Athletics

Has the Usain Bolt era been good for athletics?

After completing an unprecedented hat trick of sprint golds at three Olympics, Usain Bolt looks set for a final lap of honour at next year’s London World Championships.

His looming retirement is, understandably, a source of trepidation to anyone associated with the sport. Ever since he announced himself to a global audience in Beijing eight years ago, Bolt has carried athletics on his broad shoulders.

When he does decide to hang up his spikes, Bolt will leave a sport facing an uncertain future.

The ever present issue of drugs continues to erode its already fragile credibility, while the comprehensive Olympic coverage offered by digital TV has further diluted a sceptical public’s attention. Its position as the undisputed highlight of an Olympic Games is no longer assured in an increasingly competitive field.

Bolt’s exit from the stage can hardly come at a worse time for the beleaguered sport.

But, has Bolt been good for athletics? Or rather, has media coverage of the Bolt phenomenon been good for athletics?

That might sound like an absurd proposition. After all, it’s getting hard to make a case against him being the greatest athlete of all time. He has brought a level of excitement perhaps never seen before, attracting countless casual viewers to the sport.

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However, the relentless media focus on him, to the detriment of other events and athletes, has had an unintended negative effect. By making Bolt bigger than athletics, the sport and the media have inadvertently created a void that just might be impossible to fill after his retirement.

Coverage of athletics during Bolt’s reign has increasingly felt like a one man show, with other events merely acting as filler to kill time between his appearances on the track. His eight year stranglehold over the sprints has been its own, self contained spectacle, floating above the wider sport.

It was evident in the BBC coverage of the Rio track and field programme, with endless overproduced VTs, inane studio discussions and hashtags dedicated to the Jamaican.

The evening of Bolt’s 100 metre final also featured the men’s 400 metres – probably the most competitive and exciting track event taking place in Rio. By way of build-up, the BBC could only spare time for Gabby Logan to hand over to the commentary team for the final. This despite the fact she was sat next to the man whose record Wayde Van Niekerk was about to break.

Indeed, Michael Johnson is a perfect illustration of the point. He is possibly the closest thing to an Usain Bolt over the last two decades – a completely dominant two event sprinter, running against the clock rather than the competition. His feats were comparable to those of Bolt.

Yet, Johnson shared equal billing with many contemporaries: Hicham El Guerrouj, Sergey Bubka, Wilson Kipketer, Jan Zelesny, Allen Johnson, Marion Jones, Merlene Ottey, Gail Deevers – to name just a handful (and ignoring later revelations in one case) All were household names and stars in their own right.

Who else could the same be said of now? Perhaps David Rudisha and Allyson Felix have an above average profile and, from a British perspective, Mo Farah and Jess Ennis-Hill. Nobody from any of the field events, which have been pushed further to the margins, comes close. Even the middle distances, once the sport’s blue riband events, are largely anonymous.

The vast swathes of empty seats on Bolt-free nights in Rio’s Olympic stadium told their own story. Where once a level of parity existed between events, the Bolt era has coincided with a narrowing of attention, with the 100 metres becoming a particular obsession.

There are of course other issues compounding the problem of Bolt overkill. Women’s athletics suffers enormously from the long list of decades old, tainted and unbeatable world records.

And, on a broader level, the sport has a huge and too often unacknowledged presentational problem. Big stadium arenas are completely ill-suited for live audiences (both in the stadium and at home) and present a huge obstacle to the progress of field events in particular. A complete re-think of how the sport is organised should be high on Sebastian Coe’s agenda.

There will always be a hierarchy of events in athletics to some degree, and Bolt was always going to be the star of the show. But, he is a lesson in the dangers of an individual becoming bigger than a sport. The fears that athletics has over a post Bolt world are well founded, but also partly of its own making.

To survive, athletics must capitalise on the interest Bolt has created, and use the opportunity presented by his retirement to once again find a broader appeal, giving greater exposure to a wider range of athletes and events.

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Football

Jurgen Klinsmann: Why the USA manager should not be on the FA’s England shortlist

The FA has done its homework, consulted an arbitrary selection of ex-pros, and produced a carefully crafted shortlist to succeed Roy Hodgson. The end result of this high-level strategising? A list comprising nearly every available English option, plus Arsene Wenger.

But, it’s the other name on the list that has captured some people’s imagination. Jurgen Klinsmann, the wildcard in the deck, whose candidacy has garnered its fair share of support.

So, what are the German’s credentials?

Some have pointed to his season with Tottenham as being in his favour – though quite what the relevance is of a year in the Premier League, over 20 years ago, is anyone’s guess.

More persuasively, Klinsmann was in charge of a newly resurgent Germany side that reached the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup. This was followed by a brief and largely unsuccessful spell with former club, Bayern Munich.

But, it is his time in charge of the US national side that has really put him in the frame as a serious candidate. His team won plenty of admirers in Brazil two years ago, with their adventurous play, and relentless, never-say-die attitude – most typified in their thrilling last 16 encounter against Belgium.

The logic behind a Klinsmann recruitment therefore goes a little something like this: ‘look at what he has done with the USA, they don’t even play football! Imagine what he could do with England.’

However, there is one gaping hole in this CV highlight. Klinsmann hasn’t really done any better than either of the previous two US managers this century.

After 91 games, Klinsmann boasts a winning percentage of 56%. Bruce Arena, who took charge of 130 games from 1998-2006 has a slightly better winning percentage, and only two more defeats than the German.

Even Klinsmann’s predecessor, Bob Bradley, whose record at first glance appears inferior, fared almost identically. Excluding results from the 2007 Copa America, when the US sent a youthful, mostly MLS based second string, and lost all three games, Bradley’s winning percentage is less than half a percent worse than Klinsmann’s.

Yet, neither Arena or Bradley made that FA shortlist. So, why is Klinsmann under consideration for “the biggest job in football”?

First, is the game’s bias towards status. Thanks to his stellar playing career, Klinsmann is a name. He’s European, and even better, German. Anything he does is going to attract more attention than a pair of coaches who had never worked outside the US before.

Second, and more important, is a combination of an innate bias towards according recent events more weight when making decisions – known as the availability heuristic – and an outdated and patronising view of US football on these shores.

The availability heuristic is, simply, the mental trap that humans fall into, of making judgements based on the most recent information, rather than taking a longer term view – a familiar problem in football. In this instance, the FA have based their decision to shortlist Klinsmann on the US’ 2014 World Cup performance – the perception being that they did exceptionally well.

But, in reality, their performance was nothing remarkable. The US have been competitive at international level for well over decade. In fact, 2014 arguably compares unfavourably with their efforts at earlier tournaments.

Arena’s 2002 side were in the ascendancy at 1-0 down in their quarter-final with Germany, when, late on, a clear hand ball on the goal line by Torsten Frings went unpunished. A World Cup semi-final between the US and South Korea was closer to becoming a reality than most people remember.

Then, in 2010, under Bradley, they were the superior side in their last 16 extra-time defeat against Ghana. At both tournaments, the US played better than they did in 2014. Even in 2006, when they were knocked out at the group stage, they were unfortunate to only draw with eventual winners, Italy.

The (over)reaction to their 2014 campaign, and Klinsmann’s subsequent association with the England job, stems from a strangely persistent, patronising attitude towards US football. Every four years, between snarky comments about ‘soccerball’,  there is collective surprise among fans and pundits that they are actually quite useful, as if it were some new development.

Perhaps it’s a question of familiarity, or lack of it, with very few US players plying their trade in the Premier League. Maybe it’s the perception that they have yet to fully embrace football, which, despite massive participation numbers, remains a second tier sport in the US. Whatever the reason, expect more of the same politely surprised condescension in Russia in two years time, when the US turn up and perform well. Again.

The FA have been adamant that in their search for a new manager, they will recruit the best possible candidate. Though it increasingly looks like they will go native, it would be an indictment on the other candidates if they decided that Klinsmann fit that billing.

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Football

Romario

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A very happy 50th birthday to Mr Romário de Souza Faria.

The Brazilian was part of perhaps the last generation of players to retain an air of mystique by virtue of their relative absence from our TV screens. Unlike contemporary stars, opportunities to watch Romario in action were few and far between. We had to subsist on  the odd Champions League tie against English opposition or patiently await the next World Cup. Having never signed for an Italian club we didn’t even get the privilege of an occasional glimpse on Channel 4 of a Sunday afternoon, as we did with so many other marquee names of the period. This scarcity only added to his lustre.

