The Sky’s The Limit?

“When all else fails, there’s always delusion.” I heard this quote recently (I can’t remember exactly where) and thought it was rather wonderful. It’s so true. When every tactic, strategy and carefully thought out plan has been exhausted and proved ineffective, there’s always a guaranteed fall back. Pretend that everything’s alright and convince all and sundry-yourself included-that your analysis is correct. It’s fool proof. A brilliant coping mechanism that can be applied to any scenario or circumstance.

I thought of the saying when learning of Sky Sports’ latest re-brand. For those who missed it, the traditional Sky Sports channels have been replaced by more bespoke versions-Sky Football, Sky Cricket, Sky F1, Sky Golf and a couple of miscellaneous sports channels. It’s an interesting gimmick and something that’s actually quite novel in this part of the world. One can understand the appeal for those besotted aficionados who can’t get enough of their chosen sport. A potential game changer in every sense of the term. It feels like this is a critical moment for the once unimpeachable Sky Sports brand. Satellite t.v.’s premier sports station is facing stiff and unprecedented competition from ambitious rival BT Sports, who are relentlessly going after Sky in the world of football rights and have just snatched exclusive rights to rugby’s Champions Cup from their more established competitor.

Changed times indeed for Rupert Murdoch’s flagship station. I’m old enough to remember when Sky first emerged as major players in the sports market over 25 years ago. There was widespread dismay in the football world when the young, upstart company- as it was then- secured exclusive rights to the newly formed F.A. Premier League. It was indeed an impressive coup and one that firmly cemented Sky’s reputation as major players in the sports business. And how the t.v. establishment fretted. How would fans cope when deprived of terrestrial coverage of major sporting events? How could the emergent station emulate the charm and experience the Beeb and ITV brought to the biggest sporting occasions?

However, all those unfounded fears and worries ebbed away when Sky’s groundbreaking Premier League coverage commenced in the early ’90s. Armchair fans the world over were quite simply blown away by Sky’s unique and inventive coverage. For not only did Sky do sports coverage bigger, they did it better. It didn’t matter what your sport of interest was, Sky had you covered. Football, rugby, cricket, boxing. Sky slowly and steadily secured the key rights to the events that really mattered and then proceeded to fill their ultra-modern studios with the best pundits each sport had to offer. The formula was simple but it was supremely effective. It wasn’t just that Sky was ahead of the game. It was the game.

We know how it ended, but think of the glory days of Sky Sports with Richard Keys and Andy Gray fronting Sky’s glossy and informative football coverage. But it wasn’t just football that saw Sky push the boundaries. They had the best pundits and analysts across the board-Stuart Barnes in rugby, Barry McGuigan in boxing, David Gower and Ian Botham in cricket. The deep, perceptive analysis was complemented by cutting edge technology that served to enhance and improve the viewer experience beyond anything hitherto seen. So, why the change?

Certainly, from a fans’ perspective, there’s a feeling that Sky has lost its way a little. As well as the fierce competition from the brash BT Sports machine referenced above, Sky is struggling to retain a more fickle, modern audience whose attention span has never been shorter. We’re living in a world full of plentiful distractions and consumers often don’t have the time to absorb t.v. sport in the vast quantities consumed in days gone by. In the era of Netflix, Box Sets and streaming, it’s hard not to see the Sky Sports model as being a little out-of–date.

Sky’s current malaise is illustrated by its muddled and often eccentric rugby coverage. Rugby on Sky used to be magnificent, boasting intelligent, informed analysis by some of the game’s foremost thinkers. Sky still have the best pundits rugby has to offer but they increasingly choose to use them in a very unorthodox fashion. Take the recent Lions tour. With proper analysis increasingly cut short, punters were treated instead to bizarre, scripted monologues from Will Greenwood and Scott Quinnell.

