The Sweeper: Wither Guardian Football?

With the Lord Triesman affair garnering the headlines earlier in the week, England football supporters rallied round one of their favourite causes: trashing tabloid newspapers for ruining football.  The target of course was the Mail on Sunday‘s insidious entrapment of the now ex-Football Association chief, publishing a private conversation recorded and sold to the Mail by Triesman’s lunchtime fling.  Suddenly, it seemed a few remarks on nations bribing referees made by an official of some importance in a private moment meant England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup was dead (even though FIFA said it would look into the allegations, meaning the FA chief may have done the anti-sport corruption movement a world of good).

Joining in the subsequent anti-Mail pile on was the Guardian, notably Barry Glendenning in Monday’s Guardian football email, the Fiver, ruthlessly trashing respected Mail columnist Martin Samuel for defending his employer’s actions.  This is Guardian writing at its best, what many have come to expect from one of the most reliable, and interesting sources of new and opinion on European football in the world.

Yet despite the ire lobbed at the Mail this week, there are signs that the Guardian too may be losing some of its lustre.  This has not been a good week for Guardian Football op-eds.  Earlier in the week the two Pauls—Wilson and Hayward—came out with a curious pair of righteous screeds directed at Fabio Capello.  Wilson’s was merely curious, a contrarian call for the inclusion of everyone’s favourite right-back, Gary Neville.  Yet it included some bizarre sermonizing about Capello sowing the seeds of heinous doubt prior to South Africa: “Where there was harmony,” Wilson pounded the pulpit, “he brought discord. Where there was faith, he introduced doubt.”

Wilson’s reasoning is a bit odd; he reasons that because the right-back is the “least important” position, Capello should have just gone ahead and added Neville because, you know, why not?  Wilson:

There is a theory that right-back is the least important position on the field, on the basis that every other position is more specialist. Even left‑back generally requires being left‑footed, and relatively few players are equipped for the role. This argument can be extended into the rather brutal suggestion that a right‑back is often the worst player on any given team, since were he better in any other position he would find himself there. In other words, the position ought to be easy to fill, not a persistent problem like left-wing or goalkeeper. So if there is really only one decent right-back to be found in England, we could be in more trouble than we think.

Many readers were quick to point out the other Wilson—Jonathan—last year made the opposite argument: full-backs are highly technical specialists and vital in modern footbal, meaning you wouldn’t want to just stuff Neville in there just to fill the position.   But that’s beside the point.  Perhaps the slow news week following the end of the football season left a bored Paul Wilson to idly nit-pick where there were no actual nits.

Paul Hayward’s entry was much stranger.  Disgusted that Capello picked several players with one type of knock or another to go to South Africa, Hayward called Capello “the Nick Clegg of international management” for backing out on his promise to break the English football star machine.  Hayward:

No wonder the martinet has turned pragmatist. Like all England managers pre-World Cup, Capello has dragged his cart round the Premier League clubs, calling: “Bring out your dead.” From the start he warned the Wembley congregation that England’s chances would hinge on how many of his best players still had both legs attached in June. Yet the strategic shifts we have observed from him amount to a complete re-scripting of the policies he laid out in his early days.

While some comments originated from the “Don’t Slag Off England” brigade, a great number were from readers perplexed at Hayward’s ire.  Most were overwhelmingly negative, with one reader commenting, “I kind of feel sorry for the writers. How do you fill up so many column inches when nothing is happening?”

This could equally be said of Barney Ronay’s bizarre attack on Barcelona just prior to this weekend’s Champions League final (a match which did not feature the Catalan club). Ronay was responding to Barca’s acquisition of Valencia’s David Villa and Arsenal’s Cesc Fabregas, and he arguably had the wind at his back, with many observers pointing out Barca’s policy seemed no different from Real Madrid’s galacticos redux this year.  So he could have also made a good argument about the dark side of flash football in a European system that rewards success with wealth, but instead he posited that Barca’s worst sin was being “annoying.”  There’s so much to choose from in this article, but this will do:

Even more annoying, but related, is Barcelona’s unshakeable conviction that they are intrinsically good. We are the ewoks here, they shriek. We are the Dukes of Hazard. Never mind that as a regional powerhouse they have such economic might they can even self‑righteously abjure shirt sponsorship (the Bono-style Unicef endorsement is also annoying. You keep thinking: just get Carlsberg on the phone and buy a proper centre-forward). No other football club anywhere insists with such needy, weepy fervour that you love it. This is cloying and I refuse to swoon.

A Tweet from the Run of Play‘s Brian Phillips summed it up best: “How much of Barney Ronay’s critique of Barcelona also applies to the Guardian’s football coverage?”  Even the best have their off periods it seems, and I’m not about to call a negative trend just yet.  But certainly idle hands are indeed the devil’s tools when it comes to football writers—for the Guardian’s sake, the World Cup can’t come fast enough.

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