Paper Round
December 13, 2010

It's all about Tevez

Posted on 13/12/2010

Didier Drogba may have gone from hero to zero, and Heurelho Gomes certainly took a stroll in the opposite direction, but the only thing dominating the back page of every Monday morning paper was Carlos Tevez's decision to quit Manchester City

Let me go or I quit

The Sun usually stick to a tight script, but on this occasion they've decided to go with a hard-hitting headline. Unlike them really.

It’s not about the money

Tevez, despite being offered a reported £280,000-per-week contract, claims the money is not an issue, something that clearly caught the eye of The Daily Telegraph.

Why I’m going

The Daily Mail have built strong links with Manchester City, so don't expect any inflammatory headlines from them

Tevez fans flames in City row

We're not quite sure why The Times have linked fire to the situation, but we're happy to roll with it.

Tevez rift is beyond repair

A bold statement by The Daily Mirror when one considers the ridiculous U-turn made by Wayne Rooney not so long ago.

December 12, 2010

Begrudging respect for the Magpies

Posted on 12/12/2010

With the news of Carlos Tevez's transfer request arriving so late on Saturday, Sunday's headlines were a mis-match of begrudging pro-Newcastle rhetoric and schoolyard big talk...

Dew Reward

Alan Pardew is the subject of the The Sun’s attentions after he masterminded a 3-1 victory over Liverpool. You have to feel the headline-writers are gutted that Mike Ashley has not fallen directly on his sword.

Axe-mad Australia are just clueless

Former England batsman Alec Stewart sticks the knife into Australia as the Sunday Mirror gears up for the third Ashes Test. One wonders if he will be made to eat his words.

United don’t scare us

Boasting a ghastly picture of Samir Nasri, the Daily Star vamps up the trash talk ahead of Manchester United v Arsenal. In response, it's difficult to imagine Wayne Rooney is struggling to sleep at he prospect of facing Laurent Koscielny.

December 10, 2010

Pardew joins the Loony Toons

Posted on 10/12/2010

After the surprise sacking of Chris Hughton on Monday, Newcastle layed down a marker of their ambitions with the appointment of Alan Pardew, so we take a look at the headlines in Friday morning's papers.

Fans hail new Messiah

'The problem I'm going to have initially is the players,' admitted Pardew. And the fans, says The Sun, who claim only a handful of supporters turned up to welcome the new Magpies boss.
'It was hardly Pardy time at St James' Park yesterday. Fans flocked to the ground to see Geordie Bobby Robson become boss in 1999. They did the same when home-town hero Alan Shearer signed three years earlier. But Alan Pardew's arrival left the locals cold... only a couple of supporters turned up to welcome him.'

Newcastle stars in revolt

The Daily Mirror claims Pardew will face a player revolt when he takes the reins on Friday.
'Pardew will hold a team meeting and training session on Friday morning and is also braced for fan protests against the turmoil caused this week before Saturday's home clash with Liverpool.'

You must be mad

While there were plenty of names linked with the job at St James' Park, the Daily Mail claims nobody really fancied the job.
Pardew said: 'I've had a lot of texts from other managers saying I must be mad coming here because of the tough agenda and the history of the ownership with managers, but it's a huge club and one of the top five clubs in the country, I would suggest.'

Time on his side?

He may have signed a five-and-a-half-year deal, but the chances of Pardew seeing out his contract are virtually non-existent, says the Daily Telegraph
'Pardew has been given a contract until 2016. That is a long time in the life of any football club. 'At Newcastle it is almost an epoch. In the last five and half years Newcastle have employed seven "permanent" managers...Elsewhere in the Premier League, who has lasted the length of Pardew's contract? Aside from the immovable objects Sir Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and David Moyes - no one.'

December 9, 2010

The transfer silly season is underway

Posted on 09/12/2010

It’s heading into December and as well as the season of good will, it is the season of transfer speculation.

Kop to Splash Cash on Ash

A lovely play on words from the Daily Mirror who claim Liverpool will make a January swoop for Ashley Young.
‘Roy Hodgson and transfer negotiator Damien Comolli are working on the ambitious project and hope to seal a £15m deal for the winger in Janaury.’

Houllier poised for £6m Keane bid

So if Young does depart, and that’s IF, then a void will need to be filled and the boys at the Daily Mail are claiming Gerard Houllier will make a move for Tottenham’s out-of-favour forward Robbie Keane.

Pardew has fight to win over Toon

It looks like Alan Pardew is the ‘experienced’ man Newcastle have opted to replace Chris Hughton with. Most of the tabs have picked up on a poll conducted by a north east paper where only 2% of fans canvassed were in favour of the appointment of the former West Ham boss. Seems like it could be the briefest of honeymoon periods.

Sackre Blues

Chelsea’s poor run of form continued with a 1-0 defeat at Marseille. Carlo Ancelotti has suggested his players are scared to play. The Italian has insisted he will not walk away, but The Sun’s headline gives an indication of what the Wapping team feel might happen.

December 3, 2010

FIFA: A complete and utter sham

Posted on 03/12/2010

England inevitably fell short in their bid to bring the World Cup home on Thursday, so cue the unadulterated hard-luck stories based on a lack of fairness and suggested corruption. Here former England boss Terry Venables gives his opinion in the Sun.

MAYBE we should not be that surprised Russia got the vote to stage the 2018 World Cup. After all, FIFA and the KGB are just about the last two secret organisations on the planet. Because when it comes to a political intrigue, espionage and a good old-fashioned bit of cloak and dagger, those in charge of football's governing body would certainly give Russia's secret service a run for their money. How else do you explain yesterday's announcement in Zurich?

If you had given the script to the director of the new James Bond movie, he would have turned it down and accused it of being too far-fetched. England beat the living daylights out of their rival bids, but were still met by Dr No. Unbelievable.

And, if we're being honest, unjust.

We not only best met all of FIFA's critieria for the bid, we also jumped through their hoops, bent over backwards and went way above and beyond the call of duty in an effort to bring the World Cup to our shores for the first time since 1966. Having previously received a rap across the knuckles from Jack Warner for being "too lightweight" and "not showbizzy enough", our future King and the Prime Minister were among the dignitaries who cleared their hectic diaries and overcame the Arctic conditions to travel to Switzerland to put our case to FIFA's executive committee.

And still it was not enough.

In fact, Prince William and David Cameron might as well have stayed at home because in the end it was clear Sepp Blatter and co had already made up their minds. And did they back what was by far the best bid in front of them? The one that matched all the criteria? The one that would deliver the best World Cup? The one that was totally assured? The one that could, if asked, put on a finals tomorrow?


Instead they chose the country, whose Prime Minister Vladimir Putin did not even travel to Zurich for the vote. So much for backing his bid. Maybe he knew it was already in the bag. Well his decision not to attend the vote is almost as bizarre as FIFA's decision to give 2018 to Russia over England.

FIFA led us to believe the bidding countries would be judged on things like stadiums, IT networks, transport links, hotels, training facilities and communications. That was clearly not so. After all, who in their right mind would score Russia above England in any of those categories? To do so, would be farcical, as anybody who has ever been beyond the old Iron Curtain would tell you.

Once again we were led up the garden path. Annoyingly, not only did we have the best bid, we also had the best presentation. Yet all we returned home with was a certificate from FIFA. Against all the ethics of the beautiful game, on this occasion it appears the best was not good enough - and nor was it ever going to be. Had the decision been based solely on the bid, we would have undoubtedly won. But it clearly was not.

The bleeding heart liberals in Zurich, like they did with South Africa 2010, opted for legacy over logistics. Nothing wrong with that, just tell us before we waste all that time and money compiling a bid. Russia has never staged a World Cup before. And while the head nation of the former Soviet Union would undoubtedly benefit from the legacy of hosting football's biggest showpiece tournament, they have so much work to do to turn their country into one able to do so.

If the aim by FIFA all along was to give 2018 to a nation that had never held a World Cup before then fine. I just wished they would have told us and the FA at the outset. It would have saved us £15 million and a lot of heartache. Instead, the selection process became a charade - in fact a complete and utter sham.

England never got the 2018 World Cup, because we were never going to get it. It was what the French speakers in Zurich call a 'fait accompli'. And thanks to FIFA's secret agents we may never know exactly why we were refused the chance to host the tournament. I only know it is a great shame. A shame for England. A shame for football. And shame on FIFA.

December 2, 2010

An Oscar-winning performance

Posted on 02/12/2010

D-Day has arrived: England find out their fate and whether another major sporting competition will be coming to the country. The man who helped bring the Olympics to London has called for an Oscar-winning performance from the team presenting the bid, writes Steven Howard in the Sun.

Sebastian Coe knows exactly what it takes to come out on top of the world here in FIFA's home city. He did it three times as an athlete, shattering the world mile and 1500 metres records at the Letzigrund Stadium in a golden spell from 1979 to 1981.

Some 24 years later, he would famously triumph off the track in Singapore as he delivered the 2012 Olympics for Great Britain. Now he is back in Zurich once more trying to work the same magic for England's 2018 World Cup bid.

Last night, as the bid hung in the balance following a bizarre attack on it by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Coe spelled out just what the England team have to do this morning to clinch the vote.

Coe, a 2018 ambassador, said: "We need five Oscar-winning performances from our speakers. We need messages that come over loud and clear. We need succinct films that illustrate the messages - and we need an emotional connection.

"All this is so important - even more so when there are no frontrunners and there is uncertainty about the outcome.

"We must also make sure we don't get swayed by what the others are doing or saying because all the presentations will be good.

"No one comes here with a crap presentation."

The Famous Five in whose hands England's 2018 destiny could lie are Prince William, David Cameron, David Beckham, bid leader Andy Anson and the generally unknown but eloquent Eddie Afekafe, a community project manager at Manchester City. They will each put England's case during a 30-minute presentation at 10am English time in front of the 22 FIFA executive members.

They will follow Holland-Belgium and Spain before Russia wrap up the proceedings for the £3billion honour of staging the 2018 World Cup.

Coe, a double Olympic gold medallist in Moscow and Los Angeles, said: "I know from my own experience that you CAN win votes at the last minute.You do this by commitment and showing you really want it badly.

"And the cast list here demonstrably proves that."

Continue reading "An Oscar-winning performance"

November 26, 2010

Time has come for Wenger to realise he has to go

Posted on 26/11/2010

Arsenal missed the chance to go top of the Premier League when surrendering a 2-0 lead to fall 3-2 at home to bitter rivals Tottenham. The mood at the Emirates was a sombre one, with a sense of what might have been, and the Daily Telegraph’s Matthew Norman has put his head above the parapet by claiming the time has come for Arsene Wenger to go.

"Nowadays no one - not our Queen, her ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, not even Cheryl Cole - lies beyond attack from the vicious iconoclasts of both public and media.

No one, that is, except Arsène Wenger. Miraculously, the Alsatian alone continues to inspire a degree of deference unknown in Her Majesty’s realm since a peer was ostracised from society in the late 1950s for mocking her accent.

To those of us who have come to regard Wenger as a shot fighter, this is the leading mystery of an endlessly perplexing age.

Nowadays no one — not our Queen, her ministers, the Archbishop of Canterbury, not even Cheryl Cole — lies beyond attack from the vicious iconoclasts of both public and media.

No one, that is, except Arsène Wenger. Miraculously, the Alsatian alone continues to inspire a degree of deference unknown in Her Majesty’s realm since a peer was ostracised from society in the late 1950s for mocking her accent.

To those of us who have come to regard Wenger as a shot fighter, this is the leading mystery of an endlessly perplexing age.

Certainly he won a bundle of trophies, and in glorious style, but that was then. Even Churchill finally accepted that no one can “keep buggering on” forever. Will Arsène Wenger ever do the same?"

November 25, 2010

Tottenham at home in Europe

Posted on 25/11/2010

After Tottenham sealed their place in the first knockout round of the Champions League with a comfortable 3-0 victory over Werder Bremen, the tributes have been flooding in. Paul Hayward, writing in the Guardian, praises Spurs' scintillating attacking football.

A splash of glamour and some extra cash were meant to be the brief rewards for Spurs in Europe. Then Christmas would come and the real business of winning the league title for the first time since 1961 would reclaim its hold on White Hart Lane.

This was the old-fashioned way: win your domestic championship then come over all cosmopolitan and head for the continent. But little about today's Tottenham Hotspur could be called linear, except Peter Crouch. In Harry Redknapp's universe Spurs are 4-0 down at Internazionale and lose 4-3; they trail by two at Arsenal and go home 3-2 winners; they squash Inter at home but lose on their own grass to Wigan – and away at West Ham and Bolton. A season ticket here brings the chance to observe at least two Tottenham personalities.

Continue reading "Tottenham at home in Europe"

November 21, 2010

City can't afford to lose Mancini

Posted on 21/11/2010

Manchester City bosses old and new meet today at Craven Cottage, with Roberto Mancini aiming to outwit Mark Hughes. The Italian finds himself under severe pressure - something Hughes knows all about - but Paul Wilson, writing in the Observer, believes he should hold onto his job no matter what the result against Fulham.

To give Roberto Mancini his due, he retains a sense of humour, something he may need if Manchester City's reunion with Mark Hughes goes badly this afternoon. City do not seem to be able to buy the affection of players for any amount of money, and when the newly arrived and little seen Mario Balotelli picked up the Carlos Tevez habit of pining aloud for his homeland on international duty last week, the man who offered him a five-year contract smiled enigmatically. "Before Mario can leave he must start to play," Mancini joked.

Continue reading "City can't afford to lose Mancini"

November 18, 2010

Capello's Carroll quandary

Posted on 18/11/2010

Although Andy Carroll impressed for England on his debut – a 2-1 friendly loss to France – Richard Williams, writing in the Guardian, believes that the Newcastle striker could prove a hindrance in the long run due to his preference for an aerial ball.

"The problem is that when you have a player like Carroll in the side, there will always be the temptation to lump the ball in his direction at every opportunity, either to relieve pressure or because, you never know, something might come of it. And in terms of cerebral effort, it is certainly more economical than the task of building moves with the sort of patient deftness that gave France their victory.

The first thing to note was that Andy ¬Carroll would be unlikely to find a place in the France line-up. During the national anthem, he remains silent. Rather more significantly, he represents a style of football that would be anathema to last night's visitors to Wembley.

Six foot three and 21 years old, full of combative physicality, Carroll is the answer to the question: where are the English centre-forwards of yesteryear? The trouble is that when you find one, he is likely to inspire the football of yesteryear, too.

That was certainly how it seemed in last night's first half, as Laurent Blanc's team, orchestrated by the superb Samir Nasri and seemingly at the start of what might become a full-scale renaissance, gave Fabio Capello's men a lesson in the game's arts. As France passed their way around the fringes of the England area and scored a peach of an opening goal, the home side looked what they were: an outfit deprived of at least seven starting players.

Carroll, one of Capello's debutants, could hardly be blamed. He did everything he was expected and required to do. After 40 seconds he drew a foul from Philippe Mexès, giving Steven Gerrard an early opportunity to test Hugo Lloris with a 30-yard free-kick. Five minutes later Adil Rami, Mexès's centre-back partner, was bouncing off the Newcastle United man as the ball was neatly laid off.

Good things kept happening for Carroll, or nearly happening. After eight minutes he made a strong run from his own half, exchanged passes with Theo Walcott on the right flank and looped a clever cross on to the head of Gerrard, who glanced it on for James Milner. Five minutes later Milner was again the recipient, this time as Carroll himself rose to redirect Ben Foster's clearance.

There were two more towering headed flicks from the centre-forward before half-time, one of them provoking a wild half-volleyed shot from the hugely disappointing Gerrard. Most of the time, however, Carroll seemed to be devoid of support, operating in acres of space otherwise occupied only by his markers.

Ten minutes before the interval he was reduced to heading the ball down to himself before shooting at Lloris from outside the area. Soon afterwards he seized his only chance to turn with the ball and attack a defender, leaving Mexès floundering.

The Italians often like to incorporate a tall, powerful, awkward striker into an otherwise suavely skilful side. Is Carroll a constant danger like Alessandro Altobelli or a black hole like Andrea Silenzi, from which nothing of substance emerges? The English striker he most closely resembles is Mark Hateley, who also plied his trade for a while in Italy, where he was known to Milan's fans as Attila. The morning after a majestic headed goal provided the winner in his first San Siro derby, the Gazzetta dello Sport published a statistical comparison purporting to prove that he was a better all-round player than John Charles. Early impressions can sometimes be misleading.

The problem is that when you have a player like Carroll in the side, there will always be the temptation to lump the ball in his direction at every opportunity, either to relieve pressure or because, you never know, something might come of it. And in terms of cerebral effort, it is certainly more economical than the task of building moves with the sort of patient deftness that gave France their victory.

Capello made changes at half-time and there was the promise of a more dynamic right-wing partnership between Micah Richards and Adam Johnson but Mathieu Valbuena was able to double France's lead with humiliating ease.

Looking at the way Carroll was deployed, and the gormlessness of the football going on around him, it was impossible to escape the conclusion that only England could make 4-2-3-1, the favoured formation in recent seasons of sophisticated sides such as Spain, Barcelona and José Mourinho's Internazionale, look like a relic of the past. Finally persuaded to abandon his lifelong loyalty to 4-4-2, Capello has given no indication of a feeling for the nuances of the alternative.
It would be wrong to expect the manager to hurl young players into the fray with indiscriminate abandon. By this time, however, the Italian really ought to have imposed some sort of reliable pattern into which new faces could be fitted with minimal disruption.

Players making their first senior international appearances should be able to look after themselves, but it was asking too much of Carroll and Jordan Henderson to give full expression to their gifts in such an undisciplined and uninspiring environment.

Both deserve another chance, but it will take a much more inventive approach from the manager if England are to devise a way of integrating Carroll's valuable but rough-hewn qualities into a style of play that would allow them to match their own expectations by competing with the world's best. For all their frenzied late revival, last night they showed once again how far there is to travel before that level is approached."

November 16, 2010

Shedloads of cash... no class

Posted on 16/11/2010

Chelsea are facing up to the prospect of losing their captain John Terry for a month, were thumped by Sunderland at the weekend and sacked Ray Wilkins last week. The champions would appear to be a club in turmoil and Ian Wright, in his column in the Sun, has taken a swipe at the club for their handling of Wilkins’ departure.

"Chelsea have once again proved they have loads of money but a shortage of class.

I did not like the way they tapped-up both Ashley Cole and Sven Goran Eriksson or how Claudio Ranieri was treated when he was shoved out the door.

Their latest example of behaving shabbily was the sacking of No 2 Ray Wilkins

Equally, Roman Abramovich has proved he has little respect for Carlo Ancelotti by removing Ray seemingly without the manager's approval.

There is no way you could ever imagine the Glazers dismissing Mike Phelan without the knowledge of Alex Ferguson or Arsenal ignoring Arsene Wenger and kicking out Pat Rice.

It just wouldn't happen. But it appears Ancelotti is only charged with team matters and these events over the last few days have merely weakened his position.

This treatment of Ray is also another example of why Jose Mourinho was right to walk away following his power struggle with Abramovich."

November 10, 2010

Let's not get carried away by Carroll

Posted on 10/11/2010

Andy Carroll is the talk of football at the moment, both on and off the field, and he raised his stock with Newcastle’s winning goal against Arsenal. The header is expected to seal his place in Fabio Capello’s squad, but Daily Mail columnist Martin Samuel feels a note of caution should be issued.

"There is a reason Joey Barton made just one appearance for England. He wasn't worth the trouble. It is the point he misses in the argument about good boys and bad boys in the England team. If a bad boy is equally as good as the good boy, you pick the good boy because he is less aggravation.

Even if the bad boy is slightly better, you still pick the good boy, because the bad boy has time-consuming baggage which outweighs his marginally superior talent. The bad boy has to be so much better to be worth it. He has to be, say, Mario Balotelli, in the eyes of Roberto Mancini, the Manchester City manager.

Balotelli's performance against West Bromwich on Sunday rebooted City's season after it had unexpectedly gone into hibernation; then he got sent off for an act of utter stupidity. This is why Inter Milan sold him. They thought, as reigning European champions - a campaign in which he played little part - he wasn't worth the trouble. Mancini disagreed.

It is a subjective argument either way. Mancini felt differently about Craig Bellamy, but for Cardiff City he was worth the gamble. A bad boy's value is always related to the needs of the team. It took a lot for John Terry to lose the England captaincy; a fringe player would have been more casually discarded.

Barton's sole cap for England came as a 78th-minute substitute for Frank Lampard in a 1-0 defeat by Spain on February 7, 2007. Is he as good as Lampard? No. And he is certainly no match for Steven Gerrard, either.

Yet also starting for England that day was Michael Carrick, and Gareth Barry was a 46th-minute substitute. Indeed, he let Andres Iniesta run for Spain's winning goal.

Now Barton may not have Barry's understanding of Gerrard, but given 12 minutes of international football - without Gerrard on the field - that is hardly going to develop. He may not have Carrick's passing range, either, but looking at his performances for Newcastle recently, did he have the potential to play some role for the team? Quite possibly, yes.

So considering some of the options taken in the last four years, Barton was worth more than a 12-minute cameo. Yet while Barry has gone on to play 43 times for England, and Carrick has won 22 caps, Barton has never started a game. Why? Because, in the end, he was not so superior that an England manager could ignore the disorder around him.

This brings us to Andy Carroll, who will be called up by England for the match against France next week and whose cause was championed by team-mate Barton after his winning goal against Arsenal on Sunday.

If Fabio Capello is given to making lists of positives and negatives, Carroll is doing his utmost to ensure both sides of the page are well stocked with information. He has scored six league goals in 11 games this season and his recent form has drawn comparisons with Duncan Ferguson and, more fancifully, Alan Shearer.

Capello needs to give Carroll a taste, and then show him what he will be missing unless he knuckles down.

Is there a risk of putting Carroll under too much pressure at 21? There is no evidence he feels it, so far. Inauspiciously, in his first game this season at Manchester United, he missed a sitter after 10 minutes and Newcastle lost 3-0. The next game he scored a hat-trick.

He woke up on Sunday to another round of negative front page headlines but by early afternoon had scored the winner and played outstandingly well against Arsenal.

He does not seem to be thinking about his career hard enough to be worried by its haphazard progress right now. Mentally, this may be Carroll's ace in the hole, but it is also his potential undoing."

November 9, 2010

Carroll can ruffle French feathers

Posted on 09/11/2010

Andy Carroll's winning goal at Arsenal on Sunday reignited calls for the striker to be handed a place in the England team, despite his off-pitch antics. While he may not be the ideal role model, Henry Winter admits in the Daily Telegraph that Fabio Capello would be hard pressed to find a squad without skeletons in their closet.

If the Fit and Proper Person’s test were ever applied to England players, Fabio Capello might struggle to rustle up a five-a-side team.

Capello’s captain for next week’s friendly with France once missed a drugs test, his vice-captain was charged (and cleared) of affray, three others of a light blue persuasion recently enjoyed some refreshment with Scottish freshers while two others of a royal blue hue have endured particularly foul headlines. The Temperance Society All-Stars it is not.

Into this moral maze of a Wembley dressing room steps Andy Carroll, clutching loads of baggage with the cynics trumpeting that he should be right at home. Put politely, the Newcastle United No 9 likes a night out.

Carroll’s mooted call-up incites two debates, the first a long-running one about parents’ hopes for those who wear the England shirt to behave with at least a modicum of decorum. England do offer good role models in James Milner, Theo Walcott and others but some of their colleagues would require extra time at confessional.

A newer debate arises with Carroll’s arrival. An individual apparently not close to the front of the queue when the quality of self-scrutiny was handed out, Carroll could be tempted to believe that a questionable lifestyle off the field is no barrier to the ultimate honour, an England cap.

Any of Carroll’s alleged nocturnal activities, which his manager Chris Hughton addressed in Monday’s welcome homily about “mistakes” and “pitfalls”, have clearly not affected the striker’s game, even the claim about having a 5.30am meal at a certain fast-food outlet (who also happen to be FA benefactors so Carroll can argue he has started his appearances for England sponsors early).

Despite refuelling habits not recommended by sporting nutritionists, Carroll’s stamina and speed are undoubtedly impressive. But such a debatable diet could catch up with him eventually – like centre-halves will.

A bitter irony would cloud England week if Carroll replaced Kevin Davies in the squad. Whatever the question marks about Davies’s physicality on the pitch, the Bolton Wanderers captain has been a model professional off it. Davies responded to his England call by pouring more time and energy into his personal charity helping out kids in Bolton. Davies uses his profile for the community’s benefit. Carroll should beware using his profile just for his own benefit.

What stirs particular mirth in all the musings about Carroll for England is the idea that Capello must wait for some FA Morals Committee to convene, passing judgment on whether he is a fit and proper person for national service. The FA gave up assessing decency levels some time back.

The gist of current FA policy is that a player is available for England as long as he’s not doing porridge.

The spotlight on Carroll has cast a harsh light on the FA. Where’s the organisation’s leader prepared to address such issues? Blessed with many hard-working employees, who love their jobs and their sport, the FA suffers from a chronic vacuum of power at boardroom level.

The new chairman is being head-hunted from what appears a shortlist of one, namely Roger Burden, and he is not from the Churchill school of natural authority figures. The chief executive’s job, once a respected role, has effectively gone. The FA needs a strong front man.

Capello could well have found one of his own in Carroll, who will doubtless ruffle up the feathers of the French peacocks visiting Wembley.

Clearly promising, Carroll will still need time and further chances to prove himself a long-term option.

No less an expert on Newcastle and England No 9s than Alan Shearer has urged caution over Carroll’s elevation, arguing that “he’s not ready yet, in a year or two he might be ready”.

Shearer was still quick to laud Carroll’s qualities. “He’d be horrible to play against, which is a good thing. He’s lying second in the goalscoring charts [on six] and made a bit of a name for himself. The hard part is carrying that on. He’s in a similar vein to Big Dunc [Ferguson]: hard, unplayable on his day, very good in the air and a rocket of a left foot. Defenders will know they have been in a game.” So will the moral majority.

Continue reading "Carroll can ruffle French feathers"

November 8, 2010

Liverpool have found new formation

Posted on 08/11/2010

Liverpool fans will wake up on Monday sensing light at the end of a particularly dark tunnel, thanks to Fernando Torres’ brace against Chelsea. However, for Guardian columnist David Pleat, the pivotal moment in Liverpool’s victory came when Roy Hodgson named his starting XI...

Roy Hodgson got his formation right for Liverpool against Chelsea, enabling Dirk Kuyt to be their most effective performer

It is only in retrospect that a possible defining moment emerges. But the changes that Roy Hodgson made, whether by accident or design due to injury (Glen Johnson) and availability (Dirk Kuyt), gave Liverpool the opportunity to play with a system that showed Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva in the best light. Fernando Torres, too, enjoyed the day.
I recall a situation in 1986-87 when at Tottenham Hotspur. Because of the transfer of Graham Roberts to Rangers, an injury to Tony Galvin and the need to negate Glenn Hoddle's down side, a 4-5-1 system was born that glowed for the whole season. Liverpool, I feel, may have done similarly at Anfield yesterday.

Kuyt lacks guile but his work-rate is often wasted, in my view, parading the touchline on the right side. Lucas has struggled to win admirers when trying to contain midfield runners and Gerrard, certainly the dynamo, needs to be both central and deeper so he can defend and attack when the opportunity arises.

Raul Meireles and Maxi Rodríguez, who have acclimatised slowly to Premier League football, were put to better use on the outside of the five-man midfield rather than further infield.

Kuyt was the most important figure in this hardworking display, particularly in the second half when they had to quell the tide of sharp passing attacks from Chelsea. When possession changed hands the Dutchman quickly moved into a position where he could help to stifle the influence of Mikel John Obi in the centre of Chelsea's midfield. He appeared to have three lungs as he worked and challenged, always putting team before self.

Although Chelsea had plenty of possession, Liverpool were strong and solid and must have given Hodgson great heart. At Fulham he had a system that replicated the way Liverpool played yesterday. In this rearrangement Jamie Carragher went from right-back to centre-back where he is far more comfortable because he does not have to face too many passing options from the advanced positions he is forced to take up when playing at full-back.

When the ball was wide Carragher and Martin Skrtel made sure they stayed firm on the edge of the area and were always in good positions to intercept typical Chelsea-style low crosses
Hodgson may have been quietly bewildered this week at the US owners' judgment in their choice for their director of football but he will have made several important points with this vibrant display.

Meireles and Rodríguez are yet to shine, but they still did an important job denying Branislav Ivanovic and Ashley Cole advanced attacking positions. This was important, too. Crucially, it was the industry of Kuyt when Liverpool lost possession that helped Lucas and Gerrard do their work with such efficiency.

November 4, 2010

Benitez lacks grace to admit wonder of Bale

Posted on 04/11/2010

Gareth Bale’s stock is shooting through the roof and his dazzling display in the Champions League for the second time in a fortnight had the world and his wife waxing lyrical about the Welshman. But James Lawton, writing in the Independent, feels Inter Milan boss Rafael Benitez is lacking in class for not giving enough praise to the Tottenham man.

"The coach's reaction to Bale's rampage was instructive. While one of the greatest of modern players, Luis Figo, shook his head in wonderment at such a dominant but also controlled performance, and one leading Italian newspaper declared, "Frightening Bale sweeps away Inter", Benitez bemoaned a too generous allocation of space. "We knew it would be difficult to stop him if he had space. He was running but he had the space and that was the difference."

But it was the difference from what? Presumably it was the possibility that an individual player might be so strong, might be so aware of all around him, and made so confident in his own ability, that he could make the defensive calculation of even a Mourinho, or his legendary Inter predecessor Helenio Herrera, seem nothing more than good intentions.

Benitez's intentions towards Bale, despite the young Welshman's astonishing impact in San Siro so recently, were not easy to identify. Maicon, voted the Champions League's best full-back after last year's campaign, found himself repeatedly alone and contemplating old age far earlier than he can ever have anticipated.

What Benitez might have had the grace to say was that there are some nights when the coach is obliged to throw away his notes and acknowledge that there was never a set of tactics equipped to prevail over the force of great performance. Maradona reminded the Germans of this in the 1986 World Cup, when the Argentine came into the game carrying menace some way beyond even that generated so remarkably by Bale in recent weeks. The Germans put their most able player, Lothär Matthaus, on Maradona and he did a brilliant job – except for the moment of blinding instinct which saw space and opportunity for a pass of disembowelling penetration.

Bale had more than a few such moments against Benitez's team and they were filled with so much force and vision that to suggest they were merely the result of negligence, of too much space too easily yielded, was ungenerous to the point of perverse.

No one is saying that Benitez is failing, at least not just yet, in the most hazardous footsteps of Mourinho.

He has players of outstanding competitive character, which is his greatest resource as his Italian honeymoon draws to a close. But it is also already clear enough he has to forget about Liverpool, edit out the strange riddles, and remember to get close to those players who have already proved they can win at the highest level – a lot closer, certainly, than he did to the problem of Gareth Bale."

November 3, 2010

Bale orders taxi for Maicon

Posted on 03/11/2010

Gareth Bale is the Premier League's hottest property at the moment, with a hat-trick at the San Siro a fortnight ago, and he was at it again at White Hart Lane as Harry Redknapp's men outplayed holders Inter Milan. While Redknapp's tactics were spot-on, Paul Hayward in The Guardian claims that Bale's performance eclipsed all else.

Redknapp's tactical answer to the challenge of Internazionale was to throw all his finest assets at them.

To shred the defence of Europe's No. 1 team once, on their own ground, in Milan, would be enough for most people's scrapbooks but Gareth Bale did it again in the grandest victory of Harry Redknapp's colourful managerial career.

The runaway train of Bale's talent is being hailed all over Europe, with Internazionale's Luis Figo, no fool along the flanks, telling Redknapp as the two left the field together: "He's just amazing, amazing. He killed us twice."

What is it with Wales and wingers? Ryan Giggs, who has taunted England with his Welshness for almost 20 years, was not the first fire-breather to earn worldwide recognition. Cliff Jones, the house flier in Tottenham's 1961 Double-winning side, sped along the turf Bale graced in this thrilling Champions League encounter and was widely recognised as the sport's best wide man.

"What confidence you must have to come and do that to people who are so highly rated," Redknapp said. Incredulity strikes rarely for these old football men. They remember an age when a sense of adventure was inked into the contract. But Tottenham's manager was awed as the crowd chanted "taxi for Maicon" after the world's top-rated right-back was blown away again.

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November 1, 2010

Blame Gomes, not Clattenburg

Posted on 01/11/2010

Nani's bizarre goal that sealed Manchester United's win against Tottenham has sparked outrage over referee Mark Clattenburg's dealing of the situation, but Graham Poll in The Daily Mail says the referee was right, but admits he was not credible as he gives his analysis of the turn of events at Old Trafford.

Like everyone else I couldn't believe my eyes as events unfolded at Old Trafford. It was one of the most bizarre and divisive goals in Premier League history.

My analysis is that Mark Clattenburg was right by the letter of the law, but his decision lacked credibility - and left a scar on this match.

1. The penalty appeal

Due to the bizarre run of events that followed, Nani's legitimate penalty claim was overlooked by many, including Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp.

Nani appeared to be pushed from behind as he raced past Younes Kaboul. He went to ground very easily as most players do, but if an attacker does not go down then he will never get the decision.

Clattenburg saw this incident clearly and instantly gave a 'negative' signal, placing his arms behind his back - he saw it but didn't think it was an offence.

His decision was a good one as there was so little contact. It would have been a soft penalty but technically it wouldn't have been wrong.

2. The handball

Next came the moment that Spurs claim should have resulted in a free-kick. Players who feel they have been fouled often grab the ball to force the referee to make a decision.

Clattenburg could not see Nani deliberately handle the ball from his position. Anyway, it became irrelevant when Heurelho Gomes picked up the ball.

The referee would want the game to flow and playing on was the best decision having not given the penalty. For the record, handball is not a mandatory caution, whatever Alan Hansen says.

3. The 'free-kick'

If Gomes felt he had a free-kick why walk 10 yards up the pitch to take it? Why not play to the whistle? His actions were bizarre and caused all of the problems.

At no point did Clattenburg blow the whistle or make any move to do so, nor did he signal 'advantage'. He shouted 'Play on', but you do that when there is no offence.

If Gomes had put the ball down at the point where Nani had handled it and Nani had kicked it in from there then I am sure that Clattenburg would not have allowed the goal.
Mark Clattenburg

4. The confusion

Even if Clattenburg was playing advantage, it would have been over as soon as Gomes had the ball in his hands. Advantage is accrued once the player has control of the ball and can play on unaffected.

Despite Nani's handball, a free-kick could not have been awarded once Gomes picked up the ball.

5. Naughty Nani

As a top-flight referee, you have to contend with the 'win at all costs' mentality which over-rides all else.

With players prepared to dive and feign injury, it is perhaps too much to ask for sportsmanlike conduct. Nani knew that Gomes had put the ball down for a free-kick which is why he hesitated. He did nothing wrong in law.

6. The consultation

This is the point at which the whole incident could have been cleared up. Assistant referee Simon Beck knew there was an unsatisfactory and unnatural feel to the goal. He had seen the handball and so gave Clattenburg an opportunity by calling him over.

Clattenburg did well to keep the Tottenham players away but mysteriously allowed Rio Ferdinand to approach. He might be England captain but he is not the United captain and had no right to approach - let alone stay at - the consultation.

The law allows a referee to change a decision providing he has not restarted play. Clattenburg decided not to.

7. The protests

I fully understood the Spurs protests. Clattenburg did nothing wrong in law but there was a lack of credibility in his decision. I always tried to ensure that things felt right while trying to apply the law correctly.

Unusually this situation had two alternative endings, both right in law - let the goal stand or give a free-kick for the missed handball after consultation with Beck. Personally I would have done the latter. Of course that would have saved Gomes the embarrassment that his stupidity perhaps deserved.

Continue reading "Blame Gomes, not Clattenburg"

October 31, 2010

Hughton discovering life as a loony Toon

Posted 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 27, 2010

Conspiracy theories over Paul's death

Posted 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 16, 2010

Murphy's standing up to the bullies

Posted 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 14, 2010

Capello set to experiment

Posted 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 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 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 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 9, 2010

Johnson's the new Waddle - Venables

Posted 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 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 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.

September 28, 2010

Almunia not to blame for Arsenal's woes

Posted on 28/09/2010

The general consensus in England right now is that Manuel Almunia is an outfield player pretending to be a goalkeeper, a man who will inevitably cost Arsenal the Premier League title. Gunners legend Ian Wright, writing for the Sun, believes the biggest man to blame is not the Spaniard though, insisting Arsene Wenger must take his share of the critics...

You cannot blame Manuel Almunia for Arsenal's shock defeat to West Brom. Just like you will not be able to point the finger at his understudy Lukasz Fabianski if he costs the Gunners once more in Belgrade tonight.

That's because, ultimately, there is one man who must carry the can for the current goalkeeping crisis at my old club. And that is Arsene Wenger.

The Arsenal boss knows better than anybody the standard of his keepers. He has had numerous chances to strengthen that department in the last couple of seasons but refused to take them. Now his unwillingness to invest in a world-class stopper has come back to bite him and his team's bid for much-needed silverware.

Especially on Saturday. Almunia has come in for a lot of flak for his performance in his side's 3-2 home loss to the Baggies - and rightly so. The Spaniard may have saved Chris Brunt's first-half penalty after he brought him down but were it not for his two second-half howlers then Roberto di Matteo's well-drilled underdogs would not have left the Emirates with all three points.
He and any top class keeper should have easily stopped Gonzalo Jara's near-post shot that put Albion 2-0 up on 52 minutes. And he should not have gone walkabout in his area to gift Jerome Thomas the visitors' third with 17 minutes remaining.

Poor old Manny is having a hard time at the moment but it is not all his fault. Goalkeeping is a cut-throat business - just ask Robert Green - and keepers need to be kept on their toes. They're at their best when being pushed for the jersey.

Almunia showed that when he was vying with his predecessor Jens Lehmann. Whenever he was called on, he showed what a good keeper he was. Lehmann left for Stuttgart in June 2008 and, since then, Almunia has had no one to seriously challenge him. He has been in the comfort zone for 2½ years, knowing however he performs he will start the next game - unless, of course, it's the Carling Cup.

That is not healthy for any player at any club. And a club like the Gunners needs competition in every position. When I was at Arsenal, I remember David Seaman being pushed by young Austrian keeper Alex Manninger. Alex kept Dave on his toes and did ever so well when he had to stand in for him. We knew Dave was our No 1 but, if he was ever out, we could rely on Alex. Arsenal don't have that now.

Almunia is a worry and, if he is out, there is an even bigger concern. Clubs like Arsenal need what is known as a 'top-four' keeper. Chelsea have one in Petr Cech, Manchester United have Edwin van der Sar, Liverpool have Pepe Reina and Manchester City have either Joe Hart or Shay Given.

Is Almunia in that class? In my opinion, no. If he was good enough, surely he would have been capped by his country. I am not convinced and I don't think Wenger is. Why else was he linked with other keepers, including Mark Schwarzer, this summer?

Almunia must know his boss was looking to bring in a new face and that would have unsettled him further. Wenger claims Almunia has an elbow injury and is out of tonight's Champions League clash in Belgrade. Fabianski will replace him. But the Spaniard does not need pushing out of the team - he needs pushing for his place.

Wenger must sign a keeper in January or it is likely to be another trophyless season.

September 27, 2010

Toothless Arsenal lack steel

Posted on 27/09/2010

The knives are out for Arsenal in the press this morning after they sank to an embarrassing 3-2 home defeat against West Bromwich Albion on Saturday. Steven Howard, writing in the Sun, is particularly scathing in his assessment:

Flat-track bullies, it would seem. But no muscle, no machismo, no balls when the going gets tough.

Continue reading "Toothless Arsenal lack steel"

September 26, 2010

They told me I was dead - Gazza

Posted on 26/09/2010

A candid interview with Paul Gascoigne in the News of the World sees the former England star admit he cheated death in a car crash:

"It was a bad time for me," he adds. "I'd been sober for six months, then I went to watch an England game and 15 minutes later I'm in a car crash.

"The girl was driving and the car went out of control and hit a wall. All I can remember is the car hitting the wall.

"They said I had died in the ambulance. I am lucky to be alive."

Continue reading "They told me I was dead - Gazza"

September 20, 2010

Don't bet on Torres staying at Liverpool

Posted on 20/09/2010

Liverpool fans are waking up with an unwanted headache this morning, and they cannot even take consolation in a big alcohol-fuelled night out. The Reds are nursing the wounds of their latest defeat to Manchester United, and the Sun’s Mick Howard has put the boot in by predicting Fernando Torres is on his way...

IT hasn't been the greatest eight days for Fernando Torres. After last Sunday's scrambled goalless draw at Birmingham, Jamie Redknapp described the Liverpool striker as being variously 'diabolical, 'frustrated', 'sloppy' and 'lethargic'. And, for good measure, 'showing no appetite for the game'.

It was some coating. Then, again, we always complain that former footballers are anodyne, hiding behind generalisations and never having anything to say - especially when asked to comment on players at former clubs. And then we came to yesterday.

It was certainly no day for an out-of-touch Torres to be compared with the high-flying Dimitar Berbatov. Even more so when the Bulgarian took his season's league tally to six in five games with the first Manchester United hat-trick against Liverpool since Stan Pearson 64 years ago.
Berbatov's hat-trick included two bullet headers and a beautifully-judged overhead-kick that went in off the underside of the bar. Even worse for Torres, the first of the headers came when he was supposed to be marking his opposite number at a corner.

In fact, Torres had both arms wrapped round Berbatov as the ball came in, only to notice referee Howard Webb was watching closely. He then relaxed his grip, the Bulgarian momentarily broke free - and the ball was in the net.

Yet, by the end, you couldn't help but feel sorry for the Spaniard. United got the win they deserved with Berbatov's third six minutes from time after Liverpool had come back from 2-0 down. While the United No. 9 continued to be mobbed by team-mates, Torres stood on the centre circle, hands on hips, his right foot resting on top of a match ball that would soon be on Berbatov's mantelpiece.

Considering everything, Torres hadn't done quite as badly as some were claiming. He had won the 63rd-minute penalty that had put Liverpool back in contention and then earned the free-kick five minutes later from which Steven Gerrard squared the match.

On another day (though not the World Cup final), Howard Webb might even have sent off John O'Shea when, as the last defender, the Irishman sent Torres spinning to the ground. Needless to say, there were a fair number in the ground - including United boss Alex Ferguson - who claimed Torres had dived. Then, again, Ferguson also claimed United could have won by 10. A slight exaggeration even by his standards of hyperbole.

For Torres, at least, it was a considerable improvement on the previous weekend. And it has to get better game by game. But you can't really see him being at Liverpool beyond the summer - especially with the planned refinancing of the club's £282million debt unlikely to produce fresh funds for transfers.

Even without it, there seems little to keep Torres at Anfield. The Spaniard must have looked at the support available to Berbatov and wept. He had Ryan Giggs on one flank and Nani on the other. They, in turn, were supported by Patrice Evra and O'Shea. Then there was Wayne Rooney tucked in just behind him.

And what did Torres have? Apart from isolation? In the absence of injured Dirk Kuyt, the game but withdrawn Raul Meireles was 20 yards adrift with a four-man midfield even further back. Yes, Liverpool enjoyed a fair amount of possession at times but never looked like hurting United. Until manager Roy Hodgson finally sent on David Ngog for Maxi Rodriguez in the 62nd minute.

It was no coincidence they scored twice in the next seven minutes. In the end, even that was to no avail.

It hasn't been the best 12 months for Torres, what with a series of injuries last season and a disappointing World Cup that saw him play just 24 minutes in the semi-final and final in South Africa. Despite all that, he still managed 18 league goals last season to give him a phenomenal aggregate of 57 in 73 starts at Anfield - against 27 in 58 for Berbatov at Old Trafford.

If he looks a bit jaded, are we surprised? At just 26, he has already played 446 games, most of them as a lone striker. Compare this with Didier Drogba's 507 at 32 and Berbatov's 535 at 29.
This season Torres has just one goal in six games, though with the Liverpool team going through another of its rebuilding phases this is scarcely a surprise, either.

Hodgson admitted: "He needs more games and time in training. There is no doubt he was a lot better than last week but he is still not firing on all cylinders."

Rafa Benitez may have left Torres and Pepe Reina as a legacy at Anfield but not much more. The club now lie fifth bottom of the Premier League, their only source of comfort Everton's presence one off the foot of the table. They need goals from Torres like never before. And he requires the same level of support.

September 19, 2010

Fergie could cost United £1 million

Posted on 19/09/2010

Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson has been delighting fans up and down the country by refraining from putting his face in front of the camera on the BBC, but the Daily Mail’s Rob Draper reveals his stubbornness could cost the Red Devils £1 million...

Manchester United are ready to pay whatever fines are incurred by manager Sir Alex Ferguson in his row with the BBC. The Premier League board will meet next month to draw up the list of sanctions they plan to impose on United as a result of Ferguson's refusal to give post-match interviews to the broadcaster.

United are likely to be hit with a series of fines, with the club potentially liable for a £25,000 penalty every time he declines a post-match interview with the BBC. That could, in theory, see the fines total £950,000 over the season, but the Premier League are not expected to impose such a massive punishment.

The League have confirmed that Ferguson will face disciplinary action under new rules introduced this season, which compel clubs to ensure their employees provide interviews for Premier League broadcasters.

'The new rules were introduced to ensure that the manager and players co-operate with our broadcast partners, so anyone who doesn't is in breach of the rules and subject to the disciplinary procedure,' said a Premier League spokesman.

Ferguson has refused to comply with the new regulations since the season began and will breach them again today as United take on Liverpool in the most important match of the Premier League season so far.

He has not spoken to the BBC since they broadcast a documentary in 2004 concerning his son Jason and his links to United. Ferguson insists that the BBC should apologise for the documentary if they want him to end his boycott and he is adamant that he will not change his stance.

The issue has come to a head because of the new rules but, even though United signed up to the new TV contract, a club spokesman said: 'We support Sir Alex Ferguson's position on this.'

Chief executive David Gill agreed to the rules, along with the other 19 clubs, although sources at United point out that the issue of managers talking to broadcast outlets was not voted on at the time. United, though, do accept that, having the signed the contract which included the new rules, the club are in breach of the regulations.

With the Premier League board of chief executive Richard Scudamore, chairman Sir Dave Richards and secretary Mike Foster meeting next month to discuss how to deal with Ferguson's continued defiance, United will be preparing simply to write off the fines and pay them for Ferguson to ensure their manager's position is not compromised.

Ferguson is likely to be fined a maximum of a few thousand pounds each time he fails to talk to the BBC. If there were no punishment, the Premier League would lose all credibility.
Ferguson labelled the BBC 'arrogant beyond belief' and claimed the organisation had shown an 'inability to apologise' after the documentary highlighted the close links his son allegedly enjoyed with the club while acting as a football agent, a career he has subsequently quit.

Although BSkyB, which pays the vast majority of the money for the £1.95 billion Premier League television contract, is unaffected by Ferguson's ban, the BBC remain important partners for the Premier League, paying £170m for the Match of the Day highlights package.
While Ferguson is required to speak to BBC outlets, including Radio Five Live, at all Premier League matches, his most high-profile snubs are at weekend fixtures, such as today's against Liverpool, when he is again expected to refuse to co-operate with Match of the Day.

September 16, 2010

Arsenal's dazzle could turn to dust

Posted on 16/09/2010

Arsenal were in breathtaking form in the Champions League on Wednesday night as they blew away Braga with a 6-0 victory at the Emirates. But Dominic Fifield, wiriting in the Guardian, urges fans not to get carried away with the Gunners achievements as they still look defensively fragile.

There was something rather routine about all this pizzazz. Arsenal dazzled tonight, as they invariably do through the group stage of a competition that can feel little more than a giddy formality until the new year, with Braga gasping and the locals rejoicing in everything slick. All semblance of competition had been blown away, along with the visitors, by the interval though Arsène Wenger will not have been hoodwinked.

Continue reading "Arsenal's dazzle could turn to dust"

September 14, 2010

Rooney needs to look at Becks for inspiration

Posted on 14/09/2010

Another day, another Wayne Rooney-dominated sporting section. This time he is on the back pages for the correct reasons, with Sir Alex Ferguson backing his star striker to shrug off recent controversies with a bristling display against Rangers in the Champions League. The England international is seen as the talisman of the national team, as well as Manchester United, but the Guardian’s Richard Williams feels he needs to take a leaf out of David Beckham’s book if he is to thrive in the later stages of his career.

David Beckham returned to Major League Soccer at the weekend, coming on for the last 20 minutes of LA Galaxy's 3-1 victory over Columbus Crew. This was his first appearance since rupturing his achilles tendon in March and the crowd gave him a warm welcome. Afterwards he recounted his second-half conversation with the Galaxy head coach, Bruce Arena. "He came up to me and said, 'How about 10 to 15 minutes?' I was like, 'Well, how about 20 to 25?' He kind of listened to me and we met in the middle." At 35 years of age, Goldenballs is still hungry for game time.

With all the money and honours and fame that one man could desire, his appetite is not sated. If he never pulls on an England shirt again, it will not be for the want of trying to convince Fabio Capello that his "too old" remark was premature. And only a fool would imagine that his principal motivation is to prolong the life of his brand. Beckham may be a shrewd businessman, but he loves football. As much, even, as Wayne Rooney does.

You can choose to believe Sir Alex Ferguson's claim before Saturday's match at Goodison Park that the decision to leave Rooney out of his squad was motivated by worries over abuse from the Everton fans. Or you can believe Mike Phelan, his assistant, who remarked afterwards that the decision had been taken because "Wayne wasn't ready to play". There is, however, a third possibility. Maybe Ferguson was just fed up with the whole Rooney circus and wanted to rid himself, temporarily, of a tiresome distraction.

It is now seven years since Ferguson's irritation with Beckham's celebrity, and in particular with the supposed effect of his pop-singing, clothes-designing wife on his ability to concentrate on the job at hand, reached critical mass. There was a famous occasion when Beckham was given a day off training to look after his young son, who had a tummy bug, only for Ferguson to explode when he discovered that Posh had been photographed that same evening at a fashion show in London.

For the crime of being a caring father who believed his wife's career to be as important as his own, Beckham was fined a fortnight's wages – £50,000 – and dropped.

It is poignant, in the light of recent events, to recall Ferguson's very deliberate praise for Coleen Rooney a couple of years ago. "She's a clever girl, who is down to earth," he said, in words taken by many as a tacit criticism of the flibbertigibbet Victoria Beckham. "Marriage helps footballers," he added. "It helps them settle down. You know where they are, too."

Well, maybe. Six years ago Ferguson paid £27m to attract Rooney to Old Trafford and he has certainly had his money's worth from a man who scored 35 goals in all competitionsfor Manchester United last season. This year things have been a little different.

Rooney has not been the same player since he was rushed back from an ankle injury to play a Champions League match last May. After a dreadful World Cup he came into the new season looking slimmer and more alert, but his first touch and his long-range shooting have become unreliable, and there has been a dimming of the sense of adventure that was so pronounced in the 16-year-old.

His effort is beyond dispute. His focus is not. We know, from various bits of evidence, that he likes a cigarette and a drink. And he seems to get himself into the sort of trouble that dear, old-fashioned Fergie apparently believed could be avoided by getting married.

It will be remembered that Beckham had his own little escapade shortly after leaving Old Trafford and moving to Madrid. His wife has said that, in the end, it made their marriage stronger. It certainly never affected his football. And while David Beckham plays on into the second half of his fourth decade, Wayne Rooney has us – and perhaps his manager, too – wondering whether he will still be in the game at 30.

September 11, 2010

Houllier needs time

Posted on 11/09/2010

Gerard Houllier may not have been every fans’ first choice as Aston Villa manager, but Henry Winter reminds people in the Telegraph of some of the Frenchman’s crucial contributions to English football...

Gérard Houllier and Aston Villa were formally introduced to each other on Friday but nobody knows when the first date will be. Houllier must disentangle himself from his long-term passion, the French Football Federation, before getting to grips with Aston Villa. For all the Villa fans' frustration at Houllier's delayed start, they should realise it is a sign of the new man's calibre. The French Federation is playing hard-ball over his release because it doesn't want to lose a prized employee.

He talked of "aiming for the moon'' with the club, of his "great pride'' at being asked to oversee the fortunes of former European Cup-winners. Sitting yards from an empty Holte End, the distinguished Frenchman talked of his admiration for Villa's "vocal support''.

A well-respected member of Uefa's technical cadre, the coach who steered Liverpool to the Uefa Cup, FA Cup and League Cup enjoys a well-earned reputation for making good players better. Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher have readily testified to that. A paternalistic man-manager, Houllier is not shy at delivering rollockings. Gerrard and Carragher will again attest to that.

Villa have appointed well but his arrival has undeniably been awkwardly handled. He has yet to sign his contract even. "Not yet, no,'' replied Houllier. "But it's a formality. For me, the word is more important than what is signed. I still have to sort things out with the French Federation. They could have said you have to work three months [notice].

"I couldn't get back for the Stoke game [on Monday when Kevin MacDonald will be in charge]. I have several important things to do meeting with [French] championship managers on Monday. I apologise for that. You understand I'm the head of the national coaches, the regional coaches. The season has started, the work is underway.

"To me, the earliest would be the Bolton game [Sept 18], not in charge, but there. Even the Wolves game [Sept 26]) I can't promise. All I can tell you is that I will come. At some stage I will be here. The other thing is that if I don't do the three months maybe I have to go the odd day.''

Adding to the uncertainty, Houllier is still looking for a No 2.

"Patrice Bergues won't come for family reasons,'' he said. "Kevin prefers to go back to his job as reserve-team manager. I understand why Phil Thompson could not come, he is working for Sky. It is because of his family.''

Houllier rejected the idea that some of the Villa players had issues with him from their Liverpool days. "No, no problems. Stephen Warnock was too young and don't forget Brad Friedel had to leave for work permit reasons.''

His old Lyon striker, John Carew, received praise as "an outstanding talent, extremely skilful, can change a game''.

A fistful of short-term negatives aside, there are plenty of long-term positives to Houllier's appointment. Like Martin O'Neill, Houllier will accelerate the development of the younger players. "If you look at some of the players I had at Liverpool, they made some progress. One of them [Michael Owen] won the Ballon d'Or.''

Villa have plenty of English players and Houllier emphasised his admiration for the breed. "English players haven't fallen behind technically. Not any more. You have to be careful when you judge players, when you sometimes say the English are not so technical. The English do things at a higher speed than anywhere else in the world. If you play at 60mph, you are more comfortable technically than if you play at 100mph. But in England you play more often at 100mph. You need to keep that and also be a bit slower at times. This is what the foreign input has brought to the English game. You can't say the English are bad.

“The national team are proving at the moment they can play.''

Gerrard's performance in Basel on Tuesday confirmed that. It was on the midfielder's previous visit to St Jakob-Park, in the 2002 Champions League, that Houllier questioned his dedication, accusing Gerrard of believing his publicity. Carragher also received a lecture from Houllier about his refuelling habits.

Reminded of those incidents on Friday, Houllier delivered a homily which certain members of the Professional Footballers Association should absorb.

"This is a job which is very exacting – you play only 10 years, sometimes a little bit more,'' said Houllier. "For 10 years you have to live for the job and not use the job to get the lifestyle. A player has got 10 years to devote his time and his energy, his diet and rest for the job. Hard work helps. I had some players who were not so good with their right or left foot, so I said 'stay after training and do a bit more'.”

When he finally arrives, Houllier must be given time and patience.

September 6, 2010

The answer to the Rooney riddle

Posted on 06/09/2010

Wayne Rooney's failure to shine at the World Cup in South Africa was put down to fatigue after a long season with Manchester United. But Oliver Holt in The Mirror believes the answer behind Rooney's problems may have just surfaced.

When Wayne Rooney scowled and scuffed his way through England’s game against Algeria, everyone asked the question.

When he stared into the camera in Cape Town and snarled about England’s fans booing, they asked it again.

When he wrote 'Fcuk U Floyd' on his trainers on his way to a golf trip to Sun City and turned his feet inwards so the paparazzi could see, they asked once more.

"What's wrong with Rooney?" was one of the most common phrases to spill from the mouths of England supporters and journalists during the World Cup.
Click here to find out more!

The more he struggled and the worse his body language became, the more varied the theories grew.

The most popular was that he was struggling with the after-effects of the injury he suffered against Bayern Munich in March.

Another was that his detestation of Capello?s regime had reached such a level that he had come to hate playing for him.

Maybe 4:4:2 didn't suit him, everyone said. Maybe the secret to rediscovering his genius was pushing Steven Gerrard into a supporting role behind him.

Sir Alex Ferguson said he thought Rooney had been crushed by the weight of expectation.

His Manchester United assistant, Mike Phelan, admitted that Rooney had returned from South Africa in a state of dishevelment.

Then yesterday, allegations about Rooney?s private life emerged and it felt for the first time as though one of England?s World Cup mysteries was finally unravelling.

Rumours about Rooney's private conduct have been swirling around the media world for several months.

Some of the details that emerged in weekend newspaper exposes were familiar to many who first heard them mooted several weeks before the World Cup.

So it is almost certain that by the end of the Premier League season and as he prepared to leave for South Africa, Rooney knew the details of his liaisons were seeping into the public domain.

Once that happened, he must have realised that it was only a matter of time until they found their way into print.

However you care to judge him, that knowledge and worry about the impact the revelations might have on his family life with wife Coleen and new baby Kai must have been a heavy burden to carry.

And it is the most convincing explanation so far for why the Wayne Rooney we saw in South Africa was so far removed from the player who has grown into England?s most exciting talent since Paul Gascoigne.

Something was eating at him, that?s for sure, and history is full of great sportsmen temporarily derailed by private torments.

The irony of the timing of the publication of the allegations made by an escort girl is that Rooney appeared to be returning to something close to his best against Bulgaria on Friday night.

He created all four of England?s goals for Jermain Defoe and Adam Johnson in the team?s first Euro 2012 qualifier and was brimming with the kind of creative energy that deserted him in South Africa.

Capello will be thankful that, contrary to initial suggestions yesterday, Rooney is intending to travel to Switzerland today with the rest of the England squad.

England need to him to be at his best in Basel for the tie against a Swiss team tomorrow night that will present a sterner test than the hapless Bulgarians.

In those circumstances, it would be useful if Capello does not persevere with the ludicrous policy of punishing players for transgressions in their private lives.

That cost John Terry the England captaincy back in February. It is to be hoped Capello has recognised the foolishness of that move and that Rooney will be allowed to travel to Switzerland without the England manager barking instructions on morality into his ear.

Continue reading "The answer to the Rooney riddle"

September 4, 2010

Little and large show is sidelined

Posted on 04/09/2010

Jermain Defoe took his chance to impress Fabio Capello quite spectacularly with a hat-trick in the 4-0 win over Bulgaria and Alan Smith, writing in the Daily Telegraph, feels the Tottenham man has blow apart Capello’s desire to have big man-small man partnership.

When he first arrived on these shores to try and lead England into the Promised Land, Fabio Capello was sure what he wanted from his strike force.

A strong centre-forward was required to work the backline. Someone quick enough to occupy two central defenders by running down channels or holding up the ball; generally leading the line with intelligence and purpose.

And why? Well, this was all planned with one aim in mind - to draw out the best in England’s main man. If Wayne Rooney played well, the chances were high of the team doing likewise. As a result, a stage simply had to be built for this to play out.

One big problem: England didn’t boast a quality front runner in the Didier Drogba mould. Capello realised that immediately, so was reluctantly forced to improvise by asking the most experienced man out there to do the job instead.

And to be fair, Emile Heskey didn’t do too badly in leading England’s attack during England’s impressive march towards the World Cup finals. More often than not, he helped create the space for Rooney to flourish and score a load of goals along the way.

Fast forward two and a half years and the situation isn’t much different now, since England still can’t call on that type of centre-forward. Though injured for last night’s game, Peter Crouch clearly doesn’t do it for Capello, judging by the way he was shunned in South Africa.

Neither does Carlton Cole, otherwise West Ham’s striker would have started against Bulgaria, or at least made the bench instead of the stands. As for Darren Bent, who did make the bench, his overall game isn’t up to scratch.

That just leaves Bobby Zamora (presently injured) in with a shout of fulfilling the role Capello values so much. And without wishing to write off Zamora’s chances before he’s had a proper crack, it’s a huge leap of faith picturing Fulham’s striker – though vastly improved - as England’s saviour.

So where does that leave us? Well, with the lad who grabbed a Wembley hat-trick in such impressive style whilst showing a neat understanding with his strike partner.

Whenever Jermain Defoe made a run, Rooney quickly spotted it. If a pass had to be made, Rooney delivered on cue in a system that allowed him to drop off the front line and get involved.

What’s more, the wait for results didn’t last long. After only a couple of minutes, Rooney’s instinct took him to the left wing from where he floated in a clever ball that led to the first goal. That actually became a feature of England’s first half attacks – Rooney restricting his movement to the left half of the pitch.

It was as if Capello had said beforehand: ‘Right Wayne, you link up with James Milner and Ashley Cole and of course show for the ball when Steven Gerrard and Gareth Barry are in possession, but leave Jermain on the right to combine with Theo Walcott.’

Rooney, in turn, responded superbly to cast off all those doubts about his form with a performance that showcased his creative skills.

Even better, Defoe clinically took his chances at the sharp end. His goals gave more meaning to Rooney’s contribution. The only reservation would be that, in this formation, England’s number 10 wasn’t able to get in the box as much as you would like.

Because the last thing Capello wants now is to get into a situation whereby Rooney stops becoming a threat to opposing goalkeepers.

It’s awkward enough not having an obvious answer to his centre-forward needs. It might just be that, for the foreseeable future, the Italian is forced to change his philosophy. Which won’t be all bad if things carry on like this.

August 27, 2010

Has Ferguson wasted his money?

Posted on 27/08/2010

Considering Sir Alex Ferguson seemingly could not afford to spend £12 million on a genuine world class talent like Mesut Ozil, it seemed rather bizarre when the Manchester United boss spent £7.4 million on a player nobody had even seen before – not even Ferguson himself. And after a poor first impression at Old Trafford, the Daily Mail’s Ian Ladyman wonders if United have thrown a small fortune down the drain...

Sir Alex Ferguson's research into potential transfers can be impressive. Before a Champions League semi-final against Bayer Leverkusen in 2002, the Manchester United manager spoke in detail about Michael Ballack's goalscoring record. He knew about his tackle count, too. This was not just because he was about to face the Germany midfielder in an important game but also because he was thinking of signing him.

No wonder, then, that eyebrows have been raised this month by Ferguson's decision to pay £7.4million for a 20-year-old he has never seen play. The arrival of Portugal Under 19 forward Bebe was perhaps the most surprising story of the summer. Few people outside his own country had heard of the 6ft 3in forward with the ready smile and the now-shorn dreadlocks.
Now, reports from inside United suggest it could be a while until anybody finds out whether Ferguson has pulled off one of the signings of his career or wasted a few million quid and made himself look a little foolish in the process.

As reported in Sportsmail on Wednesday, United reserve coach Ole Gunnar Solskjaer could find no place for Bebe in the 16-man squad he took to face Manchester City. By all accounts, Solskjaer didn't feel he was ready. Just this week in fact he was taken out of a training match because he was 'off the pace'.

Few people involved in English football are better qualified to judge a forward than then man who won the 1999 Champions League final for United and - though he has been impressed with some of Bebe's finishing - the Norwegian's assessment of Bebe is that he needs some work.
Nothing wrong with this, of course. Bebe has been in England only three weeks. But the transfer did cause some disquiet among United supporters when it was rushed through, especially when Ferguson admitted he had not even seen him on DVD. The dissenting voices will not be hushed until Bebe is seen scoring goals.

Back in Portugal, there is less surprise at his move. Qualified observers presumed that Bebe - known at home as a raw, rough-edged talent - would some day be on his way to a big European club when he chose to join the successful and respected Gestifute agency of Jorges Mendes.

'Players from nowhere don't join a stable boasting people like Ronaldo, Nani, Carvalho and Mourinho if they are just going to stick around in the Portuguese leagues for ever,' noted one source in Portugal yesterday.

United have good relations with Mendes and Gestifute. Ronaldo, Nani and the Brazilian Anderson all belong to that stable of players. At Old Trafford, though, the connection is dismissed as coincidental and chief executive David Gill said the hurried nature of the transfer owed merely to the sudden interest from other clubs, in particular Real Madrid.

'We have been following him but he only really came on to the scene recently,' said Gill.
Quite. Bebe was playing in the Portuguese third division with Estrela da Amadora until the end of last season. Having signed for top-flight club Vitoria de Guimaraes at the start of the summer, the young prospect hadn't even kicked a ball for them when United decided to trigger a €9 million release clause on August 11.

The fact that Vitoria had inserted such a clause in the first place indicates that Bebe has some latent ability. Indeed, he had scored four goals in seven pre-season appearances before United stepped in. Estrela da Amadora coach Jorge Paixao said: 'He is the fruit of street football. Nowadays players are schooled in the clubs, but he has none of this. He's an old school player. He has that natural creativity, an irreverence, and that makes all the difference. He improvises very well, because he has the quality, and he has a set of characteristics that are difficult to find in a single footballer. He is tall, he is good in the air, he is technically gifted and he is very fast.'

It is certainly a glowing testimony and United, who were pointed towards the player by former assistant manager Carlos Queiroz, will hope it's accurate.

Maybe, though, it also hints at why Bebe has struggled to settle. Having grown up in a homeless shelter near Lisbon - his parents left him there when he was 10 - Bebe did indeed learn his football on the street and has never spent any time at a big club. The 20-year-old has no idea of the structure, the discipline and the intensity of life at a place like United.

Perhaps it is no wonder he is finding it difficult to adjust and acclimatise. Just last year he was scoring 40 goals - yes, really - in six games for Portugal at the European Football Festival for the Disadvantaged. Now he is on the staff of a club that claims to be the biggest in the world. It has been quite a journey already. Sir Alex Ferguson will hope he has not paid over the odds for the ticket.

August 25, 2010

Why is Arteta more foreign than Capello?

Posted on 25/08/2010

Martin Samuel, writing in the Daily Mail, today declares his belief that it would be "preposterous" for the FA to advise Fabio Capello against picking Spanish-born Mikel Arteta to play for England.

The outrage over the potential selection of Mikel Arteta (below) for England grows more amusing by the day. The idea that the Football Association should advise Fabio Capello against picking him is the most preposterous development yet.

Continue reading "Why is Arteta more foreign than Capello?"

August 21, 2010

Holloway's dilemma

Posted on 21/08/2010

Blackpool enjoyed their two hours at the top of the Premier League table last weekend after their stunning 4-0 victory at Wigan. But with a trip to the Emirates to face Arsene Wenger's Arsenal, Holloway faces an important decision, and if he gets it wrong, the Tangerine dream could become a nightmare overnight, writes Alan Smith in The Telegraph.

Does the Blackpool manager stick with his principles by going with the kind of attacking formation he has always favoured since arriving at Bloomfield Road? Or does he err on the side of caution by, first and foremost, trying to stifle Arsenal's attacking game?

For sure, it would be a very bold move to go with the adventurous 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 shape that secured a spectacular 4-0 win at Wigan on the opening day.

With Gary Taylor-Fletcher and Brett Ormerod operating either side of Marlon Harewood, and Elliot Grandin given licence on his debut to support those front lads, you could say that Holloway was going for broke. Only David Vaughan, sitting deep next to playmaker Charlie Adam, could be vaguely described as a defensive choice.

But if Holloway does something similar there is a distinct danger of Arsenal rattling home five or six. You can just imagine clever players such as Andrei Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky swarming into the gaps left by Blackpool's gung-ho approach. The chances created would probably be enough to end this contest before it has begun.

On the other hand, Holloway might take the view that conceding the initiative to Arsène Wenger's richly talented troops is only asking for trouble, and that attack, in this case, really does constitute the best form of defence.

If so, it will still mean the wide lads tracking back conscientiously whenever Arsenal's full-backs, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna, decide to bomb forward. If Taylor-Fletcher and Ormerod do not do that and leave their own full-backs with a steady stream of two-against-one situations, the results will be predictable.

Likewise, Adam and Vaughan must keep talking throughout to try to keep tabs on the blur of red and white shirts in their domain. Not only that, once Blackpool win the ball back it is important that Adam finds some space and starts using a very capable left foot to get his team moving in the opposite direction.

If the visitors manage to keep the ball for a bit to mount some attacks, the defenders will get a vital breather as confidence grows within the tangerine ranks.

In their favour, though, Blackpool's preferred formation does at least match up with Arsenal's. With both teams adopting variants of 4-3-3, Holloway will not have to start changing his tactics radically. As for the side's attitude, that is a different matter. A key to succeeding at the Emirates is accepting you will not have the ball for large parts of the game.

Continue reading "Holloway's dilemma"

August 20, 2010

Where are City's A-listers?

Posted on 20/08/2010

Manchester City have shelled out huge sums to add to their squad this summer, but have they brought in enough quality? The Sun’s Steven Howard certainly does not think so.

They were the club who announced they intended to sign Lionel Messi, Kaka, Cesc Fabregas and Juventus keeper Gigi Buffon.

Oh, yes, and Cristiano Ronaldo was also on his way to Manchester City - in the January 2009 transfer window for £135million.

As the Manchester United fans waiting for the tram that would take them back into the city centre after the 3-0 win over Newcastle last Monday chanted: "They wanted Kaka and got Bellamy - City are a massive club."

To date Sheikh Mansour has splashed £355m on transfer fees, including £130m in the close season alone.

Throw in £488m in wages, the £210m cost of the takeover and a further £20m capital expenditure and we're already up to an incredible £1billion.

Kamikaze spending.

Yet City still can't get the mega-stars. Instead, they have been forced to settle for second best. It's David Silva not David Villa. It's Mario Balotelli not Fernando Torres.

The same David Silva who will remember Spain's World Cup-winning triumph in South Africa as the time he lost his place in the starting line-up.

And 20-year-old Balotelli, largely unknown outside Italy and on the bench during Inter Milan's run to Champions League glory.

Now 28 goals in 86 appearances isn't bad for a kid - not to mention his debut goal last night - but City are still forking out a massive £23m just on potential.

And a player with a reputation as a trouble-maker.

There are also massive question marks over holding midfielder Yaya Toure (£24m) plus defenders Jerome Boateng (£10.5m) and Alexsandar Kolarov (£16m).

Yet the key to buying the title is an out-and-out goalscorer.

As Blackburn proved when they broke the British transfer record by signing Alan Shearer for £3.3m in 1992-93.

As Chelsea confirmed in 2004 when they paid a club record £24m for Didier Drogba, the hottest young striker in Europe.

Yes, Carlos Tevez did everything that could have been asked of him last season knocking in 23 goals from 33 starts. But the Argentine needs to be playing off a more orthodox striker.

Emmanuel Adebayor? His problem is it all depends whether he's in the mood and he doesn't flick that particular switch too often.

Roque Santa Cruz? A Mark Hughes buy, he could be on his way out after just six league starts at half the £17.5m he cost.

And, finally, there's James Milner for another £24m - the same fee Manchester United paid for Wayne Rooney six years ago.

The same fee for which Real Madrid have purchased both Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira, two of Germany's outstanding young World Cup stars. Yes, BOTH of them.

Sure, Milner did well for Aston Villa last season but he's still an England squad player who had a half-decent game in South Africa against Slovenia but did little else.

An England squad player who was hooked after just 29 minutes against the USA after being given the run-around by 31-year-old full-back Steve Cherundolo.

City are paying through the nose for supporting cast players.

Top of the bill headliners like Messi, Kaka and Ronaldo remain as elusive as ever.

August 19, 2010

Great escape should earn Holloway a gong

Posted on 19/08/2010

Harry Redknapp's achievements at Tottenham Hotspur last season, where he lifted the team into the Champions League places, attracted plenty of praise from his peers. Now Redknapp, writing in the Sun, has returned the compliment to another manager, Ian Holloway, by insisting that the Blackpool boss should be a shoo-in for Manager of the Year if he escapes relegation.

IAN HOLLOWAY has more front than Tesco and, if he keeps Blackpool up this season, he will get my vote as boss of the year.

Continue reading "Great escape should earn Holloway a gong"

August 17, 2010

Tough times ahead for the Toon

Posted on 17/08/2010

Judging by the performance they put in during the 3-0 defeat at Manchester United, Newcastle are in for a long, hard slog this season on their Premier League return. That's the view of Steven Howard, writing in the Sun:

JOEY BARTON has always been one for a great idea.

This time he came up with the ruse of asking Newcastle team-mates not to shave until they won their first league game of the season.

After their defeat at Old Trafford last night, they could be looking like ZZ Top come May.

Continue reading "Tough times ahead for the Toon"

August 13, 2010

Capello's hand forced by dearth of talent

Posted on 13/08/2010

Kevin McCarra, writing in the Guardian, has put forward the theory that Fabio Capello cannot banish his World Cup flops as the emerging generation of players are not of sufficient quality to provide any improvement.

The manager does not suppose there is a generation of precocious stars to take over from all the familiar and well-lined faces, even if he does appreciate that time has run out for some, including the 35-year-old David Beckham.

Continue reading "Capello's hand forced by dearth of talent"

August 10, 2010

The management merry-go-round

Posted on 10/08/2010

Aston Villa are looking for a new manager and you get the impression the papers are not quite clear who is in the frame to succeed Martin O’Neill.

The Sun says: ‘O’Neill quits, now Villa look to [Slaven] Bilic and US boss [Bob Bradley]’

The Daily Star screams: ‘Villa want [David] Moyes’

The Daily Telegraph claims: ‘Aston Villa target Mark Hughes’

The season has not even started and the management merry-go-round is in full swing.

Zamora debut speaks volumes

England tackle Hungary in a friendly on Wednesday and there are a few new faces in the squad. Bobby Zamora, at 29, is one of them and the Daily Telegraph’s Kevin Garside feels handing a debut to a 29-year-old is a worry.

The finest footballers in the country today are more likely to be foreign than English, a feature that has driven the technique and intensity of club football higher than it is with England. Therefore when Wayne Rooney, Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard step out for their country they are in effect stepping down a level because the spread of talent is thinner.

Emile Heskey could barely get a game for Aston Villa last season yet he went to South Africa as England’s first choice partner for Rooney. On Wednesday Bobby Zamora, of Fulham, is expected to make his debut at 29, which makes Wenger’s argument forcibly. If Zamora is good enough now, he was good enough five years ago. He hasn’t changed that much. Circumstances have.

The reduced talent pool is compounded by a wounded coach. Capello is clearly embarrassed by his own failings as much as the team’s. He was shocked by the South African experience, unnerved at having his certainties shredded.

Capello’s pride is hurt. He did not expect to have to prove himself all over again. Not many on his salary do. But that is his lot. Against Hungary on Wednesday Capello is on trial as much as his players.

Cook needs to get the message

Alastair Cook has been given support by England captain Andrew Strauss, but former skipper Nasser Hussain has written in his column in the Daily Mail that the selectors should make it clear to the struggling opener that his place in the team is hanging by a thread.

If I were an England selector I would now say to Alastair Cook, 'You have two more games to prove that you should still be our man to open the batting in Australia'.

Cook is totally out of sorts and there must be a temptation for the selectors to leave him out of the third Test against Pakistan at the Brit Oval next week.

It is a temptation I think they will resist, not least because Ian Bell is injured and not available for the last two Tests. I would resist it too and stick with Cook, but with him understanding that he is playing for his immediate future.

If Bell was fit there would be a strong case for bringing him in at No 3 and asking Jonathan Trott to open the batting with Andrew Strauss.

The pair of them looked really composed and good alongside each other yesterday and there's no reason why the Warwickshire man could not open as well as play at No 3.

Yes, I know there are in-form opening options in Michael Carberry and Adam Lyth whom England could bring in but I am not sure I would go down that road at this stage, not least because I am a firm believer in giving someone an extended, proper opportunity. Especially when that player has shown himself to be such an excellent performer at Test level, as Cook has.
But the fact that he has a very good record, is mentally strong, has a good temperament and is seen as a future England captain can only count for so much when Cook is so clearly out of form.
The one mitigating factor in Cook's poor form is that both Tests so far against Pakistan have been played in bowler-friendly conditions. It has not been easy for any batsman in this series and that has to be taken into account.

That's why the next two games, on good pitches at The Oval and Lord's against a good Pakistan attack, will be a much better indicator of whether Cook, who has a moderate record against Australia, should be in the Ashes squad. I am not sure sending him back to Essex to try to score county runs would really prove anything.

August 9, 2010

Shearer sounds note of caution on Wilshere

Posted on 09/08/2010

Alan Shearer, writing in the Sun, has sounded a note of caution after Fabio Capello included youngsters Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs in his England squad to face Hungary. Shearer does not believe that these precocious talents currently possess sufficient experience to be of any great benefit to England.

It was refreshing to see some young talent brought in by Fabio Capello - but I wonder how much sustained impact they will have on the England team.

Continue reading "Shearer sounds note of caution on Wilshere"

August 8, 2010

Premier League will wash away World Cup gloom

Posted on 08/08/2010

Paul Wilson, writing in the Observer, says that the new season in the Premier League has a job on its hands to lift the cloud hanging above English football after the disastrous World Cup campaign that resulted in a second-round exit.

They say World Cups better or worse are swiftly forgotten once the tribalism of the domestic season returns, and the Premier League had better hope it turns out to be true. The temptation at the moment is to greet every golden touch from Frank Lampard with a chortle at his iPod meltdown, or to asterisk anything Wayne Rooney manages with a footnote to the effect that he never performed like that in South Africa.

Continue reading "Premier League will wash away World Cup gloom"

August 6, 2010

Ferry Cross the Yangtze

Posted on 06/08/2010

As we wait with bated breath for the outcome of the Liverpool takeover saga, The Daily Mail's Des Kelly hits out at Liverpool fans questioning the morality of the Chinese involved in a potential takeover bid.

It’s too late to moralise over human rights abuses just because China wants to buy a Premier League football club.

It’s too late to start whining about the implications of taking cash from the Chinese Government just because some men who kick a ball about might find they have unsavoury new paymasters.

Take a look at your clothes, or at the sports shoes you are wearing. The chances are they will say ‘Made In China’ on them, just like the label on your refrigerator, on the back of your television or on half of your child’s toy collection.

China is the largest exporter in the world - and their largest export is money. We can pick and choose when their cash and trade might be acceptable, but it would be preposterously naive.

When America teetered on the brink of financial collapse, it was Chinese money that dragged the economy back from the precipice.

Our own Chancellor George Osborne said the UK’s recovery is reliant on China’s trade and investment when he went cap in hand to Beijing just eight weeks ago.

So what is he going to do now, express concern that Liverpool might pass into Chinese ownership? Don’t be ridiculous.

China already owns a considerable chunk of Canary Wharf in east London, the heart of the nation’s financial empire. So it’s meaningless to complain Britain is selling its soul. That was traded a while back, with repayment conditions.

Anyone who tries to pretend football is different and exempt from the rules of the international market has not been paying attention over the last decade.

Oddly, some are still embarrassed by their dependence on Chinese cash, if only for public relations purposes.

The Apple iPod sitting next to me, for instance, is labelled ‘Designed by Apple in California, Assembled in China’, as if the thought that the gadget had been sketched in Cupertino makes a difference to workers paid less than £1 a day to bring the design to life in Shanghai. Either way, I’ll bet you bought one. Does that make you a hypocrite? Probably.
Our Premier League actively sells itself as a global product. The fact that there remains anything English about it is merely down to a quirk of geography.

England might be where the matches are played (for the time being, at least) but conglomerates, governments and businesses from around the world increasingly control the process.

The Premier League has been happy to embrace oligarchs like Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who has links directly to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

You may think he is a private investor, just as you may think he earned those billions of his without government help.

Remember the Premier League also rolled out the red carpet at Manchester City for Thaksin Shinawatra, the former Prime Minister of Thailand, despite huge controversy over his involvement in human rights abuses in his homeland.

When he was sentenced on corruption charges, the Abu Dhabi United Group stepped into the void. They are the investment arm of Sheik Mansour and the royal rulers of the United Arab Emirates’ second largest federation.

If you imagine they don’t have human rights controversies in the UAE, visit a building site in Dubai or Abu Dhabi and ask the migrant workers from Pakistan for their views on the matter. Yet few complain this is ‘dirty money’.

And who do you think funded all those wonderful stadiums when Britain was waving the Union flag at the last Olympics? China is a one-party Communist state.

When you deal with China, you deal with the government somewhere along the line, end of story.

That does not excuse ongoing human rights abuses. It does not mean we should forget the horrors of Tiananmen Square.

But ethics are not something to be brought out for special occasions, like your mother’s best porcelain tea set. We either do business with China or we do not.

Twelve months ago the Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore oversaw a new TV deal that ensures live football is moved on to the Communist-run CCTV terrestrial network for maximum exposure to the 1.3bn population.

The Communist state’s TV propaganda arm will boost every club’s profile and profit. How can English football now complain China wants to spend that money on the product they have been asked to endorse?

The Premier League is merely another plaything, like a giant game of Risk, where America, China, Russia and the Arabian oil powers move their pieces around and use sport to promote their image, boost commerce and shift huge sums across international borders.

Hand-wringing about the moral consequences is futile. Yes, the Free Tibet movement might sell more T-shirts to Everton fans, but beyond that, everyone knows the Kop would happily sing Ferry Cross the Yangtze if Chinese cash helps them win the league again.

Continue reading "Ferry Cross the Yangtze"

July 30, 2010

Face it, Mascherano is off

Posted on 30/07/2010

Robbie Savage, writing in the Mirror, has used his personal experience of agitating for a move to make the prediction that Javier Mascherano is destined to achieve his wish of departing Liverpool.

I look at Javier Mascherano at Liverpool and I was in a similar situation at Birmingham.

I wasn’t on the same level as him as a player, but I was as popular at Birmingham at the time as he is at Liverpool.

Continue reading "Face it, Mascherano is off"

July 23, 2010

The genius of Ian Holloway

Posted on 23/07/2010

In all honesty, the 2010 World Cup was... well... boring. By and large the action was forgettable and the punditry even more so. Maybe what it was missing was a certain Mr Holloway, who shows in the Daily Mail that he is the man to brighten up the Premier League this season...

The sun is beating down on an Army field in Devon. On the football pitch a distinctive, Bristolian voice is booming out instructions to accompany the sweat and graft of pre-season training. “Show for it, play it where you want and then move on. If you don’t get it, then move again,” he calls. “Keep it, keep it, keep it,” is the constant mantra.

Then a shout of ‘stop’, and a walk through a move that just broke down. “We don’t do things wrong here, we redo them until they are right,” raps the voice again.

Welcome to the world of the real Ian Holloway. Not the funny little bloke who does the soundbites and the one-line gags, but the proper football coach who’s in his element out on a training ground. It’s the side of ‘Ollie’ that only his players normally get to see while the rest of us enjoy his quips and comedy quotes.

In just over three weeks’ time he will take Blackpool into the Premier League with the smallest and, on paper at least, most ill-equipped squad that have tried to survive there. And this is where the hard work to chase that miracle is being done. Today he’s setting out the pattern of play before a pre-season friendly match against Accrington Stanley. It won’t be any different when he is getting ready for the real thing against Arsenal.

“You ask my lads if I am a clown or a coach,” he says later, when we’re back at the hotel and the players are resting before another session later in the afternoon. “I think it’s what I do best. I had to think hard about it during the year I spent out of the game after it all went wrong for me at Leicester, and I realised how much I liked talking to players and how much more I wanted to say; how much I wanted to push myself to add to somebody’s thinking.

“At the moment I could spend all day and all night on the phone trying to find new recruits and couldn’t be out working with them. But that’s not what I want to do. I need my players to understand where we are going, how we are trying to get there and how they are good enough to do it. And the place to learn that is out on the training ground.

