Gavan Reilly

thinking out loud

Archive for the ‘Soccer’ Category

Can a fans’ trust really work?

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A cross-post from Back Page Football where I cranked out this opinion piece last night. Actual blogging resumes shortly…

As a Manchester United fan it’s been difficult of late to read any kind of club news without encountering inevitable bumf about the Glazers, the Red Knights, green and gold scarves, potential boycotts, Wayne Rooney’s forehead, blah blah blah… the list goes on. (OK, I realise that last one isn’t that terrible, but it’s been the saving grace of late.)

When the Glazer family launched their formal takeover bid of Manchester United in the summer of 2005, I was probably in the small minority (or, if in the majority, the silent one – but then again, it’s always been difficult to publicly express one’s support for a status quo) who thought the takeover might not have been a terrible thing. As a Commerce student at the time, I was being heavily briefed on investment practices and, in my business-y frame of mind, and figured that although the transition would mean United (then debt-free) being loaded up with a roundabout £500m in debt – small change, you know yourself… – that nobody would put a business through such a financial mill if they didn’t think the business could adequately cope with the strain.

In hindsight I still stand by that logic. Nobody – not even an Irish banker intent on spending billions on a floundering Irish bank – puts money into an enterprise if they don’t think they’ll be able to get their investment back, with more. After all, that’s what profit is: the reward for taking a risk.

That’s not to say I didn’t understand and share the fears that MUST and the soon-to-be F.C. United brigade. The club was debt-free and had built its modern empire – a top-class stadium; an era of incomparable dominance in English football, the ability to confidently and consistently break transfer records to get the players we needed, and others we didn’t – upon the fact that its monetary situation was so resilient and dependable. Good investment and solid management breeds more money, which if managed correctly keeps the cycle going.

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Written by Gav

March 9th, 2010 at 1:09 pm

Why football needs a salary cap

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My first piece for Back Page Football, a new football site edited by Kevin Coleman. Ch-ch-check it out.

The year is 2020. The UEFA Super Champions Europa League Cup final (second leg) is just about to kickoff, and fans all over the world are breathing a weary sigh as Roy Keane’s Ipswich Town kick off against Red Bull Salzburg, with an 8-1 win in the away leg rendering club football’s greatest fixture totally and utterly redundant. What’s the point of playing this competition, wonder the fans, if the big teams when the tournament was conceived aren’t even in existence any more? Why bother taking part when Real Madrid aren’t around to try and win a tenth title, or if there’s no Man United/AC Milan/Bayern Munich/Barcelona to light up the tournament?

Except, of course, the year is not 2020, and UEFA haven’t thrown all of their tournaments together into one giant money-spinning football orgy. (Yet.) But wild as it might seem, the notion of football’s leading lights universally folding and leaving expensive, empty stadia, waiting to be demolished into boutique apartment blocks, and destroying the worldwide heritage of the Beautiful Game isn’t all that fanciful. We, in the summer of 2009, are witnessing the beginning of the end. The devil is a Spaniard, and he’s elected.

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Written by Gav

August 5th, 2009 at 10:05 am

Living the Real Madrid way

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Easily exceeding the quality of my own analysis, The Guardian’s Simon Burnton pens a piece for the website’s Sportblog, attaching a real-life analogy to Florentino Pérez’s own peculiar brand of expenditure.

Burnton gives an incredible allegory of buying a newspaper, paying vastly over-the-odds for the sake of show, and wonders whether we’re really any richer as a result.

His hands didn’t stop shaking when they left my grasp, and they trembled as he put the transaction through the till. There was a strange kind of energy in the shop. We all felt it, even the bloke at the fridge deciding whether a pint of organic milk was really worth an extra 10p. They’d be talking about me today – at work, at the dinner table, to their wives, children, colleagues. They’d be talking about me all right, and it felt good. I turned to leave.

On the way out, another newspaper caught my eye. It was not the newspaper I had wanted, the one I already owned. It did not contain an award-winning Film & Music section, or a supplement detailing Britain’s Best Walks in a certain unusual category. It might have covered many of the same stories in a similar way but it was, it said, the Newspaper of the Year. It had to be mine. I picked it up, and turned to the shopkeeper. I was smiling as I opened my wallet. So was he.

The full article is over here and it’s compelling stuff. Kudos to Burnton and The Guardian for the sheer intelligence of the piece.

