Sam Jose

Jose Mourinho

Jose Mourinho, photo by Aleksandr Osipov, http://www.flickr.com

It’s the year of the manager. Jose, Pep, Antonio, Jurgen and Claudio – reads rather like a Euro boy band – are set to be the real superstars of the Premier League season. Meanwhile, Big Sam has taken on the big job of attempting to restore England’s credibility at the international level.

The TV cameras will be trained on the dugouts more than ever as the aforementioned, plus Arsene, Slaven et al plot, scheme and tinker. The vast sums being paid by the broadcasters for their seat at the table means that the most important decisions the managers make will occur during the transfer windows. Take note Arsene.

Wenger must be getting a better interest rate than most in the UK who leave their money in the bank at the moment as he persists with his almost comical reluctance to invest. The joke is wearing thin for Arsenal fans though as they can see that in standing still, their side is sliding slowly but surely backwards.

If Wenger is waiting on the market cooling off he may have a long wait ahead and he’s likely to feel some considerable heat from his supporters before that happens. The start of the season should be a time of hope and expectation for fans but Arsenal fans know what to expect: top four (maybe, just), last 16 or quarter finals in the Champions League, and at least one decent domestic cup run.

One man who hasn’t hesitated to throw open the owner’s wallet is Mourinho. He’s spent extravagantly but wisely. Of course Pogba is not really worth all that in absolute terms but if Man U win the title, it will prove to be money well spent.

An even smarter decision that Jose’s made is snapping up Ibrahimovic. He’s a Cantona-esque signing: top-quality, a proven winner, and brings with him an unmistakable aura. I make United slight title favourites ahead of their Manchester neighbours based mostly on the Zlatan signing.

I foolishly left him out of my initial fantasy league selection; a mistake that I have now rectified.

City fans meanwhile are enjoying the long-held fantasy of having Pep in charge. As expected, he’s wasting little time in putting his stamp on the side and appears to have little love for Joe Hart. The squad still needs more of an overhaul and I’d be surprised if his summer spending has reached its conclusion.

Guardiola will probably want to avoid getting caught up in a sideshow with Mourinho but the Portuguese will relish it, stoke it, and embrace it. The first Manchester derby of the season should be worth a watch.  I’d be quite happy to watch a camera that only showed the two managers throughout – like that strange film they made a few years ago that focused solely on Zidane (‘A 21st Century Portrait’) for 90 minutes.

Conte must seek to make something of an omelette from the broken eggs that Jose left behind at Stamford Bridge and Chelsea fans will have been encouraged by what he was able to eke out of a modest Italian squad at Euro 2016.

It might not be pretty but it’s sure to be intense under the Italian. Chelsea will be very hard to beat, their work rate will be off the charts, and they will be tactically flexible. I don’t think they’ll be champions but I expect them to be the highest placed London club this season.

Two games in and I have almost no idea what to expect from my club, Liverpool. Triumph at Arsenal followed by disaster at Burnley suggests that one of those performances was an imposter but it’s hard to tell yet which one.

Klopp has declared the squad at Anfield his own and he knows that vast improvements on last season are required. In any of the last few seasons, Liverpool’s current squad under Klopp would be near-certainties for the top four but this is likely to be the most competitive season in a long time.

Klopp is as competitive as they come and he doesn’t lack ambition. His squad still lacks something though and a further addition or two could make a big difference for Liverpool.

Ranieri must be hugely relieved that his squad doesn’t now lack most of its best players. It’s a tremendous tribute to what Leicester achieved last season, and the way in which they did it, that almost everyone has opted to show loyalty and stay.

They surely cannot repeat the heroics of that fairy tale run but they will enjoy the experience of being champions and are unlikely to relinquish the crown meekly. Ranieri, once seen as something of a jester, has been enthroned as the Premier League’s managerial king. The loyal subjects at the King Power Stadium may never witness anything so remarkable again.

It is to be hoped that none of us ever have to witness Gary Lineker presenting in his pants again although whoever sold the garment in question may warrant investigation under the Trade Descriptions Act.

Whatever embarrassment Lineker may have felt was probably not as great as that of the England players who contrived to lose to Iceland in the Euros. That defeat – possibly the worst in the country’s history – brought to a close the rather farcical reign of Roy Hodgson.

Big Sam thus has small boots to fill.

England’s young and energetic side actually travelled to France having displayed some promise in the build-up to the tournament. Not unusually of late, it was a promise they failed to keep. Is Big Sam the man for the rebuilding job?

Why not? He has lots of experience, he excels at man management, and he’s more tactically astute than he’s often given credit for.

There are no quick fixes for England in terms of the fundamentals: players who are not as talented as they think they are, a squad that is tactically naïve, and a lack of opportunities for young players at many top clubs.

That said, he will select players who are in form (I don’t envisage many Allardyce ‘favourites’), instil a simple but consistent style of play that his squad is comfortable with, and attempt to create more of a club atmosphere for the national team.

None of these changes will turn England into Spain or France overnight (or even Portugal or Croatia) but they should suffice to avoid banana skins such as the Iceland debacle. For England then, as well as in the English Premier League, it’s the manager who looks set to take centre stage.

