Saturday, March 29, 2008

Oh captain, my captain

For a position that requires the bearer to wear an armband and not much else - bring their familiarity with probability to the coin toss? Yell stuff like, "'e ain't don' nuffin' ref!" at the fella with the whistle? - there has been an awful lot of hoo-ha surrounding the issue of the England captaincy. In fact, leadership is right at the top of the agenda right now, particularly in terms of setting an example. What was John Terry doing whilst Ashley Cole pulled the head off of his teddy bear (also known as Mike Riley) at White Hart Lane? And how about William Gallas's wobble at St Andrews after Birmingham's late equaliser? Yes, that little (c) has become a weighty matter of late.

The issue of who would lead the boys out in the Stade de France generated enough column inches to reconstruct the Parthenon. In the end, Rio got the job after Terry was apparently overlooked by 'Il Professore' because of the general aspect of indiscipline that marks out the Chelsea captain. Of course, Terry's got poor form, so to speak, when it comes to speaking ill of the powers that be: he was fined early last year for questioning Graham Poll's decision to send him off in a match against Tottenham.

The Cole incident was a recent flashpoint, and highlighted the brothers-in-arms mentality that is the common mindset among footballers. Rather than step in and act as a placatory influence, Terry's first instinct, just like the rest of his team-mates, was to converge on Riley and unleash a storm of invective at the official. Similarly, when Javier Mascherano let his kettle boil over after being told to 'offski' at Old Trafford, it was noticeable that none of his fellow Reds managed to restrain him - an action that, had it been effectively carried out in the moments before the Argentine opened his chatterbox, would have saved Liverpool the penalty of being reduced to 10 men.

At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has said that he handed the responsibility of captaincy to Gallas to help forge a more committed, perhaps more stable, player who could help shore up the Gunners' back line. In doing so, he ignored the claims that Gilberto Silva - a more placid character by far - may have had on the role, and Gallas has undoubtedly responded with a certain vim and vigour. However, his passion has got the better of him at regular junctures (his recent lacrimation at Brum was preceded by a petulant kick at Nani in Arsenal's 4-0 drubbing against United), and the decision has highlighted the difficulty in trying to coerce your leader into also acting as an exemplar.

In picking Rio against France, then, Fabio Capello was perhaps just keeping the safety catch on. Ferdinand has performed creditably in the role for United in the absence of club captain Gary Neville, but then so has Ryan Giggs and even Cristiano Ronaldo. Roy Keane, who once skippered United with typical aggression, was symbolic of what has rightly come to be seen as the bad old days, and his ugly pursuing of Andy D'Urso as part of a pack of red-shirted team-mates was a nadir for player-official relationships. However, recently Ferguson seems to have abandoned the idea of having a 'representative on turf' - perhaps enforced by Neville's long-term absence - in favour of instilling a form of discipline throughout the team that needs little reinforcing by an armbanded senior player.

Because in reality, how important are such grass-stained generals? As Mascherano departed amidst much recrimination last week, where was his captain, Steven Gerrard? As a symbol for the crowd to exult and adore, Gerrard is a nonpareil - but as a communicator, a stabilising influence, even a motivator who can galvanise his team-mates through words rather than simply deeds, his worth must be questionable. Gallas and Terry are analogous figures - players whose characters override their ability to act as on-field prefects. A good example in the Premiership these days seems to be Gareth Barry, who quietly sublimates his own agenda in order to carry out his manager's bidding on the pitch. Martin O'Neill knows that Barry is a level-headed young man - and, more importantly, that the power of office won't go to his head.

Capello made a sensible call in throwing the elasticated black band Ferdinand's way. An unfussy player who can act as a focal point without distorting the focus, Rio is far more likely to embody his manager's ethos simply because he will concentrate on his game rather than grabbing the badge on his chest. And maybe, when it things get sharp and pointy, managers should be confident in their captain's ability to act as an ambassador for the team, rather than for their own ego.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Grand Sham Sunday

Some thoughts on our great footballing quadrumvirate...

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Saturday, March 22, 2008

Essex season preview

Time to prepare the wicker hamper and discuss the various merits of sticking it in short and hard once again... Yup, the Third Umpire county preview series is placing its mark, and I've contributed my Euro-fifty on Essex CCC's chances. No Vauxhall Novas or white stilettos, guaranteed...

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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Match Report

Queens Park Rangers 3-2 Blackpool

What goes up must come down, so says the dictum, but Rangers’ rise under the guidance of Luigi Di Canio currently shows no sign of abating. There was, however, more than an element of up-and-down to their defeat of midtable rivals Blackpool, who resurrected their challenge after going three goals in arrears – as well as to Akos Buzsacky’s opening strike, which set Rangers on the road to eventual victory after just ten minutes.

Hungarian international Buzsacky has now picked up nine goals from his position on the right wing, and he could have moved into double figures here with a couple of fizzing volleys. In the end he had to settle for the delicate flick which looped into the top corner of Paul Rachubka’s goal after Patrick Agyemang’s deep cross.

“It came a little bit behind me and I hit it first time. I have not scored one like that before, but I didn’t have a choice so I just tried it,” said the 25-year-old when asked if the effect had been intentional. “Only one in 10 of those goes in.”

Despite scoring twice in the first-half while letting Blackpool do most of the running, the west Londoners were never entirely comfortable, and when Martin Rowlands added a third, to go with a finely taken Rowan Vine effort, the home team suddenly appeared keen to hit the self-destruct button.

“We go three-nil up and then start panicking and anything could happen,” observed Busacky. “There were a lot of positives, but also things to improve. The main thing is we can play some really good football and score goals, although when we are in the lead we can also lose goals, so we need to plan for that. We got the three points and that’s what mattered.”

In the end, Blackpool may have felt they deserved something from the game, with Wes Hoolahan working tirelessly on both wings, and the away support often drowning out the Rangers faithful. Conceding so soon after half-time was crucial, admitted Tangerines boss Simon Grayson: “When you give any team a two-goal start you are up against it. But at half-time we said if we could get the next goal we'd be right back in it – but unfortunately we didn't.”

Goals from substitute Ben Burgess and Stephen McPhee were all Blackpool could muster, and the game meandered towards its conclusion as Rangers made several tactical changes in the final twenty minutes.

Di Canio was understandably pleased to see Rangers move into the top half of the table for the first time since taking over – their rise coming at the expense of Blackpool who slip to 13th – but he stressed the need for his team’s continued progress.

“I am quite upset because what could have been a triumph turned into a stuttered win. This slightly slows down the growth of our confidence and self-belief, something which is fundamental in the development of a team.

“I am more interested that the team plays well and expresses what they are trying to do, and this is more important than a point more or a point less.

“Really good work has been done both with the players who were here at the start and the players who have arrived. By becoming more of a team we can get even better”

Written as a piece of coursework for my journalism diploma. With thanks to Ian Cole for the press pass.

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