Ian Herbert: Six strange things I learnt in this odd and fascinating year

Talking Football: The word came back that getting Balotelli there for something stage-managed would be impossible
  • @ianherbs

Another giddy year on the roller coaster has delivered us new Premier League champions and London's first European champions. But some of the contributions to the fount of understanding about the game have come from the least likely places…

1 Some people are more deserving of gongs than football managers

The one I have in mind is Professor Phil Scraton, the Queen's University Belfast criminologist who is so low-profile that he has still not given a full interview on these shores about his role in making 2012 the year that the truth about the Hillsborough Disaster came out. His part in that was arguably greater than anyone else's. He was the co–author and principal author of the Hillsborough Independent Panel (HIP) report, which revealed in September how, in no particular order, the Football Association, Sheffield Wednesday, South Yorkshire's police and ambulance services, and Conservative and Labour Governments, failed the 96 fans who died that day and hundreds more who have lived with the aftermath. The HIP report formed a substantial part of the Attorney General's successful case to have the original inquest verdicts struck out last week. The astonishing part is that the years of Hillsborough research undertaken by Scraton, who has also worked extensively on the Marchioness disaster and the British penal system, meant that much of the HIP evidence was out there all along, in his books on the subject, including the eminently readable Hillsborough – the Truth. It's just that nobody wanted to listen.


2 Mario Balotelli can only do spontaneous

The Italian remains a series of contradictions, as his camouflage Bentley – "an oxymoron car" as one Manchester City staff member privately described it to me recently – makes only too clear. But there are some elements of consistency about the player who, with a bit of growing up, would have helped prevent City's attempt to retain the title from becoming so much more difficult than winning it in the first place. Adjacent to Manchester Cathedral, the Booth Centre refuge helps hundreds of the homeless each year and Balotelli is a regular visitor. His consistent presence there deconstructs the idea that the only charity he knows is throwing money at strangers (which he doesn't) and dishing out iPhones to his mates (which he does). When the cathedral staff were staging a sponsored sleep-out to raise funds for the Booth Centre, I made inquiries through his people to see whether Balotelli would agree to offering a few quotes and a private photograph, to be distributed to media to support the venture. The word came back that getting him there for something stage-managed would be impossible; he only operates off-the-cuff. Tell me about it, Roberto Mancini would probably say.


3 The best biographies come without their subject's cooperation

The football book of the year for me, Lonely at the Top, Philippe Auclair's portrait of Thierry Henry, was published too late for the William Hill panel's consideration, but was a piece of work most remarkable for the fact that Auclair adored Henry the footballer but was really not that sold on Henry the man. He is deeply sympathetic to the impediment to progress that Henry's ambitious father proved to be, but he also captures and struggles with the flaws of a man he describes as "the selfless egotist, the insufferable charmer".

Auclair's very fine denouement covers the 2010 World Cup. He ranges from indignation to fury with the player's failure to assume his responsibility, as a senior member of the squad, to intervene in the mutiny which damaged France's image as a nation, destroyed the national side's campaign in South Africa and left the country so diminished from the one the world acclaimed for its multiculturalism after the 1998 World Cup victory.

4 You just can't win as a Liverpool manager

In his brief and deeply unhappy spell, Roy Hodgson was pilloried for not talking the talk. He was the man who once described Northampton Town as "formidable" opponents before Liverpool's Carling Cup third-round tie and who confessed after a goalless draw away to Birmingham that "my expectations were not that high anyway". He didn't talk the talk. That just wasn't the Liverpool way.

So you would think that Brendan Rodgers' frequent allusions to Liverpool's status as one of the world's great clubs, his appreciation of Bill Shankly, and (valid) articulation of the fact that a top-four place can be Liverpool's in a season when other contenders are struggling might be welcome. None of it. The sceptics – and there are a fair number – imply that the positive talk is confection and too rehearsed. There was even sarcasm about the red-and-white scarf he wore for the first time against Aston Villa last week. Seven months of watching Rodgers at close quarters suggest that he simply has a positive ethos and is "a good man", as Rodgers is fond of saying about his players. What do fans want? And where on earth do Liverpool go next if Rodgers fails? For these reasons, among others, Rodgers deserves more than the wearying cynicism which pollutes so much of football.


5 We can't do enough to protect those who fall from game's gilded cage

Few 2012 encounters will reside with me for longer than the one with Clair Dunne in a side room near the inquest court at Nottingham which examined the death of her teenage son. His name was Reece Staples – "the next big thing," as a Nottingham Evening Post banner described him in the early years of this century. He trialled with Manchester United and left Notts County youth for Nottingham Forest on a big fee, only for the bottom to fall out of his world when, like many boys, the step from youth to senior football proved too much. He was released, fell into bad company, smuggled cocaine into Britain by swallowing it and was arrested for erratic behaviour when one packet burst. And when he told police station officers that he feared he was "going to die" they didn't believe him. His last conscious moments, hours later, were on a cell floor, convulsed and terrified.

"Most of these boys are vulnerable," Dunne told me. "There is something they can put in place to help them when they fall out of the game." Of the 10,000 boys currently in the academy system, only 1 to 2 per cent make it. Only one in six of those who sign contracts at the age of 18 are in the game for longer than three years.


6 Sir Alex Ferguson found Andrea Bocelli useful for his team talk

This was one of a raft of insights which has become available to us only in the past week, from a Harvard Business School study into the Manchester United manager's methods, compiled with his help. It is a vast study, which offers incredible detail about a man who has been decreasingly willing to give anything of himself away. The overriding theme is the emotional intelligence of an individual so narrowly characterised as a dispenser of anger. The digested read runs like this:

1 He feels he has eight minutes for team talks, between the team arriving through the tunnel and the referees calling them back;

2 He never criticises players in public or on the training field;

3 He considers "well done" to be the two most powerful words in sport;

4 He scouts for new team talk ideas; his first night at a classical concert – Andrea Bocelli – provided him with a homily on coordination and teamwork;

5 He makes his teams train specifically for "Fergie time";

6 He doesn't believe in being a "pleasing manager" by running eight-a-side games, which players like. "The message is simple: we cannot sit still at this club."