Paper Round
October 31, 2010

Hughton discovering life as a loony Toon

Posted by Jo Carter on 31/10/2010

Anfield legend Kenny Dalglish may be rumoured to be replacing Roy Hodgson at Liverpool, but even as the dust settles on the takeover saga, nothing could be as crazy as managing Newcastle, claims Dalglish in his column in the Mail on Sunday.

Most of my working life has been spent in the passionate football hotbeds of Liverpool and Glasgow. But for crazy, intense, obsessive and undiluted devotion to just one club in the whole city, there is nothing to compare with Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

In 1998, as Newcastle United manager, I took them to the FA Cup final, made a couple of important signings (Didi Hamann, Nobby Solano) in the summer and started the following season with a couple of draws. Then I was sacked — still unbeaten!

Was I surprised? The answer, in all honesty, is no. Because in Newcastle-upon-Tyne you have to expect the unexpected and the gossip, rumour mill and speculation run just as feverishly when times are good as when they are bad.

Plenty has happened since 1998. Even the owners at Newcastle United are different. The Hall family and Freddy Shepherd have gone, Mike Ashley is in.

Continue reading "Hughton discovering life as a loony Toon"

October 30, 2010

Tendulkar tips England for Ashes

Posted by Josh Williams on 30/10/2010

Sachin Tendulkar, arguably the best batsman of all time, has thrown his hat into the ring in the Ashes debate by tipping England to win during an interview in the Guardian:

Tendulkar expects a more balanced England to edge the Ashes. "I think England have a better chance. I favour them slightly. I would say [Eoin] Morgan could be the key performer in the Ashes. Morgan and [Graeme] Swann." Suggesting that Kevin Pietersen's poor form lies in his head, Tendulkar pinpoints Morgan as England's best batsman.

Continue reading "Tendulkar tips England for Ashes"

October 29, 2010

It's now or never for England

Posted by Josh Williams on 29/10/2010

With England's stars heading to Australia in a bid to exorcise the demons of their last trip Down Under, which was lost 5-0, commentators are assessing the team's chances. Mike Selvey, writing in the Guardian, reckons this is England's best chance to beat Australia for years:

All teams set off with hope, often to be dashed, but when England travel to Perth tomorrow they will take with them the genuine unfettered belief not just that they will retain the Ashes they won back in 2009, but that they will do so by winning the series.

Continue reading "It's now or never for England"

October 28, 2010

Strauss on an Ashes mission

Posted by Alex Livie on 28/10/2010

Ashes fever is starting to take hold and it will step up when the England team travel out to Australia on November 25. Despite their troubles, Australia are sure to be a fearsome proposition on home soil. But, despite England having not won a series in Australia since 1987, former captain Michael Vaughan, writing in the Daily Telegraph, feels everything is in place for Andrew Strauss’ men to triumph.

"Andrew Strauss sets off on Friday on a mission to retain the Ashes armed with a team who have the best chance since 1986-87 of achieving something special in Australia.

For him personally this is his golden chance to put himself up there with the great captains in cricket history. This could be his time to stamp an indelible mark on the English game.

But that comes at a price. The expectation of England success this time is higher than ever before because the Australians are in such a state of flux.

Also, after all the preparation and expense the England and Wales Cricket Board has gone to in providing the research and the momentum the team have behind them, I will be very disappointed if they do not come back with the Ashes. There are no excuses. They have left no stone unturned.

Man for man, Strauss has got to make England believe that they are better than Australia.

Success will come down to whether England can handle the pressure and make Australia start doubting themselves on home soil.

Australia have lost their last three Test matches and, it does not matter who you are, it is a fact that you can get used to losing, even in an Ashes series.

England get on the plane today knowing they will not have to deal with Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. They head to Australia to play a team that have lost the surprise factor. Australia are just a normal team now. There is a new breed of Australian player coming through but they are walking into a losing side which means that every little mistake a young guy makes could cost a win, or even a draw. That didn't happen in the past because the greats could get them out of trouble.

This is a great time to be leading an England team that's playing well. They have a great chance of winning and we all expect them to retain the Ashes and make history."

October 27, 2010

Conspiracy theories over Paul's death

Posted by Jo Carter on 27/10/2010

The football world mourned the untimely death of Paul the Octopus, but the Guardian suggest all is not as it seems.

No sooner had death's tentacles slackened their grip on Paul's squidgy body than the first conspiracy theory concerning his demise emerged like a cephalopod from a crevice.

Not everyone, it seems, is prepared to accept the news that the "psychic" octopus – who made such a splash over the summer by successfully predicting the results of World Cup games – passed away on Monday in the comfort of the German aquarium he called home.

According to Jiang Xiao, the director of a forthcoming thriller entitled Who Killed Paul the Octopus?, the creature had really been dead for the last three months. Jiang told the Guardian she was "60 to 70% sure" Paul had died in July and been secretly replaced by his keepers.

Explaining how such a deception could have been perpetrated, she added: "[Octopuses] all look the same. It is impossible to tell the difference."

Jiang said she thought it was "kind of strange" that news of Paul's death had broken not long after the Oberhausen Sea Life Centre in western Germany had contacted her team to say they were keen to co-operate on the international distribution of her film.

"We have been keeping in touch with the German aquarium ever since the beginning [of production] but it seemed to me that they were afraid," she said. "The movie is about unveiling the inside story behind the octopus miracle, so they felt nervous.

"For the movie, we had done quite a lot of investigation and I am 60% to 70% sure that Paul died on 9 July [two days before the World Cup final] and the Germans have been covering up his death and fooling us for a long time."

Jiang declined to explain why she believed Paul had died in July — or to say more about the revelations in the movie. Her allegations of submarine jiggery-pokery met with polite bafflement in Germany today.

"It's certainly not true that Paul died in the summer," said a spokeswoman for the aquarium.

"We can absolutely assure you that he died last night. He was about two and a half, which is the average age for an octopus. He died a simple and straightforward death."

Paul is due to be cremated in the next few days. His ashes will be placed in an urn and displayed in a shrine, along with a portrait and video clips from his life, the spokeswoman added.

"We've already set up a condolence book where people can write their tributes to Paul," she said.

But what of the rumours that Paul had pulled off one last magnificent psychic coup by predicting his own death? If he did, he kept it to himself," she said.

Continue reading "Conspiracy theories over Paul's death"

October 26, 2010

Rooney's garish Dubai jaunt

Posted by Jo Carter on 26/10/2010

Wayne Rooney has been given the week off by Sir Alex Ferguson after agreeing a new five-year deal on Friday, but his decision to spend the week in extravagant luxury will leave a bitter taste in the mouth for football fans, writes James Lawton in The Independent.

A great old football man, who died four years after Wayne Rooney was born, never tired of passing on to his co-workers one of his deepest beliefs. It was his article of faith, the lesson he had learned most truly.

"Always celebrate your victories," said Joe Mercer, a hero of Goodison Park and, after the intervention of Second World War army service that stretched to seven years, inspiring captain of Arsenal.

The brilliant and deeply philosophical manager of a superb Manchester City team invariably added, "You must celebrate because in this game you never know if you will ever have another reason to do so."

Strictly speaking, Rooney, who followed Mercer into the colours of Everton with such precocious distinction, was doing no more than following the old man's bidding when he flew off to Dubai with his wife Coleen for a little warmth and sustenance at the £1,200-a-night "seven star" Burj Al Arab hotel.

However, if Rooney did have something to celebrate apart from his 25th birthday, certainly in material terms more than any other professional in the history of the game, we can be sure it was not the kind of triumph Joe Mercer had in mind.

Not that Mercer could ever have imagined a player in the middle of the biggest slump of his career, eight months removed from his last significant club performance and with a dreadful World Cup effort still smouldering in the nation's memory, taking on a club of Manchester United's standing and stripping it bare of any serious sense that it remained bigger than its best paid employee.

Yet if many of the events of recent days would have been mysterious to Mercer, there is no doubt that his reactions would have been, at the very least, complicated by more than the odd flash of ambivalence.

Mercer had some terrible times as a professional, not least when his Everton manager Theo Kelly charged him with feigning injury in an international against Scotland, an accusation that was not withdrawn even when Mercer paid his own medical bills after an operation for serious cartilage damage.

When Mercer signed for Arsenal, for whom he performed with bow-legged commitment of the highest order, the Everton manager took along the player's boots so he wouldn't have reason to return to Goodison Park and say farewell to team-mates who had come to think of him as the professional model to which they all aspired.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Rooney affair, the player has plainly placed a huge burden on himself as he seeks to regain the fire and authority of the best of his game. His decision to fly to Dubai, while nursing an ankle injury – a process hardly served by a 10-hour flight to the desert shore – surely came from the public relations school of "up yours".

As Rooney nursed what looked like a poolside pint, Coleen sipped champagne and displayed a demeanour which might just have suggested a certain dip in the ferocity with which she received the news of his private life that apparently so deeply threatened their marriage.

Meanwhile, of course, Manchester United – the team Rooney argued had become unfit for title-challenging purpose – were fighting at least some way back into contention at one of football's least hospitable places – and Javier Hernandez, who cost United almost precisely half the price of meeting one year of the superstar's new contract – was playing with the relish and the flair that not so long ago were so implicit in every Rooney performance.

It means that beyond the argument of whether Rooney and his agent were right to push a United made so vulnerable by their American ownership's Doomsday borrowing policy against the wall, there is an issue that has nothing to do with morality or style or the imperative to act entirely out of self-interest.

All that is for Rooney to square with himself, a chore which he appeared to have somewhat got the better of in the Dubai swimming pool. What is rather more compelling, at least for some of us, is the answer to that question Joe Mercer raised all those years ago.

It asks whether Rooney will again quite know the gut-deep exhilaration displayed by young Hernandez on Sunday when he scored a back-headed goal of surreal opportunism and another of front-rank predatory instinct. Really, what was Rooney celebrating in Dubai when his team-mates were embroiled in a difficult assignment?

