No Mourinho magic in Manchester

March 12, 2009

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Charismatic leadership can be like a conjuring trick which seems to defy all rational principles. But there are limits to what can be achieved, as Jose Mourinho found out at Old Trafford

The European Cup tie was billed as the clash of two great football managers as Jose Mourinho brought his Inter Milan team to Old Trafford [Wed 11th March 2009] after a goalless first leg at Milan. Manchester United and Inter headed their respective national leagues. United had won the trophy in 2008, and had since won a fledgling competition to establish themselves as World Champions. Most commentators considered United to be a stronger team. Inter had further problems from injuries to key players.

And yet …

And yet there was a degree of caution in the press in predicting a winner. On the home goals rule, a score draw would be enough for Inter to go through. But the main consideration the pundits mentioned in favour of the Italian team was Mourinho’s overwhelming winning record against Manchester teams (which means teams managed by Sir Alex Ferguson). This record, first with Porto, and then Chelsea, was part of the legend of Mourinho, the self-styled special one, and charismatic leader.

Mourinho may not have spooked Alex Ferguson, but he had had his usual effect at a distance on supporters and media alike.

Even the first leg could be claimed a minor victory for Jose. United played well but were denied by Inter in the first half, who then came back strongly after half time. Mourinho was assumed to have worked his magic during the interval or a team considered to have fewer world-class players in their prime.

The effects of charisma

The preservation of the image of a special one was captured in the post-match conference in Milan. Mourinho had, unusually, not acknowledged his counterpart on the touchline, when the match ended.

THis was not intended as a mark of disrespect. I have a special exit from the field, the special one explained. But he had left a message for Sir Alex with a ‘three houndred pound bottle of wine’ at his hotel, to say he would look forward to meting at Old Trafford for the second leg.

Two weeks later

Now at Manchester, Mourinho’s customary swagger is evident as comes into view on the touchline wearing his trademark black magician’s cloak (sorry, overcoat). The crowd in the theatre of dreams boo him energetically and theatrically. The contest starts.

Four minutes later, and the magic spell seems to have gone wrong. Slack marking from Inter, and United take the lead. Technically Inter win still win if they score one goal and United do not add to their tally. Mourinho paces around uttering incantations.

But maybe he still has inspired something special in his players. Manchester’s skill levels drop off (Afterwards, Ferguson was caustic on their sloppiness). His team gets to half time lucky to preserve the lead. United were still appearing scrappy and uncomfortable as the second half started. Then United score another goal, in one of the few world-class moves of the game. Even then, with Milan now needing two goals to triumph, the players played nervously in a way that was at odds with the score, and their record at Old Trafford for many months.

The limits of charisma

United repelled fluent moves from their opponents, cameras switching from time to time to Jose on the touchline. As his team created chance after chance and failed convert them, his body language began to change. It was like watching one of those cartoon characters racing over a cliff, and pedalling furiously in mid-air before fantasy yields to the reality of gravity, and the character plunges to earth.

The crowd chanted “You’re not special anymore” but more with a mix of relief and black humour than of spite.

We were witnessing the limits of charisma. Maybe not gone for ever, but vanquished in one particular battle in one particular place. Even the magician’s cloak looked more like a perfectly ordinary if expensive piece of clothing, more often associated with mourners at a funeral.

The final whistle blows. N special tunnel for Jose. The two great managers execute a clumsy embrace for public consumption. In the press conference shortly afterwards, Jose says Manchester United are ‘at their maximum’ and will win everything they compete for this year.

Of course. It takes super-special magic to defeat a chosen one.


Northern Rock taken over by Manchester United: Official

October 27, 2007

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Update:

The post was intended as a light-hearted comment on the bizarre worlds of football and high-finance. Later, during the European Championships, [June 2008] the traffic attracted to the post suggested the news may have taken on the authority of a football rumour. The original post follows…

What’s the difference between Manchester United and Newcastle United? Football supporters have their own answers to the question. What about this answer? Newcastle United Football Club are not (yet) financially connected with AIG

Leaders we deserve is not a site at which you might expect to find sensationalist stories. I am in awe of the creativity of headline writers. I could never compete with the genius who produced the all-time classic Freddie Starr ate my hampster.

Recently I have been inspired by the creative headlines and blogs of the BBC’s Robert Peston. He has outscooped, outwritten, and outheadlined all other financial journalists on the Northern Rock affair. Respect. In homage to such great headline makers and writers, here is my modest contribution to the Andy Warhol headline of the hour award:

Northern Rock taken over by Manchester United: Official

It’s such a liberating feeling to write something like that.

Creative headlines have the same relationship to literal accuracy as reality shows have to a Mills and Boon romance. So what am I getting at? Here’s the case as it was reported in more sober terms. And what could be more sober than parts of the BBC not yet inspired by the Peston putzvah?

Last week, Northern Rock said it was continuing to negotiate its position with a number of “potentially interested” suitors. They include the Virgin-led consortium, also featuring US insurance company AIG, which has offered to buy a majority stake in the bank and inject “hundreds of millions of pounds” of money in exchange for taking control and rebranding the business as Virgin Money.

AIG. Remember them? That vast American financial operation whose initials are now on our TV screens every time a Manchester United player runs on to a pitch, or stands in front of an advertizing hoarding in a post-match interview. AIG is as close to Manchester United Football Club as are its American bosses the Glazer family.

In some contrast, Northern Rock is culturally committed to the North East of England, to Newcastle, and Newcastle United sport. It is a key supporter of Newcastle United Football Club.

Or as The Guardian put it recently

The last decade has seen Northern Rock donate £175m to a range of charities and community ventures in the north east of England including youth football teams in Newcastle, opera in Leeds and local homeless projects … Northern Rock is also the main sponsor of Premier League football team Newcastle United in a deal that runs until 2010.

Fantasy Football

In the world of fantasy football I see the following scenario. Cast as the evil empire, Manchester United is bent on global domination. The unsuspecting Americans have been dragged into the plans of super-villain Sir Alec (Darth Vader) Ferguson. Jedi Knight Richard Branson is an innocent pawn in the game. Aided by his puppets AIG, Northern Rock will be captured.
At a crucial time, Michael (Luke Skywalker) Owen will be brought back to Manchester and forced into playing for Manchester United.

So when these events come to pass …Just remember where you heard about them first.


Sven, Alex and the Prawn Sandwich Brigade

August 19, 2007

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The first battle of the season between Manchester City and Manchester United is an opportunity to evaluate the impact of two celebrated leaders of contrasting styles. Sir Alex (The hairdryer) Ferguson blows as hot as Sven Goran Eriksson remains icily cool. The press have managed to squeeze out a story of mutual antagonism. The city remains largely disinterested in the press version of events.

Matches between Manchester City and Manchester United do not seem to be among the highlights of the year for some local fans. City fans say it is because United supporters don’t come from Manchester. And anyway, they are inclined to add, the only Premiership stadium in the city is now Eastlands and until recently was at Maine Road, spiritual home of Manchester City.

Still, the press can always find a way to make the event more noteworthy. I picked up the story on the day of the Manchester derby match of August 19th 2007.

In The Sunday Telegraph, Roy Collins referred to ‘that mixture of Swedish and English that should perhaps be known as Svenglais’. Sven has excellent English, somewhat easier to understand than most English (not to mention Scottish) pundits and commentators.

It brought back to mind the gratuitous and unthinkingly xeonphobic articles Sven suffered during his time as England manager. As if on cue, I came across another article by Manchester City fan and Guardian blogger/ reporter Simon Hattenstone who acclaimed Sven’s great start as City’s manager, while hedging his bets in advance of the Manchester Derby, resorting (I think) to irony.

Svennis, I’m so, so, so, so, so sorry. I shouldn’t have compared you to Death in The Seventh Seal, shouldn’t have called you frigid, lily-livered and deluded, or harked on about your Cuban heels, or made gratuitous references to your Zeus-like libido, or been catty about the sweet dream that you were managing Manchester United, or questioned your ingenious scouting on YouTube. I was foolish, Svennis, an ignoramus. Glib. Just a stupid football fan wantonly giving you sticks.

With friends like these …

A more balanced view of Sven’s track-record found in an excellent BBC highs and lows treatment. And a useful if hagiographic account of Sir Alex in a ManU fanzone.

How to create a story

The tabloids managed to work up a story (an old one of ‘Fergie’s mind games’).
“People are trying to get me to talk about Sven, but I don’t know enough about him for an opinion really.” Which didn’t stop an article in The People from Steve Bates featuring the ‘exclusive’ that

Sir Alex Ferguson took a dig at Manchester derby rival Sven Goran Eriksson last night, claiming he’s only managing in the Premier League for the big-money wages.

I thought I’d offer a little local background to the match …

What’s it like in Manchester?

Wet. Cool. Quiet. At nine in the morning, the main signs of life are a few cars on near-deserted roads in the suburbs, and even fewer customers for the morning paper at the newsagents. The supermarkets are still getting ready for the mid-morning shoppers. The weather is worth a couple of hundred auxiliary coppers on crowd-control duties; the magistrate who sanctioned an early Sunday kickoff also did her civic duty.

It’s hard to believe it will be possible to play a game of tennis outdoors. It may be harder to understand how a group of us manages to play almost every Sunday. That’s because we play on an all-weather court, and in drizzle, and between showers. And so we shall today.

At the bar, Eric is having a late breakfast before going to the match. He says he fancies City to win. Eric always fancies City to win. But there’s always hope.

Ours is a mixed club. Mixed in a mostly tolerant way. There are reds and blues, but more than a smattering of the other regional reds (Liverpool supporters). To complicate the mix more, quite a few members are also supporters of that other local sympathy case, Stockport County (‘My other car’s a Porsche’).

Bragging rights

Supporters, true supporters, aren’t supposed to fraternise with the enemy. Maybe we are the kind so neatly skewered by Roy Keene as the prawn sandwich brigade. Anyway, I can’t see me tossing insults at Eric across the stadium, or vice-versa. We just wouldn’t accuse each other of being that sort of tosser. As for bragging rights, that’s maybe one of the psychological payoffs us prawn sandwich brigadiers have to do without. At least it makes Mondays more bearable for all sides. On the other hand, there is plenty of interest in football. I could probably say who supports whom for most of these folk …

Still falls the rain

In my mind’s eye, I can see more-committed praetorian guardsmen gathering prior to battle. Rain will not weary them, nor the clouds dispel. Their drummers will rally the troops as they head for the East Manchester fields, having supped well on what used to be called the Cream of Manchester, the blessed Boddingtons, brewed but a stone’s throw from Strangeways prison. As true to my stereotyping, as they to theirs, I head off home, if not to a prawn sandwich then maybe for a piece of Pork and Pickle pie.

Stop Press

City 1 United 0. Eric’s dream has come true. Sven’s team tops the table, Sir Alex, for the moment, has come out second best. I can’t remember what the Pork and Pickle pie tasted like.


Tevez Transfer Stalemate: A Lesson in Sporting Leadership?

July 19, 2007

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Attempts by Manchester United Football Club to sign Argentina’s Carlos Tevez have been described as in a stalemate. Did complicated legal issues make this inevitable? Or in hindsight, might more creative leadership actions have avoided this impasse? And if so, by whom?

This has not been the happiest week in the footballing life of Carlos Tevez. A week ago he was a leading member of the Argentinian team favored to win the prestigious Copa America competition. In addition, Manchester United Football Club had announced that a transfer deal of the star from West Ham United was all but complete.

Over the weekend, Brazil recaptured enough of their brilliant skills in the final to sweep aside bitter rivals Argentina. Tevez headed for Europe, final destination Manchester, for a pre-transfer medical check-up with the club of his dreams. Personal terms had been agreed with his agent.

No so fast, Senor

Even as he was completing the last leg of the flight, the story took on a new turn. There had been delays in sorting out the contract, and now last-minute talks between West Ham and MUFC had broken down. Tevez arrived in Manchester, but he had not been granted permission by West Ham to put himself forward for a medical examination.

What’s going on?

English football fans were familiar to the background of a rather complicated story. I will try to capture the various inter-related threads, from the various press reports.

Where does a story start? We have to go back at least as far as the time that West Ham became involved in a very unusual transfer deal involving two Argentine footballers, Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano.

The deal in Auguest 2006 was unusual because unlike other contracts agreed through the FA and The Premier league, the players were still, in some unrevealed way, not fully contracted as West Ham players at the outset of the deal. The arrangement was not with their former club (Corinthians) but with an agant, Kai Joorabchian on behalf of a shadowy background organization Media Sports Investments (MSI).

According to BBC reports

MSI were headed until June by Kia Joorabchian, who resigned but retained an investment in the two Argentines. MSI were linked with a takeover of West Ham last season but eventually pulled out.

While the contract was unusual, there have been other abnormal contractual arrangements permitting players to move on loan to and between Premier League clubs, with small-print not made public. The Premier League and The Football Association accepted reassurances from West Ham that satisfied them enough to sanction the arrangement. This was later to become one of the contested areas in the matter.

At the time of the contract, West Ham appeared to be struggling to survive in The Premiership. Financial limitations prevented them investing in top-flight players. Within considerable turmoil on and off the pitch, performances remained bad.

Enter The Egg

It was with some sense of relief that the club passed to new ownership with deeper pockets. The new owner quickly caught the public imagination. Eggert Magnusson (The Egg) is a wealthy Icelandic businessman who had already been involved in football as President of the Football Association of Iceland
His somewhat quirky appearance and enthusiasm and commitment to West Ham seemed to silence even the more extreme xenophobic reactions from the Alf Garnet faction still active among the club’s supporters.

West Ham’s problems persist

The club’s fortunes continued to decline until demotion was almost inevitable. Tevez had failed to live up to the reputation mainly earned through his World Cup performances. Magnússon sacked manager Alan Pardew in December 2006 replacing him with Alan Curbishley. The question of Tevez’ contractual position was again raised. A lengthy enquiry began.

The great escape

Then a great escape occurred. Tevez began to score match-winning goals. West Ham began a remarkable winning streak. Survival was still a possibility. Eggert had a contagious belief in his new players.

But other clubs facing relegation began to speak out against the arrangements that had brought Tevez to West Ham. Legal action was threatened. Sheffield United manager Neil Warnock, anticipating a close finish, was particularly vociferous, arguing that West Ham should be punished by losing points. This would help Sheffield United but effectively condemn West Ham to demotion.

An independent enquiry found that the club had initially been technically wrong in their contractual arrangement. The punishment was a fine, but no point deductions. During this period, one concern regarding the outcome of a future transfer of Tevez. The club claimed to have ‘ripped up’ an agreement [presumed to be Joorabchian and partners]. This was seen as protecting West Ham from the charge that future transfers might also be unconventional and taken as possible evidence of the club’s further illegal arrangements with Tevez’ agents.

In a gripping climax to the season, other struggling clubs (including Sheffield United) stumbled. West Ham avoided relegation when they won the last game of the season against Manchester United who had already won the League. Desperation triumphed over classy complacency. Tevez impressed enormously and scored a fine goal.

The legal challenges to West Ham petered out.

Manchester United bid for Tevez

The close season in the English Premier league is also a transfer window (the other window is in January). After their League triumph, MUFC revealed their recruitment plans for the new season. Unlike West Ham, they were able to compete for the best players.

Apparently, Tevez is a player whom Manager Sir Alex Ferguson had admired for some while. His admiration must have been reinforced by the performance of Tevez in the last game of the season.

In a recent press conference, AF announced that a deal to secure Tevez was nearly complete, subject to some details to be agreed with the League. He sounded confident, revealing that the final details would be sorted out by Club lawyer and former director Maurice Watkins. He added that Club Chairman David Gill had been working on the matter for a while, but he and Gill were shortly leaving with the squad on a pre-season tour in Asia.

Confidence at Old Trafford in clinching the deal began to drain away, after an emphatic statement from West Ham to the effect that they still held the rights to the player, and that he was not up for transfer.

From Japan, David Dill announces that FIFA has been called in to ‘expedite a resolution’ of a dispute between player and West Ham, and that he expects the resolution to find ‘in favor of the player’. He still expects Carlos Tevez to be playing for MUFC at the start of the new season.

Leadership lessons

The stalemate metaphor is only of limited application. Stalemate in chess occurs when the player to move has no legal move available. This is invariably the player who would otherwise lose. The stalemate is the result of a previous careless move from the player who was in the stronger position. In this case, it seems as if MUFC had the stronger position, but West Ham had been able to avoid accepting defeat. MUFC has to set up arrangements for another more conclusive battle.

In fact, you can see how chess metaphor as a source of strategy insights can be taken a bit further. The MU leadership may have taken for granted that their position was so strong as to require no deep risk analysis. This is suggested by the way that David Gill had delegated the case to solicitor Maurice Watkins, while Magnus Magnusson remained very much on the case at West Ham.

One of the special features of the business is the potential for blame to be attached to various parties, including the Premier league. The blame may have serious financial and legal consequences.

These were the ‘events’ that turned the matter of completing a football transfer into a complex problem.

Don’t hold your breath on this one…

Update

There were a few more twists and turns. Eventually a contract was signed and Tevez joined MUFC on loan for two years. On loan from whom? Not West Ham, although the club received a payment from the Joorabchian camp in a deal which confirmed it was not West Ham.


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