Have I been too harsh on Klopp?

anfield

Anfield, photo by SteHLiverpool. http://www.flickr.com

Jurgen Klopp said he was looking forward to a “perfect Sunday” after Liverpool’s comfortable 2-0 win over Spurs on Saturday evening. The German has had few ‘super Sundays’ to enjoy of late, such has been his side’s wretched form in 2017.

The previous week, Liverpool lost away at Hull with a thoroughly abject performance, following which I took to Facebook to vent my frustration. I posted: ‘Liverpool starting to show a rather worrying resemblance to Man U under van Gaal.’ A friend whose opinion I respect on all matters football replied simply: ‘harsh.’

It was a harsh assessment but I still think a fair one. One of Klopp’s mantras is that performance is all since results can’t be controlled. That’s true enough but some of the performances in the last few months have been dire, especially at home against opposition who set out and set up to frustrate.

To some extent it’s a compliment to Liverpool that teams arrive at Anfield intent on ‘parking the bus.’ Sadly, the response of the home team has too often been to double park alongside it; plenty of possession, total territorial supremacy, but precious little damage to the aforementioned bus.

Have Liverpool made progress under Klopp? Yes, undoubtedly. There remains, rightly, more optimism about the future than in the final days of the Rodgers regime. And yet it was revealed recently that Klopp and his predecessor had almost identical records over their first 54 games in charge of the club.

It’s progress but it’s stuttering, unsteady and yet to be fully convincing. Those calling for the German to get on his bike are ludicrously premature (I don’t see any better candidate to take over) but the fact that the suggestion has even been made shows how far Liverpool still have to go in fulfilling their ambitions.

The short-term ambition is Champions League qualification this season and that’s far from a certainty given how competitive the race for the top four is. The resurgent Manchester United have everyone except Chelsea glancing anxiously over their shoulders.

Winning the title never seemed like a very realistic prospect for Liverpool this season and they won’t do so with the current squad. Klopp has begun to mould it to suit his preferences but more radical surgery still needs to be performed.

As a minimum: Mignolet should be sold – he’s a fine shot stopper but exhibits almost no command and authority; a new left back is needed – Milner’s done a sterling and committed job but each passing week demonstrates further that it’s not his natural position; Lucas is not a centre back and should never be played there (surely the ‘Lucas as makeshift defender’ hypothesis has been refuted on enough occasions by now); and playing a genuine centre forward on a regular basis would seem, to me at least, like an old fashioned idea that never should have fallen out of fashion.

The surgery needed on the squad goes well beyond the cosmetic and will come with a hefty price tag. Klopp seemingly assumed that a keyhole operation would suffice but the harsh winter that he’s just endured must surely have persuaded him otherwise.

Next summer’s shopping will be much easier and more pleasant if he’s doing it in the Champions League aisle. The Europa League will not tempt the calibre of player that Liverpool need to attract in order to become genuine title contenders domestically and competitive with the biggest clubs across the continent.

Managerial careers are made and broken in the transfer market, those bi-annual windows of opportunity through which they must reshape their squads. Klopp is (rightly) confident in his ability to develop players once he starts to work with them but it’s important that he finds the best available raw material.

He also needs to demonstrate greater tactical flexibility. His high-energy pressing game works best as a counter-attacking strategy and it’s therefore not a surprise that it’s proving more successful against better sides that have more possession. When Liverpool are forced to create their own attacking momentum, in situations where they face teams happy to sit back and concede possession, they look slow and ponderous.

The opposition is increasingly confident of being able to nullify Liverpool by limiting the ability of Klopp’s side to catch them on the counter-attack with fast breaks. That is a very similar issue to the one that Manchester United had under van Gaal and it’s one that Mourinho is only slowly being able to rectify – aided by astute signings such as Ibrahimovic.

To be fair to Klopp, he has responded to the recent ‘crisis’ in a calm and composed manner. The dispassionate analysis he provides in the aftermath of games is in stark contrast to his somewhat hysterical demeanour on the touchline.

Indeed Klopp recently insisted to journalists: “We will have to take all the criticism from everywhere. You can write what you want at the moment.”

Here, I have. I doubt the Liverpool manager is reading this but if you are Mr Klopp, I hope you consider it harsh but fair.

Pundits on the couch

sky-sports

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.

The Pep Supremacy

pep-guardiola

Pep Guardiola. Photo by: Felipe Quintanilha, http://www.flickr.com

The build-up was more like that of a fight in boxing: two individuals, two heavyweights, the next contest in a bitter rivalry. Mourinho v Guardiola.

Oh, and Manchester united and Manchester City were also playing a football match.

Bragging rights go to the Spaniard but this was a much bigger win than the 2-1 scoreline suggests. City were miles ahead of their neighbours; 4 or 5-1 would not have flattered them.

This game was proof that United have flattered to deceive so far this season. The extent to which their early season ‘form’ has been heralded, only serves to highlight how dire they were in the last campaign.

Mourinho has brought a bit of grit and made the side more physically imposing, but the swagger that was once the hallmark of Manchester United is yet to return. Even the swaggering Special One has been a little muted and subdued since arriving in the Old Trafford dugout.

One man who presumably swaggered out of the womb is Zlatan Ibrahimovic. The Swede continued the excellent start that he’s made to life in the Premier League with another superbly taken goal. At the start of the season, I suggested that Zlatan’s Cantona-esque aura could even make United slight title favourites. I’m glad I haven’t risked any money on that prediction.

They will be a stronger force this time round, more feared and more ruthless, but already I see too many problems to be fixed before they become genuine title contenders again.

Chief among them is what to do with Rooney. If ever a man was living off his reputation then it’s Wayne. When was the last time Rooney dominated a game for club or country? I ask because I honestly can’t remember.

His commitment cannot be faulted but the spark is missing. Rooney is a number 10 and that’s pretty much it. When it comes to positional experimentation, he’s not really a Kama Sutra sort of a guy. He’s willing, but increasingly he’s not able.

Mourinho has a big decision to make: play Rooney at 10 behind Zlatan (and see if they can develop an understanding) or drop him. The captain is rightly a club legend but sometimes even club legends don’t get to choose when their time is up. That clock is ticking for Rooney and I think Manchester Untied would now be a more threatening and more balanced side without him.

The same is true of England incidentally.

Guardiola has already taken the bold step of axing club Legend Joe Hart, who is now off in search of love and redemption in Italy at Torino.

In his place, Guardiola has signed Claudio Bravo, who, unusually for a goalkeeper, is better with his feet than his hands. At least most of the time he is. On quite a few occasions on Saturday he played himself into trouble by taking an extra touch and unnecessary risks in his penalty area. He also managed to drop a cross under minimal pressure, allowing Ibrahimovic to score.

But he also showed just enough to demonstrate why his boss wanted him in his team again. City are already playing the ‘Guardiola way’ and it’s only mid-September. Be warned the rest of the league.

That ‘way’ requires everyone to be comfortable on the ball, including the goalkeeper. Bravo is. He helps to give City a platform to play out from the back and that platform will get more secure as he develops a better understanding with the defenders in front of him.

The evidence of training ground drilling was abundant in the angles that City’s players found, the subtlety of their movement, and the speed at which they broke. De Bruyne was the epitome of that style. He was man of the match and his opponents didn’t come close to figuring out how to stop him.

That too should worry Mourinho.

Guardiola has a footballing philosophy and his City players are showing themselves to be committed scholars. They will only improve further under the master’s guidance. If Pep’s style of play proves to be successful in England, it may be the most revolutionary development in the Premier League since Wenger’s arrival two decades ago.

Patience and quality of movement are not attributes typically associated with even the best Premier League teams. City fans may not now require much patience before they once again find themselves celebrating a league title.

Mourinho won’t give up without a fight and it is of course early days, but the early warning signs are there. City are going to take some stopping.

Don’t be fooled by the scoreline; this was a demolition derby.

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.

We’re going to win the league

Ranieri Arsenal v Leicester

Claudio Ranieri – photo by Ronnie MacDonald http://www.flickr.com

A rather remarkable title race means that four sets of fans are currently entitled to sing that line. Leicester fans can scarcely believe that they’re still in the league and yet here they are sitting atop it, gazing down in some wonder at those below.

Immediately below them are Tottenham. Spurs fans are probably also a little surprised by the present elevation of their league position. I had Spurs down for a good season but I hadn’t anticipated it being this good. They have of course benefitted from shortcomings elsewhere (most obviously in Manchester) but Pochettino is the real deal and the most important task for Tottenham in the short term is to hold on to their young manager.

