Thursday, 25 March 2010

Cardiff City: Bigger than Barcelona?

An exasperating 1-1 home draw with Sheffield United may not represent the makings of a European superpower, but Cardiff City’s capacity to underwhelm has earned them comparisons with Barcelona and Real Madrid.

Sam Hammam’s infamous reign as Cardiff’s owner was littered with claims of being ‘bigger than Barcelona’, only for these boasts to be tempered by defeats to the mighty likes of Darlington and Bournemouth.

Hammam has since departed with a debt-ridden vapour trail in his wake, but Cardiff’s current manager, Dave Jones, has now added his voice to the unlikely correlation between the Bluebirds and the Catalan giants, claiming that expectations at Cardiff are as high as those surrounding Barcelona and Real Madrid.

And while Cardiff’s debts of £1.75m seem modest in light of Real Madrid’s summer splurge of over £200m, Jones’s association is not as incongruous as first impressions may suggest.

The historian Gwyn Alf Williams was right when he referred to Welsh people as ‘Italians in the rain’, alluding to their Mediterranean passion and emotional extremity, albeit in a rather less glamorous climate.

Although it is uncertain whether Jones is familiar with Williams’ work, the manager did seem to echo the historian’s sentiments when he said: "You lose a couple of games around this part of the world and it's as if it's all fallen apart."

As well as recognising the volatile nature of Cardiff City fans’ reactions, Jones also appears to have grasped how heavily the national mood of Wales is influenced by the fortunes of its sports teams.

The national rugby side, for example, spark a glowing sense of nationwide glee whenever they win a Six Nations Grand Slam. Parties are thrown, newspaper headlines boast of imminent world domination, and calls for a commemorative national holiday are vociferously backed at an impromptu Shakin Stevens concert staged at Cardiff Castle.

Losses to England or Italy, however, prompt deep and gloomy self-reflections, as the country slumps into a state of misery usually only applicable to a child who has excitedly opened a Christmas present, only to find a copy of Danny Dyer’s Football Foul-Ups DVD, staring blankly from the debris of wrapping paper.

The same is true of football fans, and Jones’s tongue was not quite so firmly in his cheek as one would have first thought when he said: "You have the expectation levels of Barcelona or Real Madrid-types here.”

Grumbles of discontent filled the rain-sodden Cardiff City Stadium as the home side were held by the artisan Sheffield United this week, but as the Bluebirds still occupy a play-off spot in their quest for promotion, it seems fair for Jones to think that expectations may be a little lofty.

Jones’s Spanish connection might also add another dimension to Cardiff’s upcoming derby match against Swansea – what we may now consider to be South Wales’s answer to ‘El Clasico’.

Swansea, playing in white, will at least be wearing a kit similar to Real’s, while Cardiff have a squad oozing with as much flair and panache as any Barca side. The Catalans may have Thierry Henry, but Cardiff’s attack is led by Jay Bothroyd, and Barcelona’s so-called best player in the world, Lionel Messi, is little more than a poor man’s Peter Whittingham.

When Swansea visit, the Cardiff City Stadium (a name no catchier nine months after its unveiling) will be rumbling with animosity, and perhaps in this hateful cauldron befitting of the Nou Camp, Jones’s comparison may seem a little less fanciful as South Wales’s superpowers collide.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

'Not that type of player': How football's limp excuses wear thin

Ryan Shawcross was an unassuming, quiet presence on the England bench at Wembley in midweek, a far cry from his tumultuous last appearance.

Two images defined last weekend’s football action: a tearful Shawcross leaving the Britannia Stadium pitch after being sent off for his tackle on Aaron Ramsey, whose crumpled leg was the match’s other enduring sight.

Shawcross’s manager at Stoke City, Tony Pulis, was quick to defend his player: “Ryan is not that type of lad.” This feeling was then recycled as post-match interviews mulled over the incident, and it became evident that we would hear the same old excuses.

It almost goes without saying that Shawcross didn’t mean to break Ramsey’s leg. What grates, however, is the repetitive, inane nature of the defence offered, and how, instead of taking responsibility for their reckless actions, the perpetrators are portrayed as victims.

Ramsey’s Arsenal team-mate Eduardo fell victim to a similar injury in February 2008, when a tackle from Birmingham City defender Martin Taylor left his ankle hanging by a thread.

Like Ramsey, Eduardo’s career was in jeopardy, and also like the Ramsey case, the offending player’s manager used the same limp excuse, as Alex McLeish said: "Martin's not a dirty player."

This hollow sentiment is uttered too often, and after Eduardo’s injury, Wenger said: "The worst thing you hear after is that 'he's not the kind of guy who usually does that', but you need to only kill one person one time - it's enough."

Ramsey’s injury was the third such incident in less than four years, after Abou Diaby suffered serious damage to his ankle after a terrible challenge from Sunderland’s Dan Smith. Again, the excuse offered by the offending side was feeble, as then Sunderland caretaker manager Kevin Ball said: "Dan Smith is by no means a dirty player.”

If Shawcross had caused an injury by crashing his car, Pulis is unlikely to have offered the defence: “He’s not that type of driver.” Nobody involved in a car crash purposefully drives into another vehicle, but it is to be expected when the driver responsible has their licence suspended.

In this case, then, why are footballers so reluctant to accept responsibility when they are involved in such serious incidents?

Shawcross may not have been trying to shatter Ramsey’s leg, but the horrific collision was the result of a team’s bloody-minded determination to physically unsettle technically superior opponents.

And the stomach-churning image of Ramsey’s decimated shin is not only the result of one team’s efforts to ‘get in the faces’ of the Arsenal players, but a product of a wider culture of thuggery.

As Wenger notes, these are not merely unfortunate coincidences: "It goes with the idea that to stop Arsenal you have to kick Arsenal and that kind of thing [Eduardo’s injury] was waiting to happen.”

When pundits discuss ways of beating Arsenal, they invariably mention how the Gunners “don’t like it up ‘em”, and that teams will succeed if they “get in their faces” and “stop them playing”.

This message then seeps into Premier League changing rooms, where the likes of Pulis and McLeish urge their sides to rise to the challenge in an unswervingly robust manner.

And, deliberately or not, this physical approach eventually culminates in ugly scenes such as those at the Britannia Stadium.

Published in Leeds Student on Friday, March 5, 2010
Maybe Dara O'Briain is a regular reader: