Far Post Footy

Shopkeepers and Footballers

 

The following is a list of ideas and phrases I developed, found, culled from speeches/articles/podcasts/life over a year ago. I never got around to publishing them or much of anything. Most of this is both life and sport related. It’s all relative to improvement and development. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to be the end-all-be-all of any one particular school of thinking. It’s just a collection of thoughts — that’s it.

  1. Players and coaches both need to understand and live this phrase: “In order to have, you have to do. In order to do, you have to be.” In other words, to achieve any sense of trust, you have to perform trustworthy actions. In order to do that, you have to be inherently trustworthy. The big caveat and universal truth of this statement is you can and should replace the word “trust” with any actionable quality and adjective. Think: greatness, powerful, talented, dedicated, committed, disciplined, etc.
  2. External competition is a misnomer. Before you can compete externally, you must first learn to compete internally. That is, you must have a purpose — one that drives you to be better than previous versions of yourself. However, competition as an action is less of a battle than it is a leveling-up process. Competition is the introduction of adversity. When done correctly, this is a net positive.
  3. Everything within your grasp is not meant to be in your hand. Just because you can doesn’t mean you should.
  4. “When the student is ready the teacher appears.”  Not everything is about direct instruction and the dependency on it. Players are conditioned to only accept direct instruction, coaches are conditioned to only deliver it. Not everything is ready to be taught when we want to teach it…it takes time and it takes rounds of failure. When both parties are receptive and engaged — progress begins.
  5. The job of a player/coach is the same as a shopkeeper. It’s up to you to open the shop every day. One cannot be successful if they aren’t open for business and aren’t willing to partake in commerce — the exchange of time, ideas, and energy — on a daily basis. If the shop is closed, there is no commerce.
  6. Mentorships: Not every player, coach, or individual is worthy of mentorship. It is NOT a coach’s job to mentor someone if it becomes clear that whatever it is you’re trying to help them with isn’t a priority to them. If you can say, “This is just not important enough for you,” to their face and stand by that assertion, it’s time to cut them loose and move on. Without commitment and reciprocation and application, the pupil is not willing to learn. See point 4.
  7. How to deal with a great apple turning into a bad apple. Give advice, give guidance, but be wary of that one bad apple that threatens to spoil the bunch. Remove it before it’s too late. You’re doing both parties a great service with clear communication and blunt and honest messaging.
  8. On Groupthink: Too many people think they have an entourage but in reality the entourage has them. Influencers will take over. This is not necessarily a good thing, especially in team dynamics. Engage in critical thinking. Be creative. Be an independent and free thinker. Challenge your own ideas before you blindly accept them as infallible.
  9. Relationships MUST be built on trust and they MUST be voluntary. Teammates have to trust one another. Coaches have to trust their players and players must trust their coach and his/her intentions and philosophy. The one relationship that’s most overlooked, however, is the relationship with the self. This relationship is often the hardest to maintain, manage, and care for as it’s also the most important relationship we have.
  10. RESISTANCE: Introduce and overcome resistance — that’s what professionals do. Avoidance of things that challenge us is damaging to our development.
  11. “Seek first to understand then to be understood”: It’s easy to criticize that which we do not understand or accept on the surface. Conducting a self-inventory and analysis of not just what we don’t understand, but also why we don’t understand something is a valuable lesson in intentional thinking, patience, and maturity.
  12. It’s much easier to define what you’re against than it is to define what you’re for: see number 11.
  13. What you think is way less important than how you think: see number 11.
  14. Strategy without execution is ineffective. An average strategy with great execution is far more effective and greater than a great strategy with poor execution. Related: “Knowledge without mileage equals bullshit” — Henry Rollins. Experience is king.
  15. One person can change the world for the better so long as they don’t care who gets the credit. This saying is found in a number of different texts in a variety of different phrasings. The truth remains constant. Focus on progress and development more than focusing on getting credit. People will focus on the result over the method most of the time anyway.
  16. What gets measured gets managed. Get your reps in. Repeat. I’ve always subscribed to this methodology in most aspects of playing, training, studying, working, coaching and life in general. Obviously, quality over quantity is a factor but there is little wrong with repping out on the good things in life.
  17. Focus on progress, not perfection. This is simple. Adopt a “better than zero” mindset. Positive changes arrive incrementally. Work on moving the needle a little bit at a time. Whatever you do, just keep going.
  18. We must to become experts in becoming an expert. Work on the process…to find a solution, we need to learn how to work the problem. Study, apply, fail often, repeat. There is a lesson to be learned — you just have to look a bit harder.
  19. Use the extreme to reveal the subtle. Illustrate points and teachable moments with care and clarity. We are stubborn creatures. Oftentimes, it’s best to see the dramatic outcome of a poor decision or a series of poor decisions or behaviors to really reveal what’s causing them in the first place.
  20. There’s a difference between a person who’s “being there” and who’s “just there”. There’s a difference between being fit and being a good fit.
  21. The key is measuring character, resolve, ability, skill is NOT when we are at our best, but rather when we are at our worst.
  22. Treat people like a rubber band. If you constantly stretch it too much, it will snap. If you carefully stretch it to the brink while being mindful not to cause too much stress, it doesn’t snap. It becomes more pliable.
  23. Don’t look back. We aren’t going that way. Remember that it’s important to reflect and learn from the past, but we can’t go back nor should we try to…don’t dwell on the things that cannot and will not change. The sooner you realize it’s never going to be the same again the faster you can begin to make progress and ensure a better future.
  24. “It’s not what you say…it’s what they hear”. Choose your words, choose your tone, choose your delivery method.
  25. “Skill that is untested does not equate to actual skill.”

Photo by Aziz Acharki on Unsplash

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The Obsession with Average

The Obsession with Average

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

Having played the game since I was four and staying with it in some (or multiple) capacities ever since, I’m prepared to say the American player has an obsession with average. Part of this obsession with average is a systemic issue whereby society has granted people carte blanche to do the bare minimum and expect to yield greatness. This is akin to grabbing a cooking sheet, slathering it with lard, placing rotten ingredients on it (input) and expecting a gourmet meal fit for royalty (output) when the dinner bell rings.

So, what’s the other part responsible for this obsession with average? A lack of incentive and desperation in the game. And no, this isn’t a problem with America, it’s a problem with American soccer. For a sport to yield and produce elite talent it needs incentives far exceeding the dispersal of its talent vying for [partial] college scholarships or making insultingly low salaries in MLS, NASL, or USL-Pro. Looking at sports like basketball and American football and their primary talent pool sources, we can see the connections to soccer everywhere except in the United States.

Other than being a pay-to-play enterprise rife with clueless coaches, clueless journalists posing as soccer writers, and out-of-touch perceptions aimed to keep the game framed as a “foreign” sport or presenting it as some abstract sport played elsewhere, which is trendy (and mockery), American soccer has yet to fully make the game accessible to all people.

Desperation destroys complacency and eliminates average. Here, kids are rewarded for mere participation in an activity. They soak up praise for the simplest of activities provided they put their smartphones down, turn off their video games, and get their asses off the couch. At school, every single grade has somehow become a “negotiation” between helicopter parent and underpaid teacher. This means if you happen to be a teacher and a coach, you are in perpetual Hell.

What is the solution? Well, that depends on the player and on the situation. The United States, for a lot of people, is no easy place to grow up in and although there’s an absence of fútbol de barrio, there’s no shortage of players coming from the streets who live, play, and view [all] sports as if their lives depended on it. Soccer is the game of the People and yet in the “Land of Opportunity”, it has become an elitist sport run by highbrow visionaries on all levels.

Rather than discuss why promotion and relegation needs to happen, I’ll just discuss what promotion and relegation would do for the growth of the game at levels outside of MLS, which is interested in expansion–and that’s not the growth I’m alluding to (and relax, MLS peeps, I’m not attacking the league). Promotion and relegation turns a formerly closed soccer market into a open marketplace for the sport whereby player development and competition are rewarded via meritocracy, monetarily through player trades, allows coaches to be compensated and incentivized to produce better players, and opens the door for small businesses to provide incentives for teams gearing up to earn their way to the top.

The takeaway, in simple terms, is clubs will have a means and a path based on meritocracy to climb or fall within a pyramidal system that allows independent clubs to make business decisions for their own good. Just like the working place, performance ideally dictates outcome for better or worse. Teams that can’t produce and remain competitive should be relegated just like business that can’t produce or compete should improve or downsize to re-calibrate. People fear the mechanism of promotion and relegation because they see it as punishment. Under what entitled view should teams with poor ownership, direction, player production, and a litany of other negatives be afforded the right to remain safe from the drop? What that reinforces is bad soccer. What that reinforces is mediocrity.

