Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Walter Smith - A Tribute

And so, the man who has guided Glasgow Rangers through some of the stormiest weathers in the clubs history has left but will he never be forgotten.

Though there will always be those who disparage achievements in Scotland, even his most po-faced critic must concede that Smith’s record transcends this rather narrow minded outlook. Although second to the great Bill Struth in terms of trophies won, Smith’s tally of 10 league championships, 5 Scottish Cups, 6 League Cups and a European final in around 12 seasons of management is no mean feat.

In 1986, when he first arrived at Rangers it was as Graeme Souness’ assistant. Souness, who had not lived in the country since the 70’s, needed someone who could provide an in depth insight into the game in Scotland, so Smith was a natural appointment. As able an assistant he was, you always felt that he was destined for more.
He didn’t have to wait long as Souness, offered a chance to manage his former club Liverpool, headed down south in April of the 1990/91 season. Chairman David Murray made the decision to maintain the continuity and offered Smith his dream job.

Later that year, Rangers won the league by one point, beating 2nd placed Aberdeen on the last day of the season.  Two goals from Mark Hateley secured the title and, many say, Smith’s career at Rangers.

The 1992 season saw Rangers famously despatch Leeds Utd, Eric Cantona et al, in the qualifying stages of the inaugural Champions League. Rangers would exit the tournament finishing second in their group behind eventual winners Marseille.

After enjoying nine years of complete dominance of Scottish Football, Smith announced that the 1997/98 season would be his last at Ibrox. The idea being, he would secure a record breaking tenth successive league title as a parting gift. As it transpired, an ageing Rangers side could only manage second place and in the Scottish Cup final, missed their shot at redemption by losing 2-1 to Hearts.

Smith’s first stint as Rangers boss had ended on a slightly sour note. Dick Advocaat and more investment would follow and Smith’s contribution, it seemed, was harshly and immediately forgotten.

Smith would go on to manage Everton for four largely unspectacular years and looked to have slipped quietly into retirement when he left Goodison Park 2002.

However, in 2004, Smith was offered the chance to replace outgoing Scotland boss, and unmitigated disaster and laughing stock, Berti Vogts. This seemed like the ideal role for someone in semi-retirement with the rigours of international football significantly less than the day-to-day running of a club.
To continue the ‘picking up the pieces’ theme, in 2007, Smith was offered a chance to return to Rangers following the brave but ultimately flawed appointment of Paul Le Guen.

Smith returned to a very different Rangers than he’d left nine years previously.

Le Guen had fallen out with club captain Barry Ferguson and lost the faith of the players and backroom staff that he’d inherited. On top of that, the signings that the Frenchman had made left a lot to be desired.
Le Guen was dismissed left by mutual consent by December and David Murray once again turned to the reliable Walter Smith as the man to save the club. The rest of this season was a write off. Playing for pride and restructuring the squad was all there was.
In the following season, after more re-structuring, Walter Smith led Rangers to their first European final in 36 years. Although soundly beaten in the final by Zenit St. Petersburg, this was an admirable effort and did much to re-establish Rangers reputation after several years of sub-standard European performances.
Partially as a result of this elongated European campaign and the re-scheduling of fixtures, Rangers, again, finished second in the league behind champions Celtic but only by 3 points (it was 14 the previous season!). As a consolation, the League Cup and Scottish Cup were added to the trophy cabinet to bring a successful end to a frustrating season.

In the next three seasons, Smith would lead Rangers to a hat-trick of titles against a backdrop of severe financial restraints which almost bankrupt the club.

This last season was one that was endured rather than enjoyed. Mired in accusation, excuses and ‘blame culture’, the dignity and professionalism that Smith conducted himself with has been a testament to the man.

Magnanimous, honest and open, after 45 years in Scottish football, his are the authoritative words of a man who has a full understanding of the micro and macro issues surrounding the shameful religious bigotry that poisons the atmosphere of an already overly passionate footballing environment.
Now, he is visibly tired of it all and has even said as much. Smith has nothing to prove at Rangers and, thankfully, as opposed to the denouement to his first spell at the club, he has left as a winner. In doing so, he has brought a far more fitting conclusion to the career of the greatest manager Ibrox has ever seen.

Thanks Walter. For everything.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

'United' - More Than Just A Name

Sir Alex Fergusons latest Manchester United incarnation are nothing if not fascinating. They are proving the time old and often ignored adage that a team collective can compensate for the limitations of individuals. They truly are greater than the sum of their parts.

It's this that creates the dichotomy amongst commentators, journalists and fans.

On one hand, we accept that, in football, results speak for themselves. To the pragmatist, this is the beginning and the end of the debate. On the other hand, we look at Gibson and O'Shea and wonder which other big club would have them in their way. We look at t Berbatov and say he doesn't score (or even play) in the big games. We see
Rio fit for roughly 30% of the season. We see a belligerent Rooney only flirting with his potential. We wonder what Carrick contributes at all. We chastise Nani for his theatrics. We are amazed that VDS, Giggs & Scholes are still going well into their 90's! We acknowledge that the Brazilian twins, Hernandez and Smalling have varying degrees of potential but display similar levels of youthful naivety. We almost forget that players such as Fletcher, Anderson & Hargreaves are even in the squad.

Whether it be age, experience, fitness, disciplinary record or form, each Man Utd player hasn't had far to look for his problems this season.

However, and it's an enormous however, when they are together, their problems almost cease to exist.

It goes without saying that Alex Ferguson is one of the greatest managers of all time (I'm not a fan of saying 'the best' - it's too complicated an issue to be definitive about) and this season, it could be argued, will be the setting for his greatest triumph.

The word Fergie used earlier this week was 'momentum' and that is a precious if intangible commodity to have. (Ask Liverpool fans about it. It nearly carried them to a Premiership trophy in 2008/09). This momentum is not achieved easily. No - it is borne of sheer determination and effort - both collective and individually.

This is the ethic that Fergie prioritises this above all else. If you are playing bad, run yourself into the ground - regardless of your performance, you can run and tackle and try. Never stop trying.
Once you have a whole squad that subscribes to this ethos it becomes very hard to convince them that they can be stopped.

Aside from this, the key to the performances is in Fergies management of each game. Every player knows what is expected of them and also what their role will be in any given position in any given formation.

On the face of it, when you see Giggs at left back, Valencia at right back, Rooney practically centre midfield or O'Shea on the pitch at all, that it is a case of square pegs in round holes but Fergie doesn't ask his players to do things they can't do. Giggs isn't expected to play at left back like Evra does. He'll do things differently. Better at some things, worse at others. The rest of the team reacts accordingly. Giggs isn't gonna fly past them on the left wing - he'll maybe come inside more, play passes but he'll be comfortable. Almost like evolution at work, they adapt to survive.

Now, we are appraoching the home straight and if you are still competing at this stage, you have a chance. All of Utd's graft has paid off and the squad that nearly everyone wrote off is in the mix.

Since Inter eeked out the necessary result in the Nou Camp in last seasons Champions League semi-final, I have longed for this season to be the one that would result in an unprecedented second treble that would surely mean Barcelona would be judged the greatest club side of all time - a recognition I feel they merit.

Only last night did I realise that the same may be said for Man Utd and the way things stand today, I would not back against them to do it.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

The Curious Case of Mario Balotelli

I’ve read a lot of articles about the current and apparent ‘bad boy’ of football, Mario Balotelli, and I thought I’d add my tuppence worth. Hopefully, this is a different angle than has been considered.

I’ll start with a caveat, I don think Super Mario’s behaviour is becoming of a top level footballer and he seems to be far more trouble than he is worth. However, I think there is a problem in football with the way players with certain issues are treated.

In the late ‘80’s, we saw the rise of a flawed genius from Newcastle namely Paul Gascoigne.

Gazza was a brilliantly erratic player but one who found his most difficult opponent in his own head.
He was painted, by the media, though re-enforced by colleagues, as a clown. Indeed, his behaviour on and off the pitch would seem to confirm as much. But reading his autobiography, reveals a man who was quite clearly suffering from a mental disorder that was either undiagnosed or ignored.

As long as he was playing well, his foibles were ignored. It’s a largely unspoken truth in football that you can be forgiven for pretty much anything as long as you perform. The results driven agenda make it a true meritocracy but an amoral one.

This, in Gazza’s case, was merely masking a much larger problem. And, as has become apparent since his retirement, football was, as hard as it may seem, keeping him on straight and narrow. Sadly, his descent into a public laughing stock leaves football's reputation tarnished by association. Football is embarrassed by his behaviour and opts to bury its head in the sand rather than confront mental health issues.

For every Ryan Giggs, it seems, there is a Paul Gascoigne (or, more appropriately, Lee Sharpe). Young, gifted and then instantly rich and famous. All of this thrust upon them regardless of their capacity to deal with it.
And, likewise, for every Alex Ferguson, fastidiously controlling the hype, expectation and even the minutiae of the youngsters’ personal affairs, there are other managers and clubs who negligently overlook their responsibilities as, in a fashion, surrogate fathers in favour of milking as much as they can of such players without any consideration for their mental condition.

Which brings me back around to Mario Balotelli. His short career is littered with theatrical performances and these appear to have polarised opinion - from 'he's a complete tosser' to 'it's quite amusing'. However, we shouldn't caste him with either scorn or mirth (yet) as neither of these actually deals with the issue that is quite obvious: there is something wrong with him.

It has become de rigueur to vilify footballers for their earnings and easy life. We baulk when they suggest that they want to leave a club if they are unhappy, as if their contracts are written in blood yet very little attention is paid to players, like Balotelli, in understanding their mindset and how upheaval, lack of positive influences, education, intelligence, ability to adapt to new cultures, languages and scrutiny will affect them. They are, after all, human beings and susceptible to the same problems and vices as you or I. Their wealth does not buy them exemption from this.

Consider this, if Balotelli had a broken leg, we wouldn't criticise him for not being able to play but deep rooted, psychological problems are far harder to distinguish and their intangibility means they are rarely considered worthy of sympathy in this very masculine world but they are a real problem.

I only hope that football has progressed enough to not let what happened to Gazza, happen to Mario. Support groups exist for gambling, alcohol & drug addiction. These resonate with us because British society accepts these as issues while mental disorders are still stigmatised. To me, Balotelli is not a figure of ridicule or hate. He is someone that needs help.