Romario didn’t have the best of luck with World Cups. Injuries denied him in 90 and 98 and a personality clash with big Phil resulted in his exclusion from the victorious 02 squad. This meant that to a generation of British football fans, Romario’s legend is founded mostly on seven performances at USA 94 and a pair of games in the same year against Manchester United. He’s probably the last South American superstar to fit into that category: universally & rightfully revered despite none us having seen much of him play.

This speaks to the impact he made during that tournament. In a transitional period shortly before the world game became ubiquitous, USA 94 marked arguably the last World Cup Brazil arrived at with an otherworldly aura. With a squad half drawn from Brazilian clubs and containing only a handful of players that anybody knew much about, it wouldn’t be a stretch to label them an unknown quantity, as ridiculous as that sounds from this vantage point. All we knew was that we were in for a hell of a ride, right? Eleven mavericks. You score three, we’ll score four. Then the tournament began…and they had Rai and Mauro Silva in central midfield.

In reality, Brazil’s approach to the game had been evolving towards a more European style for some time; since the glorious failure of 82 in fact. However, nobody had informed me of this. Having been weaned on VHS tapes of the teams of Pele, Zico et al this was all a little underwhelming.

Whilst stocked with some very good players, the 94 vintage were a largely functional, uninspiring side with one major exception; the short, squat lad up front with the great big arse. He moved differently to the others, swaggering about the pitch, with incredible acceleration over five yards, holding onto the ball for longer and committing defenders. He was the only recognisably Brazilian player as far as I could tell.

If Maradona was the stardust for Argentina in 86, Romario fulfilled the same role for Brazil eight years later. Finishing with 5 goals and (controversially) the player of the tournament award, three moments stand out. First, the trademark run and toe poke finish against Sweden, second, the run and assist for Bebeto’s winner against the USA (some excellent special effects following the goal here) and finally the balletic half volley against the Netherlands.

Although World Cup victory was the undoubted high point of Romario’s international career, he had already guaranteed himself immortality with this match winning header against Uruguay (at 2:15) in the Copa America of 1989 –  incredibly, Brazil’s first continental title in 40 years.

Finishing up as the Seleção’s third highest scorer (55 goals in 70 games), behind only Pele and Ronaldo, Romario’s goalscoring at club level was no less impressive. The second highest ever scorer in Brazilian domestic football history, his record in European football is comparable to anyone before or since. In five seasons at PSV he netted 96 goals in 107 games. Better remembered for a briefer spell at Camp Nou, he scored 34 times in 46 outings including this hat trick against Real Madrid, featuring a turn and toe poke almost as good as his effort against Sweden, and a goal home and away against Man Utd (away clip is worth watching if only for Kevin Keegan’s hapless attempts at pronouncing Stoichkov at 1:12) Steve Bruce later referred to him as “arguably the best player I ever faced.”

Never short on confidence – “The day I was born, God laid eyes on me and said: ‘He’s the man.'” – the Brazilian belongs to a proud tradition of brilliant but volatile loose cannons largely absent from the modern game. Witness this blind side cheap shot on Diego Simeone to get an idea. Fallings out first with Cruyff and then Luis Aragones at Valencia cut short his stay in Europe and precipitated a return to Brazil.

The latter stages of his career in his homeland weren’t without some notable moments. Chief amongst them was a ridiculous turn in the 2000 Mercosur Cup final (a short lived trans-continental tournament featuring South America’s top clubs) for Vasco De Gama against Palmeiras. Trailing 3-0 at half-time, Romario led a second half comeback, culminating in a hat-trick completing, injury-time winning goal. Remarkably, five years later, at the age of 39 he finished the Brazilian championship as its top scorer.

Ever quotable, following his omission from the 2002 World Cup squad, Romario answered a question on whether he’d be watching on TV thus: “The games start at six o’clock in the morning. At that time, I’m usually getting home.” Imagine an English player coming out with that. On another occasion, when pressed on rumours surrounding his private life, he responded “Only televisions should worry about projecting a good image.”

