An unassuming host to one of the enigmas of modern day football, Dortmund hardly appears terra firma for prodigious starlets Ousmane Dembélé, Christian Pulisic and Emre Mor – forwards with explosive pace, guile and ingenuity from rural Normandy, industrial Pennsylvania and the culturally diverse suburban Brønshøj region of Copenhagen respectively. Representing the second senior career club, and the natural progression from mid-table local first division clubs in Rennes and Nordsjælland, for both Dembélé and Mor, and the sole senior base to date of the much-travelled Pulisic’s career, Dortmund – previously an industrial heartland now representing, with its well-renowned scientific and environmental developments, the cultural crux of western Germany’s Ruhr region – could’ve easily played second fiddle to opposing European homes in Madrid, Barcelona, London, Turin, Paris, or even Munich, at this decisive stage in the progression of such youngsters. Alas, despite its inferior climate, financial prospects and nightlife, the city, which continually defies its mere 590,000 or so city population and roughly 5,300,000 urban population to surmount all domestic and continental expectations, drew this gifted trifecta of wingers, alongside 17-year-old Swedish striker Alexander Isak, 20-year-old Spanish midfielder Mikel Merino, 26-year-old Barcelona victim of riches Marc Bartra and 23-year-old Portuguese European Championship winner Raphaël Guerreiro, to ply their trade in the Bundesliga, regularly condemned as a second-tier league competition paling in comparison to the muscles of La Liga and the Premier League. How has Dortmund transformed from a band of religious backlashers in 1909 to the continental titan it now sustains today? How do their internal politics function in an era that has otherwise corrupted practically any trace of moral resolution, and, ultimately, how far are they prepared to withstand their regiment stance in the perennial conflict of ethics that football obstinately promotes?
Founded by a conglomerate of nineteen revolutionary fußball fans in the industrial swathes of pre-war Dortmund, who opposed the local priest – Father Dewald’s – oppressive stance at the Church-supported Trinity Youth club, Borussia (taking its name from the favoured tipple company’s brewery) had their early flirtations with financial collapse in 1929, though perhaps not for the reasons history would have us perceive. Far from reliant on Wall Street’s riches for their part-time forays into municipal and regional football, overly optimistic investments in a relatively elite sporting park and formerly professional players posed a serious risk to their future after results failed to resultantly improve, with the fledgling club only salvaged by generous local supporter Heinz Schwaben, while heeding the lessons from such dire circumstances to never repeat such foolish actions. As the club’s President was removed by the far-reaching force of Nazi Germany’s sporting regime enforcers, and, amongst the typically retaliatory underground atmosphere at the club’s offices – which were used to print anti-Nazi pamphlets – footballing fortunes were stabilised in the newly formed Gauliga Westfalen, which allowed a top-level Rhineland platform for local rivalries such as the quickly established Revierderby with the dominant Schalke (another side of profound principles whom should be equally admired).
Emerging from the war and the consequential allied devolution of organised league competition unscathed, Borussia prospered in the semi-professional Oberliga West - a state-wide first division amongst four others in West Germany’s footballing system - victorious in three editions of the league in 1956, 1957 and 1963, the last before the introduction of the professional Bundesliga. Having earned their right to compete in this new nation-wide premier division, Dortmund almost immediately was forced to expand its trophy cabinet to accommodate the 1965 DFB-Pokal and the 1966 European Cup Winner’s Cup – dramatically secured in an extra-time victory against Bill Shankly’s Liverpool, following a semi-final 5-2 aggregate defeat of a West Ham side boasting Geoff Hurst, Martin Peters and Bobby Moore on the year of their World Cup triumph – while only missing out a 1966 Bundesliga title after a late-season capitulation. The turn of the decade, however, spelled paralysing financial issues that saw the team inexorably relegated in 1972, though under the silver lining of the construction of the now-mercurial and much-loved Westfalenstadion, which played host to the side’s 1976 resurrection to the big-time.
A subsequent thirteen-year lean spell arose serious questions of the financial credibility and ambition of the organisation, as mid-table finishes prevailed until a 1989 cup double-salvo struck, with boss Horst Köppel delivering the DFB-Pokal and resultant DFB-Supercup before Ottmar Hitzfeld became the favoured candidate in 1991. Best known recently for his former employment at the helm of the Swiss national side, Hitzfeld – then a 42-year-old with no experience outside of the Swiss leagues – beckoned an age of financial prosperity in the 1990’s which stemmed from, and allowed for, outstanding achievement. Sustaining a tremendous run of season-on-season form that witnessed second, successive fourth, successive first and third-placed league finishes from 1991/92 to 1996/97, not to mention a 1992 UEFA Cup final defeat to Juventus, 1995 and 1996 DFB-Supercup victories and a 1996/97 Champions League slice of revenge, defeating Juventus 3-1 in Munich with a man-marking masterclass from Paul Lambert, of all players, on Zinedine Zidane, Hitzfeld’s stay was a nigh-on miraculous exert of the Dortmund history books, culminating in an angst-fuelled move to sporting director before successor Nevio Scala achieved the 1997 Intercontinental Cup to lacquer-finish a rarely-realised period of triumph on practically all fronts.
Floated on the stock market at the turn of the millennium, Dortmund made more than a few shocks in their ownership direction for a new era in German football, establishing themselves as a public-traded club on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange in which everyday citizens, including, most vitally, fans, could invest in the sporting fortunes of Die Schwarzgelben – the Black and Yellow – with 81.05% of the club owned by stock market investors. While bringing with it the very obvious threat of insolvency in the event of a stock market collapse or in a prolonged period of competitive downturn – as witnessed in the post-2002 Bundesliga title period, with poor results and financial management leading to the leasing off of the now 81,000-capacity Westfalenstadion, as well as the reliance on a monthly €2 million payroll cover from Bayern Munich in 2003, while in 2005 a 80% stock value decline resulted in 20% pay cuts for all first-team squad members – stock market ownership has eventually proven sustainable for a club as prominent as Borussia now are. Amidst the renaming of the Westfalenstadion to the Signal Iduna Park for financial motives in 2006, successive seasons of relegation-flirting and repeated sales of promising young players at least sustained survival, while failing to deliver on the expectations of support.
As the noughties passed into the 2010’s, fortunes in the Ruhr dramatically changed. The unheralded Jürgen Klopp, hired in 2008 and delivering 6th and 5th -placed league returns in his first two seasons (not to mention an unofficial 2008 DFB-Supercup title), went one, if not four, further in 2010/11 with a title under little previous expectation, mellowing the experience of a squad originally boasting Roman Weidenfeller, Sebastian Kehl, Florian Kringe and wingback Dede – all of whom had been present at least since the summer of 2002 – with the youthful exuberance of a 19 year-old Mario Götze, a 21 year-old Sven Bender and Shinji Kagawa, Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels, all of 22 years of age, in a toppling of the established guard in the deposed Louis van Gaal’s Bayern. Perhaps more momentous, however, was the consecutive title won in 2011/12 and DFB-Pokal victory to complete a double over Jupp Heynckes’ Bayern, with the 21 year-old İlkay Gündoğan blooded alongside the aforementioned Klopp products as a truly pioneering squad project reached what could argued to have been its peak, if not the Champions League Final defeat at Wembley a season later, where Arjen Robben’s memorable late flourish swiped a tangible shot at a second continental title from under the noses of the Westphalians.
From such prominent and consistent results, assumptions could have easily been made about the continued assertion of Dortmund power over all German challengers forthcoming, but to do so was to undermine the extent of what had been achieved in the midst of what, not long before Klopp’s arrival, was a financial basket case consistently lacking the prompt and vigour of a side inspired to rise to their truly astounding 1990’s heights. Subsequently, as the final three seasons of Klopp’s reign – 2012/13 to 2014/15 – amounted to only two DFB-Supercups and famously concluded on a meteoric run-in resurgence to stave off relegation and qualify for the Europa League, the perspective of events does have to be weighted alongside such a competitive stall. They aren’t a club to attract managerial candidates of the calibre of Pep Guardiola or Carlo Ancelotti, they’ll never have the financial power or unemotional cunning to sign the Arturo Vidal’s, Thiago’s or Javi Martinez’s of the world for a combined €105 million and they certainly wouldn’t fend off opponents by wielding financial might to cherry-pick their best players in the manner of which Lewandowski, Hummels and Götze departed for pastures greener, and the 2015 appointment of Thomas Tuchel, a man very much in predecessor Klopp’s mould, lays testament to that. Reasoning soon becomes obvious when observing these facts why Bayern are now known in some circles, aside from being the dominant German club unwilling, under any circumstances, to relinquish their firm grasp, as FC Hollywood.
Evocative of Tottenham Hotspurs’ long-term project, Southampton’s transfer policy and perhaps Jules Rimet’s socialist Red Star in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, yet developed with flavours of community ownership, Borussia’s long-term ambition – forged on the foundation of a regimentally youth-friendly, fan-focused and generally heartening club ethos – has personified the true values of the sport both on matchdays with the clear manifesto laid out by Klopp and successor Tuchel, and away from the pitch, where eventual aims have been detailed and developed throughout the 21st century. Unlike Manchester United plc. (based conveniently in the Cayman Islands), whose $16.50 shares on the New York Stock Exchange are worth practically nothing in contrast to the approximate 90% ownership of the Glazer family and 9.2% stake of Baron Capital, an American investment group whose 37.8% of all MUFC NYSE shares equated to well over £135 million upon purchase in 2014, Dortmund, with 81.05% of its shares floated at €5.91 on the Frankfurt Stock Market, allows for each of its 145,000 members, not to mention foreign fans and local business leaders, to invest in the club’s future for almost a third of the price of an equivalent, or even less relevant, share in the Red Devils. Granted, such financial dependence on the goodwill and fortune of the stock exchange has allowed Puma, Evonik and Signal Iduna to invest in large shares themselves, but as existing sponsors of the club’s operations, their involvement seems largely supportive of the club as a wider entity in accordance with their visible backing in the form of being kit providers, kit sponsors and stadium sponsors – supported by Dortmund CEO Hans-Joachim Watzke’s affirmation that these investors were admirable “companies who deal with sporting or economic development” - in contrast with the ilk of the Glazer’s fellow investors in the Stretford club.
Having gradually ascended to their current eleventh place on Deloitte’s annual Football Money League – which they have occupied for four seasons running now – Borussia’s unique financial structure proves by no means ineffective, notably delivering them a coveted position above the likes of Premier League Spurs, nationally and continentally ambitious Athletico Madrid and the eternally popular Roma, all despite boasting the third lowest broadcast revenue at £61.7 million of the entire top 20 (only paling to 14th-placed rivals Schalke and 17th-placed Zenit). Highly reliant on commercial income – 49% of their total revenue in 2015/16 at £104.9 million – it is understandable, then, why Der BVB are so enthusiastic about the properties of stock investment from the likes of Puma and Evonik, effectively sustaining their finances in the face of comparatively meagre match-day income, an obvious side-effect of the Bundesliga’s much-hailed ticket prices, which at Dortmund can be as affordable as £14.05 at the current exchange rate or £31.72 for a mid-range seat. In comparison to Manchester United’s minimum price of £31 and mid-range of £41.95 (not to mention the ostentatious fees for programmes, teas, beers and pies at Old Trafford, which surely pale palatably to a Borussia bier und bratwurst), the affordability of a day joining the famous Yellow wall in ballad must appeal to the romantic groundhopper in all of us, notably attracting an apparent contingent of English fans which now sustain 10% of seasonal Westfalenstadion attendances – proving the universally attractive factor of the Borussia project.
Little of this enviable but ultimately insignificant match-day padding would prevail unless the club itself providing such an atmosphere matched the ethos of supporter clamour and foreign attraction, however. Personally, my representation of a hollow footballing experience is where supporters wield the power to overthrow the blatantly harmful forces infiltrating the interior structures of their local club, yet do, on the whole, very little to oppose these enemies of the spirit of the game, instead obediently enjoying the ride and trumpeting the supposed ‘benefits to the community’. Billericay Town, Saltdean United, Margate, Whitehawk and Greenwich Borough represent synonymous examples of this crazed ideology, one which Borussia Dortmund, while operating on a drastically differing scale, vehemently oppose through their (hopefully) sustainable ownership structure, realistic transfer cash outflows and opportunistic capitalisation on demand for talented young players, much in the same mould as Southampton, while being tempered with a Spurs-like ambition to continually develop academies and uncover hidden gems in the market which can be personally forged into effective squad options by exceptional man-managers Tuchel and Pochettino.
Having produced Marco Reus and Kevin Großkreutz – only for them to depart similarly to Rot Weiss Ahlen and return directly for Großkreutz and via Borussia Monchengladbach for Reus – and produced and given senior debuts to Mario Götze, Nuri Şahin and Marcel Schmelzer, Borussia are far from famed for their academy alumni, but have in the past employed a savvy scouting approach that has identified the likes of Lewandowski, Weidenfeller, Kagawa, Matthias Ginter, Julian Weigl, Erik Durm, Łukasz Piszczek and Sven Bender before they had yet reached their second permanent club, demonstrating the efficiency of a crucial money-saving system that has propped the likes of Klopp and Tuchel up to prosper with squads well managed enough to directly challenge Bayern Munich for national and continental honours. While Jakub Błaszczykowski proves an exception to this rule – Dortmund his third career club, but his first outside of Poland, in similar circumstances to Raphael Guerreiro, his first outside France, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, having permanently represented AC Milan and Saint Etienne – possible stars-in-the-making Dembele, Isak, Mor, Merino and third-choice goalkeeper Hendrik Bonmann fit the bill as second-club additions, and as an increasing contingent, currently encompassing Danish Olympian Jacob Bruun Larsen and current German under-19 internationals Dženis Burnić and Felix Passlack, of home-grown talents pads out an affordably-sourced squad, opportunities to take the fight, both morally and sportingly, to Bayern, appear rife.
This success, in part, is attributable to the very root of Germany’s power conflict; Bayern’s financial muscle. Having contributed €72 million to Dortmund’s coffers over the past four seasons – in the form of €35 million for Hummels’ services recently and €37 million for Götze’s, €28.9 million of which was admittedly recouped in the resigning of Götze and the capture of Sebastian Rode – in addition to the exploitation of intense market interest in Şahin and Kagawa by the Dortmund hierarchy to the tune of €22.1 million, of which only €12.75 million had to be stumped up for their re-signing, Bayern, in part, allowed for a pre-tax transfer profit of €52.45 million to be fed back into the Dortmund system from just four canny transfer sagas. Ingenuity has often been the practice of the oppressed in society, those not to be blessed with the inherent riches of the perennial crown, and in this transfer policy, when coupled with the aforementioned tendency to scout liberally and to great effect in search of unheralded youngsters, those at Dortmund have masterminded one of the biggest financial injustices in footballing history – to make such significant profit while running an effective, trophy-spinning business. Not quite operating on the same academy standards as a Southampton or Spurs, Borussia worked to their own hand in their scouting, perhaps a better reflection of Leicester and their cheap imports N’Golo Kante, Riyadh Mahrez, Christian Fuchs, Shinji Okazaki and Daniel Amartey in the never-to-be-repeated 2015/16 season, and have reaped the benefits of plotting an individual route to success.
This is all, of course, without noting the entirely compromising factor to their enduring appeal as the club of much more than the mere hipster; the footballing aficionado and the cultural connoisseur – their defined style of play. Borussia, throughout Klopp’s reign of exuberant, fluid offensive movements and highly organised gegenpressing, allowed opponents possession on the condition that, in their 4-2-3-1 formation, Dortmund’s energetic attacking trio of Reus, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan, or earlier Großkreutz, Götze and Blaszczykowski, worked with striker Lewandowski to immediately hound those with the ball and force a goal-presenting mistake – most likely on full-backs who have limited means of escape – incisively profiting off the pressure-cooker atmosphere that both their play and the yellow wall imposed on opposition. Under Tuchel, a manager, not unlike Klopp, whose first employment was at Mainz, who promoted gegenpressing in his approach and who cut a continually passionate figure on the touchline, belying his mere eight appearances above German third division standard as a player, Dortmund retained their quick press, but with a second generation of young players now installed in Westfalenstadion life, have been tactically flexible under Tuchel, who preaches the strenuous yet plainly effective approach of continually altering tactics to counter an opponent’s strengths.
A major benefit to the meagrely-resourced Mainz, whom he led to two Europa League qualifications in a five-year spell, this ability to revert between formations negating the main threats, for example a 4-1-4-1 against a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-1-3-2 against a 4-1-4-1, of the likes of Bayern, Dortmund, Leverkusen and Schalke created easily exploited frustration for opposition. Certainly, this quick-thinking tactical reversibility has been a prominent spell in his reasonably successful Dortmund reign – employing a 3-4-3 false striker formation in last week’s 3-2 win at Monchengladbach, a 4-3-3 with Sven Bender in central-defence in a 3-1 victory against Eintracht Frankfurt, a 3-4-2-1 composed of many second-choice starters in a hefty 4-1 Bayern defeat and more familiar 4-2-3-1 with players in their natural positions in a 3-0 bypass of Hamburg in the past four weeks alone – leading the side to a close battle for third in the Bundesliga with Hoffenheim, another tactically stimulating side managed by the young and ambitious Julian Nagelsmann, as well as an unfortunate Champions League quarter-final defeat this season. The potential confusion or sheer inability of players to ascertain their true roles in such a vast array of systems may underpin the managerial approach, but it brings an unpredictability that unnerves the opposition, and boasting arguably the most naturally gifted young squad in Germany, Tuchel is in fine stead to launch future raids on Bayern and the suddenly disruptive force of RB Leipzig, who surely cannot sustain prominence at the Bundesliga’s summit under such richly deserved and fiery barbs from all angles.