So put your clothes back on Gary, be careful of the bets that you make, and let’s see who turns out to be this season’s special one.

Is rugby better than football?

Dan Carter

Dan Carter: photo by Quintin Smith http://www.flickr.com

Last week I found myself in some sort of broad agreement with David Beckham. A rather discombobulating experience it was too but nevertheless I must admit to the truth of it.

In fact it’s been an altogether discombobulating sort of a week for me regarding former Manchester United players as I’ve caught myself developing a certain respect for Gary Neville and wishing him somewhat well in his endeavours at Valencia.

This is of course a strange sensation because the first rule of being a Liverpool fan is that you hate Gary Neville. I presume myself to still be a Liverpool fan, in fact a reinvigorated one under Mr. Klopp, but it is a peculiar world I appear to have entered. Anyway, back to my bemusement with Beckham …

The issue on which we agree (at least partially) is rugby. It was reported recently that Beckham expressed a preference for going to rugby games over football matches as there is “no nastiness” between fans at the former.

Beckham’s comments came only a month or so after I’d heard something very similar from my brother. It was the day that we took my son to his first ever football match (the subject of my previous post) and it was certainly one to put you off football for life; a rather unfortunate start then for Toma. My brother described it as the worst game he’d ever seen and he’s a man who has seen a lot of football.

After the match finished we hurried back to my Dad’s place in order to watch Scotland v Australia in the quarter final of the Rugby World Cup.  Arriving just in time to open a beer as the national anthems were being sung, my brother said: “Here we go. I think I actually prefer rugby to football these days.”

I confidently predicted that there would be little to enjoy as a Scotland fan over the course of the next 80 minutes. He, being somehow devoid of the pessimism that afflicts most Scottish supporters (of any sport), predicted that we would win.

He was very nearly right. It was a riveting game of rugby that was a million times more entertaining than the dire encounter we’d witnessed at Tannadice earlier in the day. Scotland suffered a familiar – and particularly acute even by our standards – brave defeat courtesy of a dubious late penalty.

The referee, seemingly having realised that he had erred, sprinted to the dressing room immediately upon blowing the final whistle, leaving behind a rather relieved looking Australian side and a thoroughly disconsolate Scottish one.

It was interesting that the ref had felt the need to flee. Had such a situation arisen on a football pitch then his actions would have made perfect sense. On a rugby pitch, less so.

The reason for that is partly why I find myself asking the question, is rugby better than football? On the issue of respect for referees, it undoubtedly is. Would the Scottish players have confronted the referee at the end of the game if he hadn’t exited quicker than Usain Bolt in search of Chicken McNuggets? Possibly, but not aggressively, and they would still have shaken his hand.

At a football match, the ref could expect to find himself surrounded, jostled, sworn at, and generally treated with the sort of respect that Jeremy Kyle specialises in with the guests on his show.

Watch a football match this weekend and see how long it takes for the referee to be abused. And by abused I mean a level of intimidation that would probably warrant an arrest if it occurred on the street. My guess is it will happen before half time. You’re very unlikely to see such behaviour if you’re watching a rugby match.

The same is true off the field as Beckham correctly pointed out. Rugby’s lack of nastiness between rival sets of fans means that they don’t have to be segregated. Alcohol can be sold at the stadiums with little concern that it will fuel violence.

And don’t mistake a lack of nastiness for a lack of atmosphere. Rugby crowds are every bit as partisan and noisy as football ones, they just don’t feel the urge to throw coins at each other for example. They attend matches with some sort of strange notion of enjoying the game rather than revelling in a confected hatred of the opposition support.

Beckham is surely right that a rugby match is generally a better environment to take kids into than a football match. That’s not to say I haven’t seen a few idiots in attendance at rugby games, but they are certainly fewer and further between than those I’ve encountered at the football.

It’s always a remarkable sight to see grown men, beer bellies straining against their replica ‘performance’ tops, shouting obscenities at one of their own players to suggest that said player may have been a little over-enthusiastic in the pie shop and consequently a touch short of pace. There’s usually a profusion of pie being ejected from their own mouths as this tirade proceeds in between bites.

Respect in rugby also applies between players on the field. This is most evident in the lack of the biggest scourge of modern football – diving. Rugby players simply don’t do it, they don’t feign injury, they don’t go in for that sort of gamesmanship. They are, in short (though often very tall), real men.

They would be thoroughly embarrassed to roll around like Robben, swoon like Suarez, or fall like Fabregas. Rugby players apparently retain a sense of shame. It’s something that’s almost entirely absent in football these days. Watch a football match this weekend and you will almost certainly witness at least one blatant dive.

Given all of this, you’d be forgiven for wondering why I bother with football at all. Rugby is a great game and I’m a big fan for the reasons described above and many more. It’s probably 50/50 as to whether the next sporting event I take Toma to is rugby or football.

But I still prefer football. It remains my first and true sporting love. I once took part in a debate at school. The proposition was ‘football requires more skill than rugby.’ I, as captain of the school football team, was arguing in favour of the motion. The captain of the rugby team (a somewhat sturdier schoolboy than I) was my opponent.

I think I won although that may have been largely the result of football being more popular at my school than rugby rather than any particular oratorical brilliance on my part. I remember arguing that it was much easier and more natural for us to use our hands than our feet. We use our hands for writing and for eating (mind you, anyone who’s been in the general vicinity of my attempts to use chopsticks will realise that manipulating things with our hands can still go badly wrong).

I should confess at this point that I’ve never played much rugby, a matter of some regret in all honesty, but it’s always been a healthy sense of self-preservation that has prevented me. I therefore don’t have a full appreciation of the skill that the game involves.

The scrum for instance remains entirely mysterious to me: I’m not sure who thought the best way to restart a game following certain infringements was to require the insertion of heads between rows of buttocks and then have the respective front rows grasp each other as though about to commence a sumo contest before invariably collapsing on top of each other and having to do it all over again.

Football is a simpler game and that is the primary reason for its universal appeal. Anywhere I’ve travelled in the world I’ve seen kids kicking (not throwing) a ball around. In dark alleys in Mumbai, on beaches in Bali, at the edge of the Malaysian jungle, I’ve seen makeshift goalposts and games in progress. It is the global game and anyone can play.

Ultimately, today, I think of rugby v football as a tale of two number 10s. I enjoyed the Rugby World Cup and marvelled at some of the play, especially by the All Blacks. Dan Carter, the New Zealand 10, was the star of the tournament and cemented his position as one of the greatest players (some have argued the case that he’s the greatest) of all time.

Football has its own number 10 who is indisputably the greatest of the current era and quite probably the greatest of all time: Lionel Messi. To watch Carter and Messi is to watch two incredible sportsmen extending the boundaries of their sport. They are both marvels, professionals, and remarkably humble given their talent.

Carter is stronger, faster. Both are immensely quick witted and stunningly intelligent in the way that they play. Both can leave you shaking your head in wonder. But Messi produces that reaction more often and the disbelief is of a different magnitude.

Despite not having played much rugby I could just about conceive of doing what Carter does if I had hours and hours and hours of practice. I have spent hours playing football yet still Messi’s ability remains something that seems to belong to a different realm altogether.

One of Carter’s tackles would probably break my jaw; Messi makes my jaw drop, almost every time he takes to the pitch.

Rugby is a glorious, riotous, and heroic game. But you can’t watch Messi and tell me that football isn’t better.

Leo Messi

Leo Messi: photo by Marc Puig i Perez http://www.flickr.com

My son’s first football match

Tannadice 1It’s a special day for a father, taking your son to his first game. For me that day came last month. Dundee United (my team) were playing Hearts at Tannadice Park.

It was also the first game in charge for former player, and club legend, Mixu Patelainen. He’d been installed as manager about a week before following a rather calamitous start to the season that saw us admiring the rest of the league from the very bottom of it. The only way is up then Toma my son. Unless we get relegated of course (as I write this more than a month later we remain bottom of the league).

We set off in hope though as all supporters must; me, Toma, my Dad and my brother. Toma’s initial confusion concerned the fact that Messi wouldn’t be playing. The Argentinean superstar is the only footballer he knows and thus he was mystified as to why we would go to see a game that wouldn’t feature him. Cost cutting measures in recent seasons at Tannadice have put Messi a little beyond our budget.

Before going into the ground we collected our tickets at the club shop. Here I’d hoped to buy a souvenir of the day but Toma was distinctly unimpressed with the offerings on display.

On then to the stadium and that childlike thrill that’s never lost of entering the stand and setting eyes on the pitch. Toma was quite excited at this point although it’s debatable whether that was from the sense of occasion or the gigantic bag of Skittles he was now clutching.

The game kicked off and it was quickly apparent that our league position was not a false one. Three successive passes was the most we managed in the opening ten minutes. In the sixteenth minute we conceded a penalty – largely the result of playing a centre half at full back. Hearts scored, 1-0. Toma glanced anxiously at the dejected faces of his Dad, Granda, and Uncle. Welcome aboard son.

Shortly afterwards my Dad got a brief touch on the ball as it was blasted into the stand; probably the closest I’ve come to being hit by the ball in almost thirty years of going to watch football. That may in fact have been the most exciting moment of the first half for us.

After about half an hour Toma asked: “why is everyone so angry?” My Dad took this one. “They’re not angry Champ, just very excited.” I would describe some of those around us as apoplectic with excitement.

They had reason to be. It was a dismal performance and a dire game.

For some strange reason it was being played with a yellow ball despite the fact that it was a dry, bright and pleasant autumn day in Dundee. I’m something of a traditionalist and for me, football should be played at 3,o,clock on a Saturday afternoon, with a white ball, by players wearing black boots. As it was a Sunday lunchtime game, none of these criteria were being met.

The crowd was growing increasingly agitated. The wisdom of crowds is a much debated phenomenon but I’ve never seen much evidence of it at football grounds. I’m consistently amazed that people can watch so much football and seemingly have so little appreciation of its subtleties.

“This is torture” someone bellowed in anguish from behind us. He was neither lying nor kidding.

At half time Toma had another question: “is it finished now?” Sadly not, another 45 minutes to go. There’s only so much consolation you can expect from a half time pie or burger.

Still we were only a goal down and it’s a game of two halves and all that. Unfortunately the second half bore an uncanny resemblance to the first.

At around 70 minutes, something I’d feared – Toma turned to me and said “Daddy, I heard somebody say a bad word.” A collective intake of breath. “They said idiot.” And exhale. “Yes son, that was very naughty of them.” He had been offered the opportunity of a rather extensive expansion of his vocabulary but fortunately seems not to have understood much Dundonian.

We were simply awful and so, it has to be said, was the referee. A failure to take 10 steps in counting out the distance of the wall for a free kick was one of many howlers that contributed to his plummeting popularity in our stand.

I had run my first marathon exactly a week before and the longer the match went on the more fondly I recalled that experience. My Dad recalled that it had been twenty years since he was last at a football game. It may well be that long until he returns. My brother, always the most optimistic of supporters, described it as the worst game he’d ever seen.

Quite an introduction then young Toma. How was it? I asked as the final whistle blew. “Bad Daddy, it was bad.”

As we made our way out of the ground I heard a woman say: “minging that.” For those of you less familiar with the Scottish version of the English language, minging means ‘foul-smelling’ or, more broadly, ‘very bad or unpleasant.’

Another word that Toma didn’t understand but he’d understood that the game was exactly that. Back in the car I promised him that one day I’d take him to see Messi.

Tannadice 2

Pre-season: the newbies, the nerves, and the nausea

Pre=season training. Photo by: Picture Esk www.flickr.com

Pre-season training. Photo by: Picture Esk
http://www.flickr.com

It’s that time of year, the sun is out (even occasionally in Scotland), the grass is freshly cut, and all across the land players are reporting back for pre-season training. They’ve had their summer holidays involving yachts, five star resorts, maybe turned up for an afternoon at Wimbledon, and now it’s back to work.

I wonder if the first day back at work after the summer holidays is the same for footballers as the rest of us: sharing awkward holiday pictures, delivering tacky souvenirs, and comparing tans. At least they probably don’t have around 2,000 emails to deal with unless they have a very active agent.

Of course almost straight away they then jet off to long haul destinations (increasingly turning up in this part of the world to meet and greet the global fan base). It’s surprising that travel supplements haven’t appeared yet on ‘this season’s top pre-season destinations: the ideal mix of climate, cuisine and local fans willing to pay inflated ticket prices while you go through the motions in a meaningless game.’

Indeed, the first match I saw here in Malaysia was a Malaysia Select XI v Barcelona. It wasn’t much of a game and Barca ended up winning 3-1. To their credit, Barca fielded a mostly full strength team but with one exception, yes, Messi was left kicking his heels and nursing a tight hamstring on the touchline. A week later, the Catalans kicked-off their La Liga campaign with a 7-0 victory over Levante in which Messi scored twice so the injury clearly wasn’t too debilitating.

I felt great sympathy for those in the crowd in Kuala Lumpur who chanted their hero’s name throughout the second half in the hope that the manager might be persuaded to send him on even for a brief cameo. Alas it was not to be and a lot of kids, plus a few big kids, with ‘Messi 10’ on the back of their strips went home at least a little disappointed.

It seemed a bit off to me to plaster Messi’s face all over town in the month before the game as part of the marketing effort and then not play him because he had a very slight injury. These games represent one of the enduring dilemmas of the modern game – sporting interests versus commercial interests. I doubt many managers of the big clubs would consider playing in the tropical heat of KL against vastly inferior opposition to be the ideal preparation for their forthcoming league campaigns.

Tomorrow night it’s Liverpool’s turn to experience the tropical conditions. They too will face a Malaysia Select XI (meaning that foreign players playing in Malaysia can be selected) rather than the Malaysian national team. In terms of the competitiveness of the contest, that’s probably a good thing since the national side’s last match was a 6-0 home defeat to Palestine.

I was at that game but I’m not going tomorrow night despite being a Liverpool fan. To be honest, I’ve lost virtually all interest in friendly matches. I can understand local fans wanting to see the teams they support live (and people here are huge supporters of the English Premier League as is the case throughout the region) but when you’ve seen Liverpool play at Anfield in a Premier League game, a game such as this holds a lot less appeal.

One interesting thing about this time of year of course is the transfer merry-go-round. It’s been spinning pretty furiously at Anfield but it remains to be seen to what effect. I think Milner is an absolutely terrific free transfer signing and I’m confident that Benteke will prove a decent if perhaps slightly overpriced buy. Firmino looks exciting but Rodgers’ record in the transfer market has been far from convincing so far and thus I will reserve judgment for a couple of months.

There’s a lot of pressure on new signings, especially the big money ones. If the recently arrived star striker doesn’t score in a friendly away at Yeovil or somewhere then you can be sure that he will have experienced his first crisis at his new club.

Most clubs appear to still insist on some sort of initiation ceremony for newcomers and this often seems to take the form of karaoke. I imagine Raheem Sterling may have done Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ when he arrived at Manchester City. It’s a rich man’s world indeed Raheem but it can’t buy class.

As the Sterling saga demonstrated, patience is a rare commodity in football these days and the stakes are often very high, very quickly. Already a lot of clubs are battling for qualification in the Champions League and Europa League. My Croatian team, Rijeka (who have qualified consistently for the group stages of the Europa League in recent seasons), lost 3-0 at home last week to Aberdeen. At least they had the decency to lose to a Scottish team.