Below Spurs we find their North London rivals Arsenal. Last weekend I watched the derby between the two and it exposed the frailties of both sides. Being an Arsenal fan must be one hugely frustrating experience; that team is about as predictable as a Donald Trump press conference.

Wenger’s attempt to ‘Make Arsenal Great Again’ is proving to be a decidedly protracted effort. The Arsenal boss is considered one of football’s intellectuals (hence the nickname ‘the professor’) so I’m not sure if he’s ever read Mr. Trump’s ‘Art of the Deal.’ Perhaps he should as it’s the lack of deals at the Emirates which have made strangers of Arsenal and greatness.

If Arsenal don’t win the league this season then Wenger should not begin next season in charge. Next season is already shaping up to be a very different proposition. Pep’s arrival will shake things up – and make City heavy title favourites – while the prospect of Mourinho at Man U is likely to result in a combination of both shaking and stirring.

Mourinho may have his eye on replacing Daniel Craig as Bond though; he likes a sharp suit, he tends to be a little rogue in the matter of obeying rules, and of course defence is his speciality.

Guardiola v Mourinho again could make Manchester home of a new ‘Classico’ of English football although, like all English sides at the moment, the Manchester clubs have a long way to go to bridge the gap between them and the big two in Spain.

Manchester City have invested heavily in a bid to achieve domestic dominance and at least become continental contenders. As I write this, I’m watching them make reasonably hard work of dominating Norwich. It’s nil – nil at half time.

With Chelsea’s calamitous campaign, City’s squad should be head and shoulders above the rest of the current league. Sterling is just about to come off the bench in the Norwich game and his season sums up City’s overall: flashes of inspiration but only intermittently and seemingly a rather strange lack of confidence.

I fully expect him to hit a screamer into the top corner with his first touch now.

Sterling hasn’t delivered top dollar as yet for his new club but there’s no doubt that Guardiola will be given significant funds to strengthen the squad in the summer. It will be interesting to see whose interest Pep will be able to pique.

Before then however there’s a league to be won (or more likely lost). So who will it be? Like all romantics I hope that it will be Leicester. It would be an epic triumph and about as plausible as Mourinho being cast as the next Bond. I don’t think either will happen sadly. The pressure will probably tell eventually on Leicester and more comfortable breathing will be found at lower altitude.

City’s continued struggles to break down Norwich here do not indicate a side on the verge of a title winning surge. In fact, the increasingly look like a side on the verge of a purge with the imminent arrival of the new boss.

So that leaves Arsenal and Spurs. The former will surely contrive to drop points to various relegation threatened teams during the run in, prompting phone in meltdowns from Gunners’ fans and calls for a new professor to take the class of 2016-17.

Spurs then, by default, are my pick as champions – appropriately enough in a by default sort of a season. It’s hugely exciting and gripping entertainment but the quality has been questionable. “We’re gonna win the league” will continue to ring out at many grounds in the next few weeks but it’s the Spurs fans I expect to still be singing it when the rest have ceased.

And they’re off …

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald www.flickr.com

Arsenal fans at the Emirates. Photo by Ronnie Macdonald
http://www.flickr.com

The new English Premier League season got underway last weekend and I was quite excited about it as I settled down on the sofa for Manchester United v Spurs. By half time that excitement had all but disappeared; what a dull game. It looked as though nobody had told the players that pre-season was over. The pace was pedestrian and the play was disjointed.

Man U were pretty fortunate overall to come away with a victory. I think it’s likely that they will be title contenders this season but there still seems to be something amiss with the balance of that side. The decision to sell Di Maria also means that there is a huge onus on Rooney staying fit and in form over the course of the season. If he doesn’t then things could head downhill quite quickly at Old Trafford.

The start of the season is generally a time for great excitement and optimism. GQ magazine even ran an article titled ‘16 reasons why this will be the best Premier League season ever’ (http://www.gq-magazine.co.uk/entertainment/articles/2015-08/07/16-reasons-why-this-will-be-the-best-premier-league-season-ever). Go to the GQ website these days and you’ll find that most headlines begin with a number. Today for instance they offer, ‘10 high-tech grooming gadgets you need right now.’ On the list is a foot buffer (no, I’ve no idea either) and I’m not convinced I need one of those at all, far less right now. Who says journalism is not what it used to be?

GQ’s reasons for predicting that this will be the best Premier League season ever include the fashion statements being made by some clubs with their new kits, the first ever football boot range by New Balance, and, most incredibly of all, the return of Ian Wright to Match of the Day.

When Wright left the BBC in 2008 he said: “I don’t know how long young people are going to want to sit down and watch that same old ‘jacket, shirt and tie’ format. Fans want people who are dressed like them.” That’s right Ian, it was mostly your shirt and tie that bothered us. I quite often watch the football in my pyjamas these days such is the time difference between Malaysia and Europe. Somebody tell Shearer to have a think about that while he’s in the wardrobe department getting ready.

Well GQ, with those sound arguments, it is hard to disagree with your confident claim as to the glorious season that lies before us. Years from now we’ll look back and say “ah, remember 2015/16? What a season that was. First one with the New Balance boots you know.”

Chelsea began the defence of their title not exactly at their best ever with a rather lacklustre home draw with Swansea. The game will mostly be remembered for Mourinho’s hysterical reaction to the club doctor and physio running on to treat Hazard when Dr. Mourinho (so special he’s apparently a qualified medic now as well) had decided that there wasn’t much wrong with the Belgian playmaker.

If that was the case Jose, then maybe have a word with Eden to stop rolling around so dramatically on the floor. The subsequent treatment of club doctor Eva Carneiro by Chelsea has been an absolute disgrace.

Across London, Arsenal’s season started a day later with a home match against West Ham. They lost 2-0, a result and performance that Wenger attributed to his players being “too nervous.” For reasons I don’t understand, the perceived wisdom ahead of the season seemed to be that the signing of Cech had magically transformed Arsenal into title contenders. He’s a very good goalkeeper and although he was terrible on his debut he will improve the side. But Arsenal’s problems are not confined between the sticks.

For years they’ve needed a stronger spine to the team. Cech is one part of that but they are still a centre back, a midfield enforcer, and a top class centre forward short of having a realistic shot at the title. Arsenal will do what they’ve done for many seasons now: probably qualify again for the Champions League, get knocked out of this season’s Champions League at either the last sixteen or quarter final stage, and have a decent run in one of the domestic cups.

My team Liverpool began the season at the same place they finished last season – away at Stoke. Back in May it was a calamity as Liverpool lost 6-1 in Gerrard’s final game for the club. 11 weeks later, Liverpool again only scored once but Stoke didn’t score at all and so three hard-earned points were taken back to Anfield.

I’m not at all sure what to expect of Liverpool this season. There are a lot of new faces (again) but the pattern of play was the familiar one that Rodgers has established in his time at the club. Possession was plentiful but much of it was slow and almost entirely lacking in penetration, especially in wide areas. One point of encouragement though was that Benteke showed a sure touch and a willingness to get involved in build-up play. I think he’s going to prove to be a sound investment.

The opening round of fixtures was completed on Monday night with West Brom v Manchester City. Pellegrini’s side strolled to a comfortable 3-0 victory that was notable for the influential display of Toure and for the way that Kompany celebrated scoring the third goal (as if he’d just scored a crucial goal in a World Cup final). I get the impression that City feel they have a point to prove this season.

It may not turn out to be the greatest season in the history of the Premier League but just one week in, anything remains possible. I’m still excited about it but it seems that some people are writing football off altogether. There was an article in The Spectator last week by Mark Palmer titled ‘I’ve loved football for decades, now I dread the start of the season’ (https://www.spectator.co.uk/features/9600342/ive-loved-football-for-decades-now-i-dread-the-start-of-the-season/). Why so, Mark?

He suggests it’s because the game has ‘become a cesspit of greed, debauchery and racism, especially in Britain.’ He goes on to conclude that ‘football is rotten and there’s no point denying it any more. The penny dropped on seeing the footage of Souleymane Sylla, a black Frenchman on his way home from work in Paris, being pushed off a train by snarling Chelsea fans fuelled by drink and hate.’

There’s no denying the ugliness of that incident but it’s a bit much to give up on the beautiful game because of it. Like many things in life, football is indeed tainted by greed, debauchery and racism (and more ills besides) on occasion but those so-called Chelsea fans on the Parisian tube are not the face of football, or at least they are far from the only face.

On Monday night I received several photos from the West Brom v Manchester City game. They were sent by an Indian colleague of mine. He is a City supporter and took his son to the game while on a family trip to the UK. My colleague and his son had huge excited smiles on their faces. This was the first time that they had seen City play live. For weeks they’d been dreaming about the start of the season. 2015/16 will be one to remember for them.

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.