Chris McGrath: English clubs are destined to lose out in the great World Cup bidding wars
The abyss between the real haves and havenots remains as wide as ever. Look at how poor old Wigan must cut their cloth
Tuesday 11 May 2010
It would take a long shift with a polystyrene beaker on The Strand to collect enough money to pop into the Savoy Grill for lunch. But that would seem a pretty succinct précis of the business plan for "a summer of rebuilding" at many Premier League clubs. Their stomachs are increasingly gnawed by hunger, and their derrières chilled by a cold pavement – but they still want to feast like maharajahs. "Will juggle World Cup stars for money," perhaps. Or maybe: "Stranded US carpetbagger needs £800m for ticket home."
They have all been swanking around like the masters of a 1,000-year Reich, but suddenly mendacious financing is making mendicants of many. In his end-of-term report, on Sunday night, Alan Hansen declared that almost every club must recruit significantly before next season. But how many are able to do so, never mind willing?
At the best of times, a World Cup infects the transfer market with impetuosity. It also leaves least opportunity to regroup. By starting their Europa League campaign in July, Liverpool may have to drag Fernando Torres out of the showers in Johannesburg. Mind you, by then he may no longer be at the club. Perhaps his boss will be gone, too, though Rafael Benitez is proving so cryptic about his future that he could just as easily be unveiled tomorrow as the new Prime Minister, or as the flamenco guitarist in a Southport tapas bar.
Should he go, Liverpool would have little prospect of finding a replacement commensurate with its nostalgic status. For a start, their accounts make the Greek Chancellor look a paragon of financial circumspection. The only way of raising funds would be to sell Torres, and Steven Gerrard, and the traffic cones off the training ground, and show enough trust in a new manager to build a new team in tandem with a new stadium. But that would first require someone prepared to meet the vendors' ludicrous valuation of their failed bet, and there seems little danger of anyone doing that in a hurry.
So why, for instance, should Martin O'Neill walk out of his present frying pan into such a fire? He, too, reckons he needs more dough, or else. As it is, both Liverpool and Aston Villa could be left adrift by the teams whose spending has divided them from the Champions League.
And the abyss between the real haves and have-nots remains as deep as ever. Look at how poor old Wigan must cut their cloth. Their 8-0 defeat on Sunday was not even their heaviest in London this season. Yet they have one of Europe's brightest young managers in Roberto Martinez, who supervised home wins against Arsenal, Liverpool, Aston Villa and Chelsea in his first Premier League season.
Two years ago, Wigan ended Chelsea's title challenge in the equivalent fixture when Emile Heskey scored a 90th-minute equaliser. The team that day also included Wilson Palacios and Antonio Valencia. And while Sunday's result could hardly have been more different, history will almost certainly repeat itself.
How dispiriting for Martinez, should his judgement be hijacked by managers who would not know whether Rayo Vallecano is a football team or a type of paella. That is where Martinez traced Mohamed Diamé last year, and even the most myopic of managers will since have clocked this ringer for a 22-year-old Patrick Vieira. Can Martinez possibly cling onto him, or Charles N'Zogbia, or any of the other obvious targets?
Even Wigan, admittedly, were a big fish when Martinez found Diamé in the Segunda Division. And those sharks planning fresh depredations at Wigan will doubtless themselves complain of having their hands tied, in relative terms, higher up the table. Last summer Manchester United notoriously failed to invest the unprecedented fee raised by Cristiano Ronaldo. Presumably any earnest spending this time round will be predicated on further departures, but it will be hard to shift either of their joint-second goal-scorers: Dimitar Berbatov and Own Goals.
The likes of Joe Cole and Michael Ballack, meanwhile, will apparently have to be discarded to refresh even a record-breaking title team, though Arsenal's manager will presumably remain hopelessly addicted to his heroic scruples. Just maybe, however, Arsène Wenger will finally be goaded, not by all the old complaints that his team is too effete, but by the discovery that Arsenal remain a mere string quartet to Barcelona's orchestra.
It goes without saying that Harry Redknapp will keep spending, albeit one hopes that what is already the deepest squad in England is being assembled on less perilous principles than the one that won him the FA Cup at Portsmouth. In deservedly thwarting his rivals for fourth, however, he has emasculated the one Premier League force still competent to compete with the big Spanish and Italian clubs through this ongoing correction in the European transfer market.
Manchester City must duly beware mercenaries, when they need selfless officers in the trench. But then this will be a summer that divulges every man's true commitment. Except for those still involved in Cup finals, yesterday would typically mark the beginning of a sheepish rapprochement with partners dismayed by the greater diligence shown in another lifelong espousal. This time, though, many season-ticket holders will suddenly hear themselves insisting that it would be preposterous to miss Switzerland v Honduras merely to take the mother-in-law to hospital: "It probably isn't even a fracture." Unfortunately, however, that will by no means be the least convincing "rebuilding" exercise in the weeks ahead.
Lampard deserves to have nation's affection, not scorn
Now that Carlo Ancelotti has made Chelsea rather easier for neutrals to admire, could it be that he has also resolved one of the English game's more bewildering antipathies?
To be sure, few will have found it in themselves to treat the celebrations of John Terry or Ashley Cole as an emotionally engaging rehearsal for similar scenes in Johannesburg in July. The best form of both is essential to England's World Cup prospects but neither, for reasons that do not need reprising, is ever likely to find himself truly cherished throughout the land.
But a change of heart is surely overdue among those who mysteriously reserve a similar distaste for Frank Lampard. As a goalscoring midfielder, he is a phenomenon of the modern game. But his professionalism and intelligence also warrant due recognition as he approaches what could easily be his final World Cup. (He will be 32 during the tournament.) It is no surprise to learn that he is contemplating a coaching career some day. In the meantime, he should go to South Africa knowing that his place in the heart of the England team is reciprocated in the affection of the nation.
Foden can shine if Johnson moves with the times
As all men of the Turf know, heavy going can hinder even the best thoroughbreds. So maybe it simply reflects better conditions in the spring. But it would be nice to think that a more enlightened approach to the laws has made a bigger – and more lasting – contribution to the blossoming of what had come to seem an indefinite winter in rugby union.
There were times this season when all adventure seemed to have been stifled by the rules governing the breakdown. Since being licensed to encourage the attacking side, however, referees seem to have removed the fetters. Perhaps it is not too much to hope that England's tour of Australia, and the blooming of Ben Foden, will finally disclose a willingness in Martin Johnson to do the same.
James Lawton is away
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