sportingeye

Rafa’s Not Mad

In Uncategorized on December 11, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Rafa Benitez seems confident that he can win over the Chelsea faithful as he begins his glorified caretakers role at the club. If I were him I’d not be so certain. Chelsea fans are never likely to accept someone who has made dismissive comments about the club and its greatest manager, back when his Liverpool had something of an unofficial rivalry. It becomes even more impossible when his appointment comes off the back of the most ludicrous sacking in the club’s history, if not the history of the Premier League.

 

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Even with his Liverpool ties he has few friends in the media. This is mostly because he made the cardinal sin of challenging the Sir Alex Ferguson stranglehold on the Premier League and laid bare the hypocrisy that the FA actively promotes when it comes to meting out managerial punishments. It was factually based but the fact he chose to fight that battle, and indeed the time he chose to fight it, the papers were safe to label him “mad”. He’d lost it they said, another victim of Ferguson’s incredible psychological warfare.

This made him a joke. Suddenly he was no longer a successful continental manager. He was a fat Spanish waiter, the perfect target for the xenophobia inherent to the tabloids. To balance out the constant mockery, they insisted that it was somehow sad to see a “great manager” in such a decline. They would have done much better applauding him on his bold stance and pointing out what anyone who knows anything about football should know – that Benitez is a fine coach but a dreadful manager.

Liverpool fans know this deep down inside. They are unique in how obstinate they are when it comes to supporting failing managers. They don’t like to be perceived as “turning on their own”. It is rightly ingrained in a club that was shockingly and falsely demonised by the press time and time again. It created a trench mentality necessary for survival in such an environment – you are either with us, or against us, but if you’re with us you’re with all of us. There has never been a more appropriate club motto than “You never walk alone”.
But inside they knew. They knew that Benitez the coach, with the side he inherited, had worked wonders. Benitez the manager slowly dismantled that team and with each bit of tinkering he made it worse. This was the manager who saw the sublime talents of Xabi Alonso as little more than a makeweight to try and fund the purchase of the far less capable Gareth Barry. In his constant crowing about the necessity of this deal he made Alonso, who had always felt at home at Liverpool, want to leave and resent his treatment.

So grim had the situation got as the signings dragged the quality down he effectively created a team that could only win if it included their two star players – Gerrard and Torres. The papers have made much about how Benitez will get the best out of Torres, as he had in the past. Those writers need to remember their history.

Torres was already a gem when he arrived at Liverpool, masterful on the ball, with a turn of pace and an eye for goal. Torres was all about the right kind of runs, beating a player not with trickery but with knowing the right angle of attack to burst through. He arguably did it better than anyone else in the Spanish league and it was a talent that served him well in the English game too with all those lumbering, slow defenders.

But it was a physically demanding ability to utilise constantly and the inevitable injuries came. What became clear was that when Liverpool didn’t have Torres they struggled to win. So, even when he required a surgery Benitez pressured him to delay it. With each game it got slightly worse but there was enough of the old Torres to push Liverpool to victories. Of course, the damage that it did to the player was becoming increasingly clear. Benitez didn’t care about that though – players are assets, not people, and the team needed him.

Gerrard had to do the same as well, playing through injuries to try and raise the level of a team Benitez had single-handedly run down. When you look at both players now you have to say that he must haunt them in their nightmares. Gerrard blunders his way around the Liverpool pitch looking fit for the knackers yard at 33, Rodgers lacking the fortitude to drop him from a team he shouldn’t get in to on current form. Torres is unlikely to welcome the return of the man who has made him a shadow of himself at a time when players should be at their peak and made him a bit part player in a Spanish line-up with only one truly great striker.

No, hard to imagine that relationship working, especially with Benitez’s ill-advised comments about how Torres has indeed already peaked, a statement delivered at a time when most managers would happily lie and say the best was yet to come. It is classic Rafa, the man management skills of a mortician.

Those who laud his abilities as a manager say you only have to look to what he achieved with Valencia, how he won La Liga and challenged the Barca / Real hegemony. What people rarely ad is that at that time the owners never let him loose on anything as complex as signing players. The had others oversee the transfers and Benitez was there to make sure they knew the system. He was a figurehead, a fall guy when they lost, a genius when they won, more CEO than manager. As soon as he demanded to make the signings so he could build his own team, the board were rightly worried. The public spat over him wanting autonomy saw him leave the club.

Much similar to Chelsea, he took over at Inter Milan when they had won the Champions League. That was a team in transition, aging stars take on one last hurrah by his old rival Mourinho. There would be sme rebuilding required but there was enough of a team there to challenge for honours once more. Of course, to go from the charismatic Portuguese to the clinical Spaniard was a brutal culture shock. He ostracised big names, immediately lost the dressing room and tried to implement his own system of play not because it was required but because he wanted to stamp out as much residual remains of “the special one” as he could.

Naturally the failure was spectacular, the champions of Europe struggling to achieve a mid-table placement, and he was given the golden handshake he clearly raved with his increasingly bizarre and cryptic press conferences. Happy to play up to his reputation, he was now “mad” in two countries, not just one.

Despite a glut of high profile appointments between now and then Benitez was rarely in the frame. Even with his record the baggage that comes with him is not desirable to a club. That, and more often than not, there are simply better candidates.

He will talk a good game to begin with. He’ll bemoan refereeing decisions first time it is pertinent and talk at length about positives that only exist in his own mind. Chelsea won’t challenge for the title this season though. Benitez teams have a history of wilting under the pressure, much like the man himself. He will guide them to an expected Champions League spot, something he will claim is an achievement for the club, before being let go with another golden handshake as Abramovich goes back to pursuing Guardiola. So it is written, so it shall be.

What every Chelsea fan must really worry about is if he is allowed to “stamp his authority” on the team and is given access to the golden chequebook. He’s already talking about offloading Ashley Cole, aging but still regarded bymany as the best left back in the world. Talismans like Lampard have also been talked about as being surplus to requirements. Who knows who’s next? Stalin’s cabinet probably felt more secure than that Chelsea squad right now.

Even talking about transfers two matches into what is clearly a temporary tenure is absurd. This is the norm however in a career where the manager, not the coach, has constantly been the architect of his own, fiscally rewarded, downfall. Benitez isn’t mad. He’s just not very good.

Manning Makes The Broncos Contenders

In NFL on September 13, 2012 at 12:53 am

In what is set to be one of the most exciting and unpredictable NFL seasons to Denver have elected to put all their money on one of the few sure things left in the game. Last night’s opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers showed that their acquisition of veteran Peyton Manning, following his release from Indianapolis after fourteen years, could be the most significant move of the NFL season.

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Dealing with veteran quarterbacks is always a tricky thing. Manning was the heart of the Colts for so long that choosing the right time to let him go was always going to be difficult. He had to go at some time but finding that perfect window of opportunity for player and team is never easy. That window was crowbarred open with Manning’s last season for the Colts cut short with injury and the requirement of four separate surgeries on his neck. Most felt that he would never reach those heights again, that whoever did acquire him was taking a gamble.

Denver on paper had no reason to take that gamble. At the time Colts were making their difficult decision they were in possession of one of the hottest properties in the game, namely the born-to-win Jesusfreak Tim Tebow. The youngster, despite constant criticism about “faulty mechanics” and dubious politics took the Broncos and turned them from a toothless team sinking straight to the bottom of their conference into play-off contenders. It was surely his team to show what he could do.

Whatever lead the powers that be to decide to bring Manning to Denver and ship out Tebow to the Jets, the opener must have seen plenty of alka-seltzer passed around the private box. After all, if it all backfired they’d be the people that let a Heisman Trophy winner slip through their fingers in favour of a 36 year old who is one big hit away from the end of his career. It would almost certainly spell doom for whoever could have the most blame apportioned to them in the aftermath of that potential future, a point made in the press with gusto.

Those that envisioned such a fate are the same sort of people who never speak about Peyton Manning in the same breath as the greats. After 611 days without a game the quarterback showed just why Denver were right and silenced the doubters with a master class that will today see him compared to the greats as he set records that eclipsed their own.

Throwing for 253 yards the first of his two touchdown passes saw him hit the 400 TD pass milestone in 209 games, which was faster than Brett Favre and Dan Marino. These are the sort of statistics that always get lost in favour of that other benchmark of greatness – championship rings. His own brother Eli, nowhere near the standard set by Peyton, has one more with two and this always seems to keep him down the pecking order.

Yet away from the statistics, there are the performances like last night that show he is one of a very few elite quarterbacks still playing the game. It was illustrated beautifully as he went up against a much improved Ben Roethlisberger whose often criticised style seemed more polished than it has been in a Steelers jersey. Either side of half time two lengthy drives showed the everything good about Roethlisberger whose efficiency on the third down kept the ball out of Manning’s hands for round about an hour. When he did finally get a touch of the football it only took 36 seconds to throw for a touchdown pass. That is the tangible difference between “good” and “great”.

The Broncos already had the bones of a potentially good team and their ability to stifle a running offence will serve them well this season. Defensive monsters such as Von Miller, who stepped up late in the game to shut down any hope of Roethlisberger upstaging the great one, keep quarterbacks up at night. Wide receiver Demaryius Thomas already proved his value last season when he returned from an achilles injury to become the outlet for Tebow. What the team lacked, a reliable quarterback with an on field presence that transcends hype, they have found in Manning.

He will face sterner tests as the season wears on and there will always be question marks about his ability to stay fit. There are plenty of defenders who, in their own perverse brans of logic, would like to be the one that finally snapped Manning and forced him to retire. Yet, any notion that his ability had been dampened by time on the sidelines was laid to rest with faultless efficiency and, unlike his Pittsburgh counterpart, no interceptions.

The disparity in points in this 31 – 19 triumph doesn’t show the gulf of class that was evident for all to see. He read the game perfectly in a way that few can and left the Steelers defence dejected, so much so that in the post-match press conference they didn’t even want to talk about the Manning factor. It was, like death and taxes, depressingly inevitable they conceded. Those hangdog expressions from the assembled Steelers players will lift Denver going into week two and if triumphant against Atlanta then you can expect more and more to be talking them up. After all, if Tim Tebow was cause for such hysteria, how much faith will people be willing to place in a man up their with the quarterback gods?