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Football

Football’s unlikeliest transfers

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Following Ramires’ surprising move to China, here are a few other outlandish transfers from over the years…

Julien Faubert  – West Ham to Real Madrid

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You know something is unexpected when reportage of it is prefaced with the sentence: “This isn’t an April Fools”. To anyone who watched Julien Faubert haplessly blunder up and down West Ham’s right side, his loan move to Real Madrid in January 2009 was an unexpected development to say the least. Faubert had endured a terrible time at Upton Park. A serious achilles injury in pre-season delayed his debut by seven months. Hammers fans awaited his return with great anticipation. This was after all a French international; the first man to don the number 10 jersey since Zizou’s retirement no less. But in a claret and blue shirt, he couldn’t do anything right; running when he should have passed, passing when he should have run and ballooning crosses into the stands. Predictably enough, his spell at Madrid was disastrous and brief. His most notable achievement was being pictured asleep on the bench during a game against Villarreal. To get a sense of just how surprising this transfer was, you need only watch Phil Thompson’s face and Paul Merson’s reaction upon hearing the news.

 

Ronnie O’Brien – unattached to Juventus 1999

Teeside to Turin isn’t the exactly the most well trodden path in football, but it’s the one that Irishman Ronnie O’Brien took when signing with the Old Lady in 1999. Recently released by Middlesbrough, O’Brien was pondering his next career move when the call from Italy came. If stories are to be believed, it all came about via a recommendation from that man again Paul Merson. Merson’s agent worked with Juve and on the strength of a video of a Boro reserve match, the deal was made. At what must have been quite a daunting time for the young man, his former manager Bryan Robson had some encouraging words to send him off on his adventure “Ronnie O’Brien is not good enough. People jump to the ceiling because he has gone to Juventus but he hasn’t done anything yet”. Although Robson’s managerial judgement wasn’t always the soundest, he called this one right. O’Brien departed Juventus having made only a few appearances in the Intertoto Cup and went on to eke out a decent career in the MLS. In a strange postscript to the story, O’Brien’s move prompted a campaign in Ireland to have him voted Time Magazine’s person of the century. Before a late rule change banned ‘whimsical candidates’ he was briefly polling alongside Martin Luther King and Mahatma Ghandi. Still, by naming his son Zinedean (sic) he’ll always have something to remember his stint in Turin by.

Faustino Asprilla – unattached to Darlington (almost)

Although this transfer never actually came to fruition it certainly warrants inclusion. George Reynolds, Darlington’s colourful chairman, thought he had pulled off a masterstroke when he somehow convinced former Newcastle striker Tino Asprilla to sign for the third division side in 2002. Ignoring the fact that Asprilla’s career was in freefall, Darlington offered him 17k a week plus 20% of gate receipts as well as a car and a rent-free flat as a sweetener, a questionable business decision that would no doubt have done wonders for team morale. So confident was Reynolds’ of sealing the deal that Asprilla was paraded in front of the Darlington faithful before a home game against Carlisle. They had even gone to the trouble of securing a work permit for him on appeal. Little did he know the Colombian playboy was getting cold feet. Expected at the club for his medical, Asprilla had other ideas, choosing to take a taxi to Newcastle airport in the middle of the night for a flight to the Middle East. Reynolds didn’t take the news well, “We’re friends, myself and Faustino. I wined and dined him…I’ll never ever talk to him again”. Asprilla was last heard of launching his own ‘Tino’ line of flavoured condoms in Colombia – “I’ll recommend the guava flavour”. As for Reynolds, after running Darlington into the ground, he was imprisoned for 3 years for tax evasion in 2005.

Denilson – Sao Paolo to Real Betis

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In the days before he’d been rumbled as a one trick showpony, Denilson was briefly the hottest property in world football – ‘look how many stepovers he can do!’ Following the 98 World Cup he had his pick of Europe’s premier clubs: Madrid, Milan, Barcelona, Man Utd, Betis. Sorry, what was that last one? Real Betis, Seville’s second club, pulled off a coup and broke the world transfer fee record, paying £21.5 million to secure his services from Sao Paolo in 1999. A lack of ambition on the part of the Brazilian or an admirable commitment to a club that was willing to invest so much in him? Perhaps he just knew his station. Eight years and 186 inconsistent games later, Denilson departed Betis, ending his playing days as a nomad with spells in Saudi Arabia, the US, Vietnam and Greece. At just 31 he was rejected by Gary Megson after a week’s trial with Bolton Wanderers.
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Athletics

Re-setting the clocks, why UK Athletics is on the right track

The tragicomedy of athletics staggers onwards. Round the bend, the sight of part two of WADAs report into IAAF corruption and Russian state sponsored doping looms into view. Former WADA chief Dick Pound, a stern sort not given to hyperbole, has already provided a little teaser. Apparently the sequel has a “wow factor” and is “even more explosive” than part one. Given the contents of the material released at the end of last year, that’s some going. I’ll certainly be watching. Thursday promises to be a long day for Sebastian Coe’s PR team.

