Tuesday 12 December 2017

Dion Fanning: Amateur dramas must never upstage analyst's critical role

Dion Fanning

Gary Neville's analysis of David de Gea last week was criticised by some for being unfair. Unfairness was, I think, the central point of Gary Neville's analysis.

It's valid to ask if Neville would make the same harsh judgement of Nemanja Vidic or Roy Keane as he did of De Gea. It's even more important to urge him to criticise Joe Hart in the same terms.

Yet Neville's point was essentially about the irrelevance of fairness in a dressing room and the lack of interest the most driven professionals have in the concept of good fortune.

Alex Ferguson might be the most extreme example of this but he follows a great tradition. John Giles recalls in his autobiography the night as a young footballer when the great Jimmy Murphy broke Giles's character down into a million little pieces, very few of them good.

Giles had missed a penalty in the last minute of a game against Huddersfield reserves and Murphy provided some comforting words in the dressing room afterwards which were designed to lead to some incremental development in a young player going forward.

"What the fuck were you thinking about, missing a fucking penalty," Murphy said consolingly. "And in the last fucking minute." Giles broke down in tears which had little bearing on Murphy's worldview.

This was unfair and would probably violate some guidelines in the modern game but it was considered the soundest policy at Manchester United then as it clearly is today.

Ferguson has rarely seen fairness as a central part of his management strategy and if Neville was reflecting this then he was doing his job. The Manhchester United manager has shaped the world to his own demands and this force of will is always going to be angered by the idea that just a bad bounce of the ball affected the result.

"Zero per cent," was Arsene Wenger's answer when asked in his prime what percentage of his team's success he would put down to luck.

In recent years Wenger has diminished to such an extent that it would have been no surprise to see him stroking a rabbit's foot and saluting magpies as he walked along the sideline.

Recently, he has appeared to have recognised that he couldn't indulge luck any more and refused to use the early sending-off and penalty against Manchester City as an excuse. Ferguson has never relented, never taken the backward step which would be the shrug of the shoulders accompanied by the words, "How unlucky can you be?"

If he was to say something like this, it would only be in the context of pointing out the failings in a linesman during which Ferguson would wonder what kind of juju forced an official of such incompetence on Manchester United.

Luck, like everything else in his world, can be made to suit his wishes, which is why he is the most significant fixture in modern English football.

Neville was deeply, deeply unfair on David de Gea, but he may also have been right.

Richard Keys claimed that Neville was acting under orders in criticising De Gea. This was clearly nonsense but not surprising from a man who suggested there were dark forces at work when he left Sky Sports.

Keys made more sense when he also pointed out that Neville is compromised as he is also part of Roy Hodgson's coaching staff. "Roy has made clear on a number of occasions that he has never had an issue with Gary's Sky duties," an FA spokesman said last week.

This is very worrying. Hodgson should have issues with Neville's duties at Sky and if he doesn't then Neville is not being as severe as he could be. In fact, it is Sky and the viewer who should have an issue with his largely irrelevant role with England.

There is a general misunderstanding when these two jobs are discussed. Neville's central role in public life is now to educate and inform viewers on Sky Sports. His England role is no more significant than if he had developed an interest in amateur dramatics and had to dash off early every so often because he had been cast in the role of Woody in Finian's Rainbow.

Coaching England is essentially a hobby and hobbies are essentially worthless. If this hobby prevents him criticising players because he might have to deal with them in training then he should give up the England role.

In fact if he is, in any way, less severe on an England player, it's easy to see why Roy Hodgson would be happy for him to combine both jobs.

Neville has serious work to do. He shouldn't be sidetracked by the flummery. Neville did what he's best at last week. He provided insight into the Manchester United dressing room: it wouldn't have been accurate if it didn't sound like a ruthless and unfair place.

* * * * *

In the aftermath of the hilarious incident at the Liberty Stadium, one of the most familiar arguments of the outraged has been trotted out again. If Eden Hazard, they say on phone-in shows, had done that on the street he would have been arrested.

Most of what happens on a football pitch would lead to arrest if you tried to do it on the street. In these days of health and safety gone mad, there would probably simply be a mass arrest if 22 men showed up with a football and tried to play on the street.

Certainly Alex Ferguson has been loitering with intent for many years, generally in the vicinity of officials. On the street, he would have been arrested many, many times.

But there was one heinous incident on Wednesday night which should have resulted in an apprehension. When Theo Walcott scored against West Ham, he celebrated by miming the signing of a contract. If he did this on the street, you would like to think somebody would be civic-minded, do their duty and perform a citizen's arrest.


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