Thursday, 28 January 2010

Rooney coming of age..

‘Remember the name, Wayne Rooney’. Any self respecting football fan will recall the words of Clive Tyldesley on the day a star was born. Against an Arsenal side undefeated in thirty fixtures, Wayne Rooney plucked the ball out of the air with consummate ease and delivered a bending shot past David Seaman to win the game for Everton in injury time. The boy from Merseyside was 5 days shy of his 17th birthday; he was on 80 quid a week. Everything changed. Forget putting yourself on the map, he became the map. And with it came the inevitable pressures and expectations of being an exciting English prospect. He’s the one; better than Owen, the best since Gazza. He could be as good as Maradona… he’s the white Pele. England are going to win the World Cup. Just a few of the assumptions Wayne Rooney created as he burst onto the scene with that goal. It’s hard to believe the mercurial talent is still only 24 but, as he enjoys the richest vein of goal scoring form in his career, is he announcing himself as one of the world’s greatest?

Having guided his club to another Wembley final with a last gasp header to defeat rivals Manchester City, Sir Alex Ferguson last night described Rooney as “truly world class”. A tremendous accolade to a player that appears to be revelling in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, with Rooney’s goals this season proving he thrives on the extra responsibility. Following his meteoric rise at Goodison Park, Rooney found himself on Ferguson’s shopping list at just 18 years old, albeit due to what now seems like a comical bid from Newcastle that forced United’s hand. Rooney had just returned from Euro 2004 whereby personal (if not national) success had persuaded Sir Alex he was worth the £30 million asking price. 4 goals in as many games let the whole football world know who Wayne Rooney was, before injury cruelly ruined his, and undoubtedly, England’s campaign. The man was raw, fearless. His United career began in similar vein; a champions league hat-trick on debut as he finished top scorer, although he had to settle for no silverware. However, in recent seasons, although his form has never dipped enough to warrant any genuine criticism, he has been a victim of expectation. We all wanted to see England have a world beater; he wasn’t quite there yet.

Cristiano Ronaldo, on the other hand, was. While Wayne Rooney suffered the pain of a broken metatarsal for the second time, and a subsequent race against time to be fit for the World Cup, Ronaldo was about to propel himself to the summit of world football. Ronaldo began to stamp his authority on the game at the highest level during Germany 2006; Rooney ended up having an early bath, as England endured an early exit. “Please don’t kill Wayne Rooney, he is the golden boy of English football” were Sven’s parting words as England boss, and here started a transitional few years for the boy wonder Rooney. Now playing in the best Manchester United side in a decade, Rooney was about to achieve great domestic success. He has won 3 league titles, a Champions League and a League Cup in the last 3 years, averaging 15 league goals a season. However despite such success, niggling doubts remained as to whether he could achieve the potential he had shown in his teens. He was beating less men, his long range goals were no longer an every week occurrence. Throughout this period, Ronaldo was the most feared player on the planet; 65 goals in 2 seasons from a winger speaks for itself. Rooney had less responsibility than he had been accustomed to and took on a selfless task for the good of the team, as Ronaldo assumed a free role in any team selected. Rooney displayed a maturity far beyond his tender years throughout frustrating spells, not least when he was played out of position and substituted in both Champions League finals in the previous 2 years.

Now in a World Cup year and with Ronaldo at Madrid, Rooney has reaffirmed everyone’s belief in his abilities. Ronaldo left Old Trafford and the general consensus was that Rooney would take on the added responsibility. He hasn’t disappointed, with 21 goals already this season the only reason Manchester United’s evident problems haven’t been more prevalent. His all-round game is currently as good as it ever has been, and dare I say as good as any other striker in the world. He won’t stop Chelsea winning the league, but lets all pray England have their very own Roonaldo this summer!

Friday, 22 January 2010

Midweek Frenzy!

Is it just me or are we experiencing the most pulsating season ever? Midway through January often you look for an eye-catching transfer to spark interest but, with the market predictably quiet, there’s certainly no shortage of talking points.

For anyone that’s blinked, Manchester United find themselves over £700 million in debt while their rivals across the road appear to have more money than they know what to do with. They’ve also got Carlos Tevez, of course. Burnley’s shock stint in the Premier league will be shirt lived I fear, having last week lost the catalyst for their success when Owen Coyle joined North West rivals Bolton. Portsmouth are still struggling to pay their players, while previous manager Harry Redknapp has been charged for tax evasion during his second spell at Fratton Park. West Ham have been taken over by the former Birmingham City owners, who themselves admit to having little money to fund the club. More money than Liverpool mind, as their ownership troubles wrangle on. Arsenal have signed a centre back. Remember Sol Campbell? And they sit top of the tree… there’s just a few of the issues brewing.

Maybe I’m just overexcited in a World Cup year as football goes into overdrive. However, as I struggle to keep up with off the field developments, let’s look at what has been an incredible mid-week on the pitch- and the Champions League is still yet to return!

The adverse weather conditions have provided many teams with an unexpected winter break and so we were treated to a feast of football during the week, a feast that only served to further wet the appetite for the rest of the season. The Carling Cup semi finals took place and provided intense viewing as two classic cup ties were played out. With the first leg between Aston Villa and Blackburn seeing Villa leave Ewood Park with a 0-1 lead, the tie was nicely poised for the second leg. Blackburn had nothing to lose; they had to attack. For Villa it was a difficult one; in front of their home fans they are expected to attack, and yet must have been focused on protecting their slender lead. In the end, no one expected what was to come and the two teams played out a ten goal thriller which eventually saw Villa through to their first Wembley final for 10 years. Having started the brighter, Blackburn took a deserved two goal lead. However, the lead came too early and Villa’s resurgence culminated in a 6-4 win on the night. The sending off of Chris Samba just before the half did change the game, as I’m sure Big Sam will concur, although no arguments about the decision.

With the Carling Cup’s credibility ever increasing (Chelsea and United have won it 4 out of the last 5 years) Martin O’Neill can now dream of ending Villa’s wait for another major trophy, and continue the credible job he’s done since arriving at Villa Park. Awaiting him and his Villa team will be a team from Manchester. With the first leg of this Manchester derby taking place on Tuesday night, an electric atmosphere was expected and it didn’t disappoint. A typical cup tie and a derby full of spite, resentment and rivalry. Just what you want. Anyone who didn’t see Carlos Tevez’ goals coming doesn’t know football. United took an early lead through the evergreen Giggs but the in form Tevez stole the headlines again with a double that sunk his former employers. Gary Neville, whose career has been over for a while decided to milk it by making obscene gestures (that he has no right to make) from the side line. Tevez today described him as ‘moron’; personally I don’t think that does Neville’s behaviour justice. However, it’s still very much in the balance at half time and we can look forward to further fireworks at Old Trafford on Wednesday night in the return leg.

In the Premier league, Liverpool won a crucial game in the battle for 4th spot with a 2-0 win over contenders Spurs, while Arsenal showed their resilience by coming from 2 down to beat Bolton and move top of the league for the first time since August. All in all, a great mid week for football with goals galore and the usual controversy that comes with it. And just think, in 2 weeks time we’ll have Beckham and Mourihno’s return to England to look forward to on a Wednesday night; now that’s worth waking up for!

Friday, 15 January 2010

Benitez Hangs On

Roughly this time last year Rafael Benitez gave a press conference prior to an away game against Stoke famously stating ‘facts’ about Liverpool and, more prevalently Manchester United’s, season. At the time Liverpool stood proudly 2 points clear of the chasing pack in their best ever start to a Premier league season. Today with another daunting trip to the Brittania Stadium looming Benitez provided a more sombre précis of Liverpool’s increasingly failing season with a heartfelt apology to the Liverpool faithful. Renowned for their patience and loyalty, Benitez’ message conceded, “We are not playing well and we all feel sorry for the fans”. The man is under fire; head up in the trenches and anyone and everyone is firing. Unquestionably his job hangs by a thread. Many believe defeat at Stoke tomorrow will spell the end of his tenure. A win? The same fate, only slightly delayed. But let’s spare a thought for a man whose showing the first sign of emotion after such intense scrutiny and, criticism in some parts, must have left him feeling ostracised.

Benitez is indisputably overseeing an immensely unsuccessful and frustrating period as manager of Liverpool Football Club. Though doesn’t it seem more justifiable given that off the field the club is in the sort of turmoil that only Pompey and QPR can relate to? West Ham maybe; and of course we’ll chuck Notts County in there. My point is this: how long did people expect the team to prosper while the club itself represented uncertainty and unwanted controversy? In no other job would a manager be expected to achieve previously unattainable targets with the organisation crumbling around them. Success brings expectation and the relative success of last season (trophy-less but not without meteoric improvement) has brought its own expectation. However, in a period whereby the club has endured much change and inner squabbling, with American owners George Gillet and Tom Hicks causing more trouble than their worth (literally), Benitez should be commended for the job he’s done. Up till now he has overseen one of the steadiest ships in the league, writing himself into the history books with the Champions League in 2005, while producing a team closer to winning the title every year.

Of course Benitez has made some bad mistakes. His record in the transfer market is dubious with the likes of Morientes, Babel, Lucas, Pennant, Dossena and Voronin all failing to make any sort of impact. The stubbornness he displayed over the signing of Robbie Keane now seems to be to the team’s detriment. Many point to the enforced loss of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid this summer as a turning point in Liverpool’s form, as his creativity has been missed. However, Benitez was practically pushing him out of the door the previous year as he pursued Aston Villa’s Gareth Barry, and therefore can’t site Alonso’s exit as an excuse. The gamble to buy the unfit talent of Alberto Aquilani has not paid off and Liverpool now find themselves ever more reliant on the two superstars, Torres and Gerrard. Benitez will be bitterly frustrated with the fitness woes both have incurred and can count himself unlucky on this front, but sadly for Liverpool fans without them is a team that would finish closer to the middle of the table than the top.

So as we potentially see the end of an era at Anfield, a new one beckons. And that man will be a big name; the current demise of the team is hardly going to be a deterrent for the likes of Hiddink or Mourinho, to name but two of the names being linked with Benitez’ job. Personally, I’d give Benitez at least until the end of the season to turn things around. Harry Redknapp today described Benitez as a “top manager with a fantastic record” and explained that Liverpool are “suffering the sort of blip that every team has”. Replacing the word “blip” with “minor crisis”, I’d agree wholeheartedly and I cannot see the value in sacking him now. The circumstances of the club will not change overnight and any manager coming in will be faced with the same lack order, lack of money, and a squad desperately thin on quality. Based on his record, I believe Liverpool can still finish fourth and save their season. Rafa described Stoke as his ”future” at the end of his press conference; however, after tomorrow, he could well be history.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Carlos' Journey

Carlos Tevez grabbed the back pages of every newspaper yesterday, so why not mention him here? A stunning hat-trick for the in-form Argentine put paid to a poor Blackburn side and propelled Manchester City into the much coveted fourth champions league spot. So after his controversial move across Manchester, is Tevez starting to prove worthy of his £30 million price tag?

The tenacious forward has not endured a particularly normal life; affectionately named ‘Apache’ in Argentina in reference to his upbringing in the trying surroundings of Fuerta Apache, he has come a long way. Fuerta Apache is one of the most dangerous slums in Buenos Aires with high crime rates and a population of over 17,000 in just 4,000 residences. Football was his only way out. A fact emphasised by his infectious work rate. Tevez now finds himself in starkly contrasting circumstances... but what a journey he’s taken!

Tevez began his career at Boca Juniors, the club he supported as a boy. During his three seasons at La Bombanera he won the Copa Libertadores, the Copasudamericana and the Intercontinental Cup. An impressive record for the much revered ‘Apache’ but no league title, something that Tevez himself alludes to. Although quotes attributed to him this season regarding retirement were presumably tongue in cheek, Tevez points to a title with Boca (along with the World Cup with Argentina, of course) as his career goals. If he was to decide on a return to his native Argentina and play out his days at Boca, who could blame him?

Tevez has been one of very few players in the modern game uniquely owned by a company, not the club he’s representing. However, ever since Tevez’ commitment to Media Sports Investment and in particular Anglo-Iranian Kia Joorabchian, he has endured nothing but turbulence and controversy. Having been pushed into a shock move to Brazilian giants Corinthians in 2004, Tevez later refused to play and demanded a move, allowing MSI to cash in once again. Tevez was a commodity, an object used for the benefit of those who owned him. Parallels can be made with the way Tevez’ national team coach Diego Maradona (whom Tevez described as the 21st century prophet) was treated throughout his career. Ill advising and little consideration for his own needs often left Maradona the unfortunate victim of his own controversy. However Tevez, like his hero, has battled to pursue success doing what he loves most.

Next stop for ‘Apache’ was Upton Park. I doubt he’d even heard of West Ham; he certainly didn’t choose them. As news broke on Sky Sports of the move, the football world’s proverbial jaw dropped. The boy from BA suddenly found himself in East London; hablas Espanol? Still, at least he was accompanied by his equally bemused compatriot, Javier Mascherano (also owned by MSI). Following a slow start at Upton Park and with Mascherano left out in the cold, Tevez inspired West Ham’s great escape culminating with the winning goal to beat Manchester United on the final day of the 2007 season. Lifelong veneration at Upton Park secured, but it was Old Trafford on loan Tevez was heading.

Although the ongoing controversy surrounding West Ham’s survival seemed unfair on Tevez (illegalities in Tevez’ move to Upton Park gave Sheffield United reason to appeal), he had a highly successful first season at United. Partnering the mercurial Wayne Rooney, Tevez scored crucial goals to help deliver a league and Champions League double. However, the signing of Dimitar Berbatov left Tevez warming the bench in his second season at Old Trafford and after relations soured between Tevez’ advisors and the club, Tevez waved farewell to his adoring fans with another Premier league medal to his name. Sir Alex Ferguson went on record saying he didn’t believe Carlos Tevez was worth the £30 million required for his signature; cue a shock move across Manchester to bitter rivals City, where Tevez would finally be free of the stranglehold of MSI.

Yet again Tevez has won over the fans with not only a bulldog-like work rate but a goal ratio to boot. 12 goals in 19 games and 10 in his last 7 suggests he was worth the big money. By my book, or more United’s debt ridden books, Ferguson simply couldn’t afford him. And with Owen and Berbatov regularly firing blanks, how they might miss him.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

When snow ruins your sporting schedule - Look to Africa

    The biennial African Cup of Nations kicks off tomorrow in Angola, and has already grabbed the front and back pages with the shocking armed ambush of the Togolese team coach. The Sparrow Hawks may be likely to pull out, but rightly or wrongly the tournament goes ahead and we are sure to enjoy some scintillating football over the next three weeks. Today, I am going to give you a brief analysis of the runners and riders, the favourites and some thoughts on the potential dark horses. I’ll also be having a brief look at some of the more tempting bets to be had. This isn’t exactly a competition that grabs the nations imagination, but any dedicated football fan will tell you that this tournament can be a great place to see some exciting football, spot stars of the future and enjoy those currently strutting their stuff in Europe’s top divisions. In a World Cup year, this becomes all the more relevant, and all the more fascinating.

    Ivory Coast are clear favourites, and looking at their squad it is easy to see why. Drogba, Kalou, Eboue, the Toure brothers and Dindane are some of the more recognisable names, and this impressive list must be daunting enough for the Malawis and Mozambiques of the competition. When you add to that reserve strikers like Abdul-Kader Keita of Galatasary, young Gervinho of Lille (who at just 22 boasts an impressive record of 11 goals in 18 appearances in Ligue 1) or the experienced West Brom defender Abdoulaye Meite, suddenly The Elephants appear to be a side capable dominating this competition. Their cause is only furthered by a potentially reduced group stage work load if Togo pull out of the competition as is widely expected.

    Samuel Eto’o, captain of Cameroon, takes his side into a tournament they have won twice in the last five attempts (consecutive victories in 2000 and 2002 and an appearance in the 2008 final). During a mixed qualification campaign for the 2010 World Cup, the appointment of prolific French manager Paul Le Guen seems to have revitalised the Indomitable Lions. Eto’o is obviously the stand out player, but looking further into the squad names like Nicolas N’Koulou and Sebastien Bassong will be making sure that the team are more than a side built around one of the world’s most dangerous strikers. The Lions can rely on a rock steady foundation as well as attacking flair - priced as well as 11/2 in some bookies - Cameroon are surely worth an each-way punt.

    As far as the dark horses in central Africa are concerned, a couple stick out. Backing Angola, especially to reach the final at 10/1 is tempting. In the 20 competitions ince 1970, the hosts have won the tournament 8 times,  lost in the final twice, reached the semi-finals 6 times and only failed to progress to at least that stage on 4 occasions. Sides as small as Burkina Faso have made the penultimate round (1998) so don’t be surprised if Angola turn it on in front of their home fans. The other dark horses to have a look at  also sit in group A - Mali. Priced at a generous 22/1, with stars such as captain Mahamadou Diarra of Real Madrid and La Liga goal machine Frederic Kanoute (a good bet at 14/1 for top goalscorer), and, like Angola, a relatively kind draw regarding both the group stage and the potential route to the final, The Eagles could definitely cause an upset.

     I hope this has been an interesting, if not comprehensive, guide to some of the action we are preparing for until the 31st January. With almost all the games in Britain called off this week (I personally have been robbed of days out to both Arsenal Bolton and Liverpool Spurs), and bar some exciting NFL playoff action tonight, there is very little sport to distract yourself with. I wholeheartedly recommend immersing yourself in the world of African football - you will not be disappointed. Perhaps world-famous Nike salesman and hero to sufferers of erectile dysfunction everywhere Pele was off the mark when he predicted an African World Cup winner before 2000, but some small consolation to the prolific endorser must be that the standard of football is now better than ever.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

A slow start to the January sales

We’re almost a week into the transfer window and the January sales are predictably slow. Many managers site the ‘lack of value’ offered in January as the reason for such caution. Inflated prices and cup tied players disinterest managers who have a mere four weeks to negotiate. Given the intensity of the Christmas and New Year fixtures, it’s difficult to believe they even have sufficient time to study the market. Many expected Chelsea to spend big during their solitary transfer window before a hearing regarding their illegal approach for French star Gael Kakuta. However, Carlo Ancelotti has ruled out any activity and, like us all, presumably expects Chelsea’s transfer embargo to be swept under the carpet. Manchester United won’t see the value in entering the market either, despite an eye opening defeat to rivals Leeds at the weekend. Having sold the world’s best player in July this season was always going to be one of transition and Fergie will not be too worried. So, where will the activity come from?

Of course all eyes will be on millionaires Manchester City and their new manager, with the tabloids having a field day. Reports today suggest former Manchester United and Chelsea midfielder Juan Sebastian Veron has rejected the opportunity to link up with former Lazio teammate Mancini, with his decision to reject the advances “instantaneous”. Unsurprising given his age and popularity at the club his father represented, Estudiantes. Personally I think Mancini’s had a lucky escape. As I look out of my window with snow showing no sign of relent, I question Veron’s worth with a Monday night game against physical Blackburn.

However, central midfield is clearly a position of priority for Mancini, with Patrick Vieria poised to complete a loan move to Eastlands. Vieria has seen his career stall under Jose Mourinho at Inter Milan and has constantly been linked with a return to North London with both Arsenal and rivals Spurs in recent transfer windows. The move represents a risk for Mancini in my opinion. Whilst Vieria offers invaluable Premiership experience at the highest level, since leaving Arsenal the pace of the Premiership has soared while his own has dwindled. Arsene Wenger mulled over a move for former skipper and refrained; it’s often difficult to question the judgement of such a shrewd dealer as Wenger. Time will tell on that one.

Regarding Wenger’s potential activity, I personally don’t expect Arsenal to dip into the January sales. The Frenchman has mixed experiences signing after Christmas: he had his fingers burnt with the signing of Spanish flop Jose Antonio Reyes in 2004, but last year he completed what was arguably the coup of the window by bringing in Andrei Arshavin. However, Wenger points to Arsenal’s 51 goals this season as a reason to abstain. His stubbornness over the much sort-after Marouane Chamakh’s price tag will leave him resisting a move, while the imminent fitness of Danish striker Nicholas Bendtner fills him with more assurance than many Arsenal fans.

Liverpool FC are clearly a club that need emergency surgery both on and off the pitch, especially if Rafael Benitez is to uphold his “guarantee” of a top four finish. Given their dire financial constraints it is presumed that players must leave before they can come in, giving substance to the rumours circulating regarding Ryan Babel’s proposed move Birmingham City. Benitez will want to recoup most of the £11.5 million he paid for the Dutch winger, while Andrea Dossena is on the verge of a move to Napoli. With Argentine winger Maxi Rodriguez widely expected to be Babel’s replacement I fear a dose of déjà vu for Liverpool fans. Maxi has unquestionable talent; however, too many wingers have come and gone at Liverpool, failing to make the necessary impact (Kewell, Nunez, and Pennant to name but three). I don’t envisage Maxi being any different and believe a loan move would be a more a prudent approach. Another man linked with a return to the Premiership is Ruud van Nistelrooy and in light of Liverpool’s over-reliance on Fernando Torres I view this as a superb option. Nistelrooy would provide a genuine goal threat and a perfect foil for Torres. A goal every other game is what his record offers and although a former Manchester United player, the nature of his abrupt exit from Old Trafford leaves the door open for Liverpool.

For the other clubs business should be relatively quiet. Birmingham City are a likely big-spender, and expect fire sales at both West Ham and Portsmouth. Clubs will fight tooth and nail to seek bargain buys in order to improve their squads as prices drop and loan moves appear more accessible and no doubt the likes of Harry and Big Sam will be seen wheeling and dealing when the time comes.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Owen Columba Coyle

    The appointment of Gary Megson at Bolton never really sat comfortably with the Reebok faithful. He was seen by many as a poor man’s Sam Allardyce and was always going to face the sack eventually, it was simply a question of when. Sammy Lee was almost the polar opposite in terms of response and reputation - Little Sam was exactly the man that the Trotter’s fans wanted to steer the ship after Big Sam jumped overboard and swam to Tyneside (to a doomed and sinking vessel). It was just unfortunate that he lacked the tactical nous to ever last beyond that honeymoon period.

    Now that Megson has gone, Phil Gartside is left to make another huge decision. It seems to me that he is set to make the best one since tempting Allardyce from Meadow Lane in 1999, and possibly even one that usurps that. Allardyce took Bolton to the dizzy heights of the Premiership, followed by a League Cup final, a sixth placed league position equal on points with the soon-to-be Champions League winners Liverpool and the knockout rounds of the UEFA cup. However, if, as is looking increasingly likely, Gartside gets his man and Owen Columba Coyle does come to Bolton Wanderers, this will be a massive coup.

    Coyle rejected Celtic in the summer, citing that the Burnley “adventure” was still his to build. However, recent comments about the size of his budget lead us to believe that he is perhaps ready for a challenge which has the potential to reap greater rewards than survival, one that he believes Bolton can offer. And, if Bolton is his home by next week, he will be a wonderful acquisition for the club, the chairman, the fans and the town. Owen Coyle knows how to run a club like Bolton - a tight budget but with some room for manoeuvre. He will be popular with the fans as he tends to play expansive football, knows the importance of creating a fortress and most importantly, he was an incredibly popular player with the Trotters in the early 90s - he even scored the first goal in Bolton‘s famous 1995 First Division play-off Final comeback. Finally, as Burnley, a north-west town not dissimilar in size or stature to Bolton, can testify, he is a likeable man who’s footballing philosophy is capable of  bringing a community together.

    Phil McNulty has written a great blog on this subject, but for my money he has concentrated too much on what a strange decision this would be from Coyle. I disagree- the Burnley boss can be confident enough in his future as he has the potential to be one of the League’s top managers, to take a small step to Bolton rather than waiting for a giant leap to a “big club”. He is widely respected and can rest assured that many chairmen will wish that he had been available to them later in the year, when the inevitable managerial merry-go-round continues.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

Where has the magic gone?

The first week of any year often brings similar traits. Ambitious resolutions, an annual detox after a boozy Christmas and the 3rd round of the oldest competition in the world, the FA cup. Historically this is one of the biggest dates in the football calendar and provides fans with drama and expectation, as lower league and even non league clubs have their opportunity to hit the back pages with a giant killing act. Ronnie Radford, the 1988 crazy gang- it’s the magic of the FA cup. Any football fan is familiar with the cliché. However, as I rose this morning never have I been more uninspired by a Saturday afternoon line up. Filled with a feeling of emptiness, it reminded me of the frustration felt when an international friendly breaks the mould of a pulsating premier league season. When 17.45 came I was even less inspired.

Credible home draws for Nottingham Forest and Reading against Birmingham and Liverpool respectively will leave both clubs happy, while cash strapped Coventry will be delighted to take Pompey back to the Ricoh Arena. Nevertheless, such results do not represent the archetypal upset we’re accustomed to at this time of year. Mr Mancini avoided a potential banana skin in his first taste of the FA cup away at struggling Middlesbrough, while every other premier league team progressed with relative ease on home soil. Hull and Blackburn crashed out in the all premier league clashes, not that they’ll care one iota. So as I look forward to the return of the premiership I’m left wondering, where has the magic of the FA cup gone?

Firstly, I do believe the draw undoubtedly played a key role in the insipid events of this afternoon. As the big boys entered the competition many of them were given attractive home draws against lower league opposition, while the top flight affairs of Wigan vs. Hull and Villa vs. Blackburn didn’t exactly leave the mouth watering. Unfortunately, it’s more than that and I fear the FA cup is in danger of losing its importance.

No longer is it about football for the so called giant killers. Reflecting on today’s games, I would have loved to have seen Sunderland travel to non league Barrow and find out if they’ve got a backbone. Likewise Stoke. However, in today’s business it’s about money and the smaller clubs would rather go away, pick up their pay cheque and take a hiding than challenge the opposition on the pitch. This is maybe not true of the players or fans, but certainly is of the management and boardroom. The mentality towards the FA cup has changed; I even doubt Reading wanted to win today’s game against Liverpool. Happy to go to Anfield. Content to go out.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the change in attitude towards the competition; it has been gradually devalued over the last decade. Today attendances were as low as they’ve ever been for the 3rd round. Many people will point to Manchester United’s withdrawal in 2000 as a turning point, although I do not necessarily hold this view. Maybe the belief in the romance has waned? In 15 years only Pompey have broken the mould of a ‘big’ four winner. So after a busy Christmas period whereby every team had heavy league expectations to fulfil, managers view it as a chance to rest players for a game that doesn’t matter.

And there holds the sad truth, the FA cup no longer matters. For the small clubs it’s about money and for the bigger clubs there is too much more at stake. I hope tomorrow provides more twists and turns in the form a big upset at Old Trafford or Stamford Bridge but I won’t be holding my breath; for now, the magic has gone.

Friday, 1 January 2010

The Managerial Merry-go-Round

The New year is a time to asses your goals - in life and in football. For me, a late promotion chase for the mighty Gills looks increasingly unlikely, and I am therefore reassessing my goals; staving away the threat of relegation is now the realistic aim. However, as we all look to 2010 its time to reflect on those who have not made it this far. Of course, for us any managerial post in professional football is a distant dream, but for those in the game it’s still just their job, and like anyone losing their job over the festive period you have to feel for them. Nevertheless, there’s little time for sentiment… I will be discussing the logic, or lack of, that has seen many men recently receive their P45, thus sparking the inevitable managerial merry-go-round.

Loyalty is an often referred to dying breed in a game that has become more of a business than a sport in the last decade. With so much money at stake throughout all levels of the game, results speak volumes and bad results mean the sack. Of course, loyalty can be a poison chalice, as Middlesbrough fans will no doubt vouch for. They had to witness Steve Gibson’s devotion to his inexperienced appointment, Gareth Southgate, lead them to the championship. As they sit 11th in the second tier of English football only 3 years after a European final appearance, Boro fans and their fiercely loyal chairman must wonder whether wielding the axe this time last year would have left them in better stead. Hindsight… However, although I am not a fan of the proverbial panic button and I believe the success of the likes of Ferguson, Wenger and Moyes warrants such a view, I do believe now is as good a time as any to change the hierarchy in a football club. With the transfer window imminent, clubs have just 4 weeks to wheel and deal in an attempt to improve their chances of achieving their goals. So if the board are not 100 per cent behind the man in charge, there seems little logic in letting him be the man to loosen the purse strings and potentially further stricken the football club.

Gary Megson is the latest man to lose his job, following the Premier League dismissals of Mark Hughes and Paul Hart. In the Championship, Alan Irvine finds himself out of work at Preston, as the latest of a staggering 8 managerial changes in the League. Perhaps the dismissal of the ex-Forest, West brom and Leicester (amongst others) boss leaves the football world far less shocked, and dare I say less interested than the sacking of Mark Hughes. Bolton fans certainly don’t seem sad to see the back of him and although Phil Gartside sited the club’s precarious league position as the reason behind Megson’s sacking, the fact that he had failed to ever gain the backing of the Bolton faithful would have played a major role. It’s difficult to judge this dismissal; Bolton were in an almost identical position when Megson took over and the more prudent football fan would suggest this means he’s done a good job. Would Bolton fans have taken this 2 years ago when Megson took over from Sammy Lee with the club destined for the championship? Yes would be my guess, but inevitably the expectations of the football club have increased despite the sale of Nicolas Anelka. Phil Gartside has gambled with the transfer window in mind and has a big, big appointment to make. Paul Jewell would be an ideal man to bring in given his experience, although I believe stagnation under Megson will lead to relegation under his successor.

Paul Hart recently made way for Avram Grant at Portsmouth and jumped on the merry-go-round to take up the stability of a managerial job at QPR. While every man and his dog at Pompey was busy denying that Grant had been lined up to replace Hart, Harry Redknapp was busy on Sky Sports saying he’d be “very surprised” if Avram didn’t take the job. Good old Harry- he’s been in football too long to believe any of that bullshit. So Hart heads for the circus that is the R’s under Briatore, in serious danger of getting his fingers burnt again, and Grant takes on mission impossible. Still, I bet Paul Hart is happy to see his pay cheque this week.

So, the managerial merry-go-round continues. And who are we to specualte who could be next. Well, lets finish off with what the bookies have to say:

Phil Brown 5/2
Gianfranco Zola 5/1
Rafa Benitez 6/1
David Moyes 10/1
Mick McCarthy 11/1
Harry Redknapp 14/1
Avram Grant 14/1
Sam Allardyce 20/1
Owen Coyle 33/1
Tony Pulis 33/1
Steve Bruce 33/1
Roberto Mancini 33/1
Alex McLeish 33/1
Carlo Ancelotti 50/1
Roy Hodgson 66/1
Arsene Wenger 66/1
Martin O’Neill80/1
Alex Ferguson 100/1

The loss of Song

    Happy new year one and all! I hope this finds you well, and not too hungover, especially as we have to wait until tomorrow for another dose of football. Anyway, let’s get straight to business. This morning I was reading an interview with Arsenal’s Alexandre Song. The Cameroonian midfielder has started to become an imposing presence for the Gunners this season. Wenger has been criticised in the past for failing to sign a ball-winning midfielder to counterweight the creative brilliance of Cesc Fabregas, and for selling Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra. However, it seems that in Song he has found the man ideally suited to protect his expansive back-four, exemplified by the Cameroonians man of the match performance at Fratton Park.

    However, Wenger is now faced with a dilemma. After their potentially tricky away trip to the Boleyn Ground on Sunday, Song will fly to Angola to join the  Cameroon squad for the taxing African Cup of Nations. With the Indomitable Lions one of the bookie’s favourites to reach the final, Song could potentially miss 5 crucial Premier League games, including away trips to the Reebok and Villa Park, and the visit of Manchester United to the Emirates. This, combined with injuries to Fabregas and Denilson, predictably leaves the Gunners somewhat short in the centre of the park. However, as the old cliché goes, as one door closes, so another opens.

    The door I am referring to opens for a young Welsh centre-midfielder. Aaron Ramsey has shown with his 3 League goals this season that he is more than capable of contributing to the Arsenal cause both going forward and in defence, and the 2009 Welsh young player of the year is perhaps the most promising player to wear that particular shirt since Ryan Giggs. Like the Manchester United stalwart, Ramsey is predominantly left-footed, but capable of wonderful control on either side. And where better for him to be learning his trade than at Arsenal? In fact, it is unlikely that he would have been given the chance to impress under any manager other than Wenger, but this policy of the Frenchman’s, to put his faith in youth, has paid dividends time and again. And I would bet that the next 5 games without Song will be just the chance that Ramsey needs, and that we may see him further showing off these sort of talents, as seen at Portsmouth last Wednesday. He is, in fact, somewhat reminiscent of Fabregas when he burst onto the scene in 2003 - slight of frame, but talented on either foot and with an exceptional eye for a pass. Ramsey is slightly older than Cesc was when he arrived, but this will undoubtedly work in his favour, as the Arsenal captain was unique in his ability to adapt to first-team football so early in his life. I predict that Aaron Ramsey will not only emulate Fabregas’ achievements, but has the potential to surpass even his hero, Ryan Giggs.