Take a look at the photograph above. You’re highly likely to have seen it before, given how it came to be a defining image of English football’s fall from grace on the international stage. A Wembley night against Croatia when the heavens opened and the roof caved in. Like Graham Taylor’s head superimposed on a turnip, it is savagely powerful. For Steve McClaren, that infamous ‘wally with the brolly’, it has had just as profound an impact. Lampooned and derided, he has been forced into foreign exile and the disheartening monotony of the pundit’s chair. How he must regret accepting his nation’s call. As each new job opportunity passes him by, he must wonder if he will ever escape the toxic residue of his past. But isn’t it time we gave the guy a break and saw beyond the caricature which has consumed him? Doesn’t he deserve another chance?
Champions League Final
The dwindling band of critics who still hanker back to a time when you really did have to win your domestic title to qualify for the Champions League might have found substance for their argument in Saturday night’s final. This was the fourth time in little over a decade that two teams from the same country have contested the showpiece. Does that dampen the spirit of international competition and cause many to dismiss such encounters as essentially parochial disputes of limited interest? Maybe, but if you have the ability to see beyond this myopic interpretation, you could not have failed to enjoy an absorbing match full of tactical shifts and attacking intent. Like most neutrals my favour was for Borussia Dortmund, a relatively inexpensively assembled and superbly marshalled outfit whose success has brought real colour to this year’s tournament. Bayern Munich though have constructed an almost perfect campaign, overseen by a coach who must rate as one of Europe’s unluckiest. For Jupp Heynckes, this was validation, but also valediction.
Rafa Benitez walked out of Stamford Bridge with his head held high. The fact that he left via the back door, leaving his players to take the acclaim of the supporters at the final whistle of the final game, doesn’t and shouldn’t alter anything. To do otherwise might have been a bit awkward. He was never wanted. He knew it, accepted it, and went about his business with a quiet dignity. He delivered the trophy they now expect as a minimum requirement, though it was not the one they wanted, and the coveted Champions League berth which trumps even that. Meanwhile, down in Madrid a turbulent era was ending amid customary histrionics and posturing, and more than a little bitterness. Jose Mourinho engineered his departure from the Bernabeu in a graceless and insulting manner. There was no silverware. He too will not be missed. He’s not so special anymore, so he’s heading back to where he feels loved, to the open arms of the Chelsea faithful. Perhaps they deserve each other.
I wasn’t intending to write about Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement simply because I could hardly expect to come up with anything that hadn’t already been said. We all knew this was a day which would eventually come and there’s been so much speculation over a number of years that the news was initially greeted with a shrug. But then I thought about it a little bit more. That’s when the enormity of it hits you. Apart from the Queen I can barely bring to mind another constant in public life for such a period of time. Love him or hate him, he’s always been there. No Manchester United fan under thirty has really known anything else. Most of his current squad weren’t even born when he took the job. In an industry where short-termism predominates his longevity and achievements are truly mind-blowing. For me he represents the last link to another age, an anchor providing context to the madness around him. Football will never be the same again.
Champions League Semi Finals
So, as I anticipated, the Germans will descend on Wembley at the end of the month for a little local dispute. It is the right outcome. The best two teams have emerged from nine months of fascinating tactical jousting, a situation which doesn’t always occur. Bayern Munich’s dismantling of Barcelona had the feel of a much-loved teddy bear being torn limb from limb; Borussia Dortmund’s pleasing fluidity saw Real Madrid’s ‘Special One’ forced to give best to a new coaching phenomenon. Were we witnessing a fundamental power shift as flamenco gave way to the waltz? Or are we guilty of reading too much into a twenty four hour period in which populist hopes of a first Clasico final were shattered amid a flurry of white handkerchiefs? Well both, neither and maybe. Let’s try and deconstruct some of the myths surrounding events of the past week.
‘Now everyone can fly.’ It wouldn’t be the first advertising slogan to take a few liberties with the facts, but if we added ‘too close to the sun’ we might be getting somewhere near the truth. Down Shepherd’s Bush way they’re busy rifling through the bins, desperately checking to see if the receipts are still valid. The catchy little hook line of Air Asia will join ‘living the dream’ in football’s hall of notoriety, but if Leeds was the tragedy and Portsmouth the farce, then what are we to make of the Queens Park Rangers debacle? Tony Fernandes took his company’s optimistic mantra rather too literally, forgetting to bolt the wings to the fuselage before he took off for the stars. The inevitable crash landing has brought little sympathy; it’s just more collateral damage. The flight recorder will provide damning evidence of warnings ignored and gross negligence, but this is one particular black box which will take little locating.
Champions League Quarter Final Second Leg
Apologies for the tabloid headline but it somehow seems entirely appropriate for the slapstick mugging of Malaga, an eccentric endpiece to an enthralling contest which saw Borussia Dortmund into the last four of a Champions League campaign they have illuminated throughout. In the manically chortling persona of their infectious coach we were afforded a glimpse into the psyche of the least predictable of those clubs left standing. Jurgen Klopp brings something joyful, something utterly insatiable, as persuasive in the dressing room as it is before the television cameras. He believes in his players. He trusts them to make their own decisions. In turn they fight to the death for him. They might have been assisted by some truly awful officiating, but that spirit got them across the line when others would have folded. It is why, amid the heartfelt sympathy for the vanquished, you couldn’t help but smile with him.
Champions League Quarter Final First Leg
The Bundesliga is Europe’s trendy domestic competition just now. These things tend to go in phases and the counter attack has already started in some quarters. If it’s really as competitive as it’s supposed to be, then how come Bayern Munich sit a whopping twenty points clear and prepared for their Champions League quarter final with a casual 9-2 destruction of Hamburg at the weekend? Four goal Pizarro was never even considered for the starting line-up against Juventus. After two years of giving best to Borussia Dortmund, the natural order has been restored, and some. But maybe the Bavarians genuinely are that good, maybe in our infatuation with the two Spanish giants and their meticulously dissected interplay and Galactico standard bearers, we have overlooked the real kings of the continent. If that is the case, better start putting their cards on the table then, hadn’t they?
He might be engaging company, with a hint of the blarney to soften the edges of his eccentrically enigmatic demeanour, and he might have a hinterland of interests and a perspective on life that many football managers lack, but neither will save sickly Sunderland from their grisly fate. He’s the darling of the fawning punditry panels and his friends in the media perpetuate a myth that has remained unchallenged for far too long. He continues to receive the benefit of the doubt while more enlightened, more progressive forces are thrown overboard with alacrity. All the while his sterile, tactically bankrupt ideology is ushering his limp side towards the gallows. Welcome to the curious world of Martin O’Neill, a place where suspended reality is about to come crashing to the floor.
St Etienne, June 1998, and a corner of a foreign field that will be forever England. The past hung heavy in the air like stale tobacco smoke. They had not forgotten ‘Las Malvinas’, we had not forgiven ‘the Hand of God’. But this was not about all our yesterdays; it was about the future and, more specifically, a teenage superstar who dropped his shoulder and bobbed and weaved through a transfixed Argentine defence. For forty minutes belief coursed through a nation, then another bright young thing went and spoiled it all. The villain of the peace, a floppy-haired David Beckham, whose red card punctured our unfettered optimism, would go on to become a football icon, the most recognisable global brand of a game high on celebrity. The wonderkid, meanwhile, would scarcely burn as bright again, courting greater irrelevance with every passing season. Michael Owen announced his retirement this week, and all we could talk about was promise unfulfilled.