Media

Arsène Wenger – clearly the worst football manager ever

For my sins I’m a bit of an Arsenal fan. Like the glutton for punishment I am, I also happen to be a Guardian reader (probably no surprise to anyone who’s read my increasingly infrequent pinko leftie-liberal ranting on these very pages). These days it’s becoming increasingly difficult to happily combine the two.

I don’t care what any fusty old git says about the Telegraph having the best sports coverage, to my mind the dear old ‘Graun’ wins it by a country mile. Football writers like David Lacey & Kevin McCarra, alongside broader sportswriters like Paul Hayward and Richard Williams, are – if you’ll pardon the rather awkward pun – leagues ahead of the competition in terms of quality, if not readership.

Nevertheless, the (admittedly Manchester-leaning) Guardian seem to have developed an unhealthy obsession with the fortunes of Arsenal Football Club. In fact, scanning the rest of the media, the annual end-of-season implosion of North London’s finest seems to be something of a cause célèbre for everyone else too. Arsène Wenger is variously derided as stubborn, deluded, myopic, deranged, overly prone to whingeing, not to mention tactically inept and – let’s not forget – just bloody well foreign.

An undue amount of attention seems to be given to Arsenal’s sixth season without silverware (although there never seems to be any mention of Liverpool’s trophy cabinet gathering dust for the same period) without anyone pausing to consider perhaps what a fantastic job Wenger has been doing these last few financially-constrained seasons.

During a brief chink of light during an otherwise unrelenting hatchet job on the Arsenal manager, The Independent’s Mark Fleming points out that:

Since The Invincibles season of 2004, Wenger is actually in profit concerning transfer dealings with £10.8m in the bank, thanks mostly to selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to Manchester City, while at the same time recruiting players such as Andrei Arshavin (£15m), Samir Nasri (£15.8m), Theo Walcott (£9m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m). Such frugality is remarkable, given the net spending of his rivals – Manchester City who have spent £435m since 2004; Chelsea £397m; Tottenham Hotspur £239m; Liverpool £142m; and Manchester United £108m, despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m.

Wenger’s shrewd management of Arsenal has seen the club finish in the top four of the Premier League for every one of his fourteen seasons in charge while becoming by far the most financially stable club of those that regularly contest the honours. This has been achieved without the backing of rich benefactors, or indeed (as in the case of Manchester United) the scandalous laying of debt onto the future of the club. Oh, and Arsenal still manage to play by far the most entertaining (if frequently infuriating) brand of football in the English League.

Yes, they were found wanting in the closing stages of the season and yes, almost any Arsenal fan would be able to point to areas of the team which could do with strengthening, but it really is time that someone recognised the quite remarkable job Arsène Wenger has done with such limited means. Instead it seems that otherwise respectable organs like The Guardian draw lots among their sports writers to find out who gets the privilege of putting together the daily character assassination of the Arsenal manager (witness these eight pieces in the last week alone). Meanwhile the free-spending scattergun-in-the-transfer-market Harry Redknapp (one FA Cup win in his managerial career) is portrayed as some cheery national treasure, poised to lead the limited players of the England national squad out of the wilderness the moment his country comes calling.

Perhaps I’ve got it all wrong. Perhaps Arsène Wenger really is the worst football manager ever. Even so, Arsenal would be mad to swap him for anyone else.

A personal view on smoking

OK, best to start with my cards on the table. I am a smoker, I have been for around a quarter of a century (with a few brief flashes of willpower in between) and I work in the pub trade. You could say that these factors cloud (no pun intended) my judgement on the issue of smoking bans, whether the existing public places restrictions or a suggested ban on smoking in cars, and you’d probably be right. Nevertheless, I know smoking is daft, I know it’s unpleasant for non-smokers and I don’t believe it’s fair for parents to make their children suffer the muck they exhale.

Having said all of that, I can’t honestly say I was an enthusiast for the smoking ban when it came in in 2007. As the manager of a rural pub with a predominantly food-led trade we took the decision to become completely non-smoking some months before the ban came into effect, and our customers were (largely) grateful for it. But I always felt that establishments such as ours should be free to choose their own policy. Ultimately I always believed that such things would be, to use the jargon, ‘customer-led’ and that government interference would not be necessary. By the time of the ban there had certainly been a change in public attitudes towards smoking, and those pubs that didn’t examine what they were doing were in danger of being left behind – in the end people would have a choice, and no business wants to be on the wrong end of such a choice.

Of course, the ban in pubs did have another aspect and that was the protection of staff. Whatever one’s views on individual freedom there was a strong case to be made that the generally poorly waged should not be forced to breathe others’ smoke simply to earn a living, and that should be one of the reasons most pubs would never go back in the unlikely event that the law was ever repealed.

No such logic is present in Jersey’s deliberations on whether to ban smoking in cars. Few would argue against such a ban when children are present (although it seems an alarming 16% don’t feel compelled to agree) but it’s difficult to understand why individuals in private cars should not be free to smoke if they choose. Regardless of what those in favour of a ban say, it is not the same as using a hand-held mobile – unlike a phone you can still hold a steering wheel with a cigarette in your hand. Besides, even if you do make the case that smoking is a distraction, where do you draw the line? Is eating a travel sweet a clear and present danger? Should you really have the radio on or, heaven forbid, switch stations?

Perhaps I’m a little paranoid. Maybe I’ve adopted the seige mentality propagated by the tobacco lobby. But there will be many on the mainland who watch the Jersey experience with interest with a view to changing the law here. I suspect that few of those people believe, as I do, that individual freedoms should be maintained provided there is no demonstrable harm to anyone else.

We’ve come a long way from the days when advertisers used to tell a credulous population that “more Doctors smoke Camel than any other cigarette” and that is unquestionably a good thing. A smaller percentage of the population smoke now, and those that do are left in little doubt that their addiction tends not to be viewed sympathetically by the majority. I can handle being a social leper and I’ll keep going with my feeble attempts to quit. But I do think the choice should remain my own, provided I don’t restrict anyone else’s options. It will be interesting to see what Jersey’s powers-that-be conclude.

I’ll finish off with one of my favourite magic clips, which has very little to do with the arguments around smoking bans but is hugely entertaining all the same. This is an American magician called Tom Mullica who used to perform this ‘trick’ throughout the eighties and nineties. Understandably his doctors were never too enamoured with his performance, but the good news is he subsequently gave up smoking. He now reports that he can obtain health insurance for the first time in his professional life.

There is no trickery – he actually does what you see before you. (The whole clip is worth watching, but if you just fancy the disturbing part head to 2:56.)

Wayne Rooney – someone have a word…

To the great surprise of just about no one, the FA and referee Mark Clattenberg have ducked out of making Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney face charges for his blatant elbowing of Wigan’s James McCarthy at the weekend. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the FA’s somewhat strange procedure in cases such as these, it does seem rather odd that such a clearly obvious attempt at assault is able to go unpunished.

It’s probably fair to say that I’m not Rooney’s greatest fan. Talented though he is, you’d have to go a long way to find a more over-hyped player in the already never-knowingly-undersold English Premier League. Witness, for example, the wall-to-wall coverage of his overhead kick in the Manchester derby recently – undeniably a great goal, but overseas players frequently produce such feats with only a fraction of the fanfare – or the continuing media obsession with a colourful private life which is, nevertheless, private (or at least, should be).

Of course, it can easily be said that these factors are outside Rooney’s control. He doesn’t choose the headline writers’ puns, either front page or back. What is his responsibility, however, is his behaviour on the football pitch.

Rooney continually cuts a tormented figure, as if his entire life story is one of endless persecution by ‘The Man’. Every decision by a referee is met with a volley of Anglo-Saxon, a scowl or a plain, unadulterated tantrum. He chips away at opponents, bellows at linesmen, lashes out at corner flags and has now managed to add common assault to his less than glorious repertoire.

