31 December 2008

2008: 10 of the best

There really is no such thing as a bad sporting year, but I'm sure history will look back on 2008 as a particularly fine vintage for both British and international sport.

Certainly I've enjoyed it immensely, despite recent fatherhood restricting my ability to attend live sporting events this year (just the two: the Wembley NFL game and a stage finish of the Tour of Britain).

There have been too many highlights in 2008 for me to pick a single moment which stands out above all the others, so here is a personal top 10: some distinctly British, others truly global, but all moments of high sporting achievement and/or drama which are indelibly etched into my memory. In chronological order:

3 February: Super Bowl XLII - There is an old paradox which asks what would happen if an irresistible force were to meet an immovable object. We saw one possible answer here as the New York Giants (immovable object: tough, no-nonsense defense) defeated the New England Patriots (irresistible force: record-breaking offense), 17-14.

There has been a smattering of truly great Super Bowls in its 42-year history; this was perhaps the best of them all: great offensive plays, great defensive plays, outcome always in doubt, the winning score going to the underdog with just 35 seconds remaining.

And there was a great narrative behind the game too. The Giants' Eli Manning succesfully stepped out of the shadow of his brother Peyton, the previous year's Super Bowl-winning quarterback. Meanwhile, the Patriots failed in their quest to complete only the second 'perfect' (unbeaten, untied) season in NFL history, and the first since the league expanded to a 16-game regular season.

One destiny fulfilled; another forever incomplete. Link

21 May: UEFA Champions League final - Notable not only for being the first all-English European Cup final, but for 120 minutes of ratcheting tension capped by the ultimate drama of a penalty shootout in which first both Cristiano Ronaldo and England captain John Terry missed their spot kicks.

The Champions League final is so often one of the most over-hyped, underwhelming games of the season. Not this time.

9 June: Euro 2008 - Holland 3 Italy 0. If you ever had just one opportunity to convince a football-sceptic about the beauty that the modern game has to offer, look no further than this game. Two strong, contrasting sides: Dutch artistry versus Italian pragmatism. A controversial opening goal. (No truly memorable game is complete without a dubious incident). Two textbook examples of sweeping, counter-attacking goals. And a game in which the losing side gave as good as they got, but without the goals (and the luck) to go with it.

The only think wrong with this game was that it occurred in the group stages - it would have made a fitting final. Link

6 July: Wimbledon men's singles final

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Dylan Thomas

As with Bjorn Borg, Roger Federer fell at the sixth time of asking, having won the previous five men's singles finals on Wimbledon's hallowed turf. But, my God, he didn't give up without a fight, and in doing so he reminded us all why he is regarded as such a great champion.

Borg's nemesis was John McEnroe; Federer's Rafael Nadal. And it required his greatest adversary, at the very peak of his powers, to strain every sinew (and Nadal is not exactly short of sinew), to wrest the title which he appeared to have won on several occasions during the match. Two sets down, with three break points against his own serve; a break down in the fourth set; 15-40 and 0-30 down in the middle of the final set - on each occasion Federer refused to go gentle into that good night (by the end of the match, it was virtually night) and dug deeper than he ever has before, sending a defiant hail of aces, volleys and seemingly impossible ground-strokes past his opponent.

It is not victory that defines the truly great champions; it is their response to defeat, or to its prospect. Federer may have lost the match and his title, but he went up significantly in my estimation during an afternoon and evening in which he raged futilely but gloriously against the dying of the light. Link

9, 12, 17 & 18 July: Tour de France - No British cyclist has ever achieved what the 23-year old Mark Cavendish acheived in 2008. World champion on the track (with Bradley Wiggins in the madison) in March. 17 road race wins, including two in the Giro d'Italia which announced his presence as a top sprinter in the grand tours. And then, over the course of ten incredible days in July, he became the top sprinter in world cycling, winning four sprint finishes with an ease which was at times embarrassing. Just as Usain Bolt was so dominant in the Olympic 100 metres final that he was able to start celebrating 20 metres from the line, so too Cavendish. It simply shouldn't be that easy; like Bolt, Cav made such premature jubilation look routine.

