Author Archives: rich

Dark Sad Eyes: Bryan Ruiz and Franz Kafka

I wrote this the other day at my new place for writing longer-form things. Hope you like. Big ask I appreciate…

Ruiz and Kafka

Cutting to the chase, I was drawn to Bryan Ruiz by an air of vulnerability that you don’t often find in footballers. It is, I think, generally accepted that to get to the top in the game you need any softer edges to be bashed aside pdq, lest these edges be exploited by Neanderthal defenders, and so it is that players who look like they might have a sensitive side are few and far between at the very top level.

Ruiz, who was brought up by his mother, is different.  Here is a man who perhaps made it in football despite himself, a man whose elemental talent levels are so extraordinary that they must have superseded the usual intangibles that scouts presumably look for.  Naturally none of this fooled the wise old men of Craven Cottage, many of whom have been watching football for more years than Ruiz has been alive and so know their minds and the game very well; no, when they see that soft edge they know Bryan Ruiz does not, and will not, be there for their team when the going gets tough.

Those of us entranced by the poetry of his left foot (frequently bad poetry, but poetry nevertheless) don’t care about any lack of steel – it’s not like the Premier League overall lacks for steel, does it?  No, what you want are the players who bring something different to the party.  Like Bryan Ruiz.  Who brought poetry.  To the party.  Anyway.

Bryan had a good World Cup (interestingly, as one of his big boosters, I didn’t think his World Cup was as good as widely perceived) and all of a sudden our man was kind of respected again.  With Fulham’s relegation and persistence with hard-man coach Felix Magath, there seemed to be little room for Bryan’s brand of graceful clumsiness, so we all agreed that we had, sadly, seen the last of our flawed genius.

Bryan thought so too, and was open about this: he wanted to play at the top level, which had been why he’d joined Fulham. He’d had that good World Cup, he thought he deserved to play at the top level, he expected to leave, and badly wanted to leave.  He had played well for Fulham but had been booed at the first sign of a bad game (that softer edge was something of a red rag to the crowd’s bull: football fans smell vulnerability instinctively – it helps them know who to be angry with).

But he could not leave.

This came up on twitter last night, and it was pointed out (by Alex Locatelli) that Ruiz is/was inhabiting something of a Kafka-esque world. The first thought was that his life had turned into The Trial, but it became clear that his situation was not unlike The Castle and, well, why not then the Metamorphosis too?   What?

I’m not going to sit here and pretend that I know Kafka inside out, but I have read the major works, albeit a long time ago. So let’s just work from back covers to begin with.

First, the Castle:

This is the story of K and his arrival in a village where he is never accepted, and his relentless, unavailing struggle with authority in order to gain acceptance to the castle that seems to rule it. K’s isolation and perplexity, his begging for the approval of elusive and anonymous powers, epitomises Kafka’s vision of twentieth century alienation and anxiety.

It’s almost as if Bryan Ruiz is a Kafka creation, isn’t it?   He arrives in the village (Fulham) where he struggles for acceptance.  The castle here is a metaphor for the Fulham fans, whose “elusive and anonymous powers” hold far more influence than ought to be the case.   More literally, Ruiz arrives at Fulham, plays well, but his tragedy is that the good things he does are ignored because people can only see the bad things.  More literally still – he gets caught on the ball four times a game, which leads to four big groans from the castle, but creates a bevy of chances that are more useful than anything anyone else not named Clint Dempsey is accomplishing, but absolutely nothing changes.

