Monday, May 31, 2010

Us against the world

I used the ‘w’ word a few times during Sunday’s England commentary from Graz. No, not THAT ‘w’ word – England weren’t quite that bad – I’m talking about the ‘we’ word.

A good commentator should always be objective and never biased in his reading of the game, but when it comes to England I don’t think there is any harm in nailing your colours to the mast.

Everyone always asks me who I support, and I invariably answer ‘two teenage children’. But yes, I was brought up a Manchester United fan, and in Manchester too! It was my dad’s team, and he passed the faith down to me and I got to see Best, Law and Charlton in their prime as a result. Thanks dad.

I’m honestly not a United fan anymore. I’m ashamed to say it because I should be for life. But my job has taken me into a privileged position where I have many friends inside the game, and sometimes they are playing or managing against United, and I want them to win.

I’m a genuine neutral now, or a floating voter at least. I often have a secret favour for one team or the other, but it’s usually what best suits my professional interests on the day. A shock result in the FA Cup or an ‘English’ win in the Champions League are good for ITV.

It may be that I privately want Chelsea to lose one week, and win the next. I just hope it doesn’t show! But when it comes to England, I am a committed 24/7 supporter and it is going to show!

I’m sorry if you’re American or Algerian (or Scottish), but if you tune into ITV’s coverage of the opening World Cup games, you will hear a proud Englishman commentating to millions of others. Some ‘politically correct’ observers may not like it, but from time to time the odd ‘we’ will slip out.

You’ve been warned.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Odd Couple

Do you know what? I think England may be heading back to a Frank Lampard-Steven Gerrard central midfield. And I, for one, would take my chances with that.

It's a fine state of affairs when the nation is awaiting a medical bulletin on Gareth Barry's ankle as anxiously as it might news of a royal baby. He appears to be the last surviving English holding player in captivity, (and, worse still, I'm not even sure he is a holding player!).

Unless Esteban Cambiasso's English grandfather suddenly makes himself known, we are looking for a different solution. And it may just be the original one.

Now, I know some of you will think this is like asking Macca and Heather to give it another go, but the difference in Gerrard's body language when he was released into central midfield against Mexico lifted the whole conviction level of the team. It's where both he and Lampard want to be, and I believe they would be happy to try again. Happy players can put a smile on everyone's face.

As with that other uneasy national coalition, compromises and cuts will have to be made. The Roo may have to busy himself around the opponents' own anchor man, the full-backs must take it in turns to advance and both may need wide men who are more 'Milner' than 'Lennon' in front of them.

Our strongest suit is not the manager, it is the quality of a group of experienced players who've been highly successful at the top of the club game - with and against the best players around.

A World Cup should hold no fears for them, yet they looked as nervous as public sector workers against Mexico. We've got to play smart in South Africa, but we've also got to give it a go. No regrets.

Fabio Capello seems set on 4-4-2. I'd like to have seen alternatives tried, but we are getting a bit close to curtain up for experiments now. It's a familiar formation that calls for familiar faces - it may be time to watch a rerun of the Odd Couple again .

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Cuddly Jose

I've always found it a little difficult to really like Jose Mourinho. Admire, respect - no problem. Discuss, debate and show a fascination for - yes, constantly.

But all of the baggage, all that vain melodrama, all those rude and ungracious insults and conspiracy theories - well, if I'm honest, I didn't really want Inter to win on Saturday night simply because of him.

The whole season appears to have been one long exit strategy, with Mourinho convincing himself and anyone who would listen that he was working in handcuffs in Italy, while actively encouraging the biggest clubs in England and Spain to come and release him. The move to Real Madrid was, apparently, a done deal before kick-off.

But not only did his team again execute his gameplan to something approaching perfection, Mourinho looked a genuinely, naturally happy man after the game. No staged show of camera-friendly celebration, no agendas, no sneers - just a warm, proud smile of success, and some fond reflections shared with our reporter, Gabriel Clarke, and some touching post-match moments shared with his young son.

Yes, he is abandoning Milan for Madrid on his terms, but 21st century football management happens in shorter and shorter cycles. I have it on good authority that Louis van Gaal is considering quitting Bayern after less than one year. Mourinho will manage Real his way, and probably not for very long.

Soon, he will be wearing the mask of the agent provocateur again, and rubbing the rest of Spain up the wrong way. But beneath that mask is a cuddly Jose who is actually very likeable indeed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Jose Mourinho's Jose Mourinho

The ash clouds and the strike clouds are clearing and I can fly to Madrid this weekend for ITV’s live coverage of the Champions League final.

