Monday 23 October 2023

Passing the test of time

“What’s he doing there, just get rid of it!”

Alan Shearer’s paid dismay at Chelsea goalkeeper Roberto Sanchez kicking the ball straight to Declan Rice at Stamford Bridge (Saturday 21st October) that culminated in a goal back for Arsenal who’d go on to preserve their unbeaten league run with a draw, could have come from any MOTD era, but was perhaps least expected in this one. 

These days it’s all about pressing and playing out from the back and trusting the process, bumps in the road accepted (except for VAR, which will rightfully never earn empathy), and yet, Shearer aped Alan Hansen in 2010-11, the not-much missed Scot critical of new Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers for asking skinhead centre half Skirtel to try playing the ball out at West Brom, when all it did was lead to a goal being conceded. Time and a place etc…

People generally don’t like change, unless it’s to do with ‘taking back control’, and maybe that’s why someone I know who voted Remain is dead against this quirk, believing that only Manchester City have the tools to find same-shirted players in areas once considered perilous. But while simply hoofing the ball aimlessly upfield, to “get rid of it” may seem very Brexit-voting in character (clearing the lines/sending back the boats), the “taking back control” element of mastering possession as a means of stemming the flow of constant pressure is without doubt progressive and forward thinking and is backed by a plan. 

Pep Guardiola is generally lauded for influencing the British game with this mature philosophy, which has derived from the back-pass rule being outlawed in 1992; yet, even before then, Ian St John, during Italia 90, I believe, highlighted the adept passing into his own box by Roberto Donadoni. 

I speak of course as someone who has never doubted an approach that Sunday league managers pretty much made illegal in decades gone by, “overplaying” they called it. Never pass the ball across your own goal, never turn your back on a shot. Essential rules of the game. When Granit Xhaka knocked the ball across his own box at Burnley a couple of seasons ago and right onto the shin of Chris Wood, who just had to exist to equalise, I joined in with the chorus of the furious demanding the head of the Swiss (See, hypocrite! Say the Newcastle fans), or at least a humiliating dressing down from Mikel Arteta. Yet the manager was infuriatingly philosophical, even saying that those players who didn’t take such risks in following the process were more under threat from the axe (not literally, Geordies). 

The problem may be that when it goes wrong, it looks so bad, like something from an Under 9’s match. But to keep giving the ball away without thought, crumbling under duress, will likely lead to a goal eventually. Bumps in the road, wrong personnel, are part of the journey, but it seems important to remain with it. 

I apply it now to school refusal issues that are proving stressful for my missus and I, knowing each day the battle to get not just one but two of our kids into their places of education - and feeling safe - could both drain and overcome us. Before we knew what we were doing, we’d drag the child to school, sometimes even in their pyjamas, with uniform in a bag to change into later. They were in and that’s all that mattered. They couldn’t cause us that stress anymore. Now we know that is only a temporary win, a rash clearance. Neuro-divergent training has taught us to learn compassion, to support, empathise; to ignore knee-jerk solutions. It’s hard, so very hard, but you keep going, always learning, often getting it wrong within the right, but trusting the process, perhaps the kids learning too, passing it on to the future, even if it sometimes goes to Declan Rice because Conor Gallagher was napping. 

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