It wasn't one of the great statements of a career that has so often been quite brilliant. It wasn't the wonderful maturity he displayed when he stood head and shoulders above the rest of England's "golden generation" in his first competitive match, a European Championship qualifier against World Cup semi-finalists Turkey in Sunderland seven years ago.

It wasn't the stupendous goal he scored for Everton against an all-conquering Arsenal, which persuaded Arsène Wenger that he was, by some distance, the best young English player he had ever seen.

Certainly it did not follow the kind of announcement he made in Portugal in 2004, when only injury halted his thrilling attempt to provide England with the momentum that might just have brought the nation its first major tournament win in 38 years.

No, what he could only be drinking to in Dubai, the most garish of monuments to quick, borrowed money, was his new status as an icon of the grab-it-all-and-stuff-the-consequences persuasion. That might be fine for Rooney and his advisers, but it wouldn't have been for Joe Mercer – or all those who came so much later and thought they saw in Wayne Rooney a footballer who could flourish in any age of the game.

Why? Because he could persuade some of the most knowledgeable men in football that his talent was so exceptional, so profound, it could be put on the level of so many of the greatest players the game had ever seen. Nor was it just talent; it was the appetite and the fury of the street, it was the passion to play football with a conviction that he was born to do this better than anything else he would ever touch in a life of such unpromising beginnings.

Yes, old Joe said to celebrate every win as if it was your last. He probably didn't realise then there would be a day when victory could ever look so empty and so cheap and, maybe, hazardous.

Continue reading "Rooney's garish Dubai jaunt"

October 25, 2010

Praise must go to the Glazers

Posted by Alex Livie on 25/10/2010

The Wayne Rooney saga has divided opinion, with many believing the striker has bridges to build at Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson appears to have emerged with his reputation enhanced, but not much has been said about the Glazers. The club’s owners are not on the Christmas card list of United supporters, but the Daily Mail’s Martin Samuel feels they are deserving of credit for being able to push through a contract for Rooney so swiftly.

"It took one telephone call to one guy and the deed was done. Nobody defends the debt the Glazer family have attached to Manchester United, but the speed of the Wayne Rooney deal showed once again what can be achieved when a club are in private ownership.

Rooney's contract saga could not have concluded as swiftly as it did in some golden age when Manchester United were run as a plc. And, whisper it, but a disparate consortium of wealthy fans like the Red Nits couldn't have got their act together in that time, either. The saving grace of the Glazer administration is that it allows for no-fuss decision-making in times of crisis. The steer comes from Sir Alex Ferguson, the manager, is relayed by David Gill, the chief executive, and a voice in Tampa, Florida, says yea or nay.

There is no board to be convened, no shareholders to be taken into consideration, no collective of 10 or 60 global investors who must be counselled in a process that could take weeks. It is now believed Rooney talked to a member of the Glazer family personally to receive his guarantees of ambition, and that could not have happened under a plc, either

When United were publicly owned, the board were responsible to shareholders and the chairman could not even speak for his fellow directors without a meeting being held. And what if investors controlling a quarter of the club did not think £200,000-a-week, with bonuses, such a good idea? There could have been arguments behind the scenes, disruptions, delays that took an age to resolve, and all the time with Manchester City waiting and the January transfer window looming.

Say Manchester United had still been a plc when Paul Stretford, Rooney's agent, notified the club that his client would not be signing a new contract. When any circumstances occur that may have impact on the longterm economic future of the company, the Stock Exchange must be informed.
Rooney is an employee, yes, but a significant one. The breakdown of his contract talks would have been treated the same way as the serious injury to Roy Keane, sustained in the infamous tackle with Alf Inge Haaland of Leeds United. That match took place on September 27, 1997 and on September 30, the club suspected Keane would not play again that season. There was an important fixture against Juventus in the Champions League on October 1, and the club were in a position to inform the Stock Exchange about the extent of Keane's injury on October 2.

This was the proper plc response to a player with a temporary fitness problem, so imagine how correct the club would have needed to be in dealing with Rooney's rejection. Ferguson says he was informed of it on August 14, which was a Saturday, so the announcement would have had to wait until Monday, August 16, the date of Manchester United's first match of the season, against Newcastle United. That would have been a happy occasion.

The fall-out from that statement would almost certainly have sparked a downturn in the price of Manchester United shares, causing ripples of panic among major investors, the very people who would later in the week be asked to approve a contract worth £200,000 a week.

This is why Ferguson is in the Glazers' camp. Like any sane person he must be concerned at the level of debt, but he will also recall the alternative, and wrinkle his nose at the memory just the same."

October 24, 2010

More Brazilian, more Spanish

Posted by Jo Carter on 24/10/2010

In the week that Wayne Rooney stole the headlines, two young midfielders have passed slightly under the radar, writes Paul Hayward in the Observer.

Tottenham's Brazilian goalkeeper thinks Gareth Bale, the team's rising Welsh midfielder, could play for the land of joga bonito, which sits nicely with a thought some of us had at Arsenal on Tuesday night. Jack Wilshere, an 18-year-old Englishman, plays like a 25-year-old Spaniard.

While the Wayne Rooney show was unfolding along came two bursts of light to show there is a life beyond the Manchester United refusenik's rampant sense of entitlement. British football becomes ever more money-addled. The Liverpool takeover saga morphed effortlessly into the Rooney yarn. On the pitch, though, there were a couple of good reasons to think the British game is still capable of producing high-class footballers and not just dysfunctional celebrities.

Wilshere, first. Beyond the tender age on his passport, there is no credible reason for Fabio Capello not to start with him when England play France at Wembley next month. The maturity of his performance against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League was such that Gareth Barry, who plays in more or less the same deep midfield position for England, must have turned pale in front of his TV screen.

The next night Bale, a revelation since converting from left-back to left-midfield, tore through Maicon, the world's most capable right-back, to score a hat-trick against the European champions. A caveat is that Inter were already 4-0 up when Bale launched his one-man counter-surge. Still, San Siro was electrified by Bale's audacity and gift for execution. You could sense every major club in Europe jolting awake and wondering what it might take to extricate him from Spurs.

At the other end of the Seven Sisters Road, Wilshere is already a promising accomplice for Cesc Fábregas, the Arsenal captain, who is able to play closer to the attack when his young English colleague starts in the two-man screening position. The fashion is to call Wilshere "the next Paul Scholes" – partly on account of his sometimes aberrant tackling – but a more stimulating thought is that he could have been born under the same bright flag as Fábregas.

As the home nations are also-rans in international tournaments we are within our rights to want young British stars to play like men from other countries. Wenger praised Wilshere by saying he can "play between the lines". The English automaton advances in 4-4-2 formation and lacks the intellectual subtlety to probe and connect in the gaps between opponents.

Wilshere, like Scholes, has this capability. His instinct is to float like an Andrés Iniesta or Xavi and his lack of blistering pace challenges the daft English convention that all modern players have to come out of trap six at Hackney. We are talking here, of course, not about the traditional British virtues of thrust and indefatigability but the kind of spatial awareness applied by an Argentinian, Spanish or Brazilian. Wilshere and Fábregas could start their own degree course in link-play and may develop together into one of the best Premier League midfield combinations.

Bale is not specifically a connector. His calling cards are dynamism along the wings and a lethal left boot. Dismissed not too long ago for being too nice, he is also now impressively self-assertive. The point made by Gomes, the Tottenham keeper, is that Bale plays like a modern Brazilian wing-back: strong, direct and audacious. For crosses and shots, the ball now leaves his foot with radioactive force.

In the latest Fifa world rankings, Wales slipped to 104, behind Kuwait and Gambia. Higher still sit Oman and Uzbekistan. Yet Welsh football has bequeathed John Charles, Ian Rush, Mark Hughes, Ryan Giggs and now Bale and Aaron Ramsey, Wilshere's Arsenal colleague, who had his leg mangled by Stoke City's Ryan Shawcross, but is another from the school of grace.

While Paul Gascoigne was being arrested for alleged possession of a class A drug – a day after being told he could face a jail sentence for drink-driving – and Rooney was effectively trashing his United team-mates by declaring the club showed a lack of "ambition" with its recent signings, Andy Carroll, the young Newcastle striker, was having his new Range Rover torched by arsonists as it sat on Kevin Nolan's drive, in the same week he was arrested and charged with an alleged assault on an 18 year old former girlfriend.

There is a risk of conflating all these cases of talent gone wrong and filing them in the George Best box of doom. These individual life stories cannot be squeezed into a single convenient theory about genius and self-destruction. Anyway, to call Carroll a genius would necessitate a crime against language; plus, if all good British footballers are out of control, how to explain the agent spurning, fame-phobic Scholes?

Despite its centrifugal insanity, British football does produce players with skills that are the rule rather than the exception in more sophisticated countries. Northern Ireland yielded Best and Scotland bestowed Kenny Dalglish. Bale and Wilshere, the north London neighbours, are a long way from those heights but they are what football here needs more youngsters to be, which, paradoxically, is un-British. More Brazilian, more Spanish.

October 23, 2010

A victory for Sir Alex

Posted by Alex Livie on 23/10/2010

So Wayne Rooney has taken the decision to stay at Manchester United. It's an astonishing climbdown after two days earlier he had accused the club of a lack of ambition. The decision has divided opinion and the Daily Telegraph's Henry Winter feels it is a victory for common sense and Sir Alex Ferguson.

"A footballer of many tricks, Wayne Rooney has now added the U-turn to his inventory – and it's the best thing for everyone.

Manchester United's No 10 still has some proper apologising to do, to his team-mates, manager and fans, not to mention those members of a recession-hit society scandalised by one man's greed, but his decision to remain at Old Trafford should stir a touch of relief. It seemed a victory of sorts.

This was certainly a victory for all managers, for all of those like Sir Alex Ferguson who want stability in their dressing room, who demand respect from players in return for the handsome riches bestowed on them.