You know the sort of thing. These dramatic, rehearsed speeches have been part of the Sky rugby landscape for some time but the Lions series saw these skits taken to a whole new level. Surely there can’t be much demand for these distractions? They’re so unnecessary. Greenwood and Quinnell are both likeable, vastly experienced rugby men and have so much to offer in terms of insight. It’s such a pity that their undoubted talents are being wasted through these annoying sideshows.

Rugby on Sky was once one of my foremost pleasures in life but I find myself increasingly turned off by the direction its coverage is going. I say all this as a confirmed and established fan of Sky. Despite a legion of reasons to do it, I just can’t bring myself to cancel my subscription. In my view, the Sky platform is still light years ahead of its rivals. They are still the leaders and standard bearers in this competitive and dynamic industry. No other channel-BT, Channel 5, ITV-no-one- can hold a candle to Sky in terms of output, quality, production values and the sheer breadth of coverage.

And although not every gimmick works, they are still the innovators. What’s more, while Sky might not be as weighty as it used to be, it’s still the fans’ best bet when looking for informed and clever commentary. Who knows if the re-brand will achieve what the station wants it to, but I, for one, wish them all the best. Sky’s change of emphasis indicates that sport’s premier station has no intention of falling for delusion. It remains to be seen if the changes persuade viewers to keep their remote controls from surfing.

Twitter: @rorymcgimpey

Culture Clash for Big Sam

During the last year, I’ve discovered the pleasure of podcasts. Podcasts are great. For the uninitiated, they are like radio, except you choose the content you want to listen to. It’s one of my simple pleasures in life, sourcing a podcast on a topic and then spending an hour or two listening to an informed discussion. In recent times, I’ve listened to several podcasts on diverse subjects, from music to current affairs and a host of other things in between. In terms of sport, there are some terrific podcasts available.

My personal favourite is Off The Ball from Newstalk. Every week, Joe Molloy and the team provide informed and entertaining discussion from the Irish sports world. All major sports are covered, with the station providing extensive analysis on the hot topics of the day. The journalism is, in itself, excellent, and the team always provides pundits of the highest quality. It’s worth tuning in to listen to Joe Brolly or Paul Kimmage alone-both are Off The Ball regulars. The predominant subject being discussed last week was of course Sam Allardyce’s ignominious departure from the England post after only one game in charge. As usual, Off The Ball was my first port of call when looking for perceptive analysis. The Allardyce debate made for interesting listening, to say the least.

For those who don’t know, England’s manager left his post last week following an investigation by the Daily Telegraph into alleged corruption in English football. Part of their expose featured  clandestine footage of Allardyce negotiating a speaking engagement with businessmen that supposedly had interests in the Far East but who were, in fact, undercover Telegraph reporters. The rush to judgement on Big Sam was predictably speedy, with the prevailing consensus holding that his position had become untenable once the Telegraph footage came to light. The common view was that such enterprises were inconsistent with Allardyce’s exalted position and were fundamentally unbecoming of an England manager. To make matters worse, the former West Ham boss apparently discussed potential circumvention of FA rules on the contentious matter of third party ownership. The media verdict on Allardyce was both harsh and immediate. Many condemned England’s manager as foolish, while greedy was the adjective that featured most often in commentaries.

Whether you view the Allardyce sting as entrapment or a fine piece of investigative journalism, it’s hard not to have an opinion on his dramatic fall from grace. While the Telegraph has undoubtedly done us a service in publicising discussions those involved would have preferred to stay hidden, I think these events tell us much more about the changing nature of football than they do about any individual. Far be it from me to defend Allardyce, but some aspects of the media narrative don’t really add up. Firstly, in relation to greed, is it possible to condemn anyone as greedy in a world where market forces dominate and superstar players regularly earn in excess of £200,000 a week? When the underlying climate is intrinsically avaricious, how can anyone in football condemn Allardyce without leaving themselves open to hypocrisy? Moreover, as far as misdemeanours go, using your position to negotiate some keynote speaking isn’t exactly the worst practice ever committed in football.

I think most analysts have got this story wrong. In my view, Allardyce’s fall has little to do with greed and nothing whatsoever to do with corruption. Instead, Allardyce’s demise is about culture. Sam Allardyce didn’t change. Football did. Big Sam has long been perceived as the archetypal old-school manager; a traditional British boss with an instinctive feel for the conventions of the English game. Ironically, Allardyce’s lack of modernity was probably one of the reasons he was so attractive to his FA employers. After the cosmopolitan sophistication of Sven Goran-Eriksson and Fabio Capello and the eccentricity of Steve McLaren and Roy Hodgson, here was a man who embodied the most desirable traits of the good, old-fashioned British football manager. Someone grounded by modesty and grit, yet still possessing a sharp football brain and a humble intellect. For years, these were the sort of managers that prospered in English football.

However, the world of football has changed beyond all recognition in the last 20 years. Old-school managers like Allardyce have been steadily replaced by a new breed of boss. These new kids on the block exude sophistication and finesse; they have little concern for outdated and antediluvian attitudes. It’s easy to think of the prototype of the modern manager: young, brash, confident and cultured. Usually a former player. Whereas once guys like Big Sam were ubiquitous in English football, that style of manager is gradually becoming extinct, replaced by the Mourinhos, Guardiolas and Pochettinos of this world. It’s hard not to feel for the old-school manager. Football is abandoning them one by one. And as they fall, the modus operandi of the traditional boss slowly disappears. Allardyce has done nothing wrong, but still finds himself obsolete.

I don’t know everything that the Telegraph has uncovered, but I’d be very surprised if corruption was endemic in English football. Modern managers simply have way too much to lose to think in terms of “bungs.” Granted, power and money corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Acton famously observed. But why would managers and players risk their livelihoods in this crass fashion when it’s so easy to enrich yourself quite legitimately in the modern game? It just doesn’t add up. Where vast riches exist in any walk of life, there’s always the potential for corruption. However, it’s hard to believe that such practices are institutionalised in modern football. And whatever rump of malpractice that still exists will eventually be washed away by the vast corporate machine that is the Premier League. As for Big Sam, don’t be too hard on him. Allardyce has certainly been naive and, by his own admission, a little foolish. And yes, he’s probably been a tad greedy. But no crime has been committed.  It must be hard when the world you’ve known changes before your very eyes. That’s the thing about culture. If you don’t change with it, it will leave you behind for good.

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

 

 

 

Can The Stick Exist Alongside The Carrot?

Should a manager or sports coach ever criticise his/her players in public? This rhetorical question comes to mind on the back of comments made by United boss Jose Mourinho in the last couple of weeks. Mourinho was quite outspoken about certain players in the aftermath of recent defeats and the Portuguese manager’s attitude has sparked a debate over what is and isn’t appropriate for someone in his position. Further to my last blog, the Red Devils predictably bounced back (what a cringe-worthy and cliched phrase!) from their early season slump with an emphatic victory over last season’s champions Leicester City. The United boss was completely vindicated in his selections and tactics as the Old Trafford men slayed the Foxes with overwhelming ease. Were Mourinho’s previous statements justified on this basis? Certainly, whatever the United boss said to his players, it seemed to work a treat.

The answer depends on your perspective and level of tolerance. Conventional football wisdom decrees that you never criticise your players in public. According to this logic, the environs of the dressing room are sacrosanct and any harsh words uttered behind closed doors should remain eternally private. For example, Alex Ferguson had a strict policy of omerta in relation to his players and obsessively refrained from critiquing them in the public arena. Assuming that the former United boss was much more direct behind closed doors, overt public criticism was nevertheless a territory he never ventured into. However, his current successor is cut from a different cloth. Mourinho is notoriously bold, brash and outspoken. United’s manager has no qualms about speaking his mind and seems unconcerned whose feathers get ruffled in the process. While Mourinho would probably contest that he’s overtly, publicly critical of his players, there’s little doubt that the former Chelsea coach is more forthright in his views than many of his managerial peers and predecessors. So, which approach is correct?

