The elephant in the room

BLOG: ehfTV commentator analyses the situation in Veszprem ahead of the final Match of the Week of the VELUX EHF Champions League Group Phase between the Hungarian side and SG Flensburg-Handewitt
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The elephant in the room

When I was 18 and leaving school, one of my priorities at the time was not my results, but rather which girl I would invite to my debutante’s ball. A cotillion, if you like, a throwback to a time when people would appear in public for the first time. I invited a girl I really liked a lot, but my head was turned by an older girl who whispered sweet nothings in my ear. So, like the idiot I was, I uninvited the first girl, only to be cast aside and shamed by the second. I won’t even go any further with the story except to say that it was an embarrassing spiral of events that didn’t turn out well.

The moral of the story, in my life, is make your choice and stick with it.

This weekend Veszprem host Flensburg in the VELUX EHF Champions League and once again events in Veszprem have left me shaking my head in disbelief. It seems like only yesterday that I was writing about my dismay at the treatment of Carlos Ortega at this great club and today, I write about his close friend and assistant coach at the time, now head coach, Xavi Sabate because I am dismayed at their treatment of a man that I hold in high esteem. I have no knowledge of events, as to how they unfolded or anything else, but I can read, I can surmise and I can add two plus two and come up with four. I don’t know when Ljubo was first approached, I don’t know when Xavi first found out about it, but two clubs must be feeling the repercussions of the saga.

It seems to me that Xavi was never their first choice, he was a stop-gap that would bring some continuity and then he showed a flair for a job that no-one expected. And but for force majeure, call it an “Act of God”, he could be sitting here this season as a Champions League winner, but we everyone knows how that turned out. I asked myself the question many times if Xavi would be in the position he is in now had he won the Champions League and I said “No!” But then we all saw what happened to Claudio Ranieri at Leicester so maybe no-one is safe.

But I can’t get it out of my head that at least he would have been in total control at a club had he won the CL, but early season transfers looked like panic buying. And I couldn’t reconcile myself to some of these buys with a guy I know to be cool, calculating and a big thinker of the game. Blagotinsek maybe was an OK choice. He’s not the best, but he’s young, he’s big and tall, perfect for SEHA and Hungarian league, and Sulic can’t play forever. But I couldn’t understand Ancsin, Kopljar or Gajic. Veszprem just seemed to be buying all around them. All very good players, but not needed in those positions. You maybe could make a case for Ancsin, young, Hungarian, but has he really shown his potential? In fairness to Gajic his goal return puts him top of the right wing position.

And then I saw something at the end of the Kiel game that made me raise both my eyebrows. In the media game body language is very important and I watch it all the time. During that game, I focused on all the time-outs and I watched the players’ interaction with Sabate. It seemed to me to be OK, but everything is OK when you’re winning. I watch a lot of games and I wait for the interviews at the end and it was there I saw something very interesting. Sabate goes to hug someone behind the bench and standing beside that someone is Eklemovic; sporting director at Veszprem. I recognised him instantly. I’ve always liked him and had a really good chat with him when he played with Plock. He never looked Sabate’s way and vice versa. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. This is a team, which everyone says is in decline and they have just won for the first time ever at Kiel. Why are the Sporting Director and coach not even congratulating each other? The juxtaposition of the two reactions was stark.

I don’t know if there is a problem between them, but I do know that in football, particularly English football, that most coaches don’t like to have a sporting director, because most coaches want team control. Now again, I don’t know what input anyone has at the club, (in terms of transfers or contracts) but that left me confused and as my indignant radar was already raised about the treatment of Sabate, I found that quite revealing because you cannot hamstring a coach. Especially if you believe the team is having problems, then everyone must be pulling together. The coach, and especially the team, must believe that their hard work is appreciated and supported by all. This is the only way you can overcome adversity. Right now, their winning run in the VELUX EHF Champions League is showing Sabate's plan is paying dividends.

MOTW likes to bring you great games, but it seems also to add a bit of spice to the mix. Flensburg are coming to town and that means that Sabate must stride across the line to shake hands with the man who will replace him. Sabate’s contract was up at the end of the year anyway, but do you really need to know so early who will replace you; that you will be replaced, that you must continue for the entire season knowing that you are a “lame duck”. Every defeat is just another reason you should go and every victory is just doing your job. By all means replace your coach, if that is what a club wants, but there is always a dignified way in which to conduct your business.

Ljubo is coming to town and although he is the coach of the opposition team, I’m sure more than a few heads will turn to see how his team plays. Vranjes is a great coach and a bystander in this soap opera. He is a Champions League winner and right at this moment in time he looks like he could win the Bundesliga. He comes with credentials, but he also comes with a very strong personality. He is a boss in the true sense of the word. There are few of them left in modern sports. Gislason at Kiel is one, Belichick at The New England Patriots is another and once upon a time Ferguson was one at Man United. These are men who control everything right down to the smallest detail at a club. They make the decisions and I cannot see that when Vranjes goes to Veszprem that he will brook any opposition to his acquisitions. He will not be told who can or cannot be bought, budgetary constraints notwithstanding. Veszprem may have invited the correct partner to the ball finally, but they will have to dance to his tune.

And amidst all this Sabate must do his job. He is still the coach of Veszprem. He must do all he can to help them be successful. I remember reading Bence Mártha’s article on Veszprem earlier in the season on and I was intrigued with what he had to say. He put the team’s travails down to an aging squad, injuries and a very difficult schedule. He never once pointed the finger at the coach. I decided to do some research and I found that the team travelled 27 times in 40 matches at the start of the season. I couldn’t believe it. That kind of schedule in an Olympic year and with a World Championships would put even the fittest player to the test. I don’t know what the rest of the season looks like, but my feeling is that the schedule will ease up and the results will improve.

Veszprem are still one of my favourites for the FINAL4 and a few returning injured players will show how strong they really are. I also believe this could be the last season for a lot of these players at Veszprem and so might be their last chance to win the ultimate prize. And when all is said and done Sabate will find another handball home because he has shown he can deal with top players and tough situations.

But Veszprem has made its decision and they are bringing in a proven winner. Perhaps for the first time since my involvement they are turning to a man with a track record for building something and with their budget, they can clearly do it quicker than Flensburg could. So it should all turn out well.

How difficult will it be for both men on Saturday? It’s not a must-win in terms of the group, but there is an underlying reason for both coaches to win: for their clubs of course, but also for their reputations. Both are consummate professionals and will only focus on the match, but every coach has a human side and this must be a difficult situation for both of them.

They say that all fights begin and end with a handshake, but sometimes you can hear the silence in a handshake. Body language will be highly in evidence from, both, coaches and players on Saturday.

Let’s not ignore the elephant in the room!

TEXT: Tom Ó Brannagáin / bc

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