We Need To Talk About Brendan

Liverpool

 

I love Kenny Dalglish. Love him with my entire being, like a member of the family, one I truly adore, not just the kind I have to see every Christmas. He means a lot to me does Kenny, and any Liverpool fan will feel likewise. He won us our last league title as manager. He scored the only goal in a European cup final to retain the trophy. He’s witty and you know that he loves Liverpool as much as you do. It’s one happy circle of love, something Nero would have liked to have got himself involved in.

Anyway, at the end of last season, Kenny was given the boot from the new American owners, who confessed that they don’t know much about football. Apparently, they know even less about soccer. Now a lot of people were upset about seeing Dalglish go. I personally felt a little cheated and if I’m being honest, reminded myself of my girlfriend the time Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston. You go and ask your girlfriend or wife what she thinks about Jennifer and you’ll hear about how she was treated unjustly, how she was stabbed in the back and betrayed. But you see Brad abandoned her for Angelia Jolie. What Brad Pitt did makes sense. He went out and found someone better. However harsh you may deem his actions, you can’t argue with his logic. So when Dalglish was sacked, there was the thought in the back of my mind that The Americans had Jolie (Mourinho, Guardiola, Del Bosque, Kloop) waiting in the wings. Instead they went and chose Lisa Kudrow. Who I hear you cry? Phoebe from Friends.

Now Kudrow may have a great personality, but she doesn’t attract producers like Aniston and Jolie, and herein lies major issue number one, who is Brendan Rogers? Brendan Rogers managed Watford and took them to the dizzy heights of 13th. He also managed Reading, but left by mutual consent after six months. Then he managed Swansea, taking them into the playoffs and guiding them to 11th in the Premier League. Does this appear like the CV of a manager you want to employ after sacking a manager who won top flight titles with two clubs and your first piece of silverware in five seasons? Twenty-five years ago you could have placed a chicken at the helm of Liverpool and you’d have still attracted an influx of stars. There would have been players willing to share the boss’ pile of grain just to pull on the famous red shirt, but alas now times are different and sadly the name is no longer enough. It isn’t strong enough, which means you have to rely on two other items, money and a big name draw.

Manchester City realised that when they booted out Mark Hughes and replaced him with Mancini. It’s not that Mark Hughes wasn’t doing a decent job when the new owners arrived, it’s just that they were well aware that you need someone with charisma, someone who current players are aware of and respect from around the world, in order to coax them to your club when it’s in the north of England and pissing down with rain all the time. I’m pretty sure if you showed Falcao a picture of Rogers in a game of Guess Who, he’d shrug his shoulders and reply with, kit man? You don’t recognise Dalglish? Here, watch this video and come back in five minutes when you’re ready to sign.

After sacking Dalglish, the excuse from the board was that an 8th place finish wasn’t good enough, and I salute that. They’re right, it’s not good enough, which is why they turfed out Hodgson eighteen months prior to that. But we did win a competition, which took us back into Europe and lose another cup final. We were also on the coat tails of the final Champion’s League slot until a post cup win hangover put paid to the rest of the league season.

Since then, I’ve read a lot about how much money Dalglish wasted on players, and to an extent this is true. The other clubs saw us coming, removed the price tag from the battery section and replaced it from the one below the Faberge range. Henderson, Downing, Enrique, Carroll all should have been reduced by 15-20%, and none are world class, which is, however, what you would label Suarez and at a meagre 22 million. Okay, so those other players aren’t worth that money, but is Boroni? Is Joe Allen? Would you honestly have forked out 12 million pounds for Sturridge, or would you have laughed and insisted Chelsea were missing a decimal point? Rodgers may moan about the squad he inherited, but it reached two cup finals and so, like he said in a paper last week, it’s his job to make the current players even better, so what exactly is he waiting for? The players he has brought in are average. He’s replaced a chipped plate for a one with a crack, thrown out a good bottle of Cava and brought in Lambrini. He’s doing himself no favours. We are in a worse position now than we were this time last year. He has no one to blame, but himself.

I’m not blinded by Dalglish. I’m not like Fritzel’s wife, turning a blind eye to all the bad things despite the yesteryear’s flower and chocolate giving. I would have given him until Christmas (Dalglish, not Fritzel), made an ultimatum and told him to discard before he brought new players in, but admitted that it must have been hard losing Suarez for eight games, missing eight penalties and only having Steven Gerrard available for half the league season. That’s right. You know when commentators say: what would happen if Suarez was to get injured? The answer is Brendan would pack his bags before the P45 reached his office desk, not cope without him like Kenny.

Finally then, let’s get round to what appears to have secured Brendan the hot seat in the first place, passing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t see Vinnie Jones and Justin Fashanu playing for us last year, and I’m also pretty certain I don’t see Messi, Iniesta and Xavi this time round. Hey, I don’t even see Ljunberg, Hleb and Henry. What I do see is statistics. I see our pass competition and I think ah! that’s why The Americans went for him. They were busy looking at the stats, because that’s all they ever do in their sports, look at stats. Seriously, people don’t even watch the game, they sit and watch the screen showing percentages and put that into fractions and decimals and go for a beer, have a nap and then take a look at the final stats. There’s only one set of statistics that matter in any sport and that’s the final score. You win games you accrue more points, simple. You do this by scoring more goals than you concede, not by passing the ball 7,560,874 times in your own third. Pass completion? Do you think Guardiola or Tito looked at the pass completion after a game? Do you think after losing to Celtic in the Champion’s League, the Barcelona squad went home and said: pass completion 97%, passes thirty times more than Celtic, while sipping Sangria and dancing a salsa?

Passing is important, no doubt about it and if you do it well, it makes you look stylish too. Great teams pass the ball well, but that’s usually because they’re full of great players. Ajax of the 70’s, Brazil 1970, Liverpool 80’s, Ac Milan 90’s, Barcelona present day, all full of world class players who can pass the ball, but most importantly know that it’s about passing with a purpose, threatening the opposition and putting them under pressure. Goals win games. Every time you have the ball, you should be threatening the other team. On Sunday, against Manchester United, Liverpool did not threaten. They were more of a threat to themselves, because they passed it in their own third at times instead of going direct into the strikers or down the flanks. Alex Ferguson isn’t stupid- pompous, tyrannical, related to Rudolph yes, but not stupid. He told his players what we’d do. He told them to press high up the pitch, because we have one game plan and that is to pass the ball for the sake of it. You do something like that, you become predictable and easy to play against. Passes do not win games. Oh and Brendan, a pass can be over fifteen yards, just ask Xavi Alonso.

What isn’t predictable is what the future holds, because if The Americans are working from a strict performance management sheet, then there’s an accountant somewhere already calculating a compensation package, despite all the calls that Brendan needs time. Listen, I don’t want Rogers to go, because it means that the club hasn’t succeeded, but at the same time, sometimes you just know things just aren’t going to work out. The board needs to hold up its hands, admit they made a mistake, turn off ESPN and head over to Madrid, because if someone wants to prove they can live up to their anointed name, now’s the time to do it.

спартак (Spartak)

      Fans on their way in past the imposing statue of Lenin.

I made it to my first football match in Moscow on Tuesday to watch Spartak take on Celtic in the Champion’s League at the Luzhniki. It’s always interesting to go and watch sport in another country and draw comparisons to the heavenly stadium that is Anfield. When I was in Argentina I took a trip to watch Boca play and came away in awe of the zealous support; the ground literally shook from 20 minutes before kick off until ten minutes after the final whistle. The actual standard of play wasn’t much cop since all the best players are snatched at infancy by the Europeans, kind of like Pocahontas, except the majority succumb to booze and women and not smallpox.
That kind of atmosphere isn’t found in English stadia anymore. It’s all too peaceful, respectful. People have to be able to earn a fair amount to watch their team live and they’re too modest to be singing and chanting for nine minutes, let alone ninety, so it’s usually left to the die hard away fans to make the most noise. I know the players are becoming more refined, but they’re not playing at The Globe just yet.
The Spartak fans were in no way as raucous as their Argentinean counterparts, but they still raised the decibels higher than at home (sure there may be 65,000 of them, but the stadium is hardly intimate).
What was most interesting however (apart from the halftime cheerleaders) was the level of security. I doubt there are as many checks for the 0920 Islamabad to New York, and you might as well give yourself the same amount of time as you would going to an airport too. Four times I was frisked between the outer gate and the steps to the stand, and the officers must have been watching a lot of Die Hard too because all of them reached round my back. At what point I was able to stick a weapon there during the twenty meters from check to check I don’t know, especially since there had to be some kind of officer clutching a baton every five paces. They even did the old school stay in the ground for fifteen minutes for the away fans, all 35 of them, and yet there was never any malice shown in their direction even after the Scots grabbed a last minute winner. What was their reaction? To flood out of the gates with five minutes of injury time to play. Seems some things remain the same the world over.

                     The Luzhniki.

The Lone Ranger

I want you to make those darting runs down the flank, no behind the front man…err…

The formation. It’s always about the formation, just ask any journalist who’s covered the England team in the last twenty years.
I was watching Chelsea (who are no doubt some people’s title favourites) play at home against Reading, who though play some decent football, will surely be struggling in the lower realms of the Premier League come the end of the season.

