Thursday, 28 January 2010

City Remain Second Best

It has been a popular opinion, among the blue half of Manchester, that Man United were there for the taking last night. They seem to forget that a winning mentality means a lot more than the amount of zeros on a transfer cheque. While many components of this Man United side are coming to the end of the career line (seven first-team regulars are in their 30s), the experience of winning trophies cannot be discounted. All three scorers that knocked out Man City have been a valuable part of their well-oiled trophy-winning machine over recent seasons, and try as they might, the closest thing Man City have to a winning mentality is Carlos Tevez, who conveniently was signed from United.
That’s not to say Man City supporters are supporting mediocre mid-table nobodies. Their midfield is packed with talent, such as Gareth Barry, Shaun Wright Phillips, and Steven Ireland. They are all great players, who are all good enough to grace the Champions League. If we compare these players to the likes of Darren Fletcher, Park Ji-Sung, or even the latter-day Scholes and Giggs, there would be a strong case to say that Man City’s midfield is superior. However, they do not yet have the aura of invincibility that the Red Devils have cultivated over the last 15 years. Gareth Barry has spent his pre-City career viewing Uefa Cup qualification as an achievement at Villa. Shaun Wright-Phillips was mired in mid-table during his previous spell at Eastlands, before playing an extremely limited role in Mourinho’s Chelsea success. Steven Ireland is still in his early 20s, having come up from the youth system. None of these players, apart from arguably Wright-Phillips, really know what it takes to dominate English football in the way that Man United have. That is what made the difference at Old Trafford. Aside from the outrageous piece of skill that Carlos Tevez produced to level the tie, City never looked like they truly believed they could oust their old enemies in their own backyard. Until they do this, and then repeat the feat, they will never be seen as anything other than “noisy neighbours” by the United faithful.
Of course, it is still very early days in the new Manchester City era. Two months ago even predictions of a top five finish looked premature, as the team spent a lot longer gelling than Hughes could afford. However, since Mancini’s arrival, a new purpose is visible. City look the business, and if Liverpool can be fought off, the top 4 will surely beckon in May. That will be the first building block for success, as new players will not only be attracted to the astronomical wages, but the chance to pit their wits against Europe’s finest players. Only by playing these big games, and winning them, will Man City truly become the equals of their red-shirted rivals.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Financial Times

So football’s financial bubble is finally beginning to burst. Liverpool and Man United, England’s two most decorated clubs, are beginning to feel the pinch that was, as recently as two years ago, dubbed “doing a Leeds.” Leeds were forced into administration back in 2007 by a succession of crazy transfer fees, and extortionate wage packets for average talent such as Seth Johnson and Robbie Fowler. They certainly experienced some memorable and ecstatic moments, but paid the ultimate price for this. Now topping League 1, and flexing their giant-killing muscles in the FA Cup, Leeds are slowly rebuilding. Most football fans would welcome their eventual return to the Premier League, and with professional and sensible management, this will surely happen within the next 5 years.

Since Leeds’ financial implosion, English football has seemed determined to replicate such stupidity. Newcastle came the closest, with marquee signings such as Michael Owen and Albert Luque backfiring alarmingly. However, while they can never claim to be completely secure with Mike Ashley in ownership, they appear to be making a swift comeback from relegation. With sensible management this would be a good thing, but far too many clubs in recent months and years have been reckless, chasing success at any cost.

While it would be foolish to suggest that mid-table clubs should not strive for more, it must be combined with patience, and the building of solid foundations. Clubs such as Portsmouth and West Ham, with their multiple takeovers, have been the opposite of solid, with Portsmouth especially, sailing very close to the wind financially. It would not be a shock for many, to see Pompey in administration before the year is out, and perhaps that is needed. Any club that cannot pay the wages of their players or staff, despite the vast sums of TV money they receive, needs a wake-up call.

West Ham fans can breathe slightly easier, as tthis week saw the completion of a takeover by David Sullivan and David Gold. In their opening news conference, they stressed the need for sensible decisions, and stability at the football club. We know they mean it. They possess a track record, having left Birmingham in quite a good position, which they are now capitalising on. We must ask ourselves, should owners serve a lower-league apprenticeship, like many managers do? The list of current questionable Premier League management would include the Glazers at Man United, the Arabians at Man City, Gillett and Hick at Liverpool, and the aforementioned Portsmouth. While some of these owners have sporting backgrounds, none are in football. They have little understanding of what it means to sensibly run a football club.

While Man City appear to have hit the jackpot with their multi-billionaire ownership, they are also walking a tightrope, even as we speak. While they now enjoy some of the world’s finest players, these players are also enjoying some of the world’s finest salaries. If two or three years pass, and the expensively assembled squad has not brought success, we run the risk of the Arabian owners taking their money elsewhere, having grown tired of the stresses of football. What happens then? How does the club sustain the high wage payments and transfer fees?

Thankfully, the Premier League retains some semblance of dignity, in clubs such as Aston Villa and Everton. While they do not possess the short-lived glamour that others have foolishly chased, they are the heart of the Premier League. They boast strong ownership, and they stick by their managers. Any other club would have probably sacked David Moyes several times over. Everton though have been rewarded for their patience, as the year after finishing 17th, they briefly gate-crashed the top 4. Even this season, initially struggling near the bottom, they now are back in the top 10, well placed to make an assault on the European places next season. What they lack in star names, they make up for in team spirit, and if the rest of the Premier League took heed, we would be following a sport with a soul.