August 27, 2009

Burnley can invoke "Wally's Law"

Posted by Ray Stubbs on 27/08/2009

Matches come thick and fast at this early stage of a new football season and the Chelsea-Burnley game will be here in no time at all.

It seems a pattern has emerged in regard to live ESPN Barclays Premier League games, a sequence of "away wins" - Arsenal at Everton, Tottenham at West Ham and then Aston Villa at Liverpool.

If promoted Burnley win at Stamford Bridge and make it four out of four it will signal a sensational start to their first top-flight season for 23 years.

But even if Burnley lose they will still be in a great position. They will arrive at the Bridge with six points out of a possible nine and I am grateful to Wally Downes for an interesting statistic in regard to the quest of promoted clubs staying in the top flight and avoiding relegation.

Wally is a respected coach and was assistant to Steve Coppell during Reading's recent Premier League adventure. To date, not one club has been relegated that has taken nine points from the first six games of the season. Every club that has got to the nine-point mark after six games played has stayed up.

I trust my friend implicitly so I am not prepared to check this out, Wally is no Wally. So although it's a tough test for Burnley this Saturday, they already have six from three, one win from the next three would get them to the nine-point mark and going by "Wally's Law" they would stay up. Mind you, he did concede that Hull did their best to destroy the theory last season

Former Chelsea Frank Leboeuf will be in the ESPN studio alongside Kevin Keegan for the Chelsea versus Burnley game. Kevin's arrival last weekend gave everyone a great lift, his great knowledge, passion and enthusiam for football is infectious. It's great news thats he's joined the ESPN team.

Kevin was out of his seat when Carlton Cole scored a fantastic goal for the Hammers, and then mystified as to what was in the mind of the West Ham striker when he played the pass of the match to set up Jermaine Defoe for Tottenham's equaliser.

Away from club football for a moment, if both those players keep developing as they have been of late it could be Cole plus Defoe with Rooney behind them in a free striking role for England in a World Cup game.

Back to the sequence of away wins: Liverpool's performance at home to Aston Villa on Monday drew cause for concern from both Kevin and fellow studio guest Matt Holland. They both questioned the level of invention that Liverpool showed but the danger in these situations is to underestimate Aston Villa's excellent performance on the night.

It was good to learn that Monday's game from Anfield, with commentary from Jon Champion and Joe Royle and the half-time analysis from Kevin and Matt was broadcast in the United States. Thanks to everyone from across the Atlantic who has been making contact via Soccernet. One final thing to mention is that on the back of Saturday's Chelsea-Burnley game we are hoping to have the Chelsea boss Carlo Ancelotti as an ESPN viewer.

AC Milan and Jose Mourinho's Inter Milan face each other in a Serie A match at the San Siro, the game is live on ESPN and is a cracking match in prospect.

A helping of fine Clarets

Posted by Jon Champion on 27/08/2009

Fifty years ago this week, Burnley played the opening fixture of a season that would end with them crowned League champions for only the second time in the club's history. Manager Harry Potts guided his team to a 3-2 win at Leeds on that August Saturday, and that set the tone for a campaign of triumph.

The line-up contained several princely footballers, perhaps the most noble of all being Jimmy McIllroy, an Ulsterman blessed with poise, panache and presence. He remains Burnley's most capped and most revered player. His performances alone were enough to endear him to the town's population, but his place in their affections was secured when he turned down a lucrative transfer to Sampdoria - complete with the offer of a villa overlooking the Med - because his wife couldn't understand why they would possibly want to leave Burnley.

Now a spritely 77 and still a regular at Turf Moor, Jimmy will no doubt be tuning in to ESPN's coverage of the Clarets' lunchtime kick-off at Chelsea this Saturday.

The whole town has embraced Premier League football with the warmth and excitement of a community deprived of top-flight fare for too long. Relegated in 1976, the downward spiral was so severe that they nearly crashed out of the Football League. Only a last day victory over Leyton Orient preserved their status in 1987. The man who scored the most vital goal in the club's history - the winner against the O's - was Ian Britton, a former Chelsea midfielder. He will be at the Bridge this weekend as one of Chelsea's matchday hosts, even though he still lives in Burnley!

I doubt that Chelsea's millionaires are quaking in their expensively endorsed boots at the thought of Burnley's visit. However, Owen Coyle's men have already beaten two of last season's top five, and the victory over Manchester United showed the admirable sense of togetherness that this clever manager has fostered.

By way of reward, George Heys, a local butcher whose shop stands in the shadow of Turf Moor, has created a range of sausages to mark the team's achievements. The "Coyle Springer" is one of the most popular purchases, closely followed by the "Claret Clouter" and "The Beast", invented in honour of Danish goalkeeper Brian Jensen.

It was Jensen who saved two penalties at Stamford Bridge last season as Burnley knocked Chelsea out of the Carling Cup. It was Jensen who pushed away Michael Carrick's spot-kick only last week. And it was Jensen whose sheer presence was enough to persuade Louis Saha to fire his penalty wide of the post when Everton succumbed on Sunday.

League One Hartlepool supplied a dose of reality by taking Burnley to extra-time in the League Cup on Tuesday, but only Andre Bikey of the Premier League regulars had turned out from the start.

These are exciting times in East Lancashire. Burnley are living proof of the cyclical nature of professional football. They offer hope to clubs like Leeds and Newcastle because they have plumbed greater depths and still come back to thrive.

The relationship between fans and club is closer than most to the point that we'll be making every effort to find Burnley's ultimate supporter with our cameras. Dave Beeston changed his name by deed poll to show his allegiance and hasn't missed a game in 35 years. Now he's known as Dave Burnley - and he'll be cheering the team on with his daughter, Clarette. Dedication that knows no bounds!

August 21, 2009

Glory, glory, Tottenham Hotspur?

Posted by Jon Champion on 21/08/2009

What a start to the Barclays Premier League season! Arsenal delivering six of the best in ESPN’s first live game at Goodison, Burnley in ‘Blake’s Heaven’ (copyright Gary Lineker on Match of the Day) and Tottenham - yes, fragile, flaky Tottenham - looking like world-beaters.

I watched Spurs’ victory last Sunday and came to the same conclusion as a number of worried Liverpool fans; Tottenham’s squad may well be stronger than that of last season’s runners-up. However, when you consider that chairman Daniel Levy has sanctioned spending of £200m during the last five transfer windows, maybe that’s not such a surprise?

Whether right or wrong, it sets up ESPN’s weekend double-header nicely. On Sunday lunchtime in the East End we have Tottenham at West Ham – and don‘t forget Harry Redknapp is unbeaten against the Hammers since leaving the club and has won on all four return visits to Upton Park – then on Monday night we’ll be at Anfield to see if Liverpool can carry on from victory over Stoke when Aston Villa come visiting.

If Arsenal hadn’t done what they did at Everton then Villa’s home defeat by Wigan would have been the standout result of the Premier League’s opening weekend. They have too much attacking power to struggle this season, but it is defensively where Martin O’Neill’s men look vulnerable. They are being linked with players like Bentley and Jenas when it is at the back that strengthening is most required. O’Neill’s determination to spend Randy Lerner’s money wisely is admirable, but I think it is beyond question that they need a larger squad to sustain a challenge for honours.

Mind you it’s dangerous to draw too many conclusions at this time of year. The last few days before the closure of the transfer window always brings some fairly frantic activity. And for those of us who commentate, it’s always a relief to get the opening rounds of the League campaign out of the way. I always feel happier after I’ve seen every team at least once. Not only is it a question of identification, but with so many foreign players there’s the issue of pronunciation too.

The sophistication of the modern football watcher is such that someone will always pick you up if you get a name wrong, so that means assiduous checking with players. Last weekend brought the challenge of Arsenal’s new Belgian centre-half, Thomas Vermaelen, who was happy to confirm in the tunnel at Goodison that his name is pronounced ‘Ver-mar-len’.

I’ve no idea who at ESPN chooses which games to cover, but he or she played a blinder with Everton v Arsenal. For my co-commentator, Joe Royle, there was a neat symmetry in the scoreline. His first memory of watching the Gunners at Goodison dates back to 1958 when David Herd scored 4 as Arsenal won 6-1. Despite his Everton leanings, Joe was thrilled by the modern day Arsenal’s football. It was a big call by Arsene Wenger to reject the blandishments of Real Madrid over the summer. Maybe last week’s game gave us a glimpse as to his reasoning.

And so to this weekend - and one stat that may resonate with Tottenham fans as they head for E13. The last time Spurs won their first three games of a League season was in 1960/61 - and even if you’re not old enough to remember Bill Nicholson and Danny Blanchflower, you’ll probably be aware that was the last time they won the title. I’m not saying they will this year, but August is always a time for hope!

It's great to be here

Posted by Ray Stubbs on 21/08/2009

It was a long time since I had experienced pre-match nerves, but pre-programme nerves were evident when I arrived at the studio for ESPN's Premier League kick-off last Saturday lunchtime. New season, new channel, new job and a great sense of excitement.

Discussions over whether Joleon Lescott would play for Everton, the programme script and the technical questions that needed answering had to be put to one side while another issue was resolved. ESPN guest pundit Peter Reid was keen to show off his new voice-activated phone but was concerned that the latest technological advances weren't up to dealing with his Liverpool accent.

"Play Bruce Springsteen" he instructed the phone only to be dismayed that it called Sunderland manager Steve Bruce. Another attempt to play music ended with a phone call to a Manchester United director. "Call Stubbs R" was the next instruction and this time it worked only because I was sitting next to him. With the former Evertonian and Arsenal legend Ian Wright alongside me in the studio I was in the company of friends and former colleagues.

Steven Berkoff's oratory performed on the stage of Richmond theatre in south-west London had got us off to a flyer but Arsenal stole the show with a stunning performance.

There was a buzz around the studio before during and after the programme, everyone in the ESPN team are indeed delighted to be here but as one columnist wrote on Monday morning it was a case of "cheer up, Peter Reid".

Monday night seemed to arrive very quickly after Saturday evening and the first ESPN Scottish Premier League game supplied us with a highly entertaining match.

Dundee United's win over Hearts will be remembered for Danny Cadamarteri's debut brace and Hearts skipper Michael Stewart's red card but for me it was one of those occasions when a football result or a television programme were put into context.

Colin Hendry is part of the ESPN team, and he is trying to come to terms with the tragic death of his wife. We are delighted Colin is part of our ESPN team and out thoughts have been with him and his family of late.

The weekend is here before we know it and ESPN will show Premier League games on Saturday Sunday and Monday. I hope our UK readers will be able to join us.