Argentina is today marking the first of three days of national mourning. But this is not to commemorate the death of some great political hero. Diego Armando Maradona was a footballer. He belongs to a very select group of players who transcend the sport. There are a series of cliches about no one player being bigger than the team; about how the great teams are more than the sum of their parts; about how there is no “i” in team. Diego Maradona was one of the rare exceptions that proves those rules. There is no doubt that Maradona was in many ways a flawed character : a serial adulterer; someone who would flagrantly push at the very boundaries of the Laws of the game (and often go beyond them), without shame or excuse; a foul-mouthed, boorish lout on occasion; a cocaine addict, whose dependency eventually led to his death at just 60 years of age. And yet.
And yet, to those of us who were lucky to see him play, he was simply mesmeric. The term Little Magician understates the almost metaphysical control that he exercised over the ball while in possession. During a career which afforded far less protection to players than they now receive, he was on the receiving end of some brutal challenges. He was the most fouled player in each of the four World Cup final stage competitions that he appeared, winning an extraordinary average of seven fouls per game (or one every 12 minutes, 46 seconds). As well as scoring goals – including arguably the greatest goal of the 20th Century during Argentina’s quarter final victory over England in 1986 – he also created more goals for teammates than any other Argentina player during those Finals. But this was no prima donna player who could only perform on pristine pitches and in the full glare of the international spotlight. The question that is often applied to skilful, foreign players : can he do it on a cold Tuesday night at Stoke? Well, Maradona could (and yes, I know that I’ve just equated Stoke with Naples, but you get the point!).
There is a sense of inevitability about the fact that Diego’s life should have ended so tragically early. For someone who lived at the extremes, a gradual fading away would, I suspect, have been torture for him. His was the life of a firework rocket – launched into the sky in a blaze of glory, leaving the world trailing in his wake, exploding in a riot of colour, and leaving us glad to have had the opportunity to have seen it, happy to talk about how dazzling the display was, sad that it has come to an end, but feeling privileged that we were there.
There’s no i in team, but there certainly is in genius; and I feel immensely privileged to have been alive at the same time as the footballing genius that was Diego Maradona.
There has been a series of news stories over the past week focussed on the issue of dementia and its prevalence among former professional footballers. On 17th November, it was revealed that Nobby Stiles had become the fifth member of England’s 1966 World Cup winning team to die with dementia as an underlying condition on the death certificate. It’s an issue that has been coming under closer and closer scrutiny, with recent research finding that professional footballers are between two and five times more likely to die of a degenerative brain disease than the population as a whole.
This issue started to come to wider prominence in 2002 following the death of former England international Jeff Astle, at the age of just 59. A post mortem examination found that Astle died as a result of Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a degenerative brain disease usually diagnosed in those who have a medical history of head injury and repeated concussions. In Astle’s case, the conclusion was that his brain trauma was the result of repeated heading of footballs across his playing career, from youth to professional, international level.
Much of the research into the issue of brain injury and professional football has been led by Dr Willie Stewart from Glasgow University. Inevitably when considering a topic as complex and longitudinal as health impacts over an extended period, the issues are not straightforward. Stewart’s team has identified that the risks faced by professional footballers “ranged from a five-fold increase in Alzheimer’s disease, through an approximately four-fold increase in motor neurone disease, to a two-fold increase in Parkinson’s disease in former professional footballers compared to population controls.” However, the study also found that footballers “had lower rates of death due to other major diseases. As such, while every effort must be made to identify the factors contributing to the increased risk of neurodegenerative disease to allow this risk to be reduced, there are also wider potential health benefits of playing football to be considered.”
For its part, the Professional Footballers Association in the UK has committed both to increasing the availability of support to former players and their families who are living with the effects of neurodegenerative disorders, and continuing to fund work of groups including Dr Stewart’s, who are seeking to better understand the risks and the most appropriate way of reducing them. There is no question of a total ban on the heading of the ball – an integral part of the game and a key skill in its own right. But just as junior football has been transformed through the introduction of small-sided games on scaled-down pitches, so it seems inevitable that there will eventually have to be limits placed on the extent to which children use heading as part of their coaching and playing.
Nor is this something that is restricted to former professional players. My own father played football as a centre forward up to South Wales Amateur League level. Whilst not the tallest, he was blessed with a prodigious spring in his legs that meant that he was rarely beaten in the air, scoring many headed goals initially as a wiry centre forward, and later in his career as a poacher-turned-gamekeeper centre half. He is now living with Alzheimer’s Disease and vascular dementia, and there is no doubt in my mind that this is at least partly due to his football playing experience. One of the saddest aspects of the disease as it has affected my dad is the fact that he no longer really has any interest in football at all. A sad irony given that Sky and BT Sport now provide more access to world-class games than at any point in his life.
Speaking to the BBC following his father’s death, Nobby Stiles’ son said : “The research should continue, there is plenty of money to do it, to make sure that current players and youngsters coming through don’t suffer the same fate as my father. But more importantly, players should be getting care and support now, substantial support and care. I don’t think you could ever take heading out of football, but at least the players should be made aware that they make a decision to play the game knowing what the risks are.”
The BBC news site carries two distinct but in many ways connected stories this evening. Both relate to failings of people in senior governance roles in their respective organisations. Both suggest that some of the most significant and influential bodies in the UK still have much to learn when it comes to equality, diversity, inclusion and safeguarding.
English Football Association (FA) Chair Greg Clarke appeared before a House of Commons Select Committee this morning to answer questions about (among other things) football’s response to the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. However, it was his reference to black and minority ethnic players as ‘coloured’; his description of homosexuality as a ‘lifestyle choice’; disparaging references to women players; and the repetition of racist tropes to describe the work preferences of ‘South Asians’ and those from the ‘Afro-Caribbean community’, that led to condemnation from Committee members, and ultimately led to Clarke’s resignation later this afternoon. The only (very marginal) consolation in the whole story is the fact that Clarke and the FA have moved quickly to bring his role as Chair to an end.
At the same time as Clarke was revealing the depth of his ignorance on issues of race, sexism, and homophobia, a report was being published into the Roman Catholic church’s handling of child sex abuse cases over 45 years from 1970. Amongst an array of hugely damaging findings, the report is particularly critical of the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols. The report finds that Nichols “did not always exercise the leadership expected of a senior member of the Church, at times preferring to protect the reputation of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales and in Rome.” Just to spell it out, the report concludes that the senior figure in a major branch of the Christian church chose to put the reputation of that church ahead of the interests of children who had been and were being abused by those if positions of authority in that church. It is hard to imagine a more damaging finding. And yet, unfathomably, Nichols’ offer to resign from his post has been refused by the Vatican. It is a fairly well-established maxim in crisis communications that action should be taken quickly and decisively. It’s hard to see how Nichols can survive this report, and his almost inevitable removal will now simply amplify criticism of the decision to delay his departure.
Whilst both news reports are in part depressing and distressing, there are some glimmers of hope for the future in each of them. Clarke’s rapid departure suggests that there are people at the FA who completely understand the damage that his comments have done. It is to be hoped that they will be equally diligent in continuing to root out racism, sexism, homophobia and discrimination of all kinds at all levels of the game. Great strides have been made in recent years in increasing participation rates of women, girls and BAME communities at grass roots level. It’s vital that this work is not undermined as a result of this incident. But it’s also vital that the FA reassures itself and the wider football community that Clarke’s attitudes are not symptomatic of a more pervasive culture at the FA.
Similarly, whilst the handling of Nichols’ position in the context of the child abuse report is immensely troubling, the fact that the report was commissioned and published at all is at least a sign that the Catholic Church is finally confronting the appalling history of abuse and cover-up that has been endemic for much of the last fifty years (and probably for some time before that).
On days like this, you have to look for crumbs of comfort where you can find them.
Bill Shankly, the legendary manager of Liverpool Football Club from 1959 to 1974, is often quoted as having said : “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more important than that”. As a lover of the beautiful game (and long time Liverpool fan myself), I completely understand the sentiment behind this. But I can’t help feeling that even Shankly would be reconsidering and re-evaluating the relative importance of football, life and death in the context of the current conversations about plans to re-start the English Premier League. It seems somehow insensitive to be talking about football returning when UK deaths still exceed 500 a day and the total death total is now over 35,000. And if that seems somewhat removed from the world of football, it has been revealed today that there were six positive tests of players and staff at three premier league clubs from the first two days of testing this weekend.
