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.

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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?

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?

Is Leicester’s fairytale being 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…”

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.