From the publishers of THE HINDU
VOL.32 :: NO.31 :: Aug. 01, 2009
By cruel coincidence, the ever more hectic attempts of Mark Hughes to buy expensive talent with his Abu Dhabi paymasters’ money coincided with the desperate plight of John Hartson, consumed by cancer. Not so long ago Hughes, now, of course, the manager of Manchester City, was managing his native Wales, of which big, blond John Hartson, six feet tall and 13 stone, was the essential target man. The player who, in a 4-5-1 formation, could stand well upfield, ready to ch est down long balls out of midfield, hold off the defenders who stood behind him, and lay the ball off to his advancing colleagues. And that blond head scored many a spectacular goal for clubs — Luton, Arsenal, West Ham, Celtic — and country.
Some years before that, Hughes himself had been a Welsh international centre-forward, adept, especially in his Manchester United days, in holding the ball up with his back to the goal. While poor Hartson, whose testicular cancer moved with ferocious speed to his brain and then to his lungs, lay in his hospital bed in Swansea, Hughes was busy capturing the latest of his spectacular, and spectacularly expensive transfers, yes, another centre-forward in Arsenal’s tall Togo international, Emmanuel Adebayor. For the bagatelle of £25 million.
Truth to tell, Arsenal and their shrewd manager, Arsene Wenger, were glad to get rid of Adebayor, who for all his talents, his power on the ground and in the air, had become an increasingly disruptive figure. A year earlier, he had made great play of the possibility of joining Milan. Something of an irony, this, in that when the two teams had met at the Emirates Stadium in the European Cup the previous season, Adebayor had missed a point blank and crucial chance by heading against the bar.
Questions are already being asked about Hughes’ transfer policy, the profusion of strikers which could well turn out to be a plethora this season. He already had two strikers of renown in the sometimes dazzling but sometimes too often anonymous and famously temperamental Brazilian, Robinho. Plus Craig Bellamy, less costly than the hugely well rewarded Robinho, but an expensive purchase none the less, from West Ham. Previously, like Hartson, a star turn on the wing with his pace and dash for Mark Hughes’ Welsh international team. Will Bellamy be sold? If not, how often will he get a game? For there have been two other important arrivals, two other attackers, both South American, of renown; Carlos Tevez, whipped away from the traditional rivals, Manchester United, he, too, regardless of expense, and Paraguay’s Roque Santa Cruz, from Blackburn Rovers.
Other accomplished strikers of somewhat less renown, such as Benjani, will surely be crowded out. And it was sad but significant to see that 6 foot two inch, 19-year-old striker Daniel Sturridge, son of a former Derby County star attacker, was allowed to go south to Chelsea. So much for youth development policy.
One of the reasons that Tevez, the ebullient little Argentine international, was happy to quit Old Trafford was because Alex Ferguson didn’t give him regular games. He seems sure to get them with City. Can Hughes handle all the star players, as they inevitably press for places? Two strikers will surely be the most he will field, and several of them, as we have seen, can be temperamental fellows. I suppose you could just about envisage a 4-3-3, which might make both tactical and psychological sense in the circumstances. But forget about a Hartson or Hughes figure alone up front, as target man.
They are, moreover, a polyglot crew. Tevez’s English, though he has now been in England for a couple of seasons, is said still to be rudimentary and Hughes himself has no Spanish, despite having had a spell and a very unhappy one, playing in La Liga, for Barcelona. He went there with Gary Lineker in 1986, but while Lineker and his wife diligently learned Spanish, Hughes didn’t bother, so much so that Gary once told me that he became Hughes’ interpreter! Hughes, ineffectual, eventually left Nou Camp for Bayern Munich, which was more to his taste, and was highly effective at Chelsea. In passing, I never thought Alex Ferguson fully appreciated his contribution and tactical importance, during his Manchester United days.
It must be a little alarming for Hughes, meanwhile, to know Britain’s cold eyed bookmakers have placed him at number two on the list of Premiership managers to be sacked. Last season, his hugely wealthy backers showed admirable patience, when results were no better than mediocre, despite the fact that, even then, they had disbursed large sums of money. If results don’t come now, after such massive investment, they could hardly be blamed for impatience.
Gareth Barry is another costly star to arrive at City, a highly accomplished England midfielder, who had to wait far too long to secure a regular place in the England team. He cost City £12 million and will be paid £130,000 a week. Which brought crises of outrage from the Liverpool manager, Rafa Benitez, who tried in vain to buy him from Aston Villa, a year earlier; when Barry declared he wanted the chance to play European football: in the Champions League.
He certainly won’t get it at Manchester City, who haven’t been in that tournament for nearly four decades, and an outraged Benitez has fiercely attacked him on such grounds, implying that he was a mere mercenary. This, to me, seemed ludicrous, and Barry’s own reply was dignified and dismissive. Why shouldn’t he go where he likes? As for Benitez, what possessed him to spend £17 million on Glen Johnson, Portsmouth’s attacking (but defensively lacking) England right-back, when Pompey paid Chelsea just £4 million for him? And, still more to the point, what of Benitez’s bizarre acquisition, a year ago, for a fortune of the Spurs and Ireland striker, Robbie Keane, only to sell him back to Spurs at a steep loss just a few months later?
As for Mark Hughes, I’ve never been sure of him as a tactician since his Welsh managerial days. Remember how, when it came to a vital European Championship qualifying match away to Serbia, just traumatised by losing at home to humble Azerbaijan, he replaced the injured Hartson with Nathan Blake, quite incapable of filling the same role, massed in defence against a team there for the taking, brought sprightly attacker Robert Earnshaw on far too late; and lost!
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