There’s a place for polite applause. MotoGP isn’t it

Marquez
Pic courtesy of Smudge 9000

They don’t come more old-school than me when it comes to yearning for a little civility in professional sport. If I’m saying you’ve gone too far in that respect, then you really are off the chart.

There’s either something in the water at Motorcycle News, or else touchy-feely Britain is now an epidemic, because when bikers start wringing their hands over booing in sport, things are truly out of whack.

Not everyone agreed with the manner in which MotoGP‘s Marc Márquez (pictured) muscled his way through the field in Argentina last month, so when the circus re-convened for the next round of the World Championship in the USA, some factions in the crowd let the Spaniard have it.

Cue an attack of the vapours at MCN, warranting an editorial column, no less, in their coverage of the Texas race.

“Bike racing is dangerous,” intoned MotoGP reporter Simon Patterson. “…people still get hurt, badly sometimes. That’s why it’s not acceptable for fans to boo racers.”

Warming to his task, Patterson, who appears to have his sport confused with croquet, condemned this time-honoured tradition of expressing discontent, as “loutish” and (that go-to word for those on their high-horse) “disappointing”.

I don’t  know how much sport in general Mr Patterson watches, but I would recommend he gets out and watches a lot more. Booing is as ancient a part of the sporting tableau as the Olympics (I doubt all those downturned thumbs in the Colosseum were accompanied by scornful silence, either) and to suggest it should cease not only challenges a  cornerstone of the outdoor pantomime we know and love but also militates against one of its most useful functions. Catharsis.

People trammelled all week long by the constraints of polite society get one afternoon to live and let rip. As long as it’s profanity-free, remains purely verbal and amounts to nothing ending in -ism or -obia, they should be left to get on with it.

And the danger element is a red herring. No-one holds a gun to Márquez’ head and makes him ride and he is handsomely remunerated for his trouble. You take the punters’ money, you take their feedback: that’s the deal. There are plenty of widget factories in which to spend your working life in tranquil anonymity, should you not feel up to it.

I can’t believe I’m saying this to a motorcycling publication, but for goodness sake, man up.

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Little Chris Horner, painted into a corner

AWKWARD Interview,” declares the heading for the following YouTube clip, in which the Channel 4 F1 team ask Christian Horner about the in-house RTA that took both his cars out of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

And awkward it undoubtedly is. Horner, the Red Bull principal, as impressive and professional as ever, clearly holding himself on a tight rein, while two men who know what he’s going through – David Coulthard and Eddie Jordan – try and get him to put it into words, in the manner of men talking someone down from a window ledge.

The tone of the interview is interesting. Once upon a time, it would have been a simpler affair. A red-faced team-owner would have rhetorically asked “DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH THOSE TWO PILLOCKS HAVE JUST COST ME!!!??”, fumed at length about P45s and “plenty of other drivers where they came from”, before storming off, leaving in his wake a TV team approaching orgasm at the interview gold they had just recorded.

Simpler times. Anger, straight talking, ratings and onto the next race.

In comparison, the above segment is dispiriting: four men tiptoeing across a high-wire while hoping to God the wind doesn’t get up. Anger and passion carefully corralled by the imperative of the corporate ‘front’.

“We’ve been impressed at the level of contrition we’ve seen”. Oh, get over yourselves, everyone.

Alas, this is exactly what you get in a sport where the stakes have become too high. A playground for big business, in which success is measured by the look on the sponsors’ faces and it takes eight hundred people to get a couple of cars to go round in circles. And where a game’s traditional rough and tumble takes on the gravity of an international incident.

This is Christian Horner’s world, and as much as I like the guy, I wouldn’t want to swap places with him.

Wembley – I, too, am now sold

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Pic courtesy of Enguerran Fouchet

If only I could turn on a sixpence this fast in real-life, I might have played at Wembley, never mind be writing about it.

I spat feathers when I learnt of our national stadium being up for sale last week, to the owner of an NFL team, no less. Some old scars were picked at as I heard the FA talk about what the windfall might mean for our national game. The same FA who assured us some 25 years ago what a blessing the Premier League would be for the England team.

And we all know how spot-on that prophecy was.

Even as Ben Ramanauskas attempted to defend the move in an article for CapX, I could feel my fires being stoked afresh. His opening gambits – the need for foreign investment and how this is just the kind of post-Brexit fillip we should welcome – suggested a man who, in Oscar Wilde’ famous words, knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

But then Mr Ramanauskas began addressing football issues, and this, I feel, is his killer line…

“It has been claimed that the sale of Wembley could result in England no longer being able to play there. There is no evidence to support this, but it would not necessarily be a bad thing. The idea of having a national stadium is relatively unusual. Brazil, Germany, Italy, and Spain are countries which love football and have enjoyed great success.”

Possibly thinking faster than he typed, he omits the most important part of this point, but the gap is filled when you check off those four nations on Wikipedia’s ‘national stadiums’ page. None of them have one. (For all that Brazil and the Maracana seem synonymous, the venue is not a national stadium.)

And it hasn’t exactly crippled them come tourney time.

The author’s suggestion that England’s national team, should it ultimately become homeless, simply follow the German, Spanish and Italian model and tour the country’s great domestic stadia, reminded me of the last time it did so, when the new Wembley Stadium was being constructed. I seem to remember more than a few people saying how they rather enjoyed the experience. England came to the provinces and the novelty factor made it a genuine occasion, instead of just another Wednesday night in a drab  London suburb.

In the meantime, the FA gets a windfall to devote to tackling, once and for all, why England’s national team is the ugly sister of its national league. Gary Neville finds it “ridiculous” to suggest that the solution to this perennial problem is a one-off large capital investment, but surely that depends on how you spend it? Clairefontaine, anyone?

And while all this goes on, we get an NFL team in London, whose tourism managers now get to sell Americans on the prospect of a great city coupled with an NFL game while they’re here. For reasons stated in a previous post, I’ll reserve judgement on how successful this venture will ultimately be, but if the rest of the world can own our top-flight teams, surely we can at least try hosting one of theirs?

Martin Samuel is one of my heroes in this business, but there’s a stale whiff of the ’50s in his denunciation of the proposed sale. When they can be managing their own Serie A team to Champions League glory via a game console these days (and wait until the VR version arrives) I wonder how many teenagers still buy into the “holy grail” and “stuff of dreams” tropes. In a ‘show me the money’ era, I suspect they have eyes only for the stuff of success. And Wembley Stadium has not been it.

Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of reasons to have one’s heart in the mouth while this potential deal hovers in the ether. Choose your pitfall – the FA’s asking price to prove woefully undervalued; qualification for Euro ’20 to be overshadowed by a nationwide where’s-the-money-gone row; a double-booking scandal that sees England forced to ask if Hampden Park might be available.

Come to think of it, for all Ben Ramanauskas’ persuasion, I may just have isolated the one factor on which this whole idea truly founders.

The FA is involved.

Probably best we just leave things as they are.

John Gregory and the definition of success

pexels-photo-243115.jpegSo often do football managers fall unnoticed from their professional perch, that it was heartening to learn recently of one who has bucked the trend.

Consider John Bond or George Graham, for example. In their respective eras, they went from being men at the heart of the game to being yesterday’s men, seemingly in the blink of any eye.

Unlike players, for whom the transition from ‘current’ to ‘ex’ is commonly marked by one last stage-managed substitution, the focal point for a grateful stadium; managers rarely get to highlight their retirement. They pass, in the shadows, from being fashionable to unfashionable, and suddenly – invisibly – they are gone. Harry Redknapp, you may have noticed, isn’t quite as go-to as he once was. The process has begun.

So good on John Gregory, then, for flirting with death both professionally and personally, only to come back and lead Chennaiyin to the Indian league championship, 16 years after he left Aston Villa, at the end of what was easily the high-point of his cv and a spell in which he was briefly touted as a future England manager.

Even if I throw in that he is the first Englishman to lead a team to this particular title,  you’ll have said it by now, I’m sure: maybe only inwardly and disliking yourself for it, but you’ll have said it, nonetheless. “It’s only India…”

And you’ll have a point. Rarely, if ever, does the football world halt to acknowledge the latest champions of India. But then I also have a point when I counter with, “So what?”

Aside from the old cliché that you can only beat what’s in front of you, or the fact that when you’ve returned from heart surgery to one of the most stressful jobs outside of combat, the national championship of anywhere is a valid cause for personal pride, there is also this thought, perhaps best shared with those old enough to be able to see beyond the UEFA bubble.

Whose would make the more colourful life story? The coach whose football experience only ever existed between Burnley and Bournemouth, or the coach who got to see a world beyond Champions League away-days? The hankering for the big-time might never go away – that’s only natural ambition – but I suspect I’d be tempted to buy Stephen Constantine’s book before I buy Arsene Wenger’s…

“Initial success with Nepal and India is followed by less successful spells with Millwall…Malawi and Sudan. Constantine has more luck in Cyprus but is ultimately undermined by the country’s economic problems and a culture of match-fixing. However, not many coaches can claim to have almost started a diplomatic incident in Zimbabwe, been deported from Iran or drawn comparison with Mary Poppins in North Korea.”

For his part, Gregory seems to be discovering that the big-time has no monopoly on professional fulfilment.

“The fact we literally live together under a single roof and see each other in the hotel and training all the time… the togetherness we’ve got and the trust we’ve built [is what makes management in India unique],” he said. “I’ve never known a group like this, who manage, support and look after each other.

“There’s a togetherness you don’t get to see in England. You see the guys for two to three hours of the day, and then they go home. We don’t necessarily sit down and eat together here, but we’re still around each other all the time. We travel together. There’s a real closeness with all my coaching staff and the owners. They come to every game, home and away, and support us – that doesn’t always happen in England. I don’t want to sound corny, but we have a real family atmosphere here.”

It’s an enlightenment I would wish for any coach: the realisation that not all of sport’s rewards are fashioned in silver and gold.

Kane and Rodwell – men marked by indignity

Kane.jpg
Pic courtesy of Brad Tutterow

Footballers Harry Kane and Jack Rodwell probably pride themselves on reading the game. Oh, that they could read themselves with such perception.

If so, this might have been the week when the Spurs striker and Sunderland midfielder saw trouble coming a mile off, swerved it with a knowing smile, and ran off with their dignity intact.

Not so, alas. To the point where, if you were the barrister defending professional footballers from the popular accusation that there’s more going on in their feet than between their ears, this would be the week when you said, “No further questions, you honour,” trudged back to your seat and advised your clients to expect the worst.

What were you thinking of, Harry Kane?  You are The Man among strikers: averaging just under 0.8 goals per game for Tottenham Hotspur, a goal every other game for England; so much of your workplace output destined for the net, as if pre-ordained by the gods. Adoration, professional respect and no need to do another day’s work in your life unless you want to: all safely banked away at just 24 years of age.

What on earth are you doing grubbing around for other people’s goals, like a tramp scouring the gutter for fag-ends? I know it’s not how these things are settled, but I’ve always believed in what I call ‘prime impetus’ when attributing goals: who provided the prime impetus for the score? Even if Kane makes contact, the touch seems neither to have altered the ball’s route nor increased its speed. The prime impetus lies at Christian Eriksen‘s door.

Technicalities aside, though, so many people in the PR game hang around the Premier League now – where were any of them last week to advise Kane on the optics of this mess?

The striker looked like yet another professional athlete more interested in counting opportunities than counting his blessings, and if, contrary to all appearances, he retains an iota of self-awareness, there’s an old footballing cliché that he will hopefully spare us from now on: “The team won; that’s the important thing…”

Because it clearly isn’t, in Harry Kane’s world, and no-one now knows that better than Christian Eriksen. Kane just performed the footballing equivalent of making a play for his mate’s girlfriend; in the pub, in front of all their other mates. If relations between the Spurs duo aren’t a little cooler from now on, then Eriksen is either a bigger man than me, or a bigger prat than Harry Kane.

And you can stop trying to hide in the shadows, Jack Rodwell, because an unflattering spotlight also picked you out these last few days, with news that your salary will be slashed by 40 percent next season, whatever league Sunderland are in by then, even if this merely re-defines the term ‘too little, too late’ in the eyes of your club’s supporters.

Rodwell currently picks up £73,000 a week on Wearside, his contract having somehow remained monetarily immune to Sunderland’s exit from the Premier League last spring. If he takes no further part in first-team football this season, his three appearances will have cost the club £1,265,333 each; roughly what you’d pay to have Bruno Mars sing at your wedding.

On the outside looking in, it’s only fair I point out that Rodwell, for all I know, could be as embarrassed by this performance-unrelated bonus as you and I would be, cut to the core of his professional pride, his pillow sodden with real tears of despair each night, as he muses over how best to justify his existence.

If that is the case, however, then he could be doing a little more to get that message across. When Sunderland tried to free him up by offering to terminate his contract, Rodwell reportedly said ‘no’. When they offered him the chance to act on interest expressed by two European clubs in the latest transfer window, neither option materialised. Those two clubs aren’t in the Albanian second division, either: they were Celtic and top-flight Dutch outfit Vitesse Arnhem. As shop windows go, they mightn’t be Harrods, but they aren’t a village store in the Orkneys, either. Just ask Virgil van Dijk.

With manager Chris Coleman claiming Rodwell has not made himself available for selection, the 27-year-old England international finds himself marking time training with Academy players in what should be the peak years of his career. If he issued a statement this week, setting out how and when he proposes to right this wrong, and at least trying to put himself in a more favourable light with the turnstile-fodder who pay his wages, I must have missed it.

Two very different players; one a darling of the fans, the other an outcast. One apparently treading water, the other treading on a team-mate’s toes, but both of them united this week by a simple question.

Where’s your self-respect?

Rummenigge – maybe a heart still beats

Rummenigge
Pic courtesy of Dirk Vorderstraße

I was more a fan of Karl-Heinz Rummenigge the player than I am of Rummenigge the suit.

It’s bad enough when lifelong businessmen propose changes in football that seem to be not in the game’s best interests, but when it’s former players who appear hell-bent on pulling up the drawbridge to make the Champions’ League more of a closed-shop than ever, you begin to despair.

So it was comforting to hear the ex-striker turned executive grandee apparently joining in the nostalgic love-fest that followed Bayern Munich’s visit to Celtic this week. As German journalists enthused over the kind of atmosphere that normally struggles to germinate in all-seater stadia , the Bayern chief reportedly called it, “football in pure culture, like it was in the old days.”

Those would be the old days of egalitarianism, presumably. When the likes of Panathinaikos, St Etienne, Steaua Bucharest, Club Brugge and Nottingham Forest could still dream.

Talk is cheap, Herr Rummenigge, but it’s at least comforting to hear that a little romance lives on inside you. Try and hold that thought.

Getting shirty with England U17s

Three lions
Pic courtesy of  Chris Brown

Oh what a generational rift Danny Murphy highlighted with his reaction to – and I can barely believe I’m writing this – an England World Cup triumph.

The former Liverpool midfielder was unsettled by the England Under-17s’ decision to wear their shirts back to front during the celebrations that followed their 5-2 defeat of Spain in Saturday’s Final.

Speaking on talkSPORT radio, he commented:

“There’s no England badge in the picture of them winning the World Cup – for me, that’s wrong. They’ve all turned their shirts around because they want their names across their chests, so everybody across the world can see who they are.

“They’re all saying, ‘I’m a good young player coming through, look at me’, but that in itself is what is wrong with society. In effect, they’re thinking about fame as well as being a footballer and I think it creates a big debate here.

“I thought the way they played was amazing and the way they’ve been coached has been fantastic…We’re talking some amazing talent in that group and the freedom they played with, everybody should be happy to see that in an England shirt, and I am too, I was proud of them. But the England badge not being in that picture says a lot.

“The fact they want their names to be on the front of their shirts and think about getting their name out there so people know who they are – they are not wrong, but it’s what is wrong at the moment.”

Murphy has taken some flak for this, Balls.ie’s Gavin Cooney describing the reaction as “nonsense”, while The Sun‘s Dave Kidd, called it “flawed”, before countering with the tired old ‘nice guys finish nowhere’ chestnut.

Both writers, however, may have been more knee-jerk with their reactions than Murphy was with his. Compared to some of the two-dimensional drivel that occasionally emanates from talkSPORT, his observations are articulated well, whether you agree with them or not, and for Cooney to sneeringly dismiss them as “grand sociological musings” says much for the shallow times in which we live .

Murphy, after all, had the presence of mind to save the key phrase for last: “…they are not wrong, but it’s what is wrong at the moment.”

Precisely. Forget ‘naivety’ or ‘youthful ebullience’; those England teenagers have a far more powerful defence for their post-game actions at the weekend. They didn’t write the rules of this brand-conscious age: they are simply playing the game. Murphy was right to differentiate between those actions and the culture that spawns them.

He beheld a sporting landscape in which business can’t take so much as an afternoon off and where getting lost in the moment is for amateurs. Whether the flip-flopping of shirts idea came from the players themselves or, shall we say, ‘advisers’, the message is out there. Not even the ultimate prize for your age-group is enough now, unless it can be immediately leveraged for self-aggrandisment. Behind the tinsel and whooping, Murphy was old enough to see something hollow and depressing in this. I doubt he’s alone.

And as for The Sun‘s contention that England’s future may be safe in the hands of men more concerned with the name on the back of the shirt than the badge on the front; where exactly have you been for the last 21 years?