Lost In Transit: The Story Of Hugo Enyinnaya

Paul Grech Wednesday, December 14, 2011 ,
“I’m going to be rich!” was the typically honest reply of Antonio Cassano when asked what went through his mind after scoring a fantastic goal against Inter as a 17 year old, upon making his first start for Bari in 1999. As crass as such a comment might seem, it was, perhaps, only natural for Cassano to react that way, having been raised in one of Italy’s most impoverished and tough neighbourhoods. As things turned out, though, it was quite a prescient thought. Cassano may have never fulfilled his early promise or achieved as much as he might over the last eleven years, but this player has certainly done pretty well financially for himself.
He was also probably not the only one whose thoughts turned to the promise of potential fortunes that night. Playing alongside Cassano and scoring an equally brilliant goal was another teenage striker in the form of Hugo Enyinnaya. Signed from the Belgian second division club Molenbeek a few months earlier for £125,000, the Nigerian might have been forgiven for thinking that his life was about to change dramatically when his shot from thirty yards out flew past Antonio Peruzzi to give Bari the lead.
But it didn’t. and while Cassano quickly established himself as a regular in Bari’s starting line-up, a series of injuries crippled Enyinnaya’s chances of a lengthy career. In three season he made just twenty appearances without ever managing a lnegthy run in the first team. Loans to Livorno in the Serie B (which resulted in two goals in seventeen appearances) and Foggia in the Serie C1 (from which he returned one goal in seven appearances) followed but when his contract was up there was no one willing to offer him a new one. At just twenty three years of age, Enyinnaya’s Serie A career was effectively over. 
Yet not everyone had forgotten about him. The former Udinese midfielder Marek Kozminski, who had just taken over as chairman at Polish side Gornik Zabrze, still remembered the Nigerian with the fierce shot and decided to make an offer for him. An offer was also received to join Hungarian side Debrecen, but Enyinnaya wasn’t convinced of the merits of this move. Agents promised him contracts with Italian sides but as the weeks dragged on, none of those promised materialised. So Enyinnaya decided to go to Poland.”They pay as well as they do in Italy and it will be in the top flight,” he said at the time, “It won’t be too bad”.
Sadly, that wasn’t the case and his story was about to take a turn for the worse. The contract that he signed was written exclusively in Polish, and which – whether intentionally or not – prevented Enyinnaya from noticing that the €10,000 a month that he had agreed to wasn’t mentioned anywhere. When he tried to get paid he was met with excuses. When he played he was pelted with bananas. After a couple of months he had, unsurprisingly, had enough and he left the club having made just four appearances for them.
Friends and agents were all contacted as he desperately tried to find a new club in Italy. Yet it all turned out to be in vain. There were no Serie A or B teams interested in giving him another opportunity, whilst clubs lower down the Italian league system were prevented from signing an ‘extracomunitario’ (a player from outside Europe). For Enyinnaya there was no going back. So he stuck it out in Poland making moves to Poland II Liga Lechia Zielona Gora and Odra Opale. Finally free from injury, he began scoring freely notching up thirty goals in some eighty games.
Eventually he did make it back to Italy, joining Anziolavinio in the Eccellenza (non-league) where the ban on non-Europeans didn’t apply. Within months he moved on to Meda and then Zagarolo. Always struggling to play and show a glimpse of that early promise, he finally gave up this year at the age of thirty and chose to return home to Nigeria. “I thought that after that day nothing would have been the same for me,” he says of that game with Inter struggling to mask his bitterness. “Especially as everything in my life before had sucked. They said that he [Cassano] would become like Maradona so I wanted to be at least like Careca”.
Instead, that game and that goal against Internazionale turned out to be the highlight of his career. “People ask me ‘Hugo, how’s Cassano’, as if I had remained the same as that young player”, he later said, “I’ve got no contact with Cassano, I don’t hear from him. In these years I’ve got through situations that have left their mark. My story was different from Cassano’s. Our paths were different.”
This article was originally published on TwoHundredPercent. This is Enyinnaya's goal from that night against Inter:


[Featured Article] Well Red Magazine: You Kidding?


Sports Book Chat: Jonathan Wilson

Paul Grech Friday, November 11, 2011 , , ,

A few day before my daughter was born, the publisher of Jonathan Wilson's first book Behind the Curtain sent me a review copy.  Rarely has a delivery been so timely as over the next week or so it was to prove to be an excellent way to fill the monotony of those late hours spent rocking cradles and trying to get a crying baby to sleep.

Thanks to that book, Wilson became a personal favourite. I tried to read everything he wrote with each piece increasing my conviction of his brilliance.   His ability to write about with passion and verve about Eastern European football (initially) and tactics (subsequently) were insightful and inspirational in equal measures.

Indeed there are, arguably, few writers who have been as influential as him.  Inverting the Pyramid kickstarted the current trend of tactical analysis whilst Blizzard, the magazine he launched earlier this year, has proven that there can be exceptional writing about football.

Yet, mention this to Wilson and he is dismissive saying that he just "rode a wave that was coming his way". Inadvertedly, however he has put it better than anyone else could because spotting those waves and being the first to get to them is precisely what visionaries are capable of doing.

When did you decide that writing is what you wanted to do for a living?  And what sort of training did you have?
I’d always written stuff, from being five or six. I worked on the Sunderland fanzine A Love Supreme from being about 16, and then I started doing freelance work for Match of the Day magazine (the old version) while I was doing my Master’s degree. I possibly would have been an academic had I got funding to do a DPhil – on the subject of imperial constructions of masculinity in Conrad and Kipling – but to be honest I’m much happier as a football-writer than I’d ever have been as an academic. I did a journalism course, but to be honest I learned more doing a week of work experience than I did in three months on the course.

Looking back – and taking on board what I learned while teaching a journalism course  - I think the fact I read huge amounts was a big help. I spent six months teaching in a Tibetan monastery in India between school and university, and while there I got in the habit of reading 50 pages before I got up in the morning and 50 pages before I went to sleep, something I pretty much carried on until I started working full-time as a journalist. Even now I read a lot on buses, trains, planes etc. It baffled me while teaching how little reading people who wanted to write for a living did.

You started out at, a site that if I recall had ambitious plans but not a sound business case.  Yet I believe that's where you got the bug about Eastern European football.  What was that experience like?
I’m not sure that’s quite true about the business plan. I think mistakes were made early on – as a lot of people made mistakes in the first flush of the dot-com bubble – but by 2002 we were pretty close to breaking even when the parent company loaded a huge debt on us from another part of the business. That was unsustainable, and that’s why we disappeared.

It was a fantastic place to work as a first job. A lot of freedom, a hugely dedicated, innovative staff, and a great chance to learn about football all over the world. No money, but you don’t care about that when you’re mid-20s.

