Saturday, 28 September 2013

Revolting Players

In the wake of Paolo Di Canio’s departure from Sunderland, it has emerged some of the senior players complained to the Chief Executive about many of his methods.  In particular they were unhappy with the way he had talked to them after the defeat to West Brom last weekend.

Di Canio had been at Sunderland for barely six months yet had received criticism for increasing workload at training and criticising his players in public.  Basically, he tried to cross a line long since rubbed out from modern football.  To publicly question a player’s ability will get you, not the player, the sack.

But the Sunderland board has committed the cardinal sin of management.  Never undermine the management structure within your organisation.  Anyone who has managed in any walk of life should know if you undermine your manager then this sends a message to those you manage that yours is an organisation where management can be criticised and not respected.

Paolo Di Canio is undoubtedly a complex and intense character which doesn’t naturally lend itself to the ‘arm around the shoulder’ style of management which is needed these days where players are king. 

As Robbie Savage recently admitted, the modern player has many tricks in which to get his own way or try and force a move away.  Seems odd a player of Savage’s limited ability would need to encourage a club to let him go, but his list of tricks was very revealing and so was his belief there wasn’t anything really wrong with it.

The irony is that it looked in the summer as if clubs had learned to not just bow down to contracted players as Wayne Rooney, Luis Suarez and Gareth Bale looked as if they wouldn’t be allowed to make the moves they wanted.  In the end, despite their Chairman’s protestations, Bale did actually have a price Spurs were going to accept, but Rooney and Suarez had to stay put.  But just when it looked as if clubs were prepared to wrestle back some power, Sunderland has decided they couldn’t possibly upset their precious commodity and their manager could be replaced any day.

So can you manage by fear these days?  Alex Ferguson did.  There are various stories of his dislike for certain players which resulted in them being shipped out.  The phrase ‘the hairdryer treatment’ was coined based on his legendary dressing down of players during team-talks.  Bigger clubs manage by fear as the player has a fear of being dropped or not making it at the club.  That is unless the player thinks there is demand for him elsewhere.  So is that really a deterrent anymore?

Di Canio’s former Chairman at Swindon described his style as ‘management by hand-grenade’, and there seems little doubt the Italian likes to test his players and push them to improve.  But did they respond?  Did they have to?  Players such as Wes Brown and John O’Shea are likely to be attractive to other Premiership clubs should Sunderland face relegation, so why should they care what happens to the club?

When Di Canio was at West Ham his manager, Harry Redknapp, would wax lyrical about how his firebrand striker was always the last to leave the training ground, continually working on his game.  He clearly expected the same level of commitment from his players.  There is no doubt he had a strong work-ethic but did he find it difficult to deal with players who weren’t as driven as him?  As a player he had the ability to switch off during matches and then immediately switch on again to produce moments of magic.  Not every player is capable of that.  Di Canio seems to thrive on chaos so much that he seems to create most of it, yet others are different.  Did he have the capacity to understand that?  There’s no doubt he is driven, there’s little doubt he wanted the best for Sunderland as he was desperate to manage in the Premier League, but in the end it seems he’s just too late as his style of management would’ve been more suited to 70’s, 80’s or even 90’s.

There have been many managers down the years who have ruled by fear.  Brian Clough is the classic example, and ended up surrounding himself with players who would do anything he asked or told them to.  Did they all like him?  Doubt it very much.  There’s a story of the night before their European Cup Final in 1979 and Clough has them all up drinking the night before.  Clough was a big believer in drink settling the nerves.  Archie Gemmill wanted to go to bed early and Clough, in front of everyone, embarrassed his star midfielder into staying by insisting they all do things together.  One thing Clough was very good at was building a team spirit.  Other managers have been able to do that more than anything, and Di Canio’s predecessor Martin O’Neill was certainly one.  It has been suggested Di Canio kept putting O’Neill down which lead to some of the players becoming unhappy with his methods.  He may have done better to have learned a thing or two from the Irishman.

But that last point is one of several which make me very uncomfortable about this whole business.  If the players thought that much of O’Neill and would ‘walk through walls for him’ why didn’t they?  It was their performance which got him the sack, had they been prepared to die for the cause then maybe he’d be in employment.  You occasionally hear a player admit it is up to them to get results, but nowadays it’s the players who call the tune, along with their agent who has the club by the short and curlies.  As far as I can see Di Canio was trying to do two things.  Raise the profile of the First Team as something to aspire to and be proud to be in, and secondly push his players to become the best they could possibly be.  Yeah sure, he may have different methods to other managers but so has Jose Mourinho, so has Marcelo Bielsa.

Di Canio was so determined to build up the profile of the First Team he decreed no academy player could use the gym if one of the First Team players was in there.  If they had to wait till late afternoon, then so be it.  He clearly wanted to make the First Team the Holy Grail and something you should sacrifice everything to get into and once there, you’d do anything to stay.  But these are laudable aims and maybe his delivery needed some work, yet he wasn’t given that time.  Where clubs spend nearly all their turnover on wages and will even pay a player’s agent when all he does is negotiate a contract extension, then you realise they’re pretty indispensable.  Brown and O’Shea were considered surplus to requirements at Old Trafford and must’ve experienced to wrath of Alex Ferguson, yet did they go whingeing to the Chairman to demand his removal?

Sam Wallace of The Independent claimed “he (Di Canio) tried to build the kind of austere, highly regimented football set-up that would be familiar to Italian players of his generation and is completely alien to the modern Premier League footballer”.  But most of these Sunderland players are foreign anyway, as only about 6 of the squad of 25 are English.  The behaviour of the board is something which must be open to scrutiny.  Half of the squad were part of the team dangerously close to relegation last season that it was considered necessary to get rid of Martin O’Neill.  Di Canio was selected by the board as the man who could save them, and save them he did.  So sure of his ability was the board that they sanctioned the employment of 14 new players for this season.  5 games in the players have complained and the board have caved in.  So what message does that send to Di Canio’s successor?

The message is, don’t upset the players as it’ll cost you your job.  Don’t push them too hard or tell them they’re not playing well otherwise you’ll be picking up your P45.

But even great managers don’t get on with everybody.  Trevor Francis never gave the impression of really liking Brian Clough and Teddy Sheringham certainly didn’t understand him.  Not every player Bill Shankly managed thought he was the business and even mild-mannered Bob Paisley was at odds with some players.  Listen to David Fairclough, and although he doesn’t mention Paisley by name, he says he felt ‘the club’ never gave him a fair crack.  The key is the board backing their man to deliver.

In any other industry in the UK employment law has moved to defend the employee and ensure no one receives the sack when they weren’t expecting it.  You should never be surprised you got the push, as you should only receive a sacking on the spot for breach of contract or company rules.  A difference of opinion or breakdown in trust or respect is then managed over a period of time and a review is set to look at the situation again giving it time to be corrected.  If this was the last straw for Paolo it seems odd that the previous straw came much into the season, which then puts into question why the board would sanction the new arrivals if their manager was under review.  What you would expect to have happened when the players went crying to the Chairman was for them to be told to get back on with their job.  Focus should’ve switched to their own performances as to whether they believed they were giving their best for the club.  Then the manager should be summoned for a meeting where the Chairman explains what’s just happened and discusses how Di Canio will put things right.  He should be left in no uncertain terms that this should not happen again, but under no circumstances should the players ever believe they can switch things around just cos they fancy it.  Unless the management structure is maintained and intact then the club will find it very difficult to come down on the players at a later date.  If the next manager comes in and the players don’t like him then unless the board backs the players, they are likely to find they’re unable to motivate them either.  Whoever the new man is he will have to manage a squad of players he didn’t choose and have no money and no transfer window to be able to change anything.

Now you could argue Blackburn should’ve done something about Steve Kean long before he walked but they waited till the club was relegated and even then it was he who jumped ship.  Sunderland’s Chairman talked of a need to ‘act fast otherwise they could be cast adrift at the bottom of the table’.  What, after 5 matches?

Interestingly, ,many Sunderland supporters have declared their surprise at the sacking as the manager still had some kudos from masterminding a win over Newcastle.  One hopes the board truly understands what this means to a Mackam.

Di Canio is alleged to have told the players if they want to complain to the board then he would lose his job, although it seems more likely he was illustrating this as an option open to a player who doesn’t really want to improve and he could get Di Canio sacked but then the player would still be a player who isn’t playing very well, and so what had they really achieved?  Di Canio could well have been under some sort of review, but that is not the story being put out by the board.

But as I said, the days of players respecting their position seems to have changed.  It is likely that players such as Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher are the last of the generations who would talk about the pride they had in cleaning the boots of First Team players and how they were in awe of them.  It seems managers have to manage players much like modern parents feel they have to bring up their children, by a process of negotiation.  But as with children, how can you negotiate with someone who doesn’t understand reason or the big picture?  How can you negotiate with someone who is constantly told how good they are, beyond any semblance of reality to the point they will not accept anything other than a First Team place?  Di Canio may end up as one of a long line of great players who never made it in management.  It is ironic that the only member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning side who ever gained any success in management, was the least talented player – Jack Charlton.

One last point I’d like to make is about the press coverage of the Di Canio incident.  There are two aspects, which I believe to be completely irrelevant to the whole argument, which creep into many correspondents’ views.  Firstly, that Di Canio has fascist views and the other is the Chief Executive of Sunderland is a woman.  If you read back many articles you eventually see one or both of these aspects highlighted as if it justifies the actions taken, or maybe fuels the authors own prejudice.  It’s a subject for another article but you can also level that criticism at the coverage of the Blackburn owners as a female is involved in those decisions too. 

One thing is certain, though, Paolo Di Canio will always make headlines and polar opinion.  Time will tell whether this has been the best outcome for the club, but the players should be under severe scrutiny as supporters will have every right to expect a vast improvement in their performance if it really was the Italian who was holding them back.

Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Biteman Returns

Tomorrow night could see the return of Luis Suarez to the Liverpool starting line-up after his 10-match ban for biting Branislav Ivanovic.  Despite being unavailable for selection, much has happened since he last appeared in a Liverpool shirt.

Their record on the pitch is played 10, won 7, drawn 2 and lost just once.  Suarez could well find he lines up alongside just 4 players who played with him against Chelsea in April, Gerrard, Henderson, Lucas and Enrique.  But it’s the opponents on Wednesday night who will fill the headlines beforehand.  Suarez has form against Manchester United, and mainly in the shape of the punishment he received for his alleged abuse of Patrice Evra.  There is an irony in this meeting between these two sides which has parallels back to 1995 when Eric Cantona returned from an 8-month ban for a kung-fu kick on a Crystal Palace supporter as he left the pitch after receiving a red card.

1st October 1995 Cantona was to make his first appearance for United since his infamous thuggery on 25 January.  Within two minutes he had set up a goal for Nicky Butt, but was upstaged by two classic Robbie Fowler goals, including one where he eased Gary Neville off the ball and chipped Schmeichel with impish impudence.  United grabbed a draw with a penalty from Cantona, who grabbed all the headlines.  In fact, he received a hero’s welcome more befitting  a man who had returned from a career-threatening injury rather than one who had just avoided prison. 
Cantona had threatened to leave United during his ban and Inter were favourites to pick him up.  By August he asked the club to cancel his contract as he no longer wanted to stay in England.  Eventually, the club offered him a new contract and Alex Ferguson managed to persuade him to stay.

Fast forward to this summer where Luis Suarez expressed his desire to leave Liverpool.  It all started when he went to Uruguay for the World Cup Qualifiers and was interviewed by a local newspaper.  Various people translated his comments any way they chose, but the nub of it was that he wanted to play Champions League football and Liverpool were aware of how he felt.  He also claimed there was a witch-hunt against him by the British press.  Now that last point has some value, as I have pointed out in a previous article.  But soon the publicity bandwagon rolled into town and rumours of his request to leave the club were rife.  It’s unclear whether he ever actually said he wanted to go, but it seemed likely Real Madrid would be his preferred destination.

As the summer moved on it became clear Real Madrid were unlikely to make a move for the player.  They’d set their sights, or their assets, on Gareth Bale and were involved in a phony “will he-won’t he?” game of charades with Daniel Levy of Tottenham.  Up stepped Arsenal who were desperate for a striker, having missed out on Higuain.  Suarez agents apparently let Arsenal know there was a buy-out clause in his contract and a bid of £40m would trigger it.  Once Arsenal made their bid, Liverpool then claimed the bid needed to exceed £40m so Arsenal added £1 on to test Liverpool’s metal.  That still didn’t work.  The bid seemed very odd as Arsenal had appeared reluctant to spend the £34m Napoli paid to secure Higuain.

As deadline day approached, Arsenal’s interest cooled and Bale’s well advertised deal appeared nearer and nearer and so Suarez was left out in the cold.  In the end no club came in for the Uruguayan and so he returned to Mellwood for pre-season training.

He may well make his comeback tomorrow night at Old Trafford but what type of reception will he receive?

There are many Liverpool fans who wanted him to go.  Once you declare you’re interested in the advances of another, they don’t want you back.  But there are others who are very glad he stayed and want to see him repeat his excellent form of last season when he was unlucky not to be nominated Player of the Year.  Football fans can be a fickle lot and once a player comes back and starts playing well or scoring goals, all can soon be forgiven.

Personally, I am looking forward to seeing him again.  It’s inevitable, given his history, he will want to play Champions League football and unless the club can offer him that he could well be off next summer.  But that could be to Liverpool’s advantage.  Suarez has much to prove.  He will want to show he is worth another club signing him up and that he could be the piece they are missing, but he will also want to be in good form for the World Cup.  It shouldn’t be underestimated how excited South America is about ‘their’ World Cup next summer and Uruguay are still to confirm their place.  Suarez will be 27 in January and World Cup 2014 represents an ideal opportunity for him to be considered as one of the best players in the world.  If he misses out then Russia 2018 at the age of 31 is not quite as palatable.

Luis Suarez has not hidden his respect for the Liverpool fans and has a great affinity with them, but many of them are hurt at the moment and will need persuading.  Suarez may not be welcomed back into the fold as easily as he may wish, but reproducing the form of last season and contributing goals will go a long way towards forgiveness.

Suarez is a very emotional man and plays with his heart on his sleeve.  His first goal on his comeback will be important.  The longer we have to wait for that the more fans will question his commitment.  Which could also play into the club’s hands as Suarez will not want to miss much football this season due to the reason’s I have just outlined, and so will need to return to form quickly rather than be frozen out on the bench.  Of course, if his form is sufficient to influence those around him to qualify for Champions League football next season then there is unlikely to be any talk of a move.  The one danger for Liverpool is that if he is keen on a move next summer he is unlikely to want to tie anything up until after the World Cup, and that may leave the club with little time to organise a replacement.  If they’re sensible, the club will want some assurances from the player before he leaves for Brazil, assuming Uruguay get there.

One thing the ‘Suarez Affair’ does illustrate is that the club will always be around far longer than any player.  We, as fans, always make the mistake of falling in love with players but after a few years of feeling let down by players such as Keegan, McManaman, Owen and Torres you re-affirm your desire to never let yourself be fooled again.

Should Suarez play and score tomorrow night it will be a remarkable synergy with Cantona 18 years ago.  At the end of the 1995-96 season United went onto win the title and it was Cantona who scored the only goal of the game to beat Liverpool in the FA Cup Final.  Liverpool would settle for something similar this season.

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Five Favourite Wins Against - Stoke at home

This is the first of a new series for the 2013-14 Premier League season which will focus unashamedly on success for Liverpool down the years.  For each league fixture we will highlight my five favourite wins against the upcoming opposition.  So be warned, if you’re looking for coverage of matches where your favourite team has put one over on Liverpool, then move along or write some yourself as there’ll be nothing to see here for you.

17th April 1976
LIVERPOOL   (2)   5   (Neal, pen 37, Toshack 43, Kennedy 51, Hughes 73, Fairclough 78)
STOKE CITY   (1)   3   (Conroy 30, Moores 60, Bloor 89)

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Smith, Thompson, Hughes, Smith; Case (Fairclough), Callaghan, Kennedy; Toshack, Keegan, Heighway

STOKE: Shilton; Marsh, Mahoney, Dodd, Pejic; Robertson, Bloor, Salmons; Moore, Conroy, Greenhoff

This was Bob Paisley’s first League title winning season in only his second since taking over from Bill Shankly.  QPR had emerged as the surprise challengers, leading the league up to November.  Liverpool had only hit the top in February but then struggled to keep their League form as well as compete in the UEFA Cup.  They’d just knocked out Barcelona to reach the UEFA Cup Final and then Stoke City visited Anfield with just 3 games to go.

Stoke, managed by Tony Waddington had Peter Shilton in goal and were the livelier to begin with.  With half an hour gone Terry Conroy converted a right-wing cross to give the visitors the lead.  It was the first time Clemence had been beaten in the league for 6 games.  Within minutes a clumsy challenge from Marsh on Keegan gave Liverpool a penalty and Phil Neal beat Shilton to equalise.  Just before the break, Toshack and Keegan combined to find Heighway on the left and his cross was turned in by Toshack to give Liverpool a half-time lead.

Early in the second half and Keegan picked the ball up just inside the Stoke half, ,made room for himself and then picked out a lovely through ball for Ray Kennedy to run onto and he slid the ball in for a 3-1 lead.  10 minutes later and a long ball from Stoke left-back, Mike Pejic had Greenhoff causing problems in the home defence and Ian Moores was on hand to head in to grab a goal back.  Then with 20 minutes to go came a characteristic run from the back from Emlyn Hughes and he played a one-two with Keegan on the edge of the box and then fired the ball past Shilton for a memorable goal.  5 minutes later Keegan found Kennedy free in the area and he got to the bye-line to pull it back where substitute David Fairclough converted it for Liverpool’s 5th.  It was David “super-sub” Fairclough’s 3rd goal in 4 home games when coming on as a sub.  Bloor got a goal back for Stoke but Liverpool were worthy winners.  It was a win which took them back to the top as QPR lost at Norwich.  Liverpool went onto lift the trophy beating QPR by 1pt.  They also won the UEFA Cup that season too.

27th December 1976
LIVERPOOL   (1)   4   (Thompson 5, Neal pen 62, Keegan 67, Johnson 81)
STOKE CITY   (0)   0

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hughes, Jones; McDermott, Callaghan (Johnson), Kennedy; Toshack, Keegan, Heighway

STOKE: Shilton, Marsh, Smith, Bloor, Pejic; Dodd, Waddington, Bithell; Tudor, Salmons, Robertson

When Stoke came back to Anfield the following December, Liverpool were again in 2nd place in the league just behind Ipswich on goal difference.  Liverpool had won a17pts from a maximum 18 at home and Stoke were yet to win away.

Phil Thompson gave Liverpool and early lead in the 5th and that was the difference between the two sides at the break.  Phil Neal doubled lead when he scored from the spot just on the hour and then 5 minutes later, Kevin Keegan made things certain as he scored Liverpool’s 3rd.  Into the last 10 minutes and substitute, David Johnson completed the scoring with the home side’s 4th.  Liverpool went back to the top of the table as Ipswich were held at Coventry.

3rd April 1981
LIVERPOOL   (1)   3   (Whelan 27, McDermott 52, 81)
STOKE CITY   (0)   0

LIVERPOOL: Clemence; Neal, Thompson, Hansen, Kennedy; Lee, Case, McDermott, Whelan; Dalglish, Rush

STOKE: Fox; Evans, Doyle, Dodd, Munro; Ursem, O’Callaghan, Bracewell; Maguire, Heath, Chapman

Stoke again visited Anfield in April but this time Liverpool were 10pts off the lead in the League as they were chasing other trophies.  Two days before this fixture they’d beaten West Ham to lift their first League Cup when they won 2-1 in a replay.  Ian Rush made an impression in that game and retained his place for this match.  Ronnie Whelan gave Liverpool a first half lead as he marked his debut with a goal.  Whelan was one of several players Paisley had introduced that season as he sought to rebuild a double European Cup winning side.   Early in the second half Terry McDermott put the home side 2-0 up and then he completed the scoring 9 minutes from the end.  1980-81 was a vintage year for McDermott as he topped the scoring charts even beating Kenny Dalglish.  This win moved them up to 4th but they never threatened as Aston Villa won their first title for 70 years.  Liverpool had to console themselves with their first League Cup and a third European Cup as they beat Real Madrid in Paris.

5th March 1983
LIVERPOOL   (2)   5   (Dalglish 7, 47, Neal 35, Johnston 76, Souness 89)
STOKE CITY   (0)   1   (Bracewell 49)

LIVERPOOL: Grobbelaar; Neal, Lawrenson, Hansen, Kennedy; Lee, Johnston, Souness, Whelan; Dalglish, Rush

STOKE: Fox; Parkin, Berry, Watson, Hampton; McIlroy, Thomas, Painter (McAughtrie); O’Callaghan, Chamberlain, Bracewell

When Stoke arrived at Anfield they found the hosts again unbeaten and leading the table by 14pts.  Liverpool had already booked their annual trip to Wembley for the League Cup but had just returned from trip to Poland where they lost to Widzew Lodz in the first leg of their latest European Cup tie.  This was Bob Paisley’s final season as Liverpool manager and the team were keen to make sure they added to their haul of League titles.

The Stoke side included former Man Utd players, Mickey Thomas and Sammy McIlroy as well as future Everton midfielder, Paul Bracewell and Mark Chamberlain, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s Dad.  Kenny Dalglish opened the scoring for the home side inside the first 10 minutes and then Phil Neal scored against Stoke yet again when he made it 2-0 10 minutes before the break.  Just into the second half and Dalglish scored his 2nd of the game.  Bracewell got a goal back for the visitors minutes later by Craig Johnston and Graeme Souness rounded things off to give Liverpool an impressive 5-1 win.

Liverpool ended up winning their third successive League Cup and their 6th League Championship under Bob Paisley as they finished 11pts clear of Watford. 

19th August 2009
LIVERPOOL   (2)   4  (Torres 4, Johnson 45, Kuyt 78, Ngog 90)
STOKE CITY   (0)   0

LIVERPOOL: Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Ayala, Insua; Lucas, Mascherano; Benayoun, Gerrard (Voronin); Kuyt (Riera), Torres (Ngog)

STOKE: Sorensen; Higginbottom, Shawcross, Wilkinson, Whelan; Whitehead (Pugh), Faye, Delap, Etherington; Beattie (Lawrence), Cresswell (Fuller)

When Stoke visited Anfield at the beginning of the 2009-10 they were into their 2nd successive season in the top flight after a gap of 23 years.  This was the first home game of the season for Liverpool who’d just come off a 1-2 defeat at Spurs.  Liverpool had finished the previous season in 2nd place in what was probably their best chance of winning the Premier League title.  They hadn’t lost a league game at Anfield since December 2007, a run of 30 games.

They began this new season in fine form and ahead as early as the 4th minute as a burst from Steven Gerrard on the right saw him pull the ball back and Fernando Torres was on hand to drill the ball past Sorensen.  Liverpool doubled their lead right on half-time from a corner as Kuyt’s low header was blocked on the line by Sorensen and Glen Johnson knocked in the rebound for a goal on his debut.  Johnson was involved in many of Liverpool’s best efforts and he was involved in the 3rd goal when he found Gerrard with a clever pass and the captain’s low cross was turned in by Kuyt from close range.  Then in injury time Johnson was again involved as Ngog, a 2nd half substitute for Torres, headed in from just under the bar. 

It was a good, fluent performance but the season frustrated throughout and at the end of it, Rafa Benitez left the club.

HEAD TO HEAD at Anfield

Matches: 62
Liverpool win: 46
Stoke win: 3
Draws: 13

Liverpool goals: 134
Stoke goals: 40