When teams and players compete in league systems that reward performance, the current standard is smashed and the bar is raised. If the bar is raised at the bottom, the teams at the top of the pyramid must raise their own level of play because, now, there’s a target on their backs. Change demands the deconstruction of the status quo, which is scary to those in high (and therefore, safe) positions. The current system rewards and safeguards mediocrity. The sport will not die if teams traverse the levels in an open pyramid. If DC United was relegated last year, believe me, the sport would have continued to be played in America. In fact, the very thought of teams rising up in a country with unrivaled infrastructure resources would raise the the allure, popularity, and level of the game. Of course, these are issues met with default defensive reactions by those who can’t see it working (yet), or those who aim to safeguard the status quo.

Before the anti-pro/rel people drag my name through the mud (again), however, this is not a fantasy where I pretend to know the economic implications and business potential of such a drastic change. In my opinion, I’d venture to put stock in the game’s evolution with regional leagues (mitigating the “but our country is so big!” excuse) with promotion and relegation to help strengthen and shake the bedrock of independent clubs to better their product. Where that breaks out could be through any number of estuaries that open up. The top clubs from each region could form their own division to compete under NASL and USL-Pro thereby lessening the burden for travel for small teams by allowing competition to be region-based and localized. The top three teams of each region could form a tier that connects them to the established professional leagues (again, outside of MLS).

So, how does this entire thought-process circle back to an obsession with average? I recall a conversation I had with one of my best friends who grew up in England. Over the span of his years watching the game he’s witnessed disappointment after disappointment from the national team, his boyhood club (Tottenham Hotspur), and the scant number of British players who actually go abroad to play the game during their development and as seasoned professionals. He said, “The problem with British players is similar to the problem with American players. They aren’t going to leave their cozy little homes and play on some shit field in Eastern Europe.”

It wasn’t a revelation or epiphany to me, but it just made more sense when I heard someone else who grew up in a different country say it. The reality is American (and, according to my British buddy, English) players aren’t going to live on someone’s couch going from trial to trial in all corners of the world trying to eek a living out of the game en masse. Nor will most American players do what African, South American, Asian, and continental Europeans do with regularity, which is be persistent, tough, and determined enough to become successful because they sure as hell don’t want to go back home and live the same lives everyone else does. England has this problem and the United States does because everyone is content with being average and comfortable. You don’t see scores of English and American players going abroad and getting away from the systems that hold them back technically, tactically, and culturally. The result is two national teams that oscillate with similar FIFA rankings and won’t win a World Cup anytime soon while the countries with these types of players tend to breed tougher, more versatile and talented players.

However, I intend to hit on a few things that need to change immediately. Recall my abrasive post where I challenge the toughness and resolve of the American player. Just let every example of just how content players are to be average here marinate for a bit. How often do you see kids playing in parks and empty lots until the street lights flicker on? How often does a player find a way to train after formal practice? What are you, as coaches and parents, praising on the sidelines and after games? Hard shots? Big clearances to nobody? Mouthing off to a referee? Grandstanding displays of arrogance?

I ask because I haven’t seen those players willing to grind it out with not a penny to their name get the recognition they deserve. The kid from a poor family who has to walk, run, ride a bike, catch a city bus or train, just to get to practice. Instead, America lauds the suburban kid with more money on his feet in the form of clown-colored shoes than most families have in their checking account. We ensure the kids who show up to practice in lavish cars and SUVs with heated seats are taken care of, everyone else, well, thanks for playing.

Something is amiss with the soccer culture in the United States. It’s addicted to average.

Average is a disease. Mediocrity is another word for stagnation–and that’s what we need to get away from to actually use the wealth of untapped talent at our disposal.

The Game is Free

“There is a time and place for organized soccer, but if that is all players play, then enjoyment, creativity, leadership, and fun will have to be ‘coached’ into players, instead of being developed organically”

I have this memory of my father showing me a clip of Pelé juggling a grapefruit when I was a boy that reminds me how simple the game really is. Like any young boy who loved to play, seeing Pelé do anything with a ball was nothing short of magical. That memory recently coincided with a scene from the movie Escape to Victory where Cpl. Luis Fernandez (Pelé) juggles a ball on his head while Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) asks, “Where’d you learn to do that?” to which Cpl. Fernandez says, “When I was a boy, in Trinidad, in the streets, with the oranges,” while continuing to juggle the ball. I immediately ran out to the orange tree in the backyard, plucked an orange from a low-hanging branch and unsuccessfully tried to juggle it like Pelé. To this day, my record of juggling an orange like a soccer ball is 12.

 What’s the point of this little anecdote?

 Each day I follow a routine. Part of this routine involves driving 35 miles across a state line to the office where I work. Along the way I drive by a total of three public parks, one suburban park near the town I live in and two city parks, all with an abundance of real estate and plenty of soccer fields with goals and nets. On the weekends, I often make this same drive and there’s a troubling sight. The soccer fields are devoid of anyone playing pickup games in an area known for a rich history in the sport in the United States.

 This summer, I decided to drive up to the fields of each park. What I found was troubling. The suburban park had a sign that read, “Keep off the Field” and another that said, “No Play Except on Game Days”. The city parks had no such signs but we still left vacant. Keep off the field? No play except on game days? Over the summer months, when kids are out of school and seemingly have more free time, I visited these parks again and still found them empty. Other areas of both the suburban and city parks were bustling with people playing recreational games of gridiron football and the basketball courts accommodated recreational basketball games.

 On occasions, I visit where I grew up; the same park pitches I used to frequent after school now sit empty. However, it was not always this way. In the last 10-15 years, pickup soccer has become a lost game. Whether it was Jumpers for Goalposts in the park or a game my friends and I played called Three Bar (a common game in pickup ice hockey), most of the hours previous generations accumulated in the game were outside of structured games and training sessions.

 The reality is the hours spent at practice are simply not enough for maximum improvement. What else has changed is the value placed on pickup soccer. We exist in a time where one could argue that too much infrastructure is in place. Suburban players typically do not partake in pickup games for a variety of reasons, including technology and parental interference. According to the American Accreditation HealthCare Commission, most American kids spend about three hours a day watching television with additional “screen time” accumulation through tablets, computers, and smartphones. The finding states that all types of screen time can total five to seven hours a day. In addition to the time lost, kids are more apt to eat junk food during these hours. Lethargy and extended periods of sedentary time have become a lifestyle.

 The next contributing factor is the community. Parks that have signs up prohibiting people from playing on the fields is problematic, but not out of the realm of understanding. Facilities managers want to maintain the condition of the fields, nets, and goals. Signs with “Keep Off” emblazoned on in bold lettering send a message that parks have become places where playing is viewed as prohibitive

 Next on the list of culprits are parents. Parents are guilty of competing with one another and using their children as leverage. The result is a type of systemic parental competition where parents overschedule activities for their kids in an attempt to reinforce the assertion that their child is the most talented and well-rounded of the bunch. The over-involvement in so many activities has resulted in a generation of exhausted, robotic, and unmotivated kids that have grown up needing constant prompting.

 For players in more urban environments, access to safe places to play is a problem. In a recent blog post titled “Small Space, Big Impact” by Jim Hannesschlager, Grants Coordinator for the U.S. Soccer Foundation, an organization that aims “to enhance, assist and grow the sport of soccer in the United States, with special emphasis on underserved communities”, he addressed the topic of the lack of soccer-dedicated courts and settings. In the short post, he took feedback from both new and experienced coaches in addition to players who cited “facilities are hard to come by and that a small, intimate, soccer-specific space is the perfect forum for youth to participate, grow, and fall in love with the game. The U.S. Soccer Foundation’s Mini Pitch Initiative is set up to enhance, assist, and grow the beautiful game in places it has traditionally struggled. Whether you want to call it a soccer court, a mini pitch, futsal, or 5-aside, we are all speaking the same language – creating safe places to play the game in a soccer-specific venue.”

 In sport, music, art, or any dedicated discipline, however, the main onus should be on the participant. Aside from the by-products of a technology-addicted, overscheduled society, a player who sees soccer as a chore is a player who has most likely only played in “controlled environments”. Good players play with an eye to get better next time whereas great players play with an eye to get better every time. To be candid, youth players today are more likely to pick up their smartphones than a soccer ball after school or at the weekend. Part of what separated the good players from the great players I played with and against was the additional work they put into their craft. And most of those players excelled academically as well as athletically because they eliminated distractions. The simplicity of the solution is astounding, but the complexity of the problem is even more remarkable.

 I recently called ten coaches from various clubs and high schools of varying ages and talent levels to gain some perspective on the current state of coaching. We discussed the upcoming season and the expectations and goals for their teams. In each conversation I made sure I asked this poignant question: “How many hours a week do the players spend playing with the club (or school) each week?”  The answers surprised me. The four high school environments were comprised of two public schools and two private schools, with three boys’ teams and one girls’ team. All four coaches held training sessions lasting 90 minutes to two hours on four days (immediately after school) with two 80 minute-games a week. On the high end, players are in a “controlled environment” for around 10 hours and 40 minutes.