As you may have read, the match is between Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan and Bayern Munich, coached by Jose Mourinho’s former boss, Louis van Gaal. It will be staged in the Bernebeu Stadium, which may shortly become Jose Mourinho’s new place of work. The pre-match headlines are being made by Jose Mourinho, and whatever happens during the final, Jose Mourinho will be the story.

Call me simplistic but I’ve always been under the impression that football matches are won and lost by the guys who run around the pitch in shorts – rather than the man who runs onto the pitch at the end. But Jose Mourinho’s matches are either won by Jose Mourinho, or lost to a conspiracy – usually a conspiracy against Jose Mourinho.

The Portuguese puppeteer has the rest of us dangling from his strings. According to him, even Chelsea are still apparently Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea – although they are no longer quite as good as Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea because the Premier League is no longer quite as good as Jose Mourinho’s Premier League. At the great clubs of the world, nobody is bigger than the club itself – unless it’s Jose Mourinho’s club.

The argument goes that Mourinho makes himself the centre of attention in order to take the pressure off everyone else at the club. The flaw in the argument is that he is usually as successful in making that club unpopular as he is in making it unbeatable. His favourite fixture is Jose against the World. The intense spirit that he cultivates within a dressing-room is grown on a bed of persecution complexes.

So we love him or we hate him – usually both within the same few seconds. He fascinates and frustrates, he charms and he chides. Most that serve under him remain fiercely loyal to him, but listening to Eidur Gudjohnsen on Sky before the first leg of the semi, I got the impression that even his own players dismiss his rants as self-possessed nonsense. For me, it’s Jose Mourinho’s vanity that does more than anything to keep him in the spotlight.

And that makes this final particularly interesting because if there is a bigger ego in European football, it may just be van Gaal’s. Mourinho’s one-time mentor at Barcelona will happily engage in mind games with his former charge. Already, he is teasing Jose by suggesting that he is a cautious coach, hell bent on winning at all costs with no interest in entertaining. A miffed Mourinho has responded with a bristling defence of Inter’s style.

What van Gaal really wants is for Mourinho to respond by instructing his players to attack Bayern on Saturday night. He is trying to tempt the Special One to put his reputation before the best interests of a team that is at its best when counter-attacking. If Real Madrid are seriously courting Mourinho they will expect him to build a team that wins the Real way. Inter are not really equipped to do that, and their manager may sacrifice their best chance of winning if he allows van Gaal’s taunts to change their approach.

For once, I think this match may be won and lost by the men in suits.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Surface tension

I am scratching my head and trying to work out why the pitch for my 15-year old son’s club cricket match yesterday morning was better prepared than the one for Saturday’s FA Cup final.
Either Fleet Cricket Club have a bigger budget than I imagine, or the Wembley playing surface has now graduated from a problem to a crisis.

It is ok for John Terry and everybody else to call it ‘a disgrace’ and worse, but the real worry is that the best brains in agronomy and groundsmanship (apparently, a real word!) have been unable to come up with a solution to a grumble that the rest of us have now been airing for well over a year.

Like global warming and the world banking crisis, it is one of those subjects on which everyone has a view – most of them totally uneducated. How many times have you been told, “the thing is that they didn’t dig deep enough in the first place”? – usually by someone who has a second floor flat with a rubber plant and some window boxes.

The Football Association may have a tendency towards self-foot-shooting at times, but surely they have sought advice from all of the clubs that routinely provide billiard table tops for Premier League footballers to parade their skills on.

Whether the fault lies with the foundations or the roots or a lack of sunshine or a lack of budget or Steve McClaren (most things to do with England seem to be his fault!), the blame is no longer the issue. The remedy is the issue, and I’m beginning to think there may not be one.

Fabio Capello must have looked down from his place in the posh seats and asked himself, ‘do I want to risk Rooney or Lampard on this pitch against Mexico?’ While it looked considerably scruffier than the skid-patches on which the semi-finals were played, it may actually be a poor rather than dangerous surface.

But a place in the team for next Monday’s warm-up game could still be a sure sign that you are NOT in the England manager’s World Cup plans.

With that in mind, I would like to exclusively announce that – despite Paul Scholes’ best attempts to persuade me otherwise - I am available for selection if it will help the national cause.

Last year, I was privileged to play in a sponsors’ match on the ‘hollowed’ turf without falling over once, and I believe the secret of survival at Wembley is for players to put on a bit of extra weight for ballast and move at strolling pace. It worked for me.

Today and tomorrow, I’m playing golf on the Ryder Cup course at Celtic Manor as part of a fund-raising event for the Bobby Moore Fund for Cancer Research. It may just look a bit like Wembley by the time I’ve finished with it.