Monday, August 4, 2008

More questions than answers - Zephirine

The simultaneous resignation of England cricket captains Michael Vaughan and Paul Collingwood yesterday, and the appointment of Kevin Pietersen today, raise several questions.

a) Why did Vaughan decide to go?
First of all, although he is one of England’s most gifted batsmen he has been in horrible form for a long while, and has reached a point where he could hardly justify his place in a Test side. No doubt this has combined with the stresses of captaincy into a vicious circle of mental fatigue, and this is pretty much the reason he gave in his resignation statement. However, it is hard to avoid the suspicion that this is not the only reason.

Many critics have been carping at his captaincy, with its apparent closed-shop approach, its chummy nicknames and ‘Vaughany’s gang’ feel, and its familiar parade of press-conference cliches about positivity – mostly because he hasn’t been winning. Yet this system worked superbly for him in the past. With Duncan Fletcher as coach, he created a side that depended on close bonding, shored up by the security of central contracts – and by success. Has it gone stale because Vaughan himself is tired and stressed, because of lack of talent to surround him, or because as a system for the national team within the England set-up, it could not work long-term?

It has been obvious that Vaughan has not agreed with the selectors recently, most notably over the choice of Darren Pattinson, a competent bowler who acquitted himself well in his one Test match but has mostly played in Australia and was unknown to almost everyone in the England set-up. Vaughan let it be known that he felt this selection – combined with dropping his ally Paul Collingwood for the same Test – led to ‘confusion’. He then had a lengthy meeting with the Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, which apparently ‘cleared the air’. So much so, in fact, that a few weeks afterwards Vaughan was clearing his desk.

The England coach Peter Moores clearly does not have the relationship with Vaughan that his predecessor Fletcher did. Perhaps Vaughan thinks Moores is rubbish. Perhaps Moores thinks Vaughan is complacent and past it. Hard to tell, because they haven’t been seen much together. They have never shown the world that they formed a working team.

b) Why did Paul Collingwood decide to go?
His resignation has received less attention than Vaughan’s, but is in many ways more surprising.

For those unfamiliar with cricket structures, it should be explained that the captaincy of a national side is not normally split, but this is happening more often as the shorter forms of the game take on greater importance. The received wisdom is that it makes for trouble within the ranks and that the Test captain (the senior partner) can be undermined by an upstart captain of one-day games. In this case, Collingwood is a close friend of Vaughan, and became one-day captain at a time when Vaughan was already struggling with his form after massive injury problems. There is every sign that they have worked very well together.

Colly has his own brand of dauntless competitiveness, but he has not been altogether successful as captain. He made a serious error of judgment in one match and is currently serving a suspension for not controlling the over-rate. So he may perhaps have felt that it was not really the job for him. On the other hand he was not doing badly enough in terms of results for anyone to demand that he should go.

Like Vaughan he has been in terrible form, but in the last Test batted himself back with a superb innings. It is quite likely, though, that he had already taken the decision to give up the captaincy before he went out for that innings, and so freed up his mind to play at his best.

Did he jump or was he pushed? Some journalists are asserting that he was sacked, others are suggesting that he was asked to step down because the selectors wanted one captain in charge of both teams.

Given their friendship it is impossible to believe that Vaughan and Collingwood did not discuss their situations. If Vaughan’s relationship with the selectors and coach had deteriorated to the point where he no longer wanted to be captain, it seems likely that Collingwood would feel that he, too, wanted to pack it in.

c) Why has there really only been one candidate for the next captain?
Sadly, the current England team contains far too many players who are performing way below their ability, and some whose ability at Test level is questionable. Kevin Pietersen is actually the only player who is guaranteed a place in both test and one-day sides on the basis of his current playing.

This is a pretty shocking state of affairs and suggest that there are deep-seated problems in both the selection and coaching of England cricket players.

Duncan Fletcher demanded central contracts because he felt that the county system did not prepare players properly for the national side. However, it seems that we now have centrally contracted players who are not dropped or rested when out of form, and the county system is still not putting through enough talented players.

d) Will Kevin Pietersen make a good captain?
Who knows?

He certainly has a Marmite personality, some find him obnoxious and others immature, some enjoy his enthusiasm and others see him as an irresponsible brat.

My own view is that he’ll last one series. Two at the outside. And that someone else will captain England in the all-important Ashes series next year.

Best of British: honourable mentions - Ebren

Pseuds regulars offer their take on the best five British footballers of the last 50 years

Mackay, Charles, Giggs, Southall. and Roberston. The five greatest British players ever?

No reputations were seriously hurt in the making of this list – but some might be a little bruised. So to try and ease some Arnica into any growing purple patches, here are some of the people who have a good case to be on that list, but for one reason or another are not.

For the second time in as many weeks Bobby Charlton has missed out on a list of the top British footballers of the last 50 years. This feels a little unfair – but given he is the only Brit one universally acclaimed as one of the greatest ever he should get over it. Why was he missing? Simply because none of us knew exactly WHY he was seen as a legend – apart from a decent effort against Mexico.

Dennis Law is equally absent from both lists. If it makes his supporters feel any better – I rate him higher than Best. A supreme No 10, scored more in fewer games than Best, a greater success in Italy than Rush, but hopes dashed on the shores of peerless competition.

Jimmy Johnston is the player I most regret leaving out – as good as Garrincha to many. The man to first unlock Inter and Herrer's cattenacio and proving in the process that even a bent ref can be overcome if you are good enough (Pele later re-enforced did in Escape to Victory). I will let the pictures talk for me.

Peter Shilton took Forrest to two European Cups and the League in their first season in the top flight. As well as picking up 125 England caps, more than 1,000 league appearances and scoring 1 goal. He ruled himself out when arguing Banks was better (something I dispute) and as second to Banks (who appears on the other list) he didn't make it either.

I'm sure people will disagree here - but Jimmy Greaves was the greatest British goalscorer of the last 50 years. An incredible strike rate of 422 goals in 604 top class games (plus another 44 in 57 for England) - Scored in every debut he made at every level of every club he played for - and a grace and poise with the ball at all times. And it's not like he was simply an in-the-box player either - balance, speed, he could score overheads (as he did as part of his hat-trick on his Spurs debut) and dribble as well as almost any. If he had played and scored in the '66 final he might be rated above Best - but he didn't. And he isn't John Charles. So he misses out.

Alan Hanson's reading of the game, positioning, and organisation in defence served to make Liverpool both hard to break down and impossible to win the ball from. He also won every single club honur twice - he retired as the most decorated player in British history (to be overtaken by Giggs).

Oh, and check this out for Greaves, Mackay, and Johnny Haynes (who is a close outsider on many of these lists) and British football at its best.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Best of British: John Robertson and Neville Southall – MouthoftheMersey

Pseuds regulars offer their take on the best five British footballers of the last 50 years

Considering nominees for the five best British footballers of the last fifty years presents methodological and philosophical issues. I wish to address these first.

My methodology disallows me from choosing any player whom I did not see in the flesh or regularly on television. So Best’s immense reputation, Charlton’s trophies and Moores’ imperiousness count for nothing. My methodology also allows me to pick from a player’s best years and not discount them against a long decline. Philosophically, I rule out the huffers and puffers and the artistes who never won very much that really mattered (since that is the object of the game). So no Bryan Robson and no Glenn Hoddle.

John Robertson and Neville Southall have much in common. Neither were natural athletes, barely athletes at all, though Robertson played an astonishing 243 consecutive games through Forest’s glory years from December 1976 to December 1980 and Southall racked up 750 appearances for Everton. Both blossomed as players quite late at an age when Cesc Fabregas will have played 300 games or so. The key to their success was the understanding that the game is a simple one, in which Robertson’s job was to beat his full back and pass the ball to a man in a goalscoring position and Southall’s job was to stop the ball going into the net. Crucially, both players had managers who recognised this simplicity in approach and indulged their star player’s foibles (Southall’s eccentricity, Robertson’s smoking). In return for that faith and indulgence, they delivered multiple trophies at national and international level and are held in the highest respect by fellow pros and fans the world over.

I recall Southall’s first few games for Everton in the 1981-82 season. He had been signed from Bury (how times change) and was vying for a place with Jim Arnold, a solid, but uninspiring keeper. Neville, unkempt in his green jersey, would shamble on to the pitch for his warm-up, but come alive as the crosses were slung in and the shots saved. Once the match started, we saw that he had no weaknesses: his positioning was perfect; his catching of the high ball immaculate; his shot stopping, especially at close range, spectacular; his speed off the line surprising; and his bravery and temperament unimpeachable. We muttered to ourselves that with this man in goal, we were going to win things. I have only had that feeling once in the intervening 27 years about a goalkeeper. I saw one of Peter Scmeichel’s first games for Manchester United: we left Goodison muttering those same thoughts, this time about the opposition. Schmeichel and Southall – the two best goalkeepers I’ve ever seen.

In a race with Ryan Giggs from the halfway line to the goalline, Ryan would be careering into the net as John Robertson just entered the D, already blowing hard. But Robertson was the fastest player I ever saw over one yard, and that was all he needed to play the killer ball. It helped that Robertson didn’t really run at all, he just paused, waiting, then shuffled and passed. He didn’t tackle back (but he never gave the ball away either) and was always an out ball for a defence under pressure and was, therefore, not a maverick but a team man in every sense. He was never prolific as a goalscorer, though he got 12 in Forest’s Title winning season, but he always seemed to score vital goals, including the one that won Forest’s second European Cup (after presenting Trevor Francis with an unmissable chance to win Forest’s first).

Robertson’s biggest fan was his manager Brian Clough, who knew a bit about players. There are many quotes attributed to Clough concerning Robertson, but my favourite (possibly apocryphal, but true in a larger sense) concerns a half-time team talk. A young substitute is being briefed by Clough, “… And when you get the ball, young man, just give it to The Genius”. The substitute, confused and intimidated, hesitantly points across at the first £1M player, scorer of the goal that won the European Cup, the footballing thoroughbred Trevor Francis. “Not him - HIM!” shouts Clough pointing at a slump shouldered, slightly overweight Scotsman puffing on a fag. Genius indeed.

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