The man himself will be quietly pleased. It’s unlikely he’ll add to his championship ring haul at Denver. There are stronger teams, teams that have already shown that they have a bit more razzle dazzle than the slow and steady Broncos. It is unlikely for sure but Manning’s presence alone does not make it impossible.

Neil Jenkins – A Tribute

In Rugby on October 11, 2011 at 6:01 pm

Back in the 90s, before the game “modernised” and the average international Rugby Union team looked like little more than a stag do, it was a time of folk heroes. There weren’t any really rounded players, no-one you could call complete in the same sense as you would today. They were rugby playing caricatures, known for having one or two traits that would distinguish them from the next player, exceptional in one or two areas but still relatable to anyone who played the game. They still boasted beer bellies and would be spotted drinking heavily in the midst of international tournaments as if it was just another lazy throw-around on a Sunday.

At the start of that glorious decade a young lad with the face of a 40 year old labourer made his debut for Pontypridd. He was noted for being relatively quick, decent ball carrying skills and he could kick the ball a bit. The following year he made his debut for Wales at aged 19 and there was little more, on that debut showing, to add to those few scant observations. That game would have been mostly forgotten in Wales given that it was a 25-6 defeat against the hated English. Yet in this game this player kicked his first three points for his country, the first three points in a tally that would go on to break all the international records. It was Neil Jenkins.

You see, before Johnny Wilkinson came along with his kicking prowess, spawning a series of imitators that would copy his style right down to picking up the blade of grass to check for wind velocity, there was only one kicking machine at international level and he was Welsh. Sure, his prowess came with some negatives. That pace he had at 19 left him quicker than Jordan does one of her husbands, he wasn’t quick-footed and his distribution was reliable but unspectacular. The one thing Jenko, affectionately known as “Pob” by his international teammates, did better than anyone else was ping a ball between the uprights from anywhere on the park, no theatrics necessary either. He didn’t have to think about it.

Which is why I and many others love him so much. His kicking always gave Wales a chance in any game and rival teams knew this. It didn’t matter whether it was the champagne rugby that the fans always bayed for, or the reliance on the trundling pack, which was the reality for most of the time, if he was in the opponent’s half he could make it count. It gained criticism from the rest of the international teams at the time but it would later become a blueprint for England’s success.

OF course, that love wasn’t always there. The number 10 shirt is sacred to the Welsh and whoever wears it immediately draws comparison to the greats. When you’ve had the player lauded as the greatest fly-half to play the game, Barry John, represent your country in that position the boots don’t get any bigger to fill. He never had that sort of flair and it took a while to win over the fans, his style of play more effective if less pleasing on the eye than any of the hall of famers that went before him. One dimensional by contrast, he showed the world kicking was enough to win games.

Just how prolific a kicker he was can never be underestimated. As the game changed around him he did try to keep up, developing his ability to run but it was with his boot he always did the damage. It took him just 28 tests to become the Welsh national points scoring record holder and in the 87 caps he won he added to it in every match. If the first nine years of his career were laying the foundations it would be at the two years he would cement his reputation as the greatest fly-half Wales ever had.

What red-blooded Welshman can forget his kick that foiled England’s five nation victory in ’99, 3 points won right at the death that did nothing for Wales but broke English hearts? It sparked celebrations as if Wales had won the competition even though all it did was pave the way for Scotland to do so. He also showed what a committed player he was at club level, accepting an MBE only if he could still make the kick-off of his game for Cardiff. With the assistance of a helicopter he made it and put in a match-winning performance.

The following year he surpassed the 1,000 point mark, the first player to ever do so and he did it with a sublime display against France in their backyard. As if answering the critics about his lack of versatility he scored in every way possible to cement his place in the record books forever.

Sadly the writing was on the wall. The talismanic player was getting old, his battered body reduced to little more than a muscular leg attached to a failing torso. Unable to start for the British Lions the same year he broke the record, a young pretender called Johnny Wilkinson became the preferred starter in that position. It was the passing of the baton, a moment that confirmed the shift in the way the game was going and the arrival of the next generation of player, the fly-half position forever altered to have to be played the way that Jenkins played it.

Sadly his record couldn’t stand and it was his replacement with the Lions who broke it. For many, this would suggest the latter is the greater player. Not so. He set the records for Wilkinson to break and did it without a golden generation of world beaters around him. He played at a time where anyone with a sports science degree was leered at suspiciously and the words “put something cold on it” was a euphemism for a pint after a match. The game modernised around him and he helped shape that future even as it unfolded. There can be no doubt who the history books will point to as the definitive fly-half of the modern era.

Despite all of this, he still remains an unassuming figure. The son of a scrap dealer, a working class hero and a true sporting great, he is a million times easier to love and respect than a private schoolboy from Surrey. Let the latter have the record. The Welsh know who the greatest is.

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