Begging for approval?  I think so.  Bryan just wants acceptance.  That acceptance has been with-held on grounds he doesn’t really understand, so he has withdrawn into himself further. This is a typical vicious circle in Ruiz’s world: the main one would be, of course, his tendency towards carelessness in possession – take a player who is playing with nerves, boo him when he gets the ball, see how that affects said nerves and his ability to play good football.  Yes, exactly.  It’s perverse.

bryan34

For The Trial things are simpler.  In this book, K (again) is arrested (the famous opening lines: “Somebody must have laid false information against Josef K, for he was arrested one morning without having done anything wrong”) and faces trial (he doesn’t know what for).   K must continue his work for a bank, but with the undercurrent of the unknowable trial gnawing away at him. Various people question K’s attitude to the trial, suggesting that he isn’t taking things seriously enough, but really, what is he supposed to do?   At the end (from Wikipedia):

On the eve of K.’s thirty-first birthday, two men arrive at his apartment. He has been waiting for them, and he offers little resistance – indeed the two men take direction from K. as they walk through town. K. leads them to a quarry where the two men place K’s head on a discarded block. One of the men produces a double-edged butcher knife, and as the two men pass it back and forth between them, the narrator tells us that “K. knew then precisely, that it would have been his duty to take the knife…and thrust it into himself.” He does not take the knife. One of the men holds his shoulder and pulls him up and the other man stabs him in the heart and twists the knife twice. K.’s last words are: “Like a dog!”

I think what we’re seeing here is Ruiz’s time at Fulham likened to a trial.  He didn’t know what he was getting himself in for, some men just summonsed him (from Holland) that morning, he went, he thought it would probably be okay, it wasn’t, then he could never leave.

fk5This is of course still happening for Bryan – he has been in and out of the team, injuries, a (blessed) loan back to Holland, a time in Felix Magath’s loading bay awaiting transit to parts elsewhere (nothing), then a pause as he is rehabilitated by Kit Symons, but still he wants to get this off his back, to get away,  but in spite of everything NOTHING CAN BE DONE.  And so he stays at Fulham.  A loan move in the transfer window seems likely, but even that collapses.  When the end comes it will be welcome.  But will it come?

The loan move is where things really get interesting though.  Back to The Castle:

The administrative machine it represents is depicted in similarly contradictory fashion. Despite several claims made for the castle administration, we see instances of ludicrously inefficient bureaucracy: letters go astray, only to be answered years later; one official’s office is characterised by the sound of columns of files continually crashing down; the distribution of dossiers to officials is shown to be hopelessly confused.

From here, notes by David Whiting.

And what are Levante saying about the collapse of Ruiz’s loan move?

“The transfer was going ahead in the evening [of deadline day] when the player requested the move but the paperwork didn’t arrive in a timely manner,” he told Marca. “Fulham didn’t realise that the deadline was Friday because they thought it was Monday. We must abide by and respect the decision of FIFA, but I just don’t understand it, although the rules are well established. I have little else to say.

Pushed on whether a move was deliberately sabotaged, Catalan added: “Neither do I want, nor can I think about that. It wouldn’t be fair to the player or Levante. I’d be doing a disservice to football. [Fulham] didn’t manage their time well. There’s little or no argument from us. Basically we didn’t adhere to the deadline and 12.01am [on January 31] was too late.

“It’s nothing we didn’t know already, but there’s the feeling of powerlessness and misunderstanding, though we respect the logic [of the decision]. Money wasn’t a problem, I wish it was one. Fulham regarded Bryan as a key player. If there’s a delay of one minute, it’s because the documentation wasn’t submitted in time. The player’s conduct has been excellent, for him it was a dream to play in Spain.”

Goodness me.  Kit Symons, Fulham manager, said:

“It’s a tough knock for him but he’s a great character and loves his football, so I know he’ll just want to get on and play.”

And so it continues.

Franz-Kafka-Picture-Quotes-5

Signing bonuses

Years ago when I was writing this thing daily and putting everything into it we stumbled upon an award. David Lloyd got one for TOOFIF at the same time, so we were duly summonsed to the club for a photo opportunity.  Hammersmith & Fulham Chronicle I think it was.  Anyway, we get there and this photographer chap gets up to speed, works out that I’m here because I do a blog and promptly sees if anyone in the cafe now known as Haynes Place (I think?) has a computer.  A computer?  Right – he wants to take a picture of me typing.

No.  I am under no illusions.  Writing a blog about football is not a cool thing to do in the wider world.  But I’m not posing for a local newspaper on some borrowed keyboard in a cafeteria while smiling and looking awkward.

