November 25, 2010

All hail Pace - Droylsden's driving force

Posted by Rebecca Lowe on 25/11/2010

Droylsden boss Dave Pace is an excitable character © PA

The second round of the FA Cup has a special feeling as the smaller clubs populating the competition are just 90 minutes away from a possible meeting with one of the Premier League elite. For a team like Droylsden, who are from Greater Manchester and sit in the Blue Square North, living in the shadow of clubs like Manchester United and Manchester City on a daily basis, it is even more of an incentive. ESPN is proud to be bringing you live coverage of their game against Leyton Orient on Monday night.

Droyslden are an interesting club, but they are not very well known, even in their own vicinity. Manchester is dominated by two huge clubs, and there are plenty of big teams surrounding the city in the North West. When covering a Droylsden game a few years ago. I was staying in Manchester and jumped into a taxi to get to the game. I asked the driver, a born and bred Mancunian, to take me to Droyslden. His response was: “Where’s that?” He had absolutely no idea, and the ground is not very far away from Eastlands and Old Trafford. Some Manchester City fans even attend games when City are playing away from home.

The club play at the Butcher’s Arms ground, which is an amazing name. It is a romantic ground and the manager is a real character. Dave Pace is also the chairman, the owner and pretty much the everything there. At Droyslden they even have a chant that goes, “Who needs Mourinho? We’ve got Dave Pace-io!” He is a football man and loves Droylsden to pieces.

He's very excitable. He is a bit of a Mourinho in that respect - he is great with the press and you always get a good line out of him. I once interviewed him on the touchline during a win against Oxford - which was a huge result against a much bigger club - and as the final whistle blew he went absolutely ballistic, saying it was one of the greatest moments of his career. If they beat Leyton Orient on Monday, I’m not sure what he will do.

Monday’s game is huge for him and Droylsden as it brings them exposure and money in the bank. The money helps to keep the club alive and they are 90 minutes away from a glamour tie that could fund them for years. As the stakes are so high, it is no surprise that the atmosphere at a local ground on FA Cup nights couldn’t be more different to that at a huge stadium. The fans are a lot closer to the action and a lot more excited about television being there. You are all together there as part of this experience - we are making a real difference to that club.

On Monday, there is definitely a chance of a shock. With the magic of the FA Cup, particularly for a night game, the Droylsden players, who work in their day jobs for the rest of the week, will be fired up. To them it is everything. You can never rule anyone out in the FA Cup, but particularly Dave Pace, as he will be doing everything he possibly can to ensure Leyton Orient’s trip to Droylsden is anything but pleasant.

November 9, 2010

First quarter report card

Posted by Darrell Currie on 09/11/2010

Kenny Miller has been in prolific form this season for Rangers © Getty Images

So here we are after 11 games, all the SPL teams have now played each other, and it’s time to reflect on the early season title race, ahead of Wednesday’s big match on ESPN - Hearts v Celtic. It should be a cracker.

Right, let’s start at the top - Rangers. Things could hardly have gone any better for Walter Smith’s side and Sunday’s victory at St Mirren Park on ESPN put the Gers back on top of the table. Only one slip up to date (a home draw with Inverness) has Rangers ahead of Celtic by one point. The question remains though - do Rangers have the stamina to stay there? Kenny Miller recently said fatigue won’t be an issue, but I’m not so sure. On Sunday in Paisley, Rangers looked lethargic, even though they had some time to recover after their match with Valencia, they still looked leggy - Craig Burley said just that when commentating at the weekend.

Rangers have a small squad and Walter Smith knows it. The problem is he can’t afford to try the youngsters out too much as Celtic are keeping the pressure on. At the start of the season Smith said the young talent would have to contribute - so far (apart from in the League Cup) that hasn’t been the case. Steven Naismith and Kenny Miller have kept Rangers on top, with excellence in midfield from Steven Davis in particular, but more players will have to step up if Rangers are to continue on their incredible point-grabbing pace.

Vladimir Weiss started with a bang, but of late (albeit he has had a heel injury) he’s been a little disappointing. He will need to get back to the form he showed at Easter Road some weeks ago. John Fleck could be a key man for Rangers as well. He’s been unlucky with injuries so far, but his trickery can unlock defences just as Weiss’ can. Those wide men can add more dynamism to Rangers’ play. Up front more help is needed too if the Gers are to keep winning. I was impressed by Kyle Lafferty’s work-rate last weekend at St Mirren, he changed the game when he came on at half-time. He looks ready to start from the first minute now - and he can score goals.

With Beattie and Jelavic (the major summer recruits) both ailing on the sidelines the Northern Irish forward finally has a chance to become an Ibrox hero - a status he’s not really come close to achieving yet. Rangers undoubtedly have a strong starting XI, but it’s strength in-depth that they don’t have. Keeping players fit is important of course, but getting more players to contribute is even more vital. That would take some of the pressure off red-hot Kenny Miller and Steven Naismith.

Rangers’ defining moment so far is of course the win at Parkhead. It suggested to me that they are a very strong cohesive unit, but that it is not the game that will decide the league - it’s more likely to be the last Old Firm game of the season that will be the decider in my view.

So that takes me on to Celtic. They have kept pace brilliantly at the top with Rangers, and the only blot on their copy book is the defeat by the Gers at Celtic Park; that is their only blot in the SPL anyway, in Europe they were shocking in Utrecht. That poor European night aside, I’ve been really impressed by the progress Neil Lennon’s men are making. Let’s make one thing clear - while there’s a chance Rangers will suffer from having a small squad, Celtic will only get stronger as their many new players learn how to play with each other more effectively.

Up front there are signs Anthony Stokes and Gary Hooper can be a deadly strike partnership (just ask Aberdeen). There has been a suggestion they can become the new Larsson/Sutton double-act - but I think that’s a grossly exaggerated expectation. They won’t be that good, but they will be crucial this season. Hooper reminds me a bit of Scott McDonald in that he has a low centre of gravity, allowing him to instinctively turn in the box, find some space and find the net. He was a shrewd acquisition.

South Korean Ki is a classy player as well, but he wasn’t strong enough in the Old Firm game and he’ll have to learn from that. The defence has also been a problem for Celtic at times this season (despite the fact they haven’t conceded that many goals) and that needs sorting out. Glenn Loovens has been ousted by Thomas Rogne recently, and with good effect, but Rogne is inexperienced and the big Swedish international Daniel Majstorovic will need to be a calming influence on his fellow Scandinavian. At the same time though Majstorovic also has to be consistent - I’ve seen him look like a rock one week, and a stone the next.

So what does all this add up to? Really I’m not sure, but this is a vital few weeks in the title race that’s for sure - and you can follow it all on ESPN. Check our schedules, we have Rangers and Celtic live over and over again in the coming weeks, and we’re loaded with Old Firm fixtures all the way over the Christmas period as well.

Next up is Hearts v Celtic on Wednesday and it’ll be as tough a test as Neil Lennon’s side have had (not counting the game against Rangers). Hearts won the Edinburgh derby, and I think they have the players to be the best club outside the Old Firm this season. I just mentioned the Celtic defence - well they will have to be strong against the likes of Kevin Kyle this midweek. Celtic lost in their only meaningful visit to Tynecastle last season and that day the Jambos took advantage of poor Celtic finishing and poor defending. Celtic are far stronger now than they were back then under Tony Mowbray, but still this is a tough fixture to predict. One thing’s for sure though – these next few games on ESPN are going to be crucial, and matches like this one on Wednesday will be huge in terms of the final destination of the SPL trophy.

To sum all this up then - perhaps it’s a battle between stamina and progression, with vital questions still without answers. Can Celtic improve enough to keep the pressure on? Can Rangers keep fighting at home and abroad? We’ll find out soon enough. Then again there is also another small factor in this mind-boggling equation – it’s Walter Smith’s final season in charge of Rangers – so perhaps there’s a touch of fate involved here.

November 4, 2010

A rainy night in Rochdale

Posted by Jon Champion on 04/11/2010

Now, please don’t get me wrong, there is no job I would rather do than the one I currently have. Even so, there are times when my enthusiasm can be tested, and an example occurred at 7.51 on Tuesday evening.

• Jon Champion interview
• FA Cup: LIVE on ESPN
• Jolly: Rise of the Red Rebels
• Houchen: The man born for the FA Cup
• Rewind: Non-league Spurs savour glory

The location was Spotland, the well-appointed and much-improved home of Rochdale. The occasion was the first League visit for 36 years of local rivals, Oldham Athletic.

Much as I admire the earthy qualities of Lancashire derbies, it was the chance to examine Rochdale at close quarters ahead of ESPN’s first FA Cup broadcast on Friday that led me to book a ticket. When the Dale players trot out to face FC United, I need to know what they look like, hence a three hour car journey seemed worthwhile for peace of mind.

That was to reckon without the fickle British climate. Leaving home in bright sunshine, the weather didn’t even seem a factor. By Birmingham it was dull, by Stoke it was wet, by Manchester the rain had become torrential enough for the M6 to grind to a halt (it doesn’t take much!).

A three hour trip stretched beyond the four hour mark, but the warm welcome from Rochdale chairman Chris Dunphy made the frustrations worthwhile. He used to walk to the ground as a child from his home five miles away in Milnrow and he guides the club with the love and attention one would expect from a lifelong fan.

Out we went in time for kick-off, only to be greeted by monsoon conditions. The ball couldn’t travel reliably across the surface, the Oldham left-back was in danger of drowning, and less than six minutes in, the referee, Tony Bates, had little option but to abandon the game. 300 miles for 300 seconds of football!

Hopefully, I gleaned enough to be able to recognise the Rochdale team. Friday evening will be the test. But for all the angst, I have to confess it was not my worst ‘call-off’. That came when I was assigned to an FA Cup tie between Carlisle and Sheffield Wednesday - then in the Premier League. A spying mission to Brunton Park for a midweek game against Hull was thwarted when fog descended just before kick-off. That was a 600 mile round trip for no football at all, so maybe I should consider myself fortunate.

In any case, I can forgive just about anything when the FA Cup is involved. For me, it remains a special competition, celebrating the inequalities it throws up and creating memories and heroes.

Officials at Rochdale reckon Spotland’s 10,000 capacity could be tested when FC United and their many followers come to town; it promises to be a unique occasion.

FC were only founded in 2005 and still retain their original manager, Karl Marginson. Many of those who support them travelled the continent watching Manchester United before the Glazers’ arrival brought debt and disillusionment. One elderly gentleman who was at their game at Ossett Town last week explained to me that he has two highlights in his football-watching career: One is Solskjaer’s never-to-be-forgotten winner in Barcelona in 1999, the other is Carlos Roca’s goal against Barrow that took FC United into the FA Cup proper for the very first time.

FC United has given a significant number of football followers a sense of belonging that Premier League and Champions League teams can no longer offer. It is a cause as well as a club and Friday will provide a defining moment. That the FA Cup has provided the framework for it to happen is another reason to be grateful to the best club cup competition in the world. Let’s just hope the weather plays ball.