Phil Parkinson against the forces of wilful blindness

It’s a truism that love is blind; what’s less obvious is just how much evidence it can ignore – Margaret Heffernan, Wilful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious

Two absolute legends gone in the space of a few days. I wish them nothing but the best – Mark Hainsworth ?aka @bcafcmark, Twitter

If Andrew Davies’ exit to Ross County this week was unexpected Jon Stead’s signed for League Two Notts County rather than Bradford City was confirmation for Bradford City supporters.

No one was sure what Stead’s move did confirm – that the club had less money that it seemed of should have to to be the prime concern – but Mark Hainsworth’s tweet recalls the way that City fans took Stead to their hearts after the win over Chelsea.

The fact that Stead had seemed to be Mr Huddersfield Town for a long part of his career hardly seemed to matter. Indeed as Stead put Chelsea to the sword he was technically a Huddersfield Town player and that alone seemed to be enough of a factor to ensure that Simon Eastwood’s career at Bradford City never got out of the blocks when he joined on loan from the team to the West.

City fans fell in love with Jon Stead and as Heffernan says it is not only true that love is blind it is staggering how much evidence we are prepared to ignore in that blindness.

Wilful blindness

Wilful blindness is a legal term applied to a situation in which a person deliberately avoids knowing information to avoid being liable for knowing it. In short it is why if someone gives you a £1,000 to carry a suitcase through HM Customs you are liable what the contents of the suitcase are.

Wilful blindness is carrying the case without opening the case because you know what you would find if you opened the case. It is when you avoid knowing pertinent information to avoid liability.

It is a dangerous trait to employ in football where liability is not decided so much as detected. If a Chairman retains the services of a manager being wilfully blind to the mistakes he is making results quickly remove that blindness. A manager can more easily be guilty of it. Playing a favourite player despite his failings is masked by the other players on the field but even that is eventually found out.

Do I not like that

Overall, people are about twice as likely to seek information that supports their own point of view as they are to consider an opposing idea – Heffernan

When Graham Taylor removed Gary Lineker in the final twenty minutes of his final game for England in 1992 the nation went into uproar at the way the England manager had cruelly ended the career of one of the finest strikers in the side’s history and sabotaged chances of progressing in Euro 92.

A sober remembering of the game – a 2-1 defeat – recalls that Lineker was playing poorly and the Silver Haired Goal Hanger admits so himself. That Taylor replaced Lineker with the monumentally average Alan Smith rather than – for example – fresh faced Alan Shearer was a whole different mistake but in removing Lineker Taylor worked against the wilful blindness of a country who were perfectly prepared to ignore The Static Crisp Salesman’s ineffectiveness which saw him not score in Euro 92, or in the run up to Euro 92.

It would be too much to suggest that Taylor was struck by inspiration when he ignored this common wilful blindness but there was something iconoclastic about his actions, even if they were fruitless.

Which Jon Stead?

The Jon Stead against Chelsea was a rare sight at Bradford City but it was an impressive one. Stead’s performance was inspirational and at the end of the season it was mentioned as the best single display by a player all year. It is impossible when thinking of Jon Stead not to think of that day.

But there were games against Chesterfield and Preston North End as City’s season fizzled out which were also a part of Jon Stead. His play was frustrating and he was easily marshalled by the more impressive defenders of League One like Ian Evatt and Paul Huntington.

Without knowing what he was offered by Bradford City – or by Notts County – to make him one of City’s highest paid players as was suggested would be to be wilfully blind to those games where Jon Stead was – well – not very good. Not very good or at least not very useful to the aims of scoring goals which has to factor into Phil Parkinson’s thinking.

Like Graham Taylor in 1992 dealing with Gary Lineker Parkinson does not have the luxury of looking at Stead with optimism and ignoring the information he does not want to be the case. If he spends his budget on a player on the hope that the high watermark of his performances will be the common and constant watermark then he will fail ass a manager.

He has to open the suitcase because he is liable for what is in it. Signing Jon Stead is an exercise in wilful blindness.

Yes, but which Jon Stead?

It would seem that Steve Davies has joined City to replace Stead and the standard that Davies will be held against is not the Stead of those games where he wandered, or looked disinterested, but the Chelsea and the Sunderland matches where he was at his best.

When Davies has failed to score on some boggy pitch in Bury he will be compared unfavourably with Jon Stead, but not with the real Jon Stead, but on the one we create out of the parts we want to remember.

But Andrew Davies

Andrew Davies played three season for Bradford City and played twenty eight league games in each. I think he was City’s best player last year and I would rather he was still at the club and not wandering the Highlands of Scotland.

If Phil Parkinson’s job on Jon Stead is to not be blind, is the same true of Davies? After all while I can say that the team was measurably better with Davies in the side I can bring to mind mistakes he made that cost games.

Likewise while talking about how the defender can play twenty eight games a season I ignore the fact that in his first season it was suspension and not injury that cost him matches, and that in the second half of last season injury compounded injury.

I think that he is worth a new contract but I am wilfully blind myself in this matter. I’m partial to Davies. He is my sort of player and I do not find myself wanting to think on his faults now he has gone.

But think on them we should else we ignore the obvious and create too high a standard for the next set of Bradford City players.

Playing football for nobody

Urawa Red Diamonds are one of Japan’s biggest teams but no one watched them play Shimizu S-Pulse. The 63,000 capacity Saitama Stadium was closed as a result of a banner erected at the last home match which read: “Japanese Only”.

That message reverberated around Japanese football.

Football is a sport on the rise in the Land of the Rising Sun. The days of aging Europeans such as Gary Lineker and Pierre Littbarski seeing out the end of their careers in Japan are over and J-League – 20 years into a 100 year plan to create a league to rival anything in the world – is a respectable competition boasting a new third division and a charter that demands standard in professionalism, in supporter engagement and in financial stability.

It is not a perfect model, but it is a typically Japanese attempt to create one. Take by way of example the Urawa chairman taking a 20% pay cut in response to the racist banner. Very Japanese.

Football in Japan it attempts to rival Baseball – the nation’s leading game – for the hearts of a country who have seen the national sport of Sumo rocked by scandal that football was proud to avoid.

Until now football had been largely seen positively in Japan and was supported because of that. The role of honour in Japanese society is not to be understated and the effects that the Black Mist match fixing scandal had on baseball is coloured in that socio-context. After twenty years Japan had created football that was proudly Japanese in its off the field organisation while importing parts of worldwide football culture into its rich bricolage.

Racism had previously not been a factor although it is a part of Japanese society although not one that isdiscussed. The country has no laws around hate speech but public protest against it is not uncommon and that was the form of protest that reverberated around the J-League.

Clubs included anti-racism banners and messages to the impressive display of flags they carry and a unity was achieved that racism was to be called wrong.

The rules of the J-League which allow for only four non-Japanese players in a match day squad and only three non-Asians. In every J-League game fourteen of the players are Japanese. This idea of teams which reflect the environments they play in used to be a concern for English fans (and may still be, although it is rarely verbalised these days for want of the spark of debate) and it is suggested in how players like Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard are lauded by their clubs that that affinity is still strong.

The supporters respond to the way teams are constructed in Japan too although there are many other factors in play. The players are paid less and are more involved in the people though clubs which embrace a community based ethos. The culture of Japan would seem to exclude Tweeting players to swear at them after an away loss.

On the whole I would characterise as a more healthy relationship between supporters and players but its a relationship which was visible broken as Urawa and Shimizu played out a 1-1 draw in a silent stadium.

Carl McHugh and contextual positioning

The more I watch football the more I am convinced that the game is more about character than it is about positions.

That prefaces the following statement: that I do not know if positions are everything or nothing in football. I veer from one conclusion to the other.

When I was a younger man positions were simple. Goalie, right backs, left wingers and so on. It was easy to look at the teams of the 1970s and put a man in a hole.

Easy but wrong. Because there was an increasingly level of subtlety to those positions. You can blame Gary Lineker and Peter Beardsley if you wish. In Mexico in 1986 they played up front together for England and by no means were they both just “strikers”.

And so terms like “drop off man”, “goalgetter” and “in the hole” started and those are functional but following them as a train of thought takes you to a conclusions which is that in describing the positions in which Lineker and Beardsley played one was actually describing the tasks they performed.

Which rendered the need to talk about positions obsolete. There was a task to do on a football field of getting the ball in the area between the defensive line and the midfield and that was what Beardsley did. That he did it from “attack” rather than “midfield” is largely irrelevant because on the whole he was spending his time in that position.

Add David Platt to the England team following Beardsley’s (premature) exit and you have a player in the same position who is titularly a midfielder not a forward. Have Wayne Rooney and Frank Lampard Jnr in your team and it may say that one is a striker and one is a midfielder in the Panini sticker album but both are spending 90 minutes in the same square footage of the field. That is a problem that England never mastered.

And so these tasks became described as roles which and the notion of positions was refined with more granularity. Words like “holding midfielder” came into the lexicon of the modern football supporter and that was no bad thing.

But the more that tasks were named the less importance on the fact that those tasks needed to be carried out was obvious. Someone needs to win a ball back in midfield and that is described as a “holding job” and rapidly came to seem like an option rather than a necessity.

Which is where I veer. If described in enough granularity positions are everything in football. If thrown around they are meaningless and ignore the importance of the tasks that need to be performed.

Wayne Jacobs talks about Phil Parkinson’s use of Carl McHugh and Matthew Bates at left back and does so with an authority. “Matthew’s right-footed and that causes a problem when you try to link up and get down the left wing. He is obviously tempted to drive infield. I’ve been really impressed with Carl’s attitude… however he is a centre half and sometimes if you come up against a real out-and-out winger, agility and movement can be an issue when you’re playing in that role.”

Which was obvious when McHugh faced Jamie Murphy of Sheffield United who exposed those flaws in his game away at the Blades. At home to Port Vale and MK Dons had wide players who pressed less and were happy to contain. This let McHugh perform a different set of tasks, ones he was more comfortable with, and thus did better at. From that we might conclude that the statement “he can play left back” is – in some way – contextual.

England and the Spirit of Sir Bobby

Before the days of frustration seemed to overwhelm English football in the mid-1990s when the clichés of losing to the Germans and overpaid players under performing started to loom large in the popular mindset there were two World Cups in which are said to have excelled.

I recall them as halcyon days myself. Whatever I will say about my parents I will never criticise the slap dash attitude to bedtime that meant that unlike many of my schoolmates I was allowed to stay up until two or three in the morning watching as much of the Mexican World Cup of 1986 as I liked and saw everything up to and beyond The Hand Of God.

When the Italian World Cup of 1990 came around I’d finished my GCSEs the aforementioned parents were on holiday in Bulgaria and I had nothing to do in the summer except watch football. They were glorious days that ended in Rome, on penalties, with Gazza’s tears and Sir Bobby’s clenched fist of regret.

If only, it seemed to say.

Those days are recalled as a silver age by England FC. Not Moore and co in 1966 at Wembley but the next best thing with unfair exits at the heart of the mythology of both. A far cry from Fabio and a team which struggled to put three passes together in a row in South Africa.

Perhaps not. In 1986 the English started against Portugal – do not let the name scare you these were a third rate European nation then – and a win was expected but did not come. Indeed I can recall clearly seeing the ball sweep in from the close side and be finished untidily at far post by a rather portly looking chap with a moustache. England had threatened in the game I recall but ended with nothing at all.

Then came Morocco – a place that at the time I associated more with a cartoon Mole than football – who were the minnows of the group a fact illustrated by the way that they had two players to a sticker in the Panini album.

The minutia of the game – played in the early hours – eludes me but the major moments are burnt into the mind. Bryan Robson – who was a one of a kind player in his day – went off injured clutching the shoulder Sir Bobby Robson had begged Manchester United to allow him three months off to have an operation to fixed and about five minutes later Ray Wilkins was sent off for what some might call throwing the ball at the Referee although others would say that were the round thing to have hit a snail on the way to the man in the middle then it would have stopped so weak was the hurl, clearly not a red card offence but a red card was given.

I remember half time in our house but only when I’m talking to my therapist.

One point from two games and England where nowhere. The fans who had paid to go to Mexico were demanding that the FA or even the Thatcher Government pay for them to get home and most certainly for for Sir Bobby Robson to be sacked. Having failed to qualify for Euro 84 it seems that Bobby – or Booby Robson as he was christened back then – and England would part company not long after.

Peter Beardsley was thrown into the side and Gary Lineker got a hat-trick against Poland and then the rest soon became a glorious history that does not record the pressure that Robson resisted that would have had him take the ageing Trevor Francis over Beardsley nor does it recall how and why Robson arrived on his pairing of the two, of deploying the uniquely useful Steve Hodge to do the running with Glenn Hoddle did not.

Robson – Sir Bobby – found his team after two games because his plans had to change.

Four years later Robson was a dead man walking. He had handed in his resignation from England and in the run up to the finals had been exposed as having an affair. Euro 88 had been woeful with England losing all three games and the pressure had told on the England manager.

The opening game saw Gary Lineker give England a good start with a scruffy goal but Jack Charlton’s Irish side ground the game down into an unattractive slug fest in a nasty wind and the game finished 1-1. A week later and during a 0-0 draw with Holland which saw England put in a good display also saw Bryan Robson once again be injured out a tournament.

The quality of that Dutch performance is understated and a strike from Stuart Pearce bulged the goal but was ruled out for being struck from an indirect free kick but there was a confidence that came from that display in 1990 which can not be said to be here in 2010.

Nevertheless there are three commonalities. Firstly that England had two draws in the group from the first two games and secondly that neither Robson nor Capello’s side had been behind at any point. Lineker and Steven Gerrard gave leads which were pulled back in the first games before goalless draws in the second.

Thirdly after two games – and to use a phrase which became popularised after the semi-final which resulted – the players went to the manager and “had a word

The England players had decided that the team – as it was – lacked fluidity being a 442 with Peter Shilton in behind Paul Parker, Terry Butcher, Des Walker and Pearce; Paul Gascoigne and Steve McMahon partnered in the middle of flank pair John Barnes and Chris Waddle; Lineker and Beardsley up front. They told Robson that they wanted to move to a three at the back formation – adding Mark Wright – which would allow Parker and Pearce more freedom.

The machinations of the change are lost in football history. Butcher was injured when Wright played and scored against Eygpt but by the time the second round make with Belgium took place and David Platt scored his king-making late goal England had switched formation away from Robson’s choice to what the players wanted. That flexibility proved the making from the man to the legend.

England’s players enjoy a full and frank discussion with Fabio Capello enjoying the full public backing of his captain John Terry – who we recall got nothing of the sort from his International manager – who it is said are keen to see the Italian change from the 442 which has brought him so many honours to a 433 that includes Joe Cole on the left of a three up front.

It remains to be seen the results of such a suggestion. Sir Bobby Robson was able to be flexible to the needs of the matches ahead of him and the demands of the squad and in letting the players make the decision for him he signed over an ownership of the team to them. Invested in the selection perhaps Robson made the result matter more to his players because they felt more of an authorship of the team.

Perhaps the spirit of Sir Bobby – involved in advertising this World Cup – comes in the manager handing over some responsibilities inside the camp to his players? Capello’s high-handedness is a long way from that put very much what was wanted after “Stevie and Frank” and the regime of McLaren which was seen as too close to the players. Often the solution to the last problem becomes the current problem.

Indeed it remains to be seen how these first two games of the 2010 World Cup will be recalled. Portugal and Marocco, Ireland and Holland are but footnotes in bigger stories and it is not so much the result of the meeting, but the match on Wednesday and any that follow it which will dictate how Capello’s story is to be told.

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