Ferguson has handled the Rooney saga adroitly, effortlessly winning the publicity battle and then winning back his star.

Cynics will argue that the five-year deal ensures Rooney is worth £50 million-plus in the transfer market and could still leave. But it has to be a victory for Ferguson as his No 10 must now prove his worth, reminding the paying public and watching world of the talents that made him Footballer of the Year. It is time for Rooney to focus on silverware, not gold, on destroying opposing defences not his own popularity. He has a lot of work to do."

October 22, 2010

Why Bale is better than Rooney

Posted by Jo Carter on 22/10/2010

Wayne Rooney's dramatic decision to leave Manchester United has got clubs queuing up to secure his signature, but he is not the hottest prospect for the January transfer window, writes Robbie Savage in the Daily Mirror.

There's an old saying when it comes to fast wingers: "He's flying down the side so fast it's pinning his ears back." Maybe that explains why Gareth Bale is on fire at the moment!

What a talent this kid is. Still only 21. And if we accept that Ronaldo can play on both sides and that Messi is more left-footed than left-sided, the Welshman is probably the best pure left-sided player in the world at the moment.

Watching him take on Zanetti the other night reminded me of a young Ryan Giggs and I bet Fergie thought the same when he got home for the highlights.

I wouldn't be surprised to see United using the Rooney money to make a bid and I can see Real Madrid and Barcelona getting in too. Because if you had to choose between Bale and Rooney at £35million apiece right now and make your decision purely on form, you would pick Bale.

I hope Spurs manage to hang on to him. They have a great manager and a bright future and I can see them finishing top four again this season.

And I'd love to play alongside their new superstar against England in March!

Continue reading "Why Bale is better than Rooney"

October 21, 2010

Agent influence and selfish players

Posted by Alex Livie on 21/10/2010

Wayne Rooney came out firing on Wednesday, saying Manchester United are lacking in ambition. Sir Alex Ferguson countered by talking about cows. Both strange statements but the consensus in the media is that Ferguson has taken his place in the moral high ground.

The Telegraph’s Jim White feels Ferguson has come out the winner in this saga, while his colleague Brian Moore is convinced it is another example of agent influence and selfishness of players.

"Sportsmen deal with in-play frustration in different ways. Some shout at team-mates; some fade into the background; some, like Wayne Rooney, become over-aggressive and reckless.

Though Rooney has mitigated his irresponsibility, his ill-judged comment about fans booing after a dismal World Cup performance against Algeria shows that this character trait has merely found an alternative outlet. Rooney’s stated desire to leave Manchester United is consistent with his reactions when everything is not going his way – saying ‘f--- it’ without giving sufficient thought to the consequences.

This summer Rooney had the psychological pressures of a High Court case brought by a former agent, a dreadful World Cup and although the allegations about prostitutes came later, he will have known of the attentions of the News of the World far earlier and known that at some point he would have to face his wife and the world’s media.

Whether Rooney or his agent, Paul Stretford, first raised the possibility of a move is unknown but it is not difficult to suppose that these unhappy factors, exacerbated by advice which highlighted the possibility of his club being in decline, produced this decision.

This sort of situation often gains its own momentum, stoked by comment and suggestion. When the pressure is heightened by something like Sir Alex Ferguson’s comments on Tuesday the player is likely to set his face against the world even if deep down he has misgivings.

Rooney’s statement on Wednesday, complaining about United’s level of spending, had all the hallmarks of being drafted by a lawyer and was framed in the only way that could leave him with a scintilla of credibility, if it was believed at all.

We need to hear from David Gill about the several meetings that Rooney alleges he had and what was said. Rooney also has to clarify what he would have accepted as a sufficient assurance because if he does not that phrase is a meaningless catch-all excuse to leave."

October 20, 2010

Rooney situation exposes shame of Glazers' reign

Posted by Alex Livie on 20/10/2010

Arsenal and Chelsea win in Europe, but it could only really be one man dominating the headlines. The majority of the media are taking the line that Sir Alex Ferguson inferred in his press conference that Wayne Rooney had let him and Manchester United down. Ferguson looked a broken man when confirming Rooney wants to leave Old Trafford and the Daily Telegraph’s Henry Winter feels the leverage takeover of the club by the Glazer family is starting to bite.

"They think it's all over. The toxic tennis between Manchester United and Wayne Rooney has intensified spectacularly with Sir Alex Ferguson's strong volleys but it's an end-game of two halves. One ball, in fact more a hand grenade from Ferguson, is in Rooney's court. Another has landed in the Glazers' court.

If Rooney looks intent on leaving, believing United lack ambition, worrying about what life at Old Trafford holds with Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs winding down, and with Ferguson's own long-term plans in doubt, the Glazers must act quickly to prove to Ferguson they can still compete. Don't hold your breath.

Anyone with an ounce of understanding of Ferguson's DNA knows he is a fighter and so any talk of empires crumbling remains premature. We have been down this road before with United and Ferguson, predictions of eras ending proving ill-founded but this is undoubtedly the greatest crisis the Scot has faced since 1990.

What was remarkable on Tuesday was Ferguson's frankness as he juggled demolishing Rooney's character with a verbal baseball bat and holding out an olive branch. This was Ferguson unplugged, sounding ready for war as well as peace.

He also looked betrayed and bemused, his usually prickly mask dropping as he mused soulfully on how much United had done for Rooney. He listed the trophies, the atmosphere, the pastoral care, stopping only short of requesting Rooney to consider "what have the Romans ever done for us''.

Another ankle injury precludes the striker's involvement against Bursaspor tonight when Ferguson will hope for a strong reaction from his dressing-room. The reaction from the Old Trafford faithful is guaranteed: there will be a wall of sound for Ferguson almost visceral in its intensity.

Once again, he's holding the club together. Once again, he's trying to build a trophy-winning side in an age of debt brought on by the unloved Glazers.

Rooney's contract saga has become an unintentional part of the green-and-gold movement.

To lose one star like Cristiano Ronaldo could be considered a misfortune. To lose another in Rooney looks more than carelessness; it looks like the dread hand of debt holding United and Ferguson back.

The shame of the Glazers' regime is now fully exposed.

It is not known how familiar Rooney is with UEFA's plans for financial fair play but now is the moment to make huge wage claims.

Michel Platini's rules will encourage clubs to temper their largesse to players or risk expulsion from Europe. Rooney wants to ensure his ticket to ride on what could be the last gravy-train.

Unless the Glazers respond like responsible owners, United risk being left on the platform."

October 19, 2010

Bleak future for United without Rooney

Posted by Josh Williams on 19/10/2010

With Wayne Rooney's future at Manchester United still in severe doubt, Kevin McCarra in the Guardian suggests that the player's departure could be disastrous for the club.

Manchester United have already had a preview of life without Wayne Rooney. When his impact dwindled to the point of disappearance last season, the club's prospects of winning a major prize vanished with him.

Continue reading "Bleak future for United without Rooney"

October 18, 2010

Losing Rooney is careless

Posted by Josh Williams on 18/10/2010

Sir Alex Ferguson's tenure at Manchester United could be brought to a quicker-than-expected close by his reported fall-out with Wayne Rooney. That's the view of Richard Williams, writing in the Guardian:

The indication that Wayne Rooney will refuse to sign a new contract with Manchester United is the last thing Sir Alex Ferguson needed as he enters the final phase of almost a quarter of a century in charge at Old Trafford. It could even have a bearing on the timing of the manager's decision to bring his long reign to a close.

Continue reading "Losing Rooney is careless"

October 17, 2010

Nadal is the best in all sport

Posted by Josh Williams on 17/10/2010

Despite his shock defeat to Jurgen Melzer at the Shanghai Masters this week, the Observer's Kevin Mitchell still feels the time is right to crown Rafael Nadal as the world's greatest sportsman.

The strain of another tough if spectacularly successful season is starting to show on Rafael Nadal, just as he is reaching for the title of King of Sport. Nobody dominates his own discipline like Nadal, yet there is a price to pay for his near year-round commitment to a game that relies so heavily on his genius, and the levy in Shanghai last week was defeat by the Austrian Jürgen Melzer, a result that shocked all but those close to the peerless Spaniard.

Continue reading "Nadal is the best in all sport"

October 16, 2010

Murphy's standing up to the bullies

Posted by Alex Livie on 16/10/2010

Danny Murphy really has opened up a can of worms with his comments about managers firing up their players. There have been few fence sitters on this one and one of those highlighted by Murphy, Blackburn boss Sam Allardyce has had his say. He has defended his side's disciplinary record, but that does not really wash with the Independent's Chris McGrath.

It's easy to laugh at Sam Allardyce. But put yourself in his shoes.

Go on – put yourself in those hobnailed boots of his, winch them on to a suitably reinforced footstool, and tune into the Champions League on Tuesday evening. How do you think it's going to feel, to see Milan visit Real Madrid under this character Massimiliano Allegri? Where did you say they found him? Cagliari! Got that agonised, brainy look, as well, hasn't he? Well, let's see if he gets Robinho tracking back, shall we? I think we all know the answer to that one.

As Big Sam divulged a few weeks ago, this is just the kind of game where he might finally get the credit he deserves. Real Madrid, Internazionale, Manchester United, Chelsea – he'd win the Double every time. "It wouldn't be a problem," he said breezily. And then the poor fellow had to watch everyone catching each other's eye, the way you do when cornered by someone whose boasts always betray some epic insecurity.

So perhaps we should indulge him a little, as he once again takes self-parody into Nobel Prize territory. I mean, what would happen if Silvio Berlusconi got to hear all this Danny Murphy nonsense? It might cost Big Sam his big break.

Allardyce has made an indignant response to the Fulham captain's "outrageous" suggestion that he is among those managers who fire up players to a dangerous degree. Murphy, who also singled out Stoke and Wolves, implied that some coaches confine the tactical element in their team talks to the correct procedure for fixing bayonets.