But this is how photography works.

A similar trick is new signings.  If a club signs someone, said someone appears somewhere with a new shirt held backwards in front of him.  He does.  It’s the rules.

Thing is, different players interpret this opportunity differently.  What can we learn from their reactions?

riether
I’d say Sascha Riether just about nailed it. He’s smiling, but not too much (don’t want to act all desperate), looks affable, the kind of player you want in your team, the kind of player who’s going to make a good impression.  And I’d say he lived up to his photo: a nice photo, a nice player.

darren

This is why there are still con-men in the world.  Usually people smile, we think “hey, nice, a smile”, but we all know that not everything is as it seems, and here is Darren Bent smiling.  It’s an easy smile, too easy probably.  Too easy definitely.  This is the smile of a man playing a computer game and pretending to listen to his spouse recount the story of her day.

parker

“I’ve had my ups, I’ve had my downs, and I have no idea which this is to be honest.”

heit

The background gives this a kind of “apprehended at 4am” vibe but to be fair, Heitinga was magnificently professional in as bad a team as he can have ever stumbled upon.  He’s not delighted to be here and he’s not pretending he is, but he’s going to do his best.

kr1

“I used to play for Manchester United. My agent promised me something much better than this.  The offers never came.  Here I am.”

kr2

“Aston Villa!  YES!”

What are we supposed to think, hmm?

taraab

To be fair he looks like a lovely young man and actually I think maybe he really is.  To me there’s an air of “let’s get cracking” here, I think Taraabt really wanted this to work out.  The problem then, and every other time, is that Adel is not 16 and playing at school anymore, and so he can’t just dominate through the power of raw talent alone.  We all want the world to be like it was when we were small, and I think sometimes society tries to make us leave things behind that really should be retained – after all, the childhood us is still us, isn’t it?  We’re almost expected to treat that as a different person, as if being 8, 18, 28, 38 is not just a continuation of the same life.  Ironically enough we’re almost all much happier at 8 than at 28, so why are we encouraged down that path when we might be better off turning back towards made us who we are, rather than towards something we never have been.  Adel Taraabt was, is, and always will be a sensational footballer, and it would have been lovely for him if he’d found somewhere where he could have just got on with playing his way, which is not my way or your way or many other peoples’ way, but it worked for him and for anyone else prepared to let him carry on with his impressively juvenile skillz (Neil Warnock).  Martin Jol would have let him but we all got cross with Martin Jol’s approach, and rightly so: if you’re going to let Adel Taraabt and Dimitar Berbatov play like nine year olds you’d better have some grown ups on hand to compensate.

derek

Derek Boateng is proud.  That’s probably the best yet I think.  Upright, authoritative, maybe a bit narrow shouldered to be a midfield enforcer in retrospect, but he was told to stand for a photo and he couldn’t have done a better job of it.

lewis

If someone had told him “yes, and your old mate Felix Magath is coming too” that face would have changed, quickly.

kvist

“No idea who this is but he says he’s just signed for us.”
“It’s William Kvist, Rene.”
“Is it?  Hmmm.  Okay.”

“William, just for giggles, imagine that you are going to fry my ear for dinner tonight… right… and stare through my head as if you want more of my ear.   Yep.  And like you haven’t slept for a month.  Perfect.”

mitro

“And this one?”
“Konstantinos Mitroglou”
“Oh. And he’s a player too is he?”
“Nobody knows to be fair.”

Kit Symons: the right appointment

Fulham get their man. Kit Symons made sense as a caretaker manager and the club’s form since he took over has made his promotion to the permanent role all but inevitable. He may or may not be the right choice long-term, but his work so far meant that Khan’s headhunters were left with a tricky job: either come up with someone very, very good, or the decision makes itself. Ultimately, you couldn’t replace Symons with a nothing manager.

And this is where Fulham realised that the only choice was to make no choice. It’s very likely that the club has sounded out various highish profile names in the preceding months, but, with last season’s chaos fresh in the memory, been met with polite “thanks but no thanks” emails back.

