The Young and the Previously Feckless

‘Ashley, sometimes you’re a little sensitive,’ Darren said as they sat playing Playstation one night. ‘Just admit it was birdshit and make some joke about it being lucky.’

Ashley was sensitive but he was also a victim. It was all well and good Fletch saying that he should lighten up but he was the one who’d told the press that Ashley’s best attribute was diving. That had really fanned the flames. The papers reported his new film franchise ‘Dive Hard’ and photoshopped him next to Tom Daley at the Olympics. At least they made him look like someone in demand. But what was he meant to do – wait for defenders to tackle him? No, there was no way his brittle bones could take that.

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Ashley had watched the clip hundreds of times – it was definitely birdshit. It dropped from the sky just as he was moaning at a teammate, just as he reached the vowel in ‘ball’ and his mouth was at its widest. There were no two ways about it, but he wasn’t about to confirm the rumour and become even more of a laughing stock. Not when his United career was finally on the up again. Sir Alex and Moyesy had lost interest in his twinkle toes but LVG still saw potential. Like Gok Wan, he had plans for a makeover.

‘Let me be honest,’ LVG began, as if that were a novel idea. ‘I’d never heard of you. When I saw you, I assumed you were one of the youth players, quick but naïve, like a little lamb to the football slaughter. But Giggsy tells me you’re actually nearly 30. I laughed and then checked Wikipedia. It turns out he’s right. We need some older players and we need a left-back. So act your age and play where I tell you, and we’ll get along just fine.’

Ashley agreed to the transformation and now he was a starter, despite not giving up those impossibly large shirts. Sure, they’d lost to Swansea but Luke Shaw was always injured and Daley Blind was Mr Versatility. For now, his spot was guaranteed. They said birdshit landing on your clothes was lucky – well, surely birdshit landing in your mouth was extra lucky.

Tackling wasn’t Ashley’s best attribute; that was diving. But he worked hard and learnt his new role. He even got booked in his first two games. He was following in illustrious footsteps – Phillip Neville, Quinton Fortune, Alex Buttner and John O’Shea to name but four. No longer could he gallop wildly down the wing at will, cutting inside onto his right foot like clockwork. They used to call him the best crosser in the Premier League. He had as many England caps at Darren Anderton. At Aston Villa, Martin O’Neill had compared him to Messi and Ronaldo. That was seven years ago; those ‘other world-class players’ seemed a long way away now.

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He had defensive responsibilities, especially with Tyler Blackett in the team. The United fans weren’t best pleased. ‘£60million on Di Maria and we’ve still got Youngy at left-back!’ they said. Their exasperation hurt but this time it made him more determined. Ashley wasn’t someone prone to self-analysis but he did think that perhaps he’d got a little too accustomed to life in the safe lane with the soft landings. Not anymore, however. Things had changed. He was a senior player now – LVG had said so. And Ashley would do anything to make the team, including eat birdshit.

The fans seemed somewhat disappointed when he picked up a groin strain. He wasn’t used to such adulation. Ashley vowed to come back even stronger; mentally, if perhaps not physically. On his return, he graduated to left midfield but he knew his role and held his shape. Occasionally, however, he showed signs of that attacking Ashley of old. Against Villa he got those twig-like legs going and beat the full-back to the byline. He fell like he’d been hit by a freight train but not before whipping in a perfect left-foot cross for Falcao to head home.

Ashley saved his best for the biggest stage of all. In the Manchester Derby, he scored United’s first and set up the second for Marouane. They were 2-1 ahead and they shared the hug of the redeemed. Heading wasn’t Ashley’s best attribute; that was diving. But he found himself in the striker’s position, six yards from goal with not a single defender’s boot to fear. With the pressure on, he panicked and headed limply into the floor. It looked like the ball hurt him and he seemed to ask for a penalty.

The new Ashley didn’t let that get him down, though. Instead, he whipped in a great free-kick for Chris Smalling to make it 4-1.  The man of the match award was his and the champagne bottle looked huge next to his little pea head.

