Van Gaal should stop moaning…and get on with it

Napoleon it was said never appointed a general without asking first “is he lucky?”. On that basis Louis van Gaal would have been a certainty to get a job in his French Army. While it is true he has improved Manchester United’s results he has had luck. Arsenal and Liverpool failed woefully to cash in when van Gaal was having early teething troubles. And even during United’s six-game win streak – which ended at Villa Park on Saturday – the performances have often been better than the results. When you win a game 3-0 and your goalkeeper is man of the match it is a sign that your team is not performing as well as it could do. And he still needs at least two players who can defend. But before January 1st comes and van Gaal can sign defenders he has got the Christmas fixture list to negotiate. And like a lot of foreigners he has been moaning about it. United – and all Premier League clubs – play on Boxing Day, December 28th (apart from Liverpool v Swansea which is on the 29th), New Years Day and then the FA Cup 3rd round which is on January 3rd/4th/5th. The foreigners complain about this but their complaints are quite pathetic. Are they really saying highly paid elite players can’t play four games in eight days? Earlier this year there were two women’s international tournaments – the Cyprus Cup and the Algarve Cup. Twenty four women’s international teams played in these events and they all played games on March 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th this year. There were no complaints and they all managed perfectly well. Yet according to sexists women are physically weaker than men. And last season Braintree Town of the Conference – the fifth tier of English football – had to play 17 games in 46 days because they suffered so many postponements because of the awful weather in the UK last winter. They didn’t complain. In fact they won 8 and drew 4 of those 17 games. Even more impressive considering Braintree are part-time which means the players have jobs in the “real world” as well as playing football. If they can survive that schedule surely elite superstars can play four games over the festive season. Of course another point people who don’t like the festive football programme in the UK make is that other European countries take a break over the holiday period. Well so what? People who argue that are “little Europeans” who think all of Europe should be the same and the world does not exist outside Europe. All the English speaking countries have sport over the festive season. In the US the NBA,NFL, NHL and college sport all carry on. in fact there are five NBA games on Christmas Day. Louis van Gaal would love that!. Cricket Test matches in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand all start on Boxing Day. And back in the UK there are nine horse racing meetings on Boxing Day (weather permitting) and rugby union and the World Darts Championship also carry on so a festive sporting event is by no means unique to football. And playing sport over the holiday period is a case of common sense. After all shouldn’t sport be on when the public are able to watch it, either live or on TV? An example from the 1970s shows what can happen when the link is broken. In November 1973 because of a state of emergency caused by rising oil prices and a miners overtime ban floodlights for sporting events were banned and football matches had to be played in daylight. Gates went through the floor. On December 4th 1973 – a Tuesday afternoon – Arsenal had a crowd of only 13,482 for a match which is hard to imagine now but the reason of course was everybody was at work. In fact the Sunday football we take for granted now had its origin in this crisis. When a three-day work week came in in January 1974 football clubs requested permission – which the FA granted – to play on Sunday afternoons (Saturday counted as a working day for the three-day week). And so January 6th 1974 saw the first Sunday football matches were played in the UK and the gates were much higher than the clubs were used to on Saturdays. It wasn’t rocket science – the public were available to watch so they did. (Sunday football was banned again after the February 1974 General Election and the solution of the miners dispute which had helped to cause the crisis . But the genie was out of the bottle and Sunday football was allowed again from 1981.) So the Europeans who moan about football over the festive period are wrong. And so is Daily Telegraph reader Chris Harding who wrote (December 19th 2014) that “sport is for players not spectators”. At non-elite level he is right but at elite level he is wrong. If no one watched the Premier League either live or on TV van Gaal – and indeed all the big names – would be earning a lot less money.. So van Gaal – and indeed all the other “little Europeans” – should stop moaning and get on with it. After all no one forces them to come to the Premier League. If van Gaal is that keen on a Christmas break he can work somewhere else. He must have known before he came here that we play over the festive season. He chose to come here. He should just get on with it. I would now like to wish everyone reading this Merry Christmas and a happy New Year and I’d like to just mention some lines from the best Christmas song ever written – Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” which I think are apt. “So here it is Merry Christmas everybodys havin’ fun. Look to the future now it’s only just begun”. See you in 2015…

UK women might be able to fight on the frontline. Not before time.

So it looks like the UK army is heading for the 21st century. The UK’s defence secretary Michael Fallon has said women could be eligible for combat duty as soon as 2016. He has said that armed forces roles “should be determined by ability not gender”. That happens everywhere else in the UK (with one big exception I’ll get to later). The only question is : Why is it taken us so long? The UK is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) an international military alliance. It is one of 28 members of the alliance. Only three members (the UK, Turkey and Slovakia) don’t allow women to fight in the frontline. Our English speaking allies – the US, Canada and even Australia a far more sexist country than the UK is – have allowed women into the frontline.
Of course not everybody agrees with this. But the arguments put up against it are pathetic. Ex-Tory MP Norman Tebbit says that “the purpose of the Army is to defend the United kingdom. It is not a sub-office of the Equal Opportunities Commission”. This from a man who wanted to introduce a “cricket test” for immigrants to prove how loyal they are to the UK. If the Tories are known as the “nasty party” in the UK this man is one of the reasons. The Daily Telegraph (December 6th 2014) said that “the female heart is 20 % smaller than the male heart on average, the female skeleton is smaller than average and women on average have 30% less muscle than men”. Oh dear that word again. Average. Only “banter” has been used more to justify sex discrimination than “average”. The Army isn’t interested in “average people”. I remember watching an Army recruitment ad on TV. The slogan was “Army. Be the best”. The female soldier will have as much in common with the average woman as she has with the average polar bear!
It has also been suggested that having women in the Army will weaken the Army’s “Band of brothers ” mentality or that there will be sexual abuse, or that men and women will have love affairs and destabilise the Army. Well men and women work together in workplaces all over the world and it seems these places survive perfectly well. And as for sexual abuse the answer is to stop it not to keep the sexes apart. To my mind there is a simple principle here. If a woman meets the entry standard she should be allowed to fight on the frontline. Today’s Daily Telegraph has a headline “just 34 women expected to be tough enough for ground war”. Even if that is true so what? Even if just one woman is qualified to prohibit her because of her sex is nonsense. Besides role models are important. If even one woman is able to fight on the frontline a young girl might say “if she can do it so can I”. It’s win-win for the Army. The worst case scenario is no women meet the standards in which case nothing changes. The best case scenario is that the ground forces get an influx of talented young recruits. But the principle is important. The Army – along with football and the Church of England which got its first woman bishop this week – began to lose touch with society after the UK’s 1964 General Election which produced a Labour government that legalised homosexuality and abortion, made divorce easier, abolished hanging and introduced the Equal Pay Act and (when Labour regained power in 1974) the Sex Discrimination Act. The Army if it allows women on the frontline, will have caught up with society again just like the Church has by allowing woman bishops.
Which leaves one industry still out of touch. Former UK defence secretary Phillip Hammond called the armed forces “the last bastion of male chauvinism”. He is obviously not a football fan. It is quite ridiculous to think that in two years time women could be fighting with men…but won’t be allowed to play football with men. After all the Army is far physically tougher than football is. A combat soldier has to carry 70 pound packs on their back for hours which is far tougher than running around for 90 minutes (and some footballers don’t even do that, as anyone that has watched Mario Balotelli will know). Jean Williams (“A Game for Rough Girls?” page 184) puts it far better than I can “Football is not as serious as life or death and yet for a woman to compete in a formally sanctioned leisure activity against men is unimaginable”. Two weeks ago there was a poll on the Daily Telegraph’s website asking if women should fight on the frontline. The result was that 62.73% said yes. I suspect if the paper asked if women should play football with men the number agreeing would be much lower. Yet the same principle applies. Strength is specific to individuals and is not gendered. The Army is realising this. Football is not.
Back to the Army. I reckon if women are allowed on the frontline in 2016 ten years later we’ll be taking their presence for granted and people will be thinking “Wasn’t it ridiculous that women were banned from combat for so long”? After all at one time women couldn’t vote, be MPs, go to university or be police officers and fire fighters. Now we take women in these roles for granted and the fact they were ever banned seems ridiculous. Once the novelty wears off women in the frontline will become the norm and people will wonder “why was there all this fuss back in 2014”?

How to improve the SPOTY award…and who should win

One way one can tell the sporting year is coming to an end is that it is time for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award (hitherto to be written as SPOTY). The ten nominations for 2014’s award – to be announced in Glasgow tomorrow – are Rory Mcllroy (Golf), Jo Pavey (athletics), Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1), Gareth Bale (football), Carl Froch (Boxing), Lizzy Yarnold (Skeleton), Adam Peaty (Swimming), Max Whitlock (Gymnastics), Charlotte Dujardin (Dressage) and Kelly Gallagher/Charlotte Evans* (Paralympic Skiing).
And that is my main beef with the award. The fact that although it is decided by a public vote the public is restricted to choosing from the list of ten above. The nominations cause controversy every year and this year is no exception. Scots are unhappy that no Scot was nominated, rugby union fans are unhappy the retiring Jonny Wilkinson wasn’t nominated and an MP – Lib Dem Greg Mulholland – has called for a boycott of the ceremony because rugby league star Sam Burgess wasn’t included (although with the Lib Dems facing wipe out in next year’s General Election I would have thought Mulholland would be more worried about saving his Leeds North West seat than who was nominated). And in my opinion a member of England’s World Cup winning women’s rugby union team should have ben on the list, namely captain Katy McLean. The list is decided by a “panel of experts” – yet another way of saying a committee which goes back to my last post – but why not just let the public vote for who they want then whittle it down to a top ten say the week before the award.
That might have avoided the biggest controversy that hit the award when back in 2011, the nominations were all male. The SPOTY is unusual in sport in that it is not genderd – either sex can win it. The odd thing about the SPOTY though is that the number of female winners has varied wildly between decades (the award began in 1954). In the 1950s there were none, the 1960s had four, the 1970s three, the 1980s one and a half**, the 1990s one, the 2000s three, and the current decade none.
There is no clear pattern there but it seems odd that the only two decades not to have a female winner are the 1950s..and (so far) this one. Considering the fact that the UK outside sport is less sexist than it was in the 1950s it makes it even more puzzling. One suspects that it because the UK press covers sport far more now than it did in the 1950s – the Daily Telegraph for example has a sports supplement every day that it didn’t have in the 1950s – and that the increase has benefited male football more than any other sport so that the proportion of coverage given to women’s sport would fall even if the space given was the same. But that is only my theory.
It is highly unlikely a woman will win the SPOTY this year even though four are nominated. The bookies say it is a two horse race between Mcllroy and Hamilton. While I agree with Mcllroy I think Hamilton is over rated. Formula 1 is a sport where the quality of the car decides who wins not the talent of the driver and Hamilton was in by far the best car this year. Put him in a Caterham – one of the worst cars – and he would have no more chance of winning the World Championship than I have. And that is why two women deserve the award more than him. Lizzy Yarnold did win an Olympic gold medal but since she won it back in February it seems to be too long ago for the attention span of the UK’s press and public. And Jo Pavey won European Championship gold at the age of 40. How many 40-year-olds can still win titles inn a sport that involves running (unlike, say golf and darts where over 40s can – and do – win regularly).
If I was picking the top three it would be 1. Mcllroy 2. Yarnold and 3. Pavey. One suspects Hamilton will be first or second but I think the two women have a better claim. After all – unlike Bernie Ecclestone’s over-hyped circus – they had to rely on their own talent and hard work to win. And isn’t that what sport should be about?
*Gallagher is a visually-impaired skier. Evans is her guide, so they are nominated together.
**In 1984 the male/female ice-dancing duo of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won the award. For the purpose of listing the number of male and female winners, it is counted as half male and half female.

Time to send for the Commisioner

In August this year it was revealed that former Cardiff manager Malky Mackay and his sidekick Iain Moody had sent racist, sexist and homophobic texts. The matter was referred to the FA for them to deal with. We are now in December. Mackay and Moody haven’t even been charged by the FA never mind punished. And if anybody else is as astonished as me by this state of affairs, the reason for it is simple. And it is a UK obsession that is holding us back. namely, the committee.
As yesterday’s Daily Telegraph said, an “expert working group” (another name for a committee) has been meeting to discuss the Mackay affair. Ah, so that’s why there has been no progress. Committees are in fact designed to slow down progress. One reason why Liverpool’s transfer dealings during the summer were a disaster (£16 million dud Mario Balotelli for example) must be that they are being decided by a six-man transfer committee. It is very hard to get six human beings to agree on anything – and this must be costing Liverpool dear in a market where speed can be of the essence. And when FA chairman Greg Dyke wanted to deal with English football’s international problems what did he do? He set up a commission (yet another name for a committee). Another way to waste time.
This of course is not unique to football. English cricket is addicted to committees. In the last 64 years it has had two Altham Committees (1950 and 1956), a Palmer Committee (1966), a Murray Committee (1992), two Acfield Committees (1996 and 2002) and a Schofield Committee (2006). All designed to make the public think something was being done whereas the real intention was to fudge the issue in the hope that by the time the committee had reported the press and public had lost interest in the problem. And as for rugby, well former England captain Will Carling once called the men who run that sport “57 old farts”…
At least politicians are more honest than sports administrators. Former UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson loved Royal Commissions. In his two spells as Prime Minister (1964-70 and 1974-76) he set up ten of them. And why did he do that? This is straight from Mr Wilson’s mouth. They “take minutes and waste years”. So all he was doing, by his own admission, was fudging the big decisions. Just like the FA are doing today, just like the cricket establishment did in the past.
But is there an alternative to this committee quagmire? Yes there is. But you have to look across the Atlantic. All the big US sports have commissioners in charge – powerful men who don’t fudge big decisions, they make them. And they have the power to do just that.
Two racism cases sum up the difference between the two systems. The man who has given Mackay employment – Wigan owner Dave Whelan – made racist and anti-Semitic remarks to the Guardian last month. The FA have charged him – but for reasons that must remain a mystery have given him an extra week to respond to the charges (he now has to the 12th of this month). In contrast, in the US the owner of National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise the Los Angeles Clippers Donald Sterling was caught making racist remarks on video. That was on April 25th 2014. On April 29th 2014 NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined Sterling $2.5 million, and banned him from the NBA for life. He was forced to sell the Clippers franchise. Four days. That is how long the NBA, with a Commissioner with the power to take decisive action, took to banish a racist scumbag from the NBA for ever. Sterling can consider himself unlucky. If he owned a football club, it would take ages for him to get punished – if he ever was.
It is now clear what needs to be done. The rule of football* by committees of fuddy-duddies must end. We have to copy the US system and appoint a Commissioner of Football to take charge of the whole professional game with power to take swift action when needed. That person could then banish the likes of Mackay, Moody and Whelan(and convicted rapist Ched Evans) from football for ever. And very quickly.
And as for who should be the Commissioner? When baseball invented the office in 1920 they insisted it should be someone outside the industry and appointed judge and baseball fan Keneshaw Mountain Landis. That is what I would do. No ex-players or managers need apply. Off the top of my head, I think five people could do this job (though I’m sure many more could). The five I have in mind are Karren Brady, Heather Rabbatts, Jean Williams, Carrie Dunn and Lord Ouseley (founder and chairperson of the anti-racism campaign Kick it Out).
Two of these people are black and four are female. As one of the main problems in football is racism and sexism, a black and/or female Commissioner would send a strong message and be my personal preference for the job.
We in the UK have imported a lot of things from the US. Some brilliant – the Simpsons, South Park and Family Guy for example. And some awful. like Black Friday. It is time to import another idea. it is time to send for the Commissioner.
*Although I’ve concentrated on football cricket, rugby – in fact any sport in the UK – could benefit from having a Commissioner.