27 November 2007

The price of failure

By the weekend, the dust had barely settled on England’s dismal failure and Steve McClaren’s dismissal. But already several of the top candidates to replace the erstwhile coach were going out of the way to distance themselves from the poisoned chalice. Such is the attraction – or lack thereof - of one of the most high profile and best-paid jobs in football.

It’s easy to see why so few are reluctant to take a step forward. Any England coach takes the job knowing they are taking on a team saddled with the highest of expectations, despite having only once reached the final of a major tournament, and that in the comfort of home 41 years ago. The fans are impatient for success, the big clubs are less than fully co-operative, and the media is vulture-like in the speed and ferocity with which it feeds off any perceived weakness or error of judgment. To say it’s a high pressure job is to put it mildly.

And when the price of failure is to be savaged by the press and then callously discarded on football’s scrapheap, then even the huge salary - and the payoff that comes with it when it is time to go – can seem like inadequate compensation. Of McClaren’s immediate predecessors – Sven-Goran Eriksson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle, Terry Venables and Graham Taylor – none rejoined the management ranks at a major club. Eriksson was the most fortunate, taking over Manchester City after a year’s sabbatical. Keegan also joined City, but at a time when they were in English football’s second tier. Hoddle returned at Southampton, Venables popped up as Australia’s coach, and Taylor, like Keegan, had to drop a division to take over at Wolves. History suggests the England job does anything but pave the way to future riches.

And it’s not just the coach who has to count the cost of failure. England’s absence from Euro 2008 means the FA will lose £10m in revenue from ticket sales and sponsorship. Estimates suggest the economy is boosted by as much as £1bn when England participate in either of football’s big biennial tournaments. Umbro, the manufacturer of England’s kits, immediately cut production and announced a profits warning in anticipation of poor summer sales, as did Sports World, their largest retail customer. The bookmakers also groaned collectively at the loss of summer trade; one likened it to Christmas without turkey.

However, large though these numbers are, the true cost of last week’s failure may not fully materialise until long after Euro 2008 has been and gone.

The final impact was the loss of a top seeding at Sunday’s World Cup draw. Instead of remaining in the first pool of teams, they were placed in the second tier. And although they ultimately avoided any ‘group of death’ scenarios, they did find themselves drawn against Ukraine (semi-finalists at the last World Cup) and, irony of ironies, Croatia. They will also face the tricky and less-than-enticing prospect of long trips to Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Meanwhile, Greece, the beneficiary of England’s slide out of the top group, face a less than daunting qualifying campaign against Israel, Switzerland, Latvia, Luxembourg and Moldova. Oh, what might have been …

With only the group winners earning automatic qualification, and just four places up for grabs between the runners-up, World Cup qualification is challenging for anyone. Without the protection of a top seeding position, it is now an even tougher ask for England.

If we thought that not qualifying for Euro 2008 was bad enough, to fail to make the 2010 World Cup is nigh on unthinkable. And yet it is a very distinct possibility.

Blame whatever combination of the FA, Steve McClaren and the players you like. But our absence from Euro 2008 next summer may have consequences which reach out to 2010 and beyond.

And that’s the legacy that the successors of McClaren and the so-called Golden Generation will have to overcome.

22 November 2007

Rest in pieces

In affectionate remembrance
which died at Wembley
21st November, 2007
Deeply lamented by a large stadium of booing spectators
N.B. A waxwork effigy of Steve McClaren will be cremated and the ashes taken to Austria and Switzerland

R.I.P. Steve McClaren

Steve McClaren's sacking this morning brought to an end the shortest reign (18 months) of any England manager. While there have been mitigating circumstances surrounding a dismal Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, most notably an injury list as long as your arm, there is little doubt that McClaren has been consistently unable to change events through a combination of tactical acumen and strong man-management.

To watch him last night standing/sitting in stony silence on the touchline, contributing nothing in terms of direction or encouragement, during a first half where it was obvious to all and sundry what changes needed to be made – get men closer in support of the isolated Peter Crouch, press harder in midfield to disrupt Croatia’s neat passing – said it all about a coach who had simply run out of ideas.

Having gone against his conservative nature in making some bold choices for this crucial match, he reverted to type once England had clawed back their two-goal deficit and allowed the team to fatally sit back and invite Croatia onto them. The rest, as they say, is history. So too is McClaren, the so-called first choice of FA chief executive Brian Barwick.

He wasn’t solely to blame for the qualifying campaign, but given that the FA could sack neither the players nor themselves, he was always going to carry the can.

R.I.P. Scott Carson

Perhaps unfair for a goalkeeper making his first competitive start in this most pressurised of matches, but the 22-year old will inevitably shoulder the blame for the basic and catastrophic error which gifted Croatia the opening goal. While even the best goalkeepers can be forgiven the occasional calamity, this was not the first time Carson has committed a terrible mistake in a pressure situation, having made a near-identical error in a Champions League match for Liverpool. And although he made one superb reflex save later on, it did not disguise a performance which was generally shaky and lacking in confidence, notwithstanding the slippery conditions.

Carson’s international career may well be over before it has even begun; it is certainly on hiatus.

The question now is: if not Carson, if not the beleaguered Paul Robinson, then who? Chris Kirkland is injury-prone, David James an ageing, short-term solution, Ben Foster talented but inexperienced, and Robert Green not entirely convincing. There is no easy answer, as McClaren discovered to his cost last night.

R.I.P. David Beckham

Last night’s second-half appearance will almost certainly be the last of his international career: he seems destined to be stranded on 99 caps. Next season, he will be able to concentrate fully on enjoying his semi-retirement at LA Galaxy. It was an indication of the paucity of quality on display from the home side that his sole contribution of any significance – an exquisite, chipped cross for Crouch’s equalising goal – marked him out as one of England’s better performers on the night, and underlined the failure of both Shaun Wright-Phillips and Joe Cole to deliver telling crosses.

Beckham’s effort and heart were unquestionable last night, but the energy and consistent quality of his heyday are long gone. The worrying thing is that there is no obvious heir apparent.

R.I.P. the so-called ‘Golden Generation’

It seems this most unfitting of monikers will always be prefaced as such. A highly praised and even more highly paid collection of players – supposedly as good as any England has ever had – who have repeatedly failed to deliver anywhere near their potential, other than one glorious night in Germany six years ago. Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard: world-beaters at club level, passably good (frequently less) for England. Rio Ferdinand: concentration really not a strong suit. Wayne Rooney: young, but still a long way from the finished article and not a patch on the sublime – and younger - Lionel Messi). Paul Robinson: yes, well. Even David Beckham, for all his ability on crosses and free-kicks, has never been close to being the complete player his publicists would like to portray.

It’s been a good team – occasionally even a great team – but not one which has ever been capable of producing the consistent excellence needed to dominate on the grand stage.

'Never quite good enough when it really mattered.' Write that on the tombstone of English football.

5 November 2007

Who says lightning doesn't strike twice?

It’s always a privilege to watch a game in which a new record is set. But to see one which features two record-breakers is a rare gem indeed.

On a day where the NFL and the headline writers were focussed on the irresistible-force-meets-immovable-object battle between the league’s last two unbeaten teams, the New England Patriots and reigning Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts, it was the earlier game between the San Diego Chargers and Minnesota Vikings which will go down in the record books.

It was fitting that lightning should strike twice in a game featuring the Chargers, the team whose logo is a thunderbolt, and whose running back LaDainian Tomlinson set NFL single-season records for both rushing (28) and total (31) touchdowns only last season.

But it wasn’t Tomlinson who set the record books alight last night.

That privilege fell first to team-mate Antonio Cromartie, who fielded a missed field goal at the back of his own end zone as time expired in the first half. He then ran it back, untouched, for a 109-yard touchdown which was the longest play in NFL history. Furthermore, as it is not possible for a play to cover more than 109 yards, Cromartie’s record is one which may be equalled in the future, but never beaten.

If that wasn’t enough already, an apparently innocuous three-yard run on the penultimate play of the game by the Vikings’ rookie running back Adrian Peterson was enough to break one of the NFL’s most revered records, the single-game mark for rushing yards once held by the late, legendary Walter Payton. That final carry was enough to move Peterson’s total to 296 yards, beating Jamal Lewis’s previous record by a solitary yard.

As is the nature of these things, Peterson’s record may not stand for long: last night was the third time this particular mark had been broken since 2000. But given that he also currently leads the NFL in rushing yards, total yards from scrimmage and rushing touchdowns, there is every chance he will go on to set more records in the weeks and years to come. This is no one-week wonder: it will be worth remembering his name.

For the record, the result was almost incidental in the midst of all that excitement, but Minnesota won 35-17.

Nothing we didn't already know

In truth, we didn't learn much we didn't already know on Saturday afternoon.

Manchester United are a team who can attack with a speed, directness and threat which few teams anywhere in world football can match.

Hardly news.

Arsenal are a team who pass the ball with pace, precision and patience. And who this season have developed a resilience which has been lacking in previous years, as well as a happy knack of scoring goals late on in matches. William Gallas's late, late equaliser on Saturday was the tenth time in eleven Premier League games this season they have scored in the last ten minutes.

Nothing new there, then.

And, despite all the pre-match hype which suggested the outcome of the game could have a major influence on the title race - in a season which is less than one-third complete thus far - we are none the wiser after Saturday's 2-2 draw at the Emirates Stadium.

We did not get a decisive result. What we did get was an absorbing, dramatic and occasionally brilliant game of football - which has not always been the case in previous encounters between these two sides. Overall, the two sides did a pretty good job of neutralising each other, but at times the football was breathtaking. United counter-attacked incisively at speed, which was how they scored both their goals. Arsenal stuck to their philosophy of moving the ball the length and width of the field with almost surgical precision. The first equaliser early in the second half was a perfect example of Wenger-ball. Cesc Fabregas touched the ball three times in the move: he started in his own penalty area, sprinted forward to link up play with another pass in the centre circle, and finally popped up in the heart of the Man U box to stroke home a calm finish. In between, the tricky Alexander Hleb, deep inside his own half, wriggled free of the close attentions of a United player before expertly chipping the ball forward to Fabregas. And it was full back Bacary Sagna who made the critical overlapping run which put him in position to cut back the cross from which Fabregas scored his eleventh goal of an already prolific season. It was a quite wonderful piece of counter-attacking team play, box-to-box with precise runs and passes scything a way through the Premier League's most stingy defence.

In the end, although both sides had enough good chances to win, a draw was probably about right. Man U can look back on having won a hard-earned point from perhaps their most difficult fixture; Arsenal can take heart from the way they twice battled back from a goal down and played right through to the end. And overall the championship race remains finely balanced - and with Chelsea winning again and Liverpool grimly hanging in there, it is by no means a two-horse race - with all the key questions tantalisingly unanswered.

It wasn't the meaty main course - or the repeat of the infamous Battle of the Buffet - the media were determined to serve up. But it was a pretty tasty hors d'oeuvre to whet the appetite.

The battle for the Premier League title is just warming up, with the potentially critical return fixture at Old Trafford scheduled for April 12th. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy the ride.