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#oneaday 21: When money is easy, madness follows

Yesterday was a significant day in the (English) Premier League – £135 m spent by football clubs in one day, bringing the spend in the January transfer window to in excess of £200m – tens times what it was last year. Significant, however for all the wrong reasons. Indeed is this the last hurrah before the UEFA’s new financial rules come into play in 2013?

Januray 31st 2011 was the day when the English Premier League broke all bonds with its fans, who have clearly become the least important constituent in the football universe. Sitting way back in stands, we peer at the antics of a bloated game, one which cannot produce a credible national team, despite pouring obscene amounts of money into a whole host of distinctly average players. It all starts with the owners. Nowadays these fall into 3 broad groups.

  • The rich individual – think Roman Abramovich at Chelsea (wealth quoted at £8billion) and Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan and his Abu Dhabi United Group at Manchester City. These people are often quotes as businessmen, yet there is often controversy surrounding their wealth. In the case of Abramovich it was gained in a very short period of time when Vladimir Putin broke up a communist, state owned economic system into pieces and bestowed it piece by piece on a number of favoured friends, the oligarchs. Over in Abu Dhabi, well it is a tale of black gold, oil.
  • The US based business conglomerate who may use debt to leverage the purchase, think the Glazers at Manchester United and Gillette and Hicks formerly of Liverpool who basically got it wrong and had to sell out to fellow American John W  Henry of New England Sports Ventures.
  • The rest, usually business men, whether they have made money in the pornography industry, sportswear or intensively farmed battery chickens, but ones who will find competing with the mega rich, just a little bit too, well, rich for them.

Yesterday saw the redistribution of a fraction of one Russian oligarch owners ‘wealth’, into an owner of a sports goods empire, via New England Sports Ventures. When Roman Abramovich decided to part with a mere £50m of his easy money,in return for Fernando Torres, he passed it to John W Henry at Liverpool, who flicked over £35m to Mike Ashley, owner of Sports Direct and Newcastle United for ‘England sensation’ Andy Carroll. I wonder if that money just goes to pay off some of the debts that Newcastle have accrued down the years? Either way I am sure it will be pretty useful to Mr Ashley. Along the way, the usual cuts would have been taken by the agents, even more money would have been put into the overpaid player’s pockets and who knows, maybe us tax payers will have gained a few quid towards our debts.

These amounts of money are nothing short of obscene. They show that the game at the ‘top end’ is nothing more that a bloated and rotten borough. In these troubled times, when pretty much all of the people who pay to watch the games via entrance fees or less so via a Sky Sports subscription, are facing an age of austerity, this sends out a message that the game has become nothing more than an effete and irrelevant sideshow, a circus. As crowd numbers fall off, the owners literally fiddle. It is yet to be seen if a fire has started, but the mood out there amongst the fans is starting to turn against their ‘heroes’.

Whether you wake up today as a Newcastle fan, a Liverpool fan or indeed a Chelsea fan this morning, you anger or elation may be short lived and the gloss may wear a little thin. Indeed, you have to ask whether the late, great Bill Shankly would ever utter his famous saying, ‘some say football is a matter of life and death. I say it is more important than that’, nowadays. Perhaps he would simply say ‘some say football is a matter of money. I say it is a matter of too much money’. I would like to think the great man would have something to say about the mess our once beautiful game is now in.

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#oneaday 4:Re-use and Recycle?

Management, specifically football management, what makes a good manager and why do failures get re-used and recycled time and time again? It seems like the only way the managerial gene pool is ever widened is when Premier League owners decide to import big hitters from abroad, or Blackpool and Stoke get promoted.  Having seen the hapless incumbents at Liverpool, West Ham, Aston Villa and even Chelsea look like dead men walking (apologies Gerard) after their teams all lost vital games tonight, the talk is of who will be sacked first. 

Surely this prize must be won by Avram Grant at West Ham, who has never really fitted the bill since he arrived in the summer. After 3 games in the Premier League, the owners Messrs Gold and Sullivan put dear old Avram on a warning. He’s had more since, despite the MD of West Ham, Karen Brady (her of The Apprentice panel alongside SirAlan) assuring the media, public and the fans, that ‘we just don’t sack managers’. The big question was how did this Israeli football manager ever get a job in English football in the first place? He arrived as technical director at Portsmouth when Harry Redknapp was manager and  Harry made it clear that he did not want any interference. He then went on to do a similar job, this time director of fooball, at Chelsea and dropped into Jose the Special One’s manager’s seat when Emperor Roman decided that Mourinho had expressed an opinion one too many times. After losing the Champions League final, Grant was sacked. He then returned to Portsmouth as director of football, only to become manager about a month later after the latest Pompey owner sacked the latest Pompey manager. He left after Portmouth lost the FA Cup final and were relegated, admittedly because of points deduction due to Portsmouth FC going into administration. Indeed Grant did not even hold the required top-flight coaching certification from UEFA when he took over at Chelsea. In fact, he had never received the lower-level coaching cerfications from UEFA for “B” and “A” level coaching in Europe.  But Messrs Sullivan and Gold thought it would be a great idea to hire him.

Not far behind must be either Roy Hodgson (most pundits ‘in the know’s’ choice as England manager to replace Capello after the shambles that was the 2010 World Cup) or Gerard Houllier. Neither seem in control of their respective teams, both seem just too old, too bemused and actually not good enough for either team and certainly unable to handle the expectations at their respective clubs. Indeed Hodgson’s first foray into English football was to get sacked by Blackburn a few years back. Admittedly he had a very good season with Fulham, but his record in our league was actually poor. Ditto Houllier. One UEFA Cup , FA Cup and League Cup victory plus a runners up in the League really does not make him a great winner, especially at Anfield. Thus groans were heard all through the claret and blue parts of Birmingham when Martin O’Neill stepped down, Kevin MacDonald stepped in and then made way for Houllier. If Houllier gets the boot, then he will almost certainly return to France. Ditto if Carlo Ancelotti leaves stricken Chelsea, it is unlikely that he will seek further misery in England.

So the question really is why do some of these consistently under performing managers keep getting employed? Why do the club owners fall for the same candidates time and time again? Lord knows why. If Grant and  Houllier go, surely that must be the end for them in English football? Of the current 20 Premier League managers, 14 are British which is as high as I can remember. Of those, Hogdson will not be in his job until the end of the season and some of the others may have a few sleepless nights. But we need new, younger  managers, men with fresh ideas and men who can handle the errant ways of the modern millionaire footballers. Outside of natual promotions – ie managers of teams who gained promotion in order to gain a foothold as a Premier League manager namely  Ian Holloway, Tony Pulis, Roberto Di Matteo and Owen Coyle, there seems to be a total lack of promoting managers from lower divisions into the top jobs. Is that caution or stupidity? Indeed, does football need a bit of a cull in order that we can refresh and relaunch our game?

Let’s see what happens in the coming months. Meantime, if you are a Villa, West Ham, Liverpool and even a Chelsea supporter, the next few weeks will be  very interesting. Messrs, Southgate, O’Neill, Allardyce, Curbishley and Hughton are all looking to get back into the top jobs, it will be interesting to see who does not come back and if clubs like West Ham or Aston Villa live a little and look to the Chanpionship for talent.

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#oneaday 1: The decline of auotcracy, in the national interest…?

 Given the generally depressed outlook all the way back in dark old days of 2010, I would like to think that 2011 would be a year where things started to get a little bit  better? On a personal front 2010 was as good as any year, but as a West Ham and England supporter it was absolutely dire. Mind you, if you are a Chelsea or a Liverpool supporter, it has also been pretty dire and in Chelsea’s case this is a major change in fortunes twelve months on.  A bright start to the year for the England national team soon faded and hopes of glory ended in a seedy and bloated fashion in South Africa.  Money it seems, can’t buy you love, or indeed sustained success and certainly not the right to host a World Cup.   However, behind the easy headlines though perhaps we are getting a glimpse of a different and possibly a better way of getting collective success. 

2011 saw the slow but significant decline of the’ autocracy’. Gordon Brown, a famed autocrat, led the way in politics by losing an election, all be it narrowly, to a couple of jolly decent chaps who days before were at each other’s throats but seemingly had no choice but to bury their hatchets and work together ‘in the national interest’. We hailed the ‘New Politics’ and even the most cynical of commentators have had to admit that coalition politics is a reality which will be with us for some time, who knows may be for the next 4 1/2 years. We have already seen the compromises and ‘breaking of promises’, but that surely is a sign that change is upon us and one party ideology over another is surely too 20th century. In any case, good or bad it is a change and change can be as a good as a rest.

Moving sideways into sport and specifically football, we have seen the cracks appearing at the top, namely at Liverpool, Chelsea and to some extent at Manchester United. The debacle at Anfield has been a long time coming, but it has torn a once invicible and hugely proud club apart at the seams. A couple of ‘no nothing (about football) ‘ Americans – Gillette and Hicks –  basically borrowed unfeasible amounts of cash to buy a ‘business opportunity’ which they could not resist. The rest is history, except that history is still being written – Americans still own the club, all be it different ones, and Roy Hodgson, the critics’ chocie to replace Capello post South Africa, is on the thinest of thin ice, after only 5 months. The fans are calling for control.

Over at Old Trafford, the fans have been vocal ever since Mr Glazer and his sons and/or brothers took over, again leveraging the cash  debt against the assets of the club. Only Alec Ferguson could steady the ship, bringing an errant Rooney to heel and deliver continued success, seemingly. What will happen when Sir Alex eventually decides to press his stopwatch for the last time?  Again the fans are calling for control, via various business consortia.

However, the biggest  surprise has been in the softie South, in West London, the home of millionaires, billionaires and those who govern us. Chelsea. The absolute reign of Roman Abramovic rolls on,  but the cracks are starting to appear and the water is flooding into the ship. The Mighty Roman is almost like a latter day Captain Smith on the bridge of the Titanic. Chelsea, the unsinkable machine, have hit an iceberg and now need to change course, and make repairs fast. Ray Wilkins was sacked and no one knew why. Ancelotti is living by a thread and their players, used to winning, are getting older and their ambition is blunted. The murmurs from the fans have started and if the bad run continues, those whispers become taunts, which become boos, which become protest and leads to a boycott. The Roman is under pressure and you have to wonder how he will deal with it, given his meteoric rise to fortune and lack of experience in the ‘old’ country. I personally think that he will simply fire and forget, but time will be my judge, and those Chelsea fans may well be demanding control before 2011 is too much older.

So these autocratic club owners may be facing up to the reality of managing people, highly paid ones, who just don’t follow the script. Who knows if there will be more fan democracy at play in 2011, I personally hope so, but what other country allows their prize business assets to be sold to anyone who raises the money? After all, this was the year that Cadbury’s was sold to Kraft and promises made pre-sale, were soon broken once the paperwork had gone through. We operate in a free market, and it allegedly produces the best ‘product’, the dear old Premier League is the best in the world, we are told,  but in the national interest? From the England football team’s perspective, that will never happen.

Meanwhile over in Geneva, one autocratic organisation that is totally self interested and is not showing any signs of changing  soon has announced that they are setting up an anti corruption committee.  FIFA and corruption are words that seem to travel all over the world together on expenses. Let’s see how this one develops in 2011.

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…..

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

So wrote Dickens in the opening lines of a Tale of Two Cities, a brilliant piece centred around the run up to the French Revolution and it’s immediate aftermath. Living in these times, ordinary people had been pushed to the point of no return, witnessing the excesses of the rich and privileged, they rose up and changed everything. That spirit of revolution spawned France’s national strap line ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ and if ever we needed that DNA in and around football we need it now. Indeed whilst our French neighbours are making their views on ‘these times’ clear 21 miles away, we may well wonder if things have changed, for good or bad.
With France in social meltdown, our football is now approaching that nadir. Forget the situation at West Ham, that is bagatelle compared with what is happening at Portsmouth, Liverpool and the mighty Manchester United. In a few weeks everything has changed and ultimately I believe this will be for the good of football and its fans. But the public gets what the public wants.
Liverpool and Manchester United have one thing in common. Very much in common. Both were/are owned by businessmen who have borrowed a ton of money to ‘buy’ the club, the  money was easy, credit was everywhere and the good times flowed. Or did they? These clubs and mine, have been saddled by heavy debt and high interest rates effectively stopping them from being able to buy further success. Clubs owned by properly rich individuals – Manchester City and Chelsea – have been able to outgun both clubs in the transfer market. The youth teams of all of these clubs continue to produce players, but it seems that the clubs, their supporters and importantly fellow players are not patient enough to nurture the talent. Everyone wants a quick fix, immediate and continued success at all costs. Wayne Rooney has come in for a ton of stick this last week, and he does deserve some of it. But not all of it in my view. Here is a player who does care about his football and one who has seen the rot set in at Manchester United, the rot of the Glazer reign. Not only has he seen this, but Sir Alex Ferguson knows it. I am convinced that Rooney knows that times have changed and Manchester United under the Glazers will not be the same. They will not be able to buy talent in, not at least until the new rules about clubs having to make a profit come into play. Rooney will have passed his best by then. Ferguson would have laid down the gauntlet to Glazer and his family. Break the bank to keep his prize asset at the club or watch him leave to Manchester City or Real Madrid. Ferguson knows the regime, he is coming to the end of his reign and he will not like the methodolgy of these US businessmen one iota. Fair enough to play to the tune of the boss, if it is their money, but with people like the Glazers, Gillett and Hicks, it isn’t their money and their methods of ‘leveraging the brand’ have stymied the clubs royally. Given the new media world we live in, action and reaction take place at an unprecedented pace. The Glazers will not have expected to have a hike in their overheads at the beginning of the week, by the end of the week they have to find another £5m pa on their overhead. At least the extra cash may produce a result on the pitch, rather than an additional bonus to some Mayfair or Manhattan based hedge fund.
And then we see what has happened to poor old Pompey. A people’s club if ever there was one. I don’t know many Pompey fans anymore, but those I have known generally come from the area. We have seen a succession of chancers come and go on the South Coast. This bloke Gaydamark was another Abramovich, but substantially poorer. If these blokes are businessmen then Sonny Corleone is a puppy. Gaydamark ‘sold’ to some other ‘young entrepreneur’ Sulaiman Al Fahim (the fat geezer with a baseball cap who looked like he craved kebabs), who never had any money, it then passed to Al-Faraj who called in the administrators. A well documented mess of gigantic proportions and one that may result in Pompey being no more. Except it always will be a club so long as those supporters have the spirit. We are seeing it at FC United and at AFC Wimbledon, fan power makes a huge difference and surely that gives us all hope. I got an email from West Ham yesterday which talked about a club ‘owned by the fans for the fans’. I don’t think so. Until fans are given a seat at the table, permanently, football will always be subject to the whims of the free market. Historically fans are the ones who do not change, do not follow the money and above all care about that thing called their club. In these troubled times, we must not forge that.

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