Friday, August 29, 2008

Lessons from Australia - Zephirine

Pommies: England Cricket Through an Australian Lens by William Buckland (Troubador Publishing 2008)

The first thing to say about this very useful book is that the title is a little misleading: you expect it to be written from an Australian point of view. In fact Buckland is English, and makes only passing references to Aussie attitudes to English cricket. But throughout the book he uses the manifestly successful Australian domestic cricket structure as a standard against which to measure the English equivalent. Why Our Cricket System Is Crap and the Australian One Isn’t would be a more precise, if less elegant, title.

The second thing is that this is, essentially, a readable and thorough business-style analysis with a big chunk of recent cricket history thrown in. Every anecdote is there to prove a point; this is not a book of player reminiscences or dressing-room gossip.

Pommies should be required reading for anyone who intends to pontificate about cricket in the near future. Much of the history – the Packer revolution and subsequent developments – will be familiar to students of the game, but it is presented with such a brisk array of facts and figures, and progresses so relentlessly to its conclusions, that I defy anyone not to have some of their received ideas shaken up.

Note that the title is ‘England’ cricket: Buckland’s main concern is the national squad, its performance and the public’s access to it.

Why has our domestic setup not delivered a stable, successful and relatively injury-free national side, as the Australian system has? Why was the Ashes success of 2005 followed by the crushing failure of 2006/7? Why can most of the Barmy Army – genuine fans, whether or not you like their style - only attend England games overseas? Why were TV rights deals accepted which mean that 80% of English viewers can no longer watch their national side play a Test match?

Buckland has no hesitation in blaming the over-large and often mediocre county system and the power of the counties through the ECB. This is nothing new, of course - he details how many ex-players and commentators have called for reform of the counties at different times. (And anyone who thinks of Bob Willis as just the miserable bloke on Sky will be surprised at how forward-thinking and radical he has been for more than 25 years). But until I read this book I had never fully taken on board what an entrenched, unproductive and financially draining system it is.

Like most of the reformers before him, Buckland believes there are too many fully-professional county sides, and that the English game is being run in order to sustain them (none would be viable businesses without subsidy) when it should be run for the benefit of the national side and the fans, as Australian cricket is.

He also has some theories of his own about stadium size, based on the large numbers of fans unable to get tickets for major fixtures and the success of vast multi-purpose stadia in Australia like the Melbourne Cricket Ground. And, of course, that familiar equation, corporate hospitality=empty seats.

The book offers many constructive suggestions, based on Buckland’s concepts of ‘second-tier logic’ (ie how many teams you actually need to feed a national side) and the triple aims of ‘access, success and inspiration’. The final chapter has several formulae for real reform, some quite startling, especially in view of the emergence of Allen Stanford and the IPL.

The first few chapters are perhaps a little difficult to get into, as they move rapidly between different themes including a visit to Australia, childhood memories and the Olympic stadium. But if you love cricket, stick with it and read all of this book. It will put many things into context, and will make you understand exactly what is wrong with the English system - and why it has to be changed.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gold all the way – Mimitig

It’s a strange, strange thing sport.

When Nicole Cooke crossed the line, first, at the very beginning of the Olympics, to win Great Britain’s first Gold Medal, I thought that nothing would be easier than writing about success.

Not the case. I can’t count how many times I’ve settled in of an evening to try and capture the elation and utter wondrousness of the victories that followed Nicole’s success – not just for the cyclists, but for the rowers, the sailors, canoeists, swimmers, a track athlete or two, the boxers, the gymnast oh, and the chappesses and one chap on horses.

In every walk of life there are ways to excel. In music this could be an exquisite Mozart opus, the ultimate Beethoven concerto, the aria from heaven in a Puccini opera, or perhaps Abba’s perfect pop song: Take a Chance on Me. (Fill your own personal favourite in here).

In sport there are a few rare occasions when it all comes together in that symphony of divine excellence and we have had a rare chance of enjoying a British master class in perfection during these Olympics..

Orchestrated by behind-the-scenes directors Dave Brailsford, Peter Keen, Shane Sutton and the other coaches, played out by the cyclists: Cooke, Pooley, Hoy, Pendleton, Wiggins, Newton, Romero and the rest, and conducted by the maestro and wizard of the wheels: Chris Boardman, the Cyclists have shown the world how to win and win big.

The signs were there last March at the World Championships held at the Manchester Velodrome. The British cyclists won virtually everything. Hoy, Wiggins and Pendleton got double golds. Jamie Staff and Cav got medals too.

These guys and gals went to Beijing with a target on their back. As did our rowers. Loads of medals in World Championships. Everyone wanted to beat us. Everyone wanted to stop dreams coming true.

The thing is (and I hated that phrase when I worked in corporate .. it was all about the Thing) that for the last few years British cycling has really been getting it right and in a big way.

One man has been the inspiration for so many.

Barcelona – Boardman. Say no more.

One ride was enough to inspire Bradley Wiggins – a mere boy at the time – to have an Olympic dream. Chris Boardman won Gold in Barcelona, won stages in Le Tour, and did the ultimate for track cyclists. He got the Hour.

And he has, despite the physical infirmities that his career in cycling have left him with, stuck with this sport. He has become the maestro of all maestros, the leader of the “secret squirrels” who find ways for GB cyclists to eke out that little bit extra.

Hard to know what it was that did it for the British cyclists. Every little extra bit of technology, every bit of skill and pride and determination not to fail. To deliver on Chris Boardman’s promise of giving them the best in bikes, the best in skill, and the best in motivation.

Doesn’t matter now, does it? They won utterly clean.

Seven Golds, three silvers, two bronzes.
Chris Hoy – Triple gold.
Bradley Wiggins – double gold.
World records in the sprint and the pursuit.
Victoria Pendleton – won her gold and the grudge match against the Aussies (Mears – you know what you did – or what your sister did, and that was mean, mean mean).

We came away from the velodrome with only one failure. Brad and Cav in the Madison, but it was always an ask too much there is a limit to even Wiggo’s legs. What did Cav do in response?

Sprint win of Stage One of the Tour of Ireland.

So that’s what our cyclists do when they don’t win. Go win!!

It is such a joy to have a chance, maybe my chance of a lifetime, to write about such world beaters – in a sport of mine!

I don’t take anything away from the rowers, sailors, canoeists, but they are not my sport. Cycling is what I do – it’s why I nurse my broken collar bone.

They – the rest of the world, the Australians – said after Manchester, that we would flop and fail in Beijing.

We didn’t.

They are now looking so closely at our programme. The Aussies have put loads of money up to Dave Brailsford to go work for them.

Dave says no. He wants to be part of 2012 and says it would be wrong and all wrong to work for the Aussies.

I hope that’s a truth.

On the track we are a world-beating squad. No question. And with Nicole and Emma and The Manx Express we are pretty world beating on the road.

I guess what I’ll do now, when my leg is mended, is be on the bike, ride some of Phil Liggett’s “killermeters” and enjoy my cycling.

Boy, what a year for us in cycling. Just win win win or so it seems.

Guess Phil might have a rethink about retiring.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Managing success - Ebren

There is a lot of talk about the number of foreign managers running "our" football clubs.

It's a persuasive and powerful argument. Benitez was brought in to re-generate Liverpool's success. Wenger turned Arsenal into one of the leading clubs in Europe. Ramos at Spurs won the club's first trophy in what seems like forever and Ranieri then Mourinho *cough*Grant*cough then Scolari have been in charge of Abramovic's millions at Chelsea.

The national team was managed by Sven before McClaren messed up and now Capello is in charge to put things back on track.

These things allow writers to wallow in the defeatist "our football's going to the dogs and only foreigners can rescue us" articles and sentiments that fill the back pages.

It has got to the stage that managers in Spain all want to work in England, where the standard of coaching is so bad that small improvements will see them soar up the league and hugely enhance their status and earning powers.

But does it actually make sense?

No, in a word.

Of the 20 Premier League clubs, only five are managed by people who were not born in the UK. And Roy Keane is numbered among that minority.

Moreover there are just three Scots (Moyes, Ferguson and Mowbary), one Welshman (Hughes) and one Northern Irish manager (O'Neil) who are not English in charge of top flight clubs – meaning fully half the Premier League's managers are English.

Moreover, there are at least as many managerial 'failures' as successes in recent years from overseas gaffers. Sven was let go after a year, Jol deemed not good enough, Grant was never up to it, Gullit has been found wanting, Santini was never in the mix at Spurs (and the less about Gross the better). Tigana couldn't cut it at Fulham and Perrin failed at Pompey.

Looking overseas, Spain has as many "foreigners" as the Premier League: Pellegrini is in charge of Villarreal, Aguirre is in charge at Atletico Madrid, Kresic at Numancia, and Schuster at Real Madrid. Italy fares better, with only Mourinho at champions Inter not being Italian.

But in an age where the Premier League has the funds to bring in any manager on the planet, the fact that 16 of the managers don't even have to show their passport go back to their home town and return to work the next day is surely something to celebrate.

English Premier League Clubs' Use Of Foreign Managers:
Arsenal - Arsene Wenger (French, 1996 -)
Aston Villa - Dr Jozef Venglos (Czech, 1990-91)
Blackburn Rovers - none
Bolton Wanderers - none
Chelsea - Ruud Gullit (Dutch, 1996-98); Gianluca Vialli (Italian, 1998-2000); Claudio Ranieri (Italian, 2000-04); Jose Mourinho (Portuguese, 2004-07); Avram Grant (Israeli, 2007-08); Luiz Felipe Scolari (Brazilian, 2008 -)
Everton - none
Fulham - Jean Tigana (French, 2000-03)
Hull City - Jan Molby (Danish, 2002)
Liverpool - Gerard Houllier (French, 1998-2004); Rafael Benitez (Spanish, 2004 -)
Manchester City - Sven-Goran Eriksson (Swedish, 2007-08)
Manchester United - none
Middlesbrough - none
Newcastle United - Ossie Ardiles (Argentinian, 1991-92); Ruud Gullit (Dutch, 1998-99)
Portsmouth - Velimir Zajec (Croatian, 2004-05); Alain Perrin (French, 2005)
Stoke City - Gudjon Thordason (Icelandic, 1999-2002); Johan Boskamp (Dutch 2005-06)
Sunderland - none
Tottenham Hotspur - Ossie Ardiles (Argentinian, 1993-94); Christian Gross (Swiss, 1997-98); Jacques Santini (French, 2004); Martin Jol (Dutch, 2004-07); Juande Ramos (Spanish, 2007 -)
West Bromwich Albion - Ossie Ardiles (Argentinian, 1992-93)
West Ham United - none
Wigan Athletic - none


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