From Champions League to the Championship: Benitez chooses Toon challenge

Kudos to Rafa Benitez for staying on as Newcastle manager despite having the convenient option of a get out clause in the event they were relegated to the Championship.  Having only 10 games in which to save them was a task even beyond a manager of his experience and success, and it would have been perfectly understandable for a man who has managed some of the biggest clubs in the world (and the scousers) to say no thanks to the prospect of spending cold winter days traipsing to the regional outposts of Rotherham, Huddersfield and Burton Albion.  Instead, he has accepted the challenge of trying to take Newcastle straight back up to the Premier League.  It can only enhance his managerial credentials if he should do so.  It will be a far more onerous task and a truer test of his managerial abilities than molly coddling a bunch of expensively assembled Galacticos (or even the scousers) to do what is expected of them.

Now cynics might suggest that he only chose to remain because no suitable offers came along to tempt him.  That may well be true but considering a record 29 managers in the top four English divisions were sacked in the first half of last season (according to the LMA), surely a decent offer would have come up sooner rather than later.  So much easier then to take the break clause, scuttle off to the Spanish sunshine and wait for that bigger, more appealing offer.  Instead, he has chosen to take the risk of dropping down a level and managing in the Championship, and put his reputation on the line by doing so.

Obviously he has the advantage of taking the helm of a ‘sleeping giant’.  Newcastle have a huge and vociferous fan base – which Benitez cited as a prime motivating factor for staying – a 52,000 stadium and presumably a generous transfer budget courtesy of owner Mike Ashley.  Nevertheless, managing in the Championship will not be easy; will Newcastle be able to attract suitable players willing to ply their trade in the less glamorous environment of English football’s second tier where grit, endurance and defensive organisation will take precedence over swashbuckling free flowing attacking football, and will Benitez be able to organise them into a cohesive unit capable of returning to the Premier League straight away?  It will be an immense challenge, and should he fail to gain promotion straight away, his managerial credibility will inevitably be questioned.

Yet Benitez should be commended for putting his managerial credibility on the line.  It’s all very well being successful at superclubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United, or bankrolled clubs like PSG, Chelsea and Manchester City, or even historically successful clubs like Liverpool.  Quite another to guide a so-called lesser, unfashionable team to success.  It is what makes Ranieri’s Premier League triumph with Leicester all the more credible.  Or Mourinho’s European successes with Porto and, to a certain extent, Inter Milan.  And surely Alex Ferguson’s greatest triumph was not with Manchester United but taking unheralded Aberdeen to European Cup Winners Cup glory against the mighty Real Madrid in 1983.  Similarly, if Diego Simeone is able to mastermind an Atletico Madrid win in the Champions League final on Saturday, it will be a far greater achievement than Zinedine Zidane’s ready made handed-on-a-plate accession to the top of the managerial pile with Real Madrid’s Galacticos.

The charge of handed-on-a-plate success has also been levelled at Pep Guardiola.  He is undoubtedly a great coach, perhaps one of the greatest of all time, but he has only ever managed two of the biggest clubs of all time and had some of the greatest players of all time at his disposal.  And when he comes to City, he will be coming to a top club with an open checkbook.  City will still provide a far sterner test of his managerial ability as irrespective of having players of the match winning ability of Aguero and de Bruyne and a decent international keeper in Joe Hart, they do require some re-building.  They have had a disappointingly inconsistent season with a much needed captain struggling with injuries and an expensively bought starlet who has misfired so far.  It will be interesting to see whether Pep can manage to build a team more or less from scratch, rather than merely tweak what he has inherited.

Benitez though has had experience of managing at lower level in Spain with Real Valladolid and Extremadura, which should come in very handy and may perhaps provide one explanation of why he wasn’t daunted at the prospect of managing lower down, in the second tier of English football.

In the same vein, wouldn’t it be interesting to see some of the top managers test their abilities by taking on smaller clubs or even ‘fallen giants’.  Imagine if Pep Guardiola had dared to go to Aston Villa rather than moneybags Man City?  Then he might proved once and for all whether success or failure at a football club is primarily dependent on the manager, the players or a simply a limitless transfer budget.


Andy Murray Needs To Be More Braveheart And Less Canny Scot

Can Andy Murray’s next coach tell him some home truths, please?  That when he plays bold, attacking, aggressive, adventurous, assertive, forceful, risk taking, net-hugging tennis HE WINS.  It is such a waste seeing the second best volleyer in tennis after Roger Federer stubbornly clinging to the baseline like a life raft and getting bogged down in endless, cautious pitter patter rallies against players with metronomic precision.  It is equally frustrating seeing a player with one of the best first serves in the game deliver feeble, safety first second serves a junior girl could swot away.  At least on that count the penny finally seems to have dropped, with Murray now daring to add more pace so that whilst still not much of a weapon, it is no longer as much of a liability.

However, the defensive cat and mousing Andy is so fond of is a bad habit that’s been hard to break.  Under the great Ivan Lendl’s tutelage Andy was briefly diverted from his uber-conservative way of playing towards a more offensive attacking game.  It is no coincidence that Andy won his only 2 Grand Slams, including the longed for Wimbledon title, during that forceful period.  Since then, sadly, he has regressed to his default reactionary approach, and unsurprisingly, not won a Grand Slam again.

On Sunday though, at the final of the Italian Open Masters, Andy Murray defeated his nemesis Novak Djokovic in straight sets 6-3, 6-3, by playing precisely the kind of aggressive, attacking tennis behind hard, consistent serving that won him those two Grand Slams.  Albeit that Novak Djokovic had played an epic, draining 3 hour match against the speedy Kei Nishikori the night before that hadn’t finished until 11.30pm, and was inevitably tired and irritable.  Perhaps it had been a cunning ploy by the Italian Open organisers to inject some uncertainty into the outcome of the final.  Maybe they wanted to give Andy a chance to cause an upset on his birthday by handicapping Novak and putting him on late against a potentially difficult opponent, whilst giving Andy the 2pm afternoon slot against lucky loser Lucas Pouille.  If so, it certainly worked, since Andy had little trouble dispatching the Frenchman in under an hour, leaving him the remainder of the day to rest, relax and recuperate.

Difficult scheduling hasn’t stopped the indefatigable Novak Djokovic in the past, but what made the difference in this match was Andy’s aggressive mentality.  He took it to Novak, and he won out.

If his new coach can convince Andy to keep taking it to his opponents and to abandon the safety net of the baseline in favour of the actual net of the tennis court, there is still time for Andy to win another Grand Slam or two. But he has to be brave and dare to take a chance – on himself.

Red Bull Gives You Wins

Red Bull Racing must be feeling very pleased with themselves.  After the debacle at the Russian Grand Prix, the team’s management ruthlessly demoted hapless driver Daniil Kvyat to their junior team, Toro Rosso, and promoted preciously gifted teenager Max Verstappen to take his place in the senior car.  At the time, the move was considered rather harsh by many, with fellow racing driver Jenson Button coming out in support of the beleaguered Russian.

But what an inspired decision it proved to be!  With the two Mercedes boys recklessly playing dodgems at the front during the start of the Spanish Grand Prix on Sunday and promptly taking each other out, Max Verstappen kept his cool to become the youngest winner in F1 history at just 18 years old.

What an auspicious start to his racing career.  No doubt the team will be enjoying something a little stronger than Red Bull to celebrate his win, though young Max may want to stick to Red Bull.  It gives you wins, don’t you know.

All Hail Leicester – the Renaissance Kings

Back in the fading summer of 2012, if you had asked a football loving historian, or a history loving footballer (should such a person actually exist), which was more implausible – unearthing the long presumed lost remains of the notorious English king Richard III from the bowels of a Leicester council car park, or Leicester’s unheralded football team lurching from near relegation one year to winning the Premier League title the very next year, one wonders which option they would have plumped for?  I think perhaps Leicester City Football Club’s Premier League title winning exploits would have marginally shaded the improbability stakes.

The bookies certainly thought such a concept was nigh on impossible, making Leicester City 5,000-1 outsiders for the title (did you take a punt?  No me neither, which is why I am still here writing rather than living it up on an expensive Caribbean holiday) at the start of the current season in August 2015 (I wonder what their odds on the discovery of Richard III’s bones were?).  Who could have blamed the bookies?  For back in March 2015, while King Richard III was finally being given the burial his royal status (if not his alleged deeds) merited in Leicester Cathedral, the city’s football team was staring at a burial of a different kind: into the recesses of the Championship.  But rather like the royal disinterment, Leicester City’s fortunes were resurrected by an exceptional run of form towards the end of last season with 7 wins in 9 games bringing an unlikely reprieve from the abyss.  The bookies though – and let’s face it most of the pundits, both professional and armchair – considered it simply a stay of execution, hence those astoundingly long (in hindsight) odds.

So how did Leicester City contrive a comeback more akin to Lazarus than Richard III?  Well, being rescued from financial meltdown by a Thai billionaire always helps.  Hmm, billionaire, you say.  There were allegations, still being investigated, that the said Thai billionaire – Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (try saying that even without a drink) – helped the club flout Football League FFP rules on their way to promotion to the Premier League in 2014.  So far, so familiar.  But then, the club had to ride the storm of a relegation fight, a players’ sex and racism tape scandal and the sacking of their volatile manager Nigel Pearson.  Enter a certain ‘Tinkerman’, Claudio Ranieri, to the derision of – well, almost everyone.  The affable Italian had just suffered an ignominious spell with the Greek national team, culminating in a humiliating home defeat to the Faroe Islands, more famous for fashionable hand woven woollen jumpers seen on heroines of elegantly gloomy Scandi-noir dramas than its football team.  A failed manager to add to a nearly relegated team recovering from a sex and race scandal and facing accusations of financial impropriety surely equalled football oblivion, and suddenly those remarkable odds of 5,000-1 to win the PL title seemed perfectly logical.  I mean, haha, come on, did someone say WIN?  Why there was more chance of unearthing the bones of a long-lost King of England under a Leicester council car park….oh hang on.

Yep, this is where the narrative veers dramatically off course.  Leicester didn’t go down, and the Thai billionaire didn’t end up bankrolling the team to Premier League success, a la Jack Walker and Blackburn in 1995.  He didn’t have to.  Leicester City’s unique, unstarry combination of hardened journeymen, twinkle-toed hidden gems and sleeper non-league superstars nurtured by an experienced and sagacious, if not always successful, and certainly not fashionable, manager, created a serendipitous synergy to elevate their performance and sweep their illustrious rivals aside, winning the title with 2 games to spare.  This was a squad assembled for a mere £54.4 million – that’s really, really cheap, Primark cheap, in the PL in 2016.  So cheap that it is about the same as some individual players cost in the big name teams; teams who might be feeling rather silly now about the amount they have spent not to win the title.   Leicester earned their title the hard way – with an unquenchable team spirit and gritty determination; confounding their opponents with thunderous counter-attacks and grinding out precious 1-0 wins when desperately needed.  Ultimately, keeping the faith when all around them doubted and were waiting fearfully for them to crumble.  The team stood firm, resolute, and were deservedly triumphant.

On Saturday, after their final home game of the season against Everton, Leicester City FC will be presented with the shiny silver Premier League trophy at their presciently named home ground, King Power Stadium (well, what else would it be called?), in front of disbelieving and delirious fans, who probably still think it’s all a crazy dream.  A week later, on May 16, an open top bus victory parade through the city will be held to celebrate the team’s success.  Just over a year ago, the denizens of Leicester gathered, with the world looking on, to bury their recently discovered King at Leicester Cathedral.  This time they will gather to pay homage to their newly unearthed football kings.  Once more the eyes of the world will be upon them.  Thanks to kings old and new, the city of Leicester has been enjoying a remarkable renaissance.  Perhaps that’s the most implausible concept of them all.

[An edited version of this post was published at http://www.boxtoboxfootball.ukAll Hail Leicester – the Renaissance Kings]