 At academy clubs in four states, each in a different region of the U.S., I asked the same question. Each club coach said he followed the U.S. Soccer Development Academy guideline of four mandatory training sessions weekly extended across a 10-month season with approximately 30 games. The average time players spent in the “controlled environment” for the academy was around 12-13 hours a week. One added caveat was, per U.S. Development Academy rules, players must abide by the “No outside participation for full-time Academy players”-rule each club reinforced. The last two clubs were admittedly recreational with a lower level of play and more inclusive setting for the U11-U13 (boys) age range. These coaches held two practices a week lasting 90 minutes with one game on the weekend where everyone received playing time. These players spent around five hours with their clubs.

 In comparison with top players in Europe and South America in particular, the actual applied hours spent playing the game in a controlled environment was considerably less in the U.S. environments. At established South American clubs such as Gremio, Fluminense, and Corinthians in Brazil as well as Boca Juniors in Argentina, players typically train twice a week until the age of 15 when they join a residency program (provided they are good enough) allowing them to train five days a week for around three hours a day. At famed academies in the Netherlands, most notably De Toekomst (Ajax)and Varkenoord (Feyenoord), and in Germany (Borussia Dortmund), a similar system exists to ramp up the hours young players have in the controlled environments. For young players in these elite academies the quality and intensity of the training is not comparable to the teams of coaches I spoke with whatsoever.

 But there is a bigger differentiator at play here than elite academy structures — free play. In strong footballing nations, most players get a large percentage of their dedicated hours in on their own across the talent spectrum. Prospective professionals and average players partake in pickup games in community parks, in city centers and football cages to get supplemental training. The best academy products are seldom born with the mercurial gifts of Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. Most great players dedicated hours to playing the game without the constructs and oversight of coaches outside of their dedicated training in a controlled environment. Free play and pickup games teach players to be creative and tough.

 The story of Raheem Sterling’s discovery in the book The Nowhere Men by Michael Calvin details the magnitude pickup games had in Sterling’s development prior to and during his time with Queens Park Rangers’ Centre of Excellence. Along with allowing time for intense repetition training (10,000 touches), it forces players to improvise and augment their own training approach. It is no secret that free play creates better leaders and eliminates coach-induced pressures that affect player performance. This environment helps players identify who they are as individuals away from label-heavy team settings.

 The Tahuichi Academy is located in Santa Cruz, Bolivia. Santa Cruz suffers from drug-related criminal activity in addition to high crime rates and many of the players at the academy aim to use soccer as a way out. Tahuichi is everything that a conventional academy is not. There are no nice practice pitches. Instead, players train on dusty and bumpy pitches daily. Products of Tahuichi’s academy use the poor playing conditions to great effect and the result is the development of players with a deft first touch and supreme ball control. Players run through streams and up sand dunes to build strength. Much of the equipment is secondhand and donated. The approach is minimalist, but the results are extraordinary.

 In my life, I have played against Tahuichi teams in Europe three times and found their teams to be some of the toughest, fittest, and most skilled opponents I played against on European soil. And the players were humble and reserved. Most moments of free time I spent in the company of these players was enjoyed playing pickup games with players from other teams. Perhaps these players with no material goods or money to their names had a richer understanding of the essence of the game.

 The current generation of players has more access to the game than any previous one, and yet that game remains on the screens of their televisions and smartphones. The heads of established professional leagues, Development Academy club teams, and the federations themselves, do not seem to recognize that over-coaching creates under-developed players. We are at a crossroads where the sport is growing but the parks remain vacant. Street soccer is still so niche in the United States – and possibly Great Britain – that it might as well be non-existent.

 Players exposed to street soccer or playing enough pickup games remain an anomaly. The US Development Academy stresses that players can take part in no outside participation other than activities with the Academy team which sets a precedent that the hours in a controlled environment are sufficient. The current generation of young players has to be weaned off the need for constant praise from parents and coaches. Instead, they need to covet self-approval and reaffirmation of their own need to improve without the dependence of “needing” a coach. In providing seemingly everything to kids, society has stripped away their creativity, self-motivation, and willingness to put the extra hours in through continued and sustained pampering.

 The call to action is a simple one. We can do more with less. For some reason, the sport here is largely treated as an overly-organized sport whereas the rest of the world regards it as a lifestyle. Organized soccer will continue to drive the direction of the game, but the games largely exists outside this organized structure even if people fail to realize this.

 What is perplexing is how little the pickup game is valued by this generation and how little free play is valued by high profile coaches. Most coaches, whether it’s intentional or not, become the active participant in each drill. Many a training session is filled with “rehearsed” phrases and constant on-the-fly critiques and instructions that players begin to frame training with a chore. The current crop of coaches can say so much more by saying very little. The game is meant to be played freely.

 There is a time and place for organized soccer, but if that is all players play, then enjoyment, creativity, leadership, and fun will have to be “coached” into players going forward instead of being developed organically.

 

This article first appeared on http://www.theoriginalcoach.com and http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on August 27, 2014

 

The Face of American Soccer

The announcement was inevitable. Seeing Landon Donovan score against Bayern Munich in a meaningless game somehow signified a type of finality reserved for movie scripts. When Donovan announced his plans to retire at season’s end, the outpouring of support and gratitude for arguably America’s best ever soccer player was immense. I found it a bit odd and capricious seeing as just over six weeks ago, the majority of Americans acted as though Landon Donovan was not deserving of a chance to represent his country in Brazil because he dared to take a break and admit he was mentally exhausted.

Admittedly, I was a bit sad when Donovan announced his retirement, but not because of what happened this past year and a half. I was sad because of what has happened for the past fifteen years, the good and the bad, coming to an end. Sitting in traffic, I resisted the urge to listen to anything sports-related and put on a classic rock station and heard a Neil Young song. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away”. At the risk of channeling the oft-used cliché line made famous by the Neil Young song, “My My, Hey Hey”, the sentiment applies to Landon Donovan’s exit from the world of professional soccer. His presence in Major League Soccer and for the United States Men’s National Team was something most took for granted — including Donovan himself.

The Ontario, California native, at 32-years-old, is the leading scorer in USMNT history, with 57 goals in 156 games for the national team. As a veteran of three World Cups, Donovan the player will be remembered for both dramatics on the field and off it. After being controversially left out of the final 23-man squad for this summer’s World Cup by Jürgen Klinsmann, his subsequent retirement from the national team seemed inevitable.

Donovan’s accolades are many, but they pale in comparison to the responsibilities he shouldered during his illustrious career. When Donovan burst onto the scene for after at the 1999 U17 World Cup in New Zealand, his play led to the young American being recognized as the Player of the Tournament and made him the media’s selection for the adidas Golden Ball award. In 1999, the timing was almost perfect for the United States to welcome a fresh face to its international program after the embarrassment at World Cup 1998. Unbeknownst to a country whose palpable apathy for the world’s game was the fact that Landon Donovan would become the face of American soccer. And what transpired over the next fifteen years was a career that embodied all that was promising and to some, disappointing about the archetype of the American soccer player.

Donovan broke no new barriers as a young American player heading overseas to ply his trade. A generation of mainstay American players had to go abroad to get paid to kick a ball before Landon Donovan ended up in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen. After being spotted by Leverkusen at a youth tournament, he signed a six-year contract with the German club and in doing so, consigned himself to the spine-snapping pressures of performance that other young American players at the time simply were not face with on a daily basis. When Donovan started his career, the state of American soccer was in tatters, MLS was on life-support, the national program was stagnate (again), and a generation players who helped redefine the American game where on their way out.

Here was a young man whose remarkable promise and potential seemed held back by his failure to assimilate to life in Germany. What many forget is Landon Donovan was part of the inaugural group of promising young talents amalgamated under a pilot development program in Bradenton, Florida, dubbed “Project 2010”. The objective of placing players in a residency program was to mimic the training and lifestyle environment of successful footballing countries. That initial class that had a rich crop of players including DaMarcus Beasley, Bobby Convey, Oguchi Onyewu and Kyle Beckerman to name a few. The “plan” itself was laughable, both at the time and in hindsight.

While the other members of his class stayed in the United States either playing college or finding time in a struggling Major League Soccer, Donovan languished in Germany until finally being loaned to the San Jose Earthquakes for the 2001 MLS season. Stateside, Donovan’s immediate impact with the Earthquakes and with the USMNT suggested he needed to play domestically. At this point, however, Landon Donovan was not just a talented player; he was the budding icon of the men’s game, which drastically trailed the women’s in terms of on-field success internationally.

One of the most troubling conundrums regarding Landon Donovan lies not in his statistics as a player, which are telling his of quality, but in the role he played in American soccer’s growth and success. Many associate and credit the players from the 1990 and 1994 World Cup teams for putting soccer on the map in a tumultuous and overtly anti-soccer professional sporting landscape. Even some of those original troupe members turned media pundits bask in the idea they played the pivotal role in creating a modern soccer culture and established league in the United States. The reality is Landon Donovan, by becoming the face of American soccer and staying the course and remaining with Major League Soccer, has more right to this acknowledgement than anyone else in the modern men’s game in the United States.

