Mourinho Misery

The story of Man Utd’s season is of a yesterday’s man of a coach throwing a prolonged tantrum as he didn’t get to throw good money after bad in the transfer window.

Again he couldn’t resist getting in a dig at his central defenders in the Champions’ League group stage post-match interview last night by comparing them unfavourably with Juventus’s. He bought Lindelof and Bailly (who was on the bench).

Mourinho cannot even be in the top 100 coaches when he apparently can’t get a performance out of players he’s spent a third of a billion pounds on. His criticism of players is also entirely driven by his own ego. The two biggest underperformers of the season have been Lukaku and Matic — both players he coached at Chelsea. Matic’s performances have been pretty appalling of late. His strength is meant to be shielding the central defence and playing the ball forward from midfield and these have been Man Utd’s main deficiencies this season. Yet he never gets criticised by his manager.

It seems that commercial considerations overruled ability to manage in the modern game in terms of Man Utd’s choice of coach two years ago. After his murky exit from Chelsea where, amongst other things, he managed to alienate the dressing room, no club with serious footballing ambitions should have touched the egotistical one with a bargepole.

Maybe he’s right in that the club management place success on the field second to social media buzz. However, if they were to change this headline-grabbing attitude the first place to start would be Mourinho’s dismissal.

That’s how it will end sooner or later, why prolong the agony?

A Modern Caravaggio?

I found this amazing photo on the MSNBC photoblog site (the image is a link through to the site) of last night’s brawl in the San Siro started by AC Milan’s Rino Gattuso. It looks like a modern day Caravaggio painting that you could imagine hanging in the National Gallery.

Gattuso vs Joe Jordan
Gattuso vs Joe Jordan -- via MSNBC

There was something quite remarkable about the incident, mainly because it involved Joe Jordan. Ironically Jordan played himself for AC Milan for two years in the early 80s after he’d left Man Utd. Before which he’d been a member of the notorious Leeds United side of the 1970s and, as expected for that team, was the sort of Scottish centre-forward who looked as if he’d been carved out of granite. But the most notorious thing about Joe Jordan — that anyone who followed football in the seventies would remember was his missing front teeth (knocked out in an early Leeds United match) which made him look like the most intimidating player ever seen on a football pitch — looking less like a human in the photo below than some sort of werewolf from hell.

Joe Jordan minus teeth
Joe Jordan minus teeth (via Telegraph website)

This is the sort of collective memory from an era well over 30 years ago that seems (to paraphrase Laurie Lee) to be almost from another country — the sort of childhood recollection that makes a TV series like ‘Life on Mars’  so popular. Joe Jordan, or at least his image, is forever a peculiar sort of icon for a huge portion of the population — an icon of looking hard — and now he’s sixty and wears glasses (although he took them off ready at the end) we all feel outraged that a mouthy, theatrical primadonna like Gattuso dares to assault that memory.

Ray Wilkins, who will have played with Jordan at Man Utd, was outraged during the commentary and in the post-match discussion Graeme Souness, a player himself with a reputation for being one of the ‘hardest’ midfield players and a Scotland contemporary of Jordan, looked as if he wanted to get into the Milan dressing room to sort Gatusso out himself, although he speculated that Jordan would have been able to so that on his own in five minutes.

The whole Sky end-of-match summary had something of generational respect to it as Spurs manager Harry Redknapp, surely the least cosmopolitan of Premiership managers, turned up on the panel with his son Jamie and they looked at the replays of the shocking Flamini (given almost surreal spice due to his Arsenal past) tackle as well as Gattuso’s raging bull act — it was almost like being in their living room as they bridled against a family insult. (Click here quickly to read a less-than-flattering Wikipedia summary of Flamini’s career before it is changed.)

Even eighteen hours after the game, Gattuso and Jordan are still trending on Twitter in the UK, such is the amazing interest in the incident, which perhaps shows underlying codes of human behaviour that are still almost primeval. Looking at some of the tweets randomly after the game there were probably more women than men who wanted Jordan to have nutted Gattuso back. Hayley McQueen (who, despite looking very much her part as a Sky Sports News female presenter is a good source of sports news on Twitter) mentioned about how her dad (Gordon McQueen — also ex-Leeds, Man Utd and Scotland) and her ‘Uncle Joe’ used to scare the living daylights out of her prospective boyfriends and posted this amazing retro photograph of the two ‘out on the pull’. That wallpaper alone should have been enough to floor Gattuso.

The Nihilism of ABUs

One troubling facet of this country is represented by the legions of ABUs (Anything But United) whose motivation seems to be purely pessimistic, destructive and nihilistic. I can understand why supporters of another football club may dislike Manchester United but they seem absolutely the wrong club to be the recipients of blind, unquestioning, hateful negativity — although Alex Ferguson’s defensive truculence could invite dislike on a personal level.

Take the last two Premier League games — both have been described by commentators as classics (at least the second half of the Liverpool game). Against Everton both Fletcher and Berbatov scored goals that, as examples of fast-paced, one-touch football, were beautiful. Berbatov’s second goal against Liverpool was absolutely extraordinary. Most overhead kicks are opportunist attempts when a player can’t connect with the ball any other way but Berbatov’s was absolutely deliberate — he started with a perfect first touch, knocked the ball to the perfect height and dispatched it with incredible accuracy. Reina was rooted to the spot as he didn’t expect any sort of shot from a player with his back turned but the kick was so well placed he wouldn’t have saved it in any case.

I like Berbatov as, like Cantona, he gives the impression he isn’t really that interested in conforming to the expectations placed on footballers. He doesn’t run around like a screaming and putting in obvious displays of headless chicken shirt-kissing loyalty for ‘the fans’ — one pundit said he had invented football as a walking game and you imagine he might have a cigarette in his hand as he plays. As with Scholes, he doesn’t need the artifice — they produce a pieces of skill and vision that are at another level compared with everyone else and they shrug their shoulders and say ‘that’s what I do’.

Berbatov has a way to go before he can compare with Scholes who, sadly after he was scandalously wasted by England, is now becoming acknowledged as the best midfield player this country has produced. Some of the football that comes from the Ginger Prince’s boots is as awe inspiring as a great work of art — the 25 yard bullet against Fulham being one example. And all this is from a quiet, small, red-haired bloke who you’d hardly notice in the local pub.

I suppose the casual way that some United players produce flashes of genius might irritate some but that must be offset against the team’s astonishing capability to self-destruct — losing two farcical goals in injury time at Everton being one example. Almost as bad was gifting Liverpool a penalty and free-kick with two challenges that were almost comical in their clumsiness. United don’t need ABUs to detract from them — they’re very capable of doing it themselves.

Fortunately, against Liverpool United had enough time to show the quality which probably infuriates ABUs the most — their determination to keep going (something that is so ingrained that it’s shocking to watch performances when it has been lacking — such as the Champions League final in 2009 and the capitulation to Bayern Munich last season, although that was a great game). As Steve MacLaren once said, United never lose, they just run out of time.

This may also be a point that grates on the ABUs — an unwaveringly optimistic psychology. Alex Ferguson used to always maintain that United played better after Christmas. It’s beside the point whether this was actually true or not (it often wasn’t) but it maintained the belief that things would get better if you carried on trying.

It’s the kind of advice that’s often given to anyone aspiring to do something difficult — keep trying, perseverance is all. This advice is very difficult to disprove — if someone gives up they won’t achieve anything and a lack of success might be explained by the need to persevere more. For most football teams and people trying to demonstrate talent, an infinite amount of perseverance still probably won’t compensate for an innate lack of ability but it’s easier to attribute a lack of success to a failure of determination. Perhaps this is what’s at the root of ABUism — the frustration and emptiness that comes from a defeated realisation that they — or their team — will never achieve their dreams no matter how hard they try.

Most Irritating World Cup?

