Wednesday, 4 April 2012

St Helens, Barcelona and identity

In an interview with the local paper, interim coach at St Helens Mike Rush liken the club to football clubs Ajax of Amsterdam and FC Barcelona. Both those clubs are renowned the world over for the work they do in terms of youth development - Rush's remit at the club and the role he'll return to when Nathan Brown takes the head coaching job next year - and St Helens have an enviable record in that department. But Rush also likens his club to the footballing giants in terms of them having a style, a method of playing the game that sets them out as other and that's a comparison worth investigating to see if it holds water.

Ajax became famous for their 'Total Football', a system - for want of a better phrase - where players were encouraged to interchange. It was coach Rinus Michels's method of getting the best out of his mercurial, maverick superstar Johann Cruyff. Nominally, Cruyff was a centre-forward, but he'd pop up pretty much anywhere he fancied. If he wasn't getting joy through the middle, he'd drop deep or out wide in search of possession, Michels reckoning - not without good reason - that getting the undoubted star of his generation on the ball was A Good Thing. Not that the rest of the side was too shabby and they'd rotate to accomodate Cruyff, filling in the gaps he left elsewhere. Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan and Ruud Krol, for example, were great players in their own right and fitted Michels's plan perfectly. 1971 was the team's zenith, culminating in a European Cup win under Michels before he left the club.

Michels left to go to Barcelona. Ajax won more European glory in 1972, but for the 1972/3 season Cruyff left and linked up with his mentor in Catalonia. There, they set about instilling the Ajax philosophy. Michels left in 1974 to take over the Dutch national team, but his methods remained both with Barcelona and with Cruyff who, after his retirement in 1984 became manager of Ajax and, three years later, Barcelona. There, he oversaw a period of unprecedented (at the time) glory for the club as it began to emerge from the shadow of big rivals Real Madrid. The club had lost it's way after Cruyff the player departed, but the Dutch master imbued it with a renewed sense of identity. A lot of that was based around the home-grown midfield star Josep 'Pep' Guardiola, a man who wore his Catalan pride on his sleeve. Cruyff's tenure peaked with a European Cup win - Barcelona's first - in 1992.

The side broke up after being dismantled by a rampant AC Milan in another European Cup final a couple of years later and, again, they lost their way slightly. Another Dutchman and Ajax product, Frank Rijkaard, was brought in and he got them going on the track back to those glory days. Guardiola, meanwhile, was in charge of Barcelona B working with a crop of players now very familiar to the football public. Rijkaard's first-team was largely made up of imports - Dutchmen Patrick Kluivert, Gio van Bronkhorst and Mark van Bommel, Brazilians Ronaldinho and Edmilson, Frenchman Ludovic Giuly and Portuguese Deco - but moves were afoot to restore the Catalan identity. In 2008 Guardiola moved from B team to A team with a crop of locally produced talent - Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and many others - supplemented by signings from elsewhere that would fit his vision, the vision of Michels and Cruyff. In 2009, Guardiola's team scooped all six competitions they entered. Playing a style universally known as tiki-taka - initially an insulting term coined by Javier Clementé whose teams played anything but - they became the very embodiment of the modern football side.

Michels wasn't the innovator. In the early part of the 20th century, Ajax had a manager called Jack Reynolds. The Mancunian laid the template for Michels's 'total football'; Michels refined it to fit with his star player. Cruyff did likewise with his and Guardiola in turn has done it with his star pupil Lionel Messi. Reynolds was a pioneer who also influenced his contemporary Jimmy Hogan who took the theories to Austria. Ernst Happel, an Austrian, is widely credited with taking the philosophy to Holland and so to Michels, to Cruyff and Guardiola. This was revolutionary stuff in the 1910s and still remains the benchmark.

What's the point of telling you all that? Well it's not as easy to just claim your rugby league side is the Barcelona of the sport. First off, what is your identity? Are you associated with a particular style of play? Can you trace that heritage back to the formative years of the club?

Saints have long been styled 'the entertainers' and it's often the case that they do like to chuck the ball about, but is that so very different from their contemporaries? Leeds are a joy to watch in full, attacking flow and the Catalans are becoming very handy at grabbing thrilling, late match-winning scores of the sub-legendary 'Wide to West' try that did for Bradford as well as playing in the fabled old-timey French style of running rugby. Huddersfield are starting to put plenty of points on sides with some terrific home-grown youngsters, especially out wide, and Warrington look full of tries from all across the park. That's before we even consider Australian and New Zealand sides.

What St Helens and Barcelona do share is the presence of a rival that has outshone them throughout their history, but a recent history that's seen a certain amount of balance redressed. For Barcelona, it is Real Madrid and their nine European Cups. For St Helens, it is Wigan and eras of dominance through the late '40s/early '50s and late '80s/early '90s. If only Wigan had the patronage of the royal family and the backing of a fascist dictator for 36 years, that analogy would be complete. If St Helens were responsible for introducing a new style of play - something we've discussed before - then the comparison with Ajax would stand up, but it doesn't. Having a reputation for entertaining football isn't the same as having a clearly identifiable philosophy.

Of course, it may also be a canny excuse for some excellent SEO (search engine optimisation) on the part of the St Helens Reporter, especially as the headline appears to have a direct quote in it rather than something Rush didn't actually say. Put the term 'Barcelona' in any article title - yes, like we've done here; it's all part of the lesson we're teaching today - and hits will rocket. In which case job done and ignore the self-indulgent football history lesson above.

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