Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooking Up A Story

I would imagine that for the majority of the hard-bitten football journalists the average press conference (or “presser”, as they so amusingly call them) would be ditchwater dull, but that was most certainly not the case when Manchester City gave their fans an early Christmas present by announcing the sacking of their manager Mark Hughes. Leading with his pronounced chin, Chief Executive Garry Cook gave a dazzlingly incompetent, buttock-clenching demonstration of exactly how not to present such news. To paraphrase Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, they were definitely at home to Mr. Cook-up.

In some quarters, Cook was praised for actually turning up (big deal), but he was asking for trouble by insisting that his attendance was on the condition that he would simply read from a prepared statement and not answer any questions. Even that was hideously mismanaged, as the script was embarrassingly self-serving with Cook vainly attempting to portray himself as some sort of media victim, while only succeeding in giving the impression that he was a man with something to hide.

"Chin up"

Furthermore, Cook’s desperate claim that City had only offered Roberto Mancini the manager’s job after the game against Spurs the previous week was immediately contradicted by the urbane Italian, who calmly revealed that he had met the club’s owner Sheikh Mansour and Chairman Khaldoon al-Mubarak two weeks previously. Impossible as it might seem, Cook’s jaw dropped even lower, as Mancini’s simple act of telling the truth exposed him as this season’s panto villain (“Oh, no he didn’t”, “Oh, yes he did”). Having initially refused to take any questions, Cook found himself under increasingly hostile fire, as City’s bid to defend their conduct over Hughes’ sacking fell apart, and he was forced to “clarify” his earlier statement, i.e. totally change it.

In stark contrast to Mancini’s languid, easy charm, Cook increasingly resembled a nervous schoolboy, as he just kept digging in a feeble effort to extricate himself from the hole. While Mancini demonstrated that he is cool and composed under pressure, Cook turned in a prissy, agitated performance that convinced the kindest observer that here was a man completely out of his depth.

Initially, he opted for some sort of false bonhomie, as if he were among his best mates, “Listen fellas, I’m just going to try to make a couple of points here”, before completely losing his rag with the assembled journalists. As he tried to justify City’s actions, he slapped the table nine times, presumably as a sign of his “passion”, but his ashen face told its own story. You would have thought that the very least a man with his PR background would understand is that it is better to remain calm and dignified in the face of some obvious questions, rather than melt down and throw a hissy like Mariah Carey on a bad night. His evident discomfort at having his version of events probed reminded one of Bill Clinton’s denial that he had ever had sexual relations with “that woman” – and was about as convincing.

"Who's the bulldog chewing a wasp?"

In an obvious ploy to suck up and save his own job, Cook was particularly keen to describe his boss in the most glowing terms, “The Chairman has been nothing but transparent with Mark throughout his tenure and he has communicated with him regularly over the last several weeks”. Except when he was courting Mancini (and possibly other managers like Guus Hiddink) behind Hughes’ back, of course. A tale of two-faced cities, if you will. It became clear to everyone that Cook was being "economical with the actualité" at the very least. Like City’s poorly assembled defence, his argument was riddled with holes. The old-fashioned simple test of a man’s basic honesty is to ask yourself whether you would buy a used car from him. In Cook’s case, the answer has to be resoundingly in the negative.

As you watched Cook wriggling like a worm on the hook, he resembled David Brent at his obnoxious worst. Similar to Slough’s finest, he resorted to type, hiding behind a series of ridiculous corporate buzzwords, as if he had foolishly decided that a spot of bullshit bingo would be just the ticket to defuse the situation. After bizarrely claiming, “some of this could be deemed in translation”, he followed that up with the equally meaningless, “It seems to me that there’s an overwhelming theory that there is a conspiracy. We’re not going to commit to that”. Er, what? By now he was really getting into his stride, describing the summer’s transfer spending as “accelerated player acquisition activity”. For crying out loud, it comes to something when Cook’s English is worse than Mancini’s. At least, the Italian’s faltering efforts in his second language don’t set your teeth on edge like someone scraping his nails down a blackboard.

"Some mothers do 'ave 'em"

I am not against businessmen in football, but please don’t talk like a walking commercial cliché. Also, don’t think that you’re something special just because you know the difference between a profit and loss account and a cash flow statement. There have been far too many ordinary businessmen, seduced by their proximity to the glamorous, high profile world of football, who become sure of their own brilliance and importance. So, when Cook should have been conciliatory, demonstrating some class and style, he opted for arrogance. His pursed lips and folded arms loudly proclaimed that he, Garry Cook, CEO of Manchester City PLC, was in the right and everyone else was an ignorant fool, even as his unforgettably awful display set a new low – mistaken pride before an almighty fall.

