Ken Jones: Performance isn't everything, it's the only thing

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The Independent Football

Defining the present is a tricky business. Although it is true that winners get to rewrite history, we can be reasonably certain about the past. Rome rose and fell. Drake defeated the Spanish Armada. The Pilgrim Fathers settled in Massachusetts. The past is both reasonably certain and secure. But the future hasn't happened yet, so we can imagine anything we please.

In sport, as in all things, the crowded and confusing present is the question. Presently, are we watching Sir Alex Ferguson's tremendous career in football management move towards a bleak conclusion; the fulfilment of Arséne Wenger's work at Arsenal; Liverpool's return to the pinnacle of English football?

It is a personal prejudice, but I'm not much interested in what sports performers earn. A good reporter can find out the salary of any professional athlete, and the last few years have given us a frenzy of money stories on the sports pages. Rankings of players, managers, coaches by income. Stockmarket tables disguised as sports stories.

I am interested in how a team performs. On a wall of what is amusingly referred to as my study, the 1970 World Cup Winners Brazil are pictured in colour. An imaginative birthday present, the photograph was personally signed by Jairzinho when on a recent visit to this country. The "boys" as my friend Hugh McIlvanney fondly recalls them, the team of Pele, Gerson, Tostao, Rivelino, Carlos Alberto and Jairzinho stand alone in football history.

Inspired by Pele's stirring virtuosity, both deadly and romantic in application, they set standards that subsequent Brazil teams (under Tele Santana, the class of 1982 came close and probably would have won that year's finals but for the injuries that ravaged Reinaldo's career) have failed to emulate.

Not only have Brazil struggled to even approach the standards set 30 years ago, almost failing to qualify for next year's finals in Japan and South Korea, but their football throughout the Nineties, influenced as it appears by European principles of play, and undermined by migration, has been concentrated more on results than performance.

Understandably, teams and coaches are judged by results, but things have come to a pretty pass, as people used to say, when performance, by which I mean quality of play, is deemed to be irrelevant. What I have in mind is a remark passed on television last week by Michael Owen following Liverpool's 1-0 victory at Derby, a match they might easily have lost and from which the beleaguered home team deserved to take something. "Who cares about the performance," Owen said. "The important thing is that we took the points."

In his spectacular development as one of the game's most efficient taker of chances, Owen until then had made no serious error in matters of communication, and perhaps it was unfair to lumber him with the responsibility. However, in failing to recognise that football teams have an obligation to entertain, he was guilty of loose thinking.

Accepting the illusions of sport, the hype of sport, can be as dangerous as one drink too many. Let's say, just for the purposes of reasoning, that these are things that can profoundly affect the attitudes of professional games players. Under pressure from within and without, they are easily influenced by a self-defeating philosophy. Winning is everything.

Arguments distress me, but a response was called for this week when a lunch companion proved indifferent to the view that Liverpool's constrained method, one tailored to the pace of Owen and Emile Heskey, doesn't thrill the hearts of neutrals. "The bottom line is results," he said.

After Tottenham Hotspur defeated Leicester City at Wembley in 1961 to complete the first modern League Championship and FA Cup double, their manager, Bill Nicholson, was lost in gloomy disappointment. "We didn't begin to play," he said. "Didn't do ourselves justice. Our supporters may be satisfied but by the standards we've set it was a poor performance."

Liverpool's acting manager, Phil Thompson, has a different philosophy, one he immediately acted upon after arriving in the Eternal City for last night's Champions' League match against Roma. Told that Roma's coach, Fabio Capello, had drawn a comparison between Liverpool's method and that ofInternazionale under the dead hand of Helenio Herrera, he took it as a compliment. "They were successful," he said. It can't be imagined that Thompson's views differ from those of his presently indisposed boss, Gérard Houllier. They should remember that the restless football mind quests, and there is no peace.