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 Art of Composure

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3 

This past Sunday, like any given Sunday (no, not the movie), I found myself on the bumpy fields playing what many call Sunday League soccer. As a former collegiate player and a guy who’s been around the post-college doldrums of American soccer from combine invites, lower league football in Germany’s Regionalliga’s, “professional” indoor soccer, high-level, intense USASA games operating as U.S. Open Cup qualifiers, and a plethora of competitive cash tournaments complete with ringers and hacks aplenty — Sunday league soccer remains an enigma to me. 

I know the level is hit-or-miss. I know the fields are pastures. I know most players are hungover hacks. But I love playing the game and I’d rather be playing than stuck at home on a Sunday morning. Maybe one day, I’ll get smart and hang up the boots. Maybe.

Inevitably, competition courses through my veins like battery acid. I hold myself to the same standards I did when the games mattered much more. That’s my fault. A misplaced touch, an errant pass, a flubbed through-ball on my end — all of these really bother me. I’m plagued by my own past where these things were non-issues most of the time. I also find myself in the center of the park amid the chaos and shit-talk. As a technical player with a solid frame, I’m thrown in the arena of the Sunday League furnace and I’m happy to oblige my teammates who have neither the poise, technical skill, or fitness tank to do so. I understand my limitations and strengths. I also understand that simple play results in effective soccer.

This is where I begin to lose my mind. I know it’s foolish to try and dribble the lopsided ball on the uneven field adorned with potholes, bits of glass, and rusty bottle caps (I’m not kidding). Opponents aren’t looking to defend, they’re looking to maim. It’s clear the best way to win is to play as a link-up man and exploit the cavernous openings that appear between defenders at this level. Check to the ball, check my shoulders, turn out of danger, start the attack or maintain possession. The game is really a exercise of two-touch soccer. To take more touches in the center of the park is risky. The position demands vision, intelligent movement, and the ability to play simple soccer. And more often than not, playing a forward through is easy at this level. It is here that I discover a fundamental problem with the American player.

One problem with the American player is the absence of ability to play within one’s skill-set. For some reason, the worst players feel the need to dribble, shoot, kick the ball away, or try a knee-cap clearance. For some reason, the worst players try to be playmakers. This is why they are, and always have been, deemed surplus to requirements. 

I understand this is their chance to be selfish and play. Inevitably, I find myself checking to the ball only to see it blasted to the other team. Over the course of 90 minutes, week after week, it begins to become an issue. Believe me, this isn’t a display of direct soccer by any stretch of the imagination.

The other center midfielder is a former collegiate player, too. He’s working his ass off to get the ball, defend, cut off passing lanes, communicate, and he’s getting bypassed as well. We look at one another and it’s clear we are beyond frustrated. I remind myself, this is Sunday League soccer, so the result is of secondary importance. But the lack of understanding, the continual idiocy on display, the kick-and-run strategy hasn’t worked the previous 35 times, so why try it again? These are things that perplex me and would vex anyone considering themselves sane. Although we lose 2-0 to a terrible team, I begin to realize there’s more to this story than a frustrating day at the field.

On the way home, I stop at a local soccer complex where I watched two Development Academy Teams play, one non-MLS DA against one affiliated with a team in MLS. I watched with one intention: to see how the next generation plays the game. 

The technical ability was good for most players. The speed of play was better than I expected. But under duress, most players began to panic. It was like they were drones and couldn’t improvise a way to handle pressure situation.

Shouts of “Clear it!” and “Put your foot through it!” ring out from the sidelines as the young defender tees the ball up and smashes his foot through it. His center midfielder, a hardworking terrier-like player with clean technique has just made himself available as an outlet, checked his shoulders, masterfully freed himself from his marker and is ready to receive the ball (to feet) and switch the point of attack and maintain possession. Instead, the defender lashes at the ball, swinging wildly and slices it across the field to the other team’s grateful defender — who passes it to their center mid who begins to storm back down the field.  

Of course, I’m empathetic to this overlooked midfielder’s plight. I’ve just experienced something similar, but I had my time in the game. But this…this is different. These young players represent the latest and greatest of American soccer, right? Am I missing something here?

After 20 minutes, another shot flies over the goal. On the ensuing goal kick, the same center midfielder checks back to receive the ball under no pressure from the opposing forwards. Most of theses teams, I’ve been told, ha even conditioned to play out of the back. And yet, the goalkeeper hoofs the ball down the field. A parent yells, “Give it a ride!” and oh, does he! 

