Welcome to my football blog. I'll be covering most of the key issues and stories which dominate top level English and European football over the coming months, and so if you love this fantastic sport as much as I do, I hope you'll appreciate reading and responding to what I've got to say.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Holloway fury justified

Will Holloway make himself a martyr for managers everywhere?
Precedents are important. Held up as the definitive and recommended way of dealing with a novel situation, they are vital in the regulation of any industry or collective, ensuring that all parties are dealt with in a consistent and (hopefully) fair manner.

But precedents are also dangerous when slavishly adhered to. They can make regulation automatic, inflexible, impervious to the occasionally pertinent contribution of valuable human qualities - namely, common sense.

In February of this year, Mick McCarthy was charged by the Premier League for making 10 changes to his side for a trip to Old Trafford. They lost 3-0, and whilst McCarthy initially defended his team selection, he ultimately did not challenge the suspended fine of £25,000 imposed on the club. 'It has set a precedent and I've accepted it,' he stated.

But what kind of precedent did it set? Primarily that the Premier League would never tolerate what it considered to be a manager effectively throwing in the towel and protecting his key players from a game which he did not believe he could win. 

However, the ruling also implied that the Premier League considers itself entitled to interfere with managerial team selection if it doesn't agree with the manager's choice. Whether he privately agreed with it or not, when McCarthy accepted his punishment, he also accepted his job being dictated to him.

By fining Wolves, the Premier League committed themselves to punishing any manager who fields anything other than what they consider to be his strongest available side. This was always going to put them on a collision course with a manager who refused to have his authority undermined in such a way.

Step forward Ian Holloway.

The charismatic 47-year-old has done a fantastic job with Blackpool, last year leading one of England's grand old clubs back into the top-flight after a 40 year absence. This season, the Seasiders have beaten Liverpool at Anfield, drawn with Everton and given Manchester City's millionaires absolute hell in a 3-2 defeat. Moreover, they have done it all by playing a gutsy, open and attacking style of play which has made them one of the most entertaining teams in the league.

Blackpool's 3-2 defeat against Aston Villa last Wednesday was no exception. Having twice shown great resilience to fight back from a goal down against strong opponents, Holloway's men were a minute away from earning a creditable point when James Collins headed in a late winner. 

In fact, the only thing which distinguished this particular Blackpool performance from so many others this year is that it was achieved with 10 new faces from the game against Everton the previous Saturday. And this is where the problem lies.

Despite Blackpool's valiant efforts at Villa Park, the Premier League feels compelled by last year's treatment of Wolves to investigate Ian Holloway's team selection for the game. But where Mick McCarthy took his punishment lying down, Holloway is determined not to go quietly.

The Blackpool manager was riled after the game by media suggestions that he could be fined, and threatened to resign if the Premier League took any action against him. 'I'm not having anyone telling me who I can play. My chairman doesn't do it, so why should the Premier League?'

Holloway's reaction to much of the media after the game was misguided, as he misunderstood the tone in which these questions were being asked. Journalists were simply raising the issue of team selection, not imposing unfair judgment on him and his players. His responses did nothing to engender goodwill or sympathy.

But nevertheless he had a point. The Premier League has no place questioning the team selection of a manager whose team gave as much as Blackpool did at Villa Park. 

And if they really are concerned about clubs playing their strongest XIs for every match to maintain the 'integrity' of the competition, why were Liverpool not punished for resting key players at the end of the 2007 season with a Champions League final imminent? Their actions certainly had an impact on the relegation battle, as the three points gained by Fulham over a weakened Reds side at Craven Cottage in May enabled them to stay up by a single point.

The Premier League has a justifiable concern that, in a sheer act of desperation to stay in the top-flight, clubs near the bottom could decide to 'write off' a match against one of the top clubs in order to concentrate on matches with their direct rivals. This was the implied reasoning behind Mick McCarthy's team selection at Old Trafford, and his punishment was viewed as a 'deterrent' to other similar-minded managers.

But it is clear that Ian Holloway is not a similar-minded manager. Every player which he has sent out this season has shown 100% commitment to the cause, and a manager with his limited resources is not afforded the luxury of giving up on any match. Blackpool need every point they can get.

It is uncertain whether Holloway actually intends to make good on his threat to resign if charged, but the Premier League should be reluctant to take that risk. If he did walk away, the powers that be would be making him a martyr for managerial authority, and this could well lead to a grave backlash from all corners of the English game.

As the governing body of the top-flight in England, the Premier League has many important duties to fulfill. Telling managers how to do their jobs is not one of them. They would be well advised to think twice before automatically adhering to the precedent set last February.      

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