What struck me, as the clock ticked down towards half time with Reading 2-1 to the good with their fans singing loudly about how they now adorned the top of the most coveted league in the world, was that Chelsea were playing with a solitary striker.

Why were they so concerned about packing the midfield, at home, against lesser opposition? Sure they have a forward who when on form (wearing a liverpool shirt) can do the job of two, but why the negativity? What is it with the rise of the lone striker? Just think of the problems this would have caused in ’96, no longer a brave Who Dares Wins, but a signal of distress, and we didn’t require it back then. Why the 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1 or 4-1-3-1-1? Are modern managers trying to find something as powerful as the fibernacci sequence? Does it boil down to what Johan Cruyff famously said, “if you control the midfield, you control the game”? which anyone who watched the European championships earlier in the summer will have seen taken to the nth degree by the Spanish, who could have played a 3-2-2-2 and still come away with the title. They’d won the previous two major tournaments with different systems after all.

Which means does the formation matter or is it simply the players that count? Is there too much emphasis on the shape of a team, talk of fitting players into positions or buying players to play roles? We could take a specific look at Barcelona, who have dominated European football for the past five years with a fluid formation from midfield to attack, not to mention a tiny central midfielder at centre back and a right back who spends most of his masquerading as a right winger. Yet last season they won neither of the major two trophies and there was talk of this due to them not being willing to change their formation and tactics. Surely it was simply down to percentages and the fact that no team is invincible (alright apart from the Arsenal invincibles that one season)?

The question is then, would the Dutch team of Total Football actually have won silverware if they’d swapped a second striker for a disciplined holding midfielder, or would they have slipped into obscurity like those really short shorts and the sweeper system?

Wembley Dreams

6,403 – what a weird number.  We all have to remember all sorts of numbers in our lives, passwords, log ins, overdraft limits, telephone numbers but if there is one number that I will always remember it’s 6,403 the attendance figure of the first football match I went to – Newport County v Huddersfield Town (3-2 to the Port).  5 games (for me) later it was 18,000 as the mighty Port played in the Quarter Final of the European Cup Winners Cup against the East German cup holders Carl Zeiss Zena (see my programme below).  The Port had drawn 2-2 over in East Germany but despite dominating the most one sided game in history we got hit on the break and lost the home leg 1-0 and to be honest that’s as good as it got.  30 odd years later I’m reminded of Jasper Carrotts’s famous quip about watching Birimingham City – “you lose some you draw some”.  In fact I don’t remember us drawing many apart from a couple of seasons later when we stormed to the top of the old division 3 table (now division 1) beating those that can’t be named from down the road 1-0 in front of 16,500 with Tommy Tynan and John Aldridge leading the line on Easter Monday.  The future was bright the future was amber but history then cast it’s dark cloud as the only time we had previously been promoted from the 3rd division was in 1939 and WW2 broke out, so fearing a repeat we did the best thing for the country and capitulated, culminating with a last day defeat away at Huddersfield Town which sent them up and us heading toward the vortex of doom.

As all our players were sold and we began our descent into oblivion we managed to pass on a bit of that bad luck onto our departing players.  Aldridge had a great career via Oxford and then onto Liverpool but managed to miss the penalty in the 1988 cup final against Wimbledon.  While travelling home and away all over the UK watching the Port I also clocked up over 20 years of Wales home games missing I think 4 with a few European trips thrown in for good measure.  In 1993/4 Wales played Romania at Cardiff Arms Park with the winner off to America for the World Cup Finals.  At 1-1 a penalty was awarded to Wales and the Romanians were crumbling.  Paul Bodin hit the best penalty I’ve ever seen apart from the fact that he hit it so well and so hard it hit the perfect apex of post and crossbar – we lost the game 2-1.  Bodin was an ex Newport player – you get the drift.  The game of course was put into the shade by the tragedy of a fan killed by a flare fired into the crowd 2 blocks from where I was.

By this point Newport had been relegated out of Division 3 and Division 4 (100 games attended across both seasons not many draws) into the Conference where we went bankrupt, auctioned off everything and started again a long way from the football league.  At the same time the Football Association of Wales in their infinite wisdom banned us from playing in Wales as they wanted us to join their new fangled Welsh League and our ground was sold for housing.  When you can’t sink any lower however and your back is against the wall it’s best to come out fighting so we get up and running again sharing a ground firstly with Moreton in the Marsh and then Gloucester City, we sue the Welsh FA for restraint of trade at the High Court and win and finally end up back playing games in Newport.  Slowly but surely we inch our way back through the divisions and now find ourselves 1 promotion away from regaining our place in the Football League.

Of course running parallel to all this was me growing up, forging relationships, marriage and all that goes with that, moving away from the Port and after various cities now finding myself living and settled up in Yorkshire which makes getting to games much harder now, but I feel I’ve paid my dues over the years so I go as and when I can.  When I first started watching we had a small back garden with a hedge at the back and one of the those washing lines that you could fold up and down that span round which acted as my perfect defender.  I would spend hours in the back garden jinking past the washing line onto my right foot before firing a “goal” into the hedge.  A goal only counted if it went into one of the corners that were a perfect football sized hole in each corner of the hedge made from my constant shooting.  As I dribbled past the washing line I had only dreams of being one player – Kevin Moore an elusive, erratic, ebullient and effervescent winger for the Port, a player that still remains my favourite ever player.  Kevin launched us onto one of our best runs winning a penalty against Orient that put us into the third round of the FA Cup and up against the great Everton side of the mid 80’s who we took to a replay.  Of course at that stage I thought the only way was up for us and imagined (like every young fan everywhere in the country) that one day I’d see my team run out at Wembley.  It would surely only be a matter of time ?


Kevin on the charge and in our fantastically classic 80’s addidas number.

Of course that time never came but watching so much defeat helps to harden you to the knocks that come through life and over the years, contrary to those contorted in apoplectic rage, I watch games in a sense of zen calmness and magnanimity (although I still get worked up in my own way!).  Most of my mates were not interested and my family certainly wasn’t so I developed a certain stoicism, watching most of the games in my own solitary world.  In fact I often feel that my own existence and that of the Port is wrapped up in some weird mirror image that closely resembles Kipling’s If:

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

However on Saturday all those dreams I had as a young lad will return as Newport County play York City at Wembley in the FA Trophy.  To many perhaps a meaningless bauble but in the 100th season since the club’s establishment our first visit.  I’m really glad that we are playing York as I live up here now and they are also a team that has fallen on hard times but is on the rise again and will return the following week with a chance to make it back into the Football League and I for one wish them well for that game.  On Saturday though no matter what I will certainly be treating triumph and disaster the same but may well shed a tear as the teams run out and one of my lifelong dreams is fulfilled.

Fantasy Football

I fully understand how ridiculous it is that grown adults should get excited about fantasy football but for me it’s one of my great escapist pleasures.  The league that I’m in has now been going for 15 seasons during which we, as a group of individuals, have gone through all that life is likely to deal a group of middle aged people.  Throughout it all though we continue to meet up, argue and look to win the bragging rights bestowed by what happens on the pitch to “our” players.  You see the way we run our league means that we have an auction at the start of the season where you have to bid for your squad of 15 players – so if you really want Van Persie then you best be prepared to pay through the nose for him.  Treading the line between getting good players and a balanced squad of 15 is a tricky business.  Preparation is everything as is holding your nerve in the auction.  Once your squad is in place you end up watching or listening to your football through the prism of who is scoring points for you.  I’m prepping this afternoon for tomorrows Xmas auction where we can change our squad and hopefully buy the players that will give the final push for the title and I’m strangely looking into the form of Allen and Hoolihan to see if they would be better bets than Petrov – it’s a weird thing.  While I’m doing this I’m of course listening to the radio and hoping for goals from Balotelli, Aguero, Ramsey and Walcott !  Can they take me to my 5th title and the bragging rights once more?  Like most things that we do though it is the lasting friendships and sociability that we have as a group that is what matters most and I can’t wait to see everyone tomorrow.  Now Hoolihan or Allen ?

Bovril & Boots

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There is something incredibly atmospheric and evocative for me about evening football matches, specifically winter evenings.  I think that the coldness and crispness created by the falling temperatures seems to magnify smells and noises.  The sizzle and smell from the burger vans is such that it would tempt a well fed vegetarian to take a gamble.  Little boys wrapped up in hats, scarves and gloves scurry along holding their dads hand excited as they know that they will be up past normal bedtime, and on a school night as well.  The sense of anticipation as you approach the ground is heightened and the glow from the floodlights is almost like a portal beckoning you in to another world.  Once inside the ground the shouts of the players seem amplified and the effort expended is evident from the trails of steam and vapour breath drifting into the night sky.  I was reminded of all this recently when I went down to Alfreton to watch my Newport County do battle.  Forget your over hyped millionaires this is what football is all about and of course the most evocative smell of all is neither victory or defeat but a cup of steaming hot Bovril