“If you look at any standard, the higher you get the better they are at keeping the ball,” he says. “Spain proved it in the World Cup. If your whole ethos is about keeping it and passing it, and you teach people control and movement, then that’s the way to go. It’s easy to say that’s because they are world class players. But why are they? How did they get like that? Were they born world class or were they manufactured? My argument is that they were manufactured and it just takes practice, practice, practice.

“The more you keep doing it, the more you believe in it, and the better the players become. I don’t want to be defensive. We’ll be playing teams who will be much better at keeping the ball, but I still want mine to get better with passing and keeping it and moving and that’s what we will focus on. It’s what we did last year and we won all three play-off games like it, home, away and at Wembley.

“We are the only club ever that have had to build a whole new stand and even that has hamstrung us. We’ve got to turn our first home game into an away game, so we have five of the first six away. You can normally scrub all of them off, so that’s no points from 15, but we can’t look at it like that.

“OK, we’ve changed the opposition and that’s gone in a pretty worrying dimension if you look at some of the results that some of them had. But how many times did other teams go to the big clubs and try to retain possession and move the ball from one side to the other? Or were they more worried about blocking up these people?

“When you’ve gone a goal or three down, where’s your game plan then? Our game plan, and you saw it in the run-in and the play-offs, is to outscore the opposition, so if we let a goal in it didn’t knock us, didn’t dent our confidence, to say ‘OK, we’ll outscore them’.

“We might not be good enough to outscore Mr Drogba and all those, but we’ll have a right go at it.”

Meanwhile, he’s having a go at bringing in the right recruits at a club who have never spent more than £500,000 on a player and where the current squad list is only 17 names long. He’s going through a pile of paper with lists of names.

“Take a team at random — Everton? Let’s count the numbers, one, two three… it goes on to 37. So they are double me already for numbers and then look at the names and some of them are unbelievable. Fellaini, what was he? £16million? Even the youngsters, Jack Rodwell, how good’s he?

“I’ve got to find people who will help the very good ones I’ve got, and I know there are some who might not see Blackpool as a good enough option to stay in the top flight. Well, to be honest, I don’t want those people anyway. I’d rather have somebody that I can work with, who understands what I’m trying to say long term and wants to stay, and I’ll be calm and work and give him the opportunity to do what you saw us do today.

“Nothing is expected of us, everybody will get on the back of us and think, ‘This is quirky, we’ll enjoy this, see how they get on’. But we know what we are trying to do. It’s not easy, is it? But then life never is.”

July 21, 2010

Even a blind man can see England is in trouble

Posted on 21/07/2010

When a football manager states, quite brazenly, that he is a “firm believer that if the opposition scores one goal, you must score two to win”, you know he is well clued up on what he is talking about. Which is why English football fans should be alarmed by Howard Wilkinson’s current assessment of the national game in the Sun newspaper...

"The figures show a worrying trend for anyone who cares about the England national team and believes it still matters,” he said, in response to the fact that 79 percent of Premier League signings made this summer have not been English.

"Even a blind man can see that it will inevitably have major consequences for the England team. It doesn't surprise me because this is the way it has been going - but it does concern me that it's so high.

"The pool of players we are going to have to pick from in four years' time is going to be smaller than it was this time and in the last couple of World Cups.

"If you want to do well in international football, the pool of players needs to be big enough. Secondly, it needs to have the necessary experience of playing at the top level. I'm talking about the top leagues in Europe.

"Our young players will not get that in the Premier League if clubs keep signing foreign players at this rate.

"We genuinely identified this group between 1998 and 2000 as the group that could go on to achieve success in 2006 - maybe semi-finals - and be serious contenders in 2010. I don't see us bringing together players of this quality in the same numbers.

"Undoubtedly, the pool of players from whom we will be choosing in four years will be smaller than the pool now, and that will continue."

July 20, 2010

Cole was right to pick Reds above Spurs

Posted on 20/07/2010

The old saying about blood being thicker than water usually rings true when it comes to issues of loyalty. But what happens when half of the blood running through your body is familial, and the other half is Liverpool red? The Daily Mail’s Jamie Redknapp has such a problem, which is why he turns against his dad in the case of Joe Cole...

Joe Cole has made the right decision. Going to Anfield to play for Liverpool is the right move. I know my dad, Harry, tried to take him to Tottenham and I can see why. He's a clever footballer, who unlocks defences and who still has so much to offer, an old fashioned dribbler.

Tottenham have those players. Luka Modric, Niko Kranjcar ... would Joe have got into the team? I doubt it. Of course, in what they hope will be a Champions League season, they need strength in depth but he needs to be playing first team football now.

At 28, Joe cannot continue to be an impact substitute. He's better than that. He needs a manager to love him. He didn't have it with Chelsea, he hasn't had it with England.
When he played for my dad at West Ham, he performed better with an arm around the shoulder. He will get that from Roy Hodgson.

Signing Cole is a coup for the new Liverpool manager. With there being doubts cast about the future of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard and questions about their lack of spending power, this is a message of intent. For the club, it's a no brainer. They have signed a £15 million player for free. I know Joe's wages have caused much debate, but he wasn't asking for astronomical amounts, he wasn't being greedy.

Players hold so much power and sway now and he had found himself in an enviable position. His club, Chelsea, didn't want him, that was clear. They didn't go out of their way to keep him - can you see them letting a player like Michael Essien get into the same position? So he has just been looking for the right deal. Remember, Joe scored that brilliant goal for Chelsea at Old Trafford last season which effectively won them the title. Even then, they still didn't love him enough.

So Joe knew he wasn't wanted and has spent the time since the World Cup considering his options. Arsenal were also interested and you can see that he is Arsene Wenger's kind of player; very comfortable with the ball. Where will he play for Liverpool? He can play off the front, behind a striker, or he can play left or right. I don't suppose you will see him in a central midfield position in a 4-4-2, but he is no luxury player.

I've played against Joe and he will get about the pitch and close you down, he's not afraid of the dirty work, or of putting his foot in. I know Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher will be pleased he is coming. I hope it is not as a replacement for Gerrard, because that would be a big step backwards.

Liverpool need to soak Cole with the ball and he will create chances and score goals. Their crowd appreciates a good footballer and will welcome him to Anfield. There has been much talk that he wanted to stay in London, but I made the transition as a young boy and so he can as a player at the peak of his powers.

This is no gamble by Liverpool. And for the player, it is the ideal chance for him to get his career going again.

July 15, 2010

FA Cup replays in danger

Posted on 15/07/2010

If England’s players and manager are to be believed, the entire World Cup bid faltered the very moment Wayne Rooney and Co. were asked to leave their beds on Boxing Day to play Premier League football. A winter break is the solution so they claim, and, for the first time, the Guardian’s Owen Gibson reveals a way in which such an idea could be enforced...

The growing clamour for a winter break to benefit the England team could be answered by the Football Association dropping FA Cup replays, according to one idea under consideration that is gaining support from within the game.

The proposal to axe replays is one of a series of radical ideas being considered by an FA committee looking into ways to revitalise the 139-year-old competition but is being seized upon as the possible solution to the debate over a winter break.

Successive England managers – Sven-Goran Eriksson, Steve McClaren and now Fabio Capello – have called for a winter break in the belief that the debilitating Premier League season leaves players physically and mentally drained by the time major tournaments come around. Before the World Cup Wayne Rooney added his voice to the growing number of players backing the idea.

The FA's main board meets today for the first time since Capello's team crashed out of the World Cup against Germany, sparking a debate about the future of the England team. Sir Dave Richards, the Premier League chairman who is also chairman of Club England and sits on the FA board, will report back on the ill-fated campaign. The idea of a winter break is not believed to be on the initial agenda but could be raised.

The Premier League has historically been unwilling to countenance the idea of a winter break, arguing that there is no slack in a congested fixture calendar. But it is understood that if the FA were to propose dropping replays it would be willing to negotiate. The decision would have to be voted on by the 20 Premier League clubs, with a two-thirds majority required. If replays were abandoned it would free up a midweek slot that could accommodate a full round of league matches and allow a two-week winter break. Any changes would not be implemented until the 2011-12 season.

Both sides would want reassurance that the break would not simply be filled with more matches. The FA would seek assurances that clubs would not arrange potentially lucrative overseas tours during the break and that players would be available for an England squad get-together.

There would also be concerns that doing away with replays might impact on the FA's broadcasting deals and hit smaller clubs who benefit from money-spinning replays against larger rivals. Premier League clubs, meanwhile, would want binding assurances that the FA would not seek to fill the gap with a lucrative Wembley friendly. There would also be issues to be overcome with the Premier League's broadcasting partners and sponsors.

Other ideas under consideration as part of the ongoing review of the FA Cup, set in train by the former chief executive Ian Watmore in response to dwindling attendances and relevance, include playing some rounds under floodlights rather than at weekends, drastically overhauling the scheduling and consulting with broadcasters about innovative new approaches to presentation. The review will also look at how the prize fund is distributed.

The review, conducted by the FA Challenge Cup committee chaired by the Fulham director Mark Collins, is due to report its final conclusions before the end of the year. In addition to his other hats, Richards also sits on the committee.

July 11, 2010

The Dutch need to shackle Villa

Posted on 11/07/2010

Four years of work on the international stage has boiled down to one game, Netherlands take on Spain for World Cup glory. Two sides steeped in international history lock horns, but there will be a new name on the trophy as neither has tasted victory on the biggest stage. Spain head into the match as favourites and Sunday Telegraph writer Henry Winter feels the Dutch have to find a way to blunt the threat of David Villa if they are to triumph.

It could come down to a defender’s mistake, affording a glimpse of goal for David Villa or Robin van Persie. For all the weight of support for Spain’s style council, this is a final of many imponderables.

For now, only one thing is certain: Holland have a real problem with Villa. It is not simply the goal threat emanating from Villa, who craves the chance to add to his five goals. It is also the elusive nature of this Scarlet Pimpernel. Until seeing Spain’s line-up, and discovering whether Fernando Torres starts, Bert van Marwijk will not know how best to blunt the dashing blade called Villa.

If Vicente del Bosque decides Torres has demonstrated sufficient sharpness in training, proving his readiness to run at Johnny Heitinga and Joris Mathijsen, then Villa will begin on the left, cutting in and letting fly at goal or linking with Xavi, Andrés Iniesta and Torres.

A striker responsible for six of Spain’s last eight goals at World Cup finals, Villa needs one more to equal Raul’s national scoring record of 44. He stands on the threshold of Spanish greatness today.

Villa is most effective when starting on the flank. Holland’s right-back, Gregory van der Wiel, must either stop Villa before he builds up speed or communicate with Mark van Bommel and Nigel de Jong that Spain’s No 7 glides inside.

If Del Bosque resists the temptation to recall Torres, then Villa will form the spearhead of the 4-2-3-1 formation, a role that does not suit him as much unless Holland leave space in behind, and Xabi Alonso and Xavi can find him with a through-pass. If Holland do push up, then the focus will also rest on Darren Cann and Mike Mullarkey for the right offside calls, something they have managed so far in this World Cup.

Spain cannot expect Holland to defend as deep as Germany did in their semi-final, a surprising tactic by Joachim Löw that allowed Xavi, Iniesta and Pedro to play their favourite possession game. Even at the risk of Villa or Torres exploiting room in behind, Holland will surely press Spain, seeking to deny them the oxygen they need to express themselves.

Van Bommel and De Jong will be in the faces of Xavi and company. They will be well aware of Spain’s strengths and weaknesses, elucidated by Del Bosque with his observation that “we feel better when we have the ball. When we don’t have the ball, we suffer’’.

Yet all this talk about Spanish artists against Dutch artisans ignores the presence of Wesley Sneijder, who can trick his way past Alonso and Sergio Busquets, and Arjen Robben, who can trouble Joan Capdevila. And then there’s Van Persie. The Arsenal striker has not enjoyed the best of tournaments but has too much skill in his left foot and imagination not to shine at some point.

Van Persie’s season was blighted by an ankle injury and he is hardly the only star not to impress out here. Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka and Lionel Messi have all failed to parade their undoubted gifts on the world stage, a subject occupying Fifa minds yesterday.

“Player freshness is always an issue at the World Cup,’’ said Danny Jordaan, of Fifa and the World Cup organising committee. “We have been wondering about this question, about just how many matches the body of a football payer can take. Is it 70? Less?

“At the end of a season the body cannot take the pressure and extra energy required for the World Cup. Messi did not score a single goal. Rooney did not score. The players we expected to score many goals did not score. We have to make sure these players have a rest before they come to a very demanding World Cup in 2014.’’

As the marathon season concludes, Villa will aim to tire the Dutch out on Sunday.

June 30, 2010

Rooney was the worst player at the World Cup

Posted on 30/06/2010

Paul Merson never understates a situation, unless of course, he cannot remember a player's name as so often seems to happen. As one of the most talented, and flawed, English footballers of the last 20 years, he would seem a good man to pass verdict on the most talented of the current crop: Wayne Rooney. The article is written in the Daily Star, and for supporters of Rooney, turn away now...

WAYNE Rooney was the worst player at the World Cup. It is painful to have to say it, but it is the truth. His performances in his four games were appalling. Wayne has probably never been as bad in four games since he was 10.

The reason he was the worst is because he sets himself such high standards. We talked about him, and his team-mates did, in terms reserved for Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo.But on the world level he just let himself down. He looked so frustrated and angry that he could not play his normal game.

This is a striker who has led the line on his own all season with Manchester United, yet was shackled with England and forced to drop deep looking for any sort of service.

It was dreadful to watch, just like the first goal that we conceded against Germany. I predicted that the game would be end-to-end stuff, but that was just ridiculous. Any pub team would not let in a goal like that.

This might sound over the top, but it was the worst goal I have seen conceded in open play at a World Cup. I know Rob Green’s gaffe was bad, but I am talking about a proper goal that a team has created.

It was shocking truly shocking and should never have happened, but it’s all far too late.

June 29, 2010

The post mortem rumbles on

Posted on 29/06/2010

The England team arrived back in London on Tuesday morning and a glance at the papers will see the post mortem is well and truly on. Whether it be opinions on what went wrong, who should lead the country or who should be the future of the national team, it is all there. The Daily Telegraph’s Kevin Garside feels the time has come to wield the axe and for pride to be restored to the nation’s game.

If new thinking is required, how about restoring pride and honour in the England shirt by asking those who wear it to do so for nothing? And those who coach the team to demonstrate their desire for the post by accepting terms commensurate with results?

The Capello model is bust. We can no longer tolerate the days of big salaries for zilch results. Just like the parliamentarians with noses too long in the trough, the pampered England footballer has exhausted our patience. We want a return on the emotional tax we pay.
The FA has a duty to recognise the failings of Capello’s reign and send him back to his art collection and mud baths in Ischia.

The new regime should be headed by a vibrant coach willing to end some big careers and promote the best of English youth. And don’t ask who those players might be. It doesn’t matter. They cannot be any worse.

Capello should return his salary for his part in the featureless displays churned out by the Premier League all stars, not hang about for two weeks waiting for the FA to decide his fate.
The £10 million annual wage bill wasted on Capello and his cohorts is an insult to every England fan that made the trip to Bloemfontein and the millions at home that make an emotional investment in a team that appears not to care.

Capello’s England team could not summon the effort to fight back, to try a lick. Running is what they do, isn’t it? Desire is the minimum requirement.

Maybe this £100k a week generation cannot get up for the England gig anymore. The England experience has been demoted in the priorities of the modern international footballer, whose professional responsibility is to the club that bankrolls his Hollywood lifestyle with £5m a year wages.

For the Wayne Rooneys, Frank Lampards and John Terrys of this precinct the Champions League is where the big international challenge is, playing for teams that are arguably superior to the national side. Emile Heskey would not get in Manchester United’s reserves.

England is a step down in quality and intensity. The players would never admit it. The idea that they are not proud to represent their country is anathema to them.

But actions speak louder than words. They cannot escape the depressing evidence scattered about the playing fields of South Africa like elephant droppings.

Rooney, Lampard, Terry, Steven Gerrard; none of them was able to replicate the power and ambition of his club football. Capello said fear was the key. Philip Lahm is nearer the mark. Conceit, he said, arrogance borne of inflated egos was behind the buttery collapse in Bloemfontein.

When the questions were asked, England could not fathom a response. Sorry, but it looks to this observer like the players do not care enough about the shirt.

If that is the case let the England project be what it is for Germany, a vehicle for talented youth, hungry for the exposure, keen to make an impact, to chop down some big trees. And let them be led by a coach that understands their needs, treats them like adults, and is not cowed by the challenge.

Capello utterly misunderstood the tournament environment and misread the requirement in South Africa. England were over prepared and underwhelmed.

By insisting on a boot camp mentality, by disappearing into the Austrian Alps for ten days before departure and isolating his team in the remote, rural north of the country here, Capello effectively disconnected England from the event unfolding around them.

Time for an Englishman

With the pressure firmly on Don Fabio, the Daily Mail's Jeff Powell feels the time has come for England to be managed by an Englishman.

Never in my scariest nightmares did I imagine that anyone could be worse than Sven Goran Eriksson.

The clearest sign that Fabio was morphing into Sven Mark II came when he tried to cash-in with his grubby plan to publish a commercial index of his team’s performances in South Africa.

How much was he earning? The alarm bells should have been sounding louder than those vuvuzelas. Not at the FA.

When Don Fabio cunningly suggested they scratch out the escape clause in his contract — a clause which enabled either side to walk away without penalty if it all went turnip shaped in South Africa — they leapt like salmon to the treacherous bait.

What I read into that was Capello already suspected he might be heading for a disaster and he was banking two years’ compensation in advance.

Now the evidence: when asked if he would resign, he said ‘no’.

Not, he should have added, with another £12 million to come for being sacked. And if the FA think they will soon be able to stop paying by installment when he takes up another position, they should remember he was in virtual retirement when he said that England would be his last job.

First Sven, now Fabio. The millions squandered on these two imposters should have gone into the teaching of football at the grass roots.

The overall standard of football coaching in this country is lamentable.

While England were clinging to enough rabbits’ feet to spark an anti-hunt protest, Germany manager Joachim Low was doing a proper job, planning to exploit a defence not only as wide open as the proverbial barn door but hung on Terry’s rusty hinges.

So much for our latest Eurocrat. Has no one ever told the FA that no team has ever won the World Cup with a foreign manager?

Nor will one any time soon. So the earlier someone puts in a call to Flash ’Arry, Roy of the Rovers or even Big Sam, the better.

June 27, 2010

Win or lose, Fabio Capello has to go

Posted on 27/06/2010

Every so often, a journalist produces what could be labelled a 'marmite article'. One that will split opinion in no uncertain terms. Andy Dunn, of the News of the World, has produced one such article. Claiming England will rely on nothing but spirit in the World Cup knockout stages, Dunn argues that there is no need to pay Fabio Capello £6 million to urge the players to 'give their all'...

WHATEVER the outcome of today's momentous occasion in Bloemfontein, whatever the outcome of England's fraught World Cup campaign, Fabio Capello has to go.

Whether it is in a blaze of glory with an honorary knighthood or in a blizzard of recriminations and pay-off cheques, he has to go. Whether it is in the aftermath or afterglow of this tournament or two years down the line when the dust has settled on Euro 2012, he has to go.

If this South African sojourn has told us anything, it is that the days of the foreign galactico in charge of the English national team must surely be numbered. It's not tub-thumping xenophobia, it's not the little Englander mentality. Sure, there is something incongruous about watching a knot of Italians parading in retro England tracksuit tops, something odd about the manager standing grimly silent while a stadium echoes to the national anthem.

But it's not that. And it's not personal. Capello is clearly an accomplished coach, an impressive individual and a proven winner. It's just that there can no longer be any justification for paying someone £6 million a year to reproduce what we have seen for decades.

England line up against Germany this afternoon and Capello acknowledges that their most potent weapon is their spirit. The spirit that saw Steven Gerrard run himself into the Port Elizabeth ground, the spirit that saw John Terry throw himself full-length to try and block a low shot... with his head.

They don't get that from Capello or from his accomplished assistants. It comes from within. What Capello - and Sven Goran Eriksson before him (leaving aside the Steve McClaren blip) - was supposed to add was tactical and technical sophistication. That horse has long since bolted.

Continue reading "Win or lose, Fabio Capello has to go"

June 26, 2010

Time for a new chapter to be written

Posted on 26/06/2010

Richard Williams, writing in the Guardian, takes a look ahead to England's World Cup clash with Germany on Sunday and forecasts a gripping encounter for the ages. The standard of football may not be particularly high, opines Williams, but it is sure to be a keenly-contested clash that will enter the sport's folklore.

Forget the nonsense because the players surely will. Wayne Rooney and Mesut Ozil are not looking at each other and seeing maps of the Ypres salient or images of a ruined Dresden. The only worthwhile consideration this weekend is that England versus Germany almost always produces a match which burns itself into the memory – for the quality of the contest, if not invariably for the calibre of the football.

Continue reading "Time for a new chapter to be written"

June 24, 2010

Defoe can do far better

Posted on 24/06/2010

Whoever said the key to Harry Redknapp’s success as a manager was the fact that he put an arm around his players? Judging by his reaction in the Sun to Jermain Defoe’s match-winning performance for England, the Spurs boss is more regimented and hard-nosed than Fabio Capello will ever be...

Jermain Defoe eased the worries of every England fan with his fantastic winner against Slovenia - but I know for a fact he can play a lot, lot better.

When it comes to nicking a goal, you would be hard pushed to name players who would be ahead of Jermain in the queue. But there is more to being a striker than simply knocking the ball into the net.

Last season, against Hull, he was virtually unplayable for Tottenham. He held up the ball brilliantly, knocked defenders off it and, yes, he scored - a hat-trick in fact.

Then he stopped doing those things. He could have held the ball up better against Slovenia and used his physique - he's stronger than he looks - to worry his markers a lot more. I hope I'm not sounding harsh, because I know if you give JD the ball in the danger areas there is every chance it will end up in the back of the net.

I also hope he gets a run in the team but that will depend on what approach Fabio Capello takes in the next round. The decision for the national manager is whether to play as open as England did against Slovenia - who, let's face it, were a poor side - or play an extra man in the middle of the park, which would mean sacrificing one of our strikers.

I can't praise Jermain enough for the way he finished, or James Milner for supplying the cross.
They were two big calls for the England manager to make in starting with those two - and they paid off handsomely. What I like about Milner is he doesn't try to do too much of the fancy stuff but instead concentrates on what is bread and butter to strikers - getting his crosses in.
Every manager should show Jermain's goal to their players as it demonstrates you don't need to beat players on the wing to put in a match-winning cross.

David Beckham was a master at it. You rarely saw him take on players but you knew the quality of his delivery as he bent the ball in would be top class. And it was that kind of crucial play from Milner that decided the game. Great movement, great cross.

There's nothing worse for strikers than seeing your winger constantly lose the ball when he tries to dribble past a full-back. Or watch your winger go on a run and the ball doesn't come in.
You don't have to beat people, you can cross effectively in front of a full-back instead of trying to get past him all the time.

By the way, did anyone notice the bargains of the century who played against Slovenia in Port Elizabeth? Both Joe Cole and David James are available on free transfers.

June 18, 2010

How a former England boss would do it in Cape Town

Posted on 18/06/2010

With Fabio Capello getting so much stick for having the temerity to draw with USA, it seems only right to ask the last England manager to have threatened a World Cup triumph, Glenn Hoddle, how he would be doing things in South Africa. Hoddle’s class of ’98 were all over Argentina in the second round until David Beckham’s petulant flick of the boot, and general theory is that an 18-year-old Michael Owen would have taken on the world. Unfortunately we will never know what could have been, but we can get Hoddle’s views in the Daily Mail on what team Capello should be picking in Cape Town...

It was alarming to see that Glen Johnson, the right back, had more touches in the penalty box than Rooney against the USA. There is a simple way around this problem. Emile Heskey played well against America, but I’d want Rooney in those positions, playing as the spearhead. I’d send out a team against the Algerians with Rooney up front, Steven Gerrard just off him and Frank Lampard coming through, running on to the ball. We didn’t see enough of that last time.

Joe Cole would get the left side with Aaron Lennon on the right and Gareth Barry as the pivot, taking up the insurance position.

To Rooney, I would say: ‘Look, son, you’ve played this way all season for Manchester United, you demolished AC Milan in that position; go and be a box threat. Get in the penalty area and stay there. I don’t want to see you drifting wide to get the ball. Leave that to others.’

I fancy him to score tonight, I really do. Two goals, perhaps. That indifferent game against the USA is a one-off. England need a big performance from him and he will thrive on that.

Sometimes you come off after a game and think to yourself: ‘I never really got to grips with that.’ It’s what I call drifting through a game. That happened to Rooney on Saturday.

Experienced players are able to take a moment in the match and say to themselves: ‘This isn’t happening for me.’ You reassess your performance and the impact you are having and think of ways you can change and grow into a game.

Younger players aren’t as able to do that, so Rooney will have needed to study a DVD of his performance and work it out from there. He’ll put it right, I’m confident of that.

June 17, 2010

Lampard has to be benched against Algeria

Posted on 17/06/2010

With little over 24 hours until England’s must-win game with Algeria, talk has inevitably turned to Fabio Capello’s starting XI after the disappointing draw with USA. Should Rob Green start? Should Emile Heskey be dropped? Is there a place for Joe Cole? In the Daily Mirror, Robbie Savage suggests Frank Lampard should be the biggest-name casualty...

It is time for the critics to lay off Emile Heskey. He was the best player on the pitch against the USA on Saturday and that was not a massive surprise to me.

I’ve played with Emile and he is one of those unselfish players perhaps only other pros really appreciate. He does all the donkey work. He takes all the knocks. But he keeps getting up and taking more for the team.

At the weekend he won balls in the air, held the play up and did everything that was asked of him – apart, of course, from score when put clean through by Aaron Lennon.

But we should cut him some slack. Emile has spent weeks hearing about how much the Jabulani ball moves in the air if you shoot it straight. On this occasion it didn’t and went right down the throat of Tim Howard. So I can’t believe Fabio Capello is even thinking of dropping him or, come to that, moving Steven Gerrard to the left against Algeria tomorrow.

I want England to win the World Cup – and Gerrard was also outstanding down the middle, so thoughts of moving him to the left now to accommodate Gareth Barry are ridiculous. You might as well play Wayne Rooney at right-back.

Gerrard and Frank Lampard again failed to work as a unit and it might be time for Capello to look at starting with Lamps on the bench.

He’d be a sensational sub for the last half hour, giving Heskey a rest and allowing Gerrard to move forward to play behind Rooney.

I couldn’t understand playing James Milner from the start against the USA and after seeing Shaun Wright-Phillips come on to replace him, Joe Cole must be totally bewildered and thinking he’s third choice. He’ll be down in the dumps. Likewise Matthew Upson.

Rob Green is a very good keeper but England are now playing knockout ¬football and Capello needs to rely on a man with tournament experience. For me, David James has to start in goal.

June 15, 2010

Germany illuminate flaws in our game

Posted on 15/06/2010

There is no question that Germany produced the finest performance of this year's World Cup when they thrashed Australia 4-0 on Sunday. Their showing was enough to strike fear into the heart into even the most optimistic of England fans - Fabio Capello's team are likely to face Germany in the second round if they do not top their group. Henry Winter, writing in the Telegraph, says that the German infrastructure offers their national team far more help than the English model does.

It is a cultural thing. The Germans think more deeply about football, prepare more intelligently and assiduously, and have a player development and league structure that helps Joachim Löw better prepare the national team. The English system works against Fabio Capello. It is obvious.

Continue reading "Germany illuminate flaws in our game"

June 14, 2010

What they're saying about England abroad

Posted on 14/06/2010

Often in England the media are accused of over-reaction towards the national team, of knee-jerk reactions, and of unfounded negativity. So, following Saturday’s 1-1 draw with USA, the Guardian thought it would be good to see what our World Cup rivals made of England’s display...

Argentina: Ole
Green couldn’t stop a little ‘shottie’ and the US rescued a point. England were supposed to be a candidate but they showed little in their opening game. The betting had England down as clear favourites – you could barely win a peso or two on victory. But that wasn’t the case once the ball started to roll. Even the coach said that England had a team to reach the final but when it was time for the steaks, there was no evidence. Capello has a lot of work ahead of him.

