The Obscurer

Category: Sport

Too Many Cooks

Steve recently drew my attention to this Guardian interview with Garry Cook, the man headhunted from Nike to become Manchester City’s new “Executive Chairman”, whatever that means, and after a bit of delay and deliberation I finally stole myself to read it. And I wasn’t disappointed. In a bad way. Cutting to the chase, then, and these are the bits that stuck in the mind, for a variety of reasons.

  1. On the future: “Can we be as big, or bigger, than Manchester United? Yes. Can we win the Premier League? Yes. Can we win the Champions League? It will take time, probably 10 years or more. But if I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t be here.”
  2. On the “fit and proper person” test for football club ownership: “It is a very loose term, almost tongue-in-cheek, because there have been plenty of unfit and improper people in the league over the last 10 years.”
  3. On the Premier League: He talks of a sport rife with “greed and jealousy – I won’t use the word corruption but wherever there’s greed and jealousy there will be something else that follows it.”
  4. On Thaksin: Thaksin is “embarrassed about the indignities he has brought on the club” and willing to stand down as a director…“He’s embroiled in a political process and I’ve chosen to stay out of it. Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Does he have plenty of money to run a football club? Yes. I really care only about those three things. Whether he [Thaksin] is guilty of something over in Thailand, I can’t worry. I have to be conscious of it. But my role is to run a football club. I worked for Nike who were accused of child-labour issues and I managed to have a career there for 15 years. I believed we were innocent of most of the issues. Morally, I felt comfortable in that environment. It’s the same here.”
  5. On buying players: “We need a superstar…I’ve talked about this a lot to Mark and he sort of understands. China and India, 30% of the world population, need a league to watch and we want Manchester City to be their club. To do that, we need a superstar because, no disrespect, Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing.”
  6. On Mark Hughes: “When we talked to Mark about coming to this club we said, ‘Don’t come if you don’t think you need a superstar.’ He said he wanted to challenge himself by managing the best players…Mark is adamant he wants Premier League experience because that is what let us down last season. Mark’s a homegrown lad, very old school. He’d rather sign players he knows, even overpay. That’s an endearing piece of what he’s all about. He doesn’t like the unknown because it takes him out of his comfort zone. He jumps out of his comfort zone when we say to him, ‘Hey, you’ve got to change this up a little bit.’ But he can’t have Roque Santa Cruz so now he’s back in his ‘uncomfortable zone’, which is that he will have to bring in someone new and develop them.”
  7. On selling players: Hughes, he says, was unfortunate because Sven-Goran Eriksson’s recruiting from abroad meant City had “players who weren’t right for the club” – especially in “the dead of winter when the players are putting on gloves and tights, there are five games in 10 days and it’s bloody tough”.Hughes was said to be against City’s plans to sell Vedran Corluka and Stephen Ireland. Cook’s take is very different. “Mark’s assessment was that he had seen the players he wanted to keep and the areas where he felt we could do better. There were a couple of players we looked at [selling] because Mark said he wanted to bring in better. We went out to sign those players, they didn’t come and we were left holding the baby.” It hardly represents a vote of confidence for Corluka and Ireland, but Cook is unapologetic. “Everyone’s for sale. If they want to stay at this club they will have to aspire to it.”
  8. On reforming the Premier League: Garry Cook has radical views on football that not everyone will agree with, not least his belief that there should be a new top division of 10-14 elite clubs with no promotion or relegation. “The fans,” he says, “would find a way to get passionate about it.”
  9. On marketing the league: The Premier League is “10 years behind” the US in merchandising. “This is the most powerful sports league in the world but also the most undervalued.” Manchester United had not “even scratched the surface and if anyone’s got a headstart it’s them.”
  10. On sponsorship: As for City, he says their behind-the-scenes operation is a “shock to me” explaining: “You look at our brand and it’s Thomas Cook. There’s something not quite right about watching us in a bar in Beijing or Bangkok or Tokyo and seeing “Fred Smith’s Plumbing, call 0161 …”
  11. On marketing the club: He was angry when a side of ex-players won the Masters tournament “using our name and our badge when they had nothing to do with us – then, lo and behold, we congratulate them in the programme. You couldn’t set up a band and call it the Drifters, so what are they doing using our name?”
  12. On the players’ responsibilities: He sees City becoming a “global empire” and “bigger than Manchester United” but feels the club is undermined by leaks to the media and suggests there is “someone inside the club with a vendetta”. He is unimpressed, too, with some of the footballers he has encountered. “They don’t understand their responsibility to the club,” he says. “Trying to get them to do something is like dragging them out of bed.”

Dispiriting stuff all told, but I suppose we’ve all said some daft stuff off the cuff and on the spur of the moment. Then, after reading this tripe, I remembered Chris referring to an interview with Cook where he made some similar claims about City becoming bigger than United, something not physically impossible but some way off yet, the date of achievement being pencilled in for some time after the perpetual motion machine has been cracked. It turns out that Chris was in fact referring to a different interview, in the Telegraph, conducted by Henry Winter. Perhaps Cook cuts quite a different figure in this different interview? Did I say different interview? The key points again.

  1. On the future: “We’ll be as big as Manchester United. If I didn’t have that goal, I wouldn’t be here. Can we win the Premier League? Yes. Will we? It might take a bit longer. Can we win the Champions League? Growing up at Nike, you don’t sit around saying, ‘Can we?’ You say, ‘We will’.”
  2. On the “fit-and-proper-person” test for football club ownership: “It’s almost a tongue-in-cheek term that you would use for Premier League football over the last 10 years. There are plenty of unfit and improper individuals.”
  3. On the Premier League: “In the draft, there’s no exchange for cash. Here it’s about greed and jealousy. Although I’m not going to use the word ‘corruption’, you can imagine that where there’s greed and jealousy then there’s something else as well.”
  4. On Thaksin: “The man is embarrassed about the indignity brought on the club and the Premier League. He said to me, ‘If you need me to resign from the football club as a director, because it would serve the needs of the Premier League, then I’m fine with that as long as that doesn’t change any other thing [i.e. his ownership]’…Is he a nice guy? Yes. Is he a great guy to play golf with? Yes. Has he got the finances to run a club? Yes. I really care about those three things. I need a left-back who can win tackles, get the crosses in and Jo can bang them in. Whether he’s guilty of something over there, I can’t worry too much about. I worked at a company – Nike – where we were accused of child labour rights issues. I managed to have a career there for 15 years and I believed we were innocent of most of the issues. Morally, I felt confident in that environment. Morally, I feel comfortable in this environment.”
  5. On buying players: “We just need a superstar. China and India are gagging for football content to watch and we’re going to tell them that City is their content. We need a superstar to get through that door. Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing. Ronaldinho brings access to major sponsors and financial reward…Mark and I talk about this a lot and he sort of understands.”
  6. On Mark Hughes: “We told Mark not to come if he thought we didn’t need a superstar. Mark wants to challenge himself to manage the best footballers in the world. But Mark is from the old school. He would rather overpay for the player he knows than for the player where he’s relying on scouting reports. That’s an endearing piece of what Mark is all about. We can’t have Roque Santa Cruz, which means Mark’s now back in an uncomfortable zone where he will have to bring in someone new.”
  7. On selling player: Hughes was unimpressed by Cook’s attempts to sell Stephen Ireland and Vedran Corluka. “I’m not treating them like a commodity but in the two transfer windows everybody is for sale,” shrugged Cook, who admires youth products like Danny Sturridge (“a great player”) but also knows City need more experience. “When you get to the dead of winter and people start pulling the gloves and tights on and you get five games in 10 days, it’s bloody hard for them. Mark is saying, ‘We need some people with some mettle’. Mark will feel he isn’t successful if he doesn’t finish in the top six.”
  8. On reforming the premier league: To maximise wealth, Cook craves a slimmed-down elite division. “If you could central-entity the top 10 teams to create a global empire called the Premier League, I would sacrifice my own club [Birmingham City] into another division for that. Do Saudi Arabians want to buy Stoke City? Or do they want to buy Newcastle, Villa, United, City? There are 10 clubs. I’d like not to have promotion and relegation. There’s an emotion around those battles but the dynamics by which fans can get their kicks can change.”
  9. On marketing the league: “This is the most powerful sports league in the world but maybe the most undervalued. United haven’t even scratched the [merchandising] surface – and if anyone has a head start, it’s them.”
  10. On sponsorship: “The market is worldwide. There’s something not right about sitting in a bar in Bangkok, Beijing or Tokyo and seeing ‘Fred Smith’s Plumbing. Call 0161…’ I talk to [Premier League chief executive] Richard Scudamore about this all the time: ‘Are we maximising the central entity of the Premier League?’ He rolls his eyes and says, ‘If only we would.’”
  11. On marketing the club: “Our merchandising values are a shock to me. There’s a Masters tournament three miles down the road with a team of ex-players wearing a uniform sponsored by a whole bunch of sponsors. They used our name! They used our badge! We were nothing to do with it and we actually went and congratulated them in our own programme [for beating United]. You and I couldn’t set up a pop group and call ourselves The Drifters, because someone owns that.”
  12. On the players’ responsibilities: “We are about 10 years behind in intellectual property management. Then we get down to players’ image rights, where players don’t understand the responsibility they have to a club. You try to get them to do something and it’s like you’re dragging them out of bed.”

