Tuesday, 29 June 2021

He's not beneath us

While most football fans have been preoccupied with Euro 2020 (watch for the trivia question in future years about which year it was played), the subject of discussion amongst Everton fans has changed from who do you want as the next manager, to will they appoint Benitez, to when will they appoint anyone?

As the players don't return to training until 5 July (and even then not those on international duty, i.e. most of the squad)  and as the transfer market is in unofficial abeyance till the end of the Euros I've not been too bothered about Farhad Moshiri taking his time. It makes sense to interview candidates properly and get their take on how they would try to take the club forward. What I'm more concerned about is whether he knows what he wants, other than the biggest name he can get.

That looks like being Rafa Benitez. It has looked that way for so long one suspects other options have been sounded out but now it is reported that Benitez has signed a three year deal. Many sources claimed a social media campaign against Benitez by Everton fans opposed to the ex-Liverpool manager's appointment had something to do with the delay, the anointment having been proclaimed as imminent quite some time ago. But I suspect it might have been due to Benitez holding out for a longer deal than he was first offered, although I also wondered whether Moshiri had other candidates he preferred who decided against coming. I'm sure Moshiri was confident Benitez wasn't going anywhere else and would wait while he prevaricated.

My straw poll amongst Everton fans (yes, there are some other than me) has indicated no great antipathy to Benitez and many broadly pro. Though they also say that he would need to get off to a good start or things could turn ugly. I'm sure the majority of fans would get behind Benitez and the vocal minority would keep their powder dry for the first sign of under performance.

There was no greater affection among the fans for the early front runner, Nuno Espirito Santo. I was vaguely pro, though I accepted that there was some risk as Wolves started well under him but had a weak season last time round. Wolves were unlucky to lose their main striker to injury having sold another to Liverpool in the close season and they were weighed down by playing in the Europa League but even so, some cause for concern.

My biggest downer on Nuno isn't exactly logical - I didn't want to sound like the Pope every time I said the club manager's name in full. Together with the beard.

But all managerial appointments entail risk. I wondered about Graham Potter though apparently he has an expensive break clause in his contract with Brighton. Not half as much as the cost of an average premier league player, mind, so not enough to be a deterrent if the board thought he was the right man. My worry there was what if he's another Mike Walker, the manager Everton poached from Norwich in 1994 who nearly got us relegated when we had a team capable of winning the FA Cup the next season. Benitez is probably lowest risk from that point of view.

It's thought that Nuno and Benitez's ability to manage on a limited budget appeals to Moshiri who has gone through the usual cycle of a wealthy owner in believing that a fair bit of money can buy success, only to realise that you can spend a lot but stay where you are, or even decline and so start looking for value.

While for some Everton fans the Liverpool connection and Benitez's "small club" jibe about Everton back in 2007 is a no-no, I am relaxed about that. Everton had kept lots of men behind the ball in a boring goalless derby at Anfield and Benitez said this was what "small clubs" do. He clarified this some ten years ago saying he meant "small team" which you might feel didn't help much. However, excluding the back four and keeper the average height of Everton's team that day was 5ft 9ins, with the dimunitive Andrew Johnson, 5ft 7in, playing striker. Any team with Tim Cahill, Mikel Arteta and Leon Osman in midfield is undoubtedly not representing Brobdingnag. It's not enough for Michael Ball (the ex Everton and Rangers player, not the singer) who isn't happy that it Benitez took four years to issue this "clarification" but enough time's passed for me to overlook it.

Others say Benitez is past it and didn't do much in his last appointment, managing in China. But he was responsible there for setting up the whole club, including facilities and the academy, not just a team manager/head coach. He quit because repeated quarantine periods were getting to him, his family still living in his home on the Wirral that has been his base through all his jobs since he managed Liverpool. He is knowledgeable, assiduous in his research and passionate about the game. And he's won a Champions League.

As I've touted Benitez as Everton's next manager through the last three appointments (though hadn't expected Ancelotti to be a candidate) it would be strange for me to change my tune now. I like that he sets up a team match by match taking account of the opposition. He doesn't set out to play the same way whatever, which is a luxury only the very best teams in the world can indulge in (and even then I'm not sure). It's all very well if you're at Barcelona or Bayern but in most circumstances this would be like Etonians - people who only ever known the very best - running the country. Oh....

My concern is only that the football might be too pragmatic, as it was most of the time with Ancelotti. However, Benitez did send Liverpool teams out to try to get at the opposition, for example when they got stuck into Juventus early in their 2005 Champions League quarter final, scoring twice in the first 25 minutes of the first leg (the tie ended 2-1). He's a manager who believes in playing the situation, rather than a purist. 

Which suits me, though I would like to see the team play in a more enterprising fashion. Too many English teams seem to play for possession rather than actually winning. Roy Keane noted that England played the ball forward too slowly in their Euro 2020 group games and needed to get the ball to their forwards more quickly. England's average pace of progress - less than one metre per second - was the slowest of all 24 teams. The quickest teams played at up to 2 m per second. OK that's the likes of Wales, Ukraine and the Czech Reupblic, but the last if these has played pretty well. The Germans and French were more like 1.4 m per second so England do look pedestrian, turning inside and back far too much. Everton gave been the same, not just under Ancellotti but Silva, Koeman and Martinez too. I'd like to see Everton play more like Bielsa's Leeds against most teams.

This may have actually been at the heart of Everton's prevarication. What is the football identity, the style of play, they are aiming for? For me, it's obvious. The Everton teams of 1970, 1985 and 1995 and David Moyes's team that recorded three top 5 premier league finishes could all defend but got at teams, pressed them and played at high tempo. 

That Moyes team was the last to finish ahead of Liverpool, in 2005, when I called the then Liverpool manager Rafael Beneathus.

But he'll do for me. I didn't want Antonio Conte let alone Dave Allen (sorry, Manuel Pelligrini, in whom there was bizarrely rumoured to be interest from the Everton board in some reports). 

And, while most fans are preoccupied with England's historic and just about deserved success against Germany, Everton fans are probably mostly relieved if the wait is finally nearly over, as the news feeds tell us Rafa's arrival is imminent. He would become only the second man in nearly 130 years to manage both Everton and Liverpool.

If so I wish good luck to the fat Spanish waiter, as Everton fans used to call him.

                                    





Friday, 18 June 2021

Check your privilege, Sirs and take my advice

A while back I wrote about Prince Philip's funeral. I didn't expect to be writing about the royal family again so soon, but I find I just have to give them some advice.