Italy: La Repubblica
The great Fabio made a fundamental mistake for which so many managers have paid so dearly: Goalkeepers, they say, cannot handle uncertainty. And above all the great teams are born from great No. 1s. Much better was Tim Howard, the American No. 1. Goalkeepers have caught the eye in these first days much more than goalscorers. After Ribery, so ineffective for France, followed Wayne Rooney.

USA: Sports Illustrated
The US frustrated Rooney to no end. England’s superstar didn’t have many goalscoring chances, a testament to the excellent US team defence spearheaded by centre-backs Oguchi Onyewu and Jay DeMerit. As the second half wore on, Rooney came deeper and deeper into the midfield, desperately trying to get the ball. You could sense how frustrated Rooney became late on when he waved his arms madly at referee Carlos Simon when Rooney thought that a US foul deserved a yellow card. For all the gains Rooney has made in controlling his temper, it was clear he’s not all the way there yet.

Spain: AS
England are fighting against expectation, the doubts that surround their starting XI and their own limitations. This was a day to examine Robert Green, a goalkeeper with little personality who likes to live on his line but who only plays because David James has just had a knee injury. But Capello’s irritation was as much about the collective as the keeper. As soon as Gerrard put them in the lead they lost the ball. Not that it mattered – it was part of the strategy. But they also lost the initiative – and that wasn’t. They were not able to frighten the Americans on the break as they had planned to.

June 12, 2010

Gerrard should lead from the front

Posted on 12/06/2010

The Daily Telegraph has signed up Michael Owen as a columnist, not for his racing tips but his knowledge of football. The striker will be watching his former England team-mates on the box and he feels Steven Gerrard is the right man to lead the team in South Africa, but wants to see him play further forward.

Now that Rio is sadly out, there is nobody better to captain England than Stevie. I know him well. We grew up playing for Liverpool together and I know how much representing his country means to him. This is a massive moment for Stevie, the biggest in his career. He's captained England before but it's different in the World Cup. Stevie will rise to the challenge because he has all the qualities. He has this quiet authority that inspires. Stevie won't let England down against the US on Saturday.

I was at Liverpool when Stevie succeeded Sami Hyypia as captain in 2003. Stevie was an obvious choice because he was the first name on the teamsheet and he was Mr Liverpool along with Jamie Carragher. Carra was more vocal on the pitch. Stevie was always reasonably shy, but he wouldn't hide away and not talk.

His character is similar to mine: Stevie wouldn't be loud unless he was really comfortable in his surroundings. In the dressing room, Carra has more of a leader-type influence, getting everybody going. But with all respect to Carra, Stevie is a world-class player, one of the top six in the world, and he leads by example.

We're fortunate with England that we have a lot of club captains in the squad and a lot of players such as Stevie, John Terry, Frank Lampard, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney in their prime. They are the backbone of the team. Some of them may make the next World Cup in Brazil but they'll be touching their mid-thirties. Only Wayne will be in his prime. That is why this is a massive competition for them and why I expect them to start strongly today.

Many areas will be important in Rustenburg, but two, in midfield and attack, strike me as key. Stevie's midfield partnership with Frank is something that people have been talking a lot about. I'd find the debate very frustrating if I were one of them. Stevie and Frank are in their prime, are very established in their careers and in their thirties so it's a horrible feeling to be doubted. But it is perfectly reasonable for people to ask: 'How are we going to play in midfield?'

England could play 4-5-1 with a holding midfielder like Michael Carrick deep or they could go 4-4-2. Stevie and Frank are regulars for clubs who play 4-5-1 or 4-3-3, not 4-4-2.

At Chelsea, Frank is given licence to get forward because he knows he has two other lads in midfield with him, one of whom shields the back four. It was Claude Makelele and is now John Obi Mikel, while Michael Ballack also had a spell. That allows Frank to bomb on, knowing he'll not leave the defence exposed. Liverpool have Lucas and Javier Mascherano sitting in midfield, letting Stevie join Fernando Torres.

Stevie and Frank don't have as much defensive responsibility for their clubs. England are different. If they play as a two together, I'm sure they will adapt because they are both intelligent players but 4-4-2 could be a concern.

They can play 4-4-2 but don't do it regularly and I want to see them doing what they do best, getting forward, creating and scoring goals for us.

If we are 4-4-2, it will be interesting to see who takes the lead role and who anchors midfield. Both will instinctively want to attack.

I feel Stevie should be playing further forward, closer to Wayne, but I know Emile Heskey will do a good job if he partners Wayne. I played for many years with Emile for England and Liverpool and know how important he is to the team, how he brings the best out of others.

A renaissance for Carrick
There is other sport going on this week, lots of it in fact, but frankly who cares? It’s all about the World Cup and what team Fabio Capello will send out against USA. The Times’ Oliver Kay feels Michael Carrick might get the nod, which would be a remarkable turnaround for a player who performed so poorly in a recent warm-up.

Fabio Capello will leave it until the very last moment to name his team for England’s opening World Cup match against the United States in group C this evening as he agonises over the identity of his goalkeeper and the balance of his midfield.

The Italian will make a late decision over the fitness of James Milner, who he hopes will have shaken off the effects of a virus to take his place on the left of midfield, before revealing whether he will start the campaign with Robert Green or Joe Hart in goal.

Capello will tell his players the composition of the team only two hours before the kick-off in Rustenburg, with even the squad’s final training session at the Royal Bafokeng Stadium last night leaving them mystified over his exact intentions.

The one certainty is that England will start the match in a 4-4-2 formation because they stayed with that system throughout the 90-minute session and did not experiment with Wayne Rooney as a sole striker in a 4-5-1 formation, as they have done previously.

A second World Cup start for Michael Carrick after his round-of-16 appearance against Ecuador four years ago would represent a remarkable renaissance because he was thought to have missed his chance by performing poorly in England’s friendly international win over Mexico at Wembley Stadium last month and only just made the squad. The Manchester United midfield player’s status as a fringe player is shown by the fact that he started one game during the qualifying campaign, a meaningless match against Ukraine after England had reached the finals, and has won only 22 caps, far fewer than his peers.

June 11, 2010

England are set for the worst experience of their lives

Posted on 11/06/2010

Let’s be honest, there are three things in life that England – traditionally – are undeniably better at than USA: Football, cricket and queuing. Yet the possibility exists that Steven Gerrard and Co. might just struggle to put their American counterparts away when the World Cup kicks off this weekend. If that is the case, England flanker Joe Worsley provides a very good insight in the Daily Mail into the major reason why Fabio Capello’s men might flatter to deceive. He calls on an old experience when he played for the British Lions in a 37-25 victory over a Highveld XV in Rustenburg...

When we played at altitude in Rustenburg last summer, it was my first game in a Lions shirt — and one of the worst experiences of my life.

After about 20 minutes my lungs were just shot to bits and my legs were heavy. It affected everyone to slightly different degrees, but to a man the players said it was one of the worst experiences they had ever had on a pitch.

Analysis after that game showed that the mistakes we made were worse and players were less explosive. Skill levels dropped and all of it happened as a consequence of people being fatigued.

The ball can also fly further and faster in the thin air at altitude, but how noticeable that will be in football I’m not sure. Maybe goalkeepers will struggle more with well-hit shots. It is a lack of oxygen in your system which has numerous consequences. Your lungs are working overtime to get more oxygen in and there is a lactate build-up in your legs because you can’t get as much fuel to them, so you feel sluggish.

Mentally you are affected as well — you slow down because of a lack of oxygen reaching the brain. We are talking tiny margins, but when it comes to elite sport it makes a difference.

Continue reading "England are set for the worst experience of their lives"

June 10, 2010

The icy stare of Mr Capello

Posted on 10/06/2010

Very rarely do you get an insight into the mind of an England manager, least of all Fabio Capello, but the Sun’s Steven Howard does his best by recalling old tales involving Antonio Cassano and the not-so-slim Ronaldo...

We all thought it was going to be Mt Wazza that blew first. Instead, it was Fabio Capello who finally exploded. An unsuspecting photographer got it in the neck (on Wednesday) as he attempted to take pictures of Michael Dawson having a massage in the training-ground medical room.

The altercation was short, not-so-sweet and to the point.

And no one was surprised. The great volcanic eruption had been coming for some time. The message was not lost on his players because this is exactly how he not only keeps them in check but drives them on.

There is a story of how the Italian hardman, not happy with the fitness of his squad in his first spell at Real Madrid, got them training twice a day. As the exhausted players were finally allowed off for a shower, one of his new Spanish coaches asked why he was flogging them so hard.

Capello gave him an icy stare and said: "Because to win a player's respect you have to put a razor blade up against his arse."

Continue reading "The icy stare of Mr Capello"

June 8, 2010

Roy can end embarrassing statistic

Posted on 08/06/2010

Ian Wright, writing in the Sun, this morning blasts the "embarrassing" statistic that none of England's Big Four sides have been managed by an English boss since Roy Evans was in charge at Liverpool in 1998. Former England striker Wright belives that Roy Hodgson, currently in charge at Fulham, would bring the stability to Liverpool that they "desperately need" - in the process severing their 12-year run without an Englishman at the helm.

THE last Englishman to manage Liverpool was a bloke named Roy. In fact, Roy Evans, who left Anfield in 1998, was the last Englishman to manage any one of the Big Four.

It's an embarrassing statistic and I thought it would be many more years before we saw someone from this country in the hotseat at Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal or Manchester United.

Continue reading "Roy can end embarrassing statistic"

June 5, 2010

Rio loss a huge blow, but not unexpected

Posted on 05/06/2010

England's captain Rio Ferdinand has been ruled out of the World Cup, prompting Fabio Capello to lament the "curse of the captain". Many of England's recent campaigns at major tournaments have been blighted by injuries to key players, as Kevin McCarra acknowledges in today's Guardian. Although Capello may have anticipated Ferdinand's loss and put a contingency plan in place, the loss is no less keenly felt, McCarra says:

The only solace for the loss of Rio Ferdinand is the abundant practice England have had of playing without their ideal defence. He and John Terry started only four of the 10 qualifiers. The side are accustomed to doing without a member of that pairing but sustained fitness always looked as critical as it was precarious where the team's World Cup prospects are concerned.

Continue reading "Rio loss a huge blow, but not unexpected"

June 4, 2010

Politics led to Benitez's downfall

Posted on 04/06/2010

Rafael Benitez exited stage left from Anfield on Thursday and the talk is now switching to who will take the reins. But whoever is ushered in at Liverpool could be in for a bumpy ride, as the Guardian’s Andy Hunter feels boardroom politics led to Benitez’s downfall.

Were it simply a football decision, a detached analysis of where Liverpool should be in the midst of a debt-ridden power vacuum, then Rafael Benítez, for the many faults, facts and suspect full-backs, would not be leaving Anfield with a lucrative pay-off. But it is not simply football that has done for Benítez.

It is the politicking that is as much a feature of the Spaniard's managerial career as European expertise and the misfortune to fall into the employ of Tom Hicks and George Gillett. The leverage buy-out experts promised a spade in the ground for a new stadium within 60 days of their arrival in February 2007 but have only dug the hole into which Benítez has now fallen. He moved closer to the exit with every refinancing deal the Americans secured while his reputation inevitably suffered with every transfer window without additional funds. Not that Benítez walks away blameless.

In announcing the end of the manager's six-year reign Martin Broughton, the chairman parachuted into Liverpool from British Airways to lend gravitas to the sale of the club, and who could not attend the final home game of last season due to his Chelsea allegiances, stresses that football was behind the departure. No one would dispute Broughton's analysis of the "disappointing season" just gone but this was one dreadful campaign following five seasons of steady progress. The man who delivered Liverpool's fifth European Cup in such miraculous style in 2005 and the FA Cup a year later had enough goodwill left on the Kop to be allowed a shot at redemption. Circumstances inside the club, many Benítez-created, however, ensured that could never happen.

And the man to succeed Rafa is...

So who will succeed Benitez? Roy Hodgson has been linked, as has Guus Hiddink, but the Times’ Tony Evans is convinced Kenny Dalglish is the man in the right place at the right time.

Great players have the knack of being in the right place at the right time. Kenny Dalglish had that uncanny ability. Now, with Liverpool in turmoil, he is in the perfect place.

Dalglish is the only man who can unite a club in danger of imploding.

Twice before the man they call “King Kenny” has provided leadership off the pitch in times of crisis. Twenty-five years ago, after Heysel, he stepped into the manager’s role vacated by Joe Fagan. With the club’s image at an all-time low, his calm leadership won back friends and produced a Double in his first season.

Four years later the Scot’s reputation on Merseyside was enhanced further. In the wake of Hillsborough, Dalglish brought comfort to the families of the dead and injured at great personal emotional cost.

When he left Anfield in 1991, his career as a manager unhinged by tragedy, he remained — alongside Bill Shankly — the towering figure in the club’s history.

Now he finds himself charged with finding the next Liverpool manager after the departure of Rafael Benítez — a massive task for anyone. Dalglish rejoined the club last summer in a wide-ranging position. He was encouraged to return by Christian Purslow, the managing director and a long-time friend. Purslow has had plenty of criticism in recent months but his role in taking Dalglish back to Anfield may prove to be a masterstroke.

June 3, 2010

A crossroads for Liverpool

Posted on 03/06/2010

Rafael Benitez seems to be in the final hours of his tenure as manager of Liverpool, with a severance payment believed to be in the process of being thrashed out. Reports suggest player power, as well as a breakdown in his relationship with the club’s board, led to his downfall. The departure will allow the Reds to plan for the future and the Times’ Tony Barrett claims Liverpool are approaching a crossroads in their history.

The beginning of what appears to be the end for Rafael Benítez also marks the start of a summer that threatens to be one of the most painful — and will undoubtedly be the most pivotal — in the modern history of Britain’s most successful football club.

All that stands between an avalanche of obituaries on Benítez’s Liverpool career is the outcome of negotiations that will determine whether the club can muster the necessary financial muscle to convince the Spaniard to walk out of the Shankly Gates for one last time.

For once, their monetary weakness may prove their strength. Having had his purse strings tightened in the past three transfer windows, Benítez knows better than most just how scarce ready cash is at Anfield and he will have to pitch his expectations accordingly.

He also knows that support within the boardroom for his regime has evaporated and that there are those in the dressing room who have been so underwhelmed by his performance over the past year that they would not shed any tears if he departed.

All that remains is for agreement to be reached on the terms of his departure and he will be free to take up a post at another club, with Inter Milan seeming the most likely destination.

It says everything about Liverpool’s present predicament, though, that even a change of manager will prompt more questions about a club who have lost direction and are in danger of losing their self-respect under the ownership regime of Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr.

The first conundrum is: who in their right mind would take the Liverpool job? It used to be one of the greatest positions in English football, but now a manager would have to be prepared to take on the running of a club riddled with debt, that are for sale, that have no significant transfer budget, a squad in need of an overhaul, and where the only certainty is endemic uncertainty.

Then there is the playing staff. It has long been mooted that the only way to guarantee that the likes of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard will remain at the club would be if Benítez goes. The coming weeks and months will prove or disprove such theories. But one thing is certain — should Benítez’s replacement not live up to the kind of exacting standards laid down by the world’s best players, they will find a club that does boast such a manager. And, with José Mourinho’s Real Madrid pursuing Gerrard and Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea keen on Torres, Liverpool will have a big job on their hands convincing their crown jewels to stick around regardless of who is eventually appointed.

The ideal scenario would be for a benevolent billionaire who grew up with pictures of Kevin Keegan and Kenny Dalglish adorning the walls of his Middle Eastern home to pop up and take the club off the hands of Hicks and Gillett, before paying off their £351 million debt and starting work on the new stadium in Stanley Park.

Unfortunately, it has been some time since Liverpool last inhabited an ideal world, so all their fans can do is limp on with anything but hope in their hearts. It would be an exaggeration to suggest that this is a nadir for a club who have been involved in two of the worst disasters in the history of the game, but, equally, it would be underplaying the situation if it is not described as one of the most painfully testing periods Liverpool have endured.

Finn is the real deal
Steve Finn did his chances of securing a seat on the plane to Australia for the Ashes no harm with a five for at Lord’s and the Guardian’s Mike Selvey claims the giant seamer is the real deal.

All too often the reality doesn't match the hype. Anticipation is followed by disappointment. But then occasionally the opposite occurs, when expectation is exceeded. Instances, at random, for me include a first sight of the Taj Mahal, watching Jimi Hendrix for the one and only time, and, as a moderately enthusiastic but fairly pedestrian runner, witnessing the incredible pace at which Steve Jones ran a marathon.

In cricket, I recall the strange noise at Queen's Park Oval as a young Ian Bishop, of whom I had heard but never seen, delivered his first ball of a one-day series to, I think, Wayne Larkins, which I realised was the crowd en masse hissing disbelievingly the word "shit". That recalled Graham Gooch's party-piece snatch of a Tony Cozier commentary: "Patterson in to Gooch, bouncer, Gooch hooks … through to Dujon, no run …"

This summer I have seen how James Taylor moves silkily into the ball, and witnessed the remarkable, much-heralded hitting power of Craig Kieswetter. Now I'm looking forward to watching Ben Stokes, Alex Hales and Jos Buttler, whom I saw briefly on the television on Tuesday evening. None of these, though, has, or will, stir me quite as much as seeing Steven Finn in the first Test. It's probably a bowler thing. Once Andrew Strauss came to his senses and had him striding in from the Pavilion End at Lord's, I was watching something special in its raw formative state.

England bowlers come, promise and, all too regularly, they are gone. Actions are flawed, bodies not up to it, injuries prove terminal. But for five days, in which he took nine wickets, Finn looked the absolute business. If there are sceptics saying that it was "only Bangladesh", then have a look at how the other seamers fared when the pitch flattened out under the sun.

Us former bowlers, we pick up on actions easily. We can spot flaws and idiosyncrasies, see what works and what doesn't. We understand that not every paceman has an action like Fred Trueman (although Bob Willis was convinced he did until he saw footage of himself), but that often it is the quirks that elevate a bowler to the top echelon. Without it we might never have seen Jeff Thomson, or Mike Procter, Shoaib Akhtar or Lasith Malinga.

But Finn is pure

June 1, 2010

Capello right to consider his options

Posted on 01/06/2010

Later today Fabio Capello will name the 23-man England squad that he will aim to World Cup glory. Speculation abounds not just about the make-up of that party, however, as there are question marks appearing over the manager’s future as national coach. Richard Williams, writing in the Guardian, says that Capello could not be blamed if he is considering becoming Inter Milan coach after the World Cup.

All would be made clear, Fabio Capello announced, as soon as he had talked to a man whose name he couldn't remember. No surprise there. There probably aren't three people in the world who can summon up with any certainty the name of the current chairman of the Football Association.

Continue reading "Capello right to consider his options"

May 31, 2010

Capello must beware midfield trap

Posted on 31/05/2010

England's duo of warm-up matches before Fabio Capello names his squad have done much to dampen expectation. Although England recorded two wins - against Japan and Mexico - their performances were far from convincing. This was particularly true of the midfield area, where the central pairing were unable to dictate the game as they may have wished. That said, the most convincing duo in midfield was the much-derided partnership of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard. Richard Williams, writing in the Guardian, does not believe that they hold the answer to England's woes:

Fabio Capello must be awfully sure that Gareth Barry is on his way to a complete recovery, because nothing else could explain his lack of interest in addressing England's principal weakness in their final match before embarking for South Africa. Unless, that is, he really believes himself to be the one man in the entire world capable of devising a way in which Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard can function successfully together in central midfield.

Continue reading "Capello must beware midfield trap"

May 26, 2010

Let's all pray for Barry

Posted on 26/05/2010

Gareth Barry’s scan proved inconclusive, leading Fabio Capello to hand him extra time to prove his fitness for the World Cup. And the Daily Mirror’s Oliver Holt feels it is astounding that the injury has not been given the importance as the Beckham and Rooney metatarsals of previous tournaments.

There is one question that needs to be asked above all others in the aftermath of England's game against Mexico on Monday night. Why aren't we praying for Gareth Barry's ankle?

Somehow we don't seem as devoted to it as we were to the Rooney metatarsal and, before that, the Beckham foot. There haven't been any life-size cut-outs of the Barry ankle in the newspapers yet. Uri Geller hasn't popped up on GMTV calling on the nation to unleash its healing powers on Barry's damaged ligaments. There wasn't a squadron of news helicopters flying above Barry's car on the way to the hospital where he had his tests yesterday. There weren't batteries of television cameras to film him coming out of the hospital, like there were when Rooney was passed fit before the 2006 World Cup. We didn't know the name of the hospital. We didn't have a detailed breakdown of the tests he was doing.

Because Barry's ankle is as important to England's World Cup hopes this summer as Rooney's metatarsal in 2006 and Beckham's foot in 2002.

Barry might not have the same charisma as Beckham or Rooney or appear in quite as many commercials. He might not be capable of producing a game-changing moment of brilliance like Rooney. Or of bending in a last-minute winner from a free-kick like Beckham. There's nothing spectacular about Barry.

But England's defensive vulnerability against Mexico on Monday night proved what we already knew: without Barry, Fabio Capello's England side is not the same.

The freewheeling must stop

Michel Platini’s vision to bring financial stability to the game takes a step forward on Thursday when Uefa's "financial fair play" rules are introduced. A host of Premier League clubs will need to cut their cloth to meet the criteria to enable them to play in European competition and David Conn warns in the Guardian that “freewheeling culture” will have to come to an end.

At Uefa's pine and glass headquarters on the banks of Lake Geneva tomorrow, European football's governing body will enshrine a rule designed to wrestle football's financial frenzy into some saner shape. The product of almost three years work since Uefa's president, Michel Platini, expressed alarm at the "danger to football" of debt, overspending and "rampant commercialism", Uefa's executive committee will approve the "financial fair play" regulations.

Its principle, after so many years of the football public here being told there is no alternative to the game being a toy of the free market, is heartbreakingly simple. From 2012-13, just two years' time, clubs who wish to play in European competitions must not spend more than they earn. That, in a nutshell, is it.

Ratification of the rule tomorrow will conclude a remarkable journey for an idea, developed from Platini's something-must-be-done cri de coeur to detailed regulations requiring most clubs to change completely their freewheeling behaviour. The Premier League fought for owners still to be allowed to subsidise players wages, but was overruled and will fall into line. Since the global financial crisis bit and Portsmouth's hideous £122.8m insolvency, several of the league's own clubs have recognised they must try to rein in overspending, and the league has introduced its own measures aimed at better financial regulation. Rather than rail against Uefa, the Premier League will seek to help its clubs try to break even.

That acceptance represents a journey, too, for Richard Scudamore, the Premier League's chief executive, who in September 2007 dismissed Platini's complaints about "rampant commercialism" as "not much above the view of people in the corner of the pub".

Platini laughed then, stressing how comfortable he is talking to fans in a pub. The Uefa president, a former playing great and France national coach, learned much about football's significance in a bar in Joeuf, the mining town of his birth, where his father organised the local club from which his son embarked on a meteoric career. For Platini, the heart of the game remains the one he absorbed in that smoky French bar.

Uefa's achievement is to have translated its president's gut instinct into a workable rule. The genesis of "financial fair play" followed a visit to the US in February 2008 by three Uefa executives, Andrea Traverso, now head of club licensing, Gianni Infantino, the current general secretary, and William Gaillard, Platini's special adviser. They examined the NFL, NBA, Major League Soccer and other US sports, to understand how rules including salary-capping have kept clubs roughly equal and financially healthy, and the competitions so commercially successful.

They concluded that salary caps would be difficult to introduce here due to European free market rules, but financial stability was a vital step towards a healthier game. Once clubs are living within their means, Uefa and the national competitions can look at how to share money more evenly, so that the richest clubs' dominance is not further entrenched.

Until then, although every Platini utterance has been painted by some as anti-Premier League rhetoric, the English top flight should have an advantage, because it makes the most money, from expensive Sky TV subscriptions and match tickets, and the newly minted £1.2bn three-year overseas TV deals.

Platini and his team have shown true leadership, cutting through the flannel that nothing can be done, achieving Europe-wide agreement for an actual rule to help restore football to balance. The rule's introduction will reinforce powerfully here the howling need for a strong, independent-minded Football Association to be a governing body, rather than, since the exits of Lord Triesman and Ian Watmore, the sad vacuum we currently have.

Game ripe for corruption

There are fresh revelations about match fixing in County cricket and former England captain Michael Vaughan tells the Telegraph that the situation leaves itself open to manipulation.

Match-fixing in county cricket is a real threat and this news could be just the tip of the iceberg. By speaking out I hope this player will shame others – and I am sure more players have been approached – into also going public.

In the past players have laughed off such approaches, but now they must reveal the danger the game is facing. Its credibility is at stake. Our game is ripe for corruption. That was always going to be the case as soon as county cricket was beamed abroad, which increased its exposure. From that moment on huge sums were being wagered on county matches. You cannot blame the ECB for cashing in on an overseas broadcast, but this is the unwanted side effect.

May 24, 2010

Jose shows his humble side

Posted on 24/05/2010

Jose Mourinho added yet more glitter to his CV this season with a Treble at Inter Milan – capped with victory in the Champions League final. He is likely to head for pastures new and will do so, says Richard Williams in the Guardian, proving that he can show humility when the need arises.

He did not take off his medal and stuff it in his pocket. He wore it proudly. He did not walk away to hide himself, as ostentatiously as a man hiding himself could possibly contrive to do, in the shadows of the dugout. Instead he went straightaway to applaud the fans dancing in ecstasy on the northern face of the mighty Bernabéu, then hugged his players and shook hands with their opponents. He hoisted his son, José Jr, wearing a black and blue No10 shirt, on to his shoulders, before setting him down, picking up the match ball and a Portuguese flag, and making his way to embrace his president.

This time José Mourinho was on his very best behaviour, as he had been all week. Once again he was starring in his own movie. But he was showing the world – and his employers, present and future – that he could also win one of football's biggest prizes with dignity.

There could have been no better setting for this display of his talents than the home of an organisation whose nine victories in the European Cup give them a special identification with the greatest of club tournaments. The near-certainty that it will become Mourinho's own next home only added to the evening's resonance. He will, he said, be meeting Florentino Pérez, the president of Real Madrid, today. He may or may not have been winding us up. Probably not. The contract is said to extend over four years, at ¤10m (£8.7m) a year, and the pre-season gathering is scheduled for a country-house hotel in County Kildare in the first week of August.

The call comes for Cole

There are still a couple of play-off games left, but focus really is turning to the World Cup. England take on Mexico in a friendly on Monday with a number of players eager to impress and force their way into the final 23. Joe Cole is one such player and the Daily Telegraph's Kevin Garside feels Fabio Capello must give the midfielder his chance.

Allow me to join the chorus of approval for Joe Cole. There must be a place for Cole when Fabio Capello names his World Cup 23 next week. Capello has two genuine No. 10s in his squad. One is Wayne Rooney, the other is Cole. Ten is football’s magic number, the shirt managers throw to men who can make a difference, to players not bound by convention, who see the pass that others do not, in whose imaginations a difference game plays out.
May 23, 2010

Now for Jose's Real story

Posted on 23/05/2010

On Saturday evening, Inter Milan boss Jose Mourinho became only the third man to win the Champions League with two different clubs. After delivering the Italian side's first European Cup for 45 years he confirmed that the game would probably be his last as Inter manager, with Real Madrid likely to be his next club. Paul Hayward, writing in the Observer, pays tribute to the self-anointed 'Special One' and his achievements:

José Mourinho's only problem is that he will run out of targets. A first league title for Chelsea in 50 years, Inter's first European Cup crown since 1965 and now the chance to manage Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká at Real Madrid.

Continue reading "Now for Jose's Real story"

May 22, 2010

No medals but Cesc's still a success

Posted on 22/05/2010

Arsenal may be fighting a losing battle to hold on the Cesc Fabregas, with Barcelona working hard to lure him back to Spain. Barca star Xavi has said it is a scandal that a player of Fabregas’ talent has not won any trophies at club level, but the Guardian’s Dara O’Brien says that is not the way to judge a player.

I get it, Fábregas is going. Even if Arsenal hardball him into another season like I think they should, he was always going at some stage. But do we have show him the door quite as eagerly? I'm talking about all the think pieces this week telling us about the inevitability of his return, his quest for the biggest prizes, his apparent exasperation with Arsenal's mediocrity. So let's get him to Barça sharpish and start drooling over this great team.

My Fábregas pain is one shared by Aston Villa fans watching the Milner situation, or Liverpool fans nervously awaiting word on Torres. Each of these fans has the right to ask about the unseemly rush to herd all the great players into as small a collection of teams as possible.

Why is it presumed that players should move, just to collect trophies? Why not stay at the club and build something for once? Why are we so quick to applaud, even insist on, the glory-seeking move? Doesn't it just serve to concentrate all the playing resources in the same couple of clubs? Doesn't it just make the leagues more and more dull? The Spanish league is a series of exhibition matches with two clásicos to sort out the top places. We all drop the difficulty setting on Fifa now and again just to get a run of enjoyable victories together; it usually gets a little boring after a while.

Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail wrote during the week: "When Cesc Fábregas [leaves Arsenal] ... in the brutal reckoning of elite football, he will do so as a failure." This is nonsense. Footballers should not be discouraged from remembering that they have it pretty sweet. They get paid a bucket of money to do a job they've dreamed of since childhood. They are ahead. A long way ahead of their peers, who didn't make the grade. An unimaginably, stellar distance ahead of the rest of us schmoes who will never, ever know the joy of running out on to the pitch, let alone scoring a winning goal. There is no conceivable way their lives can be regarded as anything but success.

Would you seriously tell Alan Shearer, say, that his career was a failure for going to Newcastle that time, rather than Man United? Or Steven Gerrard for staying at Liverpool, instead of moving to Chelsea? Of course not. That would be infantile. The measure of a man is not just in the baubles he collects.

A chance for Balotelli to shine

The Champions League final hands Jose Mourinho the chance to cap a stunning season at Inter Mila with an amazing Treble. Bayern Munich stand in his way, but Ian Chadband in the Daily Telegraph suggests that a player who has baffled Mourinho, a certain Mario Balotelli, could be the man to take the spotlight and silence his detractors.

Inter Milan may not just be losing the best coach in the world after the Champions League final; they could also be bidding farewell to perhaps the most important footballer in Europe.

The kid who has divided the sport in Italy at the same time as looking eminently capable of changing the face of the game there.

Even Jose Mourinho, who has never quite yet been able to answer 'how do you solve a problem like Mario?’ would not put it past Mario Balotelli writing an outlandish denouement to his fantastically turbulent and dramatic season.

What a story, what a cause for celebration in the new, more ethnically diverse Italy if the 19-year-old striker, the nation’s first born-and-bred black footballing superstar, could deliver the perfect final riposte to the racists who have routinely assailed him from the stands in a country still struggling to come to grips with multiculturalism.

May 19, 2010

Slow it down, Cesc

Posted on 19/05/2010

With Cesc Fabregas reportedly nearing a move to Barcelona, speculation is mounting as to where he will fit into the Spanish champions' star-stutted team. With two of the planet's finest midfielders - Xavi and Andres Iniesta - currently in his favoured central midfield berth, Gabriele Marcotti opines in the Times that Fabregas may find it difficult to break into Barca's starting XI:

Even before Barcelona announced that Cesc Fàbregas, the Arsenal midfield player, wanted to move to the Nou Camp — an intention he discussed with Arsène Wenger yesterday — many assumed it was a given.

Continue reading "Slow it down, Cesc"

May 12, 2010

Capello showing familiar flaws

Posted on 12/05/2010

An eventful 24 hours for England manager Fabio Capello on Tuesday. In the morning, his 'Capello Index' - which would have given England players ratings two hours after each World Cup game - was lambasted in the media. Hours later, following an embarrassing climb down that will see the ratings system not come into place until after the World Cup, Capello named his 30-man preliminary World Cup squad. Paul Hayward, writing in the Guardian, sees unhappy parallels with some of Sven-Goran Eriksson's worst traits:

Two out of 10 would be a generous mark for Fabio Capello's index of player ratings, which he launched at the London Stock Exchange on Monday and then aborted less than 24 hours later as England's provisional 30-man World Cup squad was being typed up. John Terry, condemned for exploiting the office of England captain for personal gain, would have been among those scampering to a laptop to see how the manager's software had ranked them two hours after the final whistle.

Continue reading "Capello showing familiar flaws"

May 11, 2010

Beware the odd-job man

Posted on 11/05/2010

Fabio Capello names his 30-man England squad today, a party which will be whittled down to 23 by the tournament begins. One man set for a surprise inclusion is Liverpool defender Jamie Carragher, who retired from international football in 2007 under Steve McClaren's regime. Matt Dickinson, writing in the Times, is delighted that the Liverpool player has returned to the England fray - but he cautions against any observers describing him as anything other than a centre back:

So and so “can do a job”. The airwaves and columns are full of this dangerous phrase. James Milner can fill in at left back (even though no one has ever seen him try it). Ledley King could plug the holding role (he did it once against Argentina and came off dizzy from marking Juan Román Riquelme). Jamie Carragher’s return is great news because he is not only a centre half but a right back too.

It all sounds great in theory but there is a reason why a squad consists of 20 outfield players — two for every position — and another reason why every international manager should beware the surface temptations of the utility player.

Continue reading "Beware the odd-job man"

May 6, 2010

Mancini may pay for defeat

Posted on 06/05/2010

Manchester City's defeat on Wednesday night against Tottenham Hotspur, in what effectively amounted to a Champions League play-off, has prompted speculation over the future of their manager Roberto Mancini. Matt Hughes, writing in the Times, says that the Italian will most likely still be City boss at the start of next season - but that his long-term future remains unclear.

The match that Roberto Mancini described on Tuesday as an opportunity to make history could consign him to its dustbin. The Manchester City manager will face a nervous few days after failing to meet his employer’s minimum requirement of bringing Champions League football to the world’s richest club.

Continue reading "Mancini may pay for defeat"

May 2, 2010

Winner-takes-all in the Championship

Posted on 02/05/2010

A hugely significant day in the Championship on Sunday, with a winner-takes-all relegation scrap between Crystal Palace and Sheffield Wednesday taking place. Both sides have enjoyed spells in the Premier League since its inception in 1992, and yet one will sink into the third tier of English football today. David Conn, writing in the Observer, hints that the effects of relegation could be ruinous for cash-strapped Palace – but that Wednesday are well-placed to cope:

All 36,000 tickets are sold for today's final match of the season at Hillsborough between Sheffield Wednesday and Crystal Palace but this meeting of two fallen names promises no glory. In the purest, meanest of shoot-outs Palace will go down to League One if Wednesday win; if they draw or Palace win, Wednesday are relegated themselves. Relief or heartbreak are the only emotions on offer.

Continue reading "Winner-takes-all in the Championship"

May 1, 2010

Liverpool need to clear the decks

Posted on 01/05/2010

Rafael Benitez is reported to be on the brink of leaving Liverpool and Patrick Barclay, writing in the Times, feels the club’s star men Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres should head for pastures new as well.

"The party’s over. It’s time to call it a day.

No critic of a certain age writes off an era in the history of Liverpool Football Club without being haunted by the Frank Sinatra song.

ITV played it over scenes of Bob Paisley’s players disconsolately heading for the Anfield tunnel after a first-round knockout by Nottingham Forest in the European Cup of 1978-79. They had been champions in each of the previous two seasons and the feeling was that time, tide and Brian Clough were impatient.

Forest did indeed win the European Cup that season, and the season after, but Liverpool were to lift the trophy a third and fourth time — and take eight domestic titles in 12 years — before the tradition of plucking managers from boot room or dressing room was abandoned. Those years featured quite a bit of partying in which the name of the ITV commentator associated with the ill-fated sequence was toasted.

But the party to celebrate Rafael Benítez’s achievements ended years ago. It was fun and two of the finals — of the Champions League against AC Milan in Istanbul in 2005 and the FA Cup against West Ham United in Cardiff a year later — were classics. But revelry has given way to a cross between a wake and a revival meeting. And Liverpool are not going to be revived by Benítez.

A break from Anfield’s daily charade is the least he deserves. Football people understand that Liverpool are prisoners of their proud past as well as the chaotic present and Benítez will have no trouble finding his next post. Juventus are pressing him for a decision and even Real Madrid are interested.

If only Liverpool’s future were as simple. The club need new ownership. If that cannot be arranged — and at present it looks about as likely as the much-promised new stadium — they need greatly scaled-down expectations. When Benítez goes, he should be swiftly followed by Torres, Gerrard while he can still command a large fee, Javier Mascherano and the rest.

Then the new manager will have some money to work with. As David Moyes has shown with Everton, and Roy Hodgson most startlingly with Fulham, it need not be a king’s ransom. Neither, of course, has been quite so cursed as Benítez by those expectations. But Liverpool do have one thing: potential. It should sustain them through the long haul. But the party? Collect the empties."

April 30, 2010

Hodgson for Prime Minister

Posted on 30/04/2010

Fulham’s amazing season will have the chance to reach the climax it deserves after their comeback against Hamburg booked their place in the Europa League final. Fulham’s players have been on the go since July and the Times’ Patrick Barclay is convinced Roy Hodgson deserves to be named manager of the year.

For once, the fairytale by the Thames was not just about Fulham. Ricardo Moniz, who was once a coach with Martin Jol at Tottenham Hotspur, was making his managerial debut at the age of nearly 46 in the second leg of a European semi-final. But, fortunately for Roy Hodgson, that tale had an unhappy ending.

It is said that Ruud van Nistelrooy was handed £100,000 a week by Hamburg. Hodgson would be expected to sign four or five players for that. He seems fated never to have a lavish budget; even when he was with Inter Milan in the 1990s, the club, now in the Champions League final, were going through a phase in which it was sometimes a struggle to fill the substitutes’ bench.

He nevertheless took them from mid-table to third place in Italy and also to the final of the 1997 Uefa Cup, in which they lost on penalties to Schalke 04. Hodgson has never sought nor received a semblance of the adulation being showered on the messiah now in charge of Inter — but when was there ever a manager quite like José Mourinho?

The danger to Fulham this summer is that any English club with potential would be foolish to ignore Hodgson. One thing he does have in common with Mourinho is that he seems to be inhabiting the peak of his powers. To have saved Fulham from relegation, hoisted them into the club’s best league position and then into the Europa League, in which they have outlasted some of the continent’s most famous names, is glowing testimony to a working life intelligently dedicated to the game.

No wonder he is talked about as Barclays Premier League Manager of the Year. He would not have been flattered by the award last season, despite Sir Alex Ferguson’s completion of a hat-trick of titles, and for his squad to have coped with the extra demands imposed by a long run in Europe is arguably an even greater achievement than finishing ninth.

Time for redemption

The World Twenty20 gets underway on Friday and it is a chance for West Indies cricket to right the wrongs of the shambles that was the World Cup, writes Mike Selvey in the Guardian.

Three years ago the International Cricket Council ran a World Cup in the Caribbean so inept that it made the Atlanta Olympics seem like a roaring success by comparison. The region, so keen to take advantage of the profile offered by the event, instead was humiliated.

Overshadowed by the death of Bob Woolmer, it was – beyond a memorable opening spectacular in Trelawny – a fiasco, culminating in the farcical finish it deserved. In wanting to present the essence of Caribbean cricket the ICC missed the point memorably. New stadiums were built, designed to hold the thousands who never came because they had been priced out, alienated and subjected to ludicrously overstated security. The disincentives to gaining enjoyment might have come straight from a puritan handbook.

But over the next three weeks or so there is a chance of redemption. That the World Twenty20 comes so soon after the last edition, an outstanding success in England, is unfortunate, not least for the reigning champions Pakistan, but represents a recalibrating of the international calendar. However, the opportunity for the region to re-establish its cricketing credentials is huge, with a hit-and-dash schedule to match the cricket.

The format is snappy, with group matches mainly in Guyana and St Lucia, all double-headers, designed to pare back a dozen teams to make a Super Eight series in Barbados. Then come semi-finals in St Lucia and a final on 16 May at the magnificently redeveloped Kensington Oval. The women's tournament takes place on St Kitts, with semi-finals and final following those of the men.

The failure of India and Pakistan to make it through to the Super Eight stage of the last World Cup was a financial disaster for rights holders on the subcontinent. From that perspective the biggest game was supposed to have been in Bridgetown between the two great rivals: Bangladesh against Ireland did not have the same allure.

For the next World Cup and indeed this tournament ICC has gone out of its way to try to ensure such an anomaly cannot happen. But the shorter the game, the greater the chance of an upset. T20 is set up for surprise results and so, if Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Ireland and Afghanistan after their brilliant story are marked down as the fall guys, then the warm-up games – in which Zimbabwe have beaten Australia and Afghanistan thumped Ireland – have shown what a dangerous presumption that can be.

April 27, 2010

Is City's plight really an 'emergency'?

Posted on 27/04/2010

Manchester City’s bid for fourth place and a spot at Europe’s top table next season suffered a blow when Shay Given was ruled out for final couple of games on account of a dislocated shoulder. The cash-rich City have a classy understudy on their books in Joe Hart, but he is on loan at Birmingham. So the spotlight falls on Gunnar Nielsen: an international keeper – albeit with Faroe Islands. But he is seemingly deemed not good enough as City are seeking dispensation from the Premier League and FA to bring in a keeper on an emergency loan – something Tony Cascarino in the Times is not happy about.

The “emergency loan” rule should be for skint teams in Coca-Cola League Two with squads of 18 players who have been hit by an unprecedented injury or illness crisis, not to get the richest club in the world out of a hole caused by their failure to build a balanced squad.

It’s not bad luck that Manchester City find themselves short of an experienced goalkeeper after Shay Given’s injury. It’s bad planning. Why should the Barclays Premier League bail City out of a mess that is of their own making? After all the millions they have lavished on players’ wages, it’s daft that City didn’t spend a small sum on a veteran who could have served as a solid third choice and done some coaching.

In an era when squads are so large and rotation is the norm, City’s squad is so lopsided it’s crazy. Felipe Caicedo, Jô, Robinho, Benjani Mwaruwari: four capable forwards out on loan because City have another four, better, attackers at the club. They are well set to cope with a raft of absences up front, yet they can’t deal with injuries to two senior goalkeepers. Even if Stuart Taylor, the back-up, had been fit, he’s hardly a great option. Why take the risk with so much at stake?

And whose idea was it to let Joe Hart — who has been the most impressive English goalkeeper this season — go on loan to Birmingham City without any recall clause? If City had been smarter, they would be smugly sticking Hart into their line-up, knowing that the best second-choice goalkeeper in the league was at their disposal.

If I read that a club have signed a goalkeeper under an “emergency” rule, I expect to see that it is because there is no fit option on the books over the age of 16. But that isn’t the case at the City of Manchester Stadium. They do have a goalkeeper: Gunnar Nielsen, who came on for Given at the weekend against Arsenal and did OK. He is 23! He has even played international football, albeit only for the Faeroe Isles.

So it’s not as if City would be forced into playing Carlos Tévez in goal against Aston Villa on Saturday unless the Premier League granted their request. It’s not like they’d be handing Gareth Barry a pair of gloves in training this week and seeing if he is any good on crosses. It’s that City don’t fancy their third-choice goalkeeper much in the heat of a battle for fourth place, so they’d like to get in someone better. That is not a good enough reason.

The Premier League should tell City, “Tough. You have a fit goalkeeper. If you don’t want to play him, that’s your problem. You should have signed an alternative when the window was open.”

Lamps left in the shade

The PFA awards were dished out at the weekend and Wayne Rooney was rightly lauded for his efforts this term. But the Team of the Season did not include one Frank Lampard and it is something that left Sun columnist Ian Wright scratching his head in disbelief.

Frank Lampard has weighed in with a hefty goals tally for Chelsea. Yet again. Any top-class striker would be delighted with 25 goals yet Frank does this season after season.

He has scored 20 of those in the Premier League, which is two more than Jermain Defoe and Fernando Torres. People talk about Bobby Zamora going to the World Cup and he has scored just eight league goals.

Frank may not be playing at his best but his contribution in the goals department is still staggering. For this reason, combined with such consistency over the years, I found it absolutely staggering that he was not on the four-man shortlist for the PFA awards.
I'm amazed not more professionals voted for him.

But for Frank, it will be a special moment if he ends up with another winner's medal. Few will argue that in terms of consistency and quality, he takes some beating.

April 25, 2010

Crouch promises to take a penalty

Posted on 25/04/2010

As politicians tear off their right arms in order to avoid answering questions ahead of the election, it makes a refreshing change to hear a bit of honesty from the world of football. Not many people dislike big Peter Crouch, and that's because he'll give you an honest answer, as Gary Lineker reveals in the Mail...

GARY LINEKER: Your 20 goals in 37 games is a great record in international football. So are you frustrated you’re not an automatic choice for England?
PETER CROUCH: Yes, sometimes. All I can do is take the opportunities when I get them. Hopefully, I did well enough scoring twice in the last game against Egypt to play a big part in the next one, against Mexico, and in the World Cup.

GL: Do you get the impression Capello likes you, or is he a difficult man to read?
PC: He is difficult to read, to be honest. He rarely takes anyone to one side. Players will tell you, it doesn’t matter if you have a hundred caps or are in your first squad, you don’t know where you stand with him. Some players had their places cemented under previous managers. Now if you have a couple of bad games he isn’t afraid to drop you, whoever you are. It keeps everyone on their toes.

GL: Is he scary?
PC: He is one of those characters, if he walked into a room now, you’d know it. The United players say Sir Alex Ferguson has the same thing about him.

Continue reading "Crouch promises to take a penalty"

April 23, 2010

Beauty felled by the beast

Posted on 23/04/2010

Barcelona may be widely regarded as football's most aesthetically pleasing outfit, but that didn't stop Inter Milan defeating them 3-1 in the Champions League. Jose Mourinho, the Inter coach, masterminded his side's triumph by conceding possession of the ball and calling on his side to be clinical on the rare occasions that an opportunity manifested itself. It worked - meaning Inter's spoiling tactics overcame Barcelona's eye-catching pass-and-move style. Simon Barnes, writing in the Times, questions our preference for beautiful football over a more pragmatic, yet no less effective, style:

But beauty is an add-on. It is not essential to football, it is just very pleasing when you come across it. For a real purist, football is just a struggle between two teams; beauty is a complication. The people who love Barcelona’s style are not purists at all, they are actually seeking something extra. And that’s the way of it. In sport, we are all seeking something extra. We are none of us purists.

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April 18, 2010

Spurs the title deciders

Posted on 18/04/2010

In one of Tottenham's most memorable weeks; crashing out of the FA Cup to Portsmouth before beating London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, Oliver Brown in The Sunday Telegraph looks at Spurs' role in deciding the title race.

How do a team lose to Portsmouth as their prelude to beating Arsenal and Chelsea, all in the space of one madcap week? Harry Redknapp, manager of this most mercurial Tottenham side and unlikely kingmaker in the season’s title race, is not quite sure.

He confessed he would have gladly accepted five points from a run of games against three of the Premier League’s top four, and yet he has wound up taking six from two.

“The great thing about the game is days like this,” Redknapp said, as Tottenham fans streamed out of White Hart Lane scarcely believing that their team had managed to surpass Wednesday’s triumph in the north London derby with another logic-defying, potentially season-changing result. He still confronts a daunting visit next week to Manchester United, but he thinks they can make even more of an impact on the title race. “The championship is wide open,” he said.

It emphatically is, and the dramatic shifts of advantage at the top of the table are all coming courtesy of Tottenham’s inspired play. The dejection of the humbling by Portsmouth in last Sunday’s FA Cup semi-final is already distant in Redknapp’s memory. “There was disappointment, but to come back with two unbelievable performances was top class. I said we needed to raise our level against Chelsea and we did.”

Tottenham’s capacity to spring such shocks was no surprise, though, to a wise old owl of the English game. Redknapp has observed the team’s victories in seven of their last eight matches with quiet contentment and this display against a Chelsea side who have been scoring goals with abandon was his greatest vindication yet.

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April 17, 2010

Tevez should be a United legend by now

Posted on 17/04/2010

With all the furore surrounding Carlos Tevez right now, wouldn’t it just be typical if Dimitar Berbatov outshone the City man in Saturday’s Manchester derby? Telegraph writer Mark Ogden cannot see it though, and he wonders if the title would already be secured for another year in the Old Trafford trophy cabinet had Tevez stayed with the Red Devils...

It was in the rural town of Herning, the unremarkable capital of the Danish region of Midtjylland, that Manchester City began to plot their audacious attempt to hijack Manchester United’s year-long pursuit of Dimitar Berbatov.

Senior City officials, having watched Mark Hughes’s team squeeze past FC Midtjylland to win their Uefa Cup second qualifying round tie on penalties, had been informed that associates of the financially-crippled owner, Thaksin Shinawatra, had struck black gold by tempting ‘seriously wealthy people’ from the Middle East to accelerate their exit strategy from Eastlands.

It was August 28, 2008, and Hughes had been told that Berbatov, a player on the manager’s fantasy wish-list, was now within City’s reach should he wish to add him to his squad. Hughes, already frustrated by Shinawatra’s false promises, brushed aside his scepticism and went along with the plan, assured that, this time, it was for real.

Four days later, a financial earthquake hit Manchester as Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan emerged from the ether to complete an astonishing £210 million takeover of Eastlands and, from scraping together Shinawatra’s loose change to complete the £6.45 million deal for Pablo Zabaleta 24 hours earlier, Hughes now possessed football’s healthiest transfer fund.

Continue reading "Tevez should be a United legend by now"

April 7, 2010

Messi makes his mark

Posted on 07/04/2010

It would take something special to knock that man Tiger Woods off the back pages and Lionel Messi provided it. Arsene Wenger described him as a Playstation following his four-goal super-show for Barcelona and Matt Dickinson in the Times has suggested the Argentine proved himself one of the greats of the game.

"The Nou Camp hosted a football match last night, but this mighty stadium was simply a stage for one man to parade his genius. The Hall of Fame at Barcelona is full of great names such as Cruyff, Stoichkov, Rivaldo and Ronaldo but very few have been fêted like Lionel Messi, whose name rolled down the steepling terraces as he walked off, almost bashfully, bouncing the match ball like a little kid.

Cristiano Ronaldo could score five goals for Real Madrid against Barcelona on Saturday and yet still face a forlorn battle to usurp Messi as World Player of the Year.

The debate may now be taken into other realms, such as where Messi stands in the all-time pantheon. Still below his compatriot, Diego Maradona, who was not only the maestro in successful teams; at Napoli and for Argentina, Maradona was the team.

Of recent greats, he sits below Zinédine Zidane, too, in that Messi does not aspire to be the conductor of his side, simply the dazzling virtuoso.

He can, as Arsène Wenger pointed out, move in and out of games; it is just that his interventions this season have been so often and so spectacular that you begin to run out of superlatives."

Brand Tiger ready to return

Tiger Woods’ press conference on Monday is still a talking point and the moment when he made a plea to potential sponsors caught the attention of the Times’ Matthew Syed.

"It is the closest thing we have seen to a marketing pitch in a press conference. Asked about being dropped by so many of his sponsors, Tiger Woods seamlessly morphed from the vocabulary of the Penitent to that of the Salesman.

“I totally understand why they dropped me,” he said. “But going forward I hope I can prove to companies that I am a worthy investment. That I can help their company, help their company grow and represent them well.”

Not that we can blame Woods for reaching out to the giants of the corporate world. That, after all, is how the world’s top golfer amassed his unprecedented billion-dollar fortune. Where Muhammad Ali symbolised the unhinged political radicalism of the Sixties, Woods represents the sportsman as walking billboard: a gun for hire, at the right price.

“Go on, be a Tiger” was the Accenture slogan that greeted passengers at airports around the world, alongside a photo of Woods sizing up his next shot, his beautiful eyes blazing with competitive intensity. “The best a man can get,” was how Gillette sought to harness the Woods phenomenon. Gatorade asked: “It’s in Tiger; is it in you?” Meanwhile the doyens at Lasik Eye Surgery plumped for: “What could you and Tiger have in common?”

And Woods was (and hopes to be again) a potent, almost irresistible force in the contemporary marketplace. He ticked all the right boxes: a mixed-race kid who achieved excellence amid the racial conservatism of modern golf; a swashbuckling sportsman who never flunked a challenge or choked on a putt; a decent man with decent values who adored his late father and was devoted to his wife and kids. This was not merely the American Dream, it was a kaleidoscope of resonance and meaning.

I bought into it. I was one of the millions who added to the global viewing figures whenever Woods was in the hunt for a major championship. I was also one of the millions inclined to switch off whenever his challenge faded. I pulled for him without inhibition, revelled in his fist-pumping heroism and revered his ability to keep his nerve as others were losing theirs. And, yes, I even bought his razor blades, without ever stopping to think why."

April 2, 2010

Bobby banging on Capello's door

Posted on 02/04/2010

Bobby Zamora showed his class in front of the ESPN cameras with another goal for Fulham in their Europa League clash with Wolfsburg and he certainly caught the eye of the Times’ Patrick Barclay who claims the striker did his England cause no harm at Thursday evening.

The goal, Bobby Zamora’s seventh in 13 Europa League matches, was a classic and the way he set up one for Damien Duff was reminiscent (it is barely hyperbolic to say) of how Marco van Basten used to make the game look elegant simplicity. But there was so much more to admire.

Seconds from half-time came a perfect illustration of Zamora’s value to Fulham. A Wolfsburg attack had foundered and Simon Davies, in possession deep in Fulham’s half, might have been tempted to roll the ball to Mark Schwarzer. Instead he looked up and measured a long ball for the ever-alert Zamora, whose deft chest-pass sent Duff hurtling into the German penalty area.

No goal resulted on that occasion, but the switch from defence to attack was contemporary football of a quality that has caused speculation that Zamora, at 29, might be called to join England at the World Cup. A year ago, when his goalscoring rate was making Emile Heskey look prolific, the notion would have been laughable (though not entirely foolish), but this season Zamora has done everything that could be asked of a centre forward.

Don't move the cap

Rugby’s finances have been in the spotlight in recent days, with money extremely tight for most clubs. Despite, this there are calls for the salary cap be increased to help English clubs remain competitive. Shaun Edwards, writing in the Guardian, feels this would be a foolish move.

What a difference a day makes. Sunday at the Madejski, plenty of parking, music, entertainment and nearly 22,000 watching London Irish versus Sale in the Premiership in a smart all-seat stadium. Monday, the Exiles second XV versus Wasps at Sunbury, home to Irish before they moved closer to the M4. It's like a potted history of rugby in England since it went professional and a real warning of what there is to lose.

Just recently we've heard those siren voices asking that the salary cap be raised from the current £4m. Spooked by the fact that only one English club have made it through to the knockout stages of the Heineken Cup this season, they argue that French sides, currently without a limit on what they can pay, are gobbling up all those players who would otherwise be coming here. According to Leicester for one, things will only get worse if the ceiling is not raised, with France's Top 14 and even the Magners League proving ever more attractive.

Looked at in isolation they might seem to have a case. After all Jonny Wilkinson and now Carl Hayman have been lured to Toulon, Ricky Flutey is in Brive and James Haskell in Paris, but a few more voices have been heard this week and some interesting figures released which suggests we won't be taking to the life rafts just yet.

April 1, 2010

Theo's fast show

Posted on 01/04/2010

At 2-0 down to Barcelona in their Champions League tie, Arsenal appeared powerless to prevent a quarter-final exit from the tournament. That they managed to claw the tie back to 2-2, leaving all to play for in the second leg, was in no small part down to the influence of substitute Theo Walcott. The right-winger, criticised this season after a series of ineffectual showings, produced one of his final Arsenal performances - scoring the first goal and regularly tormenting the Barca defence. Martin Samuel, writing in the Daily Mail, thinks that Gunners boss Arsene Wenger missed a trick by not starting Walcott from the start:

So what would have happened had he started Theo Walcott? Oh, it may seem churlish to question the manager; two goals down against the best attacking team in Europe, ends up drawing 2-2.

And, after all, as the banner says: Arsene knows. Yet just as Barcelona will return to Spain wondering how the hell that happened, so the most demanding souls in the Arsenal camp will always have the nagging suspicion that they might – just might – have produced an even greater surprise had Walcott been on from the kick-off.

Continue reading "Theo's fast show"

March 28, 2010

How to stop Lionel Messi

Posted on 28/03/2010

Arsenal could not stop 36-year-old Kevin Phillips scoring on Saturday, so surely they have no chance of stopping Lionel Messi when they take on Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals this week. However, with Manuel Almunia flapping and Sol Campbell lumbering, Duncan White of the Telegraph urges Arsene Wenger to follow the Chelsea blueprint to shackling the world’s best player...

How do you stop Lionel Messi? It is the tactical equivalent of trying to understand string theory. Coaches in La Liga are flapping around in despair trying to find a way of containing the mop-headed genius who, with the ball at his feet, is as predictable as a quantum leap. Gael Clichy has probably got a better chance of repairing the Large Hadron Collider.

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March 27, 2010

Problems ahead for the big spenders?

Posted on 27/03/2010

While Portsmouth’s troubles have been well documented with their host of owners, the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City seem untouched by financial problems. But UEFA bigwigs have been growing increasingly concerned with the rising debts in the game and the Times’ Matt Dickinson claims the governing body is ready to make drastic changes.

English football’s super-rich owners, including Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, face drastic curbs on their influence under Uefa proposals.

The extent of the crackdown on “financial doping”, championed by Michel Platini, the Uefa president, is laid bare in a 60-page document seen by the Times. In it, Uefa sets out its detailed plans to force clubs towards break-even, allowing them to spend only what they earn.

Owners would be allowed to inject cash to cover losses for a transitional period, but the amounts will be restricted and closely monitored.

Over the initial three-year period of regulation up to and including 2015, owners would be allowed to cover losses totalling "45 million (about £40 million). The “acceptable deviation” from break-even would then fall to £30 million over three years and then less, with the amount to be determined.

In other words, an owner such as Sheikh Mansour would eventually be permitted to put less than ¤10 million a year into Manchester City on average, unless the money is spent on infrastructure or the youth team, which have no limits on investment. That compares with City’s most recent loss of £89.69 million.

While Platini has talked for months about introducing “financial fair play”, the working draft has brought those proposals into sharp focus.

The European Club Association continues to haggle with Uefa for concessions. It is arguing for a five-year accounting period, rather than three, and for owners to be allowed to invest extra funds through equity rather than debt.

Platini is determined to bring in regulations that will mark a watershed in the English game.

Tindall return all good

The dust has started to settle on the Six Nations and England will need to improve markedly if they are to make an impact in the autumn. Martin Johnson made a number of changes for the final game and Brian Ashton writes in the Independent that the return of Mike Tindall was a good move.

While the Six Nations Championship is done and dusted for another year, done to death in some quarters, one certain aspect of the last weekend is well worth noting.

I have long advocated the importance of individuals contributing to the strength and positivity of a squad and a dressing room, and I consider the return of Mike Tindall to England's midfield to be a classic example.

Tindall is both an outstanding player and an outstanding individual, whose positive attitude to life and those around him is inspirational. He has the character and personality to transform a team, and the ability to coax the best out of young players with talent and the ambition to play at the highest level. You can rest assured that Ben Foden and Chris Ashton were the better for Tindall's presence in the lashing rain and toweringly tense atmosphere of Stade de France on Saturday night.

No surprise to learn that it was Tindall who put an arm around young Ashton afterwards and calmed him down when the Northampton wing admitted he feared his first cap would be his last after failing to make the best of two try-scoring opportunities.

It was wretched ill fortune that Tindall missed the 2007 World Cup because of a broken leg but, as with so many top-class players, injuries impact on careers. So seeing him back in harness for England at a time when young bloods are surfacing and getting their opportunities, is a very positive element for the national game.

Tindall, who is often regarded as one-dimensional, has an ability to read the game in the wider channels and has shrewd awareness of space that makes him a tremendous asset to any team.

March 25, 2010

'Abysmal' Hammers lacking passion

Posted on 25/03/2010

West Ham's beleaguered manager Gianfranco Zola, who is under pressure following his side's 3-1 home loss to Wolves on Monday, would surely have been hoping for respite from criticism in today's newspapers. No such luck. Colin Hart - season ticket holder at Upton Park since 1958 - has blasted the Hammers, saying in the Sun that it seems as if most of the players do not care what fate befalls the club:

When I got home from Upton Park after the Hammers' abysmal performance against Wolves, I looked up the quickest route to Scunthorpe. Because if they continue to play in that gutless and guileless fashion in the remaining seven games, then it will be Scunthorpe here we come in the Championship next season.

Continue reading "'Abysmal' Hammers lacking passion"

March 16, 2010

England's cheerleader

Posted on 16/03/2010

David Beckham's hopes of playing the the World Cup this summer may be over, but he should still travel to South Africa with Fabio Capello's squad, writes Martin Samuel in The Daily Mail

If the greatest worth David Beckham had to England was as mentor, ambassador, old head, voice of experience and arm round the shoulder of the younger players, then put him on the plane as just that.

His influence as a footballer was negligible anyway. Beckham looked good for AC Milan at Old Trafford last week, charged by emotion and with the outcome long resolved, but when was the last time his presence significantly told on a competitive game for England?

His true attribute was what he came to represent, as a figure of significance in the English game and to English players. He can no longer lead by example on the field but his most useful role for England had evolved beyond the diameters of the pitch.

Just as a home crowd is often considered the 12th man, so Beckham can be England's 24th. He can divide his time between trying to win the 2018 World Cup in his Football Association blazer and trying to win the 2010 edition by being introduced to the camp as a talismanic figure at times Capello considers appropriate.

There will be those who are horrified by the thought of what is disparagingly called the Beckham circus rolling into town during the World Cup, but Capello will avoid any hoopla. He has already exiled the WAGs, and, if Beckham is there, it will be because of what Capello knows of his substance, not his style. He will not be inviting the peacock but the professional.

Beckham is very capable of dazzling on behalf of 2018, but for 2010 they just want the footballer; even on one leg.

Continue reading "England's cheerleader"

March 15, 2010

The end of the road for Beckham?

Posted on 15/03/2010

The World Cup dream is over for David Beckham and the man who loves to dominate back-page pictures for the right reasons, is doing just that for the wrong reasons. A ruptured Achilles tendon has ended the hopes of a fourth World Cup finals gig and Henry Winter in the Daily Telegraph compares the injury to the one suffered by another famous England winger, John Barnes.

David Beckham has fallen victim to the silent assassin of footballers, the snapped Achilles, the injury that occurs even when no opponent is close by, the incapacitation that brings curtains down on careers.

Even for those who felt his usefulness to the England national team had long gone, this is a desperately sad development.

Medicine has advanced, of course, and Beckham is a tough character, but for anyone with any knowledge of England’s history, the news that Beckham flies out to Finland on Monday for an operation is particularly poignant. Helsinki was the setting for England’s past grim experience with such Achilles injuries.

The story of John Barnes’ invaliding on the eve of Euro 92 provides the darkest of prognosis for Beckham. Barnes was playing in a friendly in Helsinki on June 3 1992 when he collapsed screaming. Such was the excruciating pain in his lower leg, the England winger looked angrily around to see who had fouled him, even shouting abuse at Finland’s innocent centre-half, Erik Holmgren.

The following morning, possibly in the same hospital awaiting the arrival of Beckham, Barnes underwent an operation; on coming round from the strong anaesthetic, he enquired of the surgeon how long he would be out for. "Seven months,’’ came the reply. He made it in five months, but was never the same again.

The early word from Milan’s medical people is five-six months’ minimum. The reality is that Achilles damage particularly afflicts the older player, those whose elasticity has gone in their legs. At 34, Beckham was always vulnerable.

For all the talk of Milan’s magical Lab, for all the hope of Beckham being a force in the World Cup, football remains a young man’s game, particularly heading into a tournament like this summer’s spectacle in South Africa which will be about pace, pace and more pace. The little acceleration Beckham enjoyed early in his career had already ebbed and has now been destroyed.

Yet there must be sympathy. For all the celebrity circus around Beckham, he remains a remarkably humble individual obsessed with football and he will be devastated to miss the World Cup. Beckham can still deliver for England in a World Cup but only as an ambassador, in winning the rights to host the 2018 tournament.

Reds on a knife edge
Liverpool are a club in a state of flux, having failed to mount a title challenge this term, and Alan Hansen tells the Daily Telegraph that the club have to spend big on and off the field if they are to avoid slipping back into the pack.

Whatever the outcome of the proposed investment in Liverpool, somebody has to come in and save them because it is clearly crunch time in terms of the club's history.

The mere fact that Fernando Torres chose to speak about the need for "four or five top-class" players to be signed by the club will be a worry for Liverpool supporters because, in a perfect world, he would have said nothing and simply got on with the job.

But it isn't just about signing new players. The most important thing for the club is the building of a new stadium with a greater capacity to generate greater revenue. Without this, it becomes so much more difficult for Liverpool to compete with all of their rivals.

On the pitch, things are not looking great because it looks as though they are going to miss out on Champions League qualification.

To qualify, they are going to have to win 95 per cent of their remaining games this season and they don't look capable of doing that.

If they fail, that's when the problems could really start. I don't know about the intentions of Torres or Steven Gerrard, but if you are in the top 100 players in the world, you want to play in the Champions League because it is the only place to be.

If Liverpool are not in the Champions League, will they accept missing out as a one-off or fear it happening season after season? Should either of them decide to leave, it would leave an enormous hole that would be impossible to fill.

Tiger in the spotlight
The talk of Tiger Woods making an imminent return to golf is gathering pace and Kevin Garside in the Daily Telegraph is far from convinced by the content of his recent address to the media.

Still think Tiger Woods was genuine? All that schmaltz, the remorse, the appeal for clemency, the hope that some day we could find it in our hearts to forgive him. Poor old Tiger. He did not know whether he was coming or going.

A return to golf? It could be this year but no guarantee. Oh dear heart, come to momma. Momma will look after you.

How long after that tearful embrace with Tilda did the call go out to spiritual healer Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary turned image retriever, a Max Clifford plus intellect?

From having no idea when he would hit a ball again, a vision has formed in the gloom revealing the Tavistock Cup at Isleworth next Monday as a possible return event. If not there then perhaps later in the week at Bay Hill.

That is not something he could have known when he slipped quietly through that blue curtain at the PGA headquarters in Florida to return to rehab, is it?

Surely his comeback is not timed to coincide with the calendar's most celebrated tournament, the US Masters at Augusta next month. Tiger couldn't be that cynical, could he?

The Woods address was supposed to be a sincere claim on our sympathies. He was in trouble, he said, but was working through his problems. Stick with him, please. If that were the case, if he were on the point of emotional breakdown, there could be no thoughts of hitting golf balls in his back garden, never mind Augusta.

March 13, 2010

Millstone not a milestone for Liverpool

Posted on 13/03/2010

Almost a year ago to the day, Liverpool were giving Manchester United a mighty beating – leading the world and his wife to suggest the Merseysiders were ready to end their long title drought. Oh how things can change and Patrick Barclay in the Times points this out all too well.

Whatever you say to any pals who support Liverpool this weekend, there is one phrase to avoid. “Happy anniversary” would not be appropriate, for tomorrow it will seem a lot longer than a year since Rafael Benítez’s team went to Old Trafford and, having given Manchester United a goal start, won 4-1.

Was it really only 364 days ago? Everything was so different. The refereeing, for instance: if Nemanja Vidic committed a “professional” foul, he was sent off. Other sepia-tinted memories are of Steven Gerrard performing with a swagger, Fábio Aurélio bending it like Beckham and Andrea Dossena lording it with a late lob. Nor (though United were less emphatically outplayed than the score might suggest) was this a freak result. Liverpool beat Aston Villa 5-0 next and the only points they dropped in the rest of the Barclays Premier League season were to Arsenal in a 4-4 draw majestically dominated by Andrey Arshavin.

Had they promptly sold Gerrard, Fernando Torres, Pepe Reina and Javier Mascherano without buying replacements and supplanted Benítez with Lily Savage, who appointed Harry Enfield’s Scousers as his assistants, put David Ngog in goal and announced that the new central midfield partnership would consist of Tom Hicks and George Gillett Jr, the decline in their fortunes could hardly have been more radical.

French flair is the business
The Six Nations is heading dow to the business end and Brian Ashton in the Independent is convinced France have what it takes to claim glory in Europe and quite possibly in the World Cup as well.

Last month, just before the first round of matches, I expressed a particular interest in the various centre partnerships, because it seemed that if there were to be any signs of an expanding mindset in the European game, these were the people most likely to be responsible. Who would have the wit, the confidence and the courage to ask different questions of defences by shifting the first point of attack to the No 13 channel?

We've seen flashes of inspiration from a number of midfield players. Gordon D'Arcy and Brian O'Driscoll of Ireland have had their moments, albeit individually rather than in partnership. Gonzalo Canale, the Italian centre, made the decisive play in his team's victory over Scotland, while James Hook of Wales has demonstrated genuine footballing ability, frequently when his team have found themselves miles behind and in dire need of a spark.

But the most potent partnership has been forged by Yannick Jauzion and Mathieu Bastareaud, the French combination, and their success has largely been down to the performance of Morgan Parra, the young scrum-half from Clermont Auvergne whose contribution has been among the most striking features of the championship. He, of all the half-backs on view, has shown the best understanding of what to do when – whether to kick, to run, to feed his forwards on the drive with a short pass or release his backs.

It boils down to this: Jauzion and Bastareaud have found themselves in the happy position of receiving the ball precisely when they want it, at moments when their potential to cause real damage is at the optimum. Time and again, they have broken the first line of defence as a result of Parra's intelligence at No 9. For a 21-year-old, he has quite a head on his shoulders: it's a while since I've seen a relative newcomer at international level blessed with such awareness. He kicks goals, too, from all over the field. When you think the French also have Dimitri Yachvili, Jean-Baptiste Elissalde and Julien Dupuy in contention for World Cup places, it is difficult to imagine any side travelling to New Zealand next year with a stronger group of scrum-halves.

March 6, 2010

Turf war rumbles on

Posted on 06/03/2010

The Wembley pitch comes in for criticism this morning as the turf war that has been raging all week shows no sign of letting up. In the aftermath of the Carling Cup final, Aston Villa midfielder James Milner declared that the national stadium had the worst playing surface he had encountered all season. Following those remarks, victorious manager Sir Alex Ferguson blamed Michael Owen's hamstring injury - which will sideline him for the rest of the season - on the pitch. Now Terry Venables, a man who has graced the dugout at Wembley on numerous occasions, has lambasted the state of the grass in his Sun column.

IT IS supposed to be the Hallowed Turf - but in reality, Wembley's pitch wouldn't disgrace a rubbish tip.

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March 4, 2010

Light at the end of the tunnel for JT

Posted on 04/03/2010

Whether England were poor in the first half or Egypt were very good is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt the Three Lions were much improved in the second half at Wembley. John Terry was in the spotlight for much of the match, but came through with his stock on the rise and he earned praise from Matt Dickinson in the Times for shoring up a shaky defence.

So how long did the booing of John Terry last at Wembley last night? About as long as it took for the crowd to realise that he was the best English defender on the pitch.

Say what you like about Terry’s morals but, 23 minutes into the game with England trailing to Egypt, did anyone care who he sleeps with?

Most of us were more concerned about whether Wes Brown and Leighton Baines really were the best full backs available to Fabio Capello. And what Matthew Upson was doing gifting a goal to Egypt by falling on his backside.

Terry’s personal escapades had put him in the line of fire, and his form had creaked under the pressure (more than his marriage has, by all accounts). But at Wembley last night, even with one very uncertain moment when he was put into retreat, he was the sole defender who offered any sort of assurance. It is why most England fans have happily come to the same pragmatic accommodation as Capello — they may not want “JT” as the leader of their team but they are in no position to do without his tackles.

If this was as bad as the stick is going to get, he has got away lightly compared with David Beckham, Owen Hargreaves, Ashley Cole, the Nevilles and a long list of victims subjected to abuse from their own supporters. For every fan who jeered Terry’s name, there were others trying to drown them out.

Walcott worry for Capello
While much of the focus was on JT, there was an intriguing tale unfolding on the right wing. Theo Walcott got the nod from the start and began brightly, setting up Frank Lampard with a dazzling run, but he faded to be replaced by Shaun Wright-Phillips. Little SWP did himself no harm by capping a bright display with a goal and Alan Smith in the Daily Telegraph feels Capello may now have more to ponder.

Rarely can a player have been in such poor club form and still won a starting place for England. Theo Walcott must know that, as must Fabio Capello. Mind you, the England coach didn’t have too many choices on Wednesday night.

Aaron Lennon, surely the Italian’s first choice on the right wing, has been ordered to rest his groin for a further six weeks, while David Beckham possesses neither the legs nor the game to fit Capello’s requirements – ie a genuine wide man blessed with genuine pace to counter balance the narrower style of Steven Gerrard on the left. Which leaves Capello with Walcott – an enigma of a player who promised so much with that hat-trick in Croatia but who has almost gone backwards in the 18 months since.

Not only that, during the four years he has been exposed to the Premier League at Arsenal, Walcott doesn’t appear to have learned very much.

At worst, he resembles an eager schoolboy with little understanding of the game. At best, he looks like a thrilling prospect who just needs to lose one or two rough edges.

Wright-Phillips replaced Walcott straight after the goal and went on to impress by scoring one and making one to maybe put him ahead in Capello’s World Cup thoughts. If so, Walcott’s fall from grace has been truly spectacular.

Tough times for KP
Life is tough for Kevin Pietersen at the moment. He can’t seem to buy a run and a second failure in the ODI series with Bangladesh has only increased the pressure. The fear for Simon Wilde in the Times is that Pietersen does not have the capacity to grind his way back into form.

The chances of England being severely embarrassed in the Tests in Bangladesh cannot be ruled out as an air of vulnerability continues to hang over their batting. The top four in the order could well comprise a man captaining his country for the first time at the age of 25 (Alastair Cook); someone making his debut (Michael Carberry); and two players chronically out of form (Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen).

If Paul Collingwood ends up walking out at 25 for three, do not be surprised. As ever, Pietersen’s situation is the most intriguing. It doesn’t seem to matter whether this fame-junkie is doing brilliant things, or looking sorry for himself as he is now, the viewing remains compulsive.

There appears to be a general belief that Pietersen never doubts himself, or has no interest in whether others admire him or not, but The Edge has always been of the view that he is someone in constant need of reassurance and support. When he was churning out hundreds in the good old days (he hasn’t scored one for almost a year), his confidence fed off the regular doses of adulation that came his way.

It takes a certain type of mentality to grind out big scores against the less glamorous teams. Sachin Tendulkar (820 runs against Bangladesh, average 136.7) has it. So does Graeme Smith (743 runs, average 82.6). So too did Marcus Trescothick (551 runs, average 110.2).

But Virender Sehwag does not. This most mercurial of batting geniuses has yet to pass 60 in five innings. Like Sehwag, Pietersen needs his creative juices to flow. And the signs are not good: in his only meetings against Bangladesh in official internationals to date, Pietersen has scored 23, 10, 1 and 18. And in all matches in Bangladesh on this tour, he has managed just 25 runs, average 6.3.

March 3, 2010

Rio is England's perfect leader

Posted on 03/03/2010

In an age when footballers have it all in their celebrity lifestyles, the “iPhone”, the “iPod”, the “iTouch”, the “I can’t get out of bed without help from somebody”, it is a serious buck to the trend when one comes across England captain Rio Ferdinand, as Stephen Moss did for the Guardian. The Manchester United defender hates WAGs, refuses to predict success for England at the World Cup, and is so shut off from the world that he did not even know Wayne Bridge had quit the national side until somebody told him. And as for a certain armband embroidered with three lions, he will not accept his status as England skipper until the words leave Fabio Capello’s mouth.

"I haven't spoken to the manager yet," Rio says, matter-of-factly. "The team hasn't been briefed on anything. We haven't spoken to the manager; he hasn't spoken to the players; he does it a certain way."

I express surprise: surely when Ferdinand was made captain in early February, Capello told him personally? "No, we have to wait until we go with the squad. I found out I was captain from the TV."

What's the Italian like as a manager? "Brilliant," says Ferdinand. "He's similar to the gaffer we've got at United. The best thing about him is he's black and white. You know exactly what he wants from you before you go out on the pitch, and that's what we've lacked in the last few campaigns. He says, 'This is what I want, this is what I expect, this is what I demand' – and if you can't do it, regardless of who you are, you won't play."

You've lost one of your key defenders today, I say, alluding to Bridge. "Have we?" says Ferdinand. "Yes, Wayne Bridge," I say, "he's not going to play in the World Cup." "Why's that?" "Because of the situation," I say tactfully. The news broke six hours ago, and it seems scarcely credible that Ferdinand doesn't know, but his look of surprise and the way he is blowing out his cheeks suggests that is, indeed, the case.

"I don't want to comment on anything like that," he says, when he has recovered his balance. "I want to speak to him myself before I'll believe it. He hasn't said anything to me."

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February 27, 2010

Gallows humour from odd O'Neill

Posted on 27/02/2010

Sir Alex Ferguson has had the measure of just about every manager he has come across during his glittering reign at Manchester United, from the Kevin Keegan “I’d love it” debacle to the Rafael Benitez “these are facts” rant. But if Ferguson can work out what’s going through the mind of his Carling Cup final foe, Martin O’Neill, on Sunday, he’s a better man than you or me – as Michael Walker reveals in the Daily Mail...

August 22, 2002: Neil Lennon is 24 hours on from the loyalist death-threat telephone call that terminated his Northern Ireland career and is back in Glasgow at his club, Celtic.

Awaiting him there is his manager Martin O’Neill who, like Lennon, is a Northern Irish Catholic and who, like Lennon, captained his country. O’Neill did so in the turbulent days of the early 1980s. So there would be understanding, sympathy, or so Lennon thought.

As he tells it, though, on returning to Celtic, O’Neill met Lennon with the words: ‘Ah, Neil, so you got my phone call, then?’

Reminded of this on Thursday, O’Neill laughed out loud. Of course there had been sympathy for Lennon, but as O’Neill said: ‘That’d be like something I’d come out with.’ Black, gallows humour to some; green, Irish humour to O’Neill.

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February 26, 2010

The boil should have been lanced

Posted on 26/02/2010

Wayne Bridge’s announcement that he is no longer available for England selection sent the scribes into overdrive and the decision has polarised opinion. Sympathy for Bridge’s plight is overwhelming, although Terry Venables in the Sun would have preferred him to front up to John Terry and put the team first, but Oliver Holt in the Mirror points the finger firmly at coach Fabio Capello. Holt feels Capello made a grave error by stripping Terry of the captaincy but leaving him in the squad. ‘This agitated the boil rather than lanced it’ and was clearly not enough to appease a heartbroken Bridge.

It is not often that Fabio Capello has appeared foolish during his reign as England manager but he is looking pretty dumb today.

Not just because a couple of days ago he was adamant Wayne Bridge would join up with England on Sunday.

But also because he has made such an appalling mess of his handling of the whole sorry affair of the disintegration of the friendship between Bridge and John Terry.

It was evident to anyone who knew anything about the situation that sacking Terry as England captain three weeks ago would not fix anything.

Terry being captain was never the problem for Bridge. Terry being in the squad was the problem for Bridge.

Terry just being there, being in the same room, was the problem and Capello was not prepared to banish the Chelsea skipper from the squad altogether.

So he made a gesture. An empty gesture aimed at appeasing the media and the public. And now he is reaping the rewards of what he did.

Not only has Capello lost Bridge, who may have been his best left back in South Africa if Ashley Cole doesn’t recover from injury, but he has destabilised Terry as well.

He has conjured up the worst of both worlds and when Bridge quit England yesterday it was a worrying sign that Capello has badly misjudged the mood of his squad.

By linking the players’ private lives with their professional lives, he has also effectively put a price on each of their heads. Nice work, boss.

Bridge knew all that. He is not stupid. He knew that Capello had not lanced the boil by sacking Terry. He had merely irritated it.

Winter of content
The Winter Olympics are drawing to a close and despite some negative coverage in the media, Matthew Pinsent tells the Times that Vancounver has been an example for London to follow.

The challenge of hosting and winning lots of medals is something to which we have to pay close attention, with London next to light the Olympic flame. Most of the Canadians have performed to or above expectation, but some of the most high-profile and hyped athletes have slipped back. Our own gold medal-winner, Amy Williams, triumphed in the skeleton at the expense of Mellisa Hollingsworth, of Canada. The latter had every right to be considered a contender, but in the end she was a weeping wreck, apologising to viewers on television.

As ever, the reporting of the Games has been sharp and occasionally biting. The world’s press have descended on West Hastings Street, where Vancouver’s drug issues are arguably at their worst. It is testament to the hosts’ openness that they simply chose not to hide the issue. We have to expect the same rigorous investigation before the Olympics in London.

What sets Vancouver apart for me is how carefully they examine criticism. I was very politely refused an interview by Donald Sutherland, the actor, with the advice to “please tell the Guardian newspaper that this is not the worst Games ever”.

Newspapers here have a daily game of “quote what the rest of the world is saying”. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had to explain the difference between BBC Sport and the British papers. Canadians have touchingly thin skins — or perhaps we have evolved into rhinos when it comes to press coverage.

The sporting seal for Canada has still to be decided - the men’s ice hockey final takes place a few hours before the closing ceremony. We are constantly reminded that “hockey is Canada’s game” and that the men’s players have had, more than all other home athletes, to perform under fan and media pressure.

If they can display their best form in the final, then perhaps Canadians will at last believe that their Winter Olympics are what I’ve felt they have been all along - wonderful.

February 24, 2010

Double standards at Chelsea

Posted on 24/02/2010

Chelsea dominate the headlines in this morning's papers for two reasons: their Champions League clash with Inter Milan, managed by former Blues boss Jose Mourinho, and their £400,000 fine of Ashley Cole for conducting himself in a manner viewed as damaging to the club's reputation while on Chelsea duty. On the latter point, Matthew Syed in the Times accuses the Stamford Bridge club of double standards in their treatment of Cole and John Terry.

Ashley Cole, if you ask me, is rather vain and self-obsessed, even compared with his fellow footballers. He is also, according to reports over recent days, a serial adulterer, an allegation that has caused Cheryl Tweedy to announce their separation. But why on Earth any of this entitles Chelsea to clobber the defender with a fine of £400,000 is beyond those of us who thought that a man’s sexual behaviour was a matter for him and his family rather than his employer.

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February 23, 2010

Go forth and sow though royal oats

Posted on 23/02/2010

Ashley Cole and John Terry are two Chelsea players working to save their marriages following allegations of affairs. There are any number of reasons why someone would stray and Ian Wright in the Sun has come up with a cracker: It’s the clubs’ fault for encouraging players to settle down too early. I remember Eddie Murphy in Coming To America being encouraged to ‘sow his royal oats’ before settling down and it seems Wrighty is a big believer in that philosophy.

Football clubs have always encouraged their players to settle down. Most managers like them to marry and have kids in their early 20s, as it has generally been accepted that a happy home life makes a player more focused at work.

Yet I am now giving the opposite advice to mates of mine who are professional footballers and single.

What is happening to both Ashley Cole and John Terry proves the modern-day footballer should settle down only when he is totally ready for commitment.

Obviously, there are exceptions. It is widely accepted that Wayne Rooney has become a better player since he settled down at a relatively young age.

In general, people now marry and have kids far later than they used to. In football, though, nothing much has changed. A lot of lads are still getting hitched early. I don't see why the rush to walk down the aisle, even if the club manager says he would rather see his team all playing happy families.

I have also told my mates not to make the mistakes I made, which I regret to this day. It is better to go out and date plenty of women, providing they, of course, are also single.

We can’t get away from Ashley Cole and Kevin Garside in the Daily Telegraph points out that people’s desire for lurid headlines will ensure non-sporting antics will feature more prominently than what goes on in the sporting arena.

It is a measure of these enlightened times that, among the myriad selections on which one may place a bet in football, the list includes divorce. The bookies have closed the account on Ashley Cole. Reports from the Cheryl corner in Los Angeles seem conclusive. They say: “It’s over.

The willingness of William Hill to quote on the disintegration of a marriage says as much about us as it does the happy couple. We roll the dice on private grief. You can hedge your bets by following the text traffic between the warring parties. Who has lost their moral compass, Cole for his extramarital indulgence, or the public for gorging on the detail?

The following question was posed by a Mr Colin Smith on a newspaper website. “A very boring man who plays a very boring game gets very rich and has sex with lots of beautiful women. His wife doesn’t like it. Where’s the story; and why is it top of the news, even before the real crises in the world?”

Smith’s post hit the bull’s-eye. It reduced our prurient interest in the life of one famous figure to the tawdry fundamentals with which we appear besotted. It related to Tiger Woods, but its application is universal. For Woods, copy and paste football’s ritual sinners Cole and John Terry. They are all at it.

This stuff consumes us. We have become a nation of voyeurs, training the long lens at the curtains of the rich and famous in the hope of glimpsing a quick grope. When we catch them out we throw the moral book at them with the force of a medieval legate on the lookout for heretics in the attic.

February 22, 2010

Shock: Building site resembles a building site

Posted on 22/02/2010

Fabio Capello will fly out to South Africa this week to cast his eye over England’s base for the World Cup finals. The papers are revelling in the fact that the base resembles a building site. Building sites do tend to resemble building sites when they are being built, still it makes good copy for Oliver Kay in the Times.

The disconcerting sight of diggers, breeze blocks and bone-dry pitches awaits Fabio Capello when he arrives for an inspection of England’s planned World Cup base today, only 108 days before the tournament in South Africa begins.

Capello, having flown overnight to Johannesburg, is due to travel with FA officials to the Royal Bafokeng Sports Campus near Rustenburg this afternoon to approve formally the site as England’s base for the tournament. But the £20 million hotel and training complex — which, while five-star, is markedly less ostentatious than the venue selected in Baden-Baden by Sven-Göran Eriksson for the 2006 World Cup in Germany — remains a long way from completion.

The FA, having sent a party to Rustenburg in advance of Capello’s arrival, played down concerns last night about the progress made. Officials maintain that the England manager has been kept informed about every stage of the operation and is aware of what to expect. His priority today will be to assess the condition of the pitches; Capello said, after his last inspection in December, that they were poor enough to force him to consider alternative venues.

The expectation is that Capello will give Royal Bafokeng the thumbs-up, but the first impressions of British journalists who were shown around the complex yesterday — billed as “a world-class high-altitude sports training destination” — were that the Royal Marang Hotel still looks a building site. With the pitches scorched by the late-summer sun and the on-site medical centre not built, there is a lot of work to do on a project that was originally scheduled to be finished by November. It is now due for completion next month.

Golf will go on without Woods
The Times’ chief football commentator Patrick Barclay has dipped his toe into the world of golf. Tiger Woods is such a huge draw that he can make an appearance in Barclay’s column. The scare stories of golfing Armageddon because of Woods’ absence have been doing the rounds for a while, but they reared their head again following his recent appearance to confirm he is not thinking of returning to golf, yet. Barclay, though, makes the sensible point that the sport survived long before Woods and will be around long after he packs up his clubs.

At the end of last week there was such a fuss about the ill-timed and, for all I know, illintentioned coincidence of Woods’s statement of contrition with a tournament in Tucson, Arizona, that even yours truly bewildered was dragged into a studio to mumble inexpert analysis. It was not until Friday evening that someone on Radio 4 tired of the mantra that “golf needs Tiger” and was struck by the bright idea of turning to Peter Alliss, who quietly reminded us that the game, wonderfully though Woods could play it, ought to be able to get along without him.

Not that the fraternity were in any mood to listen. I read yesterday that “the Masters without Tiger will be like Manchester United without Fergie” and that put it in a nutshell. United without “Fergie” had, in 1958, the best team in their history. A decade later they became the first English club to win the European Cup. Yet Sir Matt Busby proved replaceable, as Sir Alex Ferguson will.

Similarly, there was golf when Snead and Hogan played, and Nicklaus and Palmer. And while Woods is someone after whom the game will never be quite the same again, so was Severiano Ballesteros. Yet Woods’s drama is being treated like a death in the sense that people are exaggerating his impact (as with Michael Jackson) on not only his particular sphere but the world.

Cole in another hole
It’s not been a good week for Ashley Cole, what with the texting shenanigans and reports that Cherly is ready to file for divorce. Football is probably not top of his agenda at the moment, but the Mail are claiming that he will be hauled before the Chelsea board this week and it will be spelt out that the club will not tolerate being dragged through the gutter.

Ashley Cole will have to fight for his Chelsea future in a courtroom-style hearing with the Stamford Bridge board.

Just days after Chelsea’s players were informed by the club hierarchy that Roman Abramovich will no longer tolerate behaviour that harms the image of the club, Cole was at the centre of a fresh controversy yesterday over an alleged extramarital affair on a pre-season tour.

It was claimed he lied to a senior club official who was then implicated in a damaging cover-up designed to stop details appearing in newspapers.

February 18, 2010

Wenger's not so Fab at picking 'keepers

Posted on 18/02/2010

Where else can we start Thursday’s paper round than with Arsenal's blundering goalkeeper, Mr Lukasz Fabianski? Two awful errors in Portugal - aided by Sol Campbell - but while inexperience cannot be blamed for the defender’s contribution, age can certainly can pinpointed in the case of Fabianski writes Rob Kelly in the Telegraph.

Another week, another woeful Arsenal goalkeeping error. How much longer can Arsene Wenger ignore the gaping hole in his defence? How much longer are fans going to have to put up with Lukasz Fabianski palming the ball into his own net, or Manuel Almunia flapping at crosses? And how much longer can Arsenal really expect to stay competitive without adequate investment in this most vital of positions?

Fabianski’s personal hell in Porto was nothing new, although the full extent of his wretched performance was surprising in its paucity. Supporters who had witnessed the Pole’s display in the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea last season, or his dreadful showing at Stoke in the same competition this year, may have expected the worse. But not many will have anticipated what unfolded at the Estadio do Dragao.

In the pre-match build-up Wenger had attempted to boost the confidence of his young goalkeeper by insisting Fabianski had the potential to become “world-class”. At that stage Wenger’s words seemed baseless, but in the wake of yet another woeful showing that leaves Arsenal in real danger of European elimination, they seem ridiculous. Fabianski’s shotstopping may be impressive, but if his temperament is as suspect as it appears, he can never be considered world class.

His performance in Porto could spell the end of his Arsenal career. At some point there must be a tipping point for any player, and if Fabianski cannot handle playing in big matches then he should not be playing for a club that are aiming to compete for the biggest prizes. Yet the alternative to Fabianski - a confidence-shattered Almunia – is hardly appealing either. Like Gael Clichy and Theo Walcott, Almunia appears to be in retrograde and Wenger must make some ruthless decisions this summer.

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February 16, 2010

Wilko and Becks under fire

Posted on 16/02/2010

Two of English sport's most iconic figures, David Beckham and Jonny Wilkinson, are accused in the media today of being past their best. Wilkinson, says Robert Kitson in the Guardian, is hindering England's rugby team due to his failure to take responsiblity for playmaking duties:

Yet anyone who witnessed the Scots playing with massive precision, pride and passion, albeit without ultimate reward, could not fail to wonder why England seem incapable of doing likewise on a consistent basis. Dan Parks, the much-maligned Glasgow fly-half, had the game of his life while the so-called Killer Bs – Brown, Beattie and Barclay – were similarly outstanding. The difference was that Scotland were brimful of intent and purpose while England again spent a large chunk of their 80 minutes painting by numbers.

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February 12, 2010

Blatter's Latin blather

Posted on 12/02/2010

Sepp Blatter waded into the John Terry debate yesterday, claiming that in a Latin country the England captain "would have been applauded" for his alleged infidelity. Gabriele Marcotti in The Times was less than impressed.

One of the most common grievances aired at politicians is that they are out of touch.

As president of Fifa, Sepp Blatter is the game’s most powerful politician and on Wednesday he showed that, like his colleagues in parliaments throughout the world, he too can appear disconnected from reality.

Especially when there are no Fifa media officers around to rein him in. (Blatter was speaking at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in his capacity as a member of the International Olympic Committee.) When asked about the recent controversy engulfing John Terry, Blatter’s response was as glib and offensive as it was baseless.

Why? Because at the heart of the Terry controversy was not his alleged infidelity, it was that it took place behind the back of an England team-mate and close friend. Had it been just a case of infidelity, public opinion would probably have let things slide: just ask the previous two England managers. This was different. This was seen as some kind of betrayal of trust that could have a negative effect on the performance of the team, and that’s how the debate was framed in England. Evidently, Blatter is oblivious to all that.

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February 11, 2010

The men (and women) in black

Posted on 11/02/2010

When Amy Fearn replaced injured referee Tony Bates for the last 20 minutes of Coventry's 1-0 victory over Nottingham Forest, it a momentous occasion. Former referee Graham Poll, who received more than his fair share of abuse in his time, was full of admiration for the financial analyst from Loughborough in the Daily Mail.

Even though I have been verbally abused all over the country, I cannot imagine how tough it must be for a woman to referee a Championship football match in front of more than 18,000 fans.

Supporters, when not resorting to the stereotypical shouts at the blind, useless or the product of unmarried parents, will refer to a point of difference.

I was always ‘fat’, having eaten all the pies, David Elleray was ‘bald’ and Paul Durkin was ‘ginger’.

When I spoke to people who were at the Coventry game, they told me in clearly surprised tones that Fearn did rather well. So she should, as she was there on merit, having been assessed on her refereeing ability, irrespective of gender.

The way she dealt with her two highest-profile situations — Mike Newell’s outrageous slur against her in 2006 and Tuesday’s debut when referee Tony Bates was injured — suggest she just might be good enough to reach the top — and why not?

Continue reading "The men (and women) in black"

February 10, 2010

Pompey's journey from Wembley to High Court

Posted on 10/02/2010

Portsmouth's late equaliser against Sunderland on Tuesday night was, however small, a rare piece of good fortune for the club. They could receive more cheering news today if they are granted a 28-day delay to their winding-up hearing at the High Court.

All the same, the Fratton Park side's story since winning the 2008 FA Cup has been one of near-constant decline. David Conn, writing in the Guardian, traces the reasons and warns that other clubs may follow Portsmouth into near-extinction:

The 2008 FA Cup final was scripted as a romantic Wembley journey for two solid clubs from football's provinces but today, only 21 months on, Portsmouth and Cardiff City meet again in a more sobering ­London setting: the companies' ­winding‑up court.

Continue reading "Pompey's journey from Wembley to High Court"

February 8, 2010

Everyone makes mistakes

Posted on 08/02/2010

Terry may still rule the roost at Stamford Bridge, but Rio Ferdinand will be the man to lead England at the World Cup this summer. Like virtually every other member of the squad, Ferdinand has had his misdemeanors, but it is time, says Martin Samuel in the Daily Mail, to forget his past mistakes and judge Ferdinand on his ability to lead the team.

So what is it going to be then? Do we continue down this route where every captain of the England football team must have lived a retrospectively blameless life, or are we to allow Fabio Capello to lance the wound of the last days of John Terry’s captaincy and move on?

Do we judge Rio Ferdinand, the first officially appointed black captain of England, by crimes and misdemeanours from another century or do we accept that any man, every man in fact, will have a past and that it will include the odd episode of which he is no longer proud?

The choice is ours. We tear ourselves apart or reason that individuals must be allowed the capacity for personal growth.

Ferdinand missed a single drugs test, too, six-and-a-half years ago as you will no doubt grow sick of being reminded now he is England captain. Yet, if he has not transgressed since, if he has learned and moved on, surely there comes a time to allow him to escape the past, the way we would any professional who has messed up.

The alternative is to continue breaking butterflies on wheels, the spectacle of which will tell more of us than it ever will of them.

Continue reading "Everyone makes mistakes"

February 6, 2010

Capello's monumental error

Posted on 06/02/2010

By the time Fabio Capello balanced himself on his good knee to send John Terry packing with his tail (not anything else) between his legs on Friday, it was widely accepted that the England boss had no choice but to strip the Chelsea man of the captain's armband. Not so if you are Oliver Holt in the Daily Mirror though, who absolutely lambasts Capello for choosing dignity and respect over scandal and national shame...

Fabio Capello made his first real mistake as England coach yesterday. What a shame it was such a big one. The sacking of John Terry as England captain risks plunging the squad into anarchy a few months away from the World Cup finals.

It proves nothing and solves nothing. Its only effect will be to make the players wonder whose side Capello is really on. Capello made an illogical and arbitrary judgment yesterday, a judgment that belies his reputation as a clear thinker.

There was no suggestion that Terry would be banished from the squad altogether so let’s try and get it straight: Terry is not fit to be England captain but he is fit to represent his country. He’s not fit to wear the armband but he is fit to wear the shirt. How exactly does that work? So much for the England coach’s reputation as the strongman of international football. What he did at Wembley yesterday was weak, weak, weak.

Continue reading "Capello's monumental error"

February 5, 2010

Terry to keep armband?

Posted on 05/02/2010

With the John Terry saga ambling towards resolution - the England captain is set to meet Fabio Capello later today - Kevin McCarra in the Guardian proposes the most likely outcome after assessing the Italian's handling of the situation.

McCarra suggests that the delay in a decision, ostensibly because Capello wanted time to assess his options, makes it more likely that Terry will keep his place as skipper of the national team. He writes:

There is something quaint about the John Terry furore. It could only be addressed, we were told, once Fabio Capello got back to Blighty. Nobody explained why it was impossible for him to take ­soundings before his return to London. Perhaps the England manager feared making a decision while his mind was still clouded by the anaesthetic required for knee surgery in Switzerland. Maybe he just couldn't be bothered adding the +44 to all the contacts in his mobile that he wanted to consult.

Continue reading "Terry to keep armband?"

February 2, 2010

A dose of deadline day nostalgia

Posted on 02/02/2010

Let’s be honest, this year’s January transfer window carried about as much excitement as a Tuesday evening episode of “Eggheads” where, for those of you who haven’t seen it, a bunch of the country’s brainiest quiz-players prove they are bigger bookworms than five equally humourless hopefuls. Unless the prospect of seeing Alan Hutton raiding down Sunderland’s right flank or the vision of Mido looking moody on West Ham’s bench does anything for you, deadline day was a damp squib. It hasn’t always been that way though, as the Daily Mirror’s Marton Lipton recalls in a trip down memory lane...

That first window - and remember, this was six months before the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea changed the face of football forever - saw around £40 million spent by the top flight clubs.

Big deals included Robbie Fowler leaving Liverpool for Manchester City, who also signed French defender David Sommeil, with the pair costing £39.5m, while Newcastle asset-stripped doomed Leeds to take Jonathan Woodgate to St James Park for £9m.

With the exception of 2007, where the one stand-out deal saw Ashley Young move from Watford to Aston Villa for just under £10m, that money has risen every year. The 2008 window saw the biggest jump, with £150m and Chelsea responsible for a big chunk of that with the arrivals of £15m Nicolas Anelka and Branislav Ivanovic.

Last January, it reached an eye-popping £170m, more than half of which was spent by newly-rich City - Wayne Bridge, Shay Given, Nigel De Jong and Craig Bellamy - and Spurs - who re-signed Robbie Keane, Jermain Defoe and Pascal Chimbonda and acquired Wilson Palacios - between them.It would have been even more, of course, had City’s quest to land Kaka from AC Milan not fallen through.

But fast forward 12 months and spot the difference. Prior to the Adam Johnson signing, City had added only veteran Patrick Vieira.

Continue reading "A dose of deadline day nostalgia"

January 31, 2010

As crazy as it sounds, Rooney's our best role model

Posted on 31/01/2010

Unsurprisingly, all of Sunday’s media attention centred on John Terry, who has become public enemy number one to everybody apart from Tiger Woods, who may just have found a new best friend in the England star. The Daily Mail’s Piers Morgan probably has the best stab at unravelling Terry’s misdemeanours with Wayne Bridge’s better half, first by summing up why the England captain must relinquish his armband, and then by suggesting who should take it off him.

John Terry is finished as England captain. You can fight, booze, womanise and be photographed standing naked on top of London’s Millennium Eye singing ‘Ave Maria’ and still keep the biggest job in football. But bed a team-mate’s partner and it all gets a little too tricky. You can’t dip your pen in company ink and retain authority.

Picture the scene: last five minutes of a World Cup semi-final against Brazil in June, it’s 1-1, a player goes down injured and Terry calls his boys together for one last great rallying cry.
‘Lads, we’ve got to stick together, dig deep, stay close, trust each other, stay loyal...’
To which Wayne Bridge snorts in disbelief, shouts ‘You hypocritical, lying, cheating *******’, and smacks him on the nose.

Continue reading "As crazy as it sounds, Rooney's our best role model"

January 28, 2010

Rooney silences high-profile critic

Posted on 28/01/2010

Is there anything more satisfying then proving a doubter wrong? After Real Madrid's director general Jorge Valdano said that Wayne Rooney, and English players generally, could not adapt to any competition outside the Premier League, the England striker lit up an ill-tempered Carling Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Manchester City. Rooney's late strike meant that City suffered an injury-time Old Trafford defeat for the second time this season, and his performance provoked plaudits from Richard Williams in the Guardian:

No United player, however, gave more than Rooney, perhaps as a result of the slighting remark uttered this week by Jorge Valdano, Real Madrid's director general. "Rooney is English and we all know they find it difficult to adapt to another type of competition other than the Premier League," he said, responding to rumours of his club's interest in the player.

Continue reading "Rooney silences high-profile critic"

January 26, 2010

PM wades into debt debate: Football's not Britain's

Posted on 26/01/2010

You know things are not great in sport when the Prime Minister is wading into the debate over the mounting debt at football clubs. While some would suggest to Gordon Brown that it’s not wise for people in glass houses to throw stones, the man from No. 10 has claimed in the Times that clubs must trim their levels of leverage.

It is an issue for the clubs themselves they have got to deal with this issue. There is an issue here for supporters that, over the last few years, a number of clubs have become highly leveraged and therefore they have far higher levels of debt than the income they are able to generate from footballing activities and the television activities.

It is a matter that the clubs themselves have got to be concerned about. In many cases there are very simple ways that they can deal with these problems; in other cases, clubs don’t have the income that is necessary to deal with the leverage that they have.

It’s a worry to supporters and I think the management of football clubs have got to look very seriously at their responsibilities to their supporters, that they have high levels of income from the supporters but the debt levels have been at a leverage level that is too high.

Horse racing embraces a new racetrack on Thursday and it’s not just any racetrack. The Meydan city is opened to the public for the first round of the Maktoum Challenge and this place could be a bit special. It should be, seen as it is estimated to have cost $1.25 billion to construct. At a time of severe financial strife it could be seen as a huge gamble by Sheikh Mohammed, but Greg Wood in the Guardian feels it could be the start of something big.

The point about Meydan, for all the money and effort that has gone into its construction, is that it is not an end in itself. If the form of the last 30 years tells us anything, it is that Sheikh Mohammed not only thinks big, but also long term. He will have a five- and a 10-year plan for Meydan, which will surely envisage it being rather more than just a track to get Frankie and friends sharp for the Guineas meeting.

Dubai is not to everyone's taste. It can look and feel like a gaudy veneer on the surface of the desert and, in many respects, it is. But it also has the potential to stage a truly international championship race meeting, at the right time of the year and in the right time zone to attract a truly global audience. And, depending on how this year's Carnival goes, it could be here much sooner than you think.

January 25, 2010

Ruud not rewarded for his talent

Posted on 25/01/2010

A new chapter in the career of striker Ruud van Nistelrooy is looming with the Dutchman set for a transfer to Hamburg. There is no doubt that he has made scoring goals a clinical art form, but his career has been blighted by injuries and Sam Wallace in the Independent feels Van Nistelrooy has not picked up the silverware that his talent merits.

As Ruud van Nistelrooy completes the last transfer of his career this week he will surely reflect that, as a striker who has scored so many goals in his career, he has not won as much as his talent deserved.

The right man in the right place at the wrong time – the story of Van Nistelrooy's life. At Manchester United he scored 150 goals in 219 games but his five years there fell between two epic eras at the club and all Van Nistelrooy had to show for it was one Premier League medal and one FA Cup winners' medal. Less talented players at Old Trafford have won much more than Van Nistelrooy ever did.

To complain about winning only three league titles in England and Spain might seem ungrateful but the big players measure out their success by the big prizes and Van Nistelrooy never got close to winning the Champions League. He is the competition's second-highest goalscorer of all time and has never been further than the semi-finals.

Arsene Wenger made his standard gambit by shuffling his pack for the FA Cup clash with Stoke. It backfired as Arsenal were beaten and James Lawton of the Independent feels the move could have an impact on their challenge for Premier League and Champions League glory.

It was a self-inflicted wound at a pivotal point of a season of promise in which the FA Cup offered itself as probably Arsenal's best chance of ending the trophy drought of recent years.

There was another familiar victim. It was the old tournament itself and any sense that it might not necessarily be doomed to the status of a cup of convenience, somewhere you commit yourself wholeheartedly only when all else is lost.

This was the third successive season in which Arsenal made an inglorious exit which brought heavy questions about their ability to settle down to some serious accumulation of lost glory. In 2008 a brilliant run in the Premiership began to unravel after a humiliating 4-0 thrashing at Old Trafford, one in which, of all people, Nani was able to strut around like some Latin reincarnation of George Best.

January 24, 2010

Love United, hate the Glazers

Posted on 24/01/2010

The on-field glow of a 4-0 rout by Wayne Rooney of Hull City was not enough to overshadow growing unrest among Manchester United fans with the financial “management” of the Glazer family. The news earlier in the week the Americans could take up to £130 million cash out of the club next year if enough lenders sign up for the bond they have launched was not lost on fans who chanted "We love United, we hate the Glazers" for long periods.

In the Observer, Julian Coman writes about a grim future for the club if the Glazers continue unchecked.

Like a footballing Lehman Brothers, England's best-supported club has maintained its outward swagger while being devoured from within by a toxic combination of excessive debt and wildly irresponsible assumptions of future success. Too big to fail? Probably. Too big to go into wholly unnecessary decline? Certainly not. And if United's results turn sub-prime, who will finance the debt, currently standing at £711m?

The silence of Sir Alex Ferguson is also alarming many. But, after all, why should anyone expect a very well-rewarded employee to criticise his bosses?

Ferguson, to the frustration of many, has remained silent on the state of the club's finances. Gary Neville, the veteran full-back and club captain, said last week that the debt and its implications were not an appropriate subject for players to discuss.

The business laid itself open to the ruthless exploitation of Glazer, who would analyse the drive for profit and, recklessly, believe that he could do better, at the expense of those who created the value in the first place.

Cup run shows Leeds are back

Posted on 24/01/2010

Leeds are the surprise package of this season's FA Cup, having followed a 1-0 victory at Old Trafford with a deserved 2-2 draw away to Tottenham in the fourth round. After they suffered a dramatic fall from grace - from a 2001 Champions League semi-final to League One in 2008 - in the first decade of the 21st century, are we now witnessing Leeds' rebirth as a force in English football? Paul Hayward, writing in the Observer, seems to think so:

Beckford is the individual billboard star of this year's FA Cup and Leeds are the big romantic tale in a competition that squeals for our attention in a schedule crammed with Premier League and Champions League drama.

The Yorkshire revival is back on course. A draw and two defeats since the Old Trafford ram-raid had broken a sequence of 17 games unbeaten. Coincidence? A fair extrapolation is that the third-round win interfered with the team's ascent. Cup runs often work as a distraction for clubs bent on promotion. Mischievously, some of us wondered whether Simon Grayson's men motored to White Hart Lane thinking the best result would be a hiding.

If so they hid it well, as an early Tottenham onslaught subsided, and the 4,500 travelling fans proclaimed a first-half counter-surge after a torrid opening chapter. "We're not famous any more," sang the Leeds throng, subverting a chant many opposing crowds have tried to tickle them with since they plunged from a Champions League semi-final in 2001 to a league housing Yeovil and Leyton Orient.

January 22, 2010

A refreshing view on Gallas

Posted on 22/01/2010

In a world where a heavy handful of media figures rarely resist the temptation to jump on the bandwagon, it’s refreshing to see Andy Townsend speaking out in his column for the Daily Mail. Ex-pros are welcomed into the media spotlight for one reason, namely, they can provide an insight that regular journalists cannot. So while every other pundit and his dog has been keen not to step out of line in condemning William Gallas’ challenge on Mark Davies, it is good to see Townsend offer an honest view on the situation.

I am not going to condemn William Gallas for the tackle because I have made tons like that myself. Sometimes as a victim you come out of it OK and sometimes you come out of it feeling six studs from your opponent on the top of your foot.
I am glad to hear Mark Davies has not broken anything but Gallas was just late, his feet were not in or around the knee area and he was not trying to fold him in half. It is the sort of tackle that can happen at any given moment in our game and happens every week. He didn't jump in two-footed and he wasn't hideously over the top.

In the true sense of sportsmanship you would have liked Gallas to have picked the ball up. But it would be hypocritical of me as an ex-midfield player to condemn someone for that type of challenge.

January 15, 2010

Benitez losing the faith and KP struggles

Posted on 15/01/2010

With speculation mounting that Rafa Benitez's tenure as Liverpool manager may be drawing to a close, potential replacements are being mooted. Paul Hayward, writing in the Guardian, considers an immediate ousting of the Spaniard with Kenny Dalglish taking over in a caretaker capacity. Dalglish, writes Hayward, would protect Liverpool's owners from the ire of the Anfield crowd:

At 58, though, [Dalglish] is entitled to feel he's not too decrepit to test his faith that he could still mix it with Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger, especially at a club where he is already a deity. There would be no onerous (for the club) five-year contract to tempt Dalglish in from his ceremonial role and his work with the club's best youngsters. It would most likely be an emergency appointment. Yet there would be an obvious appeal to Tom Hicks and George Gillett in hiring a human shield against the mounting fury of the Kop. Shankly's premature departure was never corrected. This time, in the short term, the precipitous resignation of an adored leader might find a happier resolution.

Continue reading "Benitez losing the faith and KP struggles"

January 12, 2010

Love the key to World Cup glory

Posted on 12/01/2010

Britain’s Got Talent legend Amanda Holden is proving her versatility by delving into the world of football and in her column in the News of the World she has got the perfect idea for how England can win the World Cup: love and harmony.

I predict big love for my friend The One Show's Christine Bleakley and Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard. They've been avoiding the paparazzi but if they go public with their romance they'll be surprised how much easier life becomes. Christine's good for Lamps because she's not impressed by a footballer's glitzy lifestyle. Before we watched Everton play Chelsea recently, Frank asked where she'd be sitting and Christine replied: "I don't know, probably in the fancy seats." Bless her. Christine is refreshingly undemanding so won't be a stress to Frank during the World Cup.

Oh bless, so when Lamps makes a couple of misplaced passes and smashes a penalty against the post in the quarter-final defeat to Portugal we know who not to blame.

Horse racing is a world that the youth of today do not understand, so the British Horseracing Authority believe, hence the recent announcements by Racing For Change (RFC). Groundbreaking insights such as changing odds from fractions to decimals have been put forward to lure the kids to the courses of the UK, but Alan Lee in the Times feels the powers that be will be better served solving the fixture congestion.

The best thing about the first raft of reforms proposed by Racing For Change (RFC) - immaculate timing. Racing folk have had little else to divert them, this past snowy week, so the ten quick fixes unveiled last Monday have stimulated debate to a degree no marketing spin could have achieved. Naturally, this has its downside. An empty stage has been a gift to the loudest mouths at both ends of the spectrum - those to whom utter revolution must happen yesterday and those reduced to a state of shivering fear by the word “change”. There have also been disingenuous responses from some who should know better, condemning these relatively trivial recommendations as if they were the totality of the project, rather than an exploratory toe in the water. Only when the bloated and incoherent fixture list has been addressed can RFC be judged fairly.