Written by Gav

June 15th, 2009 at 10:42 am

Swapping one Ronaldo for two Setantas

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Well, at least nobody could say it wasn’t coming. Six years after Rodney Marsh first appeared on Sky Sports’ Soccer Saturday corring, “Blimey, how good is this kid gonna be?”, and a seeming eternity (probably) since a spaghetti-haired teenage Portuguese first mentioned that he’d love to play for the Spanish legends, Fiorentino Pérez decided that he’d like to leave his club teetering on the edge of bankruptcy – again – by first skimming a stone across the world transfer record, and then dunking a boulder deep into it. In one week he has spent €162m – or £138m, if you like; the same price as all 42 members of the Newcastle United squad, plus their 53,000-seater stadium, and still leaving enough change to buy Luis Figo in his pompous heyday – and turned the already bonkers world of football financing into an even more tumultous tornado.

It’s not difficult to see that Ronaldo is a footballer of exceptional quality and certainly worth an awful lot of money. 91 goals in the last three seasons, helping Manchester United to a Premiership title in each of the three, and a Champions’ League sandwiched in the middle, are an obvious sign of impact. The fact that the man’s name alone can send adolescent women into fits of involuntary screaming and sell suitcases of cherry red jerseys worldwide is another. The Guardian‘s daily satirical newsletter, The Fiver, referring to Him only with a capitalised pronoun, and similarly naming his new team-to-be as Them, is a third. Certainly he’ll be missed; United, in a matter seemingly overlooked by many, will now find themselves with a major goalscoring vacuum. Ronaldo gone, Tevez surely leaving… it leaves a terrific burden on Dimitar Berbatov (14 goals last season) and Wayne Rooney (20), particularly when the latter has been converted into an unusual attacking midfielder/winger hybrid and forsaken his goalscoring prowess as a result.

But is he worth €94m? In a footballing sense, maybe. He’s a terrific player and will undoubtedly be the star in an underperforming team. Commercially, though, is he really going to be so lucrative? A Nike player now smack in the middle of an Adidas team? An import into a team who’ve already agreed their shirt sponsorship and can’t charge more for all the posters CR94 might now appear on? A team with their TV rights already agreed for years to come? Will he be worth more to Madrid than a Nike-wearing team in Manchester who have squeezed every Champions’ League goal, every shirt sponsorship deal (one can’t help thinking Aon Corp got a raw deal now that there’s no more Ronaldo shirt sales or PR stuff to piggyback onto) out of him, especially when they’ve made a £67m appreciation profit on him too? That’s doubtful. Ronaldo will sell shirts, there’s no doubt about that – but now that the club is back in half a billion worth of debt, one can only guess at how fragile the foundations to Real Madrid’s financial house-of-cards truly are.

And while Perez throws £138m at his team’s underperformance and assumes the talent will solve the problem – these players, after all, are to be managed by the man who nearly got Tottenham Hotspur relegated this season – Newcastle United trundle on, rudderless and ownerless, and – seemingly – with a collective worth roughly equal to 1.25 Cristiano Ronaldoes. One has to feel sorry for Mike Ashley, the local billionaire supporter who had seen the team drift two and fro under total mismanagement, and taking the lessons of Sky One’s Dream Team far too close to heart in assuming a fan could ably run a challenging Premiership team. That’s not to belittle Ashley’s moneymaking ability – you don’t make your way from nil to £700m without financial ubercompetence – but clearly Ashley had gotten so excited about the notion of buying the team, he’d forgotten how Phil Wallis’s tenure as owner of Harchester United had ended: with Wallis impossibly happy at having given the club away in a lottery to the owner of a lucky season ticket.

While Ashley is deserving of some sympathy, the club itself certainly isn’t. A season in which no less than three messiah managers failed to save the club from terminal decline, and a franchise where a litany of failed Chief Executives and Directors of Football have put their own failed personal stamp on the team, which has constantly slipped in every way since it scraped failure from the jaws of Champions League qualification in 2003. A shambolic corporate management system, consistently backed up by shambolic football management system, and topped off by shambolic footballers. Putting your Champions League fate in the hands of everyon’s favourite centre-back, Titus Bramble? Really? The fall from grace will do Newcastle good; a total overhaul and the abolition of the corrupt culture that left such bureaucracy into simple matters like team selection will do the team the world of good. Frankly, the club’s morale could use the inevitable boost that cantering to Championship victory ought to bring.

And amidst all this, Sky Sports’ endless overvaluation of the English footballing life claims another scalp. If Setanta Sports survives, it’ll be in a much tamer incarnation than it currently exists, with its distinctive bumblebee branding sitting on fewer screens, fewer advertising hoardings, and (hopefully) fewer painful stings with referee’s shirts and net sacks full of rugby balls during every ad break. What sort of world do we live in, where one international TV franchise can only command £20m for a 51% stake, and a mightly, albeit sleeping, football club is only worth £100m, yet a petulant Portuguese wunderkind is an £80m prospect, with another £8m in wages – netto – each year? Ronaldo plus Setanta ought to equal Newcastle United, but the ratio of the Setanta/Ronaldo breakdown needs total redress. One might look on with a wry smile in a few years’ time when Real Madrid enter administration and see a compulsory relegation to the Segunda División, while Newcastle United return energised from a stint in the lower leagues to show themselves just what they can do. Fiorentino Pérez might feel like he has to answer to the supporting body who elected him, but it’s surely more responsible to get the club on better footing than to run it into the ground altogether.

Not, of course, that any of the above will stop us all scrambling for tickets to the Tallaght Stadium in the second week of July, to see Him make his debut for Them against Shamrock Rovers. A salient and timely reminder, perhaps when we need it most, that He is just one man, among many, many others.

Written by Gav

June 13th, 2009 at 4:42 pm

Leinster’s Epic Day and United’s Epic Season

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leinsterThis week it seemed impossible to escape discussion of ten-year struggles for recognition, an odyssey to overcome non-believers doubting claims of ones substance or genuine contention. Fitting then, that in the week that Ireland finally woke up and acknowledged the pure horror that our children experienced at the hands of the Irish Catholic Church, that Leinster also finally threw off the shackles of being Europe’s Nearly Men and making that final plucky ascent to the top of the pile in continental club rugby.

What a moment, with nothing more needing to be said from a lowly Meathman. The only thing missing, really, was Ryle Nugent, the epitome of south Dublin rugby fanaticism, sent inexplicably to sound out the quality of a third-string Irish team taking on a fifteen of Canadian minnows at a college ground in Vancouver. Myles Harrison and Stuart Barnes are a nice combination but it’s not like having Nugent and Ward totally losing the plot the second Gordon D’Arcy steals an inch.

What’s notable about Leinster’s victory, however, is not that Leinster beat Munster (or anybody else) along the way, but the sheer grit and tenacity to keep things rolling throughout a gruellingly long season. Studying for my finals a few weeks ago I came across one particular nugget regarding management, a universal truth undeniable, unbendable and unavoidable. No matter what avenue of life one competes in, success depends on a strategy characterised by four specific qualities – goals that are consistent, simple and long-term; an objective appraisal of resources; an intimate understanding of the competitive environment; and each of these three being backed up by effective implementation.

Leinster, this year, have finally gotten it together – the simple wonder is that it didn’t happen any earlier. Since Michael Cheika took over at the Leinster helm in the summer of 2005, it’s been a slow but definite rise to the top. Realistically, having earned that most prized display of respect, a standing ovation from the home Toulouse fans after Leinster scored four tries beating them 41-35 in their 2006 quarter-final, one can blame the Leinster branch of the IRFU for not doing a better job of ensuring crowd equality on that infamous day in April 2006 when Munster simply tore Leinster to shreds. The shock of that day set them back years; the trauma alone took three years to overcome.

But back to the point – or, rather, the four main points.

Goals that are simple, consistent and long-term: well, that part’s easy. Having successfully annexed the Magners League on an ongoing basis, there were no worlds left to conquer, but one. And given the length and constant international interruptions of a rugby season, winning the Heineken Cup was a fairly simple target to set.

Objective appraisal of resources: Every dog on the street knows Leinster’s backline has been its foundation since the emergence of the Golden Generation of O’Driscoll, Horgan and D’Arcy. Where Leinster consistently failed was the pack – and the signing of Rocky Elsom, bolstering the new maturity of Bernard Jackman and the experience of returned captain Leo Cullen, was inspired. Elsom was an extraordinarily easy choice for Player of the Season, testament to the role the Wallaby behemoth has played.

Elsewhere, Leinster’s victory has been based on a true acknowledgement of the squad’s shortcomings. Dividing resources between the Magners League and Heineken Cup – alongside Ireland’s constant international struggle for Six Nations success – as they’ve done in previous years has been a destiny of disappointment. This year, Cheika made the call. Ireland were going to be big challengers with Declan Kidney at the helm, and that would destroy any momentum for February and March. The Magners League itself would mean surplus tricky away fixtures in Cardiff and Limerick, never mind nerve-wracking Heineken Cup trips to the Stoop, the Rec, Murrayfield or Twickenham. With the demands of inevitable international success, something would have to give, and the choice to sacrifice the Magners League – the attitude that of course it’s great to win, but losing to the Ospreys isn’t the end of the world – has been the key.

Intimate understanding of the competitive environment: Well, that’s a given these days. Everyone knew the Munster match would be more about emotion than performance. Everyone knew the Harlequins quarter-final would be about grinding out a result, throwing every spare body on a line in order to avoid the critical breach. Everyone knew that the final would need all-round concentration – Leicester’s fifteen-minute superiority around half-time was testament to it. But knowing what’s needed has been the bigger issue for Leinster in previous years, and figuring it out and learning how to win has been the new bit.

Effective implementation: Therein lies the crux. That’s the bit that a coach can only teach so much, and it’s arguable that Michael Cheika doesn’t know how to get the whole thing together. But were Leinster really ever going to win without the Irish national team making the breakthrough first? Success filters down. Once Brian O’Driscoll had been taught how to win on a national level, he was going to bring that down. Leinster’s victory is a planetary alignment, the gravitational slingshot they needed to just break through.

The same formulae can be applied elsewhere. Kilkenny make it their lives’ mission simply never to lose a hurling match. Tipperary or Cork might have to start their seasons muddled about whether they want to win the Munster Championship or the All-Ireland or both, and fall between two stools. Being in an easy provence makes Kilkenny’s job easier: set a target (there’s only one to set anyway) and just get on with it. Acknowledge the potential weaknesses, address them, and play to the team’s strengths. Know the rules and bend them where you can. Play the game and ignore the players.

Which brings me to the second half of the post: why Manchester United are going to win on Wednesday and why Liverpool can’t win the Premiership. The simple act of defining a season’s goal is where Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool keep falling down. Ask a cross-section of Liverpool fans at the start of a year what they’d like to win, given a choice between the Premiership and the Champions League, and they’ll universally answer with the former. Ask the management, and they’re not so sure. End the drought and be Champions of England again, or take the theoretically higher-ranking prize of being Champions of all of Europe? Decisions, decisions.

Liverpool, anyone can tell you, don’t have the universal strength to challenge on both fronts: this is why they often come close to the double, sometimes winning one trophy, but never both. Over-reliance on Torres and Gerrard, and stuttering when they’ve been absent, is symptomatic. It’s often noted that Liverpool’s home form against the likes of Stoke and Hull is what cost them the league: such form is representative of the lack of strength in depth needed to properly rotate and ensure constant progress on all fronts. Liverpool’s problem is the one Leinster have finally mastered: sacrificing the lesser for the greater gain.

Chelsea, in fairness to Liverpool, have a similar problem – they’re just lucky that Frank Lampard never gets injured. Liverpool, therefore, need to pick their target and stick to it. Putting together a squad that can challenge on multiple fronts is something that can’t be done over one summer; that’s the reason why Alex Ferguson habitually buys half a dozen anonymous youngsters every summer. So until Liverpool can reach that level, they need to spread themselves thicker and let go of some things. Liverpool have hit their best league form since they went out of Europe. Hardly a co-incidence.

United, though, have the knack at this stage. This season they’ve shown a true evolution; becoming wiser to the fact that a squad challenging for five trophies across the world cannot afford to win every game scoring four of five goals each time. One-nil victories every week do the job; United haven’t hit a scoring gear this year but that’s fine once you get the victories. Somehow, after 65 games and seven competitions, United have come to the pinnacle of the season with a first-choice eleven totally unscathed and in good form, ready for the prize – backed up by a squad strong even to the point where the fourth-choice XI can defeat a Hull side needing a victory to stay in the Premiership.

And that is why United will win on Wednesday – Barcelona are defensively leaky, particularly for set pieces, and are competitive only by creating a lethal triumvarite of Henry, Messi and Etoo. Take out any of those three – and Henry is looking shaky, especially with Iniesta not in full fitness to fill in for him – and the team quickly becomes toothless. United, strong, refreshed and happy, have little to worry about.