I had expected Aberdeen to struggle in that fixture, not least because the Croatian league season has already started while in Scotland the opening fixtures are still over a week away. I’ve recently become a convert to the idea of summer football in Scotland and one of the reasons is to improve the prospects for Scottish sides in European qualifying games.

My own memories of pre-seasons in Scotland are mostly of the harrowing variety. I remember the long runs along Carnoustie beach which lasted until at least half the squad had vomited or looked on the brink of doing so. Afterwards we would get an equally harrowing massage from the physio – it was agony but it did seem to help. Our physio wore a permanent neck brace and walked with the aid of a stick, an unlikely candidate to be a physiotherapist but he was a good one.

For all the nerves and nausea (whether as player or supporter) the build up to the first day of the season is always exciting, you’re still filled with hope irrespective of the pre-season it’s been. Football fans tend toward the optimistic at this time of year unless your team has sold all its best players (as my club have, and all of them to Celtic).

Still, a big win on the opening day and you could be top of the league. Not long to go now, I’m almost nauseous with excitement.

Don’t be that Dad

A Mighty Kickers coaching session in Kuala Lumpur

A Mighty Kickers coaching session in Kuala Lumpur

You know the one. Probably wearing a tracksuit, often with his initials on it. Quite likely that he’s got his football boots on. He used to be a contender. He could’ve made it were it not for that knee injury (it’s almost always a knee injury), some run of bad luck, or the lack of appreciation for talent on the part of those scouts who came to watch him in his youth.

His dream of becoming a footballer died a long time ago but he has a son now so the dream is reborn. The son will live it, fulfil it, and in so doing, will fulfil them both.

The father prowls the touchline, offering the benefit of his ‘wisdom’ to junior whether junior wants it or not and never seems quite satisfied with what he sees. Every game is a must win; glory and honour are always on the line. Junior misses a chance and father turns away in disgust, muttering under his breath. You know, that Dad.

Dreams, you see, they die harder second time round.

Let me be honest, that was my dream too. I wanted to be a footballer from as early as I can remember. It’s not an unusual dream for a Scottish youngster. How close did I come? Well, I suppose I was somewhere near the contender category. I trained with a few professional clubs in my teens. I was good, not exceptional, but I was good. So are a lot of others.

If you want to be a doctor or a lawyer or a fireman when you’re growing up then you’ll certainly encounter some competition but nothing like that of the boy who wants to be a footballer. The odds of making it are somewhere in the region of those being offered for Bournemouth winning the Premier League next season. Banking on your son becoming a professional footballer is not a sensible pension plan.

When I was 21, I went to America and spent a summer coaching ‘soccer’ at an American summer camp (one of those strange American traditions whereby parents pack their kids off for eight weeks and visit them once for a few hours after about four of the eight weeks). The kids were great; very keen and some of them were quite talented. Every week or so there were tournaments held against other camps in the area (I was based in upstate New York) and the ‘coaching’ that I witnessed at these tournaments appalled me. It was, sadly, mainly from British coaches.

These guys were of a similar age to me (all of us failed footballers or else we wouldn’t have been there) and most of them cared only about one thing: winning. It was a pathetic and pitiful sight. They would scream at their players, some of them as young as seven or eight years old, offering nothing of insight and always just selected their biggest players to improve their chances of victory. Sometimes they won but none of their players became much better at football as a result.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a fiercely competitive guy and I hate to lose. I also loathe the trends in school sports of everyone gets a medal and not keeping score. You can’t fool kids, they know who is winning and losing, they know who is good and who is not. The point is that when you’re coaching kids, teaching them to become better footballers, you have to focus on improving their skills and their understanding of the game even if that comes at the expense of the result.

Many of my fellow coaches in America took a different view. It was all about them. They celebrated victory like they’d just won the Champions League. Their very manliness seemed to depend on taking home the trophy – the upstate New York Summer Camp Cup or whatever on earth it was we were contesting. I can only imagine that it wasn’t just the meagre size of their trophy collections that these guys were trying to compensate for.

Like me, many of these men probably now have children and I hope at least some of them have changed their ways.

When I returned to Scotland following my US experience I decided to take my coaching qualifications. There’s no doubt that the quality of football that Scotland produces today is not what it once was and yet, curiously, the reputation of coaching in the country remains excellent. Even Mourinho spent some time learning his trade at Largs.

I was certainly impressed by the standard of the courses and got a lot out of them; everything from how to plan a session to very small details such as always make sure you address the players with the sun in your eyes rather than theirs so that they can concentrate more easily. Regular followers of Scottish football may be surprised to learn that the emphasis is indeed on skill development. There was no session on ‘lumping it up the park.’

This raises an interesting question. Kids today, especially those connected with bigger clubs, are getting more organised coaching by (generally) better qualified coaches than previous generations so why is their skill level apparently worse? I think there are at least two potential aspects to this.

One is the much commented upon decline of what we might call ‘street football’ by which I mean kids just getting together and playing games among themselves without adult supervision or interference. Without, in other words, any formal coaching.

Modern life has essentially displaced street football in many areas so despite more time spent in formal coaching sessions it’s possible that many kids actually spend less time in contact with the ball than they used to. Learning via street football is a process of trial and error with more emphasis on what you can do with the ball (showing off frankly) rather than learning the discipline of playing in a particular system for example.

The second aspect is that I’m not sure that skill levels have dropped quite as sharply as we tend to assume (I’m talking primarily in a Scottish and to a lesser extent English context here). Go and watch a top level club in Scotland train and you’ll see plenty of skill on display. Go to a match at the weekend and you’ll often be forgiven for wondering where all that skill went.

One place it went in my view is through the trap door marked fear. The stakes have been raised in the modern game and the golden rule for a footballer is ‘don’t make a mistake.’ Mistakes sometimes lead to defeats, to the wrath of the manager, teammates, and supporters, to the prospect of losing your place in the team, ultimately to the prospect of being moved on and probably down the divisions.

Much of what we marvel at in football involves risk, primarily the risk of making a mistake, giving the ball away, looking foolish. We heap scorn on those who make mistakes. Why are we surprised then that we create a risk averse culture in which getting rid of the ball quickly (and almost anywhere) is deemed preferable to taking a touch and trying to create something?

Perhaps those risks are just something that pros have to live with. It’s their living after all and they need to make decisions to protect a career that is often both fragile and fickle. It’s a different story with children though. Let them express themselves. There’s no sadder sight in the game than watching a child kick the ball away in fear. If you are the cause of that fear, hang your head in shame.

With my newly acquired coaching qualifications, I volunteered to help coach at a primary school in Edinburgh. It was a very rewarding experience and I was pleased to discover that the vast majority of the parents supported my philosophy of trying to develop the skills of the boys without focusing too much on results. Although of course, guess what? As their skills develop, eventually, results improve quite a lot as a consequence.

There is a growing recognition in the game of the need to control the touchline antics of some parents. It’s very frustrating as a coach to have ten or more other wannabe coaches imparting their own, usually contradictory, tips during a game. In some places, silent touchline schemes have been put in place and I think that’s mostly a good idea.

I was lucky to have two very supportive parents and the points made here apply equally to Mums as well as Dads. My own mother in fact was always a more animated figure on the touchline than my father. “Tackle” was her constant refrain. She had a simple method of judging my performances: I had played well in inverse proportion to the cleanliness of my kit. Cleanliness may be next to Godliness but it apparently wasn’t next to a career in football.

Since we know that most kids won’t become footballers let us at least make the game fun for them. Let us help them develop a sense of love and wonder about it. I firmly believe that football (and indeed sport in general) has much to teach: sacrifice, dedication, teamwork, appreciation of beauty (watch Messi dribble and tell me that isn’t the case), courage, respect, fairness and many other admirable qualities.

I have a son who is almost five. He is an utterly wonderful little boy. He goes to football coaching classes here in Malaysia (check out www.littlekickers.com.my for anyone who’s interested) and he really enjoys it. Alas, the early indications are that he is far from the most naturally talented little footballer in the world.

Would I like him to be? Of course I would. I would burst with pride to see him become a professional footballer. I’ve dreamed that dream. But the chances are he won’t. He’ll probably never play for Barcelona or Real Madrid. He probably won’t play for Dundee United either. But I hope he keeps playing the game, loving it and learning something from it. He’ll never feel any pressure from me to achieve the dream that eluded me.

And the funny thing is you can never tell. Judging young talent at almost anything is very difficult and football is no exception. I remember well the most talented player in my age group in the whole of Scotland when I was fifteen, sixteen. If ever a kid was going to make it, he was the one. Outrageously talented and dedicated to his craft, he was the star of the Scotland U/16 team at the time.

He did make it; sort of. He became a professional footballer. In fact he became a pro at my beloved Dundee United. He burst on to the scene as the bright young thing, but then? A long slow decline. In total he made only around 50 appearances in the top flight in Scotland before gradually drifting down through the lower leagues and he was the most talented player I ever played with or against.

On Saturday I’ll take my little boy back to his football class. I’ll watch with interest but I’ll keep my mouth shut save for some words of encouragement when he comes off for a water break. If he’s having fun I’ll be quite happy enough.

He’s not even five years old yet. Who knows what he wants to be when he grows up? He’s expressed an interest in being a lion dancer (google it if you’re unsure) among many other things. He has his own dreams to dream. I’ve made peace with mine. I’m not going to be that Dad.

Make mine a treble: watching the Champions League final in a bar in Hong Kong

Champions League final

I was in Hong Kong last weekend for a romantic break with my wife. Remarkably, she did not consider going out at 2.30am to watch the Champions League final a romantic activity befitting of such a weekend. I was thus alone when I took my seat at the ‘Forever Lounge’ bar for the game.

I’m not exaggerating when I say ‘my seat.’ I had enquired at around 10pm if they were going to be showing the game and they said yes but there were only a few seats left and I would have to pay a deposit to reserve one. I handed over 100 Hong Kong dollars while my wife looked at me in bemusement. “It’s the Champions League final darling,” is all I could offer by way of explanation.

When the match kicked off, I gauged the bar to be reasonably evenly split in terms of support for the two teams. There were few replica tops on display (I only counted one Juve top and two Barcelona ones) and the opening goal for Barcelona seemed to excite roughly half of the patrons. It came as quite a surprise when the Juventus equaliser sparked celebrations that were wilder and more widespread.

But back to the opening goal. It was well crafted from Barcelona’s point of view but it was a disaster for Juve. Rakitic was given so much space just outside the six yard box and must have been amazed to be given such a simple opportunity to score after just three minutes. I had written previously that the Italians are ‘masters of denying space.’ Ah, the dangers of predictive punditry. Undeterred, I took to Facebook with a short update – ‘Prediction: game over.’ And I was right, sort of.

Barcelona should have had the game wrapped up by half time. The Rakitic goal was a prelude to a series of further clear cut chances. It was mostly the brilliance of Buffon in the Juve goal that ensured the game wasn’t over by the time the referee blew for the interval. I remained confident in my prediction but had just the tiniest amount of doubt.

At half time I had a chance to reflect on a few things that had struck me so far. The biggest surprise about the game was how open it was. Most of the credit for that goes to Juventus who had chosen to try and attack rather than sit in and seek to nullify Barcelona. I had expected more defensive tactics from the Italians and had anticipated (wrongly as it turned out) that they would start with only one man up front.

It was no surprise that Barca were dominant in terms of possession but their speed on the break was remarkable. Messi, Suarez, and Neymar are not actually the quickest front three but they move the ball incredibly fast and have developed an excellent understanding over the course of their first season playing together.

Another intriguing factor about the first half was that Juve’s 4-4-2 formation with a narrow midfield gave them a man advantage in the middle of the park but they were entirely unable to dominate the Barcelona midfield three. The hype that surrounds Pogba is not unjustified but he is not yet able to control a game at this level by himself.

A few other thoughts occurred to me at half time. Firstly, when did Messi acquire his tattoo sleeve? It was the first time that I’d spotted it and it seemed incongruous with his boyish image. On a related note, where do these players get their hair cut? The match was a parade of ridiculous hairstyles – Pogba, Neymar, and Alves chief among them. And why was Barca’s assistant manager dressed in denim? It’s the Champions League final, even the pundits put on their Sunday (or Saturday night) best for this game.

As I was pondering all of this a curious thing happened. Sat across from me was a group of three guys sharing a bucket of beer. They finished one bucket and the waitress promptly delivered another one. Upon its arrival, one of the guys took a bottle of beer out and proceeded to spend the next minute attempting to open it with his teeth. He eventually succeeded and spat out the bottle top triumphantly.

This display of machismo was rather undone however when he then took the bottle and shared it among the three small glasses that were on the table. It seemed like a lot of effort for a third of a bottle of beer.

The second half began with Barcelona looking to prove me right in my prediction. Neymar missed an excellent chance from a Messi cross and that was the first of three chances for his side in the opening ten minutes of the second period. Once again, the game could and should have been all over.

But then, all of a sudden, my prediction appeared in some jeopardy as Juventus found an equaliser. A low ball into the box was struck towards goal by a swivelling Tevez, the goalkeeper could only parry the ball out and Morata pounced to sweep the ball home. Having a second striker on hand to follow up and score from a rebound illustrated the benefit of playing with two up front (something for coaches to reflect on in an era that’s seen an increasing use of just a solitary striker).

This was clearly now the key moment in the game. Could Juve build some momentum behind their equaliser? Would Barcelona’s confidence start to ebb? Was I going to end up with egg on my face for predicting the winner a mere three minutes into the game?

It didn’t take long to realise that my face would remain egg free. Barcelona regained their rhythm almost immediately and while Juventus continued to pose a sporadic threat it was the Catalans who remained thoroughly in control. Juve did continue to try and press and take the initiative but in doing so they left themselves exposed on the break and it was thus that Suarez restored his side’s lead. Messi was the creator, running directly at and past several defenders before driving a shot that Buffon could only push into the path of a grateful Suarez.

I was relieved and very shortly thereafter my prediction seemed entirely safe when Neymar nodded home a cross. His celebrations were cut short though with the referee correctly ruling that Neymar had used not only head but also hand in the act of scoring. The ‘goal’ was disallowed. In truth Neymar had made a terrible mess of an easy chance.

The game still had a good flow to it and Juventus edged forward in search of a second goal of their own. Time and again however they left themselves short at the back and Barca were able to break with four or five players facing three Juve defenders. The Italians survived these breaks until the very end when Neymar did get his name on the score sheet from yet another incisive Catalan counter attack.

With that the European Cup was headed back to Barcelona and I was headed back to the hotel to get to bed at 5am.

Last season Barcelona didn’t win any trophies and many wondered if it was the end of an era at the Nou Camp or at least the beginning of the end. This season they have a treble to their name – La Liga, Spanish Cup and Champions League. They are without doubt the best club side of this century and the scary thought for rivals is that they may not even have fulfilled their full potential yet. Messi has been revitalised since the turn of the year and at his best he is close to unstoppable.

I’ll make an early prediction for next season’s Champions League: if anyone knocks out Barcelona they will win the tournament.

One final observation on my trip to Hong Kong, it was made in the gents. Over recent years there has been a worldwide move to improve men’s accuracy in the urinal. This has generally involved drawing a target on the point of the urinal that the authorities would prefer that we hit (sometimes it’s a fly, sometimes a frog, or sometimes just an X marks the spot).

In Hong Kong, several establishments have installed small goalposts in the urinal with a ball suspended on string from the crossbar. I think goal line technology would be required to determine whether or not my shot did in fact cross the line.

Still on course for a ‘Classico’ Champions League final

Barcelona v Bayern Munich Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez www.flickr.com

Barcelona v Bayern Munich
Photo by: Marc Puig i Perez
http://www.flickr.com

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, in my humble opinion, Messi is the greatest footballer of all time. Yes, better even than Maradona, certainly better than Pele, and better than Ronaldo in the current era.

Lots of people have been getting rather excited about Messi’s performance in Barcelona’s 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the first leg of the Champions League semi final. Messi was sensational but then he’s almost always sensational. The truly exceptional thing about what he did to Bayern is that by Messi’s standards it wasn’t particularly exceptional.

The late swing to Barcelona in the match produced a margin of victory which was as unexpected as that achieved by the Conservatives in the UK general election. Apparently Luis Enrique’s future at the Nou Camp is uncertain despite his side being on course for a treble this season. Perhaps if the role becomes vacant, Ed Miliband can apply and test out his ideas of ‘pre-distribution’ in La Liga.

Distributive justice is a big issue in Spain right now with the Spanish football federation announcing this week that the league will be suspended from the 16th May owing to a dispute with the government, primarily over TV rights. Let’s hope that it’s resolved and we’re not denied the chance to watch some more of Messi.

Ahead of the game, Pep Guardiola suggested that “there is no defence that can stop Messi” and his defence literally fell over themselves in proving their coach right. Guardiola is not the sort of coach that would build his tactical plan around stopping Messi; Bayern attacked throughout and sought to put Barca on the back foot. Eventually however, Messi had the opportunity to put defenders on the back foot and once he’s done that the defensive task is a near impossible one.

Recovering the tie now looks like a near impossible task for Bayern. I can see them winning in Munich, I wouldn’t even be that surprised to see them score three goals, but I would be very surprised if they manage to keep a clean sheet.

Bayern have already won the Bundesliga and are on course for their third consecutive domestic double. They currently sit 14 points ahead of second placed Wolfsburg in the league. They are in danger of becoming so dominant domestically that the step-up in competition at this stage of the Champions League will come as an increasingly significant shock to the system.

I’m a great admirer of German football and it has long been held up as an exemplar of equality but Bayern are one of the global super clubs and they are leaving domestic rivals (most notably Borussia Dortmund this season) far behind. Consider that in Scotland, Celtic have clinched the title and are currently 11 points ahead of second-placed Aberdeen. The gap at the top of the Bundesliga is larger than the one in the SPFL without Rangers.

My prediction for the second leg is that Bayern will win but not by enough to go through. I’ll go for 2-1. Messi will probably score for Barcelona.

In the other semi final Juventus achieved an impressive 2-1 victory over Real Madrid. Italian football remains in a relatively poor state but getting a side to a Champions League final for the first time since Inter in 2009/10 would be a sure step in the right direction. With Napoli and Fiorentina contesting Europa League semi finals this week, we may be witnessing a gradual renaissance for Italian football. Juve’s performance had plenty of impressive aspects to it: they were comfortable in possession, quick and dangerous on the break, and full of confidence in their game plan.

There are still many people (especially in the UK) who retain a view that Italian football is boring, largely because they consider it unduly focused on the defensive arts. It’s a bit like those who were full of scorn for Mayweather’s ‘defensive’ victory over Pacquiao (I was supporting the Pac Man too) while not appreciating that it was Floyd who both threw and landed more punches.

Real certainly lost the fight on points but they are far from knocked out. Much has been made of Gareth Bale’s lacklustre performance and the Welshman is in danger of becoming something of a scapegoat in the Spanish capital. He’s just returned from injury and while he had a poor game it was part of a poor overall team performance.

Ancelotti retains great faith in Bale and he’s right to do so. A drop in form and confidence can happen to any player (even, occasionally, to Messi – remember the latter rounds of the World Cup last summer?) and Bale is both experienced and mature enough to handle it. He has become more technically accomplished in Madrid, adding greater finesse to his immense pace and power. He is a player you would still rather have on your team than lining up against you.

With an away goal and only a single goal deficit to overturn, Bale and his teammates will approach the second leg with enough belief that they can reach a ‘Classico’ final against Barcelona. There’s nobody better at defending a lead than the Italians but the Bernabeu is no easy place to do it.

I’m a little torn on this one; I’d love to see a Classico final but my love for Italian football, even though I’m a Roma rather than a Juventus fan, means I would be far from disappointed if the Old Lady remains standing after the second leg. I suspect she’s headed for a fall though and I predict that Real will win the return 2-0.

The Champions League final will be played in Berlin on the 6th of June. Whichever teams make it, I think we can look forward to a classic. Especially if Messi is playing.