Why the fascination with Eastern European football?
The first place I went to outside of the UK was Slovenia, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1984. I went back with my mam and dad five times before the war, and that gave me an interest in eastern Europe (albeit in its friendly, Titoist form). Then when I was in lower sixth we had an exchange with a school from Tambov in Russia, which strengthened that fascination. So there was a spark there, but what ignited it was that at onefootball I was very junior and so while others looked after the more major football countries I tended to take the eastern stories. I started going out there, meeting people, making friends and contacts, and when onefootball went under, I realised it was a niche in which there was little competition, that it was knowledge I could offer papers  that they didn’t already have.

Where did the ideas of each of your books come from?
It depends. The first one, Behind the Curtain, came from sitting down with my agent and talking through what I could do that was different. The Sunderland and Clough books the publisher came to me. Inverting the Pyramid and Anatomy of England were nothing more complicated than me thinking ‘hmm, there’s might be a book in that’ and discussing it with my agent and editor.

Do you often re-read your books?
Never. I sometimes use them for reference, but I don’t sit down and read them. Just last night, in fact, I was asked a question about why Sunderland are known as the Black Cats. I knew it had something to do with the cannon that used to stand at the mouth of the river and I was googling it when I suddenly remembered I’d written about it in A Club Transformed.

Is there any one of the books which you consider as being your favourite?
Not really. Pyramid is the only one that when I was writing it I was confident it was worthwhile, but there’s a lot of stuff in that I’d change if I were writing it again – both in terms of uncovering details I hadn’t known and stylistically. But there’s bits of all of them I’m proud of and bits I’d change.

Undoubtedly the one that really made an impact was Inverting the Pyramid.  First of all, where you expecting the reaction that you got?
No. The last month or so of writing it I was waking at 6am each day, and retching with tension because I knew it was going well and I didn’t want to mess it up, which was awful and exhilarating at the same time. When I submitted it, I knew I was happy with it, and you tell yourself that that’s all that matters, but obviously you want other people to agree with you and thankfully they did.

Has there been a change in culture since you wrote that book?  Looking at the success of the Zonal Marking website it is clear that more people want to learn more about tactics.
I don’t know. I think in some ways I was just lucky and rode a wave that was coming anyway.

There is always a lot of research in your books.  How do you go about this?
It depends on the book, but the academic in me still loves sitting in a library uncovering stuff in old books or newspapers.

Equally, there are also a lot of interviews.  I get the impression you love doing these: is that the case?
Yes and no. There are few things better than talking to an old player, coach or journalist with great memories, but then there’s little worse than dozens of phone calls to an agent then hanging around in a hotel lobby for hours for five minutes of bored inanities.

How was Blizzard born?
You’ll excuse me, I hope, if I just quote the Editor’s Note from Blizzarrd issue Zero:

I’d been frustrated for some time by the constraints of the mainstream media and in various press-rooms and bars across the world, I’d come to realise I wasn’t the only one who felt journalism as a whole was missing something, that there should be more space for more in-depth pieces, for detailed reportage, history and analysis. Was there a way, I wondered, to accommodate articles of several thousand words? Could we do something that was neither magazine nor book, but somewhere in between?

As I floated thoughts and theories to anyone who would listen, I became aware there were other writers so keen to break the shackles of Search Engine Optimisation and the culture of quotes-for-quotes’-sake that they were prepared to write for a share of potential profit, that the joy of writing what they wanted and felt was important outweighed the desire to be paid. The only problem, I explained to those around the table in Fitzys, was finding a publisher equally willing to take the gamble.

I suppose you don’t really think of your old school-friends, people you only really see these days in the context of the pub and the match, as having jobs. Sitting next to me that night, though, as he’d sat next to me in sixth-form English, was my mate Peter, who happens to run a design and publishing company. Flushed on White Amarillus and a Darren Bent hat-trick, we knocked around ideas for the rest of the night; remarkably, in the cold light of morning, it still seemed a viable plan.

The result, about a year later, is The Blizzard, named after the short-lived and eccentric, but rather brilliant, Sunderland newspaper launched as “the organ of Mr Sidney Duncan” in 1893. It only ran to 12 issues, during which time Duncan, who pretty much wrote the whole thing himself, doubled the cover price in an attempt to cut circulation because he found the effort of handling all the money he was making so tiresome, a policy I’m pretty sure we won’t be following should we experience similar success.

What has the feedback been like, both from writers and readers?
Hugely positive and very encouraging. The writers have had faith in us in that they’ve worked hard and contributed articles knowing that there was no guarantee  of payment; and the readers have repaid that by responding responsibly to the pay-what-you-want model.

Is the pay what you want model working?
So far, definitely. There are a handful of people who keep paying a  penny, but it is just a handful. By and large people have responded as we hoped they would – maybe paying a penny for their first issue and then, if they found they liked it, offering an amount that seems realistic.

Given that there are so many sites writing about football, and some of the articles are truly excellent, is there space for a printed magazine? And with so much stuff being free, is there space to make money.
I hope so. I’m not sure anybody else gives you the range of articles or the depth of quality that The Blizzard does. And there are still people who like the physical feel of a book.

What future projects are you working on ?  And what's in the pipeline?
Nobody Ever Says Thank You, my biography of Brian Clough, comes out in November, and I’m working on The Outsider, a book about goalkeepers that’ll come out late next year sometime.

This article originally appeared in the November issue of the online magazine Swinging Balls.  More details about Blizzard magazine can be found here.

Rainbows, Wanderers & Hibernians: The Start of the New Season in Malta

Paul Grech Wednesday, September 21, 2011 , ,

When a league changes format, heated debate and criticism is likely to follow.  When the rules are changed midway through a season, you can also throw in a significant element of suspicion over what the motives for such a change might be. So it was in Malta when in January it was announced that the Premier league was being expanded from ten to twelve clubs, a decision which meant that one rather than two clubs would be relegated during the season that was underway, with three clubs being promoted from the First Division. Seeing that there were two big clubs – Sliema Wanderers and Hibernians – in serious danger of relegation, the initial reaction was that this was a move brought about to avoid seeing one of them go down.  Which, considering that Hibernians actually finished second off bottom, was a rather justified way of seeing things.

In truth, it was a move pushed by Norman Darmanin Demajo who a few months earlier had won the right to lead the Malta Football Association after a long and bitter fight with previous president Dr. Joe Mifsud.  For Darmanin Demajo and the staff that he brought with him, the league needed revamping and this was the best way to achieve this. Whether that is the case remains to be seen.  That the relegation pool will now contain six teams rather than four – the mechanism of splitting the league into two after the initial two rounds remains – is an obvious benefit but it is doubtful whether the increase in the number of teams will add to the quality of the league.

It is just as doubtful whether anyone will manage to stay within touching distance of Valletta, let alone stop them. Bankrolled by a rich owner of a pharmaceutical company, Valletta have built an impressive squad that led to their complete domination of the Premier League where they went through the whole of the season without losing a game and with a gap of eight points over their closest rival.  So strong is their squad that during the summer they could afford to let go on loan three players with national team experience and Valletta players are expected to be in the starting eleven of six other Premier League teams. To that squad they’ve added the Nigerian striker Alfred Effiong – the league’s top scorer last year – and the Brazilian William Barbosa da Silva has been bought in after a career spent in Italy’s minor leagues.