So in lowering their sights a little they moved into the realms of the not quites, the ne’er do wells, the once did wells. Aidy Boothroyd, Craig Brown, Lee Clark, Steve Clarke, John Collins, Owen Coyle, Billy Davies, Roberto Di Matteo, Dougie Freedman, Chris Hughton, Paul Ince, Paul Jewell, Brian McDermott, Mark McGhee, Tony Mowbray, Sean O’Driscoll, David O’Leary, Martin O’Neill, Tim Sherwood, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Gordon Strachan… you see the problem?

Even then, for all we know some of the above said no. And this largely omits international appointments, which might have offered the possibility of bringing in a recognised winner but also of another horrible mess.

It’s to Symons’ eternal credit that he made this decision into a non-decision. For this moment in time Kit Symons is the right man for this football club. No question. Whether he remains the right man in six months or a year we’ll just have to see – I remain suspicious that there’s a slight “anyone but Magath” halo effect going on here – but he has absolutely, unquestionable, earned the right to prove himself one way or another. It’s the right appointment.

Bill James

If ever you’ve tried to wonder why I seem to talk about stats more than most, this is the answer:

“Bullshit has tremendous advantages over knowledge. Bullshit can be created as needed, on demand, without limit. Anything that happens, you can make up an explanation for why it happened.

“There was a Kansas football game a year ago; some Texas-based football team, much better than Kansas, came to Lawrence and struggled through the first quarter — KU with, like, a 7-3 lead at the end of the first quarter. The rest of the game, KU lost, like, 37-0, or something. The announcer had an immediate explanation for it: The Texas team flew in the day before, they spent the night sleeping in a strange hotel; it takes them a while to get their feet on the ground.

“It’s pure bullshit, of course, but he was paid to say that … if it had happened the other way, and KU had lost the first quarter, 24-0, and then ‘won’ the rest of the game 17-14 (thus losing 38-17) … if that had happened, we both know that the announcer would have had an immediate explanation for why THAT had happened. … Bullshit is without limit.”

Then:

“As I saw it, baseball had two distinct mountains of material. One the one hand, there was a mountain of traditional wisdom, things that people said over and over again. On the other hand, there was a mountain of statistics. My work was to build a bridge between those two mountains. A statistician is concerned what baseball statistics ARE. I had no concern with what they are. I didn’t care, and I don’t care, whether Mike Schmidt hit .306 or .296 against left-handed pitching. I was concerned with what the statistics MEAN.

“Sportswriters, in my opinion, almost never use baseball statistics to try to understand baseball. They use statistics to decorate their articles. They use statistics as a club in the battle for what they believe intuitively to be correct. That is why sportswriters often believe that you can prove anything with statistics, an obscene and ludicrous position, but one which is the natural outgrowth of the way that they themselves use statistics. What I wanted to do was teach people instead to use statistics as a sword to cut toward the truth.”

Until very recently I was of the same mind.  (not the teaching bit, but the general point of using available data to get to the bottom of things).  I felt that there was an awful lot of bullshit talked about football, a lot of it from people who seemed far more certain in their views than it felt like they ought to be.  Now I don’t know why, but I was keen to offer alternative perspectives.   To get closer to a truth.  It wasn’t good enough that people could say “I don’t need stats to tell me that.  I’ve been watching football for 50 years and I trust my eyes”…. opinions really are like arseholes, we do all have one.  Having read Bill James for years I felt that bringing evidence, no matter how foggy, into discussions, would help.  So people would slate Bobby Zamora for not scoring goals, or Dickson Etuhu for not looking like the most technically accomplished footballer, or Clint Dempsey for whatever beef they had with him, or Chris Baird for various sins, or Bryan Ruiz for not trying, and these thoughts just felt lazy to me so I challenged them however I could.  I don’t quite know why I bothered but I was watching Fulham every week then and writing about them every day and, dammit, it felt important.  Sometimes this challenging (as with Ruiz) has been wishful thinking, sometimes I think that trying to look at things from other angles has been instructive.

However this little crusade might have seen, I wasn’t remotely arrogant enough to suppose that I had all the answers, but I did feel that there were ways of getting at truths that might advance discussions (certainly the comments in CCN over the years have taught me enormous amounts, more than anything else I suspect).

Why though?  Well who knows why?  Ultimately none of this matters, and lord knows nobody likes being lectured/hectored about their hobby, but you know how it is: people can and will discuss football in great depth, over and over and over.   Like Bill James, I wasn’t obsessed with stats, but I was, and am, interested in another perspective.

The Secret Footballer has a new book out and in its introduction he rails against the new wave of armchair experts, noting that the only way you can really understand is to be involved, or have been involved, in the game.  Now, he has books to sell, and of course he has a point, but they thought this in baseball until very recently, too, until it became obvious that ignoring different approaches to learning about the game was literally self-defeating.

But he is right. We’re all on the outside of the game and so there’s a limit to what we can really understand.  So we do our best to get at a truth by whatever means we can.

Sorry if this seems a bit self-serving – it isn’t meant to – but many of you have been kind enough to read this website for 8 years or so, and this article seemed very relevant to whatever underlying ethos you might find in the words I’ve written down the years.  (Bill James self-published his books for five years too, which directly inspired me to do the Fulham Review).  Anyway, thanks. As you were.

Barney Ronay downloads my brain

Barney Ronay downloads my brain.

Not that my brain is nearly so eloquent.

I feel quite torn on all this but in deciding to largely switch off from football I don’t find that life is much worse.  It would be different if I were still in London, didn’t have kids and did have money – I watched the Charlton game on TV and even just seeing the colour of the evening Sky reminded me of being at Craven Cottage (it’s a much underestimated phenomenon this, the colour of the sky and how this varies geographically), but still.  I don’t live in London, I do have kids and I don’t have money.  So football is quite easy to avoid, particularly with our family’s ongoing TV wars.

Does it fill a gap in lives? I think it’s more a case that something we loved as children has sort of mushroomed as we’ve reached adulthood. It’s a bit like when your other half’s been shopping and bought lots of chocolate: something deep within you knows that something you really like is there, and available, and available now, so just get in and eat three fun-sized bags of Maltesers.

And some of us have brains that are wired in a certain way, and that means that if we are interested in something we are very, very interested in something, so we dive in. And football’s extreme *thereness* means we can just keep digging. We will never run out of things about football to read. Think about that for a moment.

Fulham 3-0 Charlton

That’s the way to do it.

For Scott – captain fantastic – Parker, a man in motion with a pair of metaphorical wings that he doesn’t need as others in the team can manage the aerial stuff.

Fulham dominated the first half to the extent that the second was under control, if frightening.  Symons’ continuing reliance on an attacking three of Ruiz McCormack and Rodallega meant that Charlton were always nervous, and with Parker and Christensen patrolling and controlling behind Fulham were able to dominate the ball and territory.

The goals were terrific: Parker’s early strike coming after he won the ball, surged into the area and converted a cross that was behind him in off the bar.  Rodallega’s first was a study in anticipation, calmness and technique (from him and McCormack) and the third was worthy of far more celebrated names.

The whole thing clicked perfectly.  It’s a fine reflection on the manager that Fulham continue to thrive and surge up the table.  Full reflection later.

Why Kit Symons isn’t necessarily the man to lead Fulham forward

PAY-Brian-and-Shirley-Burnie
Brian Burnie with his then wife.

There was a programme on TV recently in which comedian Jon Richardson looked to get to the bottom of some heavy life issues. One of the three programmes was about money and our attitudes towards having or not having it. In this programme he met a man named Brian Burnie who had amassed a fortune, then essentially gave it away to start his own charity. His wife wasn’t very happy about this and didn’t appear. But his daughter did. Richardson asked her how she felt, the angle being that she would have been in line to inherit this vast fortune, but now was not.

