Editor's Blog
December 9, 2010

Pardew appointment perplexing

Posted by Alex Livie on 09/12/2010

On Monday, I wrote a piece in support of the decision by Newcastle owner Mike Ashley to remove Chris Hughton. It proved unpopular, as I expected it would, but I stand by what I said.

It was written in the belief that Ashley would make an appointment that would take the club forward. Sadly, by moving for Alan Pardew I cannot see how this will happen. For the fans to stomach the departure of such a popular figure as Hughton, it had to be a name to set the pulse racing – someone who had the clout to lure high-calibre players to St James’ Park.

The potential options to do that were, if truth be told, thin on the ground. Possibly the two Martins – O’Neill and Jol – as there was never really a chance of Alan Shearer or Kevin Keegan going back. Instead, Newcastle have appointed a man who has had little success as a manager – his only silverware being the Football League Trophy with Southampton this year.

Pardew will stand or fall on the results Newcastle get. But it is likely to be a brief honeymoon period and the reception he receives when Liverpool arrive at St James’ on Saturday is sure to be mixed.

Newcastle fans will get behind the team, but there are sure to be open wounds about the departure of Hughton. If the team can take three points against Liverpool it will ease the transition period. But defeat could be the start of a sticky period. Following the visit of the Reds, Newcastle face a trip to a resilient Birmingham side, a home game with title-chasing Manchester City and a trip to a flying Tottenham.

Pardew has vowed to bring a blend of attacking football to the side and his first task will be to get senior players Kevin Nolan, Joey Barton, Steve Harper, Andy Carroll et al onside and in tune with how he wants to take the club forward.

Whether it is the right appointment, only time will tell, but it is not what was envisaged when the rug was pulled from under Hughton on Monday.

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December 8, 2010

Be wary of the return of Warne

Posted by Alex Livie on 08/12/2010

Australia are in disarray after their defeat in Adelaide, so much so that sections of their media are calling for Shane Warne to come out of retirement.

Warne has not played Test cricket in four years, with his time now spent in the commentary box and an occasional stint at the IPL. Tantalisingly, Warne has left the door ajar by writing in his column in the Telegraph that “All I can say is that it is flattering to hear those words.”

It has caused great mirth in the UK that the Australians are in such disarray that they are even talking about rolling out the 41-year-old. But rather than scoff at the subject, England should pray that the Australians do not make the astonishing move and turn to the greatest legspinner that has played the game.

Yes he has not played Test cricket in four years and is sure to be well short of the fitness levels required of a Test match cricketer. But let’s remember that Warne at his peak was never a toned physical specimen with a body to match David Haye. And give him a couple of days in the nets and he will no doubt slip back into the old rhythm.

There is no chance of him hitting his best form, but even a Warne at 50 per cent of his powers would be a more potent threat than the likes of Nathan Hauritz and Xavier Doherty. And having played a key role in Australia’s dominance of the Test scene for over a decade, he would have a psychological effect on the England batsmen.

As mentioned earlier, fitness would not really be a concern as they could park Warne at slip – that’s where he spent much of his career and he had one of the finest pair of hands in the game.

It would make Australia a laughing stock if they turn to Warne as it would be an admission that they need the help of a long-retired spinner and let’s hope that their pride gets in the way and prevents them from making a decision that would spice up the series and hand them a chance of winning the Ashes. Because at present, they don't.

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December 7, 2010

No problems with Hughton departure

Posted by Alex Livie on 07/12/2010

Newcastle have taken the decision to axe Chris Hughton and it has caused uproar but, and what I will say will be unpopular, I really can't see what all the fuss is about.

Yes it is harsh if you look at other examples of clubs giving their managers the chance to prove themselves, but it is the club's decision to have in charge who they see fit. Hughton will not be out of pocket as their will be a compensation package heading his way and loyalty is a two-way street as players and managers past, present and I've no doubt in the future will jump ship if a better opportunity presents itself.

So why did the club pull the rug from under the feet of a man who got them back into the Premier League?

Yes he did get them back into the Premier League but he did it with comfortably the best squad of players in the Championship. Yes he got them playing and working as a unit but that was his job.

He did a fine job but there is a suspicion he was always viewed by the Newcastle hierarchy as a stop gap. Twice he took over in a caretaker capacity and was handed the reins in the Championship at a time when continuity was needed and cloth had to be cut. He did the job and got the club promoted but the only surprise to me is that it took this long for the axe to be wielded.

He was on borrowed time before Newcastle thrashed Sunderland 5-1. To remove Hughton straight after that mighty win over their bitter rivals would have provoked an almighty backlash that owner Mike Ashley would not have cared for, prompting him to hold fire. A long unbeaten run could have resulted in a change of stance but their form has been inconsistent and they were awful against West Brom on Sunday.

There have been cries of same old trigger happy Newcastle and that nothing has changed but I feel the opposite is true. The club have learned from the past. Two seasons ago the rot was allowed to set in and by the time changes were made, it was too late to stave off relegation.

Ashley has cut Hughton free with Newcastle sat comfortably in 12th. The move hands the new manager a platform to work from and a transfer market to delve into.

It is a tough decision by Ashley and one he will be judged on, but it is a bold one.

The next decision is to bring in the right man and I'm not commenting on that, yet.

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November 12, 2010

Managers must be allowed to pick their own team

Posted by Alex Livie on 12/11/2010

Ian Holloway is in danger of picking up a rentaquote moniker following some of his outlandish comments and press conferences of late, but he must be defended for his latest rant.

For those not familiar with the tale, Holloway made 10 changes to his Blackpool side for the trip to Aston Villa. They were beaten, but only by a late goal and were worthy of a point.

But since the game he has had to face accusations of fielding a weakened team and the Premier League is investigating.

Holloway has said he will quit if he or the club is punished, making it clear that he will not be dictated to on team selection. And that is the point, HE is paid to manage Blackpool to the best of his abilities - not some rulemaker at Premier League towers.

The Premier League brought in a rule at the start of the season saying that teams must deliver a squad of 25 players, 17 of which can be from outside England, and pick from that. All the players picked by Holloway for the trip to Villa were from that 25 – aside from Matthew Phillips who is under 21 so does not need to be named in the squad. If he is punished, it would make a mockery of the decision to have a 25-man squad.

Not every club can afford 25 superstars but by setting a cap of 25, the Premier League is saying they are good enough to be in the team. That cannot suddenly be changed because Holloway made ten changes as opposed to one or two. It might not have been conventional but it was his decision. And the Premier League has to see that.

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October 18, 2010

Lennon wrong to rant at ref for getting it right

Posted by Alex Livie on 18/10/2010

You can’t win as a referee nowadays. Blackpool boss Ian Holloway feels his side have got “bo diddley squat” this season and after watching the Tangerines’ defeat to Manchester City on Sunday - you can feel his pain.

But look north of the border and we’ve had Celtic boss Neil Lennon ranting at referee Dougie McDonald following his side’s win over Dundee United.

If you’re not familiar with what went on, McDonald gave Celtic a penalty only to change his mind after consulting with his assistant. Lennon felt this was “unacceptable.”

“He's given the penalty and for me he can't change his mind,'' Lennon said. "I didn't get an explanation until the referee came over and spoke to me. His explanation was that his linesman had a better view of it and the keeper had played the ball. I find that unacceptable. He looked pretty adamant to me when he gave the penalty. He got a really good look at it.”

Replays showed that the revised decision was correct, as keeper Dusan Pernis had got a large chunk of the ball before making contact with Gary Hooper.

McDonald should be praised for being big enough to listen to his assistant and big enough to hold his hands up and accept his initial decision was incorrect.

What would Lennon prefer? That the ref makes a wrong decision and stands by it? In this case, clearly yes, but I bet he wouldn’t if the boot was on the other foot.

In an era when referees are under increased scrutiny and every mistake is headline news, let’s applaud them, rather than criticise them, for getting something right.

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October 12, 2010

What was the moment that won the Ryder Cup?

Posted by Alex Livie on 12/10/2010

The euphoria of Europe’s stunning win over USA in the Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor has dimmed a shade, so the time has come to take a look at the moment the Ryder Cup was won.

Graeme McDowell’s nerveless display against Hunter Mahan? Luke Donald’s brilliance against Jim Furyk? Padraig Harrington filling his partner Ross Fisher with confidence to drain putts from all round the course? Rory McIlroy’s superb up and down from the sand on 18 for a half against Stewart Cink?

All of the above are worthy of mentions and undoubtedly played a part in Europe’s win, but for all the effort that went in to the win they were given an almighty helping hand by an almighty blunder.

USA rookie Rickie Fowler earned huge praise for his brilliance in battling back from four down in his singles match with Edoardo Molinari to snatch a half. Fowler birdied 15, 16, 17 and 18 to prove in no uncertain terms that he is a star of the future and an almost certain key figure for USA for years to come.

But roll back the clock a couple of days and Fowler was taught a very harsh lesson in foursomes golf. As opposed to fourballs, a pair plays just one ball and it has to be the same make and model of ball. Fowler is contracted to a different ball manufacturer to his partner Jim Furyk and when the latter pulled his tee shot on the fourth into an unplayable position, Fowler – instead of cleaning the original ball and reusing it – dipped into his pocket and pulled out his own ball. The problem was, it was not the same make and model which is an automatic loss of hole.

Fowler and Furyk went on to half the match, but without that aberration on four it could well have been a victory. And that extra half point would have been the difference between retaining and losing the Ryder Cup.

The 21-year-old Fowler covered himself in glory for much of the time at Celtic Manor, displaying a nerveless attitude and commitment to the cause, but that moment of madness proved to be such a key moment in the match.

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September 14, 2010

Vamos Rafa, the greatest

Posted by Alex Livie on 14/09/2010

nadal-knees440.jpg

Rafael Nadal finally got his hands on the US Open crown to complete his career Grand Slam and it provides yet more ammunition to those, myself included, who feel he is the greatest player ever to pick up a racket.

His win over Novak Djokovic came against the world No. 2 and at present the second best player on the planet - that tag no longer sits on the shoulders of Roger Federer. Djokovic played the game of his life, after shrugging off some first-set lethargy, and traded shot after shot with Nadal. But no matter what Djokovic threw at his opponent, Nadal found a way of getting the job done.

The quality was not brilliant for a set and a half, but after the rain delay it was out of the top drawer and they served up one of the games of the year.

The rivalry between Nadal and Djokovic could eclipse the one between Nadal and Federer. Many wanted a Nadal-Fed final, but that would not have been nice to witness as the Swiss, as good as he has been and still is, would have been chewed up and spat out. Djokovic possesses a weapon on his backhand that Federer does not and it makes life tough for Nadal but such is his stature at present, he can still come up with an answer.

Nadal seems to be managing his body better, on account of a more sensible schedule, and he now has nine grand slams under his belt. At 24 he has, provided his body stays strong, many more slams ahead of him and Federer's record of 16 is within reach.

There will still be those who will champion Federer as the greatest. But he has been in Nadal's slipstream for three years and there is no doubt that Federer would still be waiting for his career Grand Slam had Nadal been fit at the 2009 French Open.

Those who say Nadal is a one-trick power player are utterly wrong. Yes he gives the ball a tremendous thump from the baseline, but he often plays within himself compared to how hard he hits the ball in practice. He has worked on his serve since Paris to make him competitive on the hard courts and he is no slouch around the net.

Whether he can raise the bar much higher remains to be seen, but he has the dedication, support of family and humbleness to not rest on his laurels.

In an era when so many sports stars are in the news pages as much as the sports pages, it is a delight to see Nadal play the game with such joy and then head home to celebrate with his close unit.

A tremendous win from a worthy champion and long may his reign continue.

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September 6, 2010

Murray lost the mental fight

Posted by Alex Livie on 06/09/2010

A worrying sight was witnessed at Flushing Meadows on Sunday: Andy Murray losing a mental battle.

Murray was beaten by an admittedly impressive Stanislas Wawrinka, but it was the manner of the defeat that set alarm bells ringing.

Both players finished the match like punch-drunk boxers and it may be that the Scot was suffering from a physical problem - he did complain of a wrist injury after beating Dustin Brown - but he did not look overly troubled when a set and a break to the good.

Wawrinka possesses as much talent as anybody on tour but has often looked less than hearty when sucked into a battle. So to see Murray surrender a position of such authority is disappointing.

He may well have been rattled by Wawrinka calling the trainer to treat a leg problem at the start of the third set but he really needs to block those things out of his mind.

Time and again we have seen Murray drag himself into drawn out battles by letting his level drop but generally he has won through. Those sorts of games have been against players of inferior ability to the Scot, but this time he came up against a player of comparable talent.

The one thing Wawrinka did not look to possess in comparison to Murray is bottle. But last night instead of doing what he should have done and knock out a good man when he is wobbling, Murray allowed his opponent off the ropes and it cost him dear.

The US Open was a prime chance for him to get a slam under his belt as everything looked to be in his favour but he blinked at the vital moment and will now have four months to think about it before Australia.

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September 2, 2010

Murray needs to show ruthless streak

Posted by Alex Livie on 02/09/2010

Andy Murray made a superb start to his US Open quest with a straight-sets victory over Lucas Lacko and it was good to see him show a ruthless streak.

Murray has the talent to go all the way, but time and again in majors he has wasted energy by winning matches in four and five sets that he should have put away in three. Most of his lapses can be put down to a lack of concentration, but that can be an Achilles heel when you are playing at a major lasting a fortnight.

It is imperative you conserve energy in the early rounds, especially so for Murray who did not kick off his campaign until Wednesday meaning his matches will be squeezed into a tighter timeframe.

Against Lacko, Murray produced the quality play he is famed for, but also recovered from dropping his serve at the start of the second set to close out the match. There would have been times in the past when a dropped serve at the start of a set would have been the catalyst for Murray losing his focus and surrendering a set. But not on this occasion.

Lacko is of limited ability when you talk about players at the top of the tree and up next is a similar player: Dustin Brown – a Jamaican capable of the sublime and the ridiculous.

Truer tests lie ahead for Murray over the course of the next week and a half, but he needs to maintain that ruthless streak.

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August 2, 2010

Milner is not the answer for City

Posted by Alex Livie on 02/08/2010

James Milner appears to be rivalling Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres for the transfer saga of the summer award. Will he or won’t he leave Aston Villa for Manchester City? That is the question on the lips of many fans of the two clubs, but I doubt fans of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal are losing too much sleep over the saga.

Milner is a good player, but is he really any better than that? I just don’t see it. I am a fan of Milner, he has a great attitude and is a tireless worker. But those are the sort of players that should be operating for teams in the middle of the table, not in the Premier League title race.

So is he worth £30 million? The transfer market suggests he is, so it must be the case, but that speaks as much about the money flooding through Eastlands than the quality of the player.

And that really is the problem as City do seem to have money burning a hole in their pockets. If you look at the players on City’s books, Roberto Mancini could field two teams that would stand an excellent chance of finishing fourth. But, worryingly for City and their fans, I don’t think the Italian could pick one side that would win the Premier League.

Shay Given is a top class keeper, as is Joe Hart, but if you look through the rest of the squad there are a glut of good players but only a small handful who are top-class talents. There is talk that Mario Balotelli is on his way and he is in the mould of potentially top class but far from the finished article.

If City want to challenge Chelsea and United, they need to be channelling their millions into signing top-class talents. Milner, for all his qualities, is not.

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