Regardless of why he stayed in Major League Soccer, Landon Donovan shouldered the task of being the league’s talisman. His play on the field both with the Earthquakes and with the LA Galaxy placed Donovan in California, his home state. He was made to play second-fiddle to the David Beckham circus when it came to town, and he found a way to perform alongside the most marketable footballer on the planet at the time. He has continued to perform alongside Robbie Keane and other big names for the LA Galaxy.

His goals in the 2002 World Cup and the injury-time winner against Algeria galvanized a nation of soccer converts who either watched Landon Donovan grow up, or grew up with him. What is most peculiar about his evolution is it mirrored that of the MLS and US Soccer. He broke records and played with and against some of the world’s great players who chose to continue or end their careers in MLS. Landon Donovan, for all his quirky characteristics, made his team and teammates better. His ability to play a variety of attacking positions both highlighted his quality all the while casting him into the shadow of criticism often reserved for players whose production numbers fluctuate.

The former Leverkusen youngster will always be a figure shrouded in criticism and, as a player he could not win for losing. His subpar loan spells suggested that his potential had hit its ceiling due to his staying in Major League Soccer to many in the soccer world. We will always question what Landon Donovan we would have seen had it worked out in Europe. Would the United States be as drawn to its national team stars if he had achieved most of his success on the pitch in Europe, thousands of miles away from home? Or, was his staying in a league that is still by its own admission growing a decision that consigned Donovan to a career trajectory whereby any decision he made was the wrong one? Leaving MLS for Europe would have placed Donovan in a talent pool of attacking players much deeper than that in MLS; would he have just been average there? Staying in MLS meant the world and his own people perceived him as a figure lacking ambition to challenge himself against the best.

There is no right answer and Landon Donovan, unlike many of football’s greatest stars, performed at the international level in big tournaments with alarming frequency. He’s scored some of the most important goals in U.S. Soccer history and in multiple World Cups, a task that some of the best players in the world simply have not done. The accolades, the success, the failures have seen the mainstay of American soccer lose his motivation. Soccer, to him, has become less of a passion and more of job and for a player who has carried the weight of a nation and helped convince it to care about the game, there’s nothing left in the tank. At 32-years old, Landon Donovan will hang up his boots. This is hardly a case of a player succumbing to the physical demands of the game. Players who retire at 32 are either plagued with injuries, loss of form, or simply cannot find a club.

Donovan’s ailment is mental and emotional exhaustion. When other players in American soccer were able to hide in the shadow he cast forth, Donovan soaked up the attention, the criticism, and the spotlight. A year and a half ago, when he decided to take a break from the game that spotlight really turned into an act of spotlight hunting against a player who admitted it was becoming increasingly more difficult to find the same motivation to train hard consistently and perform during a World Cup qualification cycle. The public and media jumped all over him.

To hear him talk about soccer, his tone suggested he has grown bored of the routine. The other stars of American soccer, most notably Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley, went abroad to play and Landon Donovan stayed in Major League Soccer. Upon their return to MLS, they were greeted as messiahs championing Major League Soccer, whereas Landon Donovan was the pariah. Neither one of them has had impact that Landon Donovan has in the domestic game and on the international stage.

So who is next in line to shoulder the responsibility of being the face of American soccer? The current crop of well-known U.S. players have shown age is not on their side, so perhaps one of America’s young dual-nationals or homegrown talents must emerge. The American sporting public is fickle regarding its athletes. To suggest one of the greatest players in American soccer history, the man who holds the MLS and USMNT goalscoring records somehow hasn’t done enough or dare lose motivation after starting his career as a teenager is telling of the disparity between expectation and reality for American soccer. Donovan embodies a player born and raised in the U.S., who found his way to the professional ranks and performed in an age where it seems all U.S. Soccer really wants to do is find the  next young talent developed abroad and convince him to play for the United States.

The fact of the matter is American soccer will not understand how good Landon Donovan was until the search for the next Landon Donovan becomes more elusive and difficult. Sure, the powers-at-be will use some clever marketing to attempt to make someone the face of American soccer, but the likelihood they live up to the standard Donovan set is uncertain.

Will the next player have to play in Major League Soccer for the best years of his career, a move that will almost certainly set him up for the same trajectory as Donovan’s? Or, will they be afforded the patience to try to play overseas and only have to perform internationally for the USMNT to be considered the next Landon Donovan? I ask because Landon Donovan did both — he helped grow the league, helped the national team’s resurgence, basked in the limelight, and absorbed the criticism.

And now, Landon Donovan would rather burn out than fade away — and for once, on his terms, not anyone else’s.

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on August 8, 2014

The Captain Before the Armband

It’s often the players who seek the elusive who find only the ‘what might have been’s’ in football. Some players are simply part of the wrong generation. This generation is one where club loyalty is a rarity and a nation’s World Cup hopes didn’t hinge solely upon expectation, but rather continue to sway in the wind, dangling from the hangman’s noose. Steven Gerrard, the player, and Steven Gerrard, the captain is one of this generation’s tragic heroes.

If football was a Greek tragedy, Steven Gerrard would fit the classic characteristics of its tragic heroes. A tragic hero is not without his faults. Perfection is a myth and no man is perfect. Each is plagued by decision and indecision, haunted by their failures, tenants of the mind refusing to vacate the premises. Steven Gerrard fits the playbill. He has: hubris, the sense of extreme pride or self-confidence that manifests into borderline arrogance resulting in decisions and actions that are deemed as an offence spoken or carried out against the Gods. The on-camera rallying call that seemed to offend football’s Gods after victory against Manchester City comes to mind. These decisions are harshly punished. Football’s Gods made an example out of Steven Gerrard as the Premier League trophy escaped through his fingers like grains of sand from an ever-tightening fist.

The next characteristic of a tragic hero is arête; the insatiable pursuit of excellence wrapped in a notion a man must live up to his full potential. The Ancient Greeks held a belief that one’s mind, body, and soul each must be developed and prepared for a man to live a life of arête – excellence. Steven Gerrard’s play over the years, for both club and country, has given football’s audiences a display of this pursuit of excellence. Physically, Gerrard, a soldier clad in Liverpool red, through his relentless running, made bounding from box-to-box, putting in tackles, winning the ball, and delivering a perfect driven ball to switch the field of play a standard of his game, not the rare highpoint.

Such displays became the norm, all with a freakish sense of beauty and frequency that threatened to hide the complexity of his play. When many players seemed to shy away from striking the ball with conviction as the match hung in the balance, the Whiston-born midfielder arrived on the scene, after running seventy yards in transition to drive a shot through a tangled web of defenders and clinch the winner from outside the box. Be it a surging run forward, or a simple pass that unlocked the most complex defences, Gerrard has played the match on his terms. Since 1998, countless displays of technical and physical brilliance have wowed the crowds from Anfield to Istanbul, spoiled his teammates by making their lives on the pitch easier, and tormented opponents as the boy from Merseyside went on to become England’s third most capped player, but more importantly, its captain.

Like all tragic heroes, Steven Gerrard waded the murky waters of até; a moment of supreme madness stemming from hubris, ultimately leading to a hero’s downfall. Steven Gerrard, the standard of consistency and commitment on the pitch, has faltered on and off it. The flirtations with a move to Chelsea, a nightclub punch-up and, of course, the slip, are but a few of the moments that betrayed him. A career without a Premier League title to add to his collection of accolades combined with the ever-present pressure of playing for the Three Lions saw Gerrard become England’s Atlas, the man carrying the weight of perpetual disappointment for the national team. The tireless fresh-faced boy the world saw take the pitch against Blackburn Rovers in 1998 has been replaced with the grizzled and weary countenance of a man who’s been to war and in so doing, become a battle-hardened general seeking victories threatening to remain elusive.

And then there is nemesis, the Greek goddess of retribution, the force of resolute and implacable justice from which no person escapes. Steven Gerrard’s career is not without victory and excellence. He has certainly tasted the spoils of victory from many a chosen cup, but his nemesis may be that he could never recover the glories of the past his club and country so desperately crave. Domestic league titles remain unconquered for Liverpool. World and European Cup glory are lodged in England’s past and Gerrard’s legacy shouldn’t be tainted by these shortcomings. But football is filled with cynics and critics, and its players must accept criticism with plaudits.

Gerrard is a member of a select fraternity of players who were captains before receiving the armband. He led by example from his earliest days marauding up and down the pitch, leading the charge. I once wrote about the death of the on-field general, the player who lives and dies on the pitch every week for his club, his teammates, and his supporters. Steven Gerrard embodies this ethos.

If the world of modern football could be given a novel’s title, Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age is fitting. Like the story, gilded is a word used to hide the underlying surface of something. One can paint over a baser metal with gold, creating the illusion of purity, but modern football is anything but a pure product. Steven Gerrard, however, is one of the rare exceptions. Players like him have become increasingly rare. It’s not so much that Gerrard failed to win the Premier League with Liverpool, but Liverpool through a myriad of poor ownership and buying decisions, failed Gerrard.

After he chose to stay at Liverpool instead of moving to Chelsea, where the skipper needed a worthwhile supporting cast, he received very little compared to players of his generation playing in teams regularly winning or challenging for the Premier League title. A similar point can be made with regards to England. As its leader, when he needed the sum to be greater than the parts, they underperformed. Gerrard, as the skipper of both ill-fated sides, naturally takes the brunt of the criticism, the harshness of his own self-analysis, and has to live with the fact both sides he’s devoted himself to haven’t matched his level of intensity and application on a consistent enough basis.

The trade-off, however, is Steven Gerrard plays for the club he loves and that loves him. Players like that are rare. Captains like Gerrard are a once-in-a-generation occurrence. For every stellar performance, match-saving tackle followed up by a match-winning goal, the likes of the next Steven Gerrard has yet to appear from the tunnel leading to the pitch or emerge from the shadows. Where Gerrard is made of cast iron, the current generation of players seems to be made of glass. When Liverpool needed a captain willing and able to be a tireless worker, talisman, hard man, and consistent performer, and a leader of the people, from the people – Steven Gerrard embraced that responsibility. Where England needed a skipper who wasn’t marred with off-field incidents, hadn’t lost the respect of his teammates and fans, and wasn’t distracted by celebrity status, it found Steven Gerrard.

In football, players come and go. Some win everything, others go home to cabinets devoid of trophies, but full of ‘what might have been’s’. England’s former captain need not worry about this; he’s a proven winner. He is not defined by the absence of Premier League titles. Steven Gerrard’s story doesn’t end here, nor does his influence on English football. He just happens to be one of football’s gifts, tarnished through years of wear and tear but in those magical moments, is as good as ever.

There will come a day when the Liverpool skipper hangs up his boots and walks off the pitch at Anfield for last time. There will also come a day when Steven Gerrard takes off the captain’s armband for the last time. But there will never come a day when he won’t be considered the players’ and the peoples’ captain.

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on July 28, 2014

The Cost of Development — Tom Byer’s Effect

What The US Can Learn From Tom Byer and Japan

A hero in Japan for his profound effect on youth football coaching, we look at what US Soccer can learn from Tom Byer and how his methods have successfully developed many essential skills in young players.

The Cost of Development

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

Part of what motivated me in football was the drive to improve. Growing up, I was afforded an unconventional footballing education, one that took me from the gritty and talent-rich leagues of south San Jose during the dotcom boom to the suburbs of Chicago. My parents never made football easy for me. When I was 13, I was playing in a U-18 team. I spent a year or two getting the shit kicked out of me against older teammates in training and older opponents in matches—and it did wonders for me as a player and person. I learned to play faster, with my head up, one or two touches was the name of the game. Some summer months were spent playing in Holland, Germany, or back in California—where I’d first learned the game. I was lucky to have parents who made sacrifices and worked overtime to provide me with a chance to experience the global game. I was lucky. Not every kid has parents willing or able to help them the way my parents helped me. But this story isn’t about me, or my belief in Dutch-based technical training methods requiring a young player to devote 10,000 touches a day on a ball to achieve higher degrees of mastery and technique; no this is about a sense of responsibility.

Every four years, all the salient talking points come to head. Criticisms bottleneck to the point of eruption as every armchair coach, overpaid troll analyst, and even the casual fan, some who’ve never kicked a ball, proffer their opinion and insight. That’s what makes football great. It’s the world’s game and everyone, no matter how radical and ridiculous, has an audience and an accompanying soapbox. In my research and writings on the topic of player development stemming from an idea that sparked my 10,000 touches article, I’ve scoured the pages of coaching manuals, watched and analyzed hours of film, visited some world class training sites, watched hundreds of games at all levels, and interviewed a plethora of players, technical directors, snake oil salesmen posing as coaches, and re-evaluating my stance on why some countries thrive in football and others do not.

I recently spoke to an American colleague who lives in Osaka, Japan. We conversed about America’s chances in Brazil and to my surprise, he told me, “I’m supporting Japan.” He then went on to explain why he’d be supporting Japan and not even watching the US play. “Listen, I’m no ex-patriot, I love my country, but with regards to soccer, the Japanese have closed a gap and do it right with the players who matter—the kids.” I could tell I was in for something astounding. He mentioned the name Tom Byer, or as he’s known in Japan, “Tomsan”.

Tom Byer is a journeyman footballer who found his way to Japan in the late 1980s to play and eventually work as a youth coach. In Japan, Byer receives a lot of praise for promoting Japan’s seemingly rapid rise in football in both the men’s and women’s game. Byer found a way to reach hundreds of thousands of not elite players, but children (they are the future after all), and teach them the fundamentals of technique and skill acquisition. When he first started networking in Japan, the country’s football was in a state of disarray. By 2011 the Samurai Blue won their fourth Asian Cup and the Nadeshiko Japan, won its first Women’s World Cup title—defeating the heavily favoured United States in the Final.

So, what makes Tom Byer’s success noteworthy? I like to think of him living the American Dream—a notion where anyone can be successful through persistence and graft—in Japan. Byer began by running a grassroots football camp and by using his own knowledge of the game in the United States, tapped into a market that had very little success in world football—much like the United States. Byer traveled to English speaking military bases and schools to teach football, but was quickly running out of options until he fortuitously contacted the father of a boy who attended one of his clinics. The boy’s father happened to be the president of Nestlé and agreed to sponsor Byer to expand his reach with the Japanese grassroots football populous. After gaining some financial backing from Nestlé, Byer was introduced to the Coerver Method, which allowed him to have an established coaching platform and philosophy.

What’s worth noting is not the Coerver Method, but Byer’s understanding that technique, skill acquisition, and ball mastery are foundational skills that all young players must learn if they are to achieve any amount of enjoyment out of the game. I use the word enjoyment and not success because football in America is framed in wins and losses at the youth levels at the expense of development. In Japan, like Holland, Spain, and now Belgium, the whole dynamic of football at the youth levels isn’t about putting young players on a full-sized pitch and watching them chase the ball like a bunch of crazed terriers commanded by their masters (parents). Rather, Byer utilized Japanese media and cultural outlets to put himself and his teachings in print and on television for every child to have access to and to learn from weekly.

Tom Byer, like many coaches, learned that teaching technique must come before teaching tactics. In America, for example, I’ve often questioned how kids can enjoy a game, with all due respect, many aren’t technically comfortable playing. By diverting the focus away from competition in the formative years and focusing on close ball control, situational creativity, a balance between moves that beat an opponent instead of moves that “look cool”, a generation of technically astute footballers has a chance to then become tactically proficient. I’m not suggesting every coach print a comic book spread or put themselves in a television timeslot right after Saturday morning cartoons, but it might not hurt to have an inexpensive and accessible coaching model for young players to absorb.

By placing importance and accessibility on football development through media and away from the extreme pay-to-play model, Byer and many coaches around the world have a chance to motivate kids to place value in the technical side of the game. One lesson I learned abroad was the vigor and importance players my age placed on practice. To them, it was a valued time—an opportunity to learn something, away from the judgment of their parents, and to perfect their skill. In the United States, training is still seen as a chore; a timeslot filler between school and SportsCenter highlights who’d rather make a mockery of the game than provide analysis.

So, what can we learn from this American who revolutionized the JFA’s approach to football development, and who helped produce scores of professional players including Shinji Kagawa? The answer isn’t as farfetched as many looking to cash-in instead of developing talent might suggest. Byer raised the baseline of youth football in a country where baseball was the most popular sport. Sound familiar? To become an elite player, a child must be resilient, open to learning, willing to fail, strong enough to accept criticism, have accessible and affordable coaching, and have a target to strive for so as to not become complacent thus stalling their own development. By raising the bar for the lowest talent pools and challenging the elite to be even better, Byer, like many of his European and South American counterparts, has tapped into one secret of producing a deeper pool of professional players.

However, the takeaway here isn’t all about coaching; it’s about teaching kids to train on their own. In Japan, focusing on individual achievement in the academics is a pillar of cultural importance. Tom Byer put football on a similar level of value to a culture with an industrious work ethic—and he made it fun. An undeniable truth of this type of individual training, or getting 10,000 functional touches a day, is that it’s not fun all the time. It’s demanding both of time and energy and short on external praise. There is no trophy or ribbon. In good footballing countries, the kids don’t care—something American kids can hopefully learn to emulate. The criticism is valid, however, and it’s important to note that until the United States produces players of the caliber of Hidetoshi Nakata, Shinji Kagawa, Shunsuke Nakamura, or Keisuke Honda (the list could on and on), Japan’s football development is doing something that the U.S. Soccer Federation is not. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy, aside from the pay-to-play, amalgamation-based criticisms, stems from the age requirement being U-13 for a team to even participate. This puts American-based players at least eight or nine years behind players in other countries in terms of focused, technique-specific training and reinforcing the value of individual supplemental training.

Youth soccer is the most popular participation sport in the United States, but the product seen on the pitch in Major League Soccer and for the U.S. Men’s National Team is technically deficient. Paraphrasing Byer’s own words, if the U.S. Soccer Federation and its dominant league would view grassroots soccer not as an obligation, but as an opportunity, the game would grow as it has in Japan. The American youth soccer landscape is a minefield that many parents and players must carefully navigate to ensure they receive quality training and opportunities. American sporting culture still praises what the rest of the world sees as standard with regards to accomplishments and tasks on the field. For example, hard work, fitness, retaining possession, and displaying composure on the ball should be expectations and demands—not something to be lauded and pithily celebrated by a team of pundits who seldom “call a spade a spade”. You can hear it in the crowds at National Team or MLS matches, Clint Dempsey does a move that “looks cool” but leads nowhere and the crowd erupts. Jozy Altidore “posts-up” and manages to hold the ball and somehow that receives a raucous applause and commentator praise ad nauseam. Entertainment cannot come at the expense of quality. America needs to raise the bar.

Closing the talent gap with the world’s best is a challenge that requires better attention and accessibility for children to learn the game. For example, the Royal Belgium Football Association, under then Technical Director Michel Sablon looked at the state of Belgian football and prompted a revamp of how Belgian players were coached, developed, and marketed by looking at countries like Holland, not as neighbors, but as targets. The current crop of Belgium’s golden generation is merely the start of a bigger movement. Under the restructure of its football philosophy, the coaches worked closely with urban planning committees to build “football cages” to promote football as an activity whilst producing players willing to spend hours playing on their own. Additionally, the Koninklijke Belgische Voetbalbond, (KBVB) built a National Football Centre in Tubize for the Rode Duivels to train while continuing to reach the affluent, middle class, first generation immigrant, and lower income talent pools. Football became part of the country’s culture and it tapped into what worked in other countries like Holland, which uses its limited space to stress small-sided games. Sablon’s vision drove out the “win-at-all-costs” mentality that American coaches and players are guilty of banking on, for a more aesthetic and technically adept style of football that produces better players and a higher level of play capable of winning more matches.

If a player cannot control or manipulate the football at will, then how can he or she be asked to perform at the highest level? Based on feedback from academy coaches questioning my 10,000 touches article and its purpose in player development, many have concluded that all it produces are performing robots, which goes back to the cultural mindset and lack of value American players place on training. What is viewed as “extreme” in America is the minimum requirement in the best footballing nations—the entry fee, if you will. I highlight that this method was instrumental in the development of not one or two great footballers, but generations of great players. The U.S. Soccer Federation may or may not live up to the demand as evidenced by the laughable and seldom-mentioned Project 2010 (USSF’s plan to win the World Cup by that year), so the onus lies on the coaches and players to educate themselves, be open to trying what works elsewhere, and to think of progress as the need to create football players not kids who play football. Football is as much a cerebral game as it is a physical game, so instead of placing kids on teams based on size instead of ability, place them in environments where they can thrive and develop. Competence trumps complacency on the football pitch and players who have fun, are willing to challenge themselves, and have a system that works for them, not the other way around, are usually the ones who continue playing for the love of the game and have the talent to boot (pardon the pun).

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on 5 June 2014. 

This Is No Time To Be Moyesing Around

This article first appeared on http://www.thesefootballtimes.net on April 24, 2014

This Is No Time To Be Moyesing Around

By: Jonathan Townsend

Hindsight: hind·sight ˈhīn(d)ˌsīt/noun

Def: Understanding of a situation or event only after it has happened or developed.

“In hindsight, Manchester United should have never hired David Moyes.”

The world can be a fickle place. For all the hullaballoo about the sacking of David Moyes, Manchester United need not only look for a new manager, but it must also take a look in the mirror. There is no question that the David Moyes experiment wasn’t going to work and it’s easy to place the blame on the Scotsman who’s aged and withered like a prune before our very eyes, but like any conflict, it takes two to tango. When I wrote the article Accountability United I should have kept on writing David Moyes’ eulogy and the subsequent epitaph for his tombstone as Manchester United manager. It was clear to all that David Moyes was a dead man walking the day he was hired.

Big clubs have fallen from such great heights before such as Juventus, Liverpool, Leeds United, Kaiserslautern, Lazio, and Fiorentina to name a few. But this is Manchester United. Most of the current generation has experienced prolonged periods of success with Sir Alex Ferguson at the helm and shrewd business deals off the pitch that have seen the club become a global brand and publically-traded entity.

Unfortunately, that golden age of football and business success has also prolonged the inevitable fall from grace. Whereas most teams aside from Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United have gone through shadowy valleys and doldrums of the footballing landscape only to re-emerge briefly before being cast back into the shadows. A stark difference is that in English football, it was Manchester United who cast that shadow and soared to the greatest of heights and then, in the most tragic displays of hubris and mimicry of the ancient Greek legend of Daedalus and Icarus.

If this were a Greek tragedy and we are part of the chorus narrating and watching the madness in this parallel allegory, Daedalus is played by the wise and curmudgeonly Sir Alex Ferguson and Icarus, of course, is played by the affable Scot, David Moyes. Sir Alex, like Daedalus, built his labyrinth to escape the Minotaur of mediocrity and flourished for nearly three decades before handing the club to David Moyes by fashioning him a pair of wings to soar to great heights. We will never know if our Daedalus warned the ‘Moyesian’ Icarus not to fly too low to the sea lest his wings grow heavy and soggy, or if he warned him not to try and fly too high lest the sun’s rays melt the wings’ wax. What we do know is that Moyes and Manchester United Football Club have plummeted alarmingly.

The world of football is our Greek play. We congregate en masse to be entertained (unless you support a Mourinho Chelsea side, surely I jest). We have our heroes and stalwarts of loyalty and our villains. And then we have fate.

Like all the doomed and oftentimes damned Greek heroes, David Moyes was plagued by fate. During his ten month tenure at United, one could not help but feel like The Furies were hunting Moyes down. When he won, there was criticism. When he lost, there was a witch hunt, most of which he earned himself through torrid team selection, tactical tomfoolery, and a less than commanding presence during press conferences and interviews. Like all Greek plays, there are moral lessons to be learned here.

Firstly, all good things must come to an end. The game evolved during Sir Alex’s time in charge and only Sir Alex could weather the storm of criticism and handle the amount of pressure required for a club like Manchester United to maintain its dominance of the British game. During his time at the club, the academy flourished and the class of ’92 is testament to that as they took United to new heights as a club and global brand.

Sir Alex left David Moyes with an aging backline, an uninspired midfield, and a few youngsters who needed to be shown their walking papers or rebuilt as players, and the performances on the pitch almost embodied a club disguised as a great monk practicing a ritualistic act of self-immolation. For many it was a shock. But for supporters of clubs who had seen their sides fall off the map once or twice, this was predictable and expected, for David Moyes had taken a sip from the poisoned chalice.

The second lesson is while Manchester United failed to continue their academy output, their rivals, namely Liverpool has used its academy and youngsters to great effect. Players like Federico Macheda, Paul Pogba, Wilfried Zaha, and Nick Powell to name a few have either not worked, been sent out on loan, or sold to other clubs.

A symbol of Sir Alex’s reign has now become a literal relic in Ryan Giggs and there was never any sign of that happening at United under David Moyes with the current players; with the exception of Wayne Rooney’s gluttonous contract boost. Murmurings from around Carrington suggest that the senior players, many who have won five Premier League titles and a Champions League, looked at Moyes and internally scoffed as if to suggest, “Well, I’ve won hardware, what have you won, mate?”

The third lesson is that for a club like Manchester United, a manager must be a General willing to fight tooth and nail to keep the faith of the players, the board, and the supporters. This is not an ego-maniac war because no other egos should matter to the man at the helm. There are no ‘negotiable’ terms and no one player’s gripes, image, or demands supersede that of the club.

Where Sir Alex shipped off David Beckham when he seemed distracted (see SAF’s latest autobiography) and the on-field general himself, Roy Keane when the Irishman became overly-critical of the young players and some of the staff, David Moyes does not have the clout to be the General. With all due respect, it’s just not a quality he was born with and his disposition is nothing like Sir Alex’s. That’s not a bad thing; it just doesn’t work at a club filled with Sir Alex’s players, used to his football. United is a club drunk on the sweet nectars and ambrosia of victory and success. This year was the inevitable and painful hangover.

The fourth and final lesson is Manchester United thought itself to be infallible from an outsider’s perspective. The Glazer’s are about business, not football in either the British or American sporting respect, as their NFL team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has struggled in a league that certifies parity amongst the teams. The Glazer’s trusted Sir Alex Ferguson’s instinct as many had for so many years before, and they paid the price.

Manchester United needs a manager who knows the club inside and out. Someone who values the community and brand and who isn’t just a hot name looking for a Premier League pension and the ownership now knows this. Or so they should. Perhaps Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes will work out as coaches for longer than just the interim.