‘Youngy, remember when that bird shat in your mouth?’ Fletch joked in the dressing room afterwards.

‘Fuck off, mate,’ Ashley replied. He was thinking of having it added to his ‘ink’, maybe even on his inner lip like Lil Wayne.

In the summer, LVG sold Fletch to West Brom. He gave Ashley a new contract.

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Das Reboot

Das Reboot: How German Football Reinvented Itself and Conquered the World

By Raphael Honigstein

Yellow Jersey Press, 2015

Das RebootEngland qualified for Euro 2016 at a canter, the only team with a 100% winning record. And yet Roy Hodgson’s side has never looked convincing or, perhaps more importantly, exciting. In nine months we’ll build our hopes up just to see them dashed once again. Few fans would disagree that a long-term strategy is needed, a major overhaul of the current creaking system. The blueprints are clear for all to see – France 1998, Spain 2010 (Graham Hunter’s Spain is the book to read) and Germany 2014. So I couldn’t help reading Raphael Honigstein’s Das Reboot with the Three Lions in mind.

Before I compare and contrast, let me first say that Das Reboot is a brilliant book; insightful, well-written and well-structured. Guardian journalist Honigstein is clearly a man in the know but there’s never any danger of the guest stars stealing the show. Klinsmann and Bierhoff represent the management, while Lahm, Müller and Mertesacker are the most vocal of the World Cup-winning squad. There are even chapters written by ex-players on the 2006 and 2010 tournaments; Thomas Hitzlsperger and Arne Friedrich respectively. Honigstein plays the Matthäus-esque libero role throughout, orchestrating but also bringing plenty of skill of his own. His writings on Müller, Khedira and Kroos, and the Bayern-Dortmund rivalry, are particular highlights.

As the subtitle suggests, Das Reboot is a book about the German journey – ‘how German football reinvented itself and conquered the world’. Honigstein uses the 2014 World Cup success as the central narrative thread but then weaves the history around it. The millennium is the starting point, the wake-up call, as Die Mannschaft lose to England and finish bottom of their Euro 2000 group. In true Hollywood style, footballing visionaries and a band of talented brothers come together to overcome complacency and tradition, and win the sport’s greatest prize.

Fitting tributes are paid to the trailblazers; Dietrich Wiese, the man behind ‘a revolution in youth development’ which saw the creation of certified academies at a cost of £1billion to Bundesliga teams; the revolutionaries Rangnick and Klopp who overthrew the sweeper system with their philosophy of gegenpressing (high pressing); and Klinsmann and Bierhoff, the men credited with starting the project in the face of widespread scepticism. The basics of the project were simple – ‘the law of larger numbers…more coaching for more talents equalled more skilled football players’. The execution, however, was an intricate endeavour.

There is a lot for England to learn in Das Reboot – the accessibility of academies, strong links with schools, a certification regime, the importance of large numbers of qualified youth coaches. To a certain extent, it is about ‘attention to the little, easily fixable things that cumulatively made all the difference.’ However, what is most striking in Das Reboot is the intelligence of the players, and this is not necessarily replicable. Müller jokingly describes himself as an ‘Interpreter of Space’ – it’s hard to imagine Raheem Sterling or Ross Barkley saying something similar.

For the coaching system to work, the German players must think for themselves and take responsibility. There is a ‘culture of accountability’ that in theory could certainly benefit English players but do they have the cognitive powers to make that work? In Das Reboot, there is a great story about stats technology being introduced to Die Mannschaft. What starts as a tool for the coaches to give players things to work on becomes a social point for the players, as they discuss tactics amongst themselves. Education and communication lead to a more democratic, winning environment.

‘Football has become a mind game’ is one of Honigstein’s take-home messages in Das Reboot. ‘To get better in the modern game translates into taking in things more quickly, analysing them more quickly, deciding more quickly, acting more quickly.’ Rangnick’s vision of football doesn’t take shape overnight. To create a generation of Müllers, Lahms and Schweinsteigers you need the best youth coaches working with talented and engaged young players from the earliest age possible. In England’s case, you need to break everything down and start again. As Weise says, perhaps with our fuddy-duddy FA in mind, ‘there will always be smart people with good ideas. But the key is for them to be in a position to actually implement their ideas.’

Buy it here

Danny Vincent and the 4-1 Formation – Part One

Danny Vincent ‘didn’t really follow sports’ and most importantly ‘wasn’t a football fan’. That’s what he told us during the coffee break on his first day. I’d waited a few hours to ask him, giving him time to settle in. There was an audible sigh, and then a weary resignation in his voice. He looked down at his feet like the boy who knows he’s done wrong. Maybe this was why he was starting his third job in two years.

It was a crying shame because I’d been eyeing him up for weeks. Few men enter the world of publishing these days, and those that do tend not to be of the athletic build. Take Jake, for example, our other new recruit. In his spare time, you’ll find him sedentary, eyes glued to a split-screen, fingers tapping away at a bit of plastic, an empty pizza box at his feet. So when Helen told me that Danny was ‘quite tall, pretty skinny’, he became The Great Hope, the focal point of team sheets scribbled on the back of Tesco receipts.

It was asking too much, I know, but The Big Game was fast approaching. Editorial vs Sales. The rules were strict – no Finance, no Production, no Marketing, no interns. We billed it as Wenger’s Arsenal circa 2010 versus Mourinho’s Chelsea circa 2005. Visionary creators against efficient doers; flair against money. Much office pride was at stake, and wages blindly gambled away.

Sales were confident, as you’d expect those silver-tongued devils to be. They were also well-drilled, thanks to lunchtime runs and gym sessions. I heard rumours of a practice match in the build-up, although their captain Malcolm would never admit it (‘You wish!’ was his cryptic response). Sales did everything together, a real band of snake-hipped brothers. They had youth on their side, too.

To stand any kind of chance, we would have to play to our strength, which wasn’t, it quickly became apparent, footballing skill. We made Djourou and Eboue look like Iniesta and Messi. No, instead our strength was size, size at the expense of agility. Solidity. Our inspiration was Scotland circa 2010 – the 4-6-0 formation. In other words, we set about building The Wall.

‘We do need an outlet, though,’ our keeper Tim argued at one team meeting. Oddly enough, the man blocking our goal would probably have topped our lithe charts. He’d been a decent winger in his day but sadly keyhole surgery was now keeping him between the sticks, resplendent in a tie-dye shirt and old-school roller-blading kneepads. ‘We win the ball and then what?’

It was a simple enough question but we were stumped. In the absence of a Pirlo-esque regista, we hadn’t really thought about ball retention. ‘Possession is nine-tenths of a whore,’ big old Ted once wittily quipped. And yet on a six-a-side pitch, the ball came back at you faster than a boomerang. How could we hold off the siege?

‘Ok, ok, ok,’ I said, quieting everyone down. Colleagues were waiting outside, wanting to get on with work-related things. On the screen, I drew a forward arrow next to the player in the middle of the five-man wall. The 4-1 formation was born.

‘Wait a minute; I’m not playing up top!’ Niall shouted from his kitchen in Harrow. The conference call software made his protest sound even angrier. He was right, though; a 55 year-old ‘talker’ wasn’t really striker material. Gary Mabbutt had scored 27 goals in 477 games for Spurs. We only had one game and 0.06 goals wouldn’t get us very far. ‘I can’t conduct the orchestra from the programme stall.’ Niall loved an arts-based analogy.

‘Well, I’m not either!’

‘Nor me!’

We had a problem; The Wall had become so strong that no-one would budge. That was my positive spin on it, anyway. Perhaps Sales were getting in our heads. We experimented with Jake as our target man but we never did work out which was his stronger foot. Gary looked like a very tubby Peter Beardsley but had none of his movement. Me, you ask? No-one even suggested it. It would be like asking David Seaman to dance on ice.

We had exhausted all options. That was why Danny Vincent was meant to be the ‘1’.