The Fairytale meets the Brand

The Fairytale meets the Brand

I remember celebrating quite loudly when Danny Welbeck turned in a header to the far post in the 96th minute to win the match for Arsenal against Leicester City. No one in their right minds would have imagined that match being decisive for the title race, but it made me realise that there was something special brewing at Leicester under Claudio Ranieri. He got them playing with a simply incredible team spirit, an attitude of ‘I’m not letting you win because I’m better than you’ was present week-in-week-out and ultimately resulted in the greatest fairytale ending to a season for a side that was tipped to barely survive relegation. For many then, it beggars belief that Ranieri is out of a job after being sacked by Leicester a mere nine months after defying every script imaginable. But despite the seemingly obvious decline, I struggle to see it as a surprise. If anything, it should be expected and that is what the problem is. It has become the norm for success to be an expectation for even the lesser teams than a dream.

The football ‘brand’ has exploded over the last decade. Previously, it was only common for the elite teams to play pre-season friendlies in exotic locations such as Australia, the USA and the Far East. To an extent that is understandable, as the most popular teams globally are going to be the elite clubs that compete for the highest honours annually. After all, how many people in China do you think support Burnley? I wouldn’t bet on that number being very high, but that didn’t stop Leicester from trying to capitalise on their unlikely glory. For their pre-season preparations, it involved games versus Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona, a gargantuan difference to their previous season’s friendlies against the likes of Burton Albion and Rotherham United. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha (Yes, I had to Google the name!) bought the club for £39 million, but the club is now worth an estimated £450 million thanks to the title win and the insane amounts of investments being pumped into the Premier League. Expectations had changed at Leicester, that brand needed to be continued at any cost if they were to emerge a global brand for the long-term future, regardless of the title win.

But let’s be honest, how many of us expected Leicester to do the impossible (If we can even use that word anymore) and retain their title? How many expected Champions League qualification? Heck, how many expected a top-half finish? I have no doubt that the owners of Leicester wanted to carry on from where they left off and build ‘brand’ Leicester, but I do find their decisions confusing to say the least not just with the sacking of Ranieri but also with regards to the club structure. Clearly, Steve Walsh leaving to become Director of Football at Everton had a much bigger effect on transfer policy than many imagined, and this was shown with their frankly lacklustre signings. Even in the January window, their activity was in my eyes disappointing, especially when considering there is a very realistic chance they could be relegated from the league come the end of the season.

Am I surprised that Ranieri got the sack? Honestly, part of me isn’t surprised at all. There has been speculation of some players going to the owners to complain about Ranieri’s management of late, although I find this hard to believe. Results haven’t gone well this season compared to the marvels of last season, however wasn’t this to be expected? Leicester have still defied certain people’s expectations this season and are still in the Champions League. For Ranieri to get fired in the middle of a Last 16 tie against Sevilla when they have every chance of progressing proves the handling of the situation by the owners is nothing short of a mess. But football in this country has changed. You’re not going to get any Wenger-esque managers who stay for 10+ years, if anything these days you’d be lucky to get 3 years out of a Premier League manager. It’s a money-churning business from the elite few trying to expand their global reach to the small clubs simply trying to get by with what they have, even more so for the Premier League clubs who have the greatest of riches to compete for. As we’ve seen from Ranieri’s sacking, it shows that any impossible task doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t capitalise on your success and keep that brand from growing when you’re at the top of the tree.

I feel genuinely sorry for Claudio Ranieri in this situation. In the times when he could’ve got carried away at the success last season, he remained graciously grounded in respect of not just the team’s trying to chase Leicester, but also to ensure his team wouldn’t take their achievements for granted. We also had a number of personal highlights from Ranieri last season from his famous ‘dilly-ding-dilly-dong’ press conference to also joking he would ‘kill’ then-Watford manager Quique Flores for replacing him at Valencia! One highlight that made me admire Ranieri more than anything else was his mannerisms, shaking the hands of every member of the press in the conferences as if to say ‘Thank you for sharing this moment’. Even though I so desperately wanted Arsenal to end their own title-drought last season, I am proud to say I witnessed the Leicester fairytale orchestrated by Claudio Ranieri. From all football fans, I say thank you Claudio. You made us believe that if you follow your dreams and play with your heart on your sleeve, any odd can be defied.

