Monday, 10 October 2011

Steve Darby: Next England Manager?

As another week flies past, we find ourselves seven days closer to the end of Euro 2012. 266 days to be precise. That is until the evening of the final, not that many fans or pundits realistically expect England to still be in the competition by that stage.

What is so important and interesting about the 1st July 2012 is that it will mark the end of the reign of Fabio Capello as the coach of the England football team. It has already been made clear that he will not be staying on beyond that point. So the question remains, who will replace him?

As regular as clockwork over the past decade, the argument has ticked around to whether an Englishman should coach the national team. When Kevin Keegan walked out on England after a dismal defeat in the final match at the old Wembley stadium, the FA made the controversial appointment of Sven Goran Eriksson. The Swede became the first non-Englishman to ever manage the England international football team. Keegan left with the worst winning percentage of any England manager in history – English had clearly failed, so why not go foreign?

When Eriksson was eventually hounded out by the press, his record stood up admirably. Three consecutive quarter-final appearances in tournaments and the third best winning percentage since Sir Alf Ramsey. However, he was not English. The press had come in a full circle and wanted a home-grown manager.

The FA initially plumped for Phil Scolari, but before he could even sign on, he changed his mind after the antics of the press. Steve McClaren was the man who eventually took up the position. An Englishman was back in the hot seat.

Fast forward 18 months and England were once again looking for a new manager. It has to be the best man for the job, regardless of nationality, the press declared. If no Englishman is good enough, go foreign. Step forward Fabio Capello – one of the most decorated managers in football today. A great decision by the FA proclaimed the media and fans.

So to today. It has to be an Englishman to succeed Capello. The journalists are telling us that. Current and former players are telling us that. Harry Redknapp is telling us that (presumably as he is virtually the only Englishman that would be considered).

So, it has to be an Englishman. It shouldn’t be difficult to compile a shortlist. What do we look for in a top manager? Number one: Trophies won…

The Premiership has been running for twenty years now. The last Englishman to win the Premiership was… nobody. No Englishman has ever won the Premiership.  OK, skip the league then. There have to be plenty of English managers that have won a cup then.

Harry Redknapp has almost thirty years as a manager. He has won a major trophy. One major trophy. The FA Cup with an expensively assembled Portsmouth team that the club could barely afford. There is no other English manager in the Premiership that has won a major English trophy.

Despite his lack of success in England, Roy Hodgson is a standout choice. One of Europe’s most respected coaches, he has won league titles in multiple countries, he has reached a major European final with Inter and he has extensive experience managing international teams. But six unfortunate months at Liverpool have turned him from media darling to incompetent idiot.

So, our shortlist is living up to its name. It is horrifyingly short. Harry Redknapp is almost certain to get the job by default. He is the media darling. Ignore the fact that he polarises football fans – he is hated by a significant proportion of football supporters. Ignore the fact that his shady background has still not been entirely cleared up.

Ignore the fact that he himself wrote an article about not understanding most of the jargon and obsession with modern coaching. He prides himself on being able to spot a player. It is no surprise that he has a major overhaul of the players at any new club he joins. He works well with his type of players and surrounds himself with them.

So, we are ignoring the fact that he cannot sign players at international level. He has to make do with the players that he has at his disposal. Has he ever proved that he can do this? Not once. But everyone will ignore this. The media love him. Thus, he will be the next England manager.

Ignoring Harry Redknapp and Roy Hodgson leaves us with an intriguing shortlist for the next English England manager. By intriguing, I really mean completely blank. Foreign coaches have not delivered the desired success and the past English managers have not delivered the desired success. So why not try something completely left field?

I propose a new candidate. At the time, he was one of the youngest coaches to receive his UEFA ‘A’ Licence over thirty years ago. He worked for FIFA in third world countries developing the grassroots networks, the lack of existence of that is currently under scrutiny in England.

He spent five years as national development manager for the Australian Soccer Federation, where he was responsible for bringing through the likes of Lucas Neill, Mark Viduka and Brett Emerton. He led his second club to their first ever cup triumph as a second division side, followed the next season by promotion back into the top flight.

After this, he won a gold medal coaching in an international football tournament, before turning his next club side into the country’s dominant team, finishing both in the top two and reaching the cup final for three consecutive years, and reaching the semi-final of the continental club competition for the first time in the club’s history.

At his next club, he finished runner-up in the league, took them to two cup finals and reached the quarter-final of the continental competition – the furthest a team from that country has ever progressed. Then, most recently, he held an assistant manager job at international level. Not only this, he is English.

So, let us look through the checklist. Is he English? Check – born and bred in Liverpool. Has he won major trophies? Check – four league titles, three cup competition and an international gold medal. In multiple countries? Check – titles in three countries and cups in two countries. Managerial experience? Check – over fifteen years of managerial experience and over thirty years since he first gained his top level coaching badges. International experience? Check – in both men’s and women’s football.

He is one of the most respected coaches in the entire of Asia. A great deal of the credit for Australia’s emergence as a serious footballing must be given to him. He is a commentator for ESPN in Asia on Premiership football. He has a degree in Physical Education from the University of Leeds and a masters degree in Sports Administration from the University of Canberra. He speaks five languages.

So, the league titles may have come with the likes of Johor FA, Home Utd and Perak FA. The international experience may be with Vietnam and Thailand. His success still speaks for itself.

He ticks virtually every box. So, I propose Steve Darby as the successor to Fabio Capello as England manager. Will he get it? Of course not. Will he even be considered? Of course not. But the current candidates hardly set the pulse racing. Why not try something completely different?

Steve Darby for England. The campaign starts here…

2012: The Year of Murray?

2011 has undoubtedly been the year of Novak Djokovic. Three Grand Slam titles and only three defeats – two as a result of retirements – is a record that stands out even more given the strength of the men’s roster. Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have both been left eating the dirt as Djokovic has cruised into the top spot.

However, while Djokovic is currently struggling with injury problems, there is little doubt that the form player in tennis is at the current moment is Andy Murray. Back-to-back titles in the past fortnight followed on from his comfortable two wins in the Davis Cup against Hungary.

Indeed, since losing to Nadal in the US Open semi-final, Murray has notched up eleven straight victories, culminating in a stunning victory against Rafa Nadal in the final in Japan yesterday morning.

Before this match, Nadal had a 4-0 record over the Scotsman this year and was fancied to win his first title since the French Open. When the Spaniard took the first set 6-3 with a single break of serve, few would have fancied Murray to continue his hot streak.

However, at 2-2 in the second set, something seemed to click inside Murray’s head. He did not drop another game in the entire match. A double break in the second set led to a 6-2 scoreline before a truly breathtaking third set gave him the title.

Roger Federer in his prime played some wonderful tennis. Rafa Nadal has humbled the best over the past five years. Novak Djokovic has been unstoppable this year. However, the third set that Murray played is one of the best sets you will see.

Murray has bagelled Nadal once before. However, that was an injured Nadal, who could barely move around the court back in Rotterdam in early 2009. This time, there were no physical issues for Nadal. He was simply blown off the court by a Murray masterclass.

The Scotsman only dropped four points in the entire set of tennis, breaking Nadal three times. Over the course of the match, he broke Nadal’s serve five times and Nadal won only 43% of points behind his first serve. Conversely, Murray dropped only 8 points on his own first serve.

The difference today was the style of Murray’s play. For the last set and a half, gone was the defensive Murray that we have become accustomed to. This was a new aggressive Andy Murray. He was stepping inside the baseline regularly and hitting with power and accuracy that Nadal simply could not cope with.

A similar style blew world number five, David Ferrer, away in the previous round for the loss of only five games.

However, he needs to push on from here and not fall back into his previous defensive style. He is one of the best retrievers on the tour, and regularly tops the return points won statistics. If he can add an attacking element to his game, he could take that final step and become a truly great player.

Since the beginning of the French Open back in May, Murray has only lost four matches. Four matches in almost six months. Three of those defeats had come at the hands of Nadal. Unfortunately for Murray, each of those defeats came in semi-finals of Grand Slams.

However, during that period, he does have a victory over his friend, Djokovic, to his name. Cynics will point to the fact that Djokovic retired during the match. The point remains though that Murray was a set and a double break up against the world number one. Even if Djokovic was injured, he had still beaten two top ten players to reach the final.

Murray will be hoping to emulate the stunning rise of his close friend in 2012. A wonderful end to 2010 with a remarkable victory over Federer at the US Open and glory in the Davis Cup boosted Djokovic’s confidence and arguably led to his magnificent 2011.

While Murray has no Grand Slam events remaining this year and no Davis Cup final to look forward to, he looks almost certain to overtake Roger Federer in the rankings, potentially as early as next week if he wins the title in Shanghai. If he could combine this with victory in the end of season Masters’ Cup event in London, it could provide the springboard that he needs.

He clearly thrives in Australia, having reached two Australian Open finals. Full of confidence and playing a new aggressive style of tennis, he would have a great chance of clinching a first Grand Slam title. Once that mental barrier is overcome, few would bet against him going on to win more.

Backtrack twelve months. If you had said in October 2010 that Novak Djokovic would win three Grand Slam titles in 2011, nobody would have taken you seriously. Even Djokovic himself would probably have laughed at the suggestion.

Murray will almost certainly not win three Grand Slam titles in 2012. However, it would be a brave man to bet against him winning his first.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Not Just a Game: The True Power of Football

Love and Hate; War and Peace; Life and Death. Bill Shankly once famously announced that football was more important than a matter of life and death. Those less interested purely see it as twenty-two people running after a ball on a pitch. The reality is that the true importance of football probably lies somewhere between those two extremes, but the power of football as a tool for good cannot be underestimated in the current international climate.

Football, whether directly or indirectly, has started wars and has ended wars. The so-called ‘Soccer War’ in 1969, whilst not solely as a result of football, was sparked off by a match between Honduras and El Salvador, and tragically led to the death of over 3,000 people.

On the flip side, the Cote d’Ivoire is a wonderful example of the healing power of football. A temporary ceasefire was declared during the 2006 World Cup to focus on the nation’s football team. Twelve months later, Didier Drogba made the suggestion that an international match between his side and Madagascar should be played in Bouaké, the capital of the rebel-held region.

It was the first time since the outbreak of civil war that government troops had been in the rebel capital and the first time in five years that the two sides had come face-to-face in a non-hostile setting. This match is seen as a major catalyst in the permanent ceasefire that marked the end of the civil war.

The conclusion from these two short examples is that football can impart an inordinate amount of power in bringing groups together or driving people apart. Again, a quote from Bill Shankly sums this up well; “Football is not just a game, but is also an economic force, a model of globalisation and, more importantly, a vehicle for conflict resolution.”

It is the use of football in this role that has inspired a group of students at the School for African and Oriental Studies (SOAS) in London to develop Football Beyond Borders. On their website, it is described as ‘a student-led movement using football’s level playing field to empower communities and enact positive social change.’

The original plan, devised by SOAS student Jasper Kain, was to take the university’s football team to Iran to try and connect with the average Iranian person and fight against the prevailing view of the Iranians as ‘a dangerous and opposite society of extremists and fundamentalists.’ Whilst this original tour was derailed by visa issues, a tour was carried out, travelling around Turkey, Syria and Lebanon playing matches against local teams from all different ethnicities, religions and tribes.

Twelve months later, a second tour saw the group visiting West Africa. As well as playing matches against local teams, the team now expanded their remit to run a series of intercultural and educational workshops for local children and worked closely with various charitable and grassroots developmental projects in the region.

In the words of the team themselves, “the programme we embarked on sought to utilise education, literature, sport and art to galvanise the youth and see a return of the development agenda to the peak of international consciousness.”

