Ian Holloway: A manager not allowed to manage?

Holloway prepares to watch his Blackpool side face Villa.

I’m amazed that there has been such a furore over Ian Holloway’s selection of a ‘weakened’ side against Aston Villa last week, a game that the Tangerines lost only very narrowly. It recalls the ridiculous fine handed to Mick McCarthy and Wolves last season for fielding a weakened team against Manchester United, a decision I criticised them too. At the end of the day, it boils down to this: who has the right to decide whether or not a player is good enough to play for any given Premier League team?

Because ultimately, all Ian Holloway has done is picked a team of Blackpool players to play for Blackpool. Those 11 players were all registered with the club and with the Premier League. By the laws of the game and the competition Holloway is well within his right to play them. Hell, with the introduction of the 25-man squad rule this season, surely the football authorities should be pleased that Holloway is utilising the younger players in his squad.

The problem arises because somewhere in the rules of the Premier League it is written that a manager must always field the strongest available side available to him, which is there basically to maintain the integrity of the competition. But it is always rules like these that cause problems, because they cannot be objectively enforced. Who is to judge what Blackpool’s strongest team is? I’m a huge Evertonian and I know a great deal about all of our players’ strengths and weaknesses, but give me a fully fit squad and I would have some selection dilemmas.

Very few managers know their strongest eleven. And then there’s the consideration that at times, it can be prudent for a manager to pick different players for different matches, so the 11 players who play most often aren’t necessarily the best eleven for any given fixture. For instance, against Bolton in midweek, Moyes rested Heitinga and brought Fellaini into midfield, with the aim of helping to contain Kevin Davies and Zat Knight. He picked the best team relative to the strengths of the opposition.

Can Holloway not do the same thing? The simple fact is that Aston Villa are fielding a very young team at the moment too. Just yesterday they earned a great 2-2 draw against Manchester United that really could and perhaps should have been a win with a team including youngsters like Albrighton, Bannan, Hogg, Herd, Lichaj and even Young and Agbonlahor and Delfouneso aren’t exactly old heads, despite having a touch more Premier League experience.

Against Blackpool too, Villa’s line up contained plenty of young players – Clark, Young, Albrighton, Bannan and Delfouneso all started that match, with the likes of Stephen Ireland and Gabby Agbonlahor on the bench. Why are we not questioning Houllier’s selection policy too? Partly it is because Villa have a few injuries at present and Houllier is thus utilising Villa’s impressive crop of young talent to plug the gaps. But why is Holloway not entitled to do the same thing?

It’s not like Blackpool have an enormous squad. And they’ve had a blistering start to the season, they play a high-tempo, all-energy brand of football that has won them a lot of fans. But it will also be having an effect on the players who are giving their all week in and week out. So when faced with athree games in one week, is it not sensible that Holloway should think about making some changes. Over-exertion could easily have caused injuries in his regular players after all. And he had confidence that his squad had the depth to go to Villa and challenge. Which is exactly what they did.

Indeed, had they held on a little longer and got the draw, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Which shows just how stupid a situation this is. Those who run the game and were looking into Holloway’s selection were very clearly looking only at the result – a loss for Blackpool. If they’d have watched the match, analysed the performance and the quality of the players on show, I think that none of this trouble would have been raised. Blackpool played well. They – a newly promoted team – pushed established European contenders all the way. Where’s the problem?

And if they want to look at stats, lets look at some stats. Three of the players who came into the Blackpool side for the match against Aston Villa were David Carney, Chris Basham and Ludovic Sylvestre. These three players were all summer additions to Blackpool’s squad, and so while they hadn’t featured much prior to the Villa game – why change a winning formula after all? – they were all players who had been brought to the club by Ian Holloway with the intention of having them compete in the Premier League. Which is exactly what they then did.

Basham was signed from fellow Premier League side Bolton for £1.2m, not a fortune, but for a club of Blackpool’s size, a significant investment. David Carney signed from FC Twente, recent champions in the Netherlands, for an undisclosed fee and is an Australian international, he has 31 caps and four goals for the Socceroos, was named the Socceroos player of the season in 2007-08 (ahead of players like Cahil, Kewell, Viduka and Neill) and featured in the 2010 World Cup. Is he thus not fit to play against Villa in the Premier League? Sylvestre is a product of Barcelona’s reserve side, a reasonably illustrious place to learn your trade you’ll agree, and has since played for Sparta Prague before shining in the Czech league prior to joining Blackpool.

In terms of the stats too then, I don’t see a lot wrong with Holloway’s team selection for the match against Villa. Ultimately, it comes down to a sense of arrogance on the Premier League’s behalf, the competition has become so consumed by its own hype that it believes that a lowly little team like Blackpool couldn’t possibly have the strength in depth to make ten changes and still be competitive at such a prestigious level. Unfortunately, Holloway proved them wrong.

And it wouldn’t grate so much if it was one rule for all anyway. Though Blackpool have not been punished, Wolves were last season, despite having just as much right to field squad players as Blackpool have. They had the cheek to do it against the great Manchester United though, so the League couldn’t sit by and do nothing. Which is ironic in a way, because that’s exactly what they do every time Sir Alex Ferguson rests a few players in the lead up to a particularly important Champions League fixture, or some such event.

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Let’s be honest. The likes of John O’Shea and Wes Brown and Chris Smalling and Michael Owen and Gabriel Obertan would not feature in United’s best XI by their own admission. Yet these players rack up Premier League appearances for United each season. Ferguson is always tinkering with his team, resting players like Rooney, and Scholes and Giggs etc. to make sure that they are fresh and firing for ‘bigger challenges’ ahead. Yet I can’t recall the Premier League ever fining him for not playing his strongest XI in a Premier League match. Funny that.

At the end of the day, this should never have been an issue. If the Premier League wants to have a say over which players are considered high profile enough to grace their competition, then they shouldn’t let clubs employ managers at all. The simple fact is that the manager is there to help his club win as many games as he can. If he feels he can do that by utilising his squad to the maximum, then that’s fine. Judgement of a best XI is always so subjective that the enforcement of that particular rule is pretty much impossible, unless someone decides to field their U12’s against Chelsea or something.

Let’s hope then, that this is the last we hear of this nonsense about fielding ‘understrength sides’. It doesn’t matter what a players name is, or how much they cost, if their manager registers them for their club and them writes their names on the team sheet, they’re good enough, and that’s that.

This post was brought to you in association with SoccerPro.com, the best place on the net for all your US soccer jersey needs.

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