Thursday, 30 July 2015

Liverpool's transfer strategy. What strategy?

Brendan Rodgers (cropped) 2
Both fans and media have praised Liverpool FC’s performance in the transfer window this summer, because its management team and owners are perceived to have acted quickly and decisively to sign players.  I don’t agree with this glowing assessment.  I’ve struggled to understand a recruitment policy which seems poorly thought out and haphazard.

I’m not querying necessarily the ability of the players Liverpool have bought.  Some of them are proven performers and others have the potential to do well, if they’re developed properly and given opportunities.  My question is whether the manager, Brendan Rodgers, identified where his team had problems last season and addressed them through the transfer market, or instead bought in volume, including for positions where his squad already has adequate cover.

Damien Comolli, the club’s former Director of Football Strategy, attracted fierce criticism last week when he suggested that Liverpool has taken a ‘massive risk’ by bringing in eight players in close season.  Comolli, who was in charge of recruiting talent to Anfield, was sacked from his post and he can’t be regarded as an impartial commentator, but he might have a point.

To field eight newcomers in the first match of the season - against Stoke - would mean incredible disruption, but, despite another significant investment by Liverpool, it’s almost inconceivable that Brendan Rodgers will make those changes.  Yet there are still positions where the squad has serious weaknesses.  So what was the strategy driving the summer spending spree?

At the end of last season, it seemed the ‘spine’ of Liverpool’s team was where its problems mainly lay. 

The goalkeeper, Simon Mignolet, recovered well from a dismal start to the campaign, but the consensus was that some proper competition for his position was needed.  The Croat defender, Dejan Lovren, was an unadulterated failure and the club clearly needed a much better option at centre-back.  In midfield, Steven Gerrard’s departure left a void of dynamism & leadership, while injuries had taken their toll on Liverpool’s first choice holding midfielder, Lucas Leiva.   

Most famously, Luis Suarez had not been replaced after Anfield to go to Barcelona the previous summer and Brendan Rodgers badly needed another goal-scorer, particularly with Daniel Sturridge spending more time on the treatment table than in training.

There were other frailties too.  Particularly in the full-back positions, where the Spaniards Moreno and Manquillo had fallen short of expectations for a Premier League club aspiring to be in the Champions League.

Admittedly, there have been signings for some of these problem areas.  For instance, securing James Milner’s services was a genuine coup for Liverpool.  The Yorkshireman is consistent, experienced and he’ll attack effectively from midfield positions.  It wasn’t possible to replace a player like Steven Gerrard, but signing Milner is a decent attempt.

At right back, Nathaniel Clyne, purchased from Southampton, looks like he will strengthen the team, adding an unfussy, competent attitude to defensive duties, allied with the ability to get forward.  He inspires more confidence than an ageing Glen Johnson.

Brendan Rodgers has bought an expensive striker too.  Christian Benteke wasn’t most fans first choice candidate to lead the attack, but he has an international reputation and scored goals for Aston Villa, in the Premier League.  We’ll find out whether choosing Benteke is the right decision, but, in theory at least, he’s ready to go straight into the Liverpool team and addresses a genuine weakness. 
In other areas, though, the strategy behind transfers has not been so obvious.

Rodgers bought a goalkeeper.  However, Adam Bogdan is 27 years old and spent the last eight years at Bolton Wanderers.  He’s unlikely to challenge Simon Mignolet for a first team place, unless the Belgian plays catastrophically badly.  A young defender, Joe Gomez, arrived from Charlton.  He’s played well in a number of pre-season friendlies, but his role is likely to be peripheral for the time being.

The other three signings were attacking players, but not centre-forwards.  Danny Ings and Roberto Firmino are play-makers who can play in and around the front three.  Divock Origi is another un-prolific forward, who can play up front or a little wider.  Liverpool already has the likes of Coutinho, Lallana, Markovic and Jordan Ibe, competing for these positions.  That’s not to mention more conventional midfielders like Can, Henderson and Allen, the first choice centre-forward, Daniel Sturridge, or younger hopefuls like Brannagan, Rossiter and Dunn.