At no point have the strikers up top won any aerial battles. At no time has this “strategy” worked. Over the course of 90 minutes, I count how many times a center midfielder checks to the ball only for his teammates to dribble out of bounds, into trouble, kick it away, or ignore his good movement. In a full game, at the U-16 Academy level, he showed for the ball around 60 times. He received it 16 times. Of those 16 times, he linked up with other players 6 times resulting in good attacking movements or maintaining possession for his team. This player had a total of 33 touches on the ball in 90 minutes. As a center midfilder. The other team’s center midfielder was no slouch, but opted not to chase or pressure this player.

Why?

The opposing center midfielder knew the other team would simply kick the ball away and bypass their playmaker. Visit any low level game, a high school game, and a collegiate game and you will find one commonality — panicked soccer. American players, from a young age, are conditioned to associate “booting it” with quality. Parents gawk at the how far their child can kick the ball. When he or she receives the ball within 40-yards of goal, have a guess what the shouts are…”Shoot it!”

Make no mistake, playing possession soccer isn’t easy for most American players. Part of this is because the American game hinges (and hangs) itself on athleticism and displays of “power”. Players are taught to kick the ball out of bounds or up the field instead of playing out of a situation. Young players are punished and scorned when they take chances or make mistakes — thereby killing their creative drive. 

What does it matter if a U-8 player tries to link up with a teammate and loses the ball? That’s what learning is about in soccer. The coaches who do well at the youth levels instill a “passing the ball is fun and necessary” philosophy. They encourage the skill and the repetition of the movements.

Liverpool-Triangles

What I see with generation after generation of panic-stricken players is the destruction of the American maestro well before he or she can even develop. The player who sees the game and is the pivot or conduit between the defense and offense is bypassed. 

Sure, there are good American center midfielders, but how many are developed too late on because the current culture of coaching and playing champions “kicking it far”? A lack of utilization of the center midfielder is rampant in the American game. Instead, running box-to-box and “distance covered” are measures of quality and player performance. That, to me, is insanity. 

I get it. 

I run marathons.

Distance covered and hard work matters in soccer, but these are entry fees, not accomplishments, for the teams and countries the U.S. must strive to compete with and against.

Change starts with parents keeping the praise of poor soccer to a minimum. Kicking the ball out of bounds or up the field in flurry of flustered action does not bode well for a player. To praise this only damages them. Coaches can only teach some much technique, which should also be valued the way effort and physicality are.

The truth is coaches don’t have time to spend on more technique while attempting to implement tactics. The better players are technically, the more coaches can help raise the baseline Soccer IQ for players. Stress the importance of body control. That should never stop. If players can’t receive and pass the ball, they can’t play. It’s simple. Two-touch soccer need not be a lost art here. When players and coaches regard technique on the same level of importance as physicality, running fast, and jumping high — an evolution in player development will take place.

Competent players are usually happy, capable players. Remember, composure and confidence on the ball are not mutually exclusive.

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

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

Crossing the Line

Crossing the Line

By: Jonathan Townsend

@jon_townsend3

March 18, 2014

Football is the physical manifestation of pure passion on the pitch. The modern game’s stakes are increasing at an alarming rate as the season becomes more unforgivable. The pressure on each player’s shoulders is matched by the blood pressure of the managers on the touchline. In recent weeks, a select group of managers have become the actual storyline the pundits and public find themselves talking about ad nauseam.

Make no mistake, every play needs a strong cast of actors and football is no different. The playacting on the pitch has somehow bled over to the charade on the sidelines. Alan Pardew’s moments (plural) of madness notwithstanding, the line is being crossed weekly by the managers of the Premier League—literally and figuratively.

In Chelsea’s recent collapse against an inspired Aston Villa side, José Mourinho proffered an excellent example of elaborate contradictions in his post-match interview. After the dismissal of Willian and Ramires, combined with the abject performance of his team that saw Fabian Delph score a nifty goal late-on, Mourinho found himself sent to the stands by referee Chris Foy. Since 2004, José Mourinho has always been the story—he’s a journalist’s dream as even the most off-the-cuff comment is loaded with fodder for a story. In the dying minutes of a match that Aston Villa were trying to kill off, Ramires lunged in and stamped on Karim El Ahmadi, resulting in a maddening scene of which Mourinho was typically at the epicenter.

Mourinho, surprisingly, refused to comment on any of those incidents. “I prefer not to speak. If I speak, I will be in trouble and I don’t want to be,” he said. “I don’t want to do something that we are not allowed to do. We are not allowed to speak about the referees. I don’t want to be charged with bringing the game into disrepute.”

The Chelsea manager, in saying “nothing” said it all as he commented at length about Chris Foy’s refusal to validate his decision to send Willian off earlier. This is hardly the first time Mourinho has found himself involved in a fracas, but in typical Mourinho fashion when asked whether he expected punishment. “Me? Me, or the ref? No, I don’t expect, because I did nothing.”

Tim Sherwood has also been at the forefront of more than a few criticisms in recent weeks. After his honeymoon period in charge of Tottenham Hotspur after the dismissal of Andre Villas-Boas, Sherwood has shown a temperament seldom seen or tolerated in the Premier League these days.

After capitulating against Chelsea, Sherwood openly called his players out for their lack of guile and application on the pitch. Such outbursts were the norm a decade ago, but today’s player has more protection and power than ever before. In the their recent defeat against North London rivals, Arsenal, Sherwood was shown in bouts of fury on the sideline as he threw his vest and stammered in seething rage. Later in the match, as Arsenal began to bleed the clock and it became clear that Tottenham had no fight left in them, Sherwood hurled the out-of-play ball at Bacary Sagna as the Frenchman leisurely walked over to take the ensuing throw not once, but twice. Perhaps it is ironic that Sherwood, a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve wears a garment sans sleeves. For all his faults, Sherwood’s outbursts and criticisms resonate south of favorable for the Englishman. Unlike Mourinho, Sherwood has neither the charisma, experience, nor the media on his side.

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All jokes aside, both men are deflecting attention away from their shortcomings on the day. Mourinho is the puppeteer of the media and mind games looking for a playmate now that Sir Alex Ferguson finds himself a silent witness to the collapse at Manchester United. In Arsène Wenger, Mr. Mourinho has found a stale opponent in the verbal jousting matches whereas David Moyes has no room to engage in anything more than trying to prove he can save Manchester United from even more embarrassment. Tim Sherwood is clearly a victim of his own temper, flawed tactics and of a side players whimsically bought with the Gareth Bale money who have shamefully under-performed under both Villas-Boas and himself.

Long gone are the days where managers could issue the public call-outs and hairdryer treatment to players. This generation is different. This Premier League is different. But, this is where the conundrum is most frustrating for many supporters and analysts. Shouldn’t players be held accountable for their poor public performances? Or, should all of the criticisms be reserved for a closed-door session away from the speculative eyes of the media and public capable of smelling a drop of blood in an ocean of controversy? In all honesty, this generation of players would probably quit football if they had a man telling them the brutal truth like John Sitton famously did at Leyton Orient in front of the camera.

Football, in many ways, has changed in ways many of us cannot relate to. Many a reader can remember a savage halftime shellacking at their own expense. Not ten years ago, the Premier League was a hard man’s league. Diving and simulation were present, but not at the rate it is presently. Tackles like the one Ramires committed were common (and still disgusting), but the likelihood a manager would end up on the field arguing the point was less than likely. The modern football manager is just as much a celebrity as the modern footballer. There is no place to hide, no comment goes unrecorded and no emotion escapes analysis and speculation. Some will commend emotional coaches like Mourinho and Sherwood (albeit they are very much different men and managers) for “taking the attention away from their players”, or their flawed tactics; and others will condemn their public displays as those of petulance and petty attention-seeking. But, like Paul Weller’s famously crooned in the 1980 hit, “That’s Entertainment” by The Jam, it surely is entertainment for the football-consuming world—and the show must go on. And where ever it goes, we’ll all be waiting.

Taking Football to the Streets — Part II

Taking Football To The Streets
Part Two
In part two of a special feature looking at taking football back to the streets, Jon Townsend interviews John Farnworth on his remarkable journey into freestyle football.

By Jonathan Townsend | 4 March 2014

Every footballer has their own story. Some are more akin to war stories of the jaded and faded who claim to have never received a fair shot or shake at glory. Others will tell you that they decided to pursue other avenues away from the sport. Still more will have their footballing fate decided for them through a series of events of glorious triumphs and failures.

John Farnworth, a freestyle football player who holds more than few Guinness World Records and is considered one of the world’s most entertaining and most-skilled freestyle players, has a story worth telling.

Much like Edward Van Gils and countless other street and footballers, skill acquisition for him required an innate desire to be the best player possible. What is compelling about John’s story, aside from his obvious skill, is his acknowledgement that his adventure is purely a result of his dedication to his craft.

He, like many players, harbored aspirations to play professionally, but unlike many of today’s young players, he became a student of the game. By reading and re-reading a skill book and rehearsing the movements and techniques for hours on end, John bridged the gap he sought to fill and didn’t give up on the sport. He simply found an alternative way to continue playing and making an impact as an entertainer and ambassador of the game.

Interview with John Farnworth

How did you start playing football?

