Opinions can change quickly in football. Only a few months ago sections of the press were berating the BBC for having the temerity to expose corruption at the top of FIFA. The broadcasting of a Panorama episode that outlined why FIFA need to reform was deemed “disgraceful”, “ridiculously unpatriotic” and “laughable” in the Sun. This month Sepp Blatter was placed beside Colonel Gaddafi on the paper’s front cover above the headline Despot the difference.
It has been a great month for conspiracy theorists. The death of Osama bin Laden has offered more questions than answers, the timing of the AV vote so soon after the Royal Wedding was viewed by some as a cunning Conservative ploy and José Mourinho, football's chief polemicist, has been ruminating and ranting about the injustices of the world.
With some Premier League teams playing only two games in March, and with England’s only competitive fixture against a team ranked 116th in the world, you would think there was little for football writers to report on this month. But when there is little else to say in English football, one subject is always ripe for discussion: the terrible performance of the national team’s manager. For a man who is said to be an awful communicator, Fabio Capello’s words are taken very seriously by the football press.
Capello’s one task this month was to beat a team that conceded four goals to Switzerland in their previous competitive match. But he managed to burden himself with the additional concern of who would captain the country. In light of Rio Ferdinand’s recurring injury problems, Capello announced that John Terry would be reunited with his beloved armband. Capello being Capello, he didn’t inform Ferdinand of this decision – presumably thinking he would find out on Twitter – and he didn’t make it clear whether Terry’s promotion was to be permanent.
This ambiguity, which any smart reporter would draw out over the week to fill a series of quiet news days, was met with fits of anger in the papers. Instead of thanking Capello for donating them a minor story that could be developed into a saga, the press reacted furiously. “Fabio is out of control,” said Shaun Custis in the Sun. “His reign is verging on the ridiculous,” claimed the Mirror’s Martin Lipton. Ian Wright was “staggered” by Capello. Terry Butcher wondered if he had “lost the plot”. And a slightly suspicious Gary Lineker used his News of the World column to pose the question: “Does this fella really want to be in the job?”
Capello’s indecision not only managed to rile the pundits, he also upset some of his players. “He has alienated Rio Ferdinand, offended Steven Gerrard and sparked a flurry of text messages among the England players,” reported Lipton. The Mail on Sunday’s Rob Draper claimed that the players were “rapidly losing their last vestiges of respect for the manager” and that Capello would face their fury before the Wales game. As it turned out, when asked by Capello if they objected to Terry’s reappointment, the players stood in apathetic silence.
While the deposed Rio Ferdinand was said to be bewildered, devastated, appalled, wounded, angry, disappointed and infuriated, Terry settled back into the job in typical fashion – by contesting that he should never have lost it in the first place. There is little left to be said about Terry, but Oliver Kay summed him up well in the Times: “A psychoanalyst would have a field day with John Terry.”
Among the great wailing and gnashing of teeth, the actual importance of the captaincy was lost on most writers. Thankfully the Daily Telegraph’s Matthew Norman added a sense of perspective: “There is no more irrelevant honorific position in national life, including Silver Stick-in-Waiting.” Norman also pointed out that, aside from receiving immunity from red cards in the Premier League, no one quite knows what an England captain does. But we shouldn’t let a small matter like detail get in the way of what the Sun called “the astonishing England captaincy fiasco”. It was distressing for everyone involved, but at least it filled a few back pages.
From WSC 291 May 2011
The terms used for the teams at the top of the Premier League have changed during 2010-11; the group once revered as the Big Four are now the more ambivalent “traditional Big Four”. While Liverpool have appeased the masses (and media) by bringing back “King Kenny”, Arsenal have no such party trick available to them.
The club’s defeats in three Cups between February 27 and March 12 were greeted by a deep despairing groan. After all, apparently Arsenal haven’t won anything recently and, according to David Anderson in the Mirror, “in addition to the flowering of daffodils, another unerring sign of spring is the Gooners’ season disintegrating”. The Sunday Telegraph’s Oliver Brown worried that six years without silverware may be “too much to bear” for Arsenal fans, while in the Observer Paul Hayward described a “merciless vortex” and a “night of a thousand agonies” in Barcelona.
