Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

Leeds’ Spying Should Be Treated as a Form of Entertainment, Not Cheating

Leeds’ Spying Should Be Treated as a Form of Entertainment, Not Cheating

Sunday, 20 January, 2019 - 07:30
Juan Carlos Osorio (centre) lived within sight of Liverpool’s Melwood training ground for two years. Last year his Mexico team reached the last 16 of the World Cup. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty Images
London - Paul Wilson
One hopes Marcelo Bielsa does not get punished too severely after admitting that he spies on everyone. The Leeds United manager confessed immediately when caught blatantly watching Derby County training sessions, contacting Frank Lampard and taking responsibility for the stunt, and was reminded by his own club of Leeds’s “integrity and honesty”. That alone should have been enough to conclude this entertaining episode with the wry smile it deserved, although Bielsa gave it fresh impetus with his honesty offensive.

Such disarming frankness and willingness to cooperate with official investigations ought to be welcomed. It is certainly preferable to Lampard’s attempts to gain the moral high ground when he is aware that Chelsea used to do much the same thing under José Mourinho.

Perhaps Bielsa ought to have cottoned on a bit quicker to the possibility that what goes without comment in South America might be frowned on in England, but differences in custom and practice between footballing cultures are there to be enjoyed, not censured. Bielsa may well have acted against the spirit of the EFL clubs’ charter, whatever that is, but even if you could track such a document down you would not find anything specific about lurking in bushes to get a glimpse of rival preparations.

When the transgression was first discovered it was reported that the interloper was wearing camouflage gear and carrying bolt-cutters. That sounded exciting, borderline illegal in fact, though it was later toned down to sportswear and a pair of pliers. And the unnamed individual turned up in a Leeds United vehicle. Even more hilariously, Derby were able to work out he had done it before. A rustling in the undergrowth that had been noticed but not acted upon earlier in the season turned out to have taken place on the eve of Leeds’s 4-1 win at Pride Park back in August.

The Leeds manager should probably accept that such skulduggery is considered bad form in England, though it is worth remembering that the police who turned up at the latest incident did not make an arrest. No crime had been committed. Derby’s training ground is overlooked by private houses anyway. The Leeds spy was spotted by a resident rather than a member of the football club’s staff, and though Lampard is right to say he ought not to have to conduct a search of the perimeter fence before each training session, his point underlines the fact that not many training facilities are that private.

Manchester City, before they moved to the Etihad campus, a purpose-built city-centre location, were always complaining that they had no privacy at Carrington because a public footpath bordered their land. All any interested party – usually press but possibly opponents – would need was a stepladder or the ability to poke a lens through a hedge.

Liverpool’s Melwood training ground has a reasonably substantial wall around its perimeter, though it is hardly one of forbidding height. Again, the training ground is surrounded by private houses, and not only would residents rightly object were Liverpool to build prison-style walls around the place, those inside the facility would suffer a loss of light. Liverpool have plans to move out to a greenfield site on the outskirts eventually, but for now the sight of onlookers using wheelie bins and stepladders to gain a peek at the players in training is a familiar one during school holidays.

Just over 20 years ago in fact, a Colombian studying a degree course in football science at Liverpool’s John Moores university became so friendly with a family living alongside Melwood through borrowing a small table to see over the wall that he ended up moving in as a lodger. Juan Carlos Osorio stayed for two years, most of the time living in a bedroom that gave him an unrestricted view of Liverpool’s training routines. He is currently the manager of Paraguay but gained his greatest prominence last summer as coach of the Mexico team that defeated Germany in the World Cup in Russia.

There is an obvious difference between snooping to further one’s education and doing it to undermine an opponent in a competitive match, but the bottom line is that training grounds are not sacrosanct. If anyone wants to see what goes on badly enough, it can usually be managed, and when drone technology is developing at such a pace there is probably no point either in clubs investing in mountain hideaways with reinforced security.

Bielsa has been accused of cheating, though checking out the opposition in advance could just as easily be viewed as part of the game. Some will regard his actions more generously as obsessive attention to detail, a coach going about his work with a thoroughness that is rare. While this is clearly a grey area, at least until the EFL or the FA hands down some sort of protocol that everyone can sign up to, defenders of Bielsa might also point out that not every coach or manager would be able to interpret or act upon such snippets of information that might be gleaned from a drone or a spy in the bushes.

Equally, though some managers prefer to be as secretive as possible, others are relaxed about gameplans becoming public knowledge. Most clubs do not alter their playing styles that much from game to game, after all. A coach might adapt his formation for a particular game or opponent, switching to three at the back for instance or deploying a different striker, but he is not going to keep doing that week after week. Most gameplans are on very public view every Saturday afternoon, in front of thousands of paying spectators.

Perhaps rugby is a more straightforward game than football, but one of the best quotes on the overrated nature of gameplans came from John Monie, the Australian who was in charge of Wigan for four seasons in the early 90s and won the cup and league double in every one. “I’m sick of hearing about gameplans – ours isn’t a secret,” he said. “If any opponents are listening, I can tell you what we plan to do. We are going to run all over you for the first half hour then have a look and see what’s left.”

The Guardian Sport

Editor Picks