I started playing football when I was about 8 or 9. Before that, I wasn’t really interested in the sport at all. It was my dad who took me to Old Trafford around that time that I started showing an interest. After watching Man United play I was quite inspired to go out and start kicking a ball about and it soon became a massive part of my life. Also, having two brothers helped as well and my family has always been interested in football. My Granddad played for Accrington Stanley and was offered a contract at Burnley before pursuing teaching as it was seen as a “proper job” at the time as there was no money in football.

Did you ever dream of playing professional football? If so, do you have a story about what happened that lead you to be the world’s best freestyle footballers?

Yeah I did, when I was younger I used to go to watch Manchester United all the time and literally played football whenever I could. It was always playing on the street with my mates that I enjoyed most, though. I played for Preston North End Centre of Excellence for a few games and Preston Town team for two years, but around 14-15 years old I stopped playing football for a team and even stopped playing for school, as I stopped enjoying it.

A lot of the coaching was about winning and, in all honesty, I wasn’t bothered about winning. I just wanted to play and develop my skills. I started to enjoy practicing alone usually and this is what eventually led me to Freestyle. At around this time, I had seen a man named Simon Clifford on a TV show called, ‘Michael Owens Soccer Skills’ where Simon had a group of children who were better than Michael Owen at skills.

Simon had trained them up through his method taken from the Brazilians (which later became Brazilian Soccer Schools). Seeing this on TV inspired me a lot. These children where amazing! I was shocked at what they could do. They’d been coached in such a different way, what they were doing was exciting; almost magical and I wanted to join what they were doing immediately.

This experience led me to join one of Simon’s Schools in the Bolton/Manchester area, led by Brian Leach. Brian was brilliant, he taught me so much, the session was all about learning new skills and expression, and some of the lads there were amazing. We always did a bit of freestyle in the sessions, even though at the time it was called freestyle we just called it juggling. We’d learn how to control the ball on every part of our body. It was a lot of fun, but I started to get so much better from being inspired to practice every opportunity that I had. Not long after, I met with Simon who had some nice things to say about me.

We used to go over to Leeds where Simon was based and play games of futebol de salao (futsal) and work on our skills. The environment was very good, very much about learning as opposed to winning. Simon would always teach you in a way like a teacher would by actually showing you something that you could learn from.

I carried on practicing my skills, and a few years down the line in 2003 I went to the Nike Freestyle event in Manchester. At the time, I didn’t know what Freestyle was. I just went along, but I was amazed at what I saw, especially by I guy named Mr. Woo who was juggling the ball with his shins, toes, heels and soles in addition to performing some of the most breathtaking moves with a ball that I had ever seen. That was the day I found what I was going to do!

As a young player, how many touches did you get a day with the ball? How many hours did you practice to develop your skills?

Well that is hard to say but 1000’s of touches. I used to dribble to ball to school and back; even when I was younger I was fascinated with getting better and developing. I used to read Simon Clifford’s book cover-to-cover again and again, just in case I missed something, I would practice all the skills in the book every day. My mum and dad used to tell me to rest, but I could never sit still, it was training with the ball that almost gives me peace. I enjoy practicing, I love mastering things.

When I started more seriously training in freestyle I practiced in every possible opportunity, the same is true today. I always have a ball with me, just in case. I practice all the time it’s a never ending journey of refinement and improvement—it never stops. I believe whatever we are training for or doing in life never hits one big goal, you have to go on and see further each time you improve.

What is your goal as a freestyle footballer? Do you want to see this side of the game grow more? Or, do you like the “underground” (hidden) aspect of the game?

My only goal as a freestyler is to be better than I was yesterday; I just want to make sure that I am guided each day by growth. I want to explore every facet of movement that I can to improve my art and transcend it. I’m sure freestyle will continue to grow and I hope it does. I guess the underground side is quite cool, but the more people see the benefits of freestyle the better.

I hope that those doing freestyle or interested in the art can learn to express themselves through the movement, learn from others of course but find within themselves their own style for that is what freestyle really is. I intend to take what I do to a larger audience I would hope that one day freestyle can be a part of the game of football – that coaches look upon what is behind the art to move the game forward. Football should be entertaining; fans and players love to see amazing skills and creativity and the more I look at freestyle, the more I see it connected to the origins of the game we see today.

I feel this type of football, which requires an exceptional level of skill, is not appreciated as much as the mainstream game. Do you agree? Why or why not?

I think it is appreciated, but I think most coaches don’t see it as an activity that can help football. I have been lucky to work with top football players and it’s interesting to see them trying some of the moves. They are really interested with freestyle; it’s almost this new thing that they don’t know what to do with but they are still fascinated with it.