Lightning fast, tactically astute, and with the best years of his career still in front of him, we have not seen the last of this young man. Watch out for him in 2009 - if he's not travelling too fast to see, that is. Link

8 August: Olympic Games opening ceremony - China had already showed itself off to the world with its impressive Olympic stadia; the Bird's Nest and Water Cube being two of the most striking venues ever seen. But they also wanted to showcase the country's rich culture and history with an opening ceremony which they hoped would set a new standard.

No question, they achieved it.

From the glowing Fou drummers (2,008 of them, of course), to the giant LED scroll which gave us a potted (if somewhat santised) tour of China's history and contributions to global technology, to the fireworks display to end all fireworks displays (even if some of them were created with CGI), to Li Ning's wire-supported 'run' around the inside of the Bird's Nest's roof to light the Olympic flame - no one has even come close to matching the sheer scale and spectacle of Beijing's opening ceremony. Quite possibly, no one ever will.

This - as much as China's table-topping haul of 51 gold medals, or Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps - was the defining memory of the 2008 Summer Olympics. And, if anyone wasn't already aware of China's growing role as a commercial and cultural global power, this put the most populous nation on earth well and truly on the map. London has a tough act to follow in 2012.

10-17 August: Olympic Games, swimming - Eight days, eight gold medals - including a fingertip victory in the 100 metres butterfly won as much by sheer force of will as pure ability - seven world records. A career total of 14 Olympic golds. If he had declared himself an independent nation, he would have been tenth in the final medals table.

Usain Bolt may have ultimately stolen his thunder, but for sheer, sustained domination of a sport, Michael Phelps remains peerless.

16 & 20 August: Olympic Games, men's 100 & 200 metres finals - 9.69s for the 100 metres - while throttling back in celebration - was inconceivable enough. But then, four days later, Usain Bolt beat the one men's track and field record which I genuinely thought I would never see broken, Michael Johnson's 19.32s time for 200 metres. It secured the Jamaican's status as the star of the Olympics, despite the achievements of the aforementioned Phelps.

If anything, Bolt's 200 was even better than the 100. Sure, Bolt could have registered 9.65 or less in the 100 if he had maintained his sprint. But here's the thing: not only did Bolt complete the 200 in 19.30s, not only did he do it despite it carrying the weight of global expectation on his shoulders, but he did it running into a significant headwind of -0.9m/s. Even the forces of nature couldn't stop him: now that's truly phenomenal.

Oh, and of course he was part of the Jamaican team that took three-tenths of a second off the world record for the 4x100 relay. But, by Usain Bolt's standards, that was just a quiet day at the office.

6-17 September: Paralympic Games - Since the first Paralympic games in 1960, the event's scope, awareness and media coverage have all steadily grown. Beijing's Paralympics was no exception, with over 4,000 athletes competing for 473 gold medals.

UK TV audiences were able to watch daily coverage, courtesy of the BBC. And as successful as Team GB had been at the main Summer Olympics, the medal haul of the British Paralympians was even more remarkable. 42 golds among a total of 102 medals (more than the USA and second only to China), with 17 multiple gold-winning athletes, including four each for cyclist Darren Kenny and swimmer David Roberts, and double gold in the pool for 13-year old Eleanor Simmonds.

More than anything, the Paralympians demonstrated that they are every bit as capable and dedicated as their able-bodied counterparts, and as an audience we were able to focus on the athletes' abilities, rather than their disabilities. I'm already looking forward to attending the London 2012 Paralympics every bit as much as the Summer Olympics - great sporting competition is no different whether it is Chris Hoy or Darren Kenny, or David Roberts or Rebecca Adlington.

2 November: Brazilian GP - Many, many column inches had been written about how Lewis Hamilton threw away a seemingly certain world championship as a rookie in 2007. So when he lost the fifth position he required to clinch the 2008 title to Sebastian Vettel in the final laps of a horrifically tricky wet/dry race at Interlagos, you could sense the obituaries being written already.

What then happened in the closing moments was one part triumph, one part tragedy and 100% Hollywood. As Felipe Massa crossed the finish line and his family and Ferrari team started celebrating in the pit lane, Hamilton dived past Timo Glock - who had started the final lap fully 18 seconds ahead of him but, crucially, still on dry tyres on a damp track - in the last few metres.

F1 has previously had its fair share of end-of-season championship dramas - Nigel Mansell's exploding tyre (1986), Michael Schumacher's collision with Damon Hill (1994), to name but two - but never has the title changed hands so late in the race or in such a - literally - incredible fashion. For those with long-enough memories, this was the equivalent of Michael Thomas's injury time goal to snatch the league title from Liverpool on their own turf in 1989, but at 180mph. Written on paper, it is barely plausible. But that's sport for you. Link

So, that's a wrap for 2008.

2009? Bring it on.

29 December 2008

Exercises in futility

On different sides of the Atlantic, but within 24 hours of each other, two of sport’s more ignominious reigns have ended today.

Firstly, Paul Jewell resigned as manager of Derby County, drawing to a close a 13-month spell at the club in which he oversaw the Rams’ relegation from the Premier League with a record low total of points (11), having managed just one win all season (equalling a 108-year old league record) and conceded five or more goals in six of their 38 matches. They were also the first team ever to be relegated from the top division in March, perhaps the most telling indication of just how poor they were relative to their peers.

And it is not as if things have improved significantly this season. Despite Jewell’s promise of gaining immediate promotion back to the Premier League and a complete re-tooling of his squad, Derby currently lie 18th in the division, a perilous five points above the relegation zone, having won just seven of 26 games so far, and having in September narrowly escaped completing a full calendar year without a win: the streak ended at 364 days.

Notwithstanding the current vogue in football for firing managers at the first sign of trouble, there is little doubt that Jewell had to go sooner rather than later. In fact, it’s a credit to Derby that they have shown so much loyalty and patience to a manager with a decent history who has simply got it terribly wrong here.

At least Jewell walked before he was pushed. Detroit Lions’ head coach Rod Marinelli was fired, a move which brings new certainty to the word ‘inevitable’.

At the mid-point of the 2007 season, things had been looking rosy for then-second year coach Marinelli. The Lions were 6-2 and one of the NFL’s most enduringly unsuccessful and futile franchises – just one win in a playoff game since their last NFL championship-winning year of 1957 - was suddenly looking like a contender.

By season’s end, however, normal service had been resumed. A six game skid saw them finish 7-9, posting their seventh straight losing record.

And if the 1-7 record in the second half of 2007 wasn’t bad enough, the Lions went 0-8 through the first half of the 2008 regular season, and then completed a full and unique set when last night’s 21-31 defeat to Green Bay condemned them to the first 0-16 record in NFL history, and only the second winless season in the Super Bowl era (the Tampa Bay Buccaneers went 0-14 in 1976, their first year of existence).

Even if they had won at Green Bay – and the Lions were still in with a sniff deep into the fourth quarter - Detroit would have joined a select band of just eight teams who have compiled 1-15 records in the 31 seasons since the NFL went to a 16-game schedule. (And they would still have held the dubious honour of being the only NFL team to start a season 0-15.)

Nonetheless - ifs, buts and maybes aside - the facts are damning. In three seasons, Marinelli had a 10-38 record as a head coach, including 1-23 in his final year and a half. In 2008, the Lions conceded 551 points (while scoring just 281), the second-worst total in NFL history. The squad is woefully short of decent players, let alone good ones - wide receiver Calvin Johnson (78 catches and 12 TDs, joint-highest in the NFL) and kicker Jason Hanson (21 of 22 field goals) are arguably the only two Lions who would be coveted by other teams.

With the regular season over, even if the Lions were to win their 2009 season opener, it means they will go at least 20½ months between wins.

Derby fans: eat your heart out.

In a league which actively promotes parity between its teams, 20½ months is as good as a lifetime. But there is hope. Only last season, the New England Patriots completed the regular season 16-0 (although they subsequently lost the Super Bowl), while their division rivals, the Miami Dolphins, limped to 1-15. In 2008, however, the Patriots have missed out on the playoffs altogether, while the Dolphins have brought about the most dramatic single-season turnaround in NFL history, improving to 11-5 and winning their division.

So there is hope for the Lions, if not for the hapless Marinelli, in 2009. I wouldn’t count on it, though.