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Former WADA chief Dick Pound

In a bold, pre-emptive move UK athletics has released a 14 point manifesto to clean up the sport. Most eye-catching of all is their proposal to nullify all existing world records. A complete re-boot. It’s a divisive proposition that has predictably come in for a barrage of criticism. Whilst the idea is a flawed one – more on which later – and unlikely to ever be adopted, UK athletics (UKA) deserves credit. In publishing the manifesto UKA has at last started a meaningful conversation about the legitimacy crisis that faces athletics. Finally, a recognition that the mess the sport finds itself in is so dreadful that it can only be addressed by year zero, radical thinking

Yet, the proposal and accompanying statement from UKA exec Ed Warner illustrate one of the more curious aspects of this sorriest of sagas. In presenting the document, Warner said “the integrity of athletics was challenged as never before in 2015” and that it was at its “lowest point for decades”. However, the world records idea is itself a tacit admission that the sport has really had no integrity for the past 30 or so years. It might just be plumbing new depths.

This contradiction fits a more general pattern throughout the current crisis. The strange narrative that there is somehow something new or different here. That athletics is in crisis all of a sudden. That the public is only now slowly waking up to the scale of drug use. True, the complicity of the sport’s governing body in the whole sordid business is a novel feature. But, the fact of drug abuse being endemic in athletics has been well established for a very long time.

Athletics has lurched from one drug crisis to the next over the past quarter of a decade. The end of the cold war brought to light the scale of state sponsored doping in the Eastern bloc. Dr Wade Exum told us all about the extent of drug use in US athletics throughout the 1980s and the subsequent cover-ups. In the BALCO scandal we learned about designer pharmacists and commercial labs. Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Dwain Chambers, Asafa Powell, Tyson Gay, Kelli White, Rashid Ramzi, Trevor Graham. This could go on and on. Russian state sponsored doping and IAAF corruption is merely the latest chapter in a long running saga and by no means the seediest.

It’s this longer term perspective that explains the slow receding of athletics from the public consciousness. Just as drugs in the sport did not start and end with East Germans or Ben Johnson, athletics’ fate has not and will not be decided by recent events alone. The public’s faith in what they watch has been steadily eroded by scandal after scandal. Athletics has been in a state of near permanent crisis for over two decades.

This is the point that I think has been missed, perhaps wilfully, by many involved in the sport. They underestimate the extent to which athletics has already been discredited by much of the watching public. There is a degree of denial about the scale and nature of the problem. It was evident in the relentless focus on Justin Gatlin at last year’s World Championships and the embarrassing celebrations of the BBC team at his defeat. It was maddening to watch them reduce the issue to such a simplistic and personal level (with the honourable exception of Michael Johnson) It was also there in Sebastian Coe’s bizarrely defensive reaction to the Sunday Times’ allegations as a “declaration of war on my sport”. Athletics has a huge task on its hands to win people back over.

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Coe’s position looks increasingly untenable

It’s in this context that UKAs efforts should be applauded.

At the very least it seeks to address one of the great absurdities in all of sport, let alone athletics. A cursory glance down the list of current world records and half a dozen immediately jump out. Everybody knows they are tainted. Nobody to this day has come remotely close to them, let alone bettered them. Yet there they are, etched in time and serving as a reminder in the bottom right hand corner of the TV screen that athletics is dirty. Regardless of anything else it’s one of the single biggest factors holding back women’s athletics.

There are some obvious practical problems with the idea. Chief amongst them is that athletics is presently in no position from a testing point of view to declare that any results achieved after a re-set should be considered any more valid than those achieved before. This is enough on its own to sink the proposal as a viable option.

The best suggestion I’ve encountered is the idea of making any records provisional, with a set window for re-testing before they are ratified as official world records. A drawback to this is what an acceptable arbitrary time limit would be. A flashing ‘NEW PROVISIONAL WORLD RECORD’ on screen doesn’t send out the best message or hold quite the same dramatic appeal either.