The daughter, a teacher, was fine. She said that at this point in her own life she feels quite content. She is made happy by life’s little things. An example: when you are cycling in the rain and get wet socks. (If you have cycled at all you know what she’s getting at: wet socks can be horrible.) The feeling you get when you get indoors into the warm and take off the wet socks is briefly a magnificent one. In itself the feeling of changing socks isn’t much, but actually, in this context, it’s a good example of a small victory.

I think of Felix Magath’s time at Fulham as a pair of increasingly wet socks. We’ve taken them off and feel better.

The trick here is whether the socks we’re now wearing are what we need.

Here’s why. If you take the old rule of thumb for what Fulham ought to achieve we were clearly not there under Magath. This rule of thumb? That in home games we can expect to beat all but the very best teams in the division, and in away games we will lose to the very best opponents and draw with the rest. This is clearly not *right* in that these things are never so predictable, but if we consider the top six teams the “top teams” that would give us 17 home wins, 6 home draws, 6 away draws and 17 away defeats. Again, it’s not supposed to be a prediction but it works for us here.

FMKS

So by this reckoning we dropped 8 points under Magath and are exactly break even under Symons. We weren’t doing what we should have done then; we are now.

An added wrinkle here is a new-fangled statistic called TSR, or total shots ratio. I’m not going to make any claims for this above and beyond the following from the man who invented it:

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2012/12/02/introducing-tsr2-4/

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2011/10/31/predicting-future-performance-revisited/

http://jameswgrayson.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/the-relationship-between-tsr-and-points-over-9-games/

This isn’t me going all weird with stats, it’s someone who has looked at something and established various facts.  You can dismiss these things or you can buy into them – your choice – but for those of us who are even less certain than we were in the past, objectivity can be helpful.

TSR, is short for total shots ratio and in short is the proportion of shots in a game that a team takes. James has tested various things and found it to be the best predictor of future performance he’s come across.

So? Well here’s the thing: Fulham’s TSR under Magath and under Symons hasn’t changed at all. Fulham under Magath were massively under-performing their TSR, which might be bad luck but was probably a function of, well, everything. But the underlying indicators told us that this team wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. We knew that – those of us who weren’t screeching at the internet about wanting our football team back anyway – but it’s still instructive. Magath would argue that this is evidence that the team would have improved in time, and the sensible conclusion is that he’s probably right, or he would be if the aforementioned “everything” wasn’t in the way. (is seven games too small a sample? Yes, perhaps, but James shows here that TSR works quite well in limited datasets too.)

Symons’ team has done what it should. Fulham have taken off their wet socks and are enjoying a welcome cup of tea on the sofa.

So has Symons taken Fulham forward? Yes, in the sense that it was in a very bad place when he arrived. Honestly, I’d probably argue that almost any manager could have achieved the same, but Symons had the advantage (of his own making) of knowing the squad and particularly its young players, so he was able to stabilise the ship almost instantly. That’s to his immense credit. We also have to acknowledge that he’s working with another man’s squad. Magath did a very thorough job of refurbishing the losing squad from last season but got carried away to the point where we didn’t have a lot left. Enough, sure, but not a great deal. This derailed our early season form (to a degree: TSR still thinks we were an alright team getting bad results) and Symons has had to work with the same issue. Again: it looks to all the world as if he’s got Fulham back to exactly where they should be. Well done him.

This is different to taking the club on a level, though, and here lies the problem for Khan’s Headhunters. They have two choices really:

a) the easy way out is to say “give the job to Kit Symons, a Fulham man who the fans like.”
b) the hard choice is to say “Kit’s been brilliant but we think we’ve found someone who can take Fulham to another level.”

I think really they have to take a combination of the two. They identify candidates who would work under scenario B but recommend that Symons keeps his job until at least the end of the season. If Fulham continue to improve steadily Symons is given the job on a permanent basis. If Fulham drop below the current baseline then you thank Kit and move to plan B, which has been teed up for this very purpose.

Kit Symons has done everything right. He has brought a stability to selection; the team is playing in a sensible fashion; the team is selecting its best players; the team is playing quite well. The job of the committee is to look at these achievements and try to value them and establish what they mean in a slightly longer term context.  I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds.