Wayne Rooney; Time to hand over the England captaincy reins?

Finally, Big Sam is in.  It took an age for the Football Association to confirm the news but on Friday Sam Allardyce was unveiled as the new England manager.

Make no mistake the former Bolton, Blackburn, Newcastle, West Ham and Sunderland boss will want to put his own stamp on the team. Could that include taking the captaincy from Wayne Rooney?

He’s keeping his cards pretty close to his chest right now. Perhaps he hasn’t made up his mind, or maybe he has but is yet to select a successor, who knows?

This is all he had to say on the matter when asked at his press conference today: “No, it’s far too early [to say whether Wayne Rooney will be captain] or make any more predictions of that kind.”

And that’s your lot. I’m going to take it at face value and assume he hasn’t decided yet.  Rooney took the armband after Steve Gerrard’s international retirement following the World Cup two years ago and until Euro 2016 it was a relatively successful stint, but then came another disappointing England showing at a major tournament and here we are.

My gut feeling is Allardyce could decide a change in captain is needed but Rooney might keep the honour for the first few games, starting with a World Cup qualifier in Slovakia in September.  In the long-term, Big Sam will want a player with a settled role and place in the side as his skipper and at the moment I don’t think Rooney has that.

In some ways his own qualities have worked against him after he was slotted into a midfield role by former Manchester United manager Louis van Gaal.  Roy Hodgson went down a similar path with Rooney at England level and aside from the odd solid display it just never really looked like he was comfortable in his new position, at times in France this summer he went missing completely and you just cannot allow that to happen with a captain.

LVG wanted Rooney to evolve into that midfield role and Rooney himself said it was something he’d always thought may happen but the change in manager at Old Trafford has thrown that into doubt, if not completely out the window.  Jose Mourinho has stressed he sees the former Everton man as a forward so if he does return to a more advanced role on a regular basis at club level it is pretty safe to assume he will do the same internationally.

And if that happens, will he be a regular starter for England?  Will Allardyce select him ahead of the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Harry Kane, Danny Welbeck and Jamie Vardy? I’m not so sure.  Allardyce will want to build a settled team, he’ll give people a chance that’s for sure but by the time the World Cup rolls around in two years he’ll have a rough idea of his best 11 and will a 32-year-old Rooney be a part of that? Only time will tell but Allardyce has to make his captaincy call before then and that may well be the deciding factor here.

So far the new Three Lions boss has probably played it about as well as he could have done.  There’s no need to make any rash decisions or create any big headlines like ‘Big Sam strips Rooney of captaincy’ straight from the off, certainly not before he’s met with the group and spoken to the United man face-to-face for the first time in his new role.

As an aside, for anyone out there with any concerns over Allardyce’s abilities to handle players I’ll ease your mind right now.  During his time as Bolton boss he got El Hadji Diouf performing on a consistent basis and working as an effective member of a team, the Senegalese forward was a notoriously difficult character and no one managed him as well as Big Sam.  He may cite the fact Nicolas Anelka, Youri Djorkaeff, Jay-Jay Okocha and Fernando Hierro played under him at Bolton as proof of his man-management skills but there can be no better example than Diouf.

And what if Rooney were stripped of the captaincy, would he continue playing for England? Only he knows the answer to that question but I suspect he would and if not, so what? We move on.

Further reading:

Jose Mourinho on Rooney

Rooney on Rooney

Sam Allardyce press conference

El Hadji Diouf

Big Sam pros and cons

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Sam Allardyce for England; Pros and Cons

It’s 2006, England have just been dumped out of the World Cup by Portugal in the quarter-finals and Sven Goran-Eriksson, a meticulous if uninspiring manager, has stepped down.  The hunt is on for a new boss and Sam Allardyce of Bolton Wanderers is waiting for the call.

But instead the FA turn to Steve McClaren.

Allardyce probably thought that was his chance gone, after McClaren’s disappointing stint they went for a foreign boss again with Fabio Capello – another poor appointment that never really seemed to fit. Then came Roy Hodgson and here we are, 10 years later in an almost identical, if not slightly more embarrassing/depressing/worrying (delete as appropriate), situation to when Sven left, and Big Sam’s back on the table.

Sam Allardyce Pros.

Man Management: Many who have played under Allardyce highlight his man management skills, he considers it one of his strong points himself and he does have a record that largely proves that theory.  Under his guidance Bolton finished in the top eight of the Premier League four years in a row (he left before the end of the fourth year but the job was basically done), Blackburn were relatively comfortable in mid table during his time as boss, somehow he kept Sunderland up last season – these were over achievements considering the squads he had. Newcastle was a blip but he’s had a long career, a perfect record would have been unlikely and in any case he wasn’t given a fair amount of time on Tyneside.

Passion: I can imagine Allardyce giving under-performing players an absolute roasting at half-time and sometimes you feel that’s what England need.  I can’t envisage that kind of stuff from the Hodgsons and Erikssons of this world.

Comedy: Let’s face it, England are a poor team and failure is inevitable at some point.  They’ve won one major trophy in their history – compare that to the Germans, Italians etc,  woeful – really, semi-finals is about as good as it gets.  Knowing this, having a manager who offers a bit of entertainment would be a welcome bonus in the painful world of following the England football team, and I for one have had enough of dour interviews; at least with Big Sam you get an attempt at wit, a sound bite for the press, some razzle dazzle of sorts. Here are a few good quotes to demonstrate this.

“I’m not suited to Bolton or Blackburn, I would be more suited to Internazionale or Real Madrid. It wouldn’t be a problem to me to go and manage those clubs because I would win the Double or the league every time.”

“I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardici, just Allardyce.”

Absolute gold.

He’s on Twitter: That’s right, you could troll the England boss if Allardyce is handed the reins. Not my thing (the odd spot of Boris Johnson baiting of late aside in my first-foray into the crazy world of cyber bullying, and he’s big enough and ugly enough to take it) but it is nice to have the option, even if there is a very real chance he hasn’t worked out how to see his mentions/replies etc, yet alone bothers to check them. Find him @OfficialBigSam.

