About Alex Houlsby

Alex Houlsby began writing a blog not long ago. He concentrates on sport and in particular football because it divides opinion and stirs emotion more than anything else he can think of. As a Newcastle born Sunderland fan Alex has probably experienced that more than most. He thinks it's important that the foolishness within the game is laughed at so hopefully his writing will be mildly amusing. Have a look at Alex's blog and judge for yourselves.

Ashley Provides Safety Net For Alan’s High Flying Birds

With 11 games of the season gone, Alan Pardew’s high flying magpies remain unbeaten in the Premier League and sit snugly between Manchester United and Chelsea in third place. A terrific 3-1 win at Stoke City on Monday night was followed by Saturday’s hard-fought victory over Everton. Both performances were characterised by a team-spirit and organised resolve that we don’t usually associate with Newcastle United. Pardew has instilled a previously unseen togetherness into a team freshly shorn of its established stars.

As a Sunderland fan, this is difficult to concede. If there’s anything I’ve been able to rely on in the past, it’s Newcastle’s remarkable capacity for self-destruction. At least two or three times a season an incident will unravel that undermines everything they are trying to achieve. Whether it be a player punch-up or a porky owner spilling lager over his spammy belly on television, it has provided a pleasing antidote to the infinite toils of supporting Sunderland. So far this season however, things have gone insufferably smoothly for Pardew and his players. The reasons for this deserve deeper exploration. It’s proving so painful that I need a diagnosis.

Enough has been said about matters on the pitch. As we know, Pardew has coped admirably with the dissolution of the old, powerful, players’ committee and responded by establishing an ego-free dressing room, determined to prove a point. He is an ambitious, meticulous manager who trusts in training ground detail. Under his guidance Newcastle are developing into a team capable of monopolising possession and seeing out games they are winning by keeping the ball; a prerequisite for clubs with regular European qualification as their ambition.

Off the pitch, however, the club’s chairman, Mike Ashley, has made a legitimate contribution to the upturn in his club’s fortunes. It was only until about a year ago that I was calling for him to be awarded an OBE for his services to Sunderland Football Club. He appeared fixed on muddying the name of Newcastle United FC with his ill-advised beer swilling and penchant for gambling. Although this hasn’t stopped altogether (http://www.people.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/2011/09/04/newcastle-united-owner-mike-ashley-s-full-monty-strip-in-a-chinese-restaurant-102039-23394181/), he has still somehow managed to transform the club’s prospects entirely and give Newcastle a financial stability they haven’t had in years.

The road to this period of tranquillity has been bumpy, yet throughout, Ashley has remained focussed on assuring the club’s long-term financial security. He has made a number of critical judgements that have affirmed the acumen of a businessman who enjoys a net worth of nearly £1bn. Refusing to appoint Alan Shearer as manager is the perfect example of his savvy. He was berated for this at the time, Newcastle had just been relegated under Shearer’s catastrophic short term stewardship but the supporters were still clamouring for his permanent appointment. Ashley had other ideas however and, despite knowing it would make him ‘persona non grata’ (Joey7Barton, 2011…) he opted to employ Chris Hughton as a cheaper but more experienced alternative. Consequently, he was subjected to the type of cut-throat vitriol that only north-easterners can mete out, yet his decision proved financially astute and paid off spectacularly with Newcastle’s immediate promotion back up from the Championship.

Once in the Premier League, Ashley’s decision to dismiss Hughton was a little more confusing however, it is widely acknowledged that he feared the alliance that Hughton was forming with Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton might jeopardise his grip on the club as well as his attempt to cut the wage bill. Both players were critical of the way Ashley was conducting business and so a clash was unavoidable. The pair were bundled rather unceremoniously out of the door during the summer along with Spanish left-back Jose Enrique; unsurprisingly three of the club’s biggest earners.

Newcastle’s transfer policy is now one based around finding value for money. They are no longer a club spending beyond their means. The £35m sale of Andy Carroll was terrific business. Ashley deserves credit for not bowing to the pressure of the fans and squandering the fee giddily on a big name replacement as is usually the habit at St James’. Instead he has demonstrated sagacity and, following the recommendations of Chief Scout Graham Carr, approved the signings of Tiote, Cabaye, Obertan, Marveux, Santon, Ben Arfa and Ba for a combined £22.5m whilst simultaneously reducing the wage bill. Newcastle have become ‘Nouveauchateau’ and, as yet, haven’t looked back.

Owning Newcastle United FC has cost Mike Ashley a huge amount of money and much of his credibility. Many of the grievances directed his way have been legitimate, yet – if you can get past all of the unbearable blunders – the debt-laden, loss-making, Championship-bound club he purchased in 2007 appears transformed. Ashley has worked hard to ensure that Newcastle are a lucrative proposition to potential investors. Whether this is in his own interest is largely irrelevant, the fact that he has just about managed to balance the books at Newcastle is an effort fans should appreciate, if not be thankful for. It remains to be seen if Newcastle can maintain their fantastic start to the season, the club’s financial future, however, would seem in safe hands…

Geordie Hero


Some Perspective Before Poland Please…

As I write, journalists across the country are frantically sharpening their pencils. The back pages of our papers will soon be awash with column upon column of conjecture, forecasting the fate of the England team at next year’s European Championship. What we will witness from the media over the coming months is what we always see as England prepare for a major tournament: an endless, contradictory stream of negativity, hype, sniping, hysteria, support, rhetoric and anything else that will undermine any hope Fabio Capello and his team have of success. Amidst all of this drivel, the press will still strive to ensure that the players board the plane for Poland buckling beneath the burden of expectation weighing heavily on their shoulders.