The World Cup is slowly building up after what everyone who’s not involved in commercially hyping it must admit was a pretty dire start. Mexico’s demolition of a totally useless French side was a joy to behold…and that number 14 for Mexico looked like a pretty nifty player — I wouldn’t mind having him in my team’s squad! £7m is beginning to look like a bargain.

However, two reasons for intense irritation remain even now the football has picked up. One is the famous vuvuzelas — it seems like some bright capitalist factory owner in South Africa has convinced FIFA and the media that these oversized plastic kazoos are some sort of traditional African heirloom that’s an indelible part of the culture there — and to criticise the terrible noise they make would clearly be culturally imperialist (no matter that they’re irritating the hell out of the billions of people who are watching this showcase for South Africa). I would suspect that going back a few years they were probably about as commonly played as bagpipes are in Scotland. Wikipedia suggests they weren’t in common use in South Africa until 2001.

But even worse is that on ITV we have the human equivalent of the vuvuzela drone in Adrian Chiles. What possessed them to poach him from the BBC for such a huge salary? For about the last 5 years it’s been almost impossible to turn on the television without seeing his pug-like features. I thought he was ok when he was doing business programmes and The Apprentice, You’re Fired and even on Match of the Day 2 — his downbeat, matter-of-factness didn’t seem to detract from the subject. But I  started to loathe his appearances on The One Show — a more blatantly incompetent autocue reader one would be hard pushed to find. When he wasn’t grimacing at the screen trying to read what to say next he was screwing his face up looking down at his notes. He gave the impression he was utterly incapable of having anything interesting to say whatsoever and, acknowledging this, avoided all eye contact with the viewer. He was also nauseatingly politically correct — playing the down-trodden, idiotic, simple, football obsessed modern bloke while genuflecting before every right-on cause.

Now we have to have him spoiling the football coverage. It’s the World Cup, yet you’d think he was still mumbling about the NASDAQ moving down 0.1% as he used to on ‘Working Lunch’. While ITV are often guilty of way too much hyperbole in their sports coverage, he’s so totally the other way it’s a joke. With a bit of luck he might fall asleep during the England match — him snoring his way through the analysis would probably be a marginal improvement. Or maybe ITV can repeat their monumental blunder of putting an advert on their HD transmission feed just as Gerrard scored England’s goal and we can all watch Hyundai ads instead of more interminable droning.

He Scores Goals

Sky Sports put together a 30 minute compilation of the 100 goals that Paul Scholes has scored in the Premiership — all, of course, for Manchester United. It was accompanied to a bit of music from the times — which go back to 1994 when he scored his first goal.

While it’s been said that several other players have reached their century a little more quickly, I doubt whether any has done so with a higher ratio of spectacular shots. Around 20 per cent of the goals must have come from going-on for 30 yards from goal and all the long-range efforts (at least half the total, though I know I stand to be corrected on this) were hit with such a ferocity that it almost seemed impossible — more like a shot coming off a tennis racquet at speed. The quality was utterly compelling. The prize pieces were the volleys from outside the area including the famous one (against Bradford I think) direct from Beckham’s corner which might be one of the best goals ever, technically.

Scholes is a model professional and has a totally refreshing contempt for spin and presentation — when he did an interview after his 100th goal it was fascinating to hear him speak. Another great thing about him is that while he’s supremely gifted at most footballing skills, there are some which he is pretty poor at, notably his tackling, but it doesn’t stop him trying. He’s the opposite of the saccharine, showbiz mediocrity who excels at nothing but presentation and having the rough edges removed. For that everyone should be thankful.

The current Manchester United team possesses arguably the two best English players of the last 20 years when both the Ginger Price and the Big Man are in town.

An Ageing Celtic Primadonna Loses His Big Star

The star wanes on a dynasty of unparalleled recent success — an egotistical, Celtic Svengali watches as the sun sets on his creation. He presides over the drawn-out departure of the big star that he created and the commentators wonder whether, in the context of an inevitable but obvious deterioration in form and originality, that the remarkable success was down to the now-wearisome personality or some now lost management genius.

I wonder if Alex Ferguson was watching Dr. Who over the Christmas holidays?

‘I Grew Up Watching This’

So said ‘shocked’ BBC Sports Personality Winner of the Year 2009, Ryan Giggs, in his genuinely unrehearsed speech. Ironic then that most of the generation that will succeed Giggs were growing up watching the X-Factor on ITV. What sort of values the X-Factor implants into impressionable minds we might not know until it’s too late, when any genuine creative talent in this country has finally been snuffed out. The lessons of the X-Factor seem to have been predicted by the Pet Shop Boys song ‘Opportunities’ nearly 25 years ago — ‘I’ve got the brains, you’ve got the looks, let’s make lots of money.’ In fact the principle of grooming some nice boy singer to croon other people’s songs pre-dated the Pet Shop Boys by another 25 years — it was the way ‘Tin Pan Alley’ worked up until the early 60s when the Beatles broke the mould (at least for the next 40 years or so) by both writing and performing their own material. How ironic then that who should pop up on the X-Factor final but Paul McCartney. I was quite pleased to see him — at least two of the songs were performed by the person that wrote them. I would doubt whether any X-Factor winner will ever write, or more to the point be allowed to write, their own material. It was quite nice to see McCartney performing live on the biggest TV show this year but it throws up an interesting question — was Paul McCartney unwittingly bookending the era of innovative pop music that he largely started?

The most annoying thing about the X-Factor is the ridiculous hysteria in the audience. The sound mixers on the programme must realise that the judges rarely contribute anything other than vapid platitudes so the whooping and yelling of the idiots in the audience is mixed high. I speculated whether audience members for the X-Factor had to take an intelligence test and only those that failed it would be eligible for tickets. This is unlikely to be true as the pass mark would need to be set so low that only people who had yet to learn to hold a pencil would have a realistic chance of getting tickets . Whoever manipulates the audience seems to be peddling the absurd New Labour notion (especially in the context of a talent show) that everyone’s a winner and everyone deserves to win and be praised by the judges. If everyone could win then there would be no show — that’s the whole point of it. It seems to be an extension of the Blairite Lady Diana ‘People’s Princess’ self-conscious emoting.

It was odd for Giggs to be selected for the shortlist this year — he must have been coming up for a lifetime achievement soon anyway. However, he showed in his speech that he did have a real personality — a far more genuine set of comments than those rehearsed with PR advisers in advance.

Sports PERSONALITY of the Year

The BBC seems to consistently misname its Sports Personality of the Year Programme. For one thing, it’s really a Sports Review of the Year, although the BBC’s loss of the rights to many sporting events over the past few years mean it tends to be a ‘Sports Review of the Sports the BBC Chooses to Promote’ programme (let’s see how much emphasis F1 and Wimbledon get this year). However, the voting is clearly misnamed as it takes no account of the crucial word ‘personality’. How many sportsmen and women actually demonstrate a personality at all? Not many — perhaps a few colourful characters like Freddie Flintoff or John McEnroe. Most have very little personality — even the likes of David Beckham have more of a persona than personality (his interviews are all underwhelming).  Which of the ten contenders for 2009 actually have a personality that is apparent to the spectating public?

  1. Jenson Button
  2. Mark Cavendish
  3. Tom Daley
  4. Jessica Ennis
  5. Ryan Giggs
  6. David Haye
  7. Phillips Idowu
  8. Andy Murray
  9. Andrew Strauss
  10. Beth Tweddle

I don’t think I’ve ever heard Button, Cavendish, Ennis, Idowu or Tweddle ever speak (shows how closely I follow F1). Daley is still a schoolkid and Murray rivals Beckham as an entertaining interviewee. Giggs is an extraordinary footballer and a seemingly nice chap all round but he does his talking on the pitch — all things that could be applied to Strauss. The only one I’ve seen with an engaging personality is Haye.

No doubt Button will win due to the world champion factor (but we could say that about Haye in some respects).

If we’re talking personality then there’s no doubt who the overseas award should go to — someone who previously could have been charged with being ultra-anodyne and corporately bland but has appeared incredibly human in the past week or two — Tiger Woods.

Carrick and Owen Do Their South Africa Chances No Harm

For the next six months or so we can all play the game of second guessing Fabio Capello’s choice of his 22 or 23 for South Africa. Probably using up more column inches than anything else will be the fate of two players — Beckham and Owen. Interestingly, Owen’s rejuvenated career at Man Utd seems to be suiting him as his reduced involvement in matches seems to mean he’s got less chance of succumbing to the sorts of injuries that have plagued him between international tournaments. He showed tonight against Wolfsburg that he’s still incredibly predatory in and around the six yard box. He’s never likely to start for England but in a big match I think it’s worth having a fit Owen on the bench.

Man Utd’s incredible lack of defenders (only Evra is fit) shows the squad aspect of international selection. In the 22 or 23 there should be a few players who are flexible and Carrick did himself no harm by his unlikely pairing with Fletcher. He wasn’t brilliant against Wolfsburg and you’d never want to start him for England there but at least there’s a midfield player available who’s played centre back in the Champions League (and looks likely to play there against Villa on Saturday). I wonder whether some colossuses of the England midfield, like Stevie G, would be quite so happy to play there.

Who Needs Defenders…

…when you can finish a game with Fletcher as right-back and Carrick as centre-back (the only one) and still win 4-0 away? And also close the gap at the top of the Premiership with Neville, Ferdinand, Brown, O’Shea, Evans and Vidic either ill or injured. I’d suggest Berbatov might be a good bet to pair with Carrick against Wolfsburg (he wouldn’t have to much much so it might suit him). So long as Scholes isn’t played there.

Shearer said Scholes was the best player to come out of Man Utd in the recent future (maybe he might think him the best player anyway of recent times apart from himself?). The ginger prince scored a corker against West Ham that was unstoppable. Perhaps Darron Gibson has been taking lessons from the master as he’s now scored three thunderbolts from outside the area in the past five days?

Mark Hughes came up with the goods with an excellent City result against Chelsea with JT moaning about extremely hopeful handball calls, Lampard bottling his penalty and Carvalho showing his true colours with a stamp in Tevez’s back. A good match on ESPN for a change.

Sunderland 1 (Beach Ball 5) Liverpool 0

How sad that Liverpool dropped two points due to an assist by a beach ball! It says something about the quality of the game and of Liverpool’s attack without Torres that no humans were able to put the ball in the net but a red beach ball was able to divert Bent’s tame shot past Reina. Match of the Day might regret showing the kid who threw the ball on the pitch (a Liverpool fan) if they end up missing out on the title (or, more likely, Europe) by a couple of points. Hilarious — as was the argument between United legend Steve Bruce and Rafa Benitez.

Ferguson Doesn’t Grow Old Gracefully

Oxford might have wonderfully historic pubs with great ale and lots of atmosphere but what about the needs of drinkers whose teams are playing at 5.30pm on ESPN? No big plasma screens at the Turf Tavern or the King’s Arms or White Horse so I ended up missing the Man Utd v Sunderland match live and followed the less than comforting scoreline on my phone. After a self-stranding toilet incident involving the 280 bus I had to catch the train back from Haddenham and then valiantly tried to stay awake when I eventually got home through the end of Strictly Come Dancing so I could watch the highlights on MOTD.

Of course, I fell asleep just a few minutes before it started and missed the highlights. Fortunately I was able to remember to record the repeat of the programme at 8am this morning and so enjoyed two remarkable spectacles. Berbatov’s goal was superbly taken — an amazing overhead kick. However, the terrible decision that Wiley made about the Anderson penalty interview brought on the most amazing rant by SAF against the fourth official. Whatever his other failings, Ferguson will certainly get stuck in and fight ‘the enemy’ for his team.