Sam Allardyce Cons.

He’s never won a major trophy: The closest he’s come so far is runner-up in the League Cup with Bolton back in 2004, losing to Middlesbrough in the final in a game that may have ultimately seen McClaren get the nod at his expense two years later.  He has won in high pressure situations though – winning the Championship play-off final twice, first with Bolton and then West Ham, as well as countless relegation ‘six pointers’.  So yes, the fact he hasn’t landed any big silverware is a blow but by no means a terminal one to his chances of replacing Roy.

Tactics: One-dimensional, long-ball merchants, uninspiring, boring… these are among the more polite adjectives used to describe Allardyce’s teams over the years but personally I think he gets a bit of a rough ride. He’d argue that it feeds on a perception created during his time as Bolton boss, inspired by rival managers like Arsene Wenger, Graeme Souness and more, that has dogged him ever since.  There is more than a grain of truth in both the criticism and his own defence, but some of the football played under his watch at Upton Park and the Reebok Stadium was pretty decent.  Besides, have England’s tactics worked particularly well in competitions in recent times? No, no they have not.

West Ham have been much better under Slaven Bilic: This is a fair call, they have.  Allardyce guided them to 12th place with 47 points in his final season in charge, Bilic managed 62, a seventh place finish and they scored 21 more goals.  The one stat in Allardyce’s favour is goals against, with his Hammers conceding four less. In three seasons in the Premier League Allardyce’s best result was 10th with West Ham.  There are a few mitigating factors, Bilic had Dimitri Payet for one and it turns out he’s one of the best players in the world now so that always helps.  It was also the last campaign at Upton Park but I can only speculate as to what, if any, impact that had on results. My guess for what it’s worth would be it was quite the motivator.  Bilic has made the better signings – but you don’t get to do that as England boss anyway so that’s perhaps a moot point.

In Conclusion

Big Sam probably wouldn’t be my top choice in a world of endless possibilities but in terms of English managers he’s the pick of a slim selection.  Eddie Howe is also up there as a contender and again I’d be happy enough with that.  This has been a bit of a pro-Allardyce piece granted, but the English have a tendency to just slam a manager and a need to be won over, how about this time the fans get behind whoever is chosen as boss until he messes up? Rather than wait for the opportunity to say ‘I told you so’. A radical idea I know but after being humbled by Iceland anything’s worth a shot.

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How Could a Leave Vote Impact on the Premier League?

Currently there are no restrictions on Premier League clubs signing players from other EU countries as long as they have space in their squad and are complying to the ‘home grown’ quota, but that could and probably will all change if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Let’s get any notion that there are any certainties out of the way right from the off.  The truth is; no one actually knows what the exact ramifications of a ‘Brexit’ will be no matter what either the Remain or Leave campaigns say.  We don’t give a net figure of £350million-a-week to the EU, a lot of that is offset with subsidies; the net contribution is closer to £160million-a-week not taking into account any economic benefits we receive from being a part of the union – the UK could even be in profit depending on some figures doing the rounds.  Nor are ‘two thirds of British jobs in manufacturing’ dependent on the EU; a closer estimate is 15% and even then that doesn’t necessarily mean those jobs are dependent on being a member of the EU, although the consensus among the experts is the UK will be financially worse off in the increasingly likely event of a break from the Europe.

That’s just one myth from either side debunked amid these wild claims being thrown at us on all too frequent intervals.  Both have a flimsy facade of dealing in facts but really it is all just speculation.  I cannot state with any guarantee that the scenarios I envisage below will play out word for word, I’m in the fog of uncertainty but it seems safe to say leaving the EU would have an impact on the Premier League.

Players from the EU could be subject to the same restrictions as non-EU players

A club wanting to sign a non-EU player has to apply for a work permit and the following criteria must be met:

‘A player must have played for his country in at least 75% of its competitive ‘A’ team matches he was available for selection, during the two years preceding the date of the application; and,

The player’s country must be at or above 70th place in the official FIFA world rankings when averaged over the two years preceding the date of the application.’

Incidentally, Manchester City’s new signing Ilkay Gundogan wouldn’t fit the bill.  I’d argue he’s probably the best central midfielder Germany have to offer but injury means he’s managed just five appearances in 11 competitive fixtures. Pep Guardiola could technically have been denied the man he opted to move for first after his switch to the Etihad in a post-EU exit Britain.

These restrictions were initially in response to the suggestion British clubs were ignoring English talent in favour of foreign players.  Since 2013 those rules have been stringently enforced, although it is possible to appeal if a player does not meet said criteria, prior to that ‘having the capacity to invest’ £1million or more was a humongous loophole in getting a visa – basically a big wage and you were in.

Those rules are specifically phrased as ‘non-EU’ players so it makes sense to assume that would quickly become non-UK players in the event of a victory for the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum. It is less clear what would happen to players already under contract but I would imagine they would allow current deals to be honoured. My thinking is the FA would allow a footballer’s contract to supersede an out vote as moving the goal posts isn’t really on when there’s so much at stake for the player himself and, more importantly, the clubs who have invested in their squads. It would be grossly unfair on the clubs to be forced into fire-sales as they would lose valuable assets for cut-price fees.

If we leave, a German could be an Argentine or a Frenchman could be South Korean it won’t make any difference to clubs trying to employ them, they’d all have to be internationals who regularly play in qualifiers and tournament games.  The exact wording is ‘played for his country’ not selected in the squad, so you’re looking at the starters and regular subs, Manchester United could forget David de Gea and the concept of Bojan at Stoke would be as ridiculous as it was before it actually happened.

But would that promote English talent and as such make the England international side stronger?

On a grand scale, almost certainly yes, as there would be more English players in the top flight.  But in the microcosm of the best 23-man squad for a tournament the argument for a stronger England team is a little shaky.

