Saturday 21 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: It's not always all about the money

Dele Alli (centre) celebrates scoring for Tottenham against Real Madrid on Wednesday night Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire
Dele Alli (centre) celebrates scoring for Tottenham against Real Madrid on Wednesday night Photo: Mike Egerton/PA Wire

Eamonn Sweeney

Tottenham Hotspur's first goal against Real Madrid at Wembley on Wednesday night was a thing of great beauty. The drifted diagonal pass behind the defence, the first-time volley across the goal and the perfectly-timed run to apply the finishing touch displayed a subtlety of construction and execution English football followers sometimes describe as 'Continental'.

It was the kind of thing which prompts pundits to turn to panellists and ask, "Why don't we produce players like that in our game." The reply usually involves reference to a grimly utilitarian attitude at underage level, poor pitches, bad weather, less-than-ideal attitude from the players themselves and whatever other clichés happen to be lying around at the time.

Yet that wonderful goal was an all-England affair, Harry Winks from Hemel Hempstead making the pass and Kieran Trippier of Bury contributing the cross before Milton Keynes' finest, Dele Alli, thundered in for the coup de grace. Not involved in that particular goal but brilliant on the night was Essex boy Harry Kane, who like Winks has been involved with Spurs from a young age.

Add in another England international Eric Dier, who admittedly learned the game in Portugal, and Wales' Ben Davies and you have the type of team which simply isn't supposed to be able to compete at the top level in Europe anymore. Yet over two games against Real Madrid Spurs didn't just outplay the European champions, they did it by playing the kind of slick passing football supposedly beyond the technical capabilities of the home-grown players who make up over half of their team.

Another nail in the coffin of the theory that English players lag way behind the rest of Europe in terms of technique came at last month's under 17 World Cup finals in India where England lifted the trophy for the first time. Again it was the style of performance as much as the result which caught the eye. The England team which defeated Brazil 3-1 in the semi and Spain 5-2 in final was bursting with flair and the kind of self-expression we're regularly assured has been frightened out of players by the safety-first attitude prevailing across the water. Manchester City midfielder Ben Foden and Liverpool striker Rhian Brewster in particular seem hugely exciting prospects.

The under 17 victory follows England's summer triumph in the under 20 World Cup in South Korea. Given that this was also a first-time title and that only Brazil in 2003 have previously done the double, it's hard to escape the impression that something significant is stirring across the water.

This can only be good news for Ireland given that most of our best young players will end up spending their formative years with English clubs. There's also the possibility that some of today's promising English youngsters might end up emulating Ciaran Clark, who played for England at under 20 level, and donning the green jersey should things not work out for them with their home country.

It might be a bit optimistic to hope that Rhian Brewster is related to former Fermanagh footballers Paul and Tom but Everton's under 20 World Cup winners, Jonjoe Kenny and Kieran Dowell, are surely on the FAI's radar. I'm not a great fan of the ancestor system myself but, as Remy the gourmet rat says in the great Pixar film Ratatouille, "If we're going to be thieves, why not steal the good stuff?" England's rising tide may yet lift Ireland's boat.

What both the performance of Spurs and the underage triumphs show is that the fault lies not in young English players themselves, but in their star-obsessed clubs. A joke doing the rounds when England won the under 20 World Cup went, "Great to see England winning the under 20 World Cup. It's nice to see who'll be playing with Royal Antwerp in a few years." It was a jibe with a ring of truth to it. A lot of England's best youngsters end up at the biggest clubs and the result is that the wunderkinds are left withering on the vine because these are the very clubs who prefer splashing out big money on experienced players to bringing through new talent.

Trippier, again outstanding on Wednesday, is an example of what can happen to players in this respect. ­Captain of the 2008 Manchester City team which won the FA Youth Cup, he spent six years at the club without making a first team appearance and had to rebuild his career with Burnley in the Championship before signing for Spurs in 2015 for a mere £3.5 million. The departure of Kyle Walker has given him the chance to start at right-back where he has been outstanding in both domestic and European games. At 27, Trippier has finally gotten his big break.

It's hard not to feel too that Dele Alli benefited from spending his teenage years with MK Dons in his home town and amassing considerable first team experience by the time he signed for Spurs at the age of 19. And while Harry Kane may look talented enough to make the first team anywhere, both Manchester teams and Chelsea would surely have preferred to sign a big-name striker rather than pin their scoring hopes on an untried youngster as Spurs did three seasons ago. The slightly-built Winks is another risk you can't imagine being taken by the Premier League's main clubs.

There's something old-fashioned about Spurs' reliance on talent which is either home-grown or bought on the relative cheap. Their current crop is strongly reminiscent of Manchester United's golden generation of Scholes, Giggs, Beckham, Butt and the Nevilles. People like to sneer at Alan Hansen's 'You'll win nothing with kids' comment but it's conventional wisdom within the game, even more now than a couple of decades ago.

It's a particular article of faith among fans of the bigger clubs. They seem to live in a perpetual state of fear that their club won't spend enough or anger that they haven't done so. Yet Spurs' cheaply-assembled side is at the very least the third best in the Premier League, maybe even second behind Manchester City, and a serious contender for the Champions League. Arsenal fans engaged in a constant lament that Arsene Wenger has not been handed a sufficiently large 'war chest' might ponder whether their eclipse by Spurs has as much to do with a failure to develop young talent as a reluctance to break the bank.

Spurs fans have done their fair share of complaining about money too, notably in the close season just gone. But Daniel Levy's parsimoniousness means Mauricio Pochettino has made a virtue out of necessity. After all, big spending is not the only route to success. The greatest club side of the last 20 years, Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, largely consisted of players who'd been with the club as schoolboys. Just last season Monaco were good enough to reach the Champions League semi-finals and win Ligue 1 with a team produced largely from their own academy.

It's also worth remembering that Everton, currently lying third from bottom in the Premier League, spent almost £100 million over the summer, prompting such headlines as, "Tottenham look most vulnerable as Everton join Manchester United and Manchester City in the transfer arms race," and confident predictions that Ronald Koeman's men were about to move up to that fabled 'next level'. As Oscar Wilde said about the death of Little Nell, "You'd need a heart of stone not to laugh."

Ironically, Everton's best player so far this season has been Dominic Calvert-Lewin, scorer of the winning goal for England in the under 20 World Cup final against Venezuela and signed from Sheffield United last year for a princely £1.5million.

I'm not dismissing the role of money in football success. Spend the gargantuan sums laid out by Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Manchester City and success is almost inevitable. Yet United also offer an example of how costly it can be to take your eye off the ball at youth level.

In May 2011, they won the FA Youth Cup final against Sheffield United thanks in part to the performance of a young French player. At the start of the next season Alex Ferguson admitted that, "If we hold him back, what's going to happen? He's going to leave. So we have to give him the opportunity to see what he can do in the first team." Ferguson gave Paul Pogba just three games in the first team in 2011-'12 and at the end of the season Pogba did leave, for Juventus.

You could argue that all turned out for the best because United got Pogba back in the end. Or you could argue that they could have done with saving the world record €105 million required, benefiting from Pogba's talent and spending the money on other world-class players. Like Harry Kane maybe, or Dele Alli.

Nineties Manchester United aren't the only team the current Spurs side remind me of. Their flair and swagger also call to mind the sparkling Arsenal team of the late 1970s which was backboned by three outstanding youngsters, Liam Brady, David O'Leary and Frank Stapleton, who'd made their first team debuts at 17, 17 and 18 respectively.

We say that such days of Irish youngsters starring at top clubs will never come again because the football world has changed too much. Yet success breeds imitation and if Spurs show that young players who come through the system at a club can win major honours, more clubs will follow suit.

That's why all Irish supporters should wish Spurs well. They're the last best hope for not just English youngsters but for ours too.

The waiting is the hardest part, but there's nothing petty about our players' current form

Early indications from the Champions League are that the Premier League may be about to regain its position at the top of the pile. La Liga's been on top for almost a decade but it does feel like a paradigm shift is taking place. Tottenham's mastery of Real Madrid is the most eye-catching piece of evidence but the probability that Atletico Madrid will crash out in the group stages while all five Premier League teams should comfortably make it through adds to the general impression of English improvement and Spanish decline.

A Paris Saint-Germain-Barcelona final still seems the most likely dénouement but Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham all look viable contenders. Even Liverpool will probably go further than the equally flaky Sevilla team recently trounced 5-1 by Spartak Moscow. So it's quite some achievement for unfashionable Burnley to be lying seventh in perhaps the strongest Premier League since the turn of the decade.

It's easy to underestimate Sean Dyche just because he looks like a yokel delivering an ominous set of directions in a Hammer Horror movie (I'm not judging. I'd be the lad standing mute in the field alongside him.) But he's done a superb job at Burnley and will, I suspect, prosper at Everton should he get the nod ahead of Sam Allardyce. Burnley's performance is significant for this neck of the woods because three of the pillars of the house Dyche built are Robbie Brady, Jeff Hendrick and Stephen Ward. Hendrick got the winner against Newcastle United last Sunday which propelled the Clarets to new heights but the player I'm most pleased for is Ward, the very model of an honest performer.

The ex-Bohs man has been unfairly derided in the past but he's been excellent this season as part of an outstanding defensive unit. Only Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have conceded fewer goals than Burnley who've allowed just nine in ten games. They've also scored just nine which is a fair indication of the way Dyche likes to play.

There was some excitable talk after Ward and Hendrick exchanged a couple of passes before the latter found the net against Everton that this was the kind of stuff we should be seeing from Ireland. Yet Dyche is dourly pragmatic to an extent that makes Martin O'Neill look like a soft-hearted old romantic. Burnley play a cautious game because that's the best way they can get results. Maybe there are people at Turf Moor complaining that the manager 'should take off the shackles' but somehow I doubt it.

Burnley's current form is significant for Ireland because we tend to look at the rosters of our international opposition and get worried by some of the club names there. Udinese, Werder Bremen and Bordeaux seem an awful lot more impressive than Burnley. Yet these sides are 13th, 18th and eighth respectively in leagues which are considerably weaker than the one in which Sean Dyche's team lies seventh. It's worth bearing in mind.

Another source of encouragement for next weekend would have been the spectacular solo goal scored by Sean Maguire for Preston against Brentford last week, but unfortunately the former Cork City man won't make it now due to a hamstring injury. There's no point in exaggerating Maguire's success in England, Daryl Murphy and Conor Hourihane have both scored more goals than him in the Championship, while David McGoldrick and Aiden McGeady have the same amount, yet we can't help believing that there is a bright future in green waiting just around the corner for Maguire.

A less cheery vista was offered by the sight of Christian Eriksen in regal form for Spurs against Real Madrid. As we are all far too sporting to hope that the midfielder suffers a minor non-painful injury necessitating a fortnight's rest against Crystal Palace today, we must seek consolation from the fact that the Dane's goal came after he linked up with Harry Kane. Nicklas Bendtner may not provide the same kind of service.

The waiting, as the recently deceased Tom Petty pointed out, is the hardest part. Roll on Saturday. This is a grudge match. No-one ransacks our monasteries and gets away with it.

The Last Word

Houston - We have an accurate prediction

Sportswriters take plenty of stick for the predictions they get wrong (says the man who confidently forecast that Mayo would beat Dublin in the All-Ireland final). So it gives me great ­pleasure to mention what may be the most ­brilliant sporting prediction of all-time.

Back in 2014, the Houston Astros were in sorry shape. They’d just endured the worst three seasons in their history, each one worse than the one before, and posted the worst record in major league baseball on each occasion. Yet Sports Illustrated magazine saw fit to run a cover describing the Astros as, “Your 2017 World Series champs,” because of the way they were, “hoarding young championship calibre talent.” Accompanying this was a photo of untried youngster George Springer.

SI took a certain amount of mockery for that cover, it’s fair to say. Yet on Wednesday night in Los Angeles the Astros defeated the fancied Dodgers 5-1 to become, yes, World Series champs. The Series MVP? George Springer, who set a record for the number of base hits by a batter in the series and equalled the all-time record for home runs.

Wouldn’t it be great if predictions were like this all the time?

* * * * *

Perhaps we should hold back the ridicule for the time being. Ireland’s last place in the consultancy report on the possible 2023 Rugby World Cup hosts has been viewed as the death knell for our hopes. Yet tournament selection processes aren’t the most predictable and I suspect that the IRFU still believe it’s not over until the fat alickadoo sings.

Having been available at 12/1 to host the tournament in the immediate aftermath of the report Ireland have now come in to 4/1. Whether this means somebody knows something or just means that somebody thinks they know someone who knows something will become clear in time. It is worth noting that the margins between the three countries were not large and that the report stated all of them were capable of hosting a World Cup finals.

* * * * *

Dermot Weld’s victory with Vintage Crop in the 1993 Melbourne Cup is one of Irish racing’s great international successes. Weld repeated the triumph with Media Puzzle nine years later but victory has so far eluded Aidan O’Brien, whose best performance came when Mahler finished third to Efficient in 2007.

Now O’Brien is back with the five-year-old Johannes Vermeer whose main rivals in Tuesday’s two-miler are predicted to be last year’s winner Almandin, Marmelo trained by Hughie Morrison who’s bidding to become the first ever English victor, and Humidor, which recently ran perhaps the best horse in the world, Winx, close in the Cox Plate. 

However, keep an eye out for outsider Max Dynamite, runner-up in 2015. Max Dynamite is trained by Willie Mullins which gives us the unusual spectacle of Ireland’s kings of Flat and National Hunt racing going head to head in one of the world’s most lucrative races. The race takes place at 4.0am our time and Twitter are streaming the Aussie TV coverage for free.

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