Football is undoubtedly big business. Titles, promotion, cup wins : these are all important things and have potentially lucrative implications for the teams involved. Liverpool themselves were on the verge of clinching the premier league title when coronavirus brought an abrupt halt to the season in mid-March. It would be cruel for a team that was so dominant to be denied the title by something that is so out of their control. But – despite what Shankly may have said – at the end of the day, football is just a game. It would seem odd for matches to be re-starting (even behind closed doors and with teams having been quarantined for several weeks beforehand) when so many are still literally facing life and death struggles to survive.
Football will return eventually – with passionate fans contributing to the atmosphere that makes each game unique. There’s no rush for that to happen though, and it’s certainly not something that should be risking the welfare of players and staff in the meantime.
We’re nearing the end of National Blog Post Month for 2019, so my thoughts are inevitably turning to what comes next. Earlier in the month I mentioned an intention to complete some sponsored runs in aid of Alzheimers Research during 2020. To be honest, I’ve become thoroughly lazy in recent months, and the public commitment to get back out and get active is the spur that I need to start putting things right. So today I have entered the Llanelli Half Marathon on 9th February, and the Newport Half Marathon on 1st March. Of course, neither of these can be safely completed unless I do some serious training over the next 10 weeks, and so my new challenge for December is to run at least one mile every day for 31 days (including Christmas Day). This may even be the year that I actually make it to a Christmas Day parkrun! I’ll provide weekly updates on progress through December, and (who knows) I may even combine these with some more general blogging content. It’s weird, but in a strange way I am really looking forward to taking the discipline of daily blogging and applying it to something that will be good for my physical health (and hopefully raise a couple of quid for a cause that has become very important for me in recent years). I won’t publicise the sponsorship arrangements until much nearer the time, so watch this space (please!).
Jose Mourinho has made a spectacular return to football management in the English Premiership. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mourinho is announced to the world as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur football club. Mourinho is a big character : his spells as manager of Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid, Porto, Inter Milan and Manchester United have been characterised by great successes, spectacular lows, and occasional controversy. What has been unstinting has been his belief in his own ability and his sense that he is somehow set apart from other managers : ‘special’.
In his paper on Hero-Leaders in business and cinema* Olivier Fournout summarises the qualities displayed by hero-leaders in a matrix of six features that are held in seemingly competing pairs. In the first place, hero-leaders take on roles. “[They] play at being someone different from who they really are… They may wear masks. They make the show.” At the same time, the hero-leader “has depth – deep emotions and sensations… [and] they exaggerate how strongly they are connected to their sensations, thoughts and emotions”. Mourinho has often been the very embodiment of this tension between the role-player (playing up to the crowd on the touchlines, and acting out the ‘special one’ persona in press conferences) and somebody who displays a profound interiority (reacting instantly and emotionally to incidents on the pitch, or to perceived slights from interviewers).
Hero-leaders are on a mission – striving to achieve “some practical results”. For Mourinho this is winning football matches, bringing trophies to his club. Whilst this is standard for all managers, what marks out the hero-leader is the tension that they create between the desire to win, and the way that they achieve this “through creative or unorthodox moves, by being divergent.” This can lead to the achievement of success despite the odds being against the endeavour (Chelsea’s Premier league success was often achieved through a defensive approach that flew in the face of the broader direction of travel in coaching and tactics at the time). But divergence can have other implications. Hero-leaders bring change, and with it, relative chaos and improvisation.” There is a case for saying that Mourinho’s attempts to impose his vision on Manchester United – to change and improvise at a club with a long and deeply ingrained culture and ethos – was always going to be a tough ask.
Finally, hero-leaders seek to reconcile the tension between acting as negotiators (“opening the door to win/win [outcomes], compromise and shared leadership”) and as ‘special ones’ – holding super-powers that lead them to act “in sudden bursts of all-powerful authority” and “with a sense of omnipotence”.
Fournout contends that managers at all levels will display hero-leader behaviours at various stages in their careers and in response to particular circumstances at particular times. However, he also identifies a particular aspect of the hero-leader that seems to resonate particularly with Mourinho’s managerial career to date : “With time, it seems the features of the hero-leader are pushed forward, intensified, exaggerated, and become more and more spectacular… Not only does this shed light on why it is not easy to be a manager today, but it may also help understand how burnout situations can arise among… top managers who – up to the point where they break – do their job quite successfully”.
There is no doubt in my mind that Mourinho fits Fournout’s hero-manager mould perfectly (and the same is probably true for Guardiola and Klopp, although they seem better able to hold the tensions in creative balance). I genuinely hope that Mourinho is successful at Tottenham. I have a deep affection for Spurs – a club that always tries to play the game the right way. It will be interesting to see whether Mourinho 2019 is a little wiser, a little cooler and a little more able to hold his hero-leader qualities in check. If not, it will at least be fun while it lasts!
* “The Hero-Leader Matrix in Business and Cinema : Fournout O. : Journal of Business Ethics (2017) Vol. 141 pp.27-46
Day 7 : Find a new way to help or support a cause you care about.
Those who may have inadvertently stumbled across this blog in previous years may recall that I have previously chronicled my attempt to complete 200 race miles in my fiftieth birthday year. The deadline was extended slightly, but the challenge was achieved. along the way I was fortunate to complete a half marathon in Marrakech as well as races in Haverhill, Llanelli and Manchester (among others).
My running in recent years has been severely disrupted as a result of a knee injury and subsequent surgery; and then a couple of unsuccessful attempts to get back into running, leading to partial relapses. However, it seems that recently a corner has been turned and I am running pain free and slowly building strength and endurance. It seems like a good time therefore to set myself a new challenge – and to seek to raise some money for a cause that is becoming close to my heart. My aim, therefore, is to run the Llanelli Half Marathon in February, the Newport Half in March, and the Bristol 10k in May next year. That’s a rough total of 50 kilometres in total.
The cause that I will be seeking to raise some money for is the Alzheimer’s Society. My dad is living with a form of vascular dementia probably linked to a stroke getting on for 10 year’s ago now. Thankfully, whilst his speech has been badly affected, he is still able to follow conversation and enjoys a good quality of life. This is in large part due to the indefatigable love and support of my mum. Taking my dad as my inspiration, raising money to support research into the causes of and treatments for dementia disease is the best motivation that I can think of to continue on my own road to running recovery. More details of where you can sponsor me will follow later in the month!
Our Bank Holiday football ground-hopping ‘tradition’ has been observed more in the exception recently, so we were determined to get back on track on Boxing Day. Our original plan had been to take in the Welsh Premier League local derby between Cardiff Met FC and Barry Town United, at Jenner Park, Barry. An electrical fault at the ground and a shift in the kick-off time from 3pm to 12.30pm put paid to that ambition, and so we made the short journey to ‘Dave’ Parade, Newport, to watch seventh place in League 2 Forest Green Rovers against eighth placed Newport County. The actual name of the ground is Rodney Parade; the misnaming as ‘Dave’ Parade is a reference to Trigger in Only Fools and Horses and his constant references to Rodney as ‘Dave’ throughout the programme. It’s a silly joke, admittedly, but harmless!
This Boxing Day, Dan and I were joined by my dad for the 12 mile ride east along the M4 from Cardiff to Newport. One of the great advantages of visiting lower league football stadia is the relative ease of finding free parking close to the ground, and so – having set off at 1.40pm, we were safely through the turnstyles and enjoying a cup of coffee (me and dad) and a Cwtch (Dan) by 2.10pm.
One of the interesting things about our Bank Holiday ground-hops are the coincidences that get thrown up. Named in the Forest Green starting XI for this match was one George Williams. The diminutive attacking midfielder was on the fringes of the Welsh national squad until fairly recently, and indeed, the last time I’d seen him ‘in the flesh’ was as a substitute warming up for Wales’ opening European Championships game against Slovakia in Bordeaux in 2016. Williams’ career has been blighted by injury, and having initially been signed by Fulham as a youngster from MK Dons, he has struggled to establish a long run at any of the clubs that he has spent time on loan with since. Dan’s observation (before this game had even started) that Williams was too good for League 2 was borne out in spades.