If you feel a distinct sense of deja-vu, don’t worry; it’s not just you. Perhaps the only difference in the articles is Cook’s proud claim in the Telegragh that “this club is not for sale”; so whether that means he was lying, or cut out of the loop, who cares. Now let’s compare these two articles with the interview Cook gave the Times. Actually, let’s not bother. In fact the Times interview is better, ie. briefer. Here Cook mainly sticks to talking about his ideas for a slimmed down league just large enough to accommodate City, and with no relegation to ensure we can’t drop out of the top flight. As a result there’s simply no time to stick the boot into Richard Dunne, our player of the year for the past few seasons; we don’t know whether or not Mark Hughes “sort of understands” that we need a washed-up former superstar to launch our plan for world domination; there’s no mention of Thaksin being a great golf buddy; and worst of all there is sadly nothing at all about The Drifters. But still we hear about the Saudi’s not fancying Stoke (“no disrespect”, naturally); we again find out that “the fans will find a way to get passionate about a piece” of the new Premier League set-up as envisioned by Cook (I imagine “being passionate” is 110% compulsory in the circles Cook moves in); and Thomas Cook (no relation) get another dissing because there’s “something not right about sitting in a bar in Bangkok or Beijing and seeing a match here and seeing Fred Smith’s Plumbing. Call 0161.” Richard Scudamore still “rolls his eyes”, United still haven’t “scratched the surface yet” even though “if anyone has got a head start, it’s them”, and while we have no mention of a “global empire” I make four counts of needing a “central entity” in the Premier League, albeit the sub-editors haven’t felt the need to hyphenate it this time.

Of course if I missed something here be sure to tell me but you get the gist and this is quite enough to be going along with. I guess at a time when things are changing at City at such a bewildering pace it should be gratifying to read three articles that say much the same thing, almost word for word. As for me, I have no more words, or not many more, and you can no doubt do the work for yourself. What a fucking disgrace will do for me for now.

But one last hurrah. The nerve of someone who claims solidarity by pretending to be a Birmingham City supporter when he clearly has no feelings for the game whatsoever, indeed when he seems barely human at all, just some sort of corporate robot, or at the very least an empty vessel programmed on a media course to spew out stock phrases and business plans to journalists; the cheek of someone who has been at the club for two minutes getting “angry” at ex-players who in some cases gave years of service to the club and are still happy to be associated with us at the Masters tournaments; the evident contempt for the fans who must simply accommodate his brave new vision of the Premier League and so find new ways to “be passionate” and “get their kicks”, a contempt I imagine can only mirror the feelings he had for those customers when he was at Nike; this mantra that football, the most popular sport played the world over, is 10 years behind and has anything to learn from the NFL, which has so utterly failed to expand even beyond the Rio Grande. I could go on.

But worst of all is the fear I have that from a business point of view he may just be right in what he says, and that the future belongs to Garry Cook and people like him, people who are not only able to come up with a nonsense term like “central-entity” and then repeat it over and over ad-nauseam without a hint of self-awareness, but can then go and compound it all by using it as a verb. It’s all over, isn’t it? As my team appears to be on the brink of an unparalleled shot at wealth and success (and whilst it is funny to read about some United fans whose noses have been put out of joint by recent developments) I scan these three interviews and I want nothing to do with it all. And yet I know, despite all this, that City are still my club, they are still a part of me; I can’t help it, I can’t just stop following them, no matter how much I may dislike the direction the club and the sport are taking. In that admission, perhaps, we see that Garry Cook and his ilk understand their customer base, and maybe I have earned that contempt.

A Question Mark

I received a flurry of email newsflashes last week from Manchester City Football Club. First the shock news on Monday that Sven-Goran Eriksson and the club had “parted company by mutual consent,” then the follow-up formality on Tuesday that Hans Backe and Tord Grip had also left the club. The surprises continued on Wednesday when a third email informed me that “Manchester City & Sven-Goran Eriksson have parted company by mutual consent” (I think someone pressed the wrong button) before a further email 25 minutes later announced that “Mark Hughes has been confirmed as Manchester City’s new manager.” My final correspondence the following day announced that Hughes had just given a press conference, and then it all went quiet. It had been quite a half-week.

A lot has been said about the Sven situation, and I was obviously agin his dismissal, but I decided to keep my powder dry, for everything to be settled before I said my piece. Then, a 5th birthday party and a 6th wedding anniversary intervened, diverting me (in the nicest possible way) from finishing this rambling, overlong discourse, but here it is now anyway, for what it’s worth.

First of all, despite the current well-aired criticisms of the sacking (yes, sacking) of Sven, it is worth saying that when he arrived he was not universally welcomed. I don’t think there was much outright antagonism, but there were quite a few misgivings from many City fans bearing in mind his reputation as England manager. In the end there was generally a wait and see approach, accompanied with the back-handed compliment that Sven had a proven record as a “good club manager” (whatever that means) who had won trophies wherever he had been; a record that was bound to founder at Eastlands, regardless of how long he stayed there. I’d say I was happier than most at Sven’s appointment, primarily because I was less critical than most of his time at England, where I felt it was hardly his fault that his team failed to live up to the unrealistic expectation placed upon it (although there were plenty of errors during his time there that he can lay claim to and call his own.) As City kicked off the season at breakneck pace, seemingly invincible at home and pretty useful away, most reservations disappeared, and I was happy that we had undoubtedly improved upon the previous season’s shambles, but cautious that our results were exceeding the quality of our performances, and that something was likely to give at some point.

Before the start of last season there seemed less talk around about the purchase of the club by Thaksin Shinawatra. There were a few grumblings for sure, but amongst the fans the majority seemed not to care about his background or the fact that here was another moneybags owner who was going to skew the league ever more in the direction of the big spenders (indeed, that constituted most of his appeal), and this opinion didn’t seem to change over the course of the season; some even cheered his allies’ success in the Thai elections a few months ago as another feather in the cap for “Frank”. Personally I was extremely uncomfortable with his involvement, in part because of the allegations of corruption and human rights violations that hung around him, but also because I don’t like this trend towards ever deeper pockets buying success in football, even if it is currently our good fortune to be one of the beneficiaries. You will never get perfection I know, but I would prefer for us to be moving towards a situation where a club’s success was mainly down to appointing a canny manager who could handpick promising, talented players to blend a team that plays in the most entertaining way. I can’t tell you how much pleasure it gives me to go to the Premier League page on the BBC Sport website and double-take when I see a Hull City hyperlink staring back at me; but wouldn’t it be even better if we thought it possible that with a few key signings they could rise up the league and even challenge for the title in a few seasons time? Instead we know they will be fighting the drop until the day they are relegated, and it seems we are heading in the opposite direction to the way I would wish, ever further towards a league where the teams that succeed are purely the ones with the with the most pounds, dollars or bahts. You could argue that it is just this trend that has led us to the situation where the Premier League is the strongest domestic competition in Europe, but who benefits? Not the majority of fans I know who couldn’t care less what happened in this years’ European Cup final.

As last season began I had no interest in what happened to my team, genuinely feeling that the club I had supported since a boy was no more and that the team now playing in sky blue were a new club – Thaksin’s – bearing an historic name; interestingly that emotion is one I have heard a lot of other people express more recently. But when I saw Richard Dunne wearing one of those blue shirts on the first Match of the Day of the season such feelings disappeared in an instant, but my doubts about the direction the club would be going in didn’t. “Prove me wrong, Thaksin,” I thought to myself, and with Sven’s hasty and blinkered dismissal my worst fears seem to have been realised, although I won’t say I told you so (especially when stories like this show how ridiculous it is to lump all foreign / rich owner together as if they are inevitably as one.)

Let’s be honest though. Taking last season in isolation Thaksin’s involvement has hugely benefited the club. It was his money that brought Eriksson, Petrov, Corluka and Elano to Eastlands, without his involvement we would never have finished where we did in the league. We are not the first or only club to sack a manager prematurely – indeed City are past-masters at it – but few dismissals seem as out-and-out stupid as does Eriksson’s. So thanks for last season, Frank, but since I am intending to support City until I die I am also looking to the future, and that is where I am concerned. So what of the future, and how will this episode affect it?

For Sven the future looks bright; he’s not all that bothered by events I’m sure. He’s rehabilitated his battered reputation in England, received a tidy bit of compensation, and now has another new job to look forward. In all he’s probably better off out of Eastlands, he’s sorted. But what of the future of the other actors in this story?

On the playing side of the club, in the immediate future there is the fact that Richard Dunne, the rock of our defence, apparently wants away; how much has his desire to leave got to do with the sacking of Eriksson I wonder – how will other players react when their contracts are up for renewal – and how easy will it be to replace someone who currently seems so irreplaceable? He certainly won’t be replaced by paying silly money to Ronaldinho just because we can as has been mooted, a deal that, if it goes through, seems more comparable to the time Melchester Rovers signed Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp than to an incidence of a serious football club building a team to challenge for a trophy.

Before the appointment of Mark Hughes I worried about who would accept the job, and why. I have no axe to grind with Hughes, regardless of the identity of one of his previous employers, and he has a promising record as manager; but what chance that promise is given the time to further develop at City? The sacking of Eriksson itself suggests an impatient, short-termism from the owners of the club, and short-termism can breed a short-termists, mercenary strain of manager who will happily sign a three-year contract knowing that the worst thing that could happen is for him to be sacked mid-contract and to be paid off handsomely. I don’t want to malign Mark Hughes’s motivation, but if I were him and considering trading in the stability of Blackburn for the supposed risk at City it would be a no-brainer, win-win situation; he can sign on the dotted-line safe in the knowledge that in the unlikely event that he is given the time to succeed then all’s well, but no matter how badly he fucks it up and no matter how short his reign he will still get his pay-off and a ready-made excuse that his failure was down to his inability to work for Thaksin. Then he can still get a new job based on his unblemished Wales and Blackburn CV.

And finally, to Thaksin himself; what has this episode done to his reputation, and what does the future hold? Well the main thing that has happened is that many of those who weren’t interested in his background in Thailand before and didn’t care what effect a monied and dictatorial owner would have on the club in particular and football in general have changed their minds. Football fans can be a fickle lot, and no one will mourn Sven’s passing or brook criticism of Thaksin if the club goes from strength to strength from here on is. But I can’t help worrying about just how many managers we may have to go through – at a potentially diminishing rate of return – in the hope that one may fluke a bit of success in their first season; and if success doesn’t come, how long before Thaksin becomes bored, loses interest, packs up and moves on? And if that does happen, where will City be then?

Many A Slip

Has last night’s result finally put to bed the idea the Rafael Benitez is the master tactician with a near monopoly on the know-how required to win the European Cup? I very much doubt it, and I am ready for the same old clichés to be trotted out next season when Liverpool begin their next Champions League campaign.

Now I’m not really having a pop at Benitez here – although I confess that I’m not a fan of the man – rather having a dig at that brand of lazy journalism that has built up his reputation for the sake of having anything better to do. I didn’t watch the match last night but I did see the first leg on ITV when the increasingly dreadful Clive Tyldesley turned the hyperbole up to eleven. Up until the last minute of that match – as with the tie against Arsenal a few weeks before – it was all about how Rafa seemingly has this gift, this supernatural endowment that can’t help but keep dragging him towards his destiny, and yet another cup final. The newspapers diligently parrot the same line, comparing Liverpool’s oft-stuttering league form with their continued progress in Europe. Why the disparity between Liverpool’s performances in the two competitions? The real answer – a bit of luck here and there – doesn’t make good copy, nor does it fill airtime or column inches, and so this myth, this ill-thought out narrative without any real supporting evidence, of Rafa the genius and his unique understanding of how to win such vital matches, has taken hold.

The truth, I feel, is more mundane. It would be hard to dispute the fact that the Premier League is currently the best league in Europe; a quick glance at the teams involved in the Champions League semi-finals for the past couple of years seems good evidence of this. Liverpool, as one of said league’s representatives, seem to me more likely to do well just by dint of playing in that very league. They are a decent side no doubt, but it isn’t so much that they have failed to perform in the league whilst raising their game in Europe, rather that as they are the fourth best team in the Premier League, which is the top league competition in Europe, they are therefore one of the favourites to progress in the Champions League, which they have duly done.

Think about it; just how could Rafa be so supremely talented that he knows exactly how to get Liverpool to win away to Inter Milan yet he is somehow unable to figure out how to beat Wigan at home? It doesn’t make any sense; the rules of the game and the preparation required are the same. One attempt at an explanation is that Rafa and Liverpool are more motivated for cup matches, more prepared for the do-or-die nature of knockout competitions; but if Benitez does have the surgical skill to prepare for an individual cup game but lacks the broad brush ability required to play week-in-week-out in the league, how come Liverpool were bundled out of the FA Cup by a struggling Championship side? And just how can you identify one particular team as being especially suited to winning cups anyway? Were Manchester United considered good at knockout competitions when they won the treble? Were Liverpool thought of the same way during the ‘eighties when they pretty much owned the Milk Cup on a permanent basis? Or in both of these cases are we not simply dealing with two very good teams, and for very good teams don’t those cups just come with the territory?

The thing is we have been here before. Liverpool under Gerard Houllier were pretty much the same as Liverpool under Benitez; a good side for sure, good enough to do well in the premiership without really challenging for the title, and good enough, with the necessary dash of luck, to win a cup or three. And a decade or so earlier I remember Manchester United fans continually explaining away their latest league defeat and perennial ability to finish fourth in the Football League as being down to the fact that they were a “good cup side”. Well fine, it’s a good excuse, but let’s tell it like it really is; when we describe a team as being a “good cup side”, all we are really saying is that they are “not quite good enough to win the league”. And that epithet applies equally well to the current Liverpool team and their manager.

Silence Kid

Prior to Sunday’s derby match there were a number of people who were certain that the minute’s silence in memory of the Munich air disaster would pass off uninterrupted. Whether this belief was out of genuine optimism or just wishful thinking I cannot say, but what I can say is that they were right and I was wrong. I was always of the pessimistic “it takes one idiot” school of thought; or rather it takes one to shout “Munich”, a second to respond with “show some fucking respect”, and a third to continue the snowball from there. I didn’t fancy the look of the law of averages on this one, and so while I could appreciate why United believed so strongly that a minute’s silence was the most appropriate way to mark the tragedy I was just as certain they simply weren’t going to get it, and that some sort of compromise should have been worked out; but I was wonderfully mistaken, and the silence was indeed a suitable and fitting memorial.

In the event such was my concern that I even absented myself from the country during the match, but I still watched it unfold on the TV while sat in the Blue Bell Inn, Conwy, in the shadows of the castle (and literally in the shadows, thanks to the gloriously unseasonal blazing sunshine) as my wife and I shushed the children and I waited nervously for the first numbskull to pipe up and break the silence; but it never happened and after the minute was up I heaved a sigh of relief.

So to the match, and I followed it as best I could while eating my own lunch and trying to cajole two children into eating theirs. I was one of the few to cheer when Vassell and Benjani scored, but I have no idea how the pub reacted to Carrick’s consolation goal. I left at half-time to explore the castle, strangely confident that our defence would be able to withstand United for a further 45 minutes, and so it proved. As the minutes ticked by and my mobile failed to buzz with a goal flash I began bounding around the turrets and ramparts until word came of the final whistle. What a perfect day.

We shouldn’t get carried away though; there will have been some in the crowd at Old Trafford who will have sung Munich songs before, and no doubt will do again. I can take a certain pride in the behaviour of the City fans on the day, but if a few had let the majority down that wouldn’t have been a reason to tar all Blues with the same brush, and so let’s not go overboard with praise either. For whatever reason, be it because of the threats from the club, the desire to show themselves in a good light, or because they wanted to commemorate the passing of Frank Swift, the morons kept their heads down. None of these incentives should have been required, all that was needed under the circumstances was for people to act like decent human being; but not everybody is, and anything that helped contribute to the silence being so successfully observed I am very grateful for.

Of course it is never enough for some; my erstwhile colleague Danny Pugsley pointed me in the direction of the Red Issue forum, which along with this report and no doubt the 6-0-6 message-board shows some Reds remarking that while “they” may have managed to shut up for sixty seconds, “they” have otherwise been singing about Munich for fifty years. “They”, as far as many of the commentators on the forum are concerned, are all City fans, variously known as knobheads, scum, fuckers, vermin, cunts, twats and so on. A curious bunch those forum members are to be sure, to act so indignantly and to assume the moral high ground, to accuse others of being bitter; certainly they seem wholly unsuited for the role. But whatever they may say and whatever they may call themselves they have nothing in common with the many reasonable United fans I know; the forum lot are merely nincompoops, representative only of that cretinous minority of football supporters that all clubs attract to some degree, and just the sort of fans who would happily join in with the Munich chants were it not for the fact that they consider themselves to be Reds.

Give My Love To Kevin

There is much to agree with in this post from More Than Mind Games, much that I could have said myself in fact; except for the main point, which is that Newcastle United’s decision to (re)appoint Kevin Keegan as manager is “an astonishingly stupid idea”. Sure, Sam Allardyce’s sacking was bizarre, if quite amusing; you don’t need to have a high opinion of Sam to realise that he should have been given more time at St James’ Park (and in the interests of disclosure, I must admit that I don’t have a high opinion of Sam; the best thing he ever did for me was have a strop with the BBC, so refusing to appear on Match Of The Day, and sparing me from having to listen to his whining yap each week.) But with that done and dusted, Keegan’s return is the surely the stuff of dreams; and dreams are the stuff of sport.

Let’s get it right; I am all for a bit of level-headedness, indeed cynicism, and I can understand the desire to take a contrary position to the sheep in the media who have uncritically applauded King Kev’s second coming as manager. The parallel elevation of Alan Shearer to the post of future-great-manager reminds me of the other times the press have made that same prediction, about the likes of Ray Wilkins and David Platt. But there must also be room in football for those dreams, for romance. If anything there is an abundance of level-headedness about these days, the sort of blunt-edged reality that batters the hope out of you, hence my abandoning my Man City season ticket a couple of years back, when I finally realised that the best we could aspire to was nothing to get excited about.

The main criticism of Kevin’s appointment has a familiar ring to it; that by his own admission he hasn’t watched any Premier League football for years, indeed since he last managed a club. But the same was true when he was first plucked from a Spanish golf course in the ‘Nineties to become Newcastle’s manager; astonishing success followed. When he became City’s manager he arrived with a reputation as a failure and a quitter while at England; he left us as our longest serving manager since the ‘Seventies, and with memories of the best football I have ever seen us play.

That doesn’t mean he will repeat the feat this time around, but we can dream can’t we? And without dreams where does it end? It’s a rhetorical question. It ends in football being just another job; it ends in a club like Reading, Reading, eschewing the romantic ideal of FA Cup success in favour of the bread and butter of the Premier League, preferring a clean-sheet away on a dreary Tuesday at Craven Cottage to the possibility of a sun-kissed match at Wembley. In this world the only dream is of some billionaire buying up your club.

But football is also about the memorable moment, which can be memorable for all sorts of reasons; Keegan understood this, which is why, following Newcastle’s famous 3-4 defeat at the hands of Liverpool in 1996, while regretful that neither side would win the league, he was appreciative of the game itself, a game neither set of fans will ever forget. Most of today’s managers react to even a 4-3 victory with apologies, despairing at those defensive frailties as if a goalless draw would be preferable, while grudgingly accepting that the fans will probably have enjoyed it.

But it is those moments that stay with us, long after the statistics have been consigned to some soon-to-be-dusty record book; it is the hope of more such moments that drags us back to watch our side “one last time”, against our better judgement. That is why an Everton fan told me that his favourite memory of following his team is not from one of those championship winning seasons they enjoyed under Howard Kendall, but is rather from the game against Wimbledon on the last day of the 1993-94 relegation-battling season when they scored to go 3-2 up, having been 2-0 down at one stage and tumbling out of the top flight. It is why I doubt I will ever again experience the high of Paul Dickov’s last-gasp equaliser against Gillingham in the 1999 play-off final, not because it provided us with silverware, but because it averted certain disaster. And whatever happens to Newcastle United from here on in, the Geordie fans will never forget the instant they learned that their hero had returned, along with their dreams.

If even for the briefest of moments. Perhaps, as More Than Mind Games asserts, Keegan’s return is built on fallacy, and no good will come of it in the long run. But we all know where we will be in the long run, and in the short run even he believes that “Newcastle fans will enjoy the rest of the season”; and isn’t that what it is all about? It may all end it tears, but like the man said; “Tomorrow do thy worst, for I have lived today.”