2011 has seen a further expanded programme of events for the Football Beyond Borders team. A London event that has just finished saw universities from Cairo, Turkey, Uruguay and Finland sending teams to participate in a football tournament. However, the football was almost a sideshow as the key aim of the project was to bring together students, and potential future leaders, from a range of ethnic and religious groups, to engage in dialogue and debate.

This is not to belittle the impact of the football on a sub-conscious level. When researching this, I stumbled upon an interesting interview with a Iraqi teenager from Basra. He explained that, “a football team sets a perfect example for us of unity and perseverance. The group of players, each from a different background, train together and perform in such a harmonious rhythm that each complements the other.”

Later this month, the Football Beyond Borders team will return to the Middle East and North Africa, visiting Palestine, Egypt and Jordan. Projects aimed at bringing together Coptic and Muslim orphans, via the medium of football, are planned in Egypt, whilst in Palestine, they are hoping that the power of sport will be able to transcend cultural boundaries and promote peaceful, but meaningful, interaction amongst the young Palestinian people.

I spoke with Tomas Rodriguez Perez, a current SOAS student, who will be involved in the tour to the Middle East, about why he felt that football held the power to bridge cultural divides and bring different groups together:

“Once you get past the superficial ideologies and nationalisms that divide us, we are all essentially human beings. This is something that people often forget. When you are all together on a football pitch, this simple fact becomes more apparent.”

SOAS itself brings together a huge range of students from different countries, religions and ethnic groups, perhaps more so than any other university in the UK.

Naturally, this means that the football team, the driving force behind the Football Beyond Borders enterprise, is a very multi-ethnic group. Tomas explained that “it is our friendship and understanding on the pitch that has provided the basis for our dialogue and mutual empathy off the pitch. This is something we hope to achieve with our projects around the world.”

I put forward the question of what they were hoping to achieve from the trip and what they would say to people who may claim that it was simply a football tour – that there could be better ways to connect with the local population.

“The project will open all of our eyes to the realities of life in these areas. But more importantly, we hope to make a tangible impact on the communities that we will be visiting. Obviously, these are just small projects, but we hope that when people hear about what we are doing, there will be a ripple effect that helps to inspire more initiatives like this.”

It is clear from speaking with some of the participants and researching the project that the football itself is merely a tool to help bring people together to provide the opportunity for meaningful dialogue.

However, describing it as merely a tool does not do justice to its importance. Whilst the popularity of cricket in India means that it is now rivalling football as the most played sport, it does not have anywhere near the global reach that football does. Some of football’s most recognisable personalities are among the most recognisable on the planet. An interesting study several years ago demonstrated that more people worldwide recognised David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo than recognised George Bush, supposedly the most powerful man on the planet.

From the slums of Brazil and India to the modern cities of Dubai and Qatar, from the streets of London and Paris to the villages of sub-Saharan Africa, names such as Manchester United and Barcelona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo are familiar to the majority. This simply shows the true global nature of football.

“It may be a cliché, but football is truly a global language,” explains Tomas. “It can bring together communities and we hope that we can use football to show people that we treat them as humans, not just as victims or enemies.”

The recent London event ended in an all-English final, perhaps not the ideal match to emphasise the cultural diversity of the event. However, the forums and seminars that accompanied the event were a major success in bringing all the players together to discuss pertinent issues with groups that they may otherwise have never engaged with.

“Cross-cultural dialogue may not be an immediate solution to the conflict, but in the long-term, we hope it will contribute to improving social relations between different nations and cultures, and showing that, ultimately, we are all similar despite our perceived differences.”

Football ignites a passion within people than very few other sports or activities can achieve. The Football Beyond Borders project has channelled this into making a real difference on an international stage. In the words of the former German international, Jurgen Klinsmann, “football is the perfect tool to correct false perceptions of different people, of different cultures. Football reminds us that we are all the same.”

To learn more about the Football Beyond Borders project, visit their website at
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