On the one hand enforcing the current foreign player rules on professionals from EU states would provide a bigger pool of options playing in a top league for the Three Lions to call upon. On the flip side is the idea that the better the opposition the better you have to be as coming up against the best the world has to offer on a weekly basis breeds improvement.  Ultimately, the view you take on this is simply which side of the argument you agree with. 

My viewpoint is the cream of English talent will rise to the top regardless and putting further restrictions on foreign imports won’t be a huge benefit to the national side.  Rather than facing world-class defenders week in, week out, the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy would be up against centre-halves who currently play at Championship level. Would they be as good if that were the case? Pretty soon we may find out.

At the Premier League’s inception in the 1992-93 season only 11 players named in the starting line-ups for the first round of matches were from outside the UK or Ireland, approximately 4.5%, but by 2009 under 40% of the players in the Premier League were English (thanks Wikipedia). But is the England team now markedly worse than the national side from the early 90s?  I would argue not particularly, you could use Italia 90 as an example where they reached the semi-finals, but four years later England failed to qualify for the World Cup in the USA.

Consider the England squad at Euro 2016 as an example; a number of quality players were left behind so it can’t really be said Roy Hodgson doesn’t have enough options.  The likes of Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines, Jermain Defoe, Ryan Shawcross, Theo Walcott, Mark Noble, Michael Carrick, Andy Carroll, Andros Townsend, Jack Butland, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Luke Shaw, Fabian Delph and Phil Jones are all missing (admittedly some due to injury), that’s not even mentioning the travesty that is Danny Drinkwater’s omission.

In the event of a Brexit I expect the FA to enforce the current non-EU rules on all non British players.  Their ‘home grown’ rule was designed to promote English talent and considering they are already planning on making that rule stricter* I can’t envisage a scenario where they would change that tactic to allow dispensations for the signing of EU players in the event of an exit.  Such a situation will almost certainly lower the standard of the Premier League as a whole.

It would have a knock-on effect right the way down the football pyramid; from around the late 1990s the standards further down the divisions have improved due to the influx of top European talent in the Premier League, as the better players from the home nations filter down the divisions.  Derby’s Will Hughes and Sheffield Wednesday star Fernando Forestieri, for example, wouldn’t be playing in the Championship that’s for sure, the former because he’d be in the Premier League and the latter would be playing in Europe.

The squads at Old Trafford, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge, the Etihad Stadium and Anfield would look a lot different, as would every Premier League clubs come to think of it.  I don’t think there is an argument to suggest the division would get stronger if the UK leaves the EU.  There’s also the chance the bigger clubs would be hit less hard than the smaller ones.  If only top internationals could be signed by the likes of the Manchester powerhouses and London’s big guns a huge schism in quality could be created – as if the case in La Liga with Barcelona, Real Madrid and (against the odds) Atletico Madrid vastly superior to their rivals, although that is down to raw financial muscle rather than employment restrictions but the end would be much the same.  A repeat of Leicester’s title success, regarded by many as one of the greatest/most incredible events in Premier League history, would be even more unlikely.

What would happen to the Premier League as a product?

Football is a commodity, to use that hoary old chestnut, and the Premier League draws a huge audience from across the globe.  Most figures suggest it is the most watched league in world football and the latest TV rights deal backs that idea up.  But if the quality of the product is lowered, will there still be such a great demand?

Probably not. Interest would drop and La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A would be the ones to benefit as attentions would be turned away from England and into mainland Europe.  It stands to reason and I’ll use chocolate as an example; Cadbury’s changed the recipe of their Creme Egg product by replacing the Dairy Milk shell with a cheaper variation, leading to a £6million slump in sales. No matter how good a marketing campaign is quality will eventually win out and if the standard is higher in Spain, Germany, Italy and perhaps France the fans across the globe will drift away from the Premier League.

If we make it harder to bring in Europe’s top stars to the Premier League the viewing figures from across the channel will surely slide.  Belgium have loads of their best players in England but would fans in Brussels and Bruges still tune in to watch Manchester City and Liverpool if Kevin De Bruyne and Divock Origi weren’t playing there? I doubt it. Consider when David Beckham played for Real Madrid, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, suddenly stories regarding those teams were more prominent in the news… and I wonder how many Los Blancos shirts have been sold in Wales since Gareth Bale became a Galactico.

Lower interest will lead to less money, and with that inevitably comes a further drop in quality.  Indeed a nightmare scenario could see foreign investors, the Abramovich and Glazer types, losing interest and abandoning their respective clubs.  This is very much a worse-case outcome of course but the threat is certainly there in the long-term even if it isn’t an immediate concern.

On the other hand it could result in a cheaper overall experience for the British fan as ticket prices may be lowered and TV subscriptions could become cheaper.  My gut feeling is the clubs and broadcasters will try and charge as much as they can for as long as they can to resist any sizeable price drop but if fans feel they’re not getting value for money that kind of policy can’t last forever.

It may also lead to the top English players departing the Premier League in search of a higher standard of football.  Would you rather play for Manchester United and have a chance to win the top domestic prize but have no hope of European glory, or would you rather move to Bayern Munich and challenge for the Champions League on a regular basis on a higher wage?  I know which one I’d go for.

I had hoped to produce a more balanced view rather than the doomsday scenarios I’ve suggested above.  I’ve also worked under the assumption that ‘non-EU’ rules will be enforced on all non-UK players, given the developments in the ‘home grown’* rule and the fact EU nationals (from across the spectrum of society, not just in football) would have the same laws placed on them in regards to working in the UK as those from outside the union, and if that doesn’t happen then changes will be minimal – if there are any at all. It could also be said that the Premier League and FA will want to protect their product as much as possible, and as such it is entirely plausible that they’ll come up with a new set of rules to allow the system to stay similar to how it is now, if not exactly the same. The reason I think it will go the other way is based on FA chairman Greg Dyke’s home grown push and a belief that sport won’t be made exempt from any new employment laws in the result of a break from the EU.

For what it’s worth I don’t think ‘what could happen to the Premier League?’ should influence anyone’s decision ahead of the EU referendum, but to assume football would be immune from any adverse effects if Britain does break from Europe is probably very naive.

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Picture credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr.

Further Reading;

Foreign player rules in the Premier League, via Wikipedia.

Home Grown rules, via Wikipedia.

*Further changes planned to the Home Grown Rules, via The FA.

 

Gonzo Guest Article; football fandom & why do we care?

The latest offering from regular guest contributor Jacque Talbot, here he asks why do we care so much about our chosen teams?

Personally I’ve got no idea anymore, my club have hurt me more than any woman ever has yet still I come back for more punishment. Like a dog who doesn’t realise his owner’s a complete bastard… You can follow Jacque on Twitter @Jac_Talbot.

My companions or family will often complain about the amount of time I spend watching/interacting/speaking/reading/thinking about football. They ponder as to why I can be so obsessed by something to which I have no involvement or control over. My yelling abuse at the players on TV regrettably has no impact and I am unfortunately still no more telepathic than I was before. Yes, it is true that our unwavering love with our clubs would seem rather peculiar to the average spectator, but it begs the question: Why do we care?

Most academic scholars have agreed that the pinnacle reason behind supporting a football team, is that you are giving yourself way to let your masculinity run wild. Though this argument is somewhat benign nowadays, considering one-upmanship is more derived through, say – someone who can make a wittier and degrading meme on Twitter, rather than someone who possesses raw brawn.  Surely anthological theorems cannot singularly account for justification of fandom?

I recently got stuck in a YouTube whirlpool of watching England fans sing songs such as Vindaloo and Three Lions in foreign stadiums. I had absolute Goosebumps – that’s our fans I thought, that’s our team, my team. I was proud, even though there wasn’t any reason for me to be – I hadn’t done anything to merit an inclusion in the fan’s camaraderie on screen. I was merely an outsider spectating the scenes. I happily imagined people from around the world talking to one another: ‘that England lot are a barmy bunch’. ‘Yes we are’ I thought, glowing in admiration for myself.

I believe that we can autonomously find ourselves attracted to our chosen clubs by way of their virtues and ideals, with this being particularly apt when people choose clubs which are far away from themselves. For example, our conceptions about a bloke from say – Cumbria, who is fairly new to football. He decides his club to be Chelsea FC and in doing so, he will establish himself among other fans as one who, to put it lightly – perhaps chooses pragmatism over heart and soul. This judgement cast upon him may be of some substance, but his support still must be dignified as with any other. As it is Chelsea that he feels a connection with, it is that club who he feels embodies his character. He has chosen this particular club because it will warrant a conception from others about him, of which he feels is positive.

On a local parameter, supporting football teams is a way of exercising unity. A city’s football team gives a representation of its cultural ideas, and in the action of being supported by a particular person there is an embracement of the club’s core beliefs by the individual. This person will see himself as in alliance with the club, and act in keeping with its personal values – something called ‘group mentality’ which actually is in the domain of ‘cult’ theory.

I believe the nature of our relationship with our club’s is truly sacred, as we see a quality of ourselves in them of which we pride. Don’t let others scrutinise it – of course it’s a bit a ridiculous to so get emotionally ingrained over something of which you no control, but that’s probably the magic of it, right?

If you’re wondering why the ‘weird news’ picture has been used, that’s just because the good folks at Google like pics and I want to keep them happy.

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Gonzo Sports Digest; on Muhammad Ali

[Picture; street art in Paris by Combo]

Obituaries just aren’t for me, they’re easy enough to write – brief biography, sentimental tone and all that – it just doesn’t appeal. Without me weighing in on Muhammad Ali there’s been an absolute deluge of coverage, tributes and the like over the last few days, some of it good some of it terrible.  Falling into the latter category Piers Morgan has rattled out a few bits for the Daily Mail, but I’ve got no interest in reading them. In any case I don’t really know why anyone cares what he thinks about the life and times of The Greatest. I’ve seen him blunder his way through American and racial politics in the past, I can’t imagine adding a historical element will have helped matters on that score. That’s why I feel confident enough to label them terrible without actually reading.

Nope. No way would I offer any kind of obituary off my own back. But then again I can’t let the death of Muhammad Ali go by without a mention, so this is as close as I’m going to get.

Boxing as a sport is almost unique in the attention paid to history. Every new generation of fans watches videos of ‘classics’ involving the greats in a way that just doesn’t happen in other disciplines.

Perhaps because it doesn’t really evolve in the same way as other sports, particularly team sports.  It is just two men in the ring with barely-padded gloves beating the hell out of each other for 12 rounds (16 in Ali’s day) or until one of them stops and it always has been. Using football as a comparison; that game is barely recognisable to the one played just a few decades ago.

Sure I appreciate Pele, Johan Cruyff, George Best and Alfredo Di Stefano are widely regarded as some of the best the world has ever seen. That said I have never, to my knowledge, watched any of their games in its entirety. It requires the effort and devotion of a true purist, and while I’ll watch documentaries and see a massive amount of highlight reels, I can’t see the appeal of a full 90 minutes when you know the result.

The Sweet Science is different. Sugar Ray Robinson, Mike Tyson in his prime and the Chris Eubank and Nigel Benn epics were all before my time but it doesn’t really matter. I’ve watched some of those fights in full and seen countless hours of video footage, to such an extent where you feel you know more about men who have long since hung up their gloves than you do about those of the current era, even fighters you are very familiar with.   I’ve followed the career of David Haye since he beat Jean Marc Mormeck back in 2007, watching every fight since then, I could say the same or similar about guys like Manny Pacquiao, Ricky Hatton, Tyson Fury, Carl Froch and more – but I don’t know any of them the way I feel I know Ali, who retired from the sport before I existed.

The only thing missing when watching battles from years gone by is the pre and post-fight coverage. But with Ali you almost get that, almost, just because of the sheer amount of quotes and sound bites out there.  Even though he’s now gone future generations of boxing fans will feel the same way I and countless others do about Ali.

So rather than a typical tribute or any (further) kind of sentimental dirge I’ve put together a few things that may be of interest. They may or may not have cropped up elsewhere amid this massive outpouring, they’re just things I quite like – one of which is the main picture, the work of a street artist going by the name of Combo in Paris.

Ali features prominently, or relatively prominently, in the Autobiography of Malcolm X.  I’d urge anyone to read it incidentally and not just for the Ali bits. Here is a small extract from the early stages of their relationship, when Malcolm X was a minister or variation of for the Nation of Islam in 1962

I heard how Cassius showed up in Muslim mosques and restaurants in various cities. And if I happened to be speaking anywhere within reasonable distance of wherever Cassius was, he would be present. I liked him. Some contagious quality about him made him one of the very few people I ever invited to my home. (Malcolm X’s wife) Betty liked him. Our children were crazy about him. Cassius was simply a likeable, friendly, clean-cut, down-to-earth youngster. I noticed how alert he was even in little details. I suspected that there was a plan in his public clowning. I suspected, and he confirmed to me, that he was doing everything possible to con and “psyche” Sonny Liston into coming into the ring angry, poorly trained, and overconfident, expecting another of his vaunted one-round knockouts. Not only was Cassius receptive to advice, he solicited it. Primarily, I impressed upon him to what a great extent a public figure’s success depends upon how alert and knowledgeable he is to the true natures and to the true motives of all of the people who flock around him. I warned him about the “foxes,” his expression for the aggressive, cute young females who flocked after him; I told Cassius that instead of “foxes,” they really were wolves.  

Ali turned his back on Malcolm X when the latter left the Nation of Islam to practice Sunni Islam. He later admitted he regarded that as one of his biggest regrets when he too switched to Sunni Islam around a decade after his former friend’s assassination.

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I first came across Hunter S Thompson’s Last Tango in Vegas in ‘The Great Shark Hunt’ anthology. It covers the fall-out from his defeat to Leon Spinks, unsurprisingly that particular fight hasn’t been massively mentioned over the last few days.  It has been said that Tyson Fury’s win over Wladimir Klitschko is the greatest upset of all time but it wasn’t, that would be Spinks’ win over Ali.  Don’t worry, The Champ settled the score in the rematch. I’m sure there’s a PDF somewhere but they’re a hassle and Rolling Stone have published the first half of it anyway.  Who knows? Maybe they’ll get the second bit online soon too.

Muhammad Ali: Last Tango in Vegas, via Rolling Stone.

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A few Muhammad Ali videos, just because.

The first is the famous or infamous ‘phantom punch’ from his second fight with Sonny Liston.  The second is some stuff on the Vietnam war, which is perhaps where his skills as an orator are best demonstrated.

 

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Andy Murray; Playing for History

Andy Murray “has just turned twenty-nine; he may have several years left as a top player, but he has neither the game nor the time to join the ranks of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic in the conversation about the greatest player ever. He is no longer playing for history.”

The above comment cropped up in a New Yorker article about a week ago and it got me thinking.  I’ve always been a big fan of Murray so perhaps I’m a little biased but is that totally fair? Can he still be a part of the ‘greatest of all time’ conversation?

Perhaps not, after all he only (only) has two Grand Slam titles to his name, with a solitary Wimbledon crown to go with his US Open trophy. However, he’s also got an Olympic gold medal so a career Golden Slam is not beyond the realms of possibility.  Roger Federer hasn’t managed that and the Olympics in Rio is his last shot, the same goes for Novak Djokovic I’d imagine (he’ll be 33 by the time the 2020 Summer Games rolls around, so he could be a title contender then if he misses out this year but it would be less likely).  The Serb is also still seeking a maiden French Open title but that could all change later this week.

Then again it could all change for Murray as well as he’s safely through to the semi finals at the time of writing, and he overcame Djokovic in the Rome Masters recently so we know he can down his nemesis on clay.

As far as I’m aware only two guys have managed a career Golden Slam – Andre Agassi and Rafael Nadal.  Pete Sampras didn’t do it, for example, but we can’t go back too far as tennis only returned to the Olympics in 1988 after an 84-year absence.

So no, maybe Murray can’t join the greatest ever conversation unless he wins maybe four or five more majors – but that isn’t so farfetched.  The world number two saw his 2014 campaign wrecked by a back injury and last year he put a lot in to Great Britain’s Davis Cup triumph, probably at the expense of his own individual aspirations.  Meanwhile, Djokovic has been fairly lucky on the injury front throughout his career, but what if he gets taken out for a significant amount of time and during that period Murray cleans up?  No one will remember Djokovic was missing or struggling with injury at any given moment in the long-term, just as people are already forgetting Murray was plagued with niggling problems for around 18 months in the very recent past. If Djokovic doesn’t get injured the pendulum could still swing the other way, although he does seem to have been vaccinated against a dip in form – the man’s more consistent than a metronome.  Murray, on the other hand, has always struggled for consistency… but who is to say he won’t crack that puzzle at some point in the near future?

If Murray does win a title at Roland-Garros and finally grab that elusive Australian Open crown, who knows where the tennis historians will place him in the all-time list?  He’d have to be top 10, especially given the era he’s playing in.

For the moment it is premature – potentially even flippant – to say Murray is no longer playing for history.  He could yet become the only British male in the Open Era to claim a French Open crown, or an Australian Open trophy for that matter.  Maybe on a global level that isn’t such a big deal but when you consider he’s from a country where outdoor tennis is possible for about 2% of the year – that’s no minor achievement.   Besides, every Grand Slam win is an historic moment, whether it happens to be a first, third or 17th for any particular player.

To say he hasn’t got the game… well, that’s subjective. Clearly I think he has, and the way he’s managed to turn himself into one of the game’s most feared players on clay, having been fairly average on the dirt at best for years, is pretty impressive.

One line I did quite like in the New Yorker article (the whole thing is a good read regardless of whether or not you agree with it but anyway) was “Murray is a walking existential crisis”.  Because for the moment; hell to Andy Murray is other people, or at least one other person – Novak Djokovic.

You can read the New Yorker article ‘Andy Murray Versus the French’ here.

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.

Gonzo Sports Guest Article; What defines a big club?

Another guest piece from Jacque Talbot. Here he examines what makes a big club. Publication doesn’t imply endorsement or agreement, the likes of Leeds United and Sheffield Wednesday will always be huge clubs as far as I’m concerned but that could be a generational thing.  

You can follow Jacque on Twitter here @Jac_Talbot.

It’s a controversial debate amongst football fans – the big money acquisitions of recent times throw a curveball, as teams aren’t just judged on historical merit anymore.

Using Chelsea as an example – a team where fifteen years ago you would probably place them just beneath the so-called big top four in English football. Now with their financial esteem, they have acquired 15 major trophies. So many would place Chelsea amongst the very best in the league and proclaim them a ‘massive’ club. Does that put them on the sane level as Manchester United or Liverpool? Can just a few years of silverware superiority equate Chelsea to this level of ‘big’?

Some might say to be defined as a big club, you must have a brimming trophy cabinet. Maybe not – look at Aston Villa, look at Newcastle United. The Toon Army haven’t won a domestic competition in over 60 years, in fact their last league title was way back in 1927. Yet again, Newcastle have always had a place in the top 20 list of the world’s richest clubs. They have a stadium capacity of over 50,000 – up there with the highest in the ciuntry. Aston Villa, are one of the most successful clubs in English football – being only one of the five clubs to win the Champions League (previously known as European Cup). And again their stadium is a UEFA category four (the highest) – placing it, by definition, in the same realm as the San Siro or Nou Camp. Both of these clubs are now playing football in the Championship. They’ll be playing Burton Albion next season – a team whose stadium is 5000 sets less than Bournemouth’s. Does this diminish their capacity as a big club? Does their history still hold a credit of them being big?

Leicester City, having recently won the Premier League title, can by and large place themselves on a higher scale than the teams that haven’t, such as Tottenham, Everton and Liverpool. They have proven themselves as the best team in the league. Yet, it has been said that their fans show a ‘small-club mentality’. The use of clappers in the stands and with many of the Foxes faithful using a match as a family day outing, has been cited as such. It would seem that the heavy use of pyro, flares and loud, manly jumping seem to equate to ideas of a big club. Fan base boasts as a huge factor in determining a club’s size. West Ham, though deemed a lower-part-of-mid-table-club in recent times, still have the prowess of their fan base to challenge any top European team and define them as an elite. Yet with the team’s two relegations in recent years, it casts doubt on the formidability of the club at all.

The length of time a club has in the lower leagues does certainly become a factor; teams can find themselves caught up in the whirlwind and never get out. I for one consider teams like Nottingham Forest, Leeds United or even Derby County to a degree, as sizeable. But the recent graduates to the Premier league, and by recent I mean about ten years ago, such as Stoke or Swansea may stake their club higher than the latter. Presumably even more so now due to the recent parachute payments and the enormous bundle of TV funding they have received this year. Or even the fact that they are obviously well established as a Premier League team now, with their minds off relegation and on Europe. With this in mind, can these clubs stake a claim to being larger than aforementioned Villa and Newcastle?

Size is usually subjective, yet in when in discussion with a fellow fan about the matter of whether the said-club is big or not, you’ll find there are no areas of grey. The club either is or isn’t. This becomes troublesome, as you’ll find yourself having to defend your club with any of these factors: Wealth, history, trophies, stadium-size, or fan base – even though it has never been explored which of these factors trump the other. A Manchester City fan will bring forth his club’s wealth as a sign of the club’s stature, whereas a club like Liverpool, though financially inferior, will point to the amount of trophies they’ve won and their dominant past. Both these are plausible arguments, and ultimately we cannot determine that Liverpool, for example, should be considered a bigger club as their fan base and trophies beat Manchester City’s larger amount of wealth and stadium size.

In order to bring clarity, I believe we must turn to the use of our vocabulary. It simply must change. There is no way we can have a proper debate without using an array of language with can categorise clubs into their tiers. Clubs being either – big or not does not hold a substantial amount of leeway and can provide teams without recent success or without recent financial bearing into being not a big club, which truly isn’t fair. There has to be way to divide to the mass index of football teams into divisions rather than hitting them with simple yes or no.

Now I am not going to advocate a choice of words in which we can define our clubs, but again, I will state that the application and singular use of the word ‘big’ causes the debate to find no end. If you wish to take matters further, have a look at this article in which someone has collected data on all 92 teams in the English league. They have then delegated a certain amount of points per achievement (League title – 2points, Champions League – 5 points) and points per thousand of club’s average attendance. Click here for the results.

Gonzo’s Betting Diary; Champions League Final and the Play-Offs

After a massively disappointing season on the betting front, at least in terms of stuff published on here – personally I did quite well but anyway, I’ve got one last chance to claw some cash back before I start from scratch for the Euros.  I did manage a 10/1 treble with my last offering though (see pic), so maybe the Gonzo Sports Desk’s luck is turning.

Betting on the Champions League Final

Atletico Madrid hold the edge over their more illustrious neighbours in the last five meetings, with Atleti enjoying two wins to Real’s one.  Indeed, Real Madrid have actually won just one of the last 10 Madrid derbies so the 9/4 Totesport and Betfred are offering for a Los Rojiblancos victory looks pretty decent. There is the small matter of the 2014 final of course, which Real went on to win in extra time, but Atleti very nearly won that had it not been for a late Sergio Ramos equaliser so I’m going to stick to my guns and go for a win for the underdog here.

The Championship play-off final

Often described as the ‘richest game in football’ or some variation of, on Saturday Hull take on Sheffield Wednesday at Wembley in a battle for the final place in next season’s Premier League.  Hull have been a strange team in the final throes of the campaign with some real Jekyll and Hyde performances, sometimes they look like a top flight team and occasionally they look shit.  Which Hull will turn up? Who knows, but given their absymal semi-final second leg display against Derby I’m guessing the latter and I’ll be taking Wednesday at 13/5 with Bet Victor and Ladbrokes.

League One play-off final

Right at the start I went for Barnsley but they will need to be on top form on Sunday.  Millwall are a decent team though so it might take the Tykes more than the 90 minutes to navigate this tricky fixture, as such I’m going for Barnsley to get promoted at 10/11 rather than the straightforward match betting.

League Two play-off final

I also picked out Plymouth at the start of the play-offs and I’ve not seen anything that makes me want to change my mind.  The Pilgrims are 13/8 with Totesport and Betfred to see off Wimbledon in 90 minutes and I’ll be sticking them on this ambitious fourfold.

As a fourfold this pays out at 56/1, usually I just go with trebles so perhaps I might knock one selection off but for the purposes of this site I’m going to throw caution to the wind and keep it at four – if it comes in I’ll be able to say this made a profit over the season as well, which would be a little unjust considering how terrible some of my bets have been but stats don’t lie. 

As always I’ve used Oddschecker but I’m in no way affiliated with them, nor do I have any links to any of the bookies mentioned above.

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.

Gonzo Sports Guest Article; Manchester City and underachievement

In a first for the Gonzo Sports Desk, I’ve accepted an article from a guest writer. Publication doesn’t imply endorsement or agreement, for example I quite like Manuel Pellegrini and wouldn’t say he was ‘punching above his weight’, but if we all agreed on everything life would be pretty boring. In any case I’ve got no interest in controlling what people say, I’m not Rupert Murdoch or North Korea.

Here Jacque Talbot offers his thoughts on Manchester City, you can follow him on Twitter @Jac_Talbot

Manchester City’s 2008 takeover looked set to transform them from serial underachievers into one of the biggest sporting clubs in the world. However, since their acquisition by the Abu Dhabi United Group they have won just three major trophies – the Premier league in 2012 and 2014 and the 2011 FA Cup. Any takeover begs the question of whether buyer holds the club’s best interest at heart. For City, it is easy to see that transfer spending certainly hasn’t been a problem. Money brings obvious benefits, but sometimes it does so at the expense of the club’s traditions or heart.

The 2015/16 season for City has fallen under the radar for many – with the attention being drawn towards the plight of Chelsea in the early part of the campaign and Leicester’s success in the latter half. City’s squad is full of world class names and a fourth place finish would have been viewed as a failure before a ball was kicked. Keeping neighbours Manchester United out of the Champions League aside, fourth place is indeed underwhelming considering the amount of money the club has spent into building its squad.

As Arsenal claimed second place on the final day, there were plenty of Gunners fans who deemed it a bad season – to such an extent that a not insignificant number of Arsenal supporters called for the removal of Arsene Wenger as manager. Whilst many have laughed at the calamity of the Arsenal protests and inner fighting – their ideas and arguments, on both sides, are fuelled by a central want for the club to be the best it can.

Can this be said for Manchester City? It’s doubtful, in fact there seems to be a silent agreement of disregard for any competition aside from the Champions League, which turned around mid-season (when Pep Guardiola was appointed); to them perhaps not being particularly bothered by the season at all. The main concern for Manchester City, was obtaining top four in order for Guardiola to have a shot at the Champions League next season.

The season was regarded as a ‘transitional year’ for Man City by most – a term I still struggle to come to grips with. I think it is a recent fad, or ‘get out clause’ that big clubs can use when they have a bad season. The so-called transitional year is when one or two players will retire at the end of the season, or they have a few youngsters in the ranks, who although 23 and been who’ve been playing for seven years in the top flight, are classed as inexperienced. The whole idea of a club having a ‘transitional’ period is complete bollocks – especially with a club with the amount of wealth and resources as Man City. They should be challenging for the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League every year, and every time they don’t, it should be considered a failure.

Yes, I would argue that City are not in a transitional year, because I simply do not believe in it. What’s more, given the season they’ve just had, I would say that they are almost a one-man-team – with the man being Sergio Aguero.  City’s underwhelming displays have been largely camouflaged by this world class, clinical striker. Without Aguero’s contribution in goals and assists, City would have finished behind Southampton, West Ham and Liverpool in ninth place and with a +2 goal difference – mid-table.

Aguero’s ability has allowed the once talismanic Yaya Toure to become a passenger. With a £200,000 per-week salary – Toure can be seen as the embodiment of City’s one-track thinking. The past couple of seasons have made him to be thought of as the player who will only perform to the best of his ability if the match is an important one. But this season, the sheer laziness from Toure has reached the boundaries of hilarity. Even in the Champions League semi-final showdown with Real Madrid there was a Vine that went viral, showing the Ivorian wander around aimlessly for 90 minutes, which completely undermines the idea that he has these ‘man of the match’ performances against big clubs.

The fingers should point the blame at now former boss Manuel Pellegrini – yet they don’t as it’s universally accepted that a large majority of the players couldn’t care less for what he says. I do believe that the man was punching above his weight in the job role, yet he undeniably worked tirelessly for the club. His farewell was outrageous. The fans who left should really have words with themselves. They got caught up in the Guardiola appointment halfway through the season and this of course was another kick in the teeth for Pellegrini and made it almost impossible for him to manage without being undermined.

It seems that the ‘money mentality’ of the club can have an impact on its players. If the club’s owners show off a representation that trophies should be bought and not won, it can have negative effects on the players and then unto the fans of the club. Fans should be wanting to win every game, regardless of opponent. This idea of resting before a big game or losing 4-2 to a Southampton side just because there is a bigger game in the Champions League next week does the Premier League no justice, nor does it give Manchester City any credibility.

Being accused of ‘buying the cup’ was thrown towards Chelsea in their 2003/04 triumph, and the supporters got angry. The same sentiments have been thrown City’s way and a few seem to revel happily in agreement. There is no mistaking the capital interest of football nowadays – and it can have good points. But reflecting upon the strength of heart in Liverpool’s and United’s European dominance of the 80s and 90s, the same cannot be said for English football currently. Yes, clubs likes Barcelona have always been rich too, but their buys have either been almost perfect and majority of their talent stems through their youth system ‘Messi, Xavi, Pique, Sergio, Alba, and Iniesta’.

This is why the appointment of Pep Guardiola is much more than it seems. Not only does he have the tactical prowess and the silverware, he is also a manager who will take no shit (are you watching Yaya?) and who is shrewd in his transfers. Some of his Bayern purchases include: the young Kimmich for £6.3m, Robert Lewandowski as a free, Sebastian Rode as a free, Xabi Alonso for £7.5m and Kingsley Coman on loan. These rather calculated transfers are an almost polar opposite to City ‘bazooka’ buys which accumulated at £350m since Pellegrini’s appointment in the summer of 2013.

I hope that the City fans don’t read this as an attack on them or the club. I have a lot of respect for City, I consider it a ‘massive club’, both in terms of current finances and previous history.  My gripe is purely with the obvious attitude problem that’s currently ingrained in their current owners.  The money owns all attitude is problematic, especially when the club is representative of English football in European competitions.

There really should’ve been a fight shown by this season by Man City, but there was none. Leicester City’s title win wasn’t an intense fight with the big boys, it was almost a stroll to victory. Though I highly commend Leicester, it’s my belief that the likes of City and Chelsea should hang their heads in shame. Leicester have made an absolute mockery of them. I feel that Pep will do well for them as he’ll get rid of the deadwood, and perhaps build a team capable of securing silverware consistently.

The Gonzo Sports Desk offered some thoughts on Pep Guardiola’s arrival a while ago, you can read them here.

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.

Gonzo Sports Digest; the time has come to rally round Newcastle United

When Newcastle United’s relegation was confirmed the vast majority of rival fans were understandably pretty happy with that result, with the Magpies seemingly the team most wanted to go down.  I say understandably because they’re a big club, the biggest of those involved in this season’s Premier League relegation fight by some distance.

Most want to see them struggle, some probably want them stuck in the Championship for a few years, and in normal circumstances I probably wouldn’t mind that too much myself – because who doesn’t like to see a big club struggle from time to time?

But these are not normal circumstances. Usually when it becomes clear a club is being run by dubious owners football fans unite in solidarity, there is sympathy from even the bitterest of rivals. Newcastle are not getting this.  The current or previous regimes at the likes of Blackpool, Bolton, Blackburn, Charlton, Aston Villa and more have all been roundly criticised by the football community but for Newcastle, it is only those associated with the club in some way who are calling for change.

Newcastle’s owner, Sports Direct businessman Mike Ashley, is a private guy, or alternatively smart enough to know to keep his mouth shut depending on your viewpoint.  Away from football, the billionaire has refused to appear before a committee of MPs investigating pay and working conditions at his retail empire.  At various stages different media outlets have been banned from press conferences at St James’ Park. Why the lack of transparency?  What’s he got to hide? Whatever is going on, this is not the kind of behaviour you want from the guy in charge.  Fundamentally, you want someone at the helm who cares more about success than making a profit, and has at the very least a facade of being trustworthy. Clearly, that is not always possible – it is an ideal rather than the norm – but Newcastle are getting a raw deal compared to most.

Poor managerial choices, equally poor signings and what appears to be a policy that ‘cup competitions are not a priority’ can kill the confidence of even the most ardent of supporters. Many football fans may feel like their club has certain priorities but you don’t want explicit confirmation that the FA Cup, for example, has been deemed as basically an annoyance by the powers that be. Even if that is true you’d hope the owners, or those they employ, would at least have the decency and – arguably more importantly – the good sense to lie about it.   Reports later emerged to the contrary, that in fact cups were now a target, but by then the damage had already been done.

There are mitigating factors at play as to why the wider world of football doesn’t seem too worried about the situation at St James’ Park.  For one, unlike at places such as Bolton and Villa, Ashley appears to have been putting money into the squad, he also sanctioned the arrival of Rafael Benitez as manager so on the surface it seems as if he isn’t running the club into ruin and maybe he isn’t – but then again maybe he is.

The club owe him £129m “in the form of interest-free loans from Mike Ashley and companies under his control”, and despite the fact profits are being recorded results are not improving, nor is their debt to him reducing.  What happens if he decides to stop putting money into the club and begins a search for a new owner (which could already be in progress)? According to local rag the Chronicle, it would take £260million to buy him out, and no one is going to pay that for a Championship team.

The attitude of the supporters is also cited as a reason to mock the Toon, but in reality you have every reason to expect results if you’re getting around 50,000 going to games, historical struggles to secure silverware aside. Despite Newcastle being largely woeful over the course of the campaign; only Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City averaged higher attendances this season. Even if Newcastle fans were only demanding top 10 Premier League finishes that’s not outrageous, a relegation battle shouldn’t even be on the radar.  In any case the Newcastle fans aren’t a bad lot, if you ignore the occasional horse puncher, just a few weeks ago the supporters belted out a rousing rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ in tribute to the Hillsborough victims in support of their Liverpool counterparts, maybe it is time the rest of the footballing community showed them the same kind of solidarity – because their club is not in a good place.

The Newcastle United fans are a proud bunch and they’re probably as unwilling to accept any sympathy as others are to dish it out. The situation is bigger than that though, because what happens to one club could conceivably happen anywhere. Newcastle’s situation is not clear cut, you could make the argument that the club’s hierarchy are trying their best but just happen to be pretty terrible at whatever it is they’re trying to do. The pessimist/realist in me however, sees a storm brewing. Football and business are now so intertwined there will never be any unravelling of the two but clubs are intrinsically linked to communities and as such should not be regarded as wholly capitalist ventures, especially if that is how they are viewed by those who own them.

Further Reading;

Mike Ashley “wedded to Newcastle” via Chronicle Live

Mike Ashley snubs calls to face MPs via The Guardian

‘Preferred Media Partner Strategy’ via The Telegraph

Stuff on silverware, initial reports of cups not a priority via Chronicle Live and a later report via The Mirror.

Gary Neville and the Northern decline, via Gonzo Sports Desk.

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.