Sunday, 7 August 2011

Race for the title - 20 years on - Leeds United and Manchester United

BACK in 1991, English football witnessed the start of a spectacular and exciting league campaign. Despite Arsenal and Liverpool having shared the tag of Champions in the four years prior, it was Leeds United and Manchester United that ended up slugging it out for the 1991/1992 title. Refreshingly for the neutral, neither team had the so-called nous and experience to call upon from previous title challenges, and it thus culminated into a fascinating story of bravery, belief and even a calamitous own goal.

Over at Old Trafford, Alex Ferguson was once again conjuring up ideas of ending Manchester United’s 24 year wait without the Division One title. At 49, the fiery Scot had slowly begun to reap the benefits of his hard work at the club since his appointment in January 1986. Yet the United side back in 1991 bared no real resemblance to the youthful sides Ferguson has become so famous for producing over the last 15 years.
Back then, Ferguson’s teams were built of steel, experience and resilience, and didn’t have the abundance of youth players that have since broke through the ranks under Fergie’s tenure. Lee Sharpe was the exception, winning the PFA Young Player of the Year for the 1990/91 season. Sharpe himself however, was bought as a youngster by Ferguson, arriving from Torquay at the tender age of 17. The tall winger was in and out of Fergie’s side until late 1990, when some electrifying performances on the left wing ensured that Sharpe was never again considered for the more conservative left-back position that he had experienced in earlier games for the club.

Mark Robins had been a hero 12 months earlier, after scoring a multitude of vital goals of that helped United not only stay up in Division One, but helped the club win the FA Cup. However he had still failed to displace a strike partnership between Mark Hughes and Brian McClair, which had got back on track in the 90/91 season, with McClair rediscovering his goalscoring form and Hughes winning the PFA Player of the Year for the second time in three seasons.
Still supplying Hughes and McClair from central midfield was Bryan Robson, although injuries to the skipper had cost him almost half a season in the previous campaign. The increasingly-improving Paul Ince was now an ever-present in the United engine room, and Neil Webb, when he wasn’t the target of criticism from some United fans, added a calmness and composure to United’s central areas.

In the summer of 1991 United’s defence was strengthened enormously by the signings of Paul Parker and Peter Schmeichel. Schmeichel’s imperious presence and world-class agility ensured Jim Leighton would never play another game for the club, whilst the popular Les Sealey left for Aston Villa after just one full season at Old Trafford.
Parker had always impressed Ferguson during his QPR days, with his pace and man-marking skills the epitome of an established England international. Indeed, despite his lack of height, Parker’s defensive talents persuaded Ferguson to play him ahead of Gary Pallister, who dropped to the bench in the Reds’ early fixtures. United kept a clean sheet in those games against Notts County, Aston Villa and Everton, though Pallister eventually won his place back at the expense of Clayton Blackmore, with Parker switching to full back.

United’s team had often looked imbalanced in the 1990/91 season. Due to injuries to Danny Wallace, Ferguson often employed Mike Phelan at right-midfield, but a lack pace or real attacking threat seemed to handicap the side. This was particularly noticeable when Sharpe was having such an explosive and effective impact on the opposite flank.
Ferguson’s answer to his problems was the signing of lightning-quick winger Andrei Kanchelskis. The Russian, signed on the back end of the 90/91 season, settled in quickly, and suddenly United had an attacking symmetry that would excite the fans and get the manager believing his side could capture that evasive league title. Even a bout of meningitis to Lee Sharpe couldn’t dampen Ferguson’s optimism, as a young Welsh starlet called Ryan Giggs, formerly Wilson, had emerged from the United youth-system to take Sharpe’s place and be touted as the finest prospect in British football since George Best. High praise indeed, and Giggs went on to win the PFA Young Player of the Year in 1992 in his first full season.

Along with Wallace and Phelan, Ferguson could still call on the likes of Blackmore and Mal Donaghy to provide the squad with the depth that it had lacked over the last 12 months. The quality of Ferguson’s new-look squad was evident as United stormed out of the traps.
They started the season confidently, creating chances, scoring goals, and conceding just four times in their first 12 games. The team remained unbeaten until an October trip to Hillsborough, where the team lost 3-2 to newly-promoted Sheffield Wednesday.

It was Wednesday’s Yorkshire rivals Leeds however, that were emerging as United’s main rivals for the title. With Liverpool still in transition under Graeme Souness, and champions Arsenal failing to repeat their outstanding performances from the season before, it was Howard Wilkinson’s side, spurred on by a vociferous and intimidating Elland Road crowd, which was making opposition teams crumble.
Wilkinson was a tireless worker, with self-belief and a persona that matched his team’s abilities. His disciplinarian approach had worked wonders at Sheffield Wednesday, and in 1990 he had won Leeds promotion from the old Division Two in just his second attempt. It was certainly Wilkinson’s golden era at the time, and despite lacking the grandeur and aura of Don Revie, the Yorkshireman’s effectiveness at simply winning games was a match for most.

With width to match United, and a direct style of play that suited both tall striker Lee Chapman and centre-backs that were more comfortable hitting long balls up field than building slowly from the back, Leeds were more than a handful. Chapman’s aerial threat was a supreme outlet for Leeds, making half-decent crosses for his colleagues look like fantastic crosses. Chapman’s confidence grew as high as his soaring leaps, and his natural eye for goal would be difference come the end of the season.
The skilful new signing Rodney Wallace was a perfect foil for the gangly Chapman, with Carl Shutt competent as a back-up striker. Wallace added pace, goals and trickery to a side that had finished 4th in 1991 in just their first season back in the top-flight after their eight-year absence. The club now had a winning mentality to match anyone, and despite Ferguson’s United winning the plaudits for their attractive and attacking style of football, Wilkinson’s men were fearless competitors who had more than a passing resemblance to Revie’s

In midfield Gary McAllister and captain Gordon Strachan were as cute and creative as any midfielder in the division. The young, tough-tackling midfielder David Batty was another star of the Leeds side, mopping up whenever McAllister charged forward, and the youthful Welsh midfielder Gary Speed added goals from wide areas as well as supplying the front men. Steve Hodge, twice League-Cup winner with Nottingham Forest, could also chip in with goals when needed.
In defence, Chris Whyte and Chris Fairclough provided an incredibly effective centre-back pairing, whilst England international Tony Dorigo and the veteran Mel Sterland got forward whenever they could from the full-back positions. Goalkeeper John Lukic, whose career would suffer literally at his feet in future seasons when the ‘no pass-back’ law was introduced, provided a vocal and stable presence to command Leeds’ own area.

United and Leeds would encounter each other a mammoth four times over the season. Leeds first travelled to Old Trafford on the last day of August 1991, on a baking-hot Autumn afternoon. A confident home side created numerous chances, but it was Leeds who drew first blood in the first half when Schmeichel severely misjudged a Speed cross to gift Chapman the easiest of headed goals. The visitors looked to have grabbed all three points, but a late equaliser by Robson in front of a rocking Stretford End gave Ferguson’s side a share of the points. It was a moment that inspired United to win their next 6 league games.
By October, both teams were firmly in their stride. Despite their loss at Hillsborough, United would go the rest of the year unbeaten. Goals were flying in from all areas, and a 4-0 home victory over Coventry City in early December would be eclipsed by a 6-3 rout at Oldham Athletic on Boxing Day, with ex-Latics full-back Denis Irwin even managing to grab a brace. A battling victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in front of the live ITV cameras gave the nation a first-hand look at Ferguson’s dynamic United side – one that had become firm favourites to lift the league trophy.

But anything United could do, it seemed Leeds could do likewise. October saw Leeds’ first loss as they went down 1-0 to Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, but Wilkinson’s troops saw out the rest of the year unbeaten. A flying Lee Chapman header in a fine 4-1 win at Villa Park in November was the highlight of a free-scoring period for the team, but as 1991 drew to a close, fate would bring Wilkinson and Ferguson against each other in a titanic set of games.

The reverse league fixture was first up, as the last league game of 1991 saw Ferguson’s United travel up the M62 for the vital fixture. Since Leeds’ promotion to Division One, all three league clashes between the clubs had been draws, but when Webb volleyed in for United just after the break, it appeared that Ferguson’s men were set to break that sequence and take a significant step towards realising their title ambitions.
However, as Leeds pressed for an equaliser, a rash challenge by the otherwise-excellent Pallister gifted Leeds a late penalty, and the tenacious yet excitable Sterland sent Schmeichel the wrong way to equalise. United had failed to hold on to their vital lead, whilst Leeds had fought back from the dead. It was a mental victory for Howard Wilkinson’s side for that reason, despite Leeds missing the chance to beat United on their own turf.

As both teams progressed in the Rumbelows Cup, it was almost inevitable that the two sides would meet at some stage in the latter stages of the competition, and Elland Road hosted a Quarter-Final clash in early January. Ferguson’s United bounced back from a 4-1 New Years Day drubbing at home to QPR to defeat Leeds in a thrilling evening clash, with goals by Blackmore, Kanchelskis and Giggs overturning Gary Speed’s early effort.
Just seven wintery days later, the teams took to the field against each other once again in the FA Cup third round, again at Elland Road. Hughes’ first half goal was enough to put United through, as Leeds again failed to make home advantage count. However, Leeds now had a free run in the league till May, with no distractions, and the defeats in both cup competitions turned out to be a blessing in disguise.

Just days before that FA Cup defeat, Leeds produced their best performance of the season by annihilating Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough 6-1. Wednesday would go on to finish 3rd in 91/92, but Wilkinson’s formidable side showed no mercy as wave after wave of attacks stunned the home side. Another hat-trick by Chapman signified Leeds’ ability to hit goals on the road and not just at Elland Road.
After that FA Cup clash, both United and Leeds stuttered through the next few months. United went unbeaten till mid-March, but there were too many draws against the likes of Notts County and Coventry to call this excellent post-Christmas. More significantly, the goals had started to dry up. From the 1st of January till the end of March, United only twice managed to hit more than one goal in a game.

United also had problems under their feet. Ferguson wasn’t the only one pointing out the troublesome state of the United pitch, and the boggy pitch certainly didn’t help United’s style of play, but the team was creating enough chances to win games nonetheless. They just weren’t converting them. United’s squad depth was one undoubtedly envied by the whole of the league, but if there were any weaknesses in the squad, it was the lack of cover for Hughes and McClair.
A two-legged Rumbelows Cup semi-final against Middlesbrough drained Ferguson’s men badly. The second leg even went to extra-time as players trudged across the trench-like conditions, and despite United eventually emerging victorious, the excitement of a trip to Wembley was severely dampened by the outcome of the next three league games. Goalless draws with Wimbledon and QPR, followed by a 1-0 defeat at Nottingham Forest, did nothing to aid what was evidently becoming a leggy and luckless United side.

But Leeds didn’t exactly hit brilliant form either in those months. Defeats to Oldham and QPR on the road were somewhat mentally damaging, but the team was scoring enough goals to remain confident of winning games. A home 5-1 victory over Wimbledon, inspired by new signing Eric Cantona, settled down those few frayed nerves that were showing signs of conceding the title to their Mancunian rivals.
Due to United’s Rumbelows Cup exploits, Leeds went into the last two months knowing that United were playing catch-up.  If they didn’t punish teams, then United could overtake them. Even after poor results, Fergusons team was still expected to make their games in hand count.

If Leeds and United stumbled any further towards the finishing line, they could still be caught by George Graham’s Arsenal, who had hit sensational form. From February onwards, the Gunners remained unbeaten for the rest of the reason, winning 10 of their last 17 games. It was ironically two draws against Leeds and United that probably cost them the Gunners a chance of retaining their title. Losing 7 of their first 21 games was never going to help either.
Over at Old Trafford, United looked almost on their last legs. A fixture backlog meant they had to prepare for a mammoth 5 games in 11 days. Their first opponents, Southampton, were struck down by a stunning Kanchelskis volley, but that would be the only high point of a final period that would cost Ferguson the title he craved so much. Two days later a morale-sapping draw at struggling Luton would be United’s last points on the road, and then United’s season fell apart spectacularly.

Nottingham Forest got revenge for defeat to United in the Rumbelows Cup final by grabbing a 2-1 victory at Old Trafford, with a late Scott Gemmill goal clinching the points in front of the Stretford End. The mood at the final whistle was one of exasperation and sadness, with the belief that the title had finally slipped away from Mancunian hands, particularly as Leeds were to beat Coventry City at home that same day.
United would still have to travel to Upton Park to face West Ham with their last game in hand, but a combination of woodwork and missed chances would cost United. Luck was simply not on United’s side, and when a Pallister clearance bounced back off Kenny Brown and flew past Schmeichel, their fate was more or less sealed. If Ferguson’s men lost at arch-rivals Liverpool on the Sunday, then Leeds could win the title by beating Sheffield United at Bramhall Lane earlier that day. 

On a nervous afternoon, both Leeds and United travelled to their regional rivals, knowing a long and tense season could come to its climax in just a few hours.  As the game wore on, and at 2-2, Leeds looked to have dropped two points, but ex-Manchester City player Brian Gayle headed comically into his own net to essentially gift-wrap Howard Wilkinson’s men the league championship.
Over in Liverpool, a boastful Anfield crowd looked forward to crushing the hopes of the United faithful that already knew the final score of the Leeds game. Put simply, if United failed to beat Liverpool, then Leeds would win the title. It would prove to be test too far.

Ian Rush scored his first ever goal against United in the first half, and a late Mark Walters goal confirmed the inevitable. Leeds were the 1991/1992 champions, and worthy winners. In contrast, a season that season promised so much for the Manchester club, who were often the preferred suitor for the neutral supporter, ended in unparalleled disappointment, and in front of the Kop of all places.
Afterwards, a joyous Wilkinson admitted his team had never claimed to be one of the greatest League champions, but they would enjoy it nonetheless. At their worst, Leeds were a scrappy, physical team, but at their best they were a dynamic and irresistible force, tight at the back and capable of hitting goals both home and away.

Just one season later, Ferguson would call on the experience gained in the run-in to help United finally become English champions. Leeds on the other hand, despite losing only one home game all season, would fail to win a single game on their travels, and finished the season just two points above the relegation zone. And we all know the rest.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Life after Ferguson

AS strangely-comical tweets flew between Gary and Philip Neville this morning, it was hard for a Manchester United fan not to get sentimental at days gone by. When players like Mark Hughes, Paul Ince and Andrei Kanchelskis were sold in the summer of 1995, some angry United fans were oh-so close to popping those veins protruding on their foreheads. Hughes in particular was an Old Trafford hero, scoring brilliant goals in big games, and also coming up through the United youth system in the early 1980’s.

