Saturday, 15 May 2010
Songs for Unsung Heroes
As Wayne Rooney walks off with a hat-trick of domestic awards and Didier Drogba tries to squeeze his foot into his golden boot a la Cinderella’s ugly sisters, there were a couple of managerial awards as well. Obviously, not everyone can win ‘manager of the year’ and while there’s no doubt that ‘Arry and Woy were thoroughly deserving, there are a few more who deserve a share of the plaudits.
At the top end of the table, Carlo Ancelotti unearthed a ruthlessness in Chelsea that may overflow on Saturday against Portsmouth. Credit to the Italian for a title (and potentially a double) in his first season in charge and for finally appearing to deliver what Abramovich lusts after, in the form of performances if not the ultimate European prize.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, Chelsea were helped by United’s relative weakness compared with previous seasons, although I’ve also explained why Sir Alex Ferguson deserves a lot of credit – not many managers could shear two prongs off his striking fork and somehow pick up more peas – just ask Rafa Benitez, who had to watch his replacements scrabble for goals in light of injuries to Fernando Torres.
But to the unsung heroes. If the season had started at Christmas, Everton would be third. But if spurious statistics like that were relevant, the Lib Dems would have a quarter of all the seats in Parliament and we wouldn’t have a man [PARTISAN ALERT] with no relevant experience in charge of one of the most fragile economies in history.
However, David Moyes deserves some recognition, as he does each year, for his Everton side, particularly since those dark days at the start of the season. They began with a 6-1 pummelling at Arsenal and had won only five league matches coming into 2010. Unbeaten in the league in January, Moyes – assisted by a slight, but not total alleviation of the injury crisis surrounding the club which had left him with no strikers and perhaps more importantly, no Mikel Arteta – then oversaw victories over Man City, Chelsea and United in February. Following defeat away at Spurs on February 28, Everton went unbeaten for the rest of the season, clocking up six wins in the process. Should a fully-fit squad report for pre-season training, Everton should be relishing 2010/11.
Everton top a group of three who all deserve plaudits for their seasons. Ninth in the league , Birmingham fans are still pinching themselves while also daring to believe that further improvement is possible should Carson Yeung’s war chest be opened. The Blues are currently believed to be monitoring Bobby Zamora, who won’t be cheap.
Interest in Zamora and Kris Boyd, strikers both, isn’t a surprise given the manner of the performances which elevated Birmingham to their nose-bleedy heights for most of the season. Success has been built on a particularly obdurate defence. The now famous 12-game unbeaten run in the Premier League, spanning October to January, included six clean sheets with only eight conceded overall. It also included seven wins, five of them back-to-back in December/January. For all the praise lavished on him as Scotland manager, Alex McLeish could well cite his work at St Andrews for the last two years as the finest of his career so far.
If any criticism can be levelled at Birmingham this year, it’s that they weren’t necessarily easy on the eye each week. If you need any further proof that sometimes, the desire for results outweighs the pleasure of the aesthetic, just look at Jose Mourinho. And Sam Allardyce.
Allardyce was brought in to save Blackburn from relegation last season and did just that. When Mark Hughes finally got his wealthy hands on Roque Santa Cruz, Stephen Warnock went to Villa, Matt Derbyshire to Olympiakos and stalwarts Ooijer and Tugay were lost to Eindhoven and retirement respectively. A top-ten finish (albeit in tenth) with that considerable exodus and the arrival of a £6mn centre forward who has scored two league goals all season, deserves massive respect.
If strident defence, long-ball tactics, having Kevin Davies elbow centre backs in the face for 90 minutes and keeping 10 men behind the ball all game can be considered successful measures this season, so too can be exchanging all of them for a completely new team if you think you’re going to be on the receiving end of a shoeing at Old Trafford. Step forward Mick McCarthy.
Ask any promoted team what they want to achieve at the advent of a new season and the reply will be ‘survival’. Criticism of McCarthy, unfounded in the first place – it is the manager’s prerogative to rest his players ahead of big fixtures – ended up being especially sweet for Wolves as they beat the drop with something to spare. An away victory against Burnley in March heralded a ten-game run in during which Wolves also won away at West Ham and only lost twice. Wolves look more likely than Birmingham to suffer second-season syndrome, but McCarthy has proved as astute a manager as the one who drove Wolves to the Championship title in 2009.
Admittedly, the plaudits in this reflection are rewarded for those who have favoured substance over style (with the possible exception of Moyes). On a sanguine note, this approach appears to favour mid-table teams for whom the focus inherently remains below their feet rather than above their heads (honourable mention here for Stoke and Tony Pulis). ‘Footballing sides’ are yet to make waves in the Premier League unless, at the start of the ‘Champions League revenue/Big Four era’ they were already blessed with resources and talent to indulge such fancies. For those allowed to talk about football in terms of Europe, titles and trophies, it remains a world of hyperbole and cliché. Though it may be about as enjoyable to watch as shutting your fingers in a car door, for those always aware of resources and finance it is about finding ways to get the result you need in the game you need it in. It’s more business-like than ever in this part of the league and messrs Moyes, McLeish, Allardyce and McCarthy certainly earned their corn this year. Hats off. Rob MacDonald