Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Big East loses Identity

The Big East has suffered recently with long established names such as Syracuse and Pittsburgh leaving for the ACC, following West Virginia's migration to the Big 12 conference this year.  There is also movement of Notre Dame to the ACC in a few years, and Rutgers to the Big 10 in 2014.

The Big East, as a conference is probably more established for its College Basketball programs, but with the departure of Syracuse and Pitt, with the inevitable departure of Louisville and Conneticiut, the Big East is slowly turning into the Big Sleep.  A conference that is losing relevance and is so snatching up schools that will jump at any carrot dangled in front of them.

The news on Tuesday (27th Nov) that they have added Tulane and East Carolina to the football Big East conference, has been met with some guffaws and feint praise. The two schools join in 2014, giving them 13 football members - UConn, Louisville, South Florida, Cincinnati, along with recent additions Temple, Boise State, San Diego State, UCF, Southern Miss, Memphis, Houston, Tulane and East Carolina.

That makes it 9 former Conference USA teams, two former Mountain West teams and a former Mid-American conference (MAC) member.

The Big East should just eat up all of C-USA and call itself that.  The reach of the schools across much of the midwest reaching towards California with San Diego State, makes them the Big Eat - a conference that gorges on other teams.  Boise State were due to be on a larger stage, but to go Eastwards instead of the Pac 12 means that the schools are just as bad as the conferences, taking up whatever money they can.

Most schools in C-USA get $750,000 each with their television deal, the prospective numbers for the Big East make it closer to $8m each; so who is fooling who is leading who here. All these schools are simply moving to the Big East for a bigger cut of the pie, the Big East is negotiating a new television deal and stressing on bigger markets in Philadelphia, Dallas and New Orleans

What is gained and who wins here? Tulane are nothing special, this season in C-USA they ended 2-10 (2-6 C-USA), both wins came against conference opponents vs SMU 27-26 and UAB 55-45, two teams that ended up 0-12 and 3-9 respectively.  Amazingly SMU jumped to the Big East first.

As for East Carolina, they have a better football program and are only joining for football in 2014; finishing 8-4 and 7-1 in conference, there only loss coming to UCF Knights who will play Tulsa in the C-USA championship on Saturday.  There pedigree is reads much better and will certainly improve with the added income, which is what such re-alignment is for.  However, conferences must always carry deadwood in certain sports.

Conference re-alignment is an understatement, surely conference rebranding is a better turn of phrase for the comings and goings of universities and schools moving from one conference to another under the pretence of joining a bigger and better conference.

Check out my writing at www.1amsports.com
Follow me on twitter @JamieGarwood

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Thoughts on Mark Hughes

When you have two teams in early November who have not yet won a League game play each other, you think one side will take the bull by the horns and win the game given the opposition is as bad as you have been.

Watching the QPR game on Sunday afternoon however, you had two sides who have forgotten how to win a game.  Not without trying though, Reading were given a 4 goal head start against Arsenal during a League Cup tie and yet they failed to see the game out losing 7-5 in extra time.

Yet Reading have played some good stuff, they are full of tenacious individuals who you feel would throw themselves under the bus for Brian McDermott, who is not in a position of untenable pressure.  The expectations at Reading are more realistic than the tenants of Loftus Road.

For some reason, the owner of QPR, Tony Fernandes believes that the Hoops can be the next big noise in London and on a European stage.  Yet this is a side who four years ago were in the Championship - sacking managers left right and centre and until Neil Warnock was employed did the side get the much needed stability and eventual Championship title triumph resulting in a return to the Premier League.

In the first season back QPR suffered with these expectations, Warnock was deemed to be surplus to requirements.  Adel Taarabt who was talismanic during the the title campaign, was found out by Premier League's better defences and his own attitude problems did not help.

Now QPR have had a revolving door policy to talent, if we can find someone who is available and on paper you will be replaced.  Robert Green left West Ham hoping for a more lucrative contract, which he was given, yet is now warming the bench due to the signing of Julio Cesar from Inter Milan.  Tough choice to pick between a Champions League winner or an England international flop, although Cesar has been anything but solid lately, twice flapping at crosses/shots that led to conceding crucial goals.

However, for me the problem stems with the management.  Mark Hughes is the atypical mercenary manager, he has never stuck out a job.  His longest job was his first, when he managed Wales during 1999-2004 and nearly led them to qualifying for a major tournament for the first time since 1958 when he managed such talent as Ryan Giggs, Craig Bellamy, Robbie Savage yet he did not see them through.

Next was Blackburn Rovers where he led them to their best Premier League finish of 7th in 2007-08 (a position they have never returned to), and yet here was the first inklings of people's impression of Hughes changing. Every season he was in charge at Ewood Park, Rovers finished bottom of the fair play league.  A position QPR are sitting in now, as they have a player sent off every other game.  The red card away at Arsenal cost them a point, although Hughes is always quick to blame the referee.  When neutral observers would state that when you are bottom the rub of the green is never there for you.

Hughes left Blackburn for Manchester City during the summer of 2008 and was in charge until December 2009, when he was sacked for Roberto Mancini.  Hughes was in place when the money from the Saudis arrived and he signed players who are very much the spine of Mancini's side - Gareth Barry, Carlos Tevez, Joleon Lescott and he made the decision to start Joe Hart over Shay Given.  So perhaps the most influence Hughes has had is over another side to this day.

Next he joined Fulham in July 2010 after seven months of unemployment, he left Fulham after just one season although he gained them European qualification saying he wanted to further his experience. This upset Mohammed Al-Fayed, who judged Hughes to be a flop and a strange man.

The judgement of Hughes' managerial style is the same accusation that was levelled at Glenn Hoddle, a brilliantly gifted footballing individual capable of anything on the football field in terms of skill and invention; yet he is unable to shepherd similar youthful talent.  Remember QPR were very nearly relegated at the end of last season, even though they were sitting somewhat comfortably when Hughes replaced Warnock in January of this year.

The inability to communicate with players leads to a manager signing too many players, unable to get consistency in terms of selection and performance from his side.  You can imagine Hughes becoming bullish and frustrated with his players who are unable to fulfil the simplest tasks, remember the stories of Hoddle showing off his ability to pinpoint passes of 60 yards onto someone's toe or scoring ridiculous free-kicks.

Hughes own personal ability and ambition has never been in doubt, yet his unique way of communicating or lack thereof renders his head definitely on the block and probably two or three games away from the billionaire owner losing his patience and getting a better, more high profile manager in.  Hughes joined QPR because the money was good, and the players would sign for big pay cheques.  Maybe he is learning that it is hard to motivate lesser than good players who are being paid handsomely.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

A Tale of Two Refs

On Sunday, in the world of sport, the image of impartial refereeing took quite a hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Almost immediately, after the live coverage of the game between Chelsea and Manchester United ended on Super Sunday, the accusations started flying in the direction of referee Mark Clattenburg who was said to have used 'inappropriate language' towards two different Chelsea players.  The fact that the complaint by Chelsea was done so quickly after the game to the match delegate is quite startling.  Nevermind, the controversy already caused by Clattenburg's decision to send off a second Chelsea player - Fernando Torres - for a contentious second caution, for simulation.  Also, Manchester United's third and winning goal scored by Javier Hernandez was scored from an offside position.

Chelsea, did well to get back from a 2-0 deficit to gain parity with the Red Devils, yet Branislav Ivanovic was sent off for a professional foul on Ashley Young when denying a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  Not much complaint with that one, but then soon after the game descended into chaos following the Torres' dismissal just five minutes after the first one.

The complaint aimed at Clattenburg insinuates he called Jon Obi Mikel a monkey and he also called Spanish international, Juan Mata, a 'Spanish t**t'.  The latter complaint has since been dropped, with Chelsea focusing on the racism charge.

What makes the matter murky is the act of Chelsea bringing independent lawyers to state their case leaves them exposed to a libel suit if the evidence proves unfounded.  The only people who know what was said are the three assistants to Clattenburg - Simon Long, Michael McDonough, Mike Jones - who are all wired up to converse to each other throughout the game; yet these conversations are not recorded.

The failure to be transparent - unlike say rugby union, rugby league and American football - which has miked up officials whose comments to and with players are broadcast to main television rights holder, is a mistake by the English Premier League, which remains a global brand and highly representative sport not just for the sport but for our nation.  As a man in black myself at weekends, I would welcome the need for the conversations to be recorded, why have something like that in the first place if it cannot be a black box like equipment, but the need to broadcast to the spectators is something that is not manageable in this day and age, the pace of the game is too fast to slow it down by having the match referee explain himself.

Take a look at Lee Mason in Wednesday night's League Cup match between Chelsea and Manchester United - he had two penalties, one penalty appeal not given, and a yellow card for a foul that looked like it denied a clear goal-scoring opportunity.  Would Mr. Mason (who was brilliant by the way) have to explain only the decisions given and not the ones he does not - that is why the non-verbal signals are utilised and have been for over 100 years.

Then you look at the NFL on Sunday when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Washington Redskins, a Redskins defender DeAngelo Hall was ejected from the game for getting into the face of a head linesman Dana McKenzie, whom Hall thought should have thrown a flag for a personal foul on Hall by Emanuel Sanders of the Steelers.

Visually what the people saw was Hall totally losing his cool screaming in the face of McKenzie, prompting the ejection.  This is a worry for the Redskins defence as the threat is that an additional suspension may be served by Hall of one game, yet Hall has come out fighting stating that McKenzie baited Hall by talking smack or jawing off himself prompting Hall's reaction.  Hall is looking for video evidence to back up his statement, and says respect is a two way street.

In this instance, much like Clattenburg, it is hard to believe an experienced proven match official would say anything derogatory or profane in the direction of the player.  The beauty of the NFL is that players play in helmets, so their body language speaks volumes on the field of play, the mistake Hall did was take the helmet off when arguing.  In this combat sport, like in hockey when players throw down their gloves, the helmet removal can be construed as 'Let's go punk!' Hall just did not have the presence of mind to realise he was facing an official, you expect more of a defensive leader and a 29 year old man.

Now a porous Redskins defence must do without one of their better defensive players.  Another question can be where were Hall's team-mates to drag him from this provocative scene, look at the fellow referees of McKenzie's crew who back him swiftly.

It may appear on face value to have been a bad week PR-wise for match officials of two different sports, but under the helmet and off the field of play.  Yet what it occurs to be is two situations when heavily paid professional athletes crying wolf the minute the boot is on the other foot.

That last sentence is not condoning the use of the word 'monkey' towards a black player by Mr.Clattenburg is found to be true, yet it appears to be the height of hyprocrisy from Hall if he takes offence from an official when professional players call the referee all manner of things and said officials must then remain tight-lipped and endure the ordeal of doing something they love.

Follow me on twitter @JamieGarwood

Lonely at the Top

Highly respected French football journalist, Philippe Auclair who wrote the regarded autobiography of Eric Cantona, The Rebel Who Would Be King - returns with another tome on another French footballer who split opinion with his genius and gifts. Auclair this time focuses on Thierry Henry, the most prolific goalscorer in Arsenal football history.

From the front cover you get a close-up portrait of Mr.Henry which like the photo of Andre Agassi on his award-winning biography Open is very non-commital like the Mona Lisa - is Henry smiling or is he a little bit put out by doing this photo shoot?

Auclair takes as his thrust a way to dissect the inner psyche of a wounded genius; liking Henry to an artist who thought too much for his art and was never really understood.  This goes in contrast to the public image of Henry, especially during his glory years of Arsenal, when he bestrode many Premier League pitches as a master of his craft.  Henry shared with Cantona, that outward French arrogance of knowing he was really really good - Auclair has a great memory, this reviewer had forgotten the free-kick Henry had scored at Wigan when he scored looked at the referee - who had asked for a retake of the previous goal-bound effort - and asked, 'Is that good enough?' - a mixture of superiority and theatricality.  For fans of Arsenal, reading this book will be like recalling all your favourite Christmases.

Tellingly, too often in this day and age the stars of today are just that.  Fans of football only care about the here and now, fans are unaware of a player's route to glory, the hard road travelled.  Too often it is a matter of what are you doing for me now.  Just look at Chelsea, Didier Drogba has left and the fans have replaced him in their hearts with Eden Hazard and/or Oscar; the revolving door of football celebrity endorses this.

Henry is rightfully acclaimed as one of Arsenal's great players; he was the great goalscorer that came after Ian Wright.  He replaced Nicolas Anelka who left Arsenal fans heartbroken having won the double, yet he straddled two great sides.  Henry led the line of the side defended by the famous back five of Seaman, Dixon, Bould/Keown, Adams and Winterburn; and then was the fulcrum of the Invincibles in the 2003/04 season who won the league without losing a game, a first for the Premier League.

Auclair shows you all of Henry's stories, his father's journey from the West Indies (this reviewer presumed Henry's genetics laid in Northern Africa), the gift that was apparent in youth football, winning the World Cup in 1998 as a teenager and then the dismal World Cup showings in 2002 in Korea/Japan and ending on a sour note in South Africa 2010.

The only gripe of this book is the general tone of a genius misunderstood, Thierry Henry is one of those rare players who was highly respected from all corners of the globe, beloved by fans of the game so to set him out as woe is me individual who is misrepresented by his on pitch persona, marks him out as something akin to a Hollywood star or Broadway thespian, is it any surprise that Henry's career is ending in the bright lights of New York City where he is undoubtedly the star of the MLS show.

Henry's need to be the best does not make him a misunderstood soul, it makes him much like any naturally gifted athlete a man whose ego needs massaging.  Thierry Henry won every domestic and international competition during his playing career along with personal awards, yet to paint him as an unfulfilled participant in the world's most popular sport is somewhat bittersweet.

Lonely at the Top is published by Macmillan in hardback on 8th November for £17.99RRP
Philippe Auclair has been France Football's and RMC Radio's UK football correspondent for over a decade and is a prolific freelance journalist.  He is also a regular contributor to The Blizzard and Champions magazine.