  But then, if we only did sensible things that were harmless, that you could drop easily and that didn’t have any emotional consequences, what a dull world it would be.

I’ll take the spice football adds.  And I’ll take that 2/7 margin of error to reassure me that I’m not totally the worse for doing so.

Monday, 22 October 2012

You can't shake the course of your destiny

20 October 2012: Bolton Wanderers 3 Bristol City 2

If we know one thing about the people in charge at Bolton Wanderers, we know this – Phil Gartside once proposed there should be no relegation from the Premier League.  And here they are, playing Bristol City in a lower-table Championship dogfight in which they fall two goals behind after less than 20 minutes.

Hubris is a bitch, isn’t it?

Like most things which are just too poetically perfect, the above received wisdom isn’t quite accurate.  Gartside didn’t propose a cut-off top tier – he proposed a cut-off Premier League One and Two.  Thus introducing a second Lucre Line further down the league, splitting yet more clubs utterly away from fiscal survival and no doubt hastening the descent into part-time regionalised entities of such proud clubs as, say, Notts County, Preston North End and Accrington Stanley.  Yes.  But let’s get this right.

Still, since he wanted a two-tier structure with 36 clubs in it – and since he wanted Rangers and Celtic in there too, therefore reducing by two the number of English sides in his proposed elite – seeing Bolton start the day below 34th place in the Football League is pretty satisfying.

34 feels about right for Gartside’s purposes, as well.  I’ve written before about parachute payments, and how they’re designed to ensure that the same clubs get promoted time after time.  And how they’ve had to be increased since football’s still-semi-conscious anarchic spirit has magnificently overruled this particular bit of financial doping, giving the likes of Swansea, Blackpool and Hull their seasons in the sun.  34 unrelegatable “big clubs” fits with this, the 20 which happen to be in the Premier League at the time plus a further dozen or so to fight over the scraps.  And this would be built into the system rather than left to the not-reliable-enough parachute mechanism to ensure.

To be fair, Gartside’s most recent revival of this charming little scheme was slightly different.  This link is well worth a read for all fans of weasel words, poorly hidden agendas and outright lying. I like that he’s prepared, rather sweetly, to reintroduce promotion if clubs “meet standards of size and finance”, thus removing the possibility that promotion could be a way for a small club to become more competitive over time, like Bolton did.  He’s also concerned, poor dear, about the “polarisation of clubs”.  You’d think that proposing a “promotion license” system would increase, rather than decrease, polarisation, but you’d be misunderstanding.  He’s actually worried about “the same few clubs continu[ing] to benefit from the huge additional revenues from the Champions League” as well as “a fear factor” concerning relegation to the Championship. Simply put, 2009’s Phil Gartside felt that raising the drawbridge was fine if he was on the right side of the moat, but terribly wrong if he wasn’t.

As far as I’m aware, that’s the last he’s said in public on the matter, probably because of the reception he’s received every time he’s made a proclamation, possibly because relegation has rendered his views moot.  That’s slightly irritating as it means I’m hanging this blog on a three-year-old hook. But crashing on, I wonder if his views, for all that they’re motivated by naked self-interest and greed, don’t merit slightly further examination.

What he’s proposing is something that would turn the de facto divisions in football into ones that are de facto.  The same teams would compete for the ludicrous, inflation-busting TV money, spread slightly further perhaps but guaranteed.  By definition, in his most recent proposal, the rich would get richer.  And I’m not sure how his system would break the Champions League cartel at the top of the English game – after all, for twenty years now the dreadful Premier League has claimed exclusive access to the money teat, and it’s been a long time since Newcastle or Blackburn have been in with a shout of the European Cup.  So we can safely dismiss this whole “closing off the top divisions” idea as bloody dreadful.  Fine.

What I’m more interested in is looking at it the other way round – ie Gartside’s nightmare scenario of the big boys vanishing into their own European Super League.  This is nothing new as an idea, of course – it’s been kicking round for as far as I can remember, that likeable chap Charles Green most recently giving it his backing in comments almost admirable for their fuck-you honesty.  Indeed there’s a sense of inevitability about it – Wenger certainly seems to think it’s going to come along, Clarence Seedorf is behind it, and Florentino Perez (they just get more and more likeable, don’t they?) would like to see the “best” (read “richest”) guaranteed to play the “best” (yep, still read “richest”) every single week.

You can see why these luminaries of football sense that the middle finger of history is only pointing one way.  The current, bloated, nasty Champions League appears to have been born as a result of blackmail by the big clubs, who were prepared to walk out of UEFA altogether unless the competition was expanded so that they could all be in every year.  And fuck the Cup Winners Cup and UEFA Cup.  What the wealthy bastards want, the wealthy bastards get, in football as in life.

So perhaps at some point this is going to happen.  Unlike Gartside’s proposals, there seems to be sufficient precedent that it genuinely might.  No promotion, no relegation – just Man Utd vs Real Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Juventus, every week until we all kill ourselves out of existential despair.  Another few parts of football’s rich tapestry torn away for good.

But.  But, but, but.  Who gets left behind?  Look at England.  The giant clubs are the teams who adapted best to the post-1992 world order – not necessarily the likes of one-time Champions League semi-finalists Leeds, who are very much the Icarus of this story, but the teams who flew slightly less high but slightly more consistently.  Arsenal, say; even Manchester United, who had an amusing spell of going out of the CL early for a few years but never failed to be there.

They were the teams on the right point of the oscillating wave of form all football teams go through when the Champions League rolled over the top flight like Jurassic sap, preserving everything in amber that it costs a vast amount to break into.  The teams they left behind were the likes of Everton, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest .  Historic giants of the game with genuine European pedigree – far more, in the early ‘90s, than Chelsea, for instance.  If they break away those teams will still be left in the English game.  A game without the Champions League income, stuck outside looking in.

Good.  To me, that sounds wonderful.  Imagine Norwich v Sheffield Wednesday as a top-5 fixture, like it was in the early ‘90s.  Imagine not knowing who’d be in contention for the league every year.  Imagine a team like Clough’s Forest, nearly Clough’s Derby too, shooting through the top flight to win it as a newly promoted side.

We’re a European breakaway league away from having that back.

I know there’s a flip side.  We wouldn’t have a selection of the “greatest players in the world” any more, I appreciate that.  No more would AgΓΌero, Vidic, Cazorla, Bale or Hazard play in the English Premier League.  But then, what precisely would be the difference?  If their clubs were all in the breakaway league, they’d play in exactly the same stadiums for exactly the same teams. They’d probably be on telly at exactly the same time.  OK, fans at the Liberty Stadium or Upton Park wouldn’t see them in the flesh.  But they’d see more competitive games, fewer thrashings and, who knows, maybe a title or two.

I say let them go.  I say give us our league back.  I say we can either put up with all levels of football being infected by the fiscal trickle-down of the Champions League, or we can actively hope for the final breakaway and enjoy the real thing we get back in return.

And if we could work out how to get Steaua Bucharest and Anderlecht into European Cup finals again, that’d be good too.