On paper, this should have been a relatively closely-fought affair, with both sides pushing for a play-off place near the top of the table. Any thoughts that the first twenty minutes might be a bit cagey were dispelled almost immediately though as Rovers were awarded a free-kick 25 metres out and that man Williams lined up to take it.
It was a well-struck free kick that took a wicked deflection off the top of the Newport wall, causing the ball to loop perfectly into the top corner of the net, evading the full stretch dive of County ‘keeper, Day. Dan managed to capture the moment perfectly on his iPhone camera, and the action shot is captured in all its glory below. Three minutes on the clock, and Rovers were one-up.
Much of the next forty minutes of play followed a relatively standard pattern. Rovers looked the better footballing team, attempting to get the ball down and play on the floor as much as possible; County looking to get the ball forward much more directly (and often aerially), relying on the size and athleticism of Matt and Bakinson to cause problems for the visitors’ defence. Whilst there were half-chances for both sides during this period, neither side really troubled the opposition goalkeeper. Indeed, the main incident of note was a flare-up between County fullback Piper and Rovers’ Brown that remarkably led to a caution for the former but no sanction at all for the latter. This was one of a number decisions from referee Mr Busby that did little to endear him to Newport supporters.
If Forest Green’s opener was down to the wizardry of Williams, then their second goal on 43 minutes was down to speed, accuracy and teamwork. A Newport attack on their right hand side broke down and Rovers counter-attacked in numbers down their left hand side. They were assisted by a couple of rash attempted challenges by County covering defenders, but quick footwork and accurate passing got the ball to Campbell, who waltzed into the penalty area before calmly side-footing the ball past the advancing (and hopelessly exposed) Day.
Any fears that home supporters might have had that the second goal would kill off the game were quickly extinguished. The goal seemed to galvanise the Ambers and they laid siege to the Rovers goal straight from the re-start. Their ambition was rewarded in the second minute of first half stoppage time when Forest Green keeper Montgomery had a rush of blood to the head. Charging from his goal in an attempt to punch the ball away, he succeeded only in clattering into the back of Newport’s Amond. The most stonewall of penalties and one that Mr Busby was right on the spot to call (garnering some ironic cheers from the south Wales faithful in the process). Amond picked himself up to send the hapless Montgomery the wrong way and reduce the deficit to a single goal at half time.
The half time chat amongst the Pearce ground-hopping crew was whether Newport could continue their comeback in the second half. We were all confident that there would be more goals, and one of us was even rash enough to predict a 4-3 victory for the County. Dan, though, being both less rash and more fatalistic, cautioned that (as a Cardiff Blues rugby supporter) he was only used to seeing away teams win in Newport. I should have been more in tune with the omens.
The game was effectively all over as a contest within seven minutes of the restart. Newport’s Butler saw red for Denying a Goalscoring Opportunity in the 51st minute, and Williams stepped up to drill the resulting free kick into the top corner of the net without the aid of any deflections this time. You could sense the energy draining from the Newport players as a result.
Within five minutes, Williams had completed his hat-trick, finding space in the Newport penalty area following an intricate passing movements down Forest Green’s left, and curling a shot into the far corner of the net to make it 4-1 to the visitors. The final half an hour of the game was a master-class by Forest Green in how to play against ten men. They kept the ball, moving it across the full width of the pitch and forcing Newport to chase shadows. That their possession and movement did not lead to more goals was down to over-elaboration in the box, and some fine saves from Day in the Newport goal. It was all too much for a significant number of home fans who were pouring out of the ground with more than fifteen minutes of the game to play. Normally, I’d be highly critical of this sort of behaviour, but on this occasion, I could see their point. Whether this was on off-day, or whether some players have already begun thinking ahead to the FA Cup tie against Leicester City in January, it was clear that this performance did not live up to the standards that manager Mike Flynn has set for his side.
On the plus side, with so many fans having left before the final whistle, getting out of the ground and on the road back home to Cardiff was even easier than getting there in the first place!
I am pleased to report that my knee is recovering really well from the recent minor operation to tidy up the cartilage. The bag of bolts that had become lodged behind my knee cap has disappeared and I’m completely pain free for the first time in a year. I’m not getting ahead of myself and I know that it will take a while to get back up to full fitness, but I am really optimistic now that I’ll be back at parkrun by Christmas. In fact, such is my confidence, that I’ve just entered four 10k races in South Wales between March and August next year. All things being equal I’ll be pounding the streets of Cardiff in March, and then Newport, Porthcawl and Barry Island as the weather warms up. This will be part of a phased build-up to the half marathon double header of Bristol and Cardiff in late September and early October of 2019.
The good thing about blogging is the almost instant feedback that comes in following each post. I included a couple of jokes in blog posts over the weekend. The reaction from readers was mixed : some asked me very politely to think carefully before including any more; while others threatened me with direct physical violence if I didn’t stop it immediately. It turns out that my readership is the very definition of a tough crowd!
As it happens, the whole issue of when it is appropriate or sensible to attempt humour in a professional context has been a hot topic in recent weeks. First there was the ‘outing’ of Sir Philip Green as the businessman at the centre of a controversy around the use of so-called gagging orders to prevent the public disclosure of allegations of harassment by former staff members. And then came the resignation of William Sitwell from the editorship of Waitrose Food following an email sent to a freelance journalist that included allegedly jokey references to vegans.
Green is reported to have dismissed the allegations as misconstrued office banter. And supporters of Sitwell have been quick to suggest that whilst what he wrote may have been ill-judged, it hardly warrants the loss of his job. In both cases, the context within which these events took place seems to have been afforded less significance than it probably deserves. Green and Sitwell were in positions of power and influence over the people who were on the receiving end of the banter or attempted humour. As CEO and editor respectively of their company or magazine, they are also the human embodiment of the organisation. What they do reflects on the organisations they represent almost as much as it does on themselves. This is particularly the case for Sitwell, where the magazine that he edited is commissioned by an upmarket supermarket chain that has invested heavily in its vegetarian and vegan product range.
Both cases illustrate the change in attitudes towards banter and workplace humour in recent years, as employees and employers have begun to understand the damaging effects that inappropriate humour, teasing, joshing (call it what you like) can have on individuals and wider team morale. There is a fine but increasingly clear divide between the sort of informal interactions that help a team to bond and perform well, and the inappropriate words and actions that make life miserable for individuals or minorities in the workplace.
It seems that the tide is turning too in other arenas where banter is a major part of the overall experience. As a football supporter, I love the knockabout humour, often coarse but spontaneous and often very funny, that typifies the atmosphere at most grounds on any given Saturday. I have previously written on this blog about my trip to Bordeaux following Wales in the European Championships. Hal Robson Kanu was in the Wales squad for that tournament. Having previously played at age-group level for England, his Welsh qualification came from his grandmother. The affectionate chant of Wales supporters on the way to the opening fixture went along the lines of : “Hal Robson Kanu, Hal Robson Kanu, as Welsh as a zebra, but he’ll [expletive deleted] do”. And I’ll never forget the chant of Cardiff City fans towards the Chelsea left back during an FA Cup tie at Stamford Bridge (I think it was Yuri Zhirkov) : “You’re just a big score in Scrabble”.
However, not all football banter is as humorous and victimless as this. There still remains an undercurrent of racism and sexism around football that occasionally rears its ugly head. Organisations like Kick It Out and many clubs across England and Wales have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to tackle this. And it seems that their efforts are starting to bear fruit. The Red Wall of Wales football supporters has received positive feedback for their behaviour from countries throughout Europe in recent years. At a recent match in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland, however, there were disturbing reports of racist abuse and sexism by some of those following the national team. What is interesting though, is that it is other supporters who have taken the initiative in calling out this behaviour and committing to ensure that there is no repetition in future.
For my own part, finely attuned as I am to your feedback, dear Reader, I’ll keep the jokes and banter to a minimum for now!