No football manager is ever truly safe from being handed his P45 these days, but Mark Hughes must surely have felt that he was going to be given more time, if he listened to the praise that Garry Cook heaped on his shoulders. When Cook first appointed Hughes to the hot seat in June 2008, he boasted, “I am delighted to welcome Mark on board. In our view he is the brightest young manager in the game and he was our number one target for the manager's job”. Speaking with all the authority bestowed by his many years in football (one, in fact), Cook later boomed, “Every successful athlete has a certain mental strength that defines him as different to the average person. Alex Ferguson and Mark Hughes both have it. Mark’s a winner and he’s the ideal person to create a culture of winning at this club”.

"He's behind you"

So Hughes must have been an abject failure to get the boot after all these fine words? In fact, his sympathisers point out that he left Manchester City just two places off Champions League qualification in sixth position and in the semi-finals of the Carling Cup (the first time they had reached such heady heights in 28 years). On the face of it, that’s not too bad after so many changes in playing staff, but it obviously was not sufficient for the owners, even though their original target was indeed sixth place, so they basically moved the goalposts and stated, “the new target that the playing staff agreed with the board was 70 points. The trajectory of recent results was below this requirement and the board felt there was no evidence that the situation would fundamentally change.”

Apart from the fact that Cook should probably be sacked just for using godawful phrases like “trajectory of recent results”, the facts (as Rafael Benitez would say) don’t really support City’s argument, as the club had secured 29 points after 17 of 38 games, so if they were to be victorious in their next two matches (against Stoke and Wolves, both eminently winnable), then they would have 35 points at the half-way stage. In other words, City would be exactly on target for the revised budget (sorry, target) of 70 points – unless Cook is still under the impression that it’s only two points for a win.

"The Cook, the sheikh, the knife and the loser"

Whatever the statistics say, there is no doubt that the manner of Hughes’ dismissal left a nasty taste in the mouth. Even though the world and his wife knew that Hughes was a dead man walking, City’s hierarchy still deemed it acceptable to let the Welshman take charge of the home game against Sunderland. Cook was at pains to stress that Mancini had not been in the stadium, as some newspapers had reported, as if that were the important point. The fact was that not only had Hughes’ replacement been well and truly lined up, but Mancini had also signed his contract at least 24 hours earlier.

Of course, it is absolutely the owners’ right to decide who manages their football team, especially as they had given Hughes £250 mln of their money to invest in the team. When you look at some of his highly debatable purchases, they could argue with a great deal of justification that he had effectively spunked it away. The wily Arsene Wenger conned him out of around £40 mln for a couple of duds: Emmanuel Adebayor, a lazy waster who is a poisonous presence in the dressing room, and Kolo Toure, who has not been the same player since contracting malaria in the African Nations Cup. However, I’m not sure whom Hughes can blame for his insane decision to build his defence on the ludicrously over-rated (and certainly over-paid) pair of Wayne Bridge and Joleon Lescott. On the other side of the deal, Hughes got rid of proven performers like Richard Dunne, Vedran Corluka and Elano for sums well below their market value.

"Take it on the chin, son"

It is also true that Mark Hughes is not the most sympathetic character. Famed for his sharp elbows during his playing days, “Sparky” appeared to have lost the plot during recent weeks, as evidenced by his touchline spat with Wenger, which by all accounts followed a foul-mouthed tirade from a man showing all the signs of becoming too big for his boots. Forgetting that it’s generally recognised as a good thing to exhibit a degree of humility, Hughes strutted around like cock of the walk, always ready to haughtily comment on matters inside and outside his club, e.g. his unsubstantiated allegations that referee Mark Clattenburg had described the angelic Craig Bellamy as a bit of a trouble-maker. He also lost a lot of respect in the summer for his conduct during the transfer of Joleon Lescott, when Everton manager David Moyes described the way that Manchester City handled the negotiations as “disgusting” and “disruptive”.

So what about the new boss, Signor Roberto Mancini? First of all, the line spouted by football’s talking heads that a foreign manager new to England cannot possibly succeed in the Premier League is arrant nonsense and if you don’t believe me, why don’t you ask Jose Mourinho, Arsene Wenger or even (stretching the point) “Sir” Alex Ferguson? Il Mancio has a very good record in Italy, having won three Serie A league titles with Inter, though this achievement is somewhat diminished by the impact of the Calciopoli corruption scandal, that saw Juventus relegated to Serie B and the other main challengers given big points deductions. It is also true that Inter performed poorly in the Champions League, singularly failing to make an impact in Europe’s premier competition. Now that City have a new manager, it will be interesting to see whether Garry Cook is true to his word, as he recently stated that the club had drawn a line under their spending spree and would now invest in youth development. Somehow I doubt it.

