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Apr 14, 2008

Small club comforts

Life without Javier Clemente would be an awful lot duller. As you may or may not know, the pugnacious little chap from Bilbao (or Barakaldo, as he insists) had been contemplating taking up the post as Iranian national manager, after being released from his contract as the top man of Serbia's slippery football ladder, but on insisting to the Iranian authorities that he would accept their money but not their requirement that he actually reside in the country to earn that same money, he ended up at relegation-threatened Murcia.

Mind you, not before he had turned down the chance to go to save Zaragoza as well - which shows you just how desperate it must be over there now. Mind you, they do have better restaurants in Murcia. Try the thistle in almond sauce, the 'bomba' rice and the 'zarangollo' (pumpkin, onion and tomato). Much better than watching the football team, and of course, if you are a citizen of Murcia, there were two teams to watch last season, Ciudad de Murcia having been subjected to a 'Wimbledon' and moved down the road to Granada, as in Granada 74. Now there is only one Murcia, and they look as though they are on their way to a swift return to the Second Division, despite Clemente's presence.

This is, astonishingly, the Basque's 17th club, since he made his debut as a manger with the modest Arenas de Getxo back in 1975. After his success with the ruff and tuff Bilbao title-winning side of 1983 (the Butcher of Bilbao included) he tried his luck at Espanyol and Atlético Madrid before being handed the national manager's job. He managed Spain for six years, during which time he managed to fall out with just about everyone, apart from his buddy Angel Villar, the head of the Spanish Federation and an ex-Athletic player himself, of course.

The Madrid-based press, as you can imagine, were never exactly enamoured of the appointment, with its whiff of politico-cultural nepotism. And sixteen years on from that appointment, Clemente was at it again, going hammer and tongs in an interview with Marca last Friday, scattering soundbites to the four winds like an evangelist at Speakers' Corner.

Murcia were due at the Bernabéu on Sunday, and to state the obvious, needed to win. Eight points adrift of safety, would the famously defensive Javi put out an attacking team? Javi said no, of course. In fact he went further, leaving behind two of the squad's forwards and taking a delegation of defenders and midfielders - a collective he then called the 'bus'. This refers to the Spanish concept of a team who go to an away game in search of a draw, meaning that they also take the team bus out onto the pitch and park it in the goal area. Clemente himself was responsible for the birth of this metaphor, but went even further last Friday by alleging that if necessary, he would also bring along the AVE train and the nearest Iberia 747.

Not content with this little statement of mild intention, he was egged on perfectly by the interviewer into heating up the match to the sort of boiling point that everyone here thrives on. What did he think of Schuster, asked Rodrigo Errasti. 'Pah' spat Javi. 'It's easy to manage a big club. It's less work, it's very comfy and it's easy. You get more wins without having to prepare anything really. In a smaller club, you have to work much harder'. Well of course, the first answer to Clemente might have been that he couldn't know, since he never has managed a big club - Spain and Serbia being countries. Schuster said as much the next day, in a good-humoured and laid-back riposte to Clemente. He also suggested that it wasn't so much a case of harder or easier, as much as 'different'. He should know, having done a laboured apprenticeship at clubs like Xerez, Levante and Getafe.

And is it really that much easier? Ask the six managers who preceded Schuster the question, none of whom lasted longer than a season. Jupp Heynckes was sacked after winning them the Champions League and Capello went in the summer after restoring the league trophy to the Bernabéu cabinets. Easy? Everything's relative Javi. Frank Rijkaard might say the same over at Barcelona, although he has lasted remarkably well, given the pressures.

If Clemente goes down with the ship this season - and after succumbing 1-0 to Real Madrid in the Bernabéu it rather looks as though he will - is he under any obligation to stay? Does it matter to him and does it matter to the fans whether he stays? Clemente's version of manger-as-mercenary, dropping into every port that asks him to disembark, is surely much easier, since it carries along with it no emotional commitment, no real responsibility. The ship sinks anyway, and off you go to another appointment, until retirement arrives and the golf course calls.

Besides, the bus that Murcia parked in the area proved swiftly unnecessary, with the sending off of Madrid's right back Torres after twenty minutes. Agh! Murcia suddenly realised that they could attack - that they would actually be obliged to carry out this strange and exotic tactic. They did it half-heartedly, as do all Clemente's teams, and paid dearly for it in the end when Sneijder scored a cracker in the 60th minute to more or less secure the league title, unless of course, you're a Barça fan and an incurable optimist.

With the Catalans drawing 2-2 at lowly Recreativo, after twice being in the lead, and Villarreal blowing it 1-0 at Almería, Madrid sit nine points pretty at the top of the league with six games to go. The only hope still clinging to the steep sides of the Camp Nou is that Messi will shine forth (he reappeared as a sub against Recre) and galvanise the side, so lacking in spirit and resolve in the past few weeks. He will paper over the cracks and lead them to victories over Manchester United and Real Madrid in the Bernabéu, the latter result being the only plausible way that the Catalans could possibly still aspire to the league title. And if they don't (and even if they do), it's time for a clean-out.

Adeus Ronaldinho and Deco, adieu Monsieur Henry, and vaarwel Frankie. And judging by the amount of hankies wafting around the Camp Nou recently, it could be adéu to Joan Laporta, increasingly paranoid as his recent behaviour suggests. Mind you Joan, just because you're paranoid it doesn't mean they aren't out to get you.

But back to Clemente. During the interview he claimed that Schuster had feigned his famous injury, when tackled by the Butcher of Bilbao, Andoni Goikoetxea. 'He was already injured' claimed Javi. 'Goiko didn't even touch him'. Well it could be true - but such revisionism is hardly relevant, unless you want to fan the flames again. Schuster sensibly preferred not to comment the next day. More seriously, Clemente claimed that when he had been invited to the homage to Juanito at the Bernabéu, he had been insulted to such a degree that he decided to leave, and on so doing was threatened by a Madrid fan on the way out wielding a knife.

'I can't say if he was actually going to stab me with it, because I ran off like a madman' he announced in Marca, as if this was really the most sensible thing to bring up on the eve of the match. In the next statement, sure enough, he complained that several Madrid peñas (fan clubs) were now having a go at him, as if he expected anything else. Flowers perhaps?

Another manager in the news is Ronald Koeman, the only man in the western world at present capable of making George Bush look popular. After a brief flurry of excitement, when Valencia won 3-2 at the Bernabéu and then secured this coming week's Cup Final appearance by knocking out Barcelona, gloom and despair have returned to the Mestalla, with Koeman proving to be about as diplomatic and tactful as an air raid.

'I'm a winner' he announced to the press last week, when asked if he felt 'supported' by the fans and the players. That is only partially true of his managerial record, with three Dutch league titles to his name (and two resignations) and a less than glorious time with Benfica. But to be fair, he was no disaster, and maybe the truth of the matter is that the squad he has inherited are just not up for it, fed up as they are of the way that the season has gone - with its internal (and public) trials and tribulations.

A cup final win over Getafe might just save him and his assistant Jose Mari Bakero, but after the latest capitulation at home to the still excellent Racing Santander, Valencia are now the poorest home side in the competition, statistically-speaking. This is an astonishing fact, given the intimidating walls and white noise of the Mestalla, traditionally a place where the timid feared to tread. Now Valencia are only five points ahead of Zaragoza, a side who may be due a mini-revival. If that happens, then the cup final will prove a welcome distraction from a situation that is turning to critical.

It beggars belief that a side containing Villa, Silva, Marchena, Joaquin and Baraja can be in such free-fall. And they won't have it easy against Getafe, as Bayern Munich can testify. Anyway, Valencia have already won the cup six times before, so it's time to give Getafe something for the cabinet shelves. It would be a fitting reward for a team that suffered shocking luck last week, in another heart-stopping European night in the UEFA Cup. Bayern eventually beat them, but only after ten-man Getafe had shot themselves in the foot, in front of King Juan Carlos, the Prince, and uncle Tom Cobley and all. But they died with their boots on, in a fantastic game.

Nothing against Valencia, but I'd love to see Getafe win on Wednesday. If they do, one wonders what Ronald Koeman will say when asked if it is easy to manage a big club.


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