Manor Racing: The end of the road

Manor Racing: The end of the road

1st October 2015. This was the day that Mercedes-Benz announced they would be supplying Manor with power-units for the 2016 season. There was talk about a change in fortunes for Formula 1’s backmarker team, with highly-rated rookie Pascal Wehrlein being given a chance to show his talents on the grandest stage of all, and predictions of Manor becoming a midfield team 7 seasons after they debuted under Virgin Racing. It therefore comes as a surprise that 14 months later, it has been announced that Manor have folded as a team and become the 3rd and final casualty of teams introduced into the sport in 2010 failing to deliver on their aspirations. But given the constant outcry for the model F1 is based on to be revamped and for more equal distribution of funding, should we be surprised at all?

Much of the debate surrounding the running of Formula 1 recently has concerned the prize money constructors receive for finishing in their respective positions in the standings. Naturally, it is perfectly acceptable to see the most successful teams receive the most for achieving the greatest success. However, the constructor that finishes bottom of the standings receives no money for their efforts despite investing millions throughout the season, offering nothing but constant struggle to raise revenue to effectively ‘make up’ for the lost revenue. Manor were in a position to receive prize money as they were ahead of Sauber in the standings. However a very impressive drive by Felipe Nasr at Brazil in the penultimate round of the season condemned Manor to the wooden spoon, and this lack of cash ultimately put the final nail in the coffin for the team. It must also be mentioned that the 3 teams introduced into F1 in 2010 (Manor, Lotus & HRT) only entered the sport on the promise of a cost-cap to help the smooth running of the teams and keep competition close, however this soon escaped attention once then-FIA President Max Mosley quit, with no sign of a cost cap in sight.

Taking example from other sport, poor performance from a team is often resulted by support from the authorities to stay operating as a team. The Premier League currently enforces a ‘Parachute Payment’ scheme, where teams relegated from the League receive financial support for the next 4 years to ensure they don’t fall into oblivion, with funding given being in the region of £65 million. Now I’m not suggesting a similar system be implemented in Formula 1 because ultimately, someone has to come last, but with Liberty Media taking control of the sport this week, this has to be a time for action of some variety. When team owners like Gene Haas admitting he’s prepared to lose £100 million a year to keep them afloat, this gives an impression of the feeling from within the F1 sphere and frankly, it’s very concerning. Will any change happen in the near future? That’s quite hard to predict. Any changes to the funding structure have to be unanimously approved by all teams, and unsurprisingly the leading constructors such as Mercedes and Ferrari aren’t so keen on changing that, more so Ferrari who receive $100 million by the FIA just for taking part! Clearly there are many areas that need reviewing. Whether this happens in the next few months or years, your guess is as good as mine.

Manor developed into favourites for many F1 fans over the years. Partly it can be attributed to incidents outside of their control such as the tragic deaths of Maria de Villota and Jules Bianchi, the latter scoring the team’s first points at the Monaco Grand Prix. But many warmed to the team for being the little team that wouldn’t quit, that pushed the boundaries by even their own standards such as the points scoring finishes by Bianchi and Wehrlein and reaching the 2nd stage of qualifying on multiple occasions, often knocking out teams such as McLaren and Toro Rosso on the way. It’s never nice seeing teams fall from grace because they could not survive by themselves, especially when considering many staff members have been made redundant as a result. But they’re among the best in the world at what they do, so teams would be foolish not to pick up their expertise. Before I ramble on for any longer, I’ll finish up with this. Thanks for the memories Manor. From tragedy to euphoria, you’ve been a major part in one of the most captivating periods in F1 history.

The curious case of Leyton Orient

The curious case of Leyton Orient

I’d like to dedicate my first blog post to something that is very close to my heart and has been for 15 years now. I remember being 7 years old and my dad, knowing I loved football, decided to take me to my first football match. The team we were going to watch? Leyton Orient.  Of course, for those that know Orient as much as I do, it would be hardly surprising to tell you they lost that game 2-0 to Shrewsbury Town, but I continued to follow them and eventually support them. 15 years later, that support has developed into a love for the club and for those who are in the know about Leyton Orient’s current situation, that love is being SEVERELY tested.

