NFL’s Oakland raid means Dons’ stigma goes on

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Pic courtesy of djfpaagman

I believe the excellent football magazine When Saturday Comes still maintains the traditional exclusion of MK Dons from its season preview.

All other Premier and Football League clubs are allocated a capsule covering their prospects but not the Buckinghamshire club, which was infamously formed in 2004, after businessmen decided that a football club is purely about assets, and not at all about location. As Wimbledon FC withered on the vine in south London, plans to relocate it to Dublin condensed into the not so evocative reality of a 70-mile move north to Milton Keynes. With the new home came a new name and colour scheme and Wimbledon’s alter ego was up and running.

If you’re American, this was business as usual for professional sport. If you’re English, on the other hand, it was unprecedented in living memory, alien to the tribalism that underpins our national game and, perhaps most significantly,  it opened a door on laterally-mobile franchises that many football people would rather was welded shut forever.

That was what assured MK Dons of a long and rocky road towards acceptance, as manifested by the When Saturday Comes boycott. It wasn’t a desire for revenge on the innocent football lovers of Milton Keynes, but a dread of normalising the intolerable, lest it become fashionable.

And as much as some Dons’ fans like to characterise grudging tolerance of their club as the last lingering rant of old men in end-of-world sandwich boards, the case against ‘Franchise FC’ and its lamentable origins were only given a fresh lick of paint by this week’s goings-on in the United States.

A vote by NFL owners last week means that Las Vegas will have a new American football team in 2019. Only it won’t.

That’s because Las Vegas is getting Oakland’s team. Not because fans of the Oakland Raiders have found that they have better things to do with their autumnal Sundays, but because the Californian city happens to have a mayor with a backbone.

When the Raiders attempted to execute the disgusting shakedown that passes for ‘best practice’ in American pro sports, namely, “Give us untold millions of taxpayers’ money towards a new stadium or we’ll jump town,” Mayor Libby Schaaf asked if they needed help with their packing.

Six hundred miles to the east, alas, civic leaders are made of less formidable stuff. Nevada’s state legislature will donate $750m from civic coffers towards the $1.9bn price tag of the Raiders’ new stadium in Sin City. Hopefully those same leaders will now field calls all day long from voters wanting to know how the state’s generosity squares with Las Vegas’s current schools crisis, caused by – you guessed it – lack of funding.

Two fine articles have been penned here and here, highlighting other economic holes that traditionally riddle these sweetheart deals, like the discrepancy often found between predicted local revenues to be generated by the incoming team and the numbers that actually emerge (the Raiders new stadium will host only eight regular-season games, after all) and the ‘reverse Robin Hood’ scenario that sees public money used to generate profit for private investors.

And all this is before we disregard the financial aspect altogether and consider the simple aesthetics of these city-swaps. It can be hard enough maintaining affinity to a professional football club in Britain when its players change wholesale from one season to the next, yet imagine a league in which clubs themselves become migrants.

By way of analogy, I’d invite those of you with happy marriages, to visualise them having been subject to one small change at the outset – the words “’til death do us part” being replaced with “’til I get a better offer.”

With the best will in the world, I suspect the relationship that followed would have struggled to reach quite the same heights.

So you’ll have to excuse us, MK Dons supporters. It really is nothing personal, but we will never rule a line under the way in which your club came into being. Because we don’t want people getting ideas.

As America shows us, you see, franchise relocation is like smoking: it’s habit-forming and it usually stinks.

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…”

Pies? Sutton woes take the biscuit for karma

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Pic courtesy of Steven Snodgrass

Until about noon today, you may have shared my view that the worst legacy of last night’s FA Cup encounter between Sutton Utd and Arsenal was the visitors forgetting their pennant. Probably more absent-mindedness than ‘snub’ and quickly and grandly redeemed by Theo Walcott’s post-game sportsmanship and his employers’ largesse.

By lunchtime, though, all this was a mere detail as the horror story unfolded of a substitute goalkeeper and a meat pie. Yes, you did read that correctly.

While rules are rules, they are dwarfed by the bigger picture here. The supposed custodians of football – be it the Football Association, Premier League or Football League – tumble into bed with the betting industry, via a string of club and bookmaker sponsorship deals, and we’re now supposed to take them seriously as they get all sniffy about the game’s integrity?

Where was that ethical concern when the colour of money blinded them to the optics of a commercial alliance that will simply never look right? Professional sport and gambling tie-ins are like a vicar and tarts party without the underlying irony, both sides insisting that they can make a go of it.

So forgive me if I don’t join in with the censorious pomposity as football’s new mate bites it in the bum. Not because a goalkeeper flapped suspectly at a cross any six-year-old could have caught, mind you, handing a dodgy win to his opponents, but because he ate a pie in the dugout.

This used to be exactly the kind of stuff that made non-league football what it is, for goodness’ sake: often a damn sight more fun than its senior counterpart. Not any more, alas. The pursuit of excellence is a humourless thing, so where we might once have laughed off a bit of daft japery from some jack-the-lad on the bench, now it’s breast-beating all round, the Sutton manager talking like there’s been a bereavement, the club’s community and disabled teams now forced to look for a new president. And in the background, the promise of an investigation by the FA, its hands grubby with bookmakers’ money.

Good job the rest of us can still laugh.

Move along, post-match interviews, nothing to hear…

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Pic courtesy of ElizabethAOwens

I call them Crusoe moments. As sweet to behold as that famous footprint in the sand: the sudden realisation that it’s not just you.

So it was when I joyously read this well-argued plea in Vice Sports that maybe it’s time the post-match interview was going the way of the supporter’s rattle.

Boy, is Will Magee pushing at an open door here. I can’t remember how long ago it first dawned on me that all that huff and puff to be first with the reactions bore little relation to the calibre of end-product but it’s measured in years, not months.

Has anyone in TV and radio land twigged yet; or is it the realisation that dare not speak its name? Mix testosterone and adrenalin, stir in frustration and anger and garnish with the still-fresh echoes of a baying crowd and you have just about the worst environment possible for incisive analysis.

I don’t care if you’ve bagged Oscar Wilde and Sir Peter Ustinov simultaneously for your post-game ‘exclusive’, if they’ve just spent 90 minutes putting bodies on the line in a local derby, what follows will still fall some way short of their best work.

Were it simply players who momentarily had mush for brains, the exercise would be almost futile but its fate is sealed by interrogators for whom there are no such excuses.

In my days working in football, I always knew when an interview was being forced. I would find myself not so much asking questions as getting players to react to my statements. Sadly, this is almost par for the course these days, even with national media, accompanied by its bastard twin, the fatuous statement tarted up as a question.

“How important was it that you broke that losing streak today?” is four seconds of our lives that none of us are getting back.

In a perfect world, there would be a perfect time for the post-game interview. Roughly 18 hours post-game. Envisage a mid-morning magazine programme, called, Now That Everyone’s Calmed Down, in which reporters around the country pop in on key protagonists from the afternoon before to ask for their reflections on the game over coffee and croissants.

Picture Wayne Rooney, roaring fire, kids playing happily at his feet. Colleen playfully ruffling his hair as she deposits a cheeky little Danish on his plate before heading off to the sauna.

Yes, even Wayne Rooney might surprise you in those circumstances. Relaxed, expansive, maybe even offering the occasional hint of whimsy.

In the less-than-perfect world we’re stuck with, however, we must make do with simple damage limitation. Know this, interviewers – unless your question boils down to, “We couldn’t see from the grandstands: what happened?” It’s probably not worth asking.

So don’t bring us your brain-fried, your surly, or your reluctant for pathetic stabs at after-match enlightenment. Just bring yourself: yes you, Mr/Ms broadcast journalist. You’re trained in articulation, you’ve watched football for years, you spend all week immersing yourself in little else. Tell us what you made of it all, instead. Would it really be so less enlightening than the musings of a painfully shy full-back, high as a kite on hormones?

And who knows how it might play out, were Mourinho & Co to find dark, empty spaces where there were once galaxies of flashbulbs and a forest of microphones. Maybe it would be a tiresome weight off their shoulders after all, as their body language so often suggests.

Or maybe, just maybe, there might be a few little feelers put out from media managers at Premier League clubs, several months down the line. If the editor can spare you, just a friendly little get-together over lunch with the gaffer, maybe?

You know, to build some bridges…

Reflections on Graham Taylor

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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.

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.