13 February 2009

Reap what you sow

According to the Times today, contract negotiations between Manchester City and their 19-year old striker Daniel Sturridge have broken down because representatives of the teenager - who has started just 11 first-team games and scored 5 times for City - are demanding a contract worth £65,000 per week.

If true, it is just another example of how football - and in particular that enclave in the north-west jokingly referred to as 'Middle Eastlands' - continues to defy any semblance of economic reality. It also underlines the pitfalls of taking over a club when it is perceived you have bottomless pockets: everyone's eyes light up with jackpot signs and suddenly everything comes with a considerable mark-up in price.

City have clearly not heeded the similar lessons learned at Chelsea, strutting in with an (over)confident swagger and making Milan an offer they couldn't refuse for Kaka - in excess of £100m for the selling club, £500k pw for the player - only to see the deal fall through.

And now City are in danger of paying the price, literally, for throwing their money around so publicly. It was only a matter of time before agents started to use the Kaka numbers as leverage for their clients' benefit, and you suspect that Sturridge is just the tip of the iceberg. But to claim that a 19-year old with minimal experience is worth £65k pw is breathtaking in its audacity. We are not talking about a Wayne Rooney or a Michael Owen, both of whom were established internationals at 19; Sturridge is as yet uncapped at either full or under-21 level for England. Is Sturridge worth more than his teammate Elano - 32 caps for Brazil - who is reportedly on about two-thirds of what the youngster is demanding? Or, say, Stephen Ireland, who stands to be rewarded for an outstanding season with a salary similar to what Sturridge is seeking?

Of course he isn't.

Sturridge is 19, has demonstrated considerable potential, and is clearly a player City are keen to keep. But manager Mark Hughes is, rightly, refusing to held to ransom, even though the player's existing deal expires in the summer and the club runs the risk of losing him for nothing. Firstly, it's the right thing to do. And secondly, if you distort the club's wage structure for one player, you open the door for every other player at the club to demand similar treatment.

That is a price nobody - not even the world's richest football club - wants to pay.

11 February 2009

The numbers don't add up

Less than 48 hours after sacking Luiz Felipe Scolari, Chelsea have announced the appointment of Guus Hiddink as their temporary head coach until the end of the season. Hiddink - whose current role as national coach of Russia is bankrolled by Roman Abramovich - will juggle both jobs for the moment, something he has done successfully before when managing both PSV Eindhoven and Australia.

Talking to 5 Live last night, the head of the Russian FA said, quite diplomatically, that he was neither happy nor disappointed by Chelsea's pursuit of Hiddink. He certainly sounded resigned, however; you could almost hear the sigh at the other end of the phone line.

Putting the merits of Scolari's sacking to one side, there is no doubt that Chelsea have appointed a man who is broadly accepted to be one of world football's leading managers at both domestic and international level.

But one has to wonder what on earth is going on at Chelsea. We are told that Abramovich is becoming increasingly disillusioned with his plaything and has tightened the purse-strings. On the one hand, this appears true: Chelsea allowed themselves to be outbid by Manchester City for Robinho last summer - at a cost of around £32m - and then refused to release additional funds in the recent transfer window, in addition to a string of other smaller cost-cutting measures. On the other hand, over the past 17 months the club has also seen fit to part with the services of Jose Mourinho (whose severance package was estimated at upwards of £20m), Avram Grant (reportedly £5.2m) and now Scolari (£7.5m) and three of his assistants.

Now, it doesn't take a maths PhD to work out that the cost of dismissing these three managers would have bought Chelsea Robinho.

So there appears to be plenty of money available to fire the manager if he rubs the owner up the wrong way or if he shows the first sign of falling below expectations. But not enough to buy the superstar player who was top of Scolari's shopping list. Okay.

Yes, I know the equation isn't as simple as that. Scolari was fired on the basis of several months' worth of poor results, poor performances, dressing room mutterings and - most importantly - the growing threat that Chelsea might not qualify for the Champions League next season, and it is this competition more than any other which defines Abramovich's footballing raison d'être.

But it's still a bit odd, don't you think? After years of opulent extravagance, Chelsea are now being asked to be managed like a proper business. Except when the owner decides otherwise. Still, I suppose that's Abramovich's prerogative; it is, after all, his club. Just take it with a pinch of salt the next time the club mentions its straitened finances as an excuse for not buying so-and-so.

For all the good times they have enjoyed over the past five and a half years, Chelsea fans are now discovering that even they are not immune from the inevitable downside.

Welcome to the real world.

5 February 2009

Commercial broken?


That was the sound of ITV shooting themselves in the foot. And not for the first time.

Last night's FA Cup fourth round replay between Everton and Liverpool had meandered its way through 90 goalless minutes - the most significant action being a red card for Liverpool's Lucas Leiva - and a further 28 minutes of extra time, when ITV inexplicably cut away from the live action to a commercial break.

Nothing much happened while they were away - other than Everton's Dan Gosling scoring the only goal of the game. Viewers returned from the break just in time to witness Everton's delirious celebrations.


ITV have claimed there was a technical fault, and that the ad break was not deliberate.

The cause of this - and it is entirely possible that it was not human error but an automated break in transmission caused by the delay in scheduled programming resulting from the extra time period - doesn't really matter. Viewers who had patiently sat through two hours of pretty dull fare were robbed of the game's decisive moment. Being able to see the replay is utterly inadequate compensation. The whole point of live sport is that you watch it, well ... live.

And this is not the first time ITV commercial breaks have caused controversy in their sports coverage. The 2005 San Marino Grand Prix was interrupted three laps from the end, with Michael Schumacher, who had chased down a 20-second deficit on race leader Fernando Alonso, all over the back of the Spaniard's Renault. The reason? ITV are contractually obliged to broadcast five commercial breaks during the race; they had only aired four.

Having outbid the BBC for broadcast rights to the FA Cup, ITV have been widely lambasted for their coverage, which has veered from barely adequate to shockingly bad at times.

Somehow, I don't think the events of last night - whether human or technical error - will have helped the channel's standing among sports fans.

3 February 2009

It's freezing cold - keep the window open, please!

Never mind icy roads, cancelled buses and the temporary closure of Heathrow, you know the weather's bad when the Premier League petitions to extend the January transfer window on account of the snow.

Even now, at 9am the following day - 16 hours after the deadline - we do not know for sure who has moved where.

Who are the big winners and losers?

The biggest question mark hangs over my team, Arsenal, who at the time of writing are still unable to confirm the signing of Russian playmaker Andrei Arshavin. We are told the clubs have agreed a fee, and the player has passed his medical and agreed personal terms, but Zenit St Petersburg are still holding out for a payment from the player for terminating his contract with them. The deal will surely go through, as any delay which defers a prospective transfer until the summer will benefit no one, but I'm not counting my chickens. There's many a slip, and all that.

For Arsenal's North London rivals, Tottenham, it has been a bit of a mixed bag. Jermain Defoe returned from a year's sabbatical at Portsmouth, but at an increased cost. Robbie Keane spent half that time at Liverpool, but Spurs have made a profit of around £8m on the transaction. Pascal Chimbonda was willingly and hastily soldback by Sunderland. And the error-prone Heurelho Gomes has been unceremoniosuly dropped in favour of ex-Chelsea keeper Carlo Cudicini. The net result? God only knows. However, I can confirm that the rumours of Harry Redknapp making enquiries for former Spurs players Teddy Sheringham, Glenn Hoddle and Ozzie Ardiles proved unfounded.

United, Chelsea and Liverpool were relatively quiet on the transfer front - Keane and Cudicini left Anfield and Stamford Bridge, Ricardo Quaresma arrived at Chelsea on loan. Aston Villa signed Emile Heskey - a good bit of business, that - while Everton brought in Jo on loan from Manchester City, affording David Moyes the luxury of being able to field one fit striker for a change.

Ah, City. Despite a succession of solid signings - Wayne Bridge, Craig Bellamy, Nigel de Jong and Shay Given - which will significantly strengthen the squad, they are widely seen as something of a laughing stock after the public way in which they made AC Milan an offer they couldn't possibly refuse for Kaka ... only to see it firmly rejected by the player. Add to that a list of reported failures to bring other superstar players - Buffon, Villa, Henry, Terry - to 'Middle Eastlands' which is as long as your arm, and it's difficult to resist the temptation to mutter the word schadenfreude repeatedly under your breath.

The other big losers in the transfer window appear to be Portsmouth and West Ham.

Strapped for cash and facing a tough relegation battle, Portsmouth have lost their best goalscorer (Defoe), their best midfielder (Lassana Diarra) ... and signed Hayden Mullins (from West Ham) and Angelos Basinas, the Greek former European Championship winner, who has only ever played for one small club - Mallorca - outside his home country, and who, at 33, is unlikely to be able to boss midfield in the way Diarra could.

West Ham's league position is less precarious, although the club remains up for sale. They have needed to trim both their squad and their wage bill for some time, so the sale of Bellamy, Mullins and Nigel Quashie, and loan deals for Calum Davenport and Julien Faubert, came as little surprise. However, their signing of Savio Nsereko, a 19-year old German striker who has scored just three goals for Brescia in Italy's Serie B, for a fee estimated somewhere north of £8m, must fall firmly into the 'unproven and potentially costly punt' category.

Anyhow, with the possible exception of Arshavin, it seems unlikely we will see any other big moves before the window opens again in the summer. At which point the mad scramble to unearth little-known gems and to pay excessive amounts for mediocre players will start all over again.

Wonderful. Now will someone please keep the window firmly shut - it's snowing outside again.

2 February 2009

Fairy tales aren’t meant to end like this

If he was watching, Yogi Berra would no doubt have said it was like déjà vu all over again.

Last year, Super Bowl XLII was decided when the New York Giants – a blue collar, run-biased team with a hard-hitting defense - came from behind to win on a touchdown pass from Eli Manning to Plaxico Burress in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds remaining.

Last night, Super Bowl XLIII was decided when the Pittsburgh Steelers – a blue collar, run-biased team with a hard-hitting defense - came from behind to win on a touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to Santonio Holmes in the corner of the end zone … with 35 seconds remaining.

Or, as Bon Jovi so aptly put it on Wanted Dead or Alive: “It’s all the same / Only the names will change.”

Like many other sports, the NFL is full of oft-spoken aphorisms. Two in particular spring to mind: offense wins games, but defense wins championships; Super Bowl winners always have an effective running game.

In many respects, Super Bowl XLIII followed the form book. Pittsburgh had finished 12-4 in the regular season despite a brutal schedule, and boasted the NFL’s top-ranked defense to boot. The Arizona Cardinals were the rank outsiders, having finished with a 9-7 record – just 3-7 against opponents outside their division – and carrying the league’s worst rushing attack (albeit one which had improved markedly during their playoffs run).

In others, however, conventional wisdom was defied. For sure, Pittsburgh had the number one-ranked defense, but in the final analysis it was their offense which won this match in the closing moments. And at no stage last night did they ever establish a credible running game – 58 yards at an anaemic 2.2 yards per carry was not atypical of an attack which ranked just 23rd out of 32 teams in rushing yards (and 29th in yards per carry) during the regular season.

The game did, however, obey one of my own personal laws of the Super Bowl: no matter how ordinary the game may appear, do not go to bed early or you are bound to miss something big.

As so it proved to be.

The first three quarters of the game had been pretty ordinary fare, with the flow being disrupted by frequent penalties - 18 in all - and video reviews of marginal plays. The Steelers had grounded the Cardinals’ high-flying pass offense and eked out an apparently decisive 20-7 lead – no team has ever won a Super Bowl after trailing by more than ten points – largely off the back of the game’s one spectacular play, a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown by linebacker James Harrison as time expired in the first half.

But then, in the final 12 minutes, the game exploded.

First Kurt Warner, seeking to become the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams, completed eight consecutive passes against the NFL’s best defense to bring the Cardinals to within 14-20.

After an exchange of punts, Pittsburgh found themselves pinned back on their one-yard line. On third-and-10, an apparently successful pass play was negated by a holding penalty in the end zone, resulting in a safety. 16-20.

Arizona received the ensuing kickoff and Warner required only two plays to fire a 64-yard scoring pass straight down the middle of the field to star receiver Larry Fitzgerald. With 2:37 remaining, the underdog Cardinals had their first lead of the game, 23-20.

Cue Roethlisberger. A Super Bowl winner with Pittsburgh in only his second NFL season (2005), the Steelers had won that match in spite of rather than because of him: ‘Big Ben’ had ended the game with the worst passer rating of any winning quarterback in Super Bowl history. That was emphatically not the case this time. Facing the sudden and unexpected prospect of defeat, Roethlisberger worked the field and the clock, even overcoming a dropped pass by Holmes in the end zone before hitting the same receiver on the other side of the field on the very next play for what proved to be the decisive score.

Down by four and needing a touchdown, Warner was able to drive the Cardinals past midfield in the limited time remaining, only to suffer the ignominy of being stripped of the ball as he tried to buy time for one final, desperate heave into the end zone.

It was a sad way to end the game for the league’s Cinderella Man: the former NFL Europe and Arena football player who went from bag-packing in a grocery store to leading the St Louis Rams to their only Super Bowl triumph after the 1999 season; the washed-up veteran who led Arizona to their first Super Bowl. If, as he has hinted, Warner opts to retire rather than subject his battered 37-year old body to another campaign, it’s not the fairy tale ending he or the Cardinals’ long-suffering fans – the franchise, which has become synonymous with futility, has now gone 62 years since its last NFL championship - would have hoped for.

Regardless, Warner can at least lay claim to the three highest passing yardage totals – two in a losing cause - in Super Bowl history. As seems to happen every year, this was just one of a number of Super Bowl records to fall: in addition to Harrison’s 100-yard play, Pittsburgh became the first team to win six Super Bowls, and, at 36, head coach Mike Tomlin became the youngest man ever to lead a championship-winning side.

The defeat will have had an added edge for his Arizona counterpart, Ken Whisenhunt, who was the Steelers’ offensive coordinator in their previous Super Bowl win and was passed over for the head coaching job two years ago … in favour of Tomlin.

But, like Warner, Whisenhunt’s fairy tale had a sting in the tail rather than a happy ending.

1 February 2009

Where now, Roger?

And they say lightning doesn't strike twice.

Seven months after Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer combined to produce arguably the greatest men's final in Wimbledon history, the same two players served up arguably the greatest men's final in Australian Open history early today.

As at Wimbledon last July, Nadal ultimately triumphed after five enthralling sets of a match which swung first one way and then the other. Federer, nervy at first, produced some of his very best tennis in winning the second and fourth sets. Nadal, drawing on reserves maybe even he didn't know he possessed after a draining five-hour semi-final against Fernando Verdasco, took everything the Swiss threw at him and kept coming back stronger. Punch and counter-punch; break points which were hard fought for and then repelled as much by force of will as strength of shot. It was not until the final set when Federer visibly began to tire that we could begin to say with any kind of confidence who the likely winner was.

Where now for Federer who, utterly distraight, was in tears after the match? At 27, he is five years older than Nadal, who still, frighteningly, may still be a year or two short of his ultimate potential. He has lost his number one ranking to the Spaniard; his aura of invincibility at Wimbledon has been shattered; he remains one Grand Slam singles title short of Pete Sampras's total of 14, a record which would quantify his claim to be regarded as the finest tennis player ever. If he is to match or beat Sampras's mark, you can't help but feel it needs to be this year or never. To win the French Open in June is unlikely, as Nadal reigns supreme on clay. Wimbledon is, of course, a more likely hunting ground for him; better still, the US Open is the one title he still holds, and the only one Nadal has not yet won.

Much though I admire Rafael Nadal and see him as the dominant force in tennis for potentially years to come, in my heart I desperately want Federer to win at least one more Slam. He is possibly the last of the great artists - Andy Murray has (as yet unfulfilled) potential to succeed him - in a sport increasingly dominated by power and fitness. And, like Nadal, he manages to be both a fearsome competitor and yet a gracious gentleman in defeat; having lost five of seven Grand Slam final meetings with Nadal, he is becoming increasingly accustomed to the latter.

Tennis has benefitted enormously by having the careers of these two great players overlap so considerably; it is a rival as fierce and contrasting as Borg-McEnroe, but one which has sustained greater longevity. When it finally ends, the sport will be greatly impoverished by its loss.

I'll root for both Nadal and Federer, but for now at least I want Federer to win just that little bit more. The only thing is, such is the psychological hold Nadal appears to have over him, I just can't see where number 14 is going to come from.