Ultimately, Dortmund, who surely will not be denied a title tussle by the antichrist in Leipzig to their genuinely inspiring and idealistic footballing manifesto, can take great pride in what they have forged literally from an industrial heartland; the foremost hub of both geographical and commercial community ownership in world football, bar perhaps Barcelona’s model, complementing an affordable and attractive fan experience with effective exploitation of the transfer markets, an increased focus on academy production and above all, football played beautifully and to a clear aim. Borussia, from the fledgling dream of 19 frustrated Catholic church members in the early 20th century to the revolutionary club in staving off near-certain liquidation, opposing Nazi tyranny, becoming the first German continental trophy victors and defying repeated financial issues throughout the 1970’s, 80’s and 2000’s - bookending a seven-year period of masterful domestic and international hauls – has manifested from a club that seemed seldom distanced from near-fatal strife or astonishing triumph to a family and beacon of hope today that can be relied upon to uphold the true values of football, discovered through hardship and majesty in equal spades, and showcase their effectiveness on each stage they take. It may have never been a smooth ride, nor can it currently be proclaimed to be, but Klopp and Tuchel have transformed Die Schwarzgelben into an incomparable haven of universal accessibility if ever the heart of football is ever in doubt. Triumphantly, their all-encompassing message rings; never mind the bollocks, here’s Die Borussen.
I won’t lie; I’ve been anticipating and pondering this blog for a long while. Having accumulated over 1000 round land miles, witnessed what I estimate to be 71 different players brandishing the Ringmer badge atop their left breast – in vastly contrasting circumstances and to wide-ranging degrees of success – across 18 uncharted grounds from Sussex to Surrey and London’s suburban expanse in four cups, one league and 39 matches (absent for the opening two fixtures of the season and the third from final), all while collecting my most tangible and emotionally raw footballing memories of a fairly short life, the 2016/17 season has been one to cherish personally. Tracking the twists and turns of this most outstanding of seasons, at times basked in the glory of unlikely heroes, and at others mired in despondency and humiliation, all witnessed through the misty glaze of a wide-eyed and knowledge-thirsty amateur reporter perennially armed with a notepad that has taken more hidings that the notes of the team it encases, and any of an array of scribble-sapped pens, an insight into my recent life-affirming travels with the merry band at Ringmer Football Club ensues. While it may struggle against the eloquence or spectacle of The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro – currently a personal favourite read – I hope to immerse you into what has been a superlative-defying test of small-time rigour and collective character on the part of players, management, support and, above all, committee dedication over the past nine months, providing an insight into the betrayingly unperturbed inner sanctums of non-league, amateur football and the perpetual struggle of the unblemished few to uphold how football, in my view, should be run. Relocating our roots in passionate non-league endorsement forged in many prior years spent at The Caburn, we are going full circle in what I, no matter what else I produce this calendar year, will forever cherish as my most heartfelt write-up of 2017.
It was at the Caburn, a ground defined by (and lambasted for) its lifelong slope and unpredictable bobbles distinctly defining it as a long-term centre of parish and county football (hosting the club since World War Two, primarily doubling up as the pasture of a cow herd until the 1967 purchase of a stand from the defunct Croydon Airport), that my season effectively began last July. Having deliberated, extensively I may add, over the pros and cons of embarking on a season’s travel and assuming responsibility of reports for the club, of which I knew the rough equivalent of nothing in terms of its interior workings, and allowing this consideration to culminate in a response to the appeal for fresh club volunteers, a position of which fortunately included match reporter, I stepped tentatively in the early stages of my summer holiday, my father in toe, into the clubhouse for a scheduled quick introduction from chairman Derek McDougall, of whose presence at the club I was, at least, previously aware. Feebly shaking hands upon first introduction, with the club servant busying himself sufficiently with the netting at the downward-sloped goal upon which Mount Caburn – which isn’t a mountain at all – distantly looms and lends its name to the ground, in the five minutes between our scheduled and realistic meet, I tracked his trudge through the tightly-hinged double doors from stand to bar and down the white-plastered narrow corridor I had only previously ventured a short metre down for the men’s toilet on the right. My naïve perspiration led this corridor, when in reality only leading 10 metres to the well-concealed boardroom, to feel as if the distance a gallant striker later in the season would swallow up on a dust-spitting gut bust from his own half to goal, but nevertheless, once settled into conversation about my casual position around the club, my anticipation for the season subsequently developed.
A month and two weeks further would pass before my thirst for the unique experience would settle; a floodlit meet with Bexhill United on the most apt of picturesque, red-skied nights in early-season home action. Preoccupied with a North Yorkshire holiday for the prior 3-0 defeat at the hands of Lingfield in the Peter Bentley Cup of all three leagues in the Southern Combination Football League – of which we, alongside Lingfield, were in Division One, below the largely semi-professional Premier Division but atop the practically Sunday League Division Two – and the partially encouraging 1-1 draw with newly promoted Billingshurst on the first day of the Division One season, I was eager to see what boss Sammy Donnelly had produced of a squad the previous season had finished 12th of 17, but had suffered a number of departures of experienced individuals over the summer. As it was then, Donnelly, renowned as the journeyman whose old hand of 60-something years had graced the most prestigious of Sussex’s non-league outfits in Whitehawk, Eastbourne Town, Eastbourne United, Lancing, Shoreham, Worthing, Three Bridges, East Preston and Ringmer in a spell only four years prior, fielded an XI, barring I believe hefty striker Matt Sellick, towering centre-back Adam Sparks, unsuspecting defensive midfielder Steve Stracey and fiery, buzz-cut winger Steve Jackson – nicknamed ‘squirrel’ – entirely composed of reserve products of little to no prior exposure to the demands of senior football at such a level. There were reasons to be optimistic with such youth, however, and the 2-1 defeat on the night, with Sellick bundling a second-half header home in response to the Pirates’ lead, built on powerful winger George Gouet, was far from an embarrassment considering the extent of the cumulative years in the side of the town famed for its beachside De La Warr Pavilion.
Five games in, including the Bexhill defeat, the ambitious offhand claims of coach Alan Dartnell when quizzed on his expectations for the season at the August committee meeting – which I was present at for five minutes, solely to be introduced – of a positive charge up the table, appeared far from worryingly threatened. A 2-1 victory at the grossly urbanised Brighton and Hove district of Southwick, our first away match for which me and my dad had arrived just at kick-off to find the luxury of a hearty welcome, padded seats reminiscent, except of their tomato-red tint, of those at the other end of both Brighton and the Sussex sporting spectrum, the Seagulls’ AMEX, meant I left ecstatic for more trips in the search of points. An unremarkable 2-1 loss to a fitter Steyning Town side on a sweltering Saturday at the Caburn, followed up by an end-to-end 3-2 dispatching by Saltdean United at their stunning, South Downs-screened ground the subsequent Bank Holiday Monday left things, while despondent in the immediate wake of these two, perhaps unfortunate, losses, optimistic that lesser opponents could be outclassed with the natural talent provided by midfield dynamo Harrison Burley, nimble forward Robbie Frost and the athletically-built centre-back Connor Smith, all of whom were yet, I believe, to reach their 21st birthday.
Progress, even, had been managed in the FA Vase either side of a laborious and disheartening 3-1 league vanquishing at Midhurst and Easebourne after a long trip across Sussex, with a hard-earned 2-1 victory managed at St Francis Rangers, lampooned in previous years as 'the worst team in England' and the following round’s 2-2 AET match up with Sporting Club Thamesmead, who had carted down from South-East London to earn a replay.
It was with this replay, perhaps, that cracks finally began to materialise. Donnelly’s standoffish managerial approach had been pinpointed by my own eyes, as well as those of my *occasionally* useful surveillance aide and father, as a fault throughout the variable spell of August and September for the inability of the youthful line-up to produce consistent tactical awareness and coherent offensive strategies; rarely, if ever, rollicking off instructions or encouragement to his troops in the midst of battle. Having zipped up the A267, A21 and M25 in chairman Dougie’s motor – with dad fearing the 60-mile trip on a Tuesday evening – to Thamesmead’s communal Bayliss Avenue, becoming acquainted to a pitch almost as crisp as the 3G the majestic feat of concrete and glass panes shrouded opposite, the regular short-haul flights entering the London City Airport just over the river acted as a metaphor for how this game would change Donnelly’s season; back to earth with a bump. A 5-1 defeat, absolutely outclassed by our advantageously-located hosts with strapping striker Nathan Roberts’ van-Basten-esque strike a mere consolation.
Three weeks later, we were out of all four cups, and had witnessed Donnelly depart, with the aggravation caused by a ten-man 4-1 hiding at Storrington only escalating in a 7-0 midweek embarrassment at the hands of Premier Division moneybags Shoreham in the Sussex Senior Cup and the final straw; the 7-1 stonking handed out by Selsey after a 100 mile round-trip almost to Hampshire, grey-haired 40-something assistant manager Grant Olive forced to lace up his boots in a midfield otherwise composed of two more natural defenders, an extremely quiet squirrel and Stracey, who bagged a goal in the game. We had no substitutes available in that match, and our striker was the diminutive David Chan, typically an attacking midfielder who received no support despite his tireless effort. Citing the inability to source new signings, Donnelly had resigned in shame in the immediate aftermath, leaving the Blues 18th of eighteen Division One sides, brandishing four points from seven matches and a -13 goal difference.
