Thursday, 23 February 2012
Great (And Ridiculous) Expectations
Watching the final of the African Cup of Nations*, one thing struck me above all else. It was the patent dichotomy in attitudes between the two sides lining up. In one corner you had the Zambians – all singing, all dancing, carefree, riding the crest of Herve Renard’s incessant wave of “Mayukaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaas!” from the touchline. In the other corner stood the Ivory Coast – introverted; nervy, despite the all-star squad and crippled by the overwhelming fear of failure. We all love a good football story and there are, by and large, a distinct lack of such narratives. Which is a good thing because it makes the really good ones all the more wonderful. Apologies to fans of the Ivory Coast, but I was supporting Zambia, of course. Most were. Singing as you walk up to take a penalty in the FINAL? The immaculately coiffured manager carrying the injured Joseph Musonda to join in his side’s celebrations? Keeper Mweene’s ridiculously cheeky spot kick? Brilliant. Heartwarming. Brilliant.
But back to the Ivorians. It was mentioned to me last night that the last time a side got to a final playing so within themselves, in such a stifled manner, was the Brazil side of ’94. I may well twist his arm to write said piece for this blog at some point, but until then, bear with me. The difference between the Ivory Coast and Zambia this year, and the Brazilians of ’94 and those fantastic Bulgarian and Romanian sides at the same tournament was the not-so-small matter of expectation. For some, Ivory Coast and Brazil, it is great. For others, hope replaces expectation (Zambia, Bulgaria, Romania), therefore it is not so great. We’ve seen it so many times before with England. And we see it closer to home on a domestic front – the perennial battle between the haves and the have nots. But where we see expectations that appear based on tangible success (Chelsea, Arsenal), we also see it based on falsities, or couched in language that is peppered with talk of “sleeping giants”, “war chests” and “history”.
Managers must be wary of overachievement, evidenced by Neil Warnock’s, Mick McCarthy’s and especially Chris Hughton’s unceremonious departures in this and recent seasons. In the case of the former, the manager took a side battling relegation to League 1 to the Premier League within a season and a half. No one could doubt that this represents stellar success. In tandem with such success, however, comes the looming spectre of expectation. Warnock became a victim of his own success and the unrealistic weight of anticipation from his superiors behind the scenes. One cannot help but think that if QPR had narrowly missed out in the play-off final last season, Warnock would still be in the job, challenging for the Championship title now. So in this case, expectation was detrimental for Warnock, but was it realistic? I don’t think so. And neither is it at Blackburn.
Steve Kean has endured a torrid time at Blackburn. As soon as Venky’s flapped into town with eyes on signing up all the best players from the 2005-6 season (Ronaldinho, Beckham et al), the writing has been on the wall. They appear to want “big names”, which, for a man with the name Kean, is far from ideal. Does a big name sate the average fan? And what is a big name? Martin O’Neill? Yeah that’s a big name. And look at how brilliantly he’s done at Sunderland. Mark Hughes? Hmm, yeah I suppose. But both are now with new jobs. So who exactly do Blackburn fans want and with the squad they have and the funds available to them, did they really expect to be doing anything other than fighting relegation? Expectations based on the heady days of European football in the mid ‘00s would suggest so. In which case, expectations are out of kilter with reality. In 2009/10, Blackburn came 10th and got to a League Cup semi final. If this isn’t good enough then there is a problem because that is Blackburn’s level. That is EXCEEDING your level.
A more interesting one perhaps was the sacking of Lee Clark by Huddersfield on February 15. It was unfathomable for the neutral to understand the rationale underpinning the decision. Were we not, after all, talking about the same manager who led his club to an astonishing unbeaten run of 43 in the league? Over to John Dobson then with this excellent piece for The Two Unfortunates. You see. All is not what it seems. And that goes for any club.
But where it gets most skewed is at the top of the pyramid. Whereas from Championship to Conference the lottery of the play offs has a horrible desirability, in the Premier League you have a title fought for by Manchesters United and City, Champions League spots that will go to two of Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool (I’m sorry Newcastle fans) and then one place in a European competition that no one really wants to be in anyway. From 6th to 17th, it gets interesting in that it isn’t interesting at all. 10th for Swansea is not the same as 10th for Everton, say. And 17th for Wigan is not the same as 17th for Aston Villa.
Agree with Tony Pulis’ style or not, he has been an unequivocal success story at Stoke. Fully consolidated in the Premier League, he took most by surprise in securing European football at the Britannia last season. However, Stoke are now 13th, two points ahead of Villa in 15th. Should Stoke finish around that mark for the next few seasons, it isn’t outside the realms of possibility that Pulis’ job would be under threat; a victim of his own success and the expectation that now envelops the side he has built; “We want Europa League football Tony, only to moan about it being a ‘distraction’ from the real business – finishing 6th next season. It is a ludicrous paradox.
We also see the difference a few barren years makes to the significance of the League Cup – I’m looking at you Liverpool. The best of both worlds then is probably being the fan of the yo-yo club; the excitement of a promotion one year and the heartbreak of relegation the next. Because expectation flutters from one extreme to the other, it can never settle. It has settled at Stoke now and it is high, thanks to Pulis. It was unfeasibly high at QPR and it cost Warnock his job (what did they want – 9th? 8th?). And it is so high at Chelsea that winning a double couldn’t save Ancelotti from the chop.
I’ll end in the way I know best. There are three main categories of expectation and they can be summed up thus:
1) Man goes to shop, buys onion. Onion is ripe, the skin is flaky and it is perfectly spherical. And every time man goes to shop, this is ALWAYS the case. You are a Manchester United or Barcelona fan.
2) i) Man goes to shop, buys onion. Onion is a little bit battered, the skin is uneven and the best before date is for today. This is despite the fact that last time man went to shop, onion was really very good. Surprisingly good in fact. You are unhappy with onion and make a complaint. You may well support Aston Villa, Leeds United, Wolves or Blackburn Rovers.
ii) Man goes to shop, buys onion. Onion is really very good. Surprisingly good in fact. This is despite the fact that last time man went to shop, onion was shit. You are very happy with your onion right now. You are a Swansea City, Cheltenham, York City or Southampton fan.
3) Man goes to shop, buys onion. Onion is awful. It stinks. It stank last time, it stinks now. You are a Port Vale, Macclesfield Town, Barnet fan.
*Yes I should have written these piece weeks ago