Yet, undoubtedly Valletta’s biggest move of the summer was that to sign former Coventry and Barnsley striker Michael Mifsud. Mifsud’s story is an intriguing – and sad – one.  Arguably the most talented player ever to come out of Malta, his success at Coventry fueled hopes that he might make it to the Premiership, a feeling strengthened when he scored a brace against Manchester United in the League Cup. It is a feeling that he seemed to share when, with his contract at Coventry running down, he refused a move to fellow Championship side Bristol City.  There were other, rumoured, bids to sign him when that contract did come to an end but each one was turned down always in the hope of a better one coming along. That was two years ago.  Mifsud has since played for six months each with Valletta and, last season, with Qormi.  That he has now signed on for a full season would indicate that he’s come to accept that returning home is the best offer that will come along. The aim for him and his teammates will be to win everything that is out there.  This they seem set on doing if their 3-0 trashing (with a debut hat-trick by Mifsud) of neighbours and bitter rivals Floriana in the season opening Super Cup is anything to go by.

Last season, Floriana managed to dent Valletta’s celebrations when they beat them in the final of the FA Trophy.  Having finished the league in second, they are arguably their closest challengers for the league title.  Yet that Super Cup defeat and the humiliating 8-0 home defeat to AEK Larnaca in the Europa League have dampened expectations. Apart from Floriana, the other two teams who Valletta might consider as possible threats are Birkirkara and Sliema Wanderers. The first one of those two actually beat Valletta to the league title two seasons ago.  During the summer they took the surprising decision of not renewing the contract of their popular and charismatic coach Pawlu Zammit who had been seen as the main reason for Birkirkara’s title win a year earlier. In his place comes Patrick Curmi, who had done well at Marsaxlokk and who is finally tasked with managing a big club.  The retirement of club captain and legend Michael Galea leaves an emotional gap which will be felt, with Curmi acting quickly to bring in his former captain Gareth Sciberras.  Birkirkara have also revamped the foreign players on their books and will be looking at them, along with Malta internationals Shaun Bajada and Trevor Cilia, if they are to offer a serious challenge.

The same applies to Sliema Wanderers who have also brought in new foreign players in the hope of laying the foundation for a good season. Tellingly, however, their main local signings – Maltese internationals Steve Bezzina and Cleavon Frendo – both have joined from Valletta on loan. The summer has also been marked by the increasing number of Brazilian players joining Maltese club.  In the space of a couple of years these have supplanted Nigerians as the favoured imports to fill the three slots available for foreign players – somehow, the Maltese Football Association has managed to limit the number of foreign players that each team can utilise despite Malta’s ascension to the European Union – so much that now every team has at least one. Tarxien Rainbows were the pioneers of this trend and also its greatest advert. A small club used to infrequent, brief and occasionally humiliating forays in the top flight was transformed into one capable of challenging the elite thanks to their ability to attract a string of exceptionally talented (by local standards) Brazilian players. Two consecutive fifth place finishes might not seem much but for a club of Tarxien’s stature, they represent their golden era.

Tarxien are part of the group of teams for whom ending up in the Championship pool would be a good result.  Marsaxlokk are in a similar situation, although the loss of coach Patrick Curmi, along with that of top scorer Alfred Effiong, will hit them. Ambition is always burning at Hamrun Spartans who haven’t ever really managed to repeat the success that their team enjoyed during the eighties.  Midfielder Kevin Sammut has joined from Valletta – on loan – and he should be enough to ensure a degree of progress. Hibernians will be hoping for a better season than the last one when they were so close to getting relegated. Coach Mark Miller remains, although one suspects more on the strength of the league title he won three years back than for anything he has achieved more recently, but the (dismal) experiment with British players has been ditched with Hibs joining the Brazilian trend.

Thanks to their ever florid youth system, Hibernians seem to be in a position where they can avoid any scares.  Whether the same applies to Qormi seems doubtful.  The team looked weak last season and it doesn’t seem to have gotten much stronger over the summer. What could save them, however, is the presence of the three newly promoted clubs.  Inevitably, Balzan Youths, Mosta and Mqabba are bound to be tagged as relegation candidates and how they fare will determine whether the expansion has resulted in greater quality or if it has diluted it. Of the three, the best placed appear to be First Division champions Balzan who are managed by former Valletta midfielder Ivan Zammit and have signed five players on loan from their manager’s former club.  Mosta too have dipped into the Valletta loan market – they’ve signed Ian Zammit and Kurt Magro – meaning that only Mqabba have gone against the grain and effectively retained the squad that won promotion.

This article was originally published on and got picked by the Guardian as one of its Top Five football reads of the week.


[Featured Article] Growing Up in Malta Magazine Autumn 2011 Issue

Paul Grech Thursday, September 1, 2011 ,


Balzan Ikompli Jiddomina l-Birzebbugia 10K

Paul Grech Monday, August 1, 2011 , ,
Jonathan Balzan u  Marisa Muscat zguraw li kienet se tkun gurnata felici ghas-St. Patrick's AC hekk kif huma rebhu s-sezzjonijiet maskili u femminili rispettivament fit-tellieqa ta’ 10 kilometri li l-istess klabb jorganizza gewwa Birzebbugia.

Balzan beda t-tellieqa bhala l-favorit specjalment ghaliex huwa kien ghadu kif kiser l-ahjar hin personali tieghu fuq id-distanza ta’ 5 kilometri matul il-European League Championships Third League li saru gewwa l-Izlanda, u huwa ggustifika l-aspetattivi hekk kif dahal fl-ewwel post b’certu facilita f’dik li kienet is-seba’ rebha personali tieghu matul din it-tellieqa tas-sajf.

Inevitabilment, huwa kien ferhan hafna b’dan ir-rizultat.  “Li tirbha tellieqa diga huwa rizultat kbir, li tirbaha ghal numru rekord u tkun taf li r-rekord ta’ l-ahjar hin fuq ir-rotta huwa tieghek huwa sahansitra ahjar u nevitabilment jaghmlu din wahda mit-tlielaq favoriti tieghi.  Il-mertu ta’ dan imur ukoll ghand il-kowc Roger Zammit li jaghmel hafna xoghol mieghi.”

Rigward it-tellieqa nnifixa, huwa kkonferma li t-taqtiha dejjem kienet bejnu u bejn Jason martin.  "Jason u jien bdejna flimkien, relattivament veloci qabel ma’ t-telghat li hemm f’din ir-rotta bdew ihallu l-marka taghhom. Wara r-raba kilometre hrigt ftit u meta rajt li mhux qed jirrispondi zidt il-pass.”

"Ir-rizultat mhux l-ahjar tieghi fuq din ir-rotta.  Imma rebha hija rebha u ridt naghlaq l-istagun fuq nota oghlja wara l-personal best fil-5000  metru li ghamilt fl-Izlanda.  Stajt forsi mbuttajt lili nnifsi imma t-tahrig kien iffukat fuq il-5 kilometri u dan hareg matul it-tellieqa.  Minkejja kollox, ir-rekord ta’ din it-tellieqa ghadu teighi u r-rotta hija mimlija gholjiet. "

L-atleta tal-Mellieha AC Jason Martin spicca t-tellieqa f’hin ta’ 35:10 li kien bizzejjed biex jeghleb lil Aaron Mifsud ta’ Pembroke Athleta.

Ta’ 32 sena, Mifsud huwa wiehed mil l-izghar fost dawk l-atleti li spiccaw min ta’ quddiem.  "Ili nigri sa min meta kont student gewwa De la Salle,” huwa qal wara t-tellieqa.  “Dak iz-zmien kont wiehed mil l-ahjar atleti fl-eta’ tieghi. Pero’ mbaghad waqaft kompletament ghal hmistax-il sena.  Bdejt nigri b’certu serjeta biss f’Gunju  ta’ din is-sena.  Immedjatament dan kellu mpatt fuq il-prestazzjonijiet u r-rizultati li qed nikseb.  Qed nitharreg taht il-kowc Drew Lan u dan kien fattur importanti ghaliex nissell fija certu dixxiplina u determinazzjoni li qabel ma’ kellix.”

"F’perjodu ta’ sitt gimghat irnexxieli ntejjeb il-hinijiet tieghi fil-hames kilometri u l-ghaxar kilometri b’iktar min minuta kull wiehed.  Tahrig tajjeb jaghtik ir-rizultati lit kun trid.  Huwa veru li relattivament jien zghir, imma kien jghin hafna li kieku bdejt nitharreg b’dan il-mod iktar kmieni. "

It-tahrig li qed jaghmel, pero’, qed ihalli l-frott tieghu b’sensiela ta’ rizultati tajbin.  “Definitivament, jien kuntent hafna bir-rizultat.  Apparti li rnexieli nigi ma’ l-ewwel tlieta, tejjibt il-hin tieghi fuq id-distanza ta’ ghaxar kilometri b’iktar min tletin sekonda ghat-tieni darba f’xhar.  U r-rotta tal-Birzebbugia 10k certament li mhux fost il-facli.  Pero’ grazzi ghal l-intensita tat-tahrig tieghi, kont kunfidenti f’rizultat tajjeb.”

Ghal Marisa Muscat, ir-rebha taghha fis-sezzjoni tan-nisa qatt ma kienet f’dubju hekk kif hi ghamlet ir-rotta f’hin ta’ 43:28, iktar min sitt minuti qabel it-tieni atleta, Sarah Meli.  Caroline Ciappara ta’ Mellieha AC dahlet fit-tielet post.

It-tellieqa ta’ din is-sena kienu sponsorjati mill-Malta International Challenge Marathon, Hilly Clothing, Nestle Fitness, Ronhill, Ray Sun products, The Fitness Corner u Isostar.

Rizultati tal-Hilly Clothing Birzebbugia 10K
Jonathan Balzan (St. Patrick's AC) 33:42
Jason Martin (Mellieha AC) 35:10
Aaron Mifsud (Pembroke Athleta) 35:42
Matthew Cutajar (St. Patrick's AC) 36:46
Antoine Abela (St. Patrick's AC) 36:47

Marisa Muscat (St. Patrick's AC) 43:28
Sarah Meli (Not Attached) 49:55
Caroline Ciappare (Mellieha AC) 51:34
Clare Mifsud (Ladies Running Club) 52:09
Annalise Pullicino (St Patrick's AC) 52:42

Article originally appeared on IL-GENSillum of the 23rd July 2011

Double for Saints as Balzan, Muscat win Birżebbuġa 10K

Jonathan Balzan and Marisa Muscat made it a happy day for St Patrick’s AC as they won the male and female categories respectively of the club’s own 10K race in Birżebbuġa, held recently.
Balzan started the race as favourite, moreso after setting a new personal best over the 5,000m distance at the European League Championships Third League.
He justified such billing with a rather comfortable win (33.42), the seventh in this summer race over the course of his remarkable career.
Inevitably, he was overjoyed at this result.
“Winning a race is already an achievement, winning it for a record time and knowing I still hold the course record makes it even better and one of my favourite races. I want to thank my coach Roger Zammit who certainly deserves a special mention,” Balzan said.
As for the race itself, he confirmed that it was a duel between himself and Jason Martin.
“Jason and I started together, quite fast, but then the hill started to take its toll. After the fourth kilometre I pulled away and felt he was not responding so I increased the pace.”
Mellieħa AC’s Martin finished the race in 35:10, just enough to edge out Pembroke Athleta’s Aaron Mifsud.
At 32, Mifsud was one the youngest runners among the leading runners.
“I have been running since I was a student at De La Salle,” he said after the race.
“I was one of the top athletes in my age group at the time. However, I was out of action for most of the past 15 years. I only started to train seriously since mid-June of this year.
“This had an immediate positive impact on my performances and my results.
“I am training under the guidance of Drew Lang, and this was an important factor to instil a sense of discipline and commitment that I previously lacked.”
As for Muscat, her victory in the women’s race was never in doubt as she ran home in 43:28, more than six minutes ahead of the second-placed Sarah Meli.
Caroline Ciappara, of Mellieħa AC, came third.
This year’s races were sponsored by the Malta International Challenge Marathon, Hilly Clothing, Nestle Fitness, Ronhill, Ray Sun products, The Fitness Corner and Isostar.
Men: 1. Jonathan Balzan 33:42; 2. Jason Martin 35:10; 3. Aaron Mifsud 35:42; 4. Matthew Cutajar 36:46; 5. Antoine Abela 36:47.
Women: 1. Marisa Muscat 43:28; 2. Sarah Meli 49:55; 3. Caroline Ciappara 51:34; 4. Clare Mifsud 52:09; 5. Annalise Pullicino 52:42.
Article originally appeared on the Times of Malta of Thursday, 28th July 2011.

Tkompli t-Tradizzjoni fl-Ghawm

Kif forsi tistenna min pajjiz li huwa cirkondat mill-bahar, f'Malta min dejjem kien hawn tradizzjoni ta' ghawwiema kapaci jkopru distanzi twal. Dak ta' Turu Rizzo huwa forsi l-iktar isem leggendarju. Matul il-karriera tieghu huwa ghal erba' darbiet kiser ir-rekord ta' kemm kapaci ddum fl-ilma (68 siegha) filwaqt li pprova li jsir l-ewwel persuna li jghum bejn Malta u Sqallija, haga li kien kwazi irnexxielu jaghmel li ma' kienx ghal maltempata feroci li waqfitu 3 mili l-bod mix-xatt Taljan.

Dan ir-rekord eventwalment inkiser min Nicky Farrugia, atleta iehor li kien dedikat lejn dawn it-tip ta' tlielaq filwaqt li xi snin wara hareg ukoll Albert Rizzo (in-neputi ta' Turu) li wkoll kiser xi rekords ta' nannuh, specifikatament dawk l-iktar bniedem li dam jghum. Fl-ahhar qari, ir-rekord ta' l-izghar Rizzo kien jaqra 132 siegha fil-bahar.

Ma din il-lista ta' atleti fenomenali issa jista' jinghaqad Keith Bartolo li iktar kmieni din is-sena kien ma' grupp ta' atleti li flimkien kisru r-rekord tad-dinja ta' distanza li ghawmu.

Ghal Bartolo dan kien l-iktar pass ricenti f'karriera sportiva twila.

"Qabel kont nilghab il-futbol u naghmel it-triathlon," huwa qal f'intervista mal-GENS. "F'dawn l-ahhar disa snin bdejt naghmel l-open water swimming. Min dejjem hassejtni komdu naghmel distanzi twal u ghal dawn l-ahhar hames snin hadt sehem f'kompetizzjonijiet gewwa l-Awstralja, l-Italja u b'mod partikolari l-Ingilterra ghax hemm hija l-mecca ta' l-open water swimming."

"Il-mira tieghi hija li sentejn ohra se nipprova nghum l-English Channel. Hemmhekk hemm certu kesha u huwa ghalhekk li qed niehu sehem kemm jista' jkun fi tlielaq hemm. Inutli mmur l-Italja fejn il-bahar huwa bhal hawn. Ma tridx tinsa li l-English Channel fis-sajf huwa bhal bahar taghna fix-xitwa. Ghalhekk trid titrenja f'dik il-kesha."

Kien matul wahda min dawn it-tlielaq li nibtet il- possibilta' li jiehu sehem fir-rekord. "Ghamilt l-itwal tlett tlielaq fl-Ingilterra (mhux ir-Renju Unit) fejn dejjem gejt ma l-ewwel sebgha jew tmienja. Meta nkun hemm dejjem naghmel il-kuntatti."

"Kien hemm li ltqajt ma' Dee Llewelynn li hija eks-memru tat-tim nazzjonali iNgliz fuq dawn id-distanzi Hija giet Malta biex titrenja imma qattt ma' qaltli xejn dwar ir-rekord. Imma mbghad x'hin telghu lura l-Ingilterrra ddecidew li jistiednuni nighaqad magghom. Kien hemm membru fit-tim li minhabba ragunijiet ta' xoghol u familja ma' setghax jiddedika daqshekk hin ghal din l-isfida u ghalhekk ghazlu li jistiednu lili biex nehodlu postu."

L-ghan taghhom kien dak li jghelbu r-rekord imaqqaf min group ta' ghawwiema profesjonisti Amerikani u Messikani gewwa Lake Powell.Bid-differenza li dan riedu jaghmluh gewwa pajjizhom stess.

Ghalhekk l-ghazla weqhet fuq Lake Windermere, ghazla li kkomplikatilhom hajjithom. "Il-grupp ta' atleti Amerikani ghamlu r-rekord taghhom gewwa Lake Michigan fejn it-temperatura hija simili ghal dik ta' Malta filwaqt li gewwa Windermere it-Temperatura kienet fer, iktar iesha. Sfortunatament, il-judges tal-FINA jiddeciedu kollox fuq id-distanza li jkunu koprew u mhux fuq il-kundizjonijiet li ahna nkunu qed nghumu fihom."

U l-kundizzjonijiet li kienu qeghdin fihom kienu difficli. "B'Kollox konnha grupp ta' sitta," qal Keith hekk kif huwa beda jiftakar dwar ir-rekord innifsu. "Ghamilna tmenin sieghu nghixu fuq daghjsa fejn kull wiehed kien jghum sieghu u mbaghad jaghmel hamsa nistrieh. Jien b'kollox ghomejt tlettax-il darba u ghamilt bejn l-erbghin u l-hamsa u erbghin kilometru.”

“ Konnha tlieta li ghamilna hekk filwaqt li t-tlieta l-ohra ghamlu distanzi iqsar. Huma kienu iktar slow minnha imma kellhom karatteristici ohra."

"Meta tkun qed tipprova tikser rekord bhal dan irid ikollok grupp ta' atleti bilancjat."

“B’kollox kien hemm crew ta' 25. Inti jkollok roster ta’ judges halli daw ikunu jistgh jikkontrollaw li dak kollu li jkun qed jigri halli jkunu jistghu jikkonfermaw li ghamilna kolllox kif suppost. Kellna min isajrilna. kellna kayaks, dinghy. It-team kollu kien importanti.”

“L-iktar haga difficli kienet il-kesha b’mod partikolari l-Hadd meta kellna maltempata kerha. Lanqas id-dghajsa l-kbira ma' setghet toqghod maghna. Bdejna nibzghu li tigi xi mewga li titfa d-dghajsa fuq min ikun qieghed jghum. Ghalhekk kellna noqghodu fuq id-dinghy.”

“Dak mument kien l-iktar wiehed difficli,” huwa kompla “Il-kesha u l-ghajja tibda taghmel bik u l-ammont ta' energija li tahli f’dawk il-mumenti hija hafna.”

Ipattu ghal dawn il-mumenti diffcli hemm dawk zbiegh. Konnha hemm l-koll f’daqqa u dak ghamel is-success taghna iktar sabih. Il-komunita kollha ta’ l-Open Water Swimming kienet qeghda thares lejna. Min ikun intiz fl-isport taghna jkun kemm hija iebsa l-Lawk Windermere. Huma jistghu japrezzaw dak li ghamilna.”

“Issa f'Ottubru rridu nitilghu l-Ingilterra halli nkunu nistghu nkunu presentati b’certifikat ta’ konferma.”

Barra s-successi individwali, Keith qed jara li bhala sport dak ta’ l-open water swimming “qed jikber. Pero’ irridu ngharfu li ghadu fl-istadji inizjalli tieghu. Birkirkara St Joseph qeghdin naqra attenti x'tip ta' tlielaq jorganizzaw halli ma jnaffrux il-dawk li jkunu urew l-interess.”

“Jaghmlu league ta' xi hames 2km races u jaghmlu wahda ta' 4km u min igib l-inqas hin jirhab it-titlu ta' . Biex tattira l-massa trid taghmel tlielaq. L-ahhar tellieqa kellna l-fuq min 100 kompetitur, inkluz tfal li ghandhom min 14-il sena l-fuq. Trid tiftkar li dan mhux xi sport li jiswa hafna flus.”

“L-uniku tellieqa li jorganizzaw ta’ certu tul hija dik bejn l-Gozo Malta li se ssir fl-20 t’Awwissu. Wara kollox ma tantx hawn min jghum id-distanzi li nghum jien.”

“Pero’ Birkirkara St Joshep qed jahdmu biex jigbdu n-nies u jtuhom l-opportunita’ li jippruvawh.”

Ghalih hemm ukoll miri godda. “Qieghed fl-ahhar xhar ta' preparamenti biex naghmel Lake Zurich. Li naghmel hu li kull sena nara liema huma l-ahjar ghaxar tlielaq halli nkun qed nipprepara ghal wahda mil l-aqwa li hawn.”

“Li trid tiftakar hu li dan trid taghmel 26 kilometru fl-ilma helu u ghalina huwa difficli biex tipprepara ghalih ghliex f’Malta m’ghandniex postijiet simili. Il-mira hi li s-sena ddiehla naghmel ukkoll il-Jersey to Frnce. Eventwalment il-mira tieghi hija dik li naqsam ic-Chanel Ingliz.”

Kollox bl-ghajnuna ta’ dawk ta’ madwaru. “Dan it-tip ta' sport jekk ma jkollokx is-support tal-mara, genituri u extended family ma' taghmel xejn,” huwa jikkonkludi. “Is-sagrificcju li taghmel il-mara, b’mod partikolari, huwa kbir. Jekk tkun taf li l-mara qed tgereger mohhok ma jkunx hemm. Huwa mpossibli taghti l-massimu tieghek f’dak il-kaz.”

Dan l-artiklu deher originarjament fuq IL-GENSillum.

The Twohundredpercent Premier League Previews

When Paul Konchesky was sold to join Leicester, one of the strangest and most distressful periods of the last two decades in Liverpool's history came to a close.  Seen as the emodyment of the mediocrity that had somehow become the norm at the club, Konchesky's departure seen as confirmation that the standards that had been allowed to drop were now being pushed upwards again.

For all the criticism that was directed his way - a lot of which, let's be clear, was deserved - the dignity that the player himself displayed was laudable.  He was man enought to admit that he hadn't been good enough when Liverpool lost to a last minute goal at Tottenham, never reacted to the criticism (something that, sadly, his mother failed to emulate) and agreed to go down a division rather than stick around in Liverpool's reserves.

Yet, likeable and honourable as he was, it is undeniable that Konchesky just wasn't a good enough player for Liverpool.  Much like the man who had brought him there.

The basis that apparently underpinned Hodgson's appointment - the nonsensical perceived need to go for an English manager - made him the best person for the job.  Which is rather different than saying that he was the right man.  Despite some exceptional achievements - taking Switzerland to the World Cup and leading Fulham to the Europa League final in particular - there was little in a career of over four decades that indicated that he was good enough.  His successes in Nordic countries were achieved thanks to the exploitation of those country's lack of tactical development whilst his time at Inter was seen significantly less favourably in Italy than it was in England.  Most worrying was his failure at Blackburn, a club that where he wasted a fortune and set on their way to relegation.

And that seemed to be Liverpool's fate with him.  Hodgson can point to a number of justifiable alibis for his failure: owners who were bleeding the club dry, players who wanted to leave and a botched transfer policy where the Managing Director seemed to have as much say (if not more) than the manager.  Yet he was the man who set out his teams to play defensively at home, who deferred to Alex Ferguson when he criticised Torres, who considered anything more than a point away from home as 'a bonus' and who judged a defeat at Everton - when Liverpool were played off the park - as the best game his team had played.

As his team's performances worsened and he became more defensive, Hodgson came out with a famous remark that whoever replaced him couldn't do a better job and that there wasn't a magic wand.

Only that it turned out that there was.  Using largely the same squad, Kenny Dalglish managed to revive the club's fortunes and produce some excellent football along the way.  On his side he had not only the fans - who rightly rever the man - but also the club's new owners who.  .Still to take the club from depressing talking of possible relegation to the verge of European qualification whilst trashing both Manchester sides and ruining Fernando Torres' Chelsea debut was nothing sort of exceptional.

Inevitably, Dalglish was given the job and now it could get tricky.  Last season there was very little to lose and, consequently, little pressure.  That will change this time round especially after having spent some £43 million on three players this summer where a top four spot will be the minimal target for the club.

There is also a degree of skepticsm over the players on whom that money has been spent.  Already, there was a degree of perplexity at the £35 million that Liverpool spent on Andy Carroll last January, especially given his off the pitch problems, but John W. Henry had already explained that as being down to Chelsea's late bid to sign Fernando Torres.  Yet Liverpool have apparently paid excessively for Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing which puts both players in the firing line for criticism should either one of them fail to settle in immediately.

The amounts spent on those players has somewhat ridiculed the notion that Liverpool would going predominantly for players who representd good value for money; that they would be adopting what has lazily been tagged as the Moneyball approach.  Yet, whilst it has been quoted often enough, little is yet understood about how this works.  Sure enough, not overpaying for a player is a tenent but so is paying what is needed to fill the gaps, which is what Liverpool have done with the left-footed Downing.  Equally it isn't incidental that all of these players are British, something that ensures that Liverpool will recover a good part of the fees paid should any one of these fail to live up to the hype.  And that too is a 'Moneyball' consideration.

What is more interesting than the money paid is how Dalglish decides to line up his players.  With so many central midfielders available - excluding the departing Alberto Aquilani and the immobile Cristian Poulsen, Liverpool have five who can justifiably expect to play fairly regularly - it seems improbable that they will adopt the 4-4-2 that he has traditionally employed.  Much more likely is the 4-2-3-1 that mirrors they system that Liverpool began adopting at an academy level for the past two years and which Dalglish knows fully well due to his involvement in the academy before he got his promotion.

This system should allow him to play Lucas alongside Charlie Adam in a withdrawn midfield position with the first primarily looking to defend and the other to create.  It would also see Downing, Gerrard and Suarez working behind Carroll who will be the focus of attack.  With Dirk Kuyt, Maxi Rodriguez, Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing also available, Dalgish seems to have built a midfield where every player has an alternative.

If this is truly is the system to be adopted, then it will be an interesting experiment to watch.  Even if it isn't, Dalglish has ability to innovate tactically to mould the team into playing as he wants it, something that he showed at times last year when Liverpool switched to three players at the back to deal with certain teams.

Part of that innovation could be down to Stuart Clarke.  Ever since he joined Dalglish last January, the profile of Mourinho's former assistant has been steadily growing as has his influence.  There's nothing to indicate that he had anything to do with the removal of Sammy Lee from first team coach but it is telling that the man chosen to replace him was Kevin Keen, someone who Clarke clearly recommended having played and worked with him at West Ham.  With another of Mourinho's former aides now in charge at Chelsea, it could be that Clarke is working his way into eventually being given the job at Anfield.

That, however, is something that at the moment seems to lie far ahead in the future.  And, after a bleak couple of years, Liverpool's future does indeed seem bright.  Not least because the academy - which Rafa Benitez revolutionised in what could turn out to be his most important act as Liverpool manager - is suddenly churning out a number of talents.  There were six Liverpool players in the England squad that took on the U17 World Cup in Mexico (plus another - Tom King - in the Australian team) and seven were called up for England's U19 European Championship squad.  More importantly, Dalglish has show faith in Martin Kelly, John Flanagan, Jack Robinson and Jay Spearing with each one showing that they deserve it.

All of these positives raise expectations but, even so, going from sixth to fourth will require a significant effort.  Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City should take three spots meaning that there's one available for Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham.  Even if Dalglish does manage to get the players that consolidate a defence which is lacking a left back and needs a commanding central defender, there still seems to be a work in progress feel about a squad that lacks the depth of quality of others.

What could favour Liverpool is the absence of European football - that's assuming that Tottenham pay any attention to the Europa League - whilst the Premiership experience of all of their major additions is another plus point.

Publicly, Dalglish has been very cautious not to put pressure on his players by setting any targets but this is not to mean that others won't do so for him.  Nor should it be read that he himself is lowering the standards because Dalglish knows more than anyone that the fans are acheing for a league title and that is what, ultimately, he will be working towards.  Not this season, though.

This article originally appeared on 200%

Sports Book Chat: Musa Okwonga

Paul Grech Monday, July 25, 2011 , ,
It is hard to pin down Musa Okwonga. The blurb at the top of his blog on the Independent's website casually has him as a 'football writer, poet and musician', as if it was only natural for someone to be all of those three. Yet not even it goes as far as to include that he is an Eton educated lawyer in his list of achievements.

What Okwonga is without any shadow of doubt, however, is an author of two very good football books. His first, A Cultured Left Foot, which looks at the different elements that make up a truly great player was nominated for William Hill Sports Book of the Year Award in 2008.

The second book, Will You Manage? looked at what makes a great (or not so great) manager which isn't a topic that hasn't been covered before but not in the way that Okwonga has. Suffice to say that Sun Tzu's The Art of War frequently gets a mention. It also goes without saying that this too is an excellent book.

It is his determination to look at popular subjects from different angles, to look outside football in order to find what determines success, that makes Okwonga such an interesting writer.

What's your earliest football memory?
Probably the 1985 Cup Final win over Everton (I'm a Manchester United fan). Back then they were an underachieving team of romantics, who alwatys tried to play exciting attacking football.

Did you immediately fall for the game or was it something gradual?
It was definitely an instant thing, my love for football. It's the fact that the game is so complex, but at first appears so simple, that is endlessly fascinating for me.

You're an Eton educated lawyer and also a poet: not too many people with those attributes who also follow football, let alone write books about the sport. What made you decide it was something you would like to do?
Looking at that list of attributes, I'm surprised that a publisher would touch me with a bargepole! Seriously, there are a huge number of people who followed football at school and in the City (not so many poets, though). And, in truth, it was the natural thing for me to get into. Football is second nature to my family - my grandfather managed the Uganda national team for several years, and a couple of my uncles were elected to the All-America squads when they were in college there. We all love the game, and that's a love which has endured no matter which professions I've gone into, or out of.

How much does your talent or skill for poetry help?
Being a poet definitely helps as a football writer. As a poet, you're constantly trying to find images and narrative forms that engage your audience; I'm conscious that I should always be concise, and that I should capture a moment for a reader. When I'm writing particular passages of prose, let's say when I'm describing a goal, I try to make them visual in a reader's mind. One of these days, when I pull my finger out, I'm going to try my hand at football poems that punters will enjoy, which remind them of their favourite moments in the game.

You've also come out with the fact that you're gay. Yet football as a whole seems quite homophobic. Is that something that bothers you? Could it be something that turns you off from the game?
Slight edit: I'm bisexual, I have a girlfriend of 14 months! But as to your question, it does bother me, though I understand the roots of that prejudice. It's based on a particular conception of manhood, which (given my own traditional, conservative upbringing) I once shared; that men who are gay are soft, are weak. I learned that this was absolute nonsense, and football will one day learn that too. And no: unlike hip-hop, which to my mind has far fewer redeeming features than football, I never lost my love for the game.

Similarly, what do you think of the recent case of Anton Hysen who announced that he was gay?
Anton Hysen is an excellent case in point. Brave guy, supported by his family and friends, he's showing how football is learning and developing. It'll be a slow process - we're talking about a sport that still shuns video replays - but we'll get there.

Where did the inspiration for the ideas behind each one of your books come from?
Football is a game with a billion viewers, and a billion experts. So I wanted to frame that raucous discussion with books that would encourage further debate, that would serve as the platform for talking points. I couldn't believe that no-one had actually written books about what makes great managers and players - I think they were too busy arguing about these subjects to put pen to paper. So I thought I'd have a go, and see where I ended up.

Although the style of your books is to break down complex topics to make them appear simple, it is quite obvious that you put in a lot of research and try to incorporate left field ideas in your writing. What's that process like? Do you determine what you like to research or do you let the research itself guide you?
I love getting under the skin of a subject. My attitude to football is that, love it or hate it, it's an exceptional social phenomenon. It's only existed for about 150 years in its modern form, but it dominates discussion the world over. There are probably religions who envy the reach of its influence. And so I try to place each of football's elements into a wider anthropological context, drawing on sociology, psychology and so on. Very often this approach yields exciting results. Aidy Boothroyd coached my football team for a session, and I noticed how he always used very positive language to point out flaws; so I asked if he'd taken formal training in communication. It turned out that he was 12 years' qualified in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which is used by several leading executives with their staff.

How often (if ever) do you re-read your books? Do you find yourself thinking that there is something that you would change?
I re-read my books as much as I look at photos of my exes, which is very rarely if at all; like photos of my exes, I don't own copies of them. I worry that having them around my house, even if they're out of sight, will make me big-headed that I've achieved through getting work published, and will remove my motivation. As Jay-Z said, "on to the next one".

On a similar vein, which one of the two books is your favourite?
My romantic favourite is my first book, A Cultured Left Foot, since that's where it all started. I had no name as a football writer, and when it received a nomination for the William Hill Sports Book of the Year, that all changed. Will You Manage is also very dear to me. I felt great pressure to exceed the quality of A Cultured Left Foot, and I think I did it. It cost me several sleepless nights though - not of anxiety, but of writing.

What are your plans? Any more books in the pipeline?..
I have a very exciting project in the pipeline which I can't say anything about for now - but please get in touch in the next three months and I'll tell all. For anyone reading this piece, Paul has always been a tremendous supporter of my work, and so it would be a pleasure to share the news with him as soon as I have it.

This interview originally appeared in the June / July issue of Swinging Balls magazine.

Building the Player Development Machine

Paul Grech Thursday, July 7, 2011 , ,
A $100M player development machine.

It is impossible to talk about the Boston Red Sox and their transformation into two time World Series winners without mentioning Theo Epstein.

When he was appointed as the franchise's General Manager he was, at 28, the youngest man ever to take on such a role. He was also a man with a deep fascination for sabermetrics - the search for objective knowledge about baseball largely through the use of statistics - and whose vision included incorporating this into the Red Sox's approach to scouting.

Often, it is on that aspect that most evaluations of Epstein's work tend to focus. Yet his vision, and that of the whole group running the franchise, has been much more far reaching then that. Their whole strategy has been based on looking at every aspect of the organisation, breaking it down and seeing how it could be improved. Sabermetrics was simply a tool that they could use to achieve that in one specific area.

Another area that also received such a treatment was that of player development. Before being taken over by FSG, the Red Sox had a long history of bad calls in the player draft and their strategy for the development of players was a haphazard one.

It was the desire to rectify this traditional failing that prompted Epstein into claiming that he wanted a "$100M player development machine" where the goal was to "develop a constant flow of impact talent". This wasn't some jumped-up comment from a manager eager just how much he wanted to win but formed part of an over-reaching plan that had carefully considered the potential benefits of acting in this manner.

In a 2003 interview with the Boston Dirt Dogs, Epstein would go on to list these benefits. Included among his reasons were the access to talented young players who were more likely to stay healthy and improve than older ones, access to inexpensive talent which would free up financial resources to strengthen in other areas and, poignantly, also the "added pride in the Red Sox uniform".

Lift those points out of a baseball context and they would easily slot into any vision aimed at improving Liverpool FC. How much money has been spent on squad players like Salif Diao, Diego Cavallieri and Philipe Degen - players with clear limitations but who were signed in the hope that they would give the squad added depth - could have been diverted to get one player of established class had there been faith in the players coming out of the academy to fill those squad padding roles?

That question isn't an original one; nor is it an overly imaginative one. Yet the faith quite simply hasn’t been there just as it wasn’t there for the Red Sox before FSG changed the set up.

What the Red Sox did to do so was to develop a plan for the identification and development of players throughout the whole organisation. There was to be a holistic approach to playing, a certain style that was to be reflected regardless of whether a player was in the major league roster or whether he was affiliated to one of their minor league teams. They cemented what is known as the Red Sox Way.

This is at odds with what Liverpool have done for the past two decades. Money, and huge amounts of it, were invested in the setting up of the academy but this was then left to operate in isolation. Those running the academy were at odds with the club’s senior management with nothing being done to fix this situation.

In this environment of conflict, players were being taught to play in style which didn’t fit with what the first team was looking for. The result was a system that was producing players that no one wanted and a first team that was asking for money to spend to get the players to fill the spots that should have really been taken up by the players coming through.

Resolving such a farcical situation would have been quite near the top of FSG’s priorities upon taking over Liverpool FC were it not for the simple fact that when they did take over the problem had already been solved.

The man to thank for this is Rafa Benitez. He was the one who had the vision to fight for control over the academy, who had the courage to sack a number of coaches he felt weren’t good enough and who brought in people like Pep Segura. It is Segura who, along with the likes of Frank McParland and Rodolfo Borell, has developed what within the academy is known as ‘The Plan’.

This, in essence, is a framework that includes the coaching and developmental steps that need to be undertaken for the players at the academy to improve. Almost twenty four months down the line, the initial results of this are more than apparent, with the good games that John Flanagan and Jack Robinson had in the first team more than underlining it.

It is impossible not to see these two as part of next season’s first team squad along with the likes of Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing and Martin Kelly. Indeed, Damien Comolli acknowledged that much when he claimed that “if there is a very good 18 or 19-year-old full-back we need to make sure that in two or three years they are in the first team and not sign another player in front of him from outside. That's the strong message I give to the staff at the academy and also to the scouts. I say don't push players in a position where we already have a talented player. If we did then we may as well shut down the academy."

With Liverpool now having a vision of how their teams should be playing the game – where Segura has often quoted the Liverpool Way of passing the ball as being the cornerstone of their systems – and also a plan of how players should progress from one stage to the next, all that remains is to put further meat on the bones.

For that, it is appropriate to look at what has happened at the Red Sox.

"We will work long and hard to get the best out our minor league players and turn out as many prospects as possible,” Epstein has promised. “We will be not be afraid to try new methods, nor will we abandon proven methods. If there's someone out there who will help us develop a player, we will hire him. If there's something out there that will help us develop a player, we will buy it. Period. It's that important."

And that is what is likely to happen next. People like Segura and Borrell have both been exceptional thanks largely to their background at Barcelona. Yet there is always plenty that can be learned not only from different academies across the world but also in what different sports do to help their players to fulfil their potential. It isn’t just about how many resources you put in, it is also about being clever and continuously learning so as to keep on improving.

It is what has happened at the Red Sox, just as Theo Epstein has promised. And, although no one has gone about promising to build a “€100M player development machine” it is what Liverpool are aiming to do.

This article was originally published in Issue 8 of Well Red magazine. Special thanks go to Albert Skorupa for his help in the preparation of this piece.

Family Honouring Shankly’s Legacy

Paul Grech , ,
When talks were first being held for the formation of the supporter's union that eventually came to be known as Spirit of Shankly, it was to Karen Gill that they turned. From her, the grand daughter of Bill Shankly, they wanted confirmation that they could refer to the great man in the name of this union that was being set up to help save the club that he himself had transformed in the sixties.

When the reply was delivered, it didn't simply contain the confirmation they were looking for but also an inspirational message that gave the Shankly family's wholehearted support to the union. "My grandad had a dream for Liverpool Football Club and you are all helping to keep that dream alive," she wrote. "It's the people with dreams who achieve things in the end because they have a vision which drives them on. We know Bill Shankly 'made the people happy' but I know that you would have all made him happy were he alive to see this legendary support today."

As Brian Reade noted in his book an Epic Swindle, "Karen is a marvelous woman who has inherited many of her grandad's traits, not least his fight and his passion."

Considering the relationship that Shankly had with the fans, Karen's reaction was always something of a foregone conclusion. "They literally meant everything to him," she says when the question of what the fans meant to her grandfather is put to her. "The club and the fans were his life. No exaggeration."

"He’d be shocked and appalled at football today in general and he would be devastated
at the terrible damage that Hicks and Gillette did to his beloved club," she continues, looking back at the past three years. Yet it is also reasonable to assume that he, given his Socialist ideology, would have been immensely proud to see the fans working so hard together to get rid of those who were destroying the club.

Typically, Karen's favourite memory of here grandfather in a football context includes the fans. "I like all the stories about him taking time out to visit sick children at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital and I’ve had messages from adults who say they remember his kindness to them to this day."

As for Karen herself, what she remembers is a kindly and playful man. " I have many recollections of my grandfather. Firstly I spent most of my childhood with him. We would always eat together on a Sunday at his house or sometimes he would take us to a nice hotel in the centre of Liverpool for a special meal. My favourite times though were when he would take us to Anfield and we’d run around and sometimes get to sit on our favourite player’s knee!”
At the time, however, she didn't fully realise who he was and why he was so important."I always knew he was important as from an early age I saw that he was followed around by people wherever we would go. People were always coming up to him and talking football. Journalists were always on the phone to him etc. But it wasn’t until I came to Greece that I realised the extent to which he is admired, literally all over the world."

In time, this sparked off her desire to write a book about him with the result being the excellent The Real Bill Shankly that came out a couple of years back. "That was one of the best experiences of my life. I’d wanted to write a book about my granddad for a while but it was when I met the supporters from the official Liverpool Supporters Hellenic Branch that I realised that I should do it. I talked about the idea with Stephen Done (the curator of the Liverpool Museum) and he put me in touch with Ken Rogers from Trinity Mirror and he thought it was a great idea. I just wanted in some way to help keep my granddad’s memory alive"

If that was her aim, then she has done her job to perfection. Just as, with her determination and inspiration at the birth of SOS, she was more than honouring the legacy of her family's surname. Bill Shankly would most certainly have approved.

This article was originally published in Issue 8 of Well Red magazine.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer