The vanity project that cost Ranieri his job

Claudio Ranieri
Pic courtesy of Pietro Piupparco

It was one of Danny Baker’s finest moments as host of 6.06, showcasing his ability to view life from a tangent that had never even occurred to his callers.

“We’re going down, Danny…” wailed the voice at the other end of the line.

“So?”

“Whaddya mean, so?! We’ve been relegated.”

“So what?” replied Baker. “You’re good enough to come straight back up; you spend a year seeing grounds you’ve never seen before and you pay a whole lot less to watch your football.”

There was a stunned silence. Were the presenter to proffer similar consolation nowadays, he would probably be met with howls of derision, for even I have occasionally swallowed the notion that the gulf between Premier League and The Rest has become so great, that relegation is equivalent to being banished from Heaven to Hades.

That notion has been given a thorough airing in this dreadful week for common decency, with those minded to excuse the sacking of Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri, 298 days after he delivered a sporting miracle, well aware that they needed to do some fast talking.

So their argument went this way: behind the mists of sentiment lurks an unforgiving precipice over which Leicester City is in grave danger of toppling to its doom, and while mists eventually clear, precipices are going nowhere.

Perhaps because of their desperation to shore up this argument as it ploughed on against the tide, we’ve had to entertain an old obscenity these last few days. Yes, with apologies to Aleppo and a crumbling NHS, the D-word is back in professional sport…

“…obviously they’ve felt that, unless they made a change, there was every chance they would drop out – which would been amazing after winning the title last year. It would be a disaster.” – TalkSport

“I think going down would be a disaster for Leicester and I suppose the board have made a very brave decision” – Leicester Mercury

“…it will be up to the likes of Vardy and Riyad Mahrez…who will have to desperately improve their form if they are to avoid such a disaster.” – GiveMeSport

“It’s a campaign that still possesses the likely possibility of ending in unthinkable disaster.” – The Linc

“They look like they might go down. It’d be a disaster for them if they were relegated.” – Reddit

Interesting view of the word ‘disaster’. They were using it a lot in relation to Tyneside this time last year, if I remember correctly, yet in the absence of news reports to the contrary, we must assume that the sun continues to rise in Newcastle and the birds continue to sing. Certainly, football continues to be played there, we know this because as I write, Newcastle United have 69 points from 32 games and are first in line for promotion to the Premier League.

No exceptional occurrence this, either. Since the formation of the League, 18 of the 73 teams relegated (four went down in 1995 as league sizes were altered) have returned the following season. Seven more have been back within two seasons, two within three, and three within four. A 41 per cent chance of returning to the top table within half a decade is hardly the stuff of unspeakable tragedy.

So, having despatched the ‘disaster’ myth, let’s dig down to what might have really prompted Ranieri’s dismissal. For this, I believe you have to go back to mid-December last year, when Birmingham City’s owners decided that turning a team on its uppers into one a whisker outside the play-off zone with only modest finances wasn’t good enough, and manager Gary Rowett was shown the door. If a previous hardline stance on his own contractual position meant that Rowett had made enemies at St Andrews, as suggested here, the identity of his replacement, Gianfranco Zola, fuelled an alternative theory for Rowett’s departure.

“Birmingham’s owners want a ‘name’ they can boast about at the yacht club,” fumed radio pundit Danny Kelly, “and Gary Rowett isn’t it.”

If it seemed an odd metaphor for a city more than 100 miles from the sea, everyone familiar with Zola’s underwhelming managerial  record knew where Kelly was coming from, and an observation from BBC radio’s Pat Murphy on Ranieri’s demise makes me wonder if we are seeing the same vanity at work once more.

“I remember the Thai owners at the Everton game when Leicester got the trophy, the players couldn’t get the trophy out of their hands. They loved dining at the top table and that’s what they are worried about.”

Are we getting to it now, I wonder – the true nature of the perceived ‘disaster’ that has forced the hands holding the dagger? The prospect of a year or two dealing in just millions instead of billions; of having to make do with mere affluence instead of unimaginable riches, while the folks at the Yacht Club find someone else to talk to?

A fairytale trashed on the altar of ego?

A football-daft friend stared at the floor yesterday, as we discussed Ranieri’s departure, slowly shaking his head.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” he muttered, “but sometimes, I really, really  hate football…”

Reflections on Graham Taylor

Graham_Taylor
Pic courtesy of Clurr

1. That documentary was the making of him

For some, it fit perfectly the narrative of a village idiot in demise. For me, though, it destroyed a perception I’d developed over the previous decade of an earnest, provincial civil servant who firmly believed that there is a point to ironing your pyjamas.

Whatever the language and bathos of those 50 minutes, here was a man with hot blood coursing through his veins, after all. From behind the Acacia Drive exterior emerged someone I could finally imagine enjoying a few beers with: after hours, with the bar curtains drawn tight and guilty smiles on our faces.

Someone’s image nose-dived all right, on the evening of January 24, 1994, but I think you’ll find it was Phil Neal’s.

2. Class, in all its forms, is permanent

The obsession with success for the national football team, seemed oddly irrelevant today. With just an occasional nod to the truism that international football was probably a bridge too far for Graham Taylor, even the tributes on that savage free-for-all called Twitter focused tightly on what he did accomplish: being a proficient club manager at the highest domestic level, while never losing his soul.

This was not a case of death buying the dead some restraint. The tributes were fulsome and uninhibited, and a lesson for all of us. Whatever your achievements or failures, your character will outlive them all in the consciousness of others.

“In a way, the world is a great liar,” Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan once wrote. “It shows you it worships and admires money, but at the end of the day it doesn’t, not really. The world admires, and wants to hold on to, and not lose, goodness. It admires virtue. At the end it gives its greatest tributes to generosity, honesty, courage, mercy, talents well used, talents that, brought into the world, make it better. That’s what it really admires. That’s what we talk about in eulogies, because that’s what’s important. We don’t say, ‘The thing about Joe was that he was rich.’ We say, if we can, ‘The thing about Joe was he took care of people.”

3. Enjoy these particular tributes while you still can

So many eulogies have focused on Taylor’s common touch and ‘everyman’ persona. There was talk of daft letters he nonetheless answered, or the conversations with fans in which you’d have thought he was merely a fan himself.

Just six months ago, working on the coast for a magazine feature, a colleague of mine found himself being watched by Mr and Mrs Taylor, on holiday at the time. My colleague being a football fan, the conversation took an inevitable turn, yet while Mrs Taylor politely made her excuses and walked on with the dog, her husband hung around for another 10 minutes, happily talking ‘shop’, as if stumbling upon a kindred spirit was the highlight of his vacation.

Now think of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and the rest of the ‘smoked glass’ generation, casting crumbs to the masses from behind their phalanx of PR people. How differently might their obituaries eventually read, do you imagine?

4. The Buggles lied

Video did not kill the radio star. Against the backdrop of shallow, shouty television, he is the counterpoint that became ever more precious. With neither looks nor special effects at his disposal, he stands or falls on his speech alone, and the calibre of thought to which it gives voice. Graham Taylor could spout the occasional commentary booth inanity with the best of them but in the main, he was one of the better analysts, rarely given to verbal excess and frequently telling me something I hadn’t already figured out for myself. That I will never again hear that reassuring Lincolnshire voice on a Radio 5 Live commentary is the part of today that is hardest to take in.

That perceived civil servant of 30 years ago has come a long way. Today feels like I’ve lost an uncle.

Fault – tennis and bastardised English

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The impossible dream? Roger Federer – pic courtesy of Yann Caradec

If I blogged every instance of people in professional sport talking nonsense, I would never be away from my laptop, but I refuse to let tennis off the hook for the garbage it continues to spout when discussing its four biggest titles.

Roger Federer can win another Grand Slam, says former coach Paul Annacone. Oh he can, can he? Win the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and US Open all in the same calendar year? That would be some achievement, undoubtedly, from a 35-year-old.

Only that’s not what Annacone has in mind, of course. In reporting his opinions, the BBC is simply falling into line with the imprecision common to everyone involved with pro tennis, it seems – applying the term ‘Grand Slam’ to a mere component of a Grand Slam. Annacone simply thinks Federer has one more big-four title in him.

So why not say so? Golf has found a way of avoiding such mangled nomenclature, by referring to each of its own principal championships – Masters, US Open, The Open and USPGA Championship – as ‘a Major’ (collectively as ‘the Majors’). Why on earth couldn’t tennis adopt this same label (as occurs elsewhere in the article, ironically) and save the term ‘Grand Slam’ for when it is actually warranted?

We have grown sadly accustomed to the ‘all must have prizes’ mentality seeping into Society. This ‘all must have the ultimate prize’ presumption, however, is a distortion too far.

New words, please.

Blur of managerial merry-go-round no longer hides the real villains

Bob Bradley c/o Doha Stadium Plus Qatar
Bob Bradley (pic courtesy of Doha Stadium Plus Qatar)

As always, much chatter accompanied the dismissal of yet another football manager, yet in the spare time now available to him, Swansea City’s latest ex-boss, Bob Bradley, may reflect that there has never been a better time to be fired in his line of work.

For more and more these days, the chatter revolves around those behind the gun, rather than the hapless soul in front of it.

What on earth passes for due diligence at Swansea City? In a era when senior recruitment is an industry in itself, awash with gurus and number-crunchers, how can a multi-million pound organisation’s grasp of research and strategy be so abysmal that they are showing the door to a manager just 12 weeks after attaching his name to it?

Who checked this man over and how and why did that person arrive at the conclusion that Bradley was the best man available to take this team forward, in conjunction with the three- or five-year plans so beloved of pontificating ‘suits’ these days?

But maybe I get to the gist of this fiasco with that last sentence, for such long-term vision, I suspect, is the sole preserve of those clubs at the opposite end of the league table from Swansea City right now. The Welsh club currently belongs to that nervous enclave for whom the long-term is measured in weeks rather than years. Were it otherwise, Garry Monk, their manager just over a year ago and now doing admirable things with Leeds United, might still be at the helm and the club in calmer waters, his bosses doubtless congratulating themselves on not letting fickle form blind them to enduring ability.

That such steadfastness seems rather archaic nowadays reflects poorly on a professional game that has allowed the stakes to become too high. Relegation used to be a maddening inconvenience but it has become something seen as tantamount to the fall of Pompeii; an enforced separation from the Premier League’s money-engorged tit, that simply cannot be contemplated.

We have all become so giddy with this notion that were any chairman to declare such belief in a new manager that not even a relegation season would threaten the latter’s job, it would be a race as to who threw the first stone at him – fans, media or the club accountants.

So erratic and scattergun has the managerial merry-go-round become that the kind of boardroom shenanigans in the game’s Latin quarter that once amused us so greatly are now moving dangerously close to home. Remember Atlético Madrid’s hothead owner Jesús Gil? Thirty-nine managers in 17 years? How much longer before he might have begun to feel right at home in the Premier League?

First we see Crystal Palace stump up heaven knows how much in severance pay to be shot of Alan Pardew, only to replace like with like and now this farce in south Wales, an indictment not only of those who purport to ‘run’ the clubs concerned, but also of those who preside over a league that has lost all sense of perspective.

Enjoy your weekend, Bob Bradley. You’re well out of it.