Monday, December 10, 2007

Archbishop scores a few points

Ugandan-born Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, cut up his dog collar today and vowed not to wear it again until Robert Mugabe was no longer in control of Zimbabwe. He called Mugabe, ‘the worst king of fascist dictator,’ before going on to explain that he felt it hypocritical that a white man would always be vilified for such lunatic behaviour as Magabe’s, whilst Mugabe himself has received solid support from several African leaders.

What was striking about the Archbishop’s actions was that they represented a loud and overt political gesture over a matter that most people would agree was worth raising. The Church of England, by and large, does not go in for this kind of thing, or if they do I cannot personally remember the last time that it happened. It was rather refreshing to see it.

It’s not that I have any great respect for church leaders, it’s just that given what they stand for - Christian values - it’s nice to see one of them walking the walk for once. It has often occurred to me that, although I particularly despise their brand of stupidity, it is only the Jehovah’s Witnesses who organise themselves to knock on people’s doors and try to talk us all out of eternal damnation. It seems to me that if you really believe in heaven and hell, then it is only decent to go around and warn the rest of humanity about what we are all letting ourselves in for. If you believe, then it’s the least you should do; it is logically consistent.

I have an image of a Church of England vicar visiting me on a pastoral day-visit to hell.
‘Why didn’t you warn me if you knew that this would happen? I ask him.
‘Didn’t want to bother you,’ he says.

In truth, I prefer the C of E’s didn’t want to bother you approach. Apart from anything else, it saves all the hiding behind the sofa that the Jo-Ho’s visit upon us, but it does nothing to assist with the church’s credibility and nothing to drum up a flock for a dwindling institution.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Very sorry Sir Trevor, but ...

I read an article by Martin Samuel in the Times, today, about ‘the crisis facing youth football in England.’ It was based around an interview with the FA’s director of technical development, Sir Trevor Brooking.

There were various hints in the article about things that go wrong at grass-roots level; leagues that want to play 11-a-side for U-8s, the long-ball approach to winning games, and badly behaved parents making a nuisance of themselves from the touchlines.

I ran a boys club for 5 years and, though I say so myself, I was very good at it, practically a genius compared to some managers that I met. We were way ahead of most clubs in terms of the coaching that we offered, the ethos of the club (fun, fairness and player development, above all else), and in our communications and expectations of parents.

The unfortunate thing is that, despite giving it up - due to work commitments - several years ago, I still think that the FA and other involved bodies are yet to catch up to the level of enlightment that I and a few others had back in 2000. True, I believe that the FA do now set parental guidelines and they do try to get managers to take a half-day coaching course, but they still permit the counties to allow the leagues to operate on a point-scoring basis, and there are still plenty of small children playing on big pitches with big goals.

So, you may ask, what is wrong with leagues which award 3 points for a win and 1 for draw? Simple, it encourages the managers and the parents to worry about results. I sent 10 year-old players out to play in games where my best player was, on occasions, man-for-man marked. In other words, his opposite number was sacrificing his own game to stop my boy playing, which is ridiculous at that age.

Leagues, as we know them, are the perfect way to stand in the way of the development of personal skills.

Ideally you want players to be trying new skills and attempting to showboat a bit when they take the field, not playing safe for fear of surrendering possession. You want defenders to learn for themselves the risks involved in playing the ball neatly, or dribbling, out of their own penalty box, not to always be told to welly it clear. Players should not rigidly be set in one position for an entire season/s, they should be encouraged to learn about all aspects of the game by playing many different positions. Managers need to feel free to be fair to their youngsters and put their weaker players onto the field more often than some do, rather than think that they cannot risk doing so, for fear of weakening the team and losing a game.

All of these problems crop up in every league, in every team, every week. Believe me!

If you take away the points system in leagues and just leave the fixtures, the games will be just as exciting and the manager will still feel that he has to win, the parents will still be in raptures of ecstasy, or fits of anger on the touchline, but that absolute need to win will be diminished by just a bit. Perhaps enough to allow the manager to say that he needed to experiment on that particular day, because the result didn’t really matter. We thereby enable the bravest, most well-intentioned managers to feel free enough to lose matches in order to assist their players to develop.

Why do I think that this will work? It works in Holland and elsewhere.

All of this would take some selling to managers and parents alike, they would not get it straight away, just as nobody wanted 7-a-side for all U11’s before it was forced upon them. However, once it is spelled out to people they will see the point, we are all capable of grasping a better idea when it comes along, but the question is who is leading the way?

Martin Samuel made the point that to listen to Sir Trevor you get the impression that he is attempting to alter things from the standpoint of a frustrated bystander watching from the wings, rather than a Colonel ‘H’ Jones type who is storming the enemy from the front.

Brooking talks about the Professional Game Board and the FA Technical Control Board as groups that have to be brought into line and persauded before major alterations can be brought into effect. Even with the power of Google at my disposal I have been unable to find out very rapidly exactly what these groups do, but in a sense it does not matter. The point is, too many cooks are clearly spoiling the broth.

And this is always going to happen if it is allowed to. Everybody who loves football would like to be involved in it. If somebody asked me to join an important FA committee I would, then I would worry about whether if I was doing a worthwhile job afterwards.

If Sir Trevor cannot get out from the quicksand that he is currently flailing around in, then maybe he needs to be replaced by a stronger character, or else find re-enforcements.

For a long time I have felt that Simon Clifford is perfect for the position of FA director of technical development. He has a rare combination of vision, mastery of PR, pig-headedness, arrogance and obsession. There could not be a better candidate in my view. He would be just the kind of guy who, given the power, could steamroller new ideas into being and he would have the media dexterity and political guile to floor any obstructions from football quangos.

I have blogged about Simon Clifford before and, just as before, I will state that this is not because I have anything to gain from it, I just happen to think that he is an exceptional individual and perhaps even an authentic genius in his chosen field. And we are short of those in English football.

Very shortly the FA will most likely approach Jose Mourinho for the vacant position of England manager. They will do this because they see it as a no-brainer and a choice that will garner public support.

Asking Simon Clifford to take on the role of director of technical development would not have public support, most would ask ‘who the hell is he?’ On the other hand that is what they said about Arsene Wenger when Arsenal took him on and yet, despite the disquiet at the time, he did all right, didn’t he?

Simon Clifford's web site is:

The last time I gave Simon Clifford a mention it was in this posting:
English football and the Football Association

Thursday, November 29, 2007

The One True Faith

We have been hearing in the news today about Gillian Gibbons, a middle-aged English woman living and working in the Sudan as a teacher, who has been arrested by the authorities for allowing her young charges to name a teddy bear Mohamed. This, according to Islam, is blasphemy.

For me this brings to mind all of the many objections that I have against religion, which when I boil them down amount to this. I believe that all religions are invented by men and are constantly altered by them, in order to suit the society around them, and that religions are nothing but an alternative seat of power; to the government, the monarch, or the tribal leader.

There are so many ways that you can legitimately and logically attack religions that it is hard to know where to begin, but the simplest thing to point out is that they are different to one another and this must make most of them wrong.

Consider some differences:
Christianity believes in one true god.
Islam believes that Jesus was not the son of god.
Hinduism believes in multiple deities.
Buddhism believes in re-incarnation.
And so on…

According to the last census, there are 135 different faiths in Great Britain (if we count Jedi). Most of these will be one of the major faiths, or a variation of them, others will be cults and sects, put together on the basis of somebody’s personal philosophies. Still others will be mumbo-jumbo, brought into being for the purpose of personal profit, or mischief.

Few of these belief systems seem to lack dedicated and ardent followers. In fact, some of these followers would be happy to blow you (and themselves) up if your behaviour does not accord with their own values. Values which, incidentally, the majority will have inherited as part of their cultural upbringing, as opposed to any personal journey to enlightment.

I would always defend the individual's right to believe in and worship whatever they want and discuss those beliefs openly, provided they do no harm to others in the process.

However, I don’t have to respect the things that people believe in and when I hear of another piece of lunacy transacted in the name of religion I always come back to the inescapable fact that of the 135 faiths currently practised in the UK, simple logic tells me that at least 134 of them must be wrong, inaccurate, misinformed, or misguided. Only one, or none at all, can be the one true faith.

And of those two bets you know where my money is.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Footballers And Their Money

Since the England football team made their early, pre-finals exit from the European Nations competition the country’s journalists have been looking to work all the angles. Played just right, big sports news like this can provide at least a couple of week’s worth of material for them.

Years ago I did regular computer-related work for a local newspaper, the Hitchin Gazzette, and ‘Got any stories?’ was a regular refrain whenever I went into their offices.

The problem from the perspective of a journalist is that Joe Public has an insatiable appetite for news, but he’s heard it all before and nothing, no matter how momentous, dulls his hunger for very long.

The best example of this that I can think of was a story that ran internationally about a year ago, which informed us that scientists predicted that only 17 years from that time an asteroid which they were tracking would probably strike the Earth and obliterate life on the planet as we know it. This was a true story, though it was later downgraded by cosmologists to a likely near miss on the part of the asteroid. At the time, despite the clear portent of global devastation this news only had legs for about 2 days, after that they had to find something different to write about.

It’s no surprise, therefore, that journalists have a habit of returning to subjects that they know, or believe, exercise the public’s interest, or its ire. One such subject in the UK is footballers’ salaries and in the light of recent events there was yet another excuse to give it an airing.

The constant reference to what top soccer stars earn just has to be a class thing, doesn’t it? Rock stars, film stars, and entrepreneurs seem to get away relatively unscathed, but the working-class oiks who become elevated beyond their station by easy access to money are worthy of endless disapproval, and so is the sport that allowed it to happen, football. Both are, therefore, perennial easy targets for every crass politician, journalist and radio phone-in show that has become mired by a bankruptcy of ideas.

In actual fact, people who come from nothing and make themselves a fortune are the bedrock of the capitalist system. They are the ones who supply the evidence that it could be you; proof that wealth does not have to be conferred upon you by the privilege of high birth, but that it can be anybodies with the right degree of hard work, talent and luck.

There is no need to start a revolution and put all of the toffs up against a wall in a society where John Terry can earn £130,000 per week.

The Premiership is huge internationally, the recent Arsenal v Manchester United game was reputed to have picked up an audience of around a billion people and that generates massive TV revenue. Part of that revenue pays the wages of the best footballers on the planet and it does it via a system of supply and demand. Meaning that if you can do something better than anybody else and there is a demand for that something, then you will get paid top dollar.

And that really is the end of the story. People should either shut up about what footballers earn and stop boring us silly with it, or else they should come clean and proclaim the virtues of communism.

Friday, November 23, 2007

English football and the Football Association

Some years ago, when my sons were a bit younger, I was interested in running a boy’s football team and before I started I was concerned that I might not get enough boys interested in playing. As it turned out, one team rapidly burgeoned into 15, the club was very successful in every aspect and despite (or because of) the huge effort I put in the whole project was very worthwhile in many respects. To this day it was probably the single most satisfying thing that I have ever been involved in.

In the beginning, because I wanted to do everything properly, the first thing I wanted to learn about was modern coaching methods. This led me to do the old FA Preliminary coaching badge – equivalent to the newer UEFA ‘C’ certificate. On top of this I discovered the Dutch Coerver system of coaching and met one of my childhood heroes, Charlie Cooke, in the process. After that I spent a weekend in Leeds looking at Simon Clifford’s Brazilian system. It was all very interesting and eye-opening stuff at the time.

As I went along, absorbing and trying new ideas, what was often very noticeable was how the FA always lagged the trends, both in terms of coaching ideas and in its understanding of what was happening on the grass-roots touchlines. They tended to adopt new ideas only after first rejecting them and then by being persuaded of the value of them by dint of other people’s efforts.

Simon Clifford; a hugely impressive and persuasive individual, is a very good example of this. He took it upon himself to borrow money in order to go to Brazil and try to work out why the Brazilians produce so many excellent footballers, whilst the English do not. One of the stories that Simon recounts is the one about Stan Mortensen coming back from the 1958 World Cup and reporting to the FA exactly how advanced the Brazilians were in terms of technique, coaching, fitness, and every other aspect of preparedness for international football. The FA responded by immediately setting up a committee to look into Mortensen’s findings. They had one meeting and then called it a day.

In my experience the FA and its officers are reasonable administrators, but they are certainly not visionaries, they are not the kind of people you can rely upon to send a surge of fresh energy through the coaching structures in England. The smart ties and blazers image is not just a myth, it really is what they do best.

As a result of losing to Croatia, England, quite rightly, went out of the 2008 European Nations Cup competition a couple of nights ago. I say ‘quite rightly’ because, over the course of a competition, league results do not lie. And the results say that after 12 games and 36 points to be played for England were third best, and so deserve no place in the finals.

On this occasion the England players were not good enough and, perhaps, the now departed manager, Steve McLaren, was not good enough either. If things change in the future and the England side reaches the levels of performance that England supporters crave it will probably be because somebody, somewhere, maybe even Simon Clifford, changed football in England from the bottom upwards. I cannot believe that it will be the FA, though, they simply don’t have it in them. No imagination, no drive.

Anybody interested in the pioneering work of Simon Clifford might want to have a look here:

By the way, I am not the founder member of the Simon Clifford Supporters Club, it’s just a credit where credit is due thing.