The Grey Neutral: Knees, Qatar and jobs

THERE’S no doubt the scenes witnessed in Budapest at the Hungary v England game were unacceptable and the outrage was warranted. But let’s think about this, can England look itself in the eye and claim racism isn’t a problem in the UK? No, absolutely not, which is why English footballers are taking the knee at every available opportunity – notably week-by-week in the domestic football. Not everyone agrees with the action, though. Rod Liddle, writing in the Times, said if England want to take an anti-racist stand, they should not go to the World Cup in Qatar. Liddle refers to the knee gesture as corporate virtue gesturing, and adds:  “The notion – advanced by some – that if you don’t take the knee, you’re a racist, is as obnoxious as it is inaccurate”. Interestingly, it is noticeable the TV and media seems to play down the amount of jeering that takes place at some grounds. Liddle goes further by claiming that if “England players really do mean something by that gesture, then how on earth are they going to take part in the World Cup finals?.” He points out there is perhaps no country on earth where people of colour get a rougher deal than in Qatar. The proper response is to refuse to attend, he says. We know that will not happen as football has a habit of shelving its morals when it is convenient to do so.

The sportswashing World Cup

They say that the world has enough oil for 50 years, so the future of oil rich states will be under threat at some point. The World Cup is part of a project that aims to reduce Qatar’s dependence on oil and diversify its economy. The cynics might suggest that Qatar are merely “sportswashing”, which effectively cleanses the country’s reputation and covers-up a whole catalogue of sins, such as human and LGBTG rights. This practice has been going on for decades – you can go back to the 1936 Olympics for an early example of how a regime uses sport to try and improve its image. Although lots of undesirable things were covered up in the Berlin games, nobody was completely fooled. And then there was the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, which was going to be played against a very bleak background. Moscow 2018 was supposed to be similar but somehow, Russia pulled it off. We know too much about Qatar, and we don’t know enough, but the fact remains, this is an unsuitable venue.

Ban them – it’s simple

Returning to the subject of racism and those Hungarian fans. While punishments from UEFA and FIFA seem to be quite toothless, perhaps it is time for countries to boycott or introduce sanctions against countries that are unwelcoming to their teams and fans. Banning countries from the World Cup and European Championship, as well as club competitions, would surely be far more effective. It is time to get tough rather than showing disapproval through very benign gestures. Conversely, Refusing to play an opponent that harbours racists, bigots and right-wing thugs would send a very strong message.

Jobs for the boys

Being a Premier League manager is a perilous job. Expectations are high and mostly unrealistic. How many Premier League managers have won silverware of any kind when managing an English club? The answer is just six: Mikel Arteta, Rafa Benitez, Thomas Tuchel, Brendan Rodgers, Jürgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola. Who has the best win rate among Premier managers? Guardiola with 73.13% before the season started. The longest serving manager in the top flight is Sean Dyche (36.8% win rate), who took over Burnley in 2012. On the subject of win rates, Mikel Arteta, the current holder of the “one defeat and he’s out” trophy, has won 51.1% of games since he took on the Arsenal job. The Gunners face Norwich at home next, the latest vital game in Arteta’s short managerial career.

Other games to watch this week: Leipzig v Bayern; Napoli v Juve; Sporting v Porto, Leeds v Liverpool; Hearts v Hibs, Marseille v Saint-Etienne.

Photo: Doha Stadium Plus Qatar, via Flickr CC-BY-2.0

Grey Neutral Weekly: Arsenal’s fall, dementia’s rise and problems with mavericks

CHELSEA’s victory against a tepid Arsenal was relatively easy, but given the Blues have spent well over the past two seasons, and the Gunners clearly haven’t, the home side can be forgiven for looking lightweight. In the cold light of day, Arsenal’s board may have to admit to themselves they simply do not have the right manager or approach to player acquisition. By the time Arséne Wenger left the club, they were already drifting away from Champions League contention, but since then, they have fallen two notches in the hierarchy, from Europa League to nowhere – not even the Conference League. And they cannot blame a lack of spending – in the past four seasons, Arsenal have the second highest net spend at £ 326 million, a figure beaten only by Manchester United (£ 356 million). 

Their gross spend for that period totals £ 425 million, somewhat higher than Liverpool and Tottenham and around £ 50 million less than the Manchester clubs. This summer, they have been Europe’s biggest spenders, but how long will they have to wait to reap the benefits? Getting it right in the market is not easy – Chelsea, for all their wallet power, have had a number of ill-judged signings in the Abramovich.

Arsenal currently look directionless, from the disconnect between fans and owner through to the team management. Against this backdrop, it is hard to see Mikel Arteta lasting too long at the Emirates. Once more the problem of ill-thought succession planning has reared its head, Manchester United have laboured through the post-Ferguson era, Arsenal have paid the price of hanging on to a coach who had been overtaken for too long.

Surely, it’s time to be more proactive about football and dementia?

Another week, another victim. This time, it is former Liverpool midfielder Terry McDermott who has been diagnosed with dementia. Last week it was Denis Law. It is becoming all too common. The list goes on: Bobby Charlton, Jackie Charlton, Peter Bonetti, Nobby Stiles, Martin Peters, Billy McNeill and of course, Jeff Astle and many others. Surely, it is time to screen footballers well before they hang their boots up to monitor their neurological state? 

Dr. Michael Grey from University of East Anglia, responding to the guidelines on heading the ball that limit players to 10 “higher force” headers a week, asked how this would be enforced: “The recommendations make no distinction based on gender despite growing evidence that women are more susceptible to head injury than men. There are biological differences between male and female in both structure and physiology that warrant a more considered approach.” Dr. Grey pointed out that the new guidance appears to be restricted to adults and lacks any provision for children where heading the ball in training has been discouraged by the FA, albeit not enforced, and heading the ball in match play is still permitted.  “This is problematic due to the fact that the brain of a child is at significantly greater risk to brain injury than that of an adult. It is time to consider an outright ban on heading the ball for younger children – both in practise and match play, complete with an enforcement strategy.”

Admittedly, dementia used to be something was dismissed as part of old age, but we live longer than ever before and industrial disease has been identified across many types of work for years. Thumping your head has never done anyone any good, so it is time that safety measures should be implemented. Consider that companies spend lots of money or ergonomic furniture and training to ensure their staff are comfortable and safe. Football has to do likewise and closely observe their players in each and every game. It’s not rocket science, but it is surely sports science.

Why mavericks don’t get picked

Rod Liddle, writing in the Times at the weekend, recalled a time when some leading “flair” players just didn’t get picked by England. Jack Grealish, considered to be the latest in a long line of flamboyant individuals, was under-used in Euro 2020 and some considered it a slur on the £ 100 million player. Alan Hudson, one of the so-called “mavericks”, was capped twice, and others of his kind were also left counting their international appearances on one or maybe two hands: Peter Osgood (4), Stan Bowles (5), Rodney Marsh (9), Frank Worthington (8), Charlie George (1) and Tony Currie (17). Going back further, there was Len Shackleton, the “clown prince of soccer” who won five caps but no domestic honours. Fine players all of these chaps, but it is no surprise that an England manager in the 1970s would not call upon them in the trenches. Firstly, these players were unreliable and some had poor discipline records, secondly, England managers did not have the luxury of day-to-day contact with them, hence their window of influence was limited. Back in the days of Osgood, Hudson et al, Sir Alf Ramsey, for example, would not see his squad too often. He had to pick the men he knew would do their best for him. The most successful teams are not always the most exciting, hence only one of the aforementioned players won a league title (George, 1971) and between them, they won six trophies. Mavericks may have lifted us off our seats – and still do – but not every manager wants one in his team. Sir Alf and the Don certainly tried to steer clear.


Photo: Alamy