A man like Gary Neville would certainly sort out any complacency amongst the ranks in the locker room and on the training ground. Or, if they are intelligent, the club will reach out to a man like Carlos Queiroz – one of the few men to leave and return when he went off to manage Real Madrid. His knowledge of continental football and his ability to scout talent might just see him as the intelligent choice.

In the end, we may never know if Manchester United Football Club suffered from its own Icarus complex as it suffered from ‘ascensionism’ and perpetual high ambition, but we do know that David Moyes was punished by the relentless Furies and like all men, nobody escapes fate.

 

The General’s Death

This content was written for http://www.thesefootballtimes.net and appeared there first on April 4, 2014. 

The General’s Death

By: Jonathan Townsend

 

I recently found myself watching a replay of the 1988 FA Cup Final between the ‘Crazy Gang’ of Wimbledon and a heavily-favoured Liverpool side on late-night television. As the footage cut out, I flipped the channel to see another film lost to history, General Douglas MacArthur’s farewell speech to Congress where he poignantly proclaimed, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away”.

Somehow, that FA Cup Final with the grit and grind of Wimbledon battling against the then Kings of English football, Liverpool echoed MacArthur’s words. I watched as Peter Beardsley streak down the left flank only to be confronted by a blue wall of Wimbledon players blocking his advance. Beardsley’s shot smashed off a defender and bounced to John Barnes who crossed to a waiting John Aldridge and Ray Houghton in the box only for a gut-busting run by Alan Cork to put off John Aldridge. In many ways, it was an example of surgical football by Liverpool against defiant football by Wimbledon. A team of magicians versus a team of gritty grinders. Grit won that day.

Watching modern football, one realizes the game is now a lithe blend of speed and fluidity on the pitch. Today’s game requires smoother movements combined with a higher level of requisite technique across every position on the pitch. Today’s footballer has to show some degree of dexterity as the game continues to rely on interchange and technical ability with increased speed of play.

Defenders need to be technically adept rather than masters of hoofing the ball out of the stadium, midfielders must combine finesse and fitness, and strikers are required to be the embodiment of athleticism with an assassin’s aim. But, regardless of what team is playing and in what league, there’s something, or rather, someone, missing in the modern game; the on-field general.

The man who urges his teammates on when all seems lost, the team’s soldier, the man who demands that his teammate pull themselves up by their bootstraps and fight to the end. These gladiators of football are the ones who look up at the scoreboard – realize the result may be lost – and then look through the others on the pitch and fight past the final whistle. For them, the losses aren’t purely statistical – they’re engrained on a man’s character and absorbed in his eyes. To this legionnaire of league football, regardless of level, there is no giving up. They wear defeat like a shroud on Tuesday morning’s training session and let everyone know how unacceptable giving up is at their football club.

But are these types of players nothing more than glorified cheerleaders whose enthusiasm and toughness make up for their lack of technique and finesse on the pitch? Has the modern game changed the modern player to the point that only internal motivation and individual reward pushes them onwards as they are not programmed to compute any external on-field instruction?

Would a Roy Keane-like figure have saved the Red Devils from the apathy choking Manchester United at the present? Does Arsenal need another Tony Adams, someone to lay the boots down and grab players from off the delicate Emirates pitch surface and hurl them back into battle? Does this type of player still exist in an age where diving and simulation, feigning injury during a capitulating defeat, and a lack of personal accountability are a normal sight for the supporters? Do we value the battlers, the grinders, and jacks of all trades in football anymore?

For all their faults as men and sometimes, as teammates, there’s a nostalgia associated with the no-nonsense footballer. The uncompromising tackler who snubs doubt and stares down defeat in a tragically heroic way as to suggest to his opponent, “You may win the game, but you won’t defeat me”.

One can argue that these players still exist, but they’re better versions of this archetypal on-field general. Liverpool have Steven Gerrard and Manchester City have Vincent Kompany; two gifted stalwarts whose talent is only eclipsed by their rejection of anything less than total commitment from their peers. For all his personal issues, John Terry has shown a proclivity to lead his Chelsea sides to great heights, but he’s also been known to flop and show far too many inconsistencies when many suggest he’s a better footballer than that.

The aforementioned types of leaders are also captains of their respective sides, which many might suggest is a prerequisite for such displays of leadership and regular impassioned performances. But there has to be more to it than wearing the armband. Players like Tony Adams, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira and the like of yesteryear were not saints. Surely, they battled their own demons off the pitch as well as on it.

Tony Adams, for example, has fought his way through a harder battle than any football match in his struggle with addiction and alcoholism. Roy Keane, for all his bravado and midfield presence qualities, has brought the game into disrepute and can’t seem to check his ego at the door. The Irishman’s fiery temper and willingness to publically criticize his teammates at United and expose the inadequacies of the FAI have cost him dearly, in a sense. Steven Gerrard was fortunate to escape harsher punishment for a nightclub punch-up in Southport in late-2008. Perhaps what makes these men quality leaders also accounts for their enigmatic personalities. Football is not a sport for the angelic and the professional player is not a commoner.

Leadership is a quality that surely ostracizes the trailblazer and forces him to swim against the stream lest he risk drowning himself in the waters of mediocrity. The problem with having leaders in modern football is the game is bigger than it was a decade ago. The world, in many ways, has grown overly-sensitive as have its players. Egos are bruised with any public criticism and the hairdryer treatment is often seen as a lack of control instead of a motivating call to action. Modern football doesn’t want soldiers; it wants magicians and wizards. Supporters must balance whether they want battlers or exhibitionists.

Where is a player sans the skill of a Steven Gerrard or the quality of a Vincent Kompany, but with their leadership qualities factor in a present-day Arsenal or Manchester United squad? Would they even be picked? Have football academies and attitudes shifted and evolved in such a way that a team’s ‘hard man’ is not only far from being the first name on the team sheet, it’s not even in the squad?

Football is a game of delicate balance. For every flamboyant player capable of dazzling the world with the magic in his boots, there should be an unwavering presence to defend the bulwarks. Quite frankly, the evolution of the game has been so rapid in the past decade that many of the tackles and confrontations on the pitch back then would not be tolerated in today’s game. I’ve often wondered what’s more fascinating: the soft fouls and pitiful theatrics in modern football, or the over-the-top, no-nonsense tackles of yesterday’s football.

Candidly speaking, there will always be ugliness in the game, but there was something more redeeming from seeing the players care so much off the field. In 2005 at Highbury, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira brought the tension to a crescendo in the tunnel before the match in a spat that galvanized even the neutral. Even if the confrontation was overdone for the camera, it provided the world with a front row view of the game within the game. What was the fight over? Two captains defending their teammates. Keane defending Gary Neville, Vieira defending Robert Pirès.

There’d be no pulling out of tackles. The fans wouldn’t allow it because the generals on the pitch wouldn’t allow it. These days, there’s something refreshing in seeing a defender wear black boots instead of neon green or hot pink ones. Players like Liverpool’s blue collar academy product, Jon Flanagan, or Crystal Palace’s less-than-flashy, part-time rugby fly-half (I jest) Mile Jedinak remind supporters and viewers of Premier League football that there is a place for the orthodox, old-fashioned player in the game.

But there’s an ugly side to the on-field general. A selfishness that oftentimes leads to reckless action that costs the team dearly. A personal vendetta gone too far that proves to be more a distraction and hindrance than benefit for the team like Roy Keane’s horror tackle on Manchester City’s Alf-Inge Håland, which effectively ended the Norwegian’s career, and for what? A comment made in a previous match – a chance to physically crush the “enemy” out of personal savagery? One might think that football has no patience for petulance, but if that was the case, the diving and cheating would be punished with more severity instead of being met with more tolerance and regularity.

Every week, pundits argue and squabble over the flair in the game and the controversy surrounding a penalty decision or rash tackle. To advocate for more over-the-ball, knee-high tackles is foolish, but there should also be a place in a side for the general. The impact of great leaders has impacted the best teams in leagues outside of the Premier League.

What Carles Puyol is to Barcelona and Gennaro Gattuso was to AC Milan cannot be taught. The Fabio Cannavaro’s and Paulo Maldini’s of the world have faded into the shadows. Where are the players striving to emulate the likes of Franco Baresi and Franz Beckenbauer? The reality is players with the leadership and consistency of those players is seen less and less in football.

One cannot buy a “leader”, but if it was possible, if leadership was an attribute modern football still valued as a premium, perhaps there would be some solace for the supporters of clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United to name but a few sides who desperately need a general to rally the troops against all odds.

Performance counts for everything in football. Teams and players are judged on results, not character traits. The soldiers of the game are disappearing and in their place is the football mercenary, the glory-hunting, heavy-earning, often responsibility-shirking player with more talent at their disposal than many of the on-field generals could ever hope to muster.

The game has never seen more skill across the broad spectrum of players that step across the white lines every match. The game has never been faster, more fitness-focused, and more dependent on money than it is now. There is a saying that natural leaders are born, not made and judging by the modern game, the role of the on-field general looks consigned to fade.

By Jonathan Townsend.

Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Dare Liverpool Dream?

Dare Liverpool Dream

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3

 

Dare Liverpool dream? If they do, it is of a glimmer of hope, to taste the forbidden fruits of a team’s labors this season as they challenge for the league title the likes of which supporters of Liverpool Football Club have not tasted since the 1989-1990 season. Sure, Anfield’s faithful and the club’s global following of supporters tasted a sip of success in 2005 in Istanbul with a Champions League medal. Several FA Cups, a UEFA Cup (and Super Cup), a few League Cups, and two Charity Shield victories since that last championship campaign have reminded Britain there was indeed some fight and pride left in this gravity-bound goliath.

Come what may, this Liverpool team is an enigma of meticulous and masterful attacking football. Could this be the season that Liverpool Football Club once again sips from the goblet reserved for the champions? Of course, anything could happen, but Liverpool under the ownership of FSG and leadership of Brendan Rodgers suggests that winning the title should happen. This Liverpool side has mauled Manchester United, trounced Tottenham Hotspur away, assailed Arsenal at home and eviscerated Everton by way of a display of attacking prowess that has shown it simply will not be denied in the second half of the season.

There are at least four title contenders this year and none will admit they are favorites—but they are all capable and culpable characterizations of teams on the ascent. Arsenal is starving for a piece of silverware and may yet find their trophy drought come to an end this year. Chelsea is both a cunning and capable force ready to reclaim the title for the first time since the 2009-2010 campaign. The marauding force that is Manchester City has more than enough firepower to stake a claim at the title, and like Chelsea, will aim to prove that money can indeed buy happiness. Then there is Liverpool—the side sans European football. The only side in the aforementioned group without a Premier League title to its name. The sleeping giants of English football who are stalking and salivating at the chance to lift the Premier League trophy for the first time could just control their destiny in this date with fate.

Dare Liverpool dream? Perhaps what is most striking about this year’s side is that they are peaking at the right time, but also—they keep getting better. Their surging and searing attacking runs combined with a tactically disciplined midfield has seen Liverpool absolutely suffocate sides in 2014. Like all great warriors—and I reference not their kit sponsor although it does fit (pardon the double pun)—Liverpool has a weakness. Their Achilles’ heel is the defensive frailties that could scuttle the title tilt. What makes a Mourinho-managed Chelsea great is their consistency in suffocating results against other top sides. Manchester City is powerful in all the right spots and like Chelsea, can win by playing poorly. When Liverpool lost to both Chelsea and Manchester City, it was by a one-goal margin and notwithstanding of some shoddy officiating. Where a penalty shout goes ignored or an offside call is highlighted, Liverpool simply cannot afford to rely on such fortunes and misfortunes.

Dare Liverpool dream? This Liverpool side is not the Liverpool side that began the campaign. This Liverpool side smells blood, and like an able and elegant prizefighter, it will deliver pinpoint and damaging attacks on the opponents’ vital organs while deflecting and trying to defend its own deficiencies. The whole season’s impetus hinged upon securing Champions League football—and it looks like Liverpool will secure a top-four finish. If the stars on the pitch and in the night skies align, it may not be as prudent as is the norm for Liverpool to think, Why not us? Whatever happens, however this campaign plays out, Liverpool Football Club is primed and ready to challenge for the title for many years to come. Dare Liverpool dream? Perhaps that dream has a glimmer of hope to become a reality as the goliath of English football has awakened from its slumbers and is ready to fight for its place atop the mountain.

The League of Shadows

The League of Shadows
By: Jon Townsend

Since its inception at the start of 1992-93 season, the Premier League has redefined the global branding of football. In a league known for its pace, power and competitiveness, the game has thrived with higher attendance figures, television monies and a massive injection of foreign finances and talent. The Premier League is, without a doubt, the most popular league in the world. The players gracing the pitches of the England’s top flight have both captivated global audiences and catapulted the league to the forefront of the modern sport’s market. In essence, the Premier League is a machination of ruthless beauty designed to showcase a league’s universal reach and influence, and it has become the juggernaut in the system for which it was designed.

The unveiling of the 2013 FIFPro World XI revealed more than the names of the world’s “best” players. None of the players on the list ply their trade in the world’s most popular league. Surely, this omission isn’t indicative of a possible lack of talent on display in England’s top flight, is it? It would be less than pragmatic to believe this, like many of FIFA’s competitions, is anything other than a popularity contest. The nominations, whether they’re derived from the players themselves or from one of FIFA’s bureaucratic selection committees, reveal the power of perception spliced with the voting masses’ conviction to rage against the machine that is the Premier League.

Many will hang themselves on the simple and elementary argument that the Premier League has world class players and teams. Of course it does, but the argument itself is mere conversation fodder in comparison to the reality that the Premier League is the Frankenstein nobody wants to tangle with or recognize in these types of competitions. The subjectivity flowing through the veins of such recognition-based ballets and galas suggests that the Premier League is too powerful for its own players to gain global acclaim. In comparison to La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga, the Premier League makes it nearly impossible for the massive separation in the standings one sees in the aforementioned leagues. This fact alone makes the Premier League entertaining; but does entertainment equate to quality?

One aspect that the Premier League holds over most other leagues is the competitive nature of the league in a holistic sense. Many seasons find little separating the teams in terms of goal and point totals in sections of the table. The top four or five teams usually battle until the final weeks or day of the season while the relegation battle is both epic and powerful in its own intensity. Historically, in La Liga, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga, the top teams tend to run away with the league creating a viable and visible platform for individual stardom to thrive. In those leagues, star power is more noticeable and praised whereas in the Premier League, the proclivity for the David’s to slay the Goliath’s is on display almost weekly. In European football, Premier League teams compete and win competitions with some degree of regularity.

Competitions such as the FIFA Ballon d’Or and the FIFPro World XI have merit and the Premier League should have some representation on the ballots if the league really is as good as advertised. The self-aware football-loving public can only imagine the type of hell prolific strikers like Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero would presently unleash on defenses in La Liga, Ligue 1, or the Bundesliga. Sergio Aguero, for instance, bagged 74 goals for Atletico Madrid in 175 appearances while currently sitting on 48 goals in 79 appearances with Manchester City—perhaps suggesting he’s more clinical in a tougher league defensively. Each league has its loyal servants, and it’s possible the Premier League’s soldiers like Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard, and Ryan Giggs might have found more individual success playing abroad, it doesn’t detract from their quality as players and perhaps, their loyalty to the Premier League is a testament to its strength.

The world of football wants to see stars and it wants to see them shine brightly. In the Premier League, the talent is on display and the flair is there—but the focus is on the club as a collective. Those shining too brightly often leave for the Premier League (Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Arjen Robben, and Gareth Bale to name a few). Premier league players must be willing to bleed for their club and the league thrives off the numerous battles waged on the landscape of the Premier League table. In years where a clear frontrunner takes off with the league, the passion still exists and attention turns to the battle for European football qualification and of course, relegation. These elements of the Premier League are evident in all of Europe’s top leagues; the difference is those leagues are dominated by one or two teams—two teams that the league’s global image and vitality relies on. When Barcelona or Real Madrid loses to a smaller team in Spain, its bad business for La Liga. The same might be true for the Bundesliga and Bayern Munich, which is rightly considered to be one of the world’s best clubs.

For all its power, pace and its high entertainment value, the Premier League is the MMA octagon of football. It’s a league full of prizefighters, skilled tacticians, foreign flair, homegrown grit and loyalty—and they’re all battling at full speed week-in and week-out. To judge the quality of the league and the players populating it based on competitions like the Ballon d’Or (which was rightly awarded to Cristiano Ronaldo) or the FIFPro World XI is a fool’s game. These competitions are solely about individual achievement in the eyes of a biased group of voters. The Premier League powerhouse places emphasis on club success before that of individual players. There’s something remarkably powerful with La Liga pitting Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—two of the most popular footballers on the planet—against one another. But that’s the ticket, those players are marketable as individuals on a level unseen in the Premier League.

Perhaps the Premier League garners more holistic power and popularity than Europe’s other elite leagues, but its focus on club success over individual player success is evident. When a club’s marquee signing leaves for another Premier League side, echoes of, “No one is bigger than the club,” are muttered into pint glasses and press conference microphones alike because, in England’s top league, it’s true. Unique elements seen globally such as the jostling for league position, the intensity of each derby, and effort each team displays, regardless of league standing, suggest that the Premier League faithful won’t admit they pay attention to competitions where players clad in fancy tuxedos partake in a popularity contest current Premiership players have no chance of winning. The biggest league in the world might be shrouded in shadow—but in terms of the league’s branding and marketing potential, the Premier League is the bright-shining signaling buoy used to guide other leagues daring to navigate the dangerous waters of world football.