Handing Olive temporary reigns, consecutive 2-0 and 2-1 defeats to Oakwood and Mile Oak, the latter in the Division One Challenge Cup, brought hope of a recovery, rather more from the performances involved, as work ethic was restored and positive football reclaimed. Danny Wood, reserves manager, was allowed the trial period, as one of the applicants for the full-time position, of two matches also, though mustered dejected 3-0 and 4-0 losses on the road to Steyning Town, on their brand new 3G pitch, and Lingfield respectively, employing what effectively was, both prior to his trial and subsequently, his band of reserves players, who in their league were also at the foot of the table.
The stage was set for a saviour. An eight-match losing streak had to end at some point, and there was little more reasonable timescale than when Ash Bailey, announced to club officials hours before the Lingfield match, was installed as new boss with a debut at local rivals Seaford Town the Saturday following the chastening Tuesday night trip, in respects of both the bone-chilling cold and the heavy defeat, to the Surrey village more famed in sporting circles for its racecourse as opposed to its secreted football pitch. Struck with the sheer weight of the task upon arrival, however, in the form of again having only eleven players at his disposal for the trek up to the Crouch, Seaford’s leafy and historic ground with an imposing sight of the town’s famous head, the former Lancing boss and player, just 31 years of age and a former centre-back prior to his successful one-year management spell with the Lancers – winning the Peter Bentley Cup and finishing fourth in the Premier Division – suffered a baptism of fire in the demoralising 3-0 statement of inferiority.
We returned, however, to the Caburn the following week, hosting recently promoted AFC Varndeanians, themselves relegation candidates, and with a full bench (including Olive) and SIX new arrivals, including goalkeeper Dan Hutchins and defender Matt Simpson, products of Lewes FC’s academy, spirits were understandably raised. The 0-0 secured on the day – pulsating as 0-0’s go – was sufficient for us long-suffering supporters. Merely a blip on the record, it may have seemed three weeks later, as a point in our predicament paled in comparison to the abysmal 6-0 whipping served on the most miserable of mid-November afternoons at Little Common (where, to further my misery, my trusty phone died on the squelchy trudge to the accommodating clubhouse at half-time) and the utterly one-sided 1-0 defeat at Bexhill United’s imperial Polegrove, which were separated only by what threatened to be a 3-3 home draw with Langney Wanderers – abandoned five minutes from time in respect of the atrociously lashing rain, with the robust Eastbourne outfit under pressure at 3-2.
A high turnover of players, typical of a managerial changeover at this level of the English pyramid, defined this period, and again a 4-4 home draw with high-flying Mile Oak, hinted, even screamed, an eventual resurgence, 4-0 up after 30 minutes only for the Oaks to capitalise on our mental fragility. 7-2 and 3-0 losses followed, at Billingshurst and entertaining East Preston respectively, with the former particularly memorable for the 2PM kick off - which we inexorably missed by ten minutes - in accordance with the lack of floodlights in December at the SCFL-supported rural West Sussex club (who were granted a season at our level without a stand or lighting before they finally installed both days before the March 31st ground gradings), and where we stood for an embarrassing 90 minutes next to the navy-tracksuited pragmatist Bailey’s dugout, learning an awful lot about his affable nature, belying his titanic centre-back’s frame to unwaveringly acknowledge, throughout his tenure, everyone at the club. Then, it was Christmas.
We returned to action on the sub-zero evening of the 27th, where fortunately my festive spirit was reawakened and my cockles truly warmed with a 3-2 win at St Francis. A WIN! Bailey’s first, only our second of the season, built on grit and tactical capability. It was, perhaps, the first time on that fateful night, ended on the note of ‘relief’ – the word I, adorned in a Santa hat I had jokingly carried in my sling backpack, put into Bailey’s mouth after congregating at the ground’s exit with Dougie – that I had seen captain Ben Thomsett, for whom I had always questioned for the role, produce a capable left-back performance throughout the season, and as I roared on a rampant squirrel, employed as striker, to a match-winning 70th minute breakaway, it was certainly a turning point, a breath of life in our season. Responding in January with brave, then unfortunate, 1-0 and 3-2 home defeats to top-three sides Saltdean and Little Common between another abandoned affair – in the wake of a broken leg from a 50/50 challenge for home player Grant Miller - at a dreary Oakwood, and culminating the month with a match typical of the period, a 2-2 draw with Southwick – littered with refereeing mistakes and crowned by a Ringmer collapse, a 2-0 lead dissipating in the final 15 minutes, momentum stalled. February, it must be added, felt like a body blow finally too significant to recover from, a shambolic 5-2 suffered at Langney usurped by a 5-0 testament more to hosts East Preston’s quality than our mistakes, complemented by gut-wrenching results – 3-3 when 3-0 up, at home again, against Langney and a 3-2 defeat, when 2-0 up, when venturing to the altitude of Mile Oak. While I had been seriously contemplating the depressing future of Ringmer, a prime Sussex County Football league side for my entire life, prior to a shambolic 2014/15 relegation, in Division Two alongside villages as obscure as Ferring, Clymping, Cowfold and Alfold, degraded to village green football, for months now, from October to bleakest Midwinter, little matched the despondency stemming from the mere 11 points amassed from 26 long matches, albeit interspersed with invariable rays of hope, and the extremely unlikely ten points from safety of February’s demise.
Rarely, visibly at least, in football are transcendent near-miracles performed by individuals who have suffered the indignity of 10 losses from their first 16 games in charge of a seemingly lame horse – languishing 18th throughout with no playing budget, consistent struggles to attract sufficient playing quality and more than their fair share of misfortune – especially in an age dictated by investment in the non-league system, evident in Saltdean’s league victory; accelerating from the root of the table to champions in less than twelve months with the signatures of Rikki Banks, Josh Jones and Tommy Fraser, who have each played in the Ryman Premier, and in Banks’ case, the Conference National, with Lewes. Ash Bailey, it seems, is of a different breed when it comes to such relegation struggles, and what followed in March and April defied any prior expectations of even the most optimistic of Blues supporters, providing any had survived from the repeated condemnations of fortune we had suffered in months previous. Perhaps we expected the victory at the Withdean, gracing the pitch once frequented by Bobby Zamora, Glenn Murray and Adam Virgo, now leased to AFC Varndeanians, but not to the 3-0 extent of a veritable thrashing in which new signing, coincidentally Varndeanians’ reserves team coach, Mark Pulling set the game’s tempo with his considerable experience and provided the missing link to undoubted flashes of creative brilliance in the weeks prior. These flashes, on the most part, had been attributable to the suddenly blossoming partnership of Chris Geer, whom I had written off as an unsuitably sluggish, stunted and unproductive striker in his initial November run, and Jack Webber, the muscular striker of under 21 years perennially found sporting tousled chestnut locks and blue tape around his wrist in his plaudit-commanding goal returns.
If we could live with the Varndeanians victory, then certainly a 2-2 home share of the points with Seaford, for whom Thomsett, allegedly having left Ringmer after his benching at East Preston in disrepute with Bailey over his defensive positioning, starred in central defence, was agreeable, especially when backed up with a late 1-0 edging out of Lingfield – the first home win of the season. At this point, things appeared to be finally piecing together from a string of bit-part performances over the winter. Two clean sheets from three games became three from four with a knockout 4-0 blow when returning to Oakwood in our final away match, with 17 year-old winger Reece Edwards scoring a peach of a goal in testament to his explosive tendencies, while a defence including Simpson at left-back, the quietly composed and commanding Dan Deacon at right-back, Ben Palmer at one centre-back spot and captain/all-round good egg Tom Shelley at the other as reliable hands upon which to call for an imposing set-piece header or a last-ditch challenge, had undoubtedly flourished with its eventual contingency, alongside the periodic outings of Ben Evans, a fellow Ringmer primary and secondary school attendee from the year above mine.
Suddenly, four games unbeaten equated to our escape from the relegation zone, with ten abrupt, but somehow entirely conceivable, points lifting us above both St Francis and Varndeanians. Held to a 1-1 home draw by a *ahem* challenge-happy Storrington, we dropped back into 17th place as Varndeanians won at Billingshurst in 15th, with Geer and Webber’s threat negated by brute force. With a game in hand on the V’s, however, and facing three feasibly winnable home matches against Midhurst & Easebourne and Selsey, both of mid-table, and St Francis - with four points of nine my personal target – of course, I was absent for the Midhurst match, while on a weekend family visit to Norfolk. Perceivably, it was an exhilarating game for which my baited breath and pessimism from afar was needless, with an early away goal giving way to late Ringmer pressure, a Midhurst sending off and two almost survival-salvaging goals, including a trademark last minute Pulling free-kick which condemned St Francis, and almost certainly Varndeanians, to relegation, with the latter requiring a final-game win against Saltdean and for us to lose both remaining matches. Needless to say, the following match-up with Selsey was reasonably successful, producing just the 4-1 victory, with Webber’s rampaging hat-trick capping a performance worthy of amending the scars left by the infamous reverse fixture in October, and securing us safety with 17 points from a possible 21 in the seven-game spell from the Withdean trip.
I had my suspicions about this trend in form from the very first match of March, and thereby remained loyal to the superstitious pattern born on that day; white slim-fit twill trousers, navy blue thermal socks (yes, even in April’s heat), bordering on too much information in being paired with azure underpants to complete the Ringmer colour pattern, and a football shirt to finalise the ‘lucky’ outfit. Dad often wore what he repeatedly joked, to an unfunny extent, were his ‘club issue shoes’ (having been approached to be club secretary in October and become entangled in a family occupation at the club), also a navy and azure affair in bringing extra fortune. Ultimately, though, it was the influx, gradually perfected over time, of trusted individuals, the introduction of a stronger, determined and devoted work ethic and the outstanding in-game management of Bailey and his coaches, at least in comparison to Donnelly’s regime, which contributed to players being fitter, better prepared, more positive and, resultantly, in a stronger position to succeed, while Bailey also attended to issues dogging the club’s internal affairs such as the distant relationship between the four – first, reserve, third and under 18’s – teams and created a palpably optimistic and approachable character at the club. Thanks could not do sufficient credit to his service, and as a crowning glory was anticipated in this Tuesday (18th) night’s final fixture against St Francis for a nucleus of players and management that truly performed minor miracles with a club in disarray, of course the visitors won 1-0 to render our run meaningless and taint our late-season reprieve with a smattering of hungover melancholy. Barring the most extraordinary of league reshuffles, however, we are safe as Sidlesham, relegated last season on ground gradings, are rumoured to have been guaranteed promotion wherever they finished in Division Two (third, as it turned out) and I doubt, unless the SCFL pulls strings for both Bosham and Jarvis Brook, the top two from that division will follow the Sids.
2016/17, then, has been a steep learning curve, to put it mildly. Personally, my understanding of the internal affairs of such rural non-league clubs has developed deeply through the many hours spent frequenting each boardroom in the division – bar Southwick and Saltdean, I believe - for a hearty half-time tea and biscuit and the information fed my way from debriefs of my dad’s three or four-hour long monthly committee meetings, and my admiration of those involved with the running of these outfits had, in turn, aggressively intensified, from chairmen, to treasurers, to secretaries and so on. I don’t envy the editors of innumerable Sussex newspapers in the ilk of Derren Howard, with whom I have communicated each extensive report over email, and the unheralded sub-editors in the same respect, who work extensively to ensure the survival of local newspapers while sifting through the nonsensical multitude of my reports.
I can well understand why those hardened to the peaks and troughs, perhaps often greater than what we have experienced this season, have become cynical pessimists quick to quell fervour and retain normality in nigh-on disaster, but for now I remain a wide-eyed optimist – albeit with tempered expectations – anticipating what is next for Bailey’s Ringmer side. Providing he can retain the likes of Webber, Geer, Shelley, Palmer, Hutchins, Deacon, Simpson, Pulling, Edwards, fellow flying winger Alex Saunders, almost ever-present Supporters Player of the Year (with my vote) Stracey for our July/August return, while blooming internally-produced youngsters in Evans, Frost, strikers Jack Cooper and Lorcan Cotterill, defender Jack Barlow and diminutive left winger Ben Kirk-Patrick, I believe the structure is there for this Ringmer side to eventually meet Bailey’s apparent top-six ambitions, and if he retains tactics simple enough for me to comprehend from the stands, then the club can truly flourish on the pitch, and hopefully off of it in turn. For an unlikely redeemer, Bailey has cast a large shadow over the club that will hopefully dispel any return to a gradual footballing decline and secure our future for the move, in two or three seasons, to the approved 3G pitch on the college field, stirring a positivity around the Caburn that I have rarely felt before and can hopefully be harnessed. We are far from in Saltdean territory, but our fortunes have improved with Ash’s involvement and optimism for the future is, quite rightly, high. For 2017/18, and for always, COYB!
P.S. A massive, heartfelt dedication of gratitude to everyone who has made this season so special personally – Dad, Dougie, Malcolm, Sally, Ted, Stan, Ash, Sammy, all committee members, management and players at Ringmer FC who have dedicated themselves to the cause, all committees around the county and division that have welcomed us with open arms, Derren and co. at the Sussex Express, all opposition fans, players and management who have carried themselves with utmost dignity and consideration, and to the officials that make football at this level possible – I look forward to starting it all over again in August!
As a footballing era culminated in Italy – a land esteemed in its heritage for boundless contradictions of the sport – on an unseasonably oppressive Milanese Thursday afternoon, a beauty, of sorts, again gave way to an increasingly prominent and turgid financial necessity. Disgraced former Prime Minister, or Presidente del Consiglio, Silvio Berlusconi finally cashed in on his 31 years as totalitarian Rossoneri chief in the wake of the most significant Chinese buyout in European sporting history, earning an immediate €740 million (as well as a further €90 million for his company’s operational costs) from the ‘Rossoneri Sport Investment Lux’ for his seemingly endless tenure at the helm of what was once a monolith of continental football, adorned with such dazzling decorations of international brilliance as Ronaldo, Kaká, Paolo Maldini, Clarence Seedorf and Cafu. While these legends – not to use the term in passing – may have graced the San Siro with innumerable strokes of artistic, trophy-laden genius and moved to pastures new, one aspect at the club has remained throughout; the 99.93% ownership stake of Fininvest, Berlusconi’s financial holding corporation that itself controls a number of Italian televisual outlets. This company, throughout his 31 years of immeasurable involvement, has provided the legal route around the insignificant strife of being a three-time Prime Minister to own arguably the most historic national squadra di calcio for the insatiably and frivolously esteemed archetype of cringe-inducing casual sexism and racism that you, if unaware of the otherwise exemplary sentiment of a vast majority of citizens, could easily mistake as pervasive in Italian society.
Now that the 29 trophies – including eight scudetti, a Coppa Italia, seven Supercoppa Italiana, two Intercontinental Cups, a FIFA World Club Cup and five Champions League titles, each converted into a UEFA Super Cup gong – have been consigned to the history books under Berlusconi’s reign, however, are the San Siro-based outfit so steeped in history set to dawn again, in respect of their ravenous pedigree, so besmirched by recent tribulations? Having experienced an almost unprecedented lull of prolonged ineptitude, boasting the longest dry spell in their 117-year history, barring that from their formation to their first European Cup in 1962/63, on the international stage of 10 years, in addition to what will become, with another season of patience, their joint-fourth longest barren run in Serie A – lagging behind only the 44 years between 1907 and 1951, the 11 between 1968 and 1979 and the subsequent nine between 1979 and 1988 – Rossoneri fans desperately desire one thing; a return to such prominence. They thirst for the bittersweet piquancy of finely-crafted silverware that once graced the casciavit – literally screwdriver, a reference to the historically working class support base – mitts of home-grown heroes Franco Baresi and Paolo Maldini.
It is not solely the accomplishments that Rossoneri fans mention, however, as much as the heavenly brand of fluid, press-heavy attacking football manager Arrigo Sacchi employed after having being specifically recruited by the visionary Berlusconi, who funded an escape from financial disaster in 1986 while also investing in a Dutch invasion of stars – Ruud Gullit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rijkaard – the latter duo products of an Ajax side in the early 1980’s that followed in the Total Football footsteps of Rinus Michels’ Amsterdam exploits, and thereby ideal for Sacchi’s ideals for Italy. Fabio Capello continued this red-and-black striped philosophy into the early 1990’s, eventually contributing, alongside Sacchi, to the most successful nine-year spell in the club’s history, Maldini fortunate enough to be present at each of the five scudetti wins, four Supercoppa triumphs, three European Cup victories (the latter of which officially a Champions League after the 1992 rebranding), three UEFA Super Cup successes and two Intercontinental Cup conquests, or 17 trophy hoists, from 1987 to 1996. With Capello’s departure, however, appeared to come a drastic lack of Milanese direction, with a mere dozen further occasions of celebration taking them two full decades to accrue – an era, from 1996, that without Carlo Ancelotti’s tenure of 2001-09, would’ve produced just four successes in Massimiliano Allegri’s Serie A and Supercoppa-winning season of 2010/11, Alberto Zaccheroni’s Serie A triumph of 1998/99 and Vincenzo Montella’s recent 2016 Supercoppa victory, 4-3 on penalties after a 1-1 result in the balmy December climes of Doha.
Considering how the legendary Milan side of even 2005 – Dida, Cafu, Nesta, Stam, Maldini, Gattuso, Seedorf, Pirlo, Kaká, Inzaghi and Shevchenko included, and managed by Ancelotti, the greatest manager, by statistics, in Champions League history – has deteriorated into its modern-day guise of incomparable mediocrity, left to feed off the scraps of other bit-part European pretenders, a fresh pair of eyes appears essential. This is perhaps further evident when condemning Gianluigi Donnarumma, Matteo De Sciglio and Carlos Bacca as the only real glimpses of Champions League-deserving quality, managed by Montella; the latest in an uninspiring line of five short-lived bosses under the age of 50. Three of these managers were likely hired for their sentimental value to the club’s ownership and support; Seedorf, Inzaghi and Cristian Brocchi – who made 99 appearances in seven seasons under Ancelotti, amongst tenures at three other of Italian football’s ‘Seven Sisters’ (Milan, Inter, Juventus, Roma, Lazio, Napoli and Fiorentina) - proving the drastically dissipated vision that Berlusconi, amongst others, by this point retained. This has been especially prevalent during a two-year period in which, while results have resultantly degraded, ‘Il Presidente’ has tried repeatedly to flog his lame but much-loved horse, with obstacles preventing Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux investing previously, while a recently-acquired and significant financial loan presented the opportunity to finally close the deal.