15 December 2008

The real McHoy

Like many others, I was watching Sports Personality of the Year (or SPotY, as the BBC likes to abbreviate it to) on television last night.

It’s the sort of wonderfully quaint concept only the British could come up with, isn’t it? Not an award for outright achievement, but one for the nation’s favourite ‘sports personality’, whatever that means. If you asked a hundred people for their definition, you would probably get a hundred different answers, although I suspect many would say something along the lines of “the winner needs to be at or near the top of their sport, but we have to like them too”.

By that definition, several of the short-listed ten nominees were out of the running before they even started: Rebecca Romero, Olympic medallist in two different sports, is a hard-as-nails competitor who exudes little warmth; Christine Ohuruogu is tainted by her ban for missing three drugs tests and a correspondingly defensive PR image; Andy Murray is still seen by some as the stroppy teenager of a couple of years ago (and he didn’t turn up anyway, a guaranteed vote-loser); little is known about Ben Ainslie, brilliant yachtsman though he is, because he only surfaces in Olympic years and competes in probably the world’s least telegenic sport. Even Lewis Hamilton, recently crowned Formula 1 champion and the pre-show bookies’ favourite, is resented by some for his millionaire’s lifestyle and tax exile status.

Chris Hoy, however, ticked all the boxes - achievement, popularity and personality - living up to his nickname 'the real McHoy'. Already a gold medallist in Athens, he added three more in Beijing, putting him behind only Sir Steve Redgrave among British Olympians. He greets the world with a smile and a humbleness which endears him to the public, and he has not been afraid to speak his mind on issues close to him and his sport articulately and intelligently, which immediately sets him apart from the bland, repetitive, PR-friendly proclamations of so many of his fellow sports stars.

There was something satisfyingly right about Hoy winning. Here is a man undeniably at the top of his game, but also an all-around nice guy to boot, one who remains unspoilt by the trapping of fame. And, nothing against Lewis Hamilton, but it was gratifying to see the spotlight turned onto a sportsman who, despite being one of the ‘elite’ athletes supported by lottery money, earns considerably less in a year than Hamilton or, say, Michael Owen does in a week.

While there have been some decidedly weak years in the past where the SPotY winner was, frankly, the best of a poor bunch - Damon Hill in 1994, Greg Rusedski in 1997, Zara Phillips in 2006 to name but three – Hoy triumphed over not just the Formula 1 world champion, but a swathe of Olympic and Paralympic gold medallists (including cyclist Darren Kenny and swimmer David Roberts, who each won four Paralympic golds), an undefeated boxing world champion (Joe Calzaghe), and Mark Cavendish, who didn’t even make the final ten despite winning four stages in the Tour de France and being the dominant sprinter in stage races throughout the year.

Many of the other award winners on the night (judged by an expert panel rather than the public) were spot on as well. Ellie Simmonds, double Paralympic swimming gold medallist at the age of 13, won the Young Sports Personality award. Bobby Charlton received a Lifetime Achievement award. Usain Bolt, the megawatt-smiling Jamaican, won Overseas Sports Personality.

However, in a year of many great achievements, cycling deservedly dominated the proceedings, winning the accolades of Team of the Year, Coach of the Year (performance director Dave Brailsford), and, of course, the main SPotY award for Hoy.

It was a great advertisement for a relatively minor and yet easily accessible sport where Britain has always had good talent, but lacked the funding and professional organisation which turns good athletes who think they might win into great ones who know they will win.

All in all, it was a good night recapping a truly great sporting year in which Britain more than punched its weight.

However, I do have a few small gripes.

Nowadays, SPotY is a tightly-produced, polished and glitzy two hour affair, full of those little music-backed video montages which the BBC does so well.

But where has the fun gone? And where are the little insights the event used to give us into our sporting heroes?

I’m old enough to remember when BBC Sports Review (as it was then called) was just that: a comprehensive documentary review of the sporting year, as opposed to a sporting Oscars. As recently as the early 90s, the show still had an off-the-cuff, almost slightly amateurish feel about it, and it was no worse for that. There was always some silly stunt – Nigel Mansell competing on a driving arcade game, a celebrity penalty shootout – to provide light relief. (I’m sorry, but having James Toseland play the piano (last year) or Zac Purchase on his saxophone (this year) just doesn’t compare.) And, despite having a scheduled running time of at least 14 hours, it always – always – overran, largely because you felt everyone involved was just enjoying themselves too much, and nobody had the heart to stop the party. Sadly, no more.

And don’t get me started on those little 60 second soundbite interviews which serve no other purpose than to provide the full stop to a carefully prepared narrative which has already been related to the viewer via one of the aforementioned video montages. Do I feel I know anything more about Ohuruogu, Ainslie or Rebecca Adlington as a result of watching their interviews? No. I appreciate there isn’t the time for anything more than that these days, but what a shame that is, when we will not see many of these stars in such a high-profile arena again until London 2012.

Speaking of which, you could be forgiven at times during the programme for thinking that the 2008 sporting calendar consisted solely of the Olympics. Sure, there is a broader agenda here, starting the build-up to the 2012 Games, but it was, for me, another missed opportunity to promote British sport in its wider context. Take cycling. On top of their Olympic and Paralympic success, the British team dominated the track world championships in Manchester every bit as much as in Beijing, Mark Cavendish firmly established himself as the fastest man on two wheels at the Giro d’Italia, Tour de France and other races, and, in September, Nicole Cooke completed a unique double of Olympic and world championship gold in the women’s road race. And yet each of these was barely mentioned in blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dispatches. Again, a shame. Where was the rallying call for Joe Public to get on his bike, or to support the Tour of Britain or the many hundreds of club events that happen the length and breadth of the UK throughout the year?

One final footnote on Cooke. She now seems destined to be forever labelled as ‘the one who started the Beijing gold rush’, rather than being recognised as a serial winner whose CV includes not only Olympic and Commonwealth gold, but a world title and wins in the women’s equivalents of both the Tour de France (twice) and the Giro d’Italia. It’s not all about the Olympics, folks – even if Cooke had finished out of the medals at the Olympics, she would still be one of our most successful road cyclists ever.

However, these are pretty minor grumbles at the end of a great event at the end of a great year. And just think, I haven’t even touched on the epic Federer/Nadal Wimbledon final, or the all-English Champions League final, or the monsoon drama of the season-ending Brazilian GP, or the inhumanly brilliant Michael Phelps. (OK, Phelps isn’t British but, like Bolt, there are some transcending moments in sport where nationality really doesn’t matter.)

Here’s hoping 2009 is anywhere near as good.

(P.S. How long until the BBC go the whole hog and rebrand SPotY as the ‘Sportys’? You just know it’s going to happen one day …)

9 December 2008

Back to reality

There are few genuine surprises in modern sport, but Honda’s sudden and immediate withdrawal from Formula 1 late last week certainly counts as one.

It’s a blow to the several hundred people directly employed by the Honda F1 team, who face imminent unemployment unless a buyer can be found quickly, not to mention the thousands of others who work for specialist suppliers or other associated companies, whose livelihoods will be impacted by the decision.

From a business and moral perspective, the company’s decision is completely understandable. A record of one win in three years since the team became a wholly-owned Honda operation - and one with the largest budget in Formula 1, reportedly £330m - is difficult to justify at a time when the parent company, like all car manufacturers, is seeing global sales plummet, halting factory production and cutting back its workforce.

And Honda may just be the tip of the iceberg.

There will now be question marks hanging over Honda’s nearest rival, Toyota, another team with an annual budget in the £300m region, and whose F1 record – no wins in seven years – is even poorer than Honda’s. BMW is seeing plummeting sales in all its key markets, and should they pull out you would have to question Mercedes’ continued involvement in the sport too. Wealthy though he is, Dietrich Mateschitz will undoubtedly be questioning the value of running not one but two F1 teams, Red Bull and Toro Rosso. In fact, with the possible exception of Ferrari, one can easily picture a scenario where every F1 team could fold or at least dramatically scale back.

It's easy to look at F1 through jealous eyes and feel that what goes around comes around. After all, steered by the canny Bernie Ecclestone, the sport has become a commercial gold mine, generating money, glamour and playboy lifestyles in a way that even Premier League clubs and players envy. And there has always been an attitude that, as a sport with truly global marketing reach, F1 would be somehow recession-proof.

Uh uh.

Say what you like about FIA president Max Mosley – and many have indeed said what they liked about him during what has been an, ahem, difficult year for him personally – but his has been the one voice in step with the times. Almost single-handedly, he has campaigned for reduced costs in the sport – standard components, engines built to last for multiple races rather than 200 miles, restrictions on expensive testing – and tasked the teams with developing their own solution to this challenge, or face having one enforced upon them.

The teams, as is their wont, have ignored, obstructed and undermined Mosley’s words, or attempted to bend them to their own advantage. Instead, they have poured all their energy into boosting the sponsorship coffers, allowing them to invest millions into developing new, better components which will shave a tenth of a second off their cars’ lap times. (For instance, one team reportedly spends £800,000 a year on tailored, lightweight wheel nuts which make about as much difference to their cars' performance as a walk to the stationery cupboard makes to my waistline.)

Mosley wants to drive down the cost of competing in F1, to bring an end to what Simon Barnes describes in his Times column yesterday as “the end of fantasy car-building based on fantasy economics”. Currently, all the major manufacturer-backed teams spend upwards of £200m a year - by comparison, Chelsea FC's wage bill for 2006/7 was a trifling £133m - a level of spending which is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

For the sport as a whole, should the grid shrink from 20 cars to 18 (minus Honda) to, say, 14, it becomes unsustainable as a spectacle too. Even if the hardcore petrolheads continue to come through the gates – and given the cost of attending a grand prix even that is by no means certain – the TV audiences on which the sport is so dependent will leave in droves.

And if that happens F1 will wither and die, at least in its current form as the unrivalled pinnacle of technology and motor racing excellence.

Of course, it’s too early to tell how bad things will get, and any such conjecture is, at this point, only speculation – and alarmist speculation at that – but there can be no doubt that Honda has set the shockwaves rippling through a sport which, until now, had considered itself to operate in an alternate reality all its own. No more. Like any other sport – like any other business – Formula 1 is now waking up to the fact that it is just as vulnerable as anyone else. How the sport reacts to this potential crisis may well shape its future. First of all, however, it will need to ensure it has a future at all.

5 December 2008

Sweet FA

So, the Football Association has handed Manchester United's Patrice Evra a four game ban (and a £15,000 fine) for his part in a post-match scuffle - alleged racist remarks from a groundsman, resultant handbags at dawn - at Stamford Bridge.

This happened on 26th April 2008. If you're counting, that's nearly 32 weeks ago.

You have to wonder exactly what the FA has been doing all this time. For sure, the wheels of footballing justice have been spinning like a medicine ball in quicksand.

It's not as if this is the first time the FA has made the proverbial oil tanker look nimble and responsive. Its recent history is not exactly glorious, with the charge sheet including:
- The very late, very over-budget completion of Wembley Stadium (compare that to the on-time, on-budget completion of Arsenal's Emirates Stadium)
- Sven-Goran Eriksson's off-field antics, both bedroom and boardroom
- The Faria Alam affair, which brought down chief executive Mark Palios
- The bungled recruitment of Luiz Felipe Scolari, and the subsequent hollow claims that Steve McClaren was first choice all along
- The Tevez/Mascherano transfer affair, which remained uninvestigated for months (the FA's fault), only for the independent panel to deliver a verdict which virtually everyone who isn't a West Ham fan agreed was monumentally unfair (not the FA's fault, admittedly)

Even now, the repercussions of the FA's indecision over this last event are still being felt, with West Ham appealing against the £30m compensation they were recently ordered to pay Sheffield United, the team who were relegated as a result of West Ham not receiving a points deduction and Tevez being allowed to continue to play. (Of course, it just added insult to injury when Tevez then scored the goal against Man U which kept West Ham up on the final day of the season ... and then promptly moved to Old Trafford.)

So, what, exactly, has the FA done recently? Well, we have the 'Respect' campaign for referees, a PR stunt which fails to address the two key issues, namely:

1. Referees make too many big mistakes. (Yes, they're only human but many errors could be alleviated or at least corrected after the fact with technology already in use in other sports such as rugby and cricket.)

2. They are then not held accountable for their errors. (Refs are not automatically required to explain their decisions, or to reverse them when video evidence clearly demonstrates that an error has been made. Yes, I know that in some cases the FA's own rules prevent referees from correcting errors, but as a justification for not righting a wrong that really is pretty feeble, isn't it?)

The common perception is that English football is governed by an organisation which spends more time worrying about its image and explaining why it cannot make a decision than it does actually making decisions. The Patrice Evra case is, sadly, not an isolated example; it's just another addition to a burgeoning file containing citations of inaction and, in some cases, downright incompetence.

Now I'm sure that running the FA is a thankless job - there are millions of us out there who are all too ready to dissect every decision or non-decision it makes - but it has to be said that those in charge over the past few years have done very little of significance which we can actually thank them for (the appointment of Fabio Capello being one).

The fact is that smoke and mirrors just doesn't cut it when 99% of football fans would agree that you have delivered sweet FA.

4 December 2008

The better part of valour

As a player, Roy Keane was never one to shy away from a challenge.

As a manager, however, Keane today decided that discretion – or, at least, resignation - is the better part of valour – and left Sunderland.

The facts are these.

In August 2006, Keane took over a relegated side wallowing at the foot of the Championship and led them straight back to the Premier League.

He spent around £40m on an eclectic mix of players – some good, some poor, several over-priced – in keeping the club safe from relegation last season, albeit by just three points.

In total, he has spent in the region of £70m-£80m on 33 players in his 27 months in charge. But today, Sunderland has drifted into the bottom three, having lost six of their last seven games. Tellingly, Keane has selected more players this season than any other Premier League manager, and no one – not least, one suspects, the man himself – really knows who Sunderland’s best eleven are.

Regardless of the truth behind Keane’s departure – did he walk or was he nudged? – I have to wonder how much Keane is a victim of expectation.

After all, great players do not always make great managers. Cases in point: Bryan Robson, Paul Gascoigne, arguably also Kevin Keegan and Glenn Hoddle. And while it is too early to say that Keane cannot go on to become an excellent boss – after all, his managerial experience pre-Sunderland accounted to a grand total of zero games – it is clear that he has also made errors, not least his apparently scattergun approach to transfers and team selection.

For sure, the team itself must be held at least partly responsible. And yet these are unquestionably Keane’s players, selected, organised and motivated by Keane.

Equally, the financial landscape in football has changed dramatically even in Keane’s brief tenure. Splashing out £30m-plus a year on new players is no longer the domain of just the so-called ‘big four’ – Aston Villa, Tottenham and Manchester City also rank among Europe’s top spenders, and City managed to spend more than that on Robinho alone this summer. (It’s a measure of how much the playing field has been re-drawn that the rumours of what is almost certainly an apocryphal £129m bid by City for Iker Casillas have even seen the light of day.)

And, as Keane himself has pointed out, it’s difficult to recruit top talent to Sunderland, which is not the most attractive locale for the players’ wives and girlfriends. And, equally relevantly, it is a club where the prospect of playing in either the Champions League (why does that epithet not have an apostrophe somewhere?) or even the UEFA Cup (soon to be renamed, nonsensically, the Europa League) is, at best, remote.

However, all that is by the by. Ultimately, the buck stops with the manager. Those are the rules of the game; Keane knows it, and as one of the game’s fiercest competitors he probably wouldn’t have it any other way. However high the expectations of the club and its fans were, I can’t help but feel that, in his own eyes, Keane’s worst crime is that he has failed to live up to the highest expectations of all: his own.

Despite his mistakes, I have always warmed to Keane the manager in a way I never did to Keane the midfielder. As a player, of course I respected his intensity, his energy and his overwhelming desire to win, but there was also a nasty, dark side to him that was never far from the surface – just ask Alf-Inge Haland. As a manager, however, he has been calm, thoughtful, honest and humanly vulnerable: Doctor Jekyll to Mister Hyde.

I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll miss Roy Keane, and I genuinely hope he returns to top-level management soon, better and wiser for his Sunderland experience. Only then will we really know whether resignation is indeed the better part of valour.