Much hard thinking remains and easy answers don’t exist. Still, UKA has been brave in taking a lead. Though its ideas are imperfect it’s heartening to finally see someone in athletics give an indication they understand the existential threat the sport faces and the type of thinking it will take to turn things round.

All eyes on Thursday.

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Football

Pep Guardiola and the cult of the manager

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It’s a near certainty that Pep Guardiola will manage in the Premier League next season, with Man Utd, Man City and Chelsea forming a not so orderly queue for his services. With the recent downturn in the fortunes of his old rival Jose Mourinho, Guardiola would probably now be most observers’ pick as the world’s premier manager. But, is everybody completely missing the point about his success and what lies behind it? Do managers matter that much.

The mythology that surrounds Guardiola is illustrative of the over emphasis on individuals that persists in football. A powerful idea grips clubs and supporters that if only the right manger can be recruited, success will surely follow. This idea was perfectly demonstrated in the delirious reaction that greeted the recent appointment of Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool. There remains a strange lack of attention to the environmental and systemic factors that breed success on the pitch.

Now let me be clear, this isn’t contrarianism for its own sake. I’m not saying that Guardiola doesn’t know a thing or two about organising a football team. That would just be silly. But, there is a lazy narrative and an absolute consensus on him that warrants some scrutiny. At Barcelona,* his record is really very similar to that of his immediate predecessor and successors. The club have done well whoever has been in charge and, importantly, regardless of their managerial credentials.

Prior to being appointed Barcelona boss, Luis Enrique boasted a relatively modest managerial CV. Time at Barcelona B was followed by an unsuccessful year at Roma and a creditable season with Celta Vigo. In his first year at Camp Nou, Enrique matched Guardiola’s treble winning debut and looks well on course for another hugely successful year.

In his only campaign in charge, the late Tito Vilanova managed to amass 100 pts in La Liga, more than Guardiola ever managed. What is more, this was achieved with Vilanova taking an extended leave of absence midway through the season for cancer treatment. Vilanova’s only previous experience as a number one consisted of a year in Spain’s fourth tier that ended in relegation.

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The much maligned, trophyless Tata Martino would appear to be the exception. An odd choice, having never managed in Europe before, even he ended up with the exact same points total that Guardiola achieved in his first season. The difference being that Martino’s efforts were good enough only for second place.

There are two charges that can be levelled against the above. Firstly, Guardiola is exceptional because this was the house that he built and secondly, I’ve neglected his Champions League triumphs.

On the first point, Guardiola was building on already very solid foundations laid by Frank Rijkaard (whose only previous club management job incidentally was a year at Sparta Rotterdam who were relegated) The Dutchman revived Barcelona, established a similar playing style, brought through Iniesta and Messi and generally left things in a far better state than he found them. A disappointing end to his tenure was mainly due to a period of squad transition and his star player losing interest in training. The dead wood had all been removed by the start of Guardiola’s first season. Strangely Rijkaard never seems to be linked with any jobs these days.

As for the Champions League, Rijkaard and Enrique won it as well and Guardiola had four attempts to Vilanova and Martino’s one. There’s also the much understated element of luck in cup competitions (anyone that scoffs at this this should remember that Avram Grant and Roberto Di Matteo have both been to one more CL Final with Chelsea than Mourinho) and few could argue that in his first campaign, Guardiola wasn’t fortunate in the extreme in the semi-final against Chelsea.

The point here is not some feeble attempt to discredit Guardiola or to detract from his achievements. It’s rather to say that the lessons of Barcelona’s incredible success over the past decade seem to have been misunderstood by many. The Catalan club have hit upon a winning formula that rejects the idea of big name manager recruitment – ironic given Guardiola’s current status in the game. In Guardiola himself they hired a managerial novice. A succession of unheralded managers have done enormously well. The easy narrative is the one about great men but really it’s a story of systemic rather than individual triumph.

The common thread that runs from Guardiola to Vilanova to Enrique is that they are all products of the Barcelona system. All three represented the club on the pitch at one level or other. They earned their managerial stripes with Barcelona’s B team. They were/are steeped in the club’s traditions, practices and playing style. They represent continuity. It’s instructive that Tata Martino, by far the most experienced yet least successful of the last four managers, was the only outsider.

Rather than fixate on a marquee name, Guardiola’s suitors in England would perhaps do better by attempting to implement their own versions of Barcelona’s in-house recruitment system.