With the outgoing Chairman receiving considerable acclaim for his three-decade spell and success within – visible in the countless ‘Grazie Presidente’ messages plastered across Milanese social media – you do wonder how much vaster the response would’ve been, or if he had ever relinquished control of the Rossoneri, had Allegri not departed for pastures new – the old lady of Turin, Juventus - in 2014. It was, perhaps, at this point in the considerable timeline of his embattled political and business life, having lost his Chamber of Deputies seat in the 2013 General Election and Senate seat in the fallout of a conviction for tax fraud a matter of months later, that his enthusiasm for the dolce vita of footballing presidency waned, banned from public office, his true passion, for two years and sentenced to community service.
As Allegri departed, following a period of three seasons where he lost vital squad figures in Zlatan Ibrahimović, Andrea Pirlo, Thiago Silva, while also suffering the accumulations of years of Seedorf, Nesta and Gattuso – who each departed to lesser nations – Berlusconi likely felt the culmination of what was so often a remarkably trophy-laden era of ownership, at this point withdrawing the funds he once would’ve happily poured into coffers. Leaving subsequent managers to only splash out on the likes of Giacomo Bonaventura, Alessio Romagnoli, Andrea Bertolacci and Carlos Bacca, the latter trio representing the sole examples of €10 million+ Rossoneri ambition in the last three years, Berlusconi halted what had once been a universally-usurping transfer charge by making his managers purchase from within Italian borders, with foreign acquisitions, Bacca and arguably Jérémy Ménez aside, only recruited past their peak or when drastically lacking any remnants of form. His fervour for football visibly dissipated, and so did the club’s, with his patience to complete this week’s eventual sale the only commendable feature of his latter reign for fans, who, despite their disdain in the post-Allegri years, greeted his departure in a starkly contrasting manner to those gathered outside the Quirinal Palace in 2011 at the point of his resignation from Italian office, reflecting ponderously on the years of attributable and unprecedented triumph rather than organising hostility as l’ultimo addio – the last goodbye.
Promising to invest a minimum of €350 million annually, the Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux – represented by Chinese/Hong Kong-based magnate Yonghong Li, a Chairman shrouded in mystery – and, in Li’s terms “lead this legendary team back to the summit of world football”, the Oriental investors certainly aren’t lacking the necessary ambition to deliver on the desires of a once-proud band of supporters. The funds to complete the deal? Merely the inconvenience that has disrupted the momentum of Li’s business partners in the past few years, though such an undermining aspect has been attended to now, with the reported €300m attained from American hedge fund Elliot, even if, at an 11% interest rate, such a loan will be have to be refinanced within 18 months – no mean feat considering the dwindling position of Milan prior to Berlusconi’s departure. Having calmed such financial fears with an announcement of their “commitment to undertake significant capital increases and liquidity injections aimed at strengthening Milan’s financial structure”, however, assumptions made, hopefully, should come to fruition in that the fate of Lux’s Milanese venture is not to collapse by October 2018, and will guarantee, for the foreseeable future, the security of the Rossoneri. Above all, the prime priority has to be plugging the financial footfall – which in the 2015 financial year, was announced as €89.3 million, with the club only making a small financial profit once – for 2006 - in ten seasons from 2005, leaving a debt of over €400m in the hands of the new shareholders.
Partly, of course, this stems from the city of Milan’s ownership of the San Siro – used, and called casa, by both Milan and Internazionale – and the lease both sides, in turn, have to pay to maintain their habitation of what I personally perceive as one of the more brutish, industrial grounds of the continental scene. Marco Fassone, the newly-installed CEO of Milan and a former bedfellow – as Chief Operating Officer in Turin and Managing Director in Naples and Milan – of Juventus, Napoli and Inter, has noted the crying requirement, under any circumstances, for a self-owned stadium, stating " whether it's San Siro or a newly built stadium, as long as the club can have its own stadium", implying the economic desperation of the cause, preferably, but unrealistically, within 18 months. A diplomatic arrangement with Inter, however, could be a possibility considering Fassone’s close cross-city ties – racking up three-and-a-half years in Nerazzurri (blue and black) -, in addition to the familiar nature of similarly Chinese ownership, as the Suning Holdings Group boast the majority stake in Inter, set to meet, coincidentally, for the first time in the Derby della Madonnina today (albeit before this goes up), as the two halves of the culturally rich Northern city collide.
Once the significant wrangling over the stadium situation is settled, if ever – considering Berlusconi originally planned an exodus to an extensively designed 48,000-seater stadium in the Portello area of Milan back in 2015 – then supporters, obviously, will survey competitive success with perceivably Italian tunnel-vision as the natural bi-product, and their most obvious means of ownership analysis. Despite the financial disarray at Casa Milan currently, home fans crave and anticipate, especially in the wake of this Chinese dawn, a return to Serie A power struggles, Champions League qualifications and seismic signatures at the very least, three aspects Montella, while adopting a more positive outlook with his youth-friendly and invariably successful 4-3-3 tactic, appears unlikely to ultimately deliver, with an uninspiring record at each of his employers to date - at the age of 42 a distant comparison to forefather Allegri, who had achieved Milan’s 2011 title only a year older. While Allegri, perennially the titan to cast an incomparable shadow on each Milanese successor, was renowned for his tactically fluidity and distinctively relaxed relationship amongst players of the quality of Pirlo, Ibrahimović, Seedorf, Thiago Silva, Mario Balotelli and Kaká, who as a collective – although not each in the same Rossoneri side – had the potential to be fatally volatile, Montella lies decidedly undistinguished in his tactical or man-management approach.
Smacking of a befuddled individual intoxicated by the stench of continental competition, befalling his mid-table quality in the substandard losses which repeatedly capitulate positive runs of form, Montella hardly appears a worthy successor. First evident in the embarrassing 3-0 drubbing at Genoa, which came directly after a heroic 1-0 defeat of Juventus in October, Montella’s side conspired to waste a spot-kick in a 1-0 loss at Roma in December after accumulating 13 points from a possible 15, also surrendering a creditable position in March with an added-time 2-1 Juventus blow after a similar five-match points tally. Dual defeats to boot against both Napoli and Udinese have defined their mediocrity under the former Roma striker and hall-of-famer, who represents the latest in an almost universal band of unfulfilled managerial dreams in Italy, unfortunate to have suffered at the hands of those earmarked for exclusive employment; Juventus or the national side, the latter of whom are unfortunately positioned between Conte’s reign and Allegri’s inevitable tenure, resorting to the Roy Hodgson-esque Gian Piero Ventura, who after a brief set of obscure playing exploits, has managed 18 sides, mostly of Serie B, in 35 years, without winning any silverware above Serie C level.
In Italy, to escape the pervasive clutch of catenaccio at lower levels, and subsequently the nullifying and mentally tiring repetition of Serie A, where little emphasis appears to be placed on the modern day ‘winger’ – instead employing varying arrays of 4-3-3 or 4-3-1-2 – managers need to showcase their distinct and divergent approaches in order to reach the top. Marking a risk-taking ability rare amongst the 16 Italian bosses (of 20 clubs) currently in Serie A, are three candidates; Allegri of Juventus, Luciano Spalletti of Roma and the unheralded Maurizio Sarri of Napoli, with a personal characteristic that separates the wheat from the chaff in a dynasty of outstanding sporting brains. As Allegri assumed Conte’s position at the helm of a seemingly unsinkable Vecchia Signora – Old Lady – little tactical tinkering was required, and other than reverting to a 4-2-3-1 in the event of an attacking Champions League or, more rarely Serie A, onslaught, and as such he has remained faithful to the 3-5-2 and 3-4-3 – other than for the past few months, where an enviable rotation of players has allowed him to experiment, particularly with Paulo Dybala at trequartista in a 4-2-3-1, and still stride to the title. Spalletti, in respect, has ushered in a brand of offensive calcio in the capital, which has delivered just the 24 league goals from Edin Džeko and eight assists from Mohammed Salah, usually opting for a fluid 3-4-2-1, which allows playmakers Salah and Radja Nainggolan sufficient freedom to roam, while Sarri, the revelation of the season, has instilled a fascinating 4-3-3 far better explained here than I ever could do justice.
All this considered, then, will it ultimately be the fault of Milan’s ‘Rossoneri Sports Investment Lux’ if results don’t pan out the way they perhaps envisaged, or will it simply be the case of the right place at the wrong time? Is there another Italian managerial prodigy yet to blossom for AC’s benefit, preferably in the next season or two, to finally sustain the promise of a title charge, or will Montella, with the potential investment of up to €100m in transfer strategy in the summer, finally come good, rising the Rossoneri from a string of sixth, seventh and eighth-placed lulls? Does Europa League qualification this season, providing they can counteract the charge of Inter or usurp the miraculous Atalanta effort over the final seven game weeks, represent a success worthy of such trusting investment from the new ownership syndicate? For the forlorn and impulsive fans, certainly, but in the long-term fortune of the club, perhaps funds would be better spent on the potential stadium, writing off Berlusconi’s debts and securing a sustainable groundwork from which to make a true resurgence in two or three seasons, rather than mustering a false charge on what will only, in the realistic hope that with the signatures of a quartet of in-form, peaking players, constitute the Champions League places amongst Roma and Napoli. Fortunately, perhaps, that is not for us to quarrel over, rather the responsibility of Li, David Han Li, a fellow Chinese magnate, and Fassone, amongst others, each assured financial technicians with defined ideals for their purchase, though visions that may come into conflict with such aforementioned economic intellect, as Berlusconi’s tenure came to represent during its latter stages.
Lastly, what will the implications of this sale, two years in the making but still an era-defining event, be on Italian and European football? Marking the most significant auctioning of a majority club stake to Chinese investors in sporting history, yet only arriving in the extended wake of mass Oriental takeovers at each of Birmingham’s top four - West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Birmingham City -, Milan’s Derby della Madonnina rivals, Slavia Prague, ADO Den Haag, Sochaux and Espanyol (of the Czech Republic, Netherlands, France and Spain, respectively) and partial investments in continental giants Manchester City and Athletico Madrid, does this handover represent a true changing of the guard in European football? Will successive clubs competing for Champions League qualification and domestic titles in prime nations like England, Spain, France and Italy, follow this partial trend, will it cause a backlash to the unlikely extent that these areas instead adopt German or Catalonian policies, de jure and de facto respectively, of fan ownership, or will very little, in the wider perspective, actually alter on this front?
The sands of time will tell, naturally, but it seems genuinely improbable that Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea will be relinquished from the financial claws of their entirely satisfied current owners, as the only investments to date, at a majority level at least, have been made in debt-ridden, unsustainable models of inopportune disenchantment and deterioration, even if the keys were handed over in many cases by locals, not loved but admired by fans, whose passion for their hometown projects will forever go unrivalled. In truth, I can now honestly understand why the droves of Rossoneri tifosi – fans – emotionally declared their consenting but grief-tinged arrivederci’s to Il Più Grande Presidente, as it is the passing of a turbulent but heartfelt and intimate era in Milanese, Italian and even world football, consigning Berlusconi to the history books as, while not, ultimately, the discernible saviour of Italian politics, certainly a hero in Lombardy, who can be fondly remembered for delivering the unthinkable glory days. Even if Yonghong Li and co. managed similar, there surely would be nowhere near the adulation or stereotypically Italian partiality to rejoice, and, at this point in time, even that line of events seems improbable at best. To challenge Juventus, Roma and Napoli in the next three seasons even seems testing, but entirely dependent on whether Montella lingers, consolidates or is toppled from his precarious position, if sufficient funds are available to regain competitiveness and whether the club’s significant debts are chalked off. A monumental task, I’m sure you’d agree, and one that appears drastically different to that which posed Berlusconi upon arrival in 1986. The goalposts have changed; whether the collective Rossoneri can react sufficiently is a challenge that will define Italian and European football in the ensuing generation.
Dismayed by the decision to depose Louis van Gaal and, reportedly, hire one of the most divisive and manipulative managers in the game, I was at first pessimistic about the fate of José Mourinho at Manchester United just hours after the globally renowned architects of football I had come to support obliviously hoisted the FA Cup aloft following a titanic tussle with Crystal Palace. A testing season for United fans had just culminated in an achievement unprecedented since 2004, yet nobody within the inner sanctums of the club appeared to realise it; they, after hours, days and weeks of speculation, took the coward’s decision and terminated their relationship with LvG. Certainly, the playing standards under the unconventional Dutch taskmaster had fallen to depths not witnessed since, ignoring the tenure of David Moyes, the fledgling stages of (who would later become) Sir Alex Ferguson’s Mancunian escapade, but he had discovered a manner in which to grind out results, and, in turn, win trophies, which while not in the preferred ‘United’ style, was effective in firstly achieving the sole Champions League qualification in what now appears likely to be four long seasons, and the 2016 FA Cup. It was perhaps ironic then, that the primary achievement of José Mário dos Santos Mourinho Félix’s time in the Stretford quarters of Manchester was the Community Shield, overturning the threat of Premier League champions Leicester City in the opportunity presented by van Gaal’s domestic cup victory.
My stance on the mightily successful Portuguese, however, soon softened with the widespread optimism forged through his affirmations of title-winning objectives and the statements of intent that the signatures of Zlatan Ibrahimović, Eric Bailly, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Paul Pogba, for a world record transfer fee, presented to the footballing universe. Rather than allowing the harmful, introverted ways of Moyes, van Gaal and partly Ryan Giggs – responsibility stemming from his inability to guide the hierarchy to a successful route he once trod – to fester in Old Trafford, Mourinho appeared the proactive, respect-demanding, angelic saviour of the Red Devils, and the only manager capable of pitting his wits against the influx of unprecedented Premier League managerial talent in Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte and Jürgen Klopp. Despite carrying baggage from his unenviable spells at Chelsea and his long-term courting from afar of United, the winner of two Champions League titles – with respective minnows FC Porto and Inter Milan – and the boaster of league titles at each club where his tenure has extended to two or more years, Mourinho has proven his credentials tenfold at the age of just 54. Providing he be supplied with the sufficient funds to make his Galatico-esque ambition a reality at United by Ed Woodward, the Glazer family and significant other investors, Mourinho was bound for success at what many argue to be the greatest club in the world; a force dormant since the retirement of its fiery caldera, Ferguson, in May 2013.
In some regards, this prophecy has become the truth – a Community Shield and League Cup double, to date, this season, is certainly nothing to be sniffed at – but regarding the visible advances made under the heralded Portuguese, have great strides seriously been made since van Gaal’s, or even Moyes’, spells? While I accept the current state of disarray overcoming United fans is purely borne down to the form of what is, in its recent guise, an injury-ravaged side heavily reliant on the – while not evident yet – waning force of Ibrahimović and the erratic flashes of Pogba brilliance, and I am most certainly not one to pan to fickle calls for heads to roll (as are evident presently in West Ham’s ranks), it is inarguable how, for a manager expected to, effectively, set the footballing world alight, Mourinho isn’t returning on his early promise.
It can be argued that his attention, periodically, is fixated on achieving Champions League qualification through victory in the Europa League, and that, resultantly, through resting key players in Premier League matches, and having to run others – Ibrahimović, Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata – into the ground, a downturn in league results was inevitable. His FA Cup ambitions this season, admittedly, fell foul to the unavailability of a fully fit striker against Chelsea, with a despondent Marcus Rashford suffering from illness on the day, while the summation of just 14 points from a possible 24 in their last eight PL matches – against sides, barring Everton, of far inferior quality – can be partly attributed to Ibrahimović’s three-match suspension, which he picked up in a Bournemouth tie where his penalty miss proved costly.
You just wish that would be the extent of his excuse making. For a man who rarely has barbs thrown his way, testament to the respect his managerial record commands, Mourinho rarely ceases to stun with his outrageously self-righteous, manipulative and disrespectful post-match interviews in particular. It is these inconsiderate, deceitful exerts of his unfortunate persona, whether performed or not for the sheer attention they garner, that personally will never be forgivable. He may never reconcile his peace with the media, but notably, after a long-term abstention from post-match duties, Ferguson did, and for the respect he was deserved upon retirement, surely the infantile Mourinho should portion blame not solely on referees, linesmen or players, but also siphon off a share for his own head. It reflects poorly on the game for one of the leading minds behind the ‘beauty’ of it to be unflinchingly carving wounds into its credibility and encouraging, with his stage, future generations to assume such a hypercritical outlook over all but oneself. It may be in his interest, but that is where the appeal of his narcissism relents.
The FA, amongst other associations and organisations, have attempted – on innumerable occasions - to quell his thirst for recklessness, but with an invincibility to allow such fines tame his character, Mourinho has consistently reoffended to a rung of petulance unparalleled by any career criminal ever seen in British society. By my addition, he has racked up around £250,000 in FA fines alone, effectively making him the most significant benefactor to the organisation outside of their own funding structure, and while spending more time in the stands resultantly than many fans can afford to accrue in a season, the self-proclaimed ‘Special One’ must’ve considered his credibility and reputation amongst colleagues. Evident from his apparently unrelenting desire to bring integrity to the sport, or at least the ‘injustices’ it serves his self-interest, his is a world lived entirely through his own cause, with any doubters of his righteousness to the three points on any given match day clearly deluded and disposable. Whether that be in the case of his seemingly incessant feud with ‘specialist in failure’ Arsene Wenger, the extreme conflict he partook in with the late Tito Vilanova – gouging the former Barcelona boss’ eye in a post-El Clásico fracas in 2011 – or the indiscriminate slandering of referees globally, encompassing Anthony Taylor, Martin Atkinson and Anders Frisk in more high-profile examples, with the latter forced into premature retirement after receiving death threats stemming from Mourinho’s condemnation, his hell-bent streak for equality appears more than a little contradictory.
“They are trying but they are not doing well. If the referee cannot see, some official in front of a screen cannot miss it. We want to protect the integrity of the game.” An exert from an impassioned rant against a tackle made by Ashley Barnes on Nemanja Matic in a February 2015 match-up between Burnley and his beloved Blues, this speech represents his ultimate motives in developing football to suit his requirements; the introduction of VAR (Video Assistant Referee) technology. The aspect of his tirade that is questionable, of course, here is that once VAR’s are instilled into footballing culture within a matter of a season or two at best – at levels equivalent to the Premier League, it must be added – where is he going to lay his blame in the event of an exasperating and partially embarrassing home draw to, say, Burnley, Hull or Bournemouth? Once he inevitably has his wish granted, will his post-match disdain fester, or will he seek retribution amongst the footballing gods, or – considering his Roman Catholic faith - from Papa Francesco, in the manner of the Prodigal Son, rendered psychologically fixated on atoning for his previous crimes against the authority of the sport which has offered his life meaning? How his story will unfold, I’m certain, will become a footballing parable in itself.
Delivering my attention to his tactical outlook, this topic obsesses agreeably on whether, in light of his sub-par league returns in Manchester red, his once-unparalleled knowledge is being usurped by individuals, visible in two counterparts he has been outsmarted by this season in Conte and Guardiola, with superior vigour and conduct. When it comes to tactical flexibility, certainly, he has appeared about as adaptable in recent years as the ball-point with which he scribbles down opposition notes – monotonously indefatigable in a 4-2-3-1 system that has fast become the bane of United fans’ lives, ostensibly sapped of ink as its capabilities get repeatedly tested, expecting different results. Once criticised as the "enemy of football" by former UEFA refereeing chief Volker Roth and alternatively a "stain on football" by Carles Villarubí, Barcelona Vice-president of institutional areas, though more for his disruptive behaviour rather than his tactical approach, his unshakable devotion to a counter-attacking 4-2-3-1, mastered in his second spell at Chelsea in particular, is forcing United into an unfamiliar identity crisis. Employed also under LvG and, variably, Moyes, but without persistence-demanding results, perhaps United’s key players are, bluntly, tired of the system. Juan Mata, a record signing under Moyes, has suffered from being continually forced out to a position on the right wing, a station mastered under a manager undefined by his tactics - Ferguson - by Antonio Valencia and Nani, while full-back duties have regularly been undertaken by Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Ashley Young and Valencia, the latter of whom while emerging as a leader in his position in the Premier League, alongside his aforementioned colleagues, should never have been forced into the position in the first place. It would be acceptable if Mourinho either had a gaping lack of capable full-backs in his existing squad or a transfer budget reeling from alternative purchases, but in a position where Luke Shaw, a £30 million England international, and Matteo Darmian, a £12.7 million Italy regular, are available to the manager of who Deloitte ranked the most powerful financial footballing side in the world, what excuses does he have?
His recent treatment of Shaw particularly aggravated me into this week’s rant. Lambasting, though in his typically sly nonchalance, the 21 year-old Southampton academy graduate’s training commitment to the world’s media, and in the process tarnishing the reputation of a prospect once likened to fellow St Mary’s product Gareth Bale, it was a callous challenge of the press’ influence to announce private issues to the starkly separate world outside Carrington. Mourinho, only to accentuate his post-match comments on Tuesday evening, ruthlessly condemned even the ability of Shaw to make basic footballing decisions; deplorably suggesting the following day that “I was making every decision for him" during the 1-1 draw with Everton, in which the perennially stubble-adorned left-back, resorted to as a substitute, effectively secured United a point by earning the equalising penalty with a goal-bound last-minute volley. Contrasting to the success van Gaal had with encouraging youth – Marcus Rashford, Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Jesse Lingard the recipients of first-team exposure in a manner Mourinho couldn’t imagine in his worst nightmares – the Portuguese is a staunch supporter of teams comprising established world-class individuals, dreading the inevitability of his time at United in which he has been forced into handing Rashford, Shaw and Fosu-Mensah their chances.
As mentioned in a blog last year, his anti-youth manifesto is such that of the 49 academy products to be handed debuts under his tenure, only Alvaro Morata and Casemiro have succeeded to achieve regular top-level playing time, and that under Mourinho, these two only saw highly limited action, such was his reluctance to allow such prospects to deter his philosophy. He seeks tactical assurance and intelligence, both on and off the ball, from his players in a contrived 4-2-3-1 set-up, and especially from a defence that is regarded - in any of Mourinho’s systems – as arguably the most ruthlessly aware of any to be found in club football. When many United fans, myself included, envisaged an attacking revival equal to what Ferguson’s side consistently offered or even to a Chelsea offensive quartet – Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Willian and Oscar/Cesc Fabregas - that starred under Mourinho’s stewardship in the 2014/15 season, and began to realise these ambitions in the 4-1 dispatching of defending champions Leicester and the 3-1 dominance of lowly Sunderland as the season unfolded, everything appeared rosy for the new era. Marking the only two examples this season when home matches have returned all three points through three or more goals being scored, however, the early optimism has quickly faded to reveal, once again, a manager out of their depth in a fortress defined by one man, handily cast in bronze outside his spiritual home, in the 21st century.
Whether it is impossible to succeed where SAF plotted many a league triumph is certainly a disputed point of discussion, but undoubtedly, for the aspirations of Moyes, van Gaal and now Mourinho to have turned pear-shaped, causing rifts between fans – infamously so with Andy Tate - and managers, the media and bosses with van Gaal’s memorable months of rumour-quashing, and most recently players and head coaches in the form of Shaw and Schweinsteiger’s disputes, the Old Trafford effect has to have sapped managerial inspiration. To live up, not only to such a prestigious predecessor, but also to the cauldron of 76,000 impatient spectators, not to mention to the hundreds of millions of global Red Devils upon which an unprecedented commercial empire has been engineered, must be a burden unrivalled in any sport, other than perhaps at previous employers Real Madrid and rivals Barça, and I for one imagined Mourinho as the only man to handle it. Whether a Europa League victory, seemingly incredibly attainable for the club’s first taste of such understated continental silverware with the current draw, alongside an EFL Cup and Community Shield in 2016/17, achieving Champions League qualification in the process by likely denying Arsenal, Manchester City or Liverpool the final English spot, would be sufficient to appease the United support is challenging to ascertain, as while delivering trophies, it would hardly increase the status of a side that not so long ago was tussling with Barcelona for Champions League titles.
An unavoidable reliance on funding becomes apparent wherever you peer over Mourinho’s travels, and whether it will take another £100-£150 million worth of Glazer backing to create the squad he deems necessary for a Premier League title race and Champions League run – perhaps in the form of Antoine Griezmann as catalyst, Romelu Lukaku as the heir to Ibrahimović’s throne or the perennially linked defensive option Victor Lindelöf – remains to be seen. His demand for vast funds, vast majorities of which are often scattered for temporary flashes of success, undermine Mourinho’s entire coaching career, diverting from his undoubted tactical prowess, but now faced with competition on five fronts in the league alone – in the form of adversaries Conte, Guardiola, Klopp, Wenger and Mauricio Pochettino – just to achieve a Champions League place, let alone sustain a title charge, and with funds equalled by most of these rivals, has Mourinho finally met his match? Will he, for the first time in a glittering managerial career, be denied a league title in the tenure of a club he has spent at least two years at the helm of, come this time next year?
It is this insatiable gluttony for silverware that has always made Mourinho the vicious mastermind we appreciate. He has never shirked responsibility to deliver success to those who dare to employ such a short-fused flare of vivacious and aggressive winning desire, and part of us as onlookers has to respect that. What will forever be reprehensible about him, aside from his tyrannical advocacy of a now outdated, debunked 4-2-3-1 tactical set-up, is his underlying, irrepressible ruthlessness to win – which, naturally, many would be quick to establish the values of in such a hypercritical and economically meaningful sporting environment – but which, in my opinion, blots the copybook of an otherwise entirely admirable career in a sport so dear to his heart. In many ways reminiscent of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock, Mourinho cuts the figure of a hyperactive sociopathic dependent on the thrills and spills of battle – alien to the incomprehensible pleas of obsolete, ostracised individuals and solely fixated on outwitting career-long adversaries, taking whatever step necessary to overcome their challenge, and this basic character flaw could either be his downfall, or his redeeming feature, at United; a club in desperate need of a redeemer.
He would draw himself, seemingly, to hellish rage providing his aspirations, which far exceed the Europa League and EFL Cup, were not met at a club where legends are not tested, but forged in the midst of conflict. His vision may not be clear to us mere outsiders currently, and he may prove his ultimate credibility by eventually succeeding where his forefathers flailed and crashed, even if it kills him, but currently he appears in a state of great disdain for those around him and the sport altogether, which ultimately is only damaging for those involved. There are many contradictions to Mourinho’s personality and perception, and he is certainly an easily abrasive figure to contend with, even in such privileged and exclusive climes as he frequents, but with such opportunity comes subsequent burden – harnessing the raw energy of this strain has been an aspect of career expertise for the Setúbal-born man, can he repeat such feats within the constraints of his greatest project yet? If so, will it be achieved while instigating irreparable fissures within the club, the Premier League, and the wider footballing world, or will his character flaws be his eventual stumbling block? All remains to be seen, but certainly, if he had the temperament of Jürgen Klopp, rather than Donald Trump, his career would’ve been greatly polarised; in terms of simplicity, as well as excitement…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!