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It can be done

By Alan Kirwin :  08/12/2008 :  Comments (0) :
The debate, if indeed that's the right word, about the significance of money in sporting success, and football success in particular, is as old as the hills. It pre-dates the Chelski renaissance, and can be traced back, with varying degrees, to Man Utd, Everton (oh yes), Wolves and even Sunderland for Christ's sake.

Although Michael Kenrick would have one believe that money plays little or no part in the success of a team, I have hitherto disagreed with him and the overwhelming evidence shows that "big clubs", i.e.those with big gates, big gates, rich owners, large membership etc, win almost everything. Or does it? Is Michael actually more correct than even he might believe?

Since the greed-induced concept of the English Premier League manifested itself, it's a hard argument to defeat. Out of 15 seasons Man Utd have 9 titles, Arsenal 3, Chelsea 2 and Blackburn just the distant 1. The first 3, along with Liverpool, have also monopolised the various cup competitions in most seasons. Looks fairly bleak for those outside the elite, Liverpool included.

But for those who care to look, there is real evidence to the contrary. Every so often, a team comes along that shatters myths, tilts at windmills and does (or almost does) the unthinkable. And I'm not referring to situations where these achievements were themselves bought through the acquisition of expensive players. No, I'm talking about teams of relatively unknown players getting ideas beyond their station & fulfilling them, having a seriously good go at teams big & small and (this is the crux) being extremely well coached.

It happened recently in Scotland when Gretna (population 17) got to the Scottish Cup Final and only lost in extra time. It's happening now to some extent with Hull City. Some may remember Dundee United's past exploits, where they reached the semi final of the European Cup and final of the Uefa Cup, a sensational return for such a small club. And forgive me for bringing up the tragic figure of Mike Walker, but with all due respect his achievements at Norwich before he ballsed up at Goodison were extraordinary. I remember losing 5-1 at home to Norwich on my little brother's wedding day & that wasn't the only extraordinary result in a season where Walker caught everyone cold and took Norwich to 3rd.

Two strong characteristics define most of the teams I've listed. Firstly, astute and adventurous tactical management & preparation from the coach in question. And secondly, the technically pleasing and offensive, almost fearless, way that these teams went about their business. This, as opposed to the negative or blood & thunder approach that might be expected when the Davids meet the Goliaths.

Cast your mind back just a couple of months to the performances of Standard Liege against Liverpool. Easily the better team on both occasions. Unknown players, technically good, offensive style, no sitting back. Don't be surprised to see Liege lift the Uefa Cup. They are screaming through the group.

There was also a recent example of this over achievement in Germany a few years ago, when Klaus Toppmoller's Bayer Leverkusen climbed dizzy heights at home & in Europe, beating many of the greats along the way, as well as a comprehensive thrashing of Merseyside's 2nd team. Although the team boasted Michael Balack, Sergio and Lucio, amongst others, the reality is that at that time these guys were nowhere near the stars they eventually became.

And it's to Germany that this article culminates in homage to the current achievements of a certain FC Hoffenheim. Just 15 years ago, this small town club (population c 3,000) were playing in the 8th division of the Baden Wurtemberg league. Their rise from there has been steady and not necessarily spectacular. They were helped by investment from an alumnus who happened to set up the large German software house SAP.

Today, Hoffenheim sit top of the Bundesliga. The Bundesliga has the highest attendances and most goals of any major league. Despite a very unlucky narrow defeat away to Bayern in last week's table-topper, they remain on top & show signs that they just might stick it out and either win it or come dangerously close. Oh yes, and this is their first ever season in the Bundesliga.

Hoffenheim is the story that gives hope to us all. If you look through the Hoffenheim team you will recognise none of the names. Their success has been built on management, tactics, style, adventure and courage. They demonstrate just what can be achieved with the right mentality and the right coaching. Theirs is an approach in which it really is just a case of 11 against 11, whoever they are playing. Their game is usually an offensive 4-3-3, with tactically & technically adept players doing their jobs. And so it was with Leverkusen, Norwich et al.

And the moral of the story?

Well, I will return, if I may, to a game in October 2002 in Moyes's first full season. We went to Old Trafford where, under Walter, we always returned with tails between legs. Not this time. From first whistle to almost 90 minutes we gave way more than we got. It was a combination of movement, touch and passing. But what stood out above all else was our desire to go forward at every stage. Every time Gravesen or Li Tie got the ball they went or passed forward. It was a revelation to behold and it was beautiful to watch.

Yes, we lost that game 3-0, but in all fairness the result was a joke with 3 goals in the last 3 minutes. What mattered was the "we don't give a fuck who you are. we've come here to win" attitude that rang loud. I'd seen it done by Juventus and Barca at Old Trafford, but not by us. Moyes had been making noises since his arrival about winning every game, and why not (his words) since that's what he's paid for. Better to try and fail, than not to try at all.

Not sure what happened to that approach. It seemed to leave with Tommy Gravesen. Now all I hear from Moyes is how much money he wants, or how much someone else has got etc etc. And yet we have good young players that he rarely gives a chance to. Kids like Jutkiewicz, Gosling, Vaughan, Baines, Rodwell, Kissock & Agard. And what on earth has happened to Segundo Castillo?

I've had an epiphany on this subject now. It is my firm belief that, with the right coach, anything is possible. The idea of going to Old Trafford or Highbury and playing 4-3-3 seems madness. But why should it? If the team has the basic abilities and fitness, and are well coached, then you are giving your opponents far more to worry about than sitting back with just one up front, so that when (or if) you do break he's so far away that every attack breaks down & back they come at you.

It's a great pity Moyes didn't retain his apparent desire to attack every team & to win every game. OK, so you lose some. But you win more games and more friends and, just possibly, some silverware. I don't believe that Moyes is the man who can do what's necessary at Everton to make this happen. I'd love to be wrong, but I'm convinced we need someone who's more positive in every way to take us forward now. With the right stuff, it can be done.

Answers on a postcard.

Here's a great article on Hoffenheim from today's Times. It made me feel good.

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