Chris McGrath: A club self-destructs – in the time it takes to sink a pint
Saturday 27 September 2008
At the time it merely prompted condescending smirks, but now it seems to provide a motif for much that has happened since. After all, it was just about the last time anyone has seen Mike Ashley. Watching what turned out to be Kevin Keegan's final game in his employment, at Arsenal last month, the Newcastle owner was filmed downing a pint in 15 seconds. To anyone on Tyneside still wondering whether the glass was half full, or half empty, that was one kind of answer.
Even the gluttonous, meretricious cabaret of football has seldom reached the sort of depths explored in the meantime by Newcastle United. The appointment yesterday of Joe Kinnear as interim manager flavoured the air of unreality at St James' Park with a new, surreal note.
On Tuesday, Arsène Wenger used the Carling Cup to introduce his next generation of buccaneers – so soberly assembled, so intoxicating in promise. The following night Newcastle players goggled at 30,000 empty seats and, stricken with insecurity, succeeded only in coaxing Tottenham from their own torpor.
Where Arsenal had depicted the British game in fresh, vibrant colours, Newcastle daubed fat brushstrokes upon the sallow, sickly portrait in the attic. Yet that contrast should guide their redemption. There is only one way to rouse the club from its nightmare, and that is youth. Not just on the field – though neglect and injury permit little alternative – but in the dugout as well.
Ashley has been thinking in very different terms, which surely implies that the idea must be worth pursuing. Having precipitated this melodrama by devising an unworkable relationship with one former England manager, this week he did exactly the same with another. At 65, Terry Venables plainly decided that life is too short, even at £100,000 a game, for an assignment so uncertain not only in its duration, but in its essential moral quality. Would he have been salvaging the legacy of a great club? Or just shoring up the ludicrous price Ashley still expects for a corporation he has tipped into free fall?
Next on Ashley's list? Another former England manager dozing in a television studio. Still, it is hard to imagine what Glenn Hoddle could possibly have done in a previous life to deserve such a troupe of clowns. No doubt Ashley would have turned to Sir Bobby Robson himself, if only the poor man's health allowed it.
Robson distils the decency, fidelity and charisma chronically absent from the present regime. But much the same was true of Keegan, and the poisoning of the club since his departure prohibited anyone of elite stature – the accomplished local boy, Steve Bruce, for instance – from taking the job. Not just because he would be expected to dovetail meekly with Dennis Wise, but also because he might last only as long as he fails. For if Newcastle are turned round, someone out there will be credulous enough to meet Ashley's asking price – and presumably will want to satisfy his vanity with his own appointment.
Ashley had painted himself into a corner, and summoning Kinnear shows his grievous lack of nous. The only manager who can restore conviction is one who knows no other way. Once Keegan left, there was never any point hiring someone with a row of rusting medals on his chest. Instead the club need someone to swagger on to the training pitch like a fighter pilot who has just won his first dogfight. If his name happened to be Roberto Martinez, for instance, any player worth anything to the club's future could only be delighted.
Martinez is only 35 and has been a manager for barely 18 months. In that time, however, he has transformed Swansea City from ugly ducklings to runaway League One champions and, by all accounts, already one of the most fluent sides in the Championship. As a young player he had the courage to embrace a culture shock at Wigan, introducing ballet among hobnailed boots. Now his sophisticated supervision of preparation and tactics again discloses vision and adventure. And, critically, he has undiminished belief.
Moreover, he could at least have been offered a proper contract, as any new owner foolish enough not to rate him could presumably afford to pay him off. In fairness to the reviled Wise camp, they have a nose for talent: Jonas Gutierrez looked an excellent buy before his injury. But Ashley and his men would always have been too frightened to risk the sort of choice that worked so well for Everton when they appointed David Moyes.
Hence this latest, gauche flourish with Kinnear. They have come up with mission impossible, and only a talent as pristine as Martinez can worthily choose to accept it. Otherwise it is the football club itself that promises to self-destruct in less time than it takes Ashley to swallow a pint. Five, four, three...
To return or not return? Questions still for Armstrong
It is no exaggeration to say that the human species has produced few physical achievers to match Lance Armstrong, who beat cancer before winning the Tour de France seven years running.
Three years into his retirement, Armstrong has announced he is to resume cycling to promote the fight against cancer. His return inevitably revives the furious way he has contested allegations and innuendo about his supremacy. Describing himself as "the most tested athlete in the world", he has never given a suspicious sample. But some will always want to perceive shadows between the inspiring black and white of his story.
Armstrong, after due translation, shares his surname with the young Norwegian prince who serves as the foil to Hamlet. Fortinbras is the ultimate man of action, unfettered by the complicating modernity of his Danish rival. Armstrong, however, represents a little bit of both.
Selectors stand out from sparse crowds by absence
A gripping climax has again vindicated the divided County Championship as a competitive environment likely to produce players equal to the sustained demands of Test cricket. Sparse attendances are immaterial – except in one respect. For it is sometimes hard to believe that the England selectors watch it either.
The youngest apart, county players seem entitled to despair of recognition for their maturing talents. This summer, the selectors set a world record by fielding the same 11 for six Tests running, despite dividends that might be charitably described as fitful. Then, infamously, Darren Pattinson (right), recruited by Nottinghamshire from Melbourne club cricket, was abruptly summoned to Headingley. His first Test, only his 12th match at first-class level, will surely be his last.
The 30-year-old has since remained a key contributor to Nottinghamshire's title chase. As the most eccentric of exceptions to prove the rule, however, his fleeting promotion invites an obvious conclusion. If the selector can't be one of the three men, it must be the dog.
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