It seems whether Brits approve of Harry's, er, altered career profile depends on their age, the young being much more supportive than the old. I think it's entirely up to him what he does. I've always said if the royals don't want the job - and all it entails - they can quit. Just like any other job really, albeit one with some particular characteristics. But what puzzles me is why anyone thinks Harry and Meghan should be able to choose which parts of the job they want to do, while also using their royal status to leverage their earnings. Even more bizarrely they even seemed to think the British taxpayer should pay their security costs wherever they choose to live. From what little I saw of the Oprah Winfrey interview this point was never challenged.

As for his wife, let's not forget she was was pretty much universally popular at first. It was only much later - and given ammunition by the couple - that some newspapers started to snipe. As for me, I really don't care for Meghan calling Britain racist when many of us (certainly me and Mrs H) didn't know or care about her background. Though maybe it is racist to not even realise someone you know nothing about identifies as black. (We initially assumed she was media star orange).

However what I really don't like about Meghan is that she seems to have brought all the underlying unhappiness in Harry to the surface. The apparently happy go lucky, jack-the-lad, blokeish military man who did so much good coming up with the Invictus Games now seems absolutely haunted. Turning the bloke woke seems to me to have helped him lose rather than find himself.

As I said in the post on Philip's funeral, I am a reluctant monarchist. But one point that does come out of the recent unplanned reductions in the size of the royals first team squad, as it were, with Harry, Meghan and Andrew's unavailability, is the need to have a substitutes bench. As a result I'm no longer quite so bothered about the fringe royals, or "hangers on" as some see them.  Just let the family decide how much depth of cover they need, within the budget they are given.

After all Sophie, Countess of Wessex got off to a dodgy start but is now seen as one of the safest pairs of royal hands. This only happened after some initial issues caused essentially by her trying to make a go of her own PR agency by using her royal credentials (sounds familiar) and then falling for a fake sheikh newspaper sting. Once she and her husband decided to abandon their business interests and play at being full time royals the problems evaporated. There was a lesson here about how difficult it is to combine the roles - maybe impossible in some careers. Not so difficult in something like the military where you do what you're told and stick to the script. More of which later.

For what it's worth - I know not a lot - I always preferred Sophie to Diana - maybe I can judge character after all? In one of my more outspoken moments (I have some, you know...) I heard an audible gasp from a work colleague standing behind me who was clearly a little taken aback to overhear me refer to the late Princess of Wales as the "dead, adulterous, airhead bimbo of a mother" of Wills and Harry in a lively bit of office banter about the royal family around 15 years ago. I was actually intending to be sympathetic to the princes but it might not quite have come across that way.

I now feel for Harry given his obvious pain and discomfort, though arguably he has made it all flood back. Why he feels it's right to say he wants to avoid passing on pain to his son, while subjecting his father to similar pain and implicitly traducing his recently deceased grandfather I just can't fathom.

As Harry and Meghan now have to earn a crust and need to maintain their profile the ordure will presumably continue to stream (literally, on Spotify) from them indefinitely as they retell their "truth", in Winfrey's risible phrase, on and on until we all throw up.

Quite why Harry feels we need to know his latest outpouring - that he's going to take extended time out from his "work" while he bonds with his second child in the luxury of his American surroundings - I don't know. Does he seriously think he is providing a role model for ordinary dads? People who do not have the slightest chance of doing the same? Perhaps he should, as he is fond of woke phrases, check his privilege.

Unfortunately the brazen behaviour of the BBC back in the 1990s in conducting its whitewash cover up investigations into the background to Martin Bashir's Diana interview seems to have destabilised Harry's brother. Rod Liddle pointed out that, from his own personal experience at the BBC, it was no surprise that senior management decided to dump on the most dispensible and junior person involved, the blameless graphic designer who followed Bashir's instructions in making forgeries. When this came out they switched to blaming the next most junior, Bashir himself. It's never the fault of the people supposed to be controlling and monitoring them, is it? The only people they never blame are, of course, the BBC management. They obviously never heard the old saw* that all failures are essentially failures of management.

Why do I say destablised? In William's rant (sorry statement) after publication of the Dyson report he claimed that Bashir's deceit substantially influenced what his mother had said. He said the Panorama programme had "no legitimacy" and he called for it never to be aired again. Basically expunged from history.

And yet there is little doubt Diana said exactly what she wanted to say and was delighted with the interview. So as one commentator I read put it William is now trying to silence his dead mother and rewrite history. Which is just what she felt people were trying to do to her while she was alive.

So my advice to Harry applies equally to William. And to their father, who threatens to be a loose cannon monarch with his insistence on letting politicians and sometimes the rest of us know his views on more substantive matters than his relationship with his plants.

Indeed I would be delighted to take a well paid role to offer this advice every time any of them is thinking of speaking outside their remit and offering the public any of their opinions:

"Sir, with respect, remember the your place and the successful strategy followed by the Queen. And shut the f*** up".

"Oh and if you don't like the deal you can quit any time you like. But remember quit means quit, not cherry pick the bits you like."

"You're welcome, my pleasure, sir. The invoice will be in the post, sir."


* apparently "old saw" is tautological, as a saw is an old saying. Sorry. 




Monday, 14 June 2021

They could be heroes

Back in February Boris Johnson said that "no child will be left behind" because of the pandemic. The appointment of well respected career educationalist and former labour adviser Sir Kevan Collins as education recovery commissioner (or schools catch up tsar to the popular press) was meant to deliver a long term plan for achieving this goal as part of getting schools fully re-opened and "back on track". Earlier this month Collins resigned in a hissy fit after he asked for £15bn to fund the initiative and got £1.4bn over three years in addition to £1.7bn already announced.

What does this show I wonder? Well obviously we should be very suspicious of hyperbole such as "no child will be left behind". We might also wonder about the wisdom of appointing someone who can't spell Kevin to such a role (OK, sorry, it's an Irish version I guess). I saw comment that officials were not surprised Collins quit, seeing him as a resignation waiting to happen, but this might have just been a clumsy smear, like my jibe about his name.

However, I'm suspicious for another reason: I can't make the numbers make sense, at least on the basis of the reports in the media. Of the £1.4bn £400m is earmarked for training and £1bn for supporting up to 6 million 15-hour tutoring courses for pupils.

Collins wanted a programme of 100 hours, including sports, music and the arts. That would require 7 times the £1bn offered, not 15.

100 hours is consistent with the widely reported half an hour a day for the catch up programme, half an hour a day, five days a week, 40 weeks a year being 100 hours a year. As the programme is meant to run for three years one might get to around £15bn by multiplying the £1bn on the table by 100 over 15 and then 3, at least roughly.