Encouraged by the likes of Emmanuel Petit claiming that Arsenal were “cracking up”, many commentators attempted a deeper interpretation. In the Times, Tom Dart muttered darkly of “long-held weaknesses”, “an underlying psychological block” and that: “If Arsenal did not need a session on the therapist’s couch before, perhaps they do now.” A cognitively minded Duncan Castles backed this up in the Sunday Times: “In times of trouble football teams, like individuals, tend to regress to their fundamentals.”
Affectionate epitaphs were prepared in advance for Arsène Wenger. Mick Dennis of the Daily Express offered a defence: “Wenger’s ‘business model’ is a beacon of hope for a game dominated by dosh. If he fails again, the light will go out. Money will have won.” But most were harsher. The News of the World mocked What’s your excuse this time Arsene? and the Sunday Express wondered whether Arsenal’s manager was now “more manic and barmy than Gallic and charming”, questioning Is le Prof losing le Plot? A prevalent leitmotif of the criticism was reference to Wenger’s new choice of outerwear – a voluminous knee-length puffer jacket. In the People, Dave Kidd asked: “Will the Arsenal board ever seriously question the man in the technical area with the sleeping-bag coat and the increasingly crazed demeanour?”
Indeed, while attention was focused elsewhere, it was quietly announced that the president of the International Fencing Federation, Alisher Usmanov, had increased his Arsenal stake to “over 27 per cent”. The Russian billionaire has previously called for heavy investment in the team and failed with a proposal of a rights issue to raise transfer funds in 2009. If Usmanov continues his gradual share accumulation, Wenger may well be forced to consider his policy of prudence. And further internal uncertainty at the club should worry the manager far more than cod psychology, generalised football “philosophy” or whether his giant padded coat is slightly too big for him.
From WSC 291 May 2011
When Ashley Cole missed his penalty against Everton in their FA Cup tie, the Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny asked on Twitter: "What do you think Ashley was aiming for? Is it an aeroplane? No, it's just Ashley throwing Chelsea out of the FA Cup." In fairness to Cole, it wasn't the most misguided shot he took this month.
Sunderland chairman Niall Quinn said that his claim to "despise" fans who watch matches in pubs was meant to start a debate on falling attendances. But, while every detail of Arsenal against Barcelona was minutely scrutinised, Quinn's comments received minimal press coverage.
Following the leak of videos that showed some archaic opinions being expressed in the Sky Sports studio, Richard Keys may have hoped that a generous sprinkling one of the most overused buzzwords of recent times would aid his acquittal. In a now notorious interview with Talk Sport, Keys claimed to have "enjoyed some banter together" with assistant referee Sian Massey, apologised for his "prehistoric banter" and, using attack as the best form of defence, pointed out that one of his most vocal critics Rio Ferdinand was guilty of similar "dressing room banter".
During the hung parliament of the 2010 general election the 24-hour news coverage made frequent and portentous reference to how the financial markets were reacting to events, instead of concentrating on political horse-trading and an unproportional voting system. In the run-up to the announcement of the 2018 World Cup hosts on December 2, Britain's bookmakers were held in similar regard, despite having no actual bearing on the outcome of the decision. Although there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, England's bid was installed as the favourite. So when Russia won, many in the press were shocked and extremely angry.
Fabio Capello can please no one. Harry Redknapp thinks he shouldn't pick players he turned down for the World Cup. Sam Allardyce is upset that he disrespected Paul Robinson. Robert Huth thinks he should pick Ryan Shawcross. David Moyes wants him to play Leighton Baines more. And Roy Hodgson wants him to play Steven Gerrard less.
As the Guardian headline Enter Americans Exit Americans suggests, it is difficult to tell what has changed at Liverpool and what remains the same. After a long and complex legal battle, John W Henry finally took ownership of the club from the outgoing Tom Hicks and George Gillett this month. The takeover seemed to dominate the news for days on end.