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Saturday, 17 November, 2018

Premier League bosses a refreshing bunch to behold

Politicians could learn plenty from amiable football managers including Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp
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Football press conferences are generally tedious, pointless affairs, but every so often one throws up a weird moment, such as when Nigel Pearson famously went all surreal and said to a reporter: “If you don’t understand that question then I think you are an ostrich – your head must be in the sand. Is your head in the sand?”

Funnily enough, that superbly bizarre enquiry followed a defeat against Chelsea in April 2015 that marked the most spectacular turning point in the history of sport as Leicester suddenly went on a crazy winning streak that first saw them beat relegation against the odds and then win the title the following season defying even bigger odds.

It is doubtful Pearson will ever be tempted to repeat the question to a journalist, but if he did pose it to me right now the answer would be yes. Yes, my head is in the sand where general news is concerned and I make apology for it. I’m done with it.

News gathering is all about employing people to scour the world trying to unearth the most dreadful things that have happened that day and then beaming them into our homes as we attempt to sit comfortably.

I can’t do anything about any of the terrible things they aggregate and broadcast so I’d rather pretend they aren’t happening. If a Russian tank rolls up my front path, my utility bills soar or I am forced to endure a longer wait to see my general practitioner I’d rather not spend the preceding six months fretting about it.

When news bulletins start the person tasked with delivering the stream of bad news should do what they do on the Saturday evening BBC transmission and say: “If you don’t want to see what hideous events mankind has inflicted on itself today look away now.”

Unless someone has the wise idea of creating a good news bulletin, filled with joyous stuff like people ringing their children to tell them they have won the lottery, a lost dog being reunited with his owners, a rare butterfly being spotted in a meadow or a kid walking out of hospital having been given the all-clear from cancer, I’m giving up on news and sticking entirely to sport.

Sport disappoints occasionally but not in a way that might mean you are going to be worse off financially or could have to endure inferior healthcare in future. It is unpredictable in a positive way.

Take the battle to succeed Leicester as champs, which could be one of the best in ages. Not only does it threaten to provide a compelling story for the next six months, it also features an unusually high proportion of nice managers.

In a world full of politicians that are either incompetent, nasty or both, it makes a pleasant contrast to note how many likeable gaffers the Premier League boasts at present.

In fact if you go down the list of the 20 bosses you could count the number with whom you would rather not go out drinking on one hand.

Obviously, Jose Mourinho is the least pleasant Premier League manager, and you’d probably find Alan Pardew rather too full of himself after a night on the sauce. Mark Hughes looks a bit angry, too.

But other than that they largely come across as a brilliant bunch of blokes. Jurgen Klopp is an amiable blend of smiles and charisma; Antonio Conte looks a bit of a madman, but in an appealing way; Pep Guardiola is the coolest dude in football, and Arsene Wenger seems like a true gent as well as a man of immense wisdom.

Throw in Mauricio Pochettino and it is hard to believe the title will be going to a manager who any sane individual could dislike.

What a refreshing change from how things have been in the past, when newspapers have run a regular stream of stories about feuds, mind games and general bitching.

So whatever is going on in this increasingly mad, sad, bad world, it is great to be able to escape the mayhem and focus on a championship race that will be close, competitive, thrilling and also fought out by teams managed by people who could teach the woeful characters who roam the political landscape plenty about how to conduct themselves.


Southgate doing little to inspire early confidence

Gareth Southgate is another nice football manager but he has a lot to prove if he is ever to be good enough to mastermind a Premier League title challenge, and his early stabs at picking an England team are not encouraging.

The big problem with Sven Goran Eriksson was always that it was harder to get out of his England squad than to get into it, and that looks the case with Southgate, who has chosen some chronically unexciting names so far.

Even allowing for this being the weakest pool of players from which the manager has to select since Graham Taylor’s comical reign, the names in the frame for the upcoming games against Scotland and Spain could barely be less inspiring and suggest if Southgate was a fan of betting on horses (which strikes me as unlikely) he would not pay much attention to form.

The choice of keepers and defenders is not too dismal, with the glaring exception of the mystifying perseverance with Phil Jagielka, but further forward he has made his picks in a way that leaves one wondering what he has been watching this season.

This is yet another squad that does nothing to dispel the belief there is a bias towards players from the bigger clubs, and while Southgate could rightly point out he is hardly spoilt for choice, that doesn’t excuse him sticking with so many players who are either out of form, out of their club side or surviving solely on reputation.

Lingard, Walcott, Rooney, Henderson (who is now probably the most overrated player in the Premier League), Townsend, Sturridge and Vardy are all lucky to be there in place of a group of exciting talents who are playing well and deserve the chance to show what they can do such as Antonio, Zaha and Redmond, and strikers who are actually scoring goals like Austin and Defoe.

I shall be having a small bet on Scotland tomorrow and a significantly bigger bet on Spain four days later.


Here’s hoping gentleman John fills the void as soon as possible

There are sadder stories in the world right now, as the man himself would be the first to acknowledge, but the removal of horses from John Oxx’s yard by a significant owner for the second time in three years will give nobody in racing a scrap of pleasure.

First the Aga Khan took his horses from Oxx’s stables and then this week the Tsui family, who enjoyed spectacular success with Oxx via Sea The Stars, did likewise.

The Sea The Stars story was made all the more pleasurable because he was trained by Oxx, a gentleman of impeccable quality. He gave as much of his time to the media as they wanted and never at any point during that wonderful summer of 2009 did he attempt to take any credit for what the horse achieved despite his brilliant handling of the legendary colt.

I remember Oxx and his wife Caitriona being guests of the Racing Post at an awards lunch later that year. When they arrived we were all thrilled to see the man who had steered Sea The Stars to such an epic career, but instead of plonking themselves down and waiting for someone to fill their wine glasses, they went around the table introducing themselves to each of us and shaking our hands warmly.

And at the Cartier Awards on Tuesday Oxx made a lovely contribution to a video that lauded the feats of Aidan O’Brien, who had been presented with a lifetime achievement award, when others would have shied away from praising a man whose unparalleled success in the last 20 years has made life so tough for his rivals,

Oxx is a class act and, as he showed with Sea The Stars and numerous other horses, a fine trainer. It is to be hoped he fills his empty boxes soon and enjoys considerable success in 2017 and beyond.

In a world full of politicians that are either incompetent, nasty or both, it makes a pleasant contrast to note how many likeable gaffers the Premier League boasts at present
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