For those that don’t know the full situation, let me fill you in. In the summer of 2014, sports magnet and well-documented Leyton Orient fan Barry Hearn decided to sell his ownership of the club after nearly 20 years, during which he saved us from near bankruptcy. The gentlemen he sold the club to? Italian extraordinaire Francesco Becchetti, who made his millions from his business in waste management (The jokes speak for themselves!). He bought the club just after Orient were defeated on penalties in the League One play-off final, and saw a club destined for the Championship, if not even better than that. He talked the talk initially with some very extravagant signings in his first season at the club, with ex-Arsenal youngster Jay Simpson, Reading midfielder Jobi McAnuff and ex-Liverpool player Andrea Dossena all coming in on some very interesting wages, Dossena earning himself £8,000 a week! However, this honeymoon in the spotlight soon turned into the Nightmare on Elm Street very quickly. After 3 managers, including the controversial resignation of popular manager Russell Slade & a manager who couldn’t speak a word of English, Orient were relegated to League Two, 12 months after they were a penalty away from the 2nd tier of English football for the first time since the 1980s. Yeah…not a good look, but amazingly it gets worse than this.

The 2015-16 season was one of expectation. Many fans, including myself, were expecting the club to not only win promotion but to comfortably win the league, as we arguably had the best team in the league. Long story short, that didn’t happen. Just missed out on the play-offs in fact, although for the 2nd half of the season we were barely challenging. So surely in the 2016-17 season, again with one of the best teams in the division, we could finally be up there? Nope, that hasn’t happened either. In fact as I write this, we are hovering over the relegation places, our ‘star signings’ have failed miserably, on our 3rd manager of the season already, Becchetti is AWOL and apparently looking to sell, the fans are pissed off and rightly so, and our Football League status is arguably on borrowed time. It’s fair to say being an Orient fan is pretty miserable right now.

Becchetti and stability of the club aren’t exactly words that you’d associate in the same sentence. Reported estimates of £10 million debt for a League Two club that may be going non-league is an ENORMOUS no-no and if anything is just basic common-sense, regardless of having prior experience of running a football club. Having more managers at the club in 2 years than Barry Hearn had in 20 years is farcical, even worse by the fact that 2 of his appointments couldn’t speak a word of English. Banishing club favourites such as Dean Cox was borderline criminal in my opinion, especially if you have ambitions to get out of the division, a division we shouldn’t be in in the first place if Becchetti didn’t interfere with in the first place. Forcing the squad to stay in a hotel after a league defeat and even kicking the assistant manager up the arse in a drunken tirade. These are only a handful of episodes that have driven everyone associated with the club insane. And yet, a statement by the Chief Executive of the Club seemingly brushed aside all interference and blamed it purely on the squad not being good enough. Weird that, considering the club were a kick away from the Championship…

And here we are. As there are calls for Becchetti to sell up, fears of administration or even liquidation as echoes of AFC Orient are becoming more and more concerning, there’s me and my football club of 15 years. The club I grew up a mile away from for all my life, is being held at ransom all because of the mismanagement of a handful of individuals. But you know what? Even if the worst was to happen and Leyton Orient FC was to be wiped off the face of the earth, I’m still proud of what we’ve achieved, not only on the pitch but off as well. We’ve suffered the heartbreak of Wembley 3 years ago, but I’m still so proud of that group of players over-achieving by all of our standards and giving us the dream for that one season. When we took on Arsenal in the FA Cup and scored a dramatic equaliser to take them to a replay at the Emirates, that was probably the loudest I’ve ever heard Brisbane Road and frankly ever will. Off the pitch as well, the fans are without doubt the loveliest of folks you’ll ever meet. A ‘football community’ is often disregarded, but that’s what us fans are. Talk to the vast majority of fans from other lower-league clubs and there will be nothing but praise for little old Leyton Orient. The Trust has been a pillar of the local community for years and doesn’t get the credit it deserves. The Youth Academy has produced some fantastic players such as Moses Odubajo and will only get better with quality.

I love this club. From the bottom of my heart, I hope we aren’t seeing the final chapter of this historic club, because the fans don’t deserve this. The players and young up-and-coming prospects in the local areas don’t deserve this. But even if it is the worst-case scenario, I’ll still be rooting for the club, whether it’s Leyton Orient, AFC Orient or by some miracle we end up moving to France and supporting FC Lorient.

Up the O’s!