Sir Alex Ferguson however, had predicted that his team was coming to the end of its lifespan. In 1991 he witnessed a successful Liverpool team fail to hold off a vicious Arsenal title challenge, and the Division 1 trophy went to Highbury rather than the often customary home of Anfield. It was obvious that Kenny Dalglish’s men had aged slightly too much, and that an overhaul of the Liverpool squad was needed.

Not that this was an easy task. With Dalglish quitting his post at the end of the 90/91 season, former Anfield battler Graeme Souness was soon in line to take over the managerial role. However, despite blooding youngsters such as Mike Marsh and Steve McManaman, the team struggled, and securing signings such as Mark Walters, Dean Saunders and sigh, Torben Piechnik, Souness failed to keep up the high standards that the Kop faithful had been used to. The emergence of Ferguson’s United as a force was hard for Liverpool fans to take, but supporters still believed that they would be back as title contenders sooner rather than later.

Liverpool have come close to winning the league of course since Dalglish left, but promising-looking title-charges in 1997, 2002, and 2009 fell short. A trip down the M62 to Ferguson’s Old Trafford however, sees a very different story to a team rebuilding itself. Since Ferguson’s appointment in 1986, the Scot has shown enormous commitment to bringing through youngsters, and also carefully monitoring the youth system already set up at Old Trafford.

Ferguson initially did this with minor success. ‘Fergie’s Fledglings’, (not the best name in the world) included the likes of Tony Gill, Russell Beardsmore and Mark Robins, whilst promising wingers Guiliano Maiorana and Lee Sharpe were bought from Histon and Torquay respectively. Beardsmore and Gill showed promise in the 1988/89 season, whilst Robins was a revelation in the 1989/90 season, outscoring Brian McClair and scoring numerous important goals - notably the winner in the FA Cup semi-final replay against Oldham.

Lee Martin, a big-nosed young full-back who got the winner in the FA Cup final replay against Crystal Palace, looked set for a bright career in a red shirt, but lost his form the following season, and was most notable for a clumsy own-goal at home to Montpellier in the European Cup Winners Cup. Only the hip-shaking Sharpe managed to be a big part in Ferguson’s future United squads, as United finally won the title in 1993. The club has gone on to win the league a further 10 times, with respect for Ferguson as a manager unrivalled in the modern game.

Despite almost leaving his United post in 2002, Ferguson has sought to remain manager at United as long as his health and enjoyment in the role persists. The end of Ferguson’s managerial career, however, is on the horizon, and when he does finally retire, the Scot is likely to make a surprise announcement in the summer months rather than a mid-season announcement. He did this in the 2001/2002 season, and United ended up without a trophy and in need of careful handling. Ferguson even had to watch rivals Arsenal clinch the title at Old Trafford as Sylvain Wiltord was on target in a 1-0 victory that was hard for United fans to take. The strain on Ferguson's face as almost much as much as Martin Tyler's vocal chords as Arsenal took the title.

The importance of Ferguson at the helm cannot be overstated, and to be frank, United may never be the same once he quits the Old Trafford hot-seat in favour of his favourite whisky-stained chair in his Cheshire home. Critics have been quick to point to the weaknesses of the United team this season, despite the club reaching the Champions League final and being within touching distance of yet another Premier League title. Admittedly, despite the squad as a collective being effective enough to take them far, it is clear certain individuals face an uncertain future as United players.

Dimitar Berbatov may be losing his hair, but has enjoyed his most successful season in a red shirt, but thanks to the emergence of Javier Hernandez, and the Bulgarian must now settle for a place on the substitute’s bench. Midfielders Michael Carrick and Anderson are incredibly inconsistent in imposing their authority on the game, whilst Paul Scholes’ increasing tendency to see red rather than a passing opportunity is becoming infuriating.

Thus it is clear that despite players like Nani, Hernandez and Edwin Van der Sar having undeniably brilliant seasons, United’s success has come thanks to their manager’s organisation and motivation. The trust in the red-faced Scot to give them the best possible chance of on-field success is reassuring, and the experience Ferguson has in title run-ins and big European nights is mind-blowing.

But what happens when Ferguson does leave? It’s safe to say the self-labelled ‘Special One’ Jose Mourinho will be a strong favourite to replace him, with many pointing to his Champions League record and similar attributes to Ferguson that makes him an ideal replacement. United fans’ keenness on Mourinho as a future boss often correlates with how Mourinho is currently performing. After winning the Champions League with Inter Milan last season, many called for the Inter boss to come back and manage at Old Trafford once he was finished winding Barcelona up at Real Madrid.

However, his recent antics against Josep Guardiola’s men have not exactly put the Special One in the best of lights. His negative tactics were already a concern for some United supporters, but his attitude and behaviour of late has now given fans food for thought as to whether they want him being the head of their club. Ferguson has been involved in his fair share of controversy of late, but to be fair to United fans, Ferguson is their manager, and Mourinho is not. They are entitled to do a Tammy Wynette and stand by their man.

United however, despite having a hard job to decide who comes in for Ferguson, will most likely play it safe. The decision-makers of the club will go for success and experience, and with Mourinho making no secret of his admiration for Ferguson and the United legacy, the man from Portugal should inevitably be United manager upon Ferguson’s retirement.

His appointment unfortunately would be a black mark on the club. United have the chance to reverse the trend of English clubs appointing non-British managers, and to set a precedent for future clubs to follow. If major foreign clubs like Barcelona can appoint managers with little experience yet still be successful, then so can United. Guardiola had only managed Barcelona B for less than a season when it was announced by the club that he was to manage the senior side. Suddenly, the tough task of managing average players such as Lionel Messi and Xavi has made Guardiola one of the most sought-after managers around.

In fact the Spaniard had replaced Frank Rijjkaard, who, before managing Barcelona, had only managed the Dutch national team in Euro 2000, and then lasted only a season at Sparta Rotterdam, relegating them in the process. Yet four years later he is suddenly managing Barcelona to Champions League success in 2000. Experience? Pedigree? Go figure.

Guardiola was of course a former Barcelona player, and his appointment in 2008 pleased fans who would rather see former heroes manage their club rather than an outsider who has no connection with the club. It is thus amazing how some United fans laugh at the possibility of appointing an ex-player as manager. Appointing club icons like Eric Cantona or Gary Neville would be seen by some as a risk due to their inexperience as a manager, but let’s not forget, not only would these men be assisted by a fantastic and experience coaching team, they would also have a squad at their disposal brimming with world-class players. They would also have the full backing of fans who used to chant their name. If Mourinho struggled after a few months it would be a major shock if the majority of United fans didn’t want him out.

Of course, there are some ex-United players out there who do have substantial amounts of managerial experience. Steve Bruce and Mark Hughes were key players in United’s double-winning side of 1994, and have years of Premier League experience between them. Critics would doubt their credentials due to the lack of silverware they have achieved, but let’s be honest, how often do clubs like Wigan, Sheffield United, Fulham and Blackburn Rovers win league titles? Had Hughes been given time at Manchester City he would have undoubtedly got the club into the Champions League, but he was cruelly removed from the managerial role after just 18 months in charge.

Football in the modern era however, could be the decisive factor in determining what happens at United. Respect is the key. United supporters are proud of their club’s traditions, and point to this as a reason players are happy to play here and give their all. However, make no mistake, this is down to Ferguson, and Ferguson only. Players stay to play for the most successful club manager in England, and the respect given to the man from Govan is unparalleled.

Wednesday, 30 March 2011

A Real Chance for Spurs?

AFTER yet another a week of international nonsense, the time has come for girlfriends and wives to be again put to one side as the Premier League season restarts. Since the Premier League was put on hold temporarily, we have learned that Wales really are rubbish, Ghana fans are still brilliant, and that not even slight traces of radiation in the UK can speed up Joleon Lescott’s feet. As Premier League and Champions League action returns, the business-end of the season is ready to rock and roll.

As English Champions League TV executives licked their lips at the prospect of putting together yet more montages featuring John Terry kissing his armband, Wayne Rooney gesticulating towards officials, and Fernando Torres yet again losing possession, the rest of the nation looks forward to the two Premier League giants lock horns in what could be an explosive clash, or again a piss-poor anti-climax.

With the taste of Nandos still lingering badly in the mouth of Rooney after his clash with ex-Benfica defender David Luiz in the 2-1 defeat to the Blues earlier this month, the in-form (at last) England striker will aim to shoot down a defence he has a half-decent recent scoring record against. Conversely, Torres himself has a decent record against United, but faces a battle to stay on the pitch (and on his feet) long enough to do Sir Alex Ferguson’s team any serious damage.

Across London, it is the excitable fans of Tottenham Hotspur that are most eager to get the quarter-finals under way, as they host Spanish giants Real Madrid. Spurs have taken to the Champions League brilliantly, with fans at White Hart Lane continuing to create the passionate noise that has arisen from their terraces over the last few seasons. The atmosphere has coincided with an obvious improvement in the fortunes on the pitch. Winning the League Cup in 2008 and qualifying dramatically late on for the Champions League last season has gave the fans something to shout about at last, rather than abusing Sol Campbell, whether he is playing or not.

It is a shame that the club have openly expressed their desire to move from White Hart Lane. As the 2012 Olympic stadium was completed ahead of schedule this week, Spurs are still miffed about the Olympic Park Legacy Company’s decision to award the stadium to West Ham United following next year’s games. True, Spurs wanted to instantly rip up the running track, let a lot of dogs come in to do their business, and also build a brand new ground from scratch, but they were willing to pay for renovations to the existing Crystal Palace athletics stadium to make it into - a superb athletics venue to rival the, er, Olympic Stadium. Sigh…

The White Hart Lane ground is one of Spurs’ biggest strengths, and is one of the few remaining in English football to create that cauldron of noise that English stadiums used to be known for. The club has partaken in some memorable games in recent seasons, and combined with an attacking attitude that Spurs fans often demand, Harry Redknapp’s boys seem to have the right mix as it stands. Like Liverpool’s Anfield saga, the argument for whether a slightly larger capacity would do the club much good if it cost them millions is for another day.

Spurs’ refreshing attacking qualities have lit up the Champions League this season, and it is almost a throwback to the times where English clubs dominated in Europe playing a modified 442 system with outright wingers. This is in stark contrast to the tighter, more conservative set-up that the likes of Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea have all used successfully in recent seasons in Europe. Opposition clubs on the continent have found it harder to set out their stall against a Spurs side whose inexperience and naivety in the Champions League is one of their biggest strengths.

Not that Spurs have gone radically gung-ho this season. Rafael Van Der Vaart’s role just off a lone striker has proved Redknapp has tactical nous as well as decent man-management skills. However, with the Dutchman struggling for full fitness recently, and also struggling to shake off tabloid rumours of a deteriorating relationship with Redknapp, Spurs fans must wait with baited breath that everything is hunky dory with the midfielder.

Redknapp has also managed to find the talismanic Luca Modric his best position at long last - playing in the centre of the Spurs midfield - although this may now mean that Manchester United are finally convinced enough to pay £30m for the talented Croatian, an increasingly arduous price which we see in the Premiership all too often. Whatever happened to top flight players switching clubs for that magical fee of £800,000? Modric has toughened up since his arrival in 2008, and his passing and movement rivals any player in the Premiership.

Despite injury problems to the Tottenham backline throughout the season, and seemingly throughout every season since time began, Redknapp has held his defensive unit together admirably, albeit sometimes with rope and a spirit level. The Tottenham boss has a plethora of midfielders who can sit in front of the back four to cover Michael Dawson and his injured cronies, with Brazilian midfielder Sandro impressing in particular over the two legs against AC Milan in the last round.

Of course, Spurs defenders have yet to face the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Mesut Ozil this season. Indeed Ronaldo looks to have shaken off the ‘injury’ that forced him out of the recent international weekend, although Benzema himself may have done just the opposite by injuring himself in midweek for France against Croatia. Madrid, on the back of an 11-game unbeaten run and a fine derby win against Atletico, will also be boosted by the return of Argentinean striker Gonzalo Higuain, who should feature more prominently in the second leg rather than next Tuesday’s first leg for manager Jose Mourinho’s team.

A few neutrals fancied the chances of Spurs meeting up again with Mourinho’s former club Inter Milan in the quarters - the team they banged six goals in against in the group stages. Brazilian sometimes-defender Maicon wouldn’t have been too impressed at the prospect of facing Gareth Bale again, even if the Welshman has struggled with niggling injuries ever since the group phase finished.

Tottenham’s other flanker Aaron Lennon was arguably almost as good against AC as Bale was against Inter, with the Leeds-born winger offering a lightning-quick attacking threat to scare the Maicon out of Marek Jankulowski on numerous occasions in the 1-0 victory last month at the San Siro. Indeed it was Lennon’s superb run that set up Peter Crouch for a simple goal that he tried hard to miss. The pace and directness of Bale and Lennon could be as crucial to Tottenham’s progress as the defensive set-up of Redknapp’s men against Madrid.

Redknapp and his right-hand man Joe Jordan need to be careful not to relinquish the attacking responsibilities of the two wingers if they want to progress. Jordan’s amazing non-response to Genaro Gattuso’s shocking antics last month showed that the Scot is more than equipped to curb any urge to attack, but he and Redknapp must not be afraid of trying to expose Madrid’s deficiencies at the back. The Spaniards may well have conceded only 21 goals in the league this season, and only two in the group stages, but any top English club has a chance of scoring against an attack-minded defence featuring Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe, Marcelo and Sergio Ramos.

Up front, whether it is Peter Crouch, Jermaine Defoe or Roman Pavlyuchenko, Spurs forwards have bags of goals in them. However, Redknapp’s tendency to rotate his strikers suggests more that he doesn’t know who is best forward is, rather than who he feels is best for a certain game or situation. This problem will have to be addressed if Spurs’ transition into a major and consistent force in Europe and the Premier League is to be completed, but for a cup competition this is not such a problem.

Not that Spurs have had it easy in front of goal this season. Goals at White Hart Lane in particular have strangely been harder to come by, although goalless draws at home to West Ham United and Manchester City were the consequence of a combination of bad luck and erratic finishing rather than a struggle to create. Redknapp would have loved to blamed Darren Bent again, but fortunately for the England striker, he was too busy gasping for air in Gerard Houillier’s sinking ship.

Of course, with the abundance of world-class talent at their disposal, Madrid should create plenty of chances themselves over the two legs. Even without attacking full backs, the midfielders and attackers offer enough variety and flair to trouble any team. However, their full backs may well be the key in offering Spurs hope.

In 2006, Spurs’ North London rivals Arsenal overcame Madrid over two legs with a masterful tactical display by Arsene Wenger’s men. Wenger’s side were already traditionally superb on the counter attack, but they were ably helped by the gaps left by Brazilian full backs Cicinho and Roberto Carlos. Arsenal sat back then swarmed forward at will, in a display that although left you praising Wenger’s tactical acumen also left you flabbergasted at the ineptitude of Madrid’s strategy.

Arsenal defeated Madrid 1-0 that evening, but it could have been a lot more. If Spurs can soak up the inevitable pressure from Ozil et al, and release Bale and Lennon on the break, then Spurs could have considerable success. It’s just a shame Crouch doesn’t quite have the pace of a 2006 Thierry Henry, although it’s not as if Henry has the aerial threat that the beanpole striker does, and Crouch’s record against top-class teams is nothing to be ashamed of.

Tottenham have always been categorised as a ‘cup team’, but they certainly won’t be complaining at the tag if they are holding aloft the coveted trophy at Wembley in May. Stranger things have happened. Redknapp’s teams always emit great belief, so if Harry believes that he won’t be mugged by a group of Spaniards for the second time this season, I’ll believe him.

Sunday, 13 March 2011

United and Arsenal - A Fork in the Path

A WONDERFULLY open FA Cup quarter-final yesterday between Manchester United and Arsenal gave neutrals a fascinating perspective on two teams at crucial points of the season, and gave both managers food for thought afterwards as the season reaches its climax. It’s definitely squeaky bum time now.

Not that you’d think Arsenal had any chance of finishing this season moderately successful if you listened to the majority of BBC 5 Live fans after the game yesterday, phoning in yet again, saying it was time for Wenger to go.

Apparently, it’s a sad state of affairs when you are dumped out of two competitions within a week by minnows such as Barcelona and Manchester United, and maybe Arsenal fans are right to question the competence of a team just 3 points of the top of the Barclays Premier League, with a game in hand.

For Manchester United, yesterday’s fixture was supposed to be the chance to deliver a crushing psychological blow to Arsene Wenger’s players, but despite the victory, the truth is that both teams still have everything to play for, and yesterday’s result may have helped both teams rather than hindered them.

For Arsenal, the Gunners now can focus their strengths on capturing their first Premier League since 2004’s ‘Invincibles’ season. True, seeing success in three cup competitions is tough to deal with, but very rarely does a team winning the Premier League have it easy in the run-in. Even Wenger’s 2004 side had to deal with a hard-to-take FA Cup exit to United in a semi final at Villa Park.

Winning the League Cup would have given Wenger’s side a lift, but in reality the League Cup for a club like Arsenal is not enough to win on its own. As so often relayed by lazy football pundits, it is the Premier League that is your ‘bread and butter’, or as Wenger’s French would like to put it, your ‘pain et le beurre’.

With Robin Van Persie back to full fitness (apart from possible deafness), Arsenal still have a genuine chance this season of winning the title. They need Theo Walcott back, and a fit Cesc Fabregas is a bonus for any side, but Arsenal’s remaining fixtures aren’t too tough for the experienced Wenger to overcome. A crucial game in hand against rivals Tottenham could help decide their fate, but they also face United at home on May 1, a side that has struggled badly away from home by their standards.

Losing in the manner they did yesterday wouldn’t be too much of a worry for Arsenal. United are always going to create chances at Old Trafford, but Edwin Van der Sar’s man of the match performance said enough about the chances Arsenal had. Arsenal created a hell of a lot more openings at Old Trafford yesterday than they have done in previous years, and those pointing out that United had 7 defenders playing outfield yesterday should ponder whether a team with that many defensive players should be allowing so many opportunities for the opposition to score.

Indeed, it is Arsenal’s defence that now gives Wenger the biggest headache. Despite critics of the Gunners pointing out to a flimsy back line that seems destined to cost them one again, it should be mentioned that before the Champions League exit at the Nou Camp in midweek, Arsenal had kept clean sheets in SEVEN of their last nine league games.

However, Johan Djourou’s injury has dealt Wenger a massive blow. Djourou’s form since the turn of the season has been fantastic, with the 24-year-old Swiss international offering a calmness not seen in Arsenal’s back four since Tony Adams. It is no coincidence that since Djourou made the centre back position his own after the Christmas, Wenger’s men have remained unbeaten in the Premier League.

The dislocated shoulder he suffered yesterday will now keep him out for the rest of the season, and with Thomas Vermaelen injured and Sebastian Squillachi struggling for form, Wenger may struggle to hold together a defence now marshalled by the ever-improving Laurent Koscielny. Gael Clichy’s failure to understand an offside trap isn’t going to help anyone either.

For Manchester United, yesterday’s victory was more significant for themselves psychologically, rather than affecting the mental state of the Gunners. Coming on the back of two morale-sapping defeats away at Chelsea and Liverpool, United found themselves on the brink of collapse. However, a victory with clearly a makeshift set-up gives confidence to those players on the fringes of the United first team that they can have a major say in the rest of United’s season.

Sir Alex Ferguson said he opted for a team that would provide the most energy yesterday, and the likes of Rooney, Hernandez and the Da Silva twins put in a brilliant shift to rattle the Arsenal players. The United manager must now be more confident in the abilities of young talent of Fabio and Rafael as attacking options as well in the full back positions, and you get the feeling he would now trust Chris Smalling in the biggest of games. Smalling has matured quickly this season, and the chance to be the long term replacement for Rio Ferdinand looks increasingly likely.

In a tiring season for United, Javier Hernandez is the refreshing option that Ferguson likes at this stage of the season. The United manager currently seems unsure in what fixtures United would benefit from playing Dimitar Berbatov. Berbatov on his own up front has never really worked due to his less-than-admirable work-rate and his preference to drop deep, and despite Berbatov enjoying his most successful season, it is clear that his manager still feels United operate better without him in the big fixtures.

Hernandez’s ability to play on the shoulder of the last defender is something the United manager feels his team needs at the moment, and with Wayne Rooney filling in wide positions and playing increasingly defensively in the crucial stage of the season, the Mexican gives the team an outlet of relief up front. Indeed Ferguson has always enjoyed a counter-attacking team, which was evident when the Scot showed preference for Louis Saha ahead of Ruud Van Nistelrooy in the last few months of the 2005/2006 season.

United suffered burn-out badly in the 2006/2007 season, losing to AC Milan in the Champions League Semi Finals, and losing an FA Cup final to Chelsea days after the Old Trafford club had secured the Premier League title. Yesterday’s efforts will not have gone unnoticed by Ferguson, and despite a season that they have played below their high standards at times, the United boss may well feel they have enough in the tank to last the pace to pick up at least one trophy.

In another boost for United, Antonio Valencia’s highly impressive run-out yesterday will give the team’s effectiveness in wide positions fresh impetus, an area which was looking increasingly troublesome in recent months, as the team relied heavily on Nani to provide that magic spark.

The season is not over for Arsenal or United by any means. For United, it is somewhat unfortunate that success in multiple competitions means increased tiredness, thus affecting their capacity for each fixture they play. For Arsenal, staff and supporters may well be forlorn about the possibility of yet another season without a trophy, but with just the Premier League to focus on, Wenger’s critics may want to just see how the season turns out before they reach for the red button.

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

FC Barcelona - The Road to Self-Righteousness?

BARCELONA lived up to the hype last night with a dominant display over English football's Barca-wannabe's Arsenal, as Arsene Wenger’s men limped out of the Champions League like an Owen Hargreaves comeback. Despite Robin Van Persie’s red card early in the second half, and despite the fact that Arsenal were still only a goal away from defeating the Spanish giants, the gulf in class was as visible as the fury etched on Wenger’s beleagured face after the game.
Barcelona’s statistics last night were incredible, but what is even more amazing is that they produce such figures regularly and consistently. Training, ability and dedication are all key factors to this, as well as corking sunshine every day, but the real underlying factor in what they do is the philosophy behind it. They play this way as a principal, as they believe it is the right way to play.
They are often very preachy about it, but, as we all saw last night, they are right to boast about it. It is undeniably great to watch, almost making you want to go out in your back garden at 10pm, to try and persuade your elderly neighbour who looks a bit like Carlos Puyol to exchange in a few ten-yard passes with you on his front lawn.
Barcelona as a club also had the much- lauded principal of having never worn corporate advertisements on their shirts, going back to the days when the club was first founded in 1899. This is still the case this season, with children’s charity UNICEF in its fifth year of sitting proudly on the front of Barca’s shirts. Rather than receiving millions for wearing the logo of a worldwide electronics manufacturer, Barcelona actually paid the charity over £1million a year.
However, this romantic ideology could only last so long, and this season will be the last that Barcelona sports a shirt without corporate sponsorship. The lucky name of the Qatar Foundation will now be proudly emblazoned on the front of the Barca shirts, boosting the Spanish club’s income by around £25m a year over the next five years. The Barcelona vice-president Javier Faus decribed the deal as ‘the biggest in the history of football’, but also admitted the deal would not have been signed if the club hadn’t had a debt of over €420m. UNICEF will stay on the shirt, but may have to play second fiddle in terms of location and positioning to the rich Qatar Foundation’s name.
It’s a sad story, albeit amazing how long it lasted. However, the problem of money in the current economic climate was always going to catch up with the club. It was something that fans all over the world knew about and consequently loved Barcelona for. For some supporters, the likes of Tranmere Rovers and Stockport County now had a rival for being someone's 'second team'.  Along with the fact that Barcelona is a club that is owned by its supporters, who theoretically control the club’s destiny, the club is seen as somewhat of an ideal model in every aspect.
However this isn’t a piece on the economics, dynamics and tactics utilised by the Catalan giants. Yes, it is shocking how in last night’s game the only attempt on Barca’s goal came from the unfortunate Sergio Busquets, and yes Arsenal’s passing was improved and seemingly more effective once Van Persie had been dismissed. The game was over, and in some ways invalid, after referee Massimo Busacca had killed the game with his ridiculous decision to give the Dutchman his marching orders for kicking the ball ‘away’. Not that I think Van Persie was totally innocent in this situation.

It’s not the first time a striker has been flagged offside and then proceeded to shoot, pretending he ‘hadn’t heard’ the referee’s whistle, pointing to his ears in protest. The Nou Camp is a place where the noise of a simple whistle is easily drowned out, but I’m sure Van Persie would have actually hit the target with his snatched right foot effort if he knew he was definitely onside, rather than miserably driving it past the near post of Victor Valdes’s goal. Despite what Wenger and Van Persie will have you believe in the media over the next few days, I think Van Persie, although unlucky, was naïve and probably a little petulant in the whole incident. Let’s be honest, it’s not totally out of character for him to be in trouble with referees is it?
But how many people watching the game last night were truly surprised by Busacca’s decision to show Van Persie red? Barcelona’s constant hounding of the referee was second only to the brilliant pressing game they were displaying against the Londoners. A Barca player goes down and the noise from the surrounding supporters is deafening, and referees at the Nou Camp, often succumb to the pressure of fans and approaching players alike.
It doesn’t have to be like this you know, Barcelona. You have the greatest club team around the moment, and you play a style of football that embodies just how beautiful the game can be. Small, diminutive players with world-class touch, skill and vision, yet also equipped with a fantastic work ethic. Defenders aside, there are also no physical giants on this team either.

Ironically, it was Wenger’s Arsenal sides of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s that seemed to argue that the way forward for competing teams was to have a disposal of players that were tall, strong, fast and physical. Thankfully for the vertically-challenged, the likes of Xavi, Lionel Messi, Andres Iniesta and David Villa have shown that real talent lies in your feet and brain, not in how big your body is.
In Sid Lowe’s brilliant interview with Xavi in last month’s Guardian (see here), it was clear that Barcelona players had a unique footballing mindset - embedded in by the club. Xavi said:
“I like the fact that talent, technical ability, is valued above physical condition now. I'm glad that's the priority; if it wasn't, there wouldn't be the same spectacle. Football is played to win but our satisfaction is double. Other teams win and they're happy, but it's not the same. The identity is lacking. The result is an impostor in football.”            
If Barcelona want to continue their current image of being an idealistic club, then perhaps Josep Guardiola can instruct his team to make history and be the first set of players not to appeal for every decision that doesn’t go their way. The individuality of Barcelona supporters extends to its Catalan roots – they are their own people with their own methods. In footballing and politics, they believe in beauty and freedom. Thus, if their players were to suddenly seen to pacifistically accept decisions, yet continue to play easy-on-the-eye football, then there’s every chance that the young contingent of fans that idolise the club will try to imitate them on the field in the future, and hopefully off the field too.

The game's future could be saved from moronic, overzealous and overpaid centre-forwards subjecting officials to a barrage of unwarranted abuse. Instead of rolling around on the floor like he did last night after a collision with Laurent Koscielny, David Villa can instead choose to get up, offer to shake the defender’s hand, and laugh it off. Instead of pressurising the referee to send off Van Persie, Barcelona players can simply ignore it and play the beautiful game as they want it to be played.

It strikes me as baffling that a team who preach so much about the way football should be played should continue to abuse referees so disgracefully and cheat them into making certain decisions. Yes, there are other teams that also do this – most, if not all teams abuse officials and disrespect the running of the game. However, Barcelona are the only ones that seem to hold regular sermons on how football should be played.
 Make a stand Barcelona. If you’re going to do things right, then do things properly.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Andy Gray – The Last Word? I Hope Not.

“Oh Andy,
You came and you slagged off that Massey,
So you were sent on your way, oh Andy,
You and Keyesy you boys aren't so classy,
But I’ll miss you, you know, oh Andy…”

OH Andy indeed. The now-former Sky Sports pundit is the current hot topic on everyone’s lips at the moment. Although if you tuned in to BBC 5 Live last night after the Blackpool vs. Manchester United game expecting a debate about Gray, you may have been instead enticed by presenter Tony Livesy’s bizarre and less-than-fascinating topic of ‘Where have you been barred from?’

Most of the responses regarding Gray’s dismissal are seemingly ones of joy. Critics, football fans and journalists alike have all rejoiced in Sky’s announcement yesterday. Comments on Twitter and Facebook have been amusing and often cutting. Many have praised Sky for their handling of the situation, although it was understood that if the 3rd video clip, featuring presenter Charlotte Jackson, hadn’t have been found and shown to Sky bosses, then Gray would have remained in his position as he had already been given just a stern warning, just as was then given to his ‘mate’ Richard Keys.

Going back to BBC 5 Live, Gray would have been alarmed at an interview with Ron Atkinson on the situation yesterday evening. Probably the last person Gray would have wanted sticking their noses in was the gold-plated Atkinson, although hats off to the BBC for trying to stick Gray in a corner with a pundit sacked for obscene racist comments in 2004. Unsurprisingly, Atkinson believed the dismissal of Gray was a bit harsh, before probably being interrupted by the BBC reporter as he trailed off whilst talking off about another programme which shows he isn’t racist.

But is Big Ron right about Gray? Possibly, although Gray’s comments were rightly judged to be sexist and derogatory towards women and to that he has no defence. However, Sky has set a dangerous precedent by relieving the former Scottish international of his duties. One must be truly naïve to believe Gray is in a minority within such broadcasting corporations to hold such sexist views. Gray’s sacking will simply make people in broadcasting more careful about what and where they say it, rather than changing attitudes altogether.

Many have already raised the issue on whether Soccer AM’s ‘Soccerette’ feature will continue after what has happened. The Soccerette feature involves an invariably attractive female parading about in a short skirt and football top, whilst being the subject of jokes and innuendoes. Those who argue in defence of the show that such jokes are done in jest, are in danger of being hypocritical. The Soccerette segment of the show has always been a popular one, especially with men, ever since Tim Lovejoy first cat-walked up and down the Soccer AM studio with a female in tow.

So are we to believe that we have all been disgustingly sexist all this time? Maybe we should all write to Sky and apologise, sending in a ‘My Name is Earl’-type list of all the women we have had naughty thoughts about on those hung-over Saturday mornings. In fact, critics would probably like to believe that Gray and Richard Keys would hang around the back of the Soccer AM studios, leering at the Soccerette and presenter Helen Chamberlain, dressed up as milkmen.

Gray was rumoured to be already disliked by a fair few colleagues and journalists within football, with some journalists not sharing the 55-year-old’s view that you have had to have played professional football in order to hold a valid opinion on the sport.( Although to be fair, Gray is probably not the only ex-professional-turned-pundit to share such a belief) Since Gray first boomed onto our screen as the regular pundit/co-commentator alongside Keys and commentator Martin Tyler for Sky Sports in 1992, he has rumoured to have since become big-headed and self-indulgent, again not winning many friends.

Many football fans have also criticised Gray over the years for seemingly hating their team with a passion and that he loves a rival team instead. Listen guys, he’s a critic, he’s supposed to have an opinion, and he can’t hate everyone. I have heard Everton and Manchester United fans say that ex-Everton player Gray favours Liverpool, and more understandably I have heard Liverpool fans say he hates the Anfield outfit and blatantly favours the Toffees.

Despite Gray’s lack of support over this current issue, it mustn’t be forgotten that Gray was well-received in his early years at Sky. I myself always liked Gray as a pundit. For years armchair supporters had been subjected to the likes of Jimmy Hill turning up at the odd BBC FA Cup game. Hill once famously castrated (not physically) Manchester United’s players before an FA Cup Third Round tie away to Nottingham Forest in 1990, claiming their body language during the warm up displayed signs of a team already beaten. United ended up beating Forest 1-0 thanks to a Mark Robins header, and went on to win the Cup, leaving Hill to take the embarrassment firmly on his magnificent specimen of a chin.

Gray was part of a team that revitalised watching top-flight football, and was perfect in transferring over the excitement of the new Premier League to a TV audience. Gray’s powerful, purring, raspy voice relayed the action on the pitch brilliantly when working alongside commentators such as Tyler and Ian Darke. Back in the early-to mid 1990’s, Gray’s acerbic tones made players like Ian Culverhouse, Michel Vonk and Ian Marshall appear to be Gladiator-esquein the fight for the Premiership crown, rather than the absolute donkeys that they were.

Importantly, there is nothing w rong with this type of passion. Liverpool fans have great memories of Steven Gerrard’s strike against Olympiakos at Anfield in 1995, where Gray was assisting Tyler in the commentary box. The Scot’s ear-splitting cries of: ‘Oh You Beauty!’ (Not a comment on any female stewards in the Kop) conveyed the emotion of the moment brilliantly, and made the moment even more memorable for those watching the game in their armchair. It was a great moment that showed you how much Gray loves the game, and at that point, how much he loved his job.

Not that Gray’s excellence was down solely to his sheer passion and love for the game. Gray was also tactically astute, and he is still one of the rare breed of football-analysts that can do the business both in the commentary box and back in the studio. Alan Hansen may sit comfortably in his bland BBC studio in his array of pastel coloured shirts, but he has never been one for venturing into the commentary box to join the likes of John Motson. Mark Lawrenson, who’s head is increasingly looking like a melted pumpkin, has made many ventures into co-commentating, but comes across as a dishevelled, bitter old man who has missed the last bus home, particularly when paired with Motson.

Back in the studio, Gray showed innovation with his ever-evolving gadgetry, usually on ‘Monday Night Football’. Not distracted by Keys’ sporadic and slightly disturbing looks into the camera as he asked Gray a question, Gray would use his equipment to analyse a future game or look back on the weekend’s action. It was fresh, unique and fitted in well with Sky’s insistence to be one step ahead of the competition. Such technical wizardry isn’t all that easy to pull off either, as we all know what happened when Andy Townsend invited ITV bosses into his pimped-up Ford Transit when the channel won the rights to show Premiership Football in 2001. Jamie Redknapp has shown sufficient nouse to be able to replace Gray's piercing views in the Sky Sports studio, but the channel is lacking a co-commentator of decent quality.

With Gray now gone, it is up to the likes of Townsend and co to provide not only insight, but excitement to our screens. But the year is now 2011, and a new breed of respected football journalists has arisen. The likes of Gabrielle Marcotti and James Richardson have both had their names mentioned on Twitter to replace people like Gray, and both been on our screens for a while now, with Richardson in particular having a big following ever since his days presenting Italian football for Channel 4 in the early 1990’s, and Marcotti appearing on ITV’s Champions League highlights programme.

However, despite the intelligent views that these two give on a regular basis, it remains to be seen whether these could do a job like Gray did. Richardson and his clever use of puns have a cult following, and he hosts the fantastic Guardian Football Weekly podcast. His quirky presenting style lends itself brilliantly to the tongue-in cheek style of the show, while remaining thoughtful and insightful.

Indeed it is this style of punditry and analysis that some people wish was more prevalent in the current era of football broadcasting. Whether it is an abundance of statistics, the use of Prozone or more Richardson-style punnery, the market for this style of presentation is there, but whether it is suitable for prime-time football is another question. Italian football may well suit Richardson, but the slow, almost contemplative pace of the Italian game is perfect for Richardson’s musings. But what about Richardson handling a big ‘Premier League Super Sunday’? Would his sudden ramblings about attack strategies in the Battle of Gettysburg really be appropriate during a Merseyside Derby?

Let’s not forget, football is traditionally the working man’s game, evolving from working-class roots. To alienate the working man in favour of a more middle-class and alternative broadcasting style is dangerous. Take ‘Big Jimmy', an oversized lorry driver who follows his beloved Walsall week in, week out.  But one particular Sunday afternoon, 'Big Jimmy' has to mind the kids, so he has to watch Sky for live coverage of Walsall’s big FA Cup tie at the Bescott Stadium at home to the rich Manchester City. New presenter Richardson is in his place with his meticulously-grown goatee beard. Now Jimmy likes the opening credits – the montage of giant-killings from over the years, ranging from Sutton United’s victory over Coventry in 1989, and Mickey Thomas’s superb free-kick in Wrexham’s win over Arsenal in 1992. However, big Jimmy is less than impressed when Richardson starts the broadcast looking pensively into the camera, stroking his beard and proceeding with a delicious play-on-words that involves replacing Bescott with Joleon Lescott. All of a sudden, 'Big Jimmy' doesn’t know what the fuck is going on.

If change is managed carefully however, it should be embraced. Match of the Day-bashing is now all too common, but that it is not to say critics of sporting punditry are wrong. On the BBC we have Garth Crooks, who now puts so much emphasis on every word he says, that the significance of each word he does say becomes less and less meaningful. On ITV, Gareth Southgate’s fashion has gone from failed-Dickensian to University student from 2002. The channel’s football coverage hasn’t recovered since the death of Brian Moore, and it certainly wasn’t helped when Steve Ryder resurrected his career on the channel, looking like a cross between a bewildered English sheepdog and actor Ted Danson.

So as the future beckons for football coverage, what does the future hold for Gray? Gray is reportedly furious at the way events have unfolded. Rumours of a stitch-up within Sky are rife, though that doesn’t excuse Gray’s comments. Despite Gray’s critics, he surely had more fans than Keys. If Keys doesn’t get the push today after the latest YouTube video that has been leaked, then you would hope he would show some kind of loyalty towards Gray and do the honourable thing of resigning. The latest video of Keys asking Jamie Redknapp if he would ‘smash it’ is breathtakingly bad. Disturbing even. I wonder if Keys was ever caught ‘hanging out the back’ of Anne Diamond on that TV-am sofa all those years ago?

Since the incident last Saturday, Keys has apparently had the chance to hold up his Teen-Wolf-like hands and apologise to the female assistant referee Sian Massey, though the point of apologising now seems rather pointless. “Sorry for my sexist views and sorry for believing women are completely unable to learn a law like the offside rule, but what are you going to do eh? Get me sacked? Do me a favour love… Oh shit.”

Thursday, 30 December 2010

Anfield of Nightmares

AFTER yet another dismal showing last night in front of a foolishly-expectant home crowd at Anfield, Liverpool Football Club remains in relative-crisis mode. The 1-0 defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers was one that should have been avoided, but now we are subject to more excuses as to why the Merseysiders failed to turn up.

One point argued by Sky Sports pundit Andy Gray last night was that Liverpool looked rusty, having had their last two league games postponed and over a fortnight's rest. Wolves on the other hand, played only three days ago, slumping to a 2-1 home defeat to Wigan Athletic. In Gray’s opinion, Mick McCarthy’s merry men were a whole lot sharper than Roy Hodgson’s Scouse screw-ups.

Gray’s arguments could be seen as perfectly valid if it were not for the fact that throughout the season we are subject to managers complaining about fixture congestion and players underperforming due to too many games in too short a space of time.

Liverpool’s rest period of 17 days would be envied by other teams, but for a team whose best players would seemingly benefit from rest and recuperation from past injury problems, it has not worked out. The recent postponements meant Steven Gerrard was allowed time to return from a hamstring problem and Fernando Torres, if we are to believe what we are constantly subjected to by media sources, was given his first rest since he was 10 years old.

Also within this time period, it seems Glen Johnson has reverted to a Benjamin Button-esque state, now possessing the footballing capabilities of his 12-year-old self. One moment in last night’s first half was of particularly naïve nature, as he needlessly booted the ball out across his own box for a throw-in. Rather than holding his hands-up and admitting the act of travesty, he instead appeared to signal to his forward players that they should have already been in the stands waiting for it. If Liverpool are to miraculously gain a place in Europe by May, expect a 3-year-old nappy-wearing Johnson to be held aloft by Pepe Reina in front of the Kop amidst the celebrations, and then given the opportunity to complete five-yard passes to Martin Skrtel and Jamie Carragher.

The truth is that there is a combination of on-pitch factors which are directly affecting the team’s success. David Ngog is not going to be the next Thierry Henry, and just as it took Sir Alex Ferguson years to realise David Bellion wasn’t either, Liverpool should get rid of the young Frenchman. Any hopes of a possible partnership with Fernando Torres were surely vanquished last night, as both forwards struggled to hold up the ball and allow midfielders to join the attack.

Liverpool’s problems stem from this ability to not keep the ball in the final third. Fernando Torres is not the same player he was two years ago, and it looks often like English defences have him well and truly found out. Those who claim the Spaniard is still unfit must be as tired of their own voices as journalists are. Wolves last night were quick to close down the striker when he was receiving passes, but in reality they didn’t have to try too hard as the Spaniard’s control let him down more as the game went on.

Supporters of Torres who claim the Spaniard has poor support and delivery from teammates should look at the likes of Darren Bent, a player who has never played with a Gerrard, a Beckham or a Bergkamp, yet has consistently scored throughout his career in the Premiership. Torres looks constantly unhappy nowadays, but I’m sure his body language would be even more vitriolic if he were being supplied with through balls by Bent’s current teammates Kieran Richardson and Phil Bardsley.

There is a severe lack of confidence amongst the Liverpool team, but this is not something which the Charlie Chalk-lookalike Hodgson has solely instilled. Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool last season were at times equally awful, bowing out of the FA Cup early to Reading in a pitiful performance, and suffering the same tactical problems as Hodgson faces now.

Tactically, Liverpool’s biggest problem may lie in their reputation. Hodgson may have saved Fulham from relegation and moulded them into a capable outfit, but they were often playing teams who were open and not afraid of going for the jugular. Liverpool however, are still a club that can inspire fear, and with big names likes Gerrard, Torres and Reina, opposing sides often set-up with men behind the ball, frustrating the Merseysiders and limiting their opportunities.

It would be no surprise if at the time this article was published Hodgson had either handed in his resignation or had it terminated. His appointment was generally to be considered as a stop-gap. He was an elderly, experienced coach, who, though often appeared to be going blind, could help guide Liverpool through what was always going to be a transitional period.

The mid-table position comes as no surprise to many who have seen the decline of the team in the last 18 months or so, but many of the Kop faithful have found it hard during this period to accept Hodgson as the bloke responsible for managing their beloved club.

However, Hodgson should surely have not been expected to win titles and trophies. He was hardly achieving such feats at Fulham during his reign at Craven Cottage; instead he was battling against the odds and achieving commendable results and performances on a shoe-string budget. Indeed many Liverpool fans that were aware of financial restraints in the summer saw Hodgson as the perfect replacement to deal with such circumstances, due to his Fulham record.

Inheriting a Liverpool team in decline, Hodgson’s role was to steady the Liverpool ship and rebuild for the future, possibly for another manager to take charge when the team looks like it can win big trophies again, and consequently win all the plaudits. Rather like when former-boss Benitez took over Gerard Houlier's side in 2004.

There is nothing wrong with replacing Hodgson mid-season, and replacing him with someone like the heavily respected but equally-dour Kenny Dalglish. Most Liverpool fans would most probably desire a manager who isn't making decisions like playing Ngog and Torres up front together, employing Raul Meireles in a wide position, or simply playing Paul Konchesky.

Indeed, if something is not working and you don’t intend to continue with the set-up in a few years time anyway, then by all means cut your losses. However, as other teams get richer and rivals improve, Liverpool cannot afford to slip too far away. The club lacks a direction and a plan of attack – on and off the field. A short-term replacement for Hodgson however, is unlikely to have the galvanising effect that most Liverpool fans would like.

Finally, for those of you who wish to see old Roy first step on the shores of Liverpool docks back in the summer, please look at this rare clip...