* It’s more difficult to assess Guardiola’s time at Bayern Munich. Firstly, because he’s still there. Secondly, Jupp Heynckes’ last season in charge was so dominant that Guardiola was always on something of a hiding to nothing. Domestically he has carried on where Heynckes left off but in the CL he has, relatively speaking, disappointed. There are parallels with Vilanova’s succession of Guardiola at Barca.

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Football

The Great Football Pundit Debate

Whenever conversation turns towards matters footballing with friends, an ever popular parlour game remains perennial favourite ‘what pundits do you rate?’

Everyone I’ve ever met with even a passing interest in the game holds strong opinions on the matter. It’s a truly divisive issue that can provoke surprisingly heated debate and argument. With the disclaimer that this is based on some very unscientific methodology and a small sample size, I can present some initial conclusions based on said conversations:

– The only pundit (now former) that emerges with near universal approval is Gary Neville
– Almost no consensus exists on the relative merits of all other pundits
– A strong regional accent marks you down, regardless of capability in all other facets of punditry (Carra)
– Lee Dixon and Danny Murphy are the up and comers in the field, scoring relatively well
– Garth Crooks and Michael Owen score almost universally poorly
– Being passionate and opinionated will get you a long way (Wrighty)

What’s most striking though is that in the current multi-channel landscape, with the dozens of ex-pros being paid handsomely to dispense opinion, that there is only a single pundit who scores a high approval rating. Broadly speaking, with a few exceptions, opinions on the rest range from indifference to vehement dislike. Neville stands head and shoulders.

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Top of the class

Let’s assume that these opinions are fairly representative of the wider football watching public. I’ve wondered whether this would be a matter of any concern to TV companies. People’s decisions to subscribe to pay TV channels or to tune into matches on terrestrial television don’t ultimately hinge on who is delivering the pre, mid and post-match waffle. It’s a captive audience; punters will watch football on TV come what may. So, perhaps not. This would certainly explain the employment of a few pundits over the years who clearly never had so much as a screen test (Marcel Desailly anyone?)

Yet, Neville’s success and widespread popularity demonstrate two things. Firstly, pundits can be more than incidental appendages to TV football coverage. During his stint at Sky, Neville became part of the spectacle, almost as much reason to watch as the game itself. Whilst not being in possession of viewing stats I strongly suspect that Neville’s presence inflated the numbers tuning in earlier, sticking around at half time and remaining long after the final whistle had blown. Sky will certainly feel his departure.

Secondly, Neville has proven that it is possible to transcend football’s petty tribalism and the fickle tastes of fans to earn plaudits across the board – particularly impressive for a figure as previously divisive as he was. He’s shown that there is a genuine appetite from fans for thoughtful, insightful and nuanced analysis. The standard platitudes, clichés and describing of the plainly obvious simply won’t do. Perhaps they are a more discerning bunch than given credit for.

Which brings me to two football shows I’ve watched in the past few weeks, ITVs Champions League highlights round-up and BT Sports’ European football show. Over on ITV, the ever menacing Roy Keane was digesting Manchester United’s Champions League exit. Apparently it was all due to a lack of desire, heart, bottle, character, leaders. Pressed for a bit more detail from anchor Mark Pougatch, Keane just repeated the same thing over, in a slightly more irritable tone. Wisely, Pougatch didn’t pursue matters further.*
At the other end of the spectrum, BT have embarked on something of an experiment with their excellent European football show. Rather than fill the panel with the familiar cast of ex-pros, they have assembled a crack team of football journalists, marshalled by the sardonic James Richardson. They know the European game inside out, bring lots of insider knowledge and express themselves clearly and articulately. Raphael Honigstein is a particular standout.

There remains a suspicion of journalists amongst ex pros and broadcasters that will probably prevent this experiment being extended to more mainstream football programmes anytime soon. After all, they’ve never played the game to a high level and all that. But, there are signs that things are shifting. Journos are now regulars on Sky’s Spanish football coverage and make occasional appearances on MOTD3 and ITVs Champions League show.

Unless another soon to be retiring replacement for Neville can be unearthed, broadcasters could do a lot worse than to give a few of these hacks more of a run out.

N.B – Not singling out Roy Keane, just the most recent example of lazy punditry I’ve seen.

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