But hang on. In 2019-20 the total spend on schools in England (primary, secondary and 6th form) was £51 bn according to the IFS. Dividing that cost by the typical school day of 7 hours gives a total cost of around £7bn per hour of the school day, so £3.5bn for half an hour. So that doesn't get me to Collins's £15bn. And that is ALL costs so the overhead costs of the buildings etc are already covered. So how can the proposal to extend the school day by half an hour possibly cost as much as Collins was seeking?

Apparently there would be extensive use of private tutors but the extra cost still seems disproportionate. Anyway, why can't the teachers work half an hour a day longer?

Which gave me an idea. An idea about the huge opportunity this represents for the teaching unions. The teachers clearly could work longer hours, for which they would not unreasonably expect to get paid. But what if they offered to do it without extra pay?

Oh, I'm not so daft to think that teachers would do it for nothing, though as we are recovering from a global pandemic all sorts of people in all sorts of occupations are probably doing just that. 

My idea is that the teachers unions should offer to do the extra work without extra pay in return for some things that they value just as much, if not more. It would be very hard for the government to decline such an offer, which would set a good example for other sectors of the economy. After all, one reason the government baulked at Collins's demands would have been the precedent it set for other public sector activities. One can just imagine the length of the begging bowl queue.

What would the teachers ask for in exchange? A permanent gripe is the amount of paperwork involved in modern teaching. So an obvious proposition would be "we'll do the half an hour without pay if you promise to find ways of reducing the admin load on teachers by an equivalent amount of time". In other words a classic efficiency initiative. If what I hear about the load on teachers is correct this ought to be eminently possible.

Other asks might be to overhaul the Ofsted inspection regime. Note I said "overhaul" and not "scrap". But a reduction in the amount of inspection work in schools would be reasonable in the circumstances. Some Ofsted inspectors could be temporarily engaged in the catch up programme. (I accept I am glossing over the fact that some inspectors do that job because they didn't like - or weren't much good at - teaching).

There must be other things that the teachers unions would like to see. These would have to be realistic and not contentious. No daft proposals like scrap all exams for ever....

Of course this all assumes that the teachers unions actually care about schools succeeding, which might be a misplaced assumption on my part. But they could make themselves heroes... and for more than just one day, as the song goes.

They might even induce us to clap them.

P.S. I can understand the government concentrating on numeracy and literacy. It had been reported that 200,000 children would leave school this year unable to read and write properly. This got widely misreported as illiterate, rather than not up to the specified standards. Nevertheless, Collins used the data to "put a rocket up" ministers. What grabbed my attention was firstly this number is around a third of the annual high school entry - a rough guess on my part based on there being 8.3million state school pupils in England - but a huge proportion nonetheless. And, secondly, lockdowns have increased the number by just 30,000 over the previous year.  So the problem was huge to begin with. As with everything else covid has magnified pre-existing problems. 

It's less clear to me why funding is required to get children to catch up at sport. Once allowed to play it they'll soon catch up. Music and the arts - debatable, I'd argue when there are so many calls on time and money. There has to be some prioritisation, at least in which areas should be tackled first.

-----------------------------

Numbers from inews.co.uk 3 June 2021:  Sir Kevan Collins: What the education tsar wanted for the school catch-up plan versus what children will get and Institute of Fiscal Studies 2020 report on annual spending on education in England: schools which gives the £51 billion figure. Cross checking these numbers and finding any sensible breakdown amongst the voluminous charts and graphs all trying to make political points is quite difficult.

inews also reported that 200,000 children would leave primary school unable to read or write "properly" on 4 April 2021 noting that the Sunday Times had claimed unpublished government statistics said this was 30,000 more than the previous year.


Saturday, 12 June 2021

Fans on Board? That wouldn't be Super

The European Super League (ESL), conceived by a cabal of financially distressed continental clubs and financially greedy American owners of Premier League clubs, went from launch to collapse in around 48 hours. A lot of the credit was ascribed to the howls of protest from fans of the prospective ESL clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in particular. Journalists such as David Walsh in the Sunday Times and Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail pretty well said "it woz the fans wot dun it". Many did indeed make their views very plain, Chelsea fans saying they wanted their cold nights in Stoke and Inter Milan's Ultras (not a widely praised group hitherto) saying they weren't interested in the Inter v Bayern, Real Madrid or Man City games without the away day in Prague or even "the 24 hours to Benevento and back in the car". (Benevento is somewhere near Naples). I commend them all for their opposition to closed shop competitions. And there clearly was an impact on owners - John Henry of  Liverpool's owners, Fenway Sports Group, especially. I'm not so sure about Arsenal's Stan Kroenke, hide of a rhino I suspect. But I'm also not sure that the fan reaction was the biggest factor.

The strong push back from UEFA was to be expected and was commendably quick and firm. It was UEFA's Champions League that was really in the sights of the breakaway group at this stage. The ESL clubs had realised that there are actually plenty of fans like me who have zero interest in group matches between them and BATE Borisov or Sparta Prague, let alone matches between teams like those two. So UEFA's truly awful tweak to the Champions League, guaranteeing entry to clubs with recent history of success who would otherwise miss out through their abominable and anti-competitive "club coefficient" concept wasn't enough for the likes of Juventus. They just wanted the marquee fixtures. The same ones, year after year.... boring!

UEFA reacted by threatening things that football authorities around the world have retained as powers for pretty much the whole history of the sport: expulsion from all officially sanctioned competitions for the clubs and their players. No World Cup for any of you! It was hard not to laugh as UEFA's spineless approach to the big clubs over the last 20 years helped to create the situation in the first place.

But I don't think UEFA's reaction was the biggest factor either. Firstly it would have been anticipated by the clubs and their legal advisers, who no doubt had looked into things like competition law. Oh, UEFA could have carried out their banning threats but would have been beset by injunctions which might well have allowed the ESL to launch without sanctions. And once launched it would have been harder to kill. Secondly, FIFA was suspiciously quiet on the matter, so it's not clear they would have backed UEFA up. The World Cup is FIFA's competition after all. Some conspiracy theorists have even suggested that FIFA quite fancied a world scale version of the ESL.

I felt queasy when the UK government waded in, possibly driven by the desire to seize on a populist issue, because I don't like politicians meddling in sport. Indeed on this and many other issues I long for the days when ministers used to bat away parliamentary questions with a dead bat, saying "that is a matter for the Football Association" or whatever body had responsibility, rather than commenting on and interfering in anything and everything.

However, unlike many journalists, I think the Prime Minister's threat to drop a "legislative bomb" on the ESL was material and quite possibly the biggest single factor. I can imagine the legal advisers of the owners of Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal had told their principals that they could deal with UEFA's threats via competition or other laws giving folk the right to go about their business and earn a living. But when the Prime Minister of their clubs' host country talks of a legislative bomb... 

For a start, exactly what does that mean? I've been critical of Boris Johnson's poor communication skills during the pandemic. He waffles, he makes things up on the spot, he uses confusing language and obscure analogies. The comparison with Mark Drakeford's clear coronavirus briefings in Wales has been stark. But on the Super League the PM, probably unintentionally and inadvertently, played a blinder.

The total lack of clarity and bewildering uncertainty behind the phrase "legislative bomb", especially when combined with the suggestion that competition law could be amended, would have left those expensive American lawyers saying something like "we don't know how to advise you on that". "But we're punting billions on this". "Yes, but we can't advise you how laws that haven't been passed will operate". The clincher was Johnson saying space would be found in the parliamentary legislative programme.

When the least enthusiastic of the ESL members, Chelsea and Manchester City, pulled out the house of cards collapsed remarkably quickly. Indeed I should perhaps see City in a new light. Unlike the American owners of Premier League teams, who are all ultimately in it to make a buck, their owners - and Chelsea's Roman Abramovich - are in it for glory and prestige.

It was just as well it did collapse quickly. Had the ESL clubs got more of an act together, I had wondered on day one of the two whether they would seduce clubs like Everton and West Ham with the promise "be patient, there will soon be an ESL 2". So I was pleased to see Everton come out very strongly on the morning of day 2, before the other 14 Premier League clubs had even met. Saying the club was "saddened and disappointed to see proposals of a breakaway league pushed forward by six clubs" they went on to say (amongst other things):

"Six clubs acting entirely in their own interests.

Six clubs tarnishing the reputation of our league and the game.

Six clubs choosing to disrespect every other club with whom they sit around the Premier League table.

Six clubs taking for granted and even betraying the majority of football supporters across our country and beyond.

At this time of national and international crisis – and a defining period for our game – clubs should be working together collaboratively with the ideals of our game and its supporters uppermost.

Instead, these clubs have been secretly conspiring to break away from a football pyramid that has served them so well."

And 

"This preposterous arrogance is not wanted anywhere in football outside of the clubs that have drafted this plan.

On behalf of everyone associated with Everton, we respectfully ask that the proposals are immediately withdrawn and that the private meetings and subversive practises that have brought our beautiful game to possibly its lowest ever position in terms of trust end now."

(It was strong stuff. There was more...!) Some cynics said this was rich as Everton had been one of five clubs considering breaking away from the Football League in the developments that led up to the founding of the Premier League in 1992. Others noted that the Premier League itself was a breakaway, though promotion and relegation were of course maintained - the Premier League was about the clubs controlling TV rights. Others said Everton were only coming out so strongly because they hadn't been invited to join the ESL. But Everton's majority owner, Farhad Moshiri, gave a two word answer on talkSPORT to the question would Everton ever join any kind of super league: "Never. Never". (Actually I suppose that's a one word answer...) While delighted that Moshiri had invested in Everton, I always wondered what he was in it for and, I suppose, whether he could be trusted. I shouldn't have doubted that Bill Kenwright would only sell to someone he was confident in. I expect there will be some tension in the air when the Everton directors next meet their equivalents from the Premier League red group (Man United, Liverpool and Arsenal).

Moshiri didn't stop there, calling for the breakaway six to be disciplined, possibly by points deductions. I didn't think that was right. Everton had an interest in qualifying for Europe which, without points deductions, they blew. And the core of Everton's case was that success should be earned on the pitch. Fines? Well that's now been done, though at a trivial level, with the six clubs making a "goodwill" payment of £22m - small change for them. I didn't see fines as appropriate as the Super League idea was so short lived there was no damage to the other clubs which needed financial reparation. And the six clubs will have suffered significant abortive costs. Indeed the fact that Juve, Real and Barca haven't yet quit the ESL is presumably just to avoid having to pay their share of the costs. But as this "goodwill" money will go to grass roots and community projects it makes some sense.

I think it's more important to see if the rules and constitution of the Premier League need changing to prevent the problem re-emerging later. Which it will, as the idea has been around for ages. And, while it was the Champions League in the six clubs gunsights this time, their equally awful Project Big Picture announced and rapidly binned last year was aimed at giving them more power in the Premier League. After all, getting a slice of the TV revenues raked in by the Premier League is why Juve and Real Madrid were prepared to consider clubs like Arsenal and Tottenham "super".

What is important now is that a window of opportunity exists for the FA, the Premier League and its 14 non ESL clubs to make those changes. And fortunately a far sighted man - surprisingly Ken Bates, then of Chelsea - saw to it at the establishment of the Premier League that 14 votes carries the day. This was because he was worried about the then so called big 5 getting up to mischief. (The five were Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. No, Chelsea and Man City weren't "big" then, kids!) With the 14 clubs pretty united at the moment almost any rule change aimed at preventing a repeat of the ESL or Big Picture proposals would stand a fair chance of being implemented.

Plenty of commentators have noted the need to act quickly. But to enact what exactly?  The clubs have put in place a rule which would mean larger fines and a significant points reduction next time, though I worry how next time can be defined. Is that enough? I don't think so.

Martin Samuel wrote in the Daily Mail sensibly suggesting template Articles of Association which all clubs would have to implement and which would tie the hands of club owners. These included heritage protecting statements such as "The name of this club is...."  to prevent renaming, such as when an owner once attempted change the Hull City to Hull Tigers. And "the club's main colours shall be...." e.g. blue in the case of Cardiff City. This is all good, important stuff but, unusually for Samuel, rather seemed to miss the point.

What else would I do, besides binding the clubs to the Premier League? Well firstly - and perhaps obtusely - I'd scrap or heavily modify the Financial Fair Play rules which are designed to preserve the closed shop at the top of the game. "We don't want any more Leicester's" an un-named executive at one of the ESL clubs is supposed to have said. My inclination would be to scrap FFP but the fact that Manchester City and PSG are owned by one of the richest sovereign wealth funds does make me queasy and is the reason I would be more inclined to heavily modify FFP.

Fans need hope and FFP practically eliminates the prospect of major investment allowing a club to break into the very big time. Jack Walker couldn't take Blackburn to the Premier League title now. The argument that it is to protect clubs from going bust is blatantly fallacious. For a start most super-rich owners want the club to become sustainable having reached their holy grail, even Roman Abramovich. Maybe a simple rule could prevent a small number of clubs going out of reach of the rest by having an absolute cap on spending on playing squads at all clubs, excluding projects such as new stadia and training grounds. What could be fairer than that?

I accept that, as FFP is fundamentally a UEFA concept modifying it can't all be done from England. So the Premier League 14 need to gang up with their equivalents in other countries to press for club representation in UEFA to be completely overhauled. The clubs are represented by the European Club Association which was a thinly disguised modification of the G14 group of "super" clubs. Oh sure there are "associated members", in England's case Everton, Aston Villa, Newcastle United and Leicester top up the founding members which were basically the Super League cabal. ECA is in a state of flux after the Super League group quit. A more democratic method of club representation is badly needed.  It might be possible to construct Premier League rules that binds any clubs representing English clubs at UEFA to act in accordance with the democratic will of the Premier League clubs.

Thirdly, anticipating that the above measure might not work, I would enact a Premier League rule that says a club cannot compete in European competition if it has finished behind a club that has not qualified. I promise you this is not gobbledegook. The UEFA plans to appease the super league clubs include use of historical coefficients which could mean a club like Liverpool could finish 5th but qualify in place of a club like Leicester finishing 4th. This idea is not totally anti-competitive as it does draw on historical performances but it undermines the concept of a football season and would pretty much preclude a club qualifying for the Champions League on the basis of a one off fourth place finish. Indeed, without getting into Europe a club can't bolster its coefficient so the proposal is basically a way of constructing a closed shop.

As such the proposal, due to be implemented from 2024, would seriously undermine the Premier League's attractiveness. The race for 4th place has become a major feature of the season. Indeed this time it produced one of the great moments of last season, or any other, when Liverpool's goalkeeper Alisson Becker scored a memorable headed goal in the last minute of their match at West Brom. If Liverpool had been sure of their place in the Champions League even if they had finished outside the top 4 would Alisson even have bothered going up for the corner? 

But remember UEFA want their Champions League to be the main event, they don't care about the Premier League and envy its commercial success. So a rule to frustrate such coefficients is needed.

What else? A more equitable distribution of revenues. The Super League clubs wanted the closed shop aspect of American franchises without the ruthlessly equal revenue distribution found in American sports. (Thank you Mikey47 for pointing this out to me). I've always said that the attractiveness of Premier League games between clubs like Liverpool and Manchester United is exactly that - it is a Premier League game, not an exhibition match. The league has 20 clubs. TV revenue should be shared equally. I'd let them keep their commercial revenues for shirt sales, etc though they don't in the NFL, it's all split between the clubs. The revenue distribution point must of course address future revenue sources, e.g. from streaming.

Some have argued for fan control or at least the ability to block proposals. No thanks. If you have ever played at any kind of sports club you will know this is a recipe for disaster.  If you haven't look at the comments on a fan forum for any club and you will soon see how unrealistic if not totally loony things could become. Brighton fans recently called for their club to sign a striker who could guarantee 30 goals a season in the top flight. OK, so within Europe that's only Messi or Lewandowski...

Anyway it would be no guarantee against super league type proposals. Those Manchester United fans on the pitch who caused the postponement of their match against Liverpool weren't protesting against the Super League, they were protesting about the club's ownership - and only because of their relative lack of success in recent years. A fan representative of the Man United board might well have thought guaranteed inclusion in a super league was a spiffing idea.

Fan control would also kill inward investment. Why would you spend billions on a Premier League club if you can't control it? Moreover, unless fan control is via a single golden share it would limit the potential for clubs to raise money from shareholders. Imagine if Liverpool or Manchester United were owned by the fans and a capital injection was needed. Sure, try going to 50,000 fans and asking for £1000 each. Even if the answer wasn't a raspberry you'd only raise £50 million. Manchester United currently has over £450 million of debt on its balance sheet.

But my big no-no would be anything to do with political interference. If you have any doubt how little politicians understand football and just how much these jumped up preening jackasses like pandering to what they think is popular then look at almost anything the Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has ever said on football. Its chair, Julian Knight, criticised Premier League clubs for using the furlough scheme. He "called out" the clubs for using government money to pay their non-playing staff while at the same time paying top wages to players and called for a "windfall tax". 

Pause for a moment to just consider the absolute stupidity of such remarks. Companies carrying out to any and every activity across the economy could use furlough. Wealthy individuals, from sheiks to oligarchs could benefit. But a marginal Premier League club like Burnley were supposed to keep their ticketing staff on with nothing to do. Oh sure they could sell a player, making relegation more likely and prejudicing the jobs of those ticket staff in the future. The furlough scheme was designed to protect jobs and those ticketing staff are just as worthy as employees of companies which don't happen to be engaged in football. Sure the wages of the players are preposterous but I didn't hear any call for the wages of other high earners, such as BBC "talent", to be cut.* 

Moreover, how could a windfall tax be imposed on companies losing money (which most premier League clubs do)? This was ill thought out, easy publicity seeking. By an MP who wrote a book on how to avoid inheritance tax. Hypocrite.

Ministers have been no sounder on football. In the early days of the first lockdown Hatt Mancock called for Premier League players to set an example and take a pay cut without saying why he had singled out this group or explaining just how the government collecting less in tax (which ultimately comes from mugs like me paying dosh to Sky) could conceivably help the NHS.

I have a word (well I think it's a word) for this kind of nonsense....[REDACTED]

I don't know whether the ESL clubs had a good business model anyway. I can't tell how many football fans, like me, are not very interested in those marquee matches. I can occasionally show some interest in, say, Barcelona v Liverpool or Man United when it is a knockout match with something significant at stake. But the Champions League group matches between teams like these have been a yawn. In the early group stages they are cagey affairs. Later in the group it is often already well on the way to being decided. Maybe it's just me, but I think the fans of Villa, Newcastle and the Baggies probably feel the same way. Of course those fans (and me) weren't the target of the ESL, that is the international audience.

But there was a potential upside of the Super League: I wouldn't have had to watch as much football, which would probably have been good for my blood pressure. And made me more pleasant to live with - after all I don't shout and swear at the TV when the golf or cricket are on.....


*It is worth noting that Everton's players voluntarily accepted to defer pay and the club kept paying its casual staff like stewards throughout the lockdowns. 

The Everton board's statement on the ESL is at https://www.evertonfc.com/news/2111866/statement-from-the-board

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Was I named after Phil the Greek? Er, I dunno but maybe

 There have been rivers of newsprint expended on the royal family in recent months so perhaps I shouldn't bother....but what the hell.

I didn't watch Prince Philip's funeral, or Prince Harry's interview with the second lady of the United States (isn't that what Oprah Winfrey is?) But I did see some of the news coverage. After all it was hard to avoid - and in the case of the funeral I wouldn't have wanted to avoid it. Britain does pageantry very well.

I am a reluctant monarchist. As a young man I would have described myself as a republican, though I may well have hesitated to wield my vote like a guillotine if there had been a referendum on abolition of the monarchy. Over time I have concluded that the figurehead monarchy we have is probably the least worst option. For years I have rationalised this by the awful prospect of having a superannuated politician as our president: President Blair for example. But now a greater fear would be, in the Boaty McBoatface era, that we would have some vacuous celebrity as president. Or even two of them, if it was Ant and Dec.

The cost of the royal family is minimal. The sovereign grant was £69.4 million in 2020, roughly £1 per person, which is neither here nor there. I know you can argue that there are forgone taxes and the militant Corbynites among you would presumably confiscate and redistribute the sovereign's wealth, but it wouldn't go far. Having a president instead would entail some cost and not having a royal family would presumably reduce tourism revenues. I can't see that abolishing the royal family would do any good for the country or its standing in the world. That standing was enhanced by the Prince Philip's dignified funeral. The covid restrictions served to make it seem more of a family event.

He was always referred to in our house - by me at least - as Phil the Greek, though as his family was parachuted into Greece he just happened to be born there and while his blood was Danish, German and Russian the one thing it wasn't was Greek. There was much debate about Philip's nationality in the run up to his marriage but some time later, in 1972, former lord chancellor Lord Dilhorne replied to an inquiry from Lord Mountbatten that it was "undeniable" that, under a 1705 act of parliament, all the descendants of the Electress Sophia Hanover, including Philip, through his link to Queen Victoria, were British subjects. So Philip was British all along and, being descended from royalty on both sides he was actually more royal than his bride.

I've occasionally been asked if I was named after the Duke of Edinburgh. The thing is I never asked my parents and I can't now. I always assumed that I wasn't explicitly named after the Queen's consort but the name would have been permanently in the news when my parents met (1947 - the year Philip married the then Princess Elizabeth), when they married and in the run up to my birth so it would be surprising if that didn't have some influence. We both had one L in Philip but that was the more common spelling until the 1960s when double L prevailed. The name has plunged in popularity over the last two decades. According to ohbabynames.com:

After nearly 2500 years on the list of popular male names, Phil(l)ip is finally retreating to the shadows. This ancient name appears to be outdated and perhaps a little dull amidst the Noah, Ethan and Aidens of the nation. (Eh? Noah? You can't get more antediluvian than that - literally!) Once a masculine royal staple, you’d have to be a contrarian parent these days to pick an old name like Phillip. Regardless of where he appears on the charts, Phillip is a timeless classic. And a great choice for parents who live on a horse ranch or have a little future cowboy on their hands.

Ah that old thing - Philip means lover of horses. True for Prince Philip, not me. But personality wise? The same dodgy American website says:

"... a leader - strong and competitive...willing to initiate action and take risks....work hard .... and have the ability to apply their creative and innovative thinking skills with strong determination. They believe in their ability to succeed and are too stubborn to be hindered by obstacles.... meet obstacles head-on with such mental vigor and energy that you better step aside. They resent taking orders, so don't try telling them what to do either. This is an intensely active personality, but they are also known as starters rather than finishers. They have a propensity to become bored and will move quickly to the next project if not properly challenged.  They are the ones to think up and put into action new and brilliant ideas, but they are not the ones to stick around and manage them. This personality has an enthusiastic and pioneering spirit. They are distinctly original.

Well Mrs H would certainly agree with competitive, stubborn, a propensity to become bored (attention spell of a gnat she says) and, much of the time, a starter not a finisher. Though the trait noted earlier about determination means that once I decide to finish something I will pursue it beyond all rational sense. Brilliant ideas? Not really, but a series of psychometric and other tests for managers once showed that I come up with an average number of ideas but some of them were startling unusual. This was because I'd got rather fed up with the daft nature of the questions and wasn't taking it seriously! I don't know if the Duke of Edinburgh's award scheme was entirely his own idea but it has proved to be original and hugely successful - and it undoubtedly required stubbornness to see it implemented. I think I read that courtiers didn't see the point as boys (it was launched in 1956 and extended to girls two years later) could just join the scouts. But that was the whole point - you didn't need to join an organisation or wear a uniform: it was for outsiders, as Philip undoubtedly saw himself. So it drew in young people who may not have joined the traditional organisations. It has been a huge success and not just in Britain. How many initiatives started by an individual span 144 countries?

And I'm an old curmudgeon, just as the Duke was. I don't think it's at all speaking ill of the dead to refer to him as a curmudgeon who wouldn't suffer fools gladly. But his actual number of gaffes over such a long period was so small over the length of his dedicated service - he didn't get to retire until he was 96 - the newspapers struggled to come up with more than one per decade. Only the "slitty eyes" one sticks in the mind. But there you are: being facetious is obviously also a trait of folk called Philip.

Ending on that theme we come to the choice of a custom modified Land Rover as Philip's hearse. While this was very much his own idea, it followed on from Mountbatten's funeral in 1979. I wondered why, given Philip's carriage riding hobby, he wasn't being pulled by horses. There were at least two reasons. When he started planning the funeral (nearly 20 years ago! Somewhat pre covid) he would have expected to be taken from Buck House to Windsor and 20 miles might have been rather far. But more importantly the royal family have had an aversion to horse drawn hearses since the horses drawing Queen Victoria's funeral carriage bolted, leaving sailors to pull it, starting a new tradition. Whether Land Rovers become royal tradition remains to be seen but I expect I can't have been the only one inappropriately amused at the concept of a Land Rover custom designed and modified by Philip after he reconfigured one by overturning it in 2019. 

At least this time it stayed on its wheels. 

Good show, sir!

********

How Philip the Greek was British all along was in the Guardian on 9 April 2021.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2021/apr/09/prince-philip-the-greek-duke-of-edinburgh

What is the Duke of Edinburgh Award, when did Prince Philip found the scheme and how does it work? https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/4151764/duke-of-edinburgh-award-prince-philip-scheme/

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

I thought all good keepers did this

My last column noted that Gylfi Sigurdsson and James Rodriguez shouldn't really be on the pitch for Everton at the same time. They didn't both start the match against Crystal Palace on Monday: James did and Sigurdsson was soon in action as Andre Gomes was injured after half an hour. Everton made more than enough chances to win comfortably in the 1-1 draw. But while he was on Sigurdsson had one of those games where he just didn't turn up. In contrast, James gave a very James Rodriguez performance. I didn't notice a single sprint* and he has a very low pain threshold when bumped by an opponent, so spends a fair amount of time on the ground looking wronged if not assaulted. But he protects the ball well, as always there were some gorgeously struck passes and his finish for Everton's goal was excellent: well struck by his weaker foot and precisely placed. Not an easy finish by any standards. As usual James didn't last the full match but his substitution after 79 minutes, as Carlo Ancelotti went defensive and tried in vain to protect Everton's slender lead, came around ten minutes later than normal.

The comparison between James and Sigurdsson didn't really back up Alyson Rudd's case that Gylfi should be "in charge" with James left out. (see Aly's hot on the Iceman but he blows hot and cold, 5 April). It may be that Sigurdsson feels inhibited or has a touch of imposter syndrome when he's alongside a golden boot winner. 

But I've enjoyed many more of Alyson Rudd's columns than just her Valentine to Gylfi  One of her more recent columns gave her reflections on attending matches under covid rules. She cycles to many London matches and the stories about which clubs help store her bike and which ones have provided biscuits to the journos in the covid era were interesting but I particularly liked her account of being in the stadium with no fans present. I prefer listening on TV with no artificial stadium noise - because it's well, er artificial - but it hasn't been as easy to hear what the players are shouting as I expected. As well as being able to hear the players shouting guidance to each other there is always the entertainment of them bad mouthing each other.  Mrs H always thought it was good for me to get this out of my system playing on a Saturday without her around.  The broadcasters still make daft apologies for "offensive" language, most of which you don't actually hear and even if you do much of it is mere vernacular. But Alyson says there isn't actually much swearing - and then it's usually players swearing at themselves for making a mistake, which she finds rather endearing. And is actually how I remember football matches I played in. She also says referees are hardly ever subject to much abuse (they shouldn't allow any of course).

She notes that some managers are much more voluble than others. We know about Klopp but it's  Hassenhuttl who is permanently shouting at his players. When asked about it one of them said "he's just the same in training". They probably blot it out most of the time.

And some goalies talk much more than others. Kasper Schmeichel is the most voluble, always shouting instructions and not shy of criticising the players in front of him. When his defenders make a mistake he lets them know about it. The thing is I thought all good goalies did this. It used to be on the job description! I wonder if it has been diluted because of the number of overseas players in the Premier League, due to language or culture. Or, given that Schmeichel isn't one of the younger players, maybe giving a constant stream of negative feedback to your team mates is not what people do in these snowflake days. 


A simple fact about football is that it's the centre backs who are both in the best position to see most of what's going on and also have the most time to organise a team. The goalkeeper is too far from the action most of the time. But when play gets near the penalty area that switches to the keeper, enabling the centre back to concentrate on his job. I was taught that, ideally, the keeper controls the box and in that zone his is the voice you listen to. Playing in front of a quiet keeper is very disconcerting; you feel you never know what they are going to do. 

The nightmare of course is when, at centre back, you go to play the ball and find the keeper, without warning, has rushed out of his goal to go for the same ball. It's about as much fun as finding two batsmen in the same crease at cricket. We saw a classic example of such a communication failure when another Alisson - Liverpool's Becker - bundled into Ozan Kabak in the game at Leicester in February leaving Jamie Vardy a free run on an empty net.

I'm all for the "sweeper keeper" but just tell your defender you're coming so he can concentrate on blocking off the forwards to leave the keeper free to play the ball. This is the sort of sneaky defensive play, just short of a blatant foul, which gets me shouting at the TV these days but which I specialised in when I played.

So I'd rather have a constant stream of Kasper Schmeichel invective instructing me where to play it, telling me off or asking me, in the manner of my old mate Herbie, who was never short of a word or three, "what the **** did you do that for?" Which happened quite often in the hundred or so matches we played together, about half my time as a centre back. When Herbie came for the ball you knew about it in good time. Which was just as well; he's a big fella and you didn't want the football equivalent of a charging rhino clattering into you. Much better than hearing the odd hesitant call or an unsettling silence and never being sure what's happening behind you.

Maybe Kasper is just a bit more full on than most other Premier League keepers, though I suspect many are quieter than they I think they should be. If so, I'm still bemused that the current generation of Premier League keepers aren't all as voluble as Kasper and, indeed, Herbie.

* Remarkably James had as many goals and assists as sprints in his first few games for Everton. You might say that isn't hard when his number of sprints is essentially zero, but that wouldn't be quite fair. He sprinted all of seven times in his first four matches, in which he scored three and had four assists. Carlo Ancelotti said "During the first four games, do you know how many times he sprinted? Seven! He’s got more assists and goals than he did sprints." Which may show either Carlo or his data analyst can't count, or maybe goal.com can't. See James Rodriguez earns Ronaldo comparison after opening Everton spell with more goals and assists than sprints, goal.com, 3 November 2020. https://www.goal.com/en-gb/news/james-rodriguez-ronaldo-comparison-everton-goals-assists/mcadxqfosaz117xub6b65gl0i

Monday, 5 April 2021

Aly's hot on the Iceman but he blows hot and cold

I'm not sure whether this is a breakthrough for an old dinosaur like me but I have a new favourite football writer who happens to be female - Alyson Rudd who writes in The Times and the Sunday Times. I felt she had trained on in her latest columns - but then I found she had already won sports feature writer of the year in the most recent British Sports journalism awards.

There's no doubt that being female and preferably not white is a big advantage in the current awards environment. But Alyson is always worth reading. Her columns are knowledgeable and perceptive but I also find them very relatable. There is a hint of hero worship in some of her writing about the players. I'm not sure a male football writer would dare publish a column about a female footballer like the one Alyson wrote in February in praise of Everton's Gylfi Sigurdsson. It was a barely concealed valentine*. Alyson recounted that she had been introduced on an Icelandic radio station as England's greatest aficionado of the Iceman. And that back in his Swansea days she interviewed him and let slip that she was naming her next kitten Gylfi ("he looked only moderately embarrassed" she said). She was mocked for predicting that, if Sigurdsson were fit, Iceland could win the 2016 Euros. Then they knocked out England before one half of what she called "cockiness" led to their defeat by France in the quarter finals. 

Rudd noted that Sigurdsson had been in danger of being labelled an over-priced luxury at Everton. Over-priced - you bet, £45 mill in 2017, still a club record. I wrote at the time that swapping Barkley for Sigurdsson and loads of money wasn't a great deal. Sure, Everton had little choice but to take Chelsea's miserable £15 million in January 2018 as Barkley was about to enter the last year of his contract and I know he hasn't set many fires alight in the meantime, as well as proving injury prone. Sigurdsson can strike a sweet ball and has an eye for goal, scoring a 50 yard spectacular on his Everton debut against Hajduk Split**. But Barkley is also a good finisher and dead ball striker and is much more dangerous running at defenders with the ball than Sigurdsson.

The puzzle at the time was how Everton would use Sigurdsson. Yes Barkley was on his way out but Everton signed two other players whose best position was also number 10, the others being Rooney and the also very expensive and now long departed Davy Klassen. But Siggy has often been deployed on the left in his career and Everton tended to start him out on the flank early in his spell at Goodison. Indeed, it's not always been clear what his best position is throughout his career.

That seems to have been resolved under Carlo Ancelotti: it's number 10. Leaving the problem that Siggy has never really made the position his own and this season Everton signed golden boot winner James Rodriguez, also a no 10 candidate. James has also often been deployed on the wing and is arguably too lightweight to be deployed at number 10, depending on how the team is set up around him. But the penny that eventually dropped for Ancelotti was that you can't have Sigurdsson and James in the same eleven. Most of us supporters seemed to figure that much quicker than the celebrated coach Ancelotti. Even Ms Rudd noted that it was  "painful" watching Everton with them both on the pitch. 

James can be frustrating and, as Ancelotti puts it, has quality but not physicality. But every time he plays he catches the eye with at least a few gorgeously struck passes. Sigurdsson has games where he makes such a  minimal contribution you forget that he's on the pitch. It's not that he hides; there are days when he just can't seem to get anywhere near the ball.

Alyson's remedy is simple - go with Siggy. Saying she has long held that to get the best out of Sigurdsson he needs to be in charge on the pitch (hmm, sounds like she doesn't just mean on the pitch...) she noted that by mid February Everton had won every game this season in which he had set up or scored a goal. And some of those set ups have been superb. Everton's thrilling 5-4 FA Cup win against Spurs was clinched by a slick turn and gorgeously weighted lofted pass for Bernard to finish, a classic piece of number 10 play from the Iceman, with his "wrong" left foot too. Sigurdsson had a great night, scoring a penalty and assisting three goals. For Rudd, Sigurdsson was in charge, James was injured and not in the squad and "it worked".


The problem with this analysis is that, 4 days later, Everton were desperately poor in losing 2-0 at home to Fulham. Both Sigurdsson and James were in the starting eleven, Everton looked tired and leggy and Sigurdsson, far from being "in charge" had one of his invisible man games.

And while at 6ft 1in he is bigger than James he isn't really more physical. While he was involved in four of Everton's five goals against Spurs he was also culpable for two. For some reason Everton tasked Siggy with marking the Spurs centre back Davinson Sanchez at corners. I think the idea - one which my team quite frequently used - is not to have your best headers marking so they are free to attack the ball, so Sigurdsson's task was just to stop Sanchez getting at the ball. His attempts to do so were utterly  pathetic. For the Spurs first he followed Sanchez's smart run put pulled out of making any challenge and just tried to give him a bit of a shove. Nothing like enough of a shove. His attempt at defending Sanchez's second was worse. He decided to stand with his back to the ball, watching and grappling with him. A bit like an American football defender trying to wrap his arms and do everything but actually hold his opponent. Except he was holding him while the ball came in and Sanchez, watching it, was able to get a foot on it. To see the full comedic parody you have to watch the video replay**. Siggy is one of those tall chaps who plays like a he is several inches shorter than his actual height.

But his lay off to Calvert-Lewin for Everton's first that night was sublime and his pass to Bernard for the winner was even better. Then against Fulham - invisible. So Sigurdsson is an enigma, even if Alyson Rudd is smitten.

Anyway, I like Alyson's style of writing and she has produced a string of entertaining columns over the last few months. She was born in Liverpool, raised in Lancashire and is a graduate of LSE. She worked in fashion and as a financial journalist before football took over. She played for Leyton Orient Ladies and is a qualified coach and referee. Her writing is much nearer to both a fan's and a player's viewpoint than most of the time served professional journalists. It makes me realise how much I miss the better written articles from the fanzine era.

And we'll see whether the Iceman cometh for Everton tonight against Crystal Palace. This is the sort of game that has proved a banana skin for Everton in recent months. Not only has the normal home advantage disappeared without fans present, it's become a disadvantage. Since Boxing Day Everton have played seven home league games, winning one, drawing one and losing five. Their away record in that time is the mirror image: played seven, lost one, drawn one, won five. If Everton had done as well at home as away in that period they'd be sitting prettily in third place, sandwiched between Leicester and Man United but with two games in hand on both of them. You may say that's a big "if" but it only needed them to beat three teams in the bottom five (Burnley, Fulham and Newcastle) and one team from a similar standing in the current league table, West Ham. 

Once upon a time I would have thought Everton's persistent failure to beat such teams was indicative of a bunch of prima donnas. But I don't level that charge at Sigurdsson or, for that matter, James even though they are players you'd have thought could unlock such teams. I suspect the problem is the team isn't quite good enough yet and they struggle mentally in the games they are expected to win. Against the top teams they can go out and perform, knowing that whatever the result they can still be said to have played well, for example as recently in the  2-0 F A Cup defeat by Manchester City. The pressure of being expected to win and being criticised for any other result, is another matter. Come to think of it, this isn't new: Everton were often the same under Moyes. They prefer to be the underdog. It's about time this  psychological hang up was resolved. After all, Sam Allardyce said three years ago that Sigurdsson had struggled to cope with the pressure of playing for Everton and talked of bringing in a sports psychologist to sort out the mental frailties of Siggy and his team mates***.

Still, Everton are fortunate to have (and be able to afford) two playmakers like Sigurdsson and James, even if they aren't perfect and they have to rotate them rather than play them together. After all, some of James's assists this season have also been things of beauty, for example his ball for Richarlison to score at Anfield. If Everton can overcome their inferiority complex at Anfield then surely they can learn how to impose themselves against teams from the bottom end of the table. 

Surely....? With not just Sigurdsson and James but Lucas Digne, second in this year's Premier League for assists from full back and with strikers of the quality of Calvert-Lewin and Richarlison Everton's failure against weaker teams is a bit mystifying. But it shouldn't be difficult to solve. Get the ball up the pitch earlier, so that the players named above get more of the ball in the places where they can do damage.

Over to you, Carlo.

 * Actually it wasn't concealed. It was only when I checked I realised Alyson Rudd's column was titled If Everton's boss swooned over Sigurdsson like I do they would be serious cup and top-four contenders - and appeared in the Sunday Times on 14 February 2021. Sadly for Alyson, Gylfi married Alexandra Ivarsdottir in 2019

** Sigurdsson's remarkable goal against Hajduk Split: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qe7k1sH0BkA The highlights of the 5-4 Spurs game are at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FktBKI-qG9M, Sigurdsson's cringeworthy attempt to prevent Sanchez's second is after 4min 16 seconds

*** Struggling Gylfi Sigurdsson embodies Everton's malaise for Sam Allardyce was in the Guardian , 3 Dec 2017:  https://www.theguardian.com/football/2017/dec/03/sam-allardyce-gylfi-sigurdsson-everton-huddersfield-premier-league. Photo credit: Siggy's knee slide comes from the same article