Stirring the hornet’s nest

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Harry the Hornet. Photo by Jack Tanner, http://www.flickr.com

In this season of good cheer, I write in defence of Watford mascot Harry the Hornet. He got a ticking off last weekend following an incident at the end of the Watford – Crystal Palace game. His crime? Mocking Wilfried Zaha.

We live in a rather sad world in which many people will take offence at the drop of a hat. And sure enough it was a ‘drop’ that was at the heart of this sorry saga. As Zaha applauded the Palace fans, hornet Harry ‘took a comedy dive.’ Zaha had been booked in the game for simulation.

Wilfried was apparently incensed by this piece of mascot mockery and had to be restrained as he tried to approach Harry. It’s something of a shame that we were denied a brawl involving a mascot.

New Palace boss big Sam was also angered. Truly comically, he called Harry “out of order” and said that it was a matter that the FA needed to “sort out.” The FA have only just finished sorting out the mess that was Sam’s short reign as England manager so perhaps they would have more pressing matters to attend to.

But alas, the FA, like most official bodies, will never pass up the chance of a bit of virtue signalling. It’s much easier than addressing actual issues in the game such as … oh let me see … diving. Thus it was reported that the FA ‘decided not to pursue the case further but it is understood they had an informal phone conversation with Watford about the incident.’

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The FA: “Hi, we just want to have a quick word about the incident with the mascot.”

Watford: “oh yes.”

The FA: “we can all only be grateful and relieved that a serious situation didn’t develop as a result of this irresponsible action. Furthermore, a professional player has suffered grievous injury to his pride.”

Watford: “a most distressing occurrence indeed and we can only apologise unreservedly on behalf of the individual involved. Be assured a thorough internal investigation and review has been launched in order to avoid a repeat of this.”

The FA: “thank you, we’re reassured that you are treating this serious matter with the seriousness that it deserves. We can therefore avoid any official action – such as imposing a three match ban on the mascot – on this occasion. Merry Christmas.”

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Watford subsequently issued a phenomenal statement: ‘Watford FC has reminded Harry the Hornet of his responsibilities, which include continuing to have fun and entertain supporters.’

Hahahaha. That must have been an amazing Monday morning meeting. I’d love to know what the full list of Harry’s responsibilities entails but I’m glad that having fun and entertaining supporters are included among them. Of course this is exactly what Harry was doing in gently mocking Zaha so he may be left feeling a little confused as to how to interpret his responsibilities.

I didn’t see the Zaha booking so I don’t know if he did dive or not, although he’s a player that carries a reputation in this regard. It seems to me though that mockery is a perfectly reasonable reaction to diving (or cheating to call it by what it really is) and it should be employed more often. Players should be shamed when they cheat and why not have mascots take a lead in that?

Getting mocked by a grown man who dresses up in a ridiculous costume every other weekend should at least give some pause for thought.

Zaha’s teammate Delaney (another man whom I hope received a sense of humour for Christmas) also hit out at Harry the Hornet, saying: “Maybe he thinks he is more important than he is. For a mascot to be doing that, it’s uncalled for.” Yes Damien, the arrogance of mascots, a real scourge of the modern game.

What’s uncalled for is players who take themselves so seriously that they cannot take a joke.

It can only be hoped that one of the FA’s New Year’s resolutions for 2017 is to clamp down on diving but somehow I doubt it. Unless it involves mascots of course.

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Pundits on the couch

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Sky Sports studio. Photo by: Ross G. Strachan, http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp is not a man lacking in opinions. He would no doubt make rather a good pundit – he’s knowledgeable about the game, has a good sense of humour, and appears to enjoy robust debate.

His latest sparring partners are the Neville brothers, both of whom have recently been critical (with good reason) of Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius. Klopp was particularly disdainful of Gary Neville, saying: “he showed he struggled with the job to judge players so why do we let him talk about players on TV?”

Well, for a start, ‘we’ don’t. Sky do, and they seem happy with Neville as a pundit and welcomed him back with open arms after his short and unsuccessful sabbatical in Spain. Klopp’s was a bit of a low blow in this case, lower even than the league position occupied by Valencia when Neville was shown the door.

Klopp went on to suggest that Neville is “not interested in helping a Liverpool player I can imagine, but that makes things he says not make more sense.” The German’s English is still a work in (impressive) progress in terms of fully making sense. But again here, the complaint is a strange one.

Why should Gary Neville in his role as a pundit be interested in either helping, or indeed hindering, Liverpool? I’ve not seen all that much of his punditry but by all accounts he does a good job of it and takes a fair, balanced view of things. He’s certainly not been afraid to criticise Manchester United, albeit not quite as harshly as Scholes specialises in.

As a player, Neville gave the impression that he hated Liverpool and the feeling was pretty mutual. One thing that has defined his career however – as player, pundit, and coach – is professionalism. He’s performed each role to the best of his ability, never lacked for effort, and taken it all very, very seriously.

Klopp’s touchiness on the subject of his goalkeeper is indicative of the pressure that affects even the most experienced and accomplished of managers. His decision to drop Karius for the game against Middlesbrough is the clearest evidence that Neville had a point. When Mignolet is deemed the safe choice, then something has gone awry.

Liverpool got back to winning ways on Teesside after recent stutters and even managed to keep a clean sheet. Klopp can feel his decision vindicated, as can Neville his criticism.

Klopp v Neville was not the only manager – pundit square up this week. Mourinho and Owen also clashed over the latter’s comments about Ibrahimovic. Owen said that the Swede was not a long-term solution for Manchester United and commented that at some point the club would have to either find or buy a young player in the mould of Rooney.

Mourinho, who has yet to prove himself a manager for the long-term at any particular club, responded that “Zlatan will score more goals in one season than Michael Owen in three seasons at Man United.”

It is true that Owen wasn’t exactly prolific at United and in many ways he was a stop-gap solution of the kind that he now perceives Ibrahimovic to be. Of course Mourinho’s retort didn’t challenge Owen’s thesis, a sure sign of an argument in the process of being lost.

Owen went on to suggest that “managers are getting awfully touchy.” I don’t think it’s accurate to say getting, it’s always been the case. These two incidents of managers taking exception to the analysis of pundits do highlight a peculiar touchiness on their part. And let’s not forget that these are two of the best and most successful managers in the world.

I’ve made the observation previously this season that Mourinho has been more sullen than swaggering at Old Trafford since he arrived. Perhaps like President-elect Trump, the scale of the task has come as something of a surprise to him.

Klopp meanwhile, is doing his best to downplay rising expectations at Anfield. Liverpool look just about enough like title contenders to experience the pressure that comes with such a label. A few more weeks without Coutinho should answer some questions about how that pressure is being handled by players who are not especially used to it.

Neville and Owen face scrutiny of their performance but not a great deal of pressure. Their seats are comfy ones. Those of Klopp and Mourinho are considerably hotter. Klopp rarely sits in his; such is the manic energy that he exudes on the touchline.

Neville knows the feeling of being in the manager’s seat, and just how uncomfortable it can be. If he ever returns to management, he probably won’t spend much time criticising pundits for doing the job that’s expected of them.

In this instance, Klopp and Mourinho would be better off sitting down, and being quiet.

15 minutes is a long time

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Jurgen Klopp. Picture by Dave Wood, http://www.flickr.com

I have tonsillitis. I’m not one to complain (much) but it feels rather like man flu squared. Thus I felt pretty miserable when I slumped on to the sofa on Sunday evening (Malaysia time) to watch Bournemouth v Liverpool. 90 minutes later, my misery had deepened.

It all started so well. Liverpool began the match purposefully, pressing high in the style that Klopp has drilled into them and immediately put the home team under pressure.

Liverpool were playing in their ghastly luminous lime 3rd kit, which at least made it easy for them to find each other with passes – unlike that time when Fergie blamed Manchester United’s defeat at Southampton on their grey strip. Luminous lime in HD was not the sort of tonic I was looking for.

Cheer arrived after 20 minutes though when Mane gave Liverpool the lead, aided by some uncharacteristically hesitant goalkeeping from Boruc.

Just two minutes later, Origi doubled the lead. Boruc, perhaps overcompensating for his hesitancy just moments earlier, dashed recklessly from his penalty area and gave the Belgian a simple decision to make in rounding him. The finish, from an acute angle, was far from simple but was accomplished with aplomb.

At this point, I sensed some slight recovery in my condition. There seemed very little prospect of a Bournemouth recovery.

The previous day had seen big wins in different ways for Chelsea, Arsenal and Spurs – all potential title rivals. The first half at Dean Court was a dominant declaration by Liverpool, playing like a team entirely comfortable with the tag ‘title contenders.’

Apparently, there had been 1,061 occasions in the Premier League of a team leading 2-0 at half time. The team ahead at the interval had gone on to lose the match only 22 times. The 23rd such occurrence would’ve got long odds at half time on Sunday.

As I popped a few more painkillers, Jurgen Klopp must have been anticipating a painless conclusion to his day on the south coast.

Bournemouth started the second half brighter – not as bright as Liverpool’s kit, but brighter nevertheless. Then, after 55 minutes, Ryan Fraser came on.

The Scottish winger (were you watching Gordon Strachan?) upended the entire plot of this game, starting with being upended himself and winning a penalty for his side just a few minutes after coming on. Wilson converted. 2-1.

The penalty was conceded by Milner. In my opinion, he has been Liverpool’s best player this season. Yes, Coutinho has been brilliant but Milner has done an incredible job playing out of position and done it with immense professionalism.

The fact remains though; he is not a left back. Klopp clearly doesn’t fully trust Moreno and so he should buy a left back and let Milner fight for a place in the side for which he is more naturally suited, on the right side of either the midfield or front three.

Milner’s mistake was a rare one but it exposed his defensive limitations. Bigger problems lurk elsewhere in Liverpool’s defence however, especially when relying on Lucas as a stopgap centre half.

Just as things were starting to get a bit worrisome, Can curled home a very elegant third to all but put the game to bed. That is certainly the point at which I should have gone to bed for the rest of what I endured was a freakish, nightmarish horror show.

Fraser’s effervescence was causing Liverpool’s creaking rearguard more and more problems and the young Scot got his name on the scoresheet after 76 minutes. Apparently, he didn’t make it onto a single manager’s teamsheet in the official Premier League fantasy football game last weekend but I suspect that will not be the case for the next round of fixtures.

So, with just 15 minutes of the game remaining, Liverpool had led 3-1. Fraser’s goal brought renewed heart to Bournemouth’s cavalier charge but a cannier opposition (dare I say Conte’s Chelsea) would probably still have seen the game out comfortably from there.

Instead, Liverpool panicked. And boy did they panic.

Fraser scampered down the right again, exposing Milner again, and crossed for Cook to equalise. Klopp was starting to look as ill as me. Eddie Howe looked ecstatically bemused, like a drunk man who unexpectedly won some money at the casino on the way home.

But the big payout was still to come.

In the 4th minute of stoppage time, Karius played Santa and gifted all three points to the Cherries. He spilled Cook’s shot before haphazardly trying to regain the ball. His failure in that task handed Ake the early Christmas present of tapping into an empty net for a last gasp winner.

Fortunately my painkillers had kicked in by now but no pharmaceutical firm has yet developed a cure for being a football supporter.

This was one of the worst capitulations I’d ever witnessed.

The job of finding a remedy is Klopp’s and I was impressed by his post-match reaction. He took it on the chin, he didn’t try to make excuses (not even the kit), and he credited Bournemouth where they were rightly due. He also asserted, correctly, that his side had played very well for much of the game.

Most importantly, he resolved that Liverpool would learn from this. I think it will be a busy week for the video analysis team at Anfield.

Coutinho was missed but not in the ways that might have been expected. Liverpool still scored three in his absence and created three or four more good chances. What was missed most was his composure on the ball when the game got frantic, his ability to vary the pace of a game and slow it down when necessary.

Frantic suited Bournemouth’s scramble for an equaliser and then winner. On the touchline, Klopp is a frantic presence and he must be careful how he transmits that energy to his players. In his interview afterwards though, he was sober, serious, and restrained.

“You cannot be champions in December” Klopp correctly pointed out. It is also still too early to say if Liverpool can sustain a title challenge but to do so they will have to recover quickly from setbacks such as this one.

I’m sure many Liverpool fans made the long journey home feeling quite sick. Probably not quite as sick as me though as I made the short journey to bed.