About Me

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Hammersmith, London, United Kingdom
I'm a director of Maidenhead United Football Club. For ten seasons one of my roles at the club was to produce the match programme. The aim of this blog was to write football related articles for publication in the match programme. In particular I like to write about the representation of football in popular culture, specifically music, film/TV and literature. I also write about matches I attend which generally feature Maidenhead United.

Friday, 14 April 2017

The Men Who Made Modern Football #20 - Valeriy Lobanovskyi

The collection and application of data is now a ubiquitous power felt throughout every aspect of our daily lives. This is seen in football through measures such as the Opta index and methods such as moneyball, which seek to take emotion out of decision making and instead use rational scientific method to make the optimum choice for success. This philosophy is commonly attached to the words cold and calculating, and yet I chiefly remember the man who pioneered this approach, Valeriy Lobanovskyi as creating the breathtaking Soviet Union team that briefly flowered in the mid 80s.
In hindsight it is not surprising that this team came out of a society which preached the virtues of science, with the legacy of the impact of its manager’s methods in the wider world of football being in stark contrast to the shrinking influence of the former eastern bloc on the game.
Lobanovskyi was born in modern day Ukraine, then one of a number of countries which made up the USSR. Growing up in the capital Kyiv, he graduated from the football school and went on to play for Dynamo. A mercurial left winger, he won the Soviet Union League and Cup during seven seasons at Dynamo as well as two USSR caps. Heavily influenced by Kyiv’s Russian Coach Victor Maslov, who pioneered the scientific approach to football, Loba, as he became known, sought to innovate technically, creating the curving banana shot which would lead to him becoming renowned for his ability to score straight from corner kicks. After falling out with Maslov, he left his home city for short spells with Chornomorets Odessa and Shakhtar Donetsk before retiring aged 29.
A keen student, he returned to Kyiv to study heating engineering at university. By chance the city was home to the Soviet Union’s fledgling computer industry, and drawing on his childhood flair for maths as well as the influence of Maslov, began to consider how data processing power could be applied to football.
This idea was boosted following the start of his managerial career at Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, when he met Anatoly Zelentsov from the Institute of Physical Sciences, the pair working together to develop a system of measuring technical ability in order to find the best players. On the pitch he led Dnipro to promotion to the Soviet Union top division and then moved back to Dynamo Kyiv in 1973, where he would remain in charge until 1990.
Bringing Zelentsov with him, he was keenly aware that the job of manager was too big for one man and surrounded himself with experts to support him in implementing his radical science based approach. He broke the game down into its component parts to develop a system of two sets of eleven elements on the pitch. Each sub system was better than the sum of its parts, with the superior one bound to win. Thus he deduced that it was not the individual players who were important but the interactions and connections between them.
Lobanovskyi wanted perfect players who could execute game plans and in particular set pieces automatically. Moreover he saw football as dialectic with each team trying to work out the other and having to come up with better ideas to win. This required stringent diet and a fastidious training programme informed by the analysis of masses of data applied to give players specific tasks to help them improve their technique, and also develop routines for the game itself.
The implementation of Lobanovskyi’s philosophy led to Dynamo Kyiv breaking the Russian dominance of football in the Soviet Union, winning eight league titles and six cups. More importantly they became the first Soviet club to win a European trophy, winning the Cup Winners Cup in 1975, a feat they repeated in 1986.

It was these two wins which symbolised Lobanovskyi’s club team at their peak. The first was spearheaded by midfielder Viktor Kolotov and striker Oleg Blokhin beating Ferencvaros in 1975 final. Blokhin went onto win the Ballon d’Or, as his team went onto win the Super Cup by beating European Cup Winners Bayern Munich.

History then repeated itself in 1986 with luminaries Baltacha, Kuznetsov, Belanov, Rats and Mikhailichenko combining with the veteran Blokhin to sweep aside Atletico Madrid 3-0 in the final, Igor Belanov taking the Ballon d’Or this time.
During this time at Kyiv he also had three spells in charge of the USSR national team. Typically most of the Kyiv team were imported wholesale into the side which won bronze at the 1976 Olympics. 

They regularly qualified for the final stages of the World Cups and made waves at the 1986 tournament in Mexico with the likes of Rats and Belanov stunning the watching world with some powerful strikes before exiting at the first knockout stage in an unforgettable seven goal thriller against Belgium. 

Two years later the USSR finished runners up to the Netherlands at Euro 88 in Germany, having beaten the Dutch in the opening game of the finals.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union Lobanovskyi sought his fortune in the Middle East before returning to the now independent Ukraine to again manage Kyiv in 1997 until his death in 2002. Creating his third great team at the club he won five consecutive Ukrainian titles (including three doubles), and took them to the 1999 Champions League semi-final. He also led the Ukrainian national team to a World Cup qualifying play off in 2002.

This success was forged with the fledgling Ukrainian talents such as Sergei Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko. However the free market now hindered Kyiv’s progress as the best players signed for wealthy western clubs.
Free exchange of information had also led to Lobanovskyi’s scientific method being adopted across Europe, with its most successful exponent being Jose Mourinho.

Posthumously awarded the title Hero of Ukraine, Kyiv’s stadium now bears Lobanovskyi’s name, a mark of the esteem in which he was held by his players being best illustrated when Andriy Shevchenko returned to Kyiv after he won the Champions League with Milan in 2003, to lay his medal on Lobanovskyi’s grave,

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

The Men Who Made Modern Football #21 - Bob Houghton

The aim of this series was to shine a light on some unknown or forgotten characters from the history of football that have had a significant impact on its development as a sport. Originally I planned twenty five articles but the early start to the season and a lack of home cup ties mean I have only got to twenty one. Those who didn’t make the final cut were: Vincente Feola who along with Mario Zagallo created the magical Brazilian World Cup winning teams from 1958-70, English innovator Jesse Carver who enjoyed success at Juventus and many other top Italian clubs in the 1950s, and finally two Yugoslavs Miljan Miljanic and Tomislav Ivic. Miljanic is best known for restoring the fortunes of Real Madrid in the mid-70s having had great success in his home city of Belgrade with Crvena Zvezda, whilst Ivic grew his reputation in the 70s at Hajduk Split before going onto manage a whole raft of top European clubs, winning titles in six different countries.
For my last subject I have chosen to return to the enduring theme of my series, that of the coach who leaves his homeland to transform fortunes elsewhere, and in doing so I will end up in the summer of 2016 when I started writing about the first one.
I suspect many of you could name one Englishman who took his club to the European Cup Final in the 1970s (Clough - Nottingham Forest), probably a second (Paisley - Liverpool), maybe even a third (Armfield - Leeds), but how about a fourth? Then for a supplementary question connect him to the last Englishman to take his club to a European Final of any description, who also shares his initials.
Working in ten different countries over a forty year career Bob Houghton sparked a football revolution in Sweden which set up the careers of two future England managers.
Following an undistinguished professional playing career with Fulham and Brighton, Houghton studied with FA Technical Director Allen Wade alongside Roy Hodgson who had been his contemporary at John Ruskin Grammar School in Croydon. He became the youngest ever coach to gain an FA Full Badge ('A' Licence) and became player manager at Hastings United aged 23. He was reunited with Hodgson at Maidstone United with both trying to further their careers through junior coaching positions at professional clubs. However they were to get their break as a consequence of the longstanding European tradition of looking for an English “Mister” to disseminate his knowledge overseas.
In 1973 Sweden’s biggest club Malmo wanted a coach to revive their fortunes having lost their best players to richer clubs in central Europe. The country’s greatest footballing moment had come when they had reached the 1958 World Cup Final under the guidance of Englishman (and another great quiz question) GeorgeRaynor. So the Malmo chairman contacted Allen Wade for a recommendation. Wade suggested his star pupil Houghton whose application was supported by references from top English division managers Gordon Jago and Bobby Robson.
Still only 26, Houghton assuaged fears about his young age with a comprehensive analysis of the state of the Malmo squad and what he could achieve with them, thus securing his appointment for the start of the 1974 season (Swedish seasons running from March to November).
Learning the language in two months he chose a squad of local players, with ten of the side coming from Malmo itself. He set about introducing them to the 4-4-2 formation, zonal marking, rigorous use of the offside trap, a high pressing game, and swift direct counter attacks. This contrasted with a Swedish preference for deep lying sweepers and a more amateur style individual ethos.
With a team that was steady rather than spectacular, but quickly taken to the hearts of the supporters due to their local connection, Houghton led Malmo to back to back league and cup doubles.
This led the chairman of struggling Halmstads to ask Houghton if he could recommend another Englishman to coach his team. Inevitably Houghton suggested Hodgson who promptly led his new team to the next league title (Allsvenskan) in 1976.

Houghton reclaimed the title the following season, a win which led to qualification into the 1978/79 European Cup. Houghton took Malmo further than any Swedish club has been before or since, meeting Nottingham Forest in the final. Brian Clough’s Forest won with a solitary goal from Trevor Francis, Houghton responding to the defeat by saying that “Clough was lucky in one respect – that the difference between the teams which played in the quarter-final and final was six players”, with Houghton’s injury hit squad all coming from a sixty kilometre radius of Malmo.

Hodgson won one more Allsvenskan in 1979 before the pair was recruited to revive the fortunes of Bristol City. By now known as English Bobby and English Roy their impact on Swedish football had been incendiary, having a formative influence on coaches such as Sven Goran-Ericsson and Lars Lagerback.
Ericsson, who went onto win Sweden’s first European honour with Gothenburg in the 1982 UEFA Cup, and of course became the first foreign national to manage England, summed up their impact thus: “They introduced a whole new way of playing football. Before that, Swedish teams had been very influenced by German teams and were playing man-to-man marking. But they came with zonal marking and a new way of starting attacks. It was something unique. And I think Bob was 27 years old when he came here and that is fascinating. A young guy coming over to tell us how to play football."
However Houghton and Hodgson’s time at Ashton Gate was doomed by catastrophic financial decisions made before their arrival which had seen several players signed up on ten year contracts, and they presided over the clubs tailspin from the top to the bottom of the Football League which ended up in liquidation.
The experience left Houghton preferring to work abroad because: “There the coach is the most important man at the club. When I worked at Bristol, I would've been better off being a bank manager; such was the time I had to spend on financial issues.”
He became a globe trotter taking jobs with clubs in Greece, Canada, USA, Switzerland, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, and coaching the national teams of China, Uzbekistan and India.
Hodgson returned to Malmo in the 80s to win five Allsvenskans in a row as he continued a distinguished managerial career with other notable spells in charge of Switzerland, Inter Milan and Fulham. I personally witnessed his dramatic run to the 2010 Europa League final with the Cottagers, which led to him finally being regarded in the top rank of managers in his native country and the opportunity to manage England.
This makes Hodgson something of a unique character in this series, at least in terms of the Englishman under review, in that his talent was eventually recognised by those which developed it, despite his ultimate failure to fully capitalise on the opportunity to manage his country. More pertinently the lack of a native successor to his final post is rather a damning indictment on the short term future of English coaching.
I hope this series has been as much a pleasure to read as it has been to write. My inspiration for it and indeed initial source for most of the subjects was the Blizzard quarterly, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you want to find out about more of the men who made modern football.

Monday, 10 April 2017

The Men Who Made Modern Football #19 - Rinus Michels

At the risk of hagiography this week I will continue to look at the development of the Dutch game and its wider impact. However following pieces on Reynolds, Buckingham and Happel, I will this time focus on a Dutch native. Rinus Michels was the man who not only exploited some of the greatest footballing talents the Netherlands has ever produced but also led them to their greatest triumphs.
Michels had a long playing career with Ajax in the post war years, playing 15 years as a striker noted for his strength rather than his flair.  During a period which saw the Dutch game make the transition to professional status he won the title and five caps.
His coaching career began in the amateur ranks before returning to Ajax as Vic Buckingham's (TMWMMF #17) replacement in 1965. In six years he transformed a struggling team into one that would win four titles, three cups (including two doubles) and finally a European Cup, a period which saw the word Ajax become a byword for intelligence and modernity.
The success and critical acclaim was due to his system of Totaalvoetbal (Total Football). This was a culmination of the pioneering ideas of the Austro-Hungarian school and the influence of Jack Reynolds and Vic Buckingham to create a 'carousel' style of play summed by defender Wim Rijsbergen as "The defenders went forward, the forwards came back. We played football. He even used the goalkeeper as a libero, playing outside the area."
However although Michels was anti-catenaccio he was very much an architect who painstakingly planned then trained his players relentlessly, borrowing from Herrera the idea of the 'retiro' training camp to embed his ideas. His players had to be able to switch to any role in the team at any time depending on the situation of the game, and thus had to be technically and physically supreme. This led to his nickname of the 'General' a label reinforced by his comment: "Professional football is something like war. Whoever behaves too properly, is lost."
This was reflected by winger Sjaak Swart who said: "We did everything with the ball. At the beginning of the season we had one week of very hard training: five training sessions a day. It was like a military camp."
Central to his philsophy was the creation and utility of space. Applying the Dutch concept of maakbaarheid, of shaping and controlling your environment, he prioritised tactics such as overlapping full backs and strikers dropping deep to retrieve the ball, to live up to his maxim that “space is important in football, but Dutch space is different.
His relationship with his best player Johann Cruyff was intrinsic to his success. Cruyff was just 18 when Michels took over at Ajax and their careers progressed hand in hand for the next decade.  Notionally a centre forward, Cruyff would roam wherever he saw the best opportunity to exploit his opponents’ weakness. This required his team mates to mould their game around him, taking up the position he was leaving. Cruyff was Michel's voice on the pitch defender Barry Hulshoff explained that he: "always talked about where people should run and where they should stand, and when they should not move. It was about making space, coming into space, and organizing space-like architecture on the football pitch".

The system was not perfected overnight. It required evolution through collaboration. Thrashing Bill Shankly's Liverpool 5-1 in the second round first leg of the 1966/67 European Cup revealed its attacking potential but a 4-1 defeat in the 1969 final to AC Milan showed its defensive shortcomings. 

This led to the signing of box to box midfielder Johan Neeskens in 1970 and a year later Michels had led Ajax to their first European Cup victory. 

He then elected to again follow in Vic Buckingham’s footsteps by taking over at Barcelona leaving Romanian coach Stefan Kovacs to build on his foundations in Amsterdam and lead de godenzonen to become the second club to win three consecutive European Cups.

Cruyff arrived at Camp Nou in 1973 and now reunited with his star player, Michels led Barcelona to their first Spanish title first since 1960. He then spent the summer with the Dutch national team at the World Cup in West Germany. 

With Cruyff in the ascendant, Holland stunned the world with their revolutionary style of play, defeating Argentina and holders Brazil to reach the final with five wins and one draw, conceding just the one goal.

It appeared that Michels’ team had reached perfection when they took the lead against the hosts after just eighty seconds of the final without a single German player touching the ball. However Cruyff's influence was progressively stifled by the man marking of Berti Vogts, allowing a midfield led by Franz Beckenbauer to gradually  dominate, overturning the early Dutch lead to win 2-1.

Michels spent the rest of the 70s with second spells in charge at Ajax and Barcelona and a brief stay in the US with Cruyff at LA Aztecs. In the early 80s he moved to West Germany to manage FC Koln before returning to the helm of the Dutch national team in time for the 1988 European Championships.

Again leading his nation to a finals hosted by the Germans, his squad featured the prodigious talent of Ruud Gullitt, Marco Van Basten and Frank Rijkaard. In the semi-final Michels took his revenge for 1974 by beating West Germany, a win laden with wider national symbolism. They then went on to win the Netherlands only trophy to date by beating the USSR 2-0 in the final with unforgettable goals from Gullitt and Van Basten.

Michels finished his club career at Bayer Leverkusen in 1989 then had one last stint with the Dutch national team at Euro 92 which ended in semi-final defeat to eventual winners Denmark.
Named FIFA's coach of the 20th century he was the master of total football which would go on to be moulded by his protégé Cruyff into the tiki-taka style that would win Barcelona and Spain garlands galore.