"Don't call me scarface"

By now everyone will have appreciated that Garry Cook is an egotistical blowhard whose only talent appears to be an unshakable belief in his own ability, despite all evidence to the contrary. He appears to be absolutely certain of his acumen, even though he is no stranger to making spectacular gaffes.

His first own goal came when he praised former City owner Thaksin Shinawatra as a “great guy to play golf with”, which I am sure would have carried great weight with Amnesty International, who condemned the Prime Minister of Thailand as a mass murderer for his treatment of the country’s Muslim minority. He then accused Milan of “bottling it” following the breakdown in negotiations attempting to bring Kaká to the club for a world record transfer fee. That would be the Milan that has won the European Cup on seven occasions, as opposed to Manchester City, whose European roll call of honour is restricted to a single victory in the Cup Winners Cup almost thirty years ago. Only a few weeks ago Captain Cook put his foot in it again, when he welcomed former City striker Uwe Rösler to the Manchester United Hall of Fame. Cook was still being booed for this outstanding effort by the long-suffering City fans, as poor Rösler attempted to give his acceptance speech.

As Chief Executive, one of Cook’s responsibilities is to handle transfer activities, which he appears to have interpreted as tapping up other clubs’ players, such as when Mark Hughes was trying to lure Joleon Lescott away from Goodison Park in a confidential move, Cook spoke of his manager’s admiration for the defender, “Mark loves the player. He is a great player and Mark has always talked about investing in young, international talent”. Then there was his far from subtle, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to woo England’s Brave John TerryThe Guardian), whose head was unquestionably turned, even as he was kissing the badge on his shirt.

"What's your handicap, Thaksin?"

When City did manage to splash the cash, Cook again embarrassed all and sundry by over-doing the welcome to Carlos Tevez, first hugging him like a long-lost son, then authorising a fatuous poster with the message “Welcome to Manchester” emblazoned across an image of Tevez’s grotesque features. Cook’s pathetic justification was to brag, “I like being a noisy neighbour. It means we are making an impact on what we are trying to do”. Yeah, right. The only statement Cook has made all year that rings true is, “Comedy has always been at the heart of what this club is all about”. Well, you said it, big boy.

The Cookster (as he almost certainly refers to himself) was back on form when he justified the sale of the club captain with “Richard Dunne doesn’t roll off the tongue in Beijing”, implying that shirt sales (or “branding”, as it is now called) are more important than a solid back four. Dunne’s response was right on the money: “All Cook wants is big-money players. He doesn't understand the core loyalty of the club and where it begins. I just needed people to be honest with me. I was getting phone calls from people saying Garry Cook was trying to sell me behind my back, two months after me going to him and saying if he has any problems to come and deal with me”.

"The only way is down"

Cook’s apologists point to his glittering career at Nike, where he was in charge of the “Brand Jordan” project, but, seriously, how difficult can it be to market the best basketball player in the world? Those who have worked for a major multinational will be well aware that holding a senior position is absolutely no guarantee of competence, as it can also owe a great deal to being in the right place at the right time – or just plain brown-nosing. Cook’s mission statement is “building a club that is a successful business whose core competency is football”. Apart from bringing to mind Basil Fawlty’s great quote about his ghastly wife Sybil (“specialist subject – the bleeding obvious”), once again the corporate-speak is enough to make you retch. Cook is clearly a man who loves to “run it up the flagpole and see if anyone salutes it”; a geek who is more likely to wet himself at the sight of a healthy balance sheet than a glorious volley. When discussing Hughes’ performance, Cook revealed, “Mark had an appraisal like any employee” – and you just know that he called it The Cook Report.

This is the man who produced an 83 page tome, grandly entitled “A New Model for Partnership”, which outlined his vision for the future of football, even though he had only been in the sport for about five minutes. This seemed to consist of protecting Manchester City’s future by reducing the Premier League to 10-14 clubs, though why City would deserve to be in this elite is beyond me. In his usual gormless manner, Cook muttered, “The fans would find a way to get passionate about it”. His other great idea was to brand anything that moves, leading to City drinks, City credit cards, City restaurants and probably City airports (hang on, that’s already been done).

"I'm all right, Jack"

Apparently Roberto Mancini’s contract has a get-out clause after six months and there are already rumours that Cook is actively working to replace him with a legend like Mourinho or Wenger at the end of the season, but the City fans would be entitled to ask whether Cook’s own position has become untenable. Where does the buck stop? After all, Cook is the man who recruited Hughes and persuaded the new owners to stick with the manager when they bought the club. His endless list of excruciating blunders have turned him into the new Peter Kenyon (“the most hated man in football”) and it would be no great surprise if he went the same way, with the City board getting rid of him. Hopefully, with a full Blue Moon.

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