The argument often given in defence of his antics, not least by his supremely over-indulgent manager or the likes of previously sane journos like Paul Wilson, is that if you take away Rooney’s dark side you lose the part of his game that makes him ‘special’. What complete neanderthal rubbish. Why should we expect talented footballers to automatically behave like petty thugs or indeed excuse the few that do? It was never the case with Thierry Henry, Kenny Dalglish, Trevor Brooking or countless others. Lionel Messi doesn’t rely on assaults to the head to keep his genius ticking over. Yet we’re constantly told that Rooney’s precious talent makes him a special case.

Without necessarily going down the route of conspiracy theory to explain why Manchester United often seem to receive different treatment from the authorities, I do sometimes despair that anyone will ever summon the courage to tell Rooney to pipe down. Referees, managers, sports writers – all seem to develop a blind spot when it comes to the behaviour of England’s ‘Great Hope’, but seriously people, can someone have a word?

The madness of ‘Deadline Day’

Mercifully, this was my first ‘Transfer Deadline Day’ for some years which remained untouched by the hype and breathless speculation of Sky Sports News (I cancelled my subscription some months ago). As it turned out there was probably no need for that particular network’s passion for sensationalism, as another day of extraordinary gambling in the transfer market unfolded with Fernando Torres heading for Chelsea for £50m and – in perhaps the most eyebrow-raising move of recent years – an apparently reluctant Andy Carroll making the switch to Liverpool from Newcastle for £35m.

Every year one of the over-monied English Premier League clubs takes an extraordinary leap for a seemingly ordinary player, and every year there is the inevitable chorus of “this can’t go on”. Yet we know there will be more of the same in the summer and another rash of panic-buying a year from now. There seems no end in sight for a level of spending we all routinely refer to as unsustainable.

I’m no enthusiast for Tottenham Hotspur but – even for a club managed by Harry Redknapp – they too had a remarkable Deadline Day. Bids for Carroll, Blackpool’s Charlie Adams and a seemingly endless pool of £38.5m-rated Spanish centre-forwards were capped by a £500,000 approach for Everton’s Phil Neville, a move their manager David Moyes described as ‘insulting’.

Redknapp, of course, is great copy for the sports journalists during the transfer window. Not for him the quiet reticence of only speaking when you actually have something to say – Harry loves nothing better than discussing other clubs’ players, giving the nod to the journos about the ‘deals’ he’s working on. Some regard him as something of a national treasure, the coming saviour of the English national team. Others see him as a throwback to another era, when players moved on a nod and a wink and everyone in the game ‘looked after each other’ as it were.

Personally I see him simply as an irritant, someone who should learn the concept of good manners and not ‘tapping a player up’. I’d quite like him to take the England job, sooner rather than later preferably, because I’m fed up of Spurs looking like they might be successful. It’s hard to imagine him as a national coach, however. No transfer market and therefore no opportunity to make public overtures towards Spanish forwards who might be able to “come in and do a job for us”. It would be destined to end in tears, but would no doubt be hugely entertaining along the way.

I never quite understood the rationale behind the transfer window. It always seems to be unfairly restrictive on the clubs with the smallest squads and the tightest resources. Newcastle, for example, now find themselves a key striker down with no chance to bring in a replacement until the summer. The ‘big’ clubs, by contrast, can afford to splash out heavily with a few hours of the window remaining, thereby reinforcing their dominance on a league already controlled by sugar daddy owners with deep pockets (or, in the case of the Glazers at Manchester United, large overdraft facilities). Perhaps the worried cries of unsustainability over the years have been wide of the mark, but Deadline Day does rather preserve the status quo – the one reason above all others that nothing’s likely to change soon.

It’s hard not to gloat about The Ashes

I began fiddling around with this post before play had even started on the final day of the Fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, and that is probably another indication of how annoying fans of English cricket will become to Australians over the coming days, weeks and months. Cockiness has seemingly become part and parcel of the England fans’ mindsets over the series so far, at least in the eyes of the Aussies, and the bad news is there’s almost certainly worse to come.

Last night Andrew Strauss’ team retained The Ashes by comfortably winning the Fourth Test, thereby assuring at least a draw in the five match series. The series isn’t won yet – a win or a draw for England in the final Test at Sydney would clinch that – but the gloating is well and truly underway.

The thing is that it’s particularly hard not to gloat about any sporting triumph against ‘The Old Enemy’. I don’t even like rugby, but I couldn’t resist reminding any Australian I encountered of Jonny Wilkinson’s drop goal in the 2003 World Cup Final for some months after the event. Similarly, the Ashes triumphs on home soil in 2005 and 2009 were brought up at any opportunity, even if the 5-0 whitewash at the hands of the Aussies in 2006-7 put everything briefly into perspective.

This one is special, however. Every English touring side over the last twenty-four years has had to endure the sneering and sledging of the home nation and acres of accompanying newsprint devoted to the topic of whether such uncompetitive opponents warranted a five match series. Suddenly such commentary has fallen silent while the previously packed venues have steadily emptied as the home side’s fortunes have disappeared down the pan.

The Australian media have been a joy to behold on this tour, one minute claiming their favourites were not fit to wear the famous Baggy Green, the next pointing sharply at perceived English hubris. Now they are left to face defeat, and in so doing have given us a reminder that perhaps the British media aren’t the only ones who enjoy nothing more than giving their own a brutal character assassination. (My favourite outlet of the series has been the Sydney Morning Herald and an example of their no-holds-barred criticism of a deflated Australian side can be seen here.)

So I for one will not be afraid to wallow in a healthy dose of gloating at the expense of the previously unassailable Australian cricket team. Yes, England can still lose the Fifth Test and yes, Australia will almost certainly rebuild and come back stronger, but it’s hard to put away the memories of a quarter of a century of relentless Aussie gloating. It may not be big, clever or even slightly magnanimous, but I can’t take my eyes off the current disaster of Australian cricket – and I’m loving every minute of it.

Britain (and the BBC) discover the length, width and depth of the shaft

Gideon has spoken and the Coalition government has finally passed sentence on the public sector, outlining £81bn of spending cuts over four years. The Chancellor delivered his long-awaited (feared?) Comprehensive Spending Review to the Commons yesterday in a carefully crafted statement aimed at blunting Labour criticisms of the severity of the cuts. Announcing a 19% cut across departmental budgets, Osborne drew a contrast with Labour’s pre-election plans to halve the deficit which would still have involved reductions of 20% across the same areas. (The difference will be made up by an additional £7bn raid on the welfare budget, we are told.)

In many respects the statement was reminiscent of the Gordon Brown Budgets after 1997 – expectation lowered in the press in the lead-up to the announcement, final proposals that don’t seem too bad compared to what was feared, and a well-spun political presentation of the end result. Brown’s Budgets also had a knack of unravelling in the days after the announcement as those in the know started to probe the detail, but we’ll have to wait to see if Osborne’s statement goes the same way.

In spite of the spin, there will still be savage cuts. Police budgets will be cut by 16% over four years, councils will face cuts of nearly 30%, and the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice will see their budgets cut by 6% a year. And, regardless of Osborne’s wearying claim that “we’re all in this together”, it seems very clear that those most well off (including those – like Gideon – who live off £4m trust funds) will hardly see the same destructive effect on their lives as will surely be suffered by those at the other end of the income scale. Indeed, the Institute for Fiscal Studies is already highlighting the review’s harshest impact (surprise surprise) on the poorest in society.

Submerged in all the talk of spending cuts, the details of the Coalition’s shafting of the BBC also came to light this week, thereby completing the first part of the Conservative Party’s Faustian pact with Rupert Murdoch. As the Guardian outlines here the licence fee will be frozen for six years, which represents a real terms cut of 16%, and out of the reduced budget the BBC will have to divert money to the World Service (currently funded in part by the Foreign Office) and Welsh language broadcaster S4C. It’s perhaps quite telling that the BBC had privately feared far worse.

The second, and potentially even more alarming part of the Murdoch appeasement plan is still to come and relates to the media giant’s desire to assume complete control of BSkyB – a move which will be decided on by the Business Secretary (and erstwhile darling of, well, just about everybody) Vince Cable. As David Puttnam passionately argued in The Observer last month, the delicate balance of the British media and therefore the framing of debate in this country is under serious threat from this proposal.

These are pivotal moments for the future of the media in the UK. Commercial broadcasters have always complained about the dominance of the BBC, often with some justification, but the Murdoch approach is a rather different beast altogether. Not content with a simple wrecking ball approach to the Corporation (enthusiastically wielded by the Coalition) he also wishes to consolidate his grip on the British commercial media at a time when no one is really certain about how broadcasting or the press will evolve in an age when the internet continues to expand at an almost exponential rate.

As the FT’s Martin Wolf argues, Vince Cable has a golden opportunity to try to restore some semblance of ‘fairness’ to the Coalition’s already tarnished reputation. One can only hope that he puts a stop to the impression of the timidity of the Coalition (and indeed, every government since 1979) around the Murdoch empire. The government has showed its willingness to ‘fearlessly’ wield the axe on public services – an ounce of that determination should now be directed towards resisting Murdoch. The consequences of the cuts are not yet fully understood, but protecting the plurality of the British media surely has to be that rarest of bonuses for the Coalition: a relatively easy win.

The Wisdom of George

Steve Richards of The Independent tweets that we should not be surprised if George Osborne performs a u-turn over the controversial Child Benefit cut for high earners announced at the Tory Party Conference this week. The point Richards makes is that, while in Opposition, Cameron and Osborne quite frequently ‘flip-flopped’, to use the dreadful American parlance, at the first sign of serious media scrutiny of policy. “They are weak” he writes and, for all the tough rhetoric on tackling the deficit, there is more than a grain of truth to the remark.

My sense from the outside is that Osborne will probably stick by the announcement on child benefit, in spite of the rage from certain sections of the press, and try to paper over the cracks by making the sort of vacuous, moralising intervention on marriage that has already been indicated. I may not know a great deal about Osborne’s mindset but experience demonstrates that, given a range of options, instinct normally leads him towards the wrong one.

Perhaps the middle class outrage at the (frankly quite messy) changes to Child Benefit is the start of something faintly encouraging. I don’t mean in the sense that Women’s Institutes the length and breadth of Britain will start to become more politically engaged, but that – finally – there is a flicker of scrutiny of Tory policy from the party’s friends in the right-wing press. This is unlikely to unleash a full-scale examination of the darkness at the heart of the Conservative world view – the Mail, Telegraph and Murdoch propaganda sheets know where their bread is buttered – but the press may yet find it hard to supress their natural instinct to hunt down an individual when they scent weakness. Osborne may have some difficult months ahead of him.

It’s hard to see how Osborne can find himself in a position to pull any rabbits out of the hat. The economic situation is bleak and by any measure he was a strange choice for Chancellor given the options available to David Cameron when the Coalition was formed. Both Vince Cable and Kenneth Clarke were clearly better qualified for the job and there can be little doubt that Osborne holds his position (arguably the first ‘proper’ job of his life) purely as a result of the personal loyalty of the Prime Minister. Such loyalty is worth a great deal of course, as the continual, bewildering survival of Andy Coulson demonstrates, but is it really doing anyone any favours?

The coming months will test the Coalition to breaking point. The government will inevitably become increasingly unpopular as the cuts start to bite, and much pressure will fall on the Liberal Democrat involvement, depending on next year’s elections and the outcome of the AV Referendum. Crucial at such times is the work and vision of the Treasury, as the fulcrum of the business of government. The biggest worry for the Coalition must be that so much therefore depends on the wisdom – or otherwise – of George Osborne.