The arrival of Firmino, who cost £21 million, caused quite a bit of excitement.  I can’t pretend to know very much about his abilities, but I question whether Liverpool’s priority this summer should have been signing a Brazilian play-maker, given that they’ve already got a tremendously good one in Phillipe Coutinho.  Meanwhile the weaknesses at centre-back, left back and defensive midfield have not been addressed.

From the friendly games so far you would assume that Liverpool intends to play four defenders this year.  James Milner and club captain Jordan Henderson are likely to be selected in midfield, presuming they stay fit.  Having cost £32.5 million, Christian Benteke is going to be picked, more often than not, as the team’s centre forward.

That leaves three empty spots for the plethora of tricksy playmakers stroke forwards stroke attacking midfielders stroke wingers who Brendan Rodgers likes to collect (and, actually, for a balanced line-up it would be best if one of those positions were occupied by a deeper midfielder).  Phillipe Coutinho was the club’s best player last season and Firmino cost a fortune, so, even allowing for injuries and the Europa League, it’s difficult to see why so many similar players are needed.               

Have Brendan Rodgers and his colleagues really evaluated carefully how they want Liverpool to play and bought what they need to realise that vision, or have they bought on the basis of availability?  What is the point of buying someone who might be very similar or no better than a player you’ve already got?  Should there not have been clearer priorities, based on a smaller number of problem positions?

I hope the answers will be clear as the season progresses but, for the time being, I’m sceptical.  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Tbilisi: romantic, but not dangerous!

The historian, Simon Sebag Montifiore, once described Georgia as “the most romantic and dangerous land in the world”.  He was reviewing Wendell Steavenson’s book, Stories I Stole, a quirky account of the author’s years living in Tbilisi, which I took with me to the Caucasus. 

It described the chaotic 90s and early 2000s when the majority of Georgians’ homes received only a few hours of electricity each day, members of the public frequently carried guns and some areas of the country were notorious for robberies and kidnappings.

With Tbilisi’s streets now completely unthreatening and everything from bridges to Ferris wheels illuminated showily after dark, it was difficult to believe that I was in the same city which Steavenson described.  Georgia, like many other post-Soviet states, has clearly changed dramatically in a relatively short period of time.

The country’s capital is now a vibrant, modern place, centred around its atmospheric Old Town and Rustaveli Avenue - a busy artery, flanked by museums, public buildings and fashionable shops.

Tbilisi is overlooked by an imposing fortress, called Narikala, and Mount Mtatsminda, which offers spectacular views, fresh air and a retreat from heat and exhaust fumes.  A funicular railway runs from a station not far from Rustaveli to a massive restaurant complex and a viewing platform, beside gardens and an amusement park.  It’s definitely worth a trip and the funfair didn’t open until lunchtime on the day we visited, so we had the place more or less to ourselves.

Georgia is particularly famous for its food and drink.  Georgians and Armenians both claim their ancestors were the first people to cultivate grapes for wine-making and the oldest winery ever discovered by archaeologists was in Armenia.  You can try good red and white wines in Tbilisi’s restaurants, particularly in wine-bars like g.Vino where knowledgeable staff will help you navigate local varieties, like the unusually named Pheasant’s Tears (which I consistently misheard as Peasant’s Tears).

These are perfect to accompany a plate of cold meats and local cheeses.  On the other hand, Tkemali, a sour sauce made from wild, green plums and herbs, improves any type of grilled meat.  Another Georgian speciality, Khinkali, is a spicy, filled dumpling, which can be eaten on its own or as a side dish.

Away from the dinner table, Tbilisi has some interesting museums.  The Dmitry Shevernadze National Gallery is a manageable size and it houses well-presented exhibitions of photographs from World War 1’s Caucasus Front and Niko Pirosami’s paintings. 

Pirosami may be Georgia’s most celebrated painter.  His portrait appears on the 1 lari banknote and he painted distinctive, atmospheric scenes from the region, in a primitivist style.  On a short visit to an art gallery, in my view it’s much better to see a couple of good exhibitions properly, rather than tramping for miles past endless floors of paintings, spanning century after century (then probably being too tired to appreciate the good stuff).
A few hundred metres along Rustaveli, the Georgian National Museum displayed an impressive collection of Colchian gold.  This was a fascinating window on Greco-Roman cultural connections which cast Georgia as the backdrop for classical myths like Jason and the Argonauts and Prometheus.

The upper floor was taken up with the more tendentious Museum of Soviet Occupation.  It set out the modern Georgian government’s interpretation of the Soviet period as a struggle for national liberation from Russian oppression.  It formed an interesting counterpoint to an exhibition on the ground floor, which emphasised Georgia’s contribution to World War 2, as part of the USSR. 

There was little mention of Georgian involvement in Bolshevism or the Soviet Union’s elite and the exhibition finished with the assertion that ‘the occupation continues’ in South Ossetia and Abkhazia.  It was a reminder that debates about the past in the Caucasus are still felt keenly and inform current politics.

Georgia is a romantic destination, whose recent past and mix of cultural influences gives it a frisson for visitors.  Nearly every tourist will be introduced to the country through its capital, which is a great place to start, as well as a hub to travel on into the countryside.

Some practical tips, if you're going to Tbilisi:

Erekle II is a pedestrianised street of bars and restaurants in the Old Town.  If you’re confused about where to eat, the easiest thing is to go here.

The metro is a convenient way to travel around some areas of the city, but you’ll need a MetroMoney card to get on board.  This requires a deposit of 2 Lari (about 60p) and each journey is a further 15p.  There is Latin script in metro stations and the announcements are given out in English, so, if you know where you’re going, you shouldn’t get lost.

Tbilisi train station is on the third floor of a shopping centre.  A number of internet sources say that a particular kiosk is manned by an English speaker.  However, we were sent from one kiosk to another, so you might need to be patient.  If you want to book an international train ticket to Yerevan or Baku, remember to bring your passport.

Friday, 24 July 2015

James McClean isn't a political crusader. He's just a very rude and naughty boy.

Was anyone remotely surprised when James McClean, the Republic of Ireland footballer from Londonderry, turned his back during the UK National Anthem, before a pre-season match in the US?  The winger was representing his new club, West Bromwich Albion, and their American hosts had organised music and an English flag, in honour of the visitors.
FIFA WC-qualification 2014 - Austria vs Ireland 2013-09-10 - James McClean 01" by Michael Kranewitter - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 at via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:FIFA_WC-qualification_2014_-_Austria_vs_Ireland_2013-09-10_-_James_McClean_01.jpg#/media/File:FIFA_WC-qualification_2014_-_Austria_vs_Ireland_2013-09-10_-_James_McClean_01.jpg

McClean has been involved in controversy after controversy since leaving Derry City to play full-time football in England. 

He was still in the process of negotiating a transfer from his home town club, when he withdrew from the Northern Ireland international squad and announced his intention to defect to the Republic.  Subsequently he refused to wear team kit with poppies woven into the shirts when he played for Sunderland and Wigan Athletic, at matches on Remembrance Day weekends. 

McClean has also found himself in trouble several times following injudicious use of Twitter, causing public disagreements with managers Martin O’Neill and Giovanni Trappatoni.  Infamously, he used the social media site to express his appreciation for the IRA song, The Broad Black Brimmer.  The player’s Twitter account was deleted for a short while, as a result.

You might detect a thread running through many of the incidents around McClean.  He has cited his nationalist political beliefs and upbringing in the staunchly republican Creggan estate, in Derry, to explain involvement in various controversies.  There has been no lack of commentators, from inside and outside football, ready to do the same.

It could be argued that McClean’s issue with the poppy is a matter of personal preference and political opinion.  Still, it’s worth remembering that an act of remembrance from a football club, whenever it weaves a symbol onto its shirt, is primarily corporate rather than individual.  If a player has difficulties with the communal ethos of a club and its supporters, he should examine why he’s happy to be employed by them in the first place.      

That’s ultimately an internal matter for the clubs.  If they want each player to have a choice whether or not to wear an emblem on team kit, or whether, for instance, they wear a black arm band to mark a tragedy, presumably they’ll communicate that policy to their employees. 

There’s no comparable defence for McClean’s actions during the National Anthem in South Carolina.   It was a display of public disrespect and bad manners.  He didn’t need to sing, or put his hand on his heart or even acknowledge the tune in any meaningful way.  He just needed to stand quietly, show a little dignity and not draw attention to himself – like the rest of his teammates, who come from across the world, including the Republic of Ireland and other places where some people have historical or political issues with Britain.

McClean’s conduct shouldn't be excused either by constant references to his ‘upbringing’.  The player is 26 years old, which means that he was born in 1989 and cannot realistically remember the worst violence in Northern Ireland.  Indeed his unreconstructed attitudes hint at how Troubles era bigotries and hatreds are being passed down to a younger generation, in spite of decades of the ‘peace process’.             

Sportspeople, like anyone else in society, are entitled to voice their views and express their values.  However, it’s possible to espouse principles, even dubious ones, without being disrespectful and antagonistic.  James McClean is not some sort of political crusader; he’s just a very rude and very naughty boy.    

Thursday, 23 July 2015

Will Labour really choose Corbyn as leader?

Jeremy Corbyn

Labour’s members and supporters won’t do it, will they?  Are they really poised to lumber the party with “veteran left winger”, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader?  Everyone from Tony Blair to Polly Toynbee seems to agree that he would be a disastrous choice.

A YouGov poll this week suggested that Corbyn has a substantial lead in Labour’s leadership race.  However, tellingly, the bookmakers still think that Andy Burnham or Yvette Cooper will win the contest.

Grassroots members and activists in every political party can be tempted to assert what they regard as “traditional values”, when times are bad.  In other words, to swing left, in the case of the Labour Party, or right, for Conservatives. 

Modern UK elections, though, are decided by a mass of people in the ‘middle ground’, who are nervous of any perceived excess.  They’re not caught up daily in every nuance of ongoing political debate, they don’t experiment with extreme ideologies and they almost always entrust the nation’s governance to someone they think will do the job competently.

Britain is not Greece, or Italy or even France.  There might be growing left wing militancy, but it remains the preserve of a noisy fringe.

If Jeremy Corbyn is elected, the people with most to celebrate will be Conservatives.  You’d suspect that the members and registered supporters who are entitled to vote in Labour's leadership battle will grasp this before the ballot closes in September.     

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Georgia and Armenia - are they in Europe or Asia?

Tbilisi looks a little like Prague from its hillside fortress.
Georgia and Armenia – are these countries in Asia or in Europe? 

Their status has been debated for at least a century, with commentators from outside the Caucasus region usually plumping for south-west Asia, until relatively recently.  Now, more frequently, they are described as European, although that trend is influenced at least as much by politics as geography.

I can’t answer this thorny question.  It is a sensitive matter, linked to the identities and perceived futures of Armenians and Georgians.  However I can give a few impressions of how it feels to visit two fascinating countries.

Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia is a sprawling, modern city, congested with traffic and, in July at least, hot and dusty.  Yet it also feels distinctly European.  Looking down from the Nariqala Fortress at the Old Town, with its narrow streets of stone houses and churches bisected by the Kura River, you could almost be in Prague.

The Georgian people certainly seem to have decided in favour of a future in Europe.  On Rustaveli Avenue the EU flag flies alongside Georgia’s national flag at the old parliament building and the symbol is displayed prominently across the city. 


On the other hand, the curly Georgian alphabet has a distinctly Asian appearance, although, in central areas, it is often accompanied by Latin script.  There are hints of a more Oriental atmosphere at the picturesque, domed sulphur baths or when eating the food, which has a  Middle Eastern inflection.

Outside the city, things are predictably a little chaotic.  Potholes aren’t the only obstacles on Georgia’s roads, as drivers frequently have to contend with cows, pigs and other livestock. 

We travelled into the mountains via the Georgian Military Highway, the traditional route into the southern Caucasus from Russia and the north.  We stayed in Stepantsminda (more commonly known by its former name, Kazbegi), in a stylish, modern hotel, affiliated to a German hotel group.    
The view from Rooms Hotel toward Mount Kazbek. 
The town stands on the banks of the Terek River which, in the lore of imperial Russia, marked the boundary between Europe and Asia.  It is a few miles from the border and about 40 minutes drive away from Vladikavkaz, where the Russian military would once muster before embarking on its campaigns further south.  

Stepantsminda is full of tourists from Russia, but the local businesses most frequently fly flags from the Ukraine, Georgia and Armenia, or countries in western Europe, pointedly omitting emblems from their northern neighbour.  In a bar in the town’s main square, some Russian tourists were eating and drinking below the flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought on the German side during World War 2.  The symbol has been revived by modern Ukrainian nationalists.  

In some respects Armenia felt a little more Asian, or at least Middle Eastern, than Georgia, which is borne out by the region’s geography. 

The food is even closer to Lebanese and Persian fare, featuring Lavash flat-breads, baba ganoush and baklava for dessert.  The landscape around Yerevan is dry and arid in July, with barren hills dropping down to a parched plain, stretching toward Mount Ararat and the Turkish border.  The people often look a little more Iranian and a little less Italian than their counterparts in Georgia.

Yerevan is a delightful, laid-back city, less choked, last week at least, with exhaust fumes than Tbilisi.  It has lots of open spaces, wonderful museums and a thriving cafĂ© culture.  You’ll see far more Russian language signs and hear more Russian spoken.  

The influence of the French, German and British cultures are also in evidence across the city.  In Republic Square the fountains ‘dance’ nightly to a soundtrack including Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Handel’s Messiah and Rule Britannia, complete with vocals.
Crowds enjoy Yerevan's 'dancing fountains'

In the lusher, greener north of Armenia, the town of Dilijan looks rather Swiss, with wooden chalets climbing the steep hillsides.  Lake Sevan’s shores are fringed with shady camp-sites and picnic spots which could almost be on the west coast of France.

The influence of the diaspora is evident in Armenia.  There were people of Armenian origin from the Unites States everywhere in Yerevan.  We met a French Armenian diplomat and witnessed the christening of an Armenian child from Switzerland, in one of the city’s oldest churches.  A priest even outlined a theory linking Armenia to Ireland, citing some unconvincing etymology based on the two countries’ names. 

In his excellent book about Georgia, Bread and Ashes, Tony Anderson concludes that the distinction between Europe and Asia is arbitrary and largely ‘irrelevant’.  ‘We might much more usefully think of one Eurasian continent and then annoying bits of geography like the Caucasus resolve themselves easily’.

In my view, the most interesting places lie where different cultures and influences converge.  Unfortunately the resulting confusion of ethnicities, identities and languages can also prove combustible.  The Caucasus region, which includes three disputed states and has witnessed numerous wars, is a classic example. 

I’ll be looking at some more aspects of Georgia and Armenia in the days to come. 

Thursday, 2 July 2015

Setting the record straight on Northern Ireland firework incident

Northern Ireland’s last game in Group F of the Euro 2016 qualifying tournament divided opinion among fans.  Some viewed the 0-0 home draw as a missed opportunity, particularly because it allowed Hungary to move within 2 points of the Green and White Army.  Others thought that a point against the group leaders was creditable.

More worrying than the result, was an incident where a firework was thrown from the crowd in the National Stadium, hitting a photographer, who had to be treated for burns.  Home fans were convinced that the missile had come from the Romanian section, but the photographer and most journalists blamed Northern Ireland supporters initially .

Very quickly a video emerged proving that it had been thrown from the seats occupied by travelling spectators.  Not that this evidence affected a series of articles quoting Darren Kidd, the photographer, and repeating the allegation that a Northern Irish hand had launched the firework. 

Blink and you miss it, but a Romanian supporter clearly throws an object in the direction of the photographer - heads of supporters behind him follow it's path prior to the bang.http://youtu.be/4GyxN_VeK18
Posted by Our Wee Country on Monday, 15 June 2015

The Belfast Telegraph corrected its initial reports fairly quickly and even mentioned the matter in an editorial, but for two weeks the BBC kept a report on its website, repeating without context the unfounded claim from Mr Kidd.

Clearly, a firework being thrown from a football crowd is newsworthy at the time and details which emerge later become progressively less newsworthy, as the event recedes into the past.

The photographer made an allegation that a home fan had been responsible quickly and took almost three weeks to issue a retraction on Twitter.  Understandably, his correcting tweet has received little or no media coverage.    

While few sets of football supporters are saints, Northern Ireland fans have no history of setting off fireworks.  It’s worthwhile setting the record straight.  The missile came from a troublemaker among the (largely excellent) Romanian crowd and the victim of the incident has accepted these facts without reservation.