I want to change this and show how everyone can learn from freestyle whether it be for the game of football or to learn new moves for fun. I agree that it takes a lot of skill and practice and it is something that you have to spend time on. I think that mastering something is quite rare and almost overlooked in society as we have been inclined for the short gain or win for whatever reason.

Freestyle for me is about the journey to master something then keep going and going to see how far you can push it, when you do this you create something that is totally unique and it would be hard not for the mainstream to notice.

What can you tell people about yourself? Describe yourself aside from football so I can help build context to who you are as a player and freestyle football icon.

That’s quite hard! Well I guess I am a very determined person, but I would say that my best quality is just curiosity. I am always curious of everything around me. I want to stay childlike and stay connected to that playful aspect within me. I love to read, write, take pictures and spend time with my family. I love to travel and take in new cultures and learn more about the world. I really like films; I want to learn from film in how I can connect more to people through what I do, especially today with the social media platforms and YouTube.

Who and what influenced you to continue to play football and become the world’s best freestyle footballer? Any favorite players or teams? Unique experiences that you would like share?

As mentioned previously, Simon Clifford has been a massive inspiration on my life and still to this day continues to help guide me on my journey. As a child, I was fascinated with Eric Cantona, he was amazing to watch. Also seeing Ryan Giggs as a youngster was inspiring and players to this day like Ronaldo and Messi make football such an amazing sport.

I am a Manchester United fan, since my dad took me to Old Trafford as a child I have always loved going to games. I don’t go as much now as I would like to do but I was lucky enough to see Alex Ferguson’s last game at Old Trafford. It was so inspiring to see what he had built, from the players to all the staff that works at the club; something truly amazing!

I feel like I have had many unique experiences on my journey so far, I have travelled to over 30 different countries so far which has been amazing. It was amazing performing in the townships of South Africa, I have been lucky enough to travel there a few times now and the people are amazing, whenever I did a show there the people went crazy I had never seen anything like it!

Also, performing at events around the world have been great, including a highly embarrassing experience when I went up to Kevin Spacey and said, ‘Hi, my names John’ he said, ‘Hi’ I said, ‘What’s your name?’ without thinking about it! He just said ‘I’m Kevin.’ I was so embarrassed, but he was one of the nicest humblest guys I’ve met.

Another amazing experience was completing the London marathon while keeping a ball in the air the whole way, it took me 12 hours, the day was amazing, but it was a buildup of training for six months that enabled me to do it.

What is your favorite place to perform freestyle football? What country, would you say, has the best freestyle football?

It’s so hard to choose. One place but being at the 2010 World Cup Final was amazing, performing at Old Trafford was a dream come true. Also performing at a private party for Ruud van Nistelrooy was a huge honour.

Do you have any freestyle footballer friends that have helped you develop as a player?

I mostly train on my own. I feel I am most creative when alone, but I train a bit with Richard Braithwaite, John Whetton, Abbas Farid and Dan Magness. They are all amazing freestylers in their own way with their own styles. I have also worked on events with them quite a bit which is always good fun.

What advice would you give young kids who want to become freestyle footballers or just get better at football in general?

The obvious thing to say is to practice! I know it’s what everyone will say but it’s the truth. I wasn’t born with any particular specialness that has allowed me to get good; I just did what I enjoyed. I only became good after years and years of practice when I started I wasn’t that good at all. I would also advice players to be their own coach, look at your own performance, look at both sides positive and negative and find the middle ground where you can develop.

I would say combine play or creativity with more serious training, I feel we [players] need to combine the two, not being too mechanical with a set belief or not being too playful where they will not get anything done. Personally, players should look, review and aim to be open to everything, but attached to nothing in everything that they do; this way you can progress and achieve amazing things.

It has been said that you have taught some famous footballers some of your moves. Can you share what players you worked with? Have you worked with any football companies to help them promote freestyle football?

Yes, I have worked with and met some amazing football players such as: Jay-Jay Okocha, James Milner, Joe Hart, Ashley Young, Chris Smalling, Antonio Valencia, Anders Lindegaard, Scott Parker, and Rafael Van der Vaart. I also met Ronaldinho years ago when I was doing a demonstration for Brazilian Soccer Schools with a few of the players. It was funny as he stopped and watched with a big smile on his face! The players I have worked with have been brilliant, it’s really strange at first but then you just realize that they are just lads wanting to play football.

I have worked with many brands across the world to promote freestyle and use freestyle as part of certain events. A lot of companies are recognizing freestyle as a way of engaging people, which shows its growth and that people are aware of it. I’m doing a lot of work on a regular basis with some big football brands and clubs.

Aside from asking some of football’s underground stars some salient questions, I also aimed to show readers that whether a player takes it upon themselves to get thousands of touches a day, play for hours on end, or finds some other method to improve their game, the onus of their individual improvement should ultimately rest on their shoulders. The end goal is to for young players to enjoy their football and recapture a passion for the game through simplification and, if nothing else, play for the love of the game.

By Jonathan Townsend.
Follow Jon on Twitter @jon_townsend3

Accountability United

Accountability United

By: Jonathan Townsend

February 18, 2014

Imagine for a moment there’s a team where players were held to similar standards as the manager. Let’s call this team Accountability United. Contrary to the forgivable assumption the team is comprised of accountants; I assure you the club’s name and crest is reflective, of the club’s credo – Accountable, Dependable, Proud.

Perhaps this club has redefined football’s modern landscape. Since the advent and injection of big money in the world’s top leagues, it seems football has started a dangerous migration away from the stadium pitches to a brutally different setting more recognizable with the gladiatorial arenas scattered across the Roman Empire and the aroma of freshly-cut grass has been replaced with a metaphorical sanguine stench hanging in the air – evidence that managerial mediocrity and defeat is unacceptable.

Surely, I speak metaphorically; after all, we live in “civilized” times, do we not?

Accountability United should be a strong team, perhaps one of the strongest for one simple reason: Player Accountability. You may wonder exactly what Player Accountability means. The concept is simple: at Accountability United, every single player taking the pitch is held to the high standards as dictated in their contract, just like the manager. If they don’t live up to the terms of their contract, they are dismissed, penalized, deemed surplus to requirements.

The very notion of this concept is undoubtedly too incredulous for most conventional football minds to fathom. But let’s attempt to expand on this idea if only for a moment. Save for that bit of fictitious thinking, there is glaring problem with underperforming players hiding behind agent-inflated wage demands that could take away from the product on the pitch. I’m not suggesting players don’t deserve what they earn for they are opportunists and the best in their profession in a free market, good on them. However, something is amiss.

The managerial carousel in football is perplexing. For any club, the man pulling the strings is not necessarily the man calling the shots. Let that sink in for a moment. A manager takes control of a team attempting to assemble a squad echoing his vision while validating his collective experiences in the game – all in an attempt not to garner the respect of the players, supporters, board, executive committee and the club’s owner, but to win. Winning is all that matters; simple enough.

Football management is tricky business. The modern football club’s front door is literally a revolving door. The door a manager enters is the one he’ll exit through, the one facing the media and public at large. Performance is everything and numbers in the win/loss columns don’t lie. When a manager doesn’t gel with the club’s ethos, he’s subject (perhaps rightly so) to getting sacked simply because it’s much easier to replace one man than 24.

For example, Chelsea under Roman Abramovich’s ownership has burned through ten managers – including the return of José Mourinho. Some of the faithfully departed Chelsea managers won significant silverware and didn’t drop the level of play at the club, and yet, still found themselves out of a job. Imagine if Andriy Shevchenko and Fernando Torres were judged in the same manner that managers were subject to by the owner. So, if winning is the ultimate measure of success, Chelsea has certainly enjoyed a decade of more success than any other time in their history.

The shadowy Russian henchman in the chairman’s box demands success. He dictates exacting moves with the club personnel. Roman Abramovich uses them as chess pieces on the bloodstained chessboard of world football with Bobby Fischer-like ruthlessness and a motivation to decimate the very notion of defeat. Perhaps in Mourinho, Abramovich has found his Mikhail Tal (Fischer’s greatest rival), his managerial Grandmaster with a personality strong enough to succeed at Chelsea.

José Mourinho has set an impressive benchmark up to this writing, having still never lost a Premier League match at home. Much like Tal, who posthumously still holds the records for both the first and second longest unbeaten streaks in competitive chess history, Mourinho walks to his own beat. He’s not a man who fears the egos in his dressing room – for none are bigger and more imposing than his own, which could be a large part of his success at every club he’s managed.

On another side of the managerial spectrum, the latest questions bouncing off the stratosphere revolve around Manchester United and their luckless manager, David Moyes. For all the stick Moyes has earned this season, it is clear United’s players haven’t played to their potential. For a moment, let’s put tactics aside.

The lack of player accountability for the Red Devils is telling and for every misstep Moyes makes, there is a clear lack of application on part of the players. Anyone, be it Moyes, Mourinho, or any other manager inheriting Sir Alex Ferguson’s throne, would also inherit the poisoned chalice. Conceivably this descent from greatness has been in the works long before the former Everton boss took over at United.

Ferguson’s greatness as a manager is evidenced by his ability to get the best out of slightly above average players while developing young talent and attracting world-class players. The difference? When those players didn’t perform, or more importantly, conform to his system and values, he shipped them out. Make no mistake, Moyes is in over his head, but his calm public personality coupled with the ever-common sight on the touchline of a man lost for words and ability to take decisive action during a match is on him. But the lack of leadership on the pitch and in the dressing room is glaringly obvious.

It may take a year for the shell-shock to wear off at Manchester United. The bulwark that is the Theatre of Dreams has become the Theatre of Screams this campaign. There is a belief that good managers need time and clubs need stability to secure longevity, but the throne Ferguson relinquished was not the one he inherited. The game’s infrastructure and the marketing machine that is global branding make it a different beast than the Manchester United of 1986.

At Manchester United there are is no hiding. Well, so we thought, but big name players have hid behind every single shellacking of David Moyes while the long-term servants of the club haven’t shown the grit necessary to dictate matches in a meaningful way. Under Moyes, it may never happen and that’s a reality that supporters of such an esteemed club will have to accept.

Every empire has a shelf life and deep down, everyone knows that Manchester United and the world may never see another Sir Alex Ferguson just as Liverpool knew there could never be another Bill Shankly. Ironically, perhaps the only commonality David Moyes shares with those two greats is the Scottish blood coursing through his veins. Managers are judged first on their ability to win matches and silverware, and second on their personality. The problem is for David Moyes is the best managers blend their ability with their personality to win games.

Manchester United doesn’t have a general in the mold of a Roy Keane in the dressing room anymore, but if they did, wins, draws, losses aside, players would be less likely to drop their performance level as much as they have this campaign. At the moment, David Moyes doesn’t need to win games; he needs to win over his players. The players need to win the matches.

I know, I know, dear reader, you’re no doubt thinking, but what about the tactical analysis? What about it? It’s not the losses or draws that should worry Manchester United, but the manner of the results. That’s the worrying part. These are seasoned professionals. These are the reigning Champions, are they not? This same team won the league by eleven points last season, right? The point is there is enough experience and quality to do better, even with Moyes’ faults.

Manchester United will likely clean house during the next transfer window and perhaps after Moyes brings in his own players (even though the Marouane Fellaini experiment has failed), he’ll then be judged by the board like he has by everyone else. Until then, it would seem that David Moyes will have to redefine his managerial skill if he hopes to stay at United past this subpar campaign.

Ultimately, when they step across the chalk, the players play the game and for the money modern footballers make, the supporters, journalists, and the world of armchair cynics are justified in their disgust and abject anger at the lack of accountability modern players exude. A common gripe is that no commoner would be able to mail it in at work and still keep their job, earn a paycheck, and escape criticism, so why should players? Why does everything fall on the manager?

Of course, these aren’t common folk; these are presumably the best in the footballing business. And perchance, therein lies part of the problem; players make so much money and live a life so far above and removed from the supporters and cities that gather at football’s shrines to watch them play. They are tone deaf to the fact that player accountability is merely a trait of football’s Old Guard.

By Jonathan Townsend.

Follow Me on Twitter @jon_townsend3

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.

Divers Anonymous

Divers Anonymous

By: Jon Townsend

@jon_townsend3
1/1/2014

Pardon the pun, but diving is an issue that needs to be tackled with the tenacity of a Billy Bremner chomp to the ankles and the severity of a Roy Keane lunge at the kneecaps. Surely, I jest, but hopefully you’ll get the point. Every football fan experiences the symptomatic effects of simulation—the seething anger escaping through clenched teeth and the increased heart rate an opposing team’s player triggers when they dive regardless of whether the referee takes the bait. Everyone sees the transgression. The old guard of football—comprised of former players and aging supporters must wonder where their beloved game has disappeared to these days.

Simulation has created a generation of defenders who flop on the ball when a striker pressures them from behind, strikers who look to fall at the slightest contact in or around the penalty area, and midfielders who’ve mastered the art of falling in the most congested areas of the pitch. The myriad offenses rain down controversy on referees and players alike with the omnipresent eyes of the world take their own dive into the world of controversy. Welcome to Planet Football.

The consistent element of diving, in modern football, is nearly every team has players guilty of the offense; predictably causing the condemning cynics to judge when other team’s players succumb to the sniper hidden in the floodlights’ deadly accurate shot while hiding their own blushes if diving proves to benefit their beloved club or country. Scores of young players, many of whom endeavored to emulate the skill yesterday’s great, ‘honest’ players displayed on the pitch now understand diving is a skill they’ll need in their repertoire if they want to play like football’s current stars. Such is the world of contentious football.

And isn’t that the beautiful ugliness of modern football? Diving is the double-edged sword the modern day supporter undoubtedly falls on. The ugly wave of hypocrisy washes over every football fan and the topic of diving is seldom more evident than it is presently. This summer, the world’s footballing elite will commence battle on the pitches of Brazil showcasing their own unique and beautiful style of football—and dark art of deception.

Perhaps what is most unsettling about diving is it’s an art form requiring an a rehearsed set of theatrical skills only seen onstage by paid and trained actors is played out (another pun, no apology) on football pitches by, well, paid and trained actors. Sitting in a pub with fans who’ve seen, lived and breathed the sport for over five decades, one can learn quite a lot about the evolution of football from the post-War era to the modern, money-infused version of the game worshipped the world over. They’ll tell you back then, players chomped at one another with the intensity of raging pitbull terriers frothing at the mouth to win and grind out a full-hearted effort worthy of merits regardless of outcome. The older fans will tell age-old tales of the epic clashes of football’s hard men against the mercurial talents coming through the ranks and across the borders. The battles pitted shin against shin, elbow against solar plexus, and forehead versus forehead. Blood was spilled—mixing well with the chewed up, pockmarked pitches of the time.

Any cognizant follower of the game knows that diving has always been there—in the referee’s periphery—enabling matches to be won and lost with well-rehearsed theatrics. Recently, simulation has shown its self-immolating side with a slew of non-calls that players like Luis Suarez, Ashley Young, Oscar, Ramires and Danny Welbeck have earned by letting their respective cunning con artist reputations precede them.

There was a time when “only foreigners” were guilty of simulation in the Premier League. As with all successful trends, diving has become so common and worthwhile for players that it has Premier League managers wearing two-faced masks, vehemently defending their own players whilst publicly condemning the opposition’s players in the same breath. This cyclical practice is akin to the pot calling the kettle black.

At the moment, it’s clear that diving is part of the game. But, does the global football community need accept this blight on the game? The better question ought to be, is diving a blight on the game? After all, it adds a palpable intrigue and a human element to a sport in a universe among others subject to the painful over-analyzing of in-game incidents disrupting the flow of a game while increasing the number of armchair experts shouting at television screens.

Therein is perhaps the most intriguing element of what the practice of diving has become and ultimately the ubiquitous effect this tactic has on football. Diving continues for many reasons, but perhaps the most obvious being it largely goes unpunished save a sporadic on-field caution. In La Liga and Serie A, diving is simply a large part of the game. Not to take anything away from either league as the quality of football in each is top notch. In other leagues, scrutiny heeds way to acceptance of the practice. Simulation continues to be a reprehensibly excusable part of football.

Incidents in the Premier League this past week saw Luis Suarez appear to be interfered with by Samuel Eto’o in the penalty area only for Howard Webb to deem the infraction unworthy of a penalty. Of course, Luis Suarez, to his self-imposed detriment, has put himself in the murky waters of decision-making for any referee due to his past diving incidents.

Manchester United’s Danny Welbeck’s atrocious flop against Tottenham in the 58th minute went unpunished by Howard Webb in a 2-1 defeat to a resurgent Spurs side. Similar incidents involving Welbeck against Wigan in the Community Shield and Liverpool in the league suggest this won’t be the last time the striker flops. And should Welbeck be blamed? The current culture of promising young strikers is hinged upon the pressure to achieve results whether by hook or by crook. Two sides of the debate can rule a player diving is either cheating, or he’s doing his job and trying to help his team.

Ironically, a mere two days after Jose Mourinho accused Luis Suarez of ‘acrobatic swimming pool dives” after being fouled by Samuel Eto’o, Oscar was rightly booked for a horrendous pirouette as Southampton’s goalkeeper Kelvin Davis challenged for the ball in Chelsea’s victory. There exists the argument that players dive when they’re anticipating contact and in all honesty, as ridiculous as that sounds to the masses, it’s the only rehearsed explanation hiding the real motive—to con the referee. And the discussion seems to run out of steam once that specific reason is surrendered.

Football needs solutions to deter players from diving. Just as the motives for diving are many and unavoidable, the solutions should be implemented to preserve the game’s integrity. Maybe the answer is a sin bin, where the offending player must sit for a specified period of time while his team plays a man down. Retroactive fines for blatant simulation are possible, but a committee of objective and qualified persons would need to operate on the premise of consistency in a sub-area of the game that’s one of the most inconsistent. And let’s be honest, FIFA is unlikely to implement any rational changes regarding the Laws of the Game in a timely manner.

Diving and simulation have reached every facet of the game. The calamity diving causes is fascinating in ways, like a football match, nobody can predict. And in that uncertainty is the entertaining factor that draws people to football—embracing the good and accepting the bad. For all its detriments, diving has created an almost self-aware enigma—a beautiful ugliness that just might tip the scales in your favour.