It is irresponsible, inconsistent journalism that has put me right off supporting England. The media circus that surrounds the national team is not only embarrassing but also damaging to our chances of ever winning another international tournament. It’s difficult to forget the absurd emphasis the press placed on Gareth Barry’s battle for fitness at last year’s World Cup, for example. Or the subsequent clamour for the inclusion of Joe Cole that proved so divisive and destabilised England’s entire campaign. Predictably, the majority of English journalists were left a little red-faced when Mesut Ozil sashayed past Barry (who looked like he was running in wet trousers) to set up Germany’s sublime fourth goal and dump England out of the competition.

I can only imagine the extent to which Rooney’s three-match international ban will be covered in the media. How on earth will we cope without our only genuine match-winner? Should Capello even include him in the squad? Every possible scenario will be mulled, chewed and presided over to the point of pre-tournament exhaustion.

Such coverage is confusing and unnecessary but above all, teeth-gnashingly annoying. It fuels the hysteria now synonymous with most England games: the chest-thumping jingoism, the painted faces, the flag-waving, the insufferable ‘England band’ parping plaintively on their bugles as if to salute the death of English football. I find it all quite difficult to stomach if I’m honest. It’s axiomatic that, as an Englishman I want England to win rather than lose. However, there is a callous side to me that is quietly satisfied when we’re beaten and the thousands of fans who were foolish enough to buy into the notion that England are any good, trudge away from Wembley crestfallen. Their face paint smudged and their tails firmly between their legs.

Following an unspeakably depressing World Cup last year, England’s qualification for the European Championships was achieved surprisingly smoothly. I certainly wouldn’t say that we scraped through (as reported on Sky Sports). Despite being a team in transition, performances were, in general, as steady as Fabio Capello’s granite jaw. He even proved flexible enough to alter the formation and introduce new personnel. All that we can ask of the Italian is that he establishes a philosophy that gives us the best chance of success in the future. His attempt to replace the leaden-legged England of Bloemfontein with a more imaginative, nimble side has resulted in some promising displays. Though it is still clearly a work in progress, the performances have at times involved an incisiveness and fluidity that we haven’t seen for many years. It would appear that we are finally taking tentative steps in the right direction.

But please let’s not get carried away. It is imperative that perspective is maintained. As we have seen, reckless journalism can unravel much of the good work we have seen at times during qualification. Whilst the players must believe they can win the tournament, it is still important that we as supporters understand that they probably won’t. As it stands, England don’t have a team good enough to challenge Spain or Germany or Holland and win the European Championships. Well, not without a huge slice of luck anyway. The nucleus of the team that failed so dramatically in South Africa still remains, so expectation of anything more than the Quarter Finals is unwarranted. Just look at the history books – I’m not being pessimistic; I’m being realistic.

It is also important that such equanimity is applied when England suffer setback. The point that secured unbeaten qualification in Montenegro last Friday night was greeted with derision and frustration, more so I suppose because of the manner in which Wayne Rooney was dismissed and England let a two goal lead slip away, yet it was reported in the media as if it were a loss. I think this is unfair. Apparently nobody took the time to consider the possibility that Montenegro might dare to be a well-organised side, with good players playing for qualification to the European Championships.

As the reaction to the point in Podgorica shows, the football press in this country uphold an almost xenophobic ignorance when it comes to acknowledging the footballing capacity of other nations. They made a huge deal of the fact there are only 625,000 people living in Montenegro. So what? A country’s population is irrelevant when it’s 11 vs 11. I don’t understand what is to be gained from such pointless reporting. The truth is, the level of professionalism in football has improved globally meaning the number of truly dreadful international teams is falling year-on-year. Most teams have made themselves very difficult to beat and consequently the vast chasm of quality that used to exist between the best and worst teams is slowly being bridged. As Montenegro demonstrated, the less renowned international teams won’t yield to higher-ranking opposition just because they have the most televised domestic leagues.

I think we all need to concede that English football isn’t necessarily ‘where it’s at’. To think otherwise is old-fashioned. What we must acknowledge is that, though our domestic league is sparkling with superstars, very few of them are actually English. Only Rooney, and possibly Ashley Cole would make my Premier League eleven. You might be able to make an argument for one of our centre halves and possibly Joe Hart, but that’s it. How good can we expect our national team to be when the best players in our own domestic league aren’t English?

What I would like to see before the team depart for Poland is some rational, pragmatic journalism. The type of speculation that pursues the England team is unhealthy and whips up a level of expectation that is naïve and ungrounded. In victory or defeat it is important to maintain perspective and remain logical. We’re not the best team in Europe but we’re far from being the worst. It is the responsibility of the press to provide balanced coverage and help to convert the average England fan from fanatical manic–depressive to philosophical aficionado. You never know though, with a bit of luck we might find ourselves in the Semi-Finals… where’s that face paint…?

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