It’s easy to maintain the traditional view that players should never be criticised in public. After all, it’s only logical that players respond better to praise than opprobrium. However, I think that public censure can sometimes be justified if it provokes and inspires the right response. It’s a rather counter-intuitive argument to make, but some individuals respond well to honest, forthright critique. As a motivational tool, constructive criticism can be extremely effective. Apart from anything else, it can induce a desire to prove the manger or coach wrong. Similarly, many players respond best to honest and accurate appraisals of their performance. While well-meaning platitudes are well and good, nothing beats an honest and candid assessment of players’ performance aspects that can be improved. It’s always helpful to have essential evaluation measured in a quantifiable way. The key word here is “constructive.”

I believe firmly that individuals are always motivated by praise and encouragement above anything else. This is true in any walk of life. Sport, business, the arts: you name it. I was never much of a rugby player, but I played a little in school and college. I was very enthusiastic, but lacked the coordination and skill to be much of a player. I remember one of my coaches being particularly harsh on some of us. This man had little inclination to encourage or spare any feelings in respect of our efforts. His philosophy was very much one of tough love. And this was supposed to be a fun experience?! Yes, a good (metaphorical) kick up the arse is needed sometimes, but surely there has to be a combination of carrot and stick employed? My abiding memory of this coach’s approach is how utterly self-defeating it was. Regardless of what he thought of our abilities, surely he realised that he would have got more out of us by praising every once in a while? To be fair, this approach wasn’t particularly uncommon. It’s how things were done in those days. A sort of faux drill sergeant mentality.  In my experience, it never worked very well. Professional sport is a much different world to social rugby of course, but the basic principle is the same. How best to motivate an individual? How tough should a coach be?

Sometimes unfiltered honesty is the best policy. Whatever one thinks of Mourinho’s exhortations, they seem to have worked pretty well. Moreover, the United manager’s record confirms that his methods usually succeed. When dealing with elite footballers, the last thing you want is a bunch of precious prima donnas who regard any sort of criticism as a form of personal judgement. After all, we’re talking about multi-millionaire superstars here. Surely, the least we can expect of them is an ability to withstand a little honest critique? The key is balance, in my view. Although it can be beneficial to put the cat among the pigeons sometimes, coaches must be careful not to erode the unity and purpose that underscores any team. Modern players are much more delicate flowers than their forerunners. It’s a fine line to tread. Jose Mourinho is infinitely more qualified to make these judgements than I am and I’m sure he’ll get the balance right.  Constructive criticism certainly has its place, but there’s no substitute for sincere encouragement. In sport, history tells us the best results are achieved by a careful juxtaposition of carrot and stick.

Twitter:@RoryMcGimpsey

Calm Down, It’s Only September!

While I was engrossed in the excitement of the All-Ireland football final, the news came through that Man United had slumped to their third consecutive loss. The soccer giants lost 3-1 to Watford at Vicarage Road today, a chastening defeat that prompted the usual hysteria and over-reaction among many fans and pundits. Disappointment at your team losing is perfectly understandable of course and distress at defeat is hardly a new phenomenon. A bizarre trend is emerging, though. We are living in a curious age where instant reaction is demanded in these moments and our responses are becoming ludicrously disproportionate, devoid of any semblance of balance or common sense.

The honeymoon is over. While fans were somewhat divided over the vexed appointment of Jose Mourinho, it’s fair to say the overwhelming majority were prepared to give the controversial Portuguese manager a chance. And it all started so promisingly. A decent preseason, one that heralded a smattering of marquee signatures, was followed by a good start to the league. Typical of the new manager, the performances were functional rather than overly spectacular, but the results were coming and there seemed to be intent to play attacking football. I saw the first home game against Southampton and I must say I was very impressed with the United performance. The hosts were organised and efficient, and new signing Paul Pogba looked every inch the superstar in midfield. Certainly his inflated price tag didn’t look excessive that evening.

Granted, things haven’t gone too well since. Last week’s deflating loss in the Manchester derby was followed up by Europa League disappointment in Rotterdam. Today’s reverse against Watford has therefore topped off a rather horrendous week from a United viewpoint. And I get the fact that these losses aren’t mere statistics. There’s a context to all of this. Admittedly, I haven’t seen all the matches, but I understand that the performances as much as the results have caused concern. The City performance, in particular, was a profound reality check. The final score hardly did justice to the extent of City’s pervasive dominance. I tuned out before the end, but the Premier League favourites were mesmerising in the Manchester derby. City were fantastic, exhibiting a blistering pace that was combined with pin-point accuracy. Make no mistake, this was as emphatic a 2-1 victory as you’ll ever see. If City had taken their chances in the first half, it could have been really embarrassing for Mourinho. United have seen it all before with a Pep Guardiola team, of course. That bloody carousel! Today’s defeat punctured the Mourinho bubble further. A 3-1 loss to Watford. A reverse of this nature was always going to spell the end of the honeymoon.

Disappointment I understand. But I don’t get the hysteria. A cursory look at some of the post-game reaction unearthed the usual internet hyperbole and overreaction. Football commentary has become so tabloid. Everything’s a crisis. I’ve seen several comments on Twitter today, that openly question Mourinho’s tenure. United’s boss is getting slated by elements on the internet and social media. Unfavourable comparisons are even being made with immediate predecessors Louis Van Gaal and the unfortunate David Moyes. Moyes, in particular, proved fatally vulnerable to similar levels of impatience when he was shown the door with indecent haste ten months into a six-year contract. Mourinho will certainly be given more time, but he must find such commentary extremely perplexing. Let’s not lose our heads here. We’re only five games into the league season. There’s plenty of football to be played.

I’m not Mourinho’s biggest fan, but his record tells you there’s absolutely no need to panic. The man’s a perpetual winner, who invariably gets the job done in the end. What we’re seeing here isn’t based on calm and rational analysis. It’s hysteria and an extreme form of hysteria at that. We live in a world that demands instant success. Everything has to be expeditious and immediate. These days, we don’t wait to make our judgements. We offer them instantaneously and without mercy. Patience is viewed almost as an old-fashioned concept. In the modern era, football supporters demand immediate success and expect their teams to win every game. Expectations are less realistic than ever. Fans baulk at the idea of giving a manager time to make his mark.

If a match is lost, then the manager is in trouble. Lose a couple of games and it’s magnified into a full-blown crisis. Crisis? The word has lost all meaning in the modern vernacular. Wars and famines are crises. Losing a few football matches constitutes a blip, a transient setback from which great managers like Mourinho inevitably recover. These modern trends have eroded our sanity and sense. We’ve lost the power of perspective. Social media hasn’t helped in this regard. The demand for instant judgement and rapid reaction is insatiable. It’s a relentless, self-serving monster. But we’re all in trouble when fans are getting perturbed by the loss of a couple of early season games. Sport is an emotive business and it’s easy to get caught up in the madness. Anyone getting too hot and bothered really need to take a step back, though. Calm down dears, it’s only September!

P.S. For those who missed it, Dublin and Mayo served up a cracker at Croke Park today. The game ended as a draw, but the result was in doubt until virtually the last kick of the contest. Whenever the Dubs threatened to pull away, Mayo came back and the Connacht men showed great heart to tie up a game that seemed lost. It’s hard to resist the thought that today was Mayo’s best chance for the Sam. They were, by common consent, the better team and would surely have won were it not for the costly concession of two own-goals. One hopes they have enough in the tank to go again. The replay promises to be unmissable viewing!

Twitter: @RoryMcGimpsey

Image courtesy of Wikipedia: By Aleksandr Osipov (José Mourinho) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AJos%C3%A9_Mourinho_in_Kyiv%2C_October_2015.jpg

File:José Mourinho in Kyiv, October 2015.jpg