As Allardyce pointed out, only three Premier League clubs have received fewer yellow cards than Blackburn this season. But discipline is exactly what Allardyce is good at. His men guarantee an unpleasant afternoon for their opponents, without stupidly provoking the referee. And that's just what the guv'nor loves to see: football as a man's game, where the best way to respect boundaries is to reach them. You need only consider his recommendation to Murphy himself: "If he's man enough, he'll apologise."

Allardyce protested that he is "too professional" to send out players to injure an opponent. Good grief, high standards indeed. Not even Murphy suggested anyone did that. He merely said that managers who get their players' blood up had to share responsibility for the brainless tackles that sometimes ensue. A brainless foul, Murphy might even argue, is the literal opposite of a calculated one.

Best of all, Allardyce then started referring to himself in the third person – a foolproof symptom of the pathological, Napoleon-on-Elba phase in any career of chronic self-regard: "Danny Murphy doesn't know about Sam Allardyce because he's never been managed by Sam Allardyce or coached by Sam Allardyce."

Poor old Danny Murphy. Like the rest of us, he can only judge Sam Allardyce on the ludicrous vanity of his public pronouncements; on his chippy, belligerent bearing; and the fact that his teams have long condensed the sort of virtues – stamina, commitment, physicality – that are together perceived by many other nations as a fig leaf to conceal inadequacies of technique and invention in the British game. Now it is true that a crude approach can also be effective – to a point. Both Allardyce and Tony Pulis, at Stoke, have managed to drop anchor in the Premier League at clubs with limited financial ballast. In itself, it would be churlish to disagree that is a respectable achievement. And both men do deploy one or two very skilful players, too. The blend is a triumph of pragmatism, but sometimes it can make the game more about hostility, about sharp knees and elbows, than imagination or entertainment. So be it. The problem is if this relative success persuades others that there is no other way to survive.

The experiences of teams like Burnley last season make the alternative seem hopelessly naive. Neutrals have been gratified to watch West Bromwich Albion and Blackpool start so well, but few believe they can survive in the long term by consistently playing better football than richer clubs. No, they say: forget the synchronised swimming, and stick with the water buffalo.

But is that truly so? There is a fellow in Germany whose work Big Sam may or not have been monitoring this season. Possibly Thomas Tuchel would not impress him as a proper football man. He's only 37, after all, and had a very brief playing career in the German third division before injury forced his retirement. He ended up working in a bar to help fund a degree in economics, but kept up an involvement in youth coaching at Stuttgart.

And he did so well that last year he was given his first senior coaching post at Mainz. The stadium has a capacity of 20,300, and Tuchel assembled a shoestring squad of loan signings and adventurous youngsters such as Lewis Holtby and André Schürrle. The "carnival club" play with terrific flair, pressing opponents and turning defence into attack at terrifying speed. And, having won all seven of their games in the Bundesliga this season, they can claim an outright record by beating Hamburg today.

That's all very well, Allardyce might tell you. Let's see if they're still up there at Christmas, never mind in 18 months' time. But it's important that someone makes a stand. And that's why we should be grateful to Murphy, as well.

Conceivably he was not aware that his comments would be so widely broadcast, and had no intention of lighting a tinderbox. But it would be nice to think that he was making a deliberate stand; that he is prepared for the backlash when Fulham meet the clubs he had the temerity to identify.

After all, it takes guts to stand up to a bully. In fact, it takes a man.

October 15, 2010

Last-gasp win for Liverpool?

Posted by Jo Carter on 15/10/2010

Liverpool is a club steeped in history, but is a club facing an uncertain future as the board and the owners continue to battle it out in court. But a memorable victory could be on the cards, writes Phil Thomas in The Sun.

Forget Istanbul, ignore Wembley and never mind all those glorious Anfield European nights.

The one match with far more at stake than Liverpool have ever contested before on the pitch is being played out in two stuffy courtrooms either side of the Pond.

No silverware at stake. No 39 steps to climb to lift the trophy proudly to the fans.

Yet still the one game they cannot afford to lose... the very future of the most decorated club in English football history.

And what a nailbiter it is turning into - even if it could hardly be described as an edge-of-your seat thriller, given the turgid saga the ownership of Liverpool has become.

So take your seats for a blow-by-blow account of the raging arguments that are heading all the way to extra-time.

And don't rule out it finally going to penalties - or at least penalty points, if the dreaded administration issue comes into play.

The early exchanges are all Liverpool's and the Anfield board volley home an early goal by accepting a £300million offer from New England Sports Ventures to buy the club, despite Tom Hicks insisting he sacked directors Ian Ayre and Christian Purslow just before kick-off.

A long way to go but it's a lead the Reds are hugely confident of holding on to - especially when RBS gain a temporary injunction stopping the Americans from changing the board.

Board 1 Hicks & Gillett 0 It's looking increasingly good for the Reds as they head for the High Court and the verdict goes in favour of RBS - who own the club's £237m debt - by ruling the Yanks had no power to reshape the board.

The bubbly is on ice as Purslow emerges punching the air and even chairman Martin Broughton - usually not a man given to extremes of emotion - cracks a smile at the prospect of completing the deal with NESV. 2-0

What's that they say about it being the worst lead to have? The Yanks may be down but they're certainly not out, producing a dramatic intervention that raises hopes of an incredible comeback.

Just five minutes before the Liverpool board meeting in London - with imminent new owner John W Henry a shock name on the teamsheet - Hicks wins a restraining order in a Texas State Court, temporarily blocking the sale, and demands a staggering £1BILLION in damages. It's game on. 2-1.

Then suddenly the Americans are level!

Mill Financial, the US Hedge Fund which effectively owns cash-strapped Gillett's 50 per cent of the club, emerge as possible supersubs for partner Hicks.

They are said to be willing to repay the entire debt to RBS, thus leaving the bank on the sidelines and the intriguing prospect of a totally different set of owners snatching command at the death. 2-2

The silver tongues of Purslow and Broughton are tied for the time being at least by the news. It's going to come down to who's got that little bit extra left in the tank - and you wouldn't stake too much on either side right now, it's that tight.

Rumours continue to grow that Chinese businessman Kenny Huang, chairman of the Hong Kong-based QSL Sports Group, is lining up a return bid for the club he tried to buy two months ago. 2-3

Back to the High Court and suddenly it's backs to the wall for the Reds. But, after mounting pressure, they level with a vicious strike from David Chivers QC, representing the NESV group.

With deadly accuracy he rocks the Dallas Cowboys - as Hicks and Gillett have become known among Reds fans - with the cutting words: "New England are now the owners.

"The old owners, from beyond the grave, are trying to exercise with their dead hands a grip on this company." Great finish! 3-3

How much more is there to come? For just about every reason you care to ask.

Then, with the light fading and energy waning, Liverpool go in front once more, when Justice Floyd rules AGAINST Hicks' restraining order and in favour of RBS.

Sale on again? So it appears and New England have their eyes on the prize once more. 4-3

They think it's all over... but all eyes are now back on Texas once again and today's return fixture in the Yankee courtroom.

Continue reading "Last-gasp win for Liverpool?"

October 14, 2010

Capello set to experiment

Posted by Josh Williams on 14/10/2010

Fabio Capello has come under fire for sticking with the same core of players who performed so underwhelmingly at the World Cup. But Kevin McCarra, writing in the Guardian, believes the Italian will blood youth in the upcoming friendly against France.

We will be given some indication of the worth of the contenders when England face France in next month's game at Wembley.

The manager is clear that the occasion is not intended primarily to give match practice to the usual personnel.

Continue reading "Capello set to experiment"

October 13, 2010

Bad night for Capello, good night for Bent and Defoe

Posted by Alex Livie on 13/10/2010

After wins over Bulgaria and Switzerland, England returned to earth with a thud as they were stifled by a functional Montenegro side at Wembley. The focus is now back on manager Fabio Capello and the Guardian's Paul Hayward is frustrated by the Italian's reluctance to change things when they are not going well.

Wayne Rooney remains capable of baffling mediocrity with England. Peter Crouch is the big man for the small occasion, in Fabio Capello's eyes.

As for Kevin Davies: it took Bolton's bruiser 16 minutes to collect the first yellow card of his international career and not much longer for him to leave his imprint on Montenegro's goalkeeper in a style that might have prompted his dismissal.

All in all a fine night for Jermain Defoe, Darren Bent and Bobby Zamora, England's absent strikers. Wembley is becoming a house of echoes: home to a nondescript England side, two struggling Cup competitions and pop concerts that destroy the pitch. Nowhere is the current paucity of resources more apparent than in the forward areas, where Rooney and Crouch laboured to make a two-winger system work, receiving the ball to feet too often in deep areas where Montenegro where able to shield and nullify.

Davies, who replaced Crouch on 69 minutes in this 0-0 draw, mistook his international debut for Bolton versus Blackburn. In a tournament he would be gone in 60 seconds. But at least he was true to himself. Davies simply brought his favourite bag of tools on to a pitch where Capello stuck with an unproductive 4-4-2 formation which offered no central penetration. The temptation will be to dish it out to the three forwards who failed to breach Mladen Bozovic's goal but the greater truth is that England have returned to general cluelessness.

Why the agitation after the 4-0 victory over Bulgaria and the 3-1 win in Switzerland at the start of this Euro 2012 qualifying campaign? Because Capello showed no inclination to dump a shape that was malfunctioning, left Jack Wilshere on the bench in defiance of the need to unleash new talent and is so short of strikers that an arm in the mush from Davies has become the new weapon of desperation.

Beyond Wembley there were calls for Rooney to be dropped. A decade ago that might have been an option. Alan Shearer, Michael Owen, Teddy Sheringham and Robbie Fowler offered permutations. Not now.

