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Archive for December 2010

Mining the Lower Leagues


Wednesday, December 29, 2010 by

When at the start of October 1974 Phil Neal lined up for Northampton Town to face Workington in the old Fourth Division, little did he have imagine that in just over a week he would be joining the then Football League champions, making his debut for them in the Merseyside derby within five weeks and scoring a penalty in the European Cup final three years later.

These days, stories of players making a jump of four divisions sound as quaint as the ₤65,000 that Liverpool paid for Neal. According to Delloite’s transfer analysis of spending, during the last two transfer windows Premier League clubs spent ₤21 million on players from the Football League, just 6% of their total outlay and the lowest since 2003. Transfer fees paid for players from other leagues amounted to more then ten times that figure.

Whilst the magnitude of those amounts might be surprising, it could hardly be said that they are revealing. The shift to buy players from abroad has been a constant one since the formation of the Premier League and the subsequent removal of barriers on fielding foreign players accelerated it. Managers are now more likely to go watch a player in Belgium or France then at a lower league club down the road.

Whether that is because the quality of football outside of the Premier League has regressed, as many seem to infer, or not is debateable. The impact that players like Tim Cahill, Scott Dann, Aaron Ramsey, and even Joe Hart have made would indicate that there is still talent out there; it is just that fewer are willing to take a risk on them.

In that respect, Liverpool are as guilty as most. Dann, a self declared Liverpool fan, has been immense since joining Birmingham from Coventry yet it would be highly surprising to find that Liverpool had given serious thought to signing him when he was still playing in the Championship.

The flip side to that argument would be that at Liverpool he wouldn’t have played anywhere near as much as he has for Birmingham and, as a result, wouldn’t have made the improvement that he has.

Proof of this lies in Danny Wilson who was a regular squad member for Rangers and played in the Champions League yet at Liverpool he doesn’t make it on the bench. Wilson has to make do with the reserves and whilst this once used to provide a good foundation for young players, now it is largely a waste of time. What used to be a crucial element in the development of players has been left to rot.

Talking about the limitations that reserve football poses cannot but lead to Jack Hobbs, a player who’s progress stalled after making a very good early impression. It was only once he had gone on a semi-permanent basis to Leicester that his true worth started to emerge; he matured when faced the challenge of playing against stronger players in a competition where each game mattered.

It could be argued that Liverpool got rid of Hobbs too quickly but, for all the good things he has done at Leicester these past three years, he is still playing in the Championship. It is debateable how strong of an argument that is, however, as Hobbs seems like another victim of the reluctance to play take a risk with a lower league player.

Yet the Football League isn’t being completely ignored, it is just that the focus has shifted to younger players. Andre Wisdom, European U17 champion and one of the most promising players at the club, was signed from Bradford when he was 14. Other England youth internationals like Tyrell Belford (Coventry), David Moli (Luton), Michael Ngoo (Southend) and the much publicised Raheem Sterling (QPR) have followed a similar route. Even Jonjo Shelvey was only eighteen when he joined from Charlton in the summer.

Much as clubs are said to value experience, the possibility of bringing players early on and forming them within the club seems to be much more attractive. Why let them develop any bad habits seems to be the mantra.

It is, perhaps, among such players that one might find the heir to Phil Neal. And an indication that the traditions of old aren’t being put aside but merely modified to fit the modern needs.

This article was published in the December 2010 issue of Well Red magazine.  Have you bought a copy yet?  No?  What are you waiting for?

Well Read: Top Books from 2010


Monday, December 27, 2010 by

It could be my impression but 2010 hasn’t been a particularly good one as far as football books are concerned; especially if like me you don’t happen to be particularly fond of biographies. Meaning that selecting what has become my annual roundup of best books read during the year was a bit tricky. But, having jogged my memory a bit to see which books I’ve read over the past twelve months, I’ve managed to draw up a list of four must read books.

Top of the list has to be Pay as You Play. Paul Tomkins is someone I’ve known for quite some time; initially through his articles and subsequently through e-mail conversations. He is, by all accounts, among the most prolific Liverpool FC writers around and even if you don’t agree with his writing it is hard to argue that whatever he says isn’t backed up.

Indeed, over the years that desire to have some form of proof over what he’s saying has apparently increased to the extent that he is now looking for solid ways to gauge the true worth of a manager’s signings. That quest is at the basis of Pay as You Play where he evaluates any manger who has spent at least two seasons working in the Premiership.

It is in many ways a ground breaking piece of work because it sees three people who are, essentially, fans offering a real contribution to the world of football in the form of a way through which you can essentially judge the quality of a manager.

Pay as You Play is the last (football related) book I’ve read this year, Outcasts United the first. And, if pressed, I’d probably point at this one as being the best one of the year. Here I have to make a relatively important qualification in that although I read it this year, this book was published last year. But that shouldn’t stop me from recommending Warren St. John’s story about a woman’s quest to set up and keep going a kids’ football team from a refugee community.

It is a powerful and inspirational story brilliantly relayed by St. John, one that won’t fail to impress on the ability of sport to bridge gaps and build character. On a less positive note, it also shows how racism doesn’t look at the age of those who are being discriminated.

A much lighter read is Will You Manage by Musa Okwonga. As the name hints, this book deals with football management and what are the core ingredients for one to be successful at this. There isn’t any deep analysis of tactics but instead the focus is largely on character considerations which still makes for an interesting and thought provoking read.

Finally a book that isn’t strictly about football but one that really impressed me. Bounce by Matthew Syed deals with the myth that there is regarding talent and how this is handed through some form of divine intervention.

In a highly intelligent – and controversial – book, Syed argues that there are a number of factors behind the most successful sportspeople such as opportunities early on in life, motivation and good coaching. There will be many who won’t agree with Syed’s claims – and the response to a recent article by him on Four Four Two magazine proved as much – but my personal views on the development of good sports people mirror Syed’s so it was impossible for me not to get excited whilst reading it.

So that’s it for the year. There are a couple more which I should probably include (Kenny Dalglish’s biography for instance) but as I already hinted, I only rarely read so can’t really comment on them. In the meantime there are a couple of books I’m looking at such as ‘Scouting for Moyes’ by Less standfest but again there isn’t much quality coming through. In any case, here’s hoping that 2011 provides plenty (and better quality) reading material

The Director’s Role


Thursday, December 23, 2010 by

The road that led to the manager’s position as it is currently understood – the man who is in charge of practically everything – has been a difficult and tortuous one.

So domineering is the manager today that it is difficult to reconcile with the knowledge that it is a position that was born of the need to put a buffer between the team and those who owned it, one that was originally routinely carried out by the club secretary.

It is equally hard to accept that it was only in the early sixties that the England manager could actually chose the players who played in his teams. As much as the notion seems alien now, up till Alf Ramsey’s appointment in 1963 England managers had to defer to an FA committee that had the ultimate say on who played and who didn’t. Tactical issues often had less of say then political ones, with each committee member angling for his own club’s players to play until a consensus was reached.

Even though the cult of the manager as the man who controls most aspect of his team had been established by Herbert Chapman’s success at Arsenal, and the resulting desire to emulate that success by copying what Chapman had done, it was only when the likes of Bill Shankly arrived at Anfield and started to claw away the power from the board room that the supposed power became a real one.

Across the continent, the role evolved in a different manner. The demarcation line between taking care of the team and running the club remained a very clear one. From the early days, coaches commanded great respect – not least because most of them came from Britain which, as the birthplace of the game, afforded them significant regard - but that was never seen as a reason to give them much of a say away from the football pitch. In Italy for instance, the word used to refer to the man managing the team is allenatore which literally means trainer. Same goes for Spain with entranador. Even in language, their role was cemented on the training grounds.

In both of those countries, and practically everywhere else, it is the director of football who has always held most power. He is the one who decides who gets bought or sold, just as he is the one who maps out the strategy that should guide the club. Coaches come and go, strategies remain.

Gerard Houllier: one of many at Lyon
One of the finest examples of how this system works is at Lyon. The French side won seven consecutive league titles and did exceptionally well in the Champions League despite going through four managers (Jacques Santini, Paul Le Guen, Gérard Houllier and Alain Perrin).

Their success wasn’t down to being lucky in appointing for managers capable of picking up where the previous one had left. Decisions of which players are brought in isn’t taken by one man but rather a team of people (one of whom is the manager) with the director of football playing a key role.

More emphatically, the recent success of German football in developing players is founded in a shared ideology among directors of football who realized that, giving the financial limitations of the Bundesliga, investing in young players was the only way they could compete.

Left on their own, managers tend to opt for experienced players who are more likely to help them get the points they need to survive. It is human nature for them to do so. It takes someone with an overall vision, someone who can understand both the long term benefit and the short term risks, to dream up and allow such a strategy to come to fruition.

Yet such examples seem to bear little weight for those arguing against the utility of a director of football in the English game. Such belief is generally shielded by two major arguments: that there has never been such a role in British football and that the success of the likes of Alex Ferguson proves that you don’t need a director of football to succeed but, rather, a very good manager.

The first of those two is fairly typical. Change is rarely welcomed, especially if it challenges conventional wisdom. It took the humiliations suffered at the hands of Austria and Hungary in the fifties to shatter the arrogant belief that the no one outside the British isles was as good as the English were, to focus on what is perhaps the most glaring example of this. Yet those who, like coach Jimmy Hogan, had tried to warn of this were derided and shunned.

It would have been too hopeful to expect an easy acceptance of a role that, in the mind of many, undermines the historically established power of the manager regardless of the fact that in itself this is not a good enough reason to reject the utility of the role.

The second argument is perhaps harder to argue against. Ferguson hasn’t had a director of football at United yet they’ve done well enough. Neither did others like Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Bob Paisley or Brian Clough.

Those names, however, span five decades which more than anything highlights just how rare it is to find a manager who is capable of constantly delivering success. Those managers were the exception, with the rule being the countless others who took similar roles and failed to deliver anything near the same level of results. Choosing the right manager, and getting some success, seems almost to be an act of chance.

It is equally legitimate to wonder what happens when they leave. The reply isn’t too comforting. Nottingham Forest went into meltdown once Clough resigned and haven’t recovered up till this day. United imploded once Busby retired to the extent that they were even relegated. At Liverpool, the ethos of the bootroom – as well as the presence of Paisley giving his advice in the background when Kenny Dalglish was in charge – kept the success coming but eventually even that lost its power.

The point is that truly great managers, those who have a strong vision of what has to be done in every aspect of the club in order to achieve success, are a rarity. And it is virtually impossible to ensure that someone as good takes over once they leave. Therein lies the problem of relying on one man.
Ruddock, Diouf and Josemi: Can Comolli Avoid Such Mistakes?

Liverpool over the past two decades provides the ideal test case. First there was Roy Evans who built up a squad of players that achieved moderate success. Then came Gerard Houllier who decided that the players he inherited weren’t good enough so set about re
placing practically all of them. Rafa Benitez eventually took over from him and he too concluded that the players he had weren’t up to the task.

So over the years millions have been wasted on players purely because the power to do so was in the hands of the managers. Throw into the mix the senseless feud between the academy and the first team that literally wasted two generations of players and you have a perfect mess on your hands.

There is no guarantee that it would have resulted in different outcomes, but it is hard to believe that Liverpool couldn’t have done better with someone to oversee that the players bought fitted in not only with the manager’s view of how the game should be played but also with the club’s philosophy.

Someone who could have avoided mistakes like Neil Ruddock, El Hadj Diouf and Josemi. Not to mention someone who could have helped preserve Liverpool’s pass and move trademark that seems to have been eroded along the way.

There will always be the need to identify someone who is exceptionally good in this role, as well as put agreed limits to what the role itself involves. It is equally crucial to have a manager that is comfortable working with that director of football and who shares the overall strategy.

Otherwise, and this is what has often happened in the past in England, it ends up being a clash of personalities. It is not an easy balance to reach especially as fans will typically push for the most popular manager rather than the one who is the best fit for the club and the way it is run.

But, then again, that of choosing a manager is a decision that is better taken by someone who knows the game and who has a feel of what the club believes in – the director of football - rather than people – the club directors - more used to hiring fund managers.

The key argument here isn’t that a Director of Football is a guarantee to success but rather an element that could help achieve it and, just as importantly, sustain it over a long period of time. It may not be what, historically, was done in England but that does not mean that it isn’t a system that could work as well there as it has done elsewhere.

This article was originally published on the Tomkins Times.