Hughes out, Redknapp in

Mark Hughes has been sacked by QPR and will almost certainly be replaced with Harry Redknapp. Shock. Horror. Despite this season’s relative infancy, this chain of events is probably the most inevitable and unsurprising footballing news of the season.

Personally, I haven’t rated Hughes as a manager since he left Blackburn. He started his managerial career with a bang, so nearly taking Wales to Euro 2004 and excelling with the Rovers. But then he flopped at Man City, didn’t really do anything of note with Fulham and consequently disrespected and abandoned them for a more “ambitious” club. And then came his QPR debacle.

During Hughes’ tenure QPR have been dire. Last year they piddled around the bottom 6 and only scraped Premier League survival because other results went their way. This year, aside from spirited performances against Chelsea and Tottenham, they have been the league’s worst team. I spoke earlier of their ragtag squad and how so far have been completely vindicated (go me!).

Coming a mere two days after one of the most controversial and undeserved dismissals in Premier League history, it is almost a welcome relief to see such a unequivocally correct decision. No-one can argue with Tony Fernandes here, nor can they with who they’ve lined up to replace him.

Redknapp is the natural successor to a squad of big personalities in need of a sorting out. It’s almost identical to circumstances when he took over Tottenham. I bet QPR fans are as ecstatic about the likely appointment of Redknapp as they are of Hughes being kicked out.

In fact, I’d say the only people unhappy are all those who put bets on Hughes being the first manager to be sacked this year. They so nearly won…

Why is the Europa League so rubbish?

The Europa League is to the Champions League what honesty and sincerity is to the Serie A. It’s supposed to be, and used to be, important; but instead it’s insignificant and irrelevant. Europe’s secondary competition has fallen so far from grace that UEFA needed to send a memo to all managers asking them to “highlight the importance of participating”.

That really should not be the case. Although both have undergone a few name changes, the Europa League has been around for as long as the Champions League, since 1955. The competition is part of European football’s history and culture, and winning it should be a source of great pride.

One argument often levied to explain why it’s so inferior to the Champions League is that the teams aren’t good enough to make it interesting. For me, this argument does not hold up. Man City, Juventus, Inter Milan, Roma, Ajax, Lyon, Marseille and Valencia have all played in the Europa League in the last four years, and all are (now) Champions League stalwarts. Similarly, it is hard to argue that Nordsjaelland, APOEL, Otelul, Plzen, Zilina, Debrecen and Unirea are any better or worse than Academica, Molde, Videoton, Neftchi Baku and Maribor, all of whom are in this year’s Europa League.

Atletico Madrid celebrate their victory last year

In fact, consider for a moment how well winning the Europa League has worked out for every victor in recent years. The last four winners – Porto, Athletico Madrid, Shakhtar Donetsk and Zenit St Petersburg – have all become European powerhouses since taking home the trophy. Additionally, the players and managers that excelled in the competition have received huge career boosts: look at Jose Mourinho, Andre Villas-Boas and many of their players (Falcao, Deco, Carvalho and Hulk spring to mind).

The aforementioned winners have also become regulars in the Champions League, which is no coincidence. The co-efficient scoring that a team receives for winning the Europa League stands them in good stead for future European campaigns. This, in turn, results in better draws in the group stages, ensuring an easier route to the knockout stages (hypothetically). For instance, Athletico Madrid scored higher than Chelsea last year, 34.171 to 33.050, as did Shakhtar to Barcelona in 2009, 29.325 and 28.662 respectively. Man City could do with considering this…

Baring that in mind, why have several English clubs previously chosen to send out shadow teams in the Europa League? Why do they prioritise finishing 4thand use the competition to nurture youngsters rather than field their first team?

Two Managers who have used the Europa League to blood youngsters into the team

Typically, the answer is money. Don’t get me wrong, I’m as bored of people blaming money for every footballing issue as much as the next person. But when you look at the facts you can’t help it. The winners of the Europa League receive €3 million. To put this into perspective: merely reaching the group stages of the Champions League brings in €3.9 million.

I’m sure UEFA have their reasons for such a ratio. I’m sure they can support it with advertising and sponsorship deals and what have you. But with those statistics, the Europa League is doomed to failure. Consider this: team A finishes 5th, win the Europa League and finish 5th again. They get about £28 million. Team B finishes 4th, qualify for the group stages in the Champions League but lose all their games, focus entirely on the Premier League and finish 3rd. They get £32 million. You can improve yourself more if you fail than if you succeed.

Furthermore, the Europa League will never leave the shadow of the Champions League while two facts remain: the way Champions League rejects are catapulted to the knockout stages, and the name.

By implementing 3rdplace Champions League teams into the last 32 of the Europa League, UEFA tell every participant of the Europa League that excelling in said competition is as  commendable as flopping in the Champions League. They completely demean and belittle their own competition. It’s a slap in the face to every team that worked hard to achieve qualification.

When Man Utd lost to Bilbao in the Europa League last year, I highly doubt they were as sad as they look

To make matter’s worse; it’s widely considered a slap in the face to the rejected team too! For many teams – see Man Utd last year – instigation into the Europa League is deemed a burden and a punishment. If they don’t want, then don’t give it to them. Why should they be given a second chance at glory, money and improved co-efficient when they failed the first time around?

Then we get to the name. Until the Capital One Cup reared its uninspiring head this year, the Europa League was top dog in the demotivational names league. Why change it at all? Whoever complained about the UEFA Cup? It was a pathetic attempt to make the entire competition more similar to the Champions League. As well as copy the format of the Champions League in its entirety, they tried to reproduce the esteemed power that the words ‘Champions League’ produce. But they failed. All they did was take a moon of Jupiter and add League to it. It may as well be called the League of Ganymede.

Within its name, and the way it copies the Champions League format so strictly, lies the main problem. The Europa League IS simply a second-rate Champions League. Instead of being a competition in itself, it’s a pale imitation of its more successful brother. There are enough quality teams in this year’s Europa League for it to be rated highly. The teams aren’t the issue, it’s the fact that they are currently competing for what is essentially the Champions League B.

Shakhtar Donetsk have gone from strength to strength since winning the trophy

I would like to see a new format for the second tier competition. I think with some major changes it can become as significant on the footballing landscape as it once was. A return to knockout fixtures throughout would keep the excitement levels high throughout, no Champions League rejects to belittle the initial participants (more teams in the earlier stages would solve any fixture issues), a different name and, most importantly, more money for successful teams. To be honest, the last point – reducing the financial gap between the two competitions in terms of prize money – would solve many problems all on its own. It will never happen. The Champions League has, rightly, become the jewel in UEFA’s crown and they would sooner scrap the Europa League altogether than risk degrading it. But this is a shame. Changing the system would give so many teams throughout Europe a chance to improve themselves, and restore pride back into a flagging competition.

Di Matteo Sacking Ludicrous but Indicative

Roberto Di Matteo’s dismissal is one of the least deserved in recent footballing history. I’m sure people could give me plenty of previous unfair examples, but surely they could not argue that he deserved to go. He’s had just 5 competitive losses this year, and 21 competitive games ago he won the Champions League for Chelsea, defeating Barcelona, Napoli and Bayern Munich along the way. It was the trophy Abramovich had pined for throughout his reign. The justification for Ancelotti being sacked after winning the double was his poor Champions League form. Di Matteo succeeded where other Managers had failed; his reward was his P45 as soon as results slightly dipped.

To sack Di Matteo on league form is preposterous – Chelsea started the season with a swagger and success not seen before, even under Mourinho. They’ve lost 2 league games this year, against an in-form West Brom and in controversial circumstances to Manchester United. Blips against QPR, Liverpool and Swansea may not be ideal but are no reason to sack someone. They were in top position as recently as 4 games ago and are a mere 4 points off it even now.

Abramovich might use Chelsea’s Champions League form as an excuse, and admittedly they have been mediocre in Europe’s most high-profile competition. However, they’ve been considerably better than Roberto Mancini’s Man City (a man with a worse time-to-success ratio than Di Matteo and with none of the ‘Club Legend’ status), and Di Matteo’s record in the Champions League is better than any of his predecessors.

Moreover, how does Abramovich think another Manager would help them out in this position? It’s out of their hands – the best Di Matteo can do in that position is the best any other Manager in the world can do. I’m sure Di Matteo is as capable of engineering a win against Nordsjaelland as anyone else is (let’s face it, they’re Group E’s whipping boys), so how can sacking the Manager – at this stage – help anyone?

Unimpressed Roman – Spent £80 million on players for a Manager he clearly never wanted

It’s quite clear that Abramovich never wanted Di Matteo. Chelsea’s reasoning for sacking him does not hold up:

 “The team’s recent performances and results have not been good enough and the owner and the board felt that a change was necessary now to keep the club moving in the right direction as we head into a vitally important part of the season.”

So ‘recent’ means ‘the last four games’ does it? If that is the case, then every Football Manager may as well pack his bags. The fact of the matter is that RDM doesn’t fit into Abramovich’s idealistic vision of a superstar Chelsea run by a superstar Manager with superstar players. His previous job was West Bromwich Albion, where he was sacked (again, rather unfairly), whereas the jobs of other Managers in Roman’s reign include Porto, AC Milan and the Portuguese national team.

Even after Di Matteo improved Chelsea’s league form, won them two trophies and revitalised the likes of Drogba, Lampard and Torres – all of whom floundered under AVB – Abramovich was still obviously reluctant to hire him full time as a Manager. He clearly hated that Di Matteo’s success took the matter out of his own hands. Why did Abramovich wait nearly a month after winning the Double to hire Di Matteo full time? That kind of success is rare, yet Abramovich was still reluctant to acknowledge it.

The game that cost Di Matteo his job

So what did Abramovich do? He decided to wait. Wait until the first blip, until Di Matteo messed up. He almost had it in Chelsea not winning in the Premier League in 4 games (God, it still sounds ridiculous that that’s been punished with dismissal); the groundwork was laid. All he needed was a catalyst, an example where Di Matteo was unavoidably responsible so some of the Chelsea fans will have doubts about their beloved Manager.

He got that in their 3-0 loss away to Juventus. The loss by itself may still have been enough, but it was Di Matteo’s gamble of playing without a Centre Forward, a la Spain (ironically, with the same striker sacrificed in each system), that gave him the evidence. It didn’t work, Chelsea lost limply, Di Matteo shouldered all the blame in a press conference, and he was gone.

Abramovich treating Managers like disposable razors is nothing out of the ordinary, even if Di Matteo’s is the harshest of the lot. If Benitez, Redknapp, Guardiola or Mourinho come in to replace him they should only expect the same level of “loyalty”. However, the bigger picture here is worrying for all Managers, as it’s the most recent in a series of undeserved and impulsive sackings. Solely in the English Premier League for the last two years we have:

Chris Hughton (Newcastle) – brought the Magpies back to the top flight after relegation, brought in current team regulars Perch, Williamson, Simpson and Tiote. Sacked December 6th 2010 with Newcastle 12th in the League.

Sam Allardyce (Blackburn) – safely midtable for two years at Blackburn and built up a formidable home record. Sacked with Blackburn 13th in mid-December 2010.

Carlo Ancelotti (Chelsea) – won the League and FA Cup double in 2009-10, their first ever domestic double. Sacked in the summer of 2011 despite finishing 2nd in the League, a triumph for most teams.

Neil Warnock (QPR) – transformed them from relegation-fears to Championship winners in just over a year, bringing much-needed stability to a club which had previously been a Managerial merry-go-round, revolutionised Adel Taarabt and returned them to the Premier League after 15 years. Was rewarded with the sack after a dip in form. Sacked on 8th January 2012 with QPR 17th.

Mick McCarthy (Wolves) – had been Wolves Manager for 6 years when sacked. Slowly built them from Championship also-rans to the Premier League with many home-grown players and was promoted in 1st place in 2009. Brought them their best league finish (15th) since 1980 in the following season and avoided relegation again in their second consecutive top-flight campaign. Despite winning the relegation game twice, he was sacked with Wolves in 18th place on 13th February 2012.

Harry Redknapp (Tottenham) – in his four years at Spurs, he: (1) saved Tottenham from relegation to a mid-table finish in his first season (2) brought about their best-ever season in the next campaign (70 points, 4th place and Champions League), winning the Manager of the Year in the process (3) took Spurs to the Champions League quarter finals (4) created the best Tottenham team since the inauguration of the Premier League, finished 4th again despite being in the top 3 for much of the season and only lost out on Champions League due to Chelsea winning it. Was inexplicably sacked in the summer of 2012.

It seems to be a trend that success isn’t enough in this current climate. Matching the expectations of the fans and the club does not guarantee your job – you need to surpass it. What kind of a message does that send out to Managers? Who on earth would want to become a Manager in that environment? We run the risk of alienating future Managers by abiding by this philosophy.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that all of the above, bar Hughton, would have done better for their clubs than those they were replaced with did (although time will tell with Villas-Boas at Tottenham). If the mantra that success is not rewarded with loyalty, patience and trust is upheld, I anticipate a scenario where the only Managers in the game are previous players. Who would want go through the coaching badges and slowly climb the ladder to management if they’re devoting their entire life to a goal (of being a Manager) that can be taken away even if they’ve been successful? I hope I’m wrong, but personally, I wouldn’t want to work in a career where I’m forever worrying about being fired.

Praise For Pardew

After the Liverpool-Newcastle game yesterday, Alan Pardew refused to criticise referee Anthony Taylor after sending off captain Fabricio Coloccini for a lunge on Luis Suarez. In his post-match interview, he said:

I thought he [Taylor] maybe got caught up in the emotion and I wanted to ask him before he’d had a chance to see replays. He said he thought it was serious foul play. The morale of referees must be low at the moment, because of constant criticism and the issues around them. We accept his decision and I thought he had a good day. I don’t think there was any intent but we accept it.

What a refreshing thing to hear! Not only was Pardew refusing to bow to the whims of the interviewer – and possibly the fans – by lambasting a debatable decision, but he actually praised the referee. Usually the best any manager or player gives to a ref is a well-worded-yet-obviously-derisive non-comment about not wanting to get in trouble and holding his tongue – it is a sad indictment of a referee’s standing in football that their better comments from managers or players are, essentially, ‘no comment’. But to say a referee had a good game is about as rare as a Fernando Torres hat-trick.

Furthermore, Pardew really hit the nail on the head. Morale must be low at the moment, after the Clattenburg incident, so to see such a public and staunchly supportive message will have gone down a treat in the Referees’ Union (don’t be surprised to see charitable decisions going Newcastle’s way in their next few games!). Moreover, the referee acted correctly. He did not see the incident perfectly so instead relied on the decision of his linesman, who claimed Coloccini went in recklessly. This is the correct protocol for a referee. Regarding the challenge itself, it is hard to deny that he went in dangerously. It was a rash and uncharacteristic challenge from the Argentine, although the extent of the impact is debatable as it doesn’t look like he made much contact with Suarez’s leg.

However, Pardew wasn’t saying ‘the referee made the right call’. He was stating how referees must be supported and commended for their efforts. He cleverly phrased his comment so that he managed to avoid criticising his own player or the referee and instead managed to support everyone.

What I find most interesting about this statement is how it indirectly criticises Chelsea for their haranguing of Mark Clattenburg. It shows how another individual in the footballing world is on the referee’s side, after support from Sir Alex Ferguson, Martin Jol, Harry Redknapp, Neil Warnock, Arsene Wenger and the Referees’ Union. I mentioned in my last article that Chelsea were playing a very risky game in this accusation. From the way things are turning out, they look in danger of alienating themselves against the entire league!

We discovered today that Clattenburg will not be officiating any games this weekend once again. Well, I think he should! The way things are going, he’ll be given support from both sides and no-one will dare say anything negative against him so as to not add any more concerns at his feet and for fear of how it’s turning out for Chelsea.

Pardew’s comments, and the widespread backing for Mark Clattenburg, suggests that maybe, at long last, we are finding that the footballing world actually does care about referees. Who knew?

Clattenburg Case Could Spark Change

The Clattenburg racism story is a fascinating one. You can put aside some pretty significant facts and it’d still be a blogger’s dream. Consider the following:

  • He’s the first official in the English Premier League era to be accused of racist language.
  • It’s the first incident of racism on the field in the Prem since the Terry-Ferdinand affair.
  • The targets were Chelsea players, the club in the middle of the aforementioned affair.
  • It comes the week after the boycott of ‘Kick It Out’ t-shirts by several players.
  • It is being investigated by the FA.
  • It is being investigated by the police.
  • The man who made the police campaign is discussing a potential black players’ breakaway union.

Phew. For a minute, let’s also ignore Clattenburg’s refereeing of the Chelsea-Man Utd game that I have no doubt angered the Blues further. After looking into whether it’s actually true, I want to discuss the implications of this accusation. Why it represents a huge risk for Chelsea, and how it can be momentous in the fights for referee respect and a racism-free game.

What was said between these Clattenburg and Mikel?

The allegations are that Clattenburg racially abused John Obi Mikel and Juan Mata in the game on Sunday against Man Utd. My initial response to this was skeptical. I mean, really!? Whilst I may still hold a grudge against Clattenburg for Pedro Mendes’ non-goal against Man Utd in 2005, he is nonetheless a professional referee who has worked in the Premier League since 2004. He has had a few criticisms (which ref hasn’t?) but is generally regarded as one of the better referee’s in the country, especially considering he’s the 3rd youngest. My gut reaction was that it was fabricated and Chelsea had complained about him in bitterness. They were/are angry with some of his decisions in the United game and saw this as an oportunity to be the victims in a racism case. On reflection, I am willing to accept the adage that there is no smoke without fire and – with no evidence proving or disproving anything – that maybe Clattenburg did racially abuse Mikel and Mata. Maybe.

To be honest, I still find it hard to believe. According to Oriol Romeu, Mata heard nothing from Clattenburg, prompting the question who is it that’s actually making the allegation against him? Regarding Mikel, Clattenburg booked him for dissent – it seems odd that he would follow this up with further abuse. He had made his point to the player and put himself in the superior, authoritative position, which is generally what using racist language is an attempt to do for those who use it. Clattenburg may have spoken to Mikel, may have even had a go at him, but simply disciplining a black person does not make someone a racist. Incidentally, this is one of the reasons I feel the aforementioned black players’ union would be a bad idea, as we run the risk of referees being too frightened of prosecution to reprimand or caution black players.

Back to the Clattenburg case, I mentioned earlier in this article that Chelsea are playing a risky game. It’s not hard to see why – if proven innocent, they have made an extremely serious, incorrect claim against a match official and tried to bring the refereeing body into disrepute for no reason at all. They will be made to look like fools and, rightfully, incur criticism. It’s hard to know what the repercussions would be, but it’s fair to say that the refereeing union would not look too kindly upon them. However, in doing this, Chelsea have opened the door for the FA to make a serious statement about either racism in football or respect towards referees.

The two most high-profile racism cases of recent years in the Premier League: Ferdinand-Terry and Evra-Suarez

Obviously this ‘statement’ depends on the outcome – Clattenburg’s innocence or culpability determines what the FA can stand up for. If he’s innocent, they can punish Chelsea to show clubs that undermining a referee is not allowed, potentially signalling the beginning of the end of player power. If he’s guilty, then the FA can make the big stand against racism that’s needed, especially after the widespread condemnation for only giving Terry a four match ban and a £220,000 fine (which is a week-and-a-half’s wages, by the way).

Let’s imagine that he’s convicted. Punishing Clattenburg can make him an example and scare other racists in the game, showing that that kind of behaviour is unacceptable. Furthermore, his status as a referee allows the FA to do this. It may be a poor sign of the times and reflective of the power dynamic shifting away from the governing bodies and to the teams, but if it were a player under this accusation the FA would be worried about the backlash from the club (and it’s fans) if they were to heavily punish him. Look at the Suarez incident. Liverpool distanced themselves from the FA and alienated themselves against the rest of the Premier League, displaying a discordant front on the battle against racism in football. The FA won’t have that worry with Clattenburg. Yes, he has the Referees’ Association’s support, but sadly no one else in the footballing world cares enough about referees to defend him. No fans are going to turn against anyone like they might if their club was involved. It’d ruin Clattenburg’s career, but if proven guilty the FA should exploit his lack of club support. If they do that they can set a precedent for future racism cases involving footballers, meaning the club involved cannot complain of mistreatment.

Scenes of players surrounding referee’s could be a thing of the past

On the other hand, let’s imagine he’s exonerated. The most likely repercussions won’t be anything Chelsea can’t handle: a bit of a hard time from the referee’s union and an FA fine. They’re too powerful a club to dock points from, and the FA may be lenient on a club trying to act against racism. But that’s not what should happen. The FA would have the chance to stand up to a big club and support referees, signalling that they value the human element to football that referees provide. They would prove their support to the Respect Campaign and eradicate scenes of footballers surrounding referee’s and chatting back. There would be no need for fines to managers who speak out against referees because they’d know that the entire FA would clamp down on them. There is the potential for the power in football to go back to the proper body, away from the clubs or individuals it doesn’t belong to.

If handled correctly, this situation is win-win. Due to sympathy and a general antipathy for Chelsea, Clattenburg will come out of this better if proven innocent, and he will be rightly punished if convicted. The only room for error in this incident is in the FA’s response to it. Not adequately punishing Clattenburg for racism or Chelsea for disrespect would be a colossal missed opportunity. Only time will tell if it gets to that stage.

United relishing their ‘problems’

Van Persie has had a blistering start to his United career

Following their 3-2 win against Chelsea, Manchester United are now 2nd in the table by one point. When the hell did that happen!? Chelsea are the team that’s captured the eye, got all the headlines and given every pundit a boner from day 1 of the season. Yet United have climbed up the table despite supposedly shaky goalkeepers, a supposedly injury prone defence, a supposedly lightweight and lacking midfield and…well, ok, they might have the best strikeforce in Europe… Nonetheless, they’ve caught up the swashbuckling Chelsea amidst having hardly any defenders and with criticism coming at them from all angles.

It couldn’t be more typically Man United could it? They are the ultimate team in winning without playing well. They’ve probably let in more goals this season than they have in any other Premier League campaign by the end of October yet have displayed such attacking virtuosity that it hasn’t held them back (I can smell my roast dinner almost ready so don’t have the time to corroborate that, but the 13 goals they’ve conceded so far is not what you’d expect from the Red Devils). Aside from the 3-2 loss to Tottenham, they have been the league’s comeback kings this year, which goes to show the determination and motivation that Sir Alex Ferguson is still capable of instilling in his players.

Fergie pondering a puzzle

If I were a United fan, I’d actually be very happy with the current state of affairs. Not only are the team carving out wins, but they have problems in their team. Believe it or not, I reckon that’s actually a good omen for the club, as it will keep Ferguson there for longer. He’s quite possibly the best manager the world has ever seen; the longer he stays at the helm the better for the club. And Ferguson is a man who likes to solve problems. He doesn’t want to leave the club without having sorted out the current United side. It explains why he didn’t leave in the past. Whether it was redeveloping United after the 99′ treble winning team, solving the post-Schmeichel keeping conundrum or responding to the threat of Arsenal/Chelsea/Barcelona/Man City (delete as appropriate), his enthusiasm for the game comes from identifying an issue and resolving it.

And this current side has issues. All the facts I attributed with a sarcastic “supposedly” earlier in the article were actually very valid points that need to be attended to. Moreover, United are in the process of adapting from their traditional reliance on wingers and width to a more narrow, total football-esque style championed (to huge success) by Barcelona and Spain. Incidentally, the movement offered by Van Persie, Rooney and Welbeck will prove vital in giving the side width and options in that respect, but that’s an area for Phil McNulty to discuss. I, on the other hand, just wanted to write a short article to comment on why the areas where they are lacking may actually be a blessing in disguise. Never underestimate the potential of a shrewd man with a point to prove.