Among the many insults thrown at Crouch is the belief that a pass is best directed at his head. This casts him as a giant fetching balls out of the sky when the reality is that he has spent most of his working life trying to acquire dexterity on the ground. In his own terms, Capello's fourth-choice striker is a carpet player who would prefer balls to be aimed into his feet. By a spark of birth, though, team-mates spot him and see a target, taped between belly-button and brow.

Before this match Capello hinted that England's approach would have to be altered to accommodate Crouch's lack of pace. Hence the selection of Ashley Young and Adam Johnson on the flanks. There was a time, before elaborate mathematical formulations, when the deployment of two wide men would have been seen as a declaration of ambition. Here it was more of an affirmation of the prejudices held against Crouch. This was only the sixth time that Capello has sent out a starting XI with fliers left and right.

His thinking was that two crossers and dribblers were needed to maintain a supply of balls into the box. This reinforces a misconception about Defoe's Tottenham Hotspur team-mate. If he were Alan Shearer on stilts you might justify a "direct" approach. It would be a depressing rationale but it might be effective, in Ye Olde English style, until the tournament came along and one of the top six or seven nations took possession of the ball and refused to give it back.

For reasons to do with human mechanics, Crouch frequently looks ungainly in his efforts to reach a moving ball. Organising his body to pounce appears much harder than it would for a smaller athlete. He is too tall to float or glide. His height also limits his speed off the mark. But some of these faults may be tricks of the spectator's mind. Plus, they are partly offset by his virtues: a neat touch, a good positional sense and an ability to link the play.

Crouch's supposed great strength is actually his primary weakness. In the air he seldom punches his weight. He lacks the upper-body strength to subdue muscular centre-backs and is often knocked out of a challenge.

Frustration prompts him to concede free-kicks in the penalty area. Another burden, which he bears without complaint, is that team-mates use him as a pressure-relieving option with chipped high balls.

Rooney is safe by default: another damning thought. Defoe's stock rises.

Crouch knows by now that Capello starts with him reluctantly. But that puts him one step ahead of the 33-year-old Davies, truly the debutante of last resort.

October 12, 2010

Capello turns his back on his saviour

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 12/10/2010

Fabio Capello’s job as England manager once hung by such a thin thread that even troubled Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson would have felt sympathy for the Italian. However, thanks to Hodgson’s skipper at Anfield, Capello remains in his highly paid role, and the Telegraph’s Henry Winter claims he has turned his back on the man who saved him...

England expect to defeat Montenegro at Wembley on Tuesday evening, so claiming the high ground in Group G and moving within touching distance of Euro 2012, but Fabio Capello risks a cacophony of catcalls if they slip up.

England’s manager has stripped the captaincy from Steven Gerrard, who saved the Italian’s job with his performances this season, and handed the armband to Rio Ferdinand, who has lost the honour at Manchester United. Capello the cautious has taken a gamble.

If Gerrard channels the emotion from his disappointment positively, conjuring up a match-winning display, then Capello can afford to feel smug and vindicated. But if Gerrard appears inhibited or distracted, contrasting with his outstanding displays against Hungary, Bulgaria and Switzerland, then Capello will be assailed with questions.

The captaincy debate occupies so many minds, phone-ins and column inches because Capello has prevaricated in recent weeks, indicating after the success against Switzerland on Sept 7 that Gerrard might continue in the post, a suggestion he repeated on Oct 3, so raising the midfielder’s hopes.

He should have informed Gerrard after Basle that it was always his plan for Ferdinand to regain the captaincy when fit. “I think this [the captaincy] is important for you,’’ said Capello to a small gathering of inquisitors in a spare dressing room at Wembley after training on Monday.

The captaincy was also “important’’ for the players trudging along the corridor towards the bus. “Yeah, I know,’’ Capello replied, “but I’m focused on the game.’’ Not yet. Capello first had to explain why he let Gerrard down in this uncaring manner.

He argued it was always his intention to reinstate Ferdinand, who acquired the captaincy following John Terry’s indiscretions. Now that Ferdinand’s back problem had eased, he was back. Simple. Not entirely. “I never change my rules,’’ Capello insisted. “I decided, and the players know, who the captain is, who the vice-captain is.’’

Judging by recent confusing comments, his rules carried riders. “I preferred to decide it at the last minute. I wait [to see] if the player would be fit the day before the game. I spoke with Rio individually this morning. He’s a good captain. He’s a leader on the pitch. I spoke individually with Steve yesterday evening and he understands everything. I was really happy when he played like a captain, with a fantastic performance every time. But the rules are really important.’’ So why intimate otherwise?

Capello even seemed unsure whether Ferdinand was still United captain despite the fairly wide publicity given to Sir Alex Ferguson passing the armband to Nemanja Vidic. “I don’t know what Sir Alex decided. That’s a club problem.”

England’s manager was then asked whether he would still be in charge if Gerrard had not scored those two goals against Hungary on Aug 11, so easing the post-World Cup pressure.
“Yes, yes, yes. But he is a really good player, a really good man, and he will be really important for us in every moment. I think he will play the same as with the armband every game. I told him he’s a fantastic captain and he will play much better [against Montenegro] than in the other games.’’

Let’s hope so. England need a focused force like Gerrard, driving the team on from his central station alongside Gareth Barry.

October 11, 2010

Time for Rio to end his England career

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 11/10/2010

Rio Ferdinand will once again take on the England armband when the Three Lions face Montenegro on Tuesday, but the Telegraph’s Alan Hansen is convinced the Manchester United defender should retire from the international scene...

Rio Ferdinand is 32 next month and, having had almost two years of injury problems, this period of his career is make-or-break, not just for England, but for everything. Since December 2008 he has been involved in just 44 of Manchester United’s 105 games and that is an amazing statistic which tells its own story. If you were a 25 year-old with that track record, you would be in trouble, but at Rio’s age, I think it gives a clear message that he must now decide whether he wants to extend the longevity of his career with United or continue to play for England.

I don’t think he can play for both and there is a real argument to say that he should contemplate following the likes of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs and Alan Shearer by retiring from international football. Having had such a terrible run with injuries, Rio’s priority is to play for United and get back into the groove of performing on a consistent basis of uninterrupted football for at least three months.

If he is looking at his situation as a whole, Rio is such an important figure to United that he must get things right there first. After having so many injuries and missing so many games, England must now play second best to United if Rio wants to prolong his career.

But for Phil Jagielka having to withdraw from the England squad because of injury for Tuesday’s Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro, I would have been tempted not to select Rio if I were Fabio Capello. Although Montenegro are top of the group, it is really a nothing game for England, so why risk Rio in a game he doesn’t need to play?

Jagielka’s injury changes the situation, but that underlines the differences Rio faces between playing for United and England. At times, some players are so important to the team that managers are tempted to select them when they shouldn’t be playing. But at United, Sir Alex Ferguson has resisted the temptation to throw Rio straight back into the first team simply because he remains such a crucial figure at Old Trafford.

Sir Alex has waited until he believed Rio to be 100 per cent fit and he has allowed him to be eased back in gently. Rio is just as important to England, though, and that means his workload will not be reduced on the international stage.

But if he chose to call time on his England career, he would then be able to experience the benefits that have prolonged the playing days of his United team-mates, Giggs and Scholes. Rio could then focus solely on getting back to playing regularly before enjoying a two-week break whenever the internationals come around.

It will be a huge dilemma for Rio, who has captained England and been such a pivotal figure for his country. But he knows that he now has to prove everybody, and most importantly himself, that he is still capable of performing consistently at the top level for United. If you have had injuries and niggles, particularly those that stem from a back injury, no matter how many people say that you are fine, the doubts remain in the back of your mind.

No matter how many sports psychologists or physios tell you that the problems have gone, the only way to convince yourself of that is by playing back-to-back games for a long period. United have struggled to replace Rio while he has been out and John Terry has missed his presence alongside him at the centre of England’s defence.

But if he is to give himself the best possible chance of overcoming his injuries, Rio’s ultimate focus must be on United. If that happens, he will hope that everything else takes care of itself.

October 10, 2010

Liverpool's new owners must face up to stadium dilemma

Posted by Tom Walker on 10/10/2010

While Liverpool fans continue to pull their hair out over the club's deepening financial crisis, avoiding administration is the priority for chairman Martin Broughton and co. But, should New England Sports Ventures succeed in their takeover of Anfield, Andy Hunter from The Observer believes their first job will be to deliver a new stadium.

Jamie Carragher's testimonial committee had three basic wishes when, more than two years ago, they started preparing for his big day. Everton would provide the opposition; local charities would receive the proceeds; and the game would be the first at Liverpool's grand new stadium on Stanley Park. On 4 September this year they fulfilled two out of three. At Anfield.

Like many before them, they were long ago resigned to the fact that option three was an illusion.

The frustrations of Carragher's committee were trivial and brief in comparison to those suffered by Liverpool supporters, and by residents of one of the most deprived local authority wards in Britain, for whom a new stadium was presented as key to regeneration and 1,000 new jobs in the late 1990s.

This week, given the right result in the high court, New England Sports Ventures will be tasked with delivering an arena that is essential both to the revival of Liverpool FC and a community. The contentment of Fernando Torres and promised transfer sprees deliver headlines that win immediate support for prospective new owners, but it is how quickly they construct a solution to a 40-year-old problem will determine Liverpool's long-term fortunes.

John W Henry and his 16 fellow investors in NESV do not yet have control of Liverpool but there is already scepticism over their prospects. The club's astute former chief executive, Peter Robinson, identified the constraints at Anfield when calling for a joint stadium with Everton in the late 1960s. It was an inability to fund a new stadium that prompted David Moores to sell to Tom Hicks and George Gillett, and the main reason the Americans lost their business model and trust at Liverpool.

"If they had not been leveraged then they would have started the stadium, and we wouldn't be saying what terrible guys these are," said Martin Broughton, the Liverpool chairman attempting to sell the club against the wishes of the American co-owners.

As regards the income-generating potential of a big, modern stadium, Liverpool have been left trailing by a growing number of rivals for more than a decade. A commitment to build, and to inject £100m in cash into the project, was a condition of the sale process conducted by Broughton and the chief executive Christian Purslow, and it was the track record of NESV in redeveloping the Fenway Park home of the Boston Red Sox that swayed a majority on the Liverpool board. The club had received an identical £300m offer, of which £240m is cash, from a rival suitor in Asia.

NESV will not arrive blind to the situation should they be installed as owners this week. The group have already held discussions with the Royal Bank of Scotland over financing a new stadium through, as Broughton put it, "a sensible, normal level of debt and equity". Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool city council, is also primed to meet owners he has welcomed but whose intention to consider redeveloping Anfield he opposes.

Liverpool and the Anfield area have deteriorated in tandem while the club have remained at their iconic, atmospheric but financially constrained 45,362-capacity home. Given the respective revenue streams of England's leading clubs it is no surprise that Rafael Benítez, and Gérard Houllier before him, frequently complained about the expectation to deliver a first league title since 1990 on such an uneven playing field.

In the financial year 2008-09, Liverpool earned £42m from gate and match-day income. Manchester United generated £109m and Arsenal £100m in the same period. United's good fortune in having access to acres of land to redevelop Old Trafford, and Arsenal's exhaustive fight to construct the Emirates, means they earn more from home matches per season than from TV and broadcasting. Liverpool are among those clubs for whom TV and broadcasting revenue outweighs match-day earnings.

Liverpool's commercial income has tripled in recent years under director Ian Ayre, however, helping the club achieve a record income of £185m in the year ending 30 July 2009. That, and Liverpool's mass global appeal, ensures that in two of the three main revenue streams for Premier League clubs – commercial activities, broadcasting rights and match-day – Liverpool fare impressively. Once the interest payments on debts built up by Hicks and Gillett are no more – last year they stood at almost £40m – their spending power increases further. But they will continue to languish behind their competitors without a new stadium that can seat 60,000-plus, and now is not the time to be found wanting.

Manchester City embody the race to cement a place in the Champions League and close the drawbridge on the rest before Uefa's financial fair-play rules come into effect in 2012-13. The rules "encourage clubs to operate more responsibly by not spending more than they earn", according to Uefa, and will prevent clubs that are bankrolled by billionaires competing in Europe unless they break even over a rolling three-year period. Debt taken on to build a new stadium does not enter the Uefa equation, so Tottenham, with planning permission for a new 56,000-seat stadium near White Hart Lane and an application in to lease the Olympic Stadium after 2012, have also stolen a march on Liverpool.

"The financial fair-play rules come into effect pretty damn soon so taking a rational, commercial approach to success is absolutely the right way forward," insists Broughton. "I couldn't help notice that Manchester City's wage bill for last year was exceeding its revenue. That is going to be very difficult under financial fair play. They might be able to sort it out before then but we were not looking for someone who was going to put us in that position. We were looking for somebody who was going to see this as a commercial business that can be commercially successful."

Simply breaking the ground would be ground-breaking for Liverpool.

October 9, 2010

Johnson's the new Waddle - Venables

Posted by Josh Williams on 09/10/2010

Manchester City winger has forced himself into the England reckoning over the past 12 months with a series of impressive performances on the flank at Eastlands - and now former national boss Terry Venables, writing in the Sun, has talked up the young midfielder's credentials by comparing him to the legendary Chris Waddle:

Now Johnson might never work in a sausage factory, grow a mullet hairstyle or sing alongside Glenn Hoddle on Top Of The Pops, but his likeness to Waddle on the park is uncanny.

Continue reading "Johnson's the new Waddle - Venables"

October 8, 2010

Council on collision course with new Reds owners

Posted by Alex Livie on 08/10/2010

It’s never a dull day on Merseyside at the moment. Tom Hicks and George Gillett could soon be ushered out of the Liverpool door, but the proposed new American owners are said to be at loggerheads with the city council to redevelop Anfield, writes Andy Hunter and David Cohn in the Guardian.

New England Sports Ventures, the company bidding for control of Liverpool, is on a collision course with the city's council over plans to redevelop Anfield. The Liverpool chairman, Martin Broughton, has confirmed the club's prospective new owners NESV – which has a track-record in redeveloping a sports stadium with the Boston Red Sox – will consider upgrading Anfield if a £300m offer to gain control from Tom Hicks and George Gillett is accepted in the high court next week. It is understood that a commitment to put £100m towards a new stadium had previously been a condition of the sale.

The leader of the council, however, insists a U-turn on the stadium would be unlikely to gain approval. "I would discourage them [NESV] from redeveloping Anfield and would encourage them to stick to the commitment that is already in place because I think that is the best solution for everyone – for the club and the city," councillor Joe Anderson said.

NESV's offer was accepted after it increased the equity involved to £240m, matching a rival bid from Asia, and Anderson believes the new stadium must be the priority for the club as he attempts to safeguard the area's regeneration.

Other sources say the same planning obstacles that prompted the former chairman David Moores and the then chief executive, Rick Parry, to propose relocating across Stanley Park still exist, leaving NESV facing the potentially greater expense of a new build.

NESV had to commit to a stadium project during negotiations with Liverpool and still intends to revisit existing plans for a new 60,000-seat arena on nearby Stanley Park. However, considering upgrading Anfield represents a radical departure from the past decade of club and council policy. As far as the council is concerned, that policy has not changed, and with much of the present stadium landlocked in a residential area NESV would have to overcome major obstacles to increase Anfield's capacity to its desired figure of 60,000-plus. These include the purchase of nearby houses to make way for new stands, which Liverpool have already done to some degree, improving public access and objections to a development that would tower over local properties.

A separate, though fundamental, reason for the council's desire for a new stadium – which has planning permission that is due to expire in April 2011 – is to see the creation of the proposed Anfield Plaza on the site of the existing stadium. The Plaza, containing shops, offices and restaurants, is intended to provide a public link to the new arena, but also an estimated 1,000 jobs in one of the most deprived local authority wards in Britain.

October 7, 2010

Liverpool have been here before

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 07/10/2010

News of an imminent takeover at Liverpool can only be good news for Reds fans – any new owners simply cannot be worse than the current ones. But what if they are a mirror image? The Telegraph’s Brian Moore advises the Merseyside club to proceed with caution...

Between 1975 and 1990, Liverpool dominated English football in a way that it is almost impossible to comprehend today – they won the old Division One title 10 times.

That hegemony probably explains many Liverpool fans’ assumption that, in football matters, they have a right to a better viewpoint than the rest of us.

On Merseyside the outcry has swelled to include the nonsensical allegation that the Royal Bank of Scotland has some responsibility for the club’s present debacle. Since when does a lender take responsibility for footballing decisions? One talk-show caller pointed out that publicly-owned RBS has Liverpool fans as shareholders. Yes, it does, but it has millions more who are not and who would undoubtedly object to one club being given special treatment.

The latest act in this farce is the refusal of the owners to leave quietly and without taking the usual profit that investors rightly expect when they trade shares. Americans George Gillett and Tom Hicks are likely to fail in their legal bid to block any sale on the basis that the board of directors are failing in their legal fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the shareholders.
This is a difficult argument to win as it depends on them being able to show that the proposed acceptance price is demonstrably undervalued. The argument that usually prevails is that a company is worth what someone is willing to pay for it, not what shareholders think they should.

Since the Americans bought Liverpool in 2007, they have made available close to £170 million to spend on new players, compared to Manchester City (£426 million), Tottenham Hotpsur (£177 million), Manchester United (£142 million), Chelsea (£112 million) and Arsenal (£71 million), according to figures from Transfer League.

Whatever the Americans have done and however it was financed, the fact is that Liverpool have not been kept short of money to buy players. The issue of net transfer figures does not alter the fact that only two clubs have paid out more and the club’s present position of 18th in the Premier League, in the relegation zone, is not the fault of Gillett and Hicks.

It is the fault of the scouts, former manager Rafael Benítez and anyone else involved in player acquisitions. That amount of spending should not leave a club in the relegation zone and the members of the fraternity 'In Rafa We Trust’ were misguided in their support of the now departed Spaniard.

The legitimate complaint against the Americans, that they have not financed a new stadium, is the only one that holds water. However, even this betrays a lack of business scrutiny back in 2007 when few supporters pointing out that the wealth of Hicks and Gillett was not liquid. In normal business circles, the promises of expansion would have been scrutinised properly to see where the money would come from.

The recent announcement that a bid from New England Sports Ventures LLC has been accepted threatens to repeat this lack of scrutiny. NESV has within its portfolio the Boston Red Sox baseball club, a baseball park in Boston and a sports marketing agency. None of these interests is easily liquidated. They may be assets against which banks will lend, but that is the same position as before, it is just a different set of assets.

Much has been made of the personal wealth of the figures behind NESV but they have not pledged any personal spending and anyway that would again depend on the willingness and ability to turn capital into cash; the only alternative would be to use equity as collateral for borrowing.

It is said that the Red Sox have done well under NESV’s ownership and that the key to their success is leaving the baseball decisions to the people that know baseball. They do not interfere with the everyday running of baseball operations. Additionally it is said that the brand has been developed and scouting systems have been improved.

In reality, the success is more likely due to the fact that they own a large stake in the regional sports network that carries the bulk of its games and annually generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. New England Sports Network, the network cable arm of NESV has a subscriber base in New England of about 3.8 million.

One view in an American business publication is that the Red Sox are a media company masquerading as a professional baseball team. The money the network pumps into the team is one reason the Sox are able to pay for top baseball talent and finish at or near the top of the standings year after year. Structured properly, the cable operation is also a way to shield earnings from baseball’s revenue-sharing system.

The size of the United States and regionalisation of broadcasting enables NESV to generate this money but it cannot do that in England as Liverpool’s television rights are ceded to the Premier League. It may leverage broadcast rights to the club’s American fans but whether this is possible, and how much it might produce, is very difficult to predict and it certainly is no basis for budgeting for a new stadium, a raft of new players and a bright new future.

The Red Sox made a profit of about £25 million last year but is it likely that club will pass any of this to Liverpool and what happens if the Red Sox make losses? What all this points to is more borrowing. Unless personal cash is introduced for development or there is a rights issue (which will be resisted because it dilutes the value of the original equity) it may be from frying pan into fire.

Liverpool fans cannot complain now; the right time to protest was in 2007 when David Moores was urging his fellow shareholders to sell to the Americans.

October 6, 2010

How Monty masterminded the win

Posted by Josh Williams on 06/10/2010

Colin Montgomerie's ability to shut down the inflammatory side of his personality was of massive benefit to Europe at the Ryder Cup, according to Lawrence Donegan in the Guardian:

But what helped the European effort most of all was Montgomerie's achievement in bringing only the best of himself to Wales. All week the world's media was waiting for the voluble Scot to do his best Krakatoa impersonation and, God knows, he had plenty of chances.

Continue reading "How Monty masterminded the win"

October 5, 2010

Monty's major

Posted by Jo Carter on 05/10/2010

Colin Montgomerie and Europe hung on to claim a dramatic Ryder Cup victory at Celtic Manor on Monday, and one man who knows just what Monty is going through is the victorious 2006 European captain Ian Woosnam, writing in The Telegraph.

This is Monty’s major. Make no mistake about that. He keeps on banging on about this meaning nothing to him personally, but he does like to bull---- sometimes.

He even told the whole world in his speech at the closing ceremony that it was the best moment of his career. It means everything to him. Quite right. He should be very proud.

He certainly needs to enjoy the moment. If anything had gone wrong, God knows what would have happened to him. Monty was under so much pressure that he could not even bear to watch the golf at times. I know from my own experience that he will be in a daze right now. It took at least six months for things to get back to normal after we won at the K Club in 2006.

It was one of the proudest moments of my career, but to be honest the overriding emotion was one of relief. I’m an emotional person anyway, but the Ryder Cup was incredibly stressful. It takes over your life for 18 months, and I was physically ill afterwards. It completely did my head in.

If I had one criticism about Monty’s captaincy, it would be that he was too confident a few months ago, saying that Europe had the best team, but otherwise he has done a terrific job. His early strategy made sense, and he did the draw for the singles perfectly. Put the strongest players of the week out first, then some experience at the back. Graeme McDowell and Hunter Mahan had the whole Ryder Cup on their shoulders. G-Mac, a major winner, could carry the weight.

In truth, Monty had it pretty straightforward. There were no masterstrokes of strategy, like Sam Torrance in 2002. Instead, Monty did his work in the team room on Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning - motivating his guys when they looked flat and then making sure they came out fighting to finish the third session strongly.

Much has been said in the past about the Americans not caring as much as the Europeans, but look at the way they came out shooting yesterday, with gigantic performances, like Rickie Fowler’s. This matters to them. Let me tell you, men in their team who would not cry at losing an opportunity to win a major blub after losing the Ryder Cup.

One thing is for certain, though – both teams will have had an incredible party last night, and this year’s Ryder Cup will have finished in high spirits on both sides. In 2006 we went into the American team room to have a few sing-songs.

Here’s another myth-breaker. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, who are supposed to dislike each other, were playing table tennis - until someone got up on the table to sing. Although they had been thrashed, they took it really well.

Of course, the Irish always put on a good party, but then so do the Welsh. I am just sorry that I was not there to join in.

October 4, 2010

Monty's pot of gold just over the rainbow

Posted by Jo Carter on 04/10/2010

The Ryder Cup is heading into a fourth day after the Welsh weather made itself known over the weekend, but the prize is now within Colin Montgomerie's reach, writes The Sun's Steven Howard.

We've had it all - torrential rain, wind, mist, fog and even a little sunshine. Not to forget mud last seen at the Somme.

Yesterday we got our first rainbow. At the end of it, a pot of gold is now tantalisingly within Colin Montgomerie's reach.

Yesterday we had Monty as Mr Toad, leading the charge atop his buggy, racing from tee to green, hole to hole, with a wild-eyed fervour. The only thing missing were the goggles.

And Monty as Mr Motivator, on the end of a walkie-talkie that had seen so much use the previous day it had worn out three batteries. Charged up once again, the European skipper had asked his men to give the crowd something to cheer.

But even he must have been stunned by the brilliant kaleidoscope of shots with which his Ryder Cup heroes responded.

The rainbow that spread from one side of the Usk Valley to the other appeared not long after Lee Westwood sunk a six-footer on the 13th to put Europe's first points of the day on the board.

Continue reading "Monty's pot of gold just over the rainbow"

October 3, 2010

The enigma of John Obi Mikel

Posted by Tom Walker on 03/10/2010

When Chelsea welcome Arsenal to Stamford Bridge on Sunday, all eyes will be on the likes of Didier Drogba and Andrey Arshavin to spark their team into life. While the flair of Arshavin and the power of Drogba may steal the headlines, John Obi Mikel's performance in the centre of midfield may slip by unnoticed. But Paul Doyle from The Observer feels Chelsea's invisible man may be about to play a starring role.

Chelsea's most puzzling player provokes two obvious questions. The first is to satisfy pedants: what, once and for all, is his name?

Mikel John Obi, John Obi Mikel, Obi John Mikel, John Mikel Obi? "His first name is John, Michael is his confirmation name and the family name is Obi," says the player's father, Michael. Mikel – the name that is emblazoned across the back of his Chelsea and Nigeria jerseys – first appeared as a typo on a team-sheet when he represented Nigeria at under‑17 level. He liked the sound and appropriated it. "He considers that his football name," says his father.

The second, more interesting riddle is not yet adequately resolved: what does Mikel actually do? Some Chelsea fans deride him as a passenger on their team, others hail him as an unsung driving force, while many struggle to form any solid opinion of him at all, so inconspicuous has he tended to be since his arrival at Stamford Bridge four years ago. Now, it seems, is the time for Chelsea's invisible man to reveal his true self. There are signs that a very important player is beginning to emerge, one who even has the potential to control the game of the weekend at Stamford Bridge this afternoon, when Arsenal are the visitors.

There was never supposed to be any doubt about Mikel's function: he was to be a superstar. That was the notion that spurred Chelsea and Manchester United into a bitter battle for his services back in 2005.

United believed it was they who had successfully completed the then 18-year-old's transfer from the Norwegian club Lyn Oslo but there followed a bizarre series of events during which Mikel went missing from Norway without leave, prompting United's assistant manager, Carlos Queiroz, to accuse Chelsea of "kidnapping" the youngster. A few days later Mikel turned up in London and announced that he had only signed for United under duress and really wanted to join Chelsea. Much wrangling and threats of legal action ensued before Mikel, after three months without playing, returned to Oslo. Eventually, Chelsea acquired the player after paying the Norwegians £4m and United £12m. It is not certain that anyone would pay as much for Mikel now, yet at the time Chelsea obviously thought £16m was an acceptable fee for one of the planet's brightest prospects. Yes, he really was one of football's brightest prospects: at the 2005 Under-20 World Cup Mikel had inspired his country all the way to the final, where they lost 2-1 to Argentina. He was proclaimed the second-best player of the tournament – just behind Lionel Messi.

"He was a very exciting player, one of the most talented I ever saw in that category," the manager of that Nigeria team, Samson Siasia, tells the Observer. "He made a lot of runs, played a lot of through balls and was always involved in goals. It was like he had four eyes – he always knew where the ball was coming from and where he wanted to put it." He still had those qualities when he arrived at Chelsea, convincing Didier Drogba to assure Observer Sport Monthly in 2007 that Mikel would be "the next great African midfield player, and that means one of the very best in the world".

That prophecy, like Mikel's potential, has yet to be fulfilled. Most Nigerians blame the club rather than the player. José Mourinho deployed Mikel, now 23, not as a creator but as an enforcer. In his first full season he had more red cards than goals. He was told to calm down if he wanted to retain even a limited role in the team. Gradually the young recruit, whose effervescence had already, according to friends, been diluted by the discomfort he felt when he found himself the subject of a controversial tug-of-war between two of the biggest clubs in the world, became an almost nondescript player, a midfielder without any obviously outstanding qualities, except maybe the ability to execute endless short, sideways passes.

Mikel has not scored for his club since a 6-1 FA Cup victory over Macclesfield in January 2007. The 23-year-old's principal contribution to Chelsea attacks over the past few seasons has been to drop back to help the central defenders cover for Ashley Cole when the full-back embarks on one of his regular raids down the left.

"Chelsea destroyed the player Mikel once was," Siasia says, groaning. "They did a lot of damage to Nigerian football. Here was a young, enterprising midfielder who was going to be like Jay-Jay Okocha. He was about opening up defences, not protecting them."

Nigeria have never stopped using Mikel as an attacking midfielder but although he was credited with assists for nearly three-quarters of the goals the Super Eagles scored in qualifying for the last World Cup, which he missed through injury, he has not soared to the heights of greats such as Okocha.

"That's because he has been like a man with two minds," Siaisia says. "At Chelsea he's had to play defensively and then when he comes to Nigeria he's expected to be the offensive director. That's a very difficult transition for a young guy to keep making. If Chelsea start to use him offensively, that will really help him. At last he could explode."

The good news for Nigeria, and the bad news, perhaps, for the rest of the Premier League, is that Chelsea are now trying to coax more from Mikel. With Michael Ballack, Joe Cole and Deco all having left in the summer, Carlo Ancelotti has encouraged the Nigerian to resurrect his creative qualities, even if he generally remains the deepest-lying of the team's midfielders.

"John can basically become whatever he wants," Ray Wilkins, Chelsea's assistant manager, says. "He's got a lovely range of passing, is strong as an ox and reads the game exceptionally well. Myself and Carlo have just asked him to hit a few more progressive passes."

Mikel has obliged. Right from the opening game of the campaign he began to assert himself more, venturing into positions to which he hitherto had not dared to go. He set up Chelsea's first goal of the campaign, pouncing on the ball in the West Bromwich Albion penalty area after Scott Carson had spilled Drogba's free-kick and dinking it to Florent Malouda. The following week he created another goal by dissecting the Wigan defence with an astute pass to Nicolas Anelka.

Whereas in the past he seemed to abdicate as much responsibility as possible to more assertive team-mates, this season Mikel has emerged as the chief conduit of Chelsea's play. He averages more successful passes per game (73.1) than any other player in the Premier League – and the percentage of his distribution that has been directed forward (38%) has more than doubled since last season. In fact, his rate of sideways passes this term (55.8%) is significantly less than those of celebrated schemers such as Rafael van der Vaart (63.9%), Samir Nasri (65.4%) and Ryan Giggs (69.2%).

Mikel's renewed spirit of adventure has likely been stoked not only by his employers' new guidelines but also by the return to action of Michael Essien, who missed most of last season through injury. The Ghanaian is the one Chelsea midfielder with the energy and inclination to chase back and cover when Mikel surges forward. Mikel needs that help because he does not have the speed to retreat rapidly if moves break down when he is upfield, a fact that probably increased his inhibitions when Essien was absent.

As with Mikel, Chelsea have demanded more goals from Essien this season. "I told Michael and John that they are actually allowed to score goals," Wilkins jokes. Essien has responded by hitting three already this season. Mikel has made progress, too, his 20-yard shot against the crossbar at West Ham being the closest he has come to a club goal for more than three years. "He has a magnificent shot but if he ever scores it's going to cost me a lot of money!" says Wilkins, who has had a friendly wager.

Colin Udoh, of, one of the country's leading football writers, sums up Mikel's situation. "He's got so much quality locked up in there, he's almost like a coiled spring. But he's still not doing enough in my opinion to bring it out. I know that if he does he can be one of the best because he's got everything. If he can just develop that uncompromising will to win, then wow! But time is going, he's not a young player any more. He's got to get those things together."

October 2, 2010

The highs and lows of the Aviva Premiership

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 02/10/2010

It may have slipped under the radar for some, but the new Aviva Premiership season has exploded into life under its new rules, so it seems only appropriate to let World Cup winner Will Greenwood reflect on the highs and lows of the first month’s action in the Telegraph...

Let us get the negative stuff out of the way first. Leeds are in genuine trouble. They still have a couple of lumps up front – a line-out guru in Marco Wentzel and a back-row forward in Hendre Fourie who would fight you over the television remote control.

However, behind the pack they look devoid of pace, are too easy to defend against, and – surprisingly for a Neil Back side – have shown a propensity to splinter under pressure. They must be reading about Seru Rabeni carving up the South of France and wishing that giant slab of a player would come back and play for them. It is only because Gloucester were intent on shooting themselves in the foot at Kingsholm that Leeds have even one point in the league.

Others not loving the season so far are those supporting the oddly toothless Tigers and stingless Wasps. Leicester love a 22-game season and are the least likely team to press a panic button, but they have made an extraordinary amount of errors. Playing with your fourth choice fly-half does not help, but they are lucky to have a match winner in Tom Croft and a front five who are unlikely to come second best more than three times a season: maybe it is a good thing they have been early on. I still have no idea how they lost to Wasps.

For the London side there is one serious positive – the re-emergence of Riki Flutey, who is finding some form. Still, that is small comfort and I reckon that if today you offered them sixth place in the league at the end of the season and European rugby, they would bite your hand off.

And then there is Exeter. Wow! Did anyone but the players' mums see that coming? A drubbing at Quins last week was always a ticking bomb waiting to happen; they had only made one change to their starting line-up in four weeks. It is difficult to maintain the intensity when players are going through the wringer so much, but the European breaks will help. When Gareth Steenson was removed from the field after 60 minutes, the game a long time lost, it was enough to tell me that he is their key to survival.

While we are on fly-halves, it is a position that many clubs are wrestling with. Shane Geraghty or Stephen Myler at Saints? Dave Walder or Flutey at Wasps? No such problem at Harlequins. Nick Evans is an absolute gem of a player, and I am loving watching Nick Easter play at No. 8, Danny Care scrap for his England jersey at scrum-half and Joe Marler make waves in the front row.

Sale have made a great signing at full-back in Paul Williams. Make a break against this lot and you had better make sure you have support or you will get hit, because he smashes people.

Gloucester made a fascinating selection last week. Bryan Redpath dropped three of his internationals for some of his squad lads. Out went Alex Brown, Nicky Robinson and club captain Mike Tindall. I love a brave coach and very often fortune favours them. The Shed will have loved the new-found energy, and anything would have been better than the dross they served up against London Irish and Leeds. For me Eliota Fuimano-Sapolu has to be given more ball; he causes havoc at inside-centre and is already a contender for the try of the season for his epic against Wasps.

Bath are still one of my favourite outfits. They need Matt Banahan to give them the balance in the backs and he put in perhaps the stand-out individual performance so far this season when he played at outside-centre against Leeds. Olly Barkley may as well enjoy himself and get stuck in because not being selected to be in the top 64 players in country limits his international ambitions. It's wrong, but I will not harp on about it.

There have been two outstanding team performances so far, with Northampton at home to Bath being the first. It had ferocity, intensity, dynamism and Chris Ashton. The second was London Irish away to Newcastle last week. Newcastle are not great, but Irish made them look ordinary. Clarke Dermody is scrummaging well with his front row and behind the pack Daniel Bowden has been a brilliant acquisition, Seilala Mapasua looks hungry and while Delon Armitage still has the ability to be too angry he is playing exceptionally well.

Saracens look strong defensively, with David Strettle looking sharp again. They are also experimenting with the alternating fly-half theorem. I have never known a side to win things doing that, but they have enough tough South Africans up front to stand toe-to-toe with anyone in a dogfight.

Newcastle will be closer to Leeds than Saracens. Jimmy Gopperth has to keep buzzing, and I rate Brent Wilson very highly in the back row. It may not prove enough, and any side that lets the opposition score 42 at home is going to struggle.

But the overall verdict after the first month? Pretty good.

October 1, 2010

Monty has more to lose than anybody

Posted by Ben Blackmore on 01/10/2010

They say stars are made in the Ryder Cup, but over the next three days there is one man who stands to lose more than anybody. Colin Montgomerie does not have a major title to define his career, so he falls back on an exceptional Ryder Cup record. However, as Martin Samuel points out in the Daily Mail, that all gets wiped away if he loses as captain...

When it came to reading out the achievements of Corey Pavin, the main port of call was Shinnecock Hills, New York, location of the 1995 US Open. Pavin won it by two shots from Greg Norman and in that moment assumed the mantle of the great golfer. He spent 150 weeks in the top 10 between 1986 and 1997, was PGA Player of the Year in 1991 and won tournaments from Milwaukee to Arrowtown, New Zealand. Yet even if those four days in June had been as good as it got, the record would show Pavin as deserving of his place in golf 's firmament.

There was no equivalent reference point for Colin Montgomerie. When his roll of honour was read, he did not have a brief moment in time that could comfortably define his career. Nobody mentioned his place in European tour history as winner of eight Order of Merit titles (seven consecutively). Nobody mentioned his 31 wins in Europe, or the fact he has taken second place at a major tournament on five painful occasions. Montgomerie had the Ryder Cup. Eight appearances and never lost a singles match, the audience was told.

In the United States, spectators may have wished for more but at Celtic Manor, they roared. On the stage, Montgomerie tried to find a third way between self-effacing and proud as punch. Yet, on the eve of his match debut as Ryder Cup captain, this is not in reality such an agreeable place to be.

Montgomerie is loving this week because, right now, he has the optimism of all Ryder Cup captains, but if the next three days do not unfold as planned, no predecessor has had farther to fall. Nick Faldo's performance in Louisville two years ago was almost toecurlingly bad, but asked to name the greatest British golfer of modern times, his name would be out before the sentence was completed.

Pavin forgot to introduce one of his players - Stewart Cink - at the opening ceremony yesterday, but even if the main event goes similarly awry, he can bask in the permanent magnificence of Shinnecock Hills.

For Montgomerie, this is it. He has turned what was once considered an almost ceremonial event in the United States - 'A couple of cocktail parties, we kick their butts and go home,' Tom Kite once said in the days before Europe got serious - into his life's mission. Fail and the Ryder Cup will no longer belong to him; fail and the comedown will be greater than any captain has known.

There have been other Ryder Cup mentors, great ones in fact, without a major to their name: in recent times, Sam Torrance, destroyer of Curtis Strange's United States team in 2002, and Bernard Gallacher, who held the job from 1991 to 1995, winning at the third attempt after two narrow disappointments, were similarly unadorned.

Yet these men were not great golfers, like Montgomerie. Gallacher did not play in the US Open or the PGA Championship, and never made the cut at the Masters. Torrance did not enjoy a top-15 finish at any major tournament outside Great Britain. Ryder Cup captaincy gave them the opportunity to cement a place in history; the wrong outcome and Montgomer ie's is damaged irrevocably.

There has been much talk of his captain's picks, but here Montgomerie is hostage to the simplest logic. If he wins, everything he did will be judged correct, if he loses he will have bungled. Sometimes sport is only black and white. A football manager who picks a weakened team and is eliminated from a cup competition cannot claim to have got the decision right; if his reserve XI wins, however, his critics have no ammunition.

The end justifies the means. There is an awful lot of jaw-jaw before every Ryder Cup - and a foolish amount of war-war, too, when Pavin is involved - but for the next three days Montgomerie is in the results business, nothing more. Win and he will never be asked about Paul Casey again.