Those that champion the English Premier League as the best in the world sight the fact that some of the best players going ply their trade therein. Granted, aside from the top home grown performers, there has been an influx of some masterful talent from other countries. Without even going too far into the past. Look no further than the likes of Robin van Persie, David Silva, Sergio Ageuro, Gervinho and Luis Suarez. Swansea’s Michu already looks like he could attain stardom there too.
For all the incomings, though, what has been a fairly steady and high profile exodus from England in recent years backs the theory held in this seat that – good and all as it certainly is – even greater things lie elsewhere. In Spain to be precise. Surely it’s no coincidence that the likes of David Beckham, Michael Owen, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Alex Song and most recently Luka Modric all swapped England for Spain.
Where the English game, for this corner at least, has one especial quality the others don’t is in terms of some of the managers to be found overseeing operations. It seems to be the ‘in’ thing in the game for managers to wear suits. To me, no more than rugby coaches doing likewise – not to mention, in the case of the latter, sitting in a box miles away from the play, managers wearing suits simply doesn’t wash. It doesn’t even look sporty.
Suits have probably always been in vogue in what some term the greatest game in the world. Maybe it’s down to being a little bit agricultural or being entrenched in all things GAA, but, seeing a ‘tracksuit’ manager at work always warms the heart a bit. Connects the game a bit more to the ordinary person on the street. Thankfully, there are still a few men that make the game beautiful in that respect. And, it must be said, there’s a few of the suited brigade that aren’t exactly conventional either!
DAVID MOYES (Everton):
As was said not long ago, despite being a lifelong, ardent supporter of Manchester United and an admirer of how Arsenal play the game, there’s always been a bit of a soft spot here for Everton too. Why is – or at least was – unknown. Suspicion is that it was down to one of my best mates in school following them. Or that their colours corresponded with those of the school. They’ve always had some great players too. From our own Kevin Sheedy, to the likes of Neville Southall, David Unsworth and, of course, Duncan Ferguson.
It’s not that long ago since the residents of Goodison Park – then under the care of Joe Royle – were embroiled in a relegation dogfight. Interest in the Toffees has again been fuelled by the influence of David Moyes. The mere fact that the Glasgow man is still in situ ten years after assuming the reins at Everton says it all. On a notoriously limited budget, he has brought in the likes of Steven Pienaar, Nikica Jelavic, Darron Gibson and Phil Neville and has moved the club from those dicey days to being genuine contenders for a European place.
MARTIN O’NEILL (Sunderland):
The Derry man is, to my mind, the king of the tracksuit managers! Everywhere he has been, success has flowed like fine wine. It’s probably fairly safe to assume that nobody else could have achieved what he did with Leicester. While achieving success with Celtic might have come a little easier than the latter, it was no less impressive. Managing at Celtic is different to anywhere else. Man management takes on greater importance and O’Neill pulled it off to a tee.
Perhaps though his greatest managerial achievement thus far has been at Sunderland. When he took over, the Black Cats were languishing much lower in the league than they should’ve been. Not that it had anything to with his predecessor Steve Bruce. But the transformation since he took over – and maybe particularly his management of the development of James McClean has been notable. If and when Sir Alex does eventually depart Old Trafford, O’Neill is sure to rank among the warmest favourites for the job. Hopefully he’ll want it!
TONY PULIS (Stoke City):
Undoubtedly one of the highlights of recent soccer seasons was the sight of Pulis shedding the suit after the formalities of a big cup day and returning to assume duty on the sideline in trademark tracksuit and baseball cap. Ultimately, the suited Roberto Mancini and his Manchester City millionaires won out but in many ways Pulis won the day.
What he has achieved in two spells in charge of Stoke is quite remarkable. Getting them into the Premiership and keeping them there is achievement enough in itself but terrific Tony has gone even further than that by getting them to the aforementioned 2011 FA Cup Final and steering them to some commendable European displays, he’s also been very favourable to several Irish players too.
If he ever did leave Stoke, the bigger clubs would surely be queuing up for him. You suspect, though, that such is his link with The Potters he never will leave!
NEIL LENNON (Celtic FC):
The former Armagh GAA player will forever be intrinsically linked to O’Neill due to the great successes the pair mined out of Leicester City’s old Filbert Street base. Lennon was one of best midfielders this one seeing eye has seen. Very much in the Roy Keane mould. One of the greatest black marks seen against any sport was the shameful manner in which Lennon was forced to quit playing for Northern Ireland.
He was always destined to become a good manager. Cut from the same cloth as an Armagh man of similar ilk by the name of McGeeney! Some might scoff at achieving success in Scotland due to the perception that it is – sorry was – just between Celtic and Rangers up there every year.
Such an appraisal is very narrow and unfair however. Regardless of circumstances, there’s still a large number of games to be negotiated over the course of a season. No matter who the opponents are. And surely operating in no other league carries such baggage. Wasn’t there an element calling for Lennon’s head during last season? By the campaigns end though, the title was bagged and he was a hero again!
The triumph will – for some at least – seem diluted due to circumstances at Rangers. Should Celtic – as expected – take the title again this year it will again seem somewhat tainted, but it shouldn’t be. And such are the